Two men are standing in the dirt street before the open doors of a saloon in the eastern Sierra Nevada mining town of Bodie. It’s a cold January day in the year of 1878. They have come outside to settle a dispute which began inside the bar over drinks. How many drinks? Well, they can’t really remember. What was the argument about? By now they probably can’t remember that, either. But as the glasses had emptied and their voices had grown louder, anger had then erupted between them, and what had been a simple disagreement had slid into insults and one had challenged the other to a duel. It had become an Affair of Honor, and since neither would back down then one would have to die. In consideration for the safety of their fellow drinkers they had decided to take this part of the dispute out into the street, lest any stray bullet harm an innocent onlooker. Now they stood a mere two feet apart, feet planted wide as they swayed slightly, each with a hand poised over the handle of a revolver wedged into the front of pants held in place with a belt made of old rope; each waiting to pull his weapon and open fire, settling the matter once and for all. With any luck they would not pull the trigger until the barrel had cleared the rope belt and was levelled at their opponent, instead of where it now pointed down inside their pants at their own genitals, a result which would be a painful – and very embarrassing – end to the fight. They stared at each other as the seconds passed, then the fingers of one man twitched slightly. That was the signal for the other’s hand to drop to his weapon, and in an instant both guns had been drawn and leveled and bullets were flying as each of the men emptied his revolver. Since the two combatants stood only inches apart none of the shots missed, and none of the dozens of observers who had followed the two men out into the street were in any danger of being hit. In ten seconds the fight had ended, and both were spouting blood from numerous wounds in the chest, belly, arms, and hands. One of the two, satisfied that his honor had been successfully defended, staggered back into the saloon and ordered another drink to stem the pain as he leaned against the bar and bled on the floor. The other man, not at all satisfied that his honor had been restored, thought things over for a minute as he dropped rivulets of blood into the dusty street. Then, with one arm paralyzed from a bullet and the other hand having only two fingers that still worked, he lowered his revolver and clamped it in place between his knees. With the two working fingers that remained he slowly pulled the empty shells from the cylinder and replaced them with fresh live rounds. Then he turned and, hobbling painfully, made his way back into the saloon, leveled his revolver with a shaky hand, and proceeded to empty it once again into the back of the man who had disagreed with him. As the unwary man slid to the floor and lay still, the still-standing man nodded in satisfaction. Then he, too, dropped to the floor and bled to death.
But this had been an Affair of Honor, and he died knowing his honor had been defended.
Barbaric, you are thinking? Perhaps. Or, perhaps not. This was an integral and unquestioned part of California life a century and a half ago. A man’s honor was very important. It was a time when men, either alone or in groups, did not always rely on an officer of the law for help; a time when they only rarely turned to a lawyer to iron out a dispute. Such things took time and, when acting alone, matters could often be settled much more expeditiously.
Such an event took place one evening in the mining town of Sutter Creek where two men died within a short space of time without the law being asked to step in. A poker game was taking place in a saloon and an argument erupted between a local miner and a man who was looked upon with suspicion as a professional gambler. The argument led to blows being exchanged. The gambler, who was getting the worst of the fist fight, drew a long-bladed knife and stabbed the miner, who fell to the floor screaming. As his friends laid him out and bandaged his deep wound, a dozen others quickly formed a miner’s court and tried the gambler for assault. Within minutes he was found guilty and sentenced to a whipping. He was stripped to the waist and taken outside where he was tied to a pole and given seventy-five lashes with a bullwhip. The gambler lived through his punishment, but had to crawl away and try to tend to his own wounds. Yet he couldn't crawl far enough. The next day the miner died of his knife wound. So the miner’s court reconvened and tried the gambler for murder, finding him guilty. He was hung from a tree an hour later, after the court had indulged in a brief recess for drinks.
In 1857 the town of Hornitos saw a similar episode take place, only this time both men drew knives. Again it began with a poker game, and an accusation of cheating quickly saw both men pull their weapons. But before they could draw blood the dealer drew his own pistol and asked them to take their dispute outside so the game would not be interrupted. They looked at his weapon cautiously and nodded, and while the dealer and the other players returned to the game the two men went outside. Several minutes later one of them walked slowly back, bleeding profusely. He went to the bar, ordered a large brandy, and then raised it to his lips with one hand while he held his intestines in place with the other. He then resumed his seat at the card game and asked to be dealt in. That hand was his last; it was still being played when he slid from his chair to the floor.
In 1873 the silver mining town of Panamint was a booming metropolis on the eastern side of the Sierra, and it was often said that the Boot Hill just outside of town was the personal cemetery of a gunfighter by the name of Jim Bruce because it held so many of his victims. One time a prospector picked a fight with Bruce out on the street in front of the Bank of Panamint and drew his weapon. Although late to the draw Bruce’s hand was much faster and he walked away calmly, leaving it to others to dispose of the miner’s body. On another occasion Bruce was being entertained in a local brothel – not just by any of the girls, but by the Madame herself, a very desirable woman who limited her clientele to a select few men who were invited to her private chamber. As Bruce and his paramour were locked in a passionate embrace the door to the room flew open and a man walked in, demanding female companionship. Although caught unaware, Bruce reached out over the bedside to draw his weapon, then twisted to turn and fire. As the impatient client fell dead Bruce resumed his lovemaking, having successfully defended his bare-ass naked honor without missing a beat.
It wasn’t always just individual men who felt comfortable in being self-reliant in the face of adversity. Sometimes whole communities became involved.
In nearby Fiddletown, three suspicious characters were rounded up by the citizens following the robbery of a Wells Fargo office. Although no one had actually seen the men commit the crime, they were all pretty certain of their guilt because they were strangers. Still, they didn’t want to act too precipitously, and thought it would be best if the men confessed before they were hung. Yet the strangers refused to cooperate and instead professed their innocence. Hearing that a sheriff had learned of the robbery and was on his way, the citizens thought it would be good if they could wrap things up before he got there. So they placed nooses around the necks of the three men and hauled them up into the air until their feet dangled and kicked, then lowered them, loosened the nooses, and asked if they wanted to confess. They didn’t, so this procedure was repeated. Again, no confession. And again. And again. When the sheriff arrived all three were surprisingly still alive. He took them into custody and with a collective shrug the crowd dispersed, having done their best to further the cause of quick justice.
A man from Austria by the name of Pete Nicholas found himself in a somewhat similar situation in the town of Columbia when he got into a fight with a fellow miner named John Parote. As they rolled around in the street trading punches, Nicholas drew his knife and stabbed his opponent. Pete was arrested by the sheriff and thrown in jail. Then his story began to get a little more complicated, with perhaps just a bit of slapstick. The following morning a group of Parote’s friends broke into the jail and dragged Nicholas down the street to where they had a noose already hanging over a sturdy tree limb. As they were hanging him the sheriff and a deputy climbed up the tree from the other side to cut the rope. But the branch broke under the weight and all three of the men fell to the ground.
The mob pushed forward and shoved the sheriff aside, determined to hang Nicholas again. One of Nicholas’s friends made his way to the front, pleading with the mob to act in a civilized fashion, stalling them until reinforcements could arrive. His strategy worked, and Nicholas was quickly transferred to the Sonora jail. In Sonora he was tried for murder, found guilty, and sentenced to hang. But even though his trial was over, his attorney still had one more card to play.
As was pointed out earlier, men in California rarely sought the help of an attorney, usually wishing to resolve their own problems. However, Nicholas had made a wise decision not only in hiring a lawyer, but also in choosing a crafty one. While the local drama of Pete Nicholas was dragging on, the entire state of California was engrossed in the larger drama of what city was to be chosen for the state capital. San Jose and Sacramento seemed to be the most popular candidates but other cities were still in the running and the state legislature was being flooded with petitions for their consideration – petitions which often had thousands of signatures attached. One small mining town in the Sierra Nevada Mountains by the name of Pine Log felt that the mountain folk who made up the backbone of California were being largely ignored, so they had started passing around a petition to make Pine Log the new capital city of California. Miners from neighboring communities also eagerly signed it, and soon the petition had over ten thousand signatures attached. While Pete Nicholas was awaiting his date with the hangman, one day his lawyer saw this petition sitting on a store counter in Columbia awaiting more signatures. In a stroke of inspiration he quietly pocketed the petition and its pages of attached signatures. Back in his office he removed the original petition and threw it away, then attached in its place a plea for leniency for Pete Nicholas. Then he forwarded that, along with its newly attached ten thousand signatures, to California Governor John Bigler. Having no clue as to who Nicholas was – nor did he even care - Governor Bigler immediately saw a way to possibly garner ten thousand votes in the next election and promptly reduced the sentence of Nicholas from hanging to ten years in prison. Then, upon further consideration, reduced it again to a mere four years. Instead of storming the jail the men of Columbia took it with good grace, seeing the humor in the situation and praising the lawyer for his creativity. In this case it was the lawyer who successfully defended his own honor even more than that of his client. And he did it with humor.
Humor was always one of the mainstays of mountain life. Whether you were a miner, logger, hunter, or trapper you would not have been able to survive life in the high country without being able to hand it out to others, and to laugh when you became the victim of it.
One day in Nevada City two men fell into an argument over drinks, and it quickly escalated to the deadly level of other such confrontations. But in this case friends of each of the men tried to intervene, urging them to separate and let things just cool off before it turned deadly. But the men seemed incapable of doing this. So their friends tried one more tactic and took away the revolvers both men were carrying, telling them to let things cool down for just one more hour. If, at the end of that hour, the two couldn’t see eye-to-eye and shake hands, then they would give the men back their weapons and let nature take its course. The two antagonists agreed, and sat down to wait. At the end of that hour neither had changed his mind, so their guns were returned to them. Finally the moment of satisfaction had arrived. The two stepped apart, faced each other, drew their weapons, and fired. Both men then grabbed their chests as thick red fluid ran down from between their fingers. Both thought they had been mortally wounded. Both expected to die within moments.
But neither of them did die. Because while their friends had held their weapons, they had decided to play a little joke on them. First they pried the lead from the casings and pocketed the bullets, replacing the shells into their chambers. Only now the shells held just gun powder. Then one man went across the street to a restaurant and borrowed a jar of strawberry jelly. They then filled half of each gun barrel with jelly and packed it in. And when the two men who could not be reconciled drew and fired, each splattering jelly on the chest of the other, the bar broke out into a roar of howling laughter with men rolling on the floor. The two antagonists had to laugh at themselves, and they finally shook hands.
It was an affair of honor, and honor had been satisfied.
With a degree in Anthropology and an avid interest in history, Tim Christensen has lived in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for many years. He has no cell phone or television, but manages, when not chopping firewood or shoveling snow, to keep himself entertained with a library of several thousand books.
Sequoia Parks Conservancy, the official 501.c.3 nonprofit partner of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (National Park Service) and Lake Kaweah (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), uses tax-deductible contributions to support these parks.
Sequoia Parks Conservancy