Life in the old west was hard on everyone, but it was especially difficult for the ladies. In the post-Civil War period, it was common for proper young ladies to accompany their new husbands into the western territories. It was a dangerous and difficult journey, but young couples are always optimistic about their future together. They had their entire lives ahead of them and they enthusiastically embraced their destiny.
Literally thousands of young couples accepted the challenge of westward migration because land was more affordable and they viewed the undertaking as an opportunity to set down their roots and raise their families. In time, if luck remained with them, they could sell their land for a profit and move further west.
Quite often, however, luck turned its back on them and the woman’s husband was taken. He may have been murdered by Indians or outlaws, or perhaps he fell out of his wagon and broke his neck. Whatever the circumstances, his young bride was left alone in the world. She was far from home with no one to turn to. If life had been difficult for her up to that point, her travails were just getting started. It was frequently the beginning of a sad and lonely life.
But people strive to survive. I suspect that very few people today wonder why there were so many prostitutes in the old west. Now you know. Some of these women dressed as men and tried to fit into masculine society as drovers, shootists, and ranchers but not many took on this particular lifestyle. Some women found work as cargo haulers, stagecoach drivers, and livery stable operators. No one found work in the local five and dime because there wasn’t one. So, bless them, they either became dancehall girls or something else. Some ladies even became gamblers —and darn good ones— which brings us finally to Poker Alice.
Alice Ivers was born in Sudbury, England in 1851 and moved to the United States with her family in 1865. Settling in Virginia, her family sent her to a boarding school for young ladies, which tells us that her’s was a family of means, that she was educated and very likely refined. Alice later accompanied her parents to Leadville in the Colorado Territory, and this is where she met her beau, Frank Duffield. Alice was still young when she married Frank, but that’s how things were back then.
Frank worked in a silver mine. His job was setting explosive charges. Unhappily, Frank wasn’t very good at setting explosive charges and Alice found herself single once more. Alice was perceptive enough to know that mining silver was hard work and an iffy proposition at best. Gambling, on the other hand, would definitely bring in some cash. Some say that Alice learned how to gamble from her father. Whether or not true, Alice did make a lot of money gambling. She spent a lot of money, too. Whenever she would win big, she would travel to New York City and spend her money on the finest clothes. She always wore her fashionable gowns to the gambling halls. It was a ploy, some said, to distract her gambling opponents.
If it was a ploy, it apparently worked for her because in her lifetime, Alice won over $250,000 from gambling. In today’s money, that would be around $6.5 million. Somewhere along the way, the lady who could count cards picked up a fondness for cigar smoking and quality Kentucky Bourbon. Inside the saloon/gambling hall, folks could hear her British accented voice tell her fellow gamblers, “Praise the Lord and place your bets, and I’ll take your money with no regrets.” Make no mistake, though —Alice was a proper lady gambler. She never gambled on the Lord’s day.
In 1890, Alice remarried —a fellow named Warren Tubbs— and retired to a life of childbearing and farming. Warren and Alice had four sons and three daughters. They purchased a farm. Warren earned extra money as a house painter. In time, Warren fell ill with consumption (tuberculosis) and in 1910, he passed away from complications of pneumonia. Alice and Warren had a good life together, but with the kids grown and moved away, Alice went back to the card tables. After pawning her wedding ring to pay for Warren’s funeral, she went straight to the gambling hall and made enough money in a single afternoon to buy her wedding ring back. By this time, of course, Alice was quite a bit older … but she had lost none of her gambling skills.
Alice’s third husband was George Huckert, whom she employed on her farm. Huckert wanted to marry Alice, but Alice wasn’t ready to re-tie the knot … until she realized that she owed George over $1,000 in back pay; she married him in 1912 because it was cheaper than paying back wages. George died in 1913.
By this time, everyone knew Alice as “Poker Alice.” On some nights, Alice would take home $6,000 … at the time, an incredibly large sum of money. The reason she was unconcerned about such things as being robbed because no matter how nicely she was dressed, her hand was never too far from a .38 revolver. No one doubted that she knew how to use it.
As one might expect, Alice’s life was controversial. Before she passed away in 1930, authorities arrested Alice for running a brothel, shooting a soldier who was harassing her, and for openly defying prohibition laws. Governor William J. Bulow of South Dakota eventually pardoned Alice, who was then 75 years old. There was no clear evidence that Alice ever ran a brothel, but she did invest money in one —a distinction between management and venture capitalism. It is true that Alice shot a soldier, but from all accounts, he was asking for it. As for prohibition laws —everyone defied those and back then the government pursued “selective prosecution.” A cigar-smoking woman gambler stood a greater chance of judicial scrutiny than, say, an elected mayor of a city who frequently hosted late hour cocktail parties.
Alice Ivers Duffield Tubbs Huckert died at the age of 79 following a gallbladder operation. The citizens of Sturgis, South Dakota buried her in the St. Aloysius Cemetery. Poker Alice was one of our country’s colorful Old West characters.