In researching late-1800s Barbary Coast, I frequently run across amusing descriptions of the evils of said place and time. It would seem observers indulged in a game of hyperbolic one-upmanship when describing the vagaries of early San Francisco. Here are a few top contenders.
First, let’s hear from infamous Madam Sally Stanford (no relation to University founder Leland Stanford, one assumes):
They were a wonderful set of burglars, the people who were running San Francisco when I first came to town in 1923, wonderful because, if they were stealing, they were doing it with class and style.
Even Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had plenty to say when he came to town:
It is hardly fair to blame America for the state of San Francisco, for its population is cosmopolitan and its seaport attracts the floating vice of the Pacific; but be the cause what it may, there is much room for spiritual betterment.
These are but amateur sentiments, however, when compared to the musings of Col. Albert S. Evans, from A la California. Sketch of Life in the Golden State (1871):
Speak of the deeper depth, the lower hell, the maelstrom of vice and iniquity-from whence those who once fairly enter escape no more forever-and they will point triumphantly to the Barbary Coast, strewn from end to end with the wrecks of humanity, and challenge you to match it anywhere outside of the lake of fire and brimstone.
Strong stuff! Not to be outdone, however, is Gangs of New York author Mr. Herbert Asbury, quoted in Lights and Shades of San Francisco (1876):
The Barbary Coast is the haunt of the low and the vile of every kind. The petty thief, the house burglar, the tramp, the whoremonger, lewd women, cutthroats, murderers, all are found here. Dance-halls and concert-saloons, where blear-eyed men and faded women drink vile liquor, smoke offensive tobacco, engage in vulgar conduct, sing obscene songs and say and do everything to heap upon themselves more degradation, are numerous. Low gambling houses, thronged with riot-loving rowdies, in all stages of intoxication, are there. Opium dens, where heathen Chinese and God-forsaken men and women are sprawled in miscellaneous confusion, disgustingly drowsy or completely overcome, are there. Licentiousness, debauchery, pollution, loathsome disease, insanity from dissipation, misery, poverty, wealth, profanity, blasphemy, and death, are there. And Hell, yawning to receive the putrid mass, is there also.
All bow down to the master of the purple passage. Well done, sir.
Hardly the stuff of travel pamphlets. But it paints a helluva setting for a tale of conflict, does it not?