ONE June morning, when I was a boy, Captain Eben Latham came to our house, and the first gossip he unloaded was, that “them stories about finding gold in Californy was all true.”
So begins the biography of Prentice Mulford, Life by Land and Sea.
For Mulford was an East Coast product from the whaling town of Sag Harbor whose 19th century peregrinations led him from adventure to adventure across the American landscape and beyond. The scope of his story takes him from California to London and from the South Seas to the swamps of New Jersey. By turn he was a cook on a whaling ship, placer miner, newspaper humorist, legislative candidate, Wild West personality and 19th century New Age philosopher.
A chronology of his life demonstrates the remarkable breadth of his journies:
1834 Born, Sag Harbor, Long Island
1850-55 Father dies, he fails at various business enterprises
1855-57 ships out to California
1857-58 sorts seagull eggs, ship's cook
1858-60 placer mining in California gold fields
1860-62 school teacher, Tuolomne county
1862-63 copper miner, Copperopolis, Stanislaus County
1864 lost in the mountains returning to Tuolomne "death stared him in the face"
1865 post hole digger
1866-1870 San Francisco essayist, comic lecturer, candidate for California Legislature
1870-72 returns to New York
1872-75 lectures in London
1875-81 Editor of Daily Graphic, NYC
1885-91 Lives in swamps around Passaic, NJ, publishes 'New Age' style treatises
1891 dies in a canoe in Sheepshead Bay, while en route to Sag Harbor
SON OF A SAG HARBOR HOTELIER
The beginning of Prentice Mulford's remarkable story starts from humble beginnings, as the son of a Sag Harbor hotelier.
"Ours was a whaling village," he writes. "Two-thirds of the male population were bred to the sea. Every boy knew the ropes of a ship as soon if not sooner than he did his multiplication table."
In fact Mulford was the descendant of impressive local stock. The Mulford name derived back to 1643, when two brothers, John and William Mulford, came with their father from South Molton, North Devon, England. William's son married Mary Gardiner Conkling, granddaughter of the intrepid Lion Gardiner.
Five generations later, the Mulford's were fixtures in Sag Harbor, which at the time was a burgeoning whaling town.
As such, the denizens of his little village were a well-traveled lot. "They went nearer the North and South Poles than most people of their time and Behring Straits, the Kamschatkan coast, the sea of Japan, Rio Janeiro, Valparaiso, the Sandwich Islands, the Azores and the names of many other remote localities were words in every one's mouth, and words, too, which we were familiar with from childhood," he notes.
The young man turned that familiarity into a lifetime of adventure and the subject of extensive literary essays and commentary. Writing a full 40 years before his more famous Sag Harbor literary successor George Sterling made the trek to San Francisco, Prentice Mulford's adventures - and his writing - have proved at least as entertaining and as durable as the intrepid Bohemian Mr. Sterling.
Prentice Mulford (1834-1891) was born in Sag Harbor, "on the east end of Long Island, State of New York, April 5th, A. D. 1834. I was not born exactly as I would like to have been, and could I have been previously consulted might have suggested several alterations and improvements, especially as regards tastes temper, temperament and facial conformation," he notes in his memoir in typical Wild West mode, a style he learned in a milieux that included the likes of Brett Harte and Mark Twain. "However, I am thankful I was born a man, or at least a boy."
When Prentice was only sixteen, his father died - and the boy became "substantially landlord of the hotel which he kept. I ran this establishment into bankruptcy in four years." The young Mulford studied teaching at the State Normal School but didn't like it. He 'clerked in New York city for a year, but was discharged, he admits for 'general incapacity...Then I went ‘Out West’ into an Illinois land office, where a course of fever and ague discharged me. Returning East, I concluded, that as the land would not hold me, I would try the sea."
At the age of 21, Mulford shipped as a boy on the clipper Wizard, bound from New York for San Francisco. The year was 1855, and there had recently been "a great breakdown in the whale fishery," he notes. "Whale ships for sale were plentiful. Most of them were bought to carry the “'49” rush of merchandise and men to California."
GOLD MINING DAYS
In fact shipping out on the Wizard was to be the beginning of 18 years ' in exile,' as Mulford terms it at one point, told in 36 chapters, from the moment he gets his sea legs and ships out to whaling voyages in Marguerita Bay, mutinies and intrigues.
Among his jobs? He sorted seagull eggs, lived on an old whaler in San Francisco Bay, cruising during the day and anchoring at night 'in lonely coves; in reveries he heard voices, perhaps sensing the spirits of the bay the California Indians knews," notes Nancy Peters, writing in "Literary San Francisco," a survey of writers associated with that city and published by CIty Lights in 1980 (Prentice Mulford commands a two page spread, with a fine photograph of him smoking a pipe at deckside in all his nautical splendor).
"I drifted around San Francisco for several months and finally shipped as cook and steward of the schooner Henry, bound from San Francisco for a whaling, sealing, abalone curing, and general “pick up” voyage along the Lower Californian coast," writes the transplanted Long isalnder. "My acceptance as cook was based on the production of an Irish stew which I cooked for the captain and mate while the Henry was “hove down” on the beach at North Point and undergoing the process of cleaning her bottom of barnacles." While he couldn't remember where he learned to cook Irish stew, Prentice offered up that it was all he could cook, "positively all, and with this astounding capital of culinary ignorance I ventured down upon the great deep to do the maritime housework for twenty men."
Like his jobs back east, the cook's job didn't last too long. Soon Mulford was back in San Francisco taking on odd jobs to raise the funds needed to buy equipment to go up to the Gold Fields.
The gold rush was already fading by the time Mulford reached the mines of Tuolomne County, but he nevertheless realized his dream of prospecting for gold.
Mulford found the work extremely difficult and not fit for his short light body. Every gold miner there was complained about how hard the work was. After giving up on his dreams of easy riches from the placer mines, he returned to a variety of jobs, including cook and school teacher.
He then ran for mayor in Tuolumne because, notes one biographer, "he loved to give speeches."
By Mulford's own account, "A wild impulse seized me to run for the Legislature. I had seen scalawags elected to the Legislature, and in this saw encouragement that I might be. True, I had no money, and nor a first-class reputation in some respects; but, then, I had everything to gain and nothing to lose. So I announced myself and ran. On the all-important day I appeared before the Democratic Convention in Sonora, I made a speech which was a farrago of nonsense, and which did not even prove me a Democrat or endorse a single plank of the party platform, yet I was nominated by acclamation. But not elected."
A WILD WEST WIT
Mulford tried his hand at copper mining in Stanislaus County, and had some other adventures - including a near death experience in the winter snows of the high California mountains, and then returned to the relative safety of San Francisco.
There, he turned his story telling talents to good use, and became a fixture in San Francisco literary circles with the likes of Twain, Harte, and the Bohemian set in the 1860's. He wrote dozens of humorous short stories, referring to himself as "Dogberry".
Authors Nancy Peters and Lawrence Ferlinghetti note how the transplanted Long Islander wrote sketches that were witty enough to win him a regularly writing job for a publication known as the "Golden Era," and he moved into the Occidental Hotel where Mark Twain and others were residents. He caught the eye of a number of people including the editor and publisher of the Golden Era which was a weekly newspaper started in 1852 that focussed on literary works and costs 12 cents an issue. From here he created a lecture series and droll column that was 'popular with the miners,' notes Peters, 'because it was based on firsthand experience. Mulford was skeptical of material progress, extolled laziness and defended women's rights." Later he also wrote for the Overland Monthly and Daily Chronicle and several other papers.
Here's a sample of one of his tales.
"When I was mining at Swett's Bar, there came one day to my cabin a long, lean,. lank man looking for a lost cow. The cow and the man belonged near Jacksonville, twelve miles up the Tuolumne. I dined that man principally off some bread of my own making, and I had the name then of making the best bread of any one in the house, where I lived alone. After dinner the man sat himself down on one boulder and I on another, and I asked him if he had a good claim. That roused him to wrath. He had, it seems, just reached the last point of his disgust for hard work and mining. Said he: "Don't talk to me of a good claim; don't. It sounds like speaking of a good guillotine, or a beautiful halter, or an elegant rack you're about to be stretched on." He had gone through his probation of hard work with his hands and had just resolved to let them rest and give his head a chance to speculate. So he did. I don't know that he ever met the cow again, but eight or nine years after I met him in the Legislature of California, he sat in the biggest chair there, and was Lieutenant-Governor of the State."
PRENTICE IN LONDON
Mulford capitalized on his friendship with Mark Twain by traveling to Europe in the great author's footsteps. In fact, Befriended Mark Twain in London in the 1870s - Twain helped him find work in the British capital of London.
There, he enjoyed a solid reputation, even if he had to do some old fashioned Wild West prevaricating to attain it.
That effort is amply described by Mulford in his story "Justifiable Fiction," he learns how to lie to the British.
"It is absolutely essential to a Californian entering London society that he has slain at least one grizzly bear. This is expected and required of him. Once I became garrulous over my old camp and mountain life. Said an English lady, "But you must have been afraid of wild beasts, all alone in the forest." I laughed a manly laugh of derision. "Did you ever kill a wild beast?" asked the tender Briton. I have never killed anything larger than a squirrel in my life. Several times before had I been asked this question. With an over-conscientious regard for veracity, I had answered, "Nay." At once I sunk in popular estimation.
I commenced my new career that same evening. I said I had once killed a coyote. I brought the beast out modestly, as though to me there seemed nothing particularly brave or meritorious in the act. "And what is a coyote?" asked the lady.
Seated between two gentlemen, one evening, at a social gathering, the conversation ran thus: "You are an American?"
"I am an American - a Californian."
"Ah! and is it true that you people on the frontier have so many rows?"
"Much that is said is true."
"And have vou ever killed a man?"
I saw now so vividly how great had been my neglect to have lived full sixteen years in the roughest, wildest, most lawless camps in California, without killing at least one man."
By the end, he has reconciled himself to his "Justifiable Fiction."
"British society insists on providing this bloody niche for the western American. Why not fiIl it? The British public demand that we smell of blood, bowie-knives, and the sulphurous vapors of the pistol. When a man finds, ready made for him, such a robe of dark and tragic hue, should he not wear it - especially when the public insist on admiring him wrapped, stern, bloody, vindictive, and sanguinary, therein? I like it. I never harmed man, woman, or child; yet, now, I feel permeated by the reckless, life-scorning, murder-loving spirit of my countrymen. I count my victims by the score; I see them lying weltering in the usual gore; I travel through my own private necropolis; I visit my own private dead-house, full of my slain, as yet unclaimed, unrecognized."
Following the long tour of Europe Mulford settled in New York City where became known as a comic lecturer and author of poems and essays and a columnist for the New York Daily Graphic (1875-1881). In 1881 he left New York and for the next ten years lived as a hermit in the swamps of Passaic, New Jersey.
It was there he wrote some of his finest works on mental-spiritual laws, including Life by Land and Sea (1889) and "The White Cross Library" - in which form are published his writings in the United States - comprising seventy-two essays treating, from various points of view, man’s spiritual and physical life. His essays embody a particular philosophy and represent a peculiar phase of insight into the mystery which surrounds man. To many his thoughts may seem but dreams, to others they are priceless truths.
Particularly rich is his book 'Thoughts Are Things," with section titles including: Material mind vs. the spiritual mind; Who are our relations? Thought currents; One way to cultivate courage; Look forward; God in the trees; Some laws of health and beauty; Museum and menagerie horrors; The god in yourself; Healing and renewing force of spring; Immortality in the flesh.
His writings contains a melange of mysticism, self help, Barnum-esque hype, love for the American 'Wild,' and a kind of "New Thought" spirituality. "If a bird wooed by your kindness comes and builds its nest in a tree near your window, and there rears its brood, is not the sight it affords from day to day worth a hundred times more than that of the same bird, deprived of its mate and shut up in a cage?," he writes, in one section.
How do you cultivate courage?
Through the exercise of deliberate action in small things, says Mulford. "The North American Indian and the Oriental had in cases the power of so dismissing all thought and making their minds in a sense a blank as to become not only insensible to fear, but this mental condition rendered their bodies almost insensible to physical suffering. It was the power of inducing this mental condition which enabled the Indian when taken captive to withstand every device of torture inflicted by his captors, and to sing his death song under the infliction of fire and a slow process of bodily mutilation too horrible for description."
How do you stay healthy?
"Through conformity to the seasons and patterns of work, rest, growth and renewal. "In the mines of California, where I swung a pick for years, and worked with gangs of men, lifting, wheeling, and shovelling, I noted that the last three hours of a day's work of ten and sometimes twelve hours' length, was done by the men, strong as they might be, with far less spirit than the earlier day's labour,--in fact it was often a mere pretence of work, unless the watchful eye of the "boss" was constantly on his men. Why? Because physically they were no longer fit to work. It was only will that was urging muscle to exertion. And of the stout, "hardy" miners, aged twenty- five or thereabout, who were so working in 1860, and who persisted in such drudgery, a large majority are dead, and of those who are alive today, four-fifths are broken-down men. Even soil must rest to bring the best crop."
Why commune with nature?
"You are fortunate if you love trees, and especially the wild ones growing where the Great Creative Force placed them, and independent of man's care. For all things we call "wild" or "natural" are nearer the Infinite Mind than those which have been enslaved, artificialized and hampered by man. Being nearer the Infinite they have in them the more perfect Infinite Force and Thought. That is why when you are in the midst of what is wild and natural--in the forest or mountains, where every trace of man's works is left behind you feel an indescribable exhilaration and freedom that you do not realize elsewhere."
"The trees are always giving out an element of life as necessary to man as the air he breathes. Man's works, as soon as finished, are giving out dust and decay. In our great cities we take in dust with every breath. Look at the dust which in a single day accumulates in your room, on shelf and table, or fine garment, even when its windows are not opened. All this is second-hand element which is breathed and absorbed into both body and spirit. But trees and all natural things send out element full of life."
What is the benefit of an inquisitive mind?
New Thought, says Mulford, is New Life, "healthy stimulation and also a necessary food to a more perfected life...The eating of stale fruit or vegetables may indirectly give you the blues. Fresh fruit gives you life."
They are by some accounts even better writings than his humorous pieces, "fine works on mental/spiritual laws. The essays, notes one publisher, "were the work, as the insight was the gift, of a man who owed nothing to books, perhaps not much to what is ordinarily meant by observation, and everything or nearly everything to reflection nourished by contact with nature.
"To many his thoughts may seem but dreams; to others they are priceless truths. That he was a wise teacher and no dogmatist is apparent from his own words "In the spiritual life every person is his or her own discoverer, and you need not grieve if your discoveries are not believed in by others. It is your business to push on, find more and increase your own individual happiness."To him, at any rate, is due the credit of having been a pioneer in the thought that is now influencing people throughout the world, and his influence is very apparent in the writings of all the teachers of the same school that have followed him."
END OF THE ROAD
In 1891, at age fifty-seven, Mulford was working with his publisher, FJ Needham, on various projects, when he decided to return to Sag Harbor.
According to a news account Mulford had been busy writing articles for Needham, with whom he had been living for at least a week, at the publisher's home at 52 W 14st St, when he decided "to take a business and pleasure trip in the vessel to Sag Harbor.
He never made it to Sag Harbor, however. The New York Times report of his death stated that Mulford was found in his 'canoe' at anchor in Sheepshead Bay. Mulford's own publisher, FJ Needham, identified him
The canoe, it was reported, was fully stocked with food, blankets, artists materials, money, and a banjo, and Mulford had left from Manhattan 'as happy as can be.'
After his body was identified, Mulford was brought to Sag Harbor where he lay for 30 years in an unmarked grave. Subsequently, Mulford's body was taken to Oakland Cemetery, where a large stone was placed on his grave with these words, "Thoughts are Things".
What caused Mulford's death? Some say it was a broken heart - and in fact, a few weeks after he died an article appeared in the Times, with sketchy details about Mulford's romantic difficulties with a 16 year old London girl whom he helped educate and then married at age 19. He brought his young wife to New York, the article said, but there she 'fell from grace' and the two divorced.
A play, written about the western writer Ambrose Bierce, alludes to his fate in some graphic detail.
BIERCE: They found his body, wrapped in a blanket, in a small boat in Sheepshead Bay, Long Island. His banjo was by his side. No one knows how he died. Apparently, he was trying to sail from Manhattan to Sag Harbor at the time of his death. We'll never know. He wasn't yet sixty.
ATHERTON: Quite a mystery.
BIERCE: Mulford was crazy in love, Mrs. Atherton. He had met a little tramp named Josie in London, a city I loved and he detested. He once called the British Museum an intellectual charnel house. Mulford decided to bring Josie to America. We all tried to talk him out of it, my friends Stoddard, and Miller, and I. After he returned to Sag Harbor, where he was born, he found out she'd been posing nude for commercial artists. For the extra money, she claimed. God knows Mulford wasn't bringing home any. Let me tell you how he found out about his wife's clandestine occupation. One day, he opened a package of cheap cigarettes and saw on it a picture of Josie. The girl was stark naked.
BIERCE: They had words. They separated. He mourned for the girl, worthless as she was. He moved to a New Jersey swamp to live with the mosquitoes and snakes. He lived in a boat, became a virtual hermit. He wanted nothing, had nothing, but a few clothes, a little food, a spirit lamp, his pen and paper. A banjo. He turned out five-cent tracts about spiritualism, faith healing, and similar tommyrot."
This characterization contains some romantic drama to it, but does not square all that well with the years of productive activity that Mulford spent in the New York area, as editor of the New York Graphic and as a writer of what has proved to ba profoundly moving body of New Age spiritualist treatises.
Death by broken heart? Natural causes? This many years on, it is impossible to ascertain the reason for the 57 year old Mulford's demise.
Perhaps it was not the fate of Prentice Mulford, the great wanderer, to simply go home again. After all, his own writings suggest the futility in trying to do so.
"Sometimes on visiting my native village I stand before one of those old-fashioned houses, from whose front door thirty-four years ago there went forth for the last time the young Argonaut on his way to the ship...What a sad place; what a living grave is this for him to return to! Where would he find the most familiar names? In the cemetery. Who would he feel most like? Like “Rip Van Winkle.” ... "
... Should the Argonaut return home if he could? No. Let him stay where he is and dream (of his old home) as it was, bright, gay, lively, blooming, and possibly romantic...The dream is solid happiness compared with the reality."
At age 57, Mulford escaped having to compare his dream to reality. He passed away peacefully, apparently without any apparent illness or pain, alone in a canoe, en route to the little village in which he was raised.