By GR Williamson
According her own account, Alice Ivers was born in Devonshire, England, on February 17, 1851, to a conservative schoolmaster and his family. While she was still a young girl, the family migrated to Virginia where she attended an upscale boarding school for young women until the family moved again following the silver rush to Leadville, Colorado. As an attractive, refined young woman who was well educated (especially in mathematics) Alice caught the eye of most eligible bachelors. But it was Frank Duffield, a mining engineer that won her hand in marriage.
After they were married, Alice and Frank settled in Lake City in 1875. Frank was a passionate card player and spent a lot of his spare time in one of the many gambling halls. The blue eyed brunette usually accompanied him rather than stay home alone. It did not take long for Alice to learn she had a good head for counting cards and figuring odds. At first, she simply watched the players. Before long, she was joining the games and becoming an expert poker and faro player. When Duffield died in a mining explosion, Alice took to the tables, where she earned the name “Poker Alice.”
After getting her start in Lake City, Alice started a tour of the other mining towns of Colorado, dealing faro or poker in Alamosa, Central City, Georgetown, and then on to Leadville during its heyday in the late 1870s. It was while she was dealing faro that a gambler named Marion Speer watched her clean out a noted gambler named Jack Hardesty:
“It was the damnedest faro game I ever saw. The game seesawed back and forth with Alice always picking up the edge; a few times it terminated only long enough for the player to eat a sandwich and wash it down with a boiler maker.”
In the early ’80s, Poker Alice sashayed into Silver City, New Mexico, and promptly broke the bank at a faro table in less than four hours. Using her $6,000 winnings, she headed for New York for a weeklong spending spree buying the best in the latest fashions, dining in the best restraints, attending the theater, and generally indulging herself. When the money played out he she returned to the Kansas cattle towns and then on to the Oklahoma Territory where she ran her games in Guthrie. She worked in the Blue Bell Saloon, Bill Tilghman’s Turf Exchange, and the Reaves Brothers Casino.
In 1891, Poker Alice moved her operations to Arizona dealing cards at the Midway, the El Moro, and the Blue Goose in Clifton. Then when the silver miners flocked to Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, she pulled up stakes and headed to Creede. There she worked a faro table six days a week (she never worked on Sunday) at Ford’s Exchange, a saloon and dancehall. The owner, Bob Ford, was none other than the man who had wasted Jesse James in 1882. A few weeks after Poker Alice went to work for Ford, Edward O’Kelley entered Ford’s tent saloon on June 8, 1892, with a 10-gauge shotgun. According to witnesses, Ford’s back was turned. O’Kelley said, “Hello, Bob.” As Ford turned to see who it was, O’Kelley emptied both barrels into his midsection, killing Ford instantly. So much for the “dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard.”
After the luster of the silver boom wore off in Creede, Poker Alice drifted up to Deadwood, which was still producing plenty of gold for the gambling dens working the miners. She worked as a table dealer at a saloon owned by a wealthy gambler known as “Bedrock Tom.” Another dealer working there was Warren G. Tubbs, a house painter by trade but dealer by necessity. For whatever the reason the two struck up a friendship that eventually evolved into a true romance. Poker Alice proved her affection by drilling a drunken miner who was trying to gut Warren with a long bladed knife. The miner had the dealer backed against a wall and was going for the fatal plunge when his paramour’s.38 blew a gaping hole in his knife arm. A few weeks later Warren proposed marriage and a new life as a chicken farmer.
Poker Alice accepted his offer and after a church wedding, the newlyweds bought a nearby chicken farm and settled in to raise a family. Over the course of the next three decades, they raised chickens and had seven children (four boys and three girls). Despite the responsibility of running a farm and raising children, Alice still managed to slip out for some poker action a few nights every week. During this time she was reputed to have been able to make as much as $6,000 gambling on a good night – a small fortune at the time. Alice later said time spent on her ranch was some of the happiest days of her life and she did not miss gambling, but liked the peace and quiet of the ranch.
While her children were growing up, Alice tried to keep them away from the gambling houses and at one point, she and Warren decided to homestead a ranch northeast of Sturgis on the Moreau River. The move came shortly after Warren contracted tuberculosis and Alice planned to nurse him back to health. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case; Alice became her husband’s fulltime caretaker and left the gambling lifestyle behind until he died in her arms suffering from pneumonia in 1910 during a winter blizzard. Alice, with the frozen corpse of her husband at her side, drove a team of mules and a wagon 48 miles through howling winds and deep snowdrifts to Sturgis, the nearest town. She had to pawn her wedding ring to pay for Warren’s burial but then later that same day she won enough money at the poker tables to reclaim her ring.
After her husband’s death, Alice was forced once again to make a living at what she knew best – gambling. She hired George Huckert to take care of her ranch while she returned to the card tables. Huckert became captivated with Alice and proposed to her several times. Finally, she gave in saying, “I owed him so much in back wages; I figured it would be cheaper to marry him than pay him off. So I did.” Nevertheless, Alice soon found herself widowed once again when Huckert died in 1913. You could say she had no luck at all when it came to husbands.
A few years before Huckert died Alice had bought an old house on Bear Butte Creek near the Fort Mead Army Post and opened a brothel. This resulted in, perhaps, the most repeated story about Poker Alice. The house was small and needed extra rooms and “fresh girls” to perk up the business, so Alice went to a bank for a loan of $2,000. As the story goes, she was quoted as saying:
“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.'”
While she was running her speakeasy brothel, Alice would still make routine trips to Deadwood to play poker with old friends. She usually played poker sporting a khaki skirt, a men’s shirt, and a campaign hat. Welcome at any table, she preferred playing with people she knew, saying others might not take losing to her in a friendly manner. Maintaining her original strange set of standards, Alice neither gambled nor let her whores work on Sundays. By 1913, Alice’s business was flourishing, due in part to the South Dakota National Guard training nearby. It was due to her Sunday closings that she killed a soldier.
According to the accounts of the day, she had been doing a land office business on a Saturday night and tried to shut her door on Sunday morning, turning away a randy bunch of soldiers. After she pushed the troops out and locked the door, the men decided to retaliate by cutting both the phone and electricity lines in the house. Finally, when they began breaking windows with rocks, Alice had had enough. She fired a single rifle shot at the men. Two soldiers were hit: a sergeant who later died at the hospital and a private who would eventually recover from his wounds.
The Sturgis police arrived on the scene, taking Alice and her girls into custody. As luck would have it, the judge was allegedly a customer of Alice’s bagnio and he ruled favorably on them. Even though the identity of the shooter remains unclear, the shooting charges against Alice were dismissed as self-defense. However, she was convicted of keeping a disorderly house and the girls were charged with prostitution. Alice paid the fines and her roadhouse was quickly back in business a week later.
The shooting left the authorities at Fort Meade uneasy and the police began a campaign of regularly arresting Alice on charges of running a house of prostitution and bootlegging. They continually arrested her well into her 60s. Each time she would pay her fines and then continue business as usual until she was sentenced, at age 75, to a state penitentiary for repeated convictions for being a madam. South Dakota Governor Bulow immediately pardoned her in 1928, knowing he could not send the infamous white-haired old lady to prison.
Two years later Alice became seriously ill and upon examination by doctors, she was told that they would have to remove her gall bladder. When they warned her that at her age her chances were not favorable, she was reported to have said, “Cut away, I’ve faced big odds before.” On February 27, 1930, she bucked the big odds and lost. She was buried in the Catholic Cemetery at Sturgis, South Dakota.
Throughout her storied life she had buried three husbands, won over a quarter of a million dollars in gambling, carried a.38 pistol, owned a brothel, bootlegged during prohibition, killed a man, and was a convicted felon at age 75.
Yes sir, you could say Poker Alice was one tough bird.
“Praise the Lord and place your bets and I’ll take your money with no regrets!”
*** G.R. (Ron) Williamson is a historian, a western writer and a born storyteller. He has published three non-fiction books on the West, many magazine and newspaper articles, and several Western movie screenplays. His home is in Kerrville, Texas where he lives with his wife and Chihuahua, “Shooter.”
His books include Frontier Gambling, The Texas Pistoleers, and Willis Newton: The Last Texas Outlaw.
His books on Kindle include John King Fisher: King of the Nueces Strip and Notorious Gamblers of the Old West.
For more information visit http://grwilliamson.com