Legend of the West: Poker Alice

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The Old West is filled with legends but none is more colorful than Poker Alice. Her real name was Alice Ivers and she born of privilege in 1851. She attended an elite boarding school for young women until her family moved to Leadville, Colorado. There Alice met Frank Duffield, a mining engineer, and they were married.

Gambling was prevalent in the rough mining camps and Frank Duffield did his share. Alice often accompanied him to keep from staying home alone. Alice quickly learned she had an ability to read cards and took up poker and faro. When Frank died in a mining accident, Alice decided to put to use what she’d learned. Left alone with no means of support she turned to poker as a way to earn a nice living. It was certainly more respectable than prostitution.

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Alice stood at 5’4″ with blue eyes and lush brown hair and decked out in her fashionable dresses she was quite a sight for lonely miners. It was rare to find a “lady” in a saloon that wasn’t of the “soiled dove” caliber so they flocked to her. They quickly bestowed the nickname Poker Alice on her and she was in much demand. It’s rumored that she once broke the bank at the Gold Dust Gambling House in New Mexico where she won $6,000 in one night.

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Sometime during this period she began smoking large black cigars. Some said it was quite a sight to see her in frilly dresses with a big cigar sticking from her mouth. Alice also took to carrying a .38 revolver and wasn’t a bit squeamish to use it. Her reputation grew and so did her pocketbook.

However, she was deeply religious and never gambled on Sundays. The lady did have her scruples it seems.

Alice traveled all over Colorado, New Mexico and South Dakota playing and sometimes dealing the game she loved. But it was in Deadwood, South Dakota that she met Warren Tubbs. They married shortly after and homesteaded a ranch near Sturgis, South Dakota. Loving the quiet ranch life, Alice cut back on the time spent in gambling houses. She and Warren had seven children and it was one of the happiest times of her life.

But it wasn’t to last. Alice’s poker luck didn’t extend to husbands. Warren contracted tuberculosis and died of pneumonia in the winter of 1910. Again, Alice had to turn to poker to earn a living.

She hired a man by the name of George Huckert to take care of the ranch. He fell head over heels in love with Alice and asked her to marry him several times. Finally Alice relented saying that it was cheaper to marry George than pay him all the back wages she owed him. The  ink was barely dry on the marriage license before George died in 1913, leaving Alice once more a widow.

This time when Alice returned to the gambling halls she wanted to do more than be a patron. She purchased her own place and named the saloon “Poker’s Palace.” There she provided everything a lonely man required–liquor, gambling, and working girls. One night a drunken soldier went on a rampage in the saloon, breaking furniture and threatening the customers. Alice promptly took out her .38 and shot the man dead. She was arrested of course and thrown into jail, but at the trial she was acquitted on grounds of self-defense and released.

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She lost her saloon though. Authorities shut her down and it seemed to take a lot of the fight out of Alice. A little while passed and Alice was now in her 70’s. Her beauty had faded and she began dressing in men’s clothing. She continued to run a house of ill-repute in Sturgis and was arrested many times for drunkenness and charged with being a madam. Finally, after repeated convictions she was sentenced to prison. Alice was 75. Taking her advanced years in account, the governor of South Dakota pardoned her. She died of complications from gall bladder surgery in 1930 and was buried in Sturgis, presumably beside Warren Tubbs.

According to the Legends of America website, Alice was said to have won more than $250,000 at the gaming tables during her lifetime and she never once cheated. One of her favorite sayings was: “Praise the Lord and place your bets. I’ll take your money with no regrets.”

Doesn’t this sound like a character in a romance book? Poker Alice was colorful and independent. She lived life on her own terms. When the chips were down, she didn’t ask for a handout; she went back to work.

Have you read any books or watched western movies where the heroine was unconventional, maybe working in a saloon or even owning one? Miss Kitty definitely springs to mind, but there are others. Our own Charlene Sands’ heroine in BODINE’S BOUNTY sang in a saloon.

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Linda Broday
Here in the Texas Panhandle, we do love our cowboys. There's just something about a man in a Stetson and jeans that makes my heart beat faster. I'm not much of a cook but I love to do genealogy and I'm a bit of a rock hound. I'm also a NY Times & USA Today bestselling author of historical western romance. You can contact me through my website and I'd love to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and more. HAPPY READING!
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Updated: July 16, 2009 — 1:36 pm

23 Comments

  1. Good morning Linda!

    One book does come to mind-by Elizabeth Lowell, it is called ONLY YOU! In this book-there is a girl who actually bets herself in a card game-out of desperation of course! She ends up escaping from the saloon-but of course, the hero tracks her down! This particular book is part of a series that I really love!

    I do love reading about unconventional heroines-they really are unforgettable.

  2. Hi Melissa,

    You’re up bright and early! Great to chat with you this morning. Hope everything is well with you and that you’re enjoying your summer.

    I haven’t read that Elizabeth Lowell book but it sounds like one I definitely need to find. Larger than life heroines can make a book zing. That’s why I was drawn to Poker Alice when I ran across her. That lady was something. I’d really have liked to have known her.

    Going to get some coffee now and wake up. Be back soon.

  3. Loved Alice’s story, Linda! Yeesh – she won a quarter million dollars in her lifetime and still couldn’t pay her bills? She sure ran the gamut in her life – seven kids, 3 husbands, a life of ease to one of crime and scandal. Fascinating stuff!

  4. Good morning Linda,

    I found this very interesting. I want to go to South Dakota. I would even like to live there.

    Great Blog

    Melinda

  5. HI Linda! Oh, I enjoyed reading about Poker Alice! She led a colorful life. Thanks for the mention of Emma Marie Rourke in Bodine’s Bounty. She was a woman with her own agenda too.

    I fell in love with Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman when it was on the air. I loved the character she played, an independent thinking woman, in a field dominated by men and a widow with children. It seemed realistic in that the prejudices in town about her being a female doctor seemed right on.

    Great story and blog, Linda.

  6. Hi Pam,

    Yeah, Poker Alice was quite a woman. Seems the Wild West was full of such colorful people. It’s always interesting to run across a new one you’d never heard before. But Alice’s hard life shows on her face in the older photo. Bet she’d heard and seen everything that could be imagined. I can’t help but wonder what happened to her children. And I really wonder what they thought of having a mother who dealt in excesses.

  7. Hi Melinda,

    My oldest daughter’s name is Melinda. I really hope you make it to South Dakota someday. It’s certainly something to see. I really love the area around Sturgis and Deadwood. It’s just beautiful and is rich in history.

    Glad you enjoyed reading about Poker Alice.

  8. Hi Linda, what a colorful character! Surely she deserves a book all her own.

    I always loved Miss Kitty…but my mom used to complain whenever she took in a homeless girl…because obviously she was going to become a soiled dove.

    Dr. Quinn is one of my favorite shows of all time. It broke my heart when Hallmark took off it’s twice-a-day repeats. I even wrote a complaint letter. I liked that historical figures were brought in (e.g. Walt Whitman) and the town’s prejudices agianst just about everything were addressed. The medical facts seemed correct, too. I recall looking some of them up.

    And I loved Charlene’s Bodine’s Bounty. Sounds like a good one to re-read.

    Thanks for a great post. oxoxoxoxox

  9. Hi Charlene,

    Your Bodine’s Bounty left quite an impression on me. I hope you get a chance to write more historicals.

    Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman was one of my favorite shows. I loved tuning in each week to see what would happen next. There was no shortage of dramatic developments. And oh man, I had a severe case of lust with Sully!

  10. Hi Tanya,

    Glad you enjoyed reading about Poker Alice. She’s definitely heroine material. I guess she did just about everything she wanted. She loved life and lived it to the fullest, although some of the fire went out of her after she lost her last husband. She was sure unlucky in love.

    Glad you enjoyed my blog!

  11. You always find the neatest stuff!

    Cher 🙂

  12. This reminded me of Linda Hunt in Silverado, running the Saloon where Kevin Kline was hired.

    She was a character.

  13. Sturgis has a huge motorcycle rally every year around the 1st week of August. Advice, pick a different time to go there, very crowded.

    Unless you want the crowd of course.

  14. Linda,

    I did not know your daugther was named Melinda Great! Yes this was really interesting. I have learned alot from this post. But of course you would since it is you Linda who done it

    Melinda

  15. Loved this story, Linda. And the photo of her as an old woman with a cigar is priceless. Would like to have it on a wall-sized poster.
    An older historical of mine, Bride On the Run, features a woman who’s a saloon singer. After her fiance is shot and she’s blamed, she has to flee from the law. In real history, there had to be a lot of women forced to survive any way they could. Who could blame them if some of those ways were unconventional?

  16. Hi Cheryl,

    Glad you enjoyed my post. Poker Alice was such an interesting character. I ran across her while I was looking for something else. Love it when that happens.

    Hope your wip is going well. I’m looking forward to your next release. I really loved “The Preacher’s Wife.” Very well done.

  17. Hi Mary,

    Yeah, my husband and I almost got caught in that Sturgis motorcycle rally. We were in Rapid City the week before it started. Even that early there were tons of motorcyclists everywhere. Bet I could certainly get an education from them! Most are a very rough looking sort. Though I hear there’s a Christian group of them.

    I remember Linda Hunt in Silverado. Love that movie. It was the first time I saw Kevin Costner. I thought he was the cutest thing. A very good western. Had quite a few big name actors in it too.

  18. Hi Elizabeth,

    I’m going to have to look for “Bride on the Run.” I’d love to read it. Sounds like my type of story. And I love your writing voice.

    Yes, a lot of those women back then had to do whatever they could to survive. It was a tough time to live. The West spawned quite a few larger-than-life characters. We definitely have no shortage of people to base our H/H’s on.

  19. The Unsinkable Molly Brown comes to my mind. There was a movie made about her and I think Debbie Reynolds played her. Loved that movie.

  20. Miss Kitty is the only saloon owner I can think of right now. Barbara Stanwyck portrayed a very strong
    woman in The Big Valley. I really enjoyed her role
    as the tough head of the family and ranch owner.

    Pat Cochran

  21. Loved your blog and thought of the scenes in The Unsinkable Molly Brown. I have often thought that I need to research to see how true to the actual life of Molly Brown the Debbie Reynolds movie was.

  22. Avatar

    Nice blog. Wish I had known about her before we went to Deadwood and Sturgis. Would have checked into her and looked for her grave. Know I’ve read books with unconventional heroines out west, but can’t think of the titles right now. Heard a lot about Molly Brown when we lived in Colorado. Poker Alice certainly was a character.

  23. POKER ALICE CORRECTION.
    I live in Sturgis where poker Alice is buried. Alice’s husbands—Tubbs and Huckert are buried in Bear Butte Cemetery. Alice was buried in the catholic cemetary because she was catholic.
    I’m writing a novel on her and it should be published later this year.

    MY POKER ALICE VIDEO SHOWING HER HOME AT:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=215A_0zFG2c
    rthorne2@mac.com

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