The Legend of Poison Jim, the Mustard King

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In the Museum of Chinese in America, two blocks north of Canal Street in New York City, a small, illuminated tile informs visitors that “sometime before 1865,” a Chinese American squirrel trapper known as “Poison Jim” found the mustard plant “growing weedlike in the Salinas Valley.” By selling the seeds, he “unintentionally turn[ed] mustard into a commercial crop” in the United States. A textbook published in 2010 repeats the story, with Poison Jim making and selling mustard until it “became a major California product.”

“Poison Jim Chinaman” was first documented by the little-known writer Owen Clarke Treleaven, who published a six-page story about him in a 1919 issue of the Overland Monthly, a magazine serving middle-class readers a diet of human interest pieces and folksy caricatures of the American West long after its wildest years were behind it. Writers glibly peddled stereotypes about the multiethnic fabric of frontier societies; the issue in which Treleaven’s story appeared also included an article on “Queer Korean Superstitions” and a poem called “Loleeta—An Indian Lyric.”

According to an old stagecoach driver, Leagan, whose yarn makes up most of the narrative, Poison Jim earned his nickname for having “more luck than anyone else ’round here mixin’ poisoned grain to kill off ground squirrels.” But when wild mustard overtook the valley one spring, threatening wheat production, Jim knew what to do: He rounded up a hundred Chinese laborers who swiftly set about clearing the fields, drying the plants, and storing away the threshed seed. When the mustard crop in South Africa failed later that year, a French condiment manufacturer, having gotten wind of a large harvest of mustard seed, showed up in San Francisco to buy Jim’s stock for thirty-three thousand dollars. With his earnings, Jim purchased a small ranch but lived modestly. Several years later, a drought blighted two consecutive grain crops, intensifying already strained conditions in the local “Indian village.” When a dispute erupted there over a stolen sheep, the owner who went looking for it opened fire, killing a man and a young mother. “Then,” Leagan recalls, “we saw what ‘Poison Jim’ was made of.” He stoically gathered up the murdered woman’s baby, then returned four days later to distribute fifteen thousand dollars worth of provisions to the sick and hungry throughout the entire valley.

Leagan’s story takes place “’bout forty years back” from the time of its telling—roughly 1880. If it’s difficult to imagine a Chinese squirrel trapper escaping public scrutiny for decades after suddenly striking it rich, that might be because it didn’t quite happen that way. According to James Perry, a curator and archivist at the Monterey County Historical Society, “Poison Jim, as far as our records relate, never existed.”

In the introduction to his 1985 study of Chinese life in the Monterey Bay region, Chinese Gold—a title drawn from the nickname mustard earned after being commercialized—the historian Sandy Lydon points out that one reason Chinese Americans were often excluded from the historical record was “the ferocious struggle between the Chinese immigrants and all levels of government in the United States.” Both “wished to obscure” it for their own reasons—“the Chinese to avoid further harassment by immigration officials, and the whites to cover the often embarrassing facts of the conflict.”

By that measure, the very difficulty of proving Poison Jim’s existence could be considered an argument for it. That paradox hints at a second one: The mustard profit that allegedly made Jim famous posed a threat that would have been best mitigated by giving much of it away—as publicly as possible. Indeed, Treleaven isn’t alone in praising Jim’s largesse. Besides the tenuous mention of a “prosperous San Juan Mongolian, named Jim Jack” in a small local newspaper, The Pajaronian,in 1900, the only other major source about Jim is a a 1929 account by Isaac L. Mylar, a Salinas Valley local who described working as a thresher under “‘Jim Jacks,’ or ‘China Jim,’ the ‘Mustard King.’” Mylar affirms that Jim was “one of the most generous and best liked men, by all children and families in need.” (Mylar’s account is perhaps no more reliable than Leagan’s, though: It was written not by Mylar himself, but “from the author’s narrative” by James G. Piratsky, the enterprising editor of The Pajaronian.)

Regardless, modern scholars bought into the “Poison Jim” story. In Lydon’s retelling, which ignores Mylar’s account, Jim first sold enough seed to a San Francisco broker to pay his workers before striking a second, bigger deal; the mustard crop failed not just in South Africa but in Europe, too; and it’s only then that a French buyer scooped up Jim’s remaining wares. And, while Lydon left out the epilogue involving the gunned-down woman, he inexplicably raised Jim’s fortune by two thousand dollars and claimed it was paid in gold.

Given that no other historical sources about Poison Jim have emerged, what led Lydon to alter the story further is, like much else, a matter of speculation. But a changing political climate is one possible incentive. Spurred on by the Civil Rights movement, a new generation of scholars in the late sixties and seventies began making strides to restore the experiences and contributions of those typically left out of the historical record. While Perry contends that mustard “commercialization has been negligible in the valley when compared to most other crops,” Lydon and others show it did enjoy a heyday in which Chinese Americans played a major part: Tax rolls from the 1890s list the names of Chinese and white farmers alike who paid taxes first on seventeen tons, then thirty-four, and, in 1895, “a whopping” sixty-eight tons of mustard seed. Yet Lydon’s scrupulous presentation of those figures contrasts with his embellishment of Treleaven’s story; that his modern version feels more plausible gives the impression he felt it needed to be.

While a literature scholar writing in 1974 about Chinese representations in the Overland Monthly approached “Poison Jim Chinaman” strictly as a fable, another, later historian—and a textbook and a museum—have not. If Treleaven’s story seems crafted to convey the progressive pieties of an earlier America, even before appealing to those of a later one, it’s because it probably was. During the last half of the nineteenth century, when discrimination and racial violence against Chinese Americans was at its most intense, the Overland Monthly devoted many pages to debating the “Chinese Question.” Around the time that Treleaven’s article appeared, the past decades’ antipathies toward Chinese immigrants had begun to coalesce under a nativist political climate opposed to immigration altogether. In light of all this, Treleaven’s “Poison Jim” seems specially fashioned to upend those hostilities and suspicions; he embodies the “Chinese character” while at the same time proving its harmony with homespun American virtues like ingenuity and industriousness. At first, old Leagan warns that “them Chinese have more up their sleeves ’bout everythin’ than we know anyway,” but that wiliness turns out to be a hidden asset, benefiting—twice over—the very community someone like Jim would have had every reason to mistrust. In Treleaven’s story, the mustard hardly matters.

A modern history of labor in California contains a footnote regretting that “the San Bautista Historical Society was unable to locate the photograph of Poison Jim that appears in” Mylar’s book. Today, the mustard plant is easier to locate in the Salinas Valley than the fragmentary traces of its supposed progenitor, whoever he was, or wasn’t. James Perry, the Monterey County Historical Society curator, points out that “mustard was and continues to be valuable for farmers as an off-season cover crop to prevent land erosion, and also as [a] nutrient additive.” In late winter and early spring, its furious yellow blossoms cloak the valley. Hundreds of farm workers still go there to harvest it. Many of them, still, are immigrants.

Rich Bellis is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn and a blog editor for The Brooklyn Quarterly.

Jeremy Brooks