Christmas in Kingston (1882)


Victorio Hotel in Kingston, built in 1883.
Victorio Hotel in Kingston, built in 1883.

Christmas was coming to Kingston. The Christmas spirit was in the air. Every burro that came into town over mountain trails packed a Christmas tree, a big bunch of mistletoe, or a branch of red berries. A little of the evergreen went to decorate Mrs. O’Boyle’s cabin where the Catholics of Kingston would gather on Christmas afternoon to celebrate the birth of Christ; some of the holiday green went to brighten up the eleven saloons of the town; but most of it went to adorn Pretty Sam’s new dance hall, the Casino.

An immense crowd was expected in Kingston on Christmas Eve, for in 1882 the town was the metropolis of the Southwest. Nobody knew what the population was - there was no Caesar Augustus to order an enrollment - but it was set at twenty-five hundred. And the great crowd had been invited by Pretty Sam to celebrate the opening of the Casino.

Sam’s new dance hall had been under construction for several months and was the finest and biggest in all the southwestern frontier. It was at least one hundred fifty feet long and fifty feet wide, and had a hardwood floor, waxed and polished, until dancing upon it became a feat, especially for a person with new shoes.

Pretty Sam was not the man to do things by halves. To the opening of the new dance hall he invited everybody in the whole countryside, and sent special invitations to all the big guns. Everything was to be free, including the big spread at midnight. The elite of Silver City, Lake Valley, Hermosa, and Hillsboro were to be there.

Now level land was at a premium in Kingston, and in order to get a central site for his grand building Pretty Sam had to be content with a location that meant extra work. The front door was on a level with the street, but the back end of the building was supported on a trestle which raised it about thirty feet above the creek. Pretty Sam concluded to run a bridge from his back door to the other side of the canyon, but this had not been finished in time for the opening.

The double door at the back had, therefore, been bolted, and the space just in front of it partitioned off to serve as a cloak room on the opening night. In order to be on the safe side, the windows on the end of the building that overlooked the creek had been nailed shut. Some of the guests might sit on the window sill and be careless enough to fall out; or, when the party got into full swing some guests might mistake the window for a door and step out. It was better to play safe.

The big night arrived. It was cool and crisp with a bright moon lighting up the landscape like day. The hall was gay with flags and bunting, and the air was filled with the scent of evergreen. The best orchestra of El Paso had been engaged to furnish the music.

The crowd was a strange one. All were wearing their glad rags. Those who had dress suits had been asked to wear them, and not a few appeared with swallow tails, white shirt fronts, and stove-pipe hats. Officers’ uniforms were also to be seen and a few brand-new pairs of overalls and brogans.

Colonel Parker led the grand march. He was a West Point officer who had joined the Confederates on the outbreak of the Civil War. He was now about sixty years of age, but he managed to get his two hundred seventy-five pounds into his old West Point uniform. His partner in the grand march was Big Annie, a lady from Missouri. She was corn-fed and the least that can be said about her size is that she was a grand partner for the Colonel. She was dressed to kill.

Four other colonels were there:  Colonel Harris, who had gained his title by sitting forty-eight hours in a stud poker game without getting up from his chair; Colonel Crawford, who wore the latest styles and gained the title because he was a regular windjammer and had sold more wildcats than anyone that ever crossed the Rockies; Colonel Jim Finch, who gained the title because he was able to tell by the sound whether it was a 45 or a 45-70 Winchester that was fired; Colonel Bob Hopper, who could tell by the taste whether he drank Old Crow or Sam Thompson. Of course, judges and major were more or less plentiful. At that time a man without a title was a small potato.

As a special attraction, Sergeant “Dog-Face” Connelly, who ran the Orpheum, was to bring all his girls to the dance after the show. All the society women of surrounding towns were present, of course, wearing their best bibs and tuckers, and all the ladies from Shady Lane, including Lousy Lou, Old Hat, Deaf Carrie, Jew Etta, Big Jennie, and Scotty, the latter being an expert at the “Highland Fling.” Bloody Mary was there. She was Cornish and had won her name because she used the word bloody to describe everything from a hairpin to her latest flame. Kate Stewart, the town beauty, came in late, looking like a fashion plate.

There was a sprinkling of many nationalities in the crowd:  Greek George, French Joe, Dutch Henry, Hunky Pete, and the Big Turk; also Americans, Irish, Scotch, Blue Noses, Shad Backs, and Cousin Jacks.

Ed Doheny and Neil Boyle were two of the dudes who appeared in dress suits rented from El Paso. Dress suits and castor hats were aired at this dance that were old in Hickory Jackson’s time. French Joe wore a white fur hat that he had brought with him from Canada.

It is safe to say that no one present was inclined to put any slight on Pretty Sam’s hospitality. There was plenty of liquor for all and sundry - champagne, whiskey, wine, gin, and mescal. The company was in high feather. The girls were looking their best, the music was enough to make a dead man dance, and the old sourdoughs and desert rats were making up for a year of hard and lonely work. It seemed at times as if the floor must surely fall in under the lively dancing.

There had come to town the day before the dance a gay young dame from Denver. John Roach, the gambler, met her at the stage and took her to the hotel. Johnny had been having a run of hard luck, and for several days had been trying to drown his troubles in tarantula juice. Though generally a dandy, he had not shaved for days. Being in no shape to attend the dance, he told his lady friend to stay away from the low-brow affair. Then he went to his cabin and to bed.

The Denver dame heard nothing except the big dance, and the more she heard the more she wanted to attend it. The landlady at the hotel promised to get her an escort. The young man she picked out was Lewis, a Tar Heel from North Carolina, the nephew of Colonel Bob Hopper. Lewis was a smart Aleck and seemed to think that prospectors, miners, gamblers, and all other Westerners were a breed beneath his notice. Lewis and the Denver girl were both good dancers and cut a big swath when they got out on the floor.

By midnight the celebration was going at top-speed. Cornish Mary was calling for a “bloody lunch.” John Brock man was shouting for Limburger cheese and beer. The Duck, an ex-Episcopal minister, and Sig Lindauer, a merchant, were arguing the difference between a clog and a jig. Judge Bell and other Virginians were singing the strains of “Old Black Joe” to the picking of the banjo. The Georgetown clique - Smith, Hilde, Sternes, and Deemer - had formed a committee to wait upon the orchestra with a request for the “Spanish Cavalier.”

With some trouble the different groups were cleared from the floor in order that Lewis and the Denver dame could do one of the latest dances, the two-step valse.

It was while this was going on that Johnny Roach appeared on the scene. Having slept several hours, he had brightened up, and with a drink or two under his belt he had set out to take his lady to the dance. Finding that she had gone without him, he flew into a rage. Arming himself with a Springfield rifle, he headed for the dance hall.

He made himself known by crashing his rifle through the glass in the front door. Then he began to shoot. Luckily he did not see Lewis and his lady, and the shots were directed at the lights. In a twinkling the main light was shot out. Virtually every guest had a gun under his swallow-tail coat, and quite a volley was fired in the general direction of the front door.

The main body of the guests made a wild rush for the double door in the rear of the hall. Over went the partition and crash went the bolted door. Leading the rush was Big Annie, and her weight decided the fate of the door, for she was the first to land on the dry creek bed thirty feet below, with French Joe a close second. The few others who went over landed in a general heap. Big Annie’s screams for help put the gunman at the front door out of mind, and a great scramble took place to get down to her on the creek bottom.

Dan O’Leary ran like mad for Dr. Guthrie, the only medical man in town. The doctor had taken a Christmas toddy and gone to bed. O’Leary, terribly excited, could hardly talk straight, mumbling that the doctor must come at once. Now, Dr. Guthrie had at one time been scalped by the Cheyenne Indians; in his hurry he did not stop to put on his wig, nor even to throw a coat over his nightshirt.

The excitement of the shooting and Annie’s accident had had a very sobering effect upon the crowd, and they had reached the stage where a r
eaction was sure to come. Teeth were chattering and nerves were jangling, when the wild-eyed O’Leary arrived with a creature in a loose white garment, whose face went clear to the back of his neck, and whom they did not remember seeing before. It was the last straw. People fell over one another in trying to get away.

Some, moved by a wholesome fear, scattered to their homes and were among the first to gather for the Christmas services when the bell gave the summons the next afternoon; but most of the crowd came together in the new dance hall. Colonel Parker took this chance to make a speech.

“My friends,” he began, “I have been asked to make a few announcements to the crowd gathered here tonight, and this I want to do before you again take the floor to dance.

“Tomorrow the post office will be open till one o’clock, so you will have time to sleep off this dance and get your mail, besides. There may be a letter you will not want to miss from mother, perhaps, or wife, or sister, or friend, or sweetheart.

“The Catholics of the town are invited to Mrs. O’Boyle’s cabin to celebrate this great feast with hymns and prayers. The Protestants of the settlement are invited to gather here in Pretty Sam’s Casino. The Episcopal minister, whom you all know better as The Duck, will lead the hymns and prayers for you. The collection taken up at both meetings will go towards building a fence around the graveyard.

“No saloons will be open tomorrow afternoon or evening. Keep sober. Make it a day of memories - memories of Santa Claus and Christmas trees and Christmas toys; memories of mother and the lessons she taught us; memories of those whom we have loved and lost.

“Your mothers will be thinking of you - of the hard life you lead; of the changes you will find at home when you go back; of the children who have grown up since you left. She will be wondering what this life is like that you lead among new friends, new ways, and new strikes. Write her a letter tomorrow, my friends, and send her a few dollars if you can afford it.

“Enjoy the good dinner you may get here or at Mrs. Boyle’s or in your own cabins, if you would rather do that. I ask God to take care of you and to guide you in this hard life. May He take you to His Heavenly Kingdom at your death. Let us forgive and forget in this season of peace and good will to men.

“And now Sam, I want to thank you in behalf of your guests. You did not save your best drinks till last, but I congratulate you upon your great act of hospitality. You led your guests into a state of inebriation bordering upon comas, and then furnished an incident which in a few minutes made them so sober they can start all over again with a mighty thirst. A merry Christmas I wish you, Sam, and all the company.”

And so it happened that Pretty Sam’s dance went into history as the biggest bang-up in the annals of Kingston. Johnny Roach was arrested shortly after leaving the dance hall and put in the jug. No complaint was made against him, and as he promised to pay Big Annie’s doctor bill and to stand the damages in Pretty Sam’s Casino, he was out in time to eat his Christmas dinner with the dame from Denver.