Boring Books, Bad Theatre

© Betty Sederquist

During the California Gold Rush, miners often found little to entertain themselves. Stuck in crude cabins, miles from human companionship, the miners worked hard during the day, but in the evenings found little to do.

Gold Rush humorist Alonzo Delano wrote this account of a day in the life of a miner:

At early dawn he bounds up from his blankets, spread on mother earth, and as it is his turn to cook today, he is doing housework, and only fills up his hours of leisure with his pick, shovel, or rocker, as a kind of knitting work. The other boys are on the bar. Dig, dig, pick, shovel, undermine and roll over huge rocks, bail water; a worse than treadmill operation, lug dirt in a bag ten or twenty rods, rock, rock, not to the tune of “Barney rock the cradle,” for here the poor miner cries oftener than the child, cleaning out the black sand, broiling under the scorching sun at noon, shivering with cold at night, the poor , weary miner joyfully hears the glad call to supper, and after scanning the few (in most cases) shining scales which almost hide themselves in the crevices of his pan, he throws himself down upon his blanket to dream of home and friends, the only time he is truly happy. Home and friends! I am an old miner, and if I don’t change that subject, I shall cry myself. And so one day passes with another, except Sunday, and that is regarded as a day of rest.. Then it is that he stitches up the saddest rents in his clothes, sews on a stray button, washes a shirt or two, reads an old worn out Pacific News, a True Delta, or any paper he can get hold of, advertisements and all, calls on his friends to chat about new diggings somewhere else, or if he is included, as too many are, to “buck” at a monte bank, till every farthing of his blood-earned oro is squandered.

Reading material, as Delano noted, was scarce during the early years of the Gold Rush. One prospector recalls that the only reading material he could turn up in his entire camp was an old Farmer’s Almanac, for which he had to pay one dollar. During the winter he read it “through and through, forwards and backwards, sideways and upside down, and by spring had acquired such a knowledge of astronomical science, that I could locate the signs of the Zodiac blindfold, stand on my head and calculate an eclipse, [and] foretell the for more than ten years ahead.”

Cal Gardiner of Sag Harbor, Long Island, settled in at Hawkins Bar on the Tuolumne in late summer. He kept track of his gold in an odd way, using a thirty-ounce glass bottle meant for gold dust that bore a succession of labels at regular intervals on its surface. From bottom to top: half rations, pork stew, pork and beans, roast beef and potatoes, plum duff, canned turkey with fixings, oysters with ale and porter. “The line of dust seldom rose above plum duff and never actually receded to half rations. The average height was pork and beans.”

Guns also provided diversion. Chilean miner Vicente Perez Rosales recalled one encampment: “Pistols and rifles shots rang out everywhere. Everyone took aim at a target from time to time without troubling to ascertain where his bullet might stop. Most unexpected detonations came at nightfall, possible to make clear that the shooter was fully protected by arms, possibly because guns were then cleaned and reloaded. No American prospector lies down to sleep without having first performed this unavoidable duty.

E Clampus Vitus, a lively group that parodied serious fraternal orders, supposedly was founded in Sierra City in 1857.

Actually, no one really knows where the Clampers came from, because they were always too busy having fun to bother with record-keeping. Their primary function was to recruit new members, charge them a large initiation fee, then drink up the proceeds during a wild initiation ceremony. Their avowed purpose was to assist widows and orphans—and particularly widows. All members, once they survived the initiation, were given fancy-sounding titles and they met in the “Hall of Comparative Ovations.” Since its inception, the order has sponsored many worthwhile community services.
The order died out, then was re-activated in 1931 by historian Carl Wheat in San Francisco. It thrives today, with members recording early California history and marking historical sites—particularly in the Gold Country.

The Bear Went Over the Mountain

The miners, toiling on their claims, would do almost anything to relieve the tedium of their work. One uniquely Californian spectator sport was the bull and bear fight, in which a bull and bear—often a grizzly—were chained close together in an arena. Sometimes the animals were less than enthusiastic about the contest.
One memorable afternoon a frightened bear fled from the snorting bull with such a tremendous thrust of his great weight that the chain broke. Quickly, the bear took up a new position in the nearest oak tree. However, this tree happened to be bearing a heavy fruit of cheapskates who had found a way to view the action for free by clinging to the overhanging branches. Their response to the bear’s intrusion was swift: some let go and plunged to earth, others slipped crashing and howling down the outer branches. In a matter of seconds, the bear had the tree all to himself.
A traveler wrote home: “It looked as if old Bruin had jumped into a pond and driven out all the frogs.”

No Business Like Show Business

With a captive audience of bored miners with a bit of gold dust in their pokes, any kind of entertainment thrived. The headliners of the day—Lola Montez, Edwin Booth and Lotta Crabtree—garnered huge audiences wherever they went. But working conditions were often less than perfect.
The Eagle Theater, near the river in the city of Sacramento, was the first of its kind. Journalist Bayard Taylor attended a play there.

The overture commences. The orchestra is composed of only five members, under the direction of an Italian, and performs with tolerable correctness. The piece for the night is The Spectre of the Forest, in which the celebrated actress Mrs. Ray, “of the Royal Theatre, New Zealand,” will appear...Several acts are filled with the usual amount of fighting and terrible speeches; but the interest of the play is carried to an awful height by the appearance of two spectres, clad in mutilated tent-covers, and holding spermaceti candles in their hands. At this juncture Mrs. Ray rushes in and throws herself into an attitude in the middle of the stage: why she does it, no one can tell. This movement, which she repeats several times in the course of the first three acts, has no connection with the tragedy; it is evidently introduced for the purpose of showing the audience that there is, actually, a female performer. The miners, to whom the sight of a woman is not a frequent occurrence, are delighted with these passages and applaud vehemently.

In January, 1850, following heavy rains, the entertainment became a bit damp at the theatre, as described in this 1854 reminiscence by the editor of the Golden Era reminisced about the Eagle Theater:

When the curtain went up the theater was high and dry, but before the first piece was over, the water commenced to makes its appearance through the cracks of the floor, and by the time the second piece had got fairly underway, so deep had the water become, that the “groundlings” were forced to stand on the benches. It was hard luck for the gamesters who were accustomed to playing monte between acts and pieces, but the ardor of the confirmed theatergoers remained unquenched. Leman tells us of a performance at which “the water rose six inches deep in the pit before the doors opened, and the play had progressed but an act or two when the seats ceased to afford a dry foundation. Half the town was submerged, and the few second floors then to be found in the city of canvas afforded sleeping apartments but for a portion of its unhoused inhabitants. Fortunately the actors were better bestowed, for the stage was their domicile by day and night.”
When the river invaded the theater, “some of the miners took great pleasure in wading along the seats covered with water and sitting on the railing round the orchestra.” (The musicians, meanwhile, had been obliged to move to the rear of the parapet.) “On several occasions when the company were ‘piling on the agony’ on the stage, one of the miners would appear to be roused to enthusiasm, and while shouting his approbation, would throw his arms open, striking his neighbors on each side, and precipitating them backwards into the water. This practical joke sometimes caused a laugh, sometimes a fight, and always interrupted the performance for a while.”

The theatre, which was founded by a J.B. Atwater, only stayed open for two and a half months. On January fourth the theater company finally admitted it was washed out and and Atwater floated the operation down the river to San Francisco.
The theatre, soggy as it was, was probably better than other forms of Sacramento entertainment. Taylor describes the musical offerings:

The door of many a gambling-hell on the levee, and in J and K Streets, stands invitingly open; the wail of torture from innumerable musical instruments peals from all quarters through the fog and darkness. Full bands, each playing different tunes discordantly, are stationed in front of the principal establishments, and as these happen to be near together, the mingling of the sounds in one horrid, ear-splitting, brazen chaos would drive frantic a man of delicate nerve. All one’s old acquaintances in the amateur-music line seem to have followed him. The gentleman who played the flute in the next room to yours at home has been hired at an ounce a night to perform in the drinking-tent across the way; the first sweet snooze now greets you at some corner; and all the squeaking violins, grumbling violoncellos, and rowdy trumpets which have severally plagued you in other times are congregated here, in loving proximity. The very strength, loudness and confusion of the noises, which, heard at a little distance, have the effect of one great scattering performance, marvellously takes the fancy of the rough mountain men.

Entertainment was even more humble in the mines. There miners patched together their own theatre, even attempting Shakespeare. Richard G. Badger penned this description of a performance that went awry:

There was one young man in the company who aspired to heavy tragedy. All he wanted was a chance to enact Richard the Third, and he would show what kind of histrionic stuff was in him. Now if there was any department of the drama in which this young man was fitted to shine, it was certainly not the tragic. In low comedy he might have been a success; but in tragedy, impossible. He was so persistent, however, in his demand to appear as the crook-backed tyrant that the management finally agreed to permit him to give the Bosworth field tent scene. The house was crowded. It was a dark stage. Richard was writhing on his couch. The ghosts of King Henry, Clarence, Rivers and Buckingham had worked him in his sleep up to concert pitch. With a frantic bound he leaped from his couch and rushed to the front of the stage with his sword beating a tattoo on the boards, as all well regulated swords to when in the hands of properly ghost-hunted men, and falling on his knees, he cried out to the people in front to bind up his wounds and give him another horse. As he made this appeal in tremulous tones, a musical burro which one of the boys had mischievously fastened under the stage answered his prayer in corrugated tones that made the rafters shake. A great roar went up from the audience. The prompter, who could not see the front of the stage, thought the time had come to raise the footlights, and as the unabashed tragedian pathetically appealed to heaven and cried, “Have mercy, Jesu,” one of the lighted candles bobbed up against his nose and brought the scene to an abrupt end. The tragedian arose in wrath and left the stage in a paroxysm of fury.

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