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.