San Francisco History

The Shady Side of Pauper Alley

by Walter J. Thompson

It was christened Leidesdorff street and was called that for many years. Nobody seemed to care much about it, looking upon it as a convenient little alley, a sort of back yard for Montgomery street, which was the business thoroughfare of the young metropolis. In fact, so neglected was it that it continued to have an inglorious ending in the middle of the block between California and Pine streets until the San Francisco Stock Board decided to build its new home on the latter street. With the coming of the stock days and the bonanza era Leidesdorff street picked up with the rest of the neighborhood, and as the brokers and operators, those princes of the pave who carried on their transactions involving millions along the street curbing as much as in the boardroom, began to surge along its narrow expanse its importance increased.

Being just around the corner form the whirl of excitement on California street and handy to dodge into and carry out deals, the brokers soon dubbed it “Little Wall Street.” When cut through it had a southern exposure and presented a cheerful aspect. It became a street of prominence: it saw all the big men of speculation and finance on its narrow sidewalks and its atmosphere was rife with their short and snappy trading talk. It was also a short cut to several popular refreshment resorts of the time, and this was appreciated by the brokers, who were strong on stimulation. All was bustle, all was busy life then; there were no loiterers. Even the old apple woman, “Mary Ann Magee,” as some broker had named her, who sold two big apples, rosy and shiny as a newly minted coin, for a dime or a quarter, was as full of vim in pushing her trade as any. Jim Keene, then in his prime as an operator of the daring, dazzling kind, used to frequently patronize her, although no one ever saw him eat the apples, which he slipped into the side pocket of his tweed sackcoat. One day Keene remarked that the apples did not shine as brightly as usual.

“Oh, it’s the dratted dust,” said Marry Ann, “but I’ll fix ‘em for you.” And catching up her skirt, she moistened the hem of it with her lips and rubbed each apple vigorously, Keene eyeing her with that grim, half quizzical look of his.

“There,” she said, passing them over, “that’s the way I keep ‘em bright.”

“I see,” said Keene, slipping the fruit into his pocket.

That day he presented the apples to two of his board friends. They ate them, and then Keene told the story of the saliva polish. He never again patronized Mary Ann. Her trade continued to flourish, however, and later she developed into a “mud hen” and made and lost considerable money.

It was after the bonanza slump of 1875-76 that Leidesdorff street began to take on those distinguishing features which gave it the title of Pauper Alley. Up to that time there had been no paupers, so to speak. There had been financial wrecks and failures among the brokers, but the victims did not go completely down ad out. The brokers of the early days were a generous, big-hearted lot and they did not let their unfortunate brothers suffer. Life buoys and helping hands were thrown out and many a rescue was made. Victims of speculation were comparatively few or, at least, they remained away from the scene of their undoing.

But the days of ease and sunshine were drawing to a close and those of stress and storm were coming. Already the water could be heard trickling into the lower levels of those marvelous treasure caves of the Comstock and at the same time it began to seep through the paper stock under the hand of manipulation. One by one brokers went to the wall, being either too long or too short on some stock, carrying their patrons with them. No life buoys or helping hands were thrown out. No one seemed to know where he was at and resources had to be conserved. Then the outside victims began to multiply and they began to haunt the vicinity like the “busted” brokers and operators, strong in the hope of recuperating their losses and again riding on the top wave of fortune. They eagerly sacrificed the last remnant of money or property to this end, but the tide was always on the ebb.

Next came the influx from Virginia City, men who had dallied with the game at the very fountain head of treasure and who sought here the wealth that apparently was gone from the mountain town forever. But it was not lying around loose here. So they joined the ranks of the busted brokers and the poverty-stricken victims of operations. They all camped in “Pauper Alley,” and so came its name. One could find in the alley every phase of life and the remains of an infinite variety of men. The so-called paupers were not physical wrecks by any means. They were strong and lusty, many being still on the sunny side of life. They were simply derelicts in the haven of condemned hulks. Some were picked up and had the slime and seaweed scraped off and again sailed the main in goodly trim. Nor were they a grouchy, sour-faced lot of revilers at fate. They were used to the see-saw of life.

The shady side of Pauper Alley was to the east, although, except for a couple of hours in the middle of the day, both sides of the walled-in alley were bereft of sunshine. On this east side several enterprising citizens had opened up in basements, beer saloons, where large-sized schooners of “steam” were sold and hot lunch was thrown in. Also were there poolrooms where small sums could be risked (and generally lost) on speculative games remindful to the patrons of the bigger games wherein they had once tossed their thousands about as they now wagered dimes and quarters, a statement which brings out the admission that these so-called paupers were not paupers in the strict sense of the word. Always did they have a place of change in hand or in sight, as the result of meeting former friends who were still on top. It was their delight to gather around the foam-tipped schooners, their only solace against depression, and talk over the details of past achievements. By listening one could learn the hstory of every deal that was ever made in the mining market and of many a one that was never made. There one could learn from a Virginia City man how Johnny Skae and his friends had cleaned up several millions—it was always millions that the paupers dealt in—on Sierra Nevada and how they bought all the wine in Virginia City and sat on a box in the middle of the street dispensing it like water to all that would come and drink; one could hear a seedy old operator wax eloquent over the fight for Hale and Norcross in 1868 when the price jumped from $3000 to $12,000 a foot and how so many brokers were caught short that the stock was suspended from the list to give them a chance to save themselves from margin demands.

“And do you remember the fight for Ophir, when Sharon bought out Keene and fought Lucky Baldwin, hey?” would chortle a gray-bearded old fellow, who always boasted of the days when a broker’s word was his bond for a million any time on the street. “And the time when Con Virginia broke,” he went on. “I lost $250,000 on that just because I was ten minutes late in getting to my brokers with $20,000.”

“Let’s have another round,” would cry a seedy looking chap, flinging down a half-dollar on the bar with the same abandon that he had formerly cast a twenty on the Pantheon mahogany and called for wine to celebrate a board coup.

“Where’d you get it?” would be a query.

“Just met Bill Sharon. He owes me $50,000 from that Crown Point fight with Hayward in ‘71 and this is on account,” was the unchallenged response. And so they swapped their spicy gossip as they quaffed the foaming beverages.

Any afternoon one could meet Jim Hastings, a child of misfortune from the Bodie district, whose imagination was as strong as his bank account was weak. He laid his financial downfall to the ingratitude of a duck. Yes, sire, a duck. Hadn’t he discovered nuggets at the bottom of Clear Lake in the Sierra and hadn’t he trained that duck to dive for ‘em until he had fifty pounds or so of solid gold in his cabin? Hadn’t that duck got jealous because Jim took in a stray dog and lavished affection on him? Hadn’t that duck one day while Jim wasn’t looking toted off every nugget and dumped them all back into the lake and then flown away, giving Jim the merry quack, quack? But the gold was still in the lake and Jim was organizing an expedition to recover it. Now, 50 cents would help—well, Jim usually got the fifty.

Each one of Pauper Alley’s habitues represented individualism run to seed. Their personal characteristics no longer held in check by the guiding hand of development along uplifting lines flourished like weeds in the environment of the lower levels. To tell how each one had been pitchforked into his present predicament would fill many volumes of matter interesting to the student of psychology. Two instances will probably illustrate how two characters, each representing a type, took their strange ups and downs.

There was MacNamara, a boilermaker, who had hammered and sweated to save $1000 toward buying a house and lot. He was advised to invest in stocks. He did. It was a time when the big mines were skyrocketing and MacNamara got aboard a rocket. One day his broker told him he was worth $40,000.

“How much is that?” he inquired naively. “Can I see it?”

The broker invited him around to the bank where they had gold pieces stacked up like poker chips in boxes, each containing $20,000. “Two of those are yours,” said the broker. “What, all that gold, and can I take it home and put it under my bed?” exclaimed MacNamara. “If you sign a check for it,” he was assured. MacNamara eyed the gold wistfully. “What’s the heft of it?” he said. “About two hundred pounds, maybe,” replied the broker. “‘Tis a lot of gold,” soliloquized MacNamara. “Just like coal, a short hundred to the sack. But it’s only two boxes. I’ll wait till I get five and that’ll be a quarter ton. Then I’ll hire Jerry Hogan’s dray and have him haul it home and I’ll put it under my bed.”

Vainly did the broker advise MacNamara to sell and get from under. In two weeks he had nothing. “Oh, that’s all right,” he said cheerfully to his broker. “But it’s rough on Hogan; he don’t get that hauling job.”

On the other hand, there was the Major—let us not identify him any more closely. He had been a high-strung man of affairs in the stock world, holding his head as high as any of them, with his word as good as his bond for thousands. Suddenly the earth crumbled under him and he slumped like the stocks. Again and again he made spasmodic efforts to recover himself. Again and again his friends aided him, but everything he touched withered. His home life faded away with the loss of property, earth of his wife and scattering of his children. Everything was sacrificed to the struggle until the shady side of Pauper Alley was all that was left for him. There he could be seen mingling with the other waifs of misfortune, his attire stained and shabby, hair unkempt beneath a dented, worn beaver and with his head erect as of old. There was no slouchiness in his gait, but an unsteady gleam in his restless eyes betrayed a mind awry. Barkeepers would slip him drinks, former friends would pass him pieces of money which he would hoard until he could plunge at some game of chance in the poolrooms. None knew the stock game better than he; none knew the listed papers and their fluctuations better. But he did not play them.

“I must get gold, gold, first, and then I’ll show them something,” he would murmur to some of those he knew best. But the blight was upon him. He never intruded upon any of his former friends; he never begged; all that came to him was voluntarily given, and was received with a pathetical dignity.

The last chapter of the Major’s existence was enacted in the County Hospital. He lay upon a cot an emaciated wreck. The light was gone from his eyes, giving place to a dull stare. It was that of a soul in mortal misery behind prison bars. One of his old-time friends had called to make arrangements to remove him to better quarters. “Come, come, Major,” he said, cheerily, “never despair; you’ll have that pile of gold yet and get in the big game again.”

“Gold, gold,” gasped the sick man, oh so wearily. “It isn’t gold I want now. It is rest, rest. I am so tired of it all.” Then he turned over with his face to the wall and drew the covers over his head. Thus his friend left him. Thus the hospital attendant found him, curled up as when a boy he snuggled in his trundle bed and drew the covers over his head to shut out the black shadows of the night. He had not found the coveted gold, but he had found Rest.

The shady side of Pauper Alley had lost another familiar form.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 17 December 1916. 28.

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