It's Thanksgiving week, a time for family, tall tales and reminiscing about times gone by.

So here's a story about a man from Jackson County whose life became the stuff of legends, a story that has been lost to time. It's also a story about his wife whose own legend far exceeded that of her husband's and of how she endures to this day through a  character in our popular culture.

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It was on Nov. 21, 1844, 179 years ago last week, that Frank Thurmond was born in Jackson County. We don't know much about his family other than the fact that he had several brothers. Some stories say he was half-Cherokee.

Thurmond served in the Civil War and after it was over, wandered West like so many others from Georgia.

By the mid-1860s, Thurmond was in San Antonio, Texas, where he operated (possibly along with two of his brothers) a gambling house called the University Club.

Sometime in the late 1860s or early 1870s, there was a dispute over gambling and Thurmond pulled his Bowie Knife (one story says he kept it on a string down his back where a quick pull could retrieve it) and killed a man. He soon left town and became an itinerant gambler around Texas.

Thurmond apparently made his living at cards and according to legend, may have become friends with "Doc" Holliday (another Georgia native) and other famous gamblers of the Old West.

He is said to have been around a lot of barroom fights during his travels around the Old West. He killed a second man with his Bowie knife in Deming, N.M., but was cleared on self-defense. He was reportedly shot, but not killed, in another barroom fight.

The Jackson County native was also accused of robbing a bank in Deming over a dispute about how the bank handled his money, but that case was later dismissed in court.

All of that would be enough for one lifetime of adventure, but Thurmond would become even more famous because of his love life.

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Somewhere along the way — probably at his San Antonio gambling house — Thurmond met and fell in love with Carlotta (or Charlotte) Tompkins. Tompkins may have been a card dealer for Thurmond at the gambling house during the late 1860s.

The young, red-headed woman was the daughter of a wealthy Kentucky plantation owner, but her father had died in the war and the family lost its fortune.

Tompkins ended up in Detroit, where she reportedly was a good enough gambler to support her mother and sister. Later, she teamed up with Johnny Golden (who had been a jockey racing horses for her father before the Civil War) and they became riverboat gamblers going up and down the Mississippi playing cards.

Eventually, she and Golden split up and she made her way to San Antonio where she met Thurmond.

Tompkins got a lot of nicknames during these years — "Mystic Maud" and "the Angel of San Antonio" — but her most famous nickname would become "Lottie Deno."

Among the Wild West towns she would live in was Fort Griffin, one of the most notorious towns in Texas in the 1870s.

It was here that one legend about Deno is said to have happened. During a card game with Doc Holliday at the Bee Hive saloon, Deno got into an argument with Holliday's girlfriend, "Big Nose" Kate Elder, who had become jealous of Deno. The two women pulled guns ready to shoot each other, but Holliday is said to have stepped between them to stop the fight.

Another legend about Deno in Fort Griffin goes like this: During a card game at the Bee Hive, a shooting ensued and everyone fled the room, except for Deno. When the sheriff arrived, he found two dead bodies — and Deno sitting at the table counting her chips.

But Deno also had some legal trouble along the way. She was charged several times for keeping a disorderly house — a brothel. She paid a fine of $100 for one of the convictions.

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It's not clear if Thurmond and Deno traveled together during the 1870s, but by 1877 they were running gambling rooms in New Mexico. In 1880, the two married and in 1881, they settled in Deming, N.M. Here, she became Charlotte Thurmond.

Despite their background as rough-and-tough gamblers, both Frank and Charlotte became upstanding, leading citizens in their little town. Frank invested in mining, operated ranches, owned a streetcar franchise and in an ultimate irony, became the vice president of the bank he had allegedly robbed earlier.

For her part, Charlotte became a leading woman in Deming, joining several social clubs. She helped organize, and finance, St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Deming. She reportedly provided the altar cloth for the new church.

Frank Thurmond died in 1908 in Deming of throat cancer, far from his place of birth in Georgia. He is buried in Mountain View Cemetery there. Whether or not he is related to other members of the Thurmond family around Jackson County is unknown.

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At the turn of the century, the life and legends of Frank and Charlotte Thurmond would become the basis of a series of "Wolfville" books by Alfred Henry Lewis, fictional tales of the Old West.

Charlotte would live on for another 26 years after Frank died, remaining a popular figure in her community. She showed up often in the local newspaper's society pages. In 1919, the community had a special "Ma Thurmond" week to celebrate her 74th birthday.

And Charlotte continued to play cards — bridge with her socialite friends and according to one article, she would host small poker games on her front porch.

When she died in 1934 at age 89, Charlotte was buried next to her husband. They had no children and all of her belongings were given away.

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But the story doesn't end there. Charlotte's colorful life became the stuff of an Old West legend which lives on in our popular culture.

The legend of Mrs. Frank Thurmond — Lottie Deno — came alive again from 1955-1975 with the hit TV Western Gunsmoke. One of the central characters in that show, Miss Kitty, the redheaded, independent-minded saloon-keeper and love interest of Matt Dillon, was based on the Lottie Deno persona.

And one has to wonder if Charlotte Tompkins had not met former Jackson Countian and gambler Frank Thurmond in the saloons of the Wild West, and eventually settle down with him, would the fictional Miss Kitty have ever entered into American pop culture?

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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