FIFTY RAUCOUS YEARS OF VILLAINY!
The history of the Barbary Coast – named after the pirate-infested North African coastline – began with the 1849 discovery of gold at Sutter’s Fort in California’s Sacramento Valley.
It was not until sometime in the 1860s, however, that the region bounded by Broadway, Embarcadero, Grant, and Washington came into its own, rapidly becoming notorious for its saloons, bordellos, gambling houses and crime. San Francisco's citizens knew it to be the most dangerous district in the city.
It was said that within the Barbary Coast confines, more than three thousand licenses to serve liquor were issued in one year – according to these statistics, there existed a saloon here for every ninety-five persons in the entire city! Among various gangs of toughs on the waterfront, were the Barbary Coast Rangers, who terrorized shops, robbed harlots and fell upon unwary citizens who foolishly ventured into the sailortown streets at night. By day it was crowded with people of the sea; at night criminals worked from its shadows!
To San Francisco goes the dubious honor of coining the word “shanghai” – the process of delivering drunk, drugged or, if all else failed, beaten sailors to crew ships waiting in the harbor. Men known as “crimps”, paid “runners” from three to five dollars for each man they brought to his saloon or boarding establishment. There, the sailors were given drinks “on the house”, then beguiled by heavily painted ladies who watched for an opportunity to slip a few drops of laudanum into the man’s whiskey. If a sailor became cantankerous, he was promptly silenced by a blow to the back of his head. Once he’d been rendered unconscious – and rolled for his money and valuables – he was unceremoniously dropped through trapdoors where more men waited to deliver him to the wet pine deck of an outward-bound long-voyage ship. Many a sailor’s stay in port ended up being as short as an hour, depending on the demand for ship hands.
Prostitution was unarguably the Coast’s primary source of income. However, profits from shanghaiing was tallied in the millions of dollars, and murders were numbered in the thousands. Almost everyone living within the district was either a harlot, killer, crooked politician, pimp, thief, runner, crimp, or fugitive. Some historians claim that throughout its fifty some years of existence, the Barbary Coast committed every crime known to man.
Most San Franciscans abhorred the depravity, crimes and excesses of the Coast. However, periodic attempts at reform met with little success, partly due to protection from crooked officials who received payoffs or shared in the profits from various saloons, brothels, boarding houses and other establishments.
The Barbary Coast began its decline after the 1906 earthquake. When rebuilding started, many people protested that this area was too corrupt and low brow for an increasingly important city. The final blow came in 1914 when the Red Light Abatement Act – designed to close the many houses of prostitution – was passed by the state legislature. When the new law was upheld by the California Supreme Court in 1917, the area’s main attraction and source of revenue was cut off, and the once raucous Barbary Coast faded into history.
Sources: "Historic San Francisco", by Rand Richards, "Golden Gate", by Felix Riesenberg, Jr., "San Francisco Almanac", by Gladys Hansen and "The Great San Francisco", by Janet Bailey.