Main Street, Deadwood, SD, 1876
Some real-life episodes in the Old West read like fictional adventures. Some read like tragedies. Some read like romances.
The life stories of a few non-fictional characters—like Kitty LeRoy—combine all three.
“…Kitty LeRoy was what a real man would call a starry beauty,” one of her contemporaries noted in a book with a ridiculously long title*. “Her brow was low and her brown hair thick and curling; she had five husbands, seven revolvers, a dozen bowie-knives and always went armed to the teeth, which latter were like pearls set in coral.”
From all reports, LeRoy was a stunning beauty with a sparkling personality that had men—including both notorious outlaws and iconic officers of the law—throwing themselves at her feet. She was proficient in the arts of flirtation and seduction, and she didn’t hesitate to employ her feminine wiles to get what she wanted.
Often, what she wanted was the pot in a game of chance. One of the most accomplished poker players of her time, LeRoy spent much of her short life in gambling establishments. Eventually, she opened her own in one of the most notorious dens of iniquity the West has ever known: Deadwood, South Dakota. With spectacular diamonds at ears, neck, wrists, and fingers glittering bright enough to blind her customers every night, it’s no wonder LeRoy’s Mint Gambling Saloon prospered.
With her reputation as an expert markswoman, there was very little trouble…at least at the tables.
LeRoy was born in 1850, although no one is sure where. Some say Texas; others, Michigan. One thing is certain: By the age of ten, she was performing on the stage. Working in dancehalls and saloons, she either picked up or augmented an innate ability to manipulate, along with gambling and weaponry skills that would serve her well for most of her life. According to local lore, at fifteen she married her first husband because he was the only man in Bay City, Michigan, who would let her shoot apples off his head while she galloped past on horseback.
Lower Main Street, Deadwood, SD, 1877
A long attention span apparently was not among the skills LeRoy cultivated. Shortly after her marriage, she left her husband and infant son behind and headed for Texas. By the age of twenty, she had reached the pinnacle of popularity at Johnny Thompson’s Variety Theatre in Dallas, only to leave entertaining behind, too.
Instead, she tried her hand as a faro dealer. Ah, now there was a career that suited. Excitement, money, men…and extravagant costumes. Players never knew what character they would face until she appeared. A man? A sophisticate? A gypsy?
Texas soon bored LeRoy, but no matter. With a new saloonkeeper husband in tow, she headed for San Francisco—only to discover the streets were not paved with gold, as she had heard. While muddling through that conundrum, she somehow misplaced husband number two, which undoubtedly made it easier for her to engage in the sorts of promiscuous shenanigans for which she rapidly gained a reputation.
Although the reputation didn’t hurt her at the gaming tables, it did create a certain amount of unwanted attention. One too-ardent admirer persisted to such an extent that LeRoy challenged him to a duel. The man demurred, reportedly not wishing to take advantage of a woman. Never one to let a little thing like gender stand in her way, LeRoy changed into men’s clothes, returned, and challenged her suitor again. When he refused to draw a second time, she shot him anyway. Then, reportedly overcome with guilt, she called a minister and married husband number three as he breathed his last.
Now a widow, LeRoy hopped a wagon train with Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane and headed for the thriving boomtown of Deadwood. They arrived in July 1876, and LeRoy became an instant success by entertaining adoring prospectors nightly at Al Swearengen’s notorious Gem Theatre. Within a few months, she had earned enough money to open her own establishment: the Mint. There, she met and married husband number four, a German who had struck it rich in Black Hills gold. When the prospector’s fortune ran out, so did LeRoy’s interest. She hit him over the head with a bottle and kicked him to the curb—literally.
Gem Theatre, Deadwood, SD, 1878
Meanwhile, thanks to LeRoy’s mystique—and allegedly no little fooling around with the customers—the Mint became a thriving operation. LeRoy reportedly “entertained” legendary characters as diverse as Hickock and Sam Bass. But it was 35-year-old card shark Samuel R. Curley who finally claimed her heart. Curley, besotted himself, became husband number five on June 11, 1877.
Shortly thereafter, Curley learned LeRoy hadn’t divorced her first husband. The bigamy realization, combined with rumors about LeRoy’s continued promiscuity, proved too much for the usually peaceful gambler. He stormed out of the Mint and didn’t stop until he reached Denver, Colorado.
Folks who knew LeRoy said she changed after Curley’s departure. Despite nights during which she raked in as much as $8,000 with a single turn of the cards, she grew cold and suspicious.
Her grief seemed to dissipate a bit when an old lover showed up in Deadwood. LeRoy rented rooms above the Lone Star Saloon, and the two moved in together.
By then, Curley was dealing faro in a posh Cheyenne, Wyoming, saloon. When word of LeRoy’s new relationship reached him, he flew into a jealous rage. Determined to confront his wife and her lover, he returned to Deadwood December 6, 1877. When the lover refused to see him, Curley told a Lone Star employee he’d kill them both.
LeRoy, reportedly still pining for her husband, agreed to meet Curley in her rooms at the Lone Star. Not long after she ascended the stairs, patrons below reported hearing a scream and two gunshots.
Deadwood, SD, 1878
The following day, the Black Hills Daily Times reported the gruesome scene: LeRoy lay on her back, her eyes closed. Except for the bullet hole in her chest, the 27-year-old looked as though she were asleep. Curley lay face down, his skull destroyed by a bullet from the Smith & Wesson still gripped in his right hand.
“Suspended upon the wall, a pretty picture of Kitty, taken when the bloom and vigor of youth gazed down upon the tenements of clay, as if to enable the visitor to contrast a happy past with a most wretched present,” the newspaper report stated. “The pool of blood rested upon the floor; blood stains were upon the door and walls…”
An understated funeral took place in the room where Curley killed his wife and then took his own life. Their caskets were buried in the same grave in the city’s Ingleside Cemetery and later moved to an unmarked plot in the more noteworthy Mount Moriah.
The happiness the couple could not find together in life, apparently they did in death. Within a month of the funeral, Lone Star patrons began to report seeing apparitions “recline in a loving embrace and finally melt away in the shadows of the night.” The sightings became so frequent, the editor of the Black Hills Daily Times investigated the matter himself. His report appeared in the paper February 28, 1878:
…[W]e simply give the following, as it appeared to us, and leave the reader to draw their own conclusions as to the phenomena witnessed by ourselves and many others. It is an oft repeated tale, but one which in this case is lent more than ordinary interest by the tragic events surrounding the actors.
To tell our tale briefly and simply, is to repeat a story old and well known — the reappearance, in spirit form, of departed humanity. In this case it is the shadow of a woman, comely, if not beautiful, and always following her footsteps, the tread and form of the man who was the cause of their double death. In the still watches of the night, the double phantoms are seen to tread the stairs where once they reclined in the flesh and linger o’er places where once they reclined in loving embrace, and finally to melt away in the shadows of the night as peacefully as their bodies’ souls seem to have done when the fatal bullets brought death and the grave to each.
Whatever may have been the vices and virtues of the ill-starred and ill-mated couple, we trust their spirits may find a happier camping ground than the hills and gulches of the Black Hills, and that tho’ infelicity reigned with them here, happiness may blossom in a fairer climate.
* Life and Adventures of SAM BASS, the Notorious Union Pacific and Texas Train Robber, Together with a Graphic Account of His Capture and Death, Sketch of the Members of his Band, with Thrilling Pen Pictures of their Many Bold and Desperate Deeds, and the Capture and Death of Collins, Berry, Barnes, and Arkansas Johnson (W.L. Hall & Company, 1878)
The Lady Was a Gambler: True Stories of Notorious Women of the Old West by Chris Enss (TwoDot, October 2007)
Women of the Western Frontier in Fact, Fiction and Film by Ronald W. Lackmann (McFarland & Company Inc., January 1997)