A grim-faced bartender led a pair of sheriff’s deputies up the stairs of Deadwood’s Lone Star Saloon to the two lifeless bodies sprawled on the floor. One of the deceased individuals was a gambler named Kitty LeRoy, and the other was her estranged husband, Sam Curley.
The quiet expression on Kitty’s face gave no indication that her death had been a violent one. She was lying on her back with her eyes closed and, if not for the bullet hole in her chest, would simply have looked as though she were sleeping. Sam’s dead form was a mass of blood and tissue. He was lying face first with pieces of his skull protruding from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. In his right hand he still held the pistol that brought about the tragic scene.
For those townspeople who knew the flamboyant twenty-eight year old Leroy, her furious demise did not come as a surprise.
She was voluptuous beauty who used her striking good looks to take advantage of infatuated men who believed her charm and talent surpassed any they’d ever known.
Nothing is known of her early years: where and when she was born, who her parents and siblings were what she was like as a child. The earliest historical account of the entertainer, card player and sometime soiled dove lists her as a dancer in Dallas, Texas, in 1875. She was a regular performer at Johnny Thompson’s Variety Theatre. She had dark, striking features, brown, curly hair and a trim, shapely figure. She dressed in elaborate gypsy-style garments and always wore a pair of spectacular diamond earrings.
Kitty’s nightly performances attracted many cowboys and trail hands. She received standing ovations after every jig and shouts from the audience for an encore. The one thing Kitty was better at than dancing was gambling. She was a savvy faro dealer and poker player. Men fought one another sometimes to death for a chance to sit opposite her and play a game or two.
In early 1876, after becoming romantically involved with a persistent saloon keeper, Kitty decided to leave Texas and travel with her lover to San Francisco. Their stay in Northern California was brief. Kitty did not find the area to be as exciting as she had heard it had been during the Gold Rush. To earn the thousands she hoped as an entertainer and gambler she needed to be in a place where new gold was being pulled out of the streams and hills. California’s findings were old and nearly played out. Kitty boarded a stage alone and headed for a new gold boom town in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Deadwood Gulch, South Dakota was teeming with more than six thousand eager prospectors, most of whom spent their hard earnings at the faro tables in saloons. Kitty hired on at the notorious Gem Theatre and danced her way to the same popularity she had experienced in Dallas. Enamored miners competed for her attention, but none seemed to hold her interest. It wasn’t until she met Sam Curley that the thought of spending an extended period of time with another man seemed appealing.
Thirty-five year-old Sam Curley was a card sharp with a reputation as a peaceful man who felt more at home behind a poker table than anywhere else. Kitty and Sam had a lot in common, and their mutual attraction blossomed into a proposal of marriage. On June 10, 1877, the pair exchanged vows at the Gem Theatre on the same stage where Kitty performed. Unbeknownst to the cheering onlookers and the groom, however, Kitty was already married. Her first husband lived in Bay City, Michigan with her son who was born in 1872. Bored with the trappings of a traditional home life, Kitty abandoned the pair to travel the west.
When Sam learned that he was married to a bigamist he was upset, and the pair quarreled. He was not only dissatisfied with his marital status, but he was also fiercely unhappy with the law enforcement in the rough town. He didn’t like Sheriff Seth Bullock’s “strong arm tactics,” and within six months after marrying Kitty he left Deadwood Gulch for Colorado.
Perhaps she was distraught over the abrupt departure of her current husband, but Kitty’s congenial personality suddenly turned cold and unfriendly. She was distrusting of patrons and began carrying six-shooters in her skirt pockets and a Bowie knife in the folds of the deep curls of her hair. She moved from Deadwood Gulch to Central City where she ran a saloon. Because she was always heavily armed, she was able to keep the wild residents who frequented her establishment under control.
Restless and unable to get beyond Sam’s absence, Kitty returned to Deadwood and opened a combination brothel and gambling parlor. She called her place The Mint and enticed many miners to her faro table where she quickly relieved them of their gold dust. On one particularly profitable evening she raked in more than $8,000. A braggadocios German industrialist had challenged her to a game and lost. The debate continues among historians as to whether Kitty cheated her way to the expensive win. Most believe she was a less than honest dealer.
Kitty’s profession and seductive manner of dress sparked rumors that she had had many lovers and had been married five times. Kitty never denied the rumors and even added to them by boasting that she had been courted by hundreds of eligible bachelors and “lost track of the numbers of times men had proposed” to her. Because she carried a variety of weapons on her at all times, rumors also abounded that she had shot or stabbed more than a dozen gamblers for cheating at cards. She never denied those tales either.
By the fall of 1877, the torch Kitty carried for Sam was temporarily extinguished by a former lover. The two spent many nights at the Lone Star Saloon and eventually moved in together.
News of Kitty’s romantic involvement reached a miserable Sam who had established a faro game at a posh saloon in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Sam was furious about being replaced and immediately purchased a ticket back to Deadwood. Hoping to catch Kitty alone with her lover, he disguised his looks and changed his name.
When Sam arrived in town on December 6, 1877, he couldn’t bring himself to face the pair in person. He sent a message to Kitty’s paramour to meet with him instead, but the man refused. In a fit of rage Sam told one of the Lone Star Saloon employees that he intended to kill his unfaithful wife and then himself.
Frustrated and desperate, Sam sent a note to Kitty pleading with her to meet him at the Lone Star Saloon. She reluctantly agreed. Not long after Kitty ascended the stairs of the tavern, patrons heard her scream followed by the sound of two gunshots.
A reporter for the Black Hills Daily Times visited the scene of the murder-suicide the morning after the event occurred. “The bodies were dressed and lying side by side in the room of death,” he later wrote in an article for the newspaper. “Suspended upon the wall, a pretty picture of Kitty, taken when the bloom and vigor of youth gazed down upon the tenements of clay, as if to enable the visitor to contrast a happy past with a most wretched present. The pool of blood rested upon the floor; blood stains were upon the door and walls…. The cause of the tragedy may be summed up in a few words; aye, in one ‘jealousy.’”
A simple funeral was held for the pair at the same location where they had met their end. Although they were placed in separate pine caskets they were buried in the same grave at the Ingleside Cemetery. According to the January 7, 1878, edition of the Black Hills Daily Times, Kitty had “drawn a holographic will in ink on the day prior to her death.” Her estate amounted to $650. A portion of the funds were used to pay for the service, burial, and tombstone.
It seems that Kitty LeRoy and Sam Curley’s spirits would not rest after they were lowered into their shared grave. A month after the pair had departed from this world their ghosts were reportedly haunting the Lone Star Saloon. Patrons claim the phantoms appeared to “recline in loving embraces and finally melt away in the shadows of the night.”
The editor of the Black Hills Daily Times pursued the story of the “disembodied spirits” and, after investigating the disturbances, wrote an article on the subject that was printed on February 28, 1878.
“The Lone Star building gained its first notoriety from the suicide, by poisoning, of a woman of ill repute last spring. The house was subsequently rented by Hattie Donnelly, and for a time all went smoothly, with the exception of such little sounds and disturbances as are incident to such places. About the first of December the house was rented by Kitty LeRoy, a woman said to be well connected and possessed of intelligence far beyond her class. Kitty was a woman well known to the reporter, and whatever might have been her life here, it is not necessary to display her virtues or her vices, as we deal simply with information gleaned from hearsay and observation. With the above facts before the reader we simply give the following, as it appeared to us, and leave the readers to draw their own conclusions as to the phenomena witnessed by ourselves and many others. It is an oft repeated tale, but one which in this case is lent more than ordinary interest by the tragic events surrounding the actors.
“To tell our tale briefly and simply, is to repeat a story old and well known – the reappearance, in spirit form, of departed humanity. In this case it is the shadow of a woman, comely, if not beautiful, and always following her footsteps, the tread and form of the man who was the cause of their double death. In the still watches of the night, the double phantoms are seen to tread the stairs where once they reclined in the flesh and linger o’er places where once they reclined in loving embrace, and finally to melt away in the shadows of the night as peacefully as their bodies’ souls seem to have done when the fatal bullets brought death and the grave to each.
“Whatever may have been the vices and virtues of the ill-starred and ill-mated couple, we trust their spirits may find a happier camping ground than the hills and gulches of the Black Hills, and that tho’ infelicity reign with them here happiness may blossom in a fairer climate.”
The bodies of Kitty LeRoy and Sam Curley were eventually moved to the mountain top cemetery of Mount Moriah in Deadwood and their burial spots left unidentified.
Chris Enss is the COWGIRL Book Editor, and a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West. For more stories about these wild women, visit www.chrisenss.com for more information on her books.