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The Outcasts of Poker Flat

by Bret Harte

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What decision has the secret committee of Poker Flat made and why?

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Poker Flat has a reputation of being a rather lawless, ungovernable settlement where criminals, gamblers, and prostitutes frequent and make their living. However, Poker Flat has recently experienced a "spasm of virtuous reaction" after suffering the loss of several thousand dollars, two valuable horses, and a prominent citizen. In the third paragraph of the short story, Harte writes that a secret committee is formed and makes the decision to rid Poker Flat of "all improper persons."

Essentially, the secret committee decides to execute and banish all criminals, shady characters, and prostitutes from town. At the beginning of the story, the secret committee has already hanged two contemptible men from the boughs of a sycamore in the gulch and are preparing to banish four notorious troublemakers. These troublemakers are identified as John Oakhurst, Uncle Billy, the Duchess, and Mother Shipton. Several armed men accompany the four troublemakers to the outskirts of the settlement and banish them from Poker Flat. The four individuals exiled from Poker Flat are considered the outcasts in the story and are forced to brave severe elements on their journey.

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In the third paragraph of the story, Bret Harte states, "A secret committee had determined to rid the town of all improper persons."  These "improper persons" include Mr. John Oakhurst, a gambler; the Duchess, a prostitute; Mother Shipton, a witch; and Uncle Billy, a thief and drunk.  The committee made this sudden decision because "It had lately suffered the loss of several thousand dollars, two valuable horses, and a prominent citizen. It was experiencing a spasm of virtuous reaction, quite as lawless and ungovernable as any of the acts that had provoked it."  By expelling these "improper persons" and hanging two more for their crimes, the town leaders were hoping to improve the reputation of the town as well as perhaps settle a few disagreements with the likes of someone like Oakhurst who won too many hands of poker and too much of the leaders' money!

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What has the secret committee of Poker Flat decide to do? How has this decision carried out?

There is also a great deal of hypocrisy in their decision. Charles Oakhurst is exiled not for any moral lack but for being a successful gambler. The author is making the point that society will expel who it will regardless of a true claim to moral righteousness. Oakhurt's character, however displays a great deal of moral behavior in his treatment of Tom Simson.

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What has the secret committee of Poker Flat decide to do? How has this decision carried out?

In the beginning of “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” the reader is told that the town has created a secret committee that was in charge of ridding the town of all of the evil and “bad people” who have been causing problems to the other townspeople.  There have been a number of murders and robberies; therefore, the committee has decided that there are certain people who must be taken out of the town in order to preserve the peace and serenity of Poker Flat.  Those who have been deemed evil or bad are escorted to the outskirts of town and must fend for themselves until they reach the next town.  In the instance of this particular story, the outcasts are on their way to Sandy Bar.

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What did the secret committee of Poker Flat decide to do? Why?

In order to clean up their town of undesirables and make it a morally more appealing locale, the secret committee of citizens from Poker Flat decided to banish a group of inhabitants deemed unsatisfactory. For the most part, the crimes were not serious enough to order hangings, and the committee apparently did not want to jail the offenders, in part, probably, because several of them were women. So, their idea of vigilante justice simply required the selected offenders to leave town and never return--"forbidden to return at the peril of their lives." Unfortunately for the group, however, their banishment proved to be a death sentence for all (except possibly Uncle Billy). 

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