Fantastic History #59: Beer City by Dawn Vogel

Author Harry E. Chrisman claims that when it comes to the history of the American West, “If [the information] is easy to obtain, then it is ‘old hat’ and has probably been published a dozen times before.” Nonetheless, the history of the American West is filled with colorful characters and stories that have not been told as often as some others.

As Americans filled in the vast lands between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, they organized into territories as a form of government, preparatory to becoming states. But the forms of government in these territories ranged from ordered to lawless, and often fell somewhere in between. The piece of land that would ultimately become the Oklahoma Panhandle started out as a part of Texas. However, because of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the later Compromise of 1850, the portion of Texas that fell north of the 36°30′ latitude was ceded and became known as the “Public Land Strip.” Since the southern borders of the Kansas and Nebraska Territories were set at the 37th latitude, in 1854, there was a strip of land, approximately 34 miles north-south and 170 miles west-east that was not a part of any territory. “No Man’s Land,” as it was known, was in a prime location with regards to Kansas, which had prohibited the sale and manufacture of alcohol. It was easy to travel across the southern boundary of Kansas and visit a little town called Beer City.

“Town” is a generous description for the settlement. It was mostly tents, with a few actual buildings: “There were eight to ten saloons, a number of gambling houses and several bawdy houses to represent the business Industries of the Strip city.” The Yellow Snake Saloon, run by “Pussy Cat” Nell Jones, was one of those buildings, and likely served as not only a saloon, but also a gambling house and a bawdy house.

Without much in the way of organized law and order, the town had a self-appointed sheriff, Amos (or Lewis) “Brushy” Bush. According to most accounts of the town, he also ran a protection racket, requiring local businesses to pay him money in order for them to make use of his services, whether they were wanted or not. According to Chrisman, “He ruled with sawed off shotgun and six-shooters…. His ‘protection’ came high, but Beer Citizens accepted it—at least for a while.”

Sometime in the late 1880s, a 4th of July celebration in Beer City included a wrestling match and a masked ball. Residents of Beer City placed bets on one or the other of the combatants in the wrestling match, through a man named Fred Oschner. However, Brushy Bush “horned in at the last minute to hold most of the stakes, for 5 percent!” When Pussy Cat Jones found out and registered her displeasure, Brushy Bush pistol whipped her for her temerity.

Pussy Cat Jones then waited a week to enact her revenge. According to Chrisman, “Pussy Cat sat in the upstairs room of her house and saw Brushy Bush passing along the street just below her. Quickly seizing her trustworthy double barrel shotgun loaded with Blue Whistlers, those deadly little steel balls about an eighth of an inch in diameter, she poked the snout of her gun out the window and gave Brushy both barrels in the back of the neck.”

Perhaps if that had been the end of it, the fate of Brushy Bush would have been fairly cut and dried—shot in the back by a woman he had wronged. “But now the other folks of Beer City took up the battle and the crack of rifle and shotgun fire made the street sound like Gettysburg. When one group would run out of ammunition, another would commence firing into Bush’s inert form. When they finally picked his bloody body out of the street and took it out onto the prairie for burial, there was not a whole bone in his body.” Even the newspapers commented on the amount of lead that had been pumped into Brushy Bush. One account gave the numbers as “eight bullets and twenty-three shot,” while another claimed “seventy-four Winchester and pistol shots were fired into Bush’s body.”

Despite how many times Bush had been shot, the authorities did eventually find someone to blame for the murder: John Brennan. “A Paris, Texas, dispatch dated July 3, 1889, says: John Brennan, a white man, had an examination before U. S. Commissioner Kirkpatrick today for the murder of Amos Bush, also white, at Beer City, No Man’s Land, last May, and was committed without bail to await the action of the federal grand jury. Bush was from Dodge City, and was killed by a vigilance committee, one of which was Brennan.”

Clearly, though, it seems impossible for Brennan to have fired all those shots, so why he alone took the blame for the murder of Bush is unclear. At least some speculation on the subject suggests that the townspeople all agreed to fire on Bush to muddy up the evidence of an actual killing shot, assuming they could not all be blamed for Bush’s death.

Another issue with the accounts is that they do not agree—the newspaper article about Brennan’s examination mentions that Bush was murdered in May of 1889, which does not square with Chrisman’s report of it taking place after a 4th of July celebration. Additionally, another newspaper article mentions “Bush was proprietor of a saloon in the city and at the election was defeated for mayor,” and then began rounding up citizens of Beer City for a “bone yard” he planned to create. In this account, “A meeting was held and Bush was ordered to keep quiet or leave town, but he refused to do either,” so the residents banded together to kill him.

Though it is difficult to match up the details of the contemporary newspaper articles and Chrisman’s account, which does not offer any citation, it certainly seems likely that Brushy Bush was not a popular figure in Beer City. Whether he was a lawful man unfairly targeted by unlawful citizens who preferred their town not be policed, a tyrant who picked on the wrong woman, or a belligerent drunk unwilling to accept his loss of the mayoral race, it does seem clear that his murder cannot be pinned on any one individual with any certainty, and thus remains a subject of speculation in the history of the American West.

Sources include

“Arrested for Murder,” Hugoton Hermes, June 21, 1889, transcribed online at

Derrick Ho, “Stories of the Ages: Beer City,” The Oklahoman, accessed January 13, 2017,

Harry E. Chrisman, Lost Tales of the Cimarron (Denver: Sage Books, 1961)

“Oklahoma Panhandle,”, accessed February 13, 2017,

“Oklahoma Panhandle: Badmen in No Man’s Land,”, June 12, 2006,

Woodsdale Sentinel, August 2, 1889, transcribed online at


Dawn Vogel’s academic background is in history, so it’s not surprising that much of her fiction is set in earlier times. By day, she edits reports for historians and archaeologists. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business, co-edits Mad Scientist Journal, and tries to find time for writing. Her steampunk series, Brass and Glass, is published by DefCon One Publishing. She is a member of Broad Universe, Codex Writers, and SFWA. She lives in Seattle with her awesome husband (and fellow author), Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats.

Fantastic History #58: When the Ordinary is a Fantasy by Kate Heartfield

The Black Death hit Florence hard. At least half the city’s population died, and maybe more.

By 1350, the plague had burned itself out. Many of the city’s grand houses sat empty, a temptation to anyone who would take the risk of touching the furnishings. Giovanni Boccaccio was already writing what history came to regard as his great work, a collection of bawdy or clever stories told with perfect turns of phrase and deftly drawn characters.

It’s tempting to think of classic texts as though they were archival records, missives from the past. But when Giovanni Boccaccio wrote the Decameron, I doubt he had us in mind. It’s a little difficult to say for sure who, exactly, he had in mind. In his introduction, he says he wrote it as a comfort for ladies to ease their suffering – but the suffering he’s talking about is the suffering of being in love! The first chapter is a description of the plague’s effects on Florence, the ditches full of corpses with no one to mourn them. But Boccaccio reassures his putative female audience that all the unpleasant parts will be out of the way at the beginning, that reading the book will be like climbing a mountain and emerging onto to a beautiful plain.

In that notional meadow, his readers come upon a group of fictional storytellers. The conceit is that these characters have left plague-ridden Florence for the countryside, where they decide to wait out their apocalypse by telling each other stories. It was just barely historical fiction when Boccaccio was writing it in his half-empty city; it would be like someone in 2022 writing a novel set in the current pandemic.

What strikes me, as a historical fantasy writer re-reading the Decameron now, is that there’s not a lot of fantasy in it. There’s the occasional ghost, mythological milieu or strange happening, but the stories are mostly about ordinary people tricking each other, having affairs, showing up hypocrisy, learning life lessons.

In fact, the realism of the stories told by the Decameron’s somewhat allegorical frame characters has led many people to see it as a sort of snapshot of the transition to the Renaissance. Joan Acocella wrote in The New Yorker in 2013: “I see the Decameron as a picture, with the ten elegant Florentines, in their silk gowns and embroidered doublets, joining hands and dancing their lovely circle dance, the carola. And in the middle of the circle are monks and merchants and painters and prostitutes eating dinner and having sex and kicking one another into ditches. In other words, we see the Renaissance embraced by the Middle Ages, like a planet orbited by its moons.”

Dividing anything into the Renaissance and the Middle Ages is always fraught, and that debate doesn’t really concern me here. But the dogged ordinariness of the stories does. After all, in our own time, we’ve been told over and over again that the literature of comfort and escape is fantasy. Some, like Tolkien, have defended the “escape” function of what he called “fairy-stories”: “Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?” More often, though, it’s dismissive or derisive, meant to signal that what is escapist is not challenging or thought-provoking or elevating, that it merely allows us to forget our troubles for a while, like a glass of wine.

The Decameron, which long ago joined the ranks of Serious Art, was written with the express purpose of allowing women to forget their troubles. It is literally, avowedly, escapist fiction, anchored in the very disaster his readers had just survived: the reader is asked to imagine escaping that disaster and going to an idyllic landscape, where they have ten days to remember life in all its pain and hilarity: life without the plague.

How many times have you heard or read someone say, over the last few months, that all of this feels unreal, that we’re living in a science fiction novel? Such moments remind us that all fiction has an escapist function – or, to get away from the derogatory, let’s call it a transportive, function. Writers struggling to write “contemporary” stories at the moment, anchored in some floating nebulous “now”, are having to confront the axiom that all fiction is either historical or science fiction. It’s just easier to kid ourselves about that when there isn’t a pandemic happening. By the time any novel written during this pandemic is published, it will imagine a world that is gone, or a world that the writer can’t know yet. Either choice will transport the reader, either to the past, or to a fossilized conception of the future. All fiction moves us from one room into another.

Perhaps the novelist who writes the escapist fiction of 2022 will do as Boccaccio did and write about ordinary people having affairs and not worrying about anything else, and it will seem like a throwback to a more innocent time. Edith Wharton wrote in her memoir about the end of the Great War and the 1918 flu pandemic that “before I could deal objectively with the stored up emotions of those years, I had to get away from the present altogether, and though I began ‘A Son at the Front’ in 1917 it was not finished until four years later. Meanwhile I found a momentary escape in going back to my childish memories of a long-vanished America, and I wrote ‘The Age of Innocence.’” That novel was set in the 1870s and published in 1920, and it won the Pulitzer Prize.

I’ve had a story stub sitting in my ideas folder for a while, with a setting inspired by The Age of Innocence, set in New York in the 1870s, with magicians. It seemed somehow fitting that that story should be my contribution for The New Decameron Project, a wonder conceived of by Maya Chhabra, and organized by Maya Chhabra, Jo Walton and Lauren Schiller. So I finished it up, titled it “A Hansom Cab Outside the Liberty Street Ferry Terminal” and it was published on May 4. All the stories in The New Decameron Project, including the charming frame narrative by Jo Walton, are free to read, but Patreon subscribers support payments for the authors and Cittadini del Mondo, a charity running a library and clinic for refugees in Rome.

Personally, I want all my stories to be an escape from the reader’s current frame of mind, so that they return from the experience changed, even if that change is only one of mood. Because the escape in fiction is always a temporary one, and what it’s really doing is guiding our return, to the city that needs rebuilding, to the life that is to come.


Kate Heartfield writes science fiction and fantasy, including the Aurora-winning novel Armed in Her Fashion and the Nebula-shortlisted novella Alice Payne Arrives, along with dozens of stories. She is the author of The Road to Canterbury and The Magician’s Workshop, both of which were shortlisted for the Nebula in game writing. Her next novel is The Embroidered Book, a historical fantasy coming in 2021. A former journalist, Kate lives in Ottawa, Canada.

Fantastic History #57: Rehumanizing Chattel Slaves by Abby Goldsmith

Chattel slavery ranks high among humanity’s worst evils.

It overlaps with institutionalized torture and genocide, which make it difficult to explore through the lens of fantasy fiction. If you misrepresent chattel slavery, you are compounding injustice and spreading harmful ignorance. If you treat it lightly or gloss over it, you are misrepresenting it. And since the descendants of American slaves make up a significant portion of the reading public, any treatment of it in fiction deserves nuance and sensitivity, and a lot of research.

One of the defining features of American slavery was dehumanization. American slaves were considered a subspecies of humankind, not just a lower social class. That belief justified the treatment of chattel slaves as animals, to be bred, bought, and sold without regard for familial bonds, and without regard for the loyalties of love and friendship. To enforce this unnatural arrangement, armed violence against unarmed slaves was acceptable and commonplace.

Despite the vast gulf between masters and slaves, however, there was no erasing their shared humanity. Mixed families were undeniable. Sometimes a master owned his own children. Modern genetic tests, as well as the wide range of skin tones among descendants of American slaves, are evidence of the lie which dehumanization relied upon. As much as slave owners wanted to believe that their slaves were unlike themselves, they were wrong.

I wondered how much worse it might have been if mixing was impossible.

What if the schism between masters and slaves was based on a more substantial pretext than skin color? What if masters and slaves were, literally, two different species?

In my series, I cast the entire human race as chattel slaves. Planet Earth is like interior Africa at the start of the colonial era, isolated from a bustling galactic civilization. The rulers of the galaxy are distantly related to humankind, as well as to other “primitives.” But they consider humankind to be an inferior subspecies of themselves.

The Torth make the same mistake which white slave traders made, and the same mistake the Nazis made. They fall for the seductive ideology that they are members of an elite, superior race. The Torth see themselves as intrinsically more wholesome and more mentally advanced than their human targets. After all, the Torth wield total power as the only legal citizens of galactic civilization. They are far more technologically advanced than humankind. They rule planets. hey dominate interstellar travel. They have conquered and enslaved multiple alien civilizations. All the power they’ve gained makes it hard for anyone to question their morality, or their fitness to rule.

I needed the Torth to look indistinguishable from humans. They consider humanity to be a lesser subspecies of themselves, rather than alien beasts, and I wanted their reason for dehumanizing humans to be something more substantial than appearance. After all, visible traits are a flimsy excuse for dehumanization. I wanted my galactic-ruling civilization to seem smarter than that.

What if their claim to superiority is based on a bioengineered, inherited ability which they have made impossible for “lesser” species to inherit?

The Torth don’t need an internet because their minds are interconnected in a telepathic web that spans the galaxy. Like white slave-owners in the American South, who sent their sons to universities and who gave their daughters private tutors, but who did not knowingly share books or newspapers or literacy with slaves, the Torth forbid the sharing of knowledge with slaves.

Only Torth learn how to read glyphs. Only Torth learn how to pilot a flying transport, or how to navigate a streamship through a wormhole to another solar system. Slaves learn nothing except how to polish floors or harvest grains.

Knowledge is power. That fact was perhaps never more poignantly proven than during slavery in the United States. An educated slave was a direct, existential challenge to the notion that slaves were an inferior subspecies. Therefore, it was forbidden to teach literacy to slaves. If a slave could read, then that slave might read a newspaper and learn which runaways were being hunted, and by whom. They might give warning to their fellow slaves about impending battles or uprisings. They might communicate secret directions to an underground railroad.

They might gain a voice which could not be ignored.

Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Sojourner Truth, and others who escaped slavery wrote and orated powerfully about their personal experiences. These people were among the few slaves who defiantly learned literacy against the wishes of their owners. They were lucky enough to be positioned for a permanent escape to freedom. And once they gained freedom, they were brave enough to challenge the vested interests that ruled the civilization they lived in.

I think anyone who reads their works can only admire them. In gaining global attention, these former slaves shone an inescapable spotlight on what must be happening to a vast population in the American South who were unable to advocate for themselves.

I wanted to bring some of that defiant heroism into my series.

Torth collectively share knowledge with each other. The Megacosm is the backbone of their galactic civilization; something like a super-charged internet. It is the equivalent of books and newspapers during the era of American slavery. Torth regard humanity’s internet as a feeble, slow, primitive version of the mental network which they’ve collectively shared for a thousand generations, and which only they can access. Any Torth in the galaxy can instantly communicate with any other Torth. hey hide no secrets from each other. They don’t use spoken language.

In the same way that slave owners in early America assumed that slaves were incapable of erudition, the Torth assume that enslaved subspecies, such as humankind, are naturally incapable of using the Megacosm.

But if a reader is paying close attention, they might guess at an undercurrent in Torth society; a fear that they might be wrong. After all, why have the Torth outlawed the science of bioengineering?

They want to preclude any possibility of another species gaining telepathic abilities, or developing a communications network that might rival the Megacosm.

In my series, a group of slaves gain a window into the Megacosm through a Torth who goes renegade. Thomas rejects the privileges and benefits of being a slave owner. Having been raised by humans on Earth, Thomas has sympathy for his enslaved human foster family. He risks his life to set them free, and together, they escape Torth society and join an underground hideout full of runaway slaves.

Thomas provides the former slaves with education which is supposed to be meant only for Torth. Through his efforts, the former slaves begin to make use of super-weapons and spaceships. As knowledge spreads through the former slaves and rebels, they innovate on their own.

They found a rebel nation which energetically defies Torth laws against bioengineering and other sciences. One of their biggest gains is a “telepathy gas” which empowers former slaves to jack into the Megacosm.

The rebel nation is a melting pot of cultures, similar to how the slaves of the colonial United States were a mix of tribal nations. Their shared experience as slaves gives them a common language. This facilitates creativity, and their new forms of art and innovations even appeal to the stuffy Torth.

Soon there are secret Torth renegades who want to join the rebel nation. It is a slow trickle at first, since surveillance is a key component of the Megacosm. Torth are constantly monitored by their own peers. By choosing to join former slaves, renegade Torth must give up the Megacosm. Not only do they lose their edge in knowledge, but they also abandon their privileges as slave masters. And they must risk death to escape.

The risks are worth it to some renegade Torth. By the end of my series, the risks are worth it to many, as the Torth civilization begins to collapse from its own rotten values. They are no longer able to maintain the delusion of their innate superiority.


Abby Goldsmith’s short fiction and articles are published in Escape Pod, Fantasy Magazine, a Writer’s Digest Books anthology, and other venues. She’s an alumni of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, where she received a personal critique from best-selling author George R.R. Martin. She’s also enjoyed dinners with best-selling authors Hugh Howey, Kevin J. Anderson, and Robert Jordan.

A former animator and game content writer, Abby is credited on more than a dozen Nintendo games for Nickelodeon and Disney. She co-hosts the Stories for Nerds podcast from her home in Texas.