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Northern California Gambler Writes Poetry

There are many kinds of poets, but few the likes of high-rolling gambler Robert Shelley, also known as Diamond Spike.  Shelley wrote a narrative poem in 1941 titled “Playing the Field: autobiography of an all American racketeer” that relates his adventures in the company of gamblers, prostitutes, and gangsters.

Born in 1875, Robert Shelley grew into a tall, slender and dapper man. Aside from a brief stint as a hotel owner in Santa Rosa, Calif., his life’s work involved gold seeking and gambling. His prowess with dice was so good he claimed they obeyed his orders.

In the 1930s he settled in Northern California, spending time at the Bur-Bel Resort on the Klamath River, and in the towns of Hilt and Yreka.

In a region known for its gold, Shelley was drawn to a glitter of a different color – diamonds. He had one imbedded in a tooth and prominently displayed a large rock on his tie clasp, hence the nickname “Diamond Spike.”

His luck ran out in 1958 when he died from car accident injuries at age 83 and was buried in the Evergreen Cemetery in Yreka, Calif. 

Source: Haldeman, Bruce. Voice of the People,” Siskiyou Daily News, Feb. 22, 1996

Catalog of Copyright Entries. New Series: 1940-1943, Part I, pg. 37


Lisa Gioia is the director of the Siskiyou County Museum in Yreka, California. She is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, with a B.A. in anthropology (1997), a Master’s Degree in History with a minor in public history (2008) and specialized in oral histories.