This story was published in my first book, The Johari Mirror. Please enjoy this humorous tale of a writer’s conceit.
To let the reader in on why I’m writing this, I’m old now and have realized that if a witness to certain lies and fantastic distortions does not try to correct them, then said witness deserves to be named a liar and distortionist in some significant degree himself. Also, I know now that he who writes down his experience gets to determine what others think of as the truth, no matter how bold and craven a lie his account may actually be. In this sense, writers have the Ace on all of us who don’t take the trouble to write our own version. So I will try not to commit the same crimes as the writer I am about to describe, and will stick to the unvarnished rendering of my experience, though I may need to depend on the stories I heard from others to fill in the details.
Most people know the writer I aim to tell about today. His name will become apparent to the reader by and by as we go along, but for now and the purpose of our own story we’ll just call him ‘Sam’, the name I know him by. Over several months during the winter and early spring of a certain year, Sam was a member of a more or less congenial gathering along the Stanislaus River near the Angel’s Camp prospecting region in California.
Jackass Hill is the specific name this place was known as, and it got that name from the steady braying of the pack teams that stopped over after a steep climb, one day out from Sonora. They were coming and going into the Sierra with supplies for other bucolically named mining camps like Deadman and Devil’s Gate in the high country.
It was quite a symphony out there with the jackasses and their illegitimate offspring the mules going all night and early in the morning: “Yee haw haw haw hahh, Yeeeh hah hah hah”. Everyone knows this ridiculous melody, which for us was an infernal cacophony. It caused us all, at one time or another, to seriously consider murder by tree limb on one of those troublesome beasts. But that’s not the main story of the insane asylum.
We lived in a cabin on the hill, Dick Stoker and I, and were engaged in a serious and systematic project called “pocket mining”. A controversial practice, it involves identifying “pockets” of gold among the vast landscape of sagebrush, and following the pattern of the “pockets” (once that pattern is discovered) uphill to a more substantial vein. Of course, no other mining engineers believed in this method (although we were able to find some fair sized nuggets), and so they took to ridiculing us, saying “pocket miners mine the holes in their empty pockets for a thrill” and calling us “the Jackass Hill lunatics.”
We took it all in good fun though, and even made a game of it during our near-constant storytelling sessions. Isolated as we were, and kept idle by the winter rains, we passed many hours inventing a game in which all the boys camped around Jackass Hill implemented a “Hospital for the Insane”. A “board of directors” and “Resident Physician” were appointed and reports on particular “patients” were made weekly to the committee by the “physician”. This gave the “physician” the right to “examine” his “patient” over the course of a week, to call upon other “mental doctors” for their opinions and recommendations, and to express humorous concern over the hopeless condition of said “patient”. It was Sam that caused us to realize the dangerous nature of our game, and eventually to shut down the “asylum” altogether.
Sam came to us as a result of his friendship and misadventures with my brother, Steve. Sam and Steve were part of a nefarious gang of writers who preyed upon the silver boom community of Virginia City in the Nevada territory. They had made a fortune on paper mining stocks by accepting bribes, shares in questionable mining adventures, in exchange for puffing the mine’s claim in their various print newspapers. They became so practiced at this swindle – each writer quoting another of their gang and carefully crafting their reviews to include the prudent caution against the torrent of their gushing – that they could double or even triple a stock’s worth overnight, simply on the wings of their words. This would invariably create a bubble, of which the crooked writers were the main beneficiaries and, as it turned out, the main victims. They also plagued the community with public drunkenness, gambling, and, occasionally, pistol dueling – for which Sam and my brother had to skeedadle very abruptly out of the Nevada territory to San Francisco.
There Sam found employment on a newspaper, and commenced to make up the most outrageous lies and libels, passing them off as local reporting. His friends and coconspirators at the time consisted of every vice-linked policeman, madam, and politician in San Francisco and some other municipalities as well. He proceeded to live the high life, pouring his stock-financed wealth into wild parties and lavish living, champagne and scandalous indulgence.
Sam made the miscalculation that many investment writers make; that is, he believed too much in his own words, verily falling in love with the flourishes and enthusiasms, the deep and significant wisdom that graced his reports on worthless mining claims. When the Virginia City boom went bust, and not one in one-hundred of the stocks Sam owned was worth the paper it was printed on, he kept on living in perfect denial of his predicament, gambling and playing the life of the socially established professional gent, stacking up ever more debt though he was penniless.
His profligate behavior became more erratic, and he was eventually jailed for common drunkenness. He was set completely at sea when his newspaper fired him as unfit. He spent months of “skulking” and avoided everyone, especially his landlord and creditors. His realization that he was penniless, after recklessly building himself up as a man of wealth and investments, unhinged his mind, caused a mortal blow to his sanity, and over time nearly caused the end of him. My brother told me that he had come upon his friend, about to be evicted into the street, with a pistol held to his temple and “a hair’s breadth away from pulling the trigger”. That was when the two of them decided – since Steve was a “bail jumper” at the time – that they should hide out at my cabin on Jackass Hill, and shortly after this incident I welcomed and introduced them into our “asylum”.
The most immediately obvious thing about Sam, to start with, was his constant smoking habit. He carried a collection of rank-smelling pipes, and all his waking hours he was enshrouded in a cloud of thick smoke. Though I enjoy a smoke or chew as well as any, I never met a man so craving tobacco as he was, constantly in a state of nerves and smoking like a chimney. When he would run low on pipe tobacco he would go into a frenzy culminating in a nervous collapse, and this caused him to travel frequently to stock up on his herbal addiction –sometimes sixty miles – all the way to Angel’s Camp and back on foot or pack mule. He traded nearly all his possessions for tobacco, leaving only the clothes he wore, and his pipe collection, his pens and notebooks, to signify his earthly existence.
The other obvious thing about Sam, when you got to know him a little, was his religious aversion to labor of a physical kind. One time I dragged him out to do some “pocket mining” and asked only that he bring water to sluice through my pan. After less than a half-hour he took to complaining mightily about how he was cold and how the work didn’t suit him, and he was ready to quit. Pretty soon he did quit – just stopped on me though I had a pan of promising ore left – and no honest or genuine plea could make him start up bringing water again. I got so disgusted I just gave up and left everything in frustration. A couple of Austrians happened on my abandoned pan when the rain had washed away the dirt somewhat, and found two big nuggets just awaiting to be plucked. No one ever took Sam out after that, or tried to get a lick of work out of him.
The best thing about Sam, which was also the worst, was his sense of humor. As a storyteller and comedian he was flat out the best I’ve ever heard. And he could change the most innocent event into a monster of a tale. But this meant that he could also, in one of his black moods, tear a miner to bits with his thorny tongue and leave even the most dull-witted among us wondering just how deeply we could be insulted.
Although he hated work, Sam had a constant and determined fantasy that he would someday strike it rich. He came to believe that he could write outlandish and preposterous stories, as he had done in Nevada and San Francisco, and strike riches that way. He had the prospector’s persistent feeling that wealth was everywhere and soon likely to rub off on him. I know very many poor miners who’ve lived the same illusion all their lives, but Sam was confident without any reason, and he never let us forget how he was destined to be rich.
Sam sat around scribbling in his notebook all day, and, when he was reasonably sober, regaled us with his whimsical stories at the campfire. He was invariably visiting the saloon on his trips to Angel’s Camp, which doubled as a hotel, brothel, laundry, and opium den. He picked up various stories down there and brought them back up to entertain the inmates of the Jackass Hill Asylum. Most of these stories are strictly unprintable, but one, about a miner and a horny toad, was quite well worked and gained him notoriety later in life.
Sam’s favorite writing was reviews for the “insane asylum” and he took up our game with enthusiasm and wit. He wrote fake mining reports such as “Report of Prof. G to accompany Map and Views of the Great Vide Poche (i.e. Empty Pocket) Mine on Mount Olympus, Calavaras Co.”, and submitted them in evidence of some poor miner’s ongoing delusional state. When it was his turn to be the “physician” he worked up the following “grave and fatherly concern” about my condition:
“A companionable young fellow who tells some fairly humorous stories…it is sad to know that this young man, who would otherwise be a useful member of society, is hopelessly insane, but such, I’m sorry to say, is the truth. He is laboring under the illusion that he is the greatest pocket miner on earth… He is a fairly good pocket hunter, and knows a gold nugget from a brass door knob, but there are dozens of boys on the hill who can give him cards and spades and beat him at the game.”
We all laughed at this “report” of course, but next week it was my turn to be the “physician” and I addressed myself to the problematic case of inmate Samuel L. Clemens:
“One of the most pitiful cases of insanity that has ever fallen under my observation …He has, for the past three years, been associated with newspapermen of rare literary ability. He is obsessed with the idea that they are the spokes of a wheel and himself the hub around which they revolve. He has a mania for storytelling, and is at the present time engaged in writing one called “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras,” which he imagines will cause his name to be handed down to posterity from generation to generation as the greatest humorist of all time. This great story of his is nothing but a lot of silly drivel about a warty old toad that he was told by some joker in Angels Camp. Every evening when the inmates are together in the living room, he takes up the manuscript and reads to them a page or two of the story…Then he will chuckle to himself and murmur about “copyrights” and “royalties.” If this was the only trouble with Mark Twain, as he dubs himself in his stories, there would be a reasonable hope of the ultimate restoration of his mentality, but the one great hallucination that will forever bar him from the “busy walks of life” is that he was at one time a pilot on one of the great Mississippi River packets…Poor Mark! His nearest approach to being a pilot on the river was when he handled the big steering wheel of a flat boat, freighted with apples from Ohio, which were peddled in towns along the river.”
All the boys exploded with mirth, except for Sam. He went livid with rage. He leaped to his feet and paced back and forth – we could see the steam rising off of him. He began flinging fiery sarcasms at me, ridiculing my writing and calling the others “ a lot of laughing jackals”. He didn’t settle either, and continued his tirade all through that night and into the dawn.
For days he would not address any of us with civility, and instead became distracted and disheveled, mumbling about his “revenge”, as if some great inner demon took him over. When he finally came down he would still blow up on someone without notice and grab a drill, a pick handle, or any other weapon that was handy and proceed to brain the offender with it. We saw him wandering off in the woods in his pipe-smoke cloud, conversing with someone, perhaps Beelzebub, we couldn’t see.
It wasn’t the first episode of “mountain madness” I witnessed, but it most definitely was the worst. We called off the “insane asylum” right then. Although Sam’s rages would usually die down as quickly as they flared up, he never had the fortitude to apologize to the wronged party. That goes up until today, for he has never apologized for this bit of “humorous” writing about me that appeared in his published account called “Roughing It”:
“It was the most singular, and almost the most touching and melancholy exile that fancy can imagine. One of my associates in this locality…was a man who had a university education: but now for eighteen years he had decayed there by inches, a bearded, rough clad, clay-stained miner, and at times among his soliloquizing, he unconsciously interjected vaguely remembered Latin and Greek sentences – dead and musty tongues, meet vehicles of thoughts of one whose dreams were all of the past, whose life was a failure, a man without ties, hopes, interests, waiting for rest and the end.”
Now as my purpose of writing this story is to correct a distortion of the truth, I’m here to say that Mr. Mark Twain might be thinking of himself and mixing pathos with a free hand to his own autobiography. My understanding is that although ‘mad Sam’ of our “insane asylum” took refuge in his wife’s abundant dowry and built a great literary reputation for himself, he lost it all, everything he owned, in reckless speculation and indulgence, ruining his family in the process. In fact, he is better known as a sarcastic comedian, a buffoon of a type.
His writings, humorous as they are, contain all the dark elements of bitterness and madness; and he is known to mock and blaspheme against all humanity, and challenge his Creator with malice. Ask yourself, “Is this the practice of a “sane” man?”I hear he even agrees and elaborates about his true condition of insanity, and laughs that all of us are lunatics in our asylum as well.
“E Pluribus Unum (From Many, One)” is all I have to say to that.
One thought on “The Jackass Hill Insane Asylum”
Awesome post, thanks for sharing!