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  • Writer's pictureDavid Grassé

More Tall Tales

A friend of mine sent me a YouTube video about an actress named Kitty Leroy, who was murdered by her husband in Deadwood in 1878. According to the person who posted the video, Kitty was not only a professional dancer, but was also a sharpshooter, expert knife thrower, gambler, madame, saloon owner, cross-dresser, and prostitute. She allegedly wore had five husbands, one of whom she killed in a gunfight. Needless to say, I was intrigued by this woman’s story, which I had never heard, and started to do some research. Several modern authors – or, perhaps I should call them storytellers – have written about her, and their accounts were very similar to the story told in the video.

The literature review led me to the hypothesis that the legend of Kitty Leroy was just that – a legend. The tales told by these authors were too preposterous to have any basis in fact. By way of example, one of these authors claimed. Kitty challenged her third husband, who was not identified in the article, to a gunfight. “He refused saying he couldn’t fight a lady, so she donned men’s clothing and faced off with him again. She shot him and as he lay dying she called a preacher and the two were married.” I searched the Texas newspapers of this era for some evidence this shootout occurred, and found nothing to collaborate the tale. Truthfully, I was not surprised by this.

In fact, after extensively researching Kitty Leroy’s life, I found almost nothing that was written about her in these articles and what was said about her in the video was true. Kitty’s claim to fame is slight. She was a professional clog dancer on the theater circuit, playing in variety houses from New York to Los Angeles, and she was murdered by her husband, a gambler named Samuel Curley in Deadwood in December of 1878. The only altercation she is recorded having was with another actress in the green room in The Alhambra Theater in Silver City, Nevada. No guns or knives were employed by either woman, despite the assertion made by another author that Kitty regularly carried “seven revolvers (and) a dozen bowie-knives” on her person.

Surprisingly, the legend of Kitty Leroy was not the invention of modern writers, but dates back to two articles which appeared within months of her death -one in The Owensboro Messenger and one in The St. Paul Pioneer Press. These two articles are best described as tall tales, in the tradition of stories about Paul Bunyan, Davy Crockett, and John Henry. They were clearly written by writers who were not above pulling on the leg of their audience. They are almost complete fabrications, making assertions which border on the absurd. Almost every story that has been written about Kitty, all the way up to the present time, can be traced back to these two specious articles.

What amazes me is that none of the authors who have written about Kitty Leroy in the 145 years since these articles were published has ever questioned their veracity. These authors just continue to repeat these same tales, passing them off as historical facts, despite the fact they are absolutely ludicrous. It is no wonder that serious historians and reputable publishing houses scoff at anything to do with the American West, when you have authors such as these who cannot be bothered to do any research.

“Deconstructing the Legend of Kitty Leroy,” the article I penned about my search for the truth about Kitty will be submitted to the Wild West History Association this autumn for their consideration.

A note about the photo included here: There are several websites that claim this is a photo of Kitty Leroy. It is not. First there is no provenance for the photo. Second the hat, the bandanna, the hairstyle, and the rest of the outfit and props would indicate this is a photo of a Wild West Show performer dating to the early 1900s, not a clog dance of the 1870s.

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