A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history. THIS WEEK: a hanging from 1852, and a Miss Goldie Griffin wants to become a cop in 1912.

December 10, 1852:
San Francisco’s first official execution

san francisco hanging 1852

It certainly wasn’t for any lack of local mayhem that it took so long for San Francisco to order its first “official” execution.

The sleepy hamlet of Yerba Buena had ballooned from fewer than 500 to over 36,000 people in 1852 — and the famous camaraderie of the ’49ers notwithstanding, not all of them had the best interests of their fellow men at heart. During the first few years of the Gold Rush, San Francisco managed to average almost one murder per day.

The murders that made it to court in these semi-lawless days were seen by sympathetic juries mostly as cases of “the guy had it coming”. And concerning executions of the un-official variety, Sam Brannan’s Committee of Vigilance — that would be the first one — had taken matters into their own hands and lynched four miscreants just a year earlier.

As the San Francisco Examiner would describe the event 35 years later,

“The crime which inaugurated public executions was of a very commonplace character. A Spaniard named José (Forner) struck down an unknown Mexican in (Happy) Valley, stabbing him with a dagger, for as he claimed, attempting to rob him. … after a very prompt trial, (Forner) was sentenced to be hanged two months later.”

Was it because he wasn’t white? Lack of bribery money? Some secret grudge? José had claimed self defense just like everybody else, and turns out to have been a man of relatively high birth in Spain, oddly enough a confectioner by trade — and we can only speculate as to the reason he ended up the first victim of San Francisco’s official rope.

The execution was to take place up on Russian Hill, at the oldest cemetery in the young city — a cemetery which, due to the fact that a group of Russian sailors had first been buried there back in ’42, had actually given the hill its name. If you’ve heard the SparkletackMoving the Dead” episode, you know that this burial ground is long gone now — and in fact, its remote location up on the hill had already caused it to fall out of use by 1850.

I guess that made it seem perfect for an early winter hanging.

Let’s go back to the Examiner’s account:

“(The location) did not deter some three thousand people from attending, parents taking children to see the unusual sight, and women on foot and in carriages forcing their way to the front.

Between 12 and 1 o’clock the condemned man was taken to the scaffold in a wagon drawn by four black horses, escorted by the California Guard. The Marion Rifles under Captain Schaeffer kept the crowd back from the scaffold. The man died game, after a pathetic little farewell speech, in which he said:

“The Americans are good people; they have ever treated me well and kindly; I thank them for it. I have nothing but love and kindly feelings for all. Farewell, people of San Francisco. World, farewell!”

A dramatically chilling engraving of the scene can be seen by clicking the thumbnail above. If you’d like to pay your respects in person, the Russian Hill Cemetery was located in the block between Taylor, Jones, Vallejo and Green Streets.

December 9, 1912:
Miss Goldie Griffin wants to become a cop!

Another item culled directly from the pages of our historical newspapers, this one from the period in which California women had just won the right to vote — something for which the country as a whole would need to wait seven more years.

This hardly made San Francisco a bastion of progressive feminist thought. I scarcely need to point it out, but note the amusement and disdain in this articles’ treatment of the first female applicant to the San Francisco Police Department, December 9, 1912:

Miss Goldie Griffin Wants to Become Cop and Asks for the Job
City Attorney Debating Eligibility of Women for Such Posts

miss goldie griffin

Miss Goldie Griffin, horsewoman, athlete, sometime actress, and young and attractive to boot, wants to be a policewoman in San Francisco. Also she perfectly don’t care a good piece of fudge who knows it.

She has made application to be a police woman, believing that she can walk a beat just as well as any member of the city’s finest, and she intends to walk that beat if there is any way that she possibly can do so. She is thoroughly and absolutely convinced that she can jail drunk and disorderly persons, break up fights, arrest robbers and other horrid men who would try to disturb the peace and quiet of San Francisco, and do everything in the line of policing that any mere man cop can do.

And it might be remarked in passing that Miss Goldie may become a policewoman at that. So far as has yet been discovered there seems to be no legal reason why she should not.

Saturday morning it was when Miss Goldie announced to the world her yearning to be a cop. She announced it to the Civil Service Commission in a mighty business-like way:

“I desire to take an examination and join the police force” she announced severely to the clerk in the civil service office. “I can vote, and I can ride, and I am just as well fitted to be a uniformed officer as any man.”

Chief Examiner J. J. Maher of the Civil Service Board began looking up authorities. He couldn’t find any place in the charter or laws of the city where police women were mentioned. Also, he couldn’t find any where they were prohibited. So he’s going to put the matter up to the City Attorney and let him do a little thinking on the proposition.

Miss Goldie, who used to be with the “101 Ranch (Wild West Show)” and rode last week in the “Society Circus”, says she is going to consult authorities too. She has a large and growing hunch that she could pass a civil service examination, if she is allowed to take a try at one.

San Francisco Chronicle — 12.9.1912

Though the bewilderment of the city is almost amusing in its clueless certainty that such a thing just couldn’t be allowed, the truth was that the San Francisco Police Department was already way behind the times. After all, by late 1912 the Los Angeles Police Department already employed three policewomen and three police matrons.

San Francisco wouldn’t give a girl a break or a badge until two years later, but they finally caught up in style, hiring a trio of women who became known around town as The Three Kates: Kathryn Sullivan, Kathryne Eisenhart, and Kate O’Conner.

The City would (eventually) promote a woman to the job of top cop — chief of police — but Heather Fong, who still holds the job, wouldn’t be born for another forty years!

And what became of “Miss Goldie Griffin”? Sadly, I haven’t been able to track this gutsy woman down. If you happen to know, please leave a comment or drop me a line and fill us all in. Whatever her life turned out to be, I’m sure the story’s a good one.