A Fence Around Her: Lottie Johl

A ghost town is the home of the stories of its past residents.

[This post was written by reader Brigid Amos. Maybe you have seen her comments here. She is the author of a new book,  A Fence Around Her. I’ll let her continue…]

There is something bittersweet about a collection of abandoned homes, businesses, churches and civic buildings, all decaying slowly in a remote location. A visit to such a place always seems to evoke the dashed hopes and bitter disappointments of those who once walked its now-lonely streets, and this is true even if the ghost town is well-maintained and heavily visited, as is Bodie, California, a prosperous gold and silver mining district in the Eastern Sierra that boomed in the 1880s. Of all the stories I’ve read or heard about Bodie, the one that always gets to me is that of Lottie Johl. I find her story so sad and touching that I loosely based a major character in my novel A Fence Around Her on this real-life Bodie resident.

Lottie was a sweet, good-natured woman who found herself, through unfortunate life circumstances and limited employment opportunities, working in a house of ill repute in Bodie’s red-light district. There she met a hard-working German immigrant named Eli Johl. Although he was quite successful as a butcher, he was a lonely bachelor, perhaps due to his limited English skills, and he seemed to be searching for someone to share his life. The woman he found was Lottie, and much to the horror of the respectable people of Bodie, he took her as his legal wife. He built her a comfortable house and furnished it in the best style he could afford. Lottie showed an interest in painting, and Eli bought her an easel, a palette, and brushes, and he kept her well-supplied with oil paints and canvases. Isolated in her opulent parlor, Lottie painted fantastical landscapes. Eli had them elaborately framed in red velvet and gilt and displayed them on the parlor walls, although no one came to their house to look at the paintings, because Lottie was still shunned by society.

Finally, Eli hatched a plan to almost force Lottie upon Bodie society. A masquerade ball was to be held at the Miners Union Hall, and Eli sent Lottie to the event alone, dressed in a white satin gown covered in fake diamonds and pearls, with a matching crown perched on her blond curls. All the men wanted to dance with the lovely lady in the diamond and pearl-encrusted dress, and all the women envied her. The committee assigned to give out the costume awards decided to give the mysterious lady the first prize. But when midnight struck and everyone took off their masks, poor Lottie was abandoned by her dance partner. A member of the committee discreetly asked her to leave, and she went home in humiliation.

lottie-johl
Lottie Johl. Photograph used with permission of the Bodie Foundation.

And if the events of Lottie Johl’s life weren’t sad enough, her death and burial are truly heartbreaking. Lottie felt sick one day (though probably not sick enough to die), and a doctor wrote a prescription. The druggist filled it, and Lottie took the medicine. She was dead by next morning. Instead of the prescribed medicine, the druggist had given her a deadly dose of a toxic substance. It was probably a mistake, but I have to wonder if the druggist took less care in filling the prescription when he saw that it was for Lottie Johl, someone he considered of little importance.

Eli was not allowed to bury his beloved wife inside the fence of the cemetery with the “respectable dead,” so he erected an ornate wrought-iron fence around her grave. He was determined that she would have a much finer fence than the one around the cemetery, so that people would see what a fine woman she was. I think it’s ironic that so many of the people who made Lottie’s life miserable are completely forgotten, while the memory of Lottie Johl lives on.

I felt that it was important to honor the real-life inspiration for Lilly Conoboy, the mother of fourteen-year-old Ruthie Conoboy, the protagonist of my novel A Fence Around Her. I want to make it clear that Lilly is not Lottie. While Lottie was an innocent victim, Lilly brings on her own tragedy. While Lottie seems like someone I might seek out as a friend, Lilly is someone I would avoid if I could do so. But that is what we historical fiction writers do. We take history and turn it into fiction, and the two are not the same. I will always feel gratitude to the historical Lottie Johl for being who she was and leaving behind her story.

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Pamela:  You can read an excerpt of A Fence Around Her, Young Adult Historical Fiction published by Clean Reads, and purchase at the links below.

Amazon 

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iTunes

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Brigid and I would like to hear your comment!

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Author and playwright Brigid Amos

Gone With the Winter Wind

“The cattle business became a fad–a fashion. Rich men’s sons, college and university graduates, foreign investors in France, England and Scotland put their money in the business.” (Bartlett, History of Wyoming, Vol. 1)

The Cheyenne Club opened its doors in 1881. It was three stories tall with a kitchen and wine room in the basement. Servants trained in the East poured the finest liquors, which were brought in by train. Two vaults for the expensive wines. Caviar.

Members enjoyed a billiards room and a reading room with magazines and newspapers from the East. The club was decorated with paintings and thick carpets.

While the cattlemen dined in luxury, the cattle were left to fend for themselves during the winter, to find grass and unfrozen water or die. Even at the time, other people pitied the distressed animals.

The harsh winter of 1886-7 killed more cattle than usual, and the investors lost money. That spelled the end of their Cheyenne Club. Here’s a photograph of their grand building.

References:

Bartlett, I.S., ed. History of Wyoming, Vol. 1. Chicago, S.J .Clark, 1918

Dary, David. Seeking Pleasure in the Old West. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.

Larson, T.A. History of Wyoming. University of Nebraska Press, 1965.

The Old West: The Cowboys. New York, Time-Life Books, 1973.

 

 

A Cheating Set with a Surprise

Autry National Center of the American West, Los Angeles. Photo by Pamela Tartaglio.
Autry National Center of the American West, Los Angeles. Photo by Pamela Tartaglio.

The implements of a cheating gambler fit inside this box. Because he was serious about winning at any cost, he was probably a roving gambler.

The large pin with the ace is a “bug.” The ends are sharp and could spear the underside of the table and hold the card.

The other card is in a card trimmer. It looks like a miniature paper cutter.

The drills and metal guide are to load dice. Cheating gamblers drilled holes on the black dots of one side and filled them with a heavy metal such as gold. They painted a new black dot on top of each one they altered. When rolled, the dice were more likely to land with the heavy side down.

A gambler’s opponents were often armed with a derringer or dagger, so it astonishes me that the owner of this cheating set had his initials put on the box, along with the year (JMD 1867). The box does not lock.

It has a simple hook latch, and might fall open if dropped, and it could be opened by anyone, such as someone who just lost a bundle to Mr. JMD. He could have marked his box discreetly, like he did cards and dice, to tell it apart from boxes of other gamblers.

He risked getting shot by having his initials put on this. He liked taking a big risk, and he was one cocky son of a gun.

Gamblers of the Old West

There were two kinds of professionals, the gamblers who stayed in one town for months or years, and itinerant gamblers who traveled so they could play opponents they might never see again. Guess which type cheated more often.

Resident gamblers made their home in a town or city. They often worked in boomtowns, where a gold or silver strike or the coming of the railroad had caused a “boom” in population. Resident gamblers, like all good Victorians, guarded their reputations. These men were seen as upright members of the community, men with a skilled profession, even though they may have worked in raucous saloons and gambling halls.  They were called “square dealers.” Square meant fair, honest, and straightforward. We still say “square deal.” Some resident gamblers were women.

They were skilled at the games, and they made a good living without cheating. Many of them probably cheated occasionally, for instance, they might if they realized an opponent was cheating them (The Gamblers, Time-Life Books).

Roulette Table. After 1900.
Roulette Table. After 1900.
A portable roulette game from the 1860s.
A portable roulette game from the 1860s.

 

The roulette table above is heavy, with the layout, the area where people placed their chips, painted on the table. By contrast, the roulette setup at right has a separate wheel and the layout is enameled canvas, which the itinerant gambler could roll up for travel, great when he needed to make a quick getaway.

Roulette wheels were sometimes rigged.

Itinerant gamblers liked playing travelers on the great Mississippi riverboats, river towns and trains. Travel was slow compared to today, so travelers had time, they carried money, and many had come west looking for fortune and adventure. Camps of miners and prospectors were prime territory for itinerant gamblers. Prospectors hoped to get lucky and strike it rich by finding silver or gold, or at a game of chance. The cheating, fly-by-night gambler was happy to play them.

Zoom into 1890s Denver

Try zooming in on this panoramic photo. It looks hand-painted.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8d/Panorama_of_Denver%2C_Colorado%2C_1898.jpg

The cursor is a tiny magnifying glass with a plus sign. Move it to a spot you’d like to visit. Click to zoom in to Denver on Dec. 31, 1897.  Click again to zoom out.

The label on Wikimedia Commons says, “The view depicted is looking northwest down 16th Street, image taken from Colorado State Capitol.”

The Capitol was only a few years old, and the photographer William Henry Jackson must have looked out onto new buildings that seemed tall and modern. A vibrant, modern city.

The triangular building on the right is the Brown Hotel, which Google Earth shows as now dwarfed by high rises.The large one in the center foreground, red brick with pale granite lower stories, is the Majestic Building, which no longer stands. Same architect for both buildings. The tall, domed building on the left, yellow and facing us, is the county courthouse.

The street in front of the park in the foreground is much darker than 16th Street. It looks like 16th Street was not paved, and the pale dirt is covering some of the dark, paved street.

On the left foreground, the white sign painted on the building reads “Palace Stables.” There can’t be any livery stables left in downtown Denver.

Restored Film of 1906 San Francisco

This is before the earthquake, but Market Street looks chaotic:  cable cars, autos, horse-drawn carriages and pedestrians dodging all of them. You see the Ferry Building, which still stands, at the end of the street. The camera was mounted on the front of a cable car, so the people and cars crossing the tracks are crossing in front of a cable car.

This was shot only about four days before the catastrophic earthquake and fire, but by that time the film was safely on its way to New York to be developed. I wish all the people in the film had also been out of town.

This excerpt is sharper than the longer versions on YouTube.

1895 Mail-Order Catalog

Just think what life was like in rural America before and after the mail-order catalog. Aaron Montgomery Ward used the trains in Chicago to get goods to far-flung parts of the country. Mr. Ward and his partners stocked goods to launch their first mail-order catalog, but his stock was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. He did not give up but started over, an inspiration to us all, and the Montgomery Ward Catalog debuted the following year. It was a single page long, basically a price list with ordering info.

I own a replica of an 1895 Montgomery Ward Catalogue, published by Dover. I am writing a novel set in the West in 1894, so an 1895 catalog is fantastic for me, but some of the items are remarkable. For example, it offers music boxes, the kind we had as children for our jewelry, but these played three songs, or six or eight, depending on how much you wanted to pay … it was the days before radio.

I bought it brand new several years ago. Wearing it out.

We’re all familiar with old butter churns where the person pushed a pole up and down. In 1895, people ordered butter churns that were boxes or barrels with a side crank. Everything’s up to date in Kansas City! If you could spend another fifteen or twenty-three dollars, you could buy a treadmill to attach to the churn’s crank and put your sheep, goat or one or two dogs walking on it, and they’d churn the butter.

The latest styles:  those little hats women wore, with lots of bows on them. Corsets. Stereoscopes — here’s a link to my post on those .  At over 600 pages, it offers thousands of items. It had no competition at the time, years before Sears & Roebuck.

Aaron Montgomery Ward used his fortune to sue the city of Chicago twice to remove and prevent structures in Grant Park, shown below, a lovely park between the skyscrapers and the lake. Bully for you, Mr. Ward.

1200px-Chicago_Downtown_Panorama