The buildings and, indeed, more than the vague location of the township of Silver Shallows are now lost to history. It is known that they were, or believed themselves to be, in the fledgling State of California; there are also contemporary references to the township being coastal, nestled among foothills surrounding a river running down to the sea, from which the town drew its fresh water.
The town had its share of prospectors, and was formed as a gold town; being coastal, it was to the west of the northern gold field, but had its share of the precious metal nonetheless. In many ways, it was a peculiarity, a strange contradiction marked down in early, imprecise maps and attested to in some few dozen surviving texts, mostly personal diaries.
For personal reasons, Silver Shallows has been a fascination of mine throughout my career as an archivist. The events set down below are fictionalised, but they are the only explanation which makes sense of the surviving first-hand accounts of Silver Shallows life in 1850 and on into ‘51.
Almost nobody had been there more than a year, and nobody at all had been there a year and a half ago. A collection of houses with three larger buildings, Silver Shallows was more or less a town by default; the saloon, the general store, and the church were complete. Even a sheriff’s office was still only under construction when William “Billy” McNeill arrived.
Like many others in and around the town, McNeill was there because he believed this was the best place to come to build his future. Others dreamed of striking it rich and making their way back to the East with money enough to enter into high society, but the tall Bostonian, rail-thin, with an uncontrollable mess of raven black hair and intense, staring blue eyes, had no intention of heading back anywhere with a grander spotlight. What he needed was peace, quiet, and something the box of books he’d brought with him had told him about. Something he believed he might find around gold.
He had enough money to pay for one of the smaller houses on the edge of town, and enough besides for a few drinks at the local saloon, the Three Card Monty, owned and operated by Lilian Montez.
Name notwithstanding, Lilian was a red-headed Irishwoman who featured prominently in many of the recommendations travellers gave to the town. Tall, full-figured, and just short of middle-age, she had in the short time she’d dwelt in Silver Shallows outlived Oscar Montez, her husband and a moderately successful prospector. Oscar had perished while looking for ‘the big one’ but his wife had been left with enough money to commission the construction and outfitting of the Monty, and had since steadily turned her husband’s nest egg into something much bigger with good service, adequate whisky, acceptable beer, and a complete lack of meaningful competition.
Accounts do not record what Montez thought of McNeill, but there are many stories of how friendly she was to all customers, and we know from letters that there were some she hated who never realised. Billy would have received a wide smile and a warm welcome, and that would have held out so long as there was coin in his pocket.
McNeill lost no time in making his academic inclinations known. He brought two or three books with him to the saloon table he occupied that night, and received a brief, good-natured chaffing for it. However, he explained his books related to tests that could confirm the purity of gold ore, and this sharpened the attention of those around him.
Naturally there were demands that he prove his claim. McNeill, being low on cash, is said to have proposed a wager for his first demonstration. The miner whose ore he would assay would pay for the chemicals needed in the general store, and if McNeill was right, the miner would consider that his fee. If not, McNeill would owe the man the deed to his newly-purchased home.
This naturally led to many interested parties watching the process closely, and was the best advertising McNeill could have arranged. The popular opinion at the time, though, was that this was a happy coincidence and not his intent, and little has surfaced since to change that opinion. McNeill was uniformly agreed to be a stumbler in his speech, not a captivating man.
Indeed, these accounts are what makes the later history of Silver Shallows so surprising. McNeill’s pivotal role is not one you would expect from someone who was often described as being terrible with people.
However, by his first full day in residence, he had a few miners eager to visit him for his professional skills, and from that point on he never had to wonder how he’d pay for his next meal.
When not working for his money or spending it in the Three Card Monte or the Silver Shallows General Store, McNeill’s time was occupied roaming the foothills around the town - a perilous business as it could often involve crossing into lands claimed by other miners. Some casual references to his wanderings still exist, with Billy becoming a source of some speculation around the town. Was he looking to claim jump? Did his assaying knowledge give him insight that would give him the edge over other miners?
Did he really look like he was cut out for any kind of hard labour if that turned out to be necessary?
These miners were not fools. They were straightforward men, not simple men. And their judgements of Billy McNeill would continue to get more outlandish as they learned more about him which didn’t fit into their own easy assumptions.
It was safe to say that in the first three months of Billy McNeill’s time in Silver Shallows, most of those who saw him were confident he was searching for something. Gold, jewels, love, a purpose - all these were offered as suggestions, but it would turn out in time that none of them were the truth.
McNeill had brought with him five books. Three of these were seen in the Monte on his first arrival. The other two remained squarely hidden at all times. One of these is said to have been the Ars Goetia, or the Lesser Key of Solomon as it is more commonly known; the second, a collection of writings associated with Zosimos of Panopolis. The Lesser Key of Solomon is commonly considered to be a defining work of daemonology, while Zosimos is known as one of the fathers of Western alchemy, a Greek who synthesised theories he attributed to Pharaonic Egypt.
Our source for these titles comes into the narrative of Silver Shallows only later; at this time, Catherine Dover was still on a wagon train to the west.
Accompanying her husband Roger, we know that Catherine was not happy to be travelling west; she believed strongly that statehood had not brought civilisation, and that they were travelling to somewhere they would never have the same success as before. Roger, meanwhile, had invested in his wagon much more than many others travelling the same path; his was sturdy and contained multiple easily secured lockboxes.
Like McNeill, Roger Dover was looking for a way to improve his fortunes with the last of his money. Like McNeill, he believed he would find it by travelling west and by servicing the gold rush, rather than taking part. But his intent was to be one of those merchants making the regular trip between whichever settlement he finally arrived in and San Francisco, where ships already put in offloading much more food than the burgeoning city could handle. This food - including some real luxuries - and the alcohol that accompanied it made its way out to various gold rush towns throughout the state and even beyond. Dover believed that by fulfilling specific orders, he’d be in position to profit off the miners in a much safer way.
This, at any rate, is the story we get from Catherine’s diaries. While Roger appears to have been literate, he had better use to make of any paper he came by, or so it would seem. What survives of his writing is just a few pages of stock notes and a half-hearted attempt to calculate his profit margin on a given trip using only fairly basic mathematics.
It was while Catherine and Roger were still in transit that McNeill made his breakthrough. As an assayist, he was called upon often by the liners to test the purity and quality of their gold, but he would often conduct additional tests on the rock they brought in with the ore.
Most miners didn’t comment on this, and the few who did mention it thought nothing of it, but McNeill was looking for something predicted by Zosimos; a change of property in rocks caused by prolonged exposure to pure gold, to which alchemists attributed many different mystic properties.
He was looking for rock which had been affected in a very specific way. Once he found it, he would help the miner separate it off from the ore, and would set it aside in a hopper within his home. This much we also know from Catherine’s diaries, recording it much later.
The debris was much more important to McNeill than his fee for assaying, but the fee bought him the reagents he needed. The hopper would periodically be filled with one of those reagents and left to purify under the light of the full moon; when this was done, the reagent would be fully absorbed and the rubble would be dry. This he spread out in a basin set on his table, and crushed with a lump of metal ore, gold according to the Dover diary, though where he’d find it from is less clear.
The result was a fine grey dust of a blueish-grey. McNeill’s first production of the Dust was complete around four months into his time in Silver Shallows, in time for November, when the weather brought an enforced reduction in the amount of mining to be done; even California’s air is chilly when your home is little more than a lean-to because insulation was always the lowest priority.
Like many of the others in Silver Shallows, McNeill spent most of his time in the winter months in the Three Card Monte, where Lilian Montez was, to her own frustration, effectively footing the heating bill for most of the town until nightfall, where her patrons would trudge home in what light escaped the shutters of the saloon and kindle their stoves. There was something of a competition for who could linger in the Monte for the longest, and in due time Montez did what all good entrepreneurs have done across American history; she found a way to monetise it.
In short, by mid-November Montez had instituted a rule that, when time was called, other drinks could be had for an hour or so, but only at the price of a drink for the establishment too.
McNeill was usually one of the first to leave - the perception of him in Silver Shallows was that he was either a spendthrift or just didn’t make much money, spending it all as quickly as it came. At this time, Catherine Dover fancied herself an observer of the human condition, and had secured employment at the Monte as a barmaid. These two facts together tell us two things with confidence. The first is that Billy McNeill stayed later than any other customer on November 22nd - late enough, in fact, that Catherine had taken her own leave of the pair of them, as there was only one customer left “and that non-threatening”.
The second is that Billy McNeill was enjoying an early breakfast at the Monte by the time Catherine Dover first arrived early on November 23rd.
We cannot say for certain what happened at this time, but later accounts give us the information we need to imagine it. After Mrs Dover left, McNeill would have asked for one last drink. While Montez was pouring the two drinks, he would have taken out, not his coin purse, but a second leather pouch. Palming a little under a handful of dust, he would have held it on his palm, and when Montez turned back to face him, a quick puff of air carried the purified alchemic dust into Montez’ face.
Descriptions of the dust’s effects vary somewhat, hazy memories set down with poetic licence. We do not know exactly what Montez would have felt, but it will have included a startling disorientation and a still more dizzying euphoria. She will have coughed, drawing even more into her system, and felt the dust settle into her eyes, which ever after appeared a faded grey-blue, little more than a spark of light still showing through.
It is likely she smiled a dazed, wide, innocent smile. And as those grey-blue eyes settled on Billy McNeill, a strange sense of peace and docility came over her. As if in a dream, she would obey his every word.
McNeill’s custom, other accounts tell us, was to have the affected strip where they stood, showing themselves as much as him who was in control. He would admire her body in the remaining lights, then beckon her closer. His fingers would tug, just once, at a nipple, and he would listen to the dazed giggle that emerged afterward.
In this instance he almost certainly drank both drinks, but I like to imagine he told her to take up her own glass, that they toasted their new relationship. As sinister as the idea seems, it appeals nonetheless to the romantic in me.
Billy McNeill bedded Lilian Montez. Whether he was the first to do so after she was widowed or not is less clear, but it’s unquestionable that he did, and equally indisputable that, under the spell wrought by the dust, she enjoyed it. Even before Catherine’s diaries start to understand the spell under which McNeill held her employer, she saw the body language of the two that morning, saw the smile on Montez’ lips. But the thing that stands out the most - recorded not just in the Dover diaries but in a couple of other records related to the day - is that McNeill has begun addressing Montez as Lil, a name she had firmly pushed back against whenever people had used it before.
Yet when McNeill addressed her that way, Montez would smile, and nod, and offer to refill his drink.
Catherine Dover’s suspicions grew stronger when McNeill didn’t go home again the night after. Over the course of December, he went home each night for only three days, and it’s thanks to the careful recording in Dover’s diary that we can match these nights to the full moon. As McNeill was absent during the day, tending to his business, it seems clear he was preparing a second batch of the dust.
The Sheriff’s office was built now, and Roger Dover had made two full pilgrimages to San Francisco, bringing back the food and other specialist items the General Store didn’t carry. Silver Shallows had grown a little, though there was still no Sheriff; the town now had a couple of families there to farm, its first fledgling steps beyond a nexus of prospectors. Those steps would falter in time, and the town would eventually be lost, with no buildings surviving long enough to be verified on accurate maps. But the mood of the town was up, except for a few prospectors who had staked their emotional happiness on the fact of Montez appearing single - for Billy McNeill made it clear early on that he had laid claim to the attractive, well-off widow.
The Three Card Monte had more customers, and Lil Montez took on a second barmaid, Nell Foster. Nearly twenty, not yet married, and at a loose end, Nell’s father had taken ill almost immediately on their arrival in Silver Shallows, taking her away from other activities in order to care for him, and had succumbed to the cold not far before Montez hired her. For reasons not clearly recorded, Foster did not retain use of the home she had shared with her father - we can speculate that the issue was financial - and Montez agreed to provide part of her pay as room and board, as the Monte’s guest rooms were almost never used - yet; Catherine Dover still held out hope that the town would grow enough to encourage visitors, which would naturally see the Monte’s important to the town grow further.
Foster did not keep a diary, but unlike Lil, she was, after her dusting, willing to discuss her new and obvious adoration for McNeill with Catherine, who set it down for the record.
Lil left McNeill to have the run of the bar while Nell was mopping up at the end of the night, all other customers having been packed off home. Nell’s attention being on the floor, she didn’t notice McNeill add a little of his dust to the rim of a glass, then carry it over to her and set it down on the table next to her.
Foster didn’t particularly like McNeill, but so long as she’d been in the Monte, he’d been a fixture of the establishment. He wasn’t her boss but he was clearly sleeping with her, and she seemed besotted with him.
It was only reasonable, she thought, to accept his generosity. She took a drink, and noticed the flavour of the dust only afterward. She looked at the rim of the glass, saw where the dust remained around where she’d drunk, and rubbed at it with her finger.
By this time her tongue was tingling, a strangely delicious, delightful taste, so having seen the dust come off on her finger, she licked it. There was a sensation like a strange bubbling in her mouth, a pool of drool forming behind her lips. The tingle seemed to be spreading from tongue to throat, and from throat is swept down into her body and soared up into her head, where her scalp came alive with a dreamy bliss as her body woke to the sexuality she’d denied it throughout her father’s illness.
It felt, she told Catherine, as if all the sense left her head and fled down below into her groin, where it became not sense but desire. She was not at all sure how long she stood there for but, by the time she realised her surroundings again, Lil Montez was finishing the last of the mopping, having taken the mop from her unresisting fingers, and McNeill had stripped her to the waist. His lips were at the side of her neck, his hands on her chest, and Lil Montez was allowing her man to use her.
But the dust marked Lil Montez in Nell’s eyes as the woman who controlled her life and even, Catherine was horrified to discover, owned her - those being the words Nell used to explain it.
The stress in Catherine’s account is on the frustration and fear she felt at the placid happiness with which Nell described herself as an owned woman. The language used in Catherine’s account is, however, not language I would repeat here. Suffice it to say she makes a comparison to a contemporary political question, and the fact of Nell being white is used as a distinction.
At any rate, Catherine was now horrified. Her diary recounts that she immediately went to warn McNeill off, visiting him during his working day, at his home, rather than risk being outnumbered by his slaves.
She picked her time carefully and arrived between miners. She stayed near the door, and out of his reach. And by her own account (which, I grant you, will be biased), she harangued him loudly and explicitly. She talked, she believes, for around ten minutes, and toward the end, she threatened him with the idea that if he tried to silence her, her husband would horsewhip him through the streets on his return.
She walked away feeling flushed with emotion and pride. It’s easy to imagine her righteous euphoria, though it must have been tempered by her decision to quit working at the Three Card Monte - how could she continue there, after all? But leaving would place greater pressure on Roger’s finances, as he would not be able to pour as much back into product investments in San Francisco.
Dover didn’t recognise the method McNeill used to retaliate initially. She had to reconstruct it, as best she could, from comments and other activity later.
What she reconstructed went something like this:
When she left, McNeill must have watched, and have realised that the path she was on took her not to her home but back to the Monte, where she would resign. The formulation of his plan must have been fast; the timing wouldn’t allow otherwise. Taking some of his dust, he must have hurried across town toward the Dover house.
It certainly wasn’t that there was no security in Silver Shallows, but locks as we know them today were rare, and McNeill had a good idea how to jimmy the latch on her back door. He would have been in and out in minutes, and from there he could either have raced back to his own home or taken a circuitous route, just so long as Catherine didn’t see him.
There seemed nothing amiss on her return to her home. Her back door was ajar, but this had happened before; seeing the boots she used to prop it closed knocked over, she assumed the wind must have caused it. Nothing had been stolen, nothing had been disturbed. She spent the rest of the day in fretful mind, wondering about her future, worrying about the friends she believed to be under some kind of enchantment. While others drifted over to the Monte for an evening’s companionship and merrymaking, Catherine brought her diary up to date, wanting her thoughts of her encounter with McNeill to be set down clearly while still fresh in her mind. Then she sat for some time in silence, wondering what shape her life would be taking over the next weeks and months, and how she would entertain herself within Silver Shallows while her husband was away.
Finally, when she felt tired enough that she expected sleep would claim her without leaving her lying in the dark dwelling on her problems, she changed into her nightshirt and went to bed, lying face down on a pillow which had had a light shaking of dust applied to it, before being brushed down until it wouldn’t be visible at a casual glance in the low light of a candle.
For the other women of the Monte, the effects of the dust must have been more or less immediate, a surprise that was instantaneously a part of their life which had now to be dealt with. Catherine must have inhaled far more, but she took it in over the course of a restless night, where she never quite dropped off fully to sleep, and where dreams of unspecified pleasures filled her mind.
Nell’s desires had spent years repressed as she did her duty by her father, but Catherine had a husband, and an attentive one. She was a woman of the world, and recognised the urges and pleasures come upon her. She does record a strange sense of empty unsettlement, and an odd idea that her husband had nothing to do with these fantasies. At this remove, it’s anybody’s guess whether that was how she actually felt, or whether it’s how she believed she should have felt after the fact.
She came to the next morning at the sound of someone hammering at her front door. In a drugged, dusty stupor, she stumbled to answer it, and Billy McNeill was the first man she saw after her dose of dust. Her head spun, but it now revolved around him, just as surely as the earth orbits the sun; she was caught in his pull now, and in spite of that first frisson of fear at the idea, her continued training would soon render her contented with it.
McNeill put his hand on her chest and stepped forward, with Catherine almost falling over her own feet as she scrambled to give her owner room. Again, her account gives a number of comparisons I wouldn’t care to use today, but it makes it clear she thought of herself less as a person and more as an intelligent object intended solely to pleasure and succour her owner. The fact she continued to keep a diary didn’t change her opinion of herself, though it tells us much about her remaining humanity, however deeply she may have been compelled to believe otherwise.
She stood there, breath caught, not wanting to move or speak without his order, and felt his hands roam freely over her body through her nightshirt - silk, made from the train of her wedding dress before they set off west, luxurious, and thin - and thought to herself how much she desired this man. How much she would dote on him, if given the chance. How she yearned for him to express a wish so she could leap to fulfil it and show her devotion.
McNeill gave her an instruction, and she pulled her nightshirt from her shoulders, let it pool to the floor around her. She stood bare before him, waiting, and let him examine her with eyes and hands, feeling helpless and somehow euphoric to be so. He put his hands to her shoulders, said two words, and pushed down; she settled quickly to her knees, her mouth opening wide, her hands rising to unbuckle his belt and tug him free.
Catherine Dover wrote how clear it was to her, and how present in her mind, that she was committing adultery. She wrote how little she cared, except that the frisson of guilt made everything sharper - the sensation, the memory, the pleasure. She wrote that as she felt him tense, he took a handful of her hair and drew her head back off him, the pop of her lips followed almost immediately by the arc of his reward, which painted her bare chest, her thighs, and spattered against her silk nightshirt.
McNeill didn’t give her time to consider - he told her to dress and to go to the Three Card Monte for her day’s work. All her prior reservations no longer relevant, she hurried to obey.
The Three Card Monte was closed by the time Roger Dover rode back into town. He found his house mostly empty, his wife gone, and the talk of the town about how Billy McNeill had vanished with the three women who worked at the saloon. From the little we understand, Dover became the bar’s new owner by a sort of civil acclamation; as the man most sinned against, he was given the spoils.
The names William McNeill, Catherine Dover, Nell Foster, and Lilian Montez pass from the record at this point. Catherine’s diary records the names going forward as Bill Neal, Kate O’Connor, Ellie O’Connor, and Lily Neal, claiming the group as a married couple and two sisters who travelled with them. Considering Kate and Ellie to be sisters is ridiculous, but it was taken at face value all the same, seeing how close the two women were.
Her diary was the key to understanding the story of Silver Shallows’ early days, but it was not linked to the others until my own work. The other scraps I’ve drawn on come from various other reports, the few preserved pieces of paper that made their way into private collections and then into public archives as a memory of the time. Kate O’Connor’s diary never did; it went into a safe in a brothel in San Jose. While that building is long gone, the contents of the safe were transferred into another, then another, and the diary was eventually separated from the other contents recently.
Lil Neal’s brothel features in many popular accounts of San Jose from the mid-1850s through to the 1880s, changing venue twice in that time. Connecting Lil and her ever-growing roster of beauties to Silver Shallows was a moment of chance discovery on my part, when I finally decided to attend to the diary my brother had set aside, and to the two yellowed, heavily foxed books that had been set aside with it.
It is more expensive these days to collect rock which has been changed by the gold ore alongside it, but not impossible.
I finish this account as full moon arrives. Another account may yet follow; I find it very difficult to believe my great-great-great-aunt Kate’s story, but nothing else makes as much sense.
It is time to approach this strange alchemy scientifically.