The streets crawled with ‘crimps,’ or bandits who specialized in drugging and kidnapping men who were then sold into forced labor on ships. Men were “Shanghaied” this way on a daily basis, and it was such a profitable enterprise that some Sydney-Town bars reportedly had trap doors built into their floors for the purpose, and it’s said that some of crimps made up to $10,000 a year in the trade, nearly $300,000 in today’s dollars. It’s difficult to imagine the shock Shanghaied men felt when they awoke in chains on slave ships bound for the Far East. The next time you complain about a hangover, just remember these guys.
Despite the dangers of the neighborhood, business was brisk, and entertainment rife: most venues had no posted closing time, and within a couple of blocks you could drink, gamble, smoke opium or rent the company of a female of nearly any race or age. The truly discerning could also enlist the services of one Dirty Tom McAlear (AKA The Geek). A regular customer at the Goat & Compass, Sydney-Town’s grimiest bar, Tom was filthy and offensive in every way, and possessed of a distressingly marketable skill: for a nickel, Dirty Tom would eat anything–and that means anything–you put in front of him. Ew. The Boar’s Head, another popular “groggery,” took its name from their unusual stage show: a sexual exhibition featuring a woman and a wild boar.
The first street gang in California history, the Sydney Ducks were criminals of the lowest order, and the undisputed lords of their derelict domain. Resourceful to a fault, they ran what would be called a protection racket today, threatening to burn the businesses of those who refused to pay. Once they had collected all they could, they would wait until the wind was blowing away from the waterfront, then set fire to the city, and proceed to loot the local properties and warehouses. Naturally, the locals always had a wary eye out for the Ducks, and adopted a phrase to use when the gang was on the prowl: “the Sydney Ducks are cackling in the pond.”
When one of the Ducks' fires, set on Christmas Eve in 1849, devastated the heart of the city, it prompted the formation of San Francisco’s first Committee of Vigilance. A quasi-legal group of businesspeople and prominent citizens who assembled to make arrests, conduct trials and even execute criminals that seemed beyond the reach of the police and City Hall, the Committee was formed to bring order to a city whose rapid growth had made it nearly ungovernable (in 1851, San Francisco had a police force of only a dozen men, in a city of nearly 25,000).
Once the vigilantes had set their sites on the Ducks, they were not to be deterred. The committee convened on the 9th of June, 1851, and the very next day ‘tried' and hung John Jenkins, a Sydney native accused of stealing a safe from a local shipping office. James Stuart, also from Sydney, was executed for murder scarcely a month later. All told, four Sydney Ducks were killed by the vigilantes, prompting scores of rattled Aussies to pick up and leave town. After ten years, the Sydney Ducks stranglehold on the neighborhood had been broken–but the lawless character of the neighborhood persisted. The center of the action shifted a block south to Pacific Avenue, and became known as The Barbary Coast.
The last mention of the Ducks in the historical record is true to their larcenous character: on December 19, 1854, several members of the gang were involved in the famous Jonathan R. Davis fight, in which they attacked Davis, an Army Captain and veteran of the Mexican-American war, and two of his traveling companions. Like their run in San Francisco, it didn’t end well for the Ducks: Captain Davis singlehandedly killed eleven of the attackers, seven with his revolvers and four with his Bowie knife, earning a reputation as one of the most wily gunslingers in California history.
This article is part of a series examining the fascinating people and places that make up the rich history of North Beach and The Barbary Coast. Visit us again soon for more.