SAN FRANCISCO LETTER [Dated January 8, 1866]
''WHITE MAN MIGHTY ONSARTAIN''
Nigger never spoke truer word. White man is mighty "onsartain." An instance of it is to be found in the ingenious manipulation of a certain recent speculation here by a white man whom I have in my mind's eye at present.
A small swimming bath was constructed out yonder at North Beach, as a sort of novel experiment, and everybody was surprised to see what a rush was made to it and what a thriving speculation it at once became. Many a smart man wished the idea had occurred to him, and then thought no more about it. Others pondered over it and thought the experiment might bear repetition, but then there was an uncomfortable possibility of the reverse proving the case. Mr. Aleck Badlam, late a member of the California Legislature, but latterly acting in the double capacity of nephew and business agent to Mr. Samuel Brannan, belonged to the latter class, but was rather more hopeful, more energetic and more fertile in expedients than the rest. He went to work and got up a joint stock association, composed of men with good bank accounts, and announced in the public prints that this association would immediately commence the construction of a colossal swimming bath, with all manner of admirable conveniences and accommodations, away out in Third Street opposite South Park. Many people went on swimming in the pioneer bath, and many others in the Bay, and both parties said the new speculation would prove a disastrous failure, and that they were sorry for the projectors of it, etc., and then bothered no more about it. In a day or two the local reporters fell heirs to a refreshing sensation and were made happy -- a genuine shark was harpooned in the Bay of San Francisco! It was brought to town and was visited by crowds of timid citizens while it lay in state in the market place. Mr. Badlam went at once to the various news paper offices and told the reporters, and was greeted with the ancient formula: "That's bully -- there's pen and ink, write it up for a fellow, can't you?" -- (you know if you walk a mile to accommodate one of these thieves with an item, he will always impose upon you, with infernal effrontery, the labor of writing it up for him, if you will stand it). Mr. Badlam wrote up the shark item. A few days elapsed, the sensation was cooling down and beginning to be forgotten, when another shark was harpooned in the Bay and exposed to view in the market. People shuddered again. Mr. Badlam went and told the reporters; the reporters got him to write it up. In the course of three days another shark was harpooned in the Bay and placed on exhibition. People began to show signs of uneasiness. Mr. Badlam told the reporters and wrote it up. The new swimming bath was being rushed forward to completion with all possible dispatch. From this time on, for the next six weeks a shark passed in his checks every twenty-four hours in the Bay of San Francisco. Mr. Badlam discontinued the ceremony of telling the reporters, but he always came at 1 o'clock in the afternoon with several slips of manuscript, laid one down on the reporter's table, said " Shark item, " and departed toward the next newspaper office on his regular beat. People began to say "Why, blame these sharks, the Bay's full of them -- it ain't hardly as healthy to swim there as it used to was" -- and they stopped swimming there. Reporters got to depending on the customary shark item pretty much as a matter of course, and the printers got to making these items "fat" by keeping them "standing" and making such unimportant alterations in them as the variations in the localities of the shark-killing demanded.
The fact of the business was, that Mr. Badlam, that "onsartain white man, " had imported the old original shark from the coast of Mexico, and paid some Italian fishermen to take him out in the Bay and harpoon him, and then fetch him ashore and exhibit him in the market place. It was all in the way of business; he wanted to discourage bathing in the Bay and pave the way for the success of his great bath-house scheme at a later day. It is but just to say that he did make bathing in the Bay exceedingly unpopular. He imported all his sharks, and he kept a detachment of shark-killers under regular pay. Sharks come pretty high -- sharks are very expensive and he economized occasionally by having the same old shark harpooned and exhibited over and over again as long as he would hang together; and when he had to bring on a fresh one he would vary the interest in the thing by having the fish captured alive and towed ashore and exposed to public view in all his native ferocity; and once he got a number of young pigs killed and scraped clean, towed a shark out in the Bay, fed the pigs to him, towed him back again and landed him at the head of the Long Bridge when there were about two thousand people promenading on it, got a multitude collected around the spot, killed and cut the shark open, took several chunks of the delicate white young pork out of its stomach, and then hid his face in his handkerchief and said with manifest emotion: "Oh God, this fellow's been eating a child -- ah, how sad, how sad!" This culminating stroke of genius crowned Mr. Badlam's patient, long-continued efforts with a splendid success -- no man has bathed in the Bay since Mr. B. wrote that item up and travelled his regular newspaper route with it. His labors were over, the bath-house was nearly finished, and he had nothing but easy sailing before him from that time forward. In a few days his monstrous tank was completed and the water turned on, and the very first day he opened business with a hundred and fifty swimmers an hour on an average, and a hundred and fifty more standing around in Menken costume waiting for a chance. There is nothing like trying, you know; and all experience teaches us that the best way to ascertain a thing is to find it. But when it comes to believing all the shark items a sagacious strategist favors you with in the papers, it is well to remember that the wise nigger saith "white man mighty onsartain."
THE OPENING NIGHT
Saw two or three dozen invited guests in the new bath and a free champagne blow-out served up for them in an ante-room. The water was seven feet deep, and there was 300,000 gallons of it, heated to a pleasant temperature, barring the cold streaks here and there. Each man has a little stateroom to himself and a couple of towels. The price of the baths is one for 25 cents or 3 for a dollar, and you can swim an hour. Mr. Nash's swimming pupils pay $10 a month or $20 for 3 months, and bathe whenever they please. There are spring boards, parallel bars, rings, flying trapeze, ladders-- a complete gymnasium-- suspended over the water. Among the swimmers were-- but as these individuals are represented in the panoramic sign on the front of the bath house, I will merely talk of their portraits and say nothing of their swimming. It is my duty to explain that sign, because many people imagine it is a fancy sketch, and are distressed to think any artist would be so depraved as to paint such impossible figures and faces and elevate the devilish libel in full view without a word of apology.
In the bath-house sign are very correct likenesses of the chief stockholders, and are as follows: The fleshy, smiling, bald-headed man hanging to the middle of the little life boat, is Mr. O. P. Sutton, in the banking interest. The bald headed man hanging on near the stern of the boat, is Mr. Aleck Badlam, the shark-fancier. The man on the left, who is just starting on the spring-board, is Col. Monstery, the fencing-master. The inverted young man on the bow of the boat who is performing some kind of extraordinary gymnastic feat and appears to have got it a little mixed, is Captain McComb. The central figure, swinging on the trapeze, is Mr. Edward Smith, of the banking interest. The half-submerged figure diving head-foremost at the right of the central fountain, is Mr. A. J. Snyder, the carpenter and builder, and is a very correct portrait as far as it goes. The handsome fat man facing you from the stateroom door on the extreme left, is Mr. Louis Cohn, and is considered a masterpiece of portrait painting. I cannot recognize the stockholder immediately under the spring board on the left, on account of his truly extraordinary position. It may be Fitz Smythe. The gentleman who is splashing himself behind the figure in the swing, and [has] upon his countenance an expression of lively enjoyment, is Professor Nash. The figure in the swing is most too many for me. It may be Menken, or it may be Jeff. Davis, or it may be some other man or some other woman. It is the very picture that so exasperates the South Parkers. It has got baggy breasts like a squaw, and the hips have the ample and rounded swell which belong to the female shape; but the head is masculine. That figure has worried the ladies of South Park a good deal, and it worries me just as much. I shall have to let this personage swing on undisturbed, and leave it to a wiser head to determine the sex and discover the name that belongs to it. It would be very uncomfortable, now, if it should turn out that I have been mistaken, and this remarkable picture should never have been intended for a collection of portraits, after all-- in which case I beg pardon.
THE MINT DEFALCATION
The Alta of this morning publishes a correct statement of the embezzlement by young Macy of $39,000 from the mint, and you can copy it; but there are some little matters in the background which always come within a correspondent's province in cases of this kind, but which are usually omitted from the accounts in the local press, and these I will talk about. Mr. Cheeseman is U.S. Sub Treasurer, and ex officio treasurer of the mint. Macy, his brother in-law, was his paying clerk -- his cashier. He is a green, gawky young fellow about twenty-four or -five years old; and by a glance at his gait and the shape of his head and his general appearance, an experienced business man would judge his capacity to be about equal to the earning of, say fifty dollars a month. But he was the Sub-Treasurer's brother-in-law -- he was a barnacle, and had to be provided with a place in the Circumlocution Office, whether he knew enough to come in out of the rain or not. So he was made paying clerk, at a salary of $2,500 a year, and placed in a position where twenty millions in gold coin and oceans of greenbacks passed through his hands in the course of a year. Mr. Swain, the Superintendent of the mint, did not fancy this appointment, but it was out of his jurisdiction. Mr. Cheeseman has the appointing of his own clerks, although all their reports must be made finally to the Superintendent, and all their acts come under his supervision.
Naturally there was nothing bad about young Macy, but it is believed -- well, I might go so far as to say it was known -- that some mining speculators got around him and persuaded him to put mint funds in stocks, promising to "stand behind him." He did so, and they stood behind him until the crash in stocks warned them to stand some where else and then they dropped him -- having made what they could out of him, no doubt. He had been speculating on the mint's money six months before he was found out -- the work men occasionally going without their wages in the meantime be cause of the lack of supplies. Mr. Swain's suspicions were first aroused by seeing him so frequently in company with speculators and hearing so often on the street of his transactions in heavy stocks. But Macy's books came out right every month and nothing could be shown against him. One of his thefts was a bold one. The coiner sent him three "melts" at different times -- three batches of gold coin -- two of a hundred thousand dollars each and one of a hundred and twenty thousand. Each had the usual "tag," describing the amount contained. Macy removed and tore up the $120,000 "tag," and sent to the coiner a message that he had lost the tag from one of the $100,000 batches -- a thing which sometimes occurs. The coiner sent him the necessary substitute, and he altered the date and placed the new tag on the $120,000 " melt "; but he carried off the extra $20,000 first.
At the last quarterly examination the money and the books were all right, but
Macy displayed such distress and trepidation during the examination that he
excited the suspicions of more than one of the mint officials; he had been shinning
around the streets all day long, too, and it was thought that he had been getting
a temporary loan to make his accounts straight with. Such a rigid surveillance
was commenced then, and so many informal examinations instituted, that Macy
finally packed and ran off. This was in December. The facts of this embezzlement
have only just come to light and its full extent only just now finally ferreted
out and made known to the public, but the Department at Washington has been
kept posted upon the subject by telegraph from time to time during the last
two or three weeks.
Man Might Onsartain" and "The Mint Defalcation" reprinted in
Mark Twain's San Francisco, edited by Bernard Taper (McGraw Hill, 1963),
pp. 177-184; "The Opening Night" and "The Portraits" reprinted
in Mark Twain: San Francisco Correspondent, (Book Club of California,
1957), p. 60-62.]
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