Thursday, August 19, 2010

Stanley Among the Savages

You ever wonder where all those Western  movies got their plots?  Here's an on-the-spot journalist reporting on what he saw in Julesburg, on the Nebraska-Colorado border in the late 1860s:
It was unmistakable go-ahead-it-ative-ness, illustrated by substantial warehouses, stores, saloons, piled with goods of all sorts, and of the newest fashion.  As might be expected, gambling was carried on extensively, and the saloons were full.  I walked on till I came to a dance-house, bearing the euphonious title of "King of the Hills," gorgeously decorated and brilliantly lighted.  Coming suddenly from the dimly lighted street to the kerosene-lighted restaurant, I was almost blinded by the glare and stunned by the clatter.  The ground floor was as crowded as it could well be, and all were talking loud and fast, and mostly every one seemed bent on debauchery, and dissipation.  The women appeared to be the most reckless, and the men seemed nothing loth to enter a whirlpool of sin. . .. These women are expensive articles, and come in for a large share of the money wasted. In broad daylight they may be seen gliding through the sandy streets in Black Crook dresses, carrying fancy derringers slung to their waits, with which tools they are dangerously expert.  Should they get into a fuss, western chivalry will not allow them to be abused by any man whom they may have robbed.

At night new aspects are presented in this city of premature growth.  Watch-fires glean over the sea-like expanses of ground outside the city, while inside soldiers, herdsmen, teamsters, women, railroad men, are dancing,singing, or gambling.  I verily believe that there are men here who would murder a fellow-creature for five dollars.  Nay, there are men who have already done it, and who stalk abroad in daylight unwhipped of justice.  Not a day passes but a dead body is found somewhere in the vicinity with pockets rifled of their contents. But the people generally are strangely indifferent to what is going on.
The writer is Henry Morton Stanley, later to achieve fame for saying "Doctor Livingston,I presume?"  It's quoted in Empire Express at 380-381 (1999).   Really bears some thinking that whenever you get a bunch of single men together, you get a saloon, a gambling den and a whorehouse, not necessarily in that order.   Of course it may be that Stanley made it all up, but whatever impairs his prestige as a reporter can only increase our admiration for his fiction.

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