Author Topic: Lying Jim Townsend  (Read 10395 times)

wshawkins

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Lying Jim Townsend
« on: March 31, 2012, 05:05:22 AM »
Lying Jim Townsend

James William Emery Townsend (1838-1900), more commonly known as Lying Jim, was the original of Bret Harte’s “Truthful James,” the source of Mark Twain's Jumping Frog story, and much more. According to The Western Literature Association, Townsend “was one of the most talented and notorious liars of the Comstock, no small accomplishment. He was famous for his ability to spin elaborate and elegant yarns at a moment’s notice. Twain mentions him in Roughing It as being hoaxed by an even greater lie than he could compose, but this was early in his career. In later life he participated in one of the most creative scams in Comstock history when he singlehandedly printed a regular newspaper in a deserted mining town, peopling it with imaginary citizens and reporting in detail about them and fictional mining operations, so that foreign investors could be inveigled into buying stock in nonexistent companies.
This story below was taken from a Carson Appeal column printed in Hawthorne Nevada’s Walker Lake Bulletin dated 1890.


Lying Jim




While Jim Townsend was in Carson City a few weeks ago, he was sitting by the Arlington House stove talking in his usual exaggerated vein.

“If you want to see mining on a big scale, go to Mono County.”

“How big?” said a little man sitting close by.

“Why the Big Hole Mine, that I am connected with, has the deepest shaft and the biggest workings in the world.”

How deep asked the little man.

“You can’t measure it, because if we stopped work long enough to see how deep the shaft was, it would interfere with bullion production. We dropped a line down once and reeled it out until it broke with its own weight.  When a boy falls down the shaft, he strikes the bottom a grandfather.”

“Must have a big payroll?”

“We used to send the money down to the hands in cages until the workings got so deep that we didn’t get the winter account settled until a way along in the spring.  So we started a bank and telegraphed the money orders.  That system saved us an awful wear and tear on the cages.  The miners live down there and rear their families.  They got an underground city bigger’n Carson, with a regular charter and municipal elections twice a year. They publish two daily papers and a literary magazine.”

“I never heard of the magazine,’ said the stranger.

“Of course not, it would be a year before it got to you.  Besides they hold a fair there annually and racing every Saturday.  Finest four mile track in the world, lit with electric light.  No mud, no dust, always in the same condition.  Perfect paradise for sports.  What do you think of that for a mine?” 

Here the stranger, who was a Californian, threw his leg carelessly over the arm of the chair, and lighting a cigar, replied in a deep earnest tone:  “I don’t think much of your mine.  You work too much for small results.  When your mine plays out you have a lot of old truck on your hands, and where are you?  You mine after primitive methods, like all new countries.  It takes experience and hard work to tackle the industry in the proper shape.  With your mine you must be on the ground in person and have any amount of men to look after this department or that.  Now I have a bigger mine than yours.  It is located in Storey county, somewhere in the northern part I believe, and I run it quite up to the handle with one or two assistants.”

“How deep might the shaft be?”

“It might be pretty deep if I allowed the men to rush forward and overdo the thing, but at present there is no shaft at all.”

“Hoisting works up?"
“No, no hoisting works – not if I know it.  You can fool away a great deal of hard coin on hoisting works.”

“How in thunder do you run your mine?”

“On the assessment plan, sir.  That’s the latest and most improved method.  We have a big map of the mine hung up in the company’s office, made by one of the most competent artists on the Coast.  Now when I have a good map of the lower workings we don’t need any works to speak of.  We photographed the Savage hoisting works from the top of the Hale & Norcross trestlework’s an entirely new view-and call it by our name; the Bullion Brick.  I keep a man in Virginia City at $60 a month to superintend the location and write weekly letters, and I stay in San Francisco in my office on Pine Street and levy the assessments every 60 days; that’s as often as the law allows.  I’m the president, board of trustees, secretary, treasurer and everything-more especially the treasurer.  Of course, I draw the salary for all the officers, and when I get through drawing salaries, I turn the rest over to the agent in Virginia to pay off the hands.  By not employing any hands he saves enough to pay himself.  My regular income from the mine is $200,000 a year, and never a pick struck the ground.  This is what I consider scientific mining, sir.  You get the silver out of the pockets of the stock holders and leave the vast argentiferous and auriferous deposits in your claim for your children, who can go right ahead and develop the mine just as soon as the people quit putting up, which isn’t at all likely to occur.  As soon as a man drops on the game he dies, and the newcomers have to learn for themselves.  As long has people are being born in Nevada and California, my mine will run on like a chronometer clock.”

“But,” said Townsend, “my style of mining keeps a lot of men at work.”

“So does mine, quoted the Golden Gate chap.  Thousands of men are working night and day to pay the assessments.  It keeps the country as busy as a beehive, and the speaker sauntered to the telegraph office to order assessment No. 36.


He Lied His Way Through the Mining Camps


We turn the clock back to May 27, 1882, in Virginia City, Nevada.  Readers throughout the Comstock Lode were amazed to read this story of Townsend’s life and career: 

“James W. E. Townsend the gentleman who is making the local department of the Reno Gazette sparkle these days has led a remarkable life.  From information imparted by him to his friends while he lived on the Comstock, we learn that he was born in Patagonia, his mother, a noble English lady, having been cast ashore after the wreck of her husband’s yacht, in which they were making a pleasure trip around the globe. She was the only person saved.  After the birth of her son, and September having arrived (there being an “r”) in that month) she was killed and eaten. Jim was saved out as a small stake and was played until his twelfth year against the best grub at the command of the savage tribe for fattening purposes.  Then he escaped on a log, which he paddled through the Straits of Magellan with his hands, and was picked up by a whaler and taken to New Bedford.”

“At the age of 18 he entered the Methodist ministry and preached with glorious results for ten years, when he went to the Sandwich Islands as a missionary to Kanaka heathen, and remained for twenty years.  Then he reformed and returned to New York and opened a saloon, which he ran successfully and made a large fortune.  In an evil hour for himself, but to the world’s advantage, he tried his hand at journalism.  Fifteen years of this reduced him once more to poverty and preaching.  For thirty years longer Mr. Townsend occupied the pulpit, when he went back to the saloon business, after eighteen years of industrious drinking on the part of the public he brought his wealth to the Pacific Coast.  This was in 1849.”

“For several years Mr. Townsend ran simultaneously eight saloons, five newspapers and an immense cattle ranch in various parts of the Golden State.  In 1859 the enterprising gentleman was suddenly afflicted with a disease which for many months compelled him to lie on his back in one position.  This misfortune was, with the cruel levity of those rough days, turned to his account by his acquaintances, who dubbed him, ‘Lying Jim Townsend’, and ever since the sobriquet has stuck to him.  For the last decade he has devoted himself to journalism and is of course, once more poor.  Some of his friends who are of a mathematical turn have ascertained from data furnished them by Mr. Townsend in various conversations the remarkable fact that he is 384 years old.  Notwithstanding his great age, however, the gentleman still writes with the vigor of youth, and his shrewd humor is making for the Gazette, more than a local reputation.” 


A Career Is Born


In reality, we first hear of James W. E. Townsend in Virginia City itself in 1862. He worked at the Territorial Enterprise, often sharing drinks and tall tales with Mark Twain. Townsend was apparently such a good friend of Twain’s that some believe he was the inspiration for “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calveras County.”  He also worked alongside Bret Harte for a paper known as the Golden Era, and supposedly was the model for Harte’s “Truthful James”, story. We may never know whether Townsend, did indeed inspire the more famous writers, but he apparently did a good job of writing his own stories, which were written in his head, not on paper, and set directly to type.  He often worried that he could not set the type as fast as he could think up his stories.

From the Territorial Enterprise, Townsend, who was busy earning his reputation as “Lying Jim”, went to the Daily Union, also of Virginia City, and worked there until 1865. He then traveled to the western side of the Sierras to edit a Grass Valley paper during a political campaign. He moved around for 18 years working at various newspapers, setting type, writing stories, and occasionally serving as the editor.  He wound up at the Gazette in Reno Nevada, writing locals, and then moved on after only a few months to spend his winters in Washoe County, and his summers in the Sierras.  Off and on he continued to write for the Gazette.  In 1886, he wound up back at the Territorial Enterprise of Virginia City, Nevada as reporter and editor.  November of that same year, he bought the Nevada Daily Index of Carson City, Nevada, and turned around and sold it three months later.


The Great Inventor


Time spent in the Sierras was in and around the mining towns of Bodie and Lundy.  In early of October 1880 a prominent citizen of  Bodie,  mentioned visiting  mining camps in Mill Creek and Lundy where he saw one five stamp mill and three arastras.  One of the arastras probably belonged to Townsend, who had come to try his hand at mining.  He was noted for his inventive genius, and was eventually written up in one of his own papers for the scientific methods that he used that illustrated his aptitude for mechanics, “ that were only exceeded by his unlimited capacity for whiskey.”  In fact several years before Orville and Wilber Wright made the first flight, Jim worked on his own flying machine, which was one of the “grandest inventions of the time, surpassing anything in the line of perpetual motion ever talked of.”  Although he left his job at the Homer Mining Index of Lundy, to invent this magnificent flying machine, he made sure before he left, that 3 weeks of local news was reported and printed ahead of time.  After the flying machine was invented, it apparently took the six hours before starting it, to stop it. 


The Homer Mining Index


James W. E. Townsend came to Lundy, prospected, built an arastra, apparently built that flying machine, and bought the Homer Mining Index in the early 1880’s.   According to author W. A. Chalfant, an English company owning the mines in and around Lundy developed the Homer Mining Index in hopes that it would fortify mining stock sales.  A plant was provided for the paper, and J. W. E. Townsend was hired as editor. When he took over the newspaper in the beginning of 1881 he announced, “We have taken hold of the Index for the purpose of making a living.  We are not here for our health…”  By April 30 of 1881, he was complaining: “An Indian makes ten times more money catching fish than we do by publishing a newspaper.” He also bragged that same April: “There is more whiskey consumed in Mill Creek than in any other camp its size on the coast.”  Townsend probably was the one responsible for consuming the Mill Creek whiskey, as he enjoyed his fair share in the tradition of many newspaper men of the day. In August 1880, the newspaper had reported that “Jim Townsend went to Aurora a few days ago.  In consequence the saloon keepers of that burg have ordered fresh stocks of liquors.”   In November of 1882, Townsend sold the Homer Mining Index and delivered a lecture on “man’s capacity for holding rotgut’.  He spoke to the wicked and just from the roof of a dry goods box on Main Street.  His audience was reportedly large, intelligent, and sober.  Interestingly enough, it was reported that Hugh R. Hughes, of the Grand Lodge of Good Templars gave two intemperance lectures that same week and collected $14 from Lundy citizens for the Good Templar Home for Orphans.

The Homer Mining Index with the help of Jim Townsend played up the town of Lundy for British investors.  Although the town only had a few minor businesses, the Index carried advertisements for three big grocery stores, a wholesale house, two banks, many saloons, millinery stores, undertaking establishments, and so on.  A railroad timetable showed arrival and departure of nonexistent trains.  Nonexistent presentations of the great Thespians of the day took place in non-existent theaters. Townsend wrote a lavish report of the first night of the theater event listing notable people in the boxes, and describing their fine costume.  The actual story was taken from a society report of a San Francisco paper, with the names changed as he saw fit.


The Truth or Not


Townsend told the truth or not, as he was so inclined. An elaborate Fourth of July celebration written by Jim was actually a few gunshots from a miner’s six-shooter and an occasional remark to thirsty bartenders that it was time for another drink. He often adapted articles to his surroundings.  A leap-year ball report went as follows:  “Joe Thompson was attired in a light buff silk handkerchief, to conceal the absence of a collar.  Marion Budd’s shape was advantageously displayed by a close fitting jumper and long auburn chin whiskers to match.  Jim McCallum was dressed-also.  George Sherman appeared under a high forehead and behind an insulating kind of nose.  Charley Traver appeared as a gray eagle, or a bald eagle, we forget which.”

An opposing political candidate was described as not knowing enough to drive nine ducks.  Stories were told of a ragged beggar with a different name and inscription beneath it each week.  One week the story read:  “John Jones, Stand Up!  You continued to take the paper from the post office without even paying the postage on it.  Are you dead, dead broke or a dead beat?”

The Index also reported other interesting stories:

“The public school is doing well, and has an enrollment of six children.”

“There is an Indian child in the camp which has ten toes on each foot.  Each extra equipment of toes is on the rear of the foot, normal in shape.  The ankles are centrally situated, to give the toes a chance to sprout naturally.  The great disadvantage is that the mother cannot tell by looking at the feet whether the child is going or coming.”

“Jeff McClellan is going to South Africa as a mine foreman, not superintendent.  This makes it safer for the company.”

“We have to pay our taxes March fourth, and would like to have our delinquent subscribers march forth and settle up.”

“Our devil says he don’t mind carrying the paper around on snowshoes, but thinks he had his eyesight injured by smoke while calling down stovepipes and chimneys to look after their paper as he dropped it down.”

“The Bodie papers are changing to tri-weekly.  The Bridgeport paper still continues weakly as before.” 


To The Rescue


Not only did Townsend report about the Bodie papers and their changing schedules, he helped to rescue one of them.  As the town dwindled from a bulging population of 8,000 to a meager 500 by the year of 1889, the Evening Miner was fading as well.  Sunday January 6, of that same year, J.W. E. Townsend sent the following letter to H. Z. Osborne who was selling was left of the Free Press:

“Friend O. – What will you take for the remnants of the ‘Free Press’ outfit?  The type is all gone and nothing but two or three stands and the press remain.  The roof over the press leaks and the machine is badly damaged by rust.  It’s a d—d shame.  The last time I was in Bodie I went to the office to cover it up, simply because I dislike to see good material wrecked through the carelessness of a drunken sot, but they would not let me have the key.  And so it remains, subject to the moisture of God and the whims of a beast, who is drunk-drunk-drunk, and has not issued a paper for a month.  Frost is her with me, as fat as a balloon and apparently happy with a good grub and a fair allowance of grog.

In your own good time I would like to hear from you.  I am perfectly contented in Mill Creek, though we have to wear snowshoes to bed and every thermometer has a cold in the head.  But things are lovely anywhere if you steer a true course.  Respects to Cleveland.”

The wreck of the Free Press was Townsend’s for $100.  Several years later, he was in Bodie producing the Bodie Mining Index., probably using that very equipment he had acquired from the Free Press.



Ode To An Editor



After years of moving from one mining town to another, James W. E. Townsend died, rheumatic, nearly deaf, and not surprisingly, suffering from liver problems from all of the frontier whiskey he had consumed over the years.  In his book An Editor on the Comstock Lode, Wells Drury summed up “Lying Jim Townsend’s” career as an editor:

“To read his paper you would think that it was published in a city of ten thousand inhabitants.  He had a mayor and a city council, whose proceedings he reported once a week, although they never existed, and enlivened his columns with killings, law suits murder trials and railroad accidents, and a thousand incidents of daily life in a humming growing town-everyone of which he coined out of his own active brain.

“Among the most exciting things with which he kept churning up his readers were a shooting scrape and divorce proceedings arising from a scandal in which the mayor’s wife and a member of the city council figured.  It dragged along through his columns for nearly six months.  It was very interesting to read and implicitly believed-except by persons who knew there were no mayor and no council at any time in the town where Jim’s paper was published.  He was called “Lying Jim” Townsend to the day of his death and could he have had his way it would have been graven on his tombstone.”

James W. E.  Townsend rests in peace in a cemetery somewhere without the “nom de plume” he would have preferred but his tradition continues on at Explore Historic California each month in our Legends and Lore, and by the many others who know how to provide a good belly laugh, even when there isn’t a real reason for one.  Here’s to "Lying Jim!

Lying Jim Townsend Gravesite




"It isn't the mountains ahead that wear you out, it's the grain of sand in your shoe."

saudust

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Re: Lying Jim Townsend
« Reply #1 on: March 31, 2012, 06:49:47 AM »
That's some story.  Love the line about "whether the child is going or coming".  Thanks for my morning paper, wshawkins!
Let me wake laughing from a nap in the afternoon under the aspens in the fall.

High Sierra

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Re: Lying Jim Townsend
« Reply #2 on: March 31, 2012, 08:36:19 AM »
I laughed my way all through the story.  Thanks for sharing!

Jackmac

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Re: Lying Jim Townsend
« Reply #3 on: March 31, 2012, 01:10:45 PM »
This guy is the Phil Hendrie of the 1880s good story...loved it
I fish better with a lit cigar; some people fish better with talent.  ~Nick Lyons, Bright Rivers, 1977

Trev Dog

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Re: Lying Jim Townsend
« Reply #4 on: March 31, 2012, 11:06:07 PM »
Wounderfull story wshawkins,and thank you for getting everything rolling again

flyGirl

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Re: Lying Jim Townsend
« Reply #5 on: April 01, 2012, 09:26:00 AM »
Great story wshawkins!  I see it covered parts of Lundy again.  The funniest part too.  Surprised nobody beat him up or even shot him over the lying.  I thought a mans word and what he said was really important then?  Thanks for the story!

wshawkins

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Re: Lying Jim Townsend
« Reply #6 on: April 01, 2012, 12:06:31 PM »
FlyGirl, it was common in that day to follow the crowd to the next big gold strike, and when the gold petered out, go to the next boom town.  A lot of the time it was the same people following these gold rushes.  Wherever gold was discovered, hundreds of miners would put up a camp and stake their claims.  The first buildings up were the saloons and gambling houses.  Merchants were quick to set up shop for the miners.  If the discovery was big enough, a newspaper publishing would set up too.

On why no harm came to Lying Jim, most people know who he was and just took at as part of the entertainment in town.  Didn’t hurt to have Mark Twain as a friend.  Also where there was not much entertainment in town, newspaper men and the paper they turned out were very much cherished.
"It isn't the mountains ahead that wear you out, it's the grain of sand in your shoe."

Trev Dog

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Re: Lying Jim Townsend
« Reply #7 on: April 01, 2012, 08:47:05 PM »
Like Sawdust said "You once again are the morning paper" Thank you again for your contributions.
And you are once again on a Roll!

Sierra Girl

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Re: Lying Jim Townsend
« Reply #8 on: April 02, 2012, 07:54:49 AM »
Very enjoyable read wshawkins!  Especially liked the part about his flying machine invention!  He was quite a character.  I liked the way he saw humor in ever day life.   :)

flyGirl

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Re: Lying Jim Townsend
« Reply #9 on: April 02, 2012, 08:13:48 AM »
I missed that part of the flying machine Sierra Girl!  How funny! ;D

wshawkins

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Re: Lying Jim Townsend
« Reply #10 on: April 02, 2012, 09:12:26 AM »
Some more quotes from “Lying Jim Townsend”:


Mill Creek (Lundy Lake) is so crooked in one place that it is difficult to cross it. We waded it half a dozen times the other day and came out on the same side every time.

The Waters of Mono Lake are so buoyant that the bottom has to be bolted down, and boys paddle about on granite boulders.

Wild onions are plentiful hereabouts, and eaters thereof smell like the back door of a puppy’s nest.

“When thieves fall out honest men get their dues.” But when honest men fall out lawyers get their fees.

The editor of the Pioche Record says “Mrs. Page’s milk is delicious.” We shall soon hear that her husband has weaned him with a club. He knows too much.
"It isn't the mountains ahead that wear you out, it's the grain of sand in your shoe."

Fredb

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Re: Lying Jim Townsend
« Reply #11 on: April 02, 2012, 09:28:16 AM »
This man should have been a Realtor  ::)
« Last Edit: April 02, 2012, 09:51:57 AM by Fredb »

High Sierra

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Re: Lying Jim Townsend
« Reply #12 on: April 02, 2012, 09:40:28 AM »
He would have made a good politician.   ;D

flyGirl

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Re: Lying Jim Townsend
« Reply #13 on: April 02, 2012, 11:46:40 AM »
I think he would have been great as a lawyer!   :)

High Sierra

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Re: Lying Jim Townsend
« Reply #14 on: April 05, 2012, 08:26:42 AM »
What book did you get "Lying Jim Townsend" from?  Would like to read some more if there is any more to read.  Thanks.

wshawkins

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Re: Lying Jim Townsend
« Reply #15 on: April 05, 2012, 08:48:28 AM »
There are plenty of sources for Lying Jim Townsend.  Most books include a whole chapter or more on Lying Jim.  I just picked the most interesting parts.  Have fun!

Bodie Bonanza
Warren Loose
Exposition Press New York

 

Bodie “The Mines Are Looking Well…”
Michael H. Piatt
North Bay Books

 

Ghost Mines of Yosemite
Douglas Hubbard
The Awani Press

 

Gold Guns & Ghosttowns
W. A. Chalfant
Chalfant Press, Inc.
Bishop, CA

 

Lundy
Alan Patera
Western Places

 

Red Blood & Black Ink:
Journalism in the Old West

"It isn't the mountains ahead that wear you out, it's the grain of sand in your shoe."

Sierra Girl

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Re: Lying Jim Townsend
« Reply #16 on: April 05, 2012, 09:23:39 AM »
He was a well know man (maybe for the wrong reasons!) in his time as a newspaper journalist.  Didn't newspaper journalist weld a lot of power in that time period?

wshawkins

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Re: Lying Jim Townsend
« Reply #17 on: April 05, 2012, 05:44:23 PM »
Didn't newspaper journalist weld a lot of power in that time period?

That's true as there was no other media (no cell phones, internet, TV, etc.).  What the newspapers printed is what people mostly be-leaved to be true.  Newspaper journalist's had a duty to print the truth as the best of their beliefs.  Of-course, any newspaper man worth his salt always had a gun nearby just in case the public got mad of what you wrote!
« Last Edit: April 05, 2012, 08:41:07 PM by wshawkins »
"It isn't the mountains ahead that wear you out, it's the grain of sand in your shoe."