Texas, home to some of the most restrictive gambling laws in the country, has an equally-storied history of gambling.
The names and places that define this history echo in the minds and memories of lifelong Texans. And, in some cases, reverberate beyond the borders of the Lone Star State.
In this series, we look into a few of the people, places, and moments that characterize Texas’s gambling history. We hope to create a better understanding of the state’s conflicted relationship with online casinos, gambling, and the culture it creates.
In Part I of this series, we learned how a north-Texas horse trader became one of the most powerful casino kingpins in Dallas before making his mark in Vegas.
Part II, we learned how two brothers from Sicily turned Galveston into one of the most popular sin cities in the world.
In this third part of the series, we look at the life and times of the Poker Queen of Texas.
A refined Lottie Deno lands in San Antonio
The name Lottie Deno was one of many aliases of the woman born Carlotta J. Thompkins. She arrived in San Antonio with her loyal companion at the end of the Civil War in 1865. She was 21. Her companion was a 7-foot-tall, nine-fingered specimen named Mary Poindextor. The once-enslaved woman was Deno’s childhood nanny.
Dressed in Parisian high fashion, Deno carried herself with refinement and confidence. Poindextor’s awe-inducing presence had a magnetism somewhat opposite of Deno’s. It said all uninvited advances will not be tolerated.
On that day in San Antonio, the two were headed to the University Club in search of a card game. As hard as it is to believe, they were trying to lay low.
A child of God and money
Carlotta J. Thompkins was born in Warsaw, KY in 1844 to a family of wealthy farm owners. She grew up “proper,” and as such, her parents situated one of their female enslaved women, Poindextor, in the home as her nanny. What emerged between the two was a deep loyalty founded in compassion and friendship.
When Thompkins was not at school at an Episcopalian convent, she was accompanied by Poindextor. She much preferred being with her than with the school’s sisters. She had no interest in a life of piety and servitude, and would rather be at home with Poindextor, or, even better, on the road with her father gambling and selling race horses.
Thompkin’s father fed her wayward spirit by taking her (and Poindextor) with him on the road to places like New Orleans. During these trips he made a point of teaching his daughter the skills and tricks a good card player needed.
This, in a way, complemented her education at the convent. Where she received spiritual knowledge with the Episcopalians, with him she learned how to operate in the world of men, a world of gambling halls and racetracks, money piled on felt tables and cigar smoke in the candlelight.
Detroit nightlife and a gambling fraternity
In 1861, Thompkin’s father enlisted with the Confederate army. He died in battle, and her family lost their home and fortune. Thompkin was forced to move north to Detroit with her mother, who was quite ill, and her younger sister.
At 17, Thompkin took to the Detroit nightlife. With Poindexter at her side, she worked her way into a local gambling fraternity. Her mother had hoped she would find a suitable husband in Detroit – someone wealthy, pious, and landowning – who would take care of her. Thompkin could only mask her interest in her mother’s dream for so long, and when her mother died, Thompkin lit off.
The Mississippi riverboat years
Stories about Thompkin’s and Poindextor’s time on Mississippi riverboats fold right into the fabric of American folklore. The two apparently took up with a man named Johnny Golden, who some claim was a jockey that rode Thompkin’s father’s racehorses.
During this time, Poindextor’s legendary stature grew as well. Thompkins herself recounted that Poindextor lost her finger after diving on a rattlesnake that had reared up to strike Thompkin.
Another night, after beating two Confederate soldiers at poker, Thompkin was spotted on a side deck of the riverboat by one of them. The man called her a cheat then accosted her. Poindextor allegedly picked the man up and tossed him into the river. These stories waver in their veracity, and variations exist, but they helped to build Thompkin’s legendary status before coming to San Antonio.
The angel of San Antonio
For someone like Thompkins, Texas was a great place to disappear. She still had religious family members back in Kentucky, and at the age of 21, she wanted none of that. So, she embraced the names she became.
The Angel of San Antonio was a title she picked up at the University Club. Although, Frank Thurmond, one of the owners of the Club and a man she eventually married, may have given her the nickname that stuck firmest: Lottie Deno.
The story went that after she had played all night beating every gambler in the Club, Thompkin ought to call herself Lotta Dinero. She liked the sentiment but shortened the name to the more discreet Lottie Deno.
Sometime around 1869, Deno, having separated from Poindextor by then, toured Texas towns like Jacksboro, Fort Concho (where she became “Mystic Maud”), and finally Fort Griffin, a military encampment west of Fort Worth.
This town had a storied reputation that included people like Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, and Doc Holliday, who was a friend of Thurmond and apparently had a run-in with Deno where she took him for $3 in a game of faro.
Raking in huge pots and doing so in a fashion so out of step with the rough and tumble clientele in Fort Griffin earned her another nickname, the “Poker Queen.” In Fort Griffin, Deno bought property and established The Gus, a boarding house and saloon. It was the first time she had laid down any roots.
Returning to God
Her success lasted for nearly a decade before Deno ran into legal troubles. She moved around to avoid charges and eventually left the state in 1878 to settle in Deming, NM, where she reunited with and married Thurmond. After a career that in almost every written account maintains the grace, gentility, and guile of a Poker Queen, Deno put it and Texas behind her.
She settled back into her Episcopalian roots and became a prominent member of her community. In fact, Lottie Deno disappears from the records in New Mexico. There she is Frank Thurmond’s wife, Charlotte, a woman she made peace with and lived life as for almost 60 years, until 1934, when she died at the age of 90.
Texas offered Deno the platform to represent herself as both a dignified Southern Belle and a cunning gambler. Sadly, nothing is known of the incredible Mary Poindextor after San Antonio, but her reputation certainly owes heavily to Lottie Deno’s confidence in a tough world of few women.
In the 1960s, the TV show “Gunsmoke” allegedly based the saloon keeper Miss Kitty off of Lottie Deno. Also, the 1957 film “Gunfight At the OK Corral” supposedly based the character of Laura Denbow off Deno.