1871: The fall of a hoodlum king

April 9, 1871:
A hoodlum king’s power is broken, and all because he hated the sound of music. Apparently.

This isn’t going to come as a surprise, but one of my favourite histories of this fair city is Herbert Asbury’s Barbary Coast, first published in 1933. That’s where I ran into the little story of Billy Smith, one of the most notorious hoodlums that San Francisco ever produced.

In the early 1870s, Billy Smith was the leader of a gang known as the Rising Star Club. This was a group of Barbary Coast thugs about 200 men strong, and Billy ruled them — and the Coast — with an iron fist. Literally. Billy was a monster of a man, and scoffed at the notion of using a knife, club or gun. No, Billy’s weapon of choice was a gigantic pair of corrugated iron knuckles, which he used to tear his antagonists into shreds.


This low-tech weaponry was actually not unusual for San Francisco hoodlums. They rarely used guns, since — bullies that they were — they tended to enter battle only when massively outnumbering their opponent … a lone Chinese laundryman, for example, or a recalcitrant shopkeeper.

I’ve written about the derivation of the term “hoodlum” in a previous blog post, but what’s just as interesting is how proud the Barbary Coast hoodlums were of that appellation. According to Asbury,

“Sometimes when they sallied forth on their nefarious errands, they heralded their progress through the streets of San Francisco by cries of “The Hoodlums are coming!” and “Look out for the Hoodlums”! Many of them had the curious idea that the very sound of the word “hoodlum” terrified the police, and that by so identifying themselves they automatically became immune to arrest.

It begins with a picnic.

One fine morning, Billy decided to give his boys a little break from the “daily grind” of pimping, blackmail, mayhem and marauding. On Sunday, April 9th 1871, Billy Smith and the Rising Star Club boarded a ferry boat, and floated off towards Alameda for a nice spring picnic.

It seemed like a perfect day; the weather was beautiful, the park lush and green, and the hoodlums passed their day emptying the various kegs of whiskey and beer they’d brought along. The trouble didn’t start until they boarded the train back to the ferryboat.

It just so happened that a volunteer military regiment known as the Swiss Guard had also planned a Sunday picnic in Alameda. There were about 200 Guardsmen, but along with friends, wives and children, their party actually numbered almost a thousand. They’d brought their muskets and bayonets along, but since it was a family outing, ammunition had been left at home.

The Guards had selected a park at the opposite end of the island — anyway, it must have been far enough away that the hoodlums couldn’t hear them. See, though I don’t know very much about the Swiss Guards, what I do know is that their principal form of recreation was singing. In fact, they boasted a formal singing group called — what else — the Guard Glee Club.

“To the outspoken disgust of the hoodlums … ”

As the sun began to set, hoodlums and Guards boarded the train back to the ferry slip at precisely the same time. Billy Smith’s boys were loaded, and the Guard Glee Club had apparently not yet sung themselves hoarse. The moment the train rocked into motion, they burst into song, as Asbury puts it “to the outspoken disgust of the hoodlums”. Billy sent a message to the Guards informing them that they’d be hurled from the train if they didn’t cut it out. Words were exchanged, but no physical contact was made until both parties had transferred from the train to the ferry heading back towards San Francisco.

I’ll let Herbert tell the rest of the story:

“The members of the Glee Club gathered in the boat’s cabin and renewed their singing, whereupon Billy Smith and a score of his followers tried to stop them. Billy Smith was promptly ejected from the cabin, but returned to the assault with the entire membership of the Rising Star Club at his heels, all armed with clubs, brass knuckles, and knives.

A general fight ensued, while the women and children fled to the after part of the cabin. Most of the windows were soon broken, and practically all of the furniture in the cabin was smashed. The Guardsmen finally fixed bayonets and succeeded in prodding the hoodlums out of the cabin and to the after deck, where they were surrounded.

The rowdies attacked again as the ferry-boat neared its San Francisco slip, but were again driven back by the bayonets. When the boat docked, the Guardsmen massed near the bow and refused to allow anyone to go ashore until the arrival of the police.”

At the end of the affray, the Guardsmen were bruised and bleeding, and the thugs had sustained some pretty good punctures from the bayonets.

Several hoodlums leapt overboard and escaped as the police showed up, but a goodly number were taken into custody — and this included Mr. Billy Smith. The police had actually witnessed Billy bashing a Guardsman with his famous iron knuckles, and he was charged with assault with a deadly weapon. The notorious hoodlum king was tried, convicted and shipped off to prison.

Billy Smith eventually returned to the Barbary Coast, but it just wasn’t the same. According to Asbury, “he was never again a power among the rowdies”.

I get a lot of history questions here at Sparkletack — some I can handle, but others stump me completely.

A few weeks ago, a longtime listener named Demetrios hit me with one of those stumpers:

bush-and-montgomery“This is regarding the Sparkletack posting I sent you with regards to the letters ‘E’ that I keep seeing everywhere engraved on granite curbs in the Financial District (mostly).”

This is driving me nuts! I have noticed the letter ‘T’ on occasion as well, but by far the letter ‘E’ is the most common letter haunting my walks around the Financial District.

The letter “E” and the letter “T”.

Straightforward question, right? And so I tried to figure it out. I looked in the usual locations, posted the question on some other San Francisco history websites, even (because my first guess was “quarry mark”) tracked down the quarry which had supplied those granite curbs to the City after the ’06 quake …

Nothing. Weeks went by.

And then, out of the blue, an email dropped into my inbox from one Peri Cosseboom.

Peri Cosseboom is a San Francisco history buff focused on surveying and land development. He’s a San Francisco native, raised in the Mission and Tenderloin, married to a native of Chinatown, and even speaks with that elusive “south of the slot” San Francisco accent. Now those are what I call credentials!

His generous explanation prompted an immediate slap to my forehead.

Aargh, it was SO obvious …

The “E”, “T” and on curbs downtown represent the approximate point where underground electrical and telephone ducts crossed the cubline and entered the building that they served. “WU” represented Western Union” telegraph crossings but are quite rare. My recollection is that Western Union maintained active overhead lines downtown until the early 80’s. “G” represents gas lines, but is also uncommon.

These marks date back to just after the ’06 quake when undergrounding electrical and telephone lines was uncommon and having marks of this sort to indicate the point of service was useful.

The “T” & E” marks when found on the curved parts of curbs at street intersections (curb returns) do not represent crossings, but are reference points for the location of telephone/electrical manholes. The company involved would measure from 2 of these marks (on opposite curbs) to a manhole. Crossing 2 tapes at the recorded measurements would locate a buried manhole. These record measurements are now also obsolete.

These marks are also found in subdivisions created just after WW1, (e.g.. Forrest Hills) where the utilities were undergrounded for aesthetic reasons. The practice was discontinued soon thereafter when utility undergrounding became more common and when infrastructure records became more accurate.

“W” & “S” are found everywhere in the City, representing water line and sewer lateral crossings. The “S” is most commonly found on the “armored curbs” constructed in the neighborhoods by the WPA during the depression, but they can occur anywhere. The “W” seems to only appear on granite curbs and thus predate about 1930. Again, accurate infrastructure mapping made their use obsolete.

Thanks, Peri — curiousity satisfied, and how!

The San Francisco “Cocktail Route”

The Cocktail Route — “Champagne Days of San Francisco”

Spring is most definitely in the air right now, which has brought my thoughts back to one of the great phenomena of San Francisco’s pre-earthquake era, the “Cocktail Route”.

champagne-days-of-san-franciscoI know I’ve mentioned the “Cocktail Route” in previous shows, but I’m not sure if I’ve made it clear that it was both a real, chartable path and a kind of a beloved civic institution. I’m far from an expert on the subject, though — for details, the woman to consult is Evelyn Wells.

If you ever start nosing around the 1890s, that most sparkling decade of the Gilded Age — you’ll inevitably end up perusing a charming volume from 1939 entitled Champagne Days of San Francisco. Evelyn Wells wrote for Fremont Older at the San Francisco Call back in the day, and in this lovingly written narrative she reveals the City’s quirks, foibles and peculiarly San Francisco-flavoured ways of doing business through a trio of characters called only the Senator, the Banker, and the Judge.

And though it’s completely un-footnoted and occasionally inaccurate, Evelyn’s portrayals are so vivid, and provide such entertaining insight into the way lives were lived among San Francisco’s upper crust, that this book is always right up there at the top of my recommended reading list.

I’m going to start right in on a lightly edited version of Chapter Four, “The Cocktail Route” — and I think you’ll see exactly what I mean.

geary at kearny streets, lotta's fountain - 1885The Cocktail Route

The Senator, like all true sons of the Champagne Age, never permitted pleasure to disrupt the even flow of business. “No matter how enthusiastically we celebrate the week-end,” once commented, “we are always in our offices by two on Monday afternoon.”

Easy-living, unhurried San Francisco had resumed the burden of life again by two o’clock … the male population that had celebrated so violently the week-end had resumed responsibility — personal, civic, or state. Again, in bearded dignity, the men of the vivid nineties trod the corridors of banks and hotels and courts. Life was real and very earnest, until five o’clock.

At five the Senator drew his large gold watch from its chamois bag and sighed with relief. It was Cocktail Hour.

All over San Francisco at this moment men were buttoning Prince Alberts and cutaways, balancing derbies and toppers, preparatory to venturing forth into Montgomery, Kearny, and Market Streets, following a Cocktail Route famous around the world.

On the Route they would meet friends discuss politics and the latest scandal, and adjust matters of business.

The Cocktail Route was a tradition. Created in the eighties, in the city where free lunch and the cocktail itself was born, it was trod by San Francisco males “to the Fire” of ’06.

The Senator proceeded down Kearny Street to Sutter, to the Reception Saloon where the Cocktail Route began, at five on weekdays and earlier on Saturdays. Some men started the Route at its opposite end, on upper Market Street. But the Senator adhered to tradition. To start the Route at the wrong end was to upset a man’s entire evening.

There was no haste in the Senator’s gait. Men did not hurry in the Champagne Age. There was no “after-work” rush at five o’clock. At that hour loitered along the streets and strolled leisurely through swinging doors upon such scenes, rich and warm, as greeted the Senator’s brightening eye when he marched into the Reception Saloon.

For the saloon, in champagne days, was more than a warm meeting place at the day’s end. It was a man’s club and salon and conference place.

Fleas, cold, poor beds, and drafty lodgings had driven the pioneer into the saloon. Food, drink, and conviviality held him there. In the nineties comparatively few saloons were cursed by the prophetic legend over a side door, “Family Entrance”. It was still a man’s age. The saloon was still a haven against feminity. In it elections were predetermined, political machines adjusted, and voting machines “fixed”.

san-francisco-saloonFor a moment, halting in the heady atmosphere, the Senator’s noble nose quivered over his splendid beard. Surely, over this fragrance of imported liquor and Havana smoke and sundry mouth-watering odors emanating from the free lunch counter, there hovered the scent of freshly cooked terrapin! Other saloons had other specialties, such as crab, turkey, or corned beef.

The sparkle of gas-light through crystal candelabra shone on colorful banks of bottles, large mirrors, and expensive oil paintings, white-coated bartenders, and many friends of the Senator grouped along the shining mahogany bar. Here were the leaders of the city — merchants, judges, politicians, bankers, newspaper men, and gay young blades, resplendent in striped trousers, fine cravats, and amazing waistcoats, some brocaded, some of moleskin and one, even, of seal. A few men carried canes crooked over arms not needed at the bar.

Low-voiced, well-mannered, they made room for the Senator.

For the rest of the content of this podcast, you’re going to have to, well, either listen to it, or peruse Chapter Four of “Champagne Days of San Francisco“!

THIS WEEK’S PODCAST TRANSCRIPT: Slumming the Barbary Coast

“A Barbary Cruise”

I’ve been thinking about the fact that — just like our out-of-town guests inevitably insist that we take ’em to Chinatown or Fisherman’s Wharf — in the 1870s, visitors from back in “the States” just had to go slumming in the infamous Barbary Coast.

The piece I’m about to read to you was written by Mr. Albert Evans, a reporter from the good ol’ Alta California. The Barbary Coast was part of his beat, and this gave him connections with the hardnosed cops whose duty it was to maintain some kind of order in that “colorful” part of town.

As romanticized as it has become in popular memory, the Coast was a “hell” of a place — filthy, violent and extremely dangerous for greenhorns.

When some visitors came to town in about 1871, Albert asked one of his policeman buddies to join them on the tour.

His account of this “Barbary Cruise” is a remarkable firsthand snapshot of the territory bounded by Montgomery, Stockton, Washington and Broadway. But what’s almost more interesting is the way he reports it; the purple prose, the pursed-lip moralizing, and — though I’ve skipped the Chinatown part of the tour — the absolutely matter-of-fact racism on display.

This is the Barbary Coast seen through the eyes of white, bourgeois, and extremely Victorian San Francisco — prepare to be both educated and annoyed.

The piece is edited from Albert S. Evans’ memoir,

“A la California. Sketches of Life in the Golden State.”

john_devineEVERY city on earth has its special sink of vice, crime and degradation, its running ulcer or moral cancer, which it would fain hide from the gaze of mankind. San Franciscans will not yield the palm of superiority to anything to be found elsewhere in the world. Speak of the deeper depth, the lower hell, the maelstrom of vice and iniquity — from whence those who once fairly enter escape no more forever — and they will point triumphantly to the Barbary Coast, strewn from end to end with the wrecks of humanity, and challenge you to match it anywhere outside of the lake of fire and brimstone.

It is Saturday evening, in the middle of the rainy season, when no work is doing upon the ranches, and work in the placer mines is necessarily suspended, and the town fairly swarms with “honest miners” and unemployed farm-hands, who have come down from the mountains and “the cow counties” to spend their money, and waste their time and health in “doing” or “seeing life” in San Francisco. The Barbary Coast is now alive with “jay-hawkers,” “short-card sharps,” “rounders,” pickpockets, prostitutes and their assistants and victims; we cannot find a better night on which to pay a visit to the locality.

They visit Chinatown first, but I’m going to skip that and focus on the Coast.

We go on down to Pacific street, the roughest and least pacific of the streets on the Barbary Coast. The whole street, for half a dozen blocks, is literally swarming with the scum of creation. Every land under the sun has contributed toward making up the crowd of loafers, thieves, low gamblers, jay-hawkers, dirty, filthy, degraded, hopeless bummers, and the unsophisticated greenhorns from the mines, or from the Eastern States, who, drawn here by curiosity, or lured on by specious falsehoods told them by pretended friends met on the ocean or river steamers, are looked upon as the legitimate prey of all the rest.

From the “deadfalls,” as the low beer and dance cellars are designated, which abound on all the streets in this vicinity, come echoes of drunken laughter, curses, ribaldry, and music from every conceivable instrument.

Hand-organs, flutes, pianos, bagpipes, banjos, guitars, violins, brass instruments and accordeons mingle their notes and help to swell the discord. “Dixie” is being drummed out of a piano in one cellar; in the next they are singing “John Brown;” and in the next, (the) “Wearing of the Green.” Women dressed in flaunting colors stand at the doors of many of these “deadfalls,” and you frequently notice some of them saluting an acquaintance, perhaps of an hour’s standing, and urging him to “come back and take just one more drink.”

mary_wetherbeeTen to one the already half-drunken fool complies, and finds himself in the calaboose next morning, with a broken head, utterly empty pockets, and a dim recollection of having been taken somewhere by some woman whom he cannot identify, and finding himself unexpectedly in the clutches of men he never saw before, who go through him like a policeman, taking from him watch, chain, and every other valuable, and pitch him headlong down a stairway; after which all is a blank in his memory.

All these dens are open and in full blast, yet we see few persons going in or out who appear like customers, and they do not seem to be selling lager or whisky enough to pay for gaslight. Look in the papers tomorrow morning, and you will see items like this:

ROBBED ON THE BARBARY COAST. – John Smith, a miner from El Dorado County, came down on the Sacramento boat last evening, and put up at the What Cheer House. On his way to the hotel, he made the acquaintance of a man who claimed to know a friend of his who had worked with him at mining. The two started out in search of this mythical friend, and visited numerous deadfalls without finding him. They drank at each place they visited, however, and about one o’clock this morning Smith reached the calaboose in a half- stupified condition, and charged a girl known as “Pigeon-toed-Sal,” … with robbing him of $800, her companion holding him down while she searched his pockets. Officers Smith and Brown arrested Sal and her confederate, the “Billy Goat,” but it is doubtful if the charge can be sustained, as the money was not recovered, and the friends of the accused will fee a lawyer with the money, and hire the witnesses … to leave the State, or swear that Smith had agreed to marry the girl, and gave her the money … to purchase the necessary outfit for the wedding with it. It is, in all probability, the old story of the fool and his money.

A few such items will enlighten you on the question of how the proprietors of so many of these well-named “deadfalls” manage to make a living.

“Pirates” at large

Three men come up the street as we stand on the sidewalk looking and listening, and two of them eye our friend the policeman uneasily as they pass. These two are unmistakably of the Algerine pirate class, and the third evidently a middle-aged greenhorn from the mining country.

The officer comprehends the situation at a glance, and stepping forward, says emphatically, “Look here, Jack; I told you once before to get out of the jayhawking business, and not let me catch you on the Coast again. And you, Cockeye; when did you come back from over the Bay? I’ll bag you both, as sure as I’m a living man, if I catch either of you on my beat again. You can go this time, but cuss me if it ain’t your last chance. Toddle, blast you, and don’t let me see you again!”

The young fellows slink away without a word, like renegade curs caught in the act of killing sheep, and the officer addresses himself to their intended victim. “Look here, old fellow; those fellows picked you up at the wharf, or around the What Cheer, and pretended they used to know you at home. They are two State Prison thieves, and would have robbed you before daylight, sure. Now, you go back to your hotel, put your money in the safe, and go to bed, or I’ll lock you up for a drunk; do you hear?” The countryman stares a moment with blank astonishment, and then, with many thanks, tells the officer just what the latter had already told him, and leaves the Barbary Coast in all haste.

A hidden gambling-den

“Do you want to see what they are doing in these places?” says the officer. “Come in here with me.” We enter what appears to be an ordinary “corner grocery,” with piles of potatoes, … soap, and other ordinary goods, stacked up in front. Everything looks quiet and respectable, but the German or French proprietor of the place glances anxiously at our escort, who pushes open a green Venetian blind, … and motions for us to enter. Here, in an inner room, for which the grocery … is but a screen … , we find some twenty rascally-looking negroes from Panama, the West Indies, Peru and Guiana, sitting round dirty tables, playing draw-poker and other swindling games, with greasy, fairly stinking cards, for money which we know they never honestly earned.

“Hulloa, that is you, is it? You are a healthy crowd, you are! One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine ‘old cons.’ One, two, three, four, five, six, seven chain-gang customers; and six that ought to be hanged, and will be, sooner or later.” Having thus classified the occupants of the place, for our and their benefit, the officer leads us out once more on the street.

A miserable “deadfall”

We next enter a low room on the ground floor of a rickety, old frame-building, which has stood here since 1849, and passing the screen which shuts off the view from the street, find a bar stocked with every species of liquid poison, at “5 cents a glass.” A rough-looking Irishman is behind the bar; two miserable, bloated, loathsome-looking, drunken white females are quarrelling with each other in front; on the settee ranged along the wall sits a third wreck of female humanity, swearing like a pirate, and cursing “the perlice” at every breath; while a man with a face like a diseased beefs liver, who once represented a Western State in Congress, is patting her on the back caressingly, and endeavoring vainly to quiet her, lest the police outside should hear her and make a raid on the establishment. In one corner, a party of Kanaka sailors, from a Honolulu whaling-vessel, are holding a drunken pow-wow; but as we cannot understand a word of their language, we pass them with a glance.

At the sight of the policeman, the woman on the sofa breaks out, like a maniac, in fresh curses and vituperation, and stepping to the door he gives a long, sharp whistle. Two answering whistles are heard, and in a few seconds two more policemen arrive, and start with the furious woman between them for the calaboose.

A dissipated dance-cellar

margaret_mcinnarnyGuided by the music of violins, guitars and a piano, and the tramping of many feet, we descend a narrow stairway, and find ourselves in one of the most notorious dance-cellars of San Francisco. There is a low bar at one side of the room, and at the farther end a raised platform for the musicians. About forty young women and girls, ranging down to ten or twelve years of age, dressed in gaudy, flaunting costumes, and with eyes lighted up with the baleful glare of dissipation, are on the floor, dancing with as many men, of all ages: rowdies, loafers, pimps, thieves, and their greenhorn victims; while perhaps fifty men of the same stamp stand looking on and applauding the performers. The room is blue with tobacco-smoke, and reeking with the fumes of the vilest of whisky.

Half a dozen men, or overgrown boys, are sitting or lying on the floor in various stages of inebriety, but they are unnoticed by the other occupants of the place. Every time a man takes a partner for the dance he pays fifty cents, half of which goes to the establishment and half to the girl, and at the close of each dance he generally takes her to the bar and treats her. We notice with thankfulness that the females appear to be almost all of foreign birth, the exceptions being Spanish-Americans, with occasionally an Indian girl, who has been raised as a servant in some family in San Francisco, but, Indian-like, prefers a life of idleness, vice and degradation to one of comfort and honest labor.

This place has been the scene of many a savage affray and brutal murder; and often have we seen the sawdust on its floor red with the blood of some victim of the knife or bullet. It is long past midnight, but the drunken orgies go on unchecked, and will do so for hours yet, if no bloody row occur to end them prematurely.

Skulking thieves

Bang! bang! bang! What was that? We hear the sharp whistle of a policeman and several answering whistles, and run out to the street to see what is going on.

An officer has met three well-known thieves skulking through an alley with something in bags on their backs. On general principles, he orders them to halt, and is answered with a staggering blow with a slungshot by one of them. To draw his revolver and let fly at each in succession is the work of an instant. One of the desperadoes is shot through the heart and falls dead in his tracks; one is lying on the ground with his right thigh-bone shivered by the bullet, so that it will require amputation; and the third, barely hit in the side, has thrown up his hands, and stands waiting for the irons to be put on him.

The police clear the field of action in a few minutes, and on searching the bags fnd a quantity of valuable goods just taken from a grocery store on Pacific street, which the defeated party had broken open and plundered.

And here our slumming author heads back into Chinatown, denounces the Celestial vices of prostitution and opium, and encounters the aftermath of an extremely bloody murder … but we are going to leave the infamous neighborhood to its own devices — the Barbary Coast of 1871.

America’s “Master Birdman” makes his final flight

lincoln_beachey_in_looper_1914March 15, 1915:
“The Man Who Owns the Sky”

It was the year of the legendary Panama-Pacific International Exposition. San Francisco had once again earned that phoenix on her flag by rising from the ashes of the 1906 earthquake and fire — and just nine years later, the city celebrated its rebirth by winning the right to host the World’s Fair. Visitors from every point on the compass swarmed towards California to visit the resurgent city.

You probably know that the site of the Fair was the neighborhood now called the Marina, that acres of shoreline mudflats were filled in to create space for a grand and temporary city, and that the mournfully elegant Palace of Fine Arts is its lone survivor. The exhibits and attractions on offer were endless and famously enchanting, but one of the most spectacular events took place in the air above the Fair.

On March 15, a quarter of a million people gathered in the fairgrounds and on the hills above them to see a man in an ultra-modern experimental airplane perform unparalleled feats of aeronautical acrobatics.

That man was Lincoln Beachey, and in 1915 he was the most famous aviator in the country — known from coast to coast as “The Man Who Owns the Sky”.

Lincoln Beachey, home-town boy

Lincoln Beachey was born in San Francisco back in 1887. It was the age of technology and tinkering, and young Lincoln was a kid of his time. The family was a poor one — his civil war veteran father was blind — so Lincoln had acquired a small bicycle shop and was learning to ride and fix motorcycles by the time he was thirteen years old.

But speeding along the ground was one thing. At the turn of the century it seemed as though the whole world was trying to get into the air, and Lincoln was no exception.

By the time the bicycle-tinkering Wright Brothers had made aeronautical history at Kitty Hawk in 1903 — Lincoln had already pinned his aerial hopes to a rival technology, the balloon.

At age 17 he joined Thomas Scott Baldwin’s already famous powered-dirigible troupe, and then built his own airship. To the consternation of Congress, he flew it around the Washington Monument and parked on the White House lawn. Though occasionally crashing the thing into buildings, rivers, and trees, Lincoln toured the country demonstrating his balloon-piloting prowess and becoming one of America’s most best-known aeronauts.

Introducing the aeroplane

He was a little behind the times. Several years earlier, the Wright Brothers had demonstrated their fixed-wing aeroplane in Europe, and in 1908 the United States Army ordered one. This was the beginning of the end of the Airship Era.

Lincoln himself was finally convinced after a 1910 race with an aeroplane. He and his balloon were beaten badly, and — remarking to a pal that “Boy, our racket is dead!” — he switched, never flying an airship again.

Off to a questionable start

His first two attempts at Glenn Curtiss’ flying school ended very quickly in piles of twisted aeroplane wreckage. Somehow he talked his way into making try number three, which was a successful solo flight. In fact, he showed such aptitude for flying — specifically that combination of fearlessness and skill necessary for stunt flying — that by the end of 1911 he was a member of Curtiss’ official team.

Over the next few years Lincoln would pull off an amazing series of aerial stunts.

In New York, he flew over Niagara Falls, down the gorge and under Honeymoon Bridge. In Chicago he dove down into the skyscraper walled streets and skimmed the roofs of cars with his landing gear — then set an altitude record by climbing until his fuel ran out. At the under-construction World’s Fair grounds in San Francisco, Lincoln actually took off, accelerated to 60 mph and landed his plane — all inside the huge Palace of Machinery!

He was the first to fly a plane inside a building, the first to figure out how to pull out of a spin; to tail-slide on purpose, nose dive with the engine off from 3000 feet, and he could pick a handkerchief off the ground with a wing-tip. And all of this while wearing a three-piece suit!

The man had style.

lincoln_beachey_flying_a_loopThe stuntman retires — not!

Lincoln owned every stunt that could made in an airplane, but after learning that something new had been accomplished in Europe — the inside loop — he couldn’t live without giving it a try.

Glenn Curtiss refused to build Lincoln a plane capable of the act — so he retired from flying. And he stayed retired until Curtiss gave in. On his first attempt with the new plane — Lincoln made a speed-related mistake that actually killed a spectator. He retired again.

This time it was only until spotting a circus poster showing a plane flying upside down — and he was lured right back into the sky. When he climbed into the cockpit of his Curtiss biplane, he became the first flyer in the United States to accomplish — and master — the inside loop.

Barnstorming, 1914

In 1914, he set off on his own for what would become the most celebrated barnstorming tour in American history. He cavorted in the air above 126 cities that year, also working up a series of staged airplane-motorcar “races” with the famous driver Barney Oldfield.

Somewhere along the way, Lincoln ordered a custom biplane he called the “Little Looper”. Instantly recognizable by the gigantic capital letters spelling out BEACHEY on the upper wing, he could loop-the-loop until the cows came home, setting records almost every time he went into the air. At one exhibition he Ferris-Wheeled through the sky 80 times in a row!

By the end of 1914, he was the most popular and well-known flyer in the country, earning a quarter of a million dollars, and performing in front of nearly 20 million people. And here’s some perspective — that’s nearly a quarter of the population of the entire country!

Among those millions who saw the man fly was Orville Wright himself, who earlier had dismissed Lincoln’s acrobatics as “optical illusions”. After seeing the show for himself, Orville opined that

“An aeroplane in the hands of Lincoln Beachey is poetry. His mastery is a thing of beauty to watch. He is the most wonderful flyer of all.”

He was declared “the eighth wonder of the world” by newspapers, and writer/philosopher Elbert Hubbard declared that

“Each art has its master worker — … its Michelangelo, its Milton. There is music and most inspiring grace … in flight by man in the heavens, and posterity will write the name of Lincoln Beachey as the greatest artist on the aeroplane. The deftness of stroke of any of the old masters cannot exact his touch. He is truly wonderful.”

Lincoln was also a handsome devil. His biographer Frank Marrero writes that the airman’s only vices were “an extreme boldness … (and) … too many women”. The blonde and firm-jawed airman was a magnet for young, female admirers, and he didn’t exactly beat them off with a stick. Intimacy outside the bonds of marriage — or at least engagement — was, let’s say, “frowned upon” in those gilded days — so Lincoln bought “diamond engagement rings by the dozen”, and always carried one in a vest pocket for amorous emergencies.

World War I

Europe was in the throes of the first World War by now, and the aerobatics that Beachey and others had pioneered — once derided as needlessly dangerous and self-aggrandizing — were being put to deadly use. The climate of the times was such that, working with the Army and Navy to get Congress interested in creating an Air Force, Lincoln added demonstration bombing to his repertoire. He criss-crossed the country dropping smoke bombs in exhibitions, culminating in a dive-bombing run at the White House itself.

Back to San Francisco, 1915

All right. All of this flying and fame brings us right back up to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Lincoln Beachey, as one of San Francisco’s favourite sons, was delighted to take part.

The “Master Birdman” added to the frenzied spectacle leading up to the opening by bombing a huge scale model of the Battleship Oregon floating a mile offshore. As multiple explosions rocked and sank the wood-and-canvas vessel, spectators screamed and even fainted, imagining that the real battleship had just been sent to the bottom of the Bay.

But that wasn’t enough for Lincoln. For him even the old loop-the-loop was becoming old hat, and he had stunts in mind that required a new-fangled kind of plane. Sleek and speedy single-winged aircraft were just starting to appear in workshops around the world, and Lincoln had been knocked out by seeing one airborne in France.

Though it’s often reported that his model was an Austrian-made Taube, other sources indicate that he had actually collaborated in the design of a brand new machine — a one-of-a-kind, extra-small, high-performance monoplane. It was built in San Francisco, and what better occasion to give it a debut than at the World’s Fair?

lincoln_beachey_takeoff_1915The fateful day

The 250,000 people watching on that fateful March 15th knew Lincoln’s reputation well, they knew about the cool new plane, and they were primed and ready to see something.

The tiny plane taxied along in front of the grand exhibition halls and accelerated, rapidly disappearing into the sky at the unheard of speed of 100 mph. As the crowd craned their necks, Lincoln took the plane into one of his famous inside loops, then climbed up to 3000 feet.

And then …

And here’s where history becomes somewhat confusing. I’ve found eyewitness accounts, newspaper stories, read the fun-filled Wikipedia article, and so on — and I cannot for the life of me decide which of the conflicting stories to believe.

Some say it happened as he performed the “Dip of Death”, his dive-from-the-sky-and-pull-up-at-the-last-second routine; others, at the end of an inside loop: still others, at the very end of his performance, flying back towards the landing strip. One school of thought even conjectures that he was about to — or even in the act of — trying to become the first aviator to fly a plane upside down.

Whatever the story, the ending is the same. To the horror of all present, including Lincoln’s friends and family, what happened was this: the slender wings of the little plane snapped right off; first one, then the other — Lincoln Beachey plunged helplessly downward, and vanished beneath the surface of the Bay.

Divers, ironically from the real Battleship Oregon, entered the water — and as the spectators held their collective breath, the bodies of both plane and pilot were brought to the surface. The greatest airman on the planet, three-piece suit and all, was still strapped into his cockpit — drowned.

A pioneer forgotten

The City mourned. And somehow in the intervening years, one of the greatest of the air pioneers, our own Lincoln Beachey has been forgotten. I suspect the daredevil would like to be remembered in his own words — this comes from an interview given shortly before his death.

“It is simply the dancing along life’s icy brink and the attendant excitement that makes life worth while. Chance-taking is not a business with me. It is a delightful diversion, and no music lover ever is more charmed by listening to the inspiring strains of his favorite opera, than I am charmed by the hum of my motor when I am sailing in or out of a loop and upside-down flight.

Some hunt lions and tigers for thrills. But I love the sky and answer its call because my whole life centers around the sensations of flying. It feels like being in love.”

1956: Gold medals or Gold records? An athletic crooner makes a life-changing choice

“Send blank contracts”

johnny-mathis-1960Of course you know Johnny Mathis. The velvet-voiced crooner is a fixture of the softer side of American pop culture, providing reliably romantic background music for cuddling couples for over sixty years.

He’s sold 350 million records worldwide, his Greatest Hits album was on the Billboard charts for almost a decade, and at one point he had five albums on the charts at once, a feat equaled only by Barry Manilow and Frank Sinatra.

But what you might not have known about Johnny Mathis is this. The music world discovered him right here in San Francisco. And the story is more interesting than that — his musical calling deflected Johnny from a completely different career — as a world-class athlete.

Born singing

Johnny’s family moved to San Francisco when he was just a kid. His father Clem, an ex-vaudeville character, spotted his musical aptitude early, and taught the boy every song he knew. Johnny was crazy about performing, and sang wherever there was a stage — at school, in the church choir, even competing in amateur talent competitions.

When Johnny turned 13, his father brought him to a local voice teacher, who also saw promise in the boy. In exchange for his doing odd jobs around the house, she gave Johnny classical vocal training throughout his high school and early college years.

“… best all-around athlete to come out of San Francisco … “

Speaking of high school, out at George Washington High in the Richmond District, Johnny wasn’t known for singing so much as for his athletic skills. He became the star of the track and field team, and lettered in basketball for four straight years.

In 1954 he entered San Francisco State University. Though his vocal training continued, just as in high school, Johnny made his mark on campus as an athlete. His name pops up all over the sports pages of 1950s San Francisco newspapers, often referred to as “the best all-around athlete to come out of the San Francisco Bay Area”.

In that first year at SF State he shattered future basketball legend Bill Russell’s high jump record by elevating to 6”-5 1/2’ — just two inches short of the contemporary Olympic record, and a number that still ranks among the University’s top 15.

The Black Hawk nightclub

A fellow student of Johnny’s happened to be a member of a jazz combo with a regular gig down at the Black Hawk nightclub. The Black Hawk holds an almost mythical status in the annals of west coast jazz, having hosted everyone who was anyone during the golden decade of the fifties, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Gillespie, Tatum, Getz, Billie Holliday … forget it, the Black Hawk was the place.

Johnny’s pal knew that the star athlete could sing as well as sweat, so he invited him down to the Tenderloin for a Sunday afternoon jam session. When Helen Noga, the club’s co-owner, heard him sing, she insisted on becoming the kid’s manager.

Two weeks later, Johnny was singing regularly at Ann Dee’s 440 Club in North Beach. As he worked the stage, his new manager worked the phones, trying to get her protegé a recording contract.

“Send blank contracts”

In September of ’55, Columbia Records’ jazz guy George Avakian just happened to be on vacation in San Francisco. Helen Noga hounded the poor man until he agreed to spend an evening listening to her boy.

As the story goes, Avakian heard Johnny sing just once and fired off a telegram to New York City:

“Have found phenomenal 19 year old boy who could go all the way. Send blank contracts.”

The executive returned to the East Coast and told Johnny to go back to school — he’d be sent for when the time was right.


In early 1956, Johnny’s athletic prowess was recognized at a national level. He received an invitation to the Olympic Trials for the American track and field team, which would go on to compete in the Melbourne Summer Games. This momentous news had barely had a chance to sink in when another invitation arrived; this one the promised summons from Columbia Records.

There aren’t too many people who have the talent and skills to even imagine facing such a dilemma. Teenaged Johnny Mathis stood at the crossroads of his career, facing the single most important decision of his life: should he pursue gold medals — or gold albums?

Papa Clem — the veteran performer — cast the deciding vote, advising his son to sing his way to stardom. In March of 1956, 53 years ago this week, Johnny Mathis left San Francisco and headed for New York. His first record — “Johnny Mathis: A New Sound In Popular Song” — was released later that year, and the rest — as they say — is history.

San Francisco remembers

Though the world knows him as the “man with the velvet voice”, a permanent member of the Grammy Hall of Fame, and yes, the proud owner of dozens of gold and platinum records — the Bay Area hasn’t forgotten Johnny’s athletic past. in 1982, San Francisco State inaugurated the annual Johnny Mathis Invitational Track & Field Meet, an event which will be held for the 27th time this coming April 4th.

He doesn’t make an appearance every year, but once in a while Johnny shows up to recall his athletic glory days and to cheer San Francisco on.

1852: English adventurer Frank Marryat pays a visit to a San Francisco Gold Rush barbershop.

more-san-francisco-memoirs1852: A Gold Rush shaving-saloon

I love personal accounts of the goings-on in our little town more than just about anything. The sights, the smells, the daily routine … I want the nuts and bolts of what it was like to live here THEN!

It’s even better when the eyeballs taking it all in belong to an outsider, a visiting alien to whom everything’s an oddity.

For my birthday a couple of years ago my Lady Friend gave me a book that’s packed to the gills with this kind of first-person account. It’s called — aptly enough — San Francisco Memories. And because I’m kind of a dope, it’s only just occurred to me that this stuff is the absolute epitome of what a timecapsule should be — and that I really ought to be sharing some of this early San Francisco gold with you.

Ahem. So share it I will.

Our correspondent: Frank Marryat

Frank Marryat was the son of Captain Frederick Marryat, famous English adventurer and author of popular seafaring tales. A chip off the old block, young Frank had himself already written a book of traveler’s tales from Borneo and the Indian archipelago. Looking for a new writing subject, he set his sights on an even more exotic locale — Gold Rush California.

mountains-and-mole-hillsIn 1850, with manservant and three hunting dogs in tow, Frank left the civilized shores of England behind, crossed the Atlantic and the Isthmus of Panama, and made his way towards the Golden Gate.

The book that resulted, California Mountains and Molehills, would be published in 1855 — ironically the year of Marryat’s own demise from yellow fever.

He covers a phenomenal amount of oddball San Francisco and early California history, all neatly collected to satisfy the curiousity of his English reading public — the Chinese question, the Committee of Vigilance, squatter wars, bears, rats, oysters, gold, even the pickled head of Joaquin Murieta — and to top it off, Marryat sailed into the Bay just as San Francisco was being destroyed (again) by fire, this one the Great June Fire of 1850!

Don’t worry. They’ll have the city rebuilt in a couple of weeks, in plenty of time for Frank to spend some quality months slumming in the Gold Country, and then, like the rest of the Argonauts, ride down into the big city for supplies — and a shave.

That’s right — put your feet up and relax — in today’s Timecapsule, we’re going to visit a Gold Rush barber shop.

from California Mountains and Molehills, 1852

high-and-dry-marryat-1850Gorgeous decoration is characteristic of San Francisco; the people pay high prices for the necessaries of life, so velvet and gilt work is thrown into the bargain. In the “shaving-saloons” this system of internal decoration is carried out in great force, and the accommodation these establishments afford is indispensable to a Californian public.

Let me suppose myself to have arrived at San Francisco from the mines early one morning. Having traveled down on the Old Soldier, I have no carpet bag of course, and I enter a shaving-saloon.

At a counter I purchase any quantity of linen I may require for the moment, and with this I proceed to the bath-room; when I return from my ablutions, I am asked if I would like my head “shampoo-ed.” With a reckless feeling in respect of shampooing, the result of an intimate acquaintance with Turkish baths, I submit to this operation.

Seating myself on an easy chair of velvet, and placing my legs on an easy stool, also of velvet, I become drowsy under the influence of the fingers and thumbs of the operator, as they are passed over my skull, as if with a view to making a phrenological chart, and which produce a feeling at last as if hundreds of fingers and thumbs were at work, and the whole force of the establishment were scratching my head.

I am conducted to a marble washstand, and a tap of cold water is turned on me. I thought I had washed my head in the bath, but it appears not, judging by the color of the water. My head is dried by hard labor, then it is wetted again by a shower of eau de Cologne and water, thrown at me when least expected.

“Will I be shaved, sir?”

Of course I will!

“Take a seat.”

I sink into the velvet chair, and contemplate my dirty boots, that for days have not known blacking, but have known mud, as they contrast with the crimson pile velvet on which they rest. The back of the chair is raised by means of a screw, until my head is in the proper position for operation.

First I have hot water on my chin, and a finger and thumb (generally the property of a colored gentleman) feels for my beard in a dreamy way with a view to softening the stubble. Then comes the lather, and shave the first, and I am about to get up, when I am stopped by more lather, and shave the second; this is conducted in a slow methodical manner, the finger and thumb wandering about in search of any stray hairs, like gleaners after the harvest.

The operator says not a word to me–San Francisco barbers are not loquacious–but his eyes wander to the open door, and suddenly he leaves me with a rush, and apostrophizing some one passing in the street, he says, “Say, how about that sugar?” The reply is inaudible, but I observe that the barber produces a sample of cigars from his pocket, and says, “See here! Fifty dollars a thousand for these won’t hurt you;” and so, having failed to make a “trade” he comes back, and, as he “finishes” me, he observes, in a general way, that “Damn him if that (the gentleman in the street) wasn’t the meanest man in all creation!”

I am then released, and this was a San Francisco shaving-saloon in 1852.

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!

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