A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history.

September 24, 1855:
The head of Joaquin Murietta

joaquin murieta - the Mexican Robin Hood

The preserved head of Joaquin Murieta and the hand of Three-Fingered Jack were sold at auction today to settle their owner’s legal problems. Joaquin Murieta was a notorious and romantic figure in the early history of California.

With Jack, his right-hand man, Murieta led a gang of Mexican bandits through the countryside on a three-year rampage, brutally “liberating” more than $100,000 in gold, killing 22 people (including three lawmen), and outrunning three separate posses. After posse #4 tracked him down and chopped off his head — or at least the head of someone who might possibly have maybe looked like him — Murieta’s story entered California folklore.

joaquin murieta wanted poster

The backstory-legend of the man known as the “Mexican Robin Hood” sprouted from a fictional account written after his death. This novel spun the tale of a Mexican nobleman whose wife was raped, brother hung, and he himself horsewhipped by a group of white miners — and a racist court system which allowed no Mexican to testify against them.

Murieta vowed to avenge his family’s dishonour himself, and with a small group tracked down and killed all six attackers. Since this act had turned his gang into outlaws, so the story goes, a life of crime was the natural consequence.

Murieta’s head, preserved in a jar, became a lucrative public attraction, until the public’s fancy turned to other affairs. While alive, the reward for his capture had risen as high as $5000. At auction, the pickled head of the outlaw brought a mere 36 bucks.

September 29, 1923:
Crookedest street in the world opens

The Crookedest Street in the World

The 1000 block of Lombard Street, which famously claims the title of “crookedest street in the world”, was once rarely used, straight as an arrow, paved in cobblestones and climbed Russian Hill at a startlingly steep 27% grade!

In 1922, a man who owned several lots on the block proposed the switchback design to make the street accessible to automobiles, and raise his property values. The city of San Francisco spent $8000 on the project, requiring property owners to pay for the fancy brick steps that run along the verge, to maintain the spectacular plants and flowers in the median and to install and maintain light fixtures.

The newly crooked street opened this week in 1923 — but it didn’t become a tourist attraction until the early ’60s, when a photo of the street (flowers in full bloom) appeared on a postcard. Hundreds of thousands of copies were sold, and the rest is history.

At the risk of creating a new tourist mecca, I will reveal what many San Franciscans already know — namely that the crookedest street in the world is not Lombard at all, but the steeper and crookeder (crookeder?) 800 block of Vermont Street on Potrero Hill.

September 29, 1923:
Steinhart Aquarium opens

steinhart aquarium opening 1923

On the same 1923 day as Lombard Street opened across town, the Steinhart Aquarium in Golden Gate Park opened its sculpted bronze doors to the public. For the next thirty years, it would be the most outstanding aquarium in Western North America.

Ignatz Steinhart was a wealthy entrepreneur, and, I presume, a great lover of fish. He donated the money to build the place in honour of his deceased brother Sigmund.

The aquarium was designed by San Francisco architect Lewis Hobart, known for a couple dozen other little projects such as the Bohemian Club, Grace Cathedral, and that fabulous Union 76 clock tower at the foot of the Bay Bridge — the one destroyed by Bank of America back in the ’90s.

seahorse railing steinhart aquarium

Everybody’s favourite part of the aquarium was probably that gorgeous bronze sea horse railing around the alligator pit. That railing, along with the doors, were sculpted by San Francisco artist Edgar Walters — also responsible for the beautiful sculpture above the entrance to the PG&E building at 245 Market Street.

Interestingly, after a 4-year rebuilding project which saw the Academy temporarily relocated downtown, the whole California Academy of Sciences will re-open in Golden Gate Park on September 27. That’s this very week, exactly two days short of the 85th anniversary of the aquarium’s original dedication. C’mon, couldn’t they have waited two days to make it come even?