In 1898 one family, plagued by alcoholism and headed by a notoriously violent man, came to disrupt the lives of a block of Spreckels Avenue (now Staples). The neighbors fought back the threat with both rifles and the law.
Herman Tiegel (1853 – 1926) made the newspapers often enough during his life, a series of horror stories that ended with his wife’s death in an asylum and his children being taken in to care in later years. But in the year 1898 his family was living in one of the few houses then built on Spreckels Avenue, when an armed feud broke out with his neighbor, William Colvert. It wasn’t the first of the crimes he committed in Sunnyside. This was the lay of the land at this time—the days before Sunnyside had houses on every lot:
Here is a photo from another street, to get an idea of how barren landscape was in Sunnyside.
The Tiegels and the Colverts
The newspaper stories reported how the “battle of Sunnyside” began apparently amongst the children of the two families. The Colverts had six children, between age six and sixteen years old. The Tiegels had three, between two and ten. Clearly, the Tiegel kids were outnumbered. The wives became involved, naturally enough. Perhaps the Tiegel children told their dad they were besieged, knowing—probably all too painfully—that he was an often-drunken violent hothead. Herman Tiegel got his gun and went over to the Colvert household during the day, and menaced Mrs. Colvert, informing her that he intended to make her a widow before sundown. (It’s hard to retell these sorts of stories without lapsing into Wild-West-speak.)
Run, Child, and Git Your Pa
Mrs Colvert was not one to sit idly by and allow her husband to walk into a gunfight unarmed and unaware. She mobilized one of her children, probably the oldest, a girl of sixteen named Maude. She sent the girl to San Jose Avenue and 30th Street—probably on the electric streetcar—to intercept her father, William J. Colvert, on his way home. (It was the transfer point for the streetcar; if you were going to Sunnyside, you changed cars there.) Her father was a tinner by trade, and most likely to be employed downtown South of Market—if the want ads for tinners are any guide—which was the center of the metal trade in SF.
Mr Colvert made his way home with what must be assumed was all due haste. Coming over the bare hills, he entered his own home by the backdoor, something easy to do when there were few houses and fewer fences to impede your journey (refer to map above).
Showdown on Spreckels Avenue
William Colvert got his rifle, which is what you might expect a man of Tennessee stock to do. One news reporter stated the gun was a Winchester of the latest design. Colvert stepped out onto his porch with it—actually more likely his front steps, as evidenced by the photos below. He may have heard a shot, or he may not have, reports differ. He saw Tiegel, three empty lots away, on his own porch. Colvert fired, and—fortunately for all concerned—missed his target. Tiegel retreated inside his house and fired off his own round.
These two houses still exist, and it is not hard to see how the two men were positioned, and how, without any houses between them, they would have had a clear view of each other.
Enter the Cavalry
This bout of lawlessness came to an end relatively quickly, considering how far this patch of Sunnyside was from the denser and more populated parts of San Francisco. But the shots themselves, with no freeway traffic or background noise pollution to drown them out, were heard by three mounted policemen in the area—Colonel Michael Shanahan, and Officers Wingler and O’Connell. They arrived in time to prevent any bloodshed, and hauled the men off to the Seventeenth Street police station.
SFPD Mountie Colonel Shanahan was often in the news in those days. Earlier that year he had broken up a ring of dog-snatchers who had been kidnapping dogs by the dozen all over the City, including expensive breeds, with the aim of sending them off for involuntary service in the gold rush then in full force in Klondike, Alaska.
A year later the SF Call reported how the valiant Colonel prevented a disastrous crash at the notorious Ocean View railroad crossing (at Mt Vernon Ave), keeping a cart driver off the tracks just in time, and preventing him from being hit by the speeding Southern Pacific train. So perhaps intervening in a armed feud out in wild Sunnyside was all in a day’s work for the Colonel.
Bailed Out, then Hauled In Again
Both fathers were released on bail, and apparently there was no more gunfire between them that week. But then another neighbor came forward a few days later, and applied to the same judge, asking for a warrant for Herman Tiegel’s arrest. This was Augustus Ewell, who lived in the other house on the street, at the corner of Congo.
Mr Ewell was a very respectable man, an engineer and one of the first Sunnyside residents. He worked with others in the Sunnyside Improvement Club to make things better for the neighborhood. Herman Tiegel had been terrorizing Ewell’s wife and children, he explained, parading in front of their house with a shotgun in one hand and a revolver in the other—then retreating when Ewell came home from work. The judge promptly rescinded bail and had Tiegel brought back to jail.
An aside: Speaking up for justice seems to have run in the Ewell family. Two years before this event, Ewell’s daughter, then only 12 years old, witnessed her friend, an old dairy woman, being hit and killed by a Southern Pacific train just south of Sunnyside. The girl spoke up, undaunted, and gave clear testimony to both the reporters and the judge who heard the case. She told how the train was speeding, how the whistle did not blow, and the bell did not ring—impugning the honesty of the company train driver who insisted he hadn’t committed these all-too-typical violations. (This story in a future post.)
Back to our feud. Threatening neighbors with bodily harm was not all Tiegel was charged with. He had also been dumping garbage into the playground behind the Sunnyside School. It is easy to see how this might happen (see map above)—the backyards are very near each other. Garbage in a schoolyard! A grievous and despicable crime in a family neighborhood.
Exit the Tiegel Family from Sunnyside
The Tiegels moved away from Sunnyside shortly thereafter, just as they would move often, from house to house, before their miserable story came to an end. Five years later the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children took the Tiegel children into care, and the habitually drunken parents were arrested for cruelty and neglect.
The oldest daughter, a step-child of fifteen, had earlier that year escaped to a new life with a husband. One wonders if she kept the family together, and her departure heralded its deadly decline. The newspapers reported that Tiegel’s wife Fannie had sold every scrap of clothing she owned to buy alcohol, save one torn nightgown. She was then incarcerated in the Ukiah insane asylum, where she died. Tiegel himself asked that his boys be taken in by Father Crowley of Youth’s Directory, a local refuge for boys, even though, he said, he and his wife weren’t Catholic. The youngest, a girl of three, was taken in by her married half-sister. And thus the effective end of the Tiegel Terror.
Sunnyside had made it too hot for the Tiegels. Clearly there was cooperation between the beleaguered neighbors on the block; Augustus Ewell stepping forward meant the judge changed his perspective—from a feud between two equally degenerate neighbors, to trouble caused by one vicious and violent man.
Ewell was very active in the local community group, a collective that had regularly banded together to make things happen in this underserved part of the City. A few months after this disruptive chapter in Sunnyside history, that group would be incorporating and then building a new community meeting hall at Flood and Circular, just a block away, with the help of the Merralls family, who had just that year built the Sunnyside Conservatory.
Sunnyside was on its way—a functioning community—and it was no place for a terrorizing bully like Tiegel.