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The Gold Rush | Article

Gaming and Entertainment in Gold Rush Towns

J. D. Borthwick, an Englishman searching for his fortune in the Gold Rush, came to California in 1851. He observed and portrayed the gambling element of it in several of the lithographs illustrating his narrative. January 1, 1851. PD

On October 18, 1849, opening night at the Eagle Theatre in Sacramento, the wind howled and the rain poured down. Nonetheless, the 400-seat, wood and canvas house was filled with smelly miners in drenched overcoats and felt hats.

A Night Out
The miners paid $5 (about $120 in 2005 dollars) each to watch the first English-language play in California, on a stage made of packing crates. The show was called "The Bandit Chief," which one audience member described as "filled with the usual amount of fighting and terrible speeches." He added that the sole female character repeatedly "threw herself into an attitude" on stage. The delighted miners, who didn't see many women in California, applauded vehemently.

Bathing in the Orchestra Pit
As the show went on, the weather's ferocity increased. Sacramento had no levee system and was prone to floods. Water seeped through the theater's floorboards and rose up to the seats. "Those fortunate to have secured pit tickets had the pleasure of enjoying a freshwater bath for the same money," wrote Stephen Massett, who attended the performance.

Work Hard, Play Hard
For the miners, a night at the Eagle Theatre was a welcome relief from digging for gold. Many miners worked 12 or 16-hour days, six days a week, hauling buckets of dirt and moving boulders. They frequently waded waist-deep into cold rivers. Driven by optimistic ambition or fear of failure, they kept a relentless physical pace. Sunday was their day off and many spent it doing things they didn't do back home.

No Church on Sunday
"Sunday is a great day here. ... In the morning we have public auctions, in the afternoon the bullfight and the circus, and in the evening Dr. Collier's troupe of Model Artists, together with numerous fandango rooms, dance houses, and scores of gambling halls. While I am writing, my friends at home perhaps are at church; here the fife and drum are calling the people to the circus," wrote Enos Christman, a 20-year-old miner from Pennsylvania who lived in the town of Sonora.

Gambling Saloons
Miners of all nationalities streamed out of their camps in the woods and mountains. Many headed straight for the gold rush's most ubiquitous forms of entertainment: drinking and gambling. In the mining towns, a plank table and some canvas for shade became a rowdy gambling saloon. Sometimes food was served and pool or ten-pin bowling might be next door.

Whiskey, Women and Cards
San Francisco's opulent gambling halls like the Parker House, the Empire, the El Dorado, and the Bella Union featured "fancy ladies" who poured drinks or entertained. Men found the chandeliers, mirrors and "pyramids of nuggets of gold" irresistible. The stakes were high and fights frequent. One miner wrote that a few pistol shots would cause a temporary melee, but the gamblers would soon return to their cards.

Impossible Mission
Israel Lord, a Methodist missionary who tried hard to bring some godliness to the gold rush, lamented, "The utter recklessness, the perfect abandon with which they drink, gamble and swear is altogether astounding. You know nothing about it in the States; never did; never will, I trust."

The Folks Back Home
In fact, many miners did write home about California's unique brand of entertainment. But they usually told their folks that it was other miners who spent their Sundays in such a manner. In a diary intended for his fiancée's eyes, Enos Christman wrote innocently, "After turning off a glass each, we [Atkins and I] have concluded to attend a fandango up town, where we will perhaps remain until midnight, looking at the Americans dancing with the Mexican senoritas."

Letter of Confession
Henry Packer made a highly unusual admission when he told his fiancée about a woman he encountered. "Glossy curls played over her full neck and shoulders. On her countenance plays a smile that would bewitch if not be guile a minister -- this, she speaks, 'Come in you fellow with the mud on your hat, I like a miner.'... I must confess ... I did go in just once -- only once, and then but for a few minutes," wrote Packer.

Shakespeare and Strippers
With the flooding problem, the Eagle Theatre was open for only two and a half months, but other theaters began to flourish. In the 1850s, more than 1,000 theatrical pieces were presented in California, including 22 Shakespeare plays. Scantily clad women called "Model Artists" were another popular attraction. As more theaters opened, major talent began to travel the California circuit.

Salons not Saloons
California also experienced an influx of women in the 1850s. The non-native female population went from 3 percent in 1850 to nearly 19 percent in 1860, bringing the number to about 9,000. Many were the wives and relatives of successful Anglo Americans. The wives' arrival and their expectations of a "civilized" society brought an end to many of the rowdier aspects of gold rush entertainment.

Belle and Charles Cora
One evening in November 1855, a gambler named Charles Cora and his companion Arabella "Belle" Ryan attended a performance at the American Theater in San Francisco. Belle was an upscale madam who operated a Dupont Street house known for its quality wine, music, and women. Belle had been in business since the early days of the gold rush, but as San Francisco drew more families she encountered increasing disapproval. At the American Theater, the wife of Federal Marshal William Richardson complained of Belle's presence to the manager. When the manager refused to throw Belle and Cora out, the Richardsons left, insulting the madam on their way. The next day, Cora set out to defend Belle's honor. In the process, he shot Richardson dead. Belle raised $15,000 to get the best attorney possible, but Cora was hanged. The Vigilance Committee did grant Belle and Cora one last request. Just before the hanging, they were married.

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