Charlotte Tompkins Thurmond, landowner, boarding house and saloon owner, gambler, and clubwoman, better-known as Lottie Deno, was born on April 21, 1844, in Warsaw, Gallatin County, Kentucky. Little primary source documentation exists regarding the life of Charlotte Tompkins Thurmond; as Lottie Deno, however, she became a well-known subject of Texas frontier folklore after being introduced by Edgar Rye in the historical fiction, The Quirt and the Spur: Vanishing Shadows of the Texas Frontier (1909). Sometime after 1900 Thurmond recounted vague aspects of her early life. Born Charlotte J. (or Carlotta J. or Charlotta) Tompkins (spelled several different ways, including Thompkins and Tomkins, from various sources), she was one of two daughters of a wealthy Kentucky plantation and slave owner. During the antebellum period, her father owned race horses and a race track. He served in the Kentucky General Assembly, but at least three men named Tompkins have served in the state legislature before Tompkins’s birth. Tompkins earned her education at a convent.
After her family lost their fortune during the Civil War, Tompkins, her mother, and her sister moved to Detroit, Michigan, where she started gambling out of necessity. Her winnings supported her mother, until her death soon after, as well as her sister’s education. She became a notorious gambler up and down the Mississippi River alongside Johnny Golden, a Confederate soldier, a gambler, and a member of a wealthy southern family (he was also described as the outcast of a wealthy Boston family). Mary Poindexter, one of her family’s former slaves, accompanied Tompkins to New Orleans, Louisiana, and then San Antonio, Texas, where the two eventually separated. Arriving in San Antonio in 1865, Tompkins became a house gambler at the University Club and earned the sobriquet “the Angel of San Antonio.” Brothers Frank, Bob, and Harrison Thurmond operated the University Club, where Tompkins may have also dealt cards and earned her pseudonym, Lottie Deno. Tradition holds that the name was coined after a card game, when one player suggested that she call herself “Lotta Dinero.”
Sometime around or after 1869 Tompkins began gambling around the state and visited Fort Worth, San Angelo, Denison, Fort Concho, and Jacksboro. She gained the nickname “Mystic Maud” at Fort Concho, where she lived before moving to Fort Griffin, Shackelford County, Texas, in 1876. There, she purchased three town lots along Griffin Avenue in 1877. In March 1878 she leased two additional lots along the same street. Tompkins also co-owned, with someone named Wilson, a boarding house and saloon called The Gus. At Fort Griffin, Tompkins acquired her reputation as a ladylike “poker queen.”
Prior to her arrival in Fort Griffin, a justice of the peace in Jacksboro charged Tompkins, using the name Lottie Deno, with two cases of keeping a disorderly house, a charge associated with brothels or prostitution. She was found not guilty on one charge and fined $100 for the other. She may have also run a prostitution ring or brothel while acting as co-owner of The Gus. In December 1877 or January 1878 George Matthews filed suit against Tompkins in the Shackelford County court regarding a $290 debt. In January 1878 she received an additional charge for managing a brothel and was ordered to stand trial after an arrest warrant was issued when she did not honor her bail agreement. The jury convicted Tompkins on both charges, but while she appealed the brothel-related verdict, Tompkins fled town. Despite her absence, at a subsequent trial she was cleared of the charge. Fort Griffin attorneys Cornelius Kincheloe Stribling and George A. Kirkland, working for George Matthews, subsequently found Tompkins in Brackettville, Texas, near Fort Clark, and informed her of the guilty verdict.
Numerous books and articles have created a romanticized, fictional portrayal of Lottie Deno that built upon the myth Edgar Rye created. J. Marvin Hunter, owner and editor of Frontier Times magazine, claimed to have found Deno living under the name of Charlotte Thurmond in Deming, New Mexico, in 1900. Small variations of stories exist within the works of Rye, Hunter, and other sources about Deno and Tompkins, but certain events were often recounted in almost every narrative. For instance, gambler Johnny Golden almost always appeared in her life story. Golden, who was romantically linked with Tompkins/Deno, was slain in an ambush while being transported to a guardhouse. While the story of the ambush is true, there is no evidence to support the affair between the two. Golden’s captors, which included local constable Bill Gibson, claimed he had been accidentally shot by men attempting to rescue him. As the legend goes, however, Golden was murdered on the command of saloon owner Dick Shaughnessy, a romantic rival for Deno’s affections. While gambling at Fort Griffin, a gunfight erupted at the table next to hers between two gamblers known only as “Monte Bill” and “Smokey Joe,” and everyone but Deno fled the room, bolstering her reputation as a tough character who was cool under fire. This unsubstantiated and fabricated representation of Tompkins/Deno as the red-headed, gambling “queen with a heart of gold” was supposedly the basis of the Miss Kitty Russell character on the long-running television series Gunsmoke (1955–1975), as well as the character Laura Denbow in the 1957 movie Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Despite so little supporting evidence, the stories Charlotte Thurmond told J. Marvin Hunter were generally accepted as historical fact, validating the earlier work of Edgar Rye. A closer examination, however, revealed that Thurmond’s timeline did not match the factual record of Tompkins’s time at Fort Griffin. Notwithstanding these discrepancies and the absence of historical evidence supporting the myth, the legend of Lottie Deno as told by Edgar Rye, J. Marvin Hunter, and others continued to thrive in popular culture.
Although certain aspects of Charlotte Tompkins/Lottie Deno’s life might not have documented evidence other than hearsay, Charlotte J. Tompkins became a prominent figure in the city of Deming, Luna County, New Mexico. Tompkins left Fort Griffin in 1878 and arrived in Silver City, New Mexico, the same year. During 1879 or 1880 she married Frank Thurmond, the same Frank Thurmond she knew in San Antonio. After settling in Deming in 1881, Charlotte J. Thurmond became a prominent member of the community where she lived for the majority of the rest of her life. Her husband co-owned a mine in Cook’s Peak and Tres Hermanas, argued on behalf of some citizens of Deming who wanted the formation of a new county, operated ranches, owned a streetcar franchise, and served as vice president of the Deming National Bank. Charlotte Thurmond became involved in community affairs. She was a member of the Golden Gossip Club and the Four Leaf Clover Club. Thurmond became a prominent member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, a church she helped build, represent in charitable community organizations, and where she worked as vice president of the St. Luke’s Guild. Her name (sometimes listed as “Lottie Deno Thurmond”) often appeared in the society pages of the Deming Headlight. In 1901, for example, she was a cast member in a local production at the Deming opera house; in 1914 a news item reported that she and several other women went on a 792-mile automobile tour. She volunteered at the local hospital during World War I and served as the county vice chairman of the Luna County Democrats. She played the card game Bridge as well.
Frank Thurmond died on June 4, 1908, at the age of sixty-nine and named his wife as the sole beneficiary of his estate. According to census records, during 1910 Thurmond shared her home with Allie Stecker, a widowed schoolteacher, but by 1920 and into 1930 Thurmond lived alone. In April 1919 certain Deming citizens celebrated “Ma” Thurmond’s seventy-fourth birthday with almost a full week of events. Despite the different lives she might have lived as Lottie Deno in Texas and Charlotte Thurmond in New Mexico, Thurmond appeared once again in legal records when she was named as one of many defendants in a lawsuit about real estate in 1927.
Charlotte J. Tompkins Thurmond died in Deming on February 9, 1934. Reverend R. R. Calvin officiated the funeral at the Episcopal Church, and Thurmond is buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Deming next to her husband. She did not have children or other relatives, but she was the godmother of Charlene Watkins. Thurmond left her personal effects to Allie Stecker and split her property between Stecker, Sigmund Lindauer, and Joseph A. Mahoney.