The Best Bad Things

A new book about the countless dangers of the gold rush lifestyle reckons with California’s ‘Hellacious’ history.

An unidentified pair of prospectors pose with tools of their trade (circa 1860).
An unidentified pair of prospectors pose with tools of their trade (circa 1860).

We live faster than any other people. We think more promptly; a thousand times more freely than our fathers of the east and of Europe. Our passions are stronger; our intellects keener; our prejudices weaker…

—Casper T. Hopkins, the Pioneer, or California Monthly Magazine, April 1854

Driving across the country with my mother in her new 1949 Ford convertible we were 100 years late, but hopeful in ways that promised transformation. My mother would teach school and have a new life without my dead father. I would be a ripsnorting new 49er with my cap pistol, in my cowboy boots. There was a wildness in heading for California that I remember even though I was a toddler.

Our more exact destination was “The Valley of Heart’s Delight,” which is what it said on a billboard on El Camino Real—a map of the Santa Clara Valley spotted with painted fruit like a postcard. Soon after we arrived, my mother brought me to a PTA meeting because she couldn’t afford a babysitter and we did not know the neighbors yet. She was to be introduced as a new teacher, and I was afraid the parents would not like her because she brought her kid along, but mostly they talked about how smart they were to be living in California with its warm weather and the orchards and the new roads and the new schools.

There were always new kids. They would just show up at school, or I would see them riding their bikes in my neighborhood. I’d ask where they were from and hear “Oklahoma” and “Illinois” and even further back east. When they asked me, I would say, “California.”

“Where you really from?”

“Here,” I would say.

If I thought they did not believe me, I would tell them I might sock them in the mouth, is how I said it. Sometimes I hit them without saying anything, like it was part of becoming friends later. I was not the same kid I was driving west in that ’49 Ford convertible. That’s right, I was from California, where things happened fast. I loved the chip it so easily put on my shoulder.

My mother’s new husband told me that progress was happening because people would drive to California just to see it, like he did, and stay because the war was over and it was time to get rich. He said this was good for real estate. He became a realtor and also a drunk and a failure. Only his unfounded optimism kept him going—always thinking that one big sale would turn everything around. Like me, he said he was from California—thinking it gave him an advantage selling cheap tract houses to newcomers.

This month’s California Book Club selection, How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang, also deals with the experiences of the early Golden State prospectors. Join Zhang in conversation with John Freeman on October 15 at 5 p.m. Pacific time. REGISTER.

For me, being from California, I believed (knew!) it was the best place to be from. It seemed almost possible to live up to the landscape. Being from California was cool because everything happened there first, like Disneyland and wetsuits, and being a teenager in California was wide-open, like my high school football team throwing 40 times a game when the rest of the country was grinding out running plays. And all the coolness built on itself. It was all connected. Our night games against Mountain View High were played less than a mile away from the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, even if none of us knew what silicon was in 1962. The Byte Shop, where Steve Jobs would sell his first computers in 1975, was just over there on El Camino. All the songs said California had the best waves and the best girls and the best dope, and “Sex, drugs, and rock and roll” was what I stupidly said to an Oakland police sergeant to explain what I thought was so funny about martial law in Berkeley, when all I could actually call to mind was how beautiful tear gas looked floating down Telegraph Avenue in the evening light.

I saw beauty everywhere without thinking about it. Sometimes I would just ride around smoking weed and wonder at the towering eucalyptus separating the orchards or the live oak overhanging the tiny roads winding into the Santa Cruz Mountains. I became vain about it, as if the trees were mine because I could name them. I write this so readers will know that California is where my heart is, no matter where I live now or how long I have been gone. California is like that; the only problem is there are things you don’t want to find out.

In 1848, when James W. Marshall caught that curious yellow sparkle in the shallows of the American River and reached down for the gleaming nuggets the size of a melon seed, he could not have known that events would shape themselves. Cause and effect were in play. Within five years, 300,000 people, the vast majority of them young men, would show up hoping to cash in. By 1850, California’s population had increased by 1,400 percent, which transformed the state into the most culturally diverse place in the world—and sparked not understanding but a cross-pollination of all the racism, sexism, and prejudice that contributed to the systemic inequality that is now forcing a nationwide reckoning.

California was, as advertised, a land of opportunity, but it was also dangerous as hell, especially for the people who were already there. Indigenous Californians, who had been colonized by the Spanish, were almost completely exterminated by disease and racism-inspired violence. The Californios lost all power and personal property, including great tracts of land, as immediate statehood erratically converted the legal system from Mexican to American law. As 49er and California state senator Elisha Oscar Crosby noted, according to author Gary Noy, “there was very little law.” Violence and general harassment fueled by racism and xenophobia were part of the daily lives of Chinese, Latino, and Black people—who were also systematically excluded from politics. The paradox now, of course, is that the California of the Mind still conjures the splendors of the land and the creativity of its people.

A group of miners work a claim in front of a cash store (circa 1850). More than 300,000 people migrated to California during the early years of the gold rush.
A group of miners work a claim in front of a cash store (circa 1850). More than 300,000 people migrated to California during the early years of the gold rush.


Noy is from California too, from Grass Valley in Nevada County, and his book Hellacious California! underlines every contradiction in that paradox, what he calls “part romantic legend, part unforgiving reality.” His subtitle is riotous: Tales of Rascality! Revelry! Dissipation! and Depravity! and the Birth of the Golden State. It was inspired by an observation of Hinton Rowan Helper’s in his 1855 diatribe The Land of Gold: Reality Versus Fiction: “I have seen purer liquors, better segars [cigars], finer tobacco, truer guns and pistols, larger drinks 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.”

Not so ironically, Helper hated California. His comment was a backhanded compliment to get even for being one of the numerous men to wash out as an Argonaut. It also reflects all the treacherous glamour that confounds history, a gold rush porn that can make you want to grab a drink and a smoke and maybe get a bet down.

Just coming to California was a gamble, and once arrived you stepped into a culture that still included Indigenous Californians wagering wildly on a hide-the-stick game called churchurki that also involved singing and drumming. Likewise, the Californios bet on anything to do with horses, and money could also be placed on their notorious bear-and-bull fights. A poster that went up in gold camps in Placer County in 1855 advertised a “Large and Ferocious Panther” vs. “The Celebrated Grizzly Bear, Lola Montes.” (Lola Montes the bear was most likely named for Lola Montez, the provocative celebrity and originator of the infamous Spider Dance.) On the same bill: “Mr STEVENS will enter the celebrated Dog, Major, with $500 attached to his neck, challenging any Dog of his weight for a Rough and Tumble Fight.” That $500 would equal $15,000 today.

I knew about animal baiting and used it in a novel I wrote when I lived in San Francisco. That it was a comic novel underlines not just how far I could stray but also how influenced I was by the upbeat gold rush history I had learned in school and the thinness of my education when it came to 49ers and their numerous vices.

Gamblers could be found everywhere, according to Noy, including “grimy shacks, seedy card rooms, barrelheads in dingy backstreets, tree stumps in mining camps, blankets on the ground, and glittering, raucous palaces in budding urban areas.” Various classes, races, and nationalities found themselves together in the goldfields but otherwise avoided one another—unless they were gambling, which Noy argues brought them together as one of few racially integrated social activities. Noy’s period sources also cite surprising stories of children wagering—including “a poker player named Ned, a pistol-packing Massachusetts native who was all of nine years old.”

When I read this snapshot of Noy’s, I smiled until the end, when it brought back the sadness of my stepfather: “The common denominator was that players of all types were addicted to some mixture of the swift, glitzy games of chance, the possibility of a quick fortune, and the boisterous ambience awash in tobacco smoke, whiskey, free food, judgment-free rowdiness, bonhomie, and the everlasting optimism that today might be the day everything changed.”

Everybody smoked, and Noy devotes a chapter to tobacco culture. Naturally, the smokers drank—a long list reflecting their various origins, including the best Irish and Scotch whiskey but also adulterated “red-eye,” supplemented with turpentine or gunpowder for more kick. To get drunk was to be “roostered” or “loaded for bear.” Alfred Doten, a journalist who arrived from Massachusetts in 1849, kept a daily drinking journal—which compelled him to categorize his various degrees of “jollification.” Noy quotes Doten’s explanation that he was never “drunk” but “sometimes ‘obscure’ or ‘very obscure indeed.’ ” One cure for someone “shot in the neck” was to tie the drunkard to a tree until he became sober. Overindulging was most often dismissed as exuberance in the pursuit of companionship, as opposed to excessive or obnoxious behavior. The historical record, however, shows it frequently led to reckless violence—including random murder.

Alcoholism was so common, many thought it had something to do with the weather and the emerging California character. The worldly Scottish observer John David Borthwick suggested, “There is something in the climate which superinduces [drinking] with less provocation than in other countries.… [These individuals] make the voyage through life under a full head of steam all the time; they live more in a given time than other people, and naturally have recourse to constant stimulants to make up for the want of intervals of abandon and repose.” At the same time, treatments for alcohol addiction—other than prayer—included “electric light baths,” taken lying down in a coffin-size steel box lined with mirrors and (recently invented) light bulbs. Tonics marketed as cures, like the White Star Secret Liquor Cure, were dosed with opium, morphine, cocaine, and alcohol.

Often fueled by drink, the antagonism between various nationalities led to a culture Noy describes as “prone to interpersonal hostilities.” It was as if everyone in California were looking for a fight. Dueling was thought of as not only a solid proof of manhood, but a not-unreasonable alternative to the shaky judicial process—especially among Californios, who went after satisfaction with swords and knives until the gold rush, when gun dueling became widespread. Duels drew enthusiastic crowds, as did brutal prizefights and animal death matches—all officially denounced while widely enjoyed and aggressively covered in hyperbolic newspaper accounts.

Author Gary Noy writes that, in the 1870 census, 61 percent of the Chinese women living in California identified as prostitutes.
Author Gary Noy writes that, in the 1870 census, 61 percent of the Chinese women living in California identified as prostitutes.


Bad behavior sold newspapers, and in 1853 there were already more than 150 in the state. California’s most successful and powerful paper was the Daily Alta California, published out of San Francisco. The Journal of Alta California that you are now reading shares much with its 19th-century forebearer, dedicated as that publication was to the goings-on of California. Its editor until 1852, the desk-pounding Edward Gilbert, set a telling, if extreme, precedent. Gilbert wrote fire-breathing editorials accusing Governor John Bigler and his agent James Denver of opportunism and showboating in their oversight of the relief and rescue of California-bound travelers trapped in the eastern Sierra by winter snow. One insult led to another, and Noy describes how Gilbert was killed in a duel with “Wesson rifles at 40 paces” in the summer heat near Sacramento.

The Daily Alta California was one of many newspapers and journals that documented in detail the corruption of criminal organizations like the Sydney Ducks, mostly Australian immigrants and some former convicts who settled together in what quickly became known as Sydney Town. Apparently, mining proved more difficult than extortion schemes and murders for hire. When the Ducks brazenly set large blazes to distract from their crimes, locals responded, in part, with vigilance committees—known for lynchings and terrorizing city officials. But population growth quickly inundated San Francisco, and Sydney Town soon transformed into the notorious Barbary Coast. Here Noy uses period journalistic sources like Albert Evans, a correspondent for the New York Tribune and the Chicago Tribune, who visited the Barbary Coast in 1871 and described a place where “thieves, murderers, prostitutes, and vagabonds from every clime beneath the sun meet and mingle…and wretchedness, and moral and physical degradation unutterable are stamped on the face of every denizen of the evil neighborhood.”

Noy is especially smart about how the exploding male demographic encouraged and romanticized prostitution. There were simply too many men. Noy’s best source is Eliza Farnham, “who had come to California from New York in 1849 [and] recalled that even in San Francisco, it was so rare to see a female, that those whose misfortune it was to be obliged to be abroad felt themselves uncomfortably stared at. Doorways filled instantly, and little islands in the streets were thronged with men who seemed to gather in a moment, and who remained immovable till the spectacle passed from their incredulous gaze.” In 1856, authors Theodore Barry and Benjamin Patten wrote, “We remember the day, when a woman walking along the streets of San Francisco was more of a sight than an elephant or giraffe would be today.”

The state’s early censuses are suspect but suggest that women made up about 8 percent of California’s population in 1852, and much less in the gold camps and within some ethnic groups. Noy notes that “the overwhelmingly male population afforded prostitutes a sense of deference.… At least in the early years of the rush, men were more likely to treat a sex worker with appreciation—at least if she…conducted herself with propriety, appeared demure, and spoke English.” Idealizing them as “Soiled Doves” and “Ladies in Full Bloom” built a twisted mythology of comfort and understanding instead of “disillusionment and defeat.” Noy writes that “most sex workers were women, but there were also male and gender-nonconforming people in the business.… It was the only job available for people stuck in poverty, individuals who had been abandoned by their families, people of color, those facing language barriers, victims of rape, impoverished mothers with young children and others desperate to survive.” It was in this context that gold seeker Hinton Rowan Helper offered his snide “prettier courtezans” as a prominent example of California having “the best bad things.”

Noy explains that brutality in sex work was routine and that it intersected with the racism of many of his sources, who believed in “the inherent immorality of the races of the sex workers themselves (although this criticism would not be applied to sex workers of the same race as the critic, of course).” Gold rush demographics for prostitution generally reflect the diversity of people in California at that time, but with some big surprises. According to Noy’s reading of 1860 census manuscripts from Sacramento, “55 percent [of sex workers] were Chinese (at the time when Chinese immigrants made up only 9 percent of California’s total population).” Chinese girls as young as 12 were sold by impoverished families or kidnapped and auctioned in street sales where they were “stripped, inspected, and physically appraised.” After a girl was sold for an agreed upon price, she’d sign a contract, promising to “prostitute my body” for a term of years. The contract Noy includes is chilling. He acknowledges that “no official reckoning of the larger sex worker population exists,” but he does note that “by 1870, census manuscripts recorded that 61 percent of the 3,536 Chinese women in California officially listed their occupation as prostitute.”

Prostitution was a foreign concept to Native Californians, but Noy writes that “Native girls were frequently kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery.” He also points to an 1856 issue of the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin in which it was reported that on one mountain reservation “some of the [government] agents, and nearly all of the [government] employees [were] daily and nightly…kidnapping the younger portion of the females, for the vilest purposes.… [These] wives and daughters [were] prostituted before the very eyes of their husbands and fathers, by these civilized monsters.”


It is a long reach from Manhattan in 2020 back to the Santa Clara Valley of the ’50s and from there to the gold rush itself. I see now how naïve I must have been, growing up so proud to be from California. I was provincial in a way I did not recognize until I went east, unaware of what establishment power was and what you had to do to get it in an order built on generations of money. Being from California was useful and cool, and I wrapped myself in it. I never wore cowboy boots to work, but coming out of the West, I surprised myself with ambition I could not place except that it was part of what it meant to me to be from California.

When I called Noy, who now lives in Loomis, we talked about that, how it doesn’t go away. Noy told me he conceived his book to investigate the range of problematic pursuits that contributed to the California we recognize today—“some frightening, some amusing, some mystifying, all impactful,” as he put it in his introduction. He did not intend a comprehensive compendium of unsavory conduct—there was too much. His choice of “Hellacious” in the title was perfect, a word with more than one meaning, conveying something at once astonishing, disconcerting, and appalling. Even when he’s hilariously describing numerous questionable undertakings, there is always an uncomfortable edge.

Little kids smoking big cigars is a funny image, but the label “made by white men” on cigar boxes is not. The eccentric theater and opera were a hoot, but “blackface” minstrel shows that—as described by Noy—portrayed Black people as “immoral and ignorant fools” pandered to the prejudices of the white citizens who crowded to see them. Most of these same young men would not consume Mexican or Californio food, and Noy explains that they were fond of joking that “coyotes would not even eat the flesh of dead Mexicans because their bodies were tainted with the foul-tasting residue of chili peppers.” Learning that the Hokey-
Pokey was not a silly song and dance but one of numerous variations on stud poker is fun, but not as important as finding out that the San Francisco Society of Regulators (or “the Hounds,” as the newspapers called them) were American veterans of the Mexican-American War and nativists who harassed and attacked and tortured Spanish-speaking immigrants, Californios, and Chinese people.

You cannot read through to Noy’s last page without resetting what it means to be from California. He believes that the gold rush never ended, and that anytime you look a little deeper into those early years, you find the beginning of a continuum that animates California to this day.

"Hellacious California!" by Gary Noy


• By Gary Noy
• Heyday, 256 pages, $18

Terry McDonell has published widely as a journalist, top-edited a number of magazines, and was elected to the American Society of Magazine Editors Hall of Fame in 2012.
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