Far Western Gamblers

From an 1868 issue of Charles Dickens' magazine All the Year Round, London, England. The correspondent is unidentified.

    In Far-Western "society" it is no longer reputable to be known as a professional gambler, yet men who remember the days when everybody played will be apt to look lightly upon the vice. It is not uncommon, therefore, to see merchants (especially American) having a social game of "cut-throat monte," "euchre," or "poker," with piles of gold before them. In the mountain towns it is still worse, and the ante-rooms of the Nevada and California legislators used to be a perfect carnival of gambling in the evenings, and even during the day, when they were not intent on gambling in the public weal. The tolerance of gambling and the widespread habit of betting show through many of the slang phrases in general use on the coast. Continually you will hear men, and even women and children sometimes, adding, after making some positive assertion, "You bet," or "You bet yer life," or "You bet yer bones," while to "bet yer boots" is confirmation strong as holy writ in the mines, at least. A miner is always particular about his "butes," their form and durability, and they are a common subject of conversation in the places where diggers most do congregate. Again, nobody in the North-West will have any hesitation in telling you that such and such a statement is "played out" when he means to convey an imputation that you are somewhat beside the truth, or that the proposals you may be making to him are not suitable to his ideas of things right and fitting. If he further informs you that "this has been played out since '49," he means that since the first colonisation of the Pacific coast by "smart men," such a thing was never believed in: 1849 being the year of the commencement of the Californian gold digging. A vote being taken on an important measure in the Indiana senate, a grave and reverend senator, who had not been attending to the "biz" in hand, did not know what the question was when his name was called by the secretary. He looked puzzled for a moment, and then rapping the desk with his knuckles after the manner of card-players, said, "I pass!" An audible titter ran through the hall, and the president of the senate "took it up."
    A divine in a Far-Western State visited a distant town for the purpose of preaching the dedicatory sermon in a new church. Court was in session, and on Saturday the judge and lawyers congregated together in a room, and amused themselves by card-playing and story-telling. The divine, at the request of a lawyer, visited the room. He came into the room so suddenly that they were unable to hide their cards and whisky. The divine looked on awhile, and then politely invited the gentlemen present to attend church next day and hear him preach. This they agreed to do, and Sunday found them, judge and lawyers, seated in the "amen corner." The sermon over, the minister announced: "Friends, the citizens of this town have built a fine church. There is still fifteen hundred dollars due. We propose to raise the money by subscription to-day, and" (eyeing the judge) "I go one hundred" (imitating the style of the gamblers of last night). The judge, glancing at the lawyers, slowly responded, "I see your hundred." "Thank you, brother," said the divine, "will any one raise it?" looking at the same time at attorney number one. The lawyer saw he was in for it, and quietly replied, "I go a hundred blind," and so on through the list. The divine raked down both the bar and their money, until the scene closed by a sharp, shrill voice announcing, "I see the last hundred, and call you." The astonishment of the congregation can be imagined. I venture, however, to think that these lawyers will not soon invite the divine to witness another social game of euchre, when men "see" each other, "go it blind," and "call" the hand.
    I can vouch myself for the exact truth of that story; the next I tell from hearsay, and don't answer for, but as I have seen something very like it, I believe it may be true.
    At a Far-Western court, the case of Smith v. Jones was called up.
    "Who's for the plaintiff?" inquired the judge, impatiently.
    "May it please the court," said a rising member of the legal fraternity, "Pilkins is for the plaintiff, but I left him just now over in the tavern playing a game of poker. He's got a sucker there, and he is sure to skin him right smart, if he has only time. He's got everything all set to ring a 'cold deck,' in which case he'll deal for himself four aces and his opponent four queens, so that your honour will perceive that he must 'rake the persimmons.' "* [*A Southern fruit, but here of course applied to money. An expressive Western phrase is, "the longest pole (poll) will knock down the persimmons"--i.e. the longest head will win.]
    "Dear me!" said the judge, with a sigh; "that's too bad! It happens at a very unfortunate time! I am very anxious to get on with this case."
    A brown study followed, and at length a happy idea struck the judge:
    "Bill," said he, addressing the friend of the absent Pilkins who had just spoken, "you understand poker about as well as Pilkins. Suppose you go over and play his hand!"
    And Bill did it.
    We have another phase of the gambling spirit in the extraordinary bets which are now and again recorded in the papers. An old Jew miser in San Francisco, being irritated on one occasion by jests at his love of money, proposed that the man who was baiting him should go with him in a boat into the middle of the bay, where, for every twenty-dollar gold piece the Jew should toss overboard, the other should toss over five dollars, and let them see who would be first to cry "Hold." Both being excessively purse proud, the bet was accepted, and the scene was witnessed by hundreds. The Jew's opponent was the first to save his dollars.
    The "Gridley sack of flour," which became glorious about the time of the American Sanitary Commission for the benefit of the wounded soldiers in the army, was the effect of a bet, and the story of its sale and re-sale is thoroughly illustrative of this wild extravagance. There were two candidates for the mayoralty of the village of Austin, in Nevada--a "city" in the wildest part of the desert, and not then two years old, but with five thousand inhabitants. Each candidate had agreed, if defeated, to carry a sack of flour on his back from Austin to a neighbouring village in broad day. Accordingly, when Mr. R. G. Gridley lost his election, he prepared to fulfill his engagement. Headed by a band of music in a waggon, leading his little boy, clad in the national uniform, by the hand, and with the sack of flour on his back, followed by a mongrel procession of miners and citizens, Mr. Gridley took up his foot journey to the appointed place. Arrived there, the thought struck him that the gay spirits and patriotic feelings of the crowd, which grew as he travelled, might be turned to humane account. He instantly proposed now to sell the sack of flour, for the benefit of the sick and wounded in the army, to the highest bidder. The humour took. The sack was sold and sold again, netting five thousand dollars. The amount realised fired the ingenious Gridley with a resolve to make the most of his lucky idea. Accordingly he started for a journey of three hundred miles to Virginia City, with the sack of flour in company. Arriving on a Sunday, and finding a Sanitary Commission meeting going on in the theatre, he proceeded to the place, got admitted to the stage, and there, telling his story to the audience, sold the sack to the audience for five hundred and eighty dollars. The next morning, having procured a band of music, he proceeded to make a tour of the neighbouring towns, Gold Hill, Silver City, and Dayton, selling the sack wherever he could find bidders, and adding the price labelled on the face of this more than Fortunatus purse. At Gold Hill the sack sold for five thousand eight hundred and twenty-two dollars fifty cents; at Silver City, for eight hundred and thirty dollars; at Dayton, for eight hundred and seventy-three dollars. Finally, returning to Virginia City again, the sack, putting forward all its attractions, won a prodigious subscription of twelve thousand and twenty-five dollars. Mr. Gridley, pursuing his successful way, arrived at Sacramento just as a "Sanitary Commission pic-nic" was in progress. In the midst of the festivities he marched into the crowd, a band of music leading the way, a stalwart negro walking by his side carrying the sack, and an extempore procession following him, which grew larger every moment, and presented himself for new conquests to the officers of the day and the president of the commission. Notwithstanding the stimulus of patriotism and champagne, the sack did not fare so well here as before. But here several supplementary wrinkles of humour were suggested by the sack. Among others, a good woman, finding a small island of a few rods square in the swamp, had erected a bridge of one plank, and established such a rate of toll that, to see nothing there, cost the curiosity of some hundreds a half-dollar each. Then the president of the commission was invited to shake hands with some hundreds of the company, who bought the privilege at from fifty cents to a double eagle (ten dollars) a piece, making his hat his till, until it was literally half-full of silver and gold. Carried thence to Sacramento, the sack was sold again at a public lecture by the Rev. Dr. Bellows for several hundred dollars and finally transported to San Francisco; it added moderate gains to its enormous harvest even in that comparatively staid community. Six months later the sack, with its irrepressible owner, arrived in New York, en route for the great fair at St. Louis. He did not stop here, and I believe the sum realised by the subscription given in this odd way to the Sanitary Fund was not much short of forty thousand dollars, or eight thousand pounds.
    Closely allied to the spirit of gambling is the reckless and mercurial temperament of the Western man. When Sacramento was being destroyed by fire, and many a man saw his whole worldly substance going to ruin, some of the merchants managed to save some champagne, and, going outside the town, drank "Better luck next time. This is a great country." Next day a tavern-keeper had a space cleared among the ruins, and over a little board shanty hastily run up was this inscription: "LAFAYETTE HOUSE. Drinks two bits. Who cares a darn for a fire!"
    What energy these people have! I know a carpenter who arrived in a village one morning with his wife and child and chest of tools, but having no "lumber" (wood), he pawned most of the tools to buy some. He then obtained the privilege of building on a vacant lot, and commenced at three o'clock in the afternoon. At five o'clock the house was enclosed. At sunset his family moved into the house; and in less than an hour afterwards the good wife had supper ready. The family slept in the house that night.
    Men who can work like that, believe in work, and have no fear of "busting up." A young English nobleman, heir of one of the richest peers in England, while waiting at a remote country station one day, entered into conversation with one of the neighbouring settlers.
    "Been in these parts consid'able, stranger?"
    "Yes, for some length of time"
    "How long have ye bin here?"
    "A few weeks."
    "What's yer business?"
    "I have no business."
    "What are you travellin' for, then?"
    "Only for my own pleasure."
    "Don't yer do any business? How do you. get yer livin', then?"
    "It isn't necessary for me to work for my support. My father is a man of property, and gives me an allowance sufficient for my wants."
    "But s'pose the old man should die?"
    "In that case, I dare say he'd leave me enough to live upon."
    "But s'pose he should bust up?"
    Here the conversation ended: his lordship walking away, apparently struck by a new idea.
    Travel is safe on most Far-Western roads, where there are no hostile Indians about; yet, partly through old habit, partly as a precaution absolutely necessary in some places, nearly everybody goes armed, and it is wonderful how many pistols will flash out when a street fight arises in any Western town, or even in San Francisco itself. A San Franciscan, who is justly proud of having helped to rear up so polite a town in a comparatively short time, is very jealous on this point. He continually impresses on a stranger that "Nobody, sir, carries weapons now-a-days." And he would perhaps convince you of this abstract doctrine, did not one of the chilly forenoon winds blow up Montgomery Street and expose a neat "Colt" at the waistband of his trousers. I saw a man kneeling before me in a certain church in San Francisco, and as his coat-tail divided, the handle of a huge navy revolver showed itself. The knowing men, however, carry "Derringer" pistols, in their coat-pockets. "You can always know," a shrewd old miner explained to me, "when a man has a pistol in his pocket, by the way he sits down in a chair. If he plumps down, he's safe; but if he sits down cautiously and looks after his coat-tails, he's on the shyot--certain!" The same with a knife. Horsemen, when travelling, carry it in the boot, and footmen down the neck; hence a bowie-knife is popularly known as a "Kansas neck-blister."
    But as for the Far-Western rowdies, Montana and Idaho territories are at present the only regions in the North Pacific globe where they have anything like full swing for their playfulness. In Idaho region, I heard of a man who came rushing down the one street of a mining village on a Sunday morning. He had been attracted by a noise, and came on shouting, "What's the matter?" Presently his excitement abated: "Oh! only a man shot! Why, I tho'rt it wus a dorg fight!" In that locality they used to ask at breakfast, in a careless, unconcerned way, with their mouths full, "Who was shot last night?" And they generally had "a dead man to breakfast." Nevada has become rather more peaceable since it was elevated to the dignity of a state; but at one time, and in some places yet, if one gentleman "riled" another, it was the correct thing that the gentleman who was vexed at him should ask in a piquant tone whether he was "heeled" and if he replied, Yes, why then it was etiquette to tell him to "turn loose." An official went to a certain nameless state and inquired of one of the leading men for the sight of a copy of the state laws. The leading man was very polite, went to a drawer, and, producing a bowie-knife about a foot and a half in length, most sententiously replied, "Here, sir, is a complete edition of them!"
    San Francisco is now a very peaceable town, and no longer would you, when taking an airing in front of your door, be startled by a bullet whizzing past your ear, and a gentleman emerging from the dark to apologise for disturbing you, "having mistaken his man." In the old days a culprit was hung for stealing an ounce of gold, but was only fined heavily for killing a man. A rowdy would take a bet that he would bring down a man on the other side of the street. If the man shot had no friends, and if there were enough hard swearing and bribery, it was almost certain that the murderer would get off with slight punishment. These were the days when Ned M'Gowan was judge--than whom no greater scoundrel was ever expelled [from] San Francisco by the Vigilance Committee.
    Still, street fights are not over. Only recently, a man was publicly shot down in San Francisco; but his murderer got off because several witnesses swore that they saw the assassinated man "put his hand behind, as if intending to draw." In the same street--the most fashionable and crowded thoroughfare in San Francisco--there was a fight lately described in this cool matter-of-fact way by a morning paper:
    "There was a serious shooting affray in our principal street (Montgomery), which resulted in the death of four persons. It seems one Bill Davis, a noted gambler, who resides in Yreka, was interested in and drove a horse-race, which came off at Placerville on the 15th inst., and 'throwed' the race, making four thousand five hundred dollars by it. Hank Stevens, Ball, Dutch Abe, and Spanish Bob, four 'sports,' backed Davis's horse, and got broke, swore vengeance, killing at sight, &c. On the 18th they all came to this city except Davis, and publicly said they were going to shoot Davis on sight, &c. On the 21st Davis came in town, and at two p.m. was getting his boots polished in a black's, adjoining the Fashion, when Ball and Dutch Abe came to the door, and looking in, exclaimed, 'Here's the dirty thief now!' and, drawing their revolvers, commenced shooting. Davis jumped out of the chair, with one boot polished, and drawing his revolver, fired, and Ball fell dead across an iron grating. Davis then jumped out on the sidewalk, laughingly saying, 'You've made a mistake,' and fired at Dutch Abe, the ball taking effect in his right breast. He fell, when Davis ran and caught the revolver from Ball's hand, saying, as he walked to the door of the Fashion, 'Where's the rest of your murderers now?' Blood was running down Davis's left hand from the arm, and also down the right cheek. As he was on the point of entering the door, he was met by Stevens and Spanish Bob, when Davis raised the revolver and fired twice. Stevens fell, and Spanish Bob jumped over him onto the sidewalk and fired. Davis staggered, but recovering, they (Davis and Spanish Bob) commenced in good earnest, each striving to fire a deadly shot. Davis was laughing. Then they commenced firing at each other about twenty feet apart. After Davis had fired two shots, he threw the revolver at Bob, and changing the revolver he took from Ball into his right hand, he raised it, and it snapped three times; the fourth time it went off, and Bob fell (Davis had fallen before this, and was lying with his face on the banquette). Davis threw the revolver into the street (with blasphemies duly reported). He then pulled a Derringer, and both having one shot each, began crawling towards each other on their stomachs. When about five feet apart, they both raised partly up, and fired simultaneously, when Bob's head fell, and he remained perfectly still. Davis then said, crawling towards Bob, 'He's gone; I've cooked his goose,' and then partly turned on his side, and tried to rise. On examination, Ball and Spanish Bob were dead, Dutch Abe and Stevens mortally wounded, the first having been shot through the right lung, causing internal haemorrhage, &c., the latter was shot through the
left breast. Spanish Bob had four wounds on him, two in the right breast, on the right arm, and one between the eyes. Ball had a ball in his heart. Davis had six wounds, two in the right leg, one in the right breast, one in the left shoulder, one in the left wrist (through), and one on the right cheek, where a bullet had struck the cheekbone and glanced off, cutting out a piece of flesh of the size of a ten-cent piece. Stevens died on the 24th at forty minutes past ten a.m.; Dutch Abe died yesterday. Doctors say Davis will certainly recover."
    It used to be at one time (and is yet in the rougher places), a signal for shooting, if a man refuse to drink with another, whether an acquaintance or not, or whatever his character. Behind the bar of a hotel at Reese River, in 1863, was the following announcement: "All guests in the house to be up by seven o'clock; all in the barn by six o'clock. Every man to sweep out his own sleeping-place. No fighting at the tables. No quartz taken at the bar. Any man violating these rules will be SHOT."
    Sociability may, like hostilities, in the Far West, be carried too far. I was once called "an unsociable sort of a beggar" by the landlord of a roadside hostelry in British Columbia, because, after having had a general "lay out" on the floor with four Gentile miners, I objected to the company of a fifth companion in the shape of a Jew pedlar. But the Far-Western instinct recognises that the line must be drawn somewhere. There was once a Western governor named Powell, famous for chewing and spitting, of whom somebody remarked that he was a very sociable man. "Sociable!" replied the individual addressed, "I rather think he is darned sociable! I was introdooced to him over to Grayson Springs last fall, and he hadn't been with me ten minutes before he begged all the tobacco I had, got his feet up in my lap, and spat all over me! Darn-ed sociable!"
All the Year Round, October 31, 1868, pages 489-493

Last revised March 1
, 2009