girls of the thriving 1870’s silver mining town of Cerro
Gordo primarily worked for Lola Travis or Maggie Moore at
the Palace of Pleasure or the Waterfall at
opposite ends of town, but a few chose to set up shop on
their own and sell their wares to lonely men searching for
companionship and carnal knowledge. May Merritt, a blue eyed
Irish lass, was one of these women. She called herself "The
Fenian", after fraternal organizations dedicated to the
establishment of an independent Irish Republic in her
homeland known as the
Irish Republican Brotherhood.
Merritt was known as a big hearted woman who was noted for
charitable acts to those in sickness and financial distress;
but it was her penchant for whiskey and her voracious temper
that earned her celebratory fame in Lone Pine and Los
Angeles, as well as Cerro Gordo. Her name frequently
appeared in newspaper headlines. During the election year of
1872, during the absence of the Inyo Independent
newspaper’s editor, Merritt’s status rose to new levels,
when the printer’s devil took liberties and declared at the
top of the editorial page:
“FOR VICE PRESIDENT, THE FENIAN OF LONE PINE.”
Fenian travelled with a big black dog, perhaps to stand by
her side and offer extra protection when her drinking and
her fists got her into trouble. In Los Angeles on a visit,
she beat up a man for calling her an Irish bitch, broke an
Italian boy’s harp when he refused to honor her request to
play an Irish song for her, and subsequently landed in jail.
Merritt was not to be held captive for long, however, and
managed to escape from jail. She was allowed to leave town
with the promise she would never return.
halls were lively places in Cerro Gordo, where fights were
common occurrences. One night Dr. Hugh K. McCelland decided
to pay a visit to one, where he usually only went when
someone was shot or cut-up. This particular night he was
fascinated by a fiery Mexican girl. A young man equally
enamored by her more than lively stunts on the dance floor
stood beside the doctor and asked him if he knew the girl’s
name. As soon as McClelland replied “The Horned Toad”, she
drew a stiletto ready to plunge into him.
This image taken in the late 1960's or early 1970's
shows a building (upper right) that may have been
one of Cerro Gordo's dance halls. The building below
it in the center of the photo may have housed
(Photo by Robert C. Likes)
thinking Fenian was nearby and grabbed her wrist, thwarting
the attempt at harm. A Mexican friend of the Horned Toad
darted out with a knife in his hand, and the doctor prepared
for the inevitable, when a shot rang out from the revolver
of a prominent Cerro Gordo mining man by the name of George
Snow, killing the Mexican and saving the doctor’s life.
Turmoil broke out as the hall filled with more shots, and
gunpowder smoke as the lights dimmed.
and pandemonium seemed to follow May Merritt.
star lit night she was overly loaded with whiskey
as she strolled along the steep hillside paths of one of
Cerro Gordo’s cabin lined streets with roofs terraced close
to each other. Her foot slipped in the rocky soil and she
fell through the roof of one shack full of ten or twelve
Chinese men playing a game of tan. She landed on the center
of the table where they were playing and all hell broke
lose. One frightened man hurried out the exit and fell over
an embankment breaking his leg.
September of 1872, the Inyo Independent reported that
May Merrit was lying very low in Lone Pine with small
prospects of recovery after attempting suicide by poison.
She apparently survived to create more headlines, eventually
dying ten years later in the then faded silver town. Her
burial service was recorded as an impressive one, conducted
by Hon. S. D. Woods. The cemetery on the mountaintop still
sits overlooking town, but all graves are lost to time,
weather and vandals in modern centuries. It is unknown if
The Fenian’s was among them, but her stories remain as
testament to the rough and tumble life of the Irish harlot
of Cerro Gordo.
Most of the graves in Cerro Gordo's cemetery have
been lost to time, weathering and vandalism. Burial
records were destroyed in a fire at the Inyo County
Courthouse. The Fenian may be among the more than
300 people believed buried in the hillside cemetery
above the ghost town.
Looking Back At Cerro Gordo
by Robert C. Likes
Rosedog Books, Pittsburgh, PA
The Life And Times Of Cerro Gordo’s Lola Travis
by Robin Flinchum
Half World Books, Tecopa, CA
The Silver Seekers
by Remi Nadeau
Crest Publishers, Santa Barbara, CA