San Francisco History

Vile Pictures




Young Folk Patronize Resorts Which Run Without Difficulty While California Gives $100,000 for Foreign Missions.


By Annie Laurie

The various religious denominations of California send over one hundred thousand dollars a year out of this State to help convert the heathen in divers [sic] and sundry lands beyond the singing seas.

And the "penny palaces" on Market street grow and flourish like green trees in the sunshine, and California men and women walk about in the clean sunshine and never turn their heads to see the evil that is done their own children right before their very eyes.

I followed two little children into one of those "penny palaces" yesterday. I followed them because I had fallen in love with them and couldn't let them out of my sight just yet.

One of the children was a chubby little Miss Muffet, with cheeks like poppies and clear blue eyes, like little willow-fringed lakes shining clear in the sun. She was so full of life and fun that she danced, instead of walking. The girl with her was a year or so older and she was slender and long-legged and long-armed, and thin-faced, and her pretty brown hair was braided in two pretty braids, and with just a lock or two of sonny bronze, left to blow into her gentle brown eyes.

Two such daughters as must make some mother's heart sing every time she thinks of them. They were going to the palace to spend five whole pennies apiece, they said, and I went along just to keep their faces in sight as long as I could.

The cashier at the desk changed two nickels for the little girls and a quarter for me.

"I'll see the penny pictures, too," I thought, "and when their money is all gone and they are sighing to think the fun is all over, what a lark to have a few pennies left to go round the whole lot with them again, just for the sake of a certain pair of blue eyes across the mountains."

We started with the Yosemite Valley and the views of all nations.

"Oh," said the littler girl, catching her breath, "see the water falling! Why you can almost hear it!"

"Sh! sh!" said the taller girl. "I'm watching the Alps. They are so awfully fast if you don't look out!"

Miss Chubby cheeks stood on her tippiest tiptoes and gazed into the little window till--crack--the machine stopped.

"It's gone!" she sighed, climbing down, wiht the excitement of miles of travel shining in her blue eyes.

One, two, three, four--four pennies left. "Come on!"

"Here's the Phillipines, where Uncle Tom went. Let's look!" said the taller girl, and Miss Muffet possessed her soul in patience till sister had had her look first.


I glanced at the lettering above the picture machine. "This shows the garotte," said the lettering. "The method of execution in the Phillipines. Taken from life. Don't miss it."

I tried to catch the handle of the machine, but it was too late. The taller girl climbed down, white and shaken. "No," she said, "you mustn't see. It would frighten you. We must go right straight home," and with wide eyes staring she walked out of the place prim and decided, dear little sister. When she gets home and tells her mother of the hideous picture she saw, her mother will be highly indignant, and yet that particular picture is one of the least harmful things to be seen in any one of these galleries, where the boys and girls of this city crowd every day for amusement.

I staid [sic] in this particular gallery for fifteen minutes. The place was full of boys and girls; little fellows in knickerbockers, angling, half-grown lads with hangdog faces; tall girls, red-faced and giggling, men with sneaking eyes and women with faces that told a worse story than any book ever dared to tell. A few of these people looked at the scenery pictures, a few listened to the songs in the listening machines, but nine out of ten boys and eight out of ten little girls stood there in the clean light of a California day and looked at pictures that ought to put the man who exhibits them out of the sight of daylight for a score of wholesome years.

Every vile idea that ever emanated from the brain of a depraved human being, every hideous perversion of innocent fun that ever seared the mind of a degenerate--these are the pretty things your son and your daughter see when you send them to the "penny palace" for a half hour's amusement, my dear madame.

Oh, yes, your own son, I mean, not some boy that you don't expect any better of! Your boy, the one you're trying to bring up to be a decent, clean-living, healthy-mind man, if the city of San Francisco will let you.

I saw two boys in the first "palace"--sweet name that, "palace," for such a haunt of the unclean, isn't it!--two boys whom I had met at the dinner table of a dear friend, and I knew that her hair would turn white if she had had the least idea of the sort of thing their minds were being over-slimed with, right there in the principal street of San Francisco.

I saw pretty, well-dressed little girls standing entranced watching the indecent antics of the "Gay Widow," as one particularly disagreeable affair was vociferously labeled.

I saw three half-grown girls pay three times to look at--what do you think, a picture of St. Agnes or St. Cecilia?

Of Sapho, and Sapho's whole career photographed from life from a most unpleasantly bloway Sapho, and missing not one salacious detail that a prurient mind could suggest.

Nice looking girls they were, too, just the kind your own daughter goes to school with, my good sir, who are so careful of her every associate.


Why not?

These places are wide open. They are labeled for ladies and children--save the horrible mark--for ladies and children!

Men and women walk in there openly--why should these girls and boys hesitate!

The little boys choose bloodshed and horrors, as a rule--bad enough in all conscience, but holy compared to the rest of the stuff put there to pander to diseased imaginations.

The Iroquois Theater fire, the garotte, murderer's row, San Quentin, these are some of the pleasing things your little boy picks out when he goes down town with a penny or so in his pocket to spend.

And you waste your time telling him nature stories to teach him to be kind to animals, and to avoid even the sight of suffering of all kinds.

In the first gallery where I stood there was a row marked "For Children Especially," and they were some of them comparatively decent, but even in them, some foul-minded degenerate had found place for a vulgar suggestion. And the children are allowed at every machine in the place.

I went to three of these penny arcades, one right near the other and all of them, not in a back street slinking up a side hill like a frightened snake as the old streets of the forbidden were in the old days of the city, but out in the open day on Market street, where every stranger can see and wonder at San Francisco's shame.

Who are the owners of these vile places?

What strength of position have they, in the name of decency, that the law protects them and yet stretches out the stern hand of prosecution when some poor painted wretch slinks through the fading lights of the darkened streets when all happy women are safe at home?

Where do the men who fatten on the debauchery of children live?

Do they hold up their heads in this very State?

Do they walk the streets with you and with me, little mother, with a baby in your arms, and two or three growing children, shrined in your very heart of hearts?

Have you seen them, any of them, my good friend, with the growing boy, and the tug of an honest pride in the broad shoulders that are growing to be so nearly on a level with your own, softening your practical heart?

What would you do if some neighbor were to tell you that your boy, the one you're so proud of, the one who is going to carry his father's clean name clear to the next generation, is a habitue of one of these hideous traps?

I know what I would do if I caught say man or any woman living taking one of my children into one of these deadfalls which the city of San Francisco finds the patience to harbor.

I would forbid that man or that woman to ever walk on the same side of the street with me lest my anger at the sight of him or her should break all bounds, and I should be tempted to do bodily-harm; and if I had a family of boys or a family of girls to bring up in San Francisco I'd see that those penny arcades or penny palaces, or what ever the name they choose to masquerade under, were closed, if I had to beat on the door of the Mayor's office, till my naked hands bled to the very bone.




Have you ever spent a heart-breaking hour in any of the palaces where children with minds degraded as the minds of your own children are being degraded by these "penny pictures" are put, to die imbecile and forlorn?

Have you ever had to look the other way when some other tries to keep her white lips from quivering when you ask her where the pretty little girl you used to be so fond of has gone the last year or so?

Have you ever wished you could bite your tongue out of your own mouth for inquiring of some man, what has become of the bright boy who promised so much a happy year or so ago?

If you have been through any of these things, you will call no words of mine nor any words that can be uttered, exaggerated, when such horrors as this are spoken of.

Help advertise the very evil you're trying to abate?

Perhaps--but there's only one way to kill a rattlesnake, and that is to kill it.

Pretending that there isn't any such thing as a snake at all, won't do the least bit of good and it may do a great deal of very practical harm.

These "penny palaces" are open, wide open, on the broad street that runs right thorugh the beating heart of this magnificent city, and then we wonder where all the poor wrecks we see shivering in the morning sunshine in the police courts come from.

Open the saloons if you must.

License the cowering women whose bold eyes sink from the straightforward gaze of an innocent child.

Tear the locks off the doors of the gambling houses.

Open up the old Chinatown and let its iniquities smell to heaven. No one has to go there who does not go to and find what he does find, but in the name of wide-eyed childhood, in the name of all that's clean and white and sweet to remember when the hair is whitening at the temples, and there's too much walking to get to to [sic] top of hill which you used to climb in a run, in the name of the little girl who thinks the great men of the world must step aside when you, her father, walk modestly upon the streets, in the name of the tall boy who looks to you for all that is clean and honest and courageous, men and women of San Francisco, beautiful brave-eyed, happy-hearted San Francisco, get together and drive these vultures who are fattening on the very life blood of little children out of the sight of decent men.

Shut these penny arcades and shut them tight!

One hundred thousand a year for foreign missions--what of our own flesh and blood, gentlemen of the board of missions?

Source: San Francisco Examiner, 10 May 1905, page 3.


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