Monday, April 6th, 2009

San Francisco Timecapsule: 04.06.09

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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