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

By Brian Roberts | Go to book overview

Eight
A Wild, Free, Disorderly,
Grotesque Society

There was something unreal about California, noted George Payson after his return to Boston. A lot of men had sailed from eastern ports in 1849, that much was sure. But as for the existence of California, while there had been a lot of promises and talk, few of these promises had been delivered, and much of the recent talk had been about humbugs and elephants. Payson decided to address this problem in an introductory comment to his recollections, writing as “Francis Fogie, Sen., Esq.” “To be sure,” wrote the skeptical Old Fogie, “any number of men and ships have set sail for California, but that's no sign that they ever got there. They say so of course, for no one likes to be humbugged, but for all we know, they might just as well have gone to India, or China, or Japan. I have noticed … they say very little about the gold they have brought home, though that after all is the only real proof; and they go into a huff if any one asks them how much they made. So you see that, reasoning a priori, the balance of probability is decidedly opposed to the existence of any such country.” 1 Indeed, for many eastern observers the entire gold rush seemed like something out of the Arabian Nights. It contained, that is, quite a number of fascinating and gruesome tales, and much literary style, but it lacked substance. The United States Mint was reporting major shipments of gold, and so was the Pacific Mail Service. But for wives and loved ones, the reports were nearly always the same. Their forty-niners were failing at the mines. Many had sent home daguerreotypes of themselves dressed in authentic miner garb. Others had sent a morsel of yellow metal, presumably gold, enough to make a cufflink or a small ring. But they sent little else, apart from tear-stained letters of complaint; and they never seemed to strike it rich. In fact, if anything was accomplished during these men's

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

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • American Alchemy *
  • Introduction 1
  • One - California Gold and Filthy Lucre 17
  • Two - Gold Fever as a Cure 43
  • Three - Husbands and Wives 69
  • Four - Numberless Highways to Fairy Grottos 93
  • Five - A Great and Perverse Paradise 119
  • Six - California Is a Humbug 143
  • Seven - Widows and Helpmates 169
  • Eight - A Wild, Free, Disorderly, Grotesque Society 197
  • Nine - The Prude Fails 221
  • Ten - The End of the Flush Times 243
  • Conclusion 269
  • Notes 277
  • Index 321
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