Jackie Mitchell: The Girl Who Struck Out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig

Woman Pitcher Jackie Mitchell “Batter up,” sports fans, the 2015 Major League baseball season kicks off on April 5th!  While baseball isn’t normally a subject I would choose to write about, today I am going to throw you a curve ball! This past week I came across a baseball story that made my history-loving heart skip a beat. That’s really saying something because I’m not a huge fan of organized sports, mostly because of my lack of eye-hand coordination. My regular softball team position in high school P.E. class was that of “way-way-out-roving right field.” I was strategically positioned so far away from the action that I customarily used game time to collect specimens for my biology class bug collection.

While my personal baseball skills may be lackluster, I do enjoy a big slice of Americana from time-to-time! And the subject of this story is as American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. Today, I’m going to tell you about a girl named Jackie Mitchell, the pitcher who struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. You heard me right. . . Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

On the Ball

blog2Open up any parenting magazine today and you’ll probably find at least one article dealing with how to NOT gender stereotype your child. But, when Virne Beatrice “Jackie” Mitchell was born, in 1913, there were no parenting magazines and most parents weren’t terribly concerned with developing their children’s fragile little identities, anyway. Jackie’s father didn’t need anyone at a parenting magazine to tell him that little girls could play baseball. He had already made up his mind. Jackie was going to learn how to play baseball, and he patiently waited until she could toddle around without falling over before taking her out to a baseball field. (Yes, I am sort of wondering if the nickname her father gave her and his determination that she learn to play baseball might indicate that he had been hoping for a boy. But, whatever! He still didn’t need a parenting magazine!)

blog3An interesting turn of fate is that Jackie’s childhood neighbor was none other than the future Baseball Hall of Famer, Dazzy Vance. Dazzy, who was the only pitcher to lead the National League in strikeouts for seven consecutive seasons, taught Jackie how to throw his trademark “drop ball,” when she was only five-yrs-old. That was a skill Jackie never forgot.

A Ball Park Figure

Blog4When other girls were having Sweet Sixteen parties, Jackie was joining a woman’s baseball team in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She was seventeen when she caught the eye of a man named Joe Engel, the owner and president of the Chattanooga Lookouts, a Class AA men’s minor league team. In 1931, Jackie signed on and it was evident to everyone on the team that she was a minor league player with a major talent and a wicked sinkin’ curveball.

I don’t want to take anything away from Jackie Mitchell and her tremendous talent—for she was truly talented. But, under normal circumstances, even her great talent wouldn’t have gotten her signed with a men’s baseball team. However, in 1930, the circumstances were far from normal.

Blog5When Engel took over the Chattanooga Lookouts in 1929, he could never have predicted the  stock market crash, which would occur just a short few weeks later. Suddenly, tickets to America’s favorite pastime weren’t selling. Engel had to get creative to draw crowds to the stadium. Pretty soon the marketer in Engel took control and he became known as the “P.T. Barnum of Baseball,” for his knack of combining baseball and some very unusual marketing tactics. One of those tactics was the signing of a teenage girl as a pitcher.

Blog5aThe timing was no accident. Jackie Mitchell signed her contract with the Chattanooga Lookouts less than a week before they were scheduled to play the New York Yankees in an exhibition game.

A Whole New Ballgame

Blog6The game was originally scheduled for April 1, but a rainstorm pushed it to April 2. On that day, Jackie Mitchell donned her jersey and got ready to face the biggest names in baseball. A Chattanooga newspaper quoted Babe Ruth as having said: “I don’t know what’s going to happen if they begin to let women in baseball. Of course, they will never make good. Why? Because they are too delicate. It would kill them to play ball every day.”

Four thousand people showed up for the game, and filled the stadium to capacity. Maybe they came to see one of the greatest teams in baseball history. Maybe they came to see what the Baltimore Sun called a, “snip-nosed blue-eyed girl,” going up against one of the greatest teams in baseball history. Regardless of the reasons why, the crowd came.blog7

Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig graciously posed for some publicity photos with Mitchell shortly before the game. But during the game, the Great Bambino became noticeably less gracious! The first pitch to the Sultan of Swat was a ball. The next three pitches, Babe swung and missed. While the crowd went wild, Babe Ruth yelled at the umpire to inspect the ball before being led off the field by his teammates.

blog8Next up was Lou Gehrig, the Iron Horse. He was less dramatic about it, but the results were the same.  Ssssssteeerrrrriiiiiiiike three! He was outta there! Not a bad day’s work for snip-nosed, blue-eyed 17 year-old girl!

On that day, the Yankees won the game, 14-4, but it was Jackie Mitchell that had won the hearts of the crowd.

Thrown a Curve Ball

Blog9It was reported that baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis voided Jackie’s contract just a few days after she robbed the Yankees of some of their pride. Landis reportedly said that women were unfit to play baseball and that it was “too strenuous,” for them. That’s a great story, but it’s probably not quite how it happened because the source for that story can be traced back to just one reporter. We do know that Jackie went on in the game of baseball, playing for the Chattanooga Junior Lookouts, another of Engel’s clubs, through the spring of ’31.

We also know that Jackie Mitchell played professionally with The House of David, an all-Jewish barnstorming baseball team that toured rural America, playing amateur and semi-pro teams in exhibition games. They were famous for their long hair and beards. There were a lot of P.T. Barnum wannabes in baseball, in those days!Blog10

Jackie soon grew tired of being treated like a side-show entertainer, instead of the main event, and in 1937 she retired from baseball. She was just twenty-three years old.  Jackie could not even be persuaded to join the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League when it formed in 1943. For her, the game was over, and she was going . . . going . . . gone!

Out of Left Field

Blog11Plenty of people have tried to discredit Jackie Mitchell’s story as nothing more than a publicity stunt. But, it appears that she was the real deal, and she didn’t have a single publicity-seeking bone in her body. If she had, I’m pretty sure that a whole lot more people would know her story today!

Jackie Mitchell, the girl who once struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, died in 1987. But, her little slice of Americana lives on.

Watch this interesting video with documentary footage of Jackie in action!

https://vimeo.com/andypage/thejackiemitchellstory

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia

 

The Orphan Trains: End of the Line

Orph14The musical play Annie has charmed us all with adorable gangs of orphans happily dancing and singing, “It’s the Hard Knock Life.” But as charming as that scene is, and as much as we’d like to believe in its accuracy, it bears no resemblance to the reality of life in 19th and early 20th century America. In fact, if Little Orphan Annie had been an actual New York City orphan, there’s a good chance she would have been loaded onto a train and sent to live with strangers on a farm in Kansas, or some other Western location. If you don’t know about the American social welfare program of 1859-1929 known as The Orphan Trains, then pack your suitcase, grab your traveling hat and come along for an eye-opening ride!

Wrong Side of the Track

orph2In 1850, an estimated 30,000 homeless children lived on the streets of New York City. The city’s entire population was only about 500,000, so the number of homeless children was disproportionately high. Some children were orphans. Some were simply neglected or abused runaways. And some just had the misfortune of being dirt poor. Even in their great numbers, the children might not have gained much attention if they hadn’t started forming their own brand of junior street gangs. The children, who often worked long hours selling newspapers or rags, joined together as a means of protection and to create their own special kind of family life.

Orph20New York police officers were none too happy about the mini-vagrants. Since there were no real child welfare systems yet in place, the official solution was preposterous: Children were arrested and put in jail, right alongside adult inmates. Some of those “desperate criminals” were as young as five-years-old.

Orph3In case you’re wondering why the bands of ragamuffins weren’t sent to orphanages, that’s because there were only about 24 orphanages in New York City at this time. They couldn’t begin to deal with the overwhelming number of homeless children. Often, a parent-less child would be taken in by neighbors or relatives, but if not, the children who fell through the rather sizable cracks in the “system” were on their own. And with the number of recent immigrants finding their American dream to be more of a nightmare, the streets were often filled with children.

Train of Thought

Orph22It was obvious that someone needed to do something, but no one knew quite what to do. Then, in 1853, a young minister by the name of Charles Loring Brace had a radical idea: Get kids off of the streets, and out of sub-par orphan asylums, and place them with families who wanted more children. Brace, a Yale graduate and Connecticut native, was studying theology in New York City when he founded the Children’s Aid Society, with the goal of implementing his plan.

Orph24Brace figured that there weren’t enough potential homes for children in New York, so the children needed to be sent elsewhere. It was also common knowledge that farmers tended to have a lot of children, in order to have more hands to help on the farm. What if some of the orphans could go to the farmers as sort of ready made farm hands? Brace reasoned that the children would be in healthier environments. They would be provided with food, clothing, shelter, and families, and so would be far better off.

Brace wrote, “The best of all asylums for the outcast child is the farmer’s home. The great duty is to get these children of unhappy fortune utterly out of their surrounding and to send them away to kind Christian homes in the country.” He felt that living on farms would help the children grow into responsible adults, who wouldn’t be dependent on charity.

Orph15Make no mistake, this was never an adoption program. This was, for all intents and purposes, America’s original foster care system. Brace was a man who believed in the inherent goodness of mankind and the kindness of strangers. He thought it should be simple enough to match children with families. He already had the children! All he needed was the families willing to take on the care of a child. So, fliers were posted throughout the West and Midwest, announcing when a train filled with orphans would be making a stop.

On the Right Track?

Charles Brace hit the fundraising circuit to promote his Emigration Plan, now known as “The Orphan Trains.” Mrs. John Astor donated the first $50 and other wealthy New York families followed suit. Some philanthropists sponsored entire trainloads of children.

For children whose parents were still living, Brace had to locate the parents and get written permission to send to children westward. Once all of the i’s were dotted and the t’s were crossed, it was time to prepare the children for their journeys. That preparation wasn’t a long drawn out process. The kids were bathed, deloused, dressed in new clothes and herded to the train station. There were no emotional counseling sessions. There was simply the firmly held belief that whatever those children were being sent to was better than whatever they were leaving behind. The children themselves often had no idea what was happening. They only knew they were going on an adventure.Orph5

Full Steam Ahead

Some placements were prearranged, but most were not. It was sort of like showing up to a pet adoption day at Petco. The Children’s Aid Society asked each town to form a screening committee before the train arrived. These almost exclusively male committees were typically made up of a local doctor, a pastor, a newspaper editor, a merchant, and possibly a teacher. The committee, along with the agent traveling with the children, approved the final placements.

Orph13After arriving at each destination, the children were displayed while onlookers gaped at them. Just like the cute puppies and well trained dogs are the first to be adopted at Petco, the cuter youngsters and more capable looking children were the first to be snatched up.  Many rural people viewed the orphan train children with suspicion, as incorrigible offspring of drunkards and prostitutes. The children spoke with the accents of Ireland, Germany and Italy. Unlike most Mid-westerners, many were Catholic. One official said, “What was good for New York was very bad for the West.”

Orph6Children traveled in groups of ten to forty, with at least one agent supervising their trip. There are stories of children having prospective foster parents look in their mouths, as if examining a horse for purchase. Some people were very open about the fact that they were only looking for a suitable farmhand or someone to perform housework. Other people were looking for a child to love and nurture. It was the luck of the draw.

Orph17The Orphan Trains produced some happy endings and some grisly tales of abuse. Some children were fully accepted into loving homes. There were some instances in which children were legally adopted, and some instances in which they assumed the family name, even if there was no legal adoption.

Orph7There were some success stories, like those of street boys Andrew Burke and John Brady who grew up to become governors of North Dakota and of Alaska, respectively. But the record of placements was mixed. There was a good deal of evidence of abuse by foster parents. Many of the older boys simply ran away; some children were completely rejected by their new parents.  Some children drifted from farm to farm. Some even made their way back to New York. There were stories of children landing in reform school in Michigan; from Indiana, rumors of children on the dole. A southerner named J. H. Mills claimed that “men needing labor, their slaves being set free, take these boys and treat them as slaves.”

Even those kids for whom the journey ultimately was a triumph found the transition from one life to another painful and confusing. “I would give a hundred worlds like this,” wrote one child from her new comfortable home, “if I could see my mother.” Many children wrote of their fear that they’d be forgotten.

Charles Brace himself grappled with the dilemma: “When a child of the streets stands before you in rags, with a tear-stained face, you cannot easily forget him. And yet, you are perplexed what to do. The human soul is difficult to interfere with. You hesitate how far you should go.”

Sans Comic

Orph9Little Orphan Annie, the comic strip, made its debut in the New York Daily News in 1924, toward the end of the Orphan Trains’ run. But the comic strip took its name from the 1885 poem, “Little Orphant Annie,” by James Whitcomb Riley. There is no Daddy Warbucks in the poem, no great benefactor to buy the child a bright red dress or pay for a home perm. Instead, the poem speaks volumes about how orphans were viewed and treated. Here are the first few lines:

Little Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay,

An’ wash the cups an’ saucers up, an’ brush the crumbs away,

An’ shoo the chickens off the porch, an’ dust the hearth, an’ sweep,

An’ make the fire, an’ bake the bread, an’ earn her board-an’-keep

End of the Line

Orph1When Charles Brace died in 1890, he was acclaimed as one of the most influential reformers of the nineteenth century. But in the twentieth century, America’s vision of childhood was changing. The emphasis was shifting from children’s economic value to their emotional needs. America was coming to terms with the concept that one sure measure of the heart and soul of any society is how it treats its children. So on May 31st, 1929, the program came to a close. The last of the Orphan Trains delivered three boys to Sulfur Springs, Texas.

Between 1859 and 1929, the program placed an estimated 250,000 children into new homes in the U.S. and Canada. The National Orphan Train Museum in Concordia, Kansas is dedicated to remembering these children. They have amassed an archive of information about the Orphan Trains and the people who rode them. If you can’t pay a visit to the museum, you might at least like to visit their website, which has, among other things, some riveting, personal stories of Orphan Train riders.

You’ll enjoy this short video about the Orphan Trains!

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia

 

 

“Soapy” Smith: 99.44% Pure Scoundrel

soapy1It seems I can’t log onto my computer without seeing some pop-up ad promising massive wealth with minimal work. The technology part is new, but the idea isn’t. For as long as there have been riches available for the getting, people have loved the idea of a get-rich quick scheme.

Today, we’re going to talk about one of the schemingest schemers of the Old West. I’m talking about Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith II, who was a conman while Charles Ponzi, namesake of the Ponzi scheme, was still a babe in diapers. Keep your eyes wide open and hold onto your wallet, Folks. The hand is quicker than the eye!

 

A Clean Start

Soapy2Jefferson Randolph Smith II was born in 1860 to a wealthy Georgia family. The 1860s weren’t exactly the best of times for wealthy, Confederate plantation owners! At the end of the Civil War, the Smith family was flat broke. The family moved to Texas, while Jefferson was still a teenager, hoping to make a clean start. And it wasn’t long before Jefferson was cleaning up as one of the Old West’s most notorious con artists.

Soapy Sales

Soapy3Some ideas are brilliant in their simplicity. If you want to get rich quick, it makes sense to sell an item that virtually everyone needs to achieve your goal. Hmm . . . what did everyone use, every day? Soap! Jefferson Smith headed to the general store and purchased enough soap to make Costco proud. Then, the man who would be known as “Soapy” went into business.

Soapy was 99.44% pure scoundrel. He set up his tripod display case on busy street corners and extolled the virtues of his soap cakes like they were the missing link between the watching crowd and a lifetime of happiness! When he had everyone’s attention, he would pull out his wallet and wrap paper money around a few of the soap cakes. The crowd could clearly see him putting several $1 bills around some bars of soap. But he didn’t stop with $1 bills! Even in the 1880s, $1 was not lasting wealth, so he sweetened the pot by putting larger bills on some of the bars—including one $100 bill! He would wrap each bar in paper, so the audience could no longer see which bars were “lucky.”

Next, he would combine the soap cakes with the money with the ones that were plain ol’ soap. And he would officially open for business! The bars of soap were offered for $1 each—which was a lot for a 5¢ bar of soap, but not much for a 5¢ bar of soap that might be wrapped in a $100 bill! Hey, you could buy 2000 bars of soap with that kind of loot!Soapy5

Of course, the only people who ever “won” the lucky packages of soap were Soapy’s shills who were as slippery as he was! Once the sale was well under way, Soapy would announce that the $100 bill was still on the table. The remaining bars of soap went up for auction. Naturally, that bar went to a member of Soapy’s Soap Gang, too!

Not Exactly Mr. Clean

Soapy6During the early years, once Soapy had “cleaned up” in one town, he and the Soap Gang would move to the next town. It was a Denver newspaper that first called the scam, the “Prize Soap Racket.” That racket hit it over the net for Soapy. He ran it all over the Western U.S. for twenty years. It earned him enough money to be able to diversify! Soapy began building Old West empires—crime empires, that is. Emperor Soapy ruled Denver and Creede, Colorado, as well as, Skagway, Alaska. The Prize Soap Racket, and other short cons raised enough capital to buy off officials.

Soapy7In Denver, Soapy opened a saloon and gambling hall. The Tivoli Club had a sign over the door, which clearly warned patrons to “Caveat Emptor!” It’s too bad the patrons that could read didn’t know Latin because, “Let the buy beware,” was excellent advise when dealing with Soapy. While in Denver, Soapy also operated fake lottery houses and auction houses that sold “expensive” jewelry and watches that would probably turn you skin green! His fake mining and investment offices issued stock in non-existent businesses. Caveat Emptor, indeed!

Soapy8
Creede in 1892

When it became too tough to run a dishonest business in Denver, Soapy and Company headed to Creede, Colorado. It was bad business as usual! Soapy built a new empire with the help of some of Denver’s finest prostitutes. He bought up buildings like they were little red hotels in a Monopoly game. He also bought, the Orleans Club, a saloon, which was the perfect place to display the petrified man he purchased for exhibit. For a mere 10¢ the curious could view “McGinty,” the mummified man. When things in Creede dried up like McGinty, Soapy went back to Denver for a spell. But, then, he headed for Skagway, Alaska.

Alaska, Soapy’s Final Frontier

Soapy9Soapy arrived in Alaska in time to get in on the ground floor of the Klondike gold rush. Soapy wasn’t one to brave the elements panning for gold, however. He would wait for someone else to strike it rich and then he would swindle the poor sap out of everything he could get his hands on. Soapy opened another saloon, Jeff Smith’s Parlor, and began to rake in the dough by whatever means necessary.

The gifted grifter didn’t know when to stop.  Oh, he was getting away with a lot. When the Spanish American War broke out, Soapy formed his own militia, the Skagway Military Company, in which he was captain. He also began operating a phony telegraph office in an area with no telegraph poles. But, eventually, he crossed the wrong group of men.

The Skagway Military Company
The Skagway Military Company

When Soapy’s men took an estimated $2,600 in gold (That was enough to buy 52,000 bars of soap!) from a Klondike miner, in an illegal card game, a vigilante group that called themselves the Committee of 101 said enough was enough! The group, which had previously formed for the sole reason of washing the town clean of Soapy and his scummy companions, demanded that Soapy repay the gold. Soap said, “Nope,” and that was his downfall!

The Committee of 101 rounding up Soapy Smith and his gang.
The Committee of 101 rounding up Soapy Smith and his gang.

On the evening of July 8, 1898, Soapy was killed in a gunfight, known as the Shootout on Juneau Wharf. He uttered what may be my favorite last words ever uttered by anyone: “My God, don’t shoot!” That was one time when his silver tongue failed him. He died of a gunshot to the heart. Soapy was buried just outside of the Skagway city cemetery.Soapy11a

The thing about schemers is that there’s always another one waiting in the wings. Five years after Soapy’s demise, Charles Ponzi immigrated to America. And, if you’re interested in earning thousands of dollars a day, from the comfort of your home, let me know. There’s a pop-up ad for that!

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia

Western Lingo . . . One More Round! 

Blog1Recently, I set out to see how many words the average English-speaking person knows. That seems about as difficult to answer as the classic question, “How many licks of a Tootise Roll Pop does it take to get to the center?” The world may never know. And really, when you get right down to it, I don’t suppose it’s terribly important to know the answer. It’s not how many words you know; it’s how you string them together that matters.

One of my favorite Mark Twain quotes is, “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.” Today, we’re going to look at some of my favorite fifty-cent words and phrases, which have always sounded Western to me. All y’all seemed to enjoy my two previous blog posts on the same subject, Western Lingo and Western Lingo Rides Again!   So let’s have one more round . . . sit back and enjoy some more word history with me!

Two Shakes of a Lamb’s Tail

Blog2What could possibly be more Western than a phrase that contains a reference to a ranch animal? If you’ve ever seen a lamb shake its tail, you know it’s not what you’d call a drawn out process. So, if the man behind the counter at the general store tells you he’ll be with you in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, you can expect that you won’t be waiting long.

The phrase originated in the UK, sometime before 1840, first appearing in print in Richard Harris Barnham’s book, Ingoldsby Legends, in 1840. Twitchy little lambs’ tails had made it into the American vernacular by the early 20th century, if not earlier. “Two shakes of a lamb’s tail,” was used in an advertisement for a Pittsburg men’s clothing store in May 1920. Prospective consumers were informed that they could replenish a wardrobe in less than two shakes of a lamb’s tail.

It was such a catchy phrase that a British veterinarian even calculated the speed of lamb tail shaking to be approximately 300 shakes per minute, while the lamb is nursing! And FYI, a “shake” is actually a recognized unit of time! While working on the Manhattan Project during WWII, nuclear scientists were searching for a term to equal ten nanoseconds. They looked no further than the fluffy lamb’s tail!

Class, what have we learned? We’ve learned that, while the phrase “two shakes of a lamb’s tale” isn’t Western, it is ding-danged fascinating!

Skedaddle

Blog3Skedaddle sure sounds Western to me. Meaning to run away hurriedly, I can practically hear some John Wayne type spitting on the ground and saying something like, “I don’t want any trouble out of the likes of you. You’d best take your things and skedaddle on out o’ here!” Yep. That sounds Western all right. But is it?

Skedaddle is believed to date back to the American Civil War and it seems to have originated on the Yankee side. The first written source appears to have been in the August 10, 1861 edition of the New York Tribune. New York? Yep. The paper reported, “No sooner did the traitors discover their approach than they ‘skidaddled’, (a phrase the Union boys up here apply to the good use the *seceshers make of their legs in time of danger).”

Likely, the word “skedaddle” was derived from the Irish word, “sgedadol,” which means, “scattered.” The Scottish also have the word, “skiddle,” which means, “to spill or scatter.” It has been surmised that the usage of “skedaddle” in regards to the battlefield, related to the image of blood being spilled and scattered before the other soldiers hightailed it out there.

At any rate, the word isn’t Western, no matter how great John Wayne would have sounded saying it. And, since the word was often used in military circles to refer to cowards running away with their tails between their legs, it twern’t no compliment!

*Note: “Seceshers” was a nickname for the Confederate soldiers.

Ride Shank’s Mare (or Pony)

Blog4If you ever find yourself needing to skedaddle in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, I hope you don’t have to ride shank’s mare! Riding shank’s mare (or pony, if you prefer) means that you are going to be trudging along on your own two feet.  Now, that one just had to have originated West of the Mason-Dixon Line! Right? Wrong.

The expression about riding shank’s mare hoofed it to the U.S. by way of Scotland. The shank refers to the lower part of the human leg, more commonly known as the “shin.” The only thing American’s might have done was upgrade “shank’s nag” to a mare. Perhaps the earliest written instance of “shanks-naig” dates back to 1724, making it a very old form of transportation, indeed! It is believed the phrase first appeared in The Tea-Table Miscellaney, by Scottish poet Allan Ramsay.

During WWII, the British Ministry of War Transport distributed a poster created by artists, Jan Le Witt and George Helm, which encouraged citizens to, “Go by shanks’ pony,” thus saving fuel for those with longer journeys.

Bonus: Didn’t Just Fall Off the Turnip Truck

Blog5Yes, I am aware that, so far, none of the words and phrases we have discussed actually originated in the Old West. But I’m not out of the game yet. I may have overestimated the Old West’s influence on some my favorite old sayings, but I have one last chance to get it right. I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck, you know! And, surely, the phrase, “didn’t just fall off the turnip truck,” is as Western as Roy Rogers riding off into the sunset!

The way I had it figured, the phrase was originally, “I didn’t just fall off the turnip wagon,” and it was automated somewhere along the way. Of course, the phrase is commonly used to indicate that the speaker is not a country bumpkin who rode into town perched on the top of a truckload of turnips. And that, even if the speaker is a country bumpkin who rode into town perched on the top of a truckload of turnips, he had the good sense to not fall off!

Blog6The phrase is one that has evolved over the years, and is a sort of amalgam of several different sayings. Reportedly, the current phrase was not found in writing, in its entirety until 1988! But, fans of the “Tonight Show, with Johnny Carson” have memories of Johnny using that phrase for many years prior to that. While it is doubtful that Mr. Carson was the first one to make the claim that he “didn’t just off the turnip truck,” he is credited with being the first person to have documented proof that he said it. So, that’s good enough for me.

And, hey! Johnny Carson lived in California, which is as far West as you can go without falling into the Pacific Ocean. I’m giving myself bonus points for this one!

So, how about you . . . what are some of your favorite “Western” expressions?

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia

“Liver-Eating” Johnson: Some Fava Beans and a Nice Chianti

Liv1Let it be known that I will happily take suggestions for future blog post ideas. One day, I was scratching my head trying to come up with a topic when a reader casually suggested, “Why don’t you write about Liver-Eating Johnson?” And then I excitedly asked myself, “WHY DON’T I WRITE ABOUT LIVER-EATING JOHNSON?!?!!!!” (I tend to scream when I get excited.) Well, I didn’t have one good reason not to it and I had bo-koodles of reasons to do it.

So, folks, sit down, squat down or lie down, kick your shoes off and make yourselves ‘t home. You are in for one deeee-lightful campfire tale today. Okay, maybe it’s not so much delightful as it is absurdly creepy. But the subject of today’s Campfire Chronicle is one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” characters that makes me never tire of learning about the Old West. We’re going to talk about none other than the infamous Liver-Eating Johnson! Woo doggie!

As I so often do, I’m going to point out that fact often mixes with legend in stories of the Old West, and it’s easy to get bogged down in a bunch of conflicting information. I’m going to give you the story behind Liver-Eating Johnson’s unique nickname. Is it true? Maybe it is; maybe it isn’t. Either way, it’s a chunk of Old West history that I guarantee you will enjoy!

A Rose By Any Other Name

Liv1a
Johnson, during the Mexican-American War

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but Liver-Eating Johnson was neither a delicate flower, nor sweet. He did have a few other names, however. He was born in 1824, with the last name of Garrison.  He changed his name to John Johnston after hitting an officer and deserting, during the Mexican-American War. To him, that just seemed like the prudent thing to do at the time. Somewhere along the way, someone accidentally left the “t” out of his alias, which left him as John Johnson. It seems that he answered to most any name, though. (I’ll be using “Johnson,” because that’s what’s on his tombstone.) He was also known as Jack Johnston, Jack Johnson, the Crow Killer, and just the Liver-eater. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the Crow killing, liver-eating part is probably what has piqued your interest.

 The Heart, Er, Liver of the Matter

Liv2Hold on tight because we’re going to go lickety-split through many details of Liver-Eating Johnson’s life. Shortly after deserting from the armed service, Johnson took his new name and headed west to become a fur trapper. He hired a man named John Hatcher, an experienced mountain man, as his guide. The pair ended up at Hatcher’s cabin in Colorado. Hatcher taught Johnson pert’ near everything there was to know about making it as a mountain man. There’s more to it than wearing buckskin and losing all interest in personal hygiene!  Johnson was a quick study. He was good with a knife and a gun, and his photographs indicate that he had absolutely no interest in personal hygiene.

Liv2aJohnson moved to Montana and met up with a Flathead Indian, who had an available daughter. A trade was made and Johnson had a new bride. Oh, the romance! About a year later, the mountain man left his hot commodity of a bride in the cabin, so he could go trapping for the season. Returning home the next spring, he found his wife’s corpse lying in the doorway of the cabin. “CSI, Mountain Man Edition” determined that she had been the victim of a Crow hunting party. There was also evidence that she had been pregnant at the time of the murder. This would have been sometime around 1847.

Liv5aIt wasn’t long before the scalped bodies of Crow warriors began turning up all over the Northern Rockies and in the plains of Montana and Wyoming. Besides being dead and scalp-less, those bodies shared another characteristic; their livers were missing! Crow Indians believed they needed their livers to pass into the afterlife, so that would have been a real punch in the spiritual gut! And, of course, as news of the killings spread, the story grew. Word on the plains was that John/JackGarrison/Johnston/Johnson had been chowing down on Crow pâté—perhaps with fava beans and a nice Chianti!

 Robert Redford, He Was Not

The story goes that Liver-Eating Johnson killed some 300 Crow warriors. He survived ambushes and even escaped capture. Maybe all of that iron he was consuming gave him super-human strength. The all-he-could-eat liver buffet lasted around twenty years. At the end of that time, he is said to have made peace with the Crow. I’d sure like to know how he managed that.

Liv3Do you remember the 1972 movie, Jeremiah Johnson, starring one of my favorite pretty boys, Robert Redford? The character of Jeremiah Johnson was loosely based on none other than the old mountain man himself, Liver-Eating Johnson. Now, when I say it was loosely based, I feel I need to put a few more oooos in that loosely. Yeah, it was loooooosely based on him. Redford played the character as more of a gentleman, and less of a sociopath, to be sure.

Liv4 (2)In later years, the man known as the Liver-Eater served as a sharpshooter during the Civil War and as sheriff of Red Lodge, Montana. When Johnson died in 1900, he was buried in the Veteran’s Cemetery in Los Angeles. Yet, he had only lived in a Santa Monica veterans’ home for a month, at the end of his life.

Final, Final Resting Place

The City of Angels was an odd final resting place for an old, liver-eating, mountain man. Seventy-four years later, a class of seventh grade students in California found that to be odd, too. The group of pre-teens began a campaign to bring Liver-Eating Johnson home to Wyoming. Meanwhile, some folks in Montana were trying to lay claim to the body, as well, contending that he had spent as much time in Montana as he had in Wyoming. In the end, Wyoming won the rights to the region’s most famous organ eater.

Liv6aLiver-Eating Johnson’s body was exhumed and relocated to Cody, Wyoming. It was quite the social event!  2,000 people showed up to see the old coot laid to rest . . . again. Okay, let’s get real. I have an inkling that the 2,000 people who showed up might also have been interested in seeing the celebrity pallbearer. Yes, Robert Redford served as one of his pallbearers. It was pretty easy to spot him. He was the dreamy one!

Liv7There is a bronze statue of Liver-Eating Johnson on horseback, which overlooks his final, final resting place. I would prefer a statue of Robert Redford, but I digress. If anyone else has any suggestions for a blog idea, I’m all ears. Oh, and I’d be much obliged if you could find someone with a tie-in to Sam Elliott!

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia