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Quiet Days In Bodie

July 2024
5min read

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 This article, hitherto unpublished, is redolent of Beebe’s gusto for the nchjolklore and legend of the Old West, an Old West probably a little more amusing and colorful than the real one.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!”

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.

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