restricted access 8: The Moral Options: Sinners
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8: TUE MORAL OPTIONS Sinners There have been attracted to the Comstock range hundreds ofgamblers ofall grades, and men ofall kinds who live by their wits. There is always a small army ofmen who haunt the saloons and gambling-rooms and by begging a good deal and stealing a little, and playing all manner oftricks and dodges, manage to pick up a precarious subsistence. There are in Virginia City about one hundred saloons, all ofwhich have their customers. -William Wright, The Big Bonanza To call a place dreary, desolate, homeless, uncomfortable, and wicked is a good deal, but to call it God-forsaken is a good deal more, and in a tolerably large experience ofthis world's wonders, we neverfound a place better deserving the title than Virginia City. -Miriam Florence Squire Leslie, California: A Pleasure Trip from Gotham to the Golden Gate (/877) On the morning ofJanuary 20, 1867, the Chinese servant who occasionally tended to the needs ofJulia Bulette, a prostitute ofVirginia City, entered her crib and found her dead. An assailant had beaten her, slashed her throat, and taken some of her clothing and jewelry. Ironically, the incident set Bulette on the road to veritable sainthood, even though people might have regarded her as part of the darker side of the community because of her profession. It was her killer, however, who eventually assumed a role in local folklore as a clear manifestation of evil on the Comstock . John Millian became one of the few people hanged in Virginia City. An immigrant from France, Millian had worked on the Comstock as a laborer, most recently employed by Hall's Pioneer Laundry, a large steam operation that cleaned linens and pieces of clothing by the thousands per week. Millian maintained his innocence, but the judge and jury convicted him and sentenced him to death. He continued to insist that two other men had committed the murder and that his role was minimal. Nonetheless , on April 2 3, r868, jailers escorted Millian to the gallows at the north end of Virginia City, and the Frenchman ended his international odyssey in front of 4,000 or 5,000 spectators enjoying picnic lunches. J As with so many things, nothing about this case appeared in simple terms of black and white. Although Bulette was an average prostitute and hardly the most famous one killed on the Comstock, a long procession turned out for her funeral. Starved for diversions, the community rarely missed the chance for a parade. On the other hand, some Virginia City ladies took pity on Millian, apparently regarding his deed as not that bad. They brought him food during his stay in jail, and their kindness moved the convicted murderer to thank them from the gallows. Sin, then, can be a matter of perception, and it remained for the Comstock to define the greater transgression: the popular court placed prostitution and murder on the scales and passed its own judgment on the two participants. In keeping with human nature, the thousands of sightseers who came to witness the execution of a fellow human being certainly did not judge themselves sinners for enjoying the hanging. Instead, history turned against the women who saw Millian as something ofa hero. Over the course of the following century, he turned into a villain and Bulette became a saint.l At the outset, Julia Bulette and John Millian appear to provide less than vivid contrasts of saints and sinners. Indeed, there were moreobvious examples of the darker aspects of Comstock life. Most people in Virginia City were terrified of the criminals in their midst. Particularly in the earliest years, violence was common. As noted earlier, Mark Twain maintained that the first men who died in Virginia City were murdered. Even if he was exaggerating or accepting local oral tradition without question, there can be little doubt that the first months during the rush to Washoe after r859 were chaotic, with little inhibition against all sorts of antisocial behavior.> Like any community of size, Virginia City and the other Comstock towns had their share of violence and crime. Murders, robberies, and as168 The Roar and the Silence saults were all too common. Commenting on his Comstock of the early 1860s, Twain pointed out, "Vice flourished luxuriantly during the heyday of our 'flush times.' The saloons were over-burdened with custom; so were the police courts, the gambling dens, the brothels, and the jailsunfailing signs of high prosperity in a mining region." In the early...


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