San Francisco History

Chambliss' Diary

Chapter XIV.

Where I was born and raised, in Mississippi, strangers from a distant State cannot get into the homes of the old reliable citizens in this go-as-you-please fashion.

I had my doubts about my host's real social standing from the first, but I did not suspect, at the time, that he and his friends were poker sharps.

However, when I came to consider that San Francisco was very young city,--barely forty years old,--I arrived at the conclusion that this circumstance might be considered sufficient justification for the altering of the case, and I was willing to overlook "Hal's" erroneous impression that he and his friends belonged to good society.

That may host spoke the truth when he said that he knew certain "prominent" individuals, I have not the slightest doubt. In fact, I believe that he knew them well; too well, indeed, for his own good. But when he said that those persons were members of the best element of Pacific Slope society, he did not speak the truth.

The gambling element is not the best element of any settlement or colony, as large as San Francisco.

Let us investigate this case before we go any further.

My host was called "Hal." He was a clerk in the Front Street liquor store of Spurance, Stanley & Co.

"Hal" was well acquainted with Mr. Hobbs and family of "Jerry" Street.

Who is this Mr. Hobbs?

I will tell you what Mr. Hobbs did for a livelihood for a long time, and then you will know who he is. He conducted a gambling house upstairs in one of those houses between the Crocker building and the Chronicle building, on Market Street, opposite the Palace Hotel, and not far from Ottinger's cut-rate ticket office.

Would a gentleman care to associate with the family of a person who runs a gambling house on the principal thoroughfare of a great city, if he knew it?

Perhaps poor "Hal" didn't know it.

"Hal" knew Mr. Jones very well, and he referred to him in the most complimentary way, and informed me that he was the same Mr. Jones whose name appears so often in the society column of certain papers.

Who is this Mr. Jones, anyhow?

The son-in-law of Mr. Hobbs. Mr. Jones is also a great friend of Mr. and Mrs. "Will" Crocker of the S. P. R. R. crowd, that splurges so loudly on the money that the corporation swindled the U. S. Government out of.

"Hal" knew J. o'Hara Cosgrave, or Nosegrave, I forget now which.

Who and what is this Nosegrave?

He came here from Australia, to which country, it is said, his predecessors were transported from Ireland.

Mr. Nosegrave publishes a little advertising sheet called the Ware, which is devoted to almost everything that he can get a few dimes for mentioning. This pitiable fellow is a splendid representative of class which, taken as a class, is well calculated to facilitate the belief that Ham was not the only creature that married a monkey, and, also, the Oscar Wilde should have plenty of company in jail.

Mr. Nosegrave conducted his poor little Wave for a long time in copartnership with an irresponsible little would-be-tough, named Huge Hume, or Spew Spume, as he has been called.

"About this time the young man gets four jacks before the 'draw'. He bets on them, and goes home dead broke.

Messrs. Nosegrave and Spume are as necessary to the Parvenucracy as it is the Parvenucracy to them. They publish society news about the Parvenucracy, and silly little girls, and sissie boys, like Mr. Addison Mizner, Mr. Bazil Wil- per-force, Mr. Willis Polk, and little Georgie Mearns--Wally Cooke's shadow--read it, and pass it around to their nincompoop friends, who also read it, and, in their Oscar Wilde "fashion," make much over it.

Mr. Spume deserves mention for having taken unto himself a wife. Her name was Miss Sillie Brush (not scrub brush at all), and she was a cousin to Mrs. Volney Spalding, who is famous for a certain grammatical story which begins with: "Me and Mrs. Mackay."

Mrs. Spalding is noted also for her delightful "card parties," at which Miss Brush was once a "drawing card."

When Mr. Spume was connected with the Ware, that little patent medicine advertising diatribe was sarcastically referred to around the Tenderloin district, where its subscribers and advertisers hang out "vapor bath" and "massage artist" sign, as the "Vella Blista Hotel family paper."

I bade "Hal" good-night at the Pine Street entrance of the Vella Blista, the "family" boarding house which is an evolution-- so far as proprietress-ship goes--of a mining camp chop house of Virginia City, Ne., "fame."

The above mentioned names are a few samples of what "Hal" represented to me as the best element that he knew of in San Francisco society.

At the time of my first meeting with the "fruit-pickers" I knew very little about San Francisco; a fact of which these accomplished poker players were well aware. I was just the kind of a young man whom they could cultivate the acquaintance of--a stranger who knew scarcely anyone in the city. My knowledge of poker had been derived from an occasional five-minutes' game with two or three of my brother officers on the Mail steamers for an ante-dinner appetizer.

A few days after the pleasant evening at 905 Sutter Street, including the quiet game, the sudden breaking up for the night, just when I was eight dollars ahead, and then the walk up to Mrs. Galding's "family" boarding house--all of which entertainment had been especially arranged for the transferring of the aforesaid vacation money from my pockets to the "kitty" of the "fruit pickers,"--I received the following invitation:



The pleasure of your company is especially requested on Saturday
evening next at 8 P. M., sharp. Fruit for those who can pluck.

Yours truly,


I accepted this invitation. I had been invited to call and give the "fruit-pickers" a chance to get back the eight dollars which they had purposely allowed me to win, and had I not accepted, they might have thought that I was staying away because I was "ahead of the game."

I shall not describe all of the details of the second game that I played with the "fruit-pickers." It took place in the same rooms; the same players or pickers were there, with the addition of a young naval engineer who was invited there as I had been, for the sake, of this money.

The second game differed from the first in that it lasted until after midnight, about which time I took my departure, minus a portion of my vacation money.

The versatile "fruit-pickers" who had complimented me on my "good playing" the first night, now consoled me for my bad luck by inviting me to come again and win back what I had lost.

I had heard of people who were foolish enough to throw good dollars after bad ones, and after visiting the rooms of the "fruit-pickers" three or four times, on their kind invitation to come up and "get even with the game," during which period I saw the remainder of my vacation money evaporate into the "kitty" and the pockets of the "fruit-pickers," I realized that I had been playing poker with men who never lost, but who, nevertheless, posed as gentlemen in the Greenway "Four Hundred," which, at that time, was supposed to be composed of respectable citizens.

The "fruit-pickers" adopted this plan of operation-- this posing as gentlemen--for two substantial reasons.

First: It was much easier to entire their intended victims into a family boarding house than it would have been to get them into a more public gambling den. The class of gentlemen from which they singled out their victims could not be induced to enter a faro den or a gambling den of a low degree, such as the game that was conducted by Mr. Hobbs, the father-in-law of the great society column advertiser.

Second: In confining their operations to the victimizing of reputable citizens they imagined that they were taking no risks of exposure:

When the average young gentleman gets victimized, he is afraid to acknowledge it; he is afraid that his friends will laugh at him for having been so careless as to let such knaves get his money.

This is a mistake. No gentleman need be afraid to expose rascality of any kind. Every gentleman who has the interests of good society at heart owes it to his friends and himself to speak the truth and expose to the public all such wolves in sheep's clothes as this gang. What of it if the exposed sharpers do accuse their victims of "squealing"? In so doing they merely corroborate the victim's statements.

The "fruit-pickers" formed a strong combination, and they never hesitated about giving their victims to understand that if they "squealed" they would be attacked immediately by the whole crowd; and in addition to this, the victim would be blackguarded and maligned by the Wave and the Evening Post, which two filthy little sheets, "edited" by J. o'Hara Cosgrave and Hugh Hume, always stood ready to accept for publication any article-- no matter how libelous it might have been-about anyone who dared to say one word about the little tricks resorted to by the three knaves of clubs, spades, and diamonds known as "Hal" Wright, "Jack" Nevin, and "Harry" Chin, alias the Sutter Street "Fruit-Pickers," and their friends Paxton, Flood, Fair, Irving, Cooke, Mearns, "Mose" Gunst, and Greenway.

It was good form for a "fruit-picker" to go to a bank where one of his victims kept his money and make inquiries about his (the victim's) account.

Firm in their belief that they could rely upon the protection of the Evening Post and its sickly little weekly branch, the Wave, while the latter was in existence, the "fruit-pickers" kept right on with their abominable game until they brought upon themselves exactly what they deserved: utter destruction.

This is the picture that Mearns Cooke and "Birdie" Irving tried to suppress because it looked too much like themselves.

This is how that happened: Mr. Thomas Garret, the bright and enterprising city editor of a morning paper, had known for some time of the existence of the "fruit-pickers." Mr. Garret had, at one time, been connected with the Post, but, in justice to this young journalist, I wish to state that he did not approve of the tactics of Hugh Hume and J. o'Hara Cosgrave in upholding "society" card sharps and vulgar upstarts, including some who were to be found at the Vella Blista Hotel.

Mr. Garrett made up his mind that he would rid San Francisco of one "skin game" at least. Sending for Mr. C. M. Coe, one of the ablest young journalists of the city, Mr. Garrett requested this young gentleman to write an article that would put an end to the "fruit-picker" combination forever.

Mr. Coe commenced on them in his own peculiar style, and, on the morning of May 9, 1893, he exploded a bomb in their midst, which brought them down with a crash that resounded from North Beach to Tar Flat, inclusive . The following are a few fragments of the reform bomb which I collected together and preserved as a remembrance of the good work that it accomplished when Mesrs. Garrett and Coe touched it off in the form of a two-column article. This article was the honest work of two journalists:


"Fruit-pickers too much for him.

"A racy story got into circulation yesterday that Mr. Fruit-tree, the young society leader, who is well known here, had, a few nights ago, been done up to the tune of a large sum of money in a room at a boarding house at No. 905 Sutter Street. The story goes that the room was regularly occupied by Hallock Wright; that the room was completely fitted with tables covered with green cloth; that there was as 'kitty' in each table, and stacks upon stacks of poker chips, and bushels of cards, so as to be ready for whosoever might come.

"According to the rumor there were three or four young men about Wright who posed as society men, who really spent a good deal of their time gambling.

"Wright is president of the Banduria Club, and holds a position with Spruance, Stanley & Co. The others who lend their assistance are: John Nevin, who is in the employ of Cartan, McCarty & Co.: Harry Chin, an employee of Wells, Fargo & Co., and W. H. Fitzgerald.*

[*Note: This was a printer's error in the paper. The right name is Fitzhugh, a parvenu politician.]

"Fitzgerald was a not in the party when Mr. Fruit-tree dropped the money aforesaid; but he was there on many other occasions, and he was a sharer in the general fund that was raked in. Furthermore, it is said that Mr. Fruit-tree was not the only victim, but that man after man had been invited to the Sutter Street home of the "fruit-pickers," as they play playfully style themselves, and that their gains would probably foot up eight thousand or ten thousand dollars.

"It was stated that among the many who had been taken in, under the guise of friendship, was no less a personage than the son of Admiral de Krafts. Lieutenant Armin Hartrath was another whose name was mentioned as having plunked in most of his salary for many months over the green cloth of the enterprising young men who congregated in the rooms at the top of the very quiet and highly respectable (?) Sutter Street boarding house.

"An inquiry into the details developed the fact that the story was true, and that it was so full of interesting particulars as to fairly daze the society people, who looked upon the young men as models of propriety, so far as putting up a quiet little enterprise to get the good red gold of the unwary was concerned.

"It appears that of the numberless poker decks that were in easy reach, the one used for a time was laid aside every once in a while to 'cool off,' as they expressed it, and that another deck would be produced. From this deck a good hand was always dealt to the invited guest; but some one of the 'fruit- pickers' always got a better hand, and, as a result, the unsuspecting guest would drop his roll. The 'kitty,' which has been alluded to, was always kept moving, and money was being jingled into it all the time. As for the contents of the 'kitty,' however, Mr. Wright virtuously disclaimed that it went in any toward paying for refreshments. He hospitably furnished those himself. The 'kitty' was merely to pay the girl for cleaning up the room. As the victims noticed, however, that there were as much as twelve or fourteen dollars in the 'kitty' after a game, they how have their suspicions that this was utilized by their thrifty host in liquidating his board bill."

To the uninitiated I will explain what a "kitty" in a poker game is: It is a contribution box regularly fitted on the under side of the center of the poker table. The contributions are deposited in this box through a little slot in the middle of the table. This slot is similar to that in the nickel-in-the-slot machine, but it differs from the latter to the extent that the contributors never get anything in return for what they are required to drop in.

The man who runs the game requires each player to drop into the "kitty" a certain tax on all the "pots" that he wins; and it goes there to remain until the game is over and the guests are gone, when the thrifty host takes the contents of the box and puts it in his pocket.

This poker "income tax" is based upon the strength of the winner's "hand" rather than upon the amount of his winnings. For example, the "fruit-picker" system compels the winning man to pay "income tax" as follows:

One pair of anything below aces,   10 cents.
One pair of aces,   15 cents.
Two ordinary pairs,   20 cents.
Aces up,   25 cents.
Three of a kind (ordinary),   30 cents.
Three aces,   35 cents.
Plain straight,   40 cents.
Plain flush,   45 cents.
Full hand (ordinary),   50 cents.
Ace full,   55 cents.
Four deuces,   60 cents.
Four aces,   65 cents.
Royal straight flus,   $1.00 cents.

From the "fruit-picker" schedule, the danger of holding "big hands" in a five-cent ante game, limited to fifty cent betting, may be readily understood. Whenever anyone complained about having to "dig down" into his pockets in order to pay a tax of fifty cents on a twentyfive cent "pot," the "fruit-pickers" always consoled him by declaring that Webster Jones, Blitz Paxton, and other prominent members of Mr. Greenway's "Four Hundred" played there, and that they considered it a "square game."

I suppose the Parvenucracy would consider it "bad form" if I were to call this a "cinch game" to compel the invited guest to ask the "fruit-pickers" to raise the limit. But be that as it may, whenever the limit was raised so that the guest might bet ten or twenty dollars at a time, the said guest seldom got a winning "hand." He got "hands" that looked big enough, but the "fruit-pickers" almost always got bigger ones.

The article went on to stay: "One stranger was about all that the merry men aforesaid ever had in their rooms at a time. Whenever a new man was gotten hold of it was always by suggesting a little poker in a modest way; and once he got to playing the stakes grew.

"Altogether it is said that a very prosperous business has been done at the quiet rooms at the top of the house on Sutter Street. Wonderful tales are told of how well equipped it is, and of the interest in the sittings. It is confidently stated that the money the talented 'fruit-pickers' have made during their long reign is a bonanza alongside of what they have drawn in business."

After reading the above article I discarded my strangely acquired title of "captain," and since that time I have been satisfied with the title of American citizen.

Apropos of the personnel of the "fruit-pickers," I am inclined to the belief that Hallock Wright was led astray by his companions. Like old dog Tray, he was all right until found in company with Mr. Nevin, Mr. Chin, Mr. Hobbs, and Blitz Paxton.

Mr. Wright seemed to be a good-natured, harmless sort of youth, possessing no force of character at all with which to resist temptation. Living in a boarding house, where he came into contact with such politicians as County Surveyor W. H. Fitzhugh, and such society lights as Nosegrave, Spume, Cooke, Greenway, Mearns, Irving, and Hobbs, it is not at all surprising that he got written up in the Examiner, and Wasp, and several other papers, including the World and the Chronicle, as a card sharp. Mr. Nevin, his bosom friend, is an ex-bartender, so Mr. Bert. Wheeler says. Concerning, Mr. de Krafts, and Mr. Hartrath, I am inclined to the belief that they played poker with the "fruit- pickers" because they were fond of the game.

I believe that Mr. Wright has suffered enough already for being a partner in a game like that in his private rooms, which he shared with his "friend" Nevin.

In order that Mr. Wright may have the full benefit of the doubt, I wish to say that he frequently went to bed in an adjoining room, leaving Nevin (assisted by Chin) and his "guests" playing away.

If Mr. Wright would come out and admit that he was in the wrong, and show by so doing that he disapproves of that kind of dissipation, the good that would result from his action would manifest itself in such a way that he should never again have occasion even regret his misfortune in having been written up.

The poker episode, and his disastrous attempt to vindicate himself and his friends by means of ludicrous false-hoods published in the pitiable railroad folders, the Post and Wave, in May and June, 1893, were the only dishonorable transactions that I ever knew Mr. Wright to participate in.

Even now, at this late day, it is not too late for him to redeem himself by coming out frankly and disavowing his past conduct. Just as soon as he puts aside his false pride, and acknowledges his errors, he will be reinstated to good citizenship; but until that time he will continue to be regarded as one of the "fruit-pickers."

Source: Chambliss, William H. Chambliss' Diary; Or, Society As It Really Is. 1895: New York.  Library of Congress, "California as I Saw It:" First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900.


Return to San Francisco Genealogy
Public Commons License