American Alchemy: The California Gold Rush and Middle-Class Culture

By Brian Roberts | Go to book overview

One
California Gold and
Filthy Lucre

In 1848, Edward Neufville Tailer was living in New York City, working as a clerk in a dry goods store. Although only twenty years old, he seemed well on his way toward a successful business career. His whitecollar employment, while not highly paid, was clean and steady. From his store, he could walk out along Pearl Street, passing new mercantile ventures and shops. Turning down Whitehall Street or Fulton or Broad, he would arrive at the city docks. There he would have seen the masts of great ships lining either side of the City Battery, piles of offloaded goods stacked the length of South Street and West. More would be coming up the East River or down the Hudson from the Erie Canal, eventually to be transported for sale at stores like his own. Everywhere, it must have seemed, was proof of a rapidly growing economy, evidence that his clerking future was bright. In December, however, Tailer began to see signs that the great ships had brought something else to the docks. A virulent new sickness had arrived in the city. This was a strange illness: its early manifestations were marked by a “flush” of excitement, its later stages by “feverish” visions. Less deadly than cholera, it killed few people outright, but it changed them, attacking their organs of self-control, forcing them to behave in bizarre ways. The sickness was “gold fever.”

News of the fever's spread worried the young clerk. For it seemed frightfully catching. “The thirst for California gold,” he noted in his diary, “appears to be unabated and young men are enticed away from their business haunts, and daily occupations, for the sake of acquiring the filthy lucre.” They would soon, he thought, realize their mistake. From a distance he admitted the gold seemed “glittering and enticing,” the visions of California like “lofty castles,” but what were these things

-17-

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