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”.