Quiet Days In Bodie

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There was no doubt, at any rate, that Bodie’s growing reputation attracted from all over the Far West numerous flamboyant types with extraordinarily deft index fingers. As one Virginia City mortician was moved to complain, “We never get any breaks in this business. As soon as the local talent gets the idea that they’re real tough they go and try it out in Bodie, and the Bodie undertakers get the jobs.” The geographic fact of Bodie’s being only a few miles from the Nevada border offered certain advantages of refuge for characters taking it on the lam from one state to the other.

Next to making the guns go flash and bang, Bodie’s favorite pastime was, as in so many western communities of the time, the bottle. Wyatt Earp was once asked by a reproachful woman why he spent so much time in saloons; he replied that in his day there were very few Y.M.C.A. ’s, and there was none at all in Bodie. There was, however, a splendid diversity of oases: the Windsor House, the Grand Central Hotel, the Parole Saloon, the Senate, the Commercial, the Cabinet, the Gymnasium Hall, the Bodie, the Pioneer, Pat Fahey’s, Wagner’s Corner, the Maison Doré, Brown’s, the Arlington, the Stewart House, and the resoundingly named Philadelphia Beer Depot.

Venery likewise flourished. Prostitutes of every degree crowded the passenger lists of stages arriving in Bodie, to the scandal of respectable or at least married females who often had to sit with them in the uncommonly cramped confines of the Concord thorough-braced stagecoach built in far-off New Hampshire. Many of these unhappy women found in Bodie a point of no return and, like Madame Moustache, the famous lady gambler, committed suicide there. Opium and other narcotics were openly sold in all drugstores of the period, and the fair but frail conventionally took this means of saying farewell. The disposal of their remains in ground set distinctly apart from the soil dedicated to receiving their moral betters was frequently a subject of acrimonious debate in Bodie.

Although Bodie’s last brief bonanza came and went in the i88o’s, the town lingered on into the twentieth century, its civic mementos of the bad old days preserved in part by reason of the fact that no railroad ever reached its precincts. But in 1932 a coda was written to the long and tumultuous symphony of Bodie that in its overtones recapitulated something of the grandeur and violence that had preceded it.

For many years now the Bank of Bodie had done no business of any sort. Gone were the mines and mills, the free-spending sports and gamblers who had once kept the minted double eagles passing and repassing across its counter in a golden stream. Bodie was past even caring- all but Jim Cain, president of the Bank of Bodie.

Every morning at nine, in a well-brushed silk top hat and the frock coat of his calling, Banker Cain unlocked the front door, swung wide the vault, and posted himself behind the cashier’s grille, there to do business with the ghosts of men long gone. As became the prudent custodian of other people’s money, he posted scrupulous books, at the close of the banking day returning his ledgers to the vault and retrieving his top hat from the stag’s antlers over his roll-top desk.

When Bodie’s day of doom came at last, the flames spread with such rapidity that they almost caught Banker Cain off guard, busy with his trial balance for 1897. The post office next door was engulfed, and the bank’s roof ablaze, before he realized that catastrophe was at hand.

The last First Citizen of Bodie was not found wanting in the emergency. He had just time to replace his ledgers in the vault and swing shut and secure the great door with its painting of the Lakes of Killarney. The affairs of his depositors were safe. Only then did he reach for his venerable hat, adjust it at a decorous angle that might not be confused with the attire of gambler or confidence man, and emerge for the last time from the portals of the Bank of Bodie, closing and locking the doors behind him as he had done since the days of McKinley.

Bodie perished with the gesture of a courtly gentleman of the Old West.