Quiet Days In Bodie

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The late Lucius Beebe (1902-66), sometime chronicler of New York high life, railroad enthusiast, and later the publisher of the rejuvenated Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nevada, was an esteemed contributor to AMERICAN HERITAGE for many years. This article, hitherto unpublished, is redolent of Beebe’s gusto for the nchjolklore and legend of the Old West, an Old West probably a little more amusing and colorful than the real one. When the locale of our opening photograph for the portfolio on ghost towns, starting on page g, turned out to be Bodie, we thought this piece was just the thing to go with it. —THE EDITORS

Many of the California and Nevada mining camps of the gold and silver bonanza era enjoyed supremacies of one kind or another. Virginia City, atop the formidable Comstock treasure, was incomparably the richest. Panamint, in the shadow of Telescope Peak and high above the Plutonian wastes of Death Valley, was the most inaccessible. Tonopah and Goldfield were to be first with long-line telephones and other devisings of comparative modernity. Greenwater was to enjoy a hilarious celebrity for attacking its conflagrations with beer in the absence of water, green or otherwise. But Bodie had by far the greatest density of physical violence and perpetual uproar. Hard characters suffering from what was known as “Wells Fargo trouble” gravitated to Bodie like filings to a magnet.

Bodie, close by the margins of Mono Lake and the Nevada border in California’s Mono County, was uncovered by William S. Bodie in the early sixties, at a time when the Comstock had set the pattern of retreat from the Mother Lode —which ran along the western foothills of the Sierras back into the Nevada deserts. Bodie himself, like so many primal discoverers, was destined not to share in the riches that were to bear his name, for in the first winter of the camp’s emergence he disappeared in a blizzard and was never seen alive again.

Bodie’s reputation as “a shooter’s town” (as the Sacramento Union called it) was established early. That paper, the foremost connoisseur of mining-town tumults in the Old West, maintained a fulltime reporter in Bodie for years. Nevada’s first newspaper, the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise , kept a watchful eye on Bodie, the lively assignment going to a young reporter named Samuel Langhorne Clemens. (Eventually, Mark Twain immortalized the place in a sketch featuring “the bad man from Bodie.”) It was after three highwaymen had perished simultaneously in a blast of gunfire from a night stage carrying a cargo of bullion out of Bodie for Wells Fargo that Clemens wrote in the Enterprise : “The smoke of battle almost never clears away completely in Bodie.” John Hays Hammond, who had been prospecting nearby, observed on the same occasion that Bodie averaged six fatal shootings a week “one a day with a nice regard for the Sabbath.”

Bodie itself, in its golden noontide of pride and prosperity, supported three newspapers, the Daily Free Press , the Union , and the Standard . In a single day in the eighties the Standard , without any special remark or sensationalism, recorded the funeral of George Watkins, who had made the mistake of using a policeman as a shooting gallery; the death of John Hackwell, a miner, as he stepped from the portals of the Windsor House, where he had taken a glass of something for the digestion; the fatal shooting of John Rann at the bar in Wagner’s Beer Parlors; and the robbery of the Belleville stage by two gunmen who then went down the road a spell to Dalzell’s Station and robbed a second stage for good measure.

Shootings were accorded much the same space and display as the weather, but a good horsewhipping in the streets, such as that administered by Mrs. Florence Molinelli to a miserable youth who had made improper advances to her daughter, warranted feature space as a novel departure from the conventional sport with revolvers. The Bodie Free Press waxed positively lyrical when it told its readers that the victim of Mrs. MoIinelli’s wrath had taken refuge inside the doors of Wells Fargo, and there had been flattened by the superintendent, Major Atlee, with a ponderous double-entry ledger.

Despite such doings, all three of the local papers developed a civic pride worthy of Salt Lake City. At one point there was a widely quoted anecdote about a child whose parents were about to emigrate from comparatively peaceful Cerro Gordo, down the way near Death Valley, to Bodie, where the father had promise of a good job in the North Noonday diggings. According to the story, the tot, apprised of this prospect, knelt beside her bed and said: “Goodbye, God. We’re going to Bodie.” Editorializing on this subject, the Free Press insisted that the child’s words had been misinterpreted, and what she really had said was : “Good! By God, we’re aroine to Bodie!”