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.
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?