Thursday, January 22, 2009

Letters: Windows to the past (Part 3)

As I will be out of town for a few days, I'm going to try to set up posts to roll out automatically while I'm gone. We'll see if it works, or if they suddenly appear all at once!

Since some folks expressed interest in further excerpts of letters from Leadville, circa 1879, I thought I'd continue along that path for now. Here's a great bit that pretty much sums up the ambience of Leadville during these times, written by George Elder, a young man of about 22 and a recent arrival to town. The letter was written to his mother and is dated September 24, 1879:

. . . We had several dare devil murders the last few days so that some of the inhabitants are bound to keep the excitement up. Murders occur in such a terribly reckless manner that it is uncertain who will be the next victim. Pistols are drawn so quickly and most of them are these self-cockers that are almost as dangerous to the owners as to his enemies. I have lost all fear and it seems to me that a man cannot help becoming like the country out here. I carry my revolver about me in the night time and I do not think the small amount of Quaker blood in me would be any hindrance to my swift and immediate use. No man dare flourish a revolver and threaten to shoot as it is the invariable rule to fire at once and count the cost afterwards. A murderer is safer in Leadville than a Horsethief. . . .

I love to quote this passage in response to the general question of "What was Leadville really like?" Reading this section aloud has its own pleasures as well, in the cadence, the easy way the words roll along, and that wonderfully short, energetic concluding statement (which is oh so "Wild West"):

A murderer is safer in Leadville than a Horsethief.

Now that's something to ponder. As in the passage I quoted in Letters: Part 2, it seems pretty clear that, if young George has the pulse of the town aright, one could easily "get away with murder." Or, to put it another way, the turmoil and upheaval of Leadville during its boom days give an amateur sleuth, such as my protagonist, Inez Stannert, some leeway for exploring crimes that the law—and others of the town—would simply ignore or consider no big deal, i.e., "Who was murdered? No horses were stolen? Well, then, who cares?"

Of course, Leadville wasn't all murderers, con artists, foot-pads, and disreputable women. It had its high society, its opera house, its high-profile visitors, its schools, hospitals, and so on. And that's part of what makes this such a fascinating place and time: people from all walks of life, from all over the world, came to Leadville thinking to strike it rich. And, as we know from the dot-com, real-estate, and stock-market boom-bust cycles, not all get rich. And even those who do, may not hang onto it for long.

Too, when the haves, with money burning holes in their pockets, are rubbing shoulders daily with the have-nots, in a country where simply "getting by" is expensive, where weather is extreme, and everyone is consumed with silver-fever . . . As George noted, "a man cannot help becoming like the country out here." It's no wonder there was occasional casual murder in the streets and numbing desperation and despair in some minds.


Dani said...

Ann, you're blog is getting really juicy good. Are you tempting others to come read it, like at WWW and other sites like that? It's too good not to share!

Butterfly Dani

Katie Hines said...

Interesting article. And no! they didn't all show up at once.

Annay Dawson said...

Interesting look into people's lives.

Ann Parker said...

Hi Dani!
Hadn't thought of it. Obviously, that's why I need to learn more about this blogging stuff.
Hi Katie and Annay!
Glad you found this interesting. I love the letters for letting me sneak a peek into the language and the mindframe of the times. Newspaper articles from the timeframe do that as well. I may need to attack that next!