Sex, sin and the gangs of San Francisco

"The Barbary Coast," by the little-known author of "Gangs of New York," remains one of the strangest and most indispensable books about the city by the bay.


Gary Kamiya
December 21, 2002 3:43AM (UTC)

I first came upon Herbert Asbury's "The Barbary Coast" about 25 years ago, a few years before I began driving a taxi in San Francisco and was privileged to witness for myself some contemporary versions of the long-lost scenes of debauchery, violence and lust that Asbury so lovingly chronicled. For a young man in love with this windblown gray city and eager to discover a past worthy of its inexplicable hills and shadowy byways, finding Asbury's book was like going out for a smoke and bumping into Humphrey Bogart climbing out of "Dark Passage" and onto the Filbert Steps.

I knew San Francisco had a vice-filled past, but in Asbury's telling, that vice acquired an almost metaphysical status. Asbury provided San Francisco with a history so lurid and romantic it seemed to come from a different epoch -- a ruthless time, a time without prudence, when pleasure and fate were the only stars men steered by. Casting a strange, sulphurous light on streets and buildings, Asbury's history gave the whole town an uncanny second life.

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That Chinatown alley was no longer just the garbage-reeking route I traversed on my way home: Its dim recesses held the shadows of ferocious Chinese highbinders clutching their gory hatchets. The neon-lit burger joint on Columbus and Pacific faded out, to be replaced by a parlor house, its red light glowing behind dirty curtains, its female inhabitants waiting upstairs for the call of "Company, girls!" The snooty antique shop near the foot of Telegraph Hill was a mere placeholder: All you had to do was loop the years once or twice around a street lamp and a cavernous dance hall roared to life in its place, mugs of cheap beer disappearing down a hundred rapacious male gullets while a host of "pretty waiter girls" worked the room. The blandest of buildings, the most Chamber of Commerce-approved vistas, suddenly had monstrous and enticing stories to tell.

San Francisco had the damnedest fine ghosts, and Asbury brought them back to life.

Asbury, long a forgotten figure, is enjoying an unexpected moment in the sun with the release of Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York," based on Asbury's eponymous 1928 book, and Adam Gopnik's penetrating essay on him in the Nov. 11 New Yorker. Gopnik argues that Asbury, a freethinker who turned against the moralistic Methodism of his upbringing, wasn't a romantic chronicler of a glamorous underworld at all, but a clear-eyed rationalist, exposing the unpleasant truth about the underbelly of American life. For this reason, Gopnik finds it ironic that Asbury's books have become prized by connoisseurs of urban surreality -- no less a figure than the supreme literary mythmaker himself, Jorge Luis Borges, contributes a foreword to "Gangs of New York."

Nonetheless, you don't write book after book that lovingly examines the urban underbelly (Asbury also wrote books delving into the seamy sides of Chicago and New Orleans, as well as a history of gambling in America) unless you have a peculiar affinity for that subject. Asbury may have seen himself as a scientific archaeologist sifting through evidence, but he strikes me as just a little more in love with the outré and the out-of-control, a little more happy in his work of excavating bizarre layers of human sin, than a mere hard-boiled cynic would be.

The notion that San Francisco, as the end of the frontier, is a place without limits, a domain of anarchy and disrepute and oversized fun, recurs frequently in American letters. Mark Twain, who hit bottom here while working as a reporter, nonetheless toasted its gaudy excesses. In "On the Road," Jack Kerouac wrote, "It was the end of the continent; nobody gave a damn." Asbury's San Francisco is the sordid fountainhead of those lofty myths. He reveals, or creates, the Ur-San Francisco, the demon seed from which all those Beats and hippies and dot-com fools sprang. His San Francisco was born in riot and madness and greed: it was a kind of Saturnalia City, where the Gold Rush set a cracked tone that governed all subsequent behavior. In this wide-open town -- which initially existed merely as a way station to the hills, where women were virtually unknown, eggs could cost $50 a dozen and miners blew thousands of dollars in a single night -- the rules of ordinary conduct were suspended.

Asbury begins his tale with the event that triggered it all: James Marshall's discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill on the American River. When hordes began to flood into the city in 1849 -- ships were often abandoned in the Bay as everyone on board, including the crew, headed for the gold-filled foothills -- chaos descended. Prices rose astronomically and parasites, hookers and corrupt camp-followers moved in at a rate not seen until the dot-com mania of 1998. In the rainy season of 1849 to '50, San Francisco's unpaved streets were trampled into so deep a quagmire that numerous mules, horses and carts were sucked down and the animals drowned. Asbury writes, "The mud at Clay and Kearny streets, in the heart of town, at length became so deep and thick that a wag posted this sign: THIS STREET IS IMPASSABLE; NOT EVEN JACKASSABLE." A notice that would have been equally useful a few years ago, when certain of the city's thoroughfares became impossibly clogged with the BMWs and Mercedes of hee-hawing 22-year-old Multimedia Gulch grandees.

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He then moves on to the reign of terror imposed by the "Sydney Ducks," a gang of violent ex-cons from Australia who pillaged the town at will in the early 1850s -- in addition to committing innumerable murders, robberies and other crimes, on several occasions they actually burned almost the entire city down -- and laughed at the corrupt and incompetent municipal authorities. This period, which Asbury calls "the nearest approach to criminal anarchy that an American city has yet experienced," led to the formation of a vast citizen's vigilante group called the Vigilance Committee, which over the objections of corrupt politicians (as well as some honest ones fearing the consequences of such organic manifestations of the popular will) took the law into its own hands by seizing several notorious prisoners and publicly hanging them. This rough justice was applauded by the vast majority of San Franciscans, and it put an end to the state of lawlessness imposed by the Sydney Ducks and other thugs.

But San Francisco was not destined to remain sedate. As commerce boomed, "the human flotsam of the seven seas began to wash against the shores of San Francisco for the third time in its brief but eventful history." The area formerly known as Sydney-Town became known as the Barbary Coast. Located in the small area east of Chinatown, south of North Beach and north of what is now the Financial District, the Barbary Coast -- the name may have been bestowed by a sailor who thought it resembled the pirate-ridden coast of Africa -- was a veritable Zone of Misrule.

Fanned by the thirst, lust, gambling fever and extravagance of miners, adventurers and desperadoes of all stripes, and ignored or abetted by corrupt or complacent city authorities, an empire of prostitution, drinking, gambling, dancing, shanghaiing, opium smoking and all conceivable combinations thereof thrived in a few city blocks. It was, Asbury writes, "a unique criminal district that for almost 70 years was the scene of more viciousness and depravity, but which at the same time possessed more glamour, than any other area of vice and iniquity on the American continent."

It's enough to make a San Franciscan swell with civic pride. And on Asbury goes, subjecting the Coast's long and disreputable history to microscopic attention, lingering over such bottom-of-the-barrel sexual services of the day as breast fondling (10 cents for one, 15 for two) and establishments that allowed visitors, for a modest fee, to peep through a hole at the goings-on behind any door in the house. One of his most remarkable chapters concerns the common practice of shanghaiing sailors -- forcing them by trickery, alcohol, drugs and main force, onto ships headed out for long voyages.

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One of the many enjoyable things about Asbury's prose is its utter lack of euphemism, its complete insensitivity to potential wounded feelings. Wondering why so many sailors submitted to the abuse meted out by touts and innkeepers, Asbury writes, "The answer probably lies in the fact that in those early days the vast majority of seamen were great stupid hulking brutes of scant sensitivity and little or no intelligence." No beating around the bush there, matey! But the Society for the Defense of the Intelligence of 19th Century Seamen will have to wait in line to file its complaint, for here is Asbury on the influx of Chinese immigrants:

"The Chinese invasion of San Francisco and California began in the summer of 1848, about five months after the discovery of gold at Sutter's Fort, when three frightened subjects of the Son of Heaven -- two men and a woman -- disembarked from the brig Eagle and vanished in the foothills behind Yerba Buena Cove. So far as the records show, they were the first of their race to pass through the Golden Gate, at least in modern times. Soon thereafter the yellow torrent was raging in full flood ... The deluge of yellow men reached its peak in 1870 ... the influx from the Flowery Kingdom was definitely stopped by the Scott Exclusion Act of 1888."

"[S]ubjects of the Son of Heaven"? "Yellow torrent"? "Deluge of yellow men"? "Influx from the Flowery Kingdom"? To a modern ear this sounds suspicious, if not downright racist. There's no doubt that Asbury is guilty of trying to make the Chinese exotic, and there's no doubt an element of distasteful condescension (as well as amusingly anachronistic non-PCness) in such Orientalizing. But Asbury doesn't come across as a bigot: He describes the appalling racism directed at the Chinese by whites with clear disapproval. His account of the "slaves of Chinatown" -- girls as young as 3 who were sold by their families into lifelong prostitution -- is chilling.

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Perhaps the most disturbing passage in the entire book is when he cites a San Francisco Chronicle story describing how the prostitutes' owners got rid of them when they were no longer useful: after telling a girl she must die, they locked her in a small room called a "hospital" with a cup of water, a cup of rice and a small lamp. When the lamp had burned out, the "doctors" entered: usually the girl had starved to death or committed suicide, but even if she was alive when they entered, they left with a corpse.

In the conclusion of his tale, Asbury describes how the Barbary Coast was finally cleaned up by a reform-minded City Hall, lingering on in its last years as a shadow of its former self. In its pathetic end, the district attracted upper-class slummers who ventured into its diminished dance halls to gawk at a taste of "real low-life," much of it now lamentably staged for their delectation.

Asbury himself could be described as the most sublime kind of slummer -- and we his readers as his slumming accomplices. Asbury's understated, refined, martini-dry prose style (not surprisingly, he wrote for the New Yorker for a number of years), when applied to the gross, brutal and lascivious events that are his metier, creates an almost imperceptible but distinctly droll effect, vaguely reminiscent of a straight-faced P.G. Wodehouse. Take this passage, in which he judiciously compares and contrasts the methods used by various female "crimps," or boarding-house masters, in carrying out their typical day's work (mainly knocking out dim-witted sailors for the purpose of shanghaiing them).

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"Miss Piggott and Mother Bronson were their own bouncers and chief bar-tenders, but neither enforced her edicts with a bludgeon or a slung shot, as did Sal and the Cow. Miss Piggott remained faithful to the bung-starter, and in the use of this implement as a weapon she developed amazing skill. On the other hand, Mother Bronson, who was nearly six feet tall and broad in proportion, scorned to use any other than Mother Nature's weapons. She possessed a fine and strong set of sharp teeth, which she was delighted to sink into the anatomy of an obstreperous customer; her enormous feet were encased in No. 12 brogans, and her fist was as hard as a rock and in size resembled a small ham. With the toe of her boot she once hoisted a Chinaman from the floor of her saloon to the top of the bar, and she often boasted that she could fell an ox with one blow of her fist, although no one ever saw her do it. Nor did anyone dispute the statement."

For her part, Miss Piggott favored a combination of techniques in her quest to make foreign cruises available to sailors on an involuntary basis. Having maneuvered the mark onto a trapdoor built into the floor, she then offered him a drink known as a "Miss Piggott Special," made of "equal parts of whisky, brandy and gin, with a goodly lacing of laudanum or opium. While the victim was shivering under the terrific impact of this beverage, Miss Piggott leaned across the bar and tapped him on the head with the bung-stopper, while Nikko [a Laplander confederate] made things certain with a blow from a slung shot. As the prospect began to crumple to the floor, Miss Piggott operated a lever behind the bar and dumped him into the basement, where he fell upon a mattress which Miss Piggott had thoughtfully provided, realizing that the man might receive an injury which would lessen his value. When the object of all these attentions awoke, he was usually in a ship bound for foreign climes, with no very clear idea as to how he got there."

Asbury adds that regular customers avoided standing on the trapdoor, since it was "an unwritten rule of the establishment that any man who stood upon the fatal spot was fair game." Nor, according to Asbury, did the abrupt disappearance of a customer down the trapdoor excite much notice or comment from the regulars, who must have been a stoic, unfeeling or perhaps insentient lot indeed.

Asbury's elegant prose simultaneously reassures the reader that he is not merely leering at tawdry tales and that those tales are 100 percent true. In fact, there is reason to question both of these beliefs. Asbury's tour of old San Francisco's sin spots offers many edifying pieces of information, but if we are honest we must confess our motives in taking it may not be entirely different from the suburbanites who took those see-the-hippies bus tours so popular during the Summer of Love.

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As for the accuracy of Asbury's history, it too leaves something to be desired. As a historian, Asbury must be taken with more than a few grains of laudanum: He relies heavily on the daily papers of the time, and "the merry gentlemen of the Western press" (as an East Coast writer called Twain, Harte and their ilk) were known to distribute large quantities of taffy to their readers on a regular basis. Asbury cites some correspondence with figures who had contemporaneous knowledge of the events in the book, but his books are mainly, as Gopnik says, "glorified clip jobs."

Asbury may be more evocative than literally accurate, but in histories of this nature evocation is the most important thing. The narrowness of his subject helps: A history of San Francisco written by Asbury would probably be an unreliable (if highly readable) text, but grasping the Barbary Coast is well within his purview. It is difficult not to feel that his portrait, despite its exaggerations, excesses and inaccuracies -- or perhaps in part because of them -- captures the true spirit of that roisterous era and the mad neighborhood that was its counterfeit, glittering crown jewel. Asbury's vision of old, wicked San Francisco may in part be a dream, a feverish phantasm, but when the fog blows down Varennes Alley and the lights begin to twinkle on one of the town's dark and storied hills, you don't even have to close your eyes to see again the wild city he dreamed of, and know it once was real.


Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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