THIS WEEK: San Francisco’s notorious “Demon of the Belfry” goes to the gallows.

January 7, 1898:
The execution of Gilded Age San Francisco’s most notorious criminal

durrant early prison photo

Sure, Jack the Ripper had set a certain tone for serial killing just a few years earlier, but the crimes of Theodore Durrant were even more shocking. See, Jack’s victims had been prostitutes, but San Francisco’s “Demon of the Belfry” had murdered a pair of girls who were respectable churchgoers. In his very own church.

On the day before Easter Sunday, 1896, a group of women held a meeting at the Emmanual Baptist Church in the Mission District. As they bustled about the small kitchen preparing tea, one woman reached towards a cupboard, looking for teacups. As the door swung open, she shrieked in horror and fainted — crammed inside was the butchered and violated body of Miss Minnie Williams.

Minnie had been a devoted church-goer, and the police quickly connected her death with the case of another young woman who’d gone missing two weeks earlier. The vivacious Blanche Lamont had also been a member of the church, so the grounds were searched from bottom to top. The body was found in the dusty, disused bell tower — two weeks dead, arranged like a medical cadaver, and brutalized in an equally horrifying way.

Suspicion fell upon a young medical student and assistant Sunday School superintendent who had been close to both women — Theo Durrant. News of the police’s interest in Durrant spread through the Mission and then infected all of San Francisco. By the time he was actually picked up, only a massive police presence prevented the angry mob from stringing him up on the spot.

San Francisco’s “Crime of the Century”

Bankers, judges, hack drivers and bootblacks gossiped about little else, and people lined up for blocks to view the victims’ identical white coffins at a local funeral parlor. The City’s many newspapers were absolutely thrilled with the story, of course — during the next couple of years, well over 400 articles about it would appear in the San Francisco Chronicle alone.

It wasn’t just that the two young women were such “upstanding citizens” — the angle that made it horrifying and captivating to San Francisco was the fact that Theo Durrant was such a nice, normal guy. He was a handsome young man, friendly and open in demeanour, well-liked, of excellent reputation, and (again) the assistant superintendent of a Sunday School. Our modern cliché of the serial killer as the “guy next door who wouldn’t hurt a fly” was still a long way off. It seemed absolutely incredible to San Francisco that such a — well, such a ‘gentleman’ could be capable of such bestial and savage acts.

sympathy for the devil

As Virginia McConnell points out in her excellent book on the case, Sympathy for the Devil, the murders played upon deeper fears in the gaslit City, conservative anxieties about certain changes sweeping through society. The era of Emancipation was beginning to emerge, a time of ripening feminine independence signaled by bloomers, bicycles — and the sudden presence of young women without chaperones. Could it be that the horror and sexual violence of these murders was the inevitable result of … modernity?

In any case, attempts to explain Durrant’s behaviour abounded — and his stone-faced composure drove San Francisco into a frenzy of speculation. Modern psychology wasn’t available yet — Freud was in Vienna inventing it at the time of the murders — so newspapers expounded theories about secret Barbary Coast orgies, racially-tainted blood, exposure to perverse German medical literature, even that the shape of Durrant’s ears somehow predicted his monstrousity. And though most of what was written was nonsense or circulation-boosting fiction, it was almost universally agreed that the man was guilty.

By the time the trial began, the case was so over-exposed that — reminiscent of the OJ Simpson case — 3,600 potential jurors needed to be examined to come up with a final twelve.

Durrant’s Trial

durrant in prison 1895

The trial lasted three weeks, and San Francisco hung on every word. Page after page of courtroom dialogue was published, complete with detailed illustrations and interviews with anyone even remotely connected with the case.

Human nature being as weird as it is, the handsome Durrant received lots of attention from young woman, including a number of marriage proposals — and a pretty blonde dubbed the “sweet-pea girl”, brought him a bouquet of flowers every morning.

Durrant’s insistance upon his innocence never wavered — and it is quite true that the evidence against him was entirely circumstantial. But it was also overwhelming. Durrant had been involved with both of the victims, had not only been placed at the scene of both crimes, but was apparently the last person seen in the company of each girl. The day that Blanche Lamont vanished, he had been spotted downtown attempting to pawn several women’s rings, and a medical school classmate testified that Theo had confided certain sexual preoccupations.

And there was plenty more. Durrant’s conviction in the newspapers was upheld by the jury and the court, and he was sentenced to death by hanging. Though the case was appealed, allowing the circus to continue for several months, eventually Durrant’s legal options just ran out. The execution was set for January 7th, 1898.

Cool as a cucumber

In a typically poetic passage, a Chronicle reporter set the scene the night before the hanging:

“Meanwhile the town of San Quentin … partook of the subdued excitement which had stirred San Francisco all day and which extended more or less all over the State. In every house windows burned brightly. Doors were flung open suddenly and voices rose and fell. The entire place was seething. The moonlit bay was calm and cold enough, but at every step toward the prison the atmosphere was more heavily charged with electricity. Never did San Quentin look so much like a Norman castle.”

Throngs of people gathered around the prison on the day of the execution. Horse-drawn buses rattled back and forth, delivering loads of curiousity-seekers. Boys on bicycles had been hired to patrol the telegraph wires leading to San Quentin, making sure that no one could clip the lines to prevent a possible gubernatorial pardon from coming through.

That pardon never came. But even after two years of suspense and morbid anticipation, inside the execution chamber before an amphitheatre of onlookers, Theo Durrant was still as cool as the proverbial cucumber.

Though interrupted by the imposition of the hangman’s hood, he began to speak:

“I now go to receive the justice given to an innocent boy who has not stained his hands with the crimes that have been put upon him by the press of San Francisco…”

Then, with the noose actually around his neck, he declared his blamelessness for the final time.

“I am innocent. I say now this day before God, to whom I now go to meet my dues, I am innocent…”

And that was that.

The Chronicle reported the next day that this performance had given the hangman a nervous breakdown, and one of the death row guards confessed that “All through the case I believed Durrant to be guilty and thought he would break down at the last, but the coolness he displayed on the gallows and the speech he made declaring his innocence … fairly made me tremble”.

Was Durrant guilty?

Well, probably. And if he hadn’t been caught, those two poor girls would probably not have been the last of his victims.

On the other hand, the evidence was circumstantial, and there is the tiniest sliver of an outside chance that someone else was responsible. The pastor of the church had certainly behaved in an odd and suspicious manner. And what’s more, an old miner had ridden into town a week or two before the hanging and told anyone who would listen that he’d run into a man on the trail who’d confessed to the whole thing, in detail. Who knows? All I will say is this: capital punishment is pretty damn final.

The scene of the crime

The scene of the crime, the Emmanuel Baptist Church, is long gone. It stood in the Mission District, on Bartlett Street between 22nd and 23rd — according to one source, more or less where the apartment building at 155-165 Bartlett stands today.

After the murders, police on the neighborhood beat are said to have dreaded night duty, swearing that they could hear the dead girls’ screams.

The church had something of a cursed history anyway, with one pastor a suicide, another disgraced by sexual impropriety, and a third — you may actually remember the Reverend Isaac Kalloch — was shot by Charles De Young. In any case, it was ripe for removal from this planet, and a few years later, it burned — or was burned — to the ground.

One final note — after Durrant’s execution, no cemetery in San Francisco would accept the murderer’s remains. The problem was finally solved by shipping the body down the coast — to Los Angeles.

THIS WEEK: the fiery fate of the first Cliff House, and the case of a parrot who would not sing. Click the audio player above to listen in, or just read on … cliff-house-c1890

December 25, 1894:
First San Francisco Cliff House burns

On Christmas Day, 1894, the first San Francisco Cliff House burned to the ground.

As the Chronicle poetically reported the next morning,

San Francisco’s most historic landmark has gone up in flames. The Cliff House is a smouldering ruin, where the silent ghosts of memory hover pale and wan over the blackened embers.

Ah, yes. We discussed this first incarnation of the Cliff House a few weeks ago — its novel location at the edge of the world, its singular popularity with San Francisco’s beautiful people, and its subsequent decline into a house of ill-repute.

Well, before it could rise from that undignified state to the status of a beloved landmark, San Francisco’s original “destination resort” needed a white knight to ride to the rescue. That knight would be Mr. Adolph Sutro, who — in 1881 — purchased not only the faded Cliff House, but acres of land surrounding it.

adolph sutro

Mining engineer millionaire and future San Francisco mayor, the larger-than-life Sutro had already established a fabulous estate on the heights above the Cliff House, and by the mid-1880s could count 10% of San Francisco as his personal property.

Unlike the robber barons atop Nob Hill, though, Adolph believed in sharing his good fortune — you can hear more about his eccentric philanthropy in the “Adolph Sutro” podcast right here at

Sutro’s first order of business upon acquiring the property was to instruct his architect to turn the Cliff House into a “respectable resort with no bolts on the doors or beds in the house.”

This was just a small part of Sutro’s grand entertain-the-heck-out-of-San-Francisco scheme. The elaborate gardens of his estate were already open to the public, and the soon-to-be-famous Sutro Baths were on the drawing board. His goal was to create a lavish and family safe environment out at Land’s End, and that’s just how things worked out.

With streetcar lines beginning to move into the brand new Golden Gate Park, and the City’s acquisition of the Point Lobos Toll Road (now Geary Boulevard), the western edge of the City was becoming more attractive and accessible, and over the next decade, families did indeed flock to Adolph’s resuscitated resort.

And then in 1894, it happened.

About 8 o’clock on Christmas evening, after most of the holiday visitors had gone home for the day, a small fire broke out in a kitchen chimney. As the flames shot up inside the walls, the horrified staff quickly learned that none of the fire-extinguishers around the place actually worked. Within minutes, the entire building was engulfed in flames.

The resort burned so quickly, in fact, that its famous guest book, inscribed by such notables as Mark Twain, Ulysses S Grant, and Rutherford B. Hayes, was lost along with the building itself.

As the Chronicle went on to report, the Cliff House

“… went up as befitted such a shell of remembrances, in a blaze of glory. Fifty miles at sea the incinerating fires easily shone out, reflected from the high rocks beyond.”

Sutro hadn’t taken out insurance on the place, but he was so determined to rebuild — and so damned rich — that it just really didn’t matter. And in fact, the burning of Cliff House number one was a sort of blessing in disguise. That fire cleared the decks — so to speak — for Cliff House number two, which would rise from the ashes like a magnificent 8-story Victorian phoenix.

Cliff House mark 2 would become everybody’s favourite, an opulent monstrosity as beloved by San Franciscans in the Gilded Age as it still is today, frankly — but guess what happened to that one? The fate of Sutro’s Gingerbread Palace coming up in a future Sparkletack Timecapsule.

December 25, 1894
“It Would Not Sing”

Yes, this item not only also happened on Christmas, but also in 1894. That’s not a coincidence, either, I just happened to spot this little slice of life in the same edition of the Chronicle that contained parts of the Cliff House story .

Without further ado, a case which may or may not bring a certain Monty Python sketch to mind:


It Would Not Sing
End of Another Chapter in a Case of a Bird With Disputed Talents

The celebrated Martin-Donnelly parrot controversy has been decided. Justice Dunne, after communing with the bird for over a week, gave judgement in favor of the Martins, and on Christmas eve there was a deep and abiding sorrow in the home of the Donnellys. The Judge gave much time and thought to this remarkable case. While he believed the Donnellys were sincerely honest in their claims, the law and the bird were against them.

The red and yellow-headed parrot positively declined to sing “Ta-ra-boom-de-ay” and other classical selections which the Donnellys said it had in its repertoire, and confined itself to “Hello Arthur”, “I want to go bed” and “Hip-hip, hooray,” in pursuance of the programme given of its accomplishments by the Martins.

This bird had been before the … courts for months, and it is estimated that the parties to the controversy have each expended $200 in court and lawyer’s fees. Mrs. Donnelly, who lives on Minna street, owned an accomplished parrot. One day the bird was stolen. A search was immediately instituted, and a bird seen hanging in front of Mr. Martin’s saloon, at the north end of Kearny street, was thought to be the lost polly.

It was secured on a search warrant and … after a bitter contest, the bird was awarded to the Martins. Suit was brought … and nearly fifty witnesses examined. Justice Dunne, upon being unable to decide the case upon the testimony, took the much-litigated parrot to his home that he might satisfy the judicial ear as to the line of accomplishments in which it was best versed.

Polly insisted on confining itself to the programme the Martins had testified their bird would render. Not one of the songs on the Donnelly programme would the parrot warble. Hence the decision of the court.

Mrs. Donnelly was in the courtroom yesterday afternoon and wept and became hysterical over the decision, but the Judge was inexorable and gave the parrot to the Martins. It is understood that the case will be appealed.

San Francisco Chronicle — 12.25.1894

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.

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.

A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history. THIS WEEK: In 1856, the birth of a great newspaper; and in 1896, a legendary gunfighter referees a boxing match.

December 1, 1856:
Birthday of the “San Francisco Call”

San Francisco Call cover

One of San Francisco’s Gilded Age newspaper giants begins its life today: the San Francisco Call.

San Francisco was lousy with newspapers in the Gold Rush era — by 1858 there were at least a dozen — but the Call, with its conservative Republican leanings and working class base, quickly nosed to the front of the pack to become San Francisco’s number one morning paper. It would stay there for nearly half a century.

By the summer of 1864, the Call already claimed the highest daily circulation in town, and it was this point that the paper famously gave employment to a busted gold miner and trouble-making journalist from Nevada by the name of Samuel Clemens — er, Mark Twain. The Call had published a few of his pieces from Virginia City, but upon Twain’s arrival in the Big City the paper employed him full time as a beat reporter and general purpose man.

In just a few months at the Call’s old digs at number 617 Commercial Street, Mark Twain cranked out hundreds of articles on local crime, culture, and politics.

I don’t know that Twain was cut out for newspapering. Years later he spoke of those days as

“… fearful, soulless drudgery … (raking) the town from end to end, gathering such material as we might, wherewith to fill our required columns — and if there were no fires to report, we started some.”

Twain’s attempts to liven up the work with the occasional wildly fictitious embellishment were frowned upon — the conservative Call was apparently interested in just the facts, thank you very much.

Twain also had a few problems with the Call’s editorial policy. In a common sort of incident, notorious only because he’d witnessed it, Twain observed a gang of hoodlums run down and stone a Chinese laundryman — as a San Francisco city cop just stood by and watched.

“I wrote up the incident with considerable warmth and holy indignation. There was fire in it and I believe there was literature.”

Twain was enraged when the article was spiked, but his editor — and this can’t help but remind you that some things never really change — his editor made it clear that “the Call … gathered its livelihood from the poor and must respect their prejudices or perish … the Call could not afford to publish articles criticizing the hoodlums for stoning Chinamen.” A campaign of passive-aggressive resistance to doing any work at all was Twain’s response — perhaps better described as “slacking” — and he was fired shortly thereafter.

The Call somehow survived the absence of Mark Twain, and its readership continued to rise, almost quadrupling to over 40,000 papers sold in 1880. By 1884 its circulation was twice that of any other daily rag, including its main competition — Michael de Young’s Chronicle and William Randolph Hearst’s Examiner.

At the turn of the century, the paper was acquired by John D. Spreckels — son of sugar baron Claus — and the Call soon ruled the city from a fabulous new skyscraper at the corner of Third and Market, the heart of “Newspaper Row”.

The Spreckels years marked the peak of the Call’s editorial power. In 1913 Michael de Young bought the newspaper and immediately sold it to William Randolph Hearst. Hearst merged the paper with his own Evening Post, and — poaching the crusading anti-corruption editor Fremont Older from another rival — effectively ended the independent life of the conservative morning Call.

Call Building, San Francisco

After a half-century more of mergings and re-combinations, the last vestiges of the newspaper were finally absorbed by the San Francisco Examiner in 1965, and with that, the Call vanishes from San Francisco journalistic history.

The “Call Building”, though, is still with us. Though severely damaged by the great earthquake and fire of 1906, somehow this million-dollar monument of steel and Oregon sandstone managed to survive.

If you ever glance at early-century photos of San Francisco’s downtown, you’ll recognize it by both its height — at 315 feet, for years the tallest building West of the Mississippi — and its outrageous dome, somehow reminiscent of a Prussian military helmet bristling with empty eye sockets. Sadly, that excellent dome was hacked off in 1938 to make room for more office space, and the whole tower was sheathed in an art-deco marble skin.

But even though the “Call Building” is unrecognizable now, and it’s official name has become the “Central Tower” — when the wind is right you can hear the faint cry of “Copy!” as you stroll by. Or maybe that’s just me.

December 2, 1896:
Wyatt Earp referees a boxing match

wyatt earp

Frontier lawman Wyatt Earp, legendary for his role in the archetypal Western gunfight, “Shoot-out at the O.K. Corral“, is called upon this afternoon to officiate at a $10,000 heavyweight championship boxing match. As he strolls into San Francisco’s Mechanics Pavilion to start work, police confiscate the ex-U.S. Marshall’s six-shooter.

“Sailor” Tom Sharkey is the underdog against Australian heavyweight Bob Fitzsimmons, “the Freckled Wonder”. Sure enough, Fitzsimmons knocks Sharkey cold in the eighth — but referee Wyatt Earp calls a foul and awards the decision to Sharkey, lying unconscious on the canvas! Needless to say, outrage burns in the hearts of 15,000 men present (and the whole city) that the fight had been fixed!

fitzsimmons sharkey heavyweight boxing bout

The case went before a judge, and though Wyatt was — if not specifically exonerated, at least not found guilty of fraud — he was convicted in the court of public opinion.

But what on earth was Wyatt Earp doing in San Francisco standing in a boxing ring in the first place?

Well, it’s all because of Josephine Marcus, a nice Jewish girl from San Francisco who’d run off with a traveling Gilbert & Sullivan theater troupe at the age of 18. Passing through Tombstone, Arizona, she’d met the tall, good-lookin’ deputy U.S. Marshall there, and fell in love.

After the much-mythologized OK Corral gunfight (you remember, the Earps, Doc Holliday, the Clanton brothers) Wyatt Earp and Josie left Tombstone and wandered all around the West, settling down wherever a boomtown cropped up — investing in mines, racing horses, running saloons and gambling parlors — and south of the border, Wyatt had begun trading on his rough and ready lawman image by officiating at Mexican boxing matches. Sometime in the late 1890s, the Earps wound up living with Josie’s parents back in San Francisco — and there you have it.

We may never know exactly how Wyatt got mixed in the Sharkey-Fitzsimmons boxing boondoggle, or what his involvement truly was — but in the aftermath of the scandal, the Earps left San Francisco, eventually settling down in Los Angeles. Wyatt wouldn’t return to the Bay Area until his death in 1929, when his ashes were buried in Colma, in his wife Josie’s family plot.

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

November 24, 1899:
Collars, ties, and Butchertown mayhem

butchertown, san francisco

Our first item flowed from the pen of some long-forgotten San Francisco Chronicle beat writer, a piece in which a neighborhood dispute is lovingly detailed.

Butchertown was a tough old San Francisco neighborhood on the edge of today’s Bay View district, around the mouth of Islais Creek. It was comprised mostly of German and Irish immigrants — ballplayer Lefty O’Doul was probably its most famous son — and it was absolutely packed with slaughterhouses, meat packers and (here’s a shocker) butchers.

Without further ado, a dash of local color circa 1899:

Haberdashery Issue Stirs Butchertown

Whether William Beckman and Thomas O’Leary quarreled over a love affair or over collars and neckties is a mooted question.

Beckman is a butcher employed in one of the many abattoirs of South San Francisco. A few months ago he married the former Mrs. O’Leary, and when O’Leary, after a three years absence, returned to town two weeks ago and found that his divorced wife had become Mrs. Beckman, there was trouble in Butchertown. It all resulted in the arrest of O’Leary on a charge of making threats against life, and the case came up yesterday in Police Judge Conlan’s Court.

Beckman told of a long knife with which O’Leary threatened to perform an autopsy on (him). There was also a dispute, Beckman said, as to whether the wearing of collars and neckties was proper form in Butchertown.

Charles Butcher, a butcher, who gave his home as Butchertown, was the next witness. He had heard no threats against Beckman’s life, but he remembered an incident of last Saturday, when O’Leary visited the slaughter-house where Beckman is employed and invited him to step outside. Butcher had also heard some talk of collars and neckties.

O’Leary took the stand and was asked if he had any longings for his divorced wife.

“You bet not”, he replied.

As to the trouble, he said, it was all about collars and neckties. O’Leary does not wear those evidences of effete civilization. According to his story, Beckman had said to his acquaintances: “I don’t like the style of O’Leary and I’m going to make him a present of a collar and a necktie.” When O’Leary heard this, he went to Beckman and threatened to break the Beckman jaw if it was used in the utterance of further comments reflecting on the O’Leary disregard for things esthetic.

The former husband of Mrs. O’Leary admitted that he had trouble with her at Sixth and Howard streets about a week ago.

“Didn’t she break an umbrella over your head?” asked Attorney Arthur Mack.

“No, she didn’t.” answered O’Leary, “but she hit me once; just slapped me on the wrist.”

O’Leary denied having any desire to slay Beckman. All he wanted was the privilege of wearing soft shirts without neckties. Following this declaration he was instructed as to his constitutional rights and the case was dismissed.

San Francisco Chronicle — November 24, 1899

November 25, 1914:
Joe DiMaggio’s Birthday

joe dimaggio

Giuseppe Paolo (Joe) DiMaggio Jr. was born on this day across the bay in Martinez, the eighth of nine offspring of a Sicilian crab fisherman.

Around the time of little Joe’s first birthday, the family moved to San Francisco, to the Italian enclave of North Beach. They settled on Taylor Street near the old North Beach Playground, where Joe got his first taste of baseball at the age of ten. There was little sign of the great baseball player that he would one day become.

In fact, as Joe recollects, “Baseball didn’t have much appeal to me as a kid, but it was better than helping Pop when he was fishing, or helping clean the boat.”

Joe wasn’t crazy about school either — dropping out of Galileo High at age 16 — but as a teenager, baseball was starting to grow on him. His older brother Vince was already playing ball for the San Francisco Seals, and suggested that his kid brother be given a tryout.

Well, Joe made the team.

Sports writers described him as “a tall gangling youngster, all arms and legs and like a frisky colt”, but with a bat in his hands, Joe DiMaggio was dangerous. He lit up the Pacific Coast league in 1933, setting a 61-game consecutive batting record in his first season and becoming a Bay Area favourite. The minor league Seals were just a stepping stone, though, and Joe was quickly on his way to superstardom with the New York Yankees.

DiMaggio would go on to become recognized as the greatest all-around baseball player of his era. For our purposes, though he was and is — after Lefty O’Doul, of course — San Francisco’s most popular home-grown ballplayer — and the little playground where he first played ball to escape from crab fishing now bears his name.

Happy birthday, Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio.

November 27, 1978:
The Assassination of Harvey Milk

milk moscone slain paper

Most everyone hearing the sound of my voice already knows this, but November 27th marks one of the blackest days in the history of San Francisco. Thirty years ago today, Dan White — ex-cop, ex-firefighter, and a man filled of rage at being made an ex-Supervisor — loaded his service revolver, walked into City Hall and assassinated first Mayor George Moscone, and then Supervisor Harvey Milk.

Moscone was a very popular mayor, but somehow this has become Harvey Milk’s story. I shouldn’t need to tell you much about Harvey. His life is kind of a capsule history of the gay rights movement. In the ’70s, Milk had gone from being in the closet to coming out as a political activist to becoming the first openly gay man elected to any serious political office in the country. He was charismatic, audacious, intelligent, popular and — in the face of the myriad threats of death and violence against his person — incredibly brave.

His killer was charged with first-degree murder, but though Dan White had brought a loaded weapon, carried extra ammo, sneaked past metal detectors and even stopped to reload between killings, his defense team denied that he had premeditated the murders.

Depression and “diminished capacity” to make decisions were argued in defense of the clean-cut young man, and the straight, white, conservative jury felt sympathy for a guy who looked like one of their own, and … well … I could go on to tell you the way this sorry story turned out, but rather than dwell on the murders, I’ll defer to the effort and energy of Gus Van Sant, whose little film on the subject of Harvey Milk’s life is being released this very week.

The movie is called Milk and stars, among others, local character Sean Penn. The early reviews are overwhelmingly positive, so why don’t we all go have a look, and celebrate the life of Harvey Milk, the “Mayor of Castro Street”.

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

November 22, 1852:
Earthquake opens a channel from Lake Merced to the sea — or does it?

lake merced 1881

In several places, the historical record tells us that on this date, a “severe earthquake created a fissure a half mile wide and three hundred yards long through which the waters of Lake Merced flowed to the sea.”

Lake Merced is a spring-fed freshwater lake in the southwest corner of San Francisco, so this is interesting news, right? Unfortunately, according to the scientific record, such as it is, there was no earthquake on that date.

I discovered the solution to this conundrum in an obscure paper published by the United States Geological Survey:

The waters of Lake Merced … which cover several hundred acres, sank about thirty feet. Shortly before midnight … a shock like that of an earthquake was felt by parties residing near this place; the following morning it was discovered that a great channel between the lake and the sea had opened, through a broad and high sand bank … The most probable conjecture is, that the excessive rains of the season had simply forced open a passage through the broad and loose sand-bank from the lake to the ocean. Formerly the lake had no visible outlet whatever; and its waters had insensibly been kept at about the same level.

That “great channel” to the sea ran more or less along what is now Sloat Boulevard, right through the Zoo — this map from 1881 shows the outlet quite clearly. Decades of human activity gradually filled it in again, and — as the Lake Merced dog-walkers and joggers can attest — that’s the way things stand today.

November 18, 1865:
Unknown San Francisco author takes New York

jumping frog Mark Twain

Mark Twain’s improbable wild west tale about an inveterate gambler and a jumping frog becomes the talk of New York City.

Mark Twain — or, let’s use the name his mother gave him — Samuel Clemens was not much of a miner. Up in the rainy foothills of the Sierra Nevada gold country, he preferred sitting around the camp tavern stove and listening to local characters tell tall tales.

Now, a story about a jumping frog stuffed full of lead shot already existed in American folklore, but after hearing the version narrated by one old river pilot, Clemens remarked “if I can write that story the way Ben Coon told it, that frog will jump around the world”.

He was right. Here’s the way San Francisco’s Alta California described it:

Mark Twain’s story in the Saturday Press of November 18th, 1865 called ‘Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,’ has set all New York in a roar, and he may be said to have made his mark. I have been asked fifty times about (the story) and its author, and the papers are copying it far and near. It is voted the best thing of the day.

That little story, with its darn-tootin’ Western voice, naturalistic vernacular style and wry humour was an absolute sensation. Soon to be renamed “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County“, it became the signature piece and stepping stone to national celebrity of our most authentically American novelist.

November 22, 1935:
“China Clipper” make its first trans-Pacific flight

china clipper

Turns out it’s “National Aviation History Month“, so this anniversary is a timely one.

On the afternoon of November 22nd, 73 years ago, a sleek seaplane bearing the livery of the fledgling Pan American Airlines taxied from its Alameda slip out onto the Bay. The plane had been dubbed the China Clipper, and was cheered into the sky and over the Golden Gate Bridge by a crowd of 150,000 San Franciscans.

Eight thousand miles, stops in Hawaii, Midway, Wake and Guam, and about 60 hours later, the Clipper splashed down in Manila Bay, making Pan Am the first airline to cross the Pacific Ocean. job.

The big silver Martin M-130 had been loaded with mail — to be precise, 110,865 letters weighing nearly 2000 pounds. Juan Trippe, the airline’s founder, had swung a deal with Franklin Roosevelt’s administration to give Pan Am a monopoly on trans-Pacific mail service — providing only that the company could swing it.

Today’s flight proved that “swing it” they could, and less than a year later, the gorgeous flying boats began carrying passengers along the legendary route to Hawaii, the Philippines and Hong Kong. Pan American’s Clipper fleet would go on to rule trans-oceanic travel until World War II arrived, signaling the end of an elegant era.

zoe dell lantis - treasure island

Since writing and recording the (epic!) Sparkletack two-podcast series on the history of Treasure Island, Anne Schnoebeln Schnoebelen of the Treasure Island Museum Association has been a regular correspondent of mine — keeping me posted about the struggle to reopen the long-shuttered Treasure Island Museum.

To get you quickly up to speed, as plans for the Island’s transfer from the Navy to San Francisco crept slooowly along, the Museum fell into bureaucratic limbo … and it’s still there. The collection was shoved into a basement, and we’ve just been waiting to see what will happen next.

Nothing guarantees that the fabulous collection of Treasure Island artifacts will even stay in the Bay Area, but last night, I got the word that Treasure Island’s magnificent Art Deco showpiece” Building One” is once again home to a historical exhibit. And that’s something, right?

I’ll reprint the details of the exhibit below, but here’s the sweet part: see the fetching young woman whacking a bottle of bubbly against a China Clipper up there? That would be Zoe Dell Lantis, the official “Pirate Theme Girl” of the ’39 Treasure Island World’s Fair … and she will be the guest of honor at the exhibit’s unveiling this evening.

As to the eventual fate of the Museum itself … well, keep your fingers crossed.

The Treasure Island Museum Association unveils its new exhibit ‘Portal to the Pacific in War and Peace’, showcasing historical images from Treasure Island’s 70 year history. The exhibit celebrates Treasure Island’s rich history through a series of hanging panels, including many previously unpublished color photographs.

The opening of the exhibit is being held from 6pm – 9pm Thursday, November 13, 2008 at Treasure Island’s Lobby Gallery in Art Deco Building One. It is open to the public.

The exhibit runs through January 2009 in the Treasure Island Building One Lobby Gallery. Hours: 8:30 am – 5 pm, Monday through Saturday; closed Sunday. For directions and information see

amateur traveler podcast

In which I am interviewed by the capable Chris Christensen of the Amateur Traveler podcast — a wonderful show devoted to travel and travel stories from around the globe.

It was great fun, with graveyards, greasy spoons, and “houses of ill repute” somehow working their way into the conversation — not to mention Alma Spreckels, Diego Rivera, chantey singing, Louie’s Restaurant, the Wave Organ, and more …

I pretty much just let the stream of consciousness flow, describing my usual cock-eyed plan for showing visitors around the City. The result? A loosely structured aural tour of north-western San Francisco, starting on the Great Highway, wrapping around Land’s End, and running out of time somewhere in the Marina District.

I have to admit that — given my tendency for excited babbling about my favourite subject — I listened to the final result with some trepidation, but Chris is a very good interviewer. You can hear how well he moderates the flow with well-placed questions, comments, and (thank goodness) excellent final-cut editing.

Give it a listen here.

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

November 10, 1849:
Gold Rush ships choke Yerba Buena Harbor

san francisco harbor 1851 san francisco harbor 1849

In the closing days of 1848, President Polk sent a message to Congress confirming the discovery of gold in California. This marked the beginning of the gold rush from the east coast.

By June of 1849 there were already about 200 ships floating deserted in the harbor, abandoned by gold-seeking crews. On this date — November 10, 1849 — the Collector of the Port of San Francisco filed an official report stating that since April 1st, 697 ships had already arrived. For the record, 401 of these were American vessels and the remaining 296 had sailed in from foreign shores.

This brings to mind the famous daguerreotypes of Yerba Buena Harbor looking like a burned-out forest of ship masts, but searching for that little item led me serendipitously to another. This next piece is a far more interesting story, and one that took place just seven years later.

November 15, 1856:
Mary Ann Patten, Heroine of Cape Horn

It was the era of the tall-masted clipper ship, an era of speed, adventure and danger, with every trip around the Horn a race against time, other ships, and the odds. In late June of 1856, three clippers cleared New York Harbour and set off for the race to San Francisco Bay.

One of these — Neptune’s Car — was captained by Joshua Patten. This was to be Captain Patten’s second voyage on this vessel, the first having been a memorable one.

It had been his maiden command, and he’d made the 15,000-mile trip from New York Harbour round the Horn to the Golden Gate in a mere 100 days, 23 1/2 hours — a time as good or better than the fastest clippers on the water. Even more interesting, the promising young sailor had refused to accept the command until the shipping company allowed him to sail with his new wife, Mary.

Though no one yet knew it, this was to be Mary’s story.

Mary Ann Patten was a slim, dark-haired young woman of nineteen, the daughter of a Boston shipbuilder. Despite what’s been described as her “delicate femininity”, Mary hadn’t hesitated in joining her husband on that first grueling year-long voyage, which charted a course not only to the Golden Gate, but across the Pacific on to Hong Kong, to London, then back across the Atlantic to New England, all the way around the world.


california gold rush - cape horn route

The couple took a few months off, but soon it was time again to sail. This time, Captain Patten was planning to set a speed record to San Francisco — and so was the shipping company. In fact, they’d given Patten strict orders that “under no circumstances was the ship to be taken into any other port than San Francisco.” This emphasis on speed was more than a matter of bragging rights; if your ship was the fastest, you ended up with the fattest contracts — this was a simple economic fact.

Captain Patten’s personal lust for speed was such that he’d already developed a reputation for running up maximum sail no matter what the weather, described as “prone to keep as much sail aloft as he could right up to the point of disaster”

The first mate on this voyage disagreed with this daring strategy. In fact, he disagreed with just about every order the young Captain gave. On the night watch, as Patten slept, the first mate arbitrarily pulled down the sails, talked trash to the rest of the crew, and even began sleeping on the job.

Reports later characterized his behaviour as “sullenness and neglect of duty”, and the Captain was forced to toss the man into the brig. The timing could not have been worse. The ship had just entered the cold, violent waters near Cape Horn, and the second mate was no navigator.

Under the circumstances, sleep became a luxury that Captain Patten could no longer grant himself, so he propped his eyelids open and piloted the clipper around the clock.

A Doomed Voyage

flying cloud clipper

Fatigue gradually ground away the already-weary man’s strength, and as Neptune’s Car passed through the Straits of Le Maire, Patten collapsed, struck down by the Victorian period’s favourite all-purpose malady — “brain fever“.

With the first mate locked away, and the second mate incompetent to navigate, Neptune’s Car was doomed.

Or was it?

On Joshua and Mary Patten’s first round-the-world voyage, the stretch across the Pacific to Hong Kong had been mind-numbingly slow. In San Francisco, Neptune’s Car had been challenged to another race, but with virtually no wind in the sails, the contest had become more of “a drifting match”.

The ship was becalmed for weeks at a time, and the intelligent and curious Mary was bored out of her mind. At her wit’s end, she began to pass the time by learning her husband’s trade. Boxing the compass. Using a sextant to determine latitude. Understanding maps and navigational tables, interpreting charts of wind patterns and currents. By the time they returned to New England, the girl knew just about as much about sailing as her husband.

Captain Mary

around Cape Horn

And so it came to pass, in the midst of howling winds, creaking masts and with 60-foot waves crashing over the freezing decks, 19-year-old Mary Ann Patten took sole command of the massive clipper.

From the brig, the first mate began to incite mutiny, demanding that the crew steer the ship as best they could to the nearest port. Mary assembled the men on the quarter-deck and made her case. She informed them of the seriousness of her husband’s condition, of her own recent mastery of the art of navigation, and of the shipping company’s orders to sail on to San Francisco.

We’ll never know precisely how she pulled this off, how this petticoat-wearing slip of a girl gained the confidence of a hard-bitten group of professional sailors — but to a man, they swore to stand by her, all the way to the Golden Gate.

For the next month and a half, Mary didn’t sleep, barely ate, and hadn’t even time to change her clothes. As waves battered the ship, she divided her days and nights between giving orders and making nautical observations up on deck, making meticulous navigational calculations in her cabin, and tending to her delirious husband. By this point, despite Mary’s frantic examination of the ship’s medical library, Captain Patten had lost his sight and hearing.

A month and a half, fifty long, incredibly difficult days on the roughest seas on the planet. And have I mentioned that she was six months pregnant?

Though this story still seems amazing, the crew supported Mary’s command completely, following every order to the letter and trusting her judgement unconditionally — and their trust was finally proven to be well-placed.

Imperishable Fame

san francisco harbor 1857

On November 15th, 1856, Neptune’s Car arrived safely in the waters outside of San Francisco Bay. Mary Ann Patten had not only charted a perfect course, but in the race from New York Harbour — remember that? — she’d actually come in second place, beating the third ship by weeks.

The act of actually sailing through the Golden Gate was a notoriously tricky business, but Mary was now a confident woman of the sea; as San Francisco newspapers told it, with a steady hand “she took the helm herself and steered the vessel safely into port.”

Gold Rush San Francisco went wild with excitement over Mary’s heroic achievement, with newspapers naming her the “Heroine of Cape Horn,” and the “Florence Nightingale of the Ocean.” News of her exploits made it back to New England, and the New York Daily Tribune described her as being “among the noble band of women who, by their heroic bearing, under great trial and suffering, have won for themselves imperishable fame”

Storybook Ending

I’d love to give you a Hollywood happy ending to this stirring tale, but it just can’t be done. The mutinous first mate escaped into the wilds of frontier San Francisco. Captain Patten died of his illness. And Mary — the woman who had defied the expectations of her gender, of Victorian culture, and challenged the ocean itself, died alone and — despite that “imperishable fame” — destitute, just a few years later.

I’m feeling a little sentimental, now, so let me propose a toast to her memory; “To Mary, the Heroine of Cape Horn”.

For further edification:

“The Era of the Clipper Ships” by Donald Ross, a special-edition work detailing not only Mary Patten’s story, but the entire fabulous era of the Clippers. Great stuff!

“The Captain’s Wife”, a fictionalized account of Mary Ann Patten’s story by Douglas Kelley — I haven’t read this yet, but the reviews are terrific.

The obsessions that San Francisco provokes are a clear measure of the city’s seductively nutty power.

This video takes the biscuit; a Rube Goldberg toothpick vision of San Francisco — constructed during the course of 35 years from over 100,000 toothpicks.

And some glue.

What’s even crazier is that the whole thing is basically a gigantic game of “Mousetrap” — drop a ball into the top of Coit Tower and it takes you on a tour of the whoooole town, cable cars, Chinatown, Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and all … this thing has to be seen to be believed.

And as to the motivation behind this fantastic kinetic confection, let me quote the Rohnert Park contraption-builder-in-chief, Scott Weaver:

“for no reason … just to build it so that people will go ‘wow’ … or ‘why'”.

A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history … listen in by clicking the audio player above.

November 7, 1595:
The accidental naming of San Francisco Bay

Spanish galleon - Cermeno

All right. Let’s get serious about going back in time, way, way, WAY back, 413 years into the past.

How can this even be related to San Francisco, you ask? Well, it isn’t, but then again, yes it is — the first of a long chain of events leading up to the naming of our fair city.

Here’s how it began: Captain Sebastian Rodriguez Cermeño was dispatched by the Spanish to sail up the coast of Alta California and find a safe harbour for the pirate-harassed galleons sailing between New Spain and the Philippines.

A violent storm off of what would one day be named Point Reyes forced him to head for shore — yup, “any port in a storm” — and his ship fetched up in Drake’s Bay. He’d missed discovering the Golden Gate by just a few miles.

Cermeño’s ship, the “San Agustin”, ran aground, destroying it — and the loyal captain claimed that ground for Spain. Not knowing that Sir Francis Drake had shown up in the same spot 16 years earlier — or so we think — Cermeño named the bay “Puerto de San Francisco”.

The industrious Cermeño and his crew salvaged a small launch from the wreckage and sailed it all the way back down to Baja California, incidentally discovering San Diego’s bay along the way.

But how does this relate to our bay?

Well, almost 200 years later, scouts from the Spanish mission-building expedition led by Gaspar de Portolá and Fray Junipero Serra discovered the Golden Gate from the land side. Mistaking it for the body of water named by Cermeño, they called it San Francisco Bay — and this time, the name stuck.

November 3, 1910:
“Kolb and Dill” — vaudeville comedians

kolb and dill san francisco

A short notice appears in the local papers, announcing that the entire theatrical wardrobe of Kolb and Dill — the most popular comedy team in San Francisco — is to be sold at auction.

Clarence Kolb and Max Dill were just a couple of boyhood pals from Cleveland who’d decided to go into show biz. They honed their skills working every vaudeville and burlesque house in the midwest, until — in the gay 1890s — they headed west, discovering San Francisco and an adoring public.

Ethnic stereotypes were the stock in trade of the vaudeville stage. So-called “dialect comedians” played Irish, Jews, Chinese and African-Americans in what are (to most of us) absolutely shudder-inducing ways. Kolb and Dill were of the vaudeville flavour known as a “Double Dutch” act, performing a caricature of Germans as coarse, blustering knockabout oafs in loud checkered suits.

Clarence was tall and skinny, Max short and stout — if you’re thinking Abbot and Costello or Laurel and Hardy, you’re on the right track. Wearing their trademark stovepipe hats and puffing cigars, the two mixed dopey faux-Teutonic accents with rowdy, physical, prat-falling slapstick. San Francisco was crazy for vaudeville, had been more or less since birth — remember the Bella Union? — and these two clowns hit the local variety circuit right in the funny-bone.

As attendance boomed, the stage show grew to include musical comedy and (of course) a cast of showgirls, but the “Teutonic Twins” probably reached the pinnacle of their Bay Area popularity in the weeks following the great Earthquake and Fire of 1906. In a tent erected in the midst of still smoking Market Street wreckage, Kolb and Dill did their damndest to cheer up the whole town.

But backstage, things were far from cheerful — the two old friends had had a falling out. For some years the two hadn’t exchanged a single word with each other — except onstage.

Finally, even the money wasn’t enough to keep them together. Kolb took Dill to court, and in November of 1910, the judge ordered the partnership dissolved, and the team’s mutual effects put up for auction.

Trunks of costumes, false beards, padding, even a chorus girl’s outfit or two went to the highest bidder, and a bit of doggerel commemorating their divorce appeared in the Oakland Tribune:

“Kolb and Dill went up the hill
To corner all the laughter
But Kolb fell down and broke his crown
And was peevish ever after.”

November 9, 1969:
Alcatraz (pre) Occupation

alcatraz occupation

A chartered boat quietly docks at Alcatraz, the legendary prison island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. The Federal prison had closed down six years before, but the small group of Native Americans on the boat have arrived with something else in mind — they symbolically claim the island for the Indian peoples of North America.

The plan was to draw attention to the plight of the more than 500 American Indian nations in the United States — the poverty, discrimination, the theft of their lands, and — perhaps worst of all — a Federal plan to disband and assimilate the Indian nations through something called the policy of Termination.

The symbolic occupation was planned by a charismatic activist student named Richard Oakes. Oakes was a Mohawk, but since the handful of Native Americans on that boat came from many different nations, they named their group “Indians of All Tribes”, and claimed the island in this name.

The visit was brief, but the mission had been so uneventful, so easy, that the group realized that something a little longer was possible. Two weeks later, a full scale occupation was launched which would last almost two years, in which around 100 people would occupy The Rock, and the famous sign at Ghirardelli Square would flash “Go Indians” . The group on Alcatraz would capture the attention — and the sympathies — of just about the entire country.

The occupation eventually disintegrated under internal and external pressures. But though the immediate demands of the group were never met — the deed to the island, the establishment of an Indian university, cultural center, and museum — as I understand it, the event is seen today as a story of success.

During the occupation President Nixon signed papers rescinding the policy of Termination. Thousands of acres of tribal lands were returned, a wide-ranging package of long-hoped-for Federal reforms were passed, and Indian self-determination became official US government policy.

Millions of Americans faced the plight of Native Americans squarely, most for the first time — and a movement of political consciousness was launched which is still active today.

A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history … listen in by clicking the audio player above.

October 28, 1881:
A murder in Chinatown

chinese man with queue

Newspapers, particularly the often very nasty San Francisco Chronicle, were full of anti-Chinese propaganda in the last decades before the turn of the century. Stories dealing with Chinese people were usually over-heated, pretty racist, and sometimes hard to even get through.

This item was short and straightforward, though, and I might have even skipped over it if I hadn’t noticed an article about the very same case in a legal journal. The tiny bit of testimony from the victim in that piece helps capture the flavour of the parallel world of 1880s Chinatown.

Shooting of a Courtesan in Kum Cook Alley

Between 7:30 and 8 o’clock last evening, while Choy Gum, a Chinese courtesan, was bargaining with a fruitdealer in her room on Kum Cook Alley, a Chinaman named Fong Ah Sing walked up to her door and fired a shot at her through the wicket in the portal. The intended murderer then fled, but was captured on Brenham Place by Sergeant T. W. Fields, who took him to the city prison, whither the wounded woman had been conveyed by Officer Maurice Sullivan. An examination by Police Surgeon Stambaugh showed that the ball had entered the right breast, piercing through the right lung and … inflicting a wound which it seems must be fatal.

Choy Gum identified Sing as the person who fired the shot, and stated that it was done on account of some trouble which had occurred last week. The prisoner, who is said by the arresting officer to be the head man of a notorious highbinders’ society, was charged with assault to murder.

chinese men reading tong signs

Some terminology — highbinders’ society refers to one of the notorious “Tongs”, Chinatown’s powerful, often criminal, and constantly battling secret societies. The word “highbinder” itself came to refer specifically to hired Tong killers, or “hatchet men”, and — though the etymology is murky — may stem from the hit-man fashion of tying the traditional Chinese braid — the queue — out of the way, up on top of the head.

The Chronicle would have never expended much energy on a story like this, but the 1886 legal journal “Pacific Reporter” notes that Fong Ah Sing was a member of a “highbinder’s society” — the Duck Kong Tong — but certainly not the head man. He was actually just their translator.

There were plenty of witnesses at each of Fong Ah Sing’s two trials ready to swear to both his innocence and guilt. Tong members? We can’t know that, but we do know that the most damning evidence came from his dying victim, a woman who worked at a brothel at which Fong Ah Sing was apparently a customer … and this supplies the motive:

“I don’t know any reason that Fong Ah Sing had for shooting me, unless it was that a few days before the shooting I was bathing my feet upstairs over a room in which (he) was sitting, and spilled a little water on the floor, and it leaked through, and fell upon (him). Fong Ah Sing was very angry thereat, and told the proprietor of the house that I must apologize, and make him some present, to prevent bad luck coming upon the house. The proprietor did make some little present to (him), and I considered the matter settled.”

In Chinatown, 1881 … apparently not.

October 27, 1892:
Starr King monument erected

starr king monument golden gate park

Almost thirty years after the death of the reverend Thomas Starr King, a beautiful granite monument was dedicated to the memory of “the Man Who Saved California for the Union”. For decades afterwards, grateful San Franciscans visit the statue on Memorial Day and wreath it with flowers.

Since I’ve already spent a good hour and a half telling Starr King’s Civil War-era story in a pair of podcasts (numbers 59 and 60), I don’t need to dwell on his years of tireless devotion to the pro-Union cause. I will opine, though, that those flowers were richly deserved, and a tradition that ought to be resuscitated.

The monument stands in Golden Gate Park at the entrance to the Music Concourse — you know, where the Academy of Sciences and De Young Museum are located — and its base bears this inscription:

“In him eloquence, strength and virtue were devoted with fearless courage to truth, country and his fellow-men.”

October 31, 1963:
Death of the Black Cat Café

black cat cafe

On Halloween night, the “Black Cat Café” — that notorious, flamboyant and most historically significant of San Francisco’s gay nightspots, held a final celebration before closing down for good.

Though Prohibition had shuttered the venerable North Beach establishment in the ’20s, the Black Cat proudly reopened in 1933. Number 710 Montgomery Street quickly became a magnet for artists, writers, and beatniks. Steinbeck, Saroyan, and Ginsberg all patronized the joint, and in fact, the Black Cat played the role of the “Bohemian Bar” in Kerouac’s novel On the Road.

black cat cafe

Following World War II, a new military policy precipitated the sudden discharge of thousands of gay men into the welcoming arms of our liberal city. The Black Cat became a central gathering place, evolving into a kind of bohemian drag bar, but much more than that; a place where poets, sailors, stevedores and suits could shake off convention, creating a wild sense of revolutionary freedom for gay and straight folks alike.

The San Francisco Police Department began a campaign of organized intimidation, raids, and arrests, and the state suspended the bar’s liquor license. On principle, the (straight) owner took the case to all the way to the California Supreme court, which determined that serving drinks to homosexuals was not a crime — one of the earliest legal affirmations of the rights of gay people in the country.

The state responded with a constitutional amendment creating the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control — the “ABC” — giving it broad powers to shut down establishments that didn’t toe a straitlaced line.

black cat cafe

Years of harassment followed, but the Black Cat flourished. The star of the drag show was a certain José Sarria, who eventually — though failing in his bid for a spot on the Board of Supervisors — became the first gay man in the country to run for elective office. The bar had evolved again, into a rallying point for a social and political movement.

By 1963, the owner was too tired and broke to keep up the fight. The ABC yanked the Black Cat’s liquor license for good — and what’s worse, on the night before its famous annual Halloween bash. The boisterous party was held anyway, with soda and juice sold at the bar.

The Black Cat closed down permanently the next day, but even a cursory glance around modern San Francisco will tell you that its legacy lives on.

A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history … listen in by clicking the audio player above.

October 24, 1861:
The continent gets wired

transcontinental telegraph utah

The transcontinental telegraph line is finished, literally uniting the United States by wire just as the country was disintegrating into Civil War.

Just before the shooting started, Congress had offered a substantial bribe (known as a subsidy) to any company agreeing to take on the seemingly impossible project — a hare-brained plan to hang a thin wire on poles marching hundreds of miles across the Great Plains, up the Rockies, and into the Wild West.

Work began in June of 1861. Just like the transcontinental railroad a few years later, one section started in the east, one in the west, with the goal of linking up in Utah.

pony express telegraph

The two crews worked their ways toward Salt Lake City for six long months, following the route established less than a year and a half earlier by the Pony Express. It was an epic struggle. Thousands of poles were planted in scorching heat and freezing snow, and the workers negotiated not only with the hostile elements, but with Native Americans and Mormons.

James Gamble, the man under whose supervision the western half of the project was completed, gives this report of the very first transcontinental telegram.

“The great work, which had been … agitated so many years, both on this coast, in the East, and in Congress, was completed … It had been proposed to get up a celebration in honor of such an important event, but owing to the uncertainty as to the exact time when the line would be completed, no preparation had been made. The employees of the company who stood around, manifested the greatest anxiety, watching the first click of the instrument across the continent. At last it came and read as follows:


A more significant telegram, and the one that actually made history, was sent later that day — assuring president Abraham Lincoln that California was loyal to the Union.

The Pony Express, which had faithfully supplied San Francisco with news of the telegraph’s progress, never ran again.

October 20, 1880:
“A Hoodlum Raid”

Barbary Coast hoodlum

Sometimes it’s best to let the past speak in its own words, and even better, on subjects that aren’t going to show up in history books. Here’s an item from an 1880’s edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, written at a time when the lively iniquities of the Barbary Coast were in fullest swing. The gang of “hoodlums” involved are the very kids who gave rise to that homegrown slang — in fact, it appears right in the headline:

A Hoodlum Raid — How they Swindled a Cheap Coffee House

Last night, after the dives had discharged their sweltering and depraved patrons into the streets, a gang of young hoodlums invaded a Market-street coffee-house. The oldest of the gamins might have been 16, but in rascality he was an octogenarian. The crowd occupied six tables, and for fifteen minutes made the establishment ring with the clatter of their cups and saucers. Having grave doubts of the solvency of the gang, the restaurateur kept a watchful eye on the young scamps, and was not reassured by seeing them slip out, one by one, with the remark, “Them fellers at the last table will pay for it.”

Finally, after about $3 worth of coffee and doughnuts had been disposed of, the alleged cashiers of the crowd began to move. Two walked out, and the third, a sturdy young rascal, coolly sauntered up to the counter and, helping himself to a toothpick, started for the door. “Here,” said the coffee man, “who’s going to pay for this?”

The young (hoodlum) affected the most intense surprise. “Ain’t Crusty paid for it?” he asked. On being assured that Crusty had done nothing so uncharacteristic, he had a spasm of virtuous indignation, which was aggravated by catching sight of the absconding financier on the sidewalk. “Here Crusty,” he cried, “come in and settle fur this. You won’t? Why you dirty etc., etc., etc., I’ll knock the fool-(tar) out of you.” and he rushed at the delinquent to punish him summarily. The moment he got over the threshold “Crusty” gave a whoop, and before the poor coffee man had recovered from his astonishment the whole gang was scampering round the nearest corner.

Investigation showed that they had taken all the spoons and knives with them.

San Francisco Chronicle — October 20, 1880

October 22, 1988:
San Francisco’s literary streets

mark twain street sign

In a ceremony held at City Lights Bookstore, the City of San Francisco renames 12 streets for locally renowned artists and authors. I’ll just tear through them here, but let me tell you, you could do worse than to make this your reading list for the upcoming year:

  • Frank Norris, the turn of the century Berkeley undergrad who produced both the brutally naturalist McTeague and the critique of monopoly capitalism The Octopus;
  • And last but most certainly not least, Mr. Samuel Clemens, local newsman, failed gold miner, teller of tall tales and American Original, commemorated in San Francisco under his pen name, Mark Twain.

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

October 18, 1850:
San Francisco celebrates California’s admission to the Union

san francisco 1851

On this date, after endless politicking and interminable delay, the mail ship Oregon steamed into San Francisco harbor with the news that California had been admitted to the Union.

The reaction of San Francisco’s 25,000 citizens is something I’ll allow the Daily Alta California to report:

“Business of almost every description was instantly suspended, the courts adjourned in the midst of their work, and men rushed from every house into the streets and towards the wharves, to hail the harbinger of the welcome news. When the steamer rounded Clark’s Point and came in front of the city, her masts literally covered with flags and signals, a universal shout arose from ten thousand voices on the wharves, in the streets, upon the hills, house-tops, and the world of shipping in the bay.

“Again and again were huzzas repeated, adding more and more every moment to the intense excitement and unprecedented enthusiasm. Every public place was soon crowded with eager seekers after the particulars of the news, and the first papers issued an hour after the appearance of the Oregon were sold by the newsboys (for as much as) five dollars each.

The enthusiasm increased as the day advanced. Flags of every nation were run up on a thousand masts … , and a couple of large guns placed upon the plaza were constantly discharged. At night every public thoroughfare was crowded with the rejoicing populace. Almost every large building, all the public saloons and places of amusement were brilliantly illuminated — music from a hundred bands assisted the excitement — numerous balls and parties were hastily got up — bonfires blazed upon the hills, and rockets were incessantly thrown into the air, until the dawn of the following day.

Many difficulties had occurred to delay this happy event, and the people had become sick at heart with the “hope deferred” of calling themselves, and of being in reality citizens of the great American Union.”

October 15, 1863:
Cliff House opens — first of many!

first san francisco cliffhouse 1863

The first Cliff House opened its doors on this date 145 years ago. The brainchild of a real estate speculator and a State Senator, this first of umpteen incarnations was a simple white clapboard affair. Despite its external modesty, it was a high-class joint, and quickly became the most fashionable destination in town. Presidents Ulysses Grant and Rutherford B Hayes would number among its many distinguished guests over the years, but I choose to look to Sam Clemens for an on-the-spot review, reported for the San Francisco Call just weeks after the place opened:

“Then there’s the Cliff House, perched on the very brink of the ocean, like a castle by the Rhine, with countless sea-lions rolling their unwieldy bulks on the rocks … Steamers and sailing craft are passing, wild fowl scream … (and) the waves roll into breakers, foam and spray, for five miles along the beach, beautiful and grand … the appetite is whetted by the drive and the breeze, the ocean’s presence wins you into a happy frame, and you can eat one of the best dinners with the hungry relish of an ostrich.

“Go to the Cliff House. Go ere the winds get too fresh, and if you like, you may come back by Mountain Lake and the Presidio, overlook the Fort, and bow to the Stars and Stripes as you pass.”

The Cliff House was exclusive because it was hard to reach — an expensive toll road and access to a horse and carriage were the only way out to Land’s End. When public transportation eventually improved in the 1880s, the toney crowd sought other playgrounds. The restaurant and its reputation fell into a steep decline, and after a 30-year run, this first San Francisco Cliff House burned right to the ground.

October 18, 1970:
Dedication of the Chinatown gate

san francisco chinatown gate

The famous gateway to Chinatown — you know the one at Bush and Grant, guarded by fou lions, and surmounted by a couple of dragons — was installed and officially dedicated.

The gate is a paifang. These are markers historically denoting the entrance to a building complex or town, and those evil-spirit-thwarting fou lions are a typical part of the program. Thanks largely to gifts given by the Republic of China (that’s Taiwan to you), these gates have become symbols of Chinatowns all over the world. Los Angeles, Portland, Vancouver, and countless others acquired their own neighborhood markers this way.

san francisco chinatown gate fou lion

In San Francisco’s case, Taiwan provided materials for the gate, but the design was dreamed up by Chinese-American architect Clayton Lee, whose design apparently won a contest in the late 1960s.

The two-tiered, pagoda-style structure was built according to principles of feng shui, which dictate (among other things) that a city’s grandest gate must face south, and — though somewhat dwarfed by the larger buildings around it — that it does.

A wooden plaque hangs from the central archway, on which stand gilded characters rendering a quote from the “Father of Modern China”, the revered revolutionary leader (and one-time Chinatown resident) Dr. Sun Yat-sen:


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