A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history. THIS WEEK:a couple of items from the newspaper files, and an escape from Alcatraz — perhaps!

December 15, 1849:
The London Times looks west

alta california newspaper building

As I perused the pages of an 1849-era copy of the Alta California this week, I ran across a little item reprinted from the venerable London Times.

I’d been on the hunt for, you know, colorful “Gold Rush-y” stuff, but sandwiched between reports on the progress of the new Mormon Settlement at the Great Salt Lake and a cholera epidemic in Marseilles, was a piece nicely showcasing British condescension towards their American cousins, particularly the slightly barbarous variety found out West.

I assume it was reprinted here because the Alta California took it as a compliment, but the author responsible is probably best pictured wearing a frock coat, a monocle, and a supercilious expression.

The London Times has received a copy of the Alta California of June last and ruminates thereon as follows:

“Before us lies a real California newspaper, with all its politics, paragraphs, and advertisements, printed and published at San Francisco in the 14th of last June. In a literary or professional point of view, there is nothing very remarkable in this production. Journalism is a science so intuitively comprehended by American citizens, that their most rudimentary efforts in this line are sure to be tolerably successful. Newspapers are to them what theatres and cafés are to Frenchmen.

In the Mexican war, the occupation of each successive town by the invading (American) army was signalized by the immediate establishment of a weekly journal, and of a “bar” for retailing those spirituous compounds known by the generic denomination of “American drinks”.

The same fashions have been adopted in California, and the opinions of the American portion of that strange population are already represented by journals of more than average ability and intelligence.”

Alta California — 12.15.1849

December 15, 1899
Stay off the sidewalk!

This item from the Chronicle apparently dates back to those dark days before the invention of the “DETOUR” sign.

Bad Street Causes Arrests
Seven Men Jailed for Driving on Potrero-Avenue Sidewalk

san francisco cop

Quite a crowd of boys and curious pedestrians gathered at Twenty-second street and Potrero avenue yesterday afternoon to watch a stalwart policeman arrest numerous indignant citizens for driving on the sidewalk.

Potrero avenue in this neighborhood has been recently dug up for the laying of sewer pipes and in filling in the holes the street has certainly not been improved. Men in all sorts of conveyances, from the humble dirt wagon to expensive buggies, drove up to the edge of (the) swamp and then fearing to risk their teams in the treacherous bog turned their horses’ heads to the sidewalk and attempted to pass the danger spot by skirting along its sides.

Wednesday several drivers were arrested for attempting this feat, and yesterday a policeman stationed at the spot arrested seven men and booked them at the Seventeenth-street station.

San Francisco Chronicle — 12.15.1899

Though this item appeared fifty years after a certain infamous sign was erected at the muddy intersection of Clay and Kearny Streets, I can’t help but wonder if a Gold Rush survivor or two may have been reminded of it: “This street is impassable — not even jackassable”

December 16, 1937
Escape from Alcatraz — maybe.

theodore cole ralph roe

Braving armed guards, bone-chilling water, and a mythical one-finned shark named Bruce, Theodore Cole and Ralph Roe take advantage of the heaviest fog on record to escape from the escape-proof prison island of Alcatraz.

The two were incorrigible criminals — and escape artists. Roe had once broken out of an Oklahoma pen by stuffing himself into a shipping crate, and Cole had successfully used the old “laundry bag” routine in Texas. Garbage cans, hacksaws, guns carved from wood — they’d tried them all.

That’s why they ended up on the Rock .

I’ve detailed their escape attempt in the Sparkletack “Alcatraz” episode, but here’s the condensed version: Under cover of fog, the two used heavy tools to cut through the bars of a blacksmith shop and break a padlock on the prison fence. They clambered down to the water’s edge … and were never seen again.

Alarms were sounded, a massive manhunt was launched, but that fog made chances of spotting the two unlikely — and frankly, not a soul thought they’d survive that cold, cold water. The warden summed up the official attitude this way:

“Serving terms tantamount to life imprisonment, it is my belief they decided to take a desperate chance and that they had no outside aid. I believe they drowned and that their bodies were swept toward the Golden Gate by the strong ebb tide.”

Though the FBI stated that the hunt for Roe and Cole would “go on until they are found—dead or alive”, the invulnerability of the Rock remained officially unbroken.

That’s more or less how things stood until 1941, when an article in the Chronicle busted the case open again:

“Ralph Roe and Theodore Cole … are alive. They are now living in South America; (and) have resided for periods in both Peru and Chile. The only prisoners ever to stage a successful break on “The Rock,” they have eluded all the law enforcement agencies engaged in one of the Nation’s greatest manhunts.”

The article reported that a makeshift “raft” of two large, air-tight oil cans had been planted on the island’s rocky shoreline, and that a small boat had picked the two men up minutes after their escape. A car was waiting on the north shore, and the two zipped up the Redwood Highway and out of the Bay Area before the manhunt could really get rolling. They made their way to the Mexican border, where a confederate was waiting with a suitcase full of money — and Bob’s your uncle, they were out of the country.

The report goes on to allege that just before the escape, Roe and Cole had told fellow inmates that “If we make it, a letter will come back to one of you. That letter will say business was good in the month in which the letter was written.” Sure enough, in July of ’38 a letter was received by one of the inmates which stated: “Business was good in July.”

As romantic as this account seems, there’s reason to be skeptical — for one thing, many years later fellow convicts claimed to not only to have known about the escape plot, but to having seen the two sucked under the waves by the chilling undertow, and drowned.

Turns out that this is one of those stories where you, dear listener, get to choose your own favourite ending. South America? Eaten by crabs? We’ll never know for sure. And if Bruce the one-finned shark played a role — well, we’ll never know that either.