Among the most cherished of San Francisco institutions are its weirdoes -- er -- eccentrics. They include people who yell at the tourists at trolley stops, coffee house philosophers with unique views, millionaires who want to leave some large folly in their memory, and many others. Some are artists, some are financiers with an eye for the odd, and others are just independent, creative types. These people have defied convention in some remarkable way and by their antics, caused us to remember and cherish them.
|MAD, adj. Affected with a high degree of intellectual independence; not conforming to standards of thought, speech, and action derived by the conformants from the study of themselves; at odds with the majority; in short, unusual. It is noteworthy that persons are pronounced mad by officials destitute of evidence that they themselves are sane. - from The Devil's Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce|
|This woman's tale is perhaps the saddest on this page and one of the most magnificent examples of devotion told anywhere. When she was young, the daughter of the Presidio Commandant fell in love with Nikolai Rezanov, a young Russian officer from Fort Ross who had come to San Francisco to establish trade between his settlement and the still tiny village. She could not marry him because he was not a Catholic, but as he left he promised her that he would go to the Czar and ask his permission to convert so that he could. Many years passed and Nikolai did not return. Doña Concepcion entered a convent and waited, convinced that he had not forgotten her. In 1846, some forty years after their romantic affair ended, she learned that she'd been right: Nikolai had left immediately for St. Petersburg, but had died during the long overland trek and was buried in Yakutsk, Siberia. His lover never married.|
|Ambrose Bierce developed caustic wit to a high art and became the literary arbiter of the West Coast. He arrived in 1868, just in time to assume the role of "Town Crier" from another great American humorist, Mark Twain. Even Bierce's employer, William Randolph Hearst, was not safe from his barbs. Hearst sent Bierce back east in 1896 to use his edged words against Collis B. Huntington and the Southern Pacific Railroad. In 1913, Bierce tidied up his affairs and disappeared into revolutionary Mexico. It is not known where or how he died. |
[Return to Norton's Proclamations]
|When the ship bearing Sam Brannan and the flock of Latter-Day Saints arrived in San Francisco, they were surprised to find it occupied by the Americans. "There's that damned flag again," Brannan is supposed to have said. Brannan and his followers planned to travel overland to Utah where they would meet Brigham Young. The allure of San Francisco proved too much and Brannan, with many others, remained. When Brigham Young sent word that Brannan should forward the community's tithes to him, Brannan replied that the Lord was welcome to come collect in person. Brannan soon broke with the church.|
Brannan assumed a leading role in San Francisco affairs, announcing the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill (after he'd taken care to open a general store in Sacramento) and organizing the First Committee of Vigilance. He became one of California's richest men during the 1850s. Brannan, however, loved drink and made some bad decisions. He bought up Napa Valley land where he hoped to build a resort. "Saratoga" was the name he'd planned to give it, but he showed up drunk on dedication day and announced that hereafter the place would be known as "Calistoga, Sarafornia!" The mineral springs and town are still known as Calistoga.
Brannan lost it all after his wife divorced him. She took all his San Francisco properties and let him keep Calistoga. Brannan soon mismanaged his resort into bankruptcy and disappeared from the public eye. He died a pauper in Escondido, California.
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|"Mercurial" is the polite term people used to describe Benjarmino Bufano's temperament. He fought with his patrons, he withheld his art from them when they offended him or did not offer adequate commission, and made people fear him. People talked about him even after his death. Holy Cross Cemetery rejected his tombstone (a modern statue of Saint Francis) as unsuitable for their cemetery, so Bufano and his monument were placed in a back corner at the head of the plot for indigent children.|
|Charles E. Bolton (Black Bart)|
|A handkerchief, dropped at a holdup scene, led a Wells-Fargo detective to discover the identity of the bandit who had been terrorizing his stagecoach line for two years. Black Bart turned out to be mild-mannered Charles Bolton, a bank clerk not believed by anyone to be capable of violence. In all his robberies, Bolton never harmed a soul. He picked exclusively on the Wells Fargo Company. As a calling card, he often left poems. Upon his release from San Quentin in 1888, the warden asked Bolton if he had given up his life of crime. "Yes," said Bolton, "I have." "Are you going to write any more poetry?" asked the warden. Bolton replied "I told you I wasn't going to commit any more crimes."|
I've labored long and hard for bread
|Dr. Henry Cogswell|
|Dr. Henry Cogswell believed that it was his duty to spread the good news of modern dentistry to a caries-ridden populace. His mode of carrying out this worthy missionary activity is what puts his name among the great eccentrics. Cogswell not only thought dentistry was a good thing, but he also evidentally believed that he was the embodiment of all that was good about dentistry because he gave to the city several statues of himself offering a glass of ever-flowing water to thirsty citizens. "Purple Cow" author and humorist Gelette Burgess lost his job as a drafting instructor at UC Berkeley because he made some unmentionable alteration to one of these monuments to dental hubris.|
|Lillie Hitchcock Coit|
|Lillie Hitchcock Coit went to live in the South during the American Civil War. She dressed in men's clothes and crashed their exclusive bastions and affairs. She survived an assassination attempt by a crazed and jealous cousin. Lillie was the beloved of the city's firemen. She was forever grateful to the Knickerbocker Company for rescuing her when she was young. She cheered for them as they fought fires. At her death, she bequeathed the city the unusual Coit Tower, shaped like a fire hose nozzle. Her tomb at Cypress Lawn is said to hold a shrine laded with fire memorablia still maintained by unknown persons! She is the subject of a future Tale from Colma.|
|Willie Coombs or George Washington II|
|Willie Coombs, also known as George Washington II, was a small-time phrenologist who almost made it big as Norton's chief rival. Early reports by Colonel Moustache spoke of both them as crowning glories of the city's indigent population. Coombs, a native of New York, walked through the city, carrying a banner and wearing a tricorn hat over his long powdered hair. Herbert Ashbury says that he wore a Continental uniform of tanned buckskin. A plump little man, he was confident of his comeliness and touted himself via the banner, posters, and his own voice as The Great Matrimonial Candidate.|
He was one of many habitues of Martin and Horton's saloon. Here he spent his evenings imbibing steam beer and poring over maps and documents, planning his battles. He composed messages to Congress and to other nations, much like Norton did. It is hard to say who imitated who, but the jealousy they felt towards one another was intense. Like Norton, Coombs took his persona seriously and once spent a winter starving himself until friends convinced him that Valley Forge was over.
Coombs left the city abruptly after a clash with the Emperor. One day, he stormed into the police station, claiming that Emperor Norton was tearing down his posters. The police chuckled and informed him that there was no law against this; he would have to resort to civil action. George Washington II had no money, so he did as Norton did and went to Norton's favorite newspaper of the day, the Alta California, where he told his sad story. When asked why Norton would do such a thing, Coombs replied "Because he is jealous of my reputation with the fair sex."
Soon after, the Alta published an article describing its two resident crackpots. It made fun of Norton's slovenliness and pointed to the "light of insanity" shining in the eyes of Coombs. Both men stormed into the Alta and, declaring their perfect sanity, demanded a retraction.
A few days later, the Alta printed a new proclamation from Norton directing the Chief of Police to "seize upon the person of Professor Coombs, falsely called Washington No. 2, as a seditious and turbulent fellow, and to have him sent forthwith, for his own good and the public good, to the State Lunatic Asylum for at least thirty days." Coombs found it expedient to go back home to New York.
Mark Twain found him there in 1868, still thinking himself to be George Washington's reincarnation and displaying his legs for the enjoyment of the ladies. He petitioned Congress to give him the William Penn Mansion in Philadelphia and, when this edifice was torn down, he requested they give him the Washington Monument.
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|Lotta Crabtree, a protegé of Lola Montez, began her career as a golden-haired girl who wowed the miners at San Francisco's Bella Union and elsewhere in the Mother Lode. She grew up to be a famous actress in her own right. Her unique gift to the city -- the cast-iron monstrosity known as Lotta's Fountain located at Montgomery and Market -- earns her a place on this list.|
|The Great Unknown (Wilhelm Frohm)|
|San Franciscans wondered about the strange, tall man who they saw walking every day and they called him The Great Unknown. Tailor Wilhelm Frohm himself did not know he was the subject of conversation for some time. When he found out, he tried to capitalize on his fame by renting a hall and selling tickets for the opportunity to meet him and find out who he was. Only one reporter showed and by the next morning, all of San Francisco knew the identity of the mysterious man in black. |
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|By this name lived a true saint. Someone named this son of a German father and a Japanese mother "The Most Mysterious Personality in American Letters". He once predicted that California would "eventually secede from the Union." When he was dragged into court in 1918 as a German sympathizer, he scoffed "I hate Germany. I was arrested in Berlin for calling the Kaiser names." The world shook around him. Sadakichi went on painting, writing, acting, and just living all the same. Such is the world that a sane man like Sadikichi qualifies as an eccentric by men and women who do not think.|
|If one hadn't been oneself, it would have been worthwhile being Sadakichi.|
|The City's liberal establishment (including Mayor George Moscone) depended on Reverend Jim Jones because no one else could turn out precinct workers like he could. The dark side of Jones only became known shortly before he fled to a South American settlement: the People's Temple ensured the loyalty of its members through torture and intimidation. Jonestown was the Reverend's personal dictatorship After murdering Democratic Representative Leo Ryan, Jones ordered his followers to join him in suicide. Some did so voluntarilly. Others were killed by enforcers who killed themselves when the job was done.|
|The King of Pain|
|The King of Pain told those who bought the liniment he sold outside the Pacific Clinical Infirmary that if they covered their bodies with the ointment as he did, they would need no clothes. He himself wore a bright red union suit, a heavy velour robe, a ostrich-feathered plug hat, and a heavy sword. As he grew wealthier from the sales of his aconite ointment, he bought himself a coal-black coach and six snow-white horses to draw it. He lost it all at the gaming tables and ended his life a suicide.|
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|A carnival sideshow operator turned high priest of evil opened his Church of Satan in a respectable part of town and attracted actress Jayne Mansfield and others who sought to sell their souls. LaVey's Satanic Bible is little more than an inversion of the Beatitudes and any other part of the Bible which calls for loving thy neighbor as well as thyself. He claims the power to curse those who offend him.|
|James Lick made his fortune selling pianos in South America and then investing it in San Francisco real estate during the Gold Rush. His reputation as California's Stingiest Man was well-deserved: he wore old clothes that he fished out of garbage cans. A nephew who came to visit his prosperous uncle complained that he was made to sleep on top of an old piano! Lick repented late in life, giving the City a large monument to Western progress (on which he is prominently depicted). To the University of California, he gave his tombstone: Mount Hamilton's Lick Observatory. Lick is buried under the 36 inch refractor telescope that bears his name.|
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|The Little Drummer Boy|
|This little fellow appears in many of Ed Jump's caricatures, which also feature the likes of Willie Coombs, the Emperor Norton, the Great Unknown, and many other early San Francisco street characters. The author spent many fruitless weeks trying to find who this little guy was. Then, in a musty file at the San Francisco Archives, he discovered the truth: Jump had made him up because he figured Emperor Norton needed a drummer. |
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|This self-styled mountain man was, in his time, the Bay Area's most famous poetaster. He left a string of illegimate children, travelled to England as the embodiment of the Wild West, and returned to find himself ridiculed by his countrymen. Between visits, his English friends (who included the Rosettis) read his poetry and found it bad. Miller preached free love from his Oakland home, The Hights. Sometimes he conducted rain-making ceremonies for curious visitors. They always worked: Miller providentially stationed his gardener, the poet Yone Noguichi (father of sculptor Isao Noguichi), next to a sprinkler valve hidden in the bushes.|
|On returning to my own country, I found that this unpleasant and entirely impossible figure ever attended and even overshadowed my most earnest work.|
|The Empress Norton|
|Norton I looked in vain for a suitable consort. Queen Victoria, Queen Emma of the Sandwich Islands, and Maxmillian's widow the Empress Carlotta (who many thought were suitable because she, like Norton I, was deranged) all seemed likely matches. On at least one occassion, Norton embarassed himself making a proposal to a pretty young woman. Alas, he died unrequited. In 1961, José Saria ran for City Supervisor under the name of the Dowager Widow of the Emperor Norton, Empress of San Francisco and Protectress of Mexico. Saria, the first openly gay candidate to run for city office, polled 6,500 votes.|
|Emperor Norton (Joshua Norton)|
|Joshua Norton was perhaps the most beloved San Francisco eccentric of all. He is the subject of a Tale from Colma.|
|Old Orthodox, Hallelujah Cox, and Crisis Hopkins|
|The names of these three belong together, not only because they drank at the same bar (Martin and Horton), but because they interacted so frequently with one another. Old Orthodox and Hallelujah Cox were street preachers. Crisis Hopkins, who wore a high clerical collar, was their nemesis. No sooner than the two missionaries finished their fire and brimstone, Hopkins would mount his own soap-box and preach free-thinking. No one knows if either the preacher or the man of reason made much of an impression on Barbary Coast denizens.|
|The hell-fire and damnation preachers are gone, friends;|
now listen to reason.
|This character started out as The Wild Man of Borneo in a Barbary Coast sideshow. When people came up to his bars, he would growl and mutter "Oofty goofty!", hence his name. He once played Romeo in a production where the lead actress proved too heavy for the balcony. So they switched positions and, true to his past, Oofty Goofty made like a monkey and grunted and moaned his lines. He became a curious one-man industry when he discovered that he felt no pain. People could sock him, kick him, etc. and it would not bother him. He let saloon denizens abuse him for four bits a whack. His career ended when he let heavyweight boxing champion John L. Sullivan hit him across the back with a pool cue. Sullivan broke two of Oofty's vertebrae, forcing Oofty to retire. Thereafter Oofty walked with a limp and whimpered at the slightest touch.|
|The tall woman in a bonnet caught the eye of many who shopped in the mornings. They whispered that she knew "voodoo" and called her "Mammy". After her employer and business partner, Thomas Bell, slipped on the stairway of his Octavia Street home, some said that she'd killed him with her scarf. One grisly rumor held that she'd scooped out his brains and eaten them! Mary Pleasant did have an uncanny talent for manipulation. She steered Sarah Althea Hill into her famous divorce lawsuit against Senator William Sharon. She acted the procuress for many other girls, too. But she also championed African American civil rights, to the point of spreading walnut stain on her fair cheeks to darken them and so elimate any trace of white ancestry.|
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|Margo St. James|
|Margo didn't start out as a prostitute. She liked to hang around North Beach coffee shops and give it away free to whoever pleased her. One night, the San Francisco police raided her apartment while her new roommate was entertaining. This experience first led her to seek a law degree and, when she went broke, to join the business herself. Margot founded COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), a prostitutes' rights organizations which, for a time, held an annual Hooker's Ball.|
|Sister Boom-Boom and Sadie-Sadie Rabbi Lady|
|A pair of drag queens who entered politics and challenged the forces of anti-gay bias which sometimes visited the city. Sister Boom-Boom ran for mayor and listed her occupation as "Nun of the Above."|
|In our century, William Walker was the subject of a surreal motion picture about U.S. intervention in Central America. In his own time, he affected a deliberately Puritan air, wearing a long black cape, black pants, and a large, floppy-rimmed, black hat. He used San Francisco as a base of operations for his Central American adventures which were financed, at first, by Cornelius Vanderbilt. Walker took over Nicaraugua, but soon fell afoul of Vanderbilt and of native Nicarauguans with the dastardly idea of self-determination in their heads.|
|A frequent visitor to the Cobweb Palace was William Walker, the famous Central American filibuster who, with his long, black cloak and big floppy hat, was a familiar figure in San Francisco for several years. Once when Walker poked with his cane at a cobweb, [Abe] Warner remarked: "That cobweb will be growing long after you've been cut down from the gibbet." It was only about three years later that Walker was shot by a firing squad in Honduras. -- from The Barbary Coast by Herbert Asbury|
|For forty years, Abe kept the Cobweb Palace at Meigg's Wharf. It was called such because Abe refused to hurt a spider and let them have their way with the decorations. He also displayed an extensive collection of stuffed animals. Despite his slovenly tavernkeeping, Abe took pains each morning to wash, trim his beard, and don a formal outfit crowned by a plug hat.|
|Not all San Francisco eccentrics make you laugh. Zodiac terrorized the city in two different episodes, describing his kills in telephone calls and letters to prominent newspaper, television and radio personalities. Zodiac claimed responsibility for 37 murders. He was never caught, unless the rumors about the Unabomber are true....|