"This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," says a newspaper reporter in the 1962 movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
That's what happened to the New Mexico Territory's most notorious woman, Doña María Gertrudis Barceló, even during her lifetime (circa 1800-1852). Nearly two centuries later, there's still so little that can be gleaned about the Wild West figure called Doña Tules. There are only two books about her life: historian Mary J. Straw Cook's 2007 biography, Doña Tules: Santa Fe's Courtesan and Gambler, and Ruth Laughlin's 1948 novel, The Wind Leaves No Shadow.
After reading them, it's clear history's embrace of her murky legend has contorted the truth—and with it, valuable insights into the era Doña Tules presided over—into a state of arrested development.
Here's what we know for sure: La Tules was a sharky card sharp who excelled at sleight-of-hand dealership of the Spanish game monte. That's how she amassed a huge fortune and became a shrewd businesswoman, a money-lender who fearlessly called esteemed debtors into court and a consummate hostess whose influence acted as a bridge between two cultures during the Mexican-American War (1846-48).
And this is what legend tells us, based on newspaper accounts written during her lifetime: She was a prostitute and madam whose moniker "Tules" (a diminutive of Gertrude that also means "reeds") either referred to her stick-straight frame or her curvy attributes; her beauty was the captivating source of her power, or she was "scarred and seamed," toothless before her time; her hair was flame-red or inky black; she was from France, Taos or Mexico; she slept with New Mexico Gov. Manuel Armijo, who granted her many favors, and she acted as a spy for Americans during the war.
We're still falling victim to the legend side. I recently framed a restaurant review of Palace Prime around the oft-reported "fact" that its address had once been home to Doña Tules' saloon. But according to Doña Tules, newly out in paperback from University of New Mexico Press, "popular lore" mistakes the former Candelario house for La Tules' gambling sala, which actually stood on the northwest corner of Palace Avenue and Burro Alley.
The most intriguing Tules tidbits from Cook's bio detail the gambler's elaborate whisper network. Described by a contemporary, it's impressive: "To this Señora, the Governor communicates all the affairs of the State, she then gives them to her adopted daughter, who is married to an American resident, and…thus they go from one to another until every movement becomes known to our people in the capital." As such, La Tules was complicit—perhaps even instrumental—in a holiday-season grapevine that ultimately delayed the first potential Taos Revolt against the US occupation of Northern New Mexico.
The grand funeral of María Gertrudis Barceló, carefully orchestrated in advance by La Tules to display her influence in death as in life, was reported by the New York Daily Tribune and St. Louis Republican. This continued the darkening of Doña Tules' legacy, as newspapers seized on the chance to describe the ostentatious display of mourning (which, although elaborate, hewed closely to traditional Mexican funeral customs for important figures).
Her death became an occasion for puritanical pooh-poohing about New Mexico's loose morals and tacit approval of ill-gotten gains. The funeral was closely timed to French Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy's arrival in Santa Fe in 1851, too. The notion that Lamy gave the territory's most prominent sinner a benediction and funeral Mass—making her the last person buried in the consecrated ground of La Parroquia—was much more than the rest of the country's proselytizers could take.
The facts of Cook's book can read a little lifeless, so I looked forward to Laughlin's romantic novelization of her life. (After all, Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels taught me more about the Civil War than any textbook.) The Wind Leaves No Shadow gives a vivid portrait of the colonial sights, sounds and smells a young Tules must have seen on her first visit to the Plaza and the Palace of the Governors in the early 1800s. There, having hitched a ride into town on a caravan, she glimpses "many bonfires and pine-knot torches flaring from long poles," which light up "a long, one-story building" where "sentries paced under a long portal."
But Laughlin's sketch suffers from cringe-worthy and stereotypical depictions of Mexicans and Indians. It only succeeds as a lively romp through Tules' misadventures, whether true or not. (One wild scene has her witnessing the murder of her husband by a jealous would-be lover, then turning her gun on the killer.)
Laughlin (1889-1962) grew up in Santa Fe hearing tales of the savvy gambler, so it stands to reason The Wind Leaves No Shadow may shed more light on Doña Tules' legend than any verifiable facts. But Tules still cuts a fine historical figure, standing head and shoulders above her male contemporaries in terms of intrigue and symbolism.
At one moment, Laughlin describes her heroine as standing on the threshold of history, remembering how quickly the country of her childhood changed from Spain to Mexico—and how tomorrow it would be called America.
"Men had come and gone through it with their shouts of victory, but the shape of the mountains…the stillness that breathed of eternity did not change." Tules recalls the wise words of her uncle, who once told her, "The puny cries of men in this land are like the wind that travels quickly before the sun, but leaves no shadow."