“A self-made man may prefer a self-made name”*…
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”…
Read the spicy story of Jim’s story, in it’s entirety, in The Awl: “The Legend of Poison Jim, the Mustard King.”
* Learned Hand
As we take our mustard with a grain of salt, we might recall that it was on this date in 1869 that Mark Twain published his account of his 1867 “Great Pleasure Excursion” aboard a retired Civil War ship, the chartered vessel Quaker City, through Europe and the Holy Land with a group of American travelers– The Innocents Abroad. Masquerading as an ordinary travel book, it cinched Twain’s reputation as a humorous observer; it was his best-selling book during his lifetime, and is one of the best-selling travel books of all time.