DEADWOOD - The faro queen of early day Deadwood was as pretty a girl as ever dealt cards across a gambling layout and as high born a lady as ever sacrificed her all for the cause of the Old South. In Black Hills history this character is known by her nom-de-plume, Madam Vestal.
In Deadwood camp Madam operated her own gaming room. With a knowledge of refinement Madam Vestal furnished her den in luxurious taste. In this setting the flawlessly groomed beauty, artfully jeweled and gowned, was hostess to a select clientele.
Madam Vestal matched smiles with wine glasses for she was an abstainer of drink. Men flocked to her place - drawn by a magnet of charm, hospitality, and femininity that cleverly cloaked a greedy, scheming vixen.
Madam's establishment became the talk of the gulch and her personal technique the envy of other gamblers and entertainers. She never spoke of her past or denied that she was a young widow making her way in the world. Such rumors won her sympathy.
Generous hearted patrons did not mind losing their bank roll to the lady of the faro game. They boasted of their losses, as if loosing to Madam Vestal was an honor. In a way it was for in 1877 Madam Vestal could out charm any imported girl in the theaters or dance halls.
Who she was, what she was, and the part that Deadwood played in her rise to power and down fall was revealed by the shady lady herself when, as a degraded outcast, she thought she was about to die. All her life she had been slightly boastful, over-confident of her powers to outwit others; and this trait led to her last confession.
Originally she was Belle Siddons, daughter of a politically powerful St. Louis family. Belle received every advantage a university at Lexington could offer. Her debut into society was the climax of a Jefferson City social season. With family, fortune and captivating beauty, Belle Siddons had her dream of tomorrow shattered by the civil war.
Being a loyal southerner the girl utilized her charms to best advantage. She became a meek, bewildered, little rebel when Union forces moved into her locality. The same tender solicitude that she had used to push boys into uniforms of gray was later employed to charm the men in blue.
Belle Siddons, rode, dined, danced and attended DeBar's opera house with union officers as her escorts. In December, 1862, General Curtis ordered her picked up for investigation as a spy.
One of her admirers tipped Belle off and she tried to escape, but was arrested at St. Genevive with incriminating evidence in her possession, and returned to Union headquarters.
Confident of her beauty appeal and position in society, the girl gambled that chivalry would come to her aid. Belle Siddons boasted of how she tricked staff officers to gain information and later relayed the information to Generals Price and Forrest of the southern army who were attacking Grant's supply lines.
"Were the Yanks making war on women?" She defied them to shoot her like a common spy.
General Curtis ordered her held in a prison. Robbed of attentions and luxurious living Belle offered a compromise that the authorities accepted. In a few months she was sent south on an exchange of prisoners, honor bound to do only hospital work for the duration. She kept that promise.
During the reconstruction period Belle Siddons turned up again in Jefferson City as a lobbyist for politicians. Here she met and married Newt Hallet of Kansas City. The couple went to Texas where, a few years later her husband died of yellow fever.
From then on Belle Siddons Hallett became the mysterious Madam Vestal who never spoke of her past, but who became the faro sensation of Wichita, Ellsworth, Fort Hayes, and Cheyenne.
She endured the hardships of the trail to reach the gold camps in the Black Hills. Deadwood not only fired her with zest for dangerous living, but it also offered a chance for a fabulous clean up.
She was not disappointed in her choice of location. Her spirit started to soar, her scheming mind to work, and her ambitions took nefarious turns, aspects - hopes!
Madam Vestal could have made a good marriage but that route to wealth and respectability was too easy. The frustrated woman demanded redress of society for her blighted dream. Someone was to blame. Someone had to pay.
Among her suitors was a former guerilla raider of the Kansas frontier named Archie Cummings. He fell desperately in love with Madam Vestal and, being a daring, ruthless renegade ready to do her bidding, she played him for her favorite.
Through Cummings she became acquainted with the leaders of road-agent gangs that operated on Black Hills stage lines. These bandits became spenders in her place and Madam became their listening post. Madam once more took up spying as a pasttime.
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Over games and drinks she heard plans discussed and passed the information to the road-agents. Soon she was advising leaders and Archie Cummings saw that Madam got her share of the loot.
"When we get enough, " she told the renegade. "we'll pull out and - who knows, I might even marry you."
Archie Cummings became her devoted associate. The stage holdups became so bad that a treasure coach was being discussed - a safe on wheels.
More than once authorities acted on tips from envious game operators along the street, but their visits and searches of her establishment netted nothing. Madam invited the detectives the insurance companies sent out to recover stage losses to call on her anytime.
They accepted her hospitality, talked of their plans, and always the news was relayed to the road-agents. When things got hot Archie Cummings disappeared for a time, acting on Madam's orders.
In 1878 another dashing gunman came into Madam's life. This rugged individual, also inclined to boast of his way with road agents at gold shippers' expense, had come into Deadwood as a now driver on the Cheyenne coach. He was Boone May, as ruthless an enemy of road-agents as ever matched guns with bandits, and he was hired to clean out the gangs on the Deadwood line.
Boone May knew all about Madam Vestal, but she knew nothing of him. By pretending to be her type of man Boone May wormed into her confidence. He learned she was planning to leave the Hills. Archie Cummings was taking her strong box to the train. Later, she was to join him in San Francisco.
A telegram to Cheyenne halted Cummings' flight just as he and two confederates were about to board a train. The- strong box had been cached somewhere. Officers were unable to find it. They started the three prisoners for Deadwood.
Boone May met the stage coach on Cottonwood creek south of Red Canyon gateway, and his vigilantes took over. They hung the men one at a time. Archie Cummings came last. He asked for the privilege of writing his mother a letter and the favor was denied. Then Boone May asked him if he would surrender the secret of the missing strong box in exchange for his life.
Cummings considered it. He loved Madam Vestal, but he loved life even more. Cummings revealed where Madam's chest of loot was hidden. The party made camp while the information was acted on. When the chest was found Boone May ordered Cummings strung up anyway. The bodies were left hanging on the trees as a warning to gangs to clear out.
News of the tragedy had shocking effect on Madam Vestal. She abandoned self-respect and abstainance and tried to drown her grief in drink. Finally she took an overdose of poison. The timely work of a doctor saved her from suicide.
That attempt to end her life did something to the woman. The hard viciousness that she had kept so cleverly concealed as a part of her make-up came to the fore now.
She cared nothing about reputation, honor, or wealth, or the solace of friends. Madam Vestal was spurred by a vengeful desire to kill Boone May and every man that rode with him that day of the hanging bee on Cottonwood creek.
But Madam failed to reckon with her competition. Her reign as faro queen of Deadwood wag ended. Her fortune and associates had vanished. Her affiliation with the road agents turned public opinion against the woman, whom men might have otherwise pitied; and as a last resort she was given an official order to move on - leave the Hills.
In 1879 her revelations stated she opened a dance house in Leadville, Colo. From there she drifted on south to Las Vegas, N. M., Tucson, and Tombstone.
Along the route to oblivion she added opium smoking to her drinking habit and soon beauty, health, and soundness of mind were sacrificed.
Madam Vestal, alias Belle Siddons, was an unknown derelict when authorities transferred the sick woman from a California prison cell to 'he hospital ward of the institution. Gravely ill, a chaplain urged the old woman to ease her conscience by confessing the story of her past.
Belle Siddons believed she was at the end of her trail - and for the first time she pieced together the rumors and recorded facts of her life - a life that had such a brilliant
Madam Vestal left dainty footprints in the early history of the Black Hills. While Calamity Jane and Wild Bill take top billing in Deadwood's exploitation of gold rush times, and Days of '76 visitors cheer their impersonators on stage and in the arena, few people realize that the richly-garbed lady in plush and plumes, who rides alone in a carriage in the street parade is a characteristic revival of Deadwood's famous faro queen, Madam Vestal.