When Mr. and Mrs. Ivers of Devonshire, England welcomed their daughter Alice to the world on a cold February afternoon in 1851, there was nothing to suggest she would become anything other than a conservative English lady, like her mother. Even in their wildest imaginings, her family could have never pictured the life this child would lead.

When she was 12 years old, Alice immigrated to the United States with her parents. The Ivers family initially settled in Virginia, where Alice was sent to a boarding school to adopt the manners of a refined lady.

A young Alice Ivers

The family moved again a few years later, this time to Leadville, Colorado. It was here that Alice met Frank Duffield, a mining engineer and poker enthusiast. She eloped with him, likely due to her family’s objections.

Alice created waves right away. Frank was a familiar sight at the poker table but the clientele at the saloon was taken aback to find the new Mrs. Duffield was not about to stay home while her husband had all the fun. Alice accompanied Frank out in the evenings, and sat beside him at the poker table.

The marriage was not destined to last long. Frank was killed in a mine accident just a few years later. Her husband was gone, but for Alice, there was no looking back. Throughout the long evenings of watching Frank play poker, she’d learned more than the game itself. She had a natural gift for reading faces and she had perfected it during her marriage to Frank.  She took up gambling herself.

Alice, shortly after Frank’s death

 

Rather than return to her family, Alice whiled away her time playing poker in various and sundry saloons all over the Wild West. She quickly became well-known, running the table every night, and winning startlingly large fortunes, up to $6,000 on occasion.

Alice was not one to hoard her cash. In her younger days, she regularly traveled east to New York City, where she would spend vast sums on her wardrobe. This was said to be part of her strategy when she played cards. She would return to the smoky saloons of the west, dressed to the nines, in the latest fashions from Paris. It was a business investment, she told her confidantes, because the extravagant clothing distracted her opponents.

Fate intervened in Alice’s life once again in 1890. By then, she had acquired the nickname Poker Alice, and adopted the profession of a dealer at the Bedrock saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota. She was always armed with a gun, usually her .38 pistol. She had also taken to smoking cigars in her fine dresses.  One evening, Alice saw a drunken miner attempting to attack another dealer named Warren G. Tubbs with a knife. Alice quickly intervened with her .38 and settled matters.

Alice has her own comic book.

Shortly afterwards, she and Warren Tubbs married.  They seemed to have been very happy together. In their 20 years of marriage, they had four sons and three daughters. The Tubbs family lived on a homestead by the Moreau River, deliberately leaving the saloon life Alice and Warren once enjoyed far behind them. Their happiness ended in 1910, when Warren Tubbs died of tuberculosis.

Alice loaded his body into their wagon and drove 50 miles to ensure he had a decent burial. It was more than she could afford. She had to sell her wedding ring to pay for it. With no other means to support herself, Poker Alice made a triumphant return to professional gambling. Her skill at counting cards and calculating odds transformed her into a legend. She purchased a saloon in Fort Meade, South Dakota, and converted the upstairs to a brothel. The brothel operated continually but the saloon was closed on Sundays. In response to the grumbling, Alice explained sincerely that playing poker on the Sabbath was wrong. Prostitution on Sundays was apparently still okay.

When they lived on the homestead, she and Warren had employed a man named George Huckert to help them. Huckert was desperately in love with Alice, but she seemed to have no interest in him until it was brought to her attention that she owed him $1,008 in back wages. After a few calculations, Alice decided marrying Huckert would be more economical than paying him. It was another short marriage; George died in 1913.

Alice is at the center in a dark hat, dealing poker

The same year, Alice found herself in hot water. A group of drunken soldiers appeared at her saloon on a Sunday, and became unruly and destructive. Alice was infuriated and pulled out her .38. She said she only planned to shoot to establish order in the house, but the shot struck a soldier, killing him. Alice and six of her prostitutes were arrested.

Alice, now in her 60s, spent her time quietly reading the Bible and smoking cigars. When the case finally went to trial, Alice claimed self-defense and was acquitted and set free. The saloon, however, was closed for good. The brothel remained open.

Alice was not scared straight while in jail. After her acquittal, she was arrested frequently for gambling, drunkenness, operating a brothel, and selling bootleg liquor. Her last arrest was in 1928 and due to her age, she was pardoned by South Dakota governor William J. Bulow.

The last photo of Alice

The remarkable Poker Alice departed this world on February 27, 1930, at age 79. She is buried in St. Aloysius Cemetery in Sturgis, South Dakota.

Alice Ivers was known as a beautiful woman for most of her life, though not photogenic. However, the first photo I saw of her is the one on the left, and it took me a moment to realize that she wasn’t Archie Bunker. But there is a resemblance, don’t you think?

Alice bears a peculiar resemblance to another famous cigar enthusiast

San Francisco, California. The newspapers described Gypsy Adams as “a Louisiana girl, of Creole extraction” who was an inmate of one of the Tenderloin’s infamous brothels. The house was owned by Mrs. Mary Mills, known to her employees as “Mother Mary”. Gypsy quickly became well-known in the Tenderloin and her loud crassness and unmoderated drinking and drug use quickly earned the disgust of her peers. But Mrs. Mills was kind to her and refused to turn her out.

August 24, 1901 was a Saturday. Around 8 p.m., Mrs. Mills, who was in her 80s, entered Gypsy’s room and eyed the woman sprawled on the bed. On a bedside table, a lamp filled with coal oil or kerosene. She trusted most of the girls, but not this one. “Gyp,” she called. “Give me that lamp. You’ll knock it over and burn the place down.”

Gypsy sat up suddenly. She looked at Mother Mills with eyes that were unnaturally bright and said, “Sure, I will.” In one rapid movement she grabbed the lamp and threw it with all her strength at Mrs. Mills. It hit the elderly lady squarely on her forehead and her clothing immediately caught light. Mrs. Mills screamed and ran out of the room. It was several minutes before horrified onlookers were able to put out the fire. In the meantime, Mother Mills was badly burnt.

Even as the police were hurrying to the scene, a physician was summoned. After several minutes of searching, the doctor was able to find a tiny area of skin left that was not charred, and here he gave her a shot of morphine to ease her pain. It was not to be expected that Mary Mills would recover, the doctor cautioned.

Gypsy was arrested at once. “She was decidedly the worse for booze,” an arresting officer later explained. “The only thing she seemed to regret was that she had not killed Mother Mills.”

But she had killed her. Mary Mills died in agony six hours after Gypsy threw the burning lamp at her.

A few days later, Gypsy appeared at a preliminary hearing. When asked about who would represent her, the defendant announced her intention to represent herself. She explained that she was wrongly accused. Mother Mills had dropped the lamp and caused her own death.

The police testified to her drunkenness. “She used the vilest language,” one of them added. “And acted more like an insane person than one in her right mind.”

Bessie Turner, another of Mother Mills’ girls, was also in court to testify against her. She had helped wrap a blanket around Mrs. Mills to smother the flames, and the poor woman whispered, “Gyp done it.”

Gypsy was allowed to cross examine the witness. “Aren’t you a dope fiend?” she shrieked at Bessie.

“You’re a liar,” Bessie announced. She stood up suddenly and before she could be stopped, she seized Judge Oster’s gavel and hurled it at Gypsy, who dodged it easily. “The women then exchanged remarks that shocked the courtroom,” The San Francisco Examiner reported.

“Miss Turner suddenly seized the lamp which had caused the destruction of Mother Mills and started for the defendant. She was stopped by Constable Heap.” It took Judge Oster several minutes to restore order to his courtroom, and when he did, he gave Miss Turner a $10 fine for contempt of court. Gypsy was ordered held without bail in the county jail, on a murder charge.

There were 24 inmates in the jail, and Gypsy was the only female. In late September, Gypsy was charged with first degree murder. Frank B. Daley would serve as her court-appointed attorney at her trial on November 19.

On November 22, 1901, Gypsy stood before Judge Bledsoe and claimed she was high on the night Mrs. Mills was murdered. “I ate about half a pound of opium,” she recalled. “I was crazy, I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Daley put up a good fight for his client, and the jury was out for a total of 17 hours. When they finally came back to the courtroom, they returned a merciful verdict. Gypsy was convicted of second degree murder, which carried a penalty of 10 years to life. The prisoner listened passively to her fate, without betraying any emotion.

Gypsy was sentenced on December 9. Judge Bledsoe asked if there was any reason why sentence should not be pronounced, and though she had written a lengthy plea for mercy, Gypsy replied, “No.”

“Very well,” the judge said. He sentenced her to 25 years in San Quentin State Prison.

Gypsy Adams’ San Quentin mug shot (1901)

Not all of Gypsy’s adventures were over. But that is a post for another day!