Firewater, Coffin Varnish & Tarantula Juice
Updated: Mar 1
Alcohol was the human gunpowder that helped make the West wild!
You know the scene: A gnarly gunslinger ambles through the swinging doors of the saloon, his spurs jangling, a Clint Eastwood sneer on his unshaven face. Suddenly, the rowdy crowd goes silent. The boisterous piano playing fades to faulting notes, then silence. The poker games stop. The cowboy walks to the bar. The bartender looks nervously at him, then hastily puts a shot glass before the stranger. He silently pours whiskey into the glass. The cowboy slugs it down like he’s putting a fire out deep in his throat. He grimaces. Slams down the glass. Then the gunslinger turns around and scans the crowd through slitted, venomous eyes.
The scene has played out thousands of times in Hollywood movies. It’s one of the most classic tropes in Westerns. The saloon. It’s the stage where all the action was. Where all the players converge for the big showdown.
Saloons WERE the happenin’ place for towns in the West. They were watering holes, a place for gob and gossip, poker, bar food, and saloon “Sallys.” They were called “watering holes, water troughs, bughouses, shebangs, cantinas, grogshops, gin mills, dives.” And they served “rot-gut, firewater, tarantula juice, mountain howitzer, Taos lightning, Red-Eye, Coffin Varnish, Snake Pizen, and Tanglefoot.”
Saloons were seldom the fancy-schmancy affairs Hollywood painted, with scrolling woodwork, bright lighting, paintings, massive carved bar backs with huge mirrors, and velvet-clad saloon girls. They were more often small, dirty, dimly lit, crude, rough-hewn. And, yes, the glasses were probably dirty. (Would you really trust the bartender to wash them?)
Worse yet, the drinks were often raw alcohol cut with burnt sugar and chewing tobacco juice. To stretch their most precious commodity, bar owners often watered down the alcohol with turpentine, formaldehyde, ammonia, gunpowder, or cayenne pepper to give it a kick. It wasn’t uncommon for clientele to die of alcohol poisoning or poisoning from the saloon additives.
The first saloons in the Western frontier were probably Mexican cantinas north of the Rio Grande. The first known saloon in the northern frontier was Brown’s Saloon in the Wyoming territory, near Brown’s Hole in 1822, sitting on the modern-day borders of Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. It served drinks to early fur traders. Bent’s Fort in Colorado opened a saloon in the late 1820s and served soldiers. Dodge City in Kansas territory had some of the earliest saloons as well and served settlers.
Soon saloons were sprouting like mushrooms, wherever there were men, there were customers. Early saloons were often nothing more than tents, lean-tos, or shacks. They marked the beginning of civilization, or, more accurately, a very rough semblance of it. They became so popular that even small towns had numerous saloons. Livingston, Montana, for example, had a population of 3,000 inhabitants in 1883, but 33 saloons. And Leavenworth, Kansas, with a population of 16,500 had 150!
As trappers, soldiers, miners, lumberjacks, settlers, farmers, immigrants, cattlemen, cowboys, and entrepreneurs began the Great Migration to the frontier, saloons spread like wildfire and began to specialize. All, of course, served alcohol and most had gambling. But some offered opium dens, brothels, billiards, piano playing, dancing, restaurant fare, hotel accommodations, or, later, even bowling!
Most saloons served whiskey and warm beer, but almost always out of barrels. Sometimes the barrels were in a back room or sometimes stored as barreled barstools. The quality of whiskeys and beers varied wildly and were not regulated. Whiskeys of the 1800s bore little similarities to the Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Wild Turkey, or Buffalo Trace of today. Many of the popular bottled whiskeys had “old” in the title—Old Crow, Old Grand-Dad, Overholt Old Rye, Old Log Cabin—inferring it was aged (it wasn’t) and, therefore, higher quality.
As towns grew and became more civilized, so too did their saloons. They boasted more luxurious establishments with opulent furnishings, elegant saloon girls, high-stakes faro and poker tables, piano playing, and more expensive, bottled whiskeys and beers were offered. Saloons started offering fancier drinks too. Cactus Wine was made from a mix of tequila and peyote tea. A Mule Skinner made with whiskey and blackberry liquor was popular too. Rye or bourbon were most commonly served and beer was consumed in high volume too.
Gambling went hand-in-hand with alcohol in most saloons. Faro was by far the most popular game in Old West saloons, followed by Brag, Three Card Monte, and dice games such as High-Low, Chuck-A-Luck and Grand Hazard.
Because saloons were a meeting place for many rough-edged men of all walks of life, who drank large quantities of alcohol, carried firearms, gambled, and caroused with women, the potential for violence was common. Saloons were veritable powder kegs of human interaction. It’s no wonder that saloons became the “stage” for Hollywood western dramas. Bar brawls, shoot-outs, romantic intrigues, high stakes poker games, and mob rule were played out in the movies and in real-life.
Some of the West’s greatest icons were saloon owners and often gamblers themselves: Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hickok, Big Nose Kate, Judge Roy Bean, Bill Tilghman, among others. They all owned saloons. Wyatt Earp, with his wife, owned several, including the famous Oriental in Tombstone, Arizona, and others in Nevada and even Alaska. Judge Roy Bean owned the Jersey Lilly in Langtry, Texas.
Not surprisingly, the toughest towns in the West had the toughest saloons. Tombstone, Deadwood, Dodge City, Eldorado, Cripple Creek, Yuma, El Paso, to name just a few. Saloons were often places where shoot-outs or outright murders took place. Wild Bill was killed by Jack McCall while playing poker in the famous No. 10 Saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota. Robert Ford, who killed Jesse James, was later shot down in his own tent saloon in Creede, Colorado. And the famous gunslinger and outlaw, John Wesley Hardin, was shot and killed from behind in 1895 in a saloon in El Paso, Texas.
Saloons captured the Wild West’s free-for-all, no-holds-barred bedlam of the frontier, full of excess and violence, misbehavior and misdeeds. Where guns and the ruthless ruled. And they were the places that fueled the pandemonium. Mark Twain, in all his wisdom, pretty much summed it up: “Sometimes, too much drink is barely enough...”
"Fire Water, Coffin Varnish & Tarantula Juice" was first published on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on January 3, 2020.
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