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.
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.
“A la California. Sketches of Life in the Golden State.”
EVERY 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.”
Ten 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. â€“ 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
Guided 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.
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.