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Guy Farmer: Book review: ‘Wicked Virginia City’

By Guy W. Farmer

Are you as sick and tired of pandemonium politics and Tuesday’s chaotic presidential election as I am? If so, you might enjoy today’s column because I’m not going to write about politics. Instead, I’ll be reviewing a delightful new book, “Wicked Virginia City,” by my erudite author/historian friend, Dr. Peter B. Mires.

This is a book about the gritty, and often violent, 19th century origins of Virginia City, not about more recent history involving colorful characters like wickedly clever brothel owner Joe Conforte or flamboyant author/journalist Lucius Beebe. Mark Twain himself set the scene for Mires’ book as follows:

“Virginia (City) had grown to be the ‘livest’ town, for its age and population, that America had ever produced. The sidewalks swarmed with people. …There were military companies, fire companies, brass bands, banks hotels, theaters, ‘hurdy gurdy houses’ …a whiskey mill every fifteen steps …and there was some talk of building a church.” Well, you get the idea. Virginia City was a wicked western mining town in the middle of the 19th century.

Mires dedicates his new book to frontier journalists Dan DeQuille (William Wright) and Alf Doten, who reported on early life on the streets and in the back alleys of our Comstock neighbor. His first chapter, “All the News That’s (Un)Fit to Print,” follows DeQuille and Doten around town, joined in the early 1860s by co-conspirator Mark Twain (Sam Clemens), who briefly wrote for the Territorial Enterprise. As we know, Twain’s best-selling book, “Roughing It,” chronicled life on the Comstock. Mires dedicated his popular 2018 book, “Lost Carson City,” to Clemens, “who became Mark Twain in Carson City.”

The author tells us that “the duo of DeQuille and Doten spent their careers drinking and writing in more or less equal measure,” which reminds me of some youthful journalistic escapades around here in the 1960s; however, the less said the better. Helpfully, Mires notes that Nevada’s annual per capita alcohol consumption fell from 22.5 gallons per person in 1880 to only 3.5 gallons per person last year — encouraging statistics.

Mires is a careful researcher who discovers historical anecdotes and priceless photos to illustrate his books. There are several enjoyable anecdotes in a chapter titled “Crooked Lawyers and Politicians” about the famous, or infamous, Comstock lawyers who became politicians. For example, Virginia City attorney William Stewart became a U.S. senator “who followed the money (and) permanently aligned himself with the wealthy elite.” So what else is new?

And then there were the fabulously wealthy Virginia City “Silver Kings”: John Mackay, James Fair, James Flood and William O’Brien. “Whereas Mackay …was an honorable and devoted family man,” Mires writes, “Fair was just the opposite.” The author tells us that Fair purchased a seat in the U.S. Senate but spent most of his time in San Francisco, where he earned a reputation as a “notorious philanderer.” We’ll skip more recent examples because the Appeal is a family newspaper.

Last but not least, we come to a chapter titled “Cyprians and Nymphs of the Pave” about the many ladies of the evening, or working girls, who plied their trade on the Comstock. Among them was the semi-wicked Julia Bulette, who was allegedly murdered by one of her customers, John Millian. There was some doubt about his guilt, however, and Mires writes that some local ladies took pity on Millian “and brought him food during his stay in jail.” He politely thanked them from the gallows.

Mires’ new book is a “fun read” during these depressing times. It costs $21.99 on Amazon and everywhere books are sold.

Guy W. Farmer, a longtime Carson City resident, loves books.