Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Barbary Coast, 1933, republished 2002 by Thunder Mouth Press

Genre: History
Author:Herbert Asbury
(Note: This is the first of a two-part review.)

"The Barbary Coast" is a gritty but fascinating background book on the social and political history of San Francisco. No major city in America ever had such a pedigree of chaos--going from a small coastal village of about 800 souls--called Yueba Buena under the Mexican flag---to a metropolis that exploded with teeming humanity after the discovery of gold in the Sacramento River area about 100 miles away from the Bay Area.

From 1848 onwards a whole city burst forth with tens of thousands of men out to make it rich either in gold strikes or in gambling, shopkeeping or pimping, banking or strong-arm robbery. In the first three years of San Francisco's s existence, much of the city was burned to the ground several times (often by arsonists, sometimes by accident.) Great houses built on steep hillsides and little shanty neighborhoods alike went up in flames. Every time the city rebuilt itself again starting almost before the smouldering wreckage of whole neighborhoods of canvas hovels brick-and-mortar businesses had to be pulled down and carted off. Many of the short-lived enterprises were built from wood pulled out of merchant ships that had been abandoned by their crews "en masse" to go to the where the gold was reported to be. One of the larger cast-off "hulks" was used as the city's only jail house.

It was a frontier city indeed, with all the hazards and potential that came with being so isolated and having hordes of mostly young men coming not only from from "Back East" but from China, France, Chile, Britain and her colonies, Mexico, et al, to make individual fortunes. Most of the men never got their personal El Dorado needless to say. Many died without their families knowing what became of them. Others barely made it home with the clothes on their backs. Some miners made their fortunes in back-breaking labor panning and digging along the Sacramento and Feather Rivers only to lose the precious gain in the gambling dens of the city. According to Asbury:

"Once their gold was exhausted, the spendthrift miners hurried back to the gold-fields, supported by a sublime faith that they would immediately make another rich find and so start anew the same vicious circle. Even those who hadn't enough left to furnish outfits or to pay their transportation to the diggings didn't lose hope entirely. Scorning to degrade themselves, as they thought, by performing ordinary labor, they diligently prospected the city streets, the vacant lots, and the sand-hills behind the town; many religiously panned the daily sweepings from stores, hotels, saloons, brothels, and gambling houses, which occasionally yielded a few ounces of gold dust."

The Mexican War had just ended before the famous Gold Strike at Sutter's Mill in January 1848. Many of the earliest "49ers" and "Argonauts" as they called themselves were back-east Americans who were pumped up with a sense of entitlement to all of California. They braved cholera via the wagon trains or malaria via the Panamanian Isthmus to get there. The new city had been a military outpost and cattle stockyard called "Yueba Buena" before 1848, settled by the missionaries and soldiers of the Spanish Empire in 1776 and later by the ranchers and merchants of Mexico (Of course the Bay Area was settled by Native-Americans long before that.) All of that legacy was stripped away by the gold fever of men rushing from the East to claim their new chunk of the USA.
Young white American criminals called "Hounds" attacked and murdered Hispanic and Chinese settlers in their respective little tent camps along the bay sides and the Pacific. After some of them were driven from town, new gangs took their place, mainly expatriate Australian ex-cons known as the "Sydney Ducks". These were non-gold seeking Aussies who congregated in a part of the city that was called "Sydney Town" before it was "The Barbary Coast". They were accused of setting fires in the city when the wind was blowing away from their neighborhood in order to go in arson-related crime sprees of homes and businesses.
Twice (in 1851 and 1856) the city was in such an uproar that the business men and other citizens formed "Vigilante Committees". They superseded what passed for due process of law among the often crooked politicians who modeled themselves after the Tammany Hall political machine that ran New York City at the same time. "Justice" came for many very fast and at the end of a hangman's noose for returning "Hounds", "Ducks" and any other criminal caught and tried by a quickly convened jury.
Other scofflaws charged with lesser offenses were lucky and got off with jail or banishment. Some innocent men who happened to look like wanted fugitives barely escaped capital punishment when the real criminals were found; many others suffered on thumped-up charges, especially Irish-Catholics, blacks and Chinese emigrants.

Saloons, gambling dens and houses of prostitution proliferated. The latter were quite popular and very expensive. Ashbury estimates that by the end of 1849, out of a population of between 20,000 and 25,000, only about 300 were women and an estimated almost two-thirds of those were prostitutes. While prostitution was legal in San Francisco until 1914, the "parlors", "houses" and low class "cribs" where women worked were also unregulated. Some women did quite well in the early days of the city, but most suffered the fate one associates with the modern sex trafficking trade in parts of North America, Asia and the Arab World.

One of the sadder chapters of the city were the large number of Chinese women imported in the 1860's and 70's to be de facto slaves to the Chinatown crime rings that ran the prostitution and opium dens in that part of the city. "The Slaves of Chinatown" were often taken right off a ship and given "contracts" by their employers which gave them little money and would add time onto their indentured tenure for any illness they suffered. Women of all races plying the oldest profession on the streets fared little better. Church organizations tried to stop some of the street activity but they were thwarted by the lack of other available employment for women and the graft that the police and City Hall officals for keeping the brothels open during periodic "reform campaigns".

Dens of gambling and drinking and a few bawdy theaters like the famous Bella Union were among the first structures in the city to be built of brick and mortar. Many men and not a few women made fortunes from the wide-open practices of vice that created "The Barbary Coast", which hugged the northern shore of the city just above the downtown area and the nearby piers. While other areas had their share of vice joints, The Barbary Coast was the civic epicenter of adult entertainment on the West Coast for decades after the gold ran out.

The forces of human greed enterprising corruption in the city far outstripped the foundations of reliable law and order needed to contain it. Within a few years, San Francisco was the 10th largest city in America and easily the largest west of St. Louis.


  1. A fascinating history of San Francisco Doug, a city i particularly liked when I visited it some years ago. The description of the anarchic roots of the city reminded me of scenes from the film McCabe and Mrs Miller, but with nicer weather. The gold inspired frenzy that gave rise to the city actually was a living manifestation of the American Dream etched on the hearts of immigrants which acted as a lure to so many. The racism and corruption represents a social seismic upheaval that was a microcosm of both Europe and Chinese xenophobia. It is amazing that given it's history that San Francisco ended up so civilised and did not just get burned down once too often to be resurrected.
    This sounds like a book well worth reading, thanks for your witty and concise review here, yet another volume to go on the burgeoning list of 'must reads' that grows almost every day. The end result of all this murder and corruption is amazingly a place I would highly recommend anyone to visit, even if the 'entertainment' has been toned down rather since it's earliest days.

  2. One wonders how many people met wretched deaths at that time. Or how many bodies were trampled on to get where we are now. And yet, they must have been exciting times for those trying to make their way. Where there are rich pickings, there will be prostitution and drugs. There are always the leeches.
    Barbary Coast must be a good book to take on holiday.

    Thank you Doug. This was an interesting blog to read!


  3. Thanks for the kind words. It is amazing that such a relatively tolerant city--or any city and all-- has survived all the natural and unnatural forces that have been set upon it for over 150 years. You can be a suit-and-tie person or wear your "freak flag" as they say and its taken in stride better than any other American city...not without some exceptions of course like the cops going a bit off the rails from time to during the Democratic National Convention in 1984.
    But for the most part it is a tolerant city.
    I'm glad to see we are of like minds on San Francisco. Here's a link to an online edition of "The Barbary Coast" by the way for your perusal:

  4. Thanks Cassandra. Yes I admit it is a fun holiday-type book to read. Some of the subject matter is grim, but I felt by the finish that, if one stayed alert and cautious, that the Barbary Coast venues of the past would have been fascinating to visit--certainly many celebrities of the time, from Oscar Wilde to Mark Twain to Sarah Bernhardt and Lillie Langtry reportedly made a beeline to the Barbary Coast as almost their first stops on their respective tours of the town--and they all came through unscratched!

  5. Chinese xenophobia seems to have penetrated every westernised country although in NZ Chinese women were actively discriminated against by refusing them entry into this country. Thus, the small group of vilified Chinese men who came here looking for gold, led long and lonely lives.

    We had the canvas cities here too, later in the century and mostly down in Otago and in Westland. Many goldseekers came from the Californian goldfields as well as Aussie and the UK. They were largely lawless communities also.

    I have heard of this book but haven't read it. Sounds like a book worth looking for.

  6. Yes, what happened to the Chinese was quite bad in California and the West. They were the only group that, by 1852 , to pay a special "foreigner tax" just to work the mines. And by the 1880's there was a Chinese Exclusion Act passed by Congress to cut off all emigration. This despite the fact that it was mainly Chinese labor that built the arduous miles of western track to link up the Trans-Continental Railroad. Many Chinese were lost in industrial accidents and cave-ins from,among other jobs, dynamiting tunnels to lay rails through the nearly impassable Sierra Nevada Mountains.
    I'm sure if you read descriptions of early California gold mining towns like "Hangtown", "Angel's Camp", "Pancake Ravine" and "Miller's Diggings", et al, they would be just as "cosmopolitan" and lawless as those you had in NZ. Sometimes, to be fair, men of different climates got along for a while in these camps. And women were respected, as some letters and diaries of pioneer women attest. (They were so rare in some areas that just seeing a lady or a child would bring some men out to stare and/or bring out a melancholy for loved ones left behind.)
    But I have to add that vigilante violence was just one rash act in a saloon or a gold claim dispute away from breaking loose. I imagine many men followed the "gold strike" fever all over the Pacific Rim and many of those Anglo men brought the seeds of bigotry and ignorance from California to South of the Equator.

  7. The one thing I don't recall reading about in our historic goldfields is the vigilante justice, at least not on a big scale. Chinese people had to pay a poll tax in order to enter NZ, originally it was twenty pounds but then put up to one hundred pounds which was quite huge back then. Hence the second one hundred pounds for the wife was basically unaffordable, the xenophobic idea back then was that this prevented the Chinese from reproducing here. Quite disgusting. A few years ago, our Prime Minister, Helen Clark, made a complete apology to the Chinese people for the racism all that time ago.

    On the goldfields it was mainly the business people - the pub owners - the madams - and the banks that made the most money from the gold rushes.

  8. Thanks for posting the link to The Barbary Coast Doug.....I will indeed peruse it.

    Cheers AA

  9. The same was true in California. If the xenophobia was the same, I'm glad to hear the "vigilante" aspects were more tempered. And kudos to Helen Clark for her apology to the Chinese. It took America until Bill Clinton's time in office to apolgize for the role our nation played in the Transatlantic slave trade.

  10. I was thinking about the troubled history of the Barbary Coast. Slave labour, prostitution, and drugs. We are still fighting those things in the 21st century. A couple of years ago when I was working as a volunteer to help the homeless. I came across women from the Philippians, who had come to Britain to work for Arab families who were embassy staff. They were beaten on a regular basis by the people who brought them here. There wasn't any where for them to escape to. After much unnecessary talking and delayed negotiations, a few safe houses were set up for them. The houses also took in battered wives. If this kind of thing is still going on now, what chance did they have, who lived in a time when life was so much harder ? Fortunately we have progressed in many areas of daily life, health care, sanitation and clean water, contraception and for some of us human rights. After all, let's face it, a mere 150 years ago, if the violence didn't get you, disease from the drinking water and lack of sanitation, bad personal hygiene did!

    I guess we are still working towards improving our society.


  11. Yes,Cassandra, we still have many of these problems and congratulations to you for helping to ease these terrible situations for these women. I can't really imagine how desperate one must be to take employment so far from home and with "employers" who are so brutal. Some lay people in church groups tried to help women in Chinatown and other places back then, but any good result was a long time in coming and met with the usual resistance of those who profited from it.

    I was reading recently about a UN-sponsored group called The International Organization for Migration which works to bring abused people from poor nations like the Philippines, Moldova and other poverty-stricken natins. They have had some success at least in getting victims of abuse of all kinds back home. But grinding poverty causes others, especially younger women, to continue to wind up in the cycle you mention.
    Perhaps the international attention this issue gets today is one sign collective humanity has slowly improved from earlier times.

  12. unbelievable and appalling...