The Bad Man from Bodie:
A Frontier Legend Rediscovered
Michael H. Piatt
is a ghost town—perhaps the West’s best preserved ghost town, where abandoned,
weather-beaten buildings stand stoically against encroaching sagebrush. But years ago, the remote mining camp east of
After prospector W.S. Bodey
and his companions discovered gold in 1859, the Bodie Mining District (named
after Bodey with a slight change in spelling) remained nearly unpopulated until
a mine caved, exposing an ore body that inspired
Gold — But a few short months ago Bodie was an insignificant little place, now she is rapidly growing in size and importance and people are crowding in upon her from far and near, and why? Because of the rich discoveries of gold — yellow, glittering, precious gold.
for a few minor fisticuffs and knife fights, Bodie remained peaceful during the
early months of the excitement. But on
Boomtown Bodie churned with activity in Spring 1878, when newly discovered bonanzas attracted even more gold seekers, multiplying the camp’s population five times over before year’s end. Spoofing the distant mining town’s rough-and-tumble inhabitants, the San Francisco Argonaut published a tall tale by journalist and humorist E.H. Clough. Titled “The Bad Man of Bodie,” the story told of Washoe Pete, a “bluffer” known for wild and amusing exaggerations. “He swaggered and boasted to his heart’s content,” the yarn began. Whenever Pete drew his revolver and shot out the lights, he only evoked onlooker smiles and remarks of “purty fair shootin’.”
One day Pete entered a saloon, where he encountered a timid, peaceful mining expert.
“You are an expert, eh?” shouted Bodie’s baddest bad man, eyeing the pint-size newcomer menacingly. “You’re one o’ them fellers as allows he knows payin’ mines, are ye? Well, ye’re the wust I ever saw.”
“I don’t want to quarrel with you, sir,” responded the expert meekly.
“Ye’d better not, young feller, ye’d better not. I’m a whirlwind in a fight, and don’t ye forget it.”
“I’m a man of peace,” cried the well-mannered visitor, cowering from his tormenter. “I carry no weapons, and of course I could not hope to stand before an untamed whirlwind.”
Pete leaned over the stranger and shook his fist in the man’s face.
“I’m bad; I’m chief in this yer camp, an’ I ken lick the man who says I ain’t. I’m a ragin’ lion o’ the plains, an’ every time I hit I kill. I’ve got an arm like a quartz stamp, an’ I crush bones when I strike.”
“Please don’t joke so roughly,” pleaded the helpless expert. “Let’s take a drink and call it square. I’m very sorry that I have offended you.”
“Ye think I’m jokin’, do ye?” hollered the bad man. “Ye take me for a josh, eh? I’ll show ye what I am afore I git through with ye. Ye don’t play me fur no tenderfoot.”
By this time a crowd had filled the room; all smiling and enjoying the drama.
“This has gone on ‘bout long ‘nough,” bellowed Bodie’s bad man. “Square yerself — I’m goin’ ter kick, an’ a Comstock mule ain’t no match for Washoe Pete — d’ye hear me?”
The bully raised his ponderous boot. But just then the little man straightened himself and his left fist struck Pete between the eyes like a locomotive piston. The blow sent the surprised bully sprawling onto the sawdust-covered floor. The expert pounced on his victim, then drew back and struck again, delivering more blows that fell like thunderbolts. Pete reached for his knife and six-shooter, but the stranger flanked his moves and planted more punches on the braggart’s prostrate form.
“Let up!” the tyrant howled. “I was only foolin’—can’t yer take a joke, dern ye? I give in, dern ye, I give in!”
The sight was too much for the onlookers, and their laughter echoed through the hills beyond Bodie Bluff.
“All hands to the bar for drinks,” the mine expert called out, rising from his victim.
As the jovial crowd gathered for a toast, the “Bad Man of Bodie” crawled away in disgrace.
“I didn’t lay out to fall up against batterin’ rams,” he muttered to himself.
The yarn played upon Bodie’s growing reputation for violence. After the Reno Record reported that in December 1878 a man was cut to pieces in Bodie, the Gold Hill News queried, “Why can’t a man get along in Bodie without fighting?” Bodie’s press answered whimsically, blaming the district’s 8,500-foot elevation.
Really, we can’t say. It must be the altitude. There is some irresistible power in Bodie which impels us to cut and shoot each other .... The clashing of revolvers up and down
Main streetcan be constantly heard, and . . . a man cannot go to his dinner without getting a bullet hole in his hat, or the seat of his unmentionables cut away by the deadly knife of the desperado. Yes, it is sad, but only too true, that everybody must fight that comes to Bodie.
The Tybo Sun added intrigue by reporting, “a Bodie man never has two disputes with the same man. This is explained by the fact that he kills him at the first quarrel.” One wit tendered absurdly, “the Bodie man always eats his victim after killing him.”
tales of the West that portrayed its inhabitants as unsophisticated, ornery,
and dangerous were popular across
“Everybody come up and have something to drink,” demanded the newcomer as he lurched up to the bar.
He gave a furious whoop and smashed a bottle over his head. Then he performed a war dance.
“I’m a bad man,” declared the intruder, “and always make it a practice to strew upon the floor the bowels of any person who declines to drink upon my invitation.”
his remarks, he drew an 18-inch “
"Who is he?” muttered a terrified spectator, taking cover behind the bar, “From Bodie, I suppose.”
hell no!” thundered the bartender. “He's
Americans have long enjoyed playful exaggeration for entertainment’s sake,
elevating leg pulling to a national art form.
The frontier and its heroes were frequent subjects, and amusing fictional characters, such as Paul
Bunyan and Pecos Bill, remain popular today.
But when the West was wild, Bodie’s bad man was an image recognized
across the country, based on the remote gold town’s perceived disregard for law
and order. Even
editors far and wide seemingly took pleasure in embellishing stories of
deviltry and attributing them to any passing stranger who could be conveniently
labeled a “Bad Man from Bodie.” In a
The expression “Bad Man from
Bodie” had become nationally recognized by 1880, when the writer who coined the
term two years earlier published a second tale that appeared in
One of the peculiarities of a Bad Man from Bodie is his profanity. A Bad Man from Bodie who never used an oath is as impossible as perpetual motion or an honest election in
. This trait is especially noticeable whenever he kills a man or endeavors to kill one. . . . Meeting an eligible candidate for a place in the graveyard, he emits his stereotyped oath and blazes away. Nevada
The columnist claimed to have actually witnessed a Bodie bad man enter a saloon and leap upon a billiard table.
“Here I am again,” the make-believe thug roared, “a mile wide and all wool. I weigh a ton and when I walk the earth shakes. Give me room and I'll whip an army. . . . I was born in a powder house and raised in a gun factory. I'm bad from the bottom up and clear grit plumb through.”
From atop his improvised podium, the bad man ranted, “I’m chief of Murdertown, and I'm dry! Whose treat is it? Don't all speak at once for I'll turn loose and scatter death and destruction Hell bent for election. Your treat, is it? Well, come up everybody. Pass the old rat poison.”
Whenever a Bodie bad man visited another mining camp, according to Clough, the locals would wring their hands and say, “Recon it’s goin’ to liven up around here; I see the bonebreaker’s in town.” Meanwhile, the undertaker dusted off his hearse and groomed its black plumes; the coroner engaged a physician to carry out autopsies and convened a jury to hold inquests; the gravedigger purchased another spade; and the stonecutter would order new chisels to epitaph victims in marble.
Clough’s wild stories motivated other writers who drew inspiration from the bonanza town’s lawless inclination. The Stockton Mail joined the fun with a line of clever fiction. “There is even talk in Bodie’s upper circles of forming a society to exclude from high-toned gatherings everyone who has not killed his man.”
far-off columnist spun a tale about an inebriated loudmouth who entered the
Fern Leaf concert hall in
“I'm a chip from the side of Bodie Bluff,” the stranger yelled as he upset a table and jumped onto the stage, driving a terrified soloist into a corner. “I'm an old stager myself, and capture whole camps with my actin’.”
The intruder pulled his gun and fired a shot, extinguishing the footlights and sending musicians and the audience fleeing toward the doors.
“This is what I call fun,” proclaimed the bad man. “This old town needs shaking up a little; the boys seem to be sort o' low and need a boom.”
Violent stories, both real and fabricated, gave Bodie an air of danger, an aspect of the camp's far-flung fame that delighted some but troubled others. One Bodie editor challenged the motives and accuracy of distant-city reporting.
When the witty paragrapher of one of our metropolitan contemporaries has touched up all the live topics of the day, and still lacks a little filling of the space in his paper, he dashes off a few lines about the “bad man of Bodie,” and his exploits in the way of “cleaning out” a saloon full of city loafers, blowing out lights with his revolver, or other equally improbable performances. In brief, we do not enjoy having our town pointed out either as a murderer's paradise or the chosen headquarters of the Angel of Death, because neither proposition is true. The fact is, the “bad man of Bodie” is as much a myth, and is as unreal as “the baseless fabric of a vision.” He does not exist.
The columnist later admitted that killings actually did take place in Bodie, but only among its rowdy citizens.
As to the occasional homicides which occur here, there never has been yet an instance of the intentional killing of a man [that] was not a verification of the proverb that “He that liveth by the sword shall perish by the sword.” As to the health of Bodie, there were about 111 deaths in this place [during 1879], out of a population varying from 5,000 to 8,000 people. A very considerable number of these were killed by accidents in mines. 
The San Francisco Bulletin summed up the situation: “The Bad Man from Bodie is a sort of a
generic term for all the bad men in the State.”
An offended Bodie newspaperman recoiled at the insult. “Bodie is one of the quietest, most
law-abiding mining districts” in both
One Bodie resident visited the Bay Area and tried to improve his town’s image by appealing to the San Francisco Daily Report. “People living at a distance from our mining district often do us a gross injustice in commenting on our fighting affairs,” he complained.
[They] assume that Bodie is a terribly wicked place. . . . The “Bad Man from Bodie” has become a popular phrase and every time a fatal shooting scrape occurs in the town some paper heads its account with “Another Bodie Fighter Gets His Man For Breakfast.” 
Also objecting to unflattering reports, a newsman in Bodie remarked, “But Bodie is much misunderstood by those outside. They have met with an occasional ‘Bad Man from Bodie,’ and have been too ready to judge the entire community from the bad man’s standpoint.” 
While law-abiding citizens sought to change outside opinion, their efforts did little good. Bodie’s violent reputation would not subside until years after the boom. The town’s population decreased precipitously after mid-1880, then leveled off at around 800; comprised mostly of wage-earning miners and their families.
As the camp matured, its once-famous Bad Man faded into the mists of forgotten folklore, overtaken by a more powerful legendary figure — the cowboy. An article in the New York-based National Police Gazette anticipated the popularity of cowboys and compared them to the Bad Man from Bodie.
The untamed cowboy generally sports a large six shooter, a belt, a knife, repeating rifle, and a huge pair of spurs, while the mustang which he rides is supplied with a Spanish saddle and held in check and guided by a huge Spanish bit. Herding cattle being his vocation, nothing delights him more than a wild chase after an untamed steer, and, being a splendid rider, neither an Apache nor a soldier can get the best of him on the plains. Sometimes he is an American, sometimes a Mexican, a half-breed, or Indian, but no matter what his nationality may be he is as uncivilized as a grizzly bear and reckless as a savage. . . . Quick, wiry, and intrepid, often generous and humane, he [stands apart], and many are the stories told of his bloodthirsty career. . . . He it is who does the shooting in most of our frontier towns, and is fast becoming a terror to the citizens of the region where he chooses to visit. Like “the bad man from Bodie,” fear to him is an unknown quantity, and the greater the danger the more desperate he seems to become. 
early stages of
For a thoroughly researched, documented account of violence in boomtown Bodie, see: Roger D. McGrath, Gunfighters, Highwaymen & Vigilantes: Violence on the Frontier (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984), 102-271.
 Several western towns (five mining towns and one
cattle town) boomed almost simultaneously: Deadwood, DT, 1876;
 Bodie’s most famous inhabitant, Madame Mustache, was
a professional gambler who committed suicide a mile or so south of town in
September 1879. Educated, pretty, and fashionably dressed, Eleanor Dumont
 “Bad man” was a common Wild West expression before imaginative
20th century writers invented “gunslinger.” Recalling his ill repute in
 Bodie Standard (
 Bodie Standard (
 Register of Death of Mono County in Maxine Chappell, “Bodie and the Bad Man: Historical Roots of a Legend” (Master’s thesis, University of California, 1947), 39-40.
 E. H. Clough, “The Bad Man of Bodie,” The Argonaut
 Weekly Bodie Standard (
 Weekly Bodie Standard (
 Engineering and Mining Journal (
 E.H. Clough, “Bad Men from
Bodie,” The Daily Bee (
 Daily Free Press (
 Daily Free Press (
 Daily Free Press (
 Daily Free Press (
 Daily Free Press (
 Daily Free Press (
 Weekly Standard-News (
In 1939 veterans of Bodie’s gold mining excitement remembered the Bad Man
through letters to the Chronicle in
“Editor: In your recent editorial . . . you mention
the town’s leading citizen, the celebrated Bad Man from Bodie. On inquiring about I have found that while
everyone has heard of this eminent Californian, no one seems to known who he
was. I wonder if any of your readers can
tell me who was the great Bad Man and what did he do that was so bad?” William Harrison [The
“Editor: My boyhood was spent in Bodie. A long time ago my father was sheriff of
“Editor: Mr. Morgan corrects the impression many might
have acquired of the actual existence of a ‘Bad Man from Bodie.’ As a resident of Bodie in ‘79, I agree with
Mr. Morgan. There were bad men in Bodie
and bad whisky, and there were lawless killings and mass killings in mine
accidents, but the ‘Bad Man from Bodie’ was a gag.” J. Cassidy.
[The Chronicle (
National Police Gazette (