San Francisco history blog

1921: the cornerstone of the Palace of the Legion of Honor is laid … but what was underneath?

legion-of-honor-1923February 19, 1921
Ghosts of Lands End

On this date the cornerstone for San Francisco’s spectacular Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum was levered into place.

The Museum was to be a vehicle for the cultural pretensions of the notorious Alma Spreckels. This social-climbing dynamo envisioned her Museum as a far western outpost of French art and culture. Drawing on the vast fortune of her husband — sugar baron Adolph Spreckels — she constructed a replica of the Palace of Versailles Parisian Palais de Legion D’Honneur out at Lands End. Alma would stock the place with art treasures from her own vast collection — including one of the finest assemblages of Rodin sculpture on the planet.

I’ve already talked myself hoarse on the subject of Alma Spreckels’ rags-to-riches clamber up the social slopes of Pacific Heights, but what’s really interesting me today is not what’s inside her museum, but what lay underneath that cornerstone in 1921.

Location, location, location!

As Alma recognized, the site is just spectacular — one of my favourite spots in all of San Francisco. The circular parking lot out front, overlooking the Lincoln Park golf course, offers a sweepingly dramatic view of the city skyline, and the winding road leading down towards Seacliff is a wonderful spot from which to admire the Golden Gate.

But there’s something else about the site of that Museum that makes it a bit … mmm, “unusual”.

It’s located smack dab in the center of what was once the largest cemetery in San Francisco.

Golden Gate Cemetery

golden gate cemeteryThe Golden Gate Cemetery was established out at Lands End in 1868 as a final resting place for a rainbow of ethnic groups and fraternal orders. The largest section, though, was a “potter’s field” — a dumping ground for San Francisco’s indigent population, people too poor to afford a proper burial.

By the turn of the century, as the city grew westward, it became clear that this land was just too good to waste on dead people.

In 1909, the land was “repurposed” as part of the new Lincoln Park, and construction of the golf course began. Sure, the City requested that the various groups, associations and orders connected with the graveyards dig up their bodies and ship them to the vast new cemeteries down in Colma. And many of them did.

rodin-thinker-legionBut who would be responsible for the abandoned denizens of the lowly potter’s field?


Construction crews simply knocked down the gravestones and scraped all evidence of the cemetery away — leaving the corpses mouldering beneath the surface.

By the time the cornerstone of the Legion of Honor Museum was laid in 1921, there was no evidence that a cemetery had ever existed.

Fast forward 62 years.

In 1993, the Museum launched an expansion and renovation project — and guess what they uncovered?

Right under the columned courtyard, right beneath Rodin’s massive bronze “Thinker”, workmen revealed the remains of 300 bodies.

As was to be expected, most of the bones were of poor old men interred in the last years of the 19th century — but the remainder were much much older, dating back to the days when San Francisco was still known as Yerba Buena.

If you’ve heard the Sparkletack podcast called “Moving the Dead“, you already know something about how the bodies of hundreds of ’49ers were shuffled from graveyard to graveyard as San Francisco grew — finally shoved out here to the City’s far western margin.

Treasure trove

After workmen stumbled on the first of the coffins, an archeological team was called in. They uncovered a minor historical treasure trove: Rivets from ancient Levi’s jeans, rosaries still wrapped in bony fingers, the remains of hand-made dentures, and even a withered heart in a small tin box. A map detailing each body’s location is online at

The scientists had access only to the land underneath the Museum’s courtyard, and begged to be allowed to make a more extensive dig — but with an eye on renovation deadlines, officials refused.

Between 1868 and about 1890, 11,000 bodies had been buried in the land underneath Lincoln Park — and just 300 were recovered. Are there still mortal remains lying beneath the Museum, the golf course and your feet as you take in the gorgeous view?

You do the math.

Alma tries to join the haunt

alma-spreckelsIt’s unclear just how much Alma Spreckels knew about the haunted history of Lands End when she picked the site for her Museum — but perhaps the ghosts are what prompted her to attempt her own minor addition to the underground population.

In a vain attempt to sneak around the 1903 ordinance forbidding burials within the city limits, Alma ordered her architect to construct a secret burial chamber in the walls of the Museum, with space for both her and Adolph.

The Spreckels were eventually buried — but not in the Museum.

Newspapermen sniffed out the story, thwarting Alma’s plans and causing a scandal. The thousands of bodies left beneath Lincoln Park should have ended up down in the cemeteries of Colma. Instead, Colma would be the final resting place for Alma and Adolph Spreckels.

1869: the fashionable neighborhood of Rincon Hill is sliced in two.

2nd-street-cut-1-1869February, 1869
The laceration of Rincon Hill

There aren’t too many people living who remember this now, but Rincon Hill was once the fanciest neighborhood in San Francisco.

You know the place, right? It’s south of Market Street, an asphalt-covered lump of rock with the Bay Bridge sticking out of the north-east side and Second Street running by, out to the Giants’ ballpark. That’s Rincon Hill. What’s left of it, anyway.

Exactly 140 years ago this month, the California Supreme Court gave the go-ahead to a scheme which would destroy it.

San Francisco’s first fashionable address

As San Francisco’s Gold Rush-era population explosion of tents and rickety clapboard started to settle down, the bank accounts of merchants and lucky miners started to fill up. Men were becoming civilized, acquiring culture, and the sort of women known as “wives” were moving into town. This led to a demand for a neighborhood that was distinctly separate from the barbarous Barbary Coast, and with its sunny weather, gentle elevation, and spectacular views of the Bay, Rincon Hill filled the bill.

2nd-street-rincon-hill-1865According to the Annals of San Francisco, by 1853 Rincon Hill was dotted with “numerous elegant structures” — including the little gated community of South Park. By the 1860s, the Hill was covered with mansions in a riot of architectural styles, and had become the social epicenter of the young city.

And then in 1867 (cue evil-real-estate-developer music here) a San Franciscan named John Middleton got himself elected to the California State Legislature. According to some sources, his elevation was part of a conspiracy to push through a specific radical civic “improvement”.

2nd-street-rincon-hill-1869The Second Street “Cut”

Here’s the situation that required “improving”: at the time, there was a high volume of heavy commercial horse cart traffic to the busy South Beach wharves from Market Street. Second Street provided a direct route, but — since it went up and over the highest part of Rincon Hill — horse carts were obliged to take the long way around via Third Street.

Middleton’s plan was simplicity itself: carve a deep channel through the heart of the hill, right along Second Street. He just happened to own a big chunk of property at Second and Bryant Streets, and couldn’t wait to see his property values go through the roof.

“But wait,” you’re saying, “what about the owners of those lovely homes up on fashionable Rincon Hill? Won’t they object to having their front doors open up to a 100-foot canyon instead of a sidewalk? Do they even have the technology to pull this off? And what about the horrific mess the construction is going to make? We are talking high society here, right?”

Oh yes indeed. And what was even more galling was the fact that Rincon Hill property owners were going to be directly taxed for this “improvement” to their neighborhood.

John Middleton arrived in Sacramento with a plan to push legislation that would bypass the objections of these not-in-my-backyard obstructionists to progress, and that’s just how it worked out. Palms were greased, back-room deals were cut, and a bill was duly passed authorizing the project.

The citizenry of Rincon Hill did object, taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court — but the way I see it, the players behind this scheme were well connected, and fix was already in.

2nd-street-cut-2-1869The disaster begins …

In 1869, the vivisection of Rincon Hill began. The carving started at Folsom Street and cut through to Bryant. Harrison Street was chopped in half, of course, but then reconnected by a cast-iron bridge hovering 100 feet above the chasm. The only access to Rincon Hill from Second Street was a set of steep and rickety wooden stairs.

And then the winter rains arrived, dissolving the steep canyon walls into mud. Whole sections of hillside were washed away. Homes on each side of the cut began to shift from their foundations, at least one sliding all the way down and splintering onto the street below.

Those who had houses left to sell, sold at a loss, and Rincon Hill descended rapidly from elite address to has-been.

By the 1880s Robert Louis Stevenson could accurately describe the Hill as “a new slum, a place of precarious sandy cliffs, deep sandy cuttings, solitary ancient houses and butt ends of streets.”

Thanks to the invention of the hill-climbing cable car, Nob Hill and the newly mapped Western Addition and Pacific Heights had become the new centers of upper-crust prestige.

2nd-street-harrison-bridge-1869The Second Street Cut became a hangout for thieves, muggers, and hoodlums, whose favourite sport was reported to be hurling stones down at Chinese cart drivers. These dangers reminded some of the perils of crossing the Western Frontier, earning the Cut the nickname of “Apache Pass”.

… and all for naught.

But here’s the deepest irony of all. The expected flood of commercial traffic that was to have raised property values and somehow make the whole thing worth it? Drivers chose different routes, and the traffic never materialized.

The Second Street project cost $385,000, a neighborhood was ruined in the process, and the slice through Rincon Hill was the first of many topographical disfigurements — and after all of that, John Middleton and his supporters never made dollar one.

1849: As the fateful year of 1849 begins, a newspaper editor scrutinizes San Francisco’s gold rush future.

gold rushFebruary 1, 1849
The eye of the Gold Rush hurricane

The spring of 1849 — dawn of a year forever branded into the national consciousness as the era of the California Gold Rush.

And so it was — but that was back East, in the “States”. In San Francisco, the Gold Rush had actually begun an entire year earlier.

I’d better set the scene.

The United States were at war with Mexico — it’s President Polk and “Manifest Destiny” time. San Francisco (then Yerba Buena) was conquered without a shot in July of 1847.

In the first month of 1848, gold was quietly discovered in the foothills east of Sutter’s Fort. Days later, the Mexican war came to an end, and Alta California became sole property of the United States.

Sam Brannan kick-starts things in ’48

San Francisco was skeptical about the gold strike, but in May of ’48, Sam Brannan made his famous appearance on Market Street brandishing a bottle of gold dust. His shouts of “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River” triggered the first wave of the Gold Rush.

The village of about 500 souls was emptied almost overnight as its inhabitants hotfooted it for the hills. Among the many businesses left completely in the lurch was Sam Brannan’s own newspaper, the California Star.

While the entrepreneurial Brannan was busy becoming a millionaire selling shovels to gold miners, by June his entire staff had abandoned the paper and set off to make their own fortunes.

Edward Kemble publishes the Alta California

alta california newspaper buildingBrannan sold what was left of his newspaper to a more civic-minded businessman, Mr. Edward Cleveland Kemble. Kemble resuscitated the Star (along with San Francisco’s other gold rush-crippled paper, the Californian) as a brand spanking new paper he called the Alta California. The first issue appeared at the tail end of 1848.

That brings us right up to today’s timecapsule.

The editorial on the front page of issue #5 of the new paper is a treasure trove of contemporary San Francisco perspectives.

As editor Kemble was composing this piece — a retrospective of the previous year, and a peek into the uncertain future — it was the dead of winter, and the first wave of the Rush had crested and broken back towards the city.

Kemble was first and foremost a businessman, and he was concerned with the civic and financial future of San Francisco. He points out that the city is poorly governed, a little short on law and order, already swelling with gold-seekers from Mexico and Oregon, and — to sum it up — is woefully unprepared for the onslaught of humanity, the avalanche of “49ers” already looming on the horizon.

But though he’s aware that the next wave is going to be a doozy, with 20-20 historical hindsight we know that he doesn’t really have a clue.

What Kemble doesn’t know … yet.

san francisco harbor 1851By the end of 1849, the village of San Francisco will have burst at every seam, with a population exploding from 2000 to 25,000. Tens of thousands of gold seekers will flow through the port and even more will stagger in overland from the East, all in all 100,000 strong.

The beautiful harbour will be choked with hundreds of deserted, rotting ships, and the local government will prove to be ineffectual and almost totally corrupt. By the end of ’49 San Francisco will have become a wild, sprawling, lawless shanty boomtown, and the soul and future of our City by the Bay will be permanently transformed.

Kemble’s observations give us ground-level insight into the concerns of the village of San Francisco in the winter of 1848 — a priceless peek into the eye of the gold rush hurricane.

Note: article subheads below added by yours truly

San Francisco — Her Prospects

alta california mastheadIn the month of June, 1847, a census of the town of San Francisco was taken, by a Lieutenant of the 1st New York Regiment, who was then on duty here. That census exhibited the fact, that her population had increased one hundred percent in the preceding year, and then amounted to 459 souls. There had been erected within the year previous to June, 1847, thirty houses; and laboring men and mechanics were earning from two to three dollars per day. Business was brisk, and all the necessaries and some few of the luxuries of life met with ready sale at good prices. There was but little capital in the country, but that little was judiciously, economically, and steadily applied, and its effects were perceptible and satisfactory.

San Francisco before the Gold Rush

The prosperity and increase of the town was rapid and sure. Unimproved lots which had originally cost sixteen dollars were sold at prices varying from fifty dollars to five hundred, according to situation, and some of the most central were held as high as two thousand dollars. In the months of July and August, 1847, there were forty-eight houses erected, a number equal to five-eighths of all the buildings theretofore erected in the town. The clink of the hammer and the sliding of the plane were heard in every direction, and a fifteen minutes walk would have brought one in hearing of the woodman’s axe.

The farmers in the surrounding rich valleys had planted sowed and gathered rich harvests, quicksilver mines had been opened in parts of the country, and were being successfully worked, saw mills and grist mills were working profitably, and others were in process of erection, peace existed throughout the territory, and law and order were preserved and life and prosperity were secure.

During all this time the progress of San Francisco was continued and rapid, as a census taken by the school commissioners in the month of March, 1848 clearly proved. The number of white inhabitants, as exhibited by their returns, amounted to 812, which, compared with the number as stated in June, 1847, showed an increase of more than one hundred percent in the space of eight months. Business at this time was good, the mild winter had contributed to advance trade and agricultural pursuits, and the country was looking forward to a prolific harvest, a steady advance on the price of real estate, a large immigration, a profitable working of quicksilver mines, an influx of capital and industry, and a general and solid prosperity.

Gold discovered on the Rio Americano!

About this time (April, 1848,) rumors of the discovery of extensive gold mines on the Rio Americano began to circulate from mouth to mouth. Little knots collected at street corners to hear and tell the news — squads of workmen might be seen listening with eager faces to the tale of some newly arrived “digger”, and merchants and speculators bean seriously to calculate the changes this state of things was likely to produce in the value of merchandise and town lots, and its effect upon trade generally. Society was in a state of fusion; and the prospects, condition and business of the country were about to undergo a wonderful revolution.

For a moment, as the intelligence of new discoveries and the substantial evidences of old ones, came to the knowledge of the community, public energy, enterprise and industry seemed paralyzed. The laborer leaned thoughtfully on his spade, the mechanic, with hands in pocket, looked listlessly and abstractedly upon his work, and the merchant shut himself up in his counting-room and turned over the pages of his ledger with a desperation which showed how eager he was to clutch the golden spoils.

All classes and all conditions were spell-bound. But suddenly the change came. — The whole community, as if by a simultaneous impulse, literally rushed to this El Dorado. No inducement, no ties, could keep them away. The desire for gold reigned supreme, and swept before it, like a resistless torrent, every landmark of “things that were”.

“A dark and gloomy moment”

This was a dark and gloomy moment for San Francisco. Her streets were deserted, her houses untenanted, her improvements stopped in their very beginning, and the bud of her prosperity and advancement nipped. Real estate had no value, for there were no purchasers; the wages of laborers and mechanics had risen to five and ten dollars per day, and they were not to be procured at that; food had become enormously high, and the costs of the minor necessaries of life had so advanced that those few whose engagements rendered it impossible for them to go to the mines could see no probably means of procuring a bare subsistence.

Like fire, the news spread throughout the land. — The conservative industry of the country was dead; the plow was left to rust in the furrow, the crops to decay and waste where they grew, and the cattle to stay and wander where they choose. The news swept across the land and ocean, and Oregon, the Sandwich Islands, and Sonora sent their hundreds and thousands to participate in the golden harvest. The Indians in the country were seized with the mania, and not understanding the value of the article they found, they paid immense prices for food, beads, cloths of bright colors, and merchandise generally.

Inflation strikes the city

The sudden acquisition of wealth begat in all a desire to spend, and to spend freely. — Merchandise rose in price immensely, vile brandy and rum became as valuable as an oriental emperor’s choicest attar and rose, and provisions were almost worth their weight in gold. Business men turned their attention to the subject, whole cargoes were purchased at high prices, and sent into the mines, and still the demand continued, aye, increased.

The cost of transportation, and the means thereof, had gradually risen, until the wages of boatmen, instead of being from ten to forty dollars per month, were from thirty to three hundred dollars, and the value of launches that had originally cost from one hundred to two thousand dollars, now ranged from five hundred to ten thousand. Freight from San Francisco to Sutter’s Embarcadero, a distance of some one hundred and sixty miles, was three dollars per one hundred pounds, and the passage money for each passenger was ten dollars. The land transportation for Sutter’s Embarcadero to the Placer varied from twelve dollars to twenty-five dollars per one hundred pounds, according to distance, which in no case exceeded sixty miles. Notwithstanding these monstrous prices, merchandise, clothing, provisions and liquors continued to go forward to, and were in demand in, every portion of the mines.

A summer of sickness

In the month of July, 1848, the miners began to suffer from sickness, A new and furnace-like climate, unwholesome food, intemperate habits of eating and drinking, exposure to a fierce sun with the lower part of the body immersed in ice cold water, and the complete change of manner of living, did their work. Fever seized upon them, and many died. In the months of August and September the mines were nearly deserted, and every launch from Sutter’s Fort brought numbers of pale and emaciated sufferers. The hardy and strong, seeing their companions falling around them, also returned, and San Francisco again wore a populous though not as enterprising and advancing aspect.

But it could not long so remain. The inherent industry of its citizens soon manifested itself, and many buildings were erected and other improvements made. In the latter part of September, however, the current set again towards the mines, and beyond the merchants and those employed by them, but few remained.

A winter break — and proof that the Gold Rush is good for the city

In November, though, when the people returned from the mines for the winter, rich with the precious metal, the effects of the gold mines upon San Francisco were more sensibly felt, and more properly appreciated. Real estate rose immediately in value. Lots that had been purchased in the spring for from one hundred to two thousand dollars now ranged from one thousand to fifteen thousand dollars; buildings that had theretofore rented at from ten to twenty dollars per month, were now taken with avidity at from twenty to one hundred dollars per month; merchandise and provisions though enormously high before, advanced one hundred percent., lumber and building materials advanced in the same ratio, and it was then, and not til then, that the problem was solved, “Will San Francisco be benefited, or not, by the discovery of the gold mines?”

From that time all have conceded that she must advance and prosper, and that too, in a ratio which will astonish the methodical and plodding calculator. Recent accounts from different parts of the world, and recent arrivals of ship loads of immigrants, render this position incontrovertible. But to make it still more incontestible let us state a few important facts —

1st.   San Francisco possesses the safest, largest, and most accessible harbor on the whole Pacific coast;

2d.   The situation of the town is picturesque, and but four miles from the sea;

3d.   The large bay of San Francisco is navigable for medium sized vessels, as are also its great tributaries the Sacramento and San Joaquin;

4th.   The climate, though disagreeable to new comers from the prevalence of northwesterly winds, is remarkably healthy;

5th.   The population has increased since March last from 800 to about 2000 souls;

6th.   Real Estate has risen in value from one hundred to ten hundred per cent;

7th.   The export of gold dust from this port since May last is supposed to exceed $20,000,000;

8th.   The duties collected at the custom house were,

4th Qr. of 1847, $12,040.19
1st " 1848, 11,931.27
2d " " 8,835.38
3d " " 74,827.98
4th " " 100,480.83

Total, in 1848,   $196,074.66

9th.   The imports of merchandise, during the year 1848, have probably exceeded in value $1,000,000;

10th.   The importation of coin in the same period for the purchase of gold dust, have probably amounted to $1,000,000;

11th.   The arrival of passengers by sea have amounted to about 1000 souls;

And 12th.   The number of new buildings erected in the past year will probably exceed fifty.

“The worst governed community in existence”

And yet, with all those natural and acquired advantages, San Francisco is perhaps the worst governed community in existence. Her public funds have been expended in ill-digested and ill-planned schemes, whose results are scarcely perceptible and of but little benefit — her public domain has been parcelled out and sold, with the reservation of lots for public buildings, school-houses, hospitals or jails. She is without law, without proper executive officers, and without the means of confining and punishing offenders, and were it not that gold is so abundant, no man could calculate how long before the assassin’s knife would be at his throat, or at what moment the incendiary’s torch would be applied to his dwelling.

All men deplore this state of affairs, all exclaim loudly against it — and yet, it has heretofore been found utterly impossible to get a dozen reputable and intelligent inhabitants to stop a moment in their pace for wealth. And remember that there are higher motives than the desire for gold — dearer interests than the acquisition of property — and sublimer aspirations than schemes for making money. All can bring changes on the unfortunate circumstances that surround us, but united, determined, proper and continued action cannot be elicited.

“What shall be done?”

What, then, shall be done? Every breeze that sweeps across the Pacific or Rocky Mountains brings us intelligence that thousands of emigrants are already en route for California. Many of these will arrive in San Francisco, and it is fair to infer that the influx of strangers will add to the present unsettled and unsatisfactory situation of affairs, unless suitable means be adopted to prevent such a result. We shall be exposed to new evils, and it is the part of wisdom to be prepared for then. Again we ask, “What shall be done?”

We have indulged in the foregoing remarks, not so much to show to the world the prosperity of San Francisco, despite her bad government, as to make her citizens fully sensible that they are playing an important part in history — that as denizens of the place destined too to be the first city of commercial importance on the west coast of North or South America, it is de to the world, to the country, and to themselves, that they should labor to have good laws and to have them properly executed — that they should forget for a moment their personal interests, and attend to the public’s — and that they should not fail to remember that no man can be a good citizen unless he fully discharges his every duty towards that society of which he constitutes a part.

Alta California — Thursday, Feb. 1, 1849

1847: Thanks to a Spanish noblewoman and the quick thinking of Yerba Buena’s first American alcalde, San Francisco gets its name.

early-yerba-buenaJanuary 30, 1847:
Yerba Buena becomes San Francisco

Yerba Buena

That was the name given to the tiny bayside settlement back in 1835, a name taken from the wild mint growing on the sand dunes that surrounded it. And if it hadn’t been for the lucky first name of an elegant Spanish noblewoman, that’s what the city of San Francisco would still be called today.

Our magnificent bay had already worn the name of San Francisco since 1769 — but though some in Yerba Buena apparently used it as a nickname, it never occurred to its motley population to make “San Francisco” official.

In July of 1846 Yerba Buena was just 11 years old, a sleepy hamlet in Mexican territory with just about 200 residents. The place woke up some when Captain John B. Montgomery sailed into the harbour, marched into the center of town and raised the Stars and Stripes.

The Mexican alcalde and other officials split town before Montgomery’s marines arrived, so — at least as far as Yerba Buena was concerned — the annexation of California in the Mexican-American war took place without a fight.

mariano-vallejorobert-sempleDon Mariano Vallejo, Dr. Robert Semple and the Bear Flag connection

A couple of weeks earlier up in Sonoma, the rancho of Comandante General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo had been invaded by a ragtag collection of American frontiersman. They were attempting to strike a blow for California’s independence from Mexico. Don Vallejo, one of the most powerful and wealthy men in the Mexican territory of Alta California, was arrested — kidnapped, perhaps — and transported to Sutter’s Fort on the Sacramento River.

You’ll undoubtedly recognize this as a scene from the infamous “Bear Flag Revolt” — a terrific story, but I’m in grave danger of digressing here. In fact, I mention it only because the route taken by Vallejo’s captors led them across some of the General’s considerable Mexican land-grant holdings, specifically those around the convergence of the Sacramento River and San Francisco Bay.

One of the more civilized members of that Bear Flag group was one Doctor Robert Semple, an energetic, well-educated and nearly seven-foot-tall Kentuckian. Doctor Semple was also a man with vision, and he carefully noted the beauty — and strategic potential — of this location.

About six months later, once hostilities had settled down a bit, Doctor Semple and his one-time prisoner Don Vallejo struck an agreement to found a new city on that spot — right on the northern shore of the Carquinez Straits.

“Francisca”, new metropolis of the West

On January 19th, 1847, Vallejo deeded a five-square-mile tract of his lands to Semple. Don Vallejo made one important stipulation to this deal; that the new city be named for his beloved wife: “Doña Francisca Benicia Carrillo.”

Doctor Semple agreed.

The name would honour Señora Vallejo, but also — and more importantly to the enterprising Semple — associate itself with the great San Francisco Bay. The city he envisioned as the new metropolis of the West would be dubbed “Francisca”.

Lt. Bartlett sees the future

The agreement was officially recorded in Yerba Buena by the new American alcalde — Captain Montgomery’s second in command, Lieutenant Washington Bartlett. Though Bartlett’s position in Yerba Buena was only temporary, he had apparently already fallen under the patriotic influence of his new surroundings.

Washington Bartlett, like Semple, realized that names carry symbolic weight. Association with the already well known San Francisco Bay — and the mission — would help the upstart “Francisca” attract shipping, commerce, and national renown.

Yerba Buena had grown to a population of barely 500 at this point, and there was absolutely nothing that guaranteed its future as the primary city of the West — or even of the Bay Area. The formation of “Francisca” right across the bay had real potential to eclipse the little town altogether.

As one writer tells it, “Alcalde Bartlett went into executive session with himself”, and solved the problem by scratching out the following decree:

AN ORDINANCE WHEREAS, the local name of Yerba Buena, as applied to the settlement or town of San Francisco, is unknown beyond the district; and has been applied from the local name of the cove, on which the town is built: Therefore, to prevent confusion and mistakes in public documents, and that the town may have the advantage of the name given on the public map;

IT IS HEREBY ORDAINED, that the name of SAN FRANCISCO shall hereafter be used in all official communications and public documents, or records appertaining to the town.

– Washington Bartlett, Chief magistrate January 30, 1847

francisca-benicia-vallejoDoctor Semple, who in addition to his city-planning activities had launched California’s first newspaper a few months earlier, used it to splutter, bloviate and cry foul in a hundred different ways.

But the deed was done, and “Francisca” was out.

The new town would have to settle for Señora Vallejo’s second name: “Benicia“. And that, of course, is the name it bears to this day … as well as a long-standing grudge against the city across the bay.

California’s hidden Gold Fever infection wouldn’t erupt for another year and a half, but when it did, it would be the name of San Francisco that would echo around the world.

1890: Nellie Bly blows through town; 1897: “Little Pete” (the King of Chinatown) is assassinated in a barbershop.

nellie blyJanuary 20, 1890
Miss Nellie Bly whizzes past San Francisco

I got a hot tip that this was the anniversary of the day Miss Nellie Bly stopped by on the home stretch of her dash around the world. But as it turns out, well … some background first, I guess.

For starters, who the heck was Nellie Bly?

Sixteen years old in 1880, Miss Elizabeth Jane Cochrane of Pittsburgh was a budding feminist. When a blatantly sexist column appeared in the local paper, the teenager fired off a scathing rebuttal. The editor was so struck by her spunk and intellect that he (wisely) hired her, assigning a nom de plume taken from the popular song: “Nellie Bly”.

Her early investigative reportage focused on the travails of working women, but the straitjacket of Victorian expectations soon squeezed her into the ghetto of the women’s section — fashion, gardening, and society tea-parties.

Nellie despised this, and tore off to Mexico for a year to write her own kind of stories. Back in the States, she talked her way into a job at Joseph Pulitzer’s legendary New York World. Her first assignment was a doozy — going undercover as a patient into New York’s infamous Women’s Lunatic Asylum. Her passionate reporting of the brutality and neglect uncovered there shook the world, and Nellie Bly became a household name.

More exposés followed — sweatshops, baby-selling — but then, in 1888, Nellie was struck by a different idea.

aroundtheworld_1873“Around the World in Eighty Days”

About fifteen years earlier, Jules Verne’s eccentric fictional character “Phileas Fogg” had accepted a bet that he could travel around the world in 80 days. The novel by that name became a worldwide smash, but it was widely believed to be fantasy; no one could actually circumnavigate the globe within two months — certainly no one ever had!

Nellie planned to be the first, and she pitched the notion to her editors. They stalled, thinking that sending a man might be a better idea. “Very well,” Nellie threatened. “Start the man and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him”.

That did it. Nellie was in.

On November 14, 1889, she sailed from New York towards England. From there, she would follow the route proposed by Jules Verne scrupulously — a ferry to France (making time for a brief chat at a train station with Verne himself, who was delighted by the project), then off to Italy, across the Mediterranean, through the recently completed Suez canal, around Asia via India and Hong Kong to Japan, finally steaming across the Pacific to San Francisco, where the transcontinental railroad would make the last leg of the 25,000-mile journey possible.

In an era when a woman could barely cross the street without a dozen steamer trunks in tow, Nellie traveled with just one tiny suitcase, writing that “if one is traveling simply for the sake of traveling and not for the purpose of impressing one’s fellow passengers, the problem of baggage becomes a very simple one.”

The stories she wrote from the road created a Nellie Bly craze, giving the New York World a terrific boost in circulation. Joe Pulitzer published a daily map marking Nellie’s location, and in a contest to guess her exact finishing time, pulled in almost a million entries.

nellie-bly-wavingThe San Francisco connection — not!

She sailed into San Francisco Bay on this very date, January 20th 1890, 67 days into the race.

And here’s where my tip about Nellie in San Francisco goes wrong … I couldn’t find a word about her arrival here. Knowing the Gilded Age city as I do, I was positive that there would have been brass bands, parades and pompous speeches when the famous Nellie Bly hit town — she would have been the perfect excuse for a city-wide party.

Then I spotted this small notice in the Oakland Tribune:

“The steamer Oceanic, bearing Nellie Bly, arrived in port late this afternoon … [She was] granted permission to leave the vessel before docking, and without touching at San Francisco she was brought to the Oakland Pier and hustled onto a special train …”

Without touching at San Francisco! Oh Nellie, it’s over a century later and we still feel snubbed! Ah well. The woman was on a mission.

Seventy-two days, six hours, eleven minutes and fourteen seconds after her New York departure, Nellie’s train arrived in New York City — a world record for circling the earth, and a sound thumping of Mr. Phileas Fogg!

The most famous woman on earth

New York greeted Nellie with the fireworks, brass bands and parades that she’d missed in San Francisco, and in fact the whole country went berserk. Songs were written about her, dolls and games were created, posters, soap advertisements, “Nellie Bly” housecoats, even a race horse was honoured with her name. At just 25 years old, Nellie Bly had become the most famous woman on earth.

Though the San Francisco angle is a bit tenuous, I’ll leave you with a nice line that a Chronicle reporter collected from the Oakland Pier. The reporter opined that Nellie’s ’round the world adventure was remarkable, but Nellie replied:

“Oh, I don’t know. It’s not so very much for a woman to do who has the pluck, energy and independence which characterize many women in this day of push and get-there.”

little pete chinatown tong bossJanuary 23, 1897
Chinatown’s notorious tong boss “Little Pete” is murdered in a barbershop

The “tong” secret societies are as American as Chop Suey — which is to say, invented in San Francisco and completely unknown in China.

The first tong was organized by Gold-Rush era immigrants as a means of mutual support and defense against a mostly-hostile white dominated world, and before long, tongs had popped up in most every city with a Chinese population.

It didn’t take long, though, for the money to be made from drugs, gambling and prostitution to attract a criminal element, especially in chaotic Barbary Coast-era San Francisco. The world of tongs devolved into a near-constant state of bloody gang warfare over control of Chinatown’s underworld.

“Little Pete”

In the 1880s, a young man by the name of Fung Jing Toy rose to the top of this wild-west gangster scene, and created his very own tong — a personal army of hand-picked hatchetmen. He was nicknamed “Little Pete”, and with this army of boo how doy began violently pushing the other tongs off of their hard-won turf, moving inexorably towards complete control of Chinatown.

chinatown gamblers gentheAfter an attempt to bribe one of his soldiers out of a murder rap landed him temporarily in San Quentin — and made him famous throughout San Francisco — Little Pete learned to buy protection in the white world.

By forging a cash-based alliance with “Blind” Buckley, the Democrat boss who controlled San Francisco’s hopelessly corrupt City Hall, Little Pete became the undisputed king of Chinatown.

Not only was he new immune from the pesky annoyances of the law, but if a brothel or gambling dive failed to pay him their percentage, a “coincidental” raid by the police would shut them down, and Little Pete’s boys would take over.

Gambling. Blackmail. Opium. Prostitution. Murder. For a solid decade Little Pete was the most powerful and feared Chinese on the Pacific Coast.

A price on his head

Little Pete had pushed the other tongs too far. They finally set their mutual enmity aside and put a price on the King’s head: one thousand dollars.

There were no takers. Little Pete ran a high-security operation, which Herbert Asbury describes vividly in The Barbary Coast:

“He slept in a windowless room behind a barred and bolted door, on either side of which was chained a vicious dog. During his waking hours he wore a coat of chain mail, and inside his hat was a thin sheet of steel curved to fit his head. He employed a bodyguard of three white men, and when he went abroad, one walked beside him, and another in front, while the third brought up the rear. And prowling within call were half a dozen of his own boo how doy, heavily armed.”

I should mention here that hiring white guards was a particularly clever move — if a Chinese were to injure or kill a Caucasian, the racist white establishment would tear him apart. Asbury goes on to write that

“… wherever Little Pete went he was accompanied by a trusted servant bearing his jewel-case and toilet articles, for the tong leader was a great dandy, and much concerned about his appearance. He changed his jewelry several times daily and never wore a suit, though he had forty, two days in succession. Two hours each morning he spent combing, brushing, and oiling his long and glossy queue, of which he was inordinately proud. “

highbinderweaponsThe assassination

Frustrated by the lack of action, the rival tongs raised the bounty on Little Pete first to $2000, and then to the unheard sum of $3000.

That did it. On the evening of January 23, 1897 — Chinese New Year’s Eve — two Chinese men from Oregon strolled into the barbershop on the ground floor of Little Pete’s building at the corner of Washington and Waverly Place. There sat the tong boss alone in the barber’s chair with a hot towel covering his face.

The men had been watching the building for just such an opportunity. For some reason, Little Pete had brought only one bodyguard, and had just sent him out to buy a paper. The barber was wise enough to just step out of the way.

One assassin stood guard at the door. The other strode across the room, grabbed Little Pete by his damp queue and shoved a revolver down the back of his neck, inside the coat of mail.

Five shots rang out, and the reign of Little Pete was over.

Police flocked to the scene, but in typically racist fashion arrested the nearest convenient “Chinaman” for the crime. The killers got away clean. They collected the reward money and caught the next train to Oregon, where the Portland Chinatown greeted them as heroes.

Tongs would continue to battle for control of Chinatown’s underworld well into the twentieth century, but they’d do it without Little Pete.

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

lola montezJanuary 17, 1861
Countess Lola Montez — in Memorium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I did not.” answered Sobrano.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I saw you plain.”

“What color shirt had I on?”

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

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

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

San Francisco Chronicle — 1.14.1899

It’s Emperor Norton Day

Emperor Norton bicycle

One hundred and twenty-nine years ago today, the Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico crumpled in front of Old St. Mary’s Church on the edge of Chinatown, and died on the way to the hospital.

Thirty thousand citizens attended his funeral, and the San Francisco Chronicle commemorated the man in style befitting a fallen Royal:

“On the reeking pavement, in the darkness of a moon-less night under the dripping rain…, Norton I, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, departed this life”

Though Norton is said to have found the bicycle a mode of transport not sufficiently dignified for a personage of such eminence, in honour of Emperor Norton’s Official Day of Remembrance, I humbly present this charming photo of the man I firmly believe to be the City’s one true Patron Saint.

amateur traveler podcast

As I mentioned here recently, a couple of weeks ago I goofed around for an hour with Chris Christensen from the Amateur Traveler podcast.

I hadn’t really known what aspect of San Francisco he was going to grill me about, but the result was a sort of spontaneous guided tour of the western and northern edges of the city — from the Great Highway to the Marina District.

It was great fun to gossip about Our Favourite City while the tape rolled (extemporaneously for a change), but the real reason I’m bringing this up again is this:

Chris has just posted a complete transcript online.

Against my better judgement, here’s a small sample of the logorrheic flow:

Richard: Later on our tour I guess we can end up in Union Square and actually visit the woman herself on top of the pedestal, but we can go back to that. The thing to do next, after you’ve enjoyed Rodin and the fabulous view, is continue on that odd, curvy road. By the way, we are now in – and this in not to creep anybody out – but this whole park like area golf course etcetera, that we are walking across, or driving across right now, was once the largest cemetery in San Francisco, and, when they made the gold course, when they built the Museum, and occasionally still, when they do renovations and dig up plumbing and so on and so forth, they dig up parts of people that got left behind. Most everybody got transferred down to Colma when they built this thing, but they didn’t get everything, so stay away from there on Halloween night!!! The thing to do now, is to follow that road – there are no choices, just stay on the road – and it will take you through, you’ll go down a hill, you’ll have some beautiful views out on your left, across the Golden Gate. You’re actually, at this point, west of the Golden Gate Bridge, so you’re outside of the Gate, and in fact, this is a nice spot to pull over, or walk if you can, if you get out of your car and walk out to the edge, and look into the way the ocean flows into the bay, there, you can position yourself so that you don’t see anything built by human hands. This never occurred to me, Chris, until once, I was riding around there, I saw a bunch of people stop by the side of the road. I slammed on the brakes to see what they were looking at. It was the day the Tall Ships came sailing into the harbor, something that happens every year. It was the most fabulous thing I think I’ve ever seen in my entire life, because everybody watching was dead silent. It was a Sunday, so there was not much traffic. You could actually hear the creaking of the masts, the slapping of the sails, and, as you looked across the water, you could see the water, you could see Marin on the other side, but you couldn’t see anything else, and it really felt, as long as you weren’t looking at the sweatshirt of the person standing next to you, as though you were in the 17th century, it was really, really cool. A nice spot. And then a helicopter comes over, and screws up the whole thing, but, for a moment… Continue down that road. The first developed area that you come to is one of the, if not the most exclusive neighborhoods in San Francisco. This is where our handful of movie stars live, our super rich, multi millionaires and so on, they live in this little neighborhood called Sea Cliff.

Chris: Interesting.

Ahem, yes … apparently I don’t speak in paragraphs.

In any case, the transcript is perfect for those of you who take stuff in through the eyes better than the ear, so have a read (and a chuckle), and feel free to leave Chris a comment!

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.

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