Episode 91 - The Poker Bride with Christopher Corbett

Author Christopher Corbett joins the podcast today as we discuss his book The Poker Bride.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I'm your host, Steve Meredith, and I'm joined today in-studio, as I always am, by President Wyatt. Scott, good morning.

Scott Wyatt: Good morning, Steve.

Meredith: So, this is our final book of our 2020 Summer Book Club and I've really been loving reading this book. It's probably of the books my favorite, just because it's such a compelling story. And the story is The Poker Bride and we have the great pleasure to be joined by the author today. Why don't you introduce him?

Wyatt: Yes, Steve, thank you so much. Yeah, we are delighted to be joined today from Baltimore, Maryland, Christopher Corbett who is the author of The Poker Bride. Welcome, Christopher.

Christopher Corbett: Thank you, thanks for asking me.

Wyatt: Yeah, we…Steve and I read a lot, and this book has been such a fun, enjoyable read for us. It's got everything in it from tragedy and sadness to the victory of the human spirit if you might say.

Corbett: Sure.

Wyatt: Mixed in with some great history, super informative, compellingly written…but let's start out with you. Why don't you give us just a brief introduction of your long history as a journalist writer?

Corbett: Well, I was a journalist in my native New England, I'm from Maine, and I worked for weekly and daily newspapers. And then I went to work for the Associated Press and they sent me to Connecticut where I covered the legislature for quite a while and then I came to Baltimore where I was the news editor for the mid-Atlantic states. I also would come to write books on the side, one of which is The Poker Bride and I also wrote Orphans Preferred which is the history of the Pony Express and I've written other things. I did a lot of freelance work for magazines and newspapers and that sort of thing. And I'm still interested in writing about the American West, unfortunately, it's not easy to travel right now, but that will eventually end.

Wyatt: Well, when you're in the real American West, social distancing is fairly easy.

Corbett: I believe that's true. I believe that's true, yeah.

Wyatt: I was out on the Pony Express trail a while ago and you've got to look hard to see anything. But, I think the Pony Express is how we met. I think you were out there about 10 years ago speaking on the Pony Express and we met briefly then.

Corbett: At Snow College, yes.

Wyatt: That's correct.

Corbett: Yeah. Well, so, the story of The Poker Bride is, I've often mentioned to people, but Mark Twain talks about not writing about mankind, but writing about a man and I was very interested in putting a human face on an experience that we don't know that much about, and that is the experience of the Chinese in the West and more particularly, of Chinese concubines in the West. And that's how I found Polly Bemis, who was and is now and probably always will be known in Idaho as "the poker bride." I think most Americans are amazed to find that news of the discovery of gold reached Hong Kong before it reached Boston and the Chinese wasted no time in coming to California, which they called, "Golden Mountain." There are accounts of people arriving there within a year of the discovery of gold. In fact, the whole story that interests us I think for the purposes of this discussion is that James Wilton Marshall was a millwright and a carpenter in New Jersey who went out and he was hired by Johann Sutter, who was an eccentric Swiss, Sutter's Mill and Sutter's Fort near what is today, Sacramento. And he found gold on the American river one morning, he was looking at a millrace and that event is the event that essentially launched the California Gold Rush. If you know J.S. Holliday's great book, The World Rushed In, the world rushed in because of that. And in 1848, January of 1848 when James Wilson Marshall found that gold, there were said to be 290 white men, which is how they counted people, living in Northern California. And 12 years later when the Pony Express began running in 1860, there were a half a million people living in Northern California. And that is one of the great movements of humans in history. It's like a tidal wave of people, and it was all because of gold. So, gold is the root of our story to a great extent. And you could actually…people are often are amazed by this, but you could actually get from Hong Kong to San Francisco on a sailing ship in good time in 40-45 days. Now, it could take twice as long or even longer if you didn't have wind, if you didn't have…if you had a typhoon, if you ran out of water, whatever, but you could actually get there pretty quickly. But coming from Boston, you could have to go around the Horn—the bottom of South America—and that was quite a trip, not for the faint of heart.

Wyatt: Yeah.

Corbett: So, anyway…

Wyatt: Yeah, we're…Steve and I are products of the Westward expansion into the middle of the Rocky Mountain region.

Corbett: Right.

Wyatt: And I have ancestors that took the wagon trains across to Utah and ancestors that came around the Horn in ships…

Corbett: Sure.

Wyatt: And then walked to Utah in this exact same time, and you're right.

Corbett: Yeah. One of the really cool things about the California archives in Sacramento is that they have what they call "pioneer cards" where you can see…these are like…they are cards that record people's arrival at the time of the gold rush. And if you can date your kinsman to a pioneer card, that establishes your bona fides as a real gold rush person. [All laugh] But the information, everything travelled so slowly that James Wilson Marshall found gold in January of 1848 and people always say, "Well, what about the 49ers?" Well, the 49ers, the problem with the 49ers is it took them that long for the information to get back to the east coast. The newspapers in New York didn't print a word of it until August of that year. And Polk was president, he was apparently in no hurry, he didn't speak to Congress about it until December. So, that's where you get the 49ers. So, anyway, it's a…

Wyatt: This is pre-Pony Express…

Corbett: Yes.

Wyatt: Pre-train…

Corbett: Right.

Wyatt: Pre-telegraph…

Meredith: Yep.

Corbett: Yes. All of that as well, that is true. Everything travelled very slowly.

Wyatt: Well, tell us how…so, the "poker bride," Polly Bemis, that certainly isn't her birth name, "Polly."

Corbett: No, it's not.

Wyatt: But how did you become…how did you discover Polly?

Corbett: Well, I was doing some journalism and I had to be in Idaho and I was actually…I was interested in the company that ran one of the last mom and pop bus companies in America, the Boise Winnemucca Stage Line, which went from Osoyoos, British Columbia to Tijuana. I can't tell you whether they're still in business, but that's neither here nor there, but it seemed like a good idea to me and I…the bus made what they call "whistle stops" or "flag stops." If somebody wants the bus to stop, they put the flag out outside of the general store or something. We stopped in Cottonwood, Idaho, it was the middle of the day, it was in the summer, and the bus driver who was an old guy who…he looked like an old jockey, he'd driven this bus forever, he told me the story about this convent on the outskirts of town and he said, "That's where they save the memory of the poker bride." And I got to talking to him about this and it occurred to me that this story was kind of interesting. These nuns at the convent had saved the possessions of this Chinese woman who lived up in Idaho and that in fact was part of a…the whole thing seemed curious enough that it was worth digging into. And so…as I mentioned, I'm looking for a story like Twain advises where you can put a human face on something. One of the things about the Chinese experience in the 19th century West is that most of the people who came from China at the time of the gold rush were men, they were what would have been considered peasants, they were working class guys, they did not write a lot of things down, even the Library of Congress lamented at one point the absence of first person documentation. So, I was casting around for some information about this woman and that's sort of how you get off and running. I'll say more about how that goes too, but anyway…

Wyatt: Let's start out with Polly's birth. So, where was she born?

Corbett: Well, she tells interviewers that she was born in more than one place. So, there's a good question. That might be a good point to, in response to your question, be a good point to mention that when you're looking at a story like Polly Bemis', you really have to start at the end, not at the beginning. [All laugh] And the reason for that is quite simply that we know a great deal about Polly Bemis, and you've read the book, but we know a great deal about her because of the end of her life in the 1920s and '30s. She was interviewed extensively, famous people like Cissy Patterson, probably one of the best known journalists in America, went to see her, there is a lot about her at the end of her life. She was kind of a celebrity if you would and a curiosity and a living reminder of this boom time of the gold rush. When you…the further back you go, the harder it is to track information about her, and that is of course…that's inevitable. It didn't make her any less interesting to me. One of the things that Americans are often surprised to find about is that prior to the Gold Rush gentlemen, that most Americans, if they had seen a Chinese person, they had seen Chang and Eng were the famous Siamese twins.

Meredith: The Bunker Brothers.

Corbett: Bunker Brothers, exactly, and they came into Boston in 1829 on a ship from what today would be probably Vietnam, but they were ethnically Chinese. And they were conjoined at the abdomen and they were celebrated, in the parlance of that world, celebrated freaks, or what came to be called, "spectacle anthropology." And spectacle anthropology was exhibiting people who were curiosities, which today we would find offensive, but Americans would pay up to a dollar each—which was a day's wages—to have a look at these guys. And quite literally, pre-gold rush, most Americans had never seen a Chinese person, and I think it's important to keep that in mind because there was a huge aspect to the Chinese being exotic, which was part of the appeal of Chang and Eng and would later become part of the appeal of the Chinese as they came into this country in the mid-19th century. They came from the other side of the world, they physically looked different, they spoke a language that didn't bear any resemblance to Western languages and so many things about them, the Bunker Brothers, Chang and Eng used to…part of their show doing things like using an abacus or eating with chopsticks just to do something that people would have found curious. So…

Wyatt: Yeah.

Corbett: If you keep in mind about how unusual the Chinese were. At the time of the Gold Rush, which also interests people, the Chinese began coming to the United States in fairly large numbers, and their labor was greatly needed. The anti-Chinese sentiment that we would later associate with their presence in the

West evolved over time, and that was because people were afraid they would take jobs away from them. I say more about that, but initially, the Chinese were regarded as curiosities and necessary parts of the labor force, it was not such a big deal. I always find it amazing in talking about the Chinese in the West that the Annals of San Francisco, which is sort of the oldest chronicle of San Francisco was published in the early 1850s, I have a copy of it, they made a point of mentioning that Americans in San Francisco in the early 1850s liked Chinese food. And they found it tasty, it was relatively inexpensive, and it sort of reminds you of the…of course I think that you could pick the case that people are still eating Chinese food in the United States today…

Wyatt: Yeah.

Corbett: It's just there is this sort of curiosity aspect of this which is interesting.

Wyatt: It seems like no matter where you go, no matter how small the town is, there's a Chinese restaurant there.

Corbett: Right.

Wyatt: Let's…so, Polly was born in China.

Corbett: Yes, Polly was born…

Meredith: In the Pearl River Delta area, right?

Corbett: Right, yes. And Polly was born in China and Polly was, like so many of her country's young women, was part of a system that was essentially a sex slave trade and there was a significant sex slave trade at that time. And this did not…this involved the Chinese, the Chinese procurers would purchase girls in the interior of China and bring them to Hong Kong or Canton for example, those were ports that were open, and sell them. And not to reduce it to the sort of grim economics of it, but your value increased as the further away you got from China. So, a girl who was bought for $10, hypothetically, in China, could be worth a couple of hundred dollars in Hong Kong and could be worth a thousand dollars in San Francisco. In a mining camp in Idaho or Nevada or California, she could be worth a great deal of money. And that in fact was part of that whole story is just that the selling of girls…we have a lot of documentation about that. People wrote about that a great deal and I think that's probably a good point to mention is just that one of the things to keep in mind in talking about the Chinese in the 19th century West is that most of the people who are telling us things about the Chinese in the West, even if their intentions are good, some of them are missionaries, some of them are ships captains, people in business, they're not Chinese. So, what we have is, we have somebody else's observations and that can somewhat cloud things that could follow…

Wyatt: Yeah, the Chinese in the United States back in those days didn't leave a written history for anybody to be able to read.

Corbett: Well, no, not very much so. One of the things that is happening in modern times is, is with the digitalization of documents, which is great for those of us who once used magnifying glasses and read microfilm, with the digitalization of documents, you can find things that you might not have been able to find before, and that's great. And there's also just a great deal of very interesting writing about the Chinese experience in just the last 20 years, but prior to that, a lot of it was pretty much dependent on what somebody who wasn't Chinese was telling the reader. "This is what I saw, this is what I…" You know, sometimes they weren't even really sure what they saw. In The Poker Bride, for instance, I don't have an account of Polly Bemis' arrival in San Francisco. She came into Portland, Oregon, which was the second biggest port of the Pacific slope for the importation of laborers and of girls like Polly. But I do…

Wyatt: Yeah, as we're moving towards Civil War on the east over African slavery…

Corbett: Yes. Yes, correct.

Wyatt: We're importing tens of thousands of slaves, sex slaves, from China.

Corbett: Right.

Wyatt: Onto the West coast. Interesting, isn't it?

Corbett: Right. Yes, it is. And the importation of…I mean, I can say more about this, I don't want to jump too far ahead but I mention this in this book, and that is in fact part so that people would understand that I'm not romanticizing some sordid and dreadful part of the history of the American experience but that as late as the 19th…in the early, early 20th century in Idaho, for example, I have some accounts of this, there were still disputes among Chinese criminals over who owned girls. And these were written about in great detail in the newspapers there. So, again, the newspaper being the first draft of history, we have lots of newspaper accounts of things that like that are going on. Americans at that point, gentlemen, thought the Chinese were…it was kind of like watching some kind of gangster movie or something. They found accounts of the Chinese and their various misadventures fascinating. But this routinely appeared in newspapers in Idaho and elsewhere with disputes over what they were still calling "Tongs" which were like societies…secret societies and they would have a dispute over who owned a girl. Very common. And much romanticized and exaggerated, but at its face, true. So, anyway…

Wyatt: So, the Chinese slave trade into the United States West began much, much later than the African slave trade into the country.

Corbett: Oh yes, right.

Wyatt: And then it lasted a little longer, actually, didn't it? But it never involved as many people.

Corbet: No.

Wyatt: And that might be why…oh, and then additionally, something that you write about in your book which is so fascinating is how these Chinese, if they died in the United States, their descendant's family would come get them and take them back.

Corbett: Right, yes.

Wyatt: Because of this belief that if they're buried far from home in another place where their family can't tend to them that they…that they're spirits wander.

Meredith: Mhmm.

Corbett: Right. Well that's…

Wyatt: So, they come here but then they…their story almost is forgotten.

Corbett: Yes.

Meredith: Well, so many of them came to make money and made a little bit of money and went home.

Corbett: Yes.

Meredith: There's quite a lot of that, at least in your book, the description of it, there's quite a lot of it.

Corbett: Right. Yes, like with anything, some of the early…they called themselves "sojourners" often, and it was considered a bachelor's society. You did not come with your family, mostly young men, and they came in what was called the credit ticket system where somebody would pay for them to come and then they owed them the price of the ticket. They were not slaves, they came to work off that debt, make a little money and go home. And some of them made a little money and went home and then of course people back at home in China would say, "Well, so-and-so, you went to Golden Mountain and you got rich." There's all kinds of wonderful poetry, Chinese poetry, translated by Marlon Hom which you can get in English of the accounts of people coming to Golden Mountain and what they hoped for and it's very moving stuff.

Wyatt: So, the men from the east coast would come out for the Gold Rush and men from China came out from the Gold Rush…

Corbett: Right.

Wyatt: But they didn't bring their wives, very few women.

Corbett: Correct.

Wyatt: But that created a market for this sex trade.

Corbett: Yes, it did. It absolutely did. And most of these…we have lots of descriptions, there's descriptions in The Poker Bride of these mining boom towns which I think probably folks who are in the West are familiar with as you surely are.

Wyatt: That's right.

Corbett: Some places were just loaded. They were huge, you'd have thousands and thousands of people someplace and then "Boom!" It would all be gone because it was all a matter of whether there was any gold in the ground. So, that was a very common…these were also places that were, again, there's lots of descriptions of this in the book, places that were very violent and also places where there was no real law. And so, that's another thing to keep in mind.

Wyatt: It was interesting to read that in 1850, prostitutes were about one out of every five female residents of California.

Corbett: Yeah.

Wyatt: And then when you get up into these Idaho mining camps, it's more like 25 prostitutes to one.

Corbett: Right.

Wyatt: So, it would have been easy to discover who the prostitutes were.

Corbett: Right. Well, I mean, moreover, I quote this in the book, but somebody commenting about this said, I mean this is pretty grim, but they said in some of these places—of course, there were no children, people didn't bring their wives with them—so the people, they needed a whorehouse before they needed a school. I mean, that's the kind of thing people would routinely say. "Why would we…we don't need a school, we don't have any children." There were no children going to school here. Some of these places were pretty tough places. The town that Polly eventually wound up in is a place called Warrens which is still at the end of the road in Idaho and there's snow on the roads up there until early June. I can tell you, I've seen that first hand. [All laugh] It's one of those places that you see in the rural West where the wind and the weather has blasted what paint there might have ever have been on the sides of the buildings so the place, it looks like a set to a Clint Eastwood movie for God's sake. And there's only a handful of people living up there, but that's where they were.

Wyatt: Tell us how Polly ends up in Warren.

Corbett: Yeah. Well, she appears to have wound up keeping a boarding house and cooking, but that's how she met Charlie. Charlie was a gambler and a tough customer. He was from Connecticut, people who knew him said he never lifted anything heavier than a deck of cards.

Meredith: [Laughs]

Corbett: And this was a…these are people who seem to come right out of Mark Twain or the old short story writer Bret Harte. You know, The Outcasts of Poker Flat. But they, in fact, were real people and they got to know each other and circumstances that were written about a great deal by people who knew them were that Charlie was shot by a disgruntled gambler and he would have died except that Polly nourished him back to health. And I think there probably is something to that. I probably should mention here that one of the things that we know about Polly and why we know a lot about Polly and Charlie is that people who knew them at the end of their lives, in addition to Sister Alfreda Elsensohn in Cottonwood at the Benedictine Monastery, there were these two prospectors named Charlie Shepp and Pete Klinkhammer. Klinkhammer was German, they had a lot of Germans and Roman Catholics up there, so, they lived across the river from Charlie and Polly when they moved out of Warren down to the River of No Return, to the Salmon River, and they are the reason that we know a lot of stuff because they saved their marriage, they saved documentation related to them and they believed that Charlie married Polly to keep her from being deported because the Chinese Exclusion Act was robustly being enforced and people were being sent back to China for all sorts of reasons. I mean, that's their…that's what they thought and that's what they said at the end of their lives. That's not an implausible thing to me.

Wyatt: Yeah.

Corbett: They also said they believed, and I think this is also true…I'm not sure that Polly ever was actually in a brothel or a prostitute, and the reason for that is that prostitution is a line of work where you don't get old, at least in the 19th century West. Venereal disease was endemic. So, I think what we're really talking about here which in no way changes things, is that she was just lucky and these things didn't…what could have happened to her didn't happen to her. So, she wound up in this…she obviously didn't come to the United States to go to graduate school. So, she was in the middle of nowhere and she talked at the end of her life in great detail about cooking and running a boarding house and all this stuff, all of those things would have been necessary things in a place like that. People needed a place to eat, they needed some place to stay. But at the end of her life, she was a celebrated character in Idaho.

Wyatt: So, she is sold by her family.

Corbett: Yes.

Wyatt: From a probably very, very poor family that couldn't afford to take care of their whole family during famine and poverty.

Corbett: Right. She tells various accounts that she was sold by her family, yeah.

Wyatt: And then she's sold a couple more times.

Corbett: Yes.

Wyatt: I'm excited to hear about the poker match. Any book called The Poker Bride, we've got to talk about this poker game.

Corbett: Yeah.

Wyatt: So, she's sold several times…

Meredith: And for an amount that she said was $2,500 which would have made her a very high priced young woman of the time, yes?

Corbett: Yeah, absolutely. And the other thing is, and we've sort of touched on this, is that every time you were sold in the West, your value would have gone up. There's a lot written about that because if you were reducing these girls to a commodity so…and that would have a lot to do with this. And also, we have a lot…there's a lot of this in The Poker Bride is that many of these girls despair and committed suicide and there were many accounts in newspapers—again, these are not romantic stories or novels—there are many accounts in newspaper of how girls committing suicide. And a lot of times they would take a drug overdose. You take…you use opium…anyway, it will kill you. But that would have been very common. So, her last owner who was Chinese allegedly lost her in a poker game to Charlie Bemis who was a very well-known gambler. He and his father had come West just about the time of the Civil War and they came West primarily because they were draft dodgers is my impression. [Laughter] But anyway, that's why they…a lot of people came West to avoid being in the…I mean, Mark Twain who we know a lot about served two weeks in the Confederate Army and that he was very happy that he never saw a Union soldier and then he went West. So, going West to get away from the Civil War was fairly common. So, the poker game is the event that is much mythologized, but obviously, Polly and Charlie came to know one another very well and he married her. There was a marriage license, they were legally married and this is fairly unusual because miscegenation was extremely frowned upon. In fact, interestingly, you very rarely encounter instances of white men marrying Chinese women, and certainly not Chinese men marrying white women in that makes any sense to you.

Wyatt: Right.

Corbett: But, she's a very, very unusual sort of character. Then the other thing, not to make too much of this, is they really lived in an extraordinarily remote place and because of that, they weren't on anybody's radar so to speak. And that's why we know so much about Polly and Charlie at the end of their lives because it wasn't until the 1920s and '30s that we start to note things about them. And Polly hadn't been out of the mountains in 50 years when Pete Klinkhammer and Charlie Shepp brought her down to Grangeville, Idaho to see an eye doctor, her eyes were bad, and anyway. She had never seen a railroad train, she had never…there were a million things. She essentially had missed 50 years of the 19th and early 20th century. So, that's when she gets interviewed a lot. And that has a lot to do with her stories.

Wyatt: So, she's owned by a Chinese man who is known as Hong King.

Corbett: Yes.

Wyatt: Or Big Jim.

Corbett: Right.

Wyatt: And Jim and Bemis both play poker and I guess this Hong King or whatever his actual name is which we don't know I guess owned her and had her for some purpose or another and he prized her as something that was his property, so, once he's out of money I guess the last thing he can throw on the table…

Corbett: He bet her, right. Supposedly he bet her. There might have been a difference between being…I'm not excuses for this kind of thing, but there might have been a difference between her being someone's concubine and being in a brothel. There would have been some substantial difference there. And we have fairly many detailed accounts of going back up into the Idaho back country which was a terrifically long trip in those days. You would go into Lewiston, Idaho eventually and then you would go back in on the back of a pack horse and we have, again, lots of accounts of what that world was like. It was a very colorful world and also very violent and there was a lot of anti-Chinese sentiment in that world, too. Americans are often surprised to find that Chinese outnumbered Caucasians in significant numbers in remote places in the West at the time. So…but they couldn't own a claim or land. They were marginalized in lots of ways, large and small, but there were a lot of Chinese in the West. And you mentioned the bone collectors, that's an interesting thing that people find is that one thing a Chinese coolie did when he came to the United States no matter what else was that he made arrangements that no matter what happened, his remains would be shipped back to China because the culture was ancestral in its focus, and it was imperative that you do that. Newspapers in the West routinely ran notices well into the 20th century from organizations in San Francisco looking for the remains of Chinese people so that they could be collected and sent back to China. This is, again, this is very, very common. Lots of accounts of…Mark Twain wrote about that a great deal.

Wyatt: So, one of the things that's so interesting about your book is we get this history of the Chinese coming and the Chinese leaving, and the fact that they had no intention of assimilating into the American culture because they had no intention of staying.

Corbett: Yes, I think that's…

Wyatt: And that's probably part of the reason, I assume, why we have so many Chinatowns is because when they came over, they just stayed together.

Corbett: They did, they did. Chinatowns became a kind of iconic presence in America and whether it was San Francisco or whether it was a very small place, I mean, Mark Twain has a celebrated description of Chinatown in Virginia City, Nevada in the early 1860s. There's tons of…there's Chinatowns everywhere. And part of also, you mentioned this before, but Chinese food, Chinese restaurants and also laundry. Chinese men did not do the laundry in China, but in the American West, if they were looking for something to do that didn't threaten somebody else's livelihood, they would open a laundry, and also, you don't need to speak a lot of English to do that. So, this was extremely common wherever you went, there would be Chinese laundries and little restaurants.

Wyatt: So, they came over first for mining.

Corbett: Yes.

Wyatt: Came over for the railroad looking for work.

Corbett: Correct. The railroad, yes.

Wyatt: Yeah.

Corbett: The railroad came later, and that was because they needed a lot of labor.

Wyatt: Yep. And the women came over because they were bought and sold.

Corbett: Yes.

Wyatt: And then the men start coming over for, as you described, laundries and restaurants and anything else that they can do.

Corbett: Right, right.


Wyatt: And then they almost disappear.

Corbett: They do. It's very interesting, and again, there's a lot of this in The Poker Bride which I thought was interesting was a very common thing in the newspapers in the American West, not just in Idaho, but everywhere, probably even Utah, in Nevada, California into the 20th century would be accounts of elderly Chinese miners coming into the town or the county seat and they were looking to go back to China because they…in fact, there were countless instances of this. There's a photograph of these two old guys in the book who had been up in Pierce City in Idaho up in the high country for 50 years and many of these guys…it tells us so much about that culture. They hadn't been anywhere; they hadn't ever seen a railroad train. When they saw a railroad train, it scared them so badly they were afraid they were going to run off. And they didn't speak any English. Imagine they had spent half a century in America and they didn't speak English. But, there was a good size Chinatown in Lewiston, Idaho, so the authorities took them to the Chinese community and then they made arrangements. What often they would do in the accounts that I have read is they would pay for their passage to go back to China because to be perfectly blunt, these guys were essentially a ward of the county at that point, and it was just easier to buy them a ticket from Seattle to some port in China. There were lots of accounts of that in the West. Lots of accounts. Many, many people just showing up in town…

Wyatt: Yeah, underlining this story is quite a tragic story. This tragic story of Chinese coming here, partly because we desperately needed their labor…

Corbett: Yes.

Wyatt: And women being sold here into sex trade and then all of the discrimination that rises against them after they are here.

Corbett: Right.

Wyatt: And these acts of Congress and everything else that tried to push them out.

Corbett: Right.

Meredith: Yeah, I think…wasn't there…aren't the Chinese the only ethnic group ever to be named in legislation as being barred from the United States? There is a period of about 70 years where they were unable to immigrate.

Wyatt: The Chinese Exclusion Act.

Meredith: Yep, yep.

Wyatt: So, there's…

Corbett: Right. A lot of those things were on the books well into the 20th century.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: And then you get Polly, who after being all by herself practically in the middle of the wilderness in Idaho at this little mining spot on the side of the Salmon River, when she comes out and as you've described her interviews and everybody that was talking to her, there was nothing about her life that seemed tragic to her. It just seemed like normal, it's what she would have expected life to be like.

Corbett: No, I know. I've thought about it many times, and I have to say, having been a journalist for a long time, I mean, this is something you encounter when you're doing something like this is all these people talked to her as you…in the last couple of chapters of the book she's constantly being interviewed and whatever, and I'm always thinking when I'm looking at these things, I'm thinking to myself, "Why didn't you ask her any questions about like…" People just asked her a lot of times sort of very goofy questions that were very…sort of not very important and I was like, "I would like to know this." Or whatever.

Wyatt: Yeah.

Corbett: And you know, she was…not to reduce it to this, but she was really kind of an extraordinary survivor of an experience that would have killed most people. And she lived to be 80, which was a good age given what she had experienced.

Wyatt: Yeah, and the last…what was it, nine years? Ten years? Eleven years of her life? She lived as a widow because Bemis died.

Corbett: Right, he died.

Wyatt: in 1922 and she lived to 1933.

Corbett: Right. Well, she lived across the river from Shepp and Klinkhammer and there's a good deal of account of this because we know a lot about Shepp and Klinkhammer. They kept what they used to call a ranch diary, which is kind of like a ship's log, and it's just jam packed with information. It's fascinating. Lots of references to Polly. They were across the river from her and what they basically did is they agreed to take care of her, which they did. They were very kind to her and they were very fond of her. But they also had another motive, they were afraid somebody would jump that claim, and they didn't want that to happen. So, what she did is she legally agreed to give them her land and then they in turn took care of her. And there are many references…their ranch diary when on forever and ever, I've actually scanned the whole thing and it's not really…it's just little bits and pieces. Shepp and Klinkhammer were not prose styles, so you're not reading Mark Twain, you're just reading their little notations about stuff that they saw and whatever they did. They were very busy guys, they were always doing stuff because they were essentially, back to the land, homesteaders, you know? This requires a lot of work to be living in a place like that, so…anyway. That's why we know so much about her was Shepp and Klinkhammer.

Wyatt: Well, as I look at this book and I think of the tragic parts of the story, of which it could be described as this huge tragedy, and then as I look at the other side of it as being the story about this one particular woman, as you said from Mark Twain, we're not writing about everybody…

Corbett: Right.

Wyatt: We're writing about one person, I see this person that must have been a wonderful, wonderful person to know to have her neighbors take care of her.

Corbett: Yeah.

Wyatt: And for her to say that, "My life was good. I had a great life."

Corbett: Yeah, well that's a very good point, Steve. You know, people who talked to her at the end of her life in Idaho frequently mentioned what a nice person she was and how kind she was and she loved children and she loved to do favors for people and cook and so forth. She had a very good heart and she was enormously popular, that's not an overstatement, but she was also a curiosity which you have to remember. By the time she had outlived hate and by the time people knew her, the days…the old days of the goldrush, that was ancient history.

Wyatt: Yeah, I think that my biggest takeaway from your book, Christopher, is a deep appreciation for what the early Chinese immigrants did for us in this country, what they suffered through…

Corbett: Right.

Wyatt: And how…we've got a lot of Chinese students and some faculty members on our campus that live in our community…

Corbett: Right.

Wyatt: I think Chinese food is one of my favorite things to eat. But this book gave me a much deeper appreciation for them as individuals, their culture, the heritage that they have and how that heritage interweaves with us. And as I think about how they were treated…

Corbett: Right.

Wyatt: And it sounds like Charlie Bemis treated Polly very well, as did her neighbors, but as I think about how they were treated as a whole, it causes me to think today, as we look around, about some anti-immigrant sentiments in this country.

Corbett: Yes.

Wyatt: They seem to be replaying the same themes. "We need their labor, and now we're worried they're going to take away our jobs."

Corbett: Right.

Wyatt: "And they're different, so go home."

Corbett: Well, that's an interesting aspect of this, because there's a…the New York Times has reported in great detail recently of the countless instances of anti-Chinese sentiment in this country connected to the situation in Wuhan, and a lot of these things are just irrational, but then, that's fear. But yeah, absolutely.

Wyatt: You mentioned Wuhan…

Corbett: Yes.

Wyatt: So, we have a partnership…Southern Utah University has a partnership with a university in Wuhan and so, we have faculty and students and I've been there to their…in fact, I was there last summer. But here's an interesting piece that has nothing to do with this book, but interesting to me that with our relationship with this university in Wuhan and with the pandemic that started in Wuhan, that the president of the school in Wuhan sent me a letter checking to see if we were OK, expressing his interest and concern for us, before I sent one to him. And I thought, "Oh my goodness, what am I…" That's just fascinating. He's the one that's struggled the most.

Corbett: Yeah.

Wyatt: And he's more concerned about us. So, I…this is one of the beautiful things about these very personal histories is the more we read and the more we travel and the more we get to know people one-on-one, the better the world is. I guess that's the way to say it.

Corbett: Well…

Wyatt: The better we treat others, the more sympathetic…

Corbett: Well, as I've mentioned, we probably know more about the Chinese experience in the West now than we did and we probably will continue to know more, but as you correctly pointed out, the kinds of folks who were coming here at the time of the Gold Rush, people were not writing books like, "I was a coolie on the Central Pacific Railroad." They didn't give us that kind of documentation for the most part.

Wyatt: They were poor people, uneducated, living through famine, coming here to try to find a way.

Corbett: Right. And many of them were illiterate, too, although not all of them, but some of them would have been illiterate. So, there's no evidence that Polly could write. She signed her signature, her name, in Chinese, but I had people examine it who are native speakers and they weren't sure what it was. They thought that maybe she had been taught to write her name because that would have been something people would have done, because the character didn't make any sense to them, but who knows what that means. Anyway…

Wyatt: Yeah. Well, Christopher, thank you so much for your time.

Corbett: Well, thank you very much.

Wyatt: The Poker Bride is a book I'd recommend to anyone.

Meredith: Yeah, where can our listeners who may not have yet read the book, where can they pick it up? Is it just available everywhere?

Corbett: Yeah, Amazon is still…it's in paperback. Amazon has The Poker Bride and they also have Orphan's Preferred, which is the history of The Pony Express. So, maybe the book stores are opening up in Utah…

Meredith: I hope so.

Wyatt: Yeah.

Corbett: And they'll stock the book. But yeah, that's generally a fair bet.

Wyatt: Christopher, I have one last question for you.

Corbett: Sure.

Wyatt: In all of your investigation and some of the things you described, had you been given an opportunity to meet with Polly Bemis, what would have been the most important question you would have liked to have asked her?

Corbett: Well, I sort of eluded to that and I'm not being critical of the people who talked to her or interviewed her, but the first thing I would…what I would have been curious about if I'd had a chance to actually talk to someone like that was to have a much clearer understand of her origin story. Because, if you notice in the book, she frequently seems to tell more than one account of this and it's like she was from Shanghai, then she was from Hong Kong, it's all very murky. Of course, you have to also consider that by the time she was being interviewed, she hadn't been in China in more than 50 years. So…

Wyatt: And she left as a child.

Corbett: Yes. And also, it goes without saying that people who knew her at the end of her life said that she really couldn't speak Chinese very well, in part because she didn't have anybody to talk to. There's an account of these old Chinese miners going up to see her at her place on the river, and it wasn't clear…I mean there are dialects of Chinese, it wasn't clear that she could really talk to them anymore. Her English was described as extremely fractured, too, so…and again, a lot of this is remote. She's in a remote place and she had a very good head for figures according to people who knew her and was a great poker player and gambler. So, anyway…quite a curious lady.

Wyatt: Well, thank you very much.

Corbett: Oh, thank you very much. Thank you very much.

Meredith: You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. We've had as our guest today, joining us by phone from Baltimore, Maryland, Christopher b, the author of The Poker Bride which both Scott and I recommend for your summer reading list. If you haven't had a chance, make sure you pick that up and read the story of Polly Bemis. Thank you, Christopher, for joining us, and thank you to our listeners for joining us. We'll be back again soon, bye bye.