OCTOBER 9, 2020
NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICAN CRITIC Hinton Rowan Helper left a lasting impression on how Californian culture is still viewed to this day through one mordant comment:
I will say, that I have seen purer liquors, better segars [cigars], finer tobacco, truer guns and pistols, larger dirks and bowie knives, and prettier courtezans here, than in any other place I have ever visited; and it is my unbiased opinion that California can and does furnish the best bad things that are obtainable in America.
Gary Noy draws on Helper’s gleeful sentiment for the title of his book Hellacious California!: Tales of Rascality! Revelry! Dissipation! and Depravity! and the Birth of the Golden State, sharing the view that California’s origin story is a combination of greatness and immorality. The book teems with bittersweet compounds of 19th-century nefariousness, including — but not limited to — gambling, knife fights, the demon drink, con artistry, and prostitution.
But Hellacious California! can fool the reader into thinking that they are getting a cascade of charming Old West tales. A lot of the material is disturbing and ugly. Sex slavery disguised as voluntary prostitution was extremely popular. Racial prejudice intersected with the sex trade, though all prostitutes were degraded and perceived as “street-walkers of the cheapest sort.” Men were more attracted to women with a lighter skin shade, and so the plurality of prostitutes in 1860s Sacramento were white. In this area, at least, racism spared some Black and Mexican women from the greater miseries they might have experienced.
Gracious dining and gluttony was also at its peak right after the Civil War, with residents binging on jackass rabbit and codfish. I respect Noy’s ability to evenly weigh the temptations of the era. There are the “bad things” that affect the self (e.g., demon drink, gambling, tobacco), and those that affect others (e.g., divorce, knife fights, sex slavery). There is heavy content on Old California’s call for political change and the depth of the unhappiness with elected leadership. Most social issues stemmed from political corruption, especially corruption brought by the railroads. Nineteenth-century state government was also not big on quality law enforcement. Instead, San Francisco local citizens formed their own vigilance committees. Miners and local townspeople created their own form of justice.
In the same way that many civilians helped one another, others tried to harm each other. Many people belonging to the lower-class scammed and tried to “eat the rich.” Wealthy individuals spent incredible amounts of money on luxurious things they did not necessarily value. Arabella Huntington, widow of Central Pacific Railroad founder Collis P. Huntington, stepped into her carriage after attending an art gallery. Soon after, a gallery employee chased the carriage to let Mrs. Huntington know she had forgotten her handbag, which contained “eleven pearl necklaces valued at more than $3.5 million, the equivalent of $108 million today.” No person of modest means would make such a mistake.
Noy builds his study of such a repugnant era by dividing the eight informative chapters into their own distinctive tales. Every chapter is filled with scenes of struggle, addiction, and obsession. If the words “19th century” were erased, I would think Noy was describing 20th- and 21st-century California. Both the state’s political institutions and electoral behavior remain overwhelmingly white. Immigration, human trafficking, and racism are still social issues that are fought primarily by the people. After all these years, advocates continue to rally against the government and organizations that so often try to silence their calls for women and minority rights. Why is this lack of progress not surprising?
A deeper exploration of the “American Dream” would have been helpful. Did Californians feel they achieved it? Did it signify riches, opportunity, or freedom? Were there ways people were assisted to better their lives? Immigrants came and continuously come to America with the purpose of improving their lives and the lives of their families. Many left their country because of land and job shortages, to flee homicide, to escape war, because of famine, and to get a taste of the “American Dream.”
The dream ideology promotes the flawed belief that absolutely anyone can attain success in America. Immigrants come from Mexico, China, Canada, and many other places in hope of receiving the equality of opportunity that is always promised. Most opportunities are not gifted, and success often comes spottily, only after years of sacrifice and hard work. For many, it does not come at all. The book is silent on this and on those who turned away in dejection.
Slavery in colonial California is another missing piece here. How did the enslaved people of African ancestry play a role in the California Gold Rush from 1848 to 1850? This topic is not explored as deeply as it should be, especially since approximately 2,000 Black people living in California arrived as slaves during the Gold Rush. In 1849, slavery was banned in California, and slaveholders had a maximum of one year to leave the state with their “property.” A deeper consideration of what could have happened had California decided to permit slavery would have been helpful to understand how it could have potentially affected the era and its movements.
There are many reasons to applaud this book. It is blunt, revealing the good and the bad of Old California. And it is well written and entertaining, providing an extension of The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream by H. W. Brands. Taken together, these books reflect what can be considered the terrestrial paradise and human tornado that was Old California.
It is easy to love and hate this place: the freedom to remake one’s destiny at the edge of the continent provided personal liberation, even as it enslaved and degraded others. White Californians have been doing more or less whatever they please since the modern state was founded in 1850. “Our passions are stronger; our intellects keener,” wrote Casper T. Hopkins. “Each cares to conform his actions solely to his own will and pleasure.” It can be upsetting to know the Golden State has made halting progress on social equity for over a century, and still has a long way to travel. Californians continue to find different ways to improve and eke out a better life. Nineteenth-century California was tremendously good, horrifyingly bad, but most importantly, it displayed the range of human qualities that continue to define it.