Monday, April 6th, 2009
THIS WEEK’S PODCAST TRANSCRIPT:
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.”
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Monday, March 23rd, 2009
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.
4 Comments » - Posted in San Francisco history blog,San Francisco history podcasts by richard - sparkletack
Monday, October 20th, 2008
A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history.
October 24, 1861
The transcontinental telegraph line is finished, literally uniting the United States by wire just as the country was disintegrating into Civil War.
Just before the shooting started, Congress had offered a substantial bribe (known as a subsidy) to any company agreeing to take on the seemingly impossible project — a hair-brained plan to hang a thin wire on poles marching hundreds of miles across the Great Plains, up the Rockies, and into the Wild West.
Work began in June of 1861. Just like the transcontinental railroad a few years later, one section started in the east, one in the west, with the goal of linking up in Utah.
The two crews worked their ways toward Salt Lake City for six long months, following the route established less than a year and a half earlier by the Pony Express. It was an epic struggle. Thousands of poles were planted in scorching heat and freezing snow, and the workers negotiated not only with the hostile elements, but with Native Americans and Mormons.