Monday, December 15th, 2008

Timecapsule podcast: San Francisco, December 15-21

A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history. THIS WEEK:a couple of items from the newspaper files, and an escape from Alcatraz — perhaps!

December 15, 1849:
The London Times looks west

alta california newspaper building

As I perused the pages of an 1849-era copy of the Alta California this week, I ran across a little item reprinted from the venerable London Times.

I’d been on the hunt for, you know, colorful “Gold Rush-y” stuff, but sandwiched between reports on the progress of the new Mormon Settlement at the Great Salt Lake and a cholera epidemic in Marseilles, was a piece nicely showcasing British condescension towards their American cousins, particularly the slightly barbarous variety found out West.

I assume it was reprinted here because the Alta California took it as a compliment, but the author responsible is probably best pictured wearing a frock coat, a monocle, and a supercilious expression.

The London Times has received a copy of the Alta California of June last and ruminates thereon as follows:

“Before us lies a real California newspaper, with all its politics, paragraphs, and advertisements, printed and published at San Francisco in the 14th of last June. In a literary or professional point of view, there is nothing very remarkable in this production. Journalism is a science so intuitively comprehended by American citizens, that their most rudimentary efforts in this line are sure to be tolerably successful. Newspapers are to them what theatres and cafés are to Frenchmen.

In the Mexican war, the occupation of each successive town by the invading (American) army was signalized by the immediate establishment of a weekly journal, and of a “bar” for retailing those spirituous compounds known by the generic denomination of “American drinks”.

The same fashions have been adopted in California, and the opinions of the American portion of that strange population are already represented by journals of more than average ability and intelligence.”

Alta California — 12.15.1849

read on …

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Monday, December 8th, 2008

Timecapsule podcast: San Francisco, December 8-14

A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history. THIS WEEK: a hanging from 1852, and a Miss Goldie Griffin wants to become a cop in 1912.

December 10, 1852:
San Francisco’s first official execution

san francisco hanging 1852

It certainly wasn’t for any lack of local mayhem that it took so long for San Francisco to order its first “official” execution.

The sleepy hamlet of Yerba Buena had ballooned from fewer than 500 to over 36,000 people in 1852 — and the famous camaraderie of the ’49ers notwithstanding, not all of them had the best interests of their fellow men at heart. During the first few years of the Gold Rush, San Francisco managed to average almost one murder per day.

The murders that made it to court in these semi-lawless days were seen by sympathetic juries mostly as cases of “the guy had it coming”. And concerning executions of the un-official variety, Sam Brannan’s Committee of Vigilance — that would be the first one — had taken matters into their own hands and lynched four miscreants just a year earlier.

As the San Francisco Examiner would describe the event 35 years later,

“The crime which inaugurated public executions was of a very commonplace character. A Spaniard named José (Forner) struck down an unknown Mexican in (Happy) Valley, stabbing him with a dagger, for as he claimed, attempting to rob him. … after a very prompt trial, (Forner) was sentenced to be hanged two months later.”

Was it because he wasn’t white? Lack of bribery money? Some secret grudge? José had claimed self defense just like everybody else, and turns out to have been a man of relatively high birth in Spain, oddly enough a confectioner by trade — and we can only speculate as to the reason he ended up the first victim of San Francisco’s official rope.

The execution was to take place up on Russian Hill, at the oldest cemetery in the young city — a cemetery which, due to the fact that a group of Russian sailors had first been buried there back in ’42, had actually given the hill its name. If you’ve heard the SparkletackMoving the Dead” episode, you know that this burial ground is long gone now — and in fact, its remote location up on the hill had already caused it to fall out of use by 1850.

I guess that made it seem perfect for an early winter hanging.

Let’s go back to the Examiner’s account:

“(The location) did not deter some three thousand people from attending, parents taking children to see the unusual sight, and women on foot and in carriages forcing their way to the front.

Between 12 and 1 o’clock the condemned man was taken to the scaffold in a wagon drawn by four black horses, escorted by the California Guard. The Marion Rifles under Captain Schaeffer kept the crowd back from the scaffold. The man died game, after a pathetic little farewell speech, in which he said:

“The Americans are good people; they have ever treated me well and kindly; I thank them for it. I have nothing but love and kindly feelings for all. Farewell, people of San Francisco. World, farewell!”

A dramatically chilling engraving of the scene can be seen by clicking the thumbnail above. If you’d like to pay your respects in person, the Russian Hill Cemetery was located in the block between Taylor, Jones, Vallejo and Green Streets.

December 9, 1912:
Miss Goldie Griffin wants to become a cop!

Another item culled directly from the pages of our historical newspapers, this one from the period in which California women had just won the right to vote — something for which the country as a whole would need to wait seven more years.

This hardly made San Francisco a bastion of progressive feminist thought. I scarcely need to point it out, but note the amusement and disdain in this articles’ treatment of the first female applicant to the San Francisco Police Department, December 9, 1912:

read on …

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Monday, December 1st, 2008

Timecapsule podcast: San Francisco, December 1-7

A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history. THIS WEEK: In 1856, the birth of a great newspaper; and in 1896, a legendary gunfighter referees a boxing match.

December 1, 1856:
Birthday of the “San Francisco Call”

San Francisco Call cover

One of San Francisco’s Gilded Age newspaper giants begins its life today: the San Francisco Call.

San Francisco was lousy with newspapers in the Gold Rush era — by 1858 there were at least a dozen — but the Call, with its conservative Republican leanings and working class base, quickly nosed to the front of the pack to become San Francisco’s number one morning paper. It would stay there for nearly half a century.

By the summer of 1864, the Call already claimed the highest daily circulation in town, and it was this point that the paper famously gave employment to a busted gold miner and trouble-making journalist from Nevada by the name of Samuel Clemens — er, Mark Twain. The Call had published a few of his pieces from Virginia City, but upon Twain’s arrival in the Big City the paper employed him full time as a beat reporter and general purpose man.

In just a few months at the Call’s old digs at number 617 Commercial Street, Mark Twain cranked out hundreds of articles on local crime, culture, and politics.

I don’t know that Twain was cut out for newspapering. Years later he spoke of those days as

“… fearful, soulless drudgery … (raking) the town from end to end, gathering such material as we might, wherewith to fill our required columns — and if there were no fires to report, we started some.”

Twain’s attempts to liven up the work with the occasional wildly fictitious embellishment were frowned upon — the conservative Call was apparently interested in just the facts, thank you very much.

Twain also had a few problems with the Call’s editorial policy. In a common sort of incident, notorious only because he’d witnessed it, Twain observed a gang of hoodlums run down and stone a Chinese laundryman — as a San Francisco city cop just stood by and watched.

“I wrote up the incident with considerable warmth and holy indignation. There was fire in it and I believe there was literature.”

Twain was enraged when the article was spiked, but his editor — and this can’t help but remind you that some things never really change — his editor made it clear that “the Call … gathered its livelihood from the poor and must respect their prejudices or perish … the Call could not afford to publish articles criticizing the hoodlums for stoning Chinamen.” A campaign of passive-aggressive resistance to doing any work at all was Twain’s response — perhaps better described as “slacking” — and he was fired shortly thereafter.

read on …

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Monday, November 17th, 2008

Timecapsule podcast: San Francisco, November 17-23

read on …

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Thursday, November 13th, 2008

Zoe the Pirate returns to Treasure Island

Since writing and recording the (epic!) Sparkletack two-podcast series on the history of Treasure Island, Anne Schnoebeln Schnoebelen of the Treasure Island Museum Association has been a regular correspondent of mine — keeping me posted about the struggle to reopen the long-shuttered Treasure Island Museum. To get you quickly up to speed, as plans for […]

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Tuesday, November 11th, 2008

Sparkletack Interview: Amateur Traveler Podcast

amateur traveler podcast

In which I am interviewed by the capable Chris Christensen of the Amateur Traveler podcast — a wonderful show devoted to travel and travel stories from around the globe.

It was great fun, with graveyards, greasy spoons, and “houses of ill repute” somehow working their way into the conversation — not to mention Alma Spreckels, Diego Rivera, chantey singing, Louie’s Restaurant, the Wave Organ, and more …

I pretty much just let the stream of consciousness flow, describing my usual cock-eyed plan for showing visitors around the City. The result? A loosely structured aural tour of north-western San Francisco, starting on the Great Highway, wrapping around Land’s End, and running out of time somewhere in the Marina District.

I have to admit that — given my tendency for excited babbling about my favourite subject — I listened to the final result with some trepidation, but Chris is a very good interviewer. You can hear how well he moderates the flow with well-placed questions, comments, and (thank goodness) excellent final-cut editing.

Give it a listen here.

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Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

San Francisco toothpick contraption, 35 YEARS in the making

The obsessions that San Francisco provokes are a clear measure of the city’s seductively nutty power. This video takes the biscuit; a Rube Goldberg toothpick vision of San Francisco — constructed during the course of 35 years from over 100,000 toothpicks. And some glue. What’s even crazier is that the whole thing is basically a […]

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Monday, November 3rd, 2008

Timecapsule podcast: San Francisco, November 3-9


A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history.

November 7, 1595:
The accidental naming of San Francisco Bay

Spanish galleon - Cermeno

All right. Let’s get serious about going back in time, way, way, WAY back, 413 years into the past. How can this even be related to San Francisco, you ask? Well, it isn’t, but then again, yes it is — the first of a long chain of events leading up to the naming of our fair city.

Here’s how it began: Captain Sebastian Rodriguez Cermeño was dispatched by the Spanish to sail up the coast of Alta California and find a safe harbour for the pirate-harassed galleons sailing between New Spain and the Philippines.

A violent storm off of what would one day be named Point Reyes forced him to head for shore — yup, “any port in a storm” — and his ship fetched up in Drake’s Bay. He’d missed discovering the Golden Gate by just a few miles.

Cermeño’s ship, the “San Agustin”, ran aground, destroying it — and the loyal captain claimed that ground for Spain. Not knowing that Sir Francis Drake had shown up in the same spot 16 years earlier — or so we think — Cermeño named the bay “Puerto de San Francisco”.

The industrious Cermeño and his crew salvaged a small launch from the wreckage and sailed it all the way back down to Baja California, incidentally discovering San Diego’s bay along the way.

But how does this relate to our bay?

Well, almost 200 years later, scouts from the Spanish mission-building expedition led by Gaspar de Portolá and Fray Junipero Serra discovered the Golden Gate from the land side. Mistaking it for the body of water named by Cermeño, they called it San Francisco Bay — and this time, the name stuck.

read on …

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Monday, October 20th, 2008

Timecapsule podcast — San Francisco, October 20-26


A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history.

October 24, 1861

transcontinental telegraph utah

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.

pony express telegraph

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.

read on …

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Monday, October 13th, 2008

Timecapsule podcast — San Francisco, October 13-19


A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history.

October 18, 1851

san francisco 1851

On this date, after endless politicking and interminable delay, the mail ship Oregon steamed into San Francisco harbor with the news that California had been admitted to the Union.

The reaction of San Francisco’s 25,000 citizens is something I’ll allow the Daily Alta California to report:

“Business of almost every description was instantly suspended, the courts adjourned in the midst of their work, and men rushed from every house into the streets and towards the wharves, to hail the harbinger of the welcome news. When the steamer rounded Clark’s Point and came in front of the city, her masts literally covered with flags and signals, a universal shout arose from ten thousand voices on the wharves, in the streets, upon the hills, house-tops, and the world of shipping in the bay.

read on …

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Monday, September 29th, 2008

Timecapsule podcast — San Francisco, September 29-October 5


A weekly handful of weird, wonderful and wacky happenings dredged up from the kaleidoscopic depths of San Francisco history.

October 1, 1938

blackie swims the golden gate in 1938

On a foggy Saturday in 1938, a swaybacked, 12-year-old horse named Blackie swam — dog-paddled, really — completely across the choppy waters of the Golden Gate. The horse not only made aquatic history with that trip, but he soundly defeated two human challengers from the Olympic Club, and won a $1000 bet for his trainer Shorty Roberts too.

It took the horse only 23 minutes, 15 seconds to make the nearly mile-long trip, and the short film made of the adventure shows that Blackie wasn’t even breathing hard as he emerged from the waters at Crissy Field.

His trainer Shorty couldn’t swim, but he made the trip, too — and this was part of the bet — by hanging onto Blackie’s tail. A rowboat led the way, with Shorty’s brother offering a handful of sugar cubes from the stern to keep the sweets-lovin’ horse on track.

read on …

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Monday, September 22nd, 2008

Timecapsule podcast — San Francisco, September 22-28

September 24, 1855

joaquin murieta - the Mexican Robin Hood

The preserved head of Joaquin Murieta and the hand of Three-Fingered Jack were sold at auction today to settle their owner’s legal problems. Joaquin Murieta was a notorious and romantic figure in the early history of California.

With Jack, his right-hand man, Murieta led a gang of Mexican bandits through the countryside on a three-year rampage, brutally “liberating” more than $100,000 in gold, killing 22 people (including three lawmen), and outrunning three separate posses. After posse #4 tracked him down and chopped off his head — or at least the head of someone who might possibly have maybe looked like him — Murieta’s story entered California folklore.

read on …

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Wednesday, September 17th, 2008

Something new: weekly Time-capsule podcast, September 15-21

A little explanation is in order

So. The schedule of Sparkletack production has fallen off a bit during the past year, and for that I apologize. I miss the show myself, so I’ve decided to tweak the format a bit.

Here’s my new plan. I started to think about the fact that every time the planet spins around its axis, it’s the anniversary of some interesting, odd, or somehow notable happening in the history of our fair city.

I’m going to select a handful of these every week, and put together a short piece just to remind you — and myself — of the marvelous and wacky things that have taken place all around us during the past 170 years or so.

The format is far from settled yet — this is officially an experiment, and I’m open to suggestions.

The longer, more in-depth shows won’t disappear — the plan is to keep producing them as well, at a more comfortable pace. They’ll just appear when they appear. The Sparkletack blog won’t change at all, and I should mention here that I really love the tips and info that you constantly send me, dear listeners … thanks, and keep ‘em coming.

San Francisco's Emperor Norton

read on …

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Monday, September 15th, 2008

Lana Turner — a San Francisco noir

Lana Turner

Yet another one for the “there’s always a San Francisco angle” files …

Years before the discovery of the platinum haired Lana Turner at a Hollywood cafe propelled her into a life of glamour and super-stardom, her lifeline intersected San Francisco — and with tragedy.

I suppose we could begin the tale in Oklahoma, 1920.

check out the rest of the post …

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Thursday, August 28th, 2008

Sunset neighborhood — televised history tour

The ubiquitous and erudite Woody LaBounty of the Western Neighborhood Project takes Brian Hackney of CBS Channel 5 on a televised history tour of his beloved Sunset stomping grounds. Just in case you’ve been missing out, the Western Neighborhood Project (outsidelands.org) is a wonderful organization, a non-profit passionately dedicated to uncovering and preserving the legacies […]

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