The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1983, Volume 29, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

Book Review

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

Colony Olivenhain By Richard Bumann. Published by the author, 1981. IIlustrations. Index. Maps. 108 pages. $16.00.

Knights of the Green Cloth: The Saga of the Frontier Gamblers. By Robert K. DeArment. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982. Index. Bibliography. Photographs. Maps. 423 pages. $16.95.

Reviewed by Clare V. McKanna, Instructor of California and Latin American history at San Diego Evening College (Mesa College Campus).

We often envision frontier gamblers as tall, slender men with mustaches, dressed in black suits, who detected even the slightest movement with their piercing eyes. Robert K. DeArment suggests this stereotype is not accurate. He says the gambler was “often short and sometimes quite stout. His hair was frequently fair rather than dark. . . . There were some gamblers who neglected to shave and still others were beardless because they were women.” In this well written volume, DeArment gives us another look at the gamblers who made a living traveling through the west in search of “easy pickings.” Some made a comfortable living at it, many barely scraped by, and others met violent deaths because of their occupation.

DeArment begins his story with Charles Cora, a famous but unlucky gambler who used his skills to advantage in early San Francisco. He had the misfortune to become involved in the vigilance movement of 1856, when he killed the United States Marshal in a scuffle. After a hung jury, the vigilance committee extracted the supreme penalty. Cora’s death, at age 39, is significant because it set the trend for many gamblers who died young in similar violent fashion: Luke Short 39, Langford Peel 36, John H. “Doc” Holliday 35, Jefferson “Soapy” Smith 38, and “Wild” Bill Hickok. Yet others like Bat Masterson (67) and Wyatt Earp (80) died of natural causes. Obviously, gambling was a hazardous business throughout the west, but it was not exclusively a man’s profession. Doña Gertrudis “La Tules” Barcelo, Eleanore “Madame Mustache” Dumont, Martha “Calamity” Jane Canary and others made their mark.

This is a very readable book; DeArment spins an excellent story about gamblers and their life-style. One might question the division of sections into Aces, Kings, Queens and Knaves. For example why do Earp and Holliday deserve “ace” status while Hickok ends up in the “knave” chapter? The former had just as notorious a reputation as Hickok. But this is a minor item. The history buff or general reader will love this book. Professional historians will complain that he has used secondary sources (some of them very untrustworthy) exclusively. Knights of the Green Cloth includes good photographs and a useful bibliography; it is highly recommended.