Excerpt from The Barbary Coast
by Herbert Asbury
Although Pacific Street was never actually toppled from its proud position as the heart of the Barbary Coast, there was a long period before the earthquake and fire of 1906 when its supremacy was seriously threatened by Kearny Street, which runs from Market Street, northward past Telegraph Hill to the waterfront. The fact that Kearny Street provided a direct route from the northern part of the city to the business and financial districts prevented it from superseding Pacific Street as the most sinful thoroughfare in San Francisco, for it increased rapidly in commercial importance, while Pacific Street, so far as legitimate business was concerned, declined steadily from the early days of the gold rush. Nevertheless, for some 30 years Kearny Street boasted many dives which were fully as low and disreputable as those for which Pacific Street was so deservedly notorious. During the middle eighteen-eighties, about a decade after the murder of Bull Run Allen and the elimination of the dashing figure of Happy Jack Harrington as a factor in underworld activities, the center of sin in San Francisco was the diagonally cut block bounded by Broadway, Kearny and Montgomery Streets - a comparatively small area, but so reeking with depravity that it was known both to the police and to its habitués as the Devil's Acre. In its issue of February 28, 1886 the San Francisco Call described it as "the resort and abiding place of the worst criminals in town," and complained that respectable citizens could not traverse Kearny Street on their way to and from business without witnessing "the utter shamelessness of the denizens."
Perhaps the most disreputable resorts in the Devil's Acre were the dozen or more bagnios, deadfalls, and cheap dancehalls on the eastern side of Kearny Street - a line of dens which was appropriately called Battle Row. Much of the Call's indignation arose from the fact that none of the windows in the brothels were equipped with shades or curtains, so that whatever went on inside was visible to whoever passed in the street. Otherwise there was nothing spectacular about these dives; they catered to the lowest of the Barbary Coast hangers-on and were chiefly remarkable for their sordidness and viciousness. Scarcely a day ever passed in which each of them was not the scene of at least one robbery and half dozen brawls, many of which ended fatally. For many years Battle Row is said to have averaged a murder a week. Equally notorious was an underground saloon at the southern end of the row.
Originally this dive was known as the Slaughterhouse, but later it was ceremoniously rechristened on a night in the latter part of 1885 when the proprietor served free drinks to all comers and at the conclusion of the festivities smashed a bottle of beer against an inebriated customer's head and announced that thenceforth his place would be called the Morgue. It was the particular rendezvous of the pimps and of the lush-workers who thronged the Devil's Acre; that is, thieves who specialized in robbing drunken men, having first, if necessary, knocked them unconscious with a slug or section of lead pipe. The Morgue was also headquarters for the many drug addicts, better known in those days as hoppies, who lived in the alleys of Chinatown and the Barbary Coast. They eked out a bare existence by panhandling, by running errands for the brothel-keepers and inmates and by collecting wood and old boxes, which they sold to Chinese merchants and householders. Occasionally they earned a few pennies by showing the needle marks in their arms to tourists.
Few of the hoppies could afford a hypodermic needle; instead, they used an ordinary medicine dropper, filling it with cocaine or morphine and forcing the point into their flesh. They obtained most of their supplies of narcotics at an all-night drug store in Grant Avenue where enough cocaine or morphine for an injection cost from 10¢ to 15¢. (Copyright 1933)
NOTE: And you thought things
were depraved in certain parts of the country these days.
Herbert Asbury also wrote "The Gangs of New York" in 1927. In 2002, the book was
made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz and Liam Neeson.
(To go back, click on the madam.)