The Old West Card Table With a Deadly Past
We were drawn to Virginia City, Nevada to learn more about a legendary, cursed gambling table in one of the Old West’s most authentic ghost towns.
The great Comstock Lode of the late 19th century transformed Virginia City, Nevada from a small mining town into the Richest Place on Earth. The dust had not yet settled on California’s Gold Rush and suddenly, Nevada silver took its place atop the minds of bankers, entrepreneurs, and industrialists. Money-hungry miners and prospectors followed suit, making the 250-mile journey east. Over the span of just three decades, Virginia City’s silver mines generated the modern-day equivalent of over $10 billion.
With boom always comes bust. Virginia City’s overnight prosperity wouldn’t last forever, but it would spawn a seedy underbelly and a culture of hard-core boozing, gambling, prostitution and violence. Late 1800’s Virginia City was a place where bordellos outnumbered bakeries; one where saloons and opium dens offered medicines an aching mind and body couldn’t find at a doctor’s office. For the thousands of miners that were employed here, an injury in the mines was as likely as a street fight after a hard days’ work.
As Mark Twain recounted in his 1872 novel Roughing It, “Two days before I lectured in Virginia City, two stagecoaches were robbed within two miles of the town.” Shortly after his arrival, Twain himself was held up at gunpoint. A masked band of robbers made off with his cash and a prized $300 gold watch, leaving him with only a story to tell.
Virginia City’s history is rich with such tales of curious coincidence. But the truly odds-defying legend that best embodies the city’s shadowy past is that of three saloon owners who all lost their fortunes—and took their own lives—over a card game that is all but forgotten, sitting at the same cursed felt-covered table.
Earlier this summer, we saddled up and drove out to Virginia City to learn more about the so-called Suicide Table, housed at The Delta Saloon.
Roughly 20 miles southeast of Reno, we were navigating the last few miles of serpentine road when they came into view: a deliberate sequence of scattered signs—planted into the rocky hillside of Mount Davidson—advertising the Suicide Table. If it wasn’t already on your radar when you left home, it certainly can’t be ignored on this final stretch of NV State Route 341, just outside of Virginia City.
Virginia City is one of a select few U.S. National Historic Landmark (NHL) Districts, meaning the city as a whole—and much of the surrounding area—is recognized for its historical significance. Everything from the buildings to the roads are protected & preserved. And since the silver boom died down over a century ago, today’s Virginia City is dedicated entirely to tourism. Two million tourists visit annually and the locals are sure to show them a good time, so they keep coming back.
We pulled into town and started down C Street: the central, one-mile drag of saloons, museums, and intriguing storefronts. Gift shops aside, we were struck by the genuine Old West feel: rugged buildings, walls worn and cracked; wooden boardwalks with broken slats; wild horses roaming freely in the streets.
Continuing down C Street, we passed the iconic The Way It Was Museum, a collection of artifacts that epitomizes Virginia City’s rich history. The same can be said of the nearby Chollar Mine Train, which still operates tours through the nearby hillsides. On any given day, the Living Legends will be out and about, sporting their traditional Western garb. That this delightfully entertaining group somehow boasts a roster of over 100 volunteers—in a town with a total population of less than 1,000—speaks volumes about the locals’ dedication to preserving Virginia City’s character.
Now, there’s another curious cohort you may come across: Ghost Hunters. Virginia City is considered by many to be a global hotbed of paranormal activity. As we came to find out, the eerie mystique stretches far beyond the Suicide Table: Mackay Mansion, the Old Washoe Club, Piper’s Opera House… the whole damn town is haunted.
Our trip took an unexpected turn as we sat down at the Delta Saloon to speak with a few staff members. As the current owner—Vince "Doc" Malfitano—put it: “There’s a huge population of paranormal believers out there—and this place is like Mecca to them.”
The Delta Saloon is a true testament to the way it was. From its outdoor signage to its signature wooden bar, all the original construction has been well-preserved.
Upon arrival at the Delta, we were greeted by Jessie, a California native who has worked at the saloon for less than a year. Jessie told us her story: what she’d heard from others versus what she’d experienced personally. She began by explaining the recent flooding at the saloon, and the bizarre set of circumstances which led to inexplicable floorboard damage near the Suicide Table… yet nowhere else.
She had our attention. Elbows on the table, we both caught ourselves inching forward slightly, as she continued.
In early May, Para-Con came to Virginia City for the ninth time. One of this year’s main events: Suicide Table séances conducted by a respected Medium. Jessie was straightforward about her feelings of skepticism prior to the event, and transparent about the change of heart she experienced afterward:
“I don’t know if I’m fully a be---- no, I’m definitely a believer now… I honestly believe in my heart of hearts—the Suicide Table is cursed.”
The story of the Suicide Table—and its supposed curse—is rooted in a 17th century French card game called Faro. The game’s namesake: the face of an Egyptian Pharaoh adorning one of the playing cards. Its alias: "Bucking the Tiger."
From famous lawmen (like Wyatt Earp) to nefarious outlaws (like Wild Bill Hickok), all cross-sections of society tempted fate at the Tiger’s tables. It was easy to learn. It was easy to cheat. And it had that little thing called “action” that hardcore gamblers (like Doc Holliday) yearn for.
The face of Faro was one of deception. Its reputation merciless. A player may stumble home bankrupt, but in an honest game of Faro (which was somewhat of a rarity to find), the house was almost equally vulnerable to financial ruin. Faro eventually disappeared because—when played by the rules—it broke the cardinal rule of gambling: the house always wins.
In the cult classic Scarface, Michelle Pfeiffer’s character Elvira Hancock famously quips, “don’t get high on your own supply.” To most casino owners, the same applies to playing at one’s own tables: the notion is taboo.
For three unfortunate souls in 19th century Virginia City, greed overshadowed principle, and karma came calling. Their stories live on—forever stitched together within the town’s grisly history—inked on a sign hanging prominently above the table in the back of the Delta:
OWNER #1: The table’s first owner—Black Jake—operated a profitable Faro game in the mid-1860’s until his luck ran out. After losing $70,000 (today’s equivalent of roughly $2 million) in one evening, Black Jake put a pistol to his temple and pulled the trigger.
OWNER #2: A few years after Black Jake’s demise, anonymous owner number two operated the table for just one night, and lost everything, including his own life. Whether it was suicide or homicide is up for debate, but either way, locals were convinced of the curse. At this point, the table was retired from use for a couple decades.
OWNER #3: Apparently unfamiliar with the table’s track record, wealthy miner and investor Charles Fosgard bought and converted the Suicide Table to a blackjack table in 1891. As it’s told, Fosgard lost all his earthly possessions in just a few short hours, and chose the same path as Black Jake.
These 3 tragic, boom-to-bust endings are eerily similar to that of one other famous figure of Virginia City: Henry Comstock, the miner largely credited with the silver discovery that led to Virginia City's prosperity.
But might there be more to the story of this allegedly cursed table than what’s printed on the sign in the back of the Delta? Surely, something more than what’s indicated on the Delta Saloon’s website: “It was originally a Faro Bank Table brought to Virginia City in the early 1860’s.” However, beyond this vague description, little else is known. But the story didn’t stop there.
We were joined by other saloon employees. None could tell us anything about the history of the table, but they did tell us of their own paranormal experiences around the saloon: mysterious shadows; inexplicable footsteps; erratic light switches; bathroom stall doors opening; coolers closing; a woman’s wailing; a man’s heavy breathing; a dog’s deep, guttural growling…these are just some of the daily happenings around the Delta, according to its workers.
The corner of the saloon currently housing the Suicide Table was formerly a bordello, which may explain some of the “activity” within that area, suggests one bartender. There’s also said to be an entity that hangs out near the stairs below the chapel (yes, the Delta does weddings). He was described to us as “not that nice, but also not entirely disruptive.” Gone are the days when the ghost of Black Jake would pull out his trusty six-shooter and scare the piss out of a tableful of half-drunk miners, trying to Buck the Tiger.
Jessie capped this discussion with the following: “After midnight – you’ll hear footsteps, things will happen, things will sway, you don’t wanna be here.”
Later, we asked Doc—who bought the Delta and her sister saloon, the Bonanza, in 2014—why someone would want to buy a couple of haunted saloons. A self-described history buff, Doc cited the town’s authenticity as his motivation. “Virginia City is the most authentic 1800’s historic venue that you can find,” he explained. “If you wanna visit a place that’s not been doctored up or modernized, where you can still drink at a 153-year-old bar, then this is where you need to come. Its unadulterated.”
Of course, perhaps there’s an underlying element of capitalism to all this. Let’s not forget the two million tourists that flock here each year.
Seeing as faro hasn’t been formally hosted in a casino since the 1980’s, in nearby Reno, we asked if he has any plans to bring the Suicide Table out of retirement. Doc replied: “I just don’t think it would be appropriate to put it back into use. It’s a relic and should remain preserved, now and forever…”
Then, he continued: “But if I had a buck for everyone that came in here to look at it, we wouldn’t have to sell anything.”
Danielle Hyman & Adam Aronson are a team of freelance writers, photographers, videographers & marketing consultants. Their website—Travel Helix—blends experiential storytelling with actionable resources to inspire & enable meaningful travel. Follow them on Instagram at @travelhelix.