Yesterday: The Sabotage of Two Toed Pete
In 1891, hundreds gathered outside Virginia City to watch to a keg of beer get carried up a mountain.
BY R. E. “COLONEL” PRIEST
This story originally appeared in the April 1984 issue of Nevada Magazine.
Every time Leo Hechinger went into the Delta Saloon and saw all those diamonds on the slim finger of Two Toed Pete, he got mad with himself. It was like a slap in the face to see Pete sitting there behind his blackjack game like a spider waiting to pounce on his victim. And the big diamonds gave sparkling testimony to his skill with cards. Leo figured that he had bought and paid for at least one of those rings. Only trouble was he wasn’t wearing it.
Leo was a tall, thin German, about 30 years old. His eyes were blue and his hair was the color of newly sawed pine lumber and he weighed 150 pounds. His job in 1891 was to climb up and down ladders replacing the burned-out electric light bulb in the street lamps of Virginia City, Gold Hill and Silver Citv: The official lamplighter on the Comstock, he did lots of climbing and replacing in those days.
Leo lived alone in a small cabin on the slopes of Mt. Davidson. He was well known and well liked, and he’d often invite 12 to 15 of his friends to his place for a Dutch lunch and beer. He’d buy an eight gallon keg of beer from the Union Brewery and have it delivered to his cabin, and the men’s talk would be as varied as their interests and occupations. Miners, mill men, teamsters and prospectors—they were a varied lot. But several had a common financial interest in Tw Toed Pete’s diamonds. So he, and others of his kind, were the principal subjects of conversation.
Pete was especially disliked because he displayed his affluence arrogantly and seemed to be too lucky too much of the time. The men all agreed that something had to be done about Pete, but they didn’t know exactly what.
One of these occasions, the brewery was late delivering the beer. Leo’s friends were all assembled, sampling his Dutch lunch and impatiently waiting for something more fitting than water to wash it down with. At last the wagon drove up and the keg was unloaded. As the delivery man started to lug it inside, he slipped and dropped it on the porch. It made a thunderous crash and nearly went through the floor.
Leo picked it up as though it were a pound of butter and carried it inside. His guests stared at him. Most of them were bigger and brawnier than he was, but when they tried to lift the barrel they had to struggle with it. Then Leo hefted it again and paraded around the room.
Someone got an idea. Someone else enlarged upon it. They kicked it around. And as the keg got emptier, the idea got bigger. They asked Leo if he could do it. Leo said he didn’t know. He laughed and told them he thought he could and that when they all met again he would have a definite answer.
For several weeks afterward, few of them made any attempt to reclaim their interest in Pete’s diamonds, remembering Leo’s last words to them on the night the big idea was born: “Save your money, boys, save your money.”
The next time there was a party at Leo’s house and the brewery delivered the beer, Leo couldn’t seem to find the empty keg. The delivery man finally accepted an extra deposit and drove off grumbling. When the delivery man was out of hearing, Leo called his friends into one room and swore them to secrecy. Then he told them that he could definitely do it and now all they needed was plenty of betting money.
Two Toed Pete’s business was bad, and he wondered why some of his most avid victims hadn’t been honoring his game with their presence and their bankrolls. So at the first opportunity he started asking questions. He was told that most of his special customers were sore at him because it seemed as if nobody ever won at his game.
Pete caught on fast and decided that he’d have to get the old gambling fever fired up again by letting some of the heaviest losers win, at least part of the time.
So some of the secret circle started winning. They passed the word, amongst themselves, that Pete seemed to be in a losing cycle. Several of them played with Pete and won considerable amounts. They played till he tightened up again. Then they all quit and put their money in the bank.
One day several weeks after the episode of the missing keg, Leo had a full one delivered to the U.S. Saloon at the corner of Union and C streets. And the next day, June 17, 1891, an ad appeared in the Territorial Enterprise:
“A Chance For Sporting Men: I the undersigned am willing to wager anything from one dollar to thirty five hundred dollars that I can pick up and shoulder an eight gallon oak keg of beer; not to weigh less than one hundred five pounds, and pack it out; without rest, without any harness, canes, crutches or any other manner of artificial support, from U.S. Saloon at the corner of Union and C streets to the flagstaff on top of Mt. Davidson and return to the starting place. Man, keg and betting money can be found at the U.S. Saloon, Union and C streets, Virginia City. Signed, Leo Hechinger.”
There was plenty of sporting money in Virginia City in 1891, and in the next few days hundreds of people came by to see Leo and his keg of beer. Evenings and on days when he wasn’t working, he dressed up in a lion’s skin like a strong man. He made fierce faces and flexed his muscles, but he didn’t scare anybody and he didn’t have much muscle to flex. One look at his build and one heft of the beer keg left may people willing to bet that Leo’s mouth was bigger than his muscles.
Some of the secret circle started needling Two Toed Pete. They asked him if he had made any bets yet, and if not, why not? Just where was his sporting blood anyway? They needled him in relays. Nearly every day he had to listen to the same insults and innuendos from a dozen men or more.
Now, Two Toed Pete was not stupid. He knew better than to bet on another man’s game. He had always played it safe, never placing a bet on anything but a sure thing. But a man can only take so much. He went to the U.S. Saloon and saw Leo in his lion’s skin flexing his puny muscles and looking very fierce and determined. Pete wasn’t ab it impressed by Leo. Then Pete hefted the keg of beer, which weighed 107 pounds. It took all his muscle just to lift it off the scales.
Then he went to several doctors and asked their opinions. Nearly all of them agreed that no one weighing only 150 pounds could carry such an awkward deadweight up the almost 40-degree slope of Mt. Davidson without rest and without a harness or pack board. Leo would be starting in the rarified atmosphere of 6,110 feet altitude and climbing up the gravelly slope to the 7,775-foot peak, a four-mile round trip. The doctors told Pete it was a physical impossibility.
So Two Toed Pete hocked his diamonds, took most of the bankroll off his blackjack game and plunged in with both feet. Several of the doctors also had hard cash to back up their opinions.
All bettors agreed, before impartial witnesses, that if Leo should stop walking for longer than 30 seconds he would be considered resting and all those betting on him would lose, and if he should slip and let the keg touch the ground, he and all those betting on him would lose.
As the expert opinion of the doctors became known, odds were offered as high as 3 to 1 that Leo wasn’t as skookum as he thought he was. Leo’s friends had been waiting for this development, and all the money they had saved or borrowed was bet at the last moment at the highest odds available.
The stakes holder’s pockets were heavy with over $32,000 in gold dust, greenbacks and double eagles when the day of the big event arrived. The booty’s ownership would be determined by the endurance of one skinny, bullheaded Dutchman—and on the luck of his very step.
The intersection at Union and C was jammed with people that June afternoon at three when Leo shouldered his keg and started up the mountainside. About 15 people, for and against him, went along to see that no one tripped him up or gave him a helping hand.
To make doubly sure that there would be no dirty work afoot, the sherrif and two deputies went with them. The sherrif wore two big six-shooters and carried a stopwatch in order to time Leo’s rests. The sheriff was the final authority.
Leo led off, carefully choosing his path and picking his steps up the treacherous slope. The sherrif followed about 20 feet behind. The deputies were in the Indian file of followers strung out for 100 yards or more along the trail. People on the streets watched their progress through field glasses and telescopes.
Two Toed Pete, who had one of the heaviest financial interests in the outcome, started with the group. But he fell out and went back before he’d gone 200 yards.
About 300 yards up the steep slope Leo Veered sharply to the right and started walking almost due north. A great howl went up from half of his party and from the watchers in the street who had betted against him. They had expected him to walk in an almost straight line up the steep slope to the flagstaff on the summit. But his route had not been specified, nor was there any time limit.
To his right and to his left the slope was gravelly and treacherous. But in the direction he chose to go, the rise was not more than 15 degrees. It was perhaps a mile further to the summit, but he could reach it, with luck, if he had the endurance.
So Two Toed Pete groaned and anticipated the worst. He cursed himself for a stupid fool and hoped that Leo would slip and fall and break his neck.
But Leo made no false steps, nor did he ever once slow his pace. At the summit he walked twice around the flagstaff and he and his followers came down by a similar route.
Two hours and 20 minutes after shouldering the keg he was back at the starting place. A great cheer went up from the waiting crowd as he wearily staggered into the intersection and slid the keg to the ground. The winning bettors shook his numbed hands and pounded him on the back.
The losers felt in great need of morale boosters. The liquid variety was most preferred, so they scattered up and down C Street in search of solace. Two Toed Pete drank by himself. His fingers looked indecent and naked.
That night Leo’s friends met at his house for a victory celebration. Leo asked one friend if he would climb up to the summit of Mt. Davidson and look under a pile of rocks about 50 feet south of the flagstaff—and if he would please empty and bring back the missing beer keg that Leo had filled with water and carried up the mountain one dark night, when no one could see.