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Monday, January 5th, 2009

San Francisco Timecapsule: 01.05.09

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.

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Monday, December 22nd, 2008

Timecapsule podcast: San Francisco, December 22-31

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 Sparkletack.com.

Sutro’s first order of business upon making 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-cliff-house

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.

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Monday, December 15th, 2008

Timecapsule podcast: San Francisco, December 15-21

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

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Monday, December 8th, 2008

Timecapsule podcast: San Francisco, December 8-14

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:

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Monday, December 1st, 2008

Timecapsule podcast: San Francisco, December 1-7

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.

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Monday, November 24th, 2008

Timecapsule podcast: San Francisco, November 24-30


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.

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Monday, November 17th, 2008

Timecapsule podcast: San Francisco, November 17-23

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Thursday, November 13th, 2008

Zoe the Pirate returns to 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 […]

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Tuesday, November 11th, 2008

Sparkletack Interview: Amateur Traveler Podcast

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.

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Monday, November 10th, 2008

Timecapsule podcast: San Francisco, November 10-16


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.

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Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

San Francisco toothpick contraption, 35 YEARS in the making

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 […]

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Monday, November 3rd, 2008

Timecapsule podcast: San Francisco, November 3-9


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

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.

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Monday, October 27th, 2008

Timecapsule podcast: San Francisco, October 27-November 2


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

October 28, 1881:
A murder in Chinatown

chinese man with queue

A murder in Chinatown.

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.

CHINESE CRIME
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 … 3 Comments » - Posted in San Francisco history blog,San Francisco history podcasts by


Monday, October 20th, 2008

Timecapsule podcast — San Francisco, October 20-26


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

October 24, 1861

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 hair-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.

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Monday, October 13th, 2008

Timecapsule podcast — San Francisco, October 13-19


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

October 18, 1851

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.

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