In 1897 a bar fight made the news—it was high drama, and wrapped in several aspects of life out in the wilder side of San Francisco, in the new but sparsely populated area called Sunnyside.
The saloon where it happened was one of the earliest, and probably the most frequented, in the area–located at 22 Circular Ave (now 22 Monterey Blvd). The building at this address today is–to the best of my finding–at least in part the same structure.
That block, in the busiest end of Sunnyside was barely built up, even eight years later:
The Cast of Characters
The fight was a local affair, and the cast of characters includes: The miscreants: a gang of prisoners from the County Jail, then located just down San Jose Avenue, on land where the football field of City College of SF is today.
The bystander: One man who was present and knocked unconscious was the brother-in-law of the chief engineer of the Sunnyside Powerhouse, located just a block away.
The Businessman: George C. Smart was the proprietor of a large dairy ranch down San Jose Avenue; some of the stolen goods ended up on his doorstep.
The Onlookers: the famous electric streetcar stopped right in front of the saloon, at the Sunnyside Crossing, so there were plenty of people in the audience.
And the Saloon Keeper: Paul Schultz was the poor fellow who had just begun his Sunnyside adventure, taking over the main saloon in the neighborhood, where no saloon-keeper seemed to stay for very long.
And then there was the milk bottle…
Blood on the Floor
It started like this: a guard named Benjamin Cleary takes five prisoners from the County Jail out to do some road work in a horse-drawn wagon on a Tuesday morning up on the Corbett road.
About 4 o’clock in the afternoon they are headed back to the jail, and the guard stops the wagon at Schultz’s saloon, where he and four of the prisoners get out and go inside. An elderly prisoner declines to join them, staying in the wagon. It is hard to imagine that this was part of the routine for work crews from the jail.
Though it is not disclosed where they had been before this stop, they apparently have already had a few drinks. The saloon-keeper Schultz sees this right away when they come in, so when the guard Cleary slaps a quarter down on the bar, demanding 5 beers, Schultz refuses to serve them. (Beer is five cents a glass at this time.)
This naturally causes anger amongst the crew. One of the prisoners goes out to the old man in the wagon, orders him out of it, and when he doesn’t obey, calls him a name the newspaper can’t print. The old man prisoner, indignant at being cursed, comes inside the bar and takes a swing at the guard. Another prisoner avenges this attack on their caretaker by bashing the old man with a large stout milk-bottle, and the melee begins.
The Call reports: “This was the commencement of a general fight that lasted over half an hour. The milk-bottle was freely used, and when the fight was over they were all covered with blood, and Schultz’s bar and grocery in the front looked as if they had been visited by a cyclone. The floor was covered with blood and packages of coffee, tea, sugar, and other articles were strewn around.” [San Francisco Call, 1 May 1897, p.14]
Deranged and Disorderly
A bystander, the brother-in-law of the Sunnyside Powerhouse’s engineer, gets hit in the head and passes out, and Schultz drags him to a back room to recover. The articles quote Schultz extensively, as he details the incident and the damage:
“My wife, with a baby in her arms, hearing the uproar, came to see what was the trouble and when she saw the men covered with blood and fighting, she nearly fainted….The electric-cars stop at the switch in front of my place, and the people on the cars saw the disgraceful fight. Other people who were attracted by the noise also saw it.”
The gang, not content with bashing each other, take down the grocery shelving in the grocery portion of the establishment, and then go out back to destroy an outhouse. They steal packages of coffee and make off in the wagon, apparently for the Jail.
George Smart, the head of a large local dairy farm on San Jose Avenue, finds one of the packages of coffee near his front door the next morning, tossed apparently from the passing wagon as the gang made their escape. Smart knows right where the coffee came from and returns it to Schultz.
Schultz, with extensive damage to repair, contacts the jail’s Superintendent, but finds his complaint falls on deaf ears. The Superintendent dismisses his story. So Schultz writes to the Sheriff, tells his story, and asks for $100 to cover the damages. Here he meets a sympathetic ear. The Sheriff investigates, and fires the guard Benjamin Cleary.
Desperate to retain his job, Cleary and his mother go to the Schultzes, begging for them to withdraw the charge, which the Schultzes, being offered some money and a direct apology, are in fact prepared to do. Twenty-four-year-old Benjamin is about to be married and needs that job, worth $55 a month, with board. At the jail they had thought well enough of him, to the extent that both the Superintendent and the Sheriff found the story hard to believe.
But the Sheriff has hardened his heart—Cleary must go. Cleary’s mother Mary even goes to the Sheriff to ask for clemency. But to no avail, Cleary is fired for good, and Schultz is said to be promised $50 to repair his establishment.
That’s the end of the story in the news, but I followed it up a bit.
Benjamin Franklin Cleary (1872 – 1940) was the son of immigrants, an Irish father and an English mother. His mother seems to have been fond of American political figures, given the name she gave him at his birth in 1872; she named one of his brothers Andrew Johnson Cleary—when Andrew Johnson was still sitting as vice president to Lincoln, yet to be president.
Benjamin Cleary never had a job as a guard again, but he did go on to get married, though not for another three years. Perhaps they had to wait till he had a good job. Her name was Elise, and they had a daughter named Constance. He got work as a shipping freight clerk and worked in that field for the rest of his life, moving to Alameda and buying a house in the 1920s.
Perhaps, as extreme as the incident was, it was a mere fluke in an otherwise upstanding young man’s life. Perhaps the failure led him to work he was better suited to. In any case he bounced back.
Unfortunately the benighted Paul Schultz, grocer and would-be barkeep, seems to have rethought his position out in wild Sunnyside, and, given his young wife and baby, left that business within the year. I wasn’t successful in tracing what became of him and his family. Soon there was another Sunnyside adventurer who would take his place behind the bar at the saloon.