The Dandy Quill of Dan DeQuille

He sought fortune as a prospector, but it was as a teller of tales that this gold-seeker struck pay dirt.
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He sought fortune as a prospector, but it was as a teller of tales that this gold-seeker struck pay dirt.
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William Wright of Knox County, Ohio, ventured west in 1849, staked out land in Iowa, married, fathered ?ve children, and began a small literary career by writing articles for Eastern magazines. In 1857 he left his family behind to try his hand as a gold prospector in California. Two years later he turned up as a pick-and-shovel laborer in the silver diggings in western Nevada and there, in and around the shanties and brush huts of the boomtown called Virginia City, he stayed.

He loved Virginia City, its dwellings and crude storefronts scattered along the flanks of Mount Davidson, and was intrigued, more as a writer than a prospector, by the sheer energy of the place. Here were 4,000 silver and gold diggings, with names like Wake-Up Jack, Root-Hog-or-Die, and Let-Her-Rip; here were great lumbering Wells Fargo freight wagons hauling ore down the mountainside, bound for smelters in San Francisco and Sacramento; here a flow of 150 new miners arrived daily, all headed for the great silver lode called the Comstock, to toil below ground at health- and spirit-breaking work for bare subsistence wages

The town’s energy, enterprise, and drama attracted him but he needed money to send to his wife in Iowa and subsistence forhimself. He knew he could never earn a living as a miner, but he had some success as a writer and Virginia City had a newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise. He was hired as a general reporter by the free-wheeling frontier weekly in 1862 and worked for the paper until it closed its doors in 1893. William Wright was an instant success with the Enterprise, writing under a pen-name that personified his lively style: Dan DeQuille.

He lived a bachelor’s life in hotels and rooming houses, and sent part of his earnings home to Iowa. He was a well-liked, convivial man—a tall, gaunt figure who wore a black cape when out on the town, a tireless reporter, a trusted historian of Virginia City, author of an indispensable book on the Comstock Lode titled The Big Bonanza, and a man with a keen sense of humor.

(The latter characteristic was shared by another Midwesterner who joined the Enterprise’s staff a year after Wright. Samuel Langhorne Clemens of Missouri took Wright’s path in writing under a pen name and chose the moniker “Mark Twain” for his literary work.)

Among DeQuille’s most popular writings in the Enterprise were his periodic tall tales, some containing a fraction of fact, others all-out inventions from the author’s fertile imagination. His mastery of the “windy” reached its fullest fruition in his story of the inventor Jonathan Newhouse, who fashioned a device he called “solar armor” that would enable the wearer to survive the killing heat of Western deserts and alkali plains. The apparatus consisted of a tight jacket and hood made of inch-thick sponge which was saturated with water at the outset of a desert trek. Then, to keep the armor wet, an India rubber bag filled with water was squeezed periodically to re-saturate the sponge jacket and hood. Evaporation of the water cooled the wearer’s body.

Newhouse, DeQuille wrote, attempted to demonstrate his armor with a summertime trek across Death Valley in temperatures reaching 117 degrees. His frozen corpse was found sitting on a rock 20 miles into the desert, an 18-inch icicle hanging from his nose. “There he had perished miserably,” DeQuille wrote, “because his armor had worked but too well.” The hoax was widely taken as gospel. Even the sedate Times of London ran a lengthy scientific explanation of Mr. Newhouse’s invention.

Wright remained in Virginia City some years after the silver boom had played out and the Territorial Enterprise had closed its doors. He returned to West Liberty, Iowa, a few years before his death on March 16, 1898.

Among DeQuille’s most popular writings in the Enterprise were his periodic tall tales, some containing a fraction of fact, others all-out inventions from the author’s fertile imagination.