Fellow Book Benders
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    Welcome.  This is the 36th edition of Fellow Book Benders, a free monthly online newsletter about the ridiculous truth and historical tidbits of San Francisco, the Russian River and beyond.  This month we visit the Barbary Coast of the City. You can find my novels at  All major credit cards accepted.  Free shipping and handling.
         April, 2019                                     Vol. 4, No. 4
      The Barbary Coast of San Francisco gets its name from an area of Northwest Africa, essentially where Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya are today. This region was known for its slave traders and pirates, with all the complementary unsavory types such as gamblers, pimps, thieves, etc. Its namesake in the City is nine-square-blocks that includes most of Chinatown, Jackson Square and parts of the North Beach District.
        Tens of thousands gold seekers in 1849 would overrun the town. The population increased from 400 to 25,000 within the year.  A forest of masts occupied Yerba Buena Cove, which edged up to where the Transamerica Pyramid is today (upper left photo). The Barbary Coast soon became victim to graft, lawlessness and every other vice known to man.   The petty thief, the house burglar, the tramp, the whoremonger, the cutthroat, the pimp, and the murderer were all found in the district’s dance-halls, concert-saloons, gambling houses and brothels.
         A three-block stretch along Pacific Avenue was wall-to-wall with "deadfalls”, which were saloons with hard benches, sawdust floors and putrid wine.  With only one policeman for every 1,500 souls, an average of one murder per night occurred. The number of brothels rivaled that of Paris. Ladies of the night were in high demand as men outnumbered women 70 to 1. Opium was sold openly in all-night drug stores. The city that knew how was an open-air den of iniquity.
         Sidebar: Biff O'Brien recalls that his great grandfather came here from Ireland, via Australia and worked on the docks.  Timothy O'Brien was born at the foot of Battery in 1884 at the "Longshoreman Hotel", (or Boarding House).

         A secret tunnel runs under the former San Francisco law office of Melvin Belli (1907-1996), the “King of Torts”.  His client list included Errol Flynn, Muhammad Ali, The Rolling Stones, Mae West, Jack Ruby, and others. After winning a court case, Belli would raise a Jolly Roger flag over his office building and fire a cannon, mounted on the roof, to announce the victory and the impending party. The structure at 722 Montgomery Street (near photo on right) in the Barbary Coast District was built circa 1850. Belli claimed that it was a Gold Rush era brothel, later to become the Melodeon Theater where one of the most acclaimed and beloved entertainers in the City’s history performed.
             Lotta Crabtree (far photo on right) was a noted singer with a zealous fan base. To avoid the harangues of intoxicated patrons, she would exit via a secret tunnel constructed just for her.  It once led under an adjoining alley to a horse stable, allowing a quick getaway for Miss Crabtree.
            Sidebars: While renovating the building for a future Belli museum, workers unearthed the tunnel to find the remains of two bodies.
           Belli married six times with five divorces, declaring bankruptcy toward the end. I often wondered if he ever used the tunnel for his own personal escapes.

   The Barbary Coast District encompasses parts of modern-day Chinatown, Jackson Square and North Beach. Tin How (far left photo) is the oldest operating Chinese temple in the U.S., erected in 1850 and honors T’ien Hou, revered as the guardian angel of fishermen and women in distress. As you enter what feels like a secret passageway to some urban myth, authenticity abounds. You survey the walls of the stairwell lined with ancient sagas. These artworks and photos of history accompany you as you pass the second floor, labeled “Mahjong Parlors”.  Another two flights brings you to a place of prayer. The quiet demands respect with only the sound of  a devotee shaking a cup of kau cim sticks penetrating the stillness.  The person exchanges the one stick that he has tossed to the floor for a corresponding paper with an answer to his/her prayers.
         Massive gold-leaf woodcarvings adorn the ceiling, stealing your breath with its craftsmanship. Red envelopes and lanterns surround the nearby statues of deities. Offerings of oranges line the altar while the scent of incense prevails (near left photo). It remains a sacred and almost secretive house of worship, an off-the-beaten-path discovery that is worthy of your inspection. Not a tourist trap.
         Sidebar: Tin How Temple is located at 125 Waverly Place in San Francisco.

        Over 500 ships were abandoned in San Francisco Bay as crew members fled for the gold fields in 1849. Many vessels, like The Arkansas (upper right photo), became part of the Yerba Buena shoreline awaiting their next life. The Arkansas was converted into The Old Ship Ale House near what is now Pacific Avenue and Battery Street, selling drinks at twenty-five cents each.
       Supposedly the term “shanghaied” originated from this bar. A drug-laced liquor would render an unsuspecting patron unconscious.  Paid interlopers would cart their victim to a shanty on the eastern slope of Telegraph Hill where he would be detained until the next outbound vessel. The Old Ship Saloon (lower right photo) has been serving good, bad and indifferent spirits on this site ever since, making it the oldest watering hole in San Francisco. The bartenders at 298 Pacific Avenue have long retired the shenanigans of shanghaiing their clientele, so you’re free to have a drink without fear of waking up lost at sea.  
         I can recommend the Gold Rush drink of choice…pisco, the first distilled drink along the West Coast. This brandy from Peru soon evolved into a punch mixed with pineapple, lime juice, sugar, gum Arabic and water.
        Sidebar: The drink’s powers caused one reviewer of the day to note: “It tastes like lemonade but comes back with the kick of a roped steer.”  

       In 1866 you would have deboarded a three-masted ship, stepped ashore onto Battery Street and crossed over land-filled Yerba Buena Cove into Jackson Square.  While navigating this section of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, you would have kept a wary eye out for pickpockets, con artists, and false solicitors offering everything from snake oil to a free drink of pisco to the unfettered company of the fairer sex.   After you passed the Custom House, a large warehouse (photos on left) would have come into view. You sought out Mr. Hotaling who invited you to his second-story office where you negotiated the price of his whiskey for shipment back East.
      Decades later you learned the fate of Hotaling’s whiskey during the 1906 earthquake and fire. The Army had plans of dynamiting the brick structure to create a fire path until realizing the value of the building's contents. The largest repository on the West Coast of distilled spirits surely deserved to be saved.   Seawater was pumped eleven blocks from the Embarcadero. Wine pumps from nearby basements added sewer sludge to the two-day victorious fight.
      However, much of San Francisco was not as fortunate, losing 28,000 buildings and historic mansions including Mr. Hotaling’s private residence in Pacific Heights. Many believed that the City had paid for its sinful ways. Others weren't so sure: “If, as they say, God spanked the town / For being over-frisky / Why did He burn His churches down / And spare Hotaling’s whiskey?”
     Sidebar: Today, the historic brick structures at 451 Jackson Street house mainly art, antique and furniture dealers. 

     My grandfather, Elmer DeGraf, was a member of the California Grays, a San Francisco military fraternity. Prior to the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition (near photo on right), the Grays aided the local police in clearing out the Barbary Coast. Fights broke out in many of the saloons (upper far right photo) with undesirables being ferried across the bay to Oakland. Grandpa recalls crawling under pool tables to avoid the mayhem. But the job was incomplete. The Barbary Coast remained a sideshow, a skid row and music den of inequity all rolled into one.
       A crusade started up in earnest by the Reverend Paul Smith in 1915 to clean up the district. When a San Francisco newspaper got on the ‘band wagon,’ the police commissioner decided to put an end to the shenanigans once and for all. They toiled for five years. The police, with the assistance of the California Grays once again, cracked down on prostitution first before putting all the sporting houses out of business. Next, the powers-to-be got tough with dance halls, prohibiting dancing anywhere in the Barbary Coast. Finally they attempted to halt  the music altogether, but legends such as Jelly Roll Morton, Lu Watters, Turk Murphy and others fought to carry on the scene.
       Sidebars: Remember Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band at Earthquake McGoon’s on Clay Street? The sound wasn’t ala modern jazz but brassy and bold. I can almost hear it now, whirling around in the back of my mind, loud and full of life.
      Roberta Boyd remembers that her grandfather was a vigilante. His "certificate" was later donated to the San Francisco library.

NEXT TIME we will visit Villa Grande along the banks of the Russian River. Cheers!
Reviews for John McCarty:

“Tasty well-paced reads with colorful characters.  Familiar folks, home-grown scenery, and candid attitudes will put you happily  in the middle of all the action.”  
                Stephen Gross, The Press Democrat

“John McCarty writes with a descriptive flare that is easy on the eyes and tickles the nostalgic bone.  His novels turn pop-culture and local antiquity into a fun and informative journey, a canny blend of lunatic farce and self-assured banter.”   
               Russian River Times

“The author offers a fascinating peek into the minds and activities…from another time period.”
              The Windsor Times

“Great characters live in John McCarty’s novels.  Lots of local color and fun reads.”
              Sonoma County Gazette

"McCarty, with iconic landmarks in these historical fictions,  keeps you hopping from the City to the River and asides.  A nice intertwining with well-known names from the past.”
              Russian River Historical Society

 “The author can make the most jumbled scene seem like the norm.  His novels are kind of a hoot with local history lurking behind them.  Read one for the good times.”
              Sonoma West Times and News 

“Mr. McCarty gives us characters and plots that seem beyond the pale but are actually rooted in history, featuring much that is wild and wonderful in the City and the River scene.”
               The Upbeat Times

The author writes ingenious and intriguing stories with a colorful cast of characters.  Delicious summaries of memories.”
               San Francisco Museum and Historical Society

“John McCarty’s novels capture the culture of yesteryear.  As John Dryden said of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, ‘Here is God’s plenty.’ McCarty captures the historic flavor of San Francisco and the Russian River in these delightful works."
               Northern California Fulbright Alumnae Association

For people who have done too much heavy reading recently, John McCarty’s novels would serve as charming antidotes.  The author shapes a variety of historic plot lines from the urban setting of San Francisco to the hokey-pokey Russian River.”
               Sonoma County Historical Society

Attributions & Asides:
       A special thank you is due to anonymous subscribers for sharing their memories of  the Barbary Coast.   Also, a note of appreciation goes to the following individuals and organizations: Biff O'Brien, Melvin Belli, Elmer DeGraf, Roberta Boyd, Robin Monroe (website designer), The Press Democrat, Card Cow Vintage Postcards, Sonoma County Historical Society, Russian River Historical Society, San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, and Wikipedia.
                To subscribe a friend to this newsletter go to and scroll to the bottom of any page to "Subscribe To Our Newsletter".
                 Your privacy is important to me.  Be assured that I am not sharing your email or any other personal information. As Red Skelton used to say, "Good night and may God bless."   JMc
Copyright © 2019 John McCarty, All rights reserved.

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