Gambling with Gold: Vice in San Francisco in 1849

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As I continue to research and edit my work-in-progress about the early years of the California Gold Rush, I recently found some interesting first-person accounts in A Year of Mud and Gold: San Francisco in Letters and Diaries, 1849-1850, edited by William Benemann (1999).

Some of the more fascinating information concerned the construction of gambling houses in San Francisco and the events that occurred in these great halls. (Of course, this may only be fascinating to me, because some of the scenes in my novel take place in a saloon, which I also have functioning as a brothel. I want the scenes to be historically correct and also to feel familiar to readers, who get their perceptions from Hollywood. Sometimes history and Hollywood differ, and then I need to make choices.)

Saloons opened everywhere in San Francisco as soon as the miners arrived. Some were constructed of fine wood buildings, others were ten foot by ten foot tents.

San Francisco Plaza, 1864, with Bella Union in the upper right corner

San Francisco Plaza, 1864, with Bella Union in the upper right corner

The Palmer House and Bella Union were the largest gambling houses in San Francisco in 1849, both built on the Plaza in the center of town. Both were wood-frame buildings, but their interior walls were largely canvas. Despite this meager construction, inside the buildings contained fine furniture and oil lamp chandeliers. They offered loud music, imported liquor, and beautiful women to the miners who patronized them. They were the social centers of town.

Prostitution flourished in the gambling halls and saloons. In 1848, the year gold was discovered in California, Benemann’s book reports that 700 prostitutes arrived in San Francisco, mostly from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. A top prostitute could make $200-500/night, though Latinas made less than those of U.S. or European descent.

Saloon owners either offered a free room in exchange for percentage of the woman’s income, or they rented her a room outright. But the prostitutes kept most of their profit in the early years of the Gold Rush, before the saloon owners began exploiting them. Even the most destitute women could own their own brothel or saloon within a few months—the Miss Kitty character of Gunsmoke was not so far-fetched.

By October 1849, San Francisco had become so rough and disorderly that the more “refined” women who came to California said that it was “madness” to travel to San Francisco without a husband for protection. The gambling halls and saloons did not close on Sunday—as one woman wrote, there was no respect for the Sabbath.

Although they must have seemed ornate to prospectors returning to town from the mines, the saloons and gambling houses were sometimes violent establishments. On December 14, 1849, a man was stabbed to death in the Bella Union. Once his murderer was identified, a $1000 reward was offered for the man’s arrest.

The goal of the prospectors, of course, was to get rich. Many men found wealth in the mines, then came to town and lost all their money. Gamblers won and lost thousands of dollars at a time. The monte tables had $2000-5000 on them all evening long. I read of one man who made $23,500 in four months in the mines, then spent it all in San Francisco in five nights. Another man lost $30,000.

Some men were complacent about their losses, and simply returned to the gold fields to find more. But suicides were frequent after men lost their fortunes gambling.

The gamblers were so prevalent in town, and the stakes they played with were so high, that they effectively set the rents and other prices in San Francisco. In September 1849, rent for good lodgings could be as high as $1800/month.

Fire was another danger. On December 24, 1849, a fire started in the Dennison Exchange, which was a gambling house. Other similar establishments that burned in that fire included the Parker House (one of largest hotels in town), the El Dorado, the Haley House and Bella Union. One observer wrote that it looked like the whole city was burning—there were no fire engines or ladders available.

San Francisco’s Plaza filled with men and the goods they were trying to salvage. Even the gold and silver stored in these buildings melted, and neighboring buildings were blown up to stop the fire. Restaurants gave away their wine for free before blowing up their sites. Merchants hauled their safes and large sacks of gold dust to the Custom House, which was fire-proof. (I’ve written another post about the frequent fires in San Francisco in this era.)

One of my surprises in doing my research was learning that enterprises called “exchanges” had nothing to do with commerce—or at least not with what we today consider legal commerce. Exchanges were usually gambling halls—perhaps alluding to the exchange of gold from honest labor for the get-rich-easy gold of good luck.

Nothing beats first-person accounts of an era for providing accurate descriptions of places and customs. I always come away from reading a book like Benemann’s with useful “nuggets” for my novel. I hope as a result of my research the novel is both historically accurate and fun for readers.

When have you been surprised by something you learned about an earlier era?

A Story I Couldn’t Tell Before: The Time Dad Cussed At Me

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My family in our boat on Coeur d’Alene Lake, on a day my dad didn’t cuss at me. I’m the one in the shades and long dark hair.

I only remember my father swearing at me once. I heard him curse in general on occasion—a “hell” or a “damn” when he pounded a finger while hammering or the like. And he’d call politicians “damn idiots” sometimes. But he didn’t even say these things often in my presence when I was a kid.

The incident I remember happened on a Sunday morning during the summer when I was sixteen or seventeen. The whole family was vacationing at our cabin on Coeur d’Alene Lake. We were heading across the lake to Mass in Harrison, Idaho, in our boat. I’ve written before about boating to Mass in Harrison.

On this particular summer Sunday morning, I was driving the boat. I approached the dock at the Harrison marina at a shallow angle, just as one is supposed to do. Admittedly, I approached the dock rather rapidly, but I had it under control.

“God damn it, Theresa!” my father shouted, as the left side of the bow careened toward the dock. “Slow down!”

As the words left his mouth, I slammed the boat into reverse, just as I had intended to do. The boat made a perfect glide into the dock. True, the passengers were jerked around a bit, but my dad and brother easily jumped onto the dock and tied us up.

My father continued to berate me about driving more carefully for the entire walk up the hill from the marina to the church.

I was in tears at his unjust accusations—I had been careful. I’d known exactly what I was doing. And I was particularly upset that he had sworn at me. That wasn’t appropriate at all, I thought self-righteously to myself.

I had a lump in my throat all through Mass. I didn’t listen to the scripture readings nor to the homily. All I could think about was how poorly my dad had treated me, and how unfair life was—as only a teenager can do. I was so indignant I couldn’t even mutter the proper responses to the prayers, and spent the hour brushing tears out of my eyes.

Late in the service, it was time for the congregation to offer the sign of peace to each other. My father turned to me and said, “I guess I overreacted, didn’t I?”

I nodded, swallowing that lump in my throat.

He hugged me, and I hugged back. The incident was forgiven on both sides. But I never forgot.

My dad could be strict, and he had high expectations of his children.

But he was a fair man, and he admitted his wrongdoing, once he got to the point of acknowledging it. And he must have learned something from this, because he never cussed at me again.

Now I wish I’d asked him before he died if he even remembered the incident. If we had laughed about it together, maybe then I could have written this story sooner. And I’d have let him swear at me again if I could have spent Father’s Day with him yesterday.

What apologies do you remember from family members or friends?

Highland Fling or Irish Jig?

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In June 1992, the same month that my kids spent at camp in North Carolina, my parents toured the British Isles. In fact, part of the reason we sent our kids to the June camp session was so they could visit my parents later in the summer, after my parents returned from Europe.

Unfortunately, my mother fell while visiting a church in England and broke her ankle. As I understand it, there was no guard rail on the church steps, and she went off the side when she missed a stair.

Then she experienced the British health care system of the 1990s up close and personal. She was X-rayed and casted with minimal fuss and given a cane to help her navigate.

And off my parents went on their tour. My dad reported later that Mother accompanied him to all the tourist stops after resting her ankle for a day or so. (Though they didn’t do any hiking.) He took this picture of Mother with her cast and cane outside of an inn or pub in Scotland.

I found this photo a few weeks ago while looking for snapshots of my kids to include with other posts. My mother had sent me an envelope of pictures from their trip, and this was one of them. She wrote on the back of the photo,

“Was it too much Highland Fling? Or not enough Irish Jig? Scotland, June 1992”

MFC in Scotland broken ankle June 1992

When I saw the picture again and read what she had written, so many thoughts and images rushed through my head.

How young she looked. (Younger than I am now.)

What a sense of humor she had. (Which she didn’t show much of when I was a child.)

The white owl pin on her sweater (Which I now have.)

How much she changed before she died. (The last pictures of her, taken when her Alzheimer’s was quite advanced, reveal none of the vitality that this snapshot depicts, even when her leg is in a cast.)

And what a sense of history and connectedness I felt imagining her in Scotland.

Her references to Highland Fling and Irish Jig reminded me how proud she was of her Scotch and Irish ancestors. Actually, her father’s family came from England, with some ancestors arriving in Massachusetts before 1700. Later generations of that branch of the family emigrated to Oregon in 1848. But her mother’s father’s family was from Scotland, and her mother’s mother’s family from Ireland. The Irish branch of the family arrived in California in 1849, along with thousands of other Forty-Niners. The Scots came a bit later, in the mid-1880s.

I thought in particular of her maternal grandfather, James Strachan. He was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and immigrated to the United States in 1884 when he was twelve. His wife, my mother’s grandmother, died young, and he was a widower for many years. My mother remembers him visiting her family when she was a child and dancing a jig. (Or maybe it was a fling. She always called it a jig when she told me the story, but as her note on the photograph indicates, jigs were Irish, and flings were Scotch.)

“He was a short little Scotsman and danced a jig with a pillow on his head,” she told me.

I wish I had a picture of him dancing whatever he danced with a pillow on his head. I would pair it with this picture of his granddaughter—disabled, but still dancing. Then I could see life coming full circle across the generations.

What humorous images do you have of your parents or other ancestors?

Loneliness and Pampering at Summer Camp

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I wrote last summer about my son’s first overnight camp experience, at the YMCA’s Camp Wood in Kansas. He loved it and wanted to go again. His little sister was eager to go to camp as well. My husband and I had been less impressed with Camp Wood than our son had been, so for the summer of 1992, we decided to look for other camp possibilities.

Their cousins had been to Camp Mondamin (for boys) and its sister camp Green Cove (for girls) in North Carolina on several occasions and raved about how wonderful those camps were. In 1992, our daughter was seven (barely) and old enough (barely) to go to Green Cove. The cousins were going to the long session in July-August, but that didn’t fit our schedule. If we chose those camps, our kids would have to go to the shorter June session. They would each be alone at their respective camp, no sibling or cousin to hang out with.

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The littlest camper

I worried about homesickness. Our son had had his Camp Wood experience, but our daughter had never been to camp. She didn’t even like bed-and-breakfasts with a bathroom down the hall—how would she cope in a spartan cabin with other girls and showers in another building? And because her birthday was just a few weeks before camp began, she would be one of the very youngest campers at Green Cove.

“They’ll be fine,” my husband said. He was an old camp hand, and had attended two or three camps a year throughout his childhood.

I, on the other hand, had been homesick after the first day of my first overnight camp, managed to get sent home, and never tried it again.

Still, both kids begged to go. Both children had been away from us for at least two weeks before, but only with well-known relatives, and mostly with each other for company. After some discussion, my husband and I decided they could handle a three-week, far-away adventure. So we signed them up and paid our money.

My husband bought the kids Army surplus trunks of the appropriate size to hold their camp accoutrements. He painted our son’s trunk camouflage green and our daughter’s bright blue. We filled each trunks with clothes, a sleeping bag, and all the other items on the camp list.

We labeled everything with names, as instructed. My daughter, who had been called by her nickname since birth, decided she wanted to be known at Green Cove by her full 8-letter first name. I hadn’t realized some kids start exploring alternative personalities at age seven, which is what my daughter did. I should have remembered that at about the same age, my sister insisted on being called “Prudence”, which is not her name.) I fretted more—our daughter would be off at camp, all alone, without even a familiar name to call her own. But I labeled her possessions with the name she wanted.

In early June, we loaded everything into my Sable station wagon and began the two-day drive from Kansas City to North Carolina. Our itinerary was as follows: Drive to the camps where we would leave my car in North Carolina, my husband and I would fly home, we’d share my husband’s car for the three weeks the kids were gone, we’d fly back in time for the gender-specific parent/child campouts, then drive home. The transportation plan worked, though sharing a car with my husband for three weeks required a lot of negotiation.

I dutifully wrote the kids often while they were gone to let them know I loved them.

As their return letters arrived, I realized our daughter was fine. She listed the activities she’d done and assured us she was having fun. Her letters were short, but she was only seven. We had reports from her counselor also. No problems reported.

Our son was the homesick one. Maybe it was the lack of mud to dunk his head in—his major achievement at Camp Wood. But more likely, it was the lack of a friend to pal around with. Some of the campers had been coming to Mondamin for several years and had cabin-mates they knew. Our son’s letters sounded lonely. He didn’t describe group activities, only the nature hall, where he played with turtles and snakes.

The three weeks passed, and my husband and I flew back to Asheville for the parent/child campouts and the drive home.

Have I previously written that I don’t like to camp? But my husband really wanted to go on the Mondamin Father/Son campout, and my daughter wanted the full Green Cove experience, so I gamely agreed to go on the Mother/Daughter campout.

When we got to Green Cove, I found out how pampered the youngest campers had been. My daughter had lived in a cabin with three other seven-year-olds and two counselors. The whole camp mothered those girls and treated them like princesses. No wonder she loved it.

But we didn’t have much time to tour the camp. Our brave group of mothers and daughters (of all ages, not just the littlest campers) were soon bused from North Carolina to South Carolina, then we hiked to Georgia. Actually, we swam to Georgia. Our campsite was on the edge of South Carolina, across a creek from Georgia. Nothing would do but that we wade across to Georgia. Though I don’t swim well, the creek was only about six feet deep at its deepest, and I survived. So did my seven-year-old, who had a blast.

Green Cove June 1992 camping

Mothers and daughters, before we swam to Georgia

The strangest experience was not swimming to Georgia, but hearing my daughter referred to by a name that heretofore had only existed on her birth certificate. I, of course, called her by her nickname, and her cabin-mates had no idea whose mother  was.

My son survived Mondamin, but never wanted to go back. His sister had loved being a pampered camper and yearned to return to Green Cove. But out of loyalty to her brother, she never asked.

When did you do something because of what your sibling wanted?

Pool Days . . . Guilt-Free

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My son and me in his grandparents’ pool

My in-laws put a swimming pool in their back yard the summer after my first child was born. I’m not a good swimmer, but I love hanging out by pools, at least until my fair skin starts to burn.

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Baby son with Grandpa in the pool

It was wonderful to have a place to go to relax on summer weekends. We could only get away from home one weekend a month or so, but it was a nice escape from city and work. Usually, my husband and I and our baby son traveled together to visit his parents, but sometimes when my husband had his Naval Reserve drill weekend, I’d take our son and go by ourselves. It made my life easier to have my in-laws help take care of the baby while my husband was out of town.

This pattern continued once our daughter came along three years later. By that time, my workload had really picked up, and I couldn’t go away for the weekend very often, even on Reserve weekends. But if my parents-in-law would keep the kids for the following week—now that was motivation to make the trip!

My daughter says today that I wanted to get rid of my kids whenever I could. That wasn’t really true. I liked my kids.( I still like my kids.) But it was much easier to deal with kids or work than both at the same time.

Besides, the kids loved spending time with their grandparents—often with their cousins as well.

And I remembered visiting my grandparents in Pacific Grove for a month at a time in the summer and loving every minute of it. Beaches might beat swimming pools, but both are nice.

I didn’t think my kids were suffering when they stayed with my in-laws for a week. Not only could they play in the swimming pool every day, but they also had poolside picnic lunches, daily trips to the Red Cross Pharmacy for ice cream, and Coke floats many evenings. No, they weren’t suffering.

So despite my daughter’s attempts to guilt me into thinking I was a bad mother, I have no regrets about taking them to spend a week with their grandparents.

What do you remember about spending time with your grandparents growing up?

On Cats and Cat Pillows

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cat pillows 20160519_154022On a chair in my guest room sit two handmade pillows with cats on them. Although I have owned dogs most of my married life, I really consider myself a cat person. But my husband is not. He wants dogs, only dogs.

I embroidered one of the pillows when I was in college. It was the summer that I attended Eastern Washington State College (now Eastern Washington University) in Cheney, Washington. I was there to earn some extra credits so I could graduate from college in three years. The college was mostly a commuter school for Spokane, particularly during the summer session. Few students lived on campus in the summer, only one dorm was open, and food service was limited.

I had four classes in the morning, then was free from noon until bedtime. I could easily complete my class reading and other homework before dinner was served at 4:00pm. I ate, then returned to my room to watch television (I think I got two or three stations on the tiny TV I had borrowed from my parents) and do needlework. I made three pillows during the eight-week summer session. One of them was this cat pillow.

My mother was also a cat person. We had three cats during the time I was growing up—four, if you count the old tabby that my grandparents owned when my mother, brother and I lived with them in the winter of 1957-58, while my dad was in graduate school. The only name this cat ever had was Kitty. She lived from the time my mother was in middle school until I was three or four. So I only knew her as a crabby old cat that hid from me under the sofa.

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Me with Corvallis Kitty

My parents got their first cat when we lived in Corvallis, Oregon. I was in preschool when they acquired this kitten. I don’t know if she had a name—if she did, I don’t remember it. I think I just called her Kitty also. She had a skin problem and had to be fed beef liver regularly. I remember my mother cooking and chopping the slimy red meat for the cat. This cat only lived a year or so before she was killed by a car on a busy street near our house.

About a decade later, we got a Siamese cat that preferred to live outside. We called her Sukiyaki, Suki for short. Suki was my little sister’s pet, though she loved my mother better than anyone else in the family. The rest of us she merely tolerated. Suki would jump into my lap to be petted. She’d purr, but when she was done, she dug her claws into my arms without warning until I put her down. And she clawed the furniture when she wanted outside, which was several times a day.

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My sister with Suki (or maybe it’s Susie)

Suki, too, was hit by a car after a year or so. That happened when I was in high school, at a time when I didn’t want to have much to do with my mother. But my mother and I cried together when we learned what had happened to Suki.

We soon got another Siamese cat to replace Suki. My sister named this cat Susie Q. Susie only liked the indoors. Unfortunately, my sister was diagnosed with cat allergies about this time, and we had to give Susie away not long after we got her.

My father was always allergic to cats also, except for Siamese. (Or was he only allergic to Siamese? My memory on the issue isn’t clear.) My sister’s cat allergy didn’t have any breed limitations.

After Susie Q, my parents switched to from cats to Schnauzers. They got their first Schnauzer shortly after I left for college.

Despite the lack of cats in her life after Susie, my mother continued to love them. When her oldest granddaughter (my daughter) was young, my mother embroidered the other cat pillow I have and gave it to my daughter. This pillow depicts Chessie, the mascot of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. I’ve always thought the Chessie pillow was sweet, and perfect for a little girl’s room.

But like my husband, my daughter is a dog person, and has been since childhood. She didn’t have much use for the Chessie pillow my mother stitched, though I made her keep it on her bed for years. She finally rebelled and stuffed the pillow in her closet. But I wouldn’t let her give the pillow away, because my mother made it.

Now when I pass the guest room and see the chair with the two cat pillows, I think of my mother, of my college days, and of all the cats that have passed through my life.

What reminds you of pets you have had?

Anne Morrow Lindbergh and My Middlebury College Graduation: Finding Inspiration Forty Years Later

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It’s been forty years since I graduated from Middlebury College. Just about forty years to the day—I think the ceremony was on or about June 1, 1976. I am missing my fortieth reunion this coming weekend.

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My collection of Middlebury magnets announcing past reunions I did not attend

In fact, I have yet to attend any of my Middlebury class reunions. I’ve given the college money. I’ve interviewed applicants as part of the Alumni Admission Program, where alumni around the nation interview students who are applying to the college. I’ve represented Middlebury at college fairs in the Kansas City area. But I’ve only been back to campus once, when I took my high-school aged kids to see the college.

We visited, because I hoped the visit would inspire my children to apply. It didn’t work. Actually, my son applied, and even was accepted, but quickly ruled out the rural campus as somewhere he wanted to spend four years. He had a difficult time deciding between other colleges, but he knew he didn’t want to go to Middlebury. When her turn came, my daughter refused to even apply.

As I recall, there were several days between my last final and the graduation ceremony. My parents and younger brother and sister flew out, picked me and one of my college friends up from campus, and we then toured Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. It was an opportunity for my younger siblings to see some of our nation’s heritage, in places such as Independence Hall, the White House, the Capitol, the National Mall and its memorials, and the Smithsonian museums.

Then we returned to Middlebury for the graduation ceremony. Anne Morrow Lindbergh was the speaker—one of my mother’s favorite authors, so my mother was thrilled. I had read several of her books and looked forward to hearing her. But all I remember now, forty years later, is that Mrs. Lindbergh was a petite woman and a good speaker.

Google revealed that Mrs. Lindbergh’s speech that graduation day, entitled “Aspects of Communication,” is available on the Middlebury College website. So I went back and read it.

Forty years later, it means a lot more to me than I think it did that day. As a writer now, I found more inspiration and truth in what Mrs. Lindbergh said that I could have at the ripe old age of twenty.

She reflected back on her own college experience and a remark she had made then that “To me the most exciting thing in life is communication.” She said that she still believed that statement to be true.

Then she said:

In trying to define communication broadly, I have come to feel that it is the translation of one’s individual talents into a negotiable form. What you and only you have to give is transferred to other people in a form they can understand, accept and use constructively. The forms may differ but the transfer, the exchange, is the essential element always present.

. . . why is communication important? . . . I decided it was important to me because of a very simple paradox: we are social animals and at the same time we are solitary, irrevocably solitary. We communicate in order to break out of our solitude, our loneliness, in order to be part of our world, in order to share our experiences, and perhaps to try to discover their meaning. In other words, we communicate in order to illuminate our lives, or the lives of others. We try to illuminate the darkness both within ourselves and outside of us.

At least this is why I write—to illuminate for myself and occasionally I hope, for others. 

She continued, describing the gift of vision that writers have, the desire to commune with the vision instead of developing it into something tangible and complete, and the whole process of that development. She said what all writers know:

The disparity between your vision and the first draft is unbelievable. What you’ve written is messy; it’s heavy; it’s inarticulate. The words that come to you are awkward and lumpy, and they won’t fit together into a sentence. . . . This is the marsh, the bog, the quagmire and I’ve been in it often myself. . . . I have never found a detour around the bog. You have to go plodding right through it. It is the only way to reach the second draft. If one clumps ahead, no matter how awkwardly, one does reach the second draft, and then the third and the fourth.

From the bog, she went on to describe the chasms and woods of writing, and finally the mountain peak—the end of the journey.

The journey was worth making because when you finish your poem or your book or your piece of work, it speaks to others. And it is the response of others who hear, and only this response, that tells you have reached the point you aimed for. This response in itself is a great joy.

Now that I have focused on writing for almost ten years myself, I see the truth in what Mrs. Lindbergh said forty years ago. I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to reflect again on her message. And I encourage all writers—indeed, all communicators (which means everyone)—to go read the full speech.

What events in your life do you wish you remembered better?

Six Things My Father Did Right on Estate Planning

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In addition to remembering your loved ones on this Memorial Day, perhaps you should consider how you want to be remembered when you are gone. I have just completed the administration of my parents’ estates after my father’s sudden death about seventeen months ago. During this emotional and time-consuming process, I often had reason to think about the many things he did right before he died.

(1) He had a recently updated will.

last-will-and-testamentAfter my mother died, my father considered again his wishes for where his possessions and property would go, and updated his will. He died just six months after my mother, so it was a good thing he didn’t procrastinate.

I met with his lawyer with him, and he explained why he wanted the changes he did. I therefore felt able to carry out his wishes after his death. He also showed me where his important documents were, including the keys to the safety deposit box. (And I made a note of these things, and I even located the note after he died.)

(2) He involved me in his financial affairs before he died.

I was to be his executor, and I knew it. Once it became clear that my mother’s Alzheimer’s Disease made her incapable of handling financial matters, he showed me his bank and brokerage account statements and told me how to log into those accounts so I could monitor them myself. This was at least three or four years before he died. I didn’t watch the accounts regularly, but I did periodically. When he did pass away, I knew immediately how much he had in his checking account and how much in savings.

He also gave me his email password, and I could therefore use his address book to contact his friends by email after he passed away.

(3) He had me meet with several of his advisors.

In addition to the lawyer, he had also taken me to meet with his brokerage agent, with the realtor who had sold my parents the house he lived in, and with the accountant who did his taxes. These people were all familiar to me, and I with them. That made my transition to managing his affairs much easier.

(4) He kept his files well organized.

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My dad’s envelope with 2014 medical expenses calculated, prior to January 5, 2015

I noted in an earlier post that he already had all his tax calculations for 2014 done when he passed away on January 5, 2015. I have to admit that I am not nearly as organized as he was. But I really appreciated his attention to detail, in this as in so many other things throughout his life.

(5) He planned his funeral.

Well, actually, he planned my mother’s funeral. But as he did so, he and I talked about what he wanted and what he didn’t in his own funeral. So, six months later, as awful as it was, I was able to plan his.

(6) He had made arrangements for the next phase of his life.

The phone call announcing his death could just as easily been to announce that he had incurred a serious physical or mental disability and was incapacitated. Had that happened, I would have known where to start. He had already placed a deposit on a continuing care retirement community, where he planned to move about a year later. As usual, my father was one step ahead of the game.

While I wished he had downsized his home on his own and made this move, had he been incapacitated, I would have known where to start on finding a place providing the care he would have needed.

I suggest that we can all benefit from these six things that my father did right. Any of us could die or become disabled suddenly. It helps to be prepared.

Not everyone will be as proactive as my father—heaven knows, I’m not!

But we can all remember his last instructions to me, sent in an email on the day he died: “Plan, implement, and follow up.”

When has someone else’s preparation helped you in life?

Development of Mining Codes in the California Gold Rush

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A group of Gold Rush miners

One of the topics I’ve had to research for my work-in-progress is the mining laws of California at the time of the Gold Rush. Essentially, there were no laws. In January 1848, when gold was discovered, California was under the control of the U.S. Army, which had taken California from Mexico in the Mexican American War.

There were serious questions as to whether Mexican land grants were valid. And in the areas where gold was found, there hadn’t been a lot of Mexican land grants. In fact, Johann Sutter, who was building the mill where gold was first found, sent representatives off to Monterey to confirm his land rights.

The Native Americans did not hold land individually, and the whites who came to seek gold thought of it as open territory. It was each man for himself.

GoldRush miners 1856 print

1856 print of Gold Rush miners

I was surprised when my research indicated how small the land claims were. Many were only ten feet by ten feet. The prospectors hunted for gold by panning in creeks and by digging with knives and shovels on dry land.

When they could no longer find gold by panning and digging, men banded together to use more effective means of processing the dirt, like rockers and long-toms, which required more space.

Despite the violence that old Western movies show us, the first miners typically resolved their disputes themselves, which is how the practice of staking claims developed. Staked claims were generally respected, at least as long as men stayed on their claims.

Over time, each area where prospectors congregated because of a gold find figured out ways to police themselves. They developed local codes that they enforced to keep each other and newcomers in line.

As “Dame Shirley” (Mrs. Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe) described it to her sister back home,

First, let me explain to you the ‘claiming’ system. As there are no State laws upon the subject, each mining community is permitted to make its own. Here, they have decided that no man may ‘claim’ an area of more than forty foot square. This he ’stakes off’ and puts a notice upon it….If he does not choose to ‘work it’ immediately, he is obliged to renew the notice every ten days; for without this precaution, any other person has the right to ‘jump it’….There are many ways of evading the above law. For instance, an individual can ‘hold’ as many claims as he pleases if he keeps a man at work in each….The laborer…can jump the claim of the very man who employs him…[but] generally prefers to receive the six dollars per diem, of which he is sure…[rather than] running the risk of a claim not proving valuable….The labor of excavation is extremely difficult, on account of the immense rocks…[in] the soil. Of course, no man can work out a claim alone. For that reason…they congregate in companies of four or six, generally designating themselves by the name of the place from whence the majority of the members have emigrated; for example, the ‘Illinois,’ ‘Bunker Hill,’ ‘Bay State,’ etc., companies. In many places the surface soil, or ‘top dirt,’ ‘pays’ when worked in a ‘Long Tom.’

It wasn’t until the unruly Forty-Niners arrived and the gold fields became overrun that claim jumping became a real problem. Unscrupulous people who wanted to sell their claims, would “salt” them by scattering gold on the land.

When crimes were discovered, the miners meted out harsh and speedy justice. Small crimes were punished by flogging, more serious crimes—including robbery and murder—resulted in a quick hanging. Sometimes mobs lynched a man without bothering with a trial.

As an attorney, I loved reading law review articles about these early mining codes. Most people might find them dry, but they appealed to me, and gave me the level of detail I wanted to write my novel. Here are a couple of my favorites:

Of course, the first-person accounts, such as the one from Dame Shirley quoted above, were also fun to find as I researched.

When have you been surprised to learn something about history?

Sirius Driving

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20150427_125846 - Dad's Mazda 5

My dad’s Mazda, now mine

After my father died, I purchased one of his cars. It was a 2012 Mazda 5—nothing fancy, but I had a 2009 Mazda 5, which I liked. When I was out in Washington State to manage my parents’ estates, I drove my dad’s Mazda 5 between his house on the Olympic Peninsula and my other relatives’ homes in the Seattle area. I was comfortable in it. It drove just like mine, but had a better trim level and interior features. I figured I could buy his Mazda, sell mine, and get a newer, better car for not much money. And that’s what happened.

My father had a Sirius contract for the car. He and I rode together a lot in that Mazda between his home and my mother’s assisted living. As soon as he turned on the engine, the music began. He often hummed along.

My dad loved music—particularly classical and country. His Sirius presets included a couple of country stations, a classical station, another for opera, and NPR. When I drove the car after his death, I didn’t know how to find any other Sirius stations, so I left the presets where they were.

But I didn’t listen to the country. I’ve hated country music ever since my father insisted the family watch Hee-Haw every week of my childhood. How I hated that show! So I kept the Sirius tuned to the classical stations and NPR as I drove my father’s car and thought of him.

My dad’s Sirius contract ran out in April of last year, about the time I bought his Mazda. I didn’t renew the contract, because I’m too cheap. Perhaps in the wilds of the Olympic Peninsula, where radio stations are few and staticky, it made sense. But in urban Kansas City, I wasn’t about to pay for satellite radio for my car.

Moreover, I prefer driving in silence. I’ll turn on NPR if I’m driving during rush hour and the news is on. And on long road trips I might listen to music to help me stay awake. But most of the time I prefer my own thoughts to the chatter on the air.

I only listened to the radio after my dad died because the Sirius stations he had selected reminded me of him. Driving his Mazda (now mine) around Kansas City, I’ve mostly kept the radio off.

My parents get more mail at my house than my husband and I do. I put in a change of address form for them after my father died, so that their mail would come to me as their executor. That change of address expired early this year, and any mail sent to their old address no longer is forwarded to Kansas City.

But all the advertisements and catalogs somehow picked up on their address change. I get stuff from advertisers they haven’t bought from in a decade or so.

And Kansas City retailers have discovered them also. My mother gets ads for hearing aids every week. And my father is solicited regularly to move to a local retirement community. Most of this junk mail goes straight to my recycling bin.

sirius logoThen a notice from Sirius addressed to my father arrived at my house. Sirius was turning his service back on, in the hopes he would renew his contract. So on May 18, the date their offer began, I tuned to Sirius on the Mazda’s radio. Sure enough, there it was.

I flipped through the presets—all my father’s stations still there. For the last several days, I’ve been listening to classical music and thinking of my father humming along. But I still won’t listen to country.

What music reminds you of loved ones you have lost?

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