Practical Jokes in the Mines

Practical jokes of all kinds were of every day occurrence in the California gold rush mining camps. These were the types of jokes that only men with money, who were independent and eager for any kind of amusement to break the dull monotony of daily toil, could devise or invent.  

In Marysville, in 1855, there was a merchant named Crosby. An innocent, simple man, he was afraid of his own shadow, and decidedly out of sympathy with his environments. One evening Len Taylor, to make a little fun, invited this man to take a little walk in the outskirts of the town. Previously posted behind a fence for the purpose, were Grant Israel and another man who commenced shooting at our friends with blank cartridges. Taylor fell, as if shot, and shouted: "Git, Crosby, git for your life." Away poor Crosby ran down the road, crying "murder" at every jump; rushed into the residence of Colonel Ransome, declaring that his friend Taylor was killed and he was himself mortally wounded. With this the poor, frightened fellow threw himself, sprawling on the floor, seeming really to be seriously hurt. A doctor was summoned, who, after a thorough examination, recommended a bath and a change of clothing.



Again, at Oroville, Butte County, in 1857, there were gathered a company of young men, educated, brilliant, generous and optimistic—types of Californians of the early times. The hotel was kept by a man named Montgomery. Turkeys were scarce and high priced, worth from six to twelve dollars apiece. Thanksgiving day was approaching, and Montgomery needed more turkeys than he had. He had five secured, but they were not enough. In order to fully supply his guests he would require several turkeys more for the Thanksgiving feast. One evening while the "boys" were at the hotel a man appeared with three turkeys, saying they were intended as a present to Dr. Burlingame, one of the party. Montgomery at once saw his opportunity and opened negotiations for the purchase of the birds. He finally affected a trade, without much trouble, paying for them with a generous basket of champagne, which was imbibed and enjoyed by all the "boys" present.

Next morning, when Montgomery came to investigate his supply of Thanksgiving turkeys he found only the original number of five. The man had bought three of his own turkeys. "Well," said the good-natured host, when he learned of the joke that had been played on him, "boys, it was a good one on me; and to show you that I bear no malice, I will have a separate table prepared for you on Thanksgiving day, and you shall have one of the turkeys served up for your special delectation.  

The day came. The parties were all on hand, ready for the promised treat. The huge turkey was roasted to a turn. But the dressing! It certainly had a flavor peculiar to itself. It was not the sage, oysters or chestnuts that were mingled in it. None of these could have produced that unpleasant compound. It was something altogether new and unheard of in the way of stuffing for a turkey. The turkey was eaten with a relish but all passed the dressing by, with compliments to the " chef." They all agreed that he had given it too rich a French flavor for such Plebian tastes to fully appreciate and enjoy. Afterwards, these men, who had fared so sumptuously, learned that the peculiar dressing of that turkey was nothing less than the gatherings from the horses' stalls. As rough as this joke may seem, all received it in good part and voted the landlord a prince of good fellows.

At Gibsonville, in 1857, at which time there were few women to be found in any mining camp, Gibsonville was the center of many mining camps, from 15 to 20 miles around. Girls of fifteen were all married and some were mothers at that early age, but still they were permitted to dance with the single miners. A "Fourth of July Ball" was given, and by extensive advertising and arranging some fifty ladies were present at the party. They came on mule back from "Rabbit Creek," "Nelson Point," "Whiskey Diggings," "Brandy City," "St. Louis," "Port Wine" and other noted places of the surrounding country. Many of the women brought their babies along, for whose accommodation there had been secured and prepared in a room at the principal hotel of the town. As there were several hundred miners present, and only this limited number of ladies, as might be expected, many of the men were left without partners and were thus cheated out of dancing. Being sorely disappointed, when they had anticipated such a good time, some of them devised a plan to get even.

It was decided that these disappointed ones should repair to the hotel where slept the innocents, invade their quarters and so exchange their places and mix the babies in such a manner that no mother in her hurry after the ball would be able to get the infant that belonged to her. This they did. The wraps alone were left in the same places, so that the general appearance was about the same as when the mothers left the babies there. The festivities ended, the mothers rushed in to get their babes, and hurriedly started for their homes. Each grabbed up a child from the place where she had put hers down, and hastened, unsuspecting, away. Imagine, if you can, the surprise and consternation of each mother, when upon reaching home she discovered the mistake she had made. Here was a hearty, black eyed boy where should have been a dainty blue-eyed girl, and vice versa, in another place. There was a hurrying and a scurrying all over that section for many days before each infant found the home where it belonged. No one was sacred enough to escape the attacks of these practical jokers and pranks of good-natured fun. Such pastimes together with original modes of entertainment furnished the only amusements of the old time Californian gold rush miners.



About this time was established, at Downieville, the ancient and honorable order of "E Clampsus Vitus." The initiation fee of which was made always to suit the pecuniary circumstances of the proposed initiate, and usually expended in paying for beer. It was, and still is to this day, a society dedicated to hard drinking and practical jokes. The organization was open to all - lawyers, bankers, merchants and miners were all members of this institution. And when the gewgaw, a big horn, rang out, for miles around miners came, stores and banks and places of business were quickly closed and all their managers soon repaired to the "Clampus Hall." The sounding of the gewgaw meant that a "sucker" had been caught and there were fun and beer ahead.

The candidate was prepared for the initiation by being divested of most of his clothing, then blindfolded. In this condition he was led around the hall, stopping at different points where he was catechized and lectured in a most fatherly way, by the different officers of the body. About the time he became worked up to the solemnity of the occasion, a strap with a ring attached, having been silently placed about his body, he would find himself suddenly lifted to the ceiling and then as suddenly dropped into a wheelbarrow, purposely prepared for his reception, in which had been placed large sponges saturated with ice water. The victim would be held thus securely in place while the wheel-barrow was run around for a hundred feet or more over a rough construction of round poles, jolting the wheel-barrow and keeping the victim bobbing up and down in a most ridiculous manner, on his ice-cold cushions. During this performance the members and spectators sang the while:

"Ain't you mighty glad to get out of the wilderness,
Get out of the wilderness.
Get out of the wilderness?"

Sometimes these initiation ceremonies extended over several hours. And by the time they got through with him the new member would feel certain that he had paid well for the entertainment of his friends; while he, himself, had added to his store of useful knowledge and experience. Invariably the new member would steal out of town, humiliated and crestfallen, to appear again only when he could produce some new candidate or victim for admission to the order.

Return To: California Gold Rush: True Tales of the 49ers



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