Monday, January 19, 2009

Letters: Windows to the past (Part 2)

In my last post, I quoted a bit from the letters of George Elder, a young man who ventured to the silver boomtown of Leadville in 1879 to make a future as a lawyer.

Regarding money and crime (two topics of endless fascination to me in the pursuit of veracity in fiction), George had some interesting comments in his November 16, 1879, letter to his mother:
. . . Last night two-foot-pads held up the hands of a man who had a long Navy self-cocker in one of them and they were both killed. Every-body says "serves them right" and I do not think the man who killed them will be hung as foot-pads are the most dangerous enemies of our people here. I am glad some of them are meeting with their desserts. Most men here carry sums about them varying from $50 up to the hundreds of dollars so that the field is a very lucrative one for the highwaymen. . . .
Okay, what treasures we can glean from this little gem? First things first: Money. Today, $50 hardly buys you groceries. First thing I wondered in reading this passage: How much was $50 back in 1879?

Thanks to the very neat-o little website Measuring Worth, which includes a little calculator that computes the relative value of U.S. dollars from 1774 to 2007, I was able to figure this out. So, hold on to your seat for this:
$50 in 1879 had the same "purchase power" as $1072.09 in 2007.

Now, think of those "several hundred dollars." Let's pick, oh say, $300 and see what we get. Back in 1879, that $300 stuffed into pockets or satchels equates to $6432.53.

Yes, I can see where robbery would be a lucrative business in old-time Leadville.

What else can I harvest from this letter? How about terms and slang? "foot-pad," "highwaymen," "serves them right," "just desserts." I can, without qualms, now use these words and terms in my fictional exploits with the knowledge that they are current to the times.

What else? How about the fact that "Navy self-cockers" were being carried and employed, the fact that the criminals were stupid enough to shout "raise your hands high" to someone who was actually carrying a gun in one of them, and that the person shot them and will probably receive no punishment?

And, I could go on.

Not the least question that occurred to me: He wrote this to his mother?? If I were young George's mother and had received this letter, I'd be sending him a ticket on the first stage home! But, back then, a 22-year-old son was considered a man, ready to take up the challenges and rewards, fully capable of making his own way, far from home. An attitude not quite as common today, where many 22-year-olds are viewed and treated as just slightly older teenagers. Authors of historical fiction, myself included, have to be conscious of our own suppositions, expectations, and beliefs, and do a little "mind-travel" when creating our worlds of the past.

So, perhaps this will give you some insight into my thinking and why I value these letters and the folks who so generously shared them with me, so very highly.

What about you? Do you see some other things in this passage that shed light on the past?


Krista said...

If you do spend the rest of January revealing what snippets of these letters tell you, I'll keep reading. These are very interesting. I have a book of letters and you've made me want read them again and dissect.

Morgan Mandel said...

Some rough places there in the old days. That hasn't changed. We've got some mighty tough areas these days also.

Love the money rates. If only they applied now, I'd be rich.

Morgan Mandel

Ann Parker said...

Hi Krista!
Glad you're enjoying the letter posts. I think I'll continue for a bit and see how it goes.

Hi Morgan!
True. The 'bad parts of town' sometimes just shift over time. In fact, if I remember correctly, the old red-light district of Denver is now very upscale.
As for the money rates, it makes me wonder how it'll all be in another fifty years!

joandelahaye said...

That was fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

Joan De La Haye

Marvin D. Wilson said...

VERY interesting post. And thanks for the link to that "measuring worth" site - got it bookmarked.

Christina E. Rodriguez said...

I wonder if the term, "heel" (meaning: cad: someone who is morally reprehensible) came from "foot-pad."

D.M. McGowan said...

The letter excerpt you post - and others I have read - tell me that people are people. As you say, things change (value, mother's perception, etc.) but young men are still young men. Some are moral and some aren't.
Great post.

Katie Hines said...

Interesting post! Glad you posted how much the $50 was compared to today's prices. I cannot, personally, imagine carrying that much money on my person.

So what was it socially "okay" to do so back then. Do you know?

Ann Parker said...

Thanks all for your comments!

I don't know if "hell" and "footpad" are related as terms... I checked for footpad and one definition is "a thief that preyed on pedestrians" (makes sense), and notes:[foot + obsolete pad, highwayman (probably from Middle Dutch pad, path; see pent- in Indo-European roots).]
For heel, says (I've edited a bit): a contemptibly dishonorable or irresponsible person. Origin:
1910–15, Americanism; perh. a euphemistic shortening of s**t-heel. (I'll leave you-all to fill in the gaps.) Words are always so interesting!

And Katie, as for what was socially "okay" to do... Interesting question. I know residents who were settled would have "accounts" and run tabs here and there. I would guess for the hundreds of strangers who came to town (and who knew how long they would stay!), they'd better be able to "show the gold," because I'm not certain they'd get much credit! Hmm. I'll have to check some of my old etiquette books. They may have something to say about carrying money. I know I've seen references in letters and newspaper articles about men carrying/showing off wads of banknotes and so on, trying to impress. Some things don't change much. :-)

I found an interesting little 19th century slang dictionary online here that's fun to look through:

Elizabeth Loupas said...

Another good place to look up the development of words is the Online Etymology Dictionary.

What I found interesting about this letter (other than the things you've already mentioned) is the hyphenation. A few judiciously chosen hyphens can go a long way to giving a genuine historical feel to a piece of writing.


Ann Parker said...

Hello Elizabeth!

Thank you for reminding me about the Etymology Dictionary. I've bookmarked it now.

Also, the occasional capitalization of odd words give it that air of long-ago and far-away...