March 19 1848, Wyatt Earp is Born

…and would-be problem drinkers all over the west get nervous

Of the people whose life is a mix of fact and fiction at every turn, Wyatt Earp is the head of that organization. Depending on your source, he is either a thug and a gang leader, the bravest dude who ever walked the Old West, creator of his own mythology, or, if your source is just TV, Kurt Russell. The mostly agreed upon facts are that Wyatt Earp was a lawman, a boomtown speculator, and a saloon owner.

Wyatt Earp was a saloon owner in various boomtowns that erupted in the West after the Civil War. The prospect of finding goal and fortune, as well as frustration from the fallout of southern towns in the reconstruction that followed the Civil War, sent a lot of men West. And someone had to get them drunk.

To be sure, the American West’s relationship with alcohol was much older. American fur traders would trade alcohol with Native Americans in the early 19th century. The fur traders would also engage in a yearly throwdown called ‘a rendezvous’ which was like a massive trading festival and binge drinking fest. Imagine Bonnaroo, but with more chewing tobacco and a lot more violence.

But it’s in the boomtowns that popped up all over the West in the mid to late 19th century that comes to our mind’s eye when we picture a saloon. The one you’re imagining now is a little square building on a dusty road. The building might be on a plank boardwalk next to some other squat buildings, it might sit alone on the dusty road. There’s a hitching post outside and the swinging doors so (as it turns out, erroneously) ubiquitous that they are now eponymous. Above it, in block or stenciled letters is a basic name on a flat marquee: Red’s Saloon, John’s Saloon, Sal’s Saloon. Often, the saloon was a tent on the ground and if it stuck around for long enough to make some money, a more permanent structure would be built on its spot.

What happened inside a saloon might be a bit more misunderstood. The alcohol was so bad for one’s health it killed off more proprietors than the other thousand dangers of the Old West. Names like tanglefoot, forty rod, tarantula juice, Toas Lightning, Red Eye, Coffin Varnish give you the idea. The alcohol was often raw and mixed with burnt sugar and chewing tobacco. Alcohol was 100 proof and cut with turpentine, arsenic, gunpowder, or cayenne. Beer was less frequent and warm – 55 or 65 degrees. Cocktails were not tolerated and anyone who came to a saloon and ordered anything mixed was  ridiculed and often forced to drink straight alcohol at gunpoint.

Despite the rough exterior and the lawless reputation, saloons did have a code of ethics that was not violated. Among these were that Native Americans and Asians were not welcome. Black men might be welcome, but if they were a gambler or a criminal. The only women allowed were saloon girls, not to be confused with prostitutes. Few of them were actually prostitutes and if a woman was disrespected by a man he might be beaten, kicked out, or even killed. The women flirted with men, coerced them into drinking, and sold dances (no, not a euphemism for handjobs…probably). Respectable women were not allowed (as was the rule in many pubs, taverns, and saloons across the nation). Now, try and imagine why women were the driving force behind Prohibition in a generation or so.

While it might be easy to guess those rules above, one that might be less logical is that soldiers were not allowed in many saloons. Many of the men who went West craved a solitary lifestyle. This was built on the idea of the West as a place of independence, wide open spaces, and being left the hell alone. Soldiers were seen as policers of the West and nobody liked them. as a result, they were often persona non grata.

This independent spirit was also guarded in western saloons. Nobody asked questions. Questions about one’s past, one’s reason for being in town, the size of one’s herd were stoutly not tolerated. First names were enough. Asking for a last name was seen as prying and aggressive. Curiosity would often result in someone’s death.   

While saloon drinkers often didn’t know much about the man next to him at the bar, he was connected to him by way of the social contract of the saloon. That is, one was expected to buy a drink for the man next to him. Refusing a drink was astoundingly rude and a refuser might be thrown out, shot, or forced to drink at gunpoint. Worse still was not offering to buy the man next to you a drink. This was seen as a breach of social contract. The act of coming into a saloon asking for a drink was not allowed and a person who ordered a drink without being able to pay for it could be shot.

The saloon lives on in part of America’s lore of the west. We have images of Bat Masterson, Doc Holiday, and Wyatt Earp swaggering through a room bustling with hoop dresses and cowboy hats while piano music jangles through. An insult and then a hush followed by the bad guy trying to draw first to be shot down with confidence. It’s fun to imagine. Living it would have resulted in death. With that and Tarantula Juice it’s no wonder people died so young.

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