By Amy O’Hair
In February 1906 at the Wilson farmhouse on Gennessee Street in Sunnyside, a woman suffered a brutal attack by a robber on a Friday afternoon. The attacker got away by running into the thick grove of eucalyptus trees nearby. The whole neighborhood was involved in the hunt for the man. The news reports about the incident tell us a lot about Sunnyside in that year – including something of its largely untold dairy history, as well as the lay of the land. The house where it happened still stands today, at the SE corner of Gennessee St and Joost Ave (where it recently sold for almost $2m).
The attacker, John Smith, was caught within a week while fencing stolen silver downtown, and identified by Mrs Wilson as her attacker and by other people who had seen him in the neighborhood on that afternoon. The disruption caused by the 1906 Quake and Fire that April meant that the case was not tried until the following June, when Smith was sentenced to fifty years at Folsom State Prison, effectively a life sentence for the 42-year-old man.
Justice was done, but the brutality of the incident left its mark on “one of the lonesomest spots within the county,” as the SF Call reporter labeled that end of Sunnyside.
A Brutal and Unexpected Attack
To return to the details of the event. Gleaned from the more dispassionate account given at the trial, the incident happened thus. Responding to a knock at the kitchen door, Mrs Wilson opened it to a stranger who asked if the man of the house was at home. When she said no, he pushed his way in, demanded money, beat Mrs Wilson in the face and head with his fists, and strangled her with his hands. In all he extorted $7.50 from her under threat of death, which she retrieved from her two household hiding spots, and then he fled into the cover of nearby trees. She lay semi-conscious for a time, but then was aided by neighbors. The attacker was seen by several people in the area, although probably not by all those who claimed later to have done so. Police searched for him on horseback without success that day.
A Sensational Circus called the Media
The newspapers made a juicy meal of the incident once they got ahold of it – as they did so often then, providing sensational reading material for the masses as needed to make their way in a market full of competitors. Here is the Sunday Call front page – Mrs Wilsons’ attack is one of two stories in which a woman is brutalized.
The news reports of Mrs Wilson’s attack varied a lot in the details, getting much wrong, such as the name and occupation of her husband, recording instead those of her son. The Oakland Tribune gave a restrained account on Saturday. On Sunday, presumably to entertain the worker on her or his day off, both the Call and the Chronicle threw caution to the wind and added many invented details, such as a gun that the attacker used to threaten his victim, and the added gore of a butcher knife held to her throat, drawing a vivid trickle of blood. Neither newspaper embellishment is part of the story she gave at the trial later.
The Chronicle was the worst offender – in order to double the number of column inches, that writer added a blow-by-blow account that deviated substantially from Mrs Wilson’s testimony later at the trial. One supposes the writer didn’t bother to spend too much time talking with the victim, or perhaps by then Mrs Wilson had had enough of the press.
The Chronicle article is full of quotes the writer could not have been privy to, including where he threatens to “blow her head off” with the revolver that never existed. The revolver gets heavy play, even as the writer necessarily had to say the attacker put it aside in order to use his fists. All of this is merely to show what a circus of entertainment and story-making the major newspapers in SF could be at this time.
The Wilsons Come to Sunnyside
John Augustus and Carolina (Lena) Wilson were both born in Sweden and both came to California in the 1870s, but they met and married here. Before moving to San Francisco they lived in Solano County, presumably doing dairy work. They were in San Francisco by 1886, when their daughter Emily was born. The earliest I find them in the San Francisco directory is 1894, where John is listed as a ‘milkman’ living at 30th Street and Noe, on the edge of Fairmount Heights. By then the Wilsons are in their forties. Although it says ‘milkman’, John’s work was better described as a dairyman who kept and bred cows, and sold his milk to dealers who distributed it within the City.
The family didn’t settle in this spot and had moved to Sunnyside by the next year, 1895, where they would finally stay put.
The first home and business was at 319 Moulton Ave. (This building has since been replaced. Its number and named changed to 327 Hearst Ave in 1896 and then the number changed again to 343 in 1909. More on the changes in Sunnyside’s street names and numbers here.)
That property was clearly set up to accommodate many animals, as this classified ad renting it in 1899 indicates – in the back is a huge barn half the size of a house. The ad mentions water because this is also a major necessity if you are raising cows – they drink fifty gallons each per day, which is more than the average SF household today consumes daily.
This location on Hearst Ave still didn’t suit their needs, and by the following year they had moved up the hill to an address described in the directory as “Foerster St near 33rd.” Thirty-Third Street was never actually built as originally mapped, but would have been about where Las Palmos Drive crosses Foerster St. This farmhouse would have had an excellent supply of water from natural seeps and seasonal creek on that side of the hill. (More about the creek in Sunnyside here.)
Finally, the Perfect Home
In August 1896, John Wilson had the farmhouse on the SE corner of Gennessee and Joost built (SF Chronicle, 17 Aug 1896). John and Lena moved in soon after with their children John Edward (then 20) and Emily Helen (then 11). The address was 418 Gennessee Street (now 440 Gennessee St). The street was often spelled ‘Genesee’ during these years, and occasionally ‘Genessee.’
In the 1900 US Census, their entry bears the designation that is then becoming unusual in San Francisco: in the box where the resident must say whether their residence is a home or a farm, theirs is marked ‘F’ for farm, and John’s occupation is ‘farmer.’
In about 1901, their son John Edward got a job as a cooper (making barrels for a winery). Here is a photo of the two Wilson children (Emily and John Edward) in about 1902, at a Coopers Union event that was likely in the East Bay.
Good Grazing in Sunnyside
The land that would become Sunnyside was used by dairy farmers for decades before the official streets were laid out in 1891, and then well into the 1910s – as were all the undeveloped ‘outside lands’ of San Francisco during this time. John Wilson was listed as ‘Dairy’ even as late as the 1913 directory (he was 68 years old by then).
Although there were larger dairy farmers using the land to graze in the early decades, even after residents moved into houses on small lots after 1891, families here often kept a few cows, for their own milk or to sell. With so few houses built, there was plenty of room for the animals to roam, and lots for them to eat. (More about cows in Sunnyside in this post.) Not that the matter of small but largely unregulated milk production was all bucolic and rosy; the food safety issue reared its head often enough with the City’s milk inspectors in these years.
Often these families also had calves and cows to sell. Here the Wilsons are selling four fresh milch cows in 1905. [‘Milch’ was pronounced like English ‘milk’ and was the German word for milk used to designate milk farms and milk cows at this time.]
Plenty of Room for Cows and Trees
The land in Sunnyside was open during these years, especially in this western end of the neighborhood, which was very sparsely populated indeed with only a very few houses per block.
John Wilson is very likely to have freely used the vacant land around him, even as it was owned by others – most of which were speculators with no intention of living here.
This was the edge of Sutro Forest, as indicated by the news reports – the attacker fled “into the thick forest at the back of the house.”
The Sutro Forest was a grove of eucalyptus trees planted in the 1870s by Adolph Sutro on his property, the border of which ran along Ridgewood Ave on the western edge of Sunnyside, and up the hill onto Mt Davidson. Here is an aerial photo from 1921, although quite late in our story. By this point some of the forest has been cleared south of Monterey for the building of Westwood Park.
Here is a Google Earth image from now. That original edge of Sutro Forest is still visible in Mt Davidson’s peak, half-covered with trees.
Less Room to Roam
As people began to move to Sunnyside in greater numbers after the Quake and Fire of 1906, it would have become more populated. In 1911, Wilson bought the lot directly behind him, as by then he might have been feeling a bit crowded by the incomers. Here is the layout of his property in 1915, the earliest map I have for this lot.
In 1938 the both lots remained in the family, and were then owned by his daughter Emily and her husband.
After the Trauma
The trial ended in June 1906, and farm life went on as usual. Just a month after John Smith was sentenced to fifty years in Folsom Prison, the Wilsons lost one of their heifers.
A lost cow was lost capital. Perhaps that close-knit neighborhood helped them recover the animal.
In the 1910 US Census the entry for the family shows that the two children, now 31 and 23, still lived at home, presumably helping with the never-ending farm work.
The mother, Carolina, died in 1914 at age sixty-three, strangely on almost the same day of the year as her attack in 1906. The coincidence led to a persistent story handed down to her descendants that she died at the hands of an “axe murderer” in her own home. Fortunately, my correspondence with a great-granddaughter cleared up the misconception for future family historians. John A. Wilson died five years later, in 1919.
By 1920, the daughter Emily, then 34, was living alone in the house, working as a stenographer for the US Immigration Service, her brother John Edward having married and moved to the East Bay. Emily met her husband-to-be Raymond Hanlen at work; he was an immigration inspector at Angel Island. They married when she was 41 and he 43, and lived in the house on Gennessee Street for more than three decades to come.
Emily Hanlen died in 1959; the lot to the rear was sold about 1960; and Ray died in 1966. The house then passed to his family.
People mentioned in this post:
- John (Johan) Augustus Wilson (1845 Sweden–1919 San Francisco CA)
- Carolina (Lena) Pedersen Wilson (1849 Sweden–1914 San Francisco CA)
- John Edward Wilson (1876 CA–1948 CA)
- Emily Helen Wilson Hanlen (1886 SF CA–1959 San Francisco CA)
- Raymond W. Hanlen (1884–1966 SF CA)
 “Defenseless woman is beaten brutally by robber,” SF Call, 11 February 1906, p.31.
 Comparing news accounts with a report on the trial: Oakland Tribune, 10 Feb 1906, p.1; SF Call 11 Feb 1906, p.31; SF Chronicle, 11 Feb 1906, p.21; and SF Chronicle, 19 June 1906, p.12.
 As per funeral records for Emily Helen Wilson Hanlen, 1 June 1959; and obituary, SF Chronicle, 3 June 1959, p.10.
 SF Call 11 Feb 1906, p.31.