Saloons of the Old West - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Saloons of the Old West

I AM TOLD that this is the place to talk about Great American Saloons. But on reviewing the subjects previously celebrated here, I begin to wonder. Great American Saloons? Arnold’s of Cincinnati? The Union Oyster House? An oyster house? What next—the Detroit Dairy Freeze? I suppose you Easterners thought the Golden Arches walk-ups were high times. Oh well, it can’t be helped, I guess. You never saw the real saloons. You never painted your noses in Tombstone’s Bird Cage, the Clippel Shades Saloon in Butte, the Sazerac House of Virginia City, or the Long Branch–and no, you don’t get points for watching “Gunsmoke.” The worst of it is that you never will belly up at those bars, either. The real saloons are all gone now. Nothing is left but tourist traps and the memories of the few remaining old-timers who regularly irrigated themselves on Old Towse, Skullbender, White Mule, and Panther Piss.

Panther Piss, Panther Piss,
Spit it out and hear it hiss.
It’s pure bliss.
Little miss,
Taste my kiss of Panther Piss.
Panther Piss I love you.

In their best days, the saloons were glorious and enchanting places. Earlier, when white men first entered the West, the saloons were, well, functional. Some were set up in covered wagons. Tents, Kansas sod houses, and Arizona adobes also served the purpose in their time. Characteristic of these early snake ranches were leaky roofs, windows of elk hide, the outdoors for plumbing, and wooden planks for bars.

When the frontier towns prospered from mining or cattle, so did their saloons. Wood or brick walls replaced canvas or adobe, and hide-covered windows gave place to glass. (Saloon keepers then had to install iron bars in front of the panes to protect them from the butts of horses crowding under the covered boardwalks during rainstorms.) Ornate furnishings appeared: sixty foot walnut, oak, and mahogany bars, shipped by rail from Chicago or around the Horn from England; brass rails, spittoons, and towel hooks to accompany the bar (the towels were for wiping foam off your mustache); backbar mirror and shelves for displaying bottles and paraphernalia; a potbellied stove; and oil paintings of voluptuous women. Viewing this high art was not always easy. Lighting came from candles or kerosene lamps, which sometimes hung in groups from wagon wheels. Eventually gas-lit chandeliers were installed in the more profitable watering holes, and, as electricity became available late in the century, light bulbs illuminated the interiors.

The exteriors of western jughouses were not something you’d miss riding through town. Two stories high, the saloon front was impressive—until you caught a profile. The front walls were fakes: double the size of the buildings themselves. They fooled no one, of course, yet contributed to the carnival atmosphere the customers expected and enjoyed.

The whiskey mills were, after all, havens. Busting your tail on a horse was tiring, monotonous, dirty, and dangerous work; mining and farming were no picnics, either. At the end of the month you needed time out, not time off, and saloons provided the escape: camaraderie, excitement, immediate gratification, high stakes and fast action, sex, distraction, and edification. In the Old West everyone drank, and no one wanted to drink alone. Boozing was socializing, and the place to socialize was in your local snake ranch.

ALONG WITH THE ROTGUT came other entertainments. Gambling, from poker and roulette to jumping grasshoppers and fighting dogs, was an opportunity–more or less, depending on the honesty of the house—to “knock Dame Fortune on her ass.” “Pretty waiter girls,” the sometimes partially attired nymphs in the hurdy-gurdy saloons, were good for a dance and often more. Prostitutes, those frail sisters and soiled doves, operated in many barrelhouses, like Denver’s Elephant Corral and the Alamo in Abilene. (One of these fancy women was Calamity Jane, so named because of what you contracted upon becoming personally acquainted.) And just as these fallen angels had their place in the saloons, so did proponents of the unblemished variety: Itinerant preachers were usually welcome to address the assembled carousers. It was a fair arrangement. The sin-buster got a ready-made congregation, and the customers enjoyed some lively entertainment.

In addition to the threat of eternal damnation, there was the presence of earthly judgment. Many a cantina doubled as the local courtroom. Communities selected judges on the basis of their common sense, fair play, and knowledge of the law–unless, of course, book-learning got in the way of reasonableness. Excogitating a new law was easier and faster than developing good sense on the job, so legal proceedings were often governed solely by a judge’s ability to exert his authority. Texas judge Three-Legged Willie was once questioned on a point by a defendant who held a bowie knife against the judge’s throat while positing: “This is the law of Texas!” Willie countered with his Navy Colt: “And here’s the Texas constitution!” Another Texan is probably the most famous of the old barroom jurists. Judge Roy Bean held court in his saloon, the Jersey Lily, in Langtree. His Honor named both the pouring spot and the town in fondness for a touring actress from the East, Lily Langtree.

Other thespians also travelled the West, staging performances in theater saloons. These included Edwin Booth, Sarah Bernhardt, Eddie Foy, and Lotta Crabtree. Productions ranged from Shakespeare to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to Byron’s “Mazeppa.” Mazeppa was a Cossack, left to die tied to the back of a hart; on the western stage the role was taken by the former mistress of Alexander Dumas, Delores McCord, who played the final scene in skin-colored tights strapped atop a horse. Miss McCord’s acting career ended when the horse fell on her.

GUNFIGHTING IN WESTERN SALOONS was real enough, albeit not in the fashion of “Have Gun, Will Travel” or “The Rifleman.” A lot of men took lead, mostly between 1860 and 1885. Perhaps more died in saloons than in the western Indian wars; on the other hand, no fewer died in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen or in Storyville of New Orleans during those years. Contrary notions of frontier violence, like most misconceptions, were products of the eastern press. (Some things never change.) Centuries before, European folklore had glorified pistol-waving bandits; the Japanese recounted tales of their outlaw Samurai. In that tradition, the reporters from New York and Baltimore wrote extravagantly of the exploits of such gunmen as Jesse James and Wild Bill Hickok.

Wild Bill never qualified as the world’s greatest marksman; in shootouts he might blast foe and friend without distinction. Neither was he an astute observer: “When it came to telling a bandit from an honest citizen, Wild Bill couldn’t tell shit from honey,” one saloon keeper commented. After Hickok was gunned down while playing poker in his favorite saloon, New York journalist Ed Wheeler created a character he named Deadwood Dick to fill his copy. Thus, as Richard Erdoes puts it, largely “the heroic gunfighter was an Eastern invention; for the Westerner he was a pain in the ass.”

There were, of course, more than a few professional gunfighters. Several “Kids” had reputations: the Texas Kid, the Nevada Kid, and Willie, Jimmy, and Billy the Kid, the latter starting his life of crime stealing shirts from Chinese laundrymen. John Wesley Hardin may hold the record for saloon shoot-outs, having killed perhaps 40 men. Most professionals, however, did not live long enough to accumulate such a string of accomplishments. If they were not shot in straightforward duels, their neighbors would bushwhack them.

Most gunfighting was between amateurs, usually cowboys. From “can’t see to can’t see,” these men herded, fed, watered, branded, and fenced cattle, and they labored at their chores for weeks, sometimes months, without a break. On the job, cowboys carried guns because of varmints, Indians, rustlers, robbers, and range wars. Besides, there were the traditions of the Revolution, the pioneers, and the Civil War to uphold. What the hell, all cowboys wore iron. And when they hit the saloon on payday, they saw no reason to unbuckle.

A few jolts of Dust-Cutter brought out the fighting nature in cowboys, and poker, women, and the Civil War gave them something to fight about. But the whiskey also reduced whatever accuracy the gunfighters were capable of, thus rendering the shootouts much safer for the participants. On one occasion a cowboy and a gunman faced off, each grasping the other’s left hand, drawing and firing five rounds apiece. Neither was seriously injured. In a Fort Griffin, Texas, gunfight, the antagonists couldn’t hit one another, although they did kill two bystanders and winged two more. Sometimes it was the saloon keeper who threw the lead. One cause for doing so was cowboys riding their horses into the saloons. In Fort Benton, Montana, a barman put 14 holes in a cowboy intent on riding his horse to his room upstairs. Other saloon keepers were less fastidious, such as the bartender who blamed the salesman for leaving his sample case open when a cowpuncher’s horse added several road apples to the peddler’s stock.

AFTER ALL, MEN WENT TO SALOONS to have a good time. The barroom was a place to set aside your burdens, to purge yourself of worry, regret, and disappointment, to refresh your outlook on the world. But while no one objected to these goals, there lived those who were intolerant of the means for reaching them: wives. As the number of married women in the West became substantial, their insistence upon establishing orderly, civilized communities grew impossible to ignore. And then two trends peaked: the supply of booze and beer and the century-old reaction to chronic drunkenness. The former exacerbated the latter because overproduction, especially of beer, resulted in price-cutting, which increased sales less than it decreased profits. Saloons that were once legitimate social institutions became seamy dives, narrowly maintaining themselves by hustling family men out of their paychecks. Things got so bad that the barrelhouses actually deserved Carrie Nation.

Carrie’s husband died of the DT’s, and her life’s mission became stamping out public boozing. The six-foot, 180-pound latter-day Bella Abzug (the anti-saloon movement was the feminist cause at the turn of the century, taking priority among women even over suffrage) and her fellow reformers wrought “hatchetation” upon the saloons of the nation and provided the final effort to secure nationwide prohibition. Carrie died in 1911 and did not live to know of the Eighteenth Amendment, but several states, including such western states as Kansas, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, had become dry–officially, anyway–during her lifetime. Over 30 states had outlawed booze either partially or altogether when in 1920 federal prohibition became the law of the land.

And that was the end of the saloons. First the gangsters took control of the liquor supply; then came the flappers. Once women started drinking socially, repeal was a sure thing. Next came Harvey Wallbangers and Pink Squirrels, the Peppermint Lounge and Studio 54. The hell with them. 

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