1861: the notorious countess Lola Montez dies in New York; 1899: a small boy defends himself in a San Francisco courtroom.

lola montezJanuary 17, 1861
Countess Lola Montez — in Memorium

As was undoubtedly marked on your calendar, San Francisco’s patron saint Emperor Norton died last week, January 7, 1880.

But his was not the only January passing worthy of note. Ten days later (and nineteen years earlier), we lost perhaps the most notorious personage ever to grace the streets of our fair city.

I speak, of course, of Countess Lola Montez . Yes, that’s the one — “whatever Lola wants, Lola gets”.

You already know Lola’s story, of course. You don’t? The breathtakingly gorgeous Irish peasant girl with the soul of a grifter and the heart of a despot? How she — with a few sexy dance steps, a fraudulent back story involving Spanish noble blood and the claim of Lord Byron as her father — turned Europe upside down and provoked a revolution in Bavaria?

Still doesn’t ring a bell, hmm? Well, Lola’s whole story is a little too large for this space. She’d already lived about three lifetimes’ worth of adventure — and burned through romances with personalities from King Ludwig the First to Sam Brannan — before conquering Gold Rush-era San Francisco with her scandalous “Spider Dance”.

If you missed the Sparkletack podcast about this amazing character, you might want to rectify that little omission.

After her European escapades, Lola found that freewheeling San Francisco suited her tempestuous eccentricity to a T. Brandishing the title of “Countess” — a Bavarian souvenir — she drank and caroused and became the absolute center of the young city’s attention.

It’s said that men would come pouring out of Barbary Coast saloons to gawk at the raven-haired vision sashaying through the mud with a pair of greyhounds at her heels, a white cockatoo perched on one shoulder, and a cigar cocked jauntily from her lips … and do I even need to mention her pet grizzly bears?


Though Lola possessed perhaps the biggest personality in a larger-than-life city, it may be that her greatest contribution to San Francisco culture came after she retired to a small cottage in the Sierra Nevada. It was there that she taught a tiny red-haired neighbor girl to dance. Little Lotta Crabtree would grow up to be the most acclaimed and beloved performer in San Francisco history, eventually becoming the darling of the entire country — a genuine Gilded Age superstar.

Meanwhile, Lola Montez unsurprisingly tired of the quiet mountain life, emerging from retirement and relocating to New York City. The timing of this move meant that what could have been a legendary collision of faux-blue-blooded eccentricity was never to be — Lola abandoned the West Coast just a couple of years before Emperor Norton would claim his throne.

I just have to take a moment here to visualize the Countess on Emperor Norton’s arm … the grifter adventuress and the tattered madman, precisely the sort of royal family that San Francisco ought to have had.

Anyway, Lola spent the last years of her life back East, giving lectures, writing advice books, still dancing, and then at the very last moment finding religion.

On January 17, 1861, Lola Montez — born “Elizabeth Rosanna Gilbert” from County Sligo — died of pneumonia in a New York apartment. In her own words “always notorious, never famous”, the Countess had a pretty good run.

January 14, 1899
Small boy defends himself — in court!

In completely unrelated news, a North Beach street urchin defends himself in court. No, I don’t know why he was allowed to act as his own lawyer — or for that matter, why a six-year old was arrested in the first place!

It’s another peep-hole into life during the Gilded Age, courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle:

smoking urchinsSmall Boy Defends Himself
John Manuel Parodi, Aged Six, Makes His Legal Debut.

John Manuel Parodi, aged six years, successfully defended himself yesterday in Judge Treadwell’s court, where he was on trial for the alleged theft of a box of cigars from the store of Carlos Sobrano on Prescott place, near Vallejo street. Sobrano testified that he missed the cigars a moment after young Parodi left his store about 7 o’clock last Sunday evening.

“I’d like to ask him something” piped the boy defendant in a small treble voice, after Sobrano had told his story.

“Haven’t you a lawyer, my boy?” asked the Court, leaning over the bench to get a better view of the tiny prisoner.

“No sir,” said John Manuel Parodi. “I think I can acquit the case myself.”

“All right; take the witness,” said Judge Treadwell, with a poorly concealed smile.

“Did you see me take your cigars, mister?” queried Parodi.

“No, I did not.” answered Sobrano.

“Then you don’t know I took ’em. Don’t you know, mister, that you sold a package of cigarettes to me which is against the law, and then you come and say I stole your cigars. You’re all right, you are.”

Sobrano was excused, and Giovanni Cerino, a larger boy than the defendant, took the stand. Cerino said he saw Parodi leaving the store with a box of cigars under his arm.

“Where were you then?” inquired the amateur attorney.

“On the opposite side of the street,” replied the witness.

“Oh you were? Could you see me plain?”

“Yes, I saw you plain.”

“What color shirt had I on?”

Cerino hesitated a moment, and then said: “A blue shirt.”

“You’re wrong; it was a red shirt.” exclaimed Parodi. And then, turning to the judge, “You can see, mister, that he’s no kind of witness.”

Cerino was excused, and after a mild lecture to Parodi, Judge Treadwell dismissed the case, amid the plaudits of the audience.

San Francisco Chronicle — 1.14.1899