DEATH AT THE HOTEL: PART 1
Part One: The Evening Before
By Susan Pierce
“Seriously. That was the best burger ever.”
Scott Dickey was a healthy growing sixteen year old boy and he appreciated a great cheeseburger. He made an unsuccessful swipe at the ketchup on the side of his mouth. “Yeah. I’ll totally eat another one.”
Sissy, gesturing with the platter, looked around the table. “Anyone else? Ray? Got any room left?”
“Oooo, no thanks, man. Two’s my limit.” Ray Dickey drummed on his stomach with the palms of his hands.
Lewis loved entertaining and Sissy loved Lewis (and Auntie Ag), so every few weeks he invited friends in for dinner. On this Friday evening in late summer the Blisses were hosting Marph Dickey’s family.
Marph Dickey was a delightful young woman in her early twenties who worked at the hospital where Sissy’s spouse, Lewis worked. She had been more or less on call for the Bliss family for almost a month, making herself available a few hours each week so that Auntie Ag wouldn’t be left alone when neither Sissy nor Lewis was home.
Marph’s dad was Deputy Hiram Dickey. Her mother, Edith, was a teacher at Colfax High School. Her younger brother, Scott, was a lively sixteen-year-old with a healthy appetite.
Her older brother, Ray, lived with his wife and their new baby son in rural Placer County. As it happened, the baby had been a little out of sorts that night and his wife didn’t feel comfortable leaving him with a sitter, but she encouraged Ray to go because, since the arrival of their baby, he hadn’t had much time to socialize.
Sissy was an artist with the charcoal barbecue and his potato salad was to die for. The food was perfect and the conversation at the table was delightful. That pleased Auntie Ag enormously. There was nothing she loved better than good conversation.
“Fresh lemonade . . . ” Lewis sang as he carried a big, silver serving tray toward the enormous dining room table. On the tray were a huge pitcher of cold lemonade, clean glasses and small napkins.
Marph jumped to her feet and quickly cleared the table. All except Scotty’s plate.
“Madame?” Lewis bowed to Auntie Ag as he served her a glass of lemonade.
Marph returned from the kitchen with two large bowls of fresh strawberries. She placed one at each end of the table and returned to her seat.
“So you guys are going up to Dutch Flat tomorrow?” asked Edith.
“Morning tea at the Hotel up there,” Sissy answered. “Figure we’ll leave here around ten-fifteen. That’ll put us there around eleven forty-five. We’ll have some tea, look around. Be back here around noon.”
Lewis huffed and rolled his eyes. “So you’ve got the mission planned right down to the minute, Sir?”
Edith smiled. “You’ll enjoy it. It’s too bad they don’t do dinner up there. Breakfast and lunch, Wednesdays through Sundays, are always delicious.”
Edith looked over at Auntie Ag, “I said, You’ll enjoy it.”
Marph blushed and nudged Edith in the ribs. “Mom, she’s old but she’s not deaf.”
Auntie Ag smiled. “It’s quite alright. So many of the elderly do have difficulty hearing.”
Hiram Dickey said, “Dutch Flat? It isn’t much these days. The old town is about gone. The houses are mostly filled with retired people. Most of them do keep their houses up, though. Fresh paint, well-kept gardens . . . ”
“Yeah,” Scott said around a mouthful of burger. “Plus it’s totally haunted.”
“Haunted?” Auntie Ag was intrigued.
“Scotty.” Marph shot eyeball darts across the table at her brother. “There’s no such thing as ghosts. Is there, Auntie Ag?”
She looked to the eldest at the table for affirmation.
“Well, my dear . . . ” Auntie Ag brushed a crumb from her lap. “I’m sure I don’t know. One does wonder. One wonders what happens when people die.”
It was an awkward moment. No one said anything.
Auntie Ag felt everyone’s discomfort. “I beg your pardon. It does make people under ninety quite uncomfortable to hear someone over ninety talk about death. But then, it is really just part of life, isn’t it? We were born. We shall die. That is how the cycle goes. But one does wonder . . . ”
“Sometimes,” she continued, “I think maybe young people, especially Americans, seem to think that death is something optional, something one can overcome. But it isn’t. Death is a fact.”
Edith nodded. “You’re right. We’ve kind of separated death from daily life. And we do kind of act like it’s something we can beat. Like, if you quit smoking, you won’t die. If you eat organic foods, you won’t die.”
Scotty chimed in, “If you jog, you won’t die.”
“If you get a mammogram, you won’t die,” Marph added.
“Exactly. People speak as if the dead had lost a contest. One will say, So sad. He lost his battle with cancer, or She lost her battle with heart disease. But death is not optional and it isn’t a contest. It’s simply part of life.”
“Well, I’ll tell you what.” Ray slapped his stomach with both hands. “If I ate like this every night I’d lose the Battle of the Bulge, that’s for sure.”
Auntie Ag turned to Scott. “Why do you say that Dutch Flat is haunted?”
Scott shrugged. “Everyone says it.”
Lewis looked to Hi. “You know the county better than any of us. What’s the dish on Dutch Flat?”
Hi said, “Hmm. We learned about Dutch Flat in grade school. Let’s see what I can remember. By the 1860’s, Dutch Flat had about 6,000 residents—3,000 white miners and 3,000 tong Chinese.
Auntie Ag said, “You remember that from elementary school?”
Edith smiled fondly at her husband. “My husband forgets nothing.”
“The two big celebrations up there came on the Fourth of July and Chinese New Year. Those two events brought people from everywhere into Dutch Flat. It must have really been something. Hundreds, probably even thousands, of people going up there and camping out and partying in the mountains. The Chinese used to set off fireworks.”
Scott said, “Fireworks?”
“Yep,” Hi continued. “Fireworks, rockets, sparklers . . . the Chinese knew how to do all that kind of stuff. A hundred and fifty years ago, no one else was eager to handle explosives.”
Edith said, “I seem to remember that Dutch Flat called itself the Athens of the Foothills. Didn’t they have an opera house . . . musicians . . . even a theater company? Didn’t they used to have debates, poetry readings . . . all kinds of things?”
Hi laughed. “As a law enforcement officer, I think about fire hazards and crowd control. My wife the high school teacher thinks about the culture.”
“Yeah, but I’ll tell you what.” Ray leaned forward in his chair. “When Mark Twain went up there, he said their poetry sucked.
Marph grinned at her big brother. “Read a lot of Dutch Flat poetry, do you Ray?”
Ray laughed. “I’m just saying . . . ”
“Well,” Edith adjusted herself in her chair, “Mark Twain didn’t exactly say sucked. He just said he thought it was a bit over-written.”
“In the mid-1800’s, over-written probably did mean sucked.” Sissy took a sip from his lemonade.
The idea that Mark Twain didn’t care for Dutch Flat poetry caused a major spike on Lewis’ Dish-o-Meter. Lewis loved gossip. Even vintage 1800’s gossip. “Nooo,” he gushed. “Suckie poetry and ghosts? Tell us more.”
Hi said, “Well, let me think. It was an important stage coach and mule wagon stop. Then, when some guys started talking about building a transcontinental railroad, Doc Strong invited the railroad surveyor and Chief Engineer of the Central Pacific Railroad to come up to Dutch Flat to see if a route across the Sierra Mountains could be built to go through there.”
Lewis was not a person who took particular pleasure in hearing dry historic fact. He sighed. “Cut to the chase, Hi. Get to the good stuff.”
“Hold your horses, Lewis. You have to know the background. Where was I? Help me if I get stuck here, Edith. The engineer was a guy named Theodore Judah.”
Edith nodded. “I remember that part. He was young and enthusiastic and was always talking about a railroad stretching all the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific. People didn’t think it was possible.”
Auntie Ag’s eyes sparkled. “In those days it would have taken such a wonderful imagination . . . ”
Hi said, “People started calling him Crazy Judah.”
Lewis said, “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
Edith nodded. “Crazy Judah went up to Dutch Flat in the summer of 1860 and then he bounced like a jack rabbit up to Donner’s Pass . . . ”
Scott said, “The place where the cannibals . . . ”
Edith smiled. “The very one. When he returned to Dutch Flat he reported that the grade from Dutch Flat to Donner’s Pass would be an easy climb for a steam engine.”
“And?” Lewis persisted.
Hi Dickey picked up the story, “Even though he was relatively young, Judah had a pretty good resumé. Before he came out here he built railroads back east. And once he was out here, he built the railroad in the Sacramento Valley. When the Dutch Flat deal came up, he was long on experience but short on cash.”
Hi said, “So he went down to San Francisco to start raising money for the project. All the Big Boys, especially the Sacramento Four, ponied up: Huntington, Hopkins, Stanford, and Crocker. The Big Boys put up their own money and then they bled money out of Sacramento County and Placer County.”
Lewis nodded. “They would have needed a lot of money.”
Hi nodded. “But starting in around 1863 they began to keep Judah in the dark about decisions they were making. And – get this – Huntington started going around saying they weren’t going to build a railroad. He said it was going to be an improved mule wagon/stagecoach toll road.”
Ray muttered, “Figures. Big City weasels. If I was Judah, I’da been so pissed.”
“It’s too bad,” Auntie Ag was listening carefully. “An eager young man with brains and vision—but no money of his own? Was he married?”
“Yes,” Edith answered. “He came to California from the east. His wife, Anna, came out here to join him later. They were both church people. Judah’s dad was an Episcopal priest. I don’t know, but they might have had a little bit of that eastern stiffness. You know what I mean? It was the Gold Rush and here were these people, these straight-laced Episcopalians from New York . . .”
“And no,” Hi added, “Judah didn’t have much cash compared to the Big Boys.
Edith asked, “Didn’t the Big Boys trade him stock in the company for the work he was doing?”
Hi nodded. “Yes. At first. But then they changed the game on him. They pushed him out of the decision making side of things, and by 1863 they were demanding that Judah put up cash.”
“Jerks.” Sissy was disgusted. “A deal’s a deal. You can’t just change it like that.”
Hi nodded. “He decided he needed to raise enough money to buy those guys out. But he couldn’t raise the money out here. Everybody thought he was either a nut job or a crook. So he and Anna set out for New York to raise money.”
Sissy said, “Sounds like a real mess: They demand cash, he doesn’t trust them, they stop including him in what they’re really doing . . . ” He sighed. “I’m so tired of hearing about smart, hard-working guys getting screwed by the Big Boys. I wouldn’t last two seconds in Corporate America.”
Edith sipped lemonade. “And when you think about the Judahs’ religious up-bringing, Theodore and Anna must have been disturbed by the general lack of morals and ethics.”
Lewis threw both hands into the air. “We have lift-off. So what was the problem – the moral problem? Were the Big Boys smoking opium or doing prostitutes or what?”
Hi laughed. “Well, I’m sure there were plenty of both in Dutch Flat. It had the biggest China Town outside of San Francisco.”
“So opium dusted the foothills.” Lewis made a snow-falling-gently-from-heaven gesture with all ten fingers. Sissy gave him a stern look that clearly conveyed the message, There are teenagers at the table.
Hi continued, “And as for prostitution, that’s a given. Three thousand miners . . . do the math. At some point they added a second and third floor to the Dutch Flat hotel. Then they built a covered walkway from the third floor of the hotel to the top floor of the knocking-shop across the street. That way the ladies of Dutch Flat didn’t have to see the ladies of the evening on the sidewalks. They couldn’t see the customers, either, for that matter.”
“That’s so cool,” Scotty whispered in awe as he tossed a strawberry into his mouth.
Marph said, “So if Anna and Theodore were from religious families they’d be pretty disgusted by all that.”
“Well you know, dear,” Auntie Ag said gently, “when one finds oneself in a society in which public behavior is beyond the pale, one rather tends to look the other way, don’t you think? One simply does his job and goes home, doesn’t he? One doesn’t actually have to participate in things done by other people.
Hi shrugged. “The Chinese lived and did business in their own part of town. The opium dens wouldn’t have been all that visible.”
“No.” Auntie Ag thought for a moment. “No, I shouldn’t think the Judah’s moral concern had to do with what went on in Dutch Flat. I should think it more likely that it had to do with the dishonesty of his partners.”
Sissy said, “What did Crazy Judah do?”
“Well, in 1863 he and Anna set out for New York to raise as much money as they could get.”
“How much did they get?” Ray asked.
Hi said, “Zip.”
Ray said, “Figures. Those Wall Streeters were probably just as crooked as the California bunch.”
Edith said, “Probably. But Judah never got the chance to find out. In order to get to New York in those days, you had to sail out of San Francisco to Panama, portage across the isthmus, and then get on another ship that took you to New York. But during the portage, Theodore Judah caught some kind of fever—yellow fever or malaria or something. By the time he got to New York, he was so sick they had to carry him off the ship. He died in Anna’s arms the next day.”
Lewis gasped. “Noooo.”
Marph shook her head. “That’s so awful.”
Scott said, “Poor guy.”
Edith said, “Poor Anna.”
The dinner party sat quietly for a moment. Then Auntie Ag said, “It’s all very sad. But it really doesn’t address the question, does it? The question is, why do people say Dutch Flat is haunted? Has someone seen something or heard something? So often there’s something behind that sort of rumor. That’s really what I’m after. People say it’s haunted. But why?”
Edith smiled. “Now that I think about it, I’ve never heard a story about anyone ever actually seeing a ghost up there.”
Auntie Ag said, “One does wonder. What would a ghost look like? Would one actually know in that moment that one was seeing a ghost?”
Scott said, “You have to carry an EMF meter.”
Everyone stared at him.
Auntie Ag said, “I beg your pardon?”
Marph burst out laughing. “He watches that TV show, Ghost Hunters. These two plumbers go around looking for ghosts at night. They shine their flashlights around and they act all spooky – they’re all Ooh. Did you hear that? – and they carry these little computers they call EMF meters. It stands for Electro Magnetic Field or something. Anyway, these EMF meters have lights on them and supposedly, if a ghost is present, the little lights go off.”
Scott said, “Yeah, but it could just be bad wiring. Bad wiring that makes the little lights go off, too. But usually it’s a ghost.”
This sent Marph into a fresh fit of laughter.
Aunt Agatha pursed her lips. “I see. Hmmm. But darlings, if you aren’t a plumber, and it isn’t nighttime, and you don’t have a FLM-o-meter, or whatever that device is called, how would you know you were in the presence of a ghost? One does wonder, doesn’t one?”