Contemporaneous description of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast

This short article appeared in the Daily Alta California newspaper on May 19, 1852 and provides a contemporaneous description of the city’s infamous Barbary Coast quarter, then called Sydney Town. The article describes a scene on Pacific Street, probably located somewhere between Stockton and Montgomery or Sansome Streets.

“BAD CHARACTERS. Pacific street has justly obtained an unenviable notoriety, from the fact of being the resort of gangs of miserable loafers and despicable thieves, who seem to confine their operations entirely to that portion of the city. There appears to live in that quarter a host of systematic sharpers and organized bands of villians, who live entirely by their wits in plucking the many verdant ones as fast as they come to town. The numerous dance-houses and rum-mills are filled with half dressed and slovenly looking women of every color known, whilst bloated loafers are hanging around watching every opportunity to take advantage of the least thing that might turn up in their favor. The stories of the many who have been plucked in that street have become as familiar as household words; each one goes through the same course, and all come out alike. Persons just arrived from the mines, who were perhaps never in so large a city in their lives, are struck with perfect wonder and astonishment at the many curious and wonderful things to be found in the city. Fandangos naturally attract their whole attention, an intimate acquaintance is soon formed with some bewitching syren, who would rather drink twice than make one excuse. It requires but a few drinks of drugged rum to render the victim insensible; he is plucked at leisure, and then kicked out, on the plea of creating a disturbance. Though our police are constantly watching these notorious characters, and know at the same time that they are thieves, these depredations are managed in such a manner as to make it impossible to obtain sufficient evidence to convict them. Aided by low, degraded women, thieves carry on a successful business, and defy the officers of the law. Witnesses can be easily obtained for a trifle who will swear to anything necessary to clear these scoundrels, with as much unconcern as if an oath were but a mockery. Guilty parties are thus cleared, the spoils divided, and plans are laid for some new enterprise. Though the police are active and industrious in watching these scoundrels, and though the Recorder would willingly punish them to the fullest extent, still the law is inadequate to reach them, so skillfully do they manage their affairs. It will require but a few more cases of an aggravated nature for the people to take the matter into their own hands, and rid our city of the hordes of graceless scoundrels that infest it.”

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“Local Matters,” Daily Alta California, May 19, 1852, pg. 2, col. 3. Accessible here:

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