The following event took place in Virginia City 140 years ago on Oct. 26, 1875.
Over the years Comstockers have referred to this date as: “The Day Hell Paid A Visit To Virginia City.” Early on that October morning, a fire broke out at a boarding house north of town and within a few hours a half square mile of Virginia City was reduced to ashes. The fire destroyed an estimated 2,000 buildings, along with thousands of feet of timbering and hoisting works in the leading Comstock mines. Insurance companies placed the monetary loss at $10 million. Nearly 8,000 residents became homeless with many camping under the stars at night until other accommodations could be found. Amazingly, only four people perished.
Three months after the fire, the town’s leading newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise published an in-depth story about another casualty who died in the Consolidated-Virginia mine during the fire. Her name was Mary Jane Simpson. This is her story published verbatim as it appeared in the January 23, 1876 issue of the Territorial Enterprise.
Our thanks to Thomas Muzzio, current owner and publisher of the Territorial Enterprise who graciously allowed us to share Mary Jane’s story with our Nevada Appeal readers.
“MARY JANE SIMPSON”
The Story of the Wonderful Mule of the Big Bonanza-Her Career in the Belcher and Consolidated Virginia Mines-After Handling Her Millions in Silver and Gold She Dies a Horrible Death-Broken-Hearted Ben.Smith. “Mary Jane Simpson” is dead-dead and buried. She did not die a natural death. That felicity was denied her. Her fate was the most horrible imaginable-she was roasted alive. Mary Jane Simpson was a mule, but not a dull, ordinary, every-day mule. In many things in life, in death and after death, she was more than an ordinary animal of her species. Noble blood flowed in the veins of Mary Jane Simpson. Her mother was a thoroughbred mare of one of the “first families of Kentucky,” and her father was of the purest stock of Spain, his ancestors belonging to one of the most ancient and noble families of Andalusian asses. Mary Jane Simpson’s history is one that should and that shall be written. The story of her life and her death belongs to and is incorporated with that of the Comstock-the Big Bonanza. Mary Jane was
A TOILER IN THE MINES,
Not only on the surface, but also far down in the lower levels. For weeks and months she paced the underground regions, never seeing sunlight, moonlight, starlight nor any other light but that of the flickering lamps and candles of the miners. For over eighteen months she never saw the blue sky nor the face of the bright earth-never heard the sign of a breeze nor the roar of a gale-she had left all sights and sounds of the upper world on the surface, more than a thousand feet above the scene of her daily labors. This is a true story-not a fancy sketch-and in it the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth shall be told. Mary Jane Simpson was not always Mary Jane Simpson. When she was first purchased by W.H. Smith, superintendent of the Belcher, and went to the mine to become a laborer therein, she either had no name or it was one so plebian in sound that it was willingly forgotten. But when she was enlisted among the workers of the mine the miners gathered about her, and admiring her soft and glossy coat, her dainty little feet, smooth and well-formed legs and her gazelle-like head and eyes, they determined to give her a name worthy of her style and metal-All the miners being ardent admirers of a writer, who was about that time attracting much attention of the Pacific Coast through the publication of a series of letters signed “Mary Jane Simpson,” it was then and there unanimously agreed that no fitter name could be found for the new mule. Mary Jane Simpson was
“THE FIRST FEMALE THAT EVER WORE A ‘PULL-BACK.”
It was when she made her maiden descent into the mines that she started the fashion in dress that has since been so exactly copied and so widely followed in all parts of the civilized world. Mary Jane made her descent into the mine by way of the Yellow Jacket shaft, and being brought into the works she was there invested in her pull-back costume made of the best and strongest canvas. In this dress she was sewed up in the most secure manner, her legs being trussed up against her body as though she was a pig made ready for the oven. Her pull-back was of such rigor as to reduce her to the last extremity of fashionable helplessness. When she had been trussed up as described she was seated upright on the cage, like a trained bear, and there she was lashed fast. It is said that when she surveyed her new attire and considered the ridiculous figure she was made to cut she looked not a little ashamed; nevertheless, the fashion so strangely started at once became popular, none of Mary Jane’s sex now being at all ashamed of it. In this fashionable costume, securely swathed as an Egyptian mummy and firmly seated on her bustle, Mary Jane was sent down, down, down through the dark and dripping shaft to the 1300-foot level of the mine. Down there she found.
A NEW AND UNSUSPECTED WORLD
And work for her to do, much the same as in the world above. Her daily task was to haul trains of cars loaded with glittering silver ore from the Belcher mine over a small railroad track laid in a broad gallery running through the Crown Point to the main shaft of the Yellow Jacket, up which the cars and their precious contents were hoisted to the surface. At this business Mary Jane worked her regular shift, the same as toiled all others below, she having a mule companion, named “Victoria Woodhull” to go into the harness when she stepped out. Mary Jane had a snug stable away down there in the bowels of the earth. This was fitted up as neatly and as conveniently in every respect as are the stables of the upper world. She had a rack for her hay, a trough for her barley and all the conveniences of bed and board that she could desire. She was the pet of all the miners and many a little treat she received from their dinner pails.
DOWN IN HER SUBTERRANEAN STABLE,
By the light of the lantern that showed her where to find her food, Mary Jane made many strange acquaintances and found some queer friends. The rats from all parts of the mine thronged to her snug quarters in order to obtain a taste of her barley. These rats soon grew so bold as to sit about on the edges of Mary Jane’s feed-trough and occasionally one among them had the audacity to run about on her back and even to sit on the top of her head when she was in a meditative mood, as was at times the case when she thought of the green pastures in that bright world she had left above. Generally the rats and Mary Jane got along very well together, the gambols of the little rodents seeming to afford her a great deal of amusement; but sometimes, when very hungry, she was cross and with a sweep of her nose sent them flying right and left from the sides of her manger. There was probably not a rat in the Belcher mine but was acquainted with Mary Jane Simpson. In their underground ignorance they may even have thought her the queen of all the rats of the Comstock range.
For eighteen months Mary Jane tolled in the lower levels of the Belcher, and many millions in silver and gold were taken out of the ore she hauled through the galleries of the mine-more millions than any one now cares to name. At length, however, the Belcher incline reached the 1300-foot level of the mine and the ore could be hoisted directly to the surface by steam machinery; then her services were no longer required. She and Victoria Woodhull were again sewed up in their pull-back dresses and were seated, in attitude ridiculous, upon the cage, when they were sent whizzing up through the shaft to that upper world and the light of day which they had left eighteen months before. Blinded by the light of the sun, it was probably a long time before Mary Jane knew where she had landed and before she was able to recognize the sights and sounds of a world of which, she had once been an inhabitant. Perhaps she thought that when she went down into the ground the old world was utterly annihilated, and was greatly astonished to see it reappear as suddenly as it had vanished a whole year and a half before. Whatever her thoughts may have been they will never be known, more is the pity.
Mary Jane’s underground labors being ended, she and Victoria Woodhull were sent to one of the finest ranches in Washoe Valley, there to rest and recuperate. While on this rancho an accident occurred which caused
THE DEATH OF VICTORIA WOODHULL
Victoria was not a favorite while in the mine and never had one-tenth part of Mary Jane’s sense. This lack of good square, horse sense finally caused her death. While grazing about in her pasture field she one day thrust her head between two boards of the inclosing fence. Not having sufficient sense to turn her head sidewise and draw it out, as she had pushed it in, she choked to death and hung suspended by the neck full two days before she was found. After having braved the dangers of the lower levels for many months, thus at last, on the surface of the earth and in the broad light of day, miserably perished Victoria Woodhull.
When the big bonanza began to give out its millions and the Consolidated Virginia sixty-stamp mill was built there was need of more than man-power to haul the ore-cars from the main shaft of the mine to the mill. The fame of Mary Jane Simpson’s sagacity and perfect knowledge of the business of handling ore-cars had extended from end to end of the Comstock lode; therefore, James G. Fair, superintendent of the Consolidated Virginia mine, gladly purchased her of Mr. Smith of the Belcher. Mary Jane was then brought away from the ranch in Washoe Valley, where she had enjoyed a long season of rest, and was duly installed in a new home provided for her in the basement of one of the buildings comprising the works of the Consolidated Virginia Mining Company. Here she had a neat and commodious stable, but, doubtless sometimes, when cold winds howled sighed for the equable temperature of her old underground home.
Under her new masters Mary Jane had much the same kind of work to do that she had been engaged in while at the Belcher, but now all her work was on the surface and in the broad light of day. It was to haul a train of four or five ore-cars over a track laid in a covered gallery some five hundred feet in length, extending from the main shaft of the mine to the mill and resting upon a trestlework-bridge nearly seventy feet in height in the highest part. Compared with the old underground galleries of the Belcher and Crown Point, Mary Jane’s new place of labor was almost palatial. The long gallery was comfortable housed in and was cheerfully lighted up with rows of windows extending from end to end. Mary Jane very soon became thoroughly acquainted with all the duties of her new place and needed no one to jog her memory
SHE KNEW ALL THE SIGNAL BELLS
As well as did the men and as promptly obeyed them. Like horses trained to run with steam fire-engines, Mary Jane marched to her place and turned and halted by signal. Her shift began at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and ended at 11 o’clock at night. She soon knew about the change of shifts as well as did the miners themselves, and when the steam-whistles sounded she knew what they said to her and to all who worked in and about the mine. Indeed, there was nothing worth knowing that she did not seem to understand. Her friends the miners even went so far as to declare that she knew all the “Lies About Town” long before they came out in the paper in which they were usually published, quite as well as did her illustrious namesake; but she scorned to report them, and scandal was a thing she utterly abhorred. During her shift of eight hours she hauled to the mill two hundred and fifty tons of ore-a quantity sufficient to keep it running for twenty-four hours. When “three bells” were struck, at 11 o’clock at night, she knew that her work was done and marched off the track. But she did not at once betake herself to her stable, as she might have done, for she knew that the three bells were also the signal for the men to come up out of the depths of the mine; therefore she lingered about the place in order to receive friendly offerings from their dinner-pails. She thought a great deal of these treats, and the “boys” always had something for Mary Jane. She would eat apples, eggs, bread, pie, cake, and even meat; indeed, there was hardly anything offered her that she did not try to eat, no doubt thinking it would be impolite to refuse. She was naturally very polite, owing, perhaps, to her noble blood, and when visitors came into the gallery in which she worked she would leave the track and go and stand close against the wall, out of the way of all, without a word being said. A few slaps on the side when she first came to work in the gallery taught her this bit of good manners and she never forgot it. Last summer when many tourists from Europe visited the mine, an English lady fell in love with Mary Jane. This lady so much admired her sagacity, her beauty of form, silken coat, and bright and intelligent eyes that she offered to become her purchaser. So anxious was she to possess Mary Jane that she finally offered $500 for her, greatly to the terror of Ben Smith, her faithful and admiring groom, who feared that Mr. Mackey (one of the bonanza owners, who thought as much of Mary Jane as did anybody about the mine), might be induced to let the lady take her away to Europe. Had she succeed in getting possession of Mary Jane it is not unlikely that she would have found that she also had Ben in the bargain. Ben Smith is unmarried and Mary Jane Simpson was probably his first and only love. At home, in his native State of Louisiana, Ben’s father kept a livery stable, and there as a boy, Ben no doubt acquired his fondness for animals of the equine species. After Mary Jane came to the Consolidated mine Ben was always her groom and when she was off duty used to spend much time in her quarters, at
RUBBING DOWN HER LEGS WITH ALCOHOL
And at combing and smoothing her coat, talking to her as though she were a human being. Being harnessed and left standing in her stall, Mary Jane would march out of her own accord when she heard the proper signal struck on the bell. She would then ascend a flight of stairs, march out around the works, enter the gallery and place herself in front of the cars, ready for business. At each trip made by her through the gallery between the mouth of the shaft and the mill, high above the roof of which the cars were landed, Mary Jane hauled out about four tons of ore, and in all, during her shift an amount of ore that day after day yielded $30,000. Thus during the eight months she worked at the Consolidated Virginia mine she hauled nearly $8,000,000 in silver and gold; and during the eighteen months of her underground servitude in the Belcher she probably hauled $10,000,000. We may then say that during about two years of her life she hauled some $18,000,000 of which vast sum she never spent a cent foolishly.
On the 26th day of October, 1875; Mary Jane Simpson was cut off in the full bloom of youth and flush of health, and her career of usefulness sadly and forever ended. The great fire that swept away half the city on the morning of that day also laid the Consolidated Virginia hoisting-works, and all the other works and mills about them, in ashes; and poor Mary Jane perished in the flames. In the gathering of forces and the brave and stubborn fight that was made when it was seen that the fire was advancing upon the works she was for a time forgotten. The fire struck the works from the south, the side on which her stable was situated. It was not until he saw the flames licking against the place in which his pet was lodged that Ben Smith thought of her danger. He could no longer reach her from the south, and there was no hope of saving her life from any direction; but he thought he might yet be able to give her a painless death. With this object in view he
CRAWLED UNDER THE BURNING FLOORS
Of the works, six-shooter in hand, hoping to get sufficiently near to Mary Jane, whose frantic surgings and almost human cries he could hear, to shoot her and at once end her horrible torture. But the flames came down through the floors, the smoke stifled him, and, with hair and whiskers singed, he was obliged to beat a retreat or share the fate of his pet. When all was over and smoldering ruins covered the whole face of the mountain, Ben was almost broken-hearted. In order to drown his sorrows he had recourse to the “flowing bowl,” in which he was only following the example of many other great men under similar circumstances. After he had been thus for some time engaged in taking the “ragged edge” off his grief, he was encountered by Mr. Mackey, who made his presence known by suddenly and savagely shouting: “Ben, why the h--l didn’t you save Mary Jane?”
Ben aroused himself, straightening up so promptly that he almost went over backward, then shaking his head mournfully said: “Oh, Mr. Mackey, don’t talk to me about poor Mary Jane! I feel worse than anybody about Mary Jane! She’s gone! She’s gone! She’s gone and I could do nothing for her!” saying which Ben buried his face in his hands and gave himself up to his sorrows. When the ruins had sufficiently cooled down Ben went to the spot where Mary Jane’s stable had stood and collected her charred and calcified bones. So intense had been the heat that all that remained even to her bones was easily placed in a giant powder box. With this box under his arm, Ben marched away in the capacity of Mary Jane’s funeral procession. Her scanty remains were deposited in a grave dug just outside of the fence of the Masonic Cemetery, and the soil that covered them was abundantly watered with the tears that fell from the eyes of the chief mourner. A board was placed at the grave bearing this simple and touching inscription.
SAKERD TO THE MEMORY
MARY JANE SIMPSON
The within as only a mule,
Still she was nobody’s fule;
Stranger, tread lightly.
Few men more love their wives then Ben loved his mule, and to this day his eyes fill with tears when he speaks of her. He swears that when spring comes, though it take every cent he has saved during the winter, there “shall be a green spot over the grave of poor Mary Jane.”
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