That was the story told about Polly and Charlie Bemis for many years. There’s little evidence that such a high-stakes game ever took place, and Polly denied it in her final days.
There’s a lot about Polly’s life that is in some dispute. We know she was born on September 11, 1853 in Northern China. Her father is said to have sold her for two sacks of seed when she was a young woman. Her name was Lalu Nathoy. Unless it wasn’t. When she married Charlie her last name was written as Nathoy. Or, is that an H, making it Hathoy? Her first name has come down through the years as Lalu, but there doesn’t seem to be any written evidence that’s correct.
Polly, then. Polly Bemis. We’re not certain where and when or why Polly became Polly, but she used that name for most of her life in the United States.
She arrived in the US in 1872, smuggled into San Francisco. She had been purchased for $2500, probably as a concubine, by a Chinese man possibly named Hong King. He ran a saloon in Warren, Idaho Territory. It’s unclear how Polly disentangled herself from the man, but some scholars think he actually helped her gain her freedom.
Polly became friends with Charlie Bemis, who often served as her protector from drunken miners. Charlie had a saloon and gambling hall next to Hong King’s. Polly kept his room clean for him and provided other services, such as saving his life.
Charlie helped some of the miners by holding onto their pokes of gold dust while they caroused so that they didn’t drunkenly spend it all. One midnight one of those miners came to Charlie and demanded his poke. Charlie had agreed to hold the wealth against just such an inebriated request, so he refused. Later that night, the drunken miner crawled in Charlie’s window, woke the man up, and demanded his poke in a creative way. He lit a cigarette and promised that he’d shoot Charlie’s eye out when he finished it if Charlie didn’t give him the gold. Bemis drifted back to sleep so, cigarette smoked, the miner shot him in the face. He missed his eye, but the bullet entered Charlie’s cheek and lodged in the back of his neck.
Polly, who lived next door, heard the commotion and ran to Charlie’s room. A doctor was summoned. He examined the shooting victim and said Bemis was going to die. Polly didn’t give up on him, though. She took a razor to the back of his neck and dug the bullet out, then proceeded to nurse him back to health.
On August 14, 1894 Charlie and Polly were married. They moved from Warren to a site along the Salmon River some 17 miles north and filed a mining claim there. Charlie would live out life along the river. Polly would live most of hers there, too, though she moved back to Warren for a time after Charlie’s death in 1922 while neighbors rebuilt her cabin which had been lost by fire. In 1933 Polly became ill and was taken to Grangeville. She lived her last three months in the Idaho Valley Hospital there.
Polly is probably the best known Chinese woman in the history of the Pacific Northwest. Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s book Thousand Pieces of Gold probably tells her story best. It was turned into a movie of the same name that is a fictionalized version of Polly’s story.