So far we’ve talked about guys.
But there were more than a few women who might make the list in the old west.
Poker Alice, or Alice Ivers Duffield Tubbs Huckert (full name, no less – try saying that without taking a breath) is most definitely an exception to the rule.
It’s not that she was a bad person. She just made her money off other peoples failings.
Now, before I go too far, I need to point something out about Poker Alice. First, she’s one of these people who a lot is known about, yet some of it is wrong. Also, most of what we know is what she said later in life.
Some of the people I’ve written about such as Bob Ford and Soapy Smith are such well known characters in the old west, that there’s people out there who know every word they ever spoke, every step they ever took, and no doubt, every sneeze that came from their noses.
In short, there’s very little that isn’t known about them.
Alice is different. While she’s a real historical character, she moved around a lot, rarely staying in one place for long. She went through three husbands. She was large than life.
And that leaves room for a lot of invention. She’s been ascribed to have been in places she couldn’t have, and said things that sound like something she might have said, yet probably didn’t.
So, how do “Stories” get started. When I say stories, I mean there might be kernel of truth to them, but might be based on misunderstanding, invention, or out and out lies.
An example of “Story” is a misunderstanding. Several years back I addressed a room full of IT professionals. In the course of the address, I mentioned that I was too untalented to play football for the Dallas Cowboys, but I did marry a cheerleader. What everyone heard was the words “Dallas Cowboys” and “Cheerleader” and put two and two together to come up with five. There are still people out there who think I married one of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, something that till now, I’ve done nothing to dispel. While my wife is certainly good looking enough to have been on the team, she was never a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader. She was a high school and college cheerleader.
That illustrates how some stories get started. People hear something and put two things together into a fact that isn’t true.
Another is changing the facts to support a storyline. An example is the stuff I’ve written. Most of it is based in fact. As a novelist, I might play with those facts. An example is in my first novel, The Cross and the Badge. I have a terrifying homicide happen in a bar full of people. That did happen. For the purposes of the novel, the homicide happened almost twelve years earlier, and in a different town. Now if the record keeping was almost non-existent, it’s possible people might think I was 100% accurate in reporting it.
The final is out and out lies. I don’t need to go into things too much here to explain that one, but either the person telling the story says something that never happened, or a reporter slants the story because it sounds better. Even if the person who the story is about is still alive, they might not say anything. Let’s be honest about it. I’ve had some remarkable exploits and stories to tell. But if someone started comparing me to Captain American, I’m not so sure I’d object!
That’s how stories and legends get started.
I guess it comes down to the old adage from the movie, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance. When faced with printing the truth or the legend, you print the legend, and that’s what becomes history.
As a result, there’s a lot of legend out there. The challenge I faced when dealing with someone like Alice is trying to separate the legend from the person. Part of the headache is not until later in life did Alice tend to stay in one place for any length of time. There are several Census records that don’t include her, and a number of records, assuming they ever existed or still exist, haven’t been digitized yet. To find those records would mean going through a lot of musty old books in assorted municipal and county offices.
The bottom line with Alice is she was much more than a legend. She was a woman, in a man’s world, using her skills in a rough world to not only survive, but to thrive. That made her rare yesterday and even today. I can’t say I’d want my daughters to use her as a role model, but in a lot of ways she has things to teach us today.
And she was more than just one of the boys to have passed through the valley.
She was tougher!
She dealt cards, smoked cigars, and carried a six gun that she used on more than one occasion. She said her father had taught her to shoot, and she was an expert marksman. He taught her to shoot because she was a woman and he knew men. She needed to be able to take care of herself.
Born of conservative parents, she came to America from England when she was young. She went to boarding school and became an educated, refined young lady. That seems to have changed when the family left Virginia around 1871 (Alice was 20 years old) for the wild boom town of the old west.
NOTE: The above is open for debate. Alice seems to have two different origin stories. One says she was born here in America. Sounds a little like some superhero’s we know.
Now this is one point where her history get’s a little muddled. Some writers have her and her family in Deadwood, South Dakota. Other’s have them going to Leadville, Colorado where her father was a teacher.
Wherever she ended up at, Alice met a mining engineer named Frank Duffield. They were married.
She followed him out to Lake City, Colorado where he worked the mines. There wasn’t a lot of entertainment to be had in the frontier town, but gambling was one of the few choices. At first, Alice merely went with her husband when he played Poker. She picked up the game quickly and before long was sitting at the table.
NOTE: There seems to be a little confusion in some of the history here. Some articles seem to indicate she met Duffield before Leadville and went with him to Lake City, Colorado. Afterwards, she went to Leadville.
A few years later, her husband was killed in a mining accident in Lake City. I’ve tried to narrow the date down, but I can’t find a gravestone for him, articles on the accident, or which mine. At the time of the accident, mines weren’t required to report accidents, and so an accident report might not ever have been filed. An additional problem might be simple records administration. At the time, what is now Hinsdale County, was part of Conejos County. The records, if any, might be in the Conejos County Archives. I’m not saying there’s no records, I’m just saying I haven’t found them yet.
Needing a means of supporting herself, Alice looked about for work. Her education made her a natural for teaching school, but Lake City had no school. The only other jobs for a woman to hold in in town were maid, cook, or prostitute. None of them appealed to her, so she used her gambling skills as a means of making a living.
She related that on one occasion she lost nearly $1600.00 playing cards. She couldn’t figure out why she was losing, so she started watching the dealer, and realized he was cheating. She drew her gun, told him and all the patrons what she’d witnessed, and let him know that she liked good crooks. But a clumsy crook she couldn’t abide and demanded her money back.
She got it. She also said she never once cheated anyone at the table. All her winnings were fair.
While Alice preferred Poker, she also learned to play and deal Faro. According to all accounts, Alice was about 5′ 4″, blue eyes, and brown hair. She used her winnings to buy the latest fashions, and dressed like a real lady. In short, she was a looker. That and her ability as a dealer and card player put her in high demand. To some hard working miner, she must have looked like an angel. Of course this was an angel that was willing to help separate him from his money.
Alice followed the boom. When things slowed down in Lake City and Leadville, she moved on. She went to Central City and Trinidad and Silver City, New Mexico. It was in Silver City where she “Broke the Bank” at the Gold Dust Gambling House, winning some $6000.00 (roughly $165,000.00 in 2020 money). She went to New York shortly afterwards and bought new clothes with it.
One thing I uncovered in my research was that addition to playing in Creede which will be mentioned shortly, she also passed through Alamosa, Colorado, and played cards there. Alamosa is a town near and dear to me since I went to college there, lived there, and served as a Police Officer there.
Curious, I tried to find some stories to confirm this, but haven’t. Now I was curious about where she might have gambled and came up with two possible locations.
Unlike some of the other towns she was in, Alamosa was not a mining town. It was a rail town. The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad had built a major hub there. Lines ran west up towards Del Norte, Creede, and South Fork, as well as south towards Antonito, Chama, New Mexico, and north up to Hooper, Moffat, and Saguache.
The Railroad carried not only mining riches out of the valley and to the world, but beef, mutton, potatoes, and other produce.
It made sense there was a lot of money passing through the town.
So I tried to sort it out, and came up with two possibilities that had gambling back them. I found two old fire maps in the Library of Congress of the community. On them were two structures I was familiar with. One was the Grand or Grande Hotel, the other the Victoria Hotel. Both existed as early as 1870 and both buildings were shown to have gambling parlors, so they are possibilities.
When I knew the two buildings, time had not been kind to either. The Grand was boarded up, and the only time I was ever in it was when the Rotary Club used it as a spook house.
I can’t say the same for the Victoria or “Old Vic.” It was one of my battlefields. In the course of the years it had become home for transients, and a rather dangerous place to be. There were several homicides, assaults, and good old fashioned knock-down drag outs. It’s also the first and only place where I went into a crime scene and lost my cookies.
Both buildings have been demolished and no longer exist. But it was obvious that at one time, they were top of the line with nice carpeting and expensive millwork. There were also assorted saloons in the area.
The year 1892 found her in Creede, Colorado, where she dealt cards in the saloon of a man named Bob Ford. Years before, Bob Ford had become famous as the man who killed Jesse James. There’s a chance that Alice was a witness to the killing of Ford. The Creede fire had happened not long before, and Bob reopened his business in a tent. According to a story she told, she was at her table with a drink when a man walked into the tent/saloon and shot Ford. If she was a witness for the prosecution, I don’t know. Might be fun research project.
Bob Ford getting killed didn’t change her mind about Creede. While she was there, a lot of famous gamblers wandered through to include another famous female legend, Calamity Jane.
When the silver began to run out in Creede, she left. Eventually she found her way to another famous Old West town. In this case, Deadwood, South Dakota. Unlike a lot of the boom towns she’d wandered through, Deadwood showed no signs of slowing down. That’s why I have trouble believing if she was there in the first place, she’d probably never left.
But soon she was dealing and playing cards in Deadwood.
Opposite her one night was man named Warren Tubbs. It’s a good thing he was a house painter and not a professional gambler because Alice cleaned his pockets every time. Despite that they began seeing each other outside the card table.
It’s also where she earned her nickname. Many of the miners didn’t like the idea of losing to a woman, so she put on a corduroy coat, a hat, and held a cigar in her mouth. The guys called her Poker Alice, and her legend was cemented.
It’s safe to say she expressed her love for Warren as only a true tough chick of the west could. One night, while
playing cards, a drunken patron threatened Tubbs with a knife. She shot the man in the arm. According to some accounts, she didn’t just shot him in the arm, but killed him, and then went right back to dealing cards.
Here’s another place her history get’s a little muddled. Some accounts have her meeting Tubbs in 1876. Others, when she moved to Deadwood in 1892. if the whole story is true, then it might have been earlier, because she and Tubbs had children together. Had she met him in 1892, Alice would have been in her 40s. Had she met him earlier, she and Tubb’s would have been dragging several children around with them. This is definitely a point for me that begs for further investigation.
She and Tubbs married, bought a homestead, and between his house painting and her gambling, they made money. The story is they began punching out kids. Alice and Warren are supposed to have had seven children together.
The kids part may or may not be another “Story.” No census ever recorded them, and records can’t be located. Alice would have been well into her forties when she married Tubbs. It’s not unusual today for a woman in her forties to have children. But the late 1800s is a whole different story. It’s one researchers into her life are still trying to confirm or deny.
Some research suggests they might have been Tubb’s children and she kind of became mom to them. When she died, there were several pictures of children in her room, but no explanation of where they came from or who they were.
Now, this might be a story, and it’s a big one. I say that because I don’t see an account where Poker Alice actually said it. The timeline also seems wrong, but if she was in Deadwood in 1876, and gambling, it might be true. But here goes. One person who enjoyed playing against her was gunfighter and gambler, Wild Bill Hickcok. On the day he died, Aug 2, 1876, he’d asked her to sit in on a game. She was already committed to another game and had to beg off. When she heard Hickok had been killed, she went to the scene, and saw him still sprawled dead on the floor. It’s said she said, “Poor Wild Bill,” and noted he’d been sitting where she would have been seated.
But all good things come to an end. Warren had TB and the winter of 1910 he got pneumonia. Alice did her best to nurse him back to health, but he died. She was with him till the end. Since she couldn’t get him town for burial, she allowed his body to freeze. Weeks later, she was able to get into Sturgis where she supposedly pawned her wedding ring to pay for the funeral. Afterwards, she went into a saloon, played some cards, and got enough money to redeem her ring.
Alice would later say Warren Tubbs was the love of her life, and the times in Deadwood as a rancher’s wife were the happiest she ever knew.
She returned to the gambling table. While there she married for the third and last time. She married her ranch manager, George Huckert. Allegedly, she married him because she owed him money, and it was cheaper to marry him then pay him. He passed away shortly afterwards.
During prohibition, Alice opened her own gambling house, the Poker Palace outside of Sturgis. One could buy booze there, gamble, and there were ladies of the evening to be had. Her story for financing the operation is interesting to say the least. Again, this may or may not be a “Story.”
“I went to the bank for a $2,000 loan to build on an addition and go to Kansas City to recruit some fresh girls. When I told the banker I’d repay the loan in two years, he scratched his head for a minute then let me have the money. In less than a year I was back in his office paying off the loan. He asked how I was able to come up with the money so fast. I took a couple chaws on the end of my cigar and told him, `Well, it’s this way. I knew the Grand Army of the Republic was having an encampment here in Sturgis. And I knew that the state Elks convention would be here, too. But I plumb forgot about all those Methodist preachers coming to town for a conference’.”
What is known is she ran this establishment for a number of years.
One night, some soldiers from nearby Fort Meade came in. There’s two stories here about what happened. There’s the official story and there’s Alice’s story.
The official story says the soldiers wanted to come in but were denied entry since the place was full. They began beating on the door demanding to be let in. Alice fired a pistol through the door, killing one of the soldiers.
Alice’s story is a lot more dramatic. In her version, she let the soldiers in. One of them began beating one of her girls, and she stopped him with the gun.
Either way, she was acquitted, but the Palace was closed.
Alice gambled well into the her 70s but left the fine dresses behind. In her older days, she dressed in pants and boots, much like her friend Calamity Jane had. She also had a few run ins with the law and was soon sentenced to prison for various violations. While waiting to go to prison, she spent her time smoking cigars and reading the Bible.
She received a pardon and never went to prison.
By this time, her old life had gone the way of the Old West. Reformers had managed to close many of the gambling dens, and Alice retired.
In her closing days she talked a lot about the past and her life. She’d always called herself a Christian woman, and became even more interested in the things of God. She also became a bit of a celebrity and often rode in parades and such.
But she was terribly alone. Friends began to keep an eye on her closely because one had found her with a gun and she was talking suicide.
At age 79, she developed gall bladder issues that required surgery. Her chances of surviving were slim. A gambler to the end, she told the doctors, “Go ahead. I’ve bucked worse odds than that, and I’ve always hated a piker.” When a friend tried to talk her out of it, she explained, “It’s all about the draw.”
She guesstimated that during her career, she’d won well over a quarter of million dollars. That’s over three million dollars in today’s money.
She didn’t draw a good hand on this last gamble, and on February 27, 1930, she passed away. In her will, she said she wanted her tombstone to reflect her name with the last name of Tubbs since he’d been the true love of her life. She disinherited most of her relatives, leaving her possessions and properties to friends and neighbors.
Alice is buried in the Catholic Cemetery in Sturgis.
She is often times portrayed in movies. Actresses who have played her include Elizabeth Taylor (Poker Alice) and Susan Sullivan (The New Maverick). There’s an upcoming documentary called “Poker Queens” in which she’ll be featured. Author Liz Duckworth often portrays Alice at events. You can check her out here: http://pokeralicehistory.com/.
Liz Duckworth has written a book on Poker Alice and she dug deep to prove or disprove the stories. Since she portrays her at events, Ms. Duckworth wanted to know more about the woman. She seems to have ran into a number of the same problems I encountered, namely trying to separate the woman from the legend. In her research she was able to prove soem of what happened, and disprove others. It still left a lot of questions unanswered, a fact that frustrated her. You can find her book here. It’s an easy read and well done.
An awesome woman of the old west, Alice stayed true to her values and friends to the end.
In the course of it, she became a legend.