The Sleaziest Street in Town

Jean-Louis Forain, Le Client or Maison Close, 1878

There was no contest; the sleaziest street in San Francisco in the 1880s was Morton Street. It was the hub of the Barbary Coast district, an area whose primary industry was prostitution. Three particular types of brothels were to be found in this Wild West neighborhood: the cow-yard, which served as both apartment building and brothel; the crib, the lowest and most disreputable of the houses; and the parlor house, whose employees were considered the “aristocracy” of San Francisco’s red-light district.

Morton Street had the worst disease-ridden cribs in the city. Several pages in Herbert Asbury’s and Oscar Lewis’ books The Barbary Coast and Bay Window Bohemia trace the history of Morton Street.  The two-block long brothel alley sheltered “harlots of all nations—including French, Chinese, Negroes, Mexicans, and Americans,” according to Lewis. There was an established price list in the Barbary Coast set according to nationality. Americans fetched a dollar for a roll in the hay, while Mexicans got only a quarter. Red headed Jewish prostitutes were considered sizzling hot and could fetch the highest prices.

The entrance to Morton Street from Dupont Street (later Grant Avenue), 1879 (Photo: courtesy Glenn Koch)

Herbert Asbury wrote, “… not only were the Morton Street cribs the lowest in San Francisco’s red light district; they were also the most popular, partly because of the great variety and extraordinary depravity of the women to be found there, and partly because the police seldom entered the street unless compelled to do so by a murder or a serious shooting or stabbing affray. Ordinary fights and assaults were ignored…”

The prostitutes sat next to their windows, Amsterdam style, with the shutters open to display their assets and their availability to customers, the same method used by their sisters in San Francisco’s other brothel alleys at the time. Morton Street was the hangout, too, of pickpockets, opium peddlers, and thugs of every description. These two short blocks also featured speakeasy gambling dens. The one at number 15 was entered by way of the hotel’s back door and featured two faro card games run by Wyatt Earp’s brothers, Virgil and Warren, of Tombstone fame.

Morton Street would be the scene of a crime in the eventful life of the colorful Harry Gillig.

Barbary Coast Hammam bathhouse on Grant

While Aimée was fighting her first husband for custody of their daughter, Harry, her favorite gentleman caller and future second husband was in court testifying about a scandalous crime perpetrated on this most indecent thoroughfare. On March 6th 1887, Harry went to Dr. Loryea’s Hammam Baths on Post St. a bathhouse in the Barbary Coast district that advertised the finest Turkish, Russian, electric and medicated baths in the city. It was a unisex establishment during the day but strictly stag in the evenings. Men could have a bath and a room for the night for a buck. Gillig also paid for a rub down. At 4 am, he put on his stockings, shoes and hat and an “ulster” overcoat, grabbed the rest of his clothes and left the building not fully dressed. Gillig was rooming in a lodging-house at the corner of Dupont (aka Grant) and Morton streets just around the block. He went up to his room, but then decided he wanted a drink of Apollinaris seltzer water. He walked downstairs to Chesley’s saloon still wearing only his “flasher” overcoat.

Harry Gillig, husband number two

Harry bought a round of drinks for some locals, ex-pugilist Thomas McCormick, W.H. Mahoney and Special Officer Cram of the nearby Palace Varieties Hall, who was off duty. One of them produced three walnut shells and asked Harry if he was interested in playing the “thimble-rig” guess-which-shell-the-pea is-hiding-under game. A blustering and boastful Gillig claimed he had $150 to bet that he could pick out which of the shuffled shells held the pea. McCormick told him to put up his money, but, instead, Gillig laughed and invited them all to take another drink at his expense, saying that he “did not gamble that way.”

Gillig later discovered his money missing from his pocket. He told a messenger to go fetch a police officer. The defendants caught wind and ran. Gillig ran after Mahoney down Morton St. and caught him near Kearney. Officers Bolan and Johnstone made their way to the scene. Mahoney told the peace keepers that Gillig was a lunatic, saying: “Why he is crazy mad. See, he has no clothes on.”

In discovering that Gillig indeed had no pants or shirt on, Officer Bolan handcuffed Gillig, but at the latter’s request also held Mahoney. After assessing the situation, Mahoney and McCormick were taken downtown and arrested. In spite of the fact that both men had only $13 and a dice-box on them, these local petty gamblers and conmen were charged with grand larceny. Bail was fixed at $2,000 for each man.

Clarence Gray appeared as attorney for the defendants in court and Bohemian Club songwriter and past president J.D. Redding conducted the prosecution.

The defense painted a picture of Harry as a pervert and a reckless character on the brink. A witness for the defense named John Marr stated that he heard McCormick tell Gillig to keep away from him and also asked him why he was following him. Gillig repeatedly asked McCormick to have a drink with him according to Marr.

Special Officer Cram testified that the McCormick produced some walnut shells and that the game was discussed, though Gillig was not invited to play the shell game or any other gambling game.

Mahoney said he never took any money from Gillig, nor did he see him have any money except the change from a twenty that he used to pay for the round of drinks.

Ultster overcoat

The ex-pugilist McCormick was called to the stand. He said that he did not know either Mahoney or Gillig intimately. He stressed that Gillig was not clothed at the time, except for an ulster, and seemed “much excited.” The witness thought he had the “jams” (delirium tremens). He then saw Gillig follow Mahoney all around the premises and out into the back yard. Gillig, according to McCormick, got grabby and Mahoney firmly told him to “let go.” He called the attention of others present to the strange condition of Gillig. Finally Harry chased Mahoney out into the street, “money falling from his pockets with every step he took.” The witness McCormick and others took candles and tried to “find the coin” for Gillig, but with no success.

A month after the incident the case was settled but remained unsettling to two of the parties involved. Tom McCormick, the ex-pugilist, charged with having robbed Henry Mansfield Gillig of $150, was acquitted by the jury. W. H. Mahoney, who was jointly charged with McCormick, was found guilty of grand larceny. The upper-class Harry’s reputation certainly was the big loser. He would have to explain his appearance in the infamous Morton Alley wearing nothing but a long overcoat long after this case was closed.

Giovanni Boldini (1842-1931) Celebration Circa 1889

The opium dives, slave-dens, cowyards, parlorhouses, cribs, deadfalls, dance-halls, bar-rooms, melodeons and concert saloons were all turned to ash in 1906 after the earthquake. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, it was called by the clergymen. The name of the infamous Morton Street was changed to Union Square St. in 1898 then Manilla St. until finally and ironically Maiden Lane in 1922. The two blocks of Maiden Lane look perfectly respectable now. There’s even a Frank Lloyd Wright building that is on the American Institute of Architects’ list of the 150 favorite buildings in America.

Gillig and Crocker decided to take their tarnished reputations, an entourage of Crocker cousins, constant companion Frank Unger and mother Margaret on a trip away from the maddening judgmental crowd, outside of the rules and moral guidelines of the tired old Victorian world. They would travel to the country most enjoyed and endorsed by their travel writer friend, Charles Stoddard, to “the inevitable animate attractions, the consummate splendor of vast palm plantations, the lisp of the reef-zoned, effeminate sea, the almost overwhelming fragrance of indolent gales, heavy with the perfume of citron and lime…”; they would take a life changing voyage to the Sandwich Islands. Robert Louis Stevenson, another friend, would sail there from San Francisco the same month.