1917 Feb 04 Oakland Tribune.

Laws, Lies, and Lace Frills: San Francisco’s First Woman Prosecutor

By Amy O’Hair

In the course of researching a house in Sunnyside I happened onto a woman named Jean E. de Greayer, whose story turned out to lead me into some interesting corners of San Francisco history, including the establishment of the women’s court during the Progressive Era. Although she was only tangentially connected with this neighborhood, her photo in the newspaper in 1913 captured my imagination.

Jean de Greayer appointed bond and warrant clerk. SF Call, 29 Dec 1913, p.9.
Jean de Greayer appointed bond and warrant clerk. SF Call, 29 Dec 1913, p.9.

Serious, even-tempered, proud. All in a day’s work – to make history and become the first woman bond and warrant clerk in the district attorney’s office. Her specialty, which she appears to have talked her way into, was dealing with domestic disputes; she could either issue a warrant for the arrest of one of the parties, or a citation for both to appear for what would best be called mediation or social work. The latter approach helped prevent the cases from ending up in criminal court.

However, newspaper accounts mostly show her to have been a force extolling tolerance and accommodation on the part of the maligned women who came before her for aid. “Don’t nag,” she tells a woman in 1917 whose husband takes all her hard-earned money for gambling, leaving little for her children and herself, “…You are happy, are you not?” The woman goes away, determined to be more accommodating of the theft she must endure at the hands of her husband.[1]

De Greayer was adept at self-promotion. A week after being appointed in 1913, she gave a talk at the Women’s Political League entitled “One Day in the Life of the Bond and Warrant Clerk’s Office”.[2]  In August 1914, her short piece “A Day with Crime, Criminals and Victims,” full of drama, pathos, and one happy outcome, appeared in Ina Coolbrith’s magazine, Everywoman (or read it here)

Article by Jean de Greayer in Everywomen, August 1914. From: https://archive.org/stream/evewom09fair#page/n125/mode/2up
Article by Jean de Greayer in Everywomen, August 1914. From: https://archive.org/stream/evewom09fair#page/n125/mode/2up

Whenever quoted, she was quick to cite statistics that demonstrated her effectiveness at dispatching pesky domestic disputes before they took up the time and effort of the district attorney’s office. She used the newspapers well to put forth her successes; in the SF Municipal Record in 1916, she recounted her effectiveness for the Board of Supervisors.[3]

SF Municipal Record, 16 Nov 1916, p363.
SF Municipal Record, 16 Nov 1916, p363.

She also seems to have had professional photos taken of herself, which were probably a welcome addition to articles for any journalist under the time pressure to produce a story.

The DA who appointed her was Charles M Fickert, a man now remembered for his unjust prosecution of the 1916 Preparedness Day Bombing suspects.[4]

Charles M Fickert. Wikimedia.org

Fickert had been pushed into the DA’s office in 1909 by big corporate backers who wanted the post-1906 graft prosecutions halted (and he obliged). He was known for his corruption, drinking, violent temper, and sloppy prosecution work.[5] De Greayer’s accommodation of male bad behavior seems to have engendered an extended professional relationship with this bully, whose promotion of her made possible much of her career in law.

De Greayer had ambitions beyond being a clerk. In September 1916, the SF Call reported that she intended to be a candidate for the Board of Supervisors in the upcoming election, although this did not happen.

De Greayer considering run for SF Board of Supervisors. SF Call, 4 Sept 1916. She did not run.
SF Call, 4 Sept 1916, p7. Note photo is courtesy International Film Service.

That year, like many other women intent on obtaining suffrage at the federal level, she campaigned for the Republican candidate for the presidency, Charles Evan Hughes. She was part of the reception committee during Hughes’ Bay Area visit in August.

In November 1916, she was appointed by Fickert as prosecutor for the new women’s court, also a first in San Francisco. However, de Greayer was not the first woman prosecutor; Clara Shortridge Foltz, a woman who had fought to be admitted to Hastings School of Law decades before, had already been named to that position in 1910, in Los Angeles. [More on Foltz.]

Perhaps good fashion sense was a requirement of the job? SF Examiner, 17 Nov 1916, p.9.
De Greayer appointed assistant prosecutor, a first. Perhaps superior fashion sense was a requirement of the job. SF Examiner, 17 Nov 1916, p.9.

As before, her work was largely mediation in domestic disputes and social work for the benefit of prostitutes, keeping these cases from entering the criminal system. Many details were published in the newspapers (more below).

When Fickert was defeated in 1920 in his bid for reelection as district attorney, she was relieved of her special position in the DA’s office.[6] That year she was appointed assistant secretary of the San Francisco Ad Club. In the 1924 directory and the 1920 US Census her occupation was listed as attorney-at-law.

A Woman in the US Attorney’s Office?

In 1921 when John Tully Williams was elected US Attorney for Northern California, US Attorney General Harry Daugherty urged him to choose a woman lawyer as one of his six assistants. Jean de Greayer was one of the women in SF who were posited as choices.

De Greayer considered for Assistant US District Attorney position. SF Call, 10 Sept 1921. This is the same studio photo the Call used in 1916.
De Greayer is considered for Assistant US Attorney position. SF Call, 10 Sept 1921. This is the same studio photo the Call used in 1916.

But it was not to be, for any of the women named. In the end US Attorney Williams appointed six men as his assistants. The 1920s brought many such setbacks for women’s rights and the progressive agenda, compared to the changes brought about in the previous decade. De Greayer’s career slipped from the public view after this, certainly in part because by then she was in her sixties.

There is nothing to indicate that de Greayer trained as a lawyer–she started her professional life working in dry goods stores in Denver, Colorado. Later she claimed to have worked in journalism there. There is much in the newspapers to attest to the fact that she was clearly a woman of determination, pleasing charm, and persuasive social skills, in any case. Where had she come from, and how did she get here?

Like so many who came to SF (and still come) to seek an exciting life, Jean de Greayer was a mixture of self-invention, progressive ideals, opportunism, with a good eye for publicity and for investment—all embellished with a few useful lies. She made her own mark in women’s history, but I have found little written about her anywhere. Here is my account of her life. First some background.

Progressive Times

The 1910s brought exciting reforms for women’s rights in the US. In October 1911, California—following similar legislative measures in Wyoming, Colorado and a few other states—passed a state senate constitutional amendment that allowed women to vote, nine years before the federal government would do so for all US women. [More here on FoundSF.org.] San Francisco was in this time a better place to be female than many cities (see Jessica Sewell’s fabulous book Women in the Everyday City). You could work, shop, and take public transit unchaperoned with less threat and harassment than women faced elsewhere.

It was the Progressive Era—reform was happening on many fronts. Some changes many would still find value in, like the eight-hour day, election reforms, and child labor laws. Since the 1870s women were increasingly being admitted to law schools; the first woman was admitted to the American Bar Association in 1918. [Here’s a timeline of the history of women in the law.] The potential benefits of including the qualities that women could bring to governance and discourse were embraced by many—even if those qualities, such as motherly care, we might now see as stereotypically or narrowly framed. A leading light of the progressive movement in the US was Jane Addams, who founded Hull House in Chicago and who is honored on the Rainbow Walk in the Castro here in SF.

But other progressive notions have palled, especially those that posited communal good over individual freedoms. Prohibition was tried with disruptive consequences. Eugenics is permanently tainted with the horrors that followed later in the century. Immigration restrictions remain controversial. And the same sort of over-powerful corporations whose abuses spurred progressive action then still hold massive sway today.

But to return to Jean E. de Greayer of San Francisco.

Female and Free in ‘Frisco

Jean E. MacFarlane arrived in San Francisco probably by 1898. In March 1900 she wed a rich young man named Harry Gardiner de Greayer. He was 21 and she was 36. He died leaving her a wealthy widow five years later.

She was born Eliza Jane MacFarlane in Prince Edward Island, Canada, on 27 May 1863, the middle daughter of a farmer. Her baptism record may the last time her birthdate was accurately recorded. She misstates her age at every successive opportunity, even as early as her mid-twenties, while still living at home in Canada. By the time of the 1930 US Census, when she is 66 years old, she has shaved 26 years from her age, stating that she was 40. Photos show an attractive and fashionably dressed woman, so perhaps these were believable lies.

She also seems to have fudged other facts—about her birth place, qualification, family history. Although in the 1900 and 1910 US Census she does disclose her Canadian birth, in 1920 and 1930 she says she was born in Colorado, a place she spent a few years in the mid-1890s before coming to California. What reason could she see for this, as her marriage to US-born Harry de Greayer in 1900 gave her US citizenship?[7]

When the SF Call mistakes her then-dead husband Harry, who had no real occupation, for his father of the same name, a well-known stock broker in the 1880s, she did not correct the error, allowing it to be printed twice (see images of articles above).[8] In these same articles she exaggerates her family history, stating that she is a member of “one of the best pioneering families in the state,” when in actuality this tenuous thread amounts to the single fact that one of several estranged ex-wives of her husband’s uncle happened to later wed a military figure from the Spanish-American War, Major Rowan.[9] She called this woman her “aunt,” which only someone stretching truth to a strained thinness would dare do.

But Jean de Greayer never lacked for daring. To reach her ambitions, she apparently needed to disguise her humble origins and lack of qualification, and take any opportunity given her to put on an aristocratic shine. In her wedding announcement she says her father was prominent in Prince Edward Island politics and a member of parliament, a statement hardly contestable at such a distance. (David MacFarlane was a farmer on the censuses, and is only mentioned in the Acts of the General Assembly of PEI as the recipient of fifty pounds in payment for fixing the jail fence.)

While this was a time when women were changing laws and breaking barriers, she seems to have made many of her own rules. Men had certainly been inventing and reinventing themselves in San Francisco for decades. When has this city ever been home to the over-scrupulous or tradition-bound?

Her name changed as well. She ditched “Eliza Jane” as soon as she left her family home in Canada for Denver, in about 1892-3. In the directory there she is at first called E. Jean MacFarlane, before settling on Jean E. MacFarlane. Later, on sales records at the SF Assessor-Recorder’s office, she sometimes used the name Jean Gardiner de Greayer, adopted it would seem from one of her husband’s family names.

Who’s a Lawyer Now?

In Denver, Jean MacFarlane worked at two stores, Flanders Dry Goods and Daniels and Fisher, also a dry goods concern—although later she claims to have been a newspaperwoman there. By the 1920 census she says she is an attorney-at-law, even though I found no indication she was ever trained as a lawyer. At the present time, and for most of the twentieth century, anyone working as a prosecutor for the City would be required to be a qualified lawyer. In investigating this particular aspect of de Greayer’s story the question arose as to whether this woman, appointed to a position of legal office, actually had any legal education or qualification. Before the establishment of the State Bar of California in 1927, the matter of qualification was remarkably unregulated.

Simply put, until there were more stringent requirements gradually put in place in the 1920s, the matter of hanging out a shingle to practice law did not consistently entail requirements for training and written exams.[10] There were surely better and worse lawyers, but in 1920 the California Bar Association, although it had been established decades before, was not yet a body with the power to disbar unqualified persons from practicing.

Without any legal education, Jean de Greayer could say–as many others did–that she was an attorney-at-law. And she could be appointed a prosecutor, something not possible just a few years onward. Still, this was a time when many women fought hard to be admitted to law schools, and to accepted by the American Bar Association and other legal fraternities. Apparently conciliatory by nature, as evidenced by much of her advice to others, de Greayer crafted her career without these open battles. But she would have been vulnerable to being called out in public for lacking the sort of legal qualifications and education that many women then fought hard to acquire.

Toward the end of her life, the last trace I found of her anywhere was the sale in 1935 of a factory in SoMa she had built 20 years before—perhaps hatching one of her retirement nest eggs. She was 72. A brief biography[11] of her life in a book about Prince Edward Island women states that she died in SF in 1936, age 73, although I have searched without success for this information in California death records.

Domestic Conflict Whisperer

Due to her work in the district attorney’s office there are news accounts of her work that offer glimpses of her professional life. When she was appointed to the position of bond and warrant clerk in December 1913, it was reported in newspapers as far away as Arkansas, Arizona, Ohio, and Montana—often on the women’s page. In that position as clerk, de Greayer had the power to issue warrants for arrest (although they would have required a stamp of approval from a judge at some point). She made a specialty of striving to effect reconciliations as an improvement on the harsher consequences of being caught up in the legal system.

In 1915 the Chronicle ran a story that described how de Greayer visited a stabbing victim named Quigley in the hospital to get him to swear a complaint against his attacker. She is given the title of Assistant District Attorney in the piece. She took with her to the hospital the woman who stabbed the man, Mrs Sheehan. The woman admitted to the act, saying she was fending off the man’s sexual assault in the kitchen of the restaurant she owned at 561 Valencia St (where Bar Tartine is now). She used a pie knife.[12]

SF Chronicle, 19 July 1915, p.8.
SF Chronicle, 19 July 1915, p.8.

At his bedside, de Greayer asks:  “This woman…stabbed you, didn’t she?” Quigley refuses to concede. He apparently did not die of his wounds, for there is nothing more in the papers about the incident.

In mid-1916, a fight takes place between a wife and husband inside the bond and warrant office, and de Greayer is posited as “referee.” Now the article identifies her as a warrant clerk. A job full of drama, in any case. The incident is mockingly turned into a parody of a professional fight match–the piece is written with the condescending tone that tainted many reports of domestic violence and dispute during much of the twentieth century.

SF Chronicle, 2 July 1916, p.9.
SF Chronicle, 2 July 1916, p.9.

Beside being written up in the newspapers both local and national, she was noted as having attained her position in the National Municipal Review in 1915, in an inventory of the city offices that women held around the country.[13] In 1918 her accomplishments were mentioned in a book called Maids, Wives, and Widows: the Law of the Land and Various States as it Affects Women.[14]

Republican for Progress

De Greayer was active in local Republican Party work in the 1910s. She also belonged to many groups, like the Women’s Political League. Political and reform work at this time was often the labor of “clubwomen”—women so called because of the great many civic leagues and clubs they formed in order to effect change; many were ladies without paid work and with servants, but many such as de Greayer were employed.

In summer 1916, de Greayer got involved in the presidential campaign. Incumbent President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, was up against Charles Evan Hughes, the Republican challenger. Hughes resigned his seat on the Supreme Court to run. Wilson had put many women’s backs up just a few years earlier by failing to clearly endorse suffrage legislation at the federal level. Women who had supported him felt betrayed.


Many suffrage campaigners got behind Hughes, who despite being Republican held many progressive views, and who was actually endorsed by the Progressive Party. His tenure on the Supreme Court was marked by progressive leanings. [More about Hughes.]

Jean de Greayer was on several committees supporting Hughes and was part of the reception for him when he visited the Bay Area in mid-August 1916. Women turned out in large numbers for Hughes. This quote topped the list of epigrams Hughes uttered while in the Bay Area[15]:

“It is clear to me that it is inevitable that throughout this country women should be accorded the right to vote.”

Hughes was seen as clearly pro-suffrage, while Wilson waffled. SF Chronicle, 27 Aug 1916.
Hughes was seen as pro-suffrage, while Wilson waffled. SF Chronicle, 27 Aug 1916.

Hughes lost to Wilson; Wilson finally got behind suffrage two years later, in 1918. [More here.] In 1920 the US Congress passed the 19th Amendment, granting all women in the US the right to vote. De Greayer, however, even though she along with all women in California had been granted the right in 1911, never herself registered to vote.

International Woman of Mysteries?

In a strange turn, a week after the Hughes visit in 1916, de Greayer reported to the newspapers that the telephone line in the bond and warrant office—which was on a separate exchange from the rest of the Hall of Justice—had been mysteriously cut clean through. Clearly, she was quick to pick up the phone and contact her friends at the newspaper whenever there was anything remotely newsworthy.

In 1918, another oddity appeared in the Call: de Greayer reported the wartime death of her “cousin” who was the member of the English titled family, the Sackville-Wests.[16] I could find no connection between the Canadian farming family of MacFarlane that she came from and the well-known Sackville-Wests, but who knows, perhaps there is more to this tidbit than her usual exaggerations.

Justice for Women

When in November 1916 Jean de Greayer was put in charge of the new women’s court, the matter got a good amount of press around the US—Oregon, Ohio, North Carolina, Los Angeles, Texas. This new court has an interesting history.

The Hall of Justice was de Greayer’s place of work and the location for the new woman’s court. It stood then on Kearny Street facing Portsmouth Square, where the rather hideous Holiday Inn is currently located. [Here is some background, and here.] The bond and warrant clerk’s office was located on the second floor.[17] The original Hall of Justice was destroyed in 1906, and rebuilt by 1912. The grand new building had more room for the workings of justice.

Old Hall of Justice (1912-1963), Kearny Street.

Just about then, women activists in the City began to ask for a special women’s court–specifically because of the expanded physical facilities.[18] At first these progress-minded clubwomen were put off but the judges they approached. But by 1916 that special court became a reality.

Clubwomen call for women's court. SF Call, 7 Mar 1912, p.10.
Clubwomen call for women’s court. SF Call, 7 Mar 1912, p.10.

Women’s court mean that female witnesses and defendants who came before the court need not contend with the usual raucous, leering male multitudes crowded into the gallery, as they testified about “delicate” matters; all men not directly attached to cases were banned from the court. Efforts were made to intervene in order to help the disputants avoid the criminal process, by providing aid that would help them solve the root problems–something now better described as social work. Those who lobbied for this special court were working in part on the model of juvenile court, which had come into practice at the turn of the century in Chicago. It was a defining step in providing more nuanced justice for a particularly vulnerable class of people.

Needless to say, women were also seen as vulnerable, and their circumstances requiring differentiated responses from the justice system. Prostitution and domestic abuse were the two types of cases most often addressed in the women’s court. If you were selling your body to feed your kids, then a jail sentence was likely to put them and you in an even more precarious position. If the father of your kids threatened your life, sending him to jail for an extended period could mean more hardship for everyone.

In the Court of Women

Some of the stories from this court were published in the news over the next few years–although not all avoid the patronizing tone that marked many accounts of women’s lives at the time. Something of the court and of de Greayer can be gleaned from them.

The morning after the debut of both the women’s court and the night court, the Chronicle ran an article about them on the front page. “Mrs Jean de Greayer, assistant bond and warrant clerk, assumed the duties of prosecutor.” (Thus raising the question whether this is the same thing as actually being a prosecutor.)

“Several clubwomen were in attendance. Marie Thomas, a young negress charged with disturbing the peace was the first defendant. She said she was employed as a door-tender in a Tenderloin resort and had indulged in several drinks after working hours. The magistrate drew from her the fact that she is married and has two children. Her husband does not earn enough to support the family. ‘The work you are doing is no fit occupation for a mother,’ said the court. Mrs de Greayer promised to secure the woman a position at decent employment and the case was dismissed.”[19]

Now that is personalized justice. One is called to wonder whether this is the charitable gesture of a wealthy matron or the administrative act of a well-connected bureaucrat. Jean de Greayer appears to have been some hybrid of the two.

After this on that first day a husband who failed to provide for his family is induced to promise to do so, and a prostitute and several chronic alcoholic women are dismissed with reprimands. The next week there was another piece entitled “Pretty lass saved from pitfalls by women’s court”.[20] The twenty-year-old woman arrested on vagrancy charges told the court that the coffee house that employed her to entertain men paid $10 a week, a better wage than she could make in the department stores. Again Jean de Greayer promised to find the woman better employment.

A month later, a clubwoman spoke before the Juvenile Protection Association about the successes of the women’s court. “Mrs Culver emphasized the preventative measures employed by those interested in the court. That benefit has already been accomplished …. [W]here girls had been discovered struggling to live on a non-livable wage, their employers had been approached, and in every instance the wage increased. Other girls, she said, had been afforded an opportunity to secure better employment. Mrs Culver explained that the women working in the court for the benefit of other women have become sufficiently discriminating to recognize the ‘good ground’ when they see it, and sow the seed where it will bring forth the best harvest.”[21] Motherly care, tempered with a keenly discerning eye.

In 4 February 1917 the Oakland Tribune women’s page carried a long, highly-colored article about the women’s court.

Oakland Tribune, 4 Feb 1917, p13.

Jean de Greayer is extensively and revealingly quoted in the article, giving advice to women about how to treat their misbehaving husbands. “We all talk too much. Every woman does. I’m a woman and I talk too much, too. Many a woman has talked herself out of house and home and out of a husband she’d like to keep. Don’t remind him that he took your money and lost it. Will you do that?” And the beleaguered woman so lectured promises to do so.

To a timid woman plagued by an alcoholic husband de Greayer says: “No, we will not arrest him this time….we will wait a few days. We will warn him. But the moment you arrest your husband, you make the breach wider. Do you understand?” And the woman leaves, vowing to try harder.

Nonetheless, de Greayer does issue a warrant for the arrest of a man who threatens his wife with a gun. “But don’t keep him in the jail too long!” begs the wife. About another delinquent husband, whom de Greayer calls “an impossible man,” she declares, “I think he will go to jail before he will pay her.” The work entails fielding an endless litany of domestic grievances.

The article ends with an account of a man in the office, a bystander of some sort, who stands up to give a disgusted tirade about the injustices he has listened to, calling the women stupid and implying that birth control is in order for most of them. The journalist finishes by dismissing the man’s rant, and reaffirming the value of the women’s court, which aims to exclude the presence of such onlookers from hearing the testimony of women’s grievances.

After a month of these two new courts being instituted, the night court is declared a disaster and the women’s court a rousing success. The women’s court continued for decades in San Francisco.

Married Briefly to a Notorious de Greayer

To fill out what is known about Jean de Greayer’s personal life, I return to her marriage. The man she married in 1900, Harry Gardiner de Greayer, left her a wealthy and well-connected widow by 1905. She was heir to whatever money remained by then of the small fortune that Harry had inherited from his father. It was bound to be something substantial; Jean bought and sold property all during her life in SF, and on the 1910 census stated her occupation as “capitalist,” echoing what her by-then dead husband had put down on the census ten years before.

Her husband’s father, also named Harry de Greayer, was killed in 1892 in a sensational and well-publicized incident in Golden Gate Park. He was out with an adventurous young lady, speeding in his horse cart, as the reports would have it. When accosted by a Park policeman and told to slow, he responded by getting out and reaching for something in his pocket; the policeman got out his own gun first and shot him. Harry senior died of his wounds later that day. Here is an account at the time, “Who Fired First”.

The elder Harry de Greayer, it can be inferred from the accounts of the trial, was a man known for his wealth, his temper, and his big gun. “Is this the sort of gun to shot ducks?” asks the defense lawyer, holding up the man’s fancy pistol during the trial. It was emphasized at the trial that Harry was perfectly sober. One year later the policeman was acquitted.[22]

Father Harry de Greayer was a stock broker and a street contractor, and had come to SF from England with his older brother Septimus Gardiner de Greayer in the 1870s. Back in Hull, England the family was just plain “Greayer,” and Septimus was named Samuel. Harry even affected a fancy name when her first arrived in SF: “Montgomery.,” but unlike his brother, he soon dropped this affectation.

The elder Harry left his money to his son, who in 1892 was about 13 years old, amounting to $20,000 ($553K now). Uncle Septimus had an equally rascally reputation–a well-known stock broker who had been questioned about his dubious practices more than once. He was made executor of young Harry’s small fortune. There was enough reason to think he would misuse his charge’s money, as he had misused the money of investors who had been foolhardy enough to trust him with it. So notorious was Septimus’s personal code of ethics, that when the superior court judge oversaw the execution of the will, he took the extraordinary measure of requiring Septimus to place all the money in a trust company, and then to apply to the judge each and every time he wished to use any part of the fortune for his ward, young Harry.

Septimus sued the SF Superior Court in the California Supreme Court in 1897 in order to break this restriction, and won, wresting back control of the money and creating legal precedent. He also sued to get control of his brother’s ex-wife’s money in 1896. And he sued the life insurance company in 1897, as they had refused to pay out on the $5000 policy on his brother Harry’s life, stating that Harry had violated the clause of the policy that says he must not voluntarily expose himself to unnecessary danger.” Septimus probably had good lawyers, because he always won.

The Short Life of Harry the Husband

In about 1896, young Harry, by then in his late teens, went back to England “for his education.” In April 1899 Septimus requested permission from the judge to send his ward $500 “so that he can return home to San Francisco.”[23] Young Harry returned to SF in June, now having attained the age of 21 and control over his money. He checked himself into the Occidental Hotel, a luxury establishment.[24]

Shortly after his return to San Francisco Harry de Greayer met a woman from Canada named Jean E. MacFarlane who was fifteen years older than he was. It was mostly certainly a fairly brief and whirlwind romance, as Jean MacFarlane did not leave Denver for SF before 1896, the year the teen-aged Harry left for England.[25] In 1898 a Miss Jennie MacFarland, saleslady, is listed in the SF Directory (and not subsequently), which may possibly be our Jean MacFarlane, working in retail here, as she had in Denver.

In March 1900, they were married by a priest at Santa Clara College, in San Jose.

The wedding announcement of young Harry de Greayer and Jean MacFarlane in San Jose. SF Chronicle, 15 March 1900,
The wedding announcement of young Harry de Greayer and Jean MacFarlane in San Jose. SF Chronicle, 15 March 1900.

The announcement is larded with lies and exaggerations. Most particularly, Harry did not attend the Royal College of Surgeons in Birmingham, England. Firstly, there never was a Royal College of Surgeons in that city, and secondly the College (in London) affirms in an email to me that no such person was a member of their class of that year, nor acquired their credential. But who would ever know, six thousand miles away…

Harry and Jean at the time of the US census in June 1900[26] lived at the refined boarding house at 850 Van Ness Ave (burned down in 1906). He stated his occupation as “capitalist.” She subtracted nine years from her true age, and he added two, perhaps to narrow the large gap in age between them. The rooming establishment on Van Ness often advertised often in the classifieds, extolling its amenities: “Handsomely furnished,” “use of piano and parlor,” “excellent board,” as well as the availability of telephones and hot water. Life was easy.

Perhaps it was in his blood, but Harry couldn’t keep out of trouble. The wedding announcement stated he studied at the Royal College of Surgeons while in England, but he didn’t seem disposed to practice medicine after his return to SF. He was mentioned in the news in 1900, a witness in a scandalous suicide case.[27] His friend Ellard Slack, who had worked his way up serving the irreproachable City Auditor Asa R. Wells, fell into a pit of despair and shot himself in the head in the back room of the Davy Crockett saloon on Market Street. Gambling and drinking binges had put Slack into very deep debt, and he had just been suspended from his job. Harry saw the poor man a minute or two before his final act, and heard his despondent mutterings. In any case Harry appears to have had the habit of lounging in front of saloons in the middle of the day.

In 1901 Harry opened his own saloon at 16 – 3rd Street with a partner, John Holland, who only a year later sued to dissolve the partnership. Harry didn’t neglect his hobbies; his dog Emperor rubbed noses with the likes of James Leary Flood’s dog Mira in the mastiff novice bitch category at the 1901 Kennel Club show.[28] The following year Harry gifted an important piece of property at 2830 Lyon Street to his wife Jean.[29] Perhaps he was already sick with whatever killed him after a months-long illness in 1905, finally succumbing in November of that year, at the age of 27.[30]

Exit Harry de Greayer, leaving Jean behind. She never married again, and she certainly didn’t follow in the pattern of other wealthy clubwomen and widows, devoting herself the usual charitable activities, as did Josephine de Greayer, one of the ex-wives of her husband’s uncle Septimus, a woman much mentioned in the society pages during the previous decade for her tireless but entirely unpaid beneficent work.

Jean de Greayer lived in various of the best residence hotels downtown and was employed. By 1910 she was working at the department store Newman and Levinson–a job in retail such as she had in Denver in the 1890s. In 1913 SF Directory she listed her occupation as journalist, the only time she did this. Probably through her journalism and her organizing work with local Republican organizations, she worked her way into that initial appointment at the District Attorney’s office by September 1913, beginning her legal career.

Landlady and Factory Builder

It wasn’t just her practical advice inside the women’s court that suggests Jean de Greayer had a clearer head on her shoulders than her husband. That property on Lyon Street from Harry she held onto for twenty years, selling in 1921.[31] In 1915 she built a factory on a lot she had bought on Shipley Street, south of Market, which she later expanded by buying adjacent lots and building onto the factory in 1916 and 1917. The another piece of land she bought was a lot on 45th Avenue in the outer Richmond in 1904, which she sold later in 1917 to finance those SoMa expansions.[32]

This factory on Shipley Street is notable because the product the workers made there was Townsend’s California Glacé Fruits. The company also had fountain restaurants downtown. Here are some ads.

These fruit-based sweets were one of the many fancy new things California brought forth. Impress your friend back East! Perhaps Jean de Greayer had a sweet tooth. As I said before, the land and the factory building grew to a substantial size, and she sold the by then large lot in 1935. You didn’t need a sweet tooth to see there was money marketing candy, especially during Prohibition.

The fourth bit of property Jean de Greayer bought was a double lot in Sunnyside, in 1911–the initial way I came in contact with her name. This is at the corner of Joost Ave and Gennessee St—now 698 and 680 Joost Ave. She sold it in 1922, just before houses were built there, as she had done with the Lyon Street lot. What is weird about the four spots she picked to invest in land in SF is that on a map, they form an almost perfect cross–the southern and western lots seem randomly chosen empty lots, but for the fact that they mirror the two other lots she owned. Maybe this oddity was part of some superstitious plan of hers. By far the SoMa lot was the focus of the most investment and development, and netted the best return over the years.

1897 SF map with the four properties Jean de Greayer owned marked with green dots. She lived at none of these places, preferring catered hotels downtown.

Jean de Greayer: Self-invention – and Social Change?

De Greayer clearly blazed a path in the legal field, being appointed to positions that women had not held here before, and exerting her social intelligence in an exceedingly practical manner to sometimes bring better outcomes to the troubled lives of the women who come before her in district attorney’s office between 1913 and 1920. However, it is worth noting that she did not even vote. She also did not seem to participate in other women’s rights causes that were the focus of clubwomen’s lobbying efforts at this time, such as the Shepherd-Towner Act for the Promotion of the Welfare and Hygiene of Maternity and Infancy–something her rival for assistant US attorney in 1921, attorney Suzanne Vervin Bolles, devoted her attention to, for instance.

The legacy of de Greayer’s accomplishments seems to me to be mixed. She can certainly be seen in news accounts to sometimes shift the burden of men’s victimization of their dependents onto the women who had come to the DA’s office for real help. Many of the things she said to them were patronizing at best, even by the standards of the time. I find her the classic enabler: a supportive adjunct to a bullying and unjust prosecutor, Charles Fickert–-as if she were the gracious lady of the house who tidied away those inconvenient domestic cases considered insufficiently serious for the men of his office to trouble themselves with. Separate but (un)equal conditions clearly aren’t an adequate response to domestic abuse. However, the institution of the new women’s court served a clear purpose in a legal environment that had little else to offer women suffering abuse or neglect.

San Francisco Women’s Court, 1916-1956

After 1920, Fickert was no longer district attorney and de Greayer no longer worked at the domestic relations bureau in his office. Nonetheless the Women’s Court in San Francisco continued its work, providing some social justice for women. It was a place in the court system where women worked as lawyers, assistant district attorneys–and even a judge–apparently more easily accepted there than in other parts of the system. These women who followed were all properly trained in law and vetted by the new State Bar of California. Gone were the days when a saleslady-slash-journalist could talk her way into a district attorney’s job.

By 1923 Dr Theresa Meikle served as assistant district attorney in that court; in 1931, she was appointed to preside over it as judge, the first time an SF criminal court had a female judge.[34] In 1928 attorney Edith Wilson was appointed assistant district attorney; she served through the 1940s. Here is a photo of the two women at the time of Wilson’s appointment.

SF Chronicle, 2 Feb 1928. Dr Theresa Meikle on the left, Mrs Edith Wilson on the right.
SF Chronicle, 2 Feb 1928.

In 1942, public heath officials in San Francisco recast the women’s court as an arm of the Department of Public Health in order to enforce the mandatory treatment of prostitutes with sexually transmitted diseases during a wartime epidemic. Judge Clarence Morris declared that the women’s court no longer needed a female judge, and removed Judge Meikle, putting himself in her place. Dr Meikle went onto SF Superior Court in 1955.[35] .

The women’s court was abolished in 1956, apparently for “economic reasons.”[36]

=== === ===


  • My thanks to attorney Kenneth Hollenbeck for information about the legal system, and to librarian Andrea Grimes of the San Francisco History Center for her thoroughgoing assistance.
  • A brief but somewhat inaccurate biography of Jean de Greayer written in the 1960s was included in a book about women who were born in Prince Edward Island, which the LM Montgomery Institute was kind enough to scan and send to me. Read that here (PDF).  That bio formed the basis of another account in a local newspaper, which also contains inaccuracies. Read that here (PDF).

Biographical Summaries

  • Jean E. de Greayer (1863 Prince Edward Island, Canada – 1936 San Francisco CA?)
  • Harry Gardiner de Greayer (1878 California – 1905 San Francisco CA)
  • Harry de Greayer (1853 Hull, England – 1892 San Francisco CA)
  • Samuel “Septimus” Gardiner de Greayer (1848? England – 1907 San Francisco CA)


[1] “In the Court of Women,” Oakland Tribune, 4 Feb 1917, p13.

[2] “Women’s League to Meet,” SF Chronicle, 7 Jan 1914, p.8.

[3] “Report of the Domestic Relations Bureau,” San Francisco Municipal Record, 16 Nov 1916, p.363. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.32106019794160;view=1up;seq=369

[4] See Ralston, John C., Fremont Older and the 1916 San Francisco Bombing, Charleston SC: The History Press, 2013.

[5] Ralston, op. cit., p16.

[6] She is “former bond and warrant clerk” by the time of this article: “Mrs de Greayor [sic] discussed as candidate for federal attorney’s assistant here,” SF Call, 10 Sep 1921.

[7] More about women and naturalization through history here: https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1998/summer/women-and-naturalization-1.html

[8] “Woman well fitted for political service,” SF Call, 4 Sep 1916, p7; “Mrs de Greayor [sic] discussed as candidate…,” SF Call, 10 Spe 1921, p2.

[9] “Mrs de Greayor [sic] discussed as candidate for federal attorney’s assistant here,” SF Call, 10 Sep 1921.

[10] Historical and Contemporary Review of Bench and Bar in California, SF: The Reporter Printing and Publishing Co., 1926. SF History Center.

[11] Courtesy of the L.M. Montgomery Institute of Prince Edward Island, here is a reprint of the page about de Greayer in “A Century of Women.” https://sunnysidehistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/degreayer1.pdf  Source:  http://www.kindredspaces.ca/islandora/object/lmmi%3A14063#page/1/mode/1up

[12] “Woman stabs man in chest with pie knife,” SF Chronicle, 18 Jul 1915, p.35; “Victim of affray shields woman,” SF Chronicle, 19 July 1915, p.8.

[13] National Municipal Review, volume 4 (April 1915), p.213. Available on Google Books.

[14] Bres, Rose Falls, Maids, Wives, and Widows, EP Dutton, 1918, p.150. https://books.google.com/books?id=0OsTAAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q=de%20greayer&f=false

[15] “Hughes talks straight from the shoulder,” SF Chronicle, 19 Aug 1916, p.2.

[16] “Nephew of British lord dies in action,” SF Chronicle, 5 May 1918, p4.

[17] An account of it’s opening after construction: “City Builds Great Structures,” SF Call, 10 March 1912, p.36.

[18] “Ask for a Women’s Court,” SF Chronicle, 19 July 1912, p.7.

[19] “First case is heard in City’s new night court…new women’s tribunal is also inaugurated,” SF Chronicle, 5 Dec 1916, p.1-2.

[20]  SF Chronicle, 10 Dec 1916, p.40.

[21] “Women’s court hailed as aid to working girls,” SF Chronicle, 16 Jan 1917, p8.

[22] SF Call, 8 Feb 1893, p8. https://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=SFC18930218.1.8&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN——–1 (upper left)

[23] “Wants to Come Home,” SF Chronicle, 5 April 1899, p.9

[24] “Around the Corridors,” SF Call, 6 June 1899, p.6.

[25] Jean E. MacFarlane is listed in the Denver directory for 1896, working at Daniels and Fisher dry goods and living in the Broadway Hotel.

[26] Census citation: Year: 1900; Census Place: San Francisco, San Francisco, California; Roll: 105; Page: 3B; Enumeration District: 0191; FHL microfilm: 1240105.

[27] “Seeking to Create a Murder Mystery,” SF Call, 6 Jan 1900, p.8. See also “Closed his Life with a Debauch,” SF Call, 5 Jan 1900, p12.

[28] “Dog Show of the San Francisco Kennel Club,” SF Call, 9 May 1901, p.4.

[29] SF Call, 6 Sept 1902, p.13.

[30] “Lady Teazle’s Society Chat,” SF Chronicle, 24 Sept 1905, p.32; Obituary, SF Call, 16 Nov 1905, p.14 and SF Chronicle, same date, p12.

[31] Sales record at the SF Assessor-Recorder’s office for lot 0941/024 on 17 March 1921.

[32] Sales records in the SF Assessor-Recorder’s office for lots 1599/005 (13 Oct 1916) and 3752/067 (13 Oct 1916); also Building and Engineering News, 21 April 1917, p.12, announcing that she is building an addition on the factory on Shipley Street for $3000.

[33] Building and Engineering News, 28 July 1915, p.25.

[34] “Judge Meikle given women’s court post,” SF Chronicle, 3 Jan 1931, p.7.

[35] See http://sfhcbasc.blogspot.com/2012/03/it-came-from-photo-morgue-judge-theresa.html.

[36] See article about history of women judges, SF Chronicle 25 Sept 1981, p.15 (sign in with SF Public Library card): http://infoweb.newsbank.com.ezproxy.sfpl.org/resources/doc/nb/image/v2%3A142051F45F422A02%40EANX-NB-1538B01666B9B551%402444873-153699E4A81F30E9%4014-1538C9AA5A8F4D18%40?p=AMNEWS

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