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Billy Burbridge

An outline of the details that I have been able to discover about my great-uncle, Billy Burbridge, and the family of his daughter, Hazel Burbridge de Montméja.

In the obituary published in its edition of September 12, 1912, the New York Times called Billy Burbridge, “a prince among gamblers.” In Gilded Age New York and Havana, he was a gambler among princes.

Before that, among the outlaws, cattle barons, and settlers of the Wild West, he was a legendary gambler—and reluctant gunfighter: In New Mexico Territory in the 1880s, he killed a man in one gunfight, and he participated in another showdown which left six men dead.

These notes are an incomplete résumé of the life and career of Billy Burbridge. If you have anything to contribute to improve this account, please let me know!

U.S. Army

• William Thomas “Billy” Burbridge 1854?✠1912 left his family’s farm in Illinois to join the U.S. Army. He was stationed at an outpost in Arizona Territory, where he filed weather reports that were transmitted by telegraph to Army headquarters in Washington, D.C. His name is recorded in a history of American meteorology as the first person to have transmitted weather reports by wire. The source for this is a book that includes a facsimile of one of the report forms bearing Billy’s signature.

Wild West

• After his Army service ended, Billy remained in the Old West. He operated gambling establishments in Hot Springs, Arkansas; Tarrant County, Texas; and Raton, New Mexico Territory.

• In contemporary reports, Billy Burbridge’s casinos were renowned for their opulent furnishings; their proprietor, for his sober dress, and equable demeanor. However, he was in the gambling business in the Wild West—a dangerous occupation.

• On Tuesday, April 12, 1881, in San Marcial, New Mexico Territory, William Heine was shot dead in a duel with Billy; presumably, over the outcome of a game of chance.

• Billy is reported to have been deputized by the sheriff of Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory, for the purpose of apprehending a man in another town, and bringing him back. The interest in the story, which was published in a local newspaper, was that the man had escaped from Billy’s custody while on a train to Las Vegas.

• In February, 1882, Billy opened a gambling establishment and saloon, the “Bank Exchange,” at 100 South First Street in the booming mining town of Raton, in New Mexico Territory.

• On Tuesday, June 27, 1882, Billy was at the center of one of the longest, and bloodiest gunfights in the history of the Old West. (Since the town boasted two newspapers, and at least one professional photographer equipped with a stereo/three-dimensional camera, the affray was among the better-reported incidents, too.) It lasted all afternoon and into the evening. When it was over, six men were dead, including two law-enforcement officers who had killed each other in a dispute over who would get credit for the arrest of the man who provoked the gunfight. A lynch mob hanged the culprit—twice. Shortly thereafter, Billy (who was not among the casualties) was reported to have quit the town for San Francisco.

New York

• By the turn of the century, Billy operated one of the two, top luxury gaming establishments in Manhattan, New York, known as the “House with the Bronze Door,” in a townhouse at 33 West 33rd Street, between Broadway and Fifth Avenue, a site adjacent to what is now the Empire State building. Along with “Canfield’s,” it catered to the carriage trade. The Bowery Boys website gives a nice description of the location and the clientele drawn from Luc Sante’s book, “Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York.”, although the article is not entirely accurate (the House with the Bronze Door was owned by a syndicate whose principals included Billy Burbridge, Frank Farrell, Gottfried Walbaum, and “Big Bill” Kennedy).

Here is a description from “Play the Devil: A History of Gambling in the United States from 1492 to 1955,” by Henry Chafetz:

¶ During the first few years of its existence, 33 West Thirty-third Street was an unpretentious, only slightly better-than-average place. Then Walbaum and Farrell gave Stanford White half a million dollars [$15.5 million in today’s money] to make a beauty of it. White spent the money in Europe on oil paintings, velvet carpets, Persian rugs, and the famous door, which he found in the wine cellar of the palace of a doge in Venice, where it had been swinging since 1498. It cost $20,000 [$620,000 in 2021], and the second-floor banister, which took ten master Venetian craftsmen two years to carve, accounted for another $60,000 [$1.8 million today]. Money was not stinted and the proprietors never paid less than $25,000 [$775,000 now] for food in any of the House with the Bronze Door’s most prosperous years—1895 to 1902.

¶ Before they could play, visitors were screened through narrow slits in a formidable second door. They were looked over further as they progressed through the first two rooms and—if they did not pass muster—were tactfully barred from going beyond. New York was theoretically wide open despite the anti-gambling laws, but there was always danger from agents of anti-gambling groups and reform-minded district attorneys.

¶ The bronze door and rigid surveillance system paid off on the night when District Attorney William Travers Jerome led a raiding party to the premises. The door withstood blowtorches and—while Jerome and his hounds of the law sweated it out on the pavement—gambling paraphernalia and patrons, including Diamond Jim Brady, were taken out via a secret passage and over rooftops to a house down the block. A secondary exit, used on other occasions, was through a tunnel into the house next door, also owned by the proprietors of the House with the Bronze Door.

• After the widely reported—headline news as far afield as San Francisco—farcical, and unsuccessful, 1902 attempt by District Attorney Jerome to raid the House with the Bronze Door, Billy sold his share as a participant in the syndicate (in addition to gaming houses, the syndicate owned a baseball team, the “New York Yankees”).

• Billy also operated a hotel-cum-gambling establishment, the “Kuloff,” in Far Rockaway, in the borough of Queens. The name, “Kuloff,” is a homonym of “Cool Off.”

Havana

• After he liquidated his holdings in New York, he packed up the casinos’ opulent furnishings and gaming equipment, and removed his business to Havana, Cuba. (The Republic of Cuba was occupied by armed forces of the United States from 1906 through 1909.)

• In a prominent place on Havana’s strand, he established the Hotel Miramar, intended as the center of a luxury resort. It was billed, in a full-color, New York Times Sunday supplement as “the Monte Carlo of the Western Hemisphere.” The building was demolished, circa 2010, to make way for a modern, highrise hotel (Chinese financing for the hotel fell through; the site remains vacant).

• Billy purchased land upon which he planned to build a horse-racing track. However, his plans were thwarted by the local interests which controlled Havana’s incumbent Jockey Club.

• Billy opened a restaurant and supper club in the Vedado district of Havana. It continued in business after Billy’s death in 1912, operated by Billy’s daughter, Hazel, and her husband, René de Montméja.

• After Billy died, the assets of the Miramar hotel and resort were purchased by American developers, who hoped to make a go of the business. The proceeds of the sale were used by Hazel and René to capitalize their supper club in the Vedado.

Hazel Burbridge, countess of Montméja

• René de Montméja (1875✠1957) wed Hazel Burbridge (1886✠1950?) on Wednesday, June 13, 1906, at Boulogne-Billancourt, a suburb of Paris, France. The couple were divorced in 1920. René converted his family’s seat, the château de Rouffillac into an inn, of which he was the proprietor until his death in 1957. Hazel lived until the 1950s. At the time of the marriage, he held the courtesy title, le vicomte [viscount] de Montméja. His wife had the courtesy title, la vicomtesse [viscountess] de Montméja. After the death of his father, he became René, comte de Montméja; his wife, la comtesse de Montméja; his eldest son would have enjoyed the courtesy title, le vicomte de Montméja; and his daughter, la vicomtesse de Montméja.

• Billy sent a picture postcard to his niece (my great-aunt), Zetta Burbridge Cooper, boasting that “Hazel has married into the aristocracy.” In 1965, when I was a boy, visiting Aunt Zetta in her hometown of Winfield, Kansas, with my parents, I saw the card, in pencil in Billy’s hand, along with glass-plate photographic negatives showing a part of the House with the Bronze Door, and a copy of the color, Sunday supplement to the New York Times extolling Billy Burbridge’s “Miramar” resort in Havana. My dad said that Billy had traveled to Winfield in his private rail car to pay a visit to his brother, John (my great-grandfather), John’s wife, Mattie, and his nieces, Zetta and Olsa, and nephew, Clarence.

• René’s father was Pierre Arthur Michel de Montméja, a scion of a family which had been prominent as physicians and lawyers around Sarlat-le-Caneda in the Dordogne region of France. Trained as a physician, he made his reputation in Paris as a pioneer of medical photography. He spent his fortune refurbishing the Château de Rouffillac, which his family had purchased from the French government in 1850. (The property had been owned previously by les Dames de la Foi de Sarlat. It passed to another family in 1958.) Arthur died in 1910.

• Arthur had the rank (and hereditary title) of what the French call comte; Continentals, count; and the English, earl.

• René’s mother, Marie, came from the family of Choderlos de Laclos, among whose ancestors was the author of an epistolary novel, « Les liaisons dangereuses », which is still in print.

• The children of Hazel and René, in order of birth:

  1. Richard de Montméja 1907–? (the eldest)
  2. Guillaume [William] de Montméja
  3. Yolande de Montméja Gouttenoire 1908✠2010
  4. Guy de Montméja 1910–? (the youngest)

This information is among the records of debarkation at Ellis Island in New York City.