The short story The Outcasts of Poker Flat seeks to explore the themes of unfair and biased judgments in the hands of inappropriate individuals in authority, behavioral effects on appearance versus reality and the power of nature to influence the fate of man using the California Gold rush of the 1850’s as a background setting.
The four “objectionable characters” of Poker Flat, Mr. John Oakhurst, the Duchess, Mother Shipton and Uncle Billy were banished from the town due to alleged immorality.
Mr. Oakhurst was a professional gambler, the Duchess and Mother Shipton were prostitutes and Uncle Billy was a drunkard. The secret committee of Poker Fat had decided to purge the town of sinners when the town lost several thousand dollars, tow horses and a prominent citizen (Harte 1). There was no indication in the story that the four were directly related to the above “losses”, the two men who were hanged prior to their banishment might have been, but the four were singled out due to the virtuous excitement of the townsfolk, specifically the secret committee, who had seen it fit to make an example out of the four at this time of so-called town purification.
As the story unfolds, there was no indication that the four committed acts that merited their banishment. They were no different than many of the townsfolk in the ‘Gold rush’ places of California who engaged in gambling, prostitution and drinking after a hard day’s work to relax and amuse themselves. According to Gaumbart, in Californian towns at that time where the gold rush was concentrated gamblers and drunkards of every kind and color abounded (2003).
Even houses of prostitution can be found everywhere (Franzius 1997). The name Poker Flat suggest that the town itself is a sort of a gambling place. The only fault that Mr. Oakhurst had obviously committed was that he was a stranger who earned a substantial fortune in his winnings of poker games against the Poker Flat locals. The young prostitute herself, the Duchess, did not commit any crime that justifies her banishment while the rest of the town prostitutes were not.
The Duchess herself may have been a beautiful young woman, as the handsome Mr. Oakhurst had come to like her, and may have a large percentage of customers. Mother Shipton on the other hand, did not also commit any heavy crime unless she may have recruited young girls for prostitution as her name “mother” implied, like she may have been some sort of a prostitute matron. Uncle Billy was a drunkard suspected of sluice robbery. But one wonders why a drunkard and a sluice robber should be banished instead of being imprisoned. It is interesting to note that the secret committee, who pronounced judgment of the four, was composed of men whose decision making was based more on prejudice and revenge rather than on objectivity.
According to Webb the towns of California during the gold rush was composed of diverse individuals seeking to get rich quick. They mostly came form other towns and states and were concerned only of acquiring a fortune and then to eventually leave. Because of this absorption, they left the control of community public affairs to whoever was willing to assume the responsibility. And sure enough there were various men who fill these political positions. Unfortunately, those who assumed political responsibilities were mostly unscrupulous men of undesirable characters who busied themselves in acquiring wealth by plundering and taking advantage of the weak.
They were usually referred to as vigilance committees or secret committees and were elected by individuals whose fraudulent and villainous acts they supported and protected. They usually roamed around the town heavily armed and were ready to exact punishment according to the dictates of their marred conscience (Webb 1948). These may be the kind of secret committee members who judged the four unfortunate outcasts of Poker Flat. Take the case of how they arrived in a decision to banish Mr. Oakhurst. A few members of the secret committee had suggested at first to hang Mr. Oakhurst since according to them it was an injustice to let him go along with their fortunes (they themselves were gamblers).
After his death they can get back their losses from Mr. Oakhurst’s pockets. Fortunately, the secret committee members who were lucky enough to win from Mr. Oakhurst persuaded the rest of the group to just drive him out of town(Harte 1). These conversations alone attest to the fact that the secret committee members arrived at judgments that were clouded with personal interest rather than how weighty the violation of Mr. Oakhurst had been in the light of moral law. It is not hard then to assume that the verdict against the other three was also tainted with personal issues since the same set of persons had also judged them.
The Duchess did not commit any crime worthy of banishment but it may be that many prostitutes envied her so they seek to drive her out of town by influencing the secret committee members who may have been their customers. The same thing may have happen to Mother Shipton. As for Uncle Billy, he was only ‘suspected’ of committing sluice robbery.
In gold mining, sluice is a sloping trough, or gutter, that conveys water containing stones, pebbles, sand, and possibly gold. Grooves on its bottom separate gold from the stones and grit(West 1971). The author was careful to state that Uncle Billy was a “confirmed” drunkard but a “suspected” sluice robber, hinting that the secret committee was right in labeling him as a drunkard but they were not able to prove his guilt of being a sluice robber. Nevertheless, the four found themselves singled out from the rest to serve as a warning for the rest of the townsfolk who were still engaged in immorality.
In their journey out of Poker Field into the town of Sandy Bar, the group found themselves trapped in a steeped mountain because of the unexpected snowstorm. They were accidentally joined by two teenage lovers, Tom Simson and Piney Woods, who ran away from Sandy Bar since Piney’s father opposed their marriage and they were on their way to Poker Flat to try their luck there and to eventually marry. The author had stated that Tom’s other name was “innocent” and that Piney was a virgin pointing to a striking contrast to the outcast’s sinful reputation. However, the lovers did not know of the group’s real reputation and why exactly they were there (Harte 3). Mr. Oakhurst had seen it fit not to disclose their true state to the newcomers so as not to needlessly frighten them.
Because of this “unawareness” the lovers treated the outcasts differently as compared to the citizens of Poker Flat. Poker Flat were eager to exclude them from mingling in their midst while the lovers were looking forward to their company as Tom had said “we’ll have a good camp for a week” (Harte 4). In fact, Tom had high regard for Mr. Oakhurst who once defeated him in gambling in Sandy Bar worth forty dollars but later Mr. Oakhurst returned his money with a stern warning to Tom not to gamble again. That incident was still fresh in Tom’s mind as he joined Mr. Oakhurst in the mountains and no doubt he assumed Mr. Oakhurst was such a fine gentlemen.
Piney on the other hand had perceived that the Duchess and Mother Shipton were gentle ladies of Poker Flat and she expressed admiration for the Duchess ability to turn their roofless abandoned cabin into a suitable habitation and muttered to the Duchess that “you’re used to fine things in Poker Flat”(Harte 4). Even Uncle Billy’s reputation remained untainted in the eyes of the two thanks to constant watching of Mr. Oakhurst. When Uncle Billy ran away with their mules Mr. Oakhurst covered up his rascality by stating that he had wandered from the camp and accidentally stampeded the animals and were now running after them.
Eventually two had become the target of the outcast’s gentle qualities. Mother Shipton starved herself to death in order to give her ration to Piney. The Duchess tried to protect Piney from the fury of the snowstorm by cuddling her in her arms. The ever-calm Mr. Oakhurst, on the other hand, gave his snow boots to Tom and ordered the latter to go to Poker Flat and seek help there that he may save Piney. Mr. Oakhurst himself could have save his won life by leaving the group as Uncle Billy had done but the thought of leaving them never entered his mind. One then cannot help but wonder what would have happened if the two lovers knew of their true reputation.
Would they have acted differently towards them? Perhaps, as Mr. Oakhurst had remarked, they may have run away frightened carrying with them their ample provisions. But without any knowledge of their true reputation the two treated them according to the dictates of their innocent heart, as a good people. And such positive treatment helps to bring out the hidden goodness that lurks in the hearts these condemned sinners. It is important to note that Uncle Billy did not exhibit any form of gentleness or goodness upon the arrival of the two. In fact, he ran away carrying the mules of the group.
For him to commit such heartless inconsideration of others was may be due to the fact that his brain was severely affected with alcohol or that he really was a man who does not care about others. The author was realistic to portray Uncle Billy’s behavior because in real life not all persons will sacrifice for others under adverse circumstances. There are some who will use or try every opportunity to save themselves even at the peril of others. However, this story has clearly shown that some people of sinful reputation may behave differently to those who do not judged them.
Nature had made a decisive influence on the fate of the outcasts and their unexpected companions, Tom and Piney. Mr. Oakhurst had earlier expressed concern that their provision may not be adequate enough to last them to Sandy Bar if they stop to rest at the foothills of a mountain between Poker flat and Sandy Bar however he was caught by surprise of the role Mother Nature will play on their journey. He suspected lack of provision but he never suspected to be “snowed in” implying he had no idea that they will be trapped in a snowstorm.
In a good weather, their journey to Sandy Bar may take only a day but because of the snowstorm they were compelled to find shelter in the foothills of a steep mountain for more than two weeks! Luckily for them Tom had brought ample provisions that had kept them alive for some days. But eventually they all die- except for Tom who obviously made it to Poker Flat since two days later men from Poker Flat beheld the dead bodies of Piney, the Duchess and Mr. Oakhurst who committed suicide. Throughout their journey, Mr. Oakhurst had endeavored to maintain his composure in order to make an objective plan of action to save their lives.
He knew their situation was hopeless and there was a remote chance that Piney may be saved from death if Tom miraculously makes it to Poker Flat. But a sacrifice has to be made. He cannot go back to Poker Flat to seek help since the outcast were warned that if ever they returned they will be killed. So he gave his precious snow boots to Tom, opting to walk back barefooted but in the end committed suicide by putting a bullet to his heart (Harte 7). It can be said that because of what had befallen to them, the outcasts were an unfortunate lot.
The snowstorm prevented their chance to start a new life in Sandy Bar. However, in a much lesser sense perhaps, they were fortunate because their death in the mountains had somehow helped to reclaim their dignity as a human being in the eyes of Poker Flat. The locals of Poker Flat were unable to distinguish who was the pure and the impure between the two women who died together peacefully in the snow. The Poker Flat locals perhaps had realized that they might have been too harsh and judgmental on the outcasts.
As a conclusion, Bret Harte had conveyed the moral lesson that putting the law in the hands of evil men naturally results in unfair and biased judgments, that even those condemned by society as sinners have hidden goodness and they usually respond positively to good treatments and that the ominous power of nature can decisively abort any man’s good plans or hopes.
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