San Francisco’s Barbary Coast

In the Shadow of the Seven Stars
Hunting the Ripper

The exterior of the Hippodrome nightclub in San Francisco
Pacific Street on San Francisco’s Barbary Coast circa 1900

Related song: Round About Me

During the last half of the 19th century, San Francisco went through much commercial growth and became an important shipping port, but matured to a level which would forbid any more uprisings by vigilantes. Without the threat of vigilante justice, corruption and crime begin to return along with predatory dives similar to those of Sydney Town. The Barbary Coast would continue to build on its notorious reputation as a lawless city. With only one hundred policemen as of 1871, San Francisco had a severe shortage of law enforcement. At that time Police Chief Crowley said in his annual report that there was only one officer for every 1,445 inhabitants, while New York City had one in 464 and London had one for every 303 residents.

Entertaining the miners, entrepreneurs, and sailors would be a huge business and resulted in varied, inventive, and occasionally bizarre forms of entertainment. Except for a couple of restaurants, that three block stretch of Pacific Street was almost wall to wall with drinking establishments. They included dance halls, concert saloons which had entertainment and dancing, melodeons, cheap groggeries, and deadfalls which were dismal beer and wine dens. Initially the melodeons had mechanical reed organs which played music, however they quickly transformed into a kind of cabaret which had theatrical entertainment but no dance floor. The only women allowed in the melodeons were the waitresses and performers. Their shows usually contained songs, bawdy skits, and often featured can-can dancers. The deadfalls were the lowest of the establishments and had hard benches, damp sawdust on the floors, the bar was rough boards laid atop of barrels, had no entertainment, and their wine was often raw alcohol with an added coloring.

The Coast as it was called, also invented its own kind of dance hall, called a Barbary Coast Dance Hall. It was different than most dance halls in that the only women there were the female employees who were paid to dance with the customers, and received commissions on the drinks that they could encourage their male customers to buy. Lawlessness was so bad in the Barbary Coast district that police did not patrol alone, but chose to walk their beats in pairs and sometimes in groups. There was usually a murder every night and scores of robberies. And even while inside drinking establishments, a customer’s property and life were still never safe. Prostitution was so common on the Barbary Coast that it was referred to as the Paris of America. Drug addicts of the district could even buy cocaine or morphine at an all night Grant Street drugstore for only two or three times the price of a beer. During the 1890s, San Francisco hit its peak alcohol consumption in having over 3000 licensed bars, and another 2000 unlicensed bars.

The waitresses were a major attraction for the saloons and were nicknamed the pretty waiter girls, though they were not always attractive or young. They were scantily clothed in gaudy outfits while they sold drinks and danced with customers for money. The saloons hired women to exploit the men, instructed to pick customers’ pockets and then give half that money back to the management. The pretty waiter girls earned about $20 per week plus a commission on any drinks and dances that they sold. Small grog houses and deadfalls hired only handful of pretty waiter girls, but the larger dance halls and concert saloons employed up to fifty women. However some of the concert saloons, like the Eureka and Bella Union, made an effort to have notable Barbary Coast performers appear in their shows and actually had attractive women for their pretty waiter girls.

It was not unusual for the pretty waiter girls to put drugs into the customers’ drinks, so they could later be more easily robbed and sometimes clubbed unconscious. Sailors, who were frequently the targets of the pretty waiter girls, had cause to dread the area because the art of shanghaiing was perfected here. Many a sailor woke up after a night’s leave to find himself unexpectedly on another ship bound for some faraway port. The verb to “shanghai” was first coined on the Barbary Coast.

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