Little Casino: A Noble Woman
The old woman was dirty and wore ragged clothes as she was carried from her small and messy shanty near Wilton today in 1916. A grime-caked ribbon threaded through a two-carat diamond ring hung from the dead woman’s neck. This was just one mystery of the woman whose aliases were Ida Lewis and Elizabeth McClellan. Whatever her name, however, to everyone in Bismarck and the surrounding area, she was known only as “Little Casino.”
Little Casino was the owner of what historians George Bird and Edwin Taylor called “the toniest bawdy house in [Bismarck].” When Little Casino came to the infant city of Bismarck, however, she seemed anything but the madam of a brothel. Little Casino arrived from Brainerd in 1873. She was described as a small woman of no more than 100 pounds, and was “medium dark and more than average in good looks,” said Mary Ann Barnes Williams, author of Pioneer Days of Washburn. Moreover, Casino never dressed showy or acted bold like other madams, but was instead quiet and demure, and dressed like a widow. Whether she was, in fact, a widow, or if she ever had a husband, remained one of Casino’s mysteries.
She received the nickname “Little Casino” when she moved to 701 Front Avenue. The little casino is the deuce of spades, or the two-spot, in the game of 7-up. Casino put this trademark on her house and carried the two-spot of spades in her purse to advertise her business when occasion arose. Occasion must have arisen quite often, for her brothel was to become the most popular and successful in town. Bird and Taylor wrote that “muleskinners and bullwhackers who could adorn their lead animals with tassels from Little Casino’s window curtains were distinguished.” Though her business was of ill repute, Little Casino made her mark as an early and successful businesswoman in Bismarck.
Casino was also considered a kind and generous woman who was always ready to give financial aid where it was needed. When the Capital Commission was having trouble raising money to have the capital moved from Yankton to Bismarck, Little Casino appeared and threw $1,200 dollars on J.W. Raymond’s desk. He said, “Isn’t this a lot for you, Casino?” She simply replied, “I can see more all around me.” Little Casino’s name, however, was excluded from the list of contributors to the capital campaign.
Her stay in Bismarck was to come to an end, however, when business slowed, and the red light district was cleaned up. Casino then moved six miles south of Wilton and bought a coal mine, naming it the Little Casino Coal Mine. Casino, now old, bedraggled, and “dressed in rusty black clothes of yesteryears” remained a kind-hearted person. Her small shanty remained open to any drifters, and often, they worked in the mine to repay Casino for her kindness. Her most common, and grateful visitor, however, was her friend, Dennis Hannifin of Bismarck.
Once a year, Hannifin would walk to Wilton and visit her. Like Casino, Hannifin had once lived prosperously in the early years of Bismarck as a saloon owner, but was now alone. Unlike Casino, however, Hannifin was broke. So each year, Hannifin would visit Casino and each time, Casino gave her friend money. Incidents like these made Casino an admirable person, regardless of her first, ill-reputed business. “Now there,” he said, “is a noble woman.”
By Tessa Sandstrom
Bird, George F. and Taylor, Edwin J., Jr. History of the City of Bismarck, ND: The First 100 Years, 1872-1972. Bismarck: 1972.
Williams, Mary Ann Barnes. Pioneer Days of Washburn, North Dakota and the Vicinity, Book Two. Bismarck: 1953.