Although most women in the Old West could be divided into two basic categories - respectable ladies and shady ladies, there were some who simply defied any attempt at classification. One such woman was Poker Alice.
Alice Ivers was born into the family of a conservative schoolmaster in Devonshire, England. If her life had taken a more common turn, she would have made a proper Southern lady in Virginia, where her father moved the family when Alice was still a young girl. She attended an upscale boarding school for young ladies until, in yet another twist of fate, her family moved to Leadville, Colorado following the silver rush.
Once she was away from the respectable South and into the uncharted expanses of the Wild West, Alice's life was bound to take unexpected turns. This petite, 5'4" beauty was sure to catch an eye of many an upstanding man. So, at the tender age of twenty, she was married to mining engineer Frank Duffield, who liked to spend his free time playing cards at one of the many gambling halls. Staying home alone did not appeal to young Alice, so she accompanied her husband on his gambling adventures. At first, she just observed the game and learned, but before long, she would join the fun and become quite an expert poker and faro player.
Only a few years into their marriage, Frank Duffield was killed in an explosion, leaving Alice virtually penniless. In order to support herself, Alice now needed to get a job. An option was to become a school teacher, which would have been quite a respectable profession for an educated, young lady of that era. Instead, she decided to make a living at the gambling table.
A lady at a gambling hall who wasn't of the soiled dove kind was a rarity in the Old West, so Alice quickly made a name for herself, both as a player and a dealer. Young, pretty, and bedecked in the latest fashions, she was a sight for the sore eyes of many a miner. Traveling from one Colorado mining camp to the other, she soon acquired the nickname Poker Alice. Right around that time, while still dressing in her frilly, fashionable clothes, she started puffing on a fat cigar while playing. She also carried a .38 revolver and wasn't afraid to use it. However, she never gambled on Sundays due to her religious beliefs.
Soon, Alice left Colorado and traveled to New Mexico, New York, then back to Colorado, to finally end up in Deadwood, South Dakota. There, she met a house painter named Warren G. Tubbs, who often sidelined as a dealer and gambler. Now, Alice routinely beat Warren at gambling, but that didn't stop him from falling for her. Matter of fact, that might have made her even more attractive to him. They married, had seven children together, moved out of Deadwood, and homesteaded a ranch near Sturgis. Her hands full with helping run the ranch and raising children, Alice spent little time at gambling halls during this period in her life. Unfortunately, the peaceful ranch life was just not meant to be. Warren somehow contracted tuberculosis and died from pneumonia, leaving Alice and the children to fend for themselves.
Forced once again to make a living, Alice hired George Huckert to manage the ranch while she returned to gambling halls. Huckert was simply smitten from the get-go and asked Alice to marry him several times. She finally relented, and was quoted saying, "I owed him so much in back wages; I figured it would be cheaper to marry him than to pay him off." Unfortunately, Huckert soon died, and Alice found herself widowed for the third time.
Alice's downfall actually started a couple of years before Huckert's death, when she bought a house in Fort Meade with the intention of turning it into a gambling hall. She followed through on her plans, and opened a gambling hall on the first floor with a brothel on the top floor. At one point, a bunch of soldiers were raising ruckus in the hall, and she fired a shot to calm them down. As the luck would have it, that shot went through two soldiers, killing one of them. She was arrested and the house was closed down. At her trial, the shooting was ruled accidental, and Alice was acquitted. However, the authorities decided to start keeping a close watch on her ever since then.
By that time, Alice was in her 60's, and she kept getting arrested for drunkenness and running a brothel. She had also quit wearing her fashionable clothes, and now wore old men's clothing. Photos of her one would most often come across in the historical collections show a gray-haired elderly woman in man's clothes, with a fat cigar in the corner of her mouth. Quite the far cry from a petite, blue-eyed beauty she once was.
Poker Alice met her demise quite unceremoniously at the age of 79, when she succumbed to complications from a failed gall bladder surgery. She was buried in Sturgis, South Dakota, but her legend lives to this day. She claimed to have won more than $250,000 at the gambling tables, all without cheating, and she was reported to have said, "Praise the Lord and place your bets. I'll take your money with no regrets."
Although we don't recommend Alice's kind of religion, we sure do agree that life without regrets is something to strive for.
Who is your favorite or your most despised Wild West character?
Tell us in the comments below.
the mind and hands behind hART Sense Design. I am a designer and hand-maker of one-of-a-kind and limited edition jewelry and accessories for artistic, chic cowgirls, boho babes, and lovers of all things western.
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