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Chapter 17: White women.

Not even his squaw! White men have learned a good deal from the Indian, but they have not learned to stake their wives, like Utes and Bannocks, on the chances of a throw. White females are still too rare and precious on this coast; some cynics say too rare and precious for their own well-being, not to mention the well-being of the Commonwealth. Nature puts the sexes on the earth in pairs, and man destroys that balance at the cost of his moral death.

In California there are five White men to two White women; in Oregon there are four White men to three White women; in Nevada there are three White men to one White woman; in Washington there are two White men to each White woman. Under social arrangements so abnormal, a White [165] woman is treated everywhere on the Pacific slopes, not as a man's equal and companion, justly and kindly like a human being, but as a strange and costly creature, which by virtue of its rarity is freed from the restraints and penalties of ordinary law. A man must be sharply pressed by famine ere he eats his bird of paradise.

As with the trappers and traders of Monterey, so with the miners and settlers round San Francisco. There is a brisk demand for wives; a call beyond the markets to supply. A glut of men is everywhere felt, and the domestic relation is everywhere disturbed. Marriage is a career; marriage, divorce, re-marriage, times without end, and changes without shame.

A thousand quips and jokes turn on the relation of man to woman in these provinces, and every quip and jest gives the last word to the lady as mistress of the situation. A young fellow, nerved by a wild impulse, snatches a kiss from a pretty girl, and asks her pardon, on the ground of his being subject to fits of temporary insanity. The damsel puts out her hand in pity, saying, “ Poor boy! whenever you feel one of these fits coming on again, run right away [166] over here, where your infirmity is known, and we'll take care of you — there! ”

A girl goes into a shop in Montgomery Street to buy gloves. “ What size?” asks the young fellow. “My real size is sixes,” the damsel smiles, “ but you see my hand will bear squeezing,” --and the bashful fellow fetches her a pair of five and a half.

A damsel of San Francisco reads in one of Helen M. Coke's rhapsodies that “ kisses on the brow” make the richest diadem for a woman. “ Guess that sort of kisses is rather thin,” sneers the girl, “ and I doubt whether Nellie Coke herself likes them very much.”

So runs the moral to an end. “ Guess my husband's got to look after me, and make himself agreeable to me, if he can,” says a pretty young woman, in a tone of banter, but a tone that carries much meaning, “ if he don't, there's plenty will.”

Divorce is cheap and easily obtained. Sone legal firms are known for their alacrity in getting through such troubles. “Residence not required,” is one of the hints thrown out in circulars and advertisements to parties about to be divorced. The application mostly comes from the woman's side, and any allegation is enough to satisfy her judge. [167] A husband going into court is generally regarded as a fool. The other day a poor Irishman tried his best to show that he was ill-used, and ought to be divorced. The magistrate frowned. “Well, then, I won't say anything agin the woman, judge, but I wish you would jist live with her a little while.” The judge relaxed, and gave him his release.

Observers notice on this slope a tendency to hanker after female crime. The motives for this hankering may be various, but the facts are scarcely matters of dispute. Few jokes are more successful in society than such as hint at domestic murderat the wife of your bosom making you a cup of hemlock tea, or blowing your brains out as you lie asleep. A young Californian lady, just divorced, complains to her friend, a widow of twenty-five, that her late husband tells such cruel things of her.

“And not a word of it true?”

“My dear, how can you ask?”

“Only for form's sake. Now, my dear child, I have had three husbands, no better and no worse than other men, but they are all gone. My dear. dead husbands tell no tales.”

With some persons, the motive of this curiosity [168] may be nothing but a tribute to the rarity of female crime, compared with male. Male acts of violence are in truth so common, that they fail to stir the general pulse. Nobody cares to hear about a man being killed. Last night an Irish labourer was shot in Broadway, near the county jail. Dick Owen challenged his chum, Jim Burke, to fight. The two men had been drinking with their sluts; the two couples hugging and mugging in the imbecile friendships caused by gin; until the two sluts fell out and scratched each other's eyes. Owen and Burke took part in the affair. “ Come out and fight,” cried Owen, hectoring under his chum's window. “ Coming down, ye skunk!” shouts Burke, pulling out his pistol, and jumping down the stairs. Owen snapped at him twice, and Burke returned the fire. Owen fell dead, a bullet in his heart. This tale is in the morning papers, told in two inches of type.

But female crime, especially when a lady takes to shooting her friends and lovers in the streets, or on the ferries, pays a journal to report the incident at greater length.

A pistoler like Laura Fair is worth a thousand copies to an evening paper. Having a secret [169] with a married man, and finding that false love run no smoother than true, Laura loaded her revolver, and in presence of his wife and children, pistoled her paramour, coolly and in open day. Laura is a heroine. Tried for murder, and acquitted on the ground of emotional insanity, she lives in style, gives balls, and speculates in stock. Few ladies are so often named at dinner-tables, and the public journals note her doings as the movements of a duchess might be noted in Mayfair.

Laura's torch has lighted many a fair sister on the way to murder; yet, in spite of this increase in female crime, no woman's life has yet been given in California to public justice.

“No, we cannot hang a woman in this country,” says a judge of the Supreme Court; “it is not easy to hang a man, and when we send a murderer to the gallows, he complains that he is made the victim of his judge, and not his jury. A judge will never get twelve men to find a female guilty of wilful murder in San Francisco; nor in any other city west of the Rocky Mountains. An excuse is always found by the jury; a petticoat being too much for bar and bench!” [170]

One day last week, General Cobb, a lawyer of repute, was shot down in Washington Street by Hannah Smythe. In London, the story of Hannah Smythe would be curious, in San Francisco it is commonplace.

Twelve years ago, according to her story, Hannah came to San Francisco, where she met a sailor named Smythe, and married him — on her side in a match of love. Hannah had saved some money, and the couple went down to Crescent City, in Del Norte county, where she bought a tract of land with her savings, and sent her husband to the Land Office, with instructions to register the purchase in her name. He registered his own. Living in Crescent City, having neither sheep nor cattle, the sailor's wife could turn the land to no account. At length a squatter, one Judge Mason, led his herds into her fields and challenged her to drive them off. She went to law, and lost her cause. Her enemy, she says, was rich, and bribed the local magistrates. When she had lost her savings, Smythe deserted her and the children, leaving her without a cent and with five or six little mouths to feed. On getting a divorce — an easy thing in Crescent City-she left [171] that place, and brought her family to San Francisco, where she put her younger ones under care of the Ladies' Relief Society, and set about to earn a poor living for herself and baby, by washing for such persons as preferred helping a deserted woman, to having their work done better and cheaper by Chang Hi and Hop Lee, Chinese launderers in Jackson Street.

Mrs. Cobb, one of the relieving ladies, heard her story from the little folk, and being a tenderhearted lady, with a family of her own, she begged her husband, General Cobb, to look into the case. Cobb thought he saw his way, but lawyers like to touch their fees, and Hannah Smythe was poor. Having no choice of means, she made over to Cobb her bit of land in trust, understanding that he was to pay all expenses for her, and to hold the property till she had paid his bill. Five years her suit dragged on; Mason fighting her over every point of law; until the woman's heart, made sore by long delays and hopes destroyed, conceived the notion that her advocate was betraying her to the enemy for lucre.

“ He was going to his office to sign my property [172] away, and I-hope I have killed him,” were her first words on being arrested in the street and carried to the city prison. Bail was found for her at once.

Her crime has raised the poor washerwoman into the grade of heroine. Whether Cobb will Iive or die is not yet known. Kind-hearted Mrs. Cobb may be a widow, and her children fatherless; but whether Cobb survives the deed or not, his client runs no risk. Hannah Smythe is a woman, and a San Francisco jury will not take a woman's life.

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