“Twain and the Suicide Table”
By Brian K. Brecht
We’ve spent a fare amount of time in the Lake Tahoe area, but it was a trip Tom suggested to Virginia City Nevada that brought us back to an original cowboy town.
We shot east from Tahoe and eventually crossing the border into Nevada. Any town or city you go to these days is reasonably modern or built up, regardless of it’s history. And then there’s Virginia City. This town has purposefully remained as much a cowboy town as you can and still remain functional in modern times.
For context, Virginia City is the location of the Comstock Load. The Comstock Load, discovered on June 8th 1859, was the first major discovery of silver in the United States. The discovery of the Comstock sparked a “silver rush” of prospectors and created an excitement as great as the gold rush in ’49. Mining camps and towns sprung up over night, eventually adding to the bustling centers of wealth in Nevada and San Francisco California.
During its time, the production coming from the site was so great; it altered world monetary standards and kept the United States solvent during the Civil War. It created the state of Nevada and made possible the two Senate votes needed to pass the Thirteenth Amendment (the law abolishing slavery).
The Comstock is notable not just for the immense fortunes it generated, but also for the
advances in mining and mining technology. Square-set timbering, invented by Phillip Deidesheimer in 1860, made possible the removal of large ore deposits at great depths. The square set timbers being set into an internal super-structure reinforcing the walls of the mine.
Because of it’s intent to remain something of its hey-day, I confess to being a bit shocked as we rounded the mountain pass and first set eyes on the modern Virginia City. It took only a few short moments to realize I was in for a treat. This was a town the likes of which we seek out when on an adventure such as this.
Virginia City is in many ways, as it was back in 1850’s & 60’s. Granted, what once might have been cowboy saloons or miner places of business, now sport t-shirts and “cowboy trinkets” as souvenirs and modern keepsakes.
Tom and I were willing to accept the modern trappings the town had put on, but it was those olden times we were in search of this day. Virginia City boasts number of different attractions, like the “Bucket of Blood Saloon”, or a working courthouse from days past. A number of different mining and silver baron sites are throughout the area. But there were a couple specific sites we set our minds to hit.
We found ourselves along “C” street, the main thoroughfare in the hillside town, but quickly realized we were probably on the far end of what we wanted to see. As we cross the street and headed the opposite direction, we found a small shop claiming jerky, which of course I had to stop in. Jerky has always been a prime requisite on any road trip or adventure.
I grabbed a small amount of regular and teriyaki, Tom taking away some of the ”Hot” version. I laughed my ass off as we were walking, Tom starting saying things like “wholly shit” and “Oh my god!”, watching sweat bead up from his brow. Having experienced numerous versions of jerky through out the country, I have to say this stuff started out like leather. Admittedly that’s probably how it truly tasted as far as texture back in the day. The flavor was fine, nothing out of the ordinary, but again the tough texture in some way made it seem more authentic. Seriously this stuff was like leather.
You could catch a glimpse of the old west in the architecture and historic building facades. But then the illusion would wash away amongst t-shirts and tourist traps. We spent our time hunting through a variety of shops, every once in a while finding something of interest or out of the ordinary. But there were two stops we found very enjoyable.
Located at 53 South C Street, is what appears to be just another trinket clogged gift store. But along the left wall, and behind a very thin brass chain was a door marked Mark Twain museum. Ok lets be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. Or perhaps, when I see the word, museum, I’m expecting something more. Something that didn’t require you going through post cards and key chains to find it.
Then again, it’s these kinds of things that make the best adventures.
Having paid our fee, the owner, or caretaker, walked over and opened the door to what clearly was going to be the basement. Oh boy, there was no way this was going to be good.
So for perspective, Samuel Clemens journeyed to Nevada in 1861, eventually coming to Virginia City in 1862, taking a job very early in his career with the local Territorial Enterprise newspaper. He spent roughly three years here and it was during his time in Virginia City when he took on the bi-line Mark Twain.
I’ve been through plenty of “museums” claiming to be the place where “this guy slept”, or so and so MIGHT have lived, or where such and such COULD have worked. This I have to admit was a surprise. We stepped into the building’s basement, which, during Twains time, was the printing room of the Territorial Enterprise. Undoubtedly there are a few items that likely didn’t always reside here. For example we passed what was labeled as Mark Twain’s actual writing desk. I think it’s unlikely the desk was always here in the basement,
but there was little doubt the large printing presses and set-up tables were anywhere else. It was really impressive to see these huge machines and to think about the work that had gone though them. Signs along the walls spoke of the large marble tables as the place where not only the men of the paper set type for each edition, but also took their meals and even slept when the next edition needed work late into the next morning. Even the mechanics held a deep fascination for Tom and I, noticing the ceiling mounted belt drive system that at one time powered many of the presses in this room.
It was engrossing and Tom and I found ourselves just standing in this space, reading and soaking up as much information as we could. What I expected to be an “in and out” kind of attraction grabbed ahold of us for an unexpected amount of time.
We came up from the basement, invigorated and renued that Virginia City had other hidden treasures to offer us.
And so it was with that excitement that we came across another “basement museum”, that of the Julia Bulette Red Light Museum. This one however didn’t play out as hoped. The building had just been taken over by, believe it or not, the Mustang Ranch restaurant. It seemed fitting that the Mustang Ranch would buy the building occupying the space of the Red Light Museum. In the end it seems we caught them a little early. Tonight was their opening night, and because of the chaos surrounding their start up, the museum was closed for the day. So from here, we kept walking until we found our next point of interest.
The Suicide Table
One of the more active and well-known locations in Virginia City is the Delta Saloon. Located at 18 South C St. the old tavern and casino still boasts the clanging chimes of the one arm bandits and a pronounced layer of cigarette smoke hanging from it’s ceiling.
And though a drink and nickel slots are well available, what folks like us tend to wander into the Delta for, is to see the infamous “Suicide Table”.
Sitting in a far back corner, now roped off from modern use, the Suicide Table was originally a Faro table brought to the Delta somewhere in the 1860’s. The table gets it’s macabre name due to the claim that it is somehow responsible for the death of three of its previous owners.
The first casualty was its original owner, one “Black Jake”, who in one night lost $70,000 playing cards, and in the end, shot himself. The next victim is an unnamed second owner who was unable to pay his losses. The official record is unclear whether he killed himself or was done in by his creditors.
At this point the table was put away as no one would deal on it. In the late 1890s the table was converted into a Blackjack table and play once again resumed on it.
The legend claims, on a stormy night, a drunken miner walked in with a wild streak of luck. Everything the current owner had, $86,000, a team of horses, and an interest in a gold mine, all departed from the owner to the miner, and quietly the owner moved on to the next life.
Today the table sits in the Delta under protective glass. It’s seen little action in the passing decades, however there was a short lived game in the mid 1980’s when Jack Palance, actor and host of the TV series “Ripley’s Believe it or Not”, dealt a few hands for the episode highlighting the tables doomed history. As far as I’m aware, Palance suffered no ill effects from the table (believe it or not).
The Delta exemplified what I felt about Virginia City. You can clearly see the cowboy town, hiding under the t-shirts, and tourist trinkets. And I couldn’t help but feel frustrated as what I wanted to see wasn’t modern life, but the old west we’ve read about. But that said, we stood in the middle of the Delta, took a deep breath (trying to not choke on the smoke), and through the clanging of the slots, or the blaring flat screens, you actually could find the history you’re looking for.
I realized, yes over the bar hang signs of beer specials and Jagemeister shots, but the fact is that there has been a bar in this spot since days when spurs jangled instead of slot machines made me smile. That the back stairs, instead of being “Employees Only”, probably saw various working girls move up and down them with various “Johns” in tow. That the beauty of Virginia City is that, yes you can get a t-shirt or a reproduction map of TV’s Ponderosa, but it really is a town from the old west. You just have to look past a few things to see it.
On the way out of town we made one last stop, that of the Silver Terrace or Gold Hill Cemetery.
I wanted to call this Boot Hill, as so many other western towns have done, but clearly this was a cemetery built from the hunt of gold and silver. It was surprising how far the sight stretched on, realizing it flowed down the far side of the hill and into the valley like a river of the past. There were a number of beautiful old tombs and head stones, but it was troubling to Tom and I the state of disrepair the site had fallen into. Even more, as we walked around, we found modern graves from families who must still be native to the area. Not only for its historic value, but also in seeing it's continued use, we both felt a sense of sadness that time and vandalism has taken its toll.
It was a quiet end to a thrilling day. We had little knowledge that Twain would figure so prominently in this cowboy town, but it helped round out what we came here to find. Not just old west trinkets, but something of the real history that took place, those 150 years ago.
Tales from the old west have shaped this country and fascinated us from childhood. And from here on the west coast, it’s an inexpensive way to grab an adventure even just for a weekend. Virginia City has opened a door to other cowboy and mining sites, all within striking distance, and we’ve already ventured off in search of new destinations.
So as we continue to set our sights on future explorations, we felt it only fitting to finish this entry with a quote from Twain himself.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Continue to find your own adventures friends.