The following is an article from Uncle John's Fully Loaded Bathroom Reader.
During the California Gold Rush of the mid-1800s, thousands of men headed west with gold dust in their eyes. But what about women? For many of them, the untamed West wasn't just about gold -it was about finding a place where they could loosen their corsets and call their own shots.
THE INSIDE TRADER
Mary Ellen "Mammy" Pleasant started life as a slave in Georgia, but her lively intelligence -not to mention her beauty- caught the plantation owner's attention. He sent her to Boston to be educated, and he was right, she was smart -smart enough not to return. Instead, she married a wealthy black businessman. When he died, Pleasant took her $50,000 inheritance -an unheard of sum at the time when few black women saw $15 in a month- and headed to San Francisco.
Pleasant shrewdly invested in "swank boarding house for bachelors" and brought in women with looks and class to keep the men company. Her houses attracted the wealthy and powerful, including senators, judges, and -most importantly- financiers. While she poured brandies for guests, Pleasant listened for insider information on stock investments. Before long, she had accumulated a hefty portfolio and was sharing tips as often as she received them. "The best way to get rich in San Francisco," said one wealthy patron, "is to know Mammy."
THE CARD SHARK
Historical records say that Eleanor Dumont was a gorgeous young woman when she left her New Orleans home for the California gold fields. She moved to San Francisco in the early 1850s chasing the love of her life. "Not a man," said Dumont, "but that glittery rock lying among the foothills of Gold Country." But the backbreaking life of a miner wasn't in the cards for Dumont. What was? Cards! In 1854 she opened a gambling den in Nevada City, California, and created a scandal when she started dealing blackjack. The townspeople saw the lovely female dealer with the French accent as a threat to their marriages, while the men happily lost the gold they dug trying to win the dealer's heart. None of them succeeded. At the end of every winning game of vingt-et-un ("21"), Dumont sat the loser down and had the bartender pour him a glass of milk. "Any man silly enough to lose his last cent to a woman deserves a milk diet," she liked to say.
By age 30, Dumont's luck as a gold country gambler had made her a fortune. It had also scrubbed away her good looks. She had so much dark hair growing above her upper lip, disgruntled gamblers started calling her Madame Mustache. As the gold mines began to play out, the number of players dwindled. In 1877, Dumont played a hand of faro that lost her what little money she had left. She ended her career as a card shark and mixed herself one last cocktail -rumored to have been half champagne and half cyanide.
THE STAGE MOTHER
Mary Ann Crabtree always wanted to be an actress, but like most women of her time, she abandoned her dreams in favor of marriage. In 1852 she followed her gold-hungry husband, John, to California. When her daughter Lotta was born, Mary Ann put her energies into turning the little girl into a star. She enrolled Lotta in dancing classes, first in San Francisco and then in Grass Valley, but her hopes didn't get traction until a seasoned (and world famous) entertainer named Lola Montez moved in next door and taught little Lotta the Irish jig.
It was the right dance to learn. In the 1850s, half of California's foreign-born population was Irish. Lotta's first job: Dancing for Irish miners gathered at Flippin's Blacksmith Shop. She kicked up her heels, red curls bouncing, while hammers pounded on anvils in the background. The miners adored the little girl -she reminded many of them of daughters they'd left behind in their quest for gold. They showed their appreciation by throwing sacks of gold dust at her feet. After Lotta's successful premiere, mary Ann dragged her daughter from one mining camp to another. Pretty soon little Lotta was bringing in $13 in gold every night -far more than her luckless father had ever found. By age 12, Lotta has become a famous actress and the sole support of her parents and two brothers, and by age 23 she was reportedly earning $80,000 a year.
Mom kept track of every cent Lotta earned or spent. She gave Lotta an allowance to live on, but invested the bulk of her earnings in real estate. She was so obsessed with tracking her daughter's money that when her husband "borrowed" a few coins, she had him arrested for theft. In the end, Mom's money minding paid off big. When Mary Ann died, Lotta discovered that her investments had made her a fortune. At age 45, with $2 million in assets, Lotta retired.
in 1854 Sarah Pellet stepped atop a dry-goods box in Weaverville, California, to decry the terrors of demon alcohol. One resident who stopped to listen wrote to his sister about Pellet's lecture: "She is not bad looking, and has a fine voice and a great flow of language. Did I say flow? It is a perfect torrent. She talked for an hour and never stopped to draw a breath." But Pellet's lectures were so dull that even her promise to bring 5,000 "worthy" young New England women to the town wasn't enough to make Weaverville's men pass an ordinance outlawing liquor. So she hopped on a mule and went to Downieville, a mining town in California's Sierra Nevada mountains.
According to Robert Welles Ritchie, author of The Hell-roarin' Forty-niners, Downieville miners "made the week between Christmas and New Year one continuous bender." The town's mayor called the place "a vast field of labor for the cause of temperance." But would a bunch of hardscrabble miners stop drinking and start listening to lectures? You bet! According to Ritchie, here's why:
Any kind of woman was a novelty sufficiently compelling to cause men to drop their gold pans and hike ten miles over a trail just to look at a crinoline. A woman preaching against the Demon was a novelty with comedy trimmings.
Pellet and her petticoats convinced thousands of Downieville men to sign a promise to stop drinking. Yet newspapers of the time hint at a more mercenary motive for Pellet's temperance crusade. After her lectures, she would pass a hat to collect money to aid in her work. One attendee watched in amazement as two-and-a-half dollar gold pieces "rattled like hail" into the four hats being passed. A reporter for the Nevada Journal called Pellet a "humbug" and lambasted her:
Rumor has it Miss Pellet provided her purse with the necessary against a rainy day to the tune of $25,000. This can hardly be true, yet such has been the scarcity of women in certain parts of the mining region that Miss Pellet could not fail to accumulate something of a pile by merely exhibiting herself in women's array at two bits a sight.
As for Downieville's Sons of Temperance, when Pellet packed up her crusade and headed to Oregon in 1855, they went right back to drinking.
Anti-Chinese sentiment ran high in gold country, but Donaldina Cameron couldn't have cared less. What she did care about was that, as gold nuggets became harder to find, a new "yellow currency" had come into play: Chinese girls -some as young as 11 years old- were being kidnapped in Hong Kong or Canton and shipped to San Francisco. The lucky ones were forced to work in sweatshops; the unlucky ones became sex slaves, working in brothels to earn food and clothing plus $300 per month to pad the pockets of their owners.
In the 1890s, Cameron joined forces with the Presbyterian Women's Home Society and threw herself into rescuing these girls. Historians say she barged into the underworld of San Francisco's Chinatown with "nothing but an umbrella and a police whistle." She groped her way along dark passages, broke down doors, and even dropped through skylights to rescue girls. The Chinese slaveowners called cameron Fhan Quai -"She-Devil"- and marked her for death. But Cameron not only eluded her would-be assassins, she outlived them, dying in 1968 at age 98. Cameron rescued thousands of "sing-song" girls, educated them, and helped them find husbands. The grateful girls had their own name for Cameron: Lo Mo -"Good Mother."
This article is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Fully Loaded Bathroom Reader.
Get ready to be thoroughly entertained while occupied on the throne. Uncle John has ruled the world of information and humor for 25 years, and the anniversary edition is the Fully Loaded Bathroom Reader.
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