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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Wicked Drinkeries

For almost 70 years in the 19th century, San Francisco contained a unique criminal district which was the scene of much viciousness and depravity, but at the same time paradoxically glamorous in its infamy. What might have been the toughest, wickedest dive on San Francisco’s notorious Barbary Coast?

In the slang of the period (mostly applied to wine and beer dens) the Billy Goat was known as a deadfall: a cheap, rough drinking hole. Located in a cellar at Pacific and Kearny streets during the middle 1870s, it was quite the vicious place, so named for its odiferous combination of stale beer, damp sawdust, smoke-laden atmosphere, and unwashed male clientele. Its owner, bouncer, and chief bartender was one Pigeon Toed Sal, a hefty, middle-aged Irishwoman who adeptly kept order in her joint with a derringer and a hickory wagon spoke.

Sal sold an enormous mug of beer for a dime, and a large glass of vile whisky for five cents, and she had a lucrative sideline: She encouraged, and frequently assisted, in the commission of any sort of crime—so long as she received half the proceeds. For several years, the Billy Goat held the distinction of being the toughest place in town.

The Bull Run—also known as Hell’s Kitchen and Dance Hall—opened in the fall of 1868 and celebrated its first Christmas with a free-for-all brawl in which half a dozen men were seriously hurt. It occupied a three-story building at Pacific Street and Sullivan Alley, with a dance hall and bar in the cellar, another on the street floor, and a brothel upstairs.

Its owner was Ned Allen, called Bull Run Allen because he had fought in the Union army at both the first and second Battles of Manassas. Allen, a huge man who wore a massive cluster of sparkling diamonds in the bosom of his customary snow-white, ruffled shirt, also had a very large, red nose, which he kept coated with flour.

During the Bull Run’s greatest popularity in the 1870s, Allen often said the motto of his place was “Anything goes here.” He employed 40-50 girls as either waitresses or performers, all notorious as the most brazen women in town. At the Bull Run these girls were given real liquor instead of the usual cold tea, and their antics at the bar or dance floor when drunk were considered an amusing spectacle. Worse befell any female who passed out from too much drink, because she was carried upstairs and physically abused by as many as 30 or 40 customers in a single night; just another part of the entertainment. Ned Allen was at length stabbed to death by Bartlett Freel, after Allen had caused a disturbance in Freel’s dive.

The Opera Comique, also known as Murderer’s Corner, employed Spanish and French women, both as performers and waitresses, and offered the bawdiest and most obscene shows of any saloon in the district. Located at Jackson and Kearny streets, it was owned by Happy Jack Harrington, who was always attired in the height of dandified fashion: a ruffled white shirt, fancy waistcoat, and cream or lavender trousers so tight he looked like he had been poured into them.

Happy Jack ran the Opera Comique for several years, but he was a big drinker. In 1878, while recovering from a bout of delirium tremens, he fell under the influence of the Praying Band, a group of devout temperance women who convinced him to sell his dive and reform. Renouncing his evil ways, he became the Bible-toting manager of a respectable little restaurant . . . but Jack’s true character as a drunkard and thief got in the way of his complete salvation.

Less than a month later he was found lying drunk in the gutter of his new restaurant. Within a few weeks he sold it for next to nothing and opened another disreputable saloon at Sansome and Pacific streets, with funds he was able to gather in a “little deal” with marked cards. A few weeks after that, while in his cups at another establishment, Happy Jack stabbed a man to death, was convicted of manslaughter, and sent to San Quentin.

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