Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Bodie and Aurora, Mining Camps and Violence

Bodie is in California, and Aurora in Nevada.  A study of crime in these two mining towns offers a glimpse of life in the Old West.  The period for Aurora is the 1860's, after which Aurora became a ghost town and Bodie which boomed in the mid-1870's into the early 1880's.  The towns are ten miles apart.


Nearly every man went about armed.

Sam Clemens, (the future Mark Twain) visited Bodie and spent some time in Aurora working as a miner and writing for the Esmeralda Star.  He said that he had never had occasion to kill anybody with the Colt Navy revolver he carried, but he had "worn the thing in deference to popular sentiment, and in order that I might not, by its absence, be offensively conspicuous, and a subject of remark."


Thirty-one Bodieites and at least 17 Aurorans were victims of homicide during the towns' boom years.

Women residents of the towns were far safer than their counterparts are today in any American city. Men fought men with fists, knives, and guns, and they often fought to the death.  They occasionally fought over women or mining property, or even politics.  But mostly they  fought over who was the better man, real or imagined insults, and challenges to pecking order in the saloon.  The men involved in the fights were willing—often very willing—participants. Some of them were professionals, hired as gunmen for mining companies.  Others were simply miners, teamsters, bartenders, carpenters, woodchoppers, and the like.  The men were mostly young and single, and adventurous and brave.  The combination, sometimes laced with alcohol, led often to displays of reckless bravado and not infrequently to death.

In a study of violence in nineteenth-century Michigan lumber towns, Jeremy W. Kilar has found that there were some 112 homicides in the lumber counties of Bay, Saginaw, and Muskegon during the years 1868-1888.  More than half of the lumber town homicides occurred from 1881 through 1886.  In 1881, East Saginaw, with a population of some 20,000, had 15 homicides. 

The men of Aurora and Bodie were miners and ready to fight if the need arose.  Their consumption of alcohol meant that they would fight often. And their carrying of guns meant that fighting could easily prove fatal.

Although the armed state of the citizenry reduced the incidence of robbery, burglary, and theft, it also increased the number of homicides.

Residents of Aurora and Bodie accepted the killings because those killed, with only a few exceptions, had been willing combatants. They had chosen to fight.

Commenting on killings in Bodie, the Daily Free Press said on January 7, 1880: 'There has never yet been an instance of the intentional killing of a man whose taking off was not a verification of the proverb that "He that liveth by the sword shall perish by the sword.' "  The old and the weak, women and those unwilling to fight were almost never the object of an attack.



Robbery occurred only infrequently.  There were eleven robberies and three attempted robberies of stages during Bodie's boom years and a nearly equal number during Aurora's heyday.

When highwaymen stopped a stagecoach, they normally took only the express box and left the passengers with their possessions intact.  Passengers frequently remarked that they had been treated courteously by the highwaymen.

Only twice were passengers robbed.  In the first instance the highwaymen later apologized for their conduct, and in the second the road agents were drunk.  Highwaymen seemed to understand that they could take the express box without arousing the general populace, but if they began robbing passengers they would possibly precipitate a vigilante reaction.

Bullion shipments carried occasionly by stagecoaches were often of great value: some of them would be worth $5 or $10 million in today's dollars.  Yet, not one of the bullion stages was ever attacked by highwaymen.

The reason is obvious.  The bullion stages, unlike the regular stages, were always guarded by two or three or more rifle and shotgun toting guards.  Highwaymen preferred to prey on unguarded coaches, take whatever was in the express box, and escape unharmed.

Only once did highwaymen and guards exchange gunfire - a highwayman was killed and a guard wounded - and in that case the highwaymen had not expected to encounter any guards.

Fear of arrest could not have served as much of a deterrent to stage robbery since only three road agents were ever apprehended, and only two of the three were convicted of robbery.


Bank holdups, after stagecoach holdups, are the form of robbery most popularly associated with the frontier West; yet none of the several banks that operated in Aurora and Bodie were robbed.  Bankers went about armed, as did their employees, and robbers, like the highwaymen who avoided the guarded bullion stages, evidently were not willing to tangle with armed men.


During this same periods there were ten robberies and three attempted robberies of individual citizens in Bodie and a somewhat smaller number in Aurora.

In nearly every one of these robberies the circumstances were almost identical: the robbery victim had spent the evening in a gambling den, saloon, or brothel; he had revealed in some way that he had on his person a tidy sum of money; and he was drunk, staggering toward home late at night when the attack occurred.

More robberies might have occurred if Aurorans and Bodieites had not gone about armed and ready to fight.  They were, unless staggering drunk, simply too dangerous to rob.



Theft was more common than robbery or burglary in Aurora and Bodie but still infrequent.  Bodie recorded some 45 instances of theft, and Aurora somewhat fewer.  Since both towns were high up in mountain valleys at elevations of 8,400 and 7,500 respectively, firewood and blankets were the items most commonly stolen.


Horse thieves.

Of Bodie's 45 instances of theft only six involved horses.  Just two horse thieves were caught, and they were punished far less severely than has been traditionally supposed: one was sentenced to serve six months in the county jail, and the other a year in the state penitentiary.



Although thousands of head of cattle grazed to the west of Bodie and Aurora in the Bridgeport Valley and to the south in the Owens Valley, cattle rustling, except for Indian thefts during the Owens Valley warfare of the 1860s, seems not to have occurred.

From 'Violence in America' edited by Ted Gurr.

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