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February 13th, 2013
Bartee Haile: Best card player on the Texas frontier was a southern belle

This Week in Texas History:
A column

Convinced he had been cheated out of a pot on Feb. 18, 1872, an angry poker player started shooting at the owner of Fort Griffin’s first saloon.

The military outpost was established five years earlier on a bluff high above the Clear Fork of the Brazos River northeast of present-day Abilene. To deter raids by the tribes in the Indian Territory, an all too common occurrence during the Civil War, the fort was well-stocked with cavalry ready to ride at a moment’s notice.

The tumble-down village that slowly came to life on the plain down below borrowed the name of the frontier guardian, but most people called it “The Flat.” For the next seven years, the small community was surprisingly free of the vice and violence that one day would earn it the reputation as “the toughest town in Texas.”

Their February 1872 run-in was the second act of a feud involving saloon-keeper Joe Bowers and a perpetually unhappy customer named J.B. Cockrell. In the relatively minor opening act, Bowers shot Cockrell’s horse while he was in the saddle. The next episode escalated into a full-scale battle as the badly wounded Cockrell and his friends filled the saloon full of holes without hitting their target.

By the time Cockrell recovered, “The Flat” had two new watering holes. Since he no longer had to set foot on his nemesis’ premises, that should have kept Cockrell out of trouble. But a few drinks too many on a May afternoon resulted in a third confrontation, and Bowers ended the unpleasantness with a shotgun.

Before the murder victim’s body was cold, the commanding officer at Fort Griffin took severe measures to restore the peace. He put “The Flat” under military law and ordered all the booze peddlers, gamblers and prostitutes to clear out, which they did in record time.

“The Flat” was a model, if somewhat dull, town for two years. Then in 1874 a couple of things happened to set the stage for its overnight transformation: first, the buffalo hunters moved their base of operations from Kansas to Fort Griffin and, second, the army relinquished control to newly organized Shackleford County.

“It looked to me like all the bad characters from everywhere were swarming around there,” a pioneer settler recalled many years later. “It got so tough I was afraid to ride down the street.”

In the twinkling of an eye, “The Flat” became a magnet for the worst of the Old West along with those colorful individuals busy making household names for themselves. “The Flats” was, of course, where Wyatt Earp met Doc Holliday and “Big Nose” Kate, if Earp’s less than reliable memory is to be believed. It also was where a lady
gambler from the Deep South cemented her claim to the title “best card player in Texas.”

"Lottie Deno"

“Lottie Deno”

Born into a wealthy Kentucky family in 1844, Carlotta J. Thompkins spent much of her youth traveling with her father, a racehorse breeder and inveterate gambler who taught his oldest daughter how to win at cards. After dad died early in the war with the North, her widowed mother sent the attractive teenager and chaperone Mary Poindexter, her seven-foot slave nanny, to Detroit to find a proper husband.

Instead of shopping for a rich mate, Carlotta hooked up with a no-account jockey who had once ridden for her dead father. Infuriated by her bad taste in men, her mother cut the purse strings and legally disowned her.

Carlotta managed just fine on her own. She supported not only herself and Mary but the leech Golden as well with her steamboat winnings on the Ohio and Mississippi. The couple parted in 1863 with plans for a San Antonio reunion. Carlotta arrived in the Alamo City sometime in 1865 and took a job as a “house gambler” at the University
Club. When her boyfriend failed to show, she felt free to follow her heart and did so right into the arms of Frank Thurmond, son of her employers.

Golden finally appeared insisting the “Angel of San Antonio,” as Carlotta was known, was his lawfully wedded wife. His unwanted intrusion coincided with Thurmond’s hasty departure after a fatal shooting. Warning Golden not to follow, Carlotta skipped town too on the trail of her true love.

With Thurmond living in the shadows under an alias, Carlotta worked her way across West Texas adding to her legend at each stop. When she reached Fort Griffin, everyone knew her as the unbeatable “Lottie Deno,” and she soon proved it by cleaning out Doc Holliday in a head-to-head game.

In May 1877, jilted Johnny Golden tracked her down. The same day he stepped off the stage, he was arrested by the sheriff and shot to death on the way to jail for allegedly trying to escape.

Lottie Deno paid for the coffin and suit of clothes Golden was buried in but did not hang around for the funeral. She left Texas for good, married Frank Thurmond, gave up gambling and lived her last 52 years in Deming, New Mexico as a respected though mysterious pillar of the community.

San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.

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