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Celebrating Nevada’s outlaw heritage
by John L. Smith
Nov 07, 2010 | 1200 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Nevada Day usually finds me gawking from a street corner at a small-town parade or kicking back with a cold one at a sagebrush country saloon before rushing back home to pass out Halloween candy.

This year, Campaign 2010 in general, and the U.S. Senate race between Harry Reid and Sharron Angle more specifically, had me tied to the office at a time usually reserved for unabashed celebration.

I’ll return to the road soon. While my horses are resting, and my saddle’s being repaired, I want to take a moment to propose a toast to Nevada’s outlaw heritage. We’ve been regularly ticking off the rest of the United States since 1864, and I think that’s something to be proud of.

Nevada’s statehood came almost by accident, a political sop from President Lincoln during the Civil War. Since then, we’ve endured the distinction of being such a wild and uncivilized place that a societal authority no less than the Chicago Tribune once editorialized on the question of whether Nevada’s statehood should be revoked. The esteemed editors argued for this corrupt and incorrigible state to return to the sand from whence it came. (Illinois, I hear, has no political corruption issues to speak of.)

Around that time, hucksters in the post-Comstock era were busy promoting themselves, their mining claims, and the Silver State’s slim economic prospects through professional pugilism. Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries, Battling Nelson and Joe Gans: Their blood and sweat launched a thousand headlines and 10,000 stock sales.

Imagine a place so heathen it allowed men to pummel each other about the head and shoulders for the base entertainment value and lucrative betting potential it gave the peanut-crunching crowd. That was uncivilized Nevada.

Thank goodness the world and the Silver State have left such barbaric practices behind. Right?

Then there was the divorce business, which pretty much put Reno on the map and attracted lawyers to the state like Mormon crickets. At a time the citizens of civilized states didn’t discuss divorce in public, much less advertise it nationally, Nevada’s dude ranch divorce racket was turning unhappy couples into sole practitioners by the busload. Business from Hollywood was so brisk scandalous novels and movies on the subject were produced.

The good news is, divorce never caught on, Reno went out of business, and Nevada is no longer known as the divorce capital of America. At least that’s what I’ve heard.

The brothel trade has been a shady part of Nevada history since before statehood — much to the disgust and dismay of the rest of dignified America. Tolerated when illegal, celebrated when legal, Nevada whorehouses have been a headache for politicians who frequent them or try to get rid of them.

Fortunately, the rest of the country has no prostitution problem. The oldest profession has gone the way of divorce and prize fighting, sources say.

Although Prohibition never had much impact on the state’s legion of whiskey drinkers, it’s gambling right out in the open that next gave the state a black eye on a national scale. Cards and dice were unadulterated vice, according to the prudes and politicians in 49 states. They shook scornful fingers at our neon dens of iniquity, checking their calendars for the next available vacation to the Silver State to sneak a piece of the action.

Whatever happened to gambling, anyway?

Given our history, you’d think some promoter would cleverly push a marijuana law through the Legislature, which often acts as if it’s two bong hits to the wind.

Perhaps next year when our economic predicament is more dire and our prospects for recovery are slimmer still.

With that, I propose a new state motto: “Nevada: Ticking off hypocrites since 1864.”

After you’ve lived here, the rest of America is no fun at all.

John L. Smith writes a weekly column on rural Nevada. He writes a daily column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at or at 702 383-0295.
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