1886 Sanborn sheet 139

The Mad Hatter of Tiffany Avenue

By Amy O’Hair

Sandwiched between the first El Camino Real—the old San Jose Road—and its latter-day replacement, Mission Street, Tiffany Avenue is a short street that cuts down the middle of a vanity homestead laid out in 1864, the Tiffany-Dean Tract.

1864 map for the Tiffany-Dean tract. Valencia Street not yet cut through to Mission. Source.  Click for larger. 

Same 1864 homestead map, altered to show where later streets would go or be renamed. Rotated to put north at top. Mapmaker seems to have been confused about placement of Old San Jose Road. Green line marks Bernal reservation with adobe house. Click for larger.

It was part of the Precita Valley Homestead (now Bernal Heights). The street might have remained obscure and unnoticed to me, aside from its tidy houses and their larger-than-usual street gardens. But most recently it has become a bikeway—the segue between San Jose Ave through the Bernal Cut and Valencia Street, for cyclists from points south like Sunnyside. A palate-cleanser between two car-busy streets. And the junction with Valencia is the site of the City’s various new experiments in street/pedestrian infrastructure.

So who was Tiffany?

Robert Joyce Tiffany, Hatter, San Francisco, Portrait collection, California Historical Society
Robert Joyce Tiffany, Hatter, San Francisco, Portrait collection, California Historical Society. n.d.

Robert Joyce Tiffany (1820-1886) was remembered as the “Pioneer Hatter.”[1] He came from New York in 1849 and did a bit of mining, but made his wealth selling fancy hats at his famous Eagle Hat Store, and then dealing in real estate. [2]

He was active in many areas of San Francisco society, especially the theater, such helping to arrange the 300th birthday celebration for Shakespeare the same year the Tiffany-Dean Tract was registered.[3] He loved excursions, parades, and outings.[4]

Personally he was well liked by all who knew him, and noted for his dapper apparel and fastidious grooming.[5] He had a big heart: among many other chartable acts, he established a fund for indigent pioneers in the Society of California Pioneers, an organization for which served as president in 1866.[6]

And, as a place to sink some of that silk-hat fortune, he owned a chunk of land wedged between two major roads, shot through with creeks—the Tiffany-Dean Tract—which also included the adobe mansion belonging to Doña Carmen Bernal. St Luke’s Hospital stands on the spot now.

1861 Wackenrueder map, colored to mark Mission Road (blue) San Jose Road (yellow) and area where Tiffany-Dean Tract will go in 1864. This map is oriented with north to the right. From DavidRumsey.com.

Tiffany was involved in other real-estate projects, like the Hayes Valley Homestead.[7] But I especially like this one, apparently his own brainstorm: The People’s Homestead.[8] “No Assessments!” Which is to say, once you’d bought in, they wouldn’t stick you for additional money. Apparently bait-and-switch investment schemes were common, and he wished to distinguish this offer as fair. As I said, a big heart.

Alta California, 12 Dec 1962.

Tiffany was a director in the Clay Street Bank for many years—more properly called the San Francisco Savings and Loan Society—which was founded in the 1850s, became American Trust, and was ultimately absorbed by Well Fargo in the 1950s.[9]

Library of Congress image. https://www.loc.gov/item/ca0634/

It was an esteemed but middling player in the wild world of post-Gold Rush banking in San Francisco, and which outlasted many of the others. One of the other directors was Dr Benjamin D Dean, a physician who among other work took care of inmates out at the Industrial School (later Ingleside Jail)—the man who went in with Tiffany on the tract of land.

Conspicuous Consumption at Eye-level

No one needed a silk dress hat at the mining camps, but once you’d made your packet, expensive headwear was a splashy way to show off your newly gotten wealth. The styles changed with every season; during the 1860s the cartel of sellers announced the very day that the new styles would be debuted.

I don’t know if the men then lined up on the appointed day for the new hats like people do for the new iPhone now, but this acquisition and display of the newest and most costly must-have fulfilled some of the same status function.

These rich fellows—who could get out to Cliff House in their carriages long before the plebs could catch a streetcars there—apparently needed some mighty fine high hats for a mere beach excursion.

Cropped from http://OpenSFHistory.org wnp4.0378.jpg

The Cost of Fashion

Most unfortunately, the manufacture of hats at that time had something else in common with the manufacture of electronics now: worker exposure to toxic substances, in this case, mercury—cause of the so-called “mad hatter’s syndrome.”[10]

Tiffany started working as an apprentice to a hatter at age thirteen in the 1830s in Upstate New York, a time when animal pelts were felted into smooth, weather-proof shapes using the heavy metal. He was a diligent worker, and soon progressed onto other apprenticeships, coming finally to work for a Manhattan hat maker. By age 28 he had enough money be dealing in real estate there and then to make the long costly journey to the gold mines of California in January 1849 on the barque “Josephine.”

Neurotoxin Nonpareil

The process by which the nineteenth-century hat worker was exposed to one of the most potent neurotoxins known involved hovering over hot vapors of methyl mercury, breathing them essentially right into his brain,[11] as the pelts were soaked and formed. The damaging effects were actually noticed early on in such workers; nonetheless it was a whole century before the substance was fully removed from the business of hat production. The victims of this occupational disease suffered a wide range of disorders, from something as subtle as marked shyness, to “hatter’s shakes” so violent as to interfere with any semblance of a normal life. Extreme personality changes were common. It was an inexorable and cumulative poisoning that often killed.

No one can say to what degree and for how long Robert Joyce Tiffany was exposed to mercury fumes, but he undoubtedly was exposed. Whatever poisoning he was subject to in his hat-making youth he later compounded by relentless drinking in his last years.

From the time of the late 1870s until his death on 6 June 1886, Tiffany was demonstrably insane. His family took him back East in 1878 for treatment, but he returned to his drinking habits once back in San Francisco. In 1884, after involuntarily spending some time near (but not in) the Stockton State Hospital for the Insane—he was allowed to live in a nice hotel in the town while being treated by its doctor—Tiffany was declared sane. This was wishful thinking unfortunately.

Alta California, 13 Mar 1884.

All told, it was a tragedy and a trial for his family, his wife Phoebe and his grown childen, two sons, William and Peer, and daughter Emma. After he died they contested his will, by which he had cut them out in favor of the South-of-Market boardinghouse friends he had recently taken up with. The family drama was put down in exhaustive detail in the probate trial records.[12]

The Madness of the Pioneer Hatter

In this long document, one of the many decisions rendered by Judge Coffey in his long career as jurist in San Francisco, we learn much detail about Tiffany’s descent into mental and physical illness.

R J Tiffany during those last years often made a show of imitating favorite boxers and actors in public; indulging in maudlin displays of wildly fluctuating emotion; neglecting his hygiene and appearance; drinking copious amounts of alcohol daily, or at least acting drunk all the time; and forsaking all duties to his wife and children.

Upon a visit to his son’s coalyard he would give imitations of celebrated characters, such as Edwin Booth, the tragedian, and John I. Sullivan, the pugilist; this mimetic performance was a favorite pastime of his, as several witnesses testify….At the table he would take a carving knife, and raising it above his head assume a tragic attitude and recite: “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” And again he would pose as the patriot [William] Tell, the slogger Sullivan, the wrestler Muldoon, and other men of mark. [From probate trial, pp.489-490]

Tiffany did not go quietly insane locked up in a room in the back of the house, but in a very public manner as perhaps befitted his social nature. For some of that drama, his namesake street Tiffany Avenue was the stage (more below).

The judge’s scrupulous interrogation of over one hundred witnesses, even those with the slightest acquaintanceship with Tiffany; his huge pile of handwritten notes; and his exhaustively detailed support for his final ruling in favor of Tiffany’s cast-off family members: all make for an impressive final decision.[13] (No wonder the judge’s death in 1919 was attributed to “overwork”.[14]) Naturally, the newspapers made hay with the scandalous bits of drama as described by those witnesses and published when the decision was final in December 1887.[15]

Numerous behavioral and thought disturbances are noted throughout the literature on chronic mercury poisoning. Tiffany certainly showed the noted excitability and emotional lability; many other related symptoms include “in severe cases, delirium and hallucination.”[16] He also grew very thin—anorexia is another symptom. He was described as feeble and emaciated by witnesses.

But chronic consumption of alcohol induces another neuropsychiatric condition, a thiamine anemia called Korsakoff’s dementia.  Anorexia, disorientation, confusion, derangements of perception and memory are all part of this syndrome.[17] Since his retirement from business affairs in 1878, Tiffany had become what was then called a dipsomaniac. At the probate trial the medical professionals made much of distinguishing this condition from that of a drunkard—the latter drinks to function, often in some socially useful way, while the former becomes deranged when drunk. (Where has this fine distinction gone?)

Perhaps racked by the pain, shaking, and delusions born of a chronically mercury-soaked brain and body, he drank constantly to steady his nerves. In any case, the doctors could not agree regarding his post-mortem,[18] although the contribution of alcohol was rightly assumed by most of them to have been a major cause of death. However, no one at that time was qualified to diagnose chronic mercury poisoning or thiamine deficiency, so the different contributing causes cannot be teased apart.

Tiffany went insane in his own remarkable way. He was prone to flights of fancy that cannot be attributed solely to the toxin—surely they are his own, helped along by the disinhibiting encouragement of drink. He did love the theater. His obituary in the Alta California notes that he often contributed to the support of “the poorer members of the profession.” His famous hat establishment was situated across the street from Tom Maguire’s Jenny Lind Theater, the center of theater life in SF for many years. His final years certainly had a theatrical quality.

Slumming Down on Tiffany Ave

Men like R J Tiffany who put some of their cash into the various homesteads in the “outside lands” had their residences and conducted their social and business transactions in more civilized areas of town; Tiffany’s wife and children lived at Bush and Stockton. But Tiffany actually often came down to visit his own homestead—bumming around, it would seem, especially at Cody’s saloon (29th and Mission).[19]

He had friends down there. James (or John) Mason was a brewer who owned and operated the Eagle Brewery at the corner of Tiffany Avenue at Twenty-Ninth St. According to testimony during the probate trial, Mason drank with him many times at Cody’s, stating he saw Tiffany down there four times a week. I don’t know if Mason chose the name of his brewery with any reference to Tiffany’s famous (but by then closed) Eagle Hat Store. He had bought the property from Tiffany sometime after 1880.[20]

Portion of the 1886 Sanborn map, sheet 139B, showing the Eagle Brewery at Tiffany and 29th Street. SF Public Library > articles and databases (sign in with card). Click for larger

There was not much on these blocks here before the 1880s, but Tiffany seemed to prefer it as a place to hang out, even if he was by then not in his right mind.

For the Children–Just Not His

One of his habits during these last erratic years was to visit the wee tikes in the kindergarten around the corner from the brewery, at 3270 Mission Street. When he rewrote his will shortly before his death, the one that his family members would contest afterwards, he included a bequest that this humble establishment for preschool children be given $500 (about $12K now). Despite being willed this money, the manager of the school, Mrs Sarah B Cooper—who said he had been to visit 48 times in the last half of 1885—testified at the trial in no uncertain terms that she thought him insane.

One of the spots where Tiffany spent his time down in this end of town was Cody’s Saloon, which had been on the northeast corner of Twenty-ninth and Mission Streets since the 1860s (where Goood Frikin Chicken is now, in a 2004 building). Patrick John Cody was an Irish immigrant who had raised a large family out there, and one of his married daughters had a young son during the period 1880-85 when Robert had occasion to meet the boy, little Willie Patterson.

Tiffany stipulated in his will that, for this child, “a scholarship in the best business college in San Francisco be bought by my executors” in Tiffany’s name. Evidently he saw something in the child.

Even in this last mentally ill state he had come to, R J Tiffany showed his tender heart—just not for members of his own family (with the exception of small bequests for a sister and a grandchild). He also willed $500 to the Old People’s Home of San Francisco, located at Pierce and Pine streets, founded about ten years before this, for the destitute elderly—just as he had given the seed money for a fund for destitute pioneers years before and also supported impoverished actors.

That Churchill Woman

At the heart of the probate drama was the woman who had replaced Phoebe Tiffany in Robert’s heart, Mrs Lura A. Churchill. She was the beneficiary of most of his fortune according to his wishes in the contested will. A long-time denizen of South of Market, she met him at some point when he came down to drink in saloons there. She looked after him as he became quite sick, and supplied him with alcohol he wanted on a nearly constant basis. She convinced him his family did not care about him, while living with him at the Fifth-Street boarding house where he had moved to after leaving the family home. She at times kept his family members from seeing him, or interfered with their exchanges if they did visit. She told him his family had wrongly forced him into treatment for insanity.

Not only did he will her his fortune, but he named a little alleyway off Mission near Tiffany, seen on this 1886 Sanborn map, Churchill Court. There were eight little dwellings in back, with shops in front.

1886 Sanborn map, cropped to show Churchill Court, about 3236-3252 Mission Street. North is to the LEFT.

I don’t know if Tiffany had this structure built, but surely he is responsible for naming the petite back-street after the woman he claimed to love—the designing minx who lured him away from a respectable life (so goes the probate record).

By 1888 it was no longer called Churchill Court but Tiffany Place.[21] (Side note: Burnette Haskell  lived in No. 6, in the first decade of the twentieth century.)

1905 Sanborn map, showing now Tiffany Place, as well as car house, built about 1880. Click for larger. 

In 1909 the name was changed to Everett Place. The little double strip of homes and shops was demolished by 1961 for the bank branch and parking lot now there.

Car House Brings Windfall Profit

Things began to get busier on these blocks when Market Street Railway built a massive car house here about 1880 for the Valencia streetcar, which was then a cable system. (See above map from 1905.)

To build it the company bought a large number of lots from R J Tiffany, along the east side of his namesake street just south of the junction with Valencia Street. For this they paid him a hefty sum of $10,000 ($252K now).[22]  The car house stood from 1880 to about 1940. Here are photos from 1907, 1912, and 1928.

More photos at SFMTA . In the 1940s houses went in.

Bernal’s Reservation becomes St Luke’s Hospital

Another feature of the property was the home belonging to Bernal family, which was located about where the parking structure of the current St Luke’s hospital complex now. When the tract was laid out, it was marked as a reservation (see homestead map at beginning of this article), apart from the property offered for sale.

In about 1872, the Episcopal Church was trying to find property to relocate the first St Luke’s Hospital, which was small and then located on Lundy’s Lane. They purchased several lots in the Tiffany-Dean Tract, and built the first version of the hospital in 1873. Mortgage problems led the church to lease the building later, so that when the 1886 Sanborn was made, part of it was used by the Old Ladies Home.

1886 Sanborn, Sheet 139A. St Lukes Hospital in its early years. North is to the LEFT.

Numerous additional structures were added once the church had possession again, until it had this form in 1905. (See whole 1905 map here on DavidRumsey.com.)

1905 Sanborn, sheet 634, cropped to St Luke’s Hospital. North is to the RIGHT.

Then grand plans were drafted about 1910 for a much larger hospital.

Architects’ plans for St Luke’s expansion, 1910s. OpenSFHistory.org wnp30.0270.jpg . North is to the RIGHT.

I surmise only part of these plans was executed. Some of this building still remains in the center of the lot, although the grand stairway facing Valencia has been fenced off for a long time.

A Toast to Tiffany

The Eagle Brewery did not last that long, but by 1905 the saloon where Rock Bar is still in operation had opened across the street at 80-84 Twenty-Ninth St.


Tiffany would have surely have stopped by here if he could have on his jaunts down south. I’ll raise a glass to him next time I’m there.

Below: Photo from 1904, taken from San Jose Ave at Twenty-ninth Street, the building where Rock Bar is now marked, as well as the only other building still standing, on Mission (green tint).

1904, Twenty-ninth Street between San Jose and Mission. Photo courtesy SFMTA sfmta.photoshelter.com.
1904. Twenty-ninth Street between San Jose and Mission. Altered to show 84 – 29th St and 3305 Mission St. Photo courtesy SFMTA sfmta.photoshelter.com.
2017. Twenty-ninth Street between San Jose and Mission.
2017. Twenty-ninth Street between San Jose and Mission.


[1]  “A good man for Recorder,” SF Chronicle, 3 Nov 1899, p6. Editorial promoting his son Willian Z. Tiffany’s bid for SF Recorder refers to father Robert as “the pioneer hatter.”

[2] Tiffany was born in Albany, NY. I looked but did not find any connection between Robert Joyce Tiffany and the famous Tiffany jewelers of New York City. Here is an 1880 biography on file at the Society of California Pioneers: https://sunnysidehistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/1880_robertjoycetiffany_reminiscense_society_california_pioneers.pdf

[3] Alta California, 21 Apr 1864.

[4] During his time back in New York in the 1850s, he arranged outings to Fleetwood Village, a suburb where I surmise he had real estate holdings. The excursions sound mainly like pleasurable outings with no profit-making in mind (NY Times, 25 May 1853, p5). In 1870 he worked on the Centenary celebration of the settling of Monterey (Alta California, 19 May 1870). In 1867 he was on the committee for the Independence Day celebration—everyone had to come to his hat store to be measured for special parade hats (Alta California, 30 June 1867).

[5] As described by several friends who served as witnesses in the probate decision regarding Tiffany’s will in 1887: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc2.ark:/13960/t6zw1g769;view=1up;seq=502 See also note #2.

[6] Alta California, 5 Jun 1878. Also this 1880 biography from the files of the Society of California Pioneers : https://sunnysidehistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/1880_robertjoycetiffany_reminiscense_society_california_pioneers.pdf . Also http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~npmelton/scp52.htm

[7] See Alta California, 21 Aug 1862, for filing of papers of incorporation for Hayes Valley Homestead Association.

[8] Initial announcement of incorporation on 26 Nov 1862, Alta California, p1, “Its purposes are to purchase land in San Francisco and San Mateo, improve it, and subdivide it among the members,” so not really a matter of charity.

[9] See Robert E Wright and Richard Sylla, Genealogy of American Finance, New York: Columbia Univ Press, 2015, p305. Also supplementary information for photo of the bank used in this article, at Library of Congress: https://cdn.loc.gov/master/pnp/habshaer/ca/ca0600/ca0634/supp/ca0634supp.pdf Also Alta California, 27 Jan 1863 and 28 Jan 1863, for article on election of officers of the bank.

[10] More: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erethism . Related to Lewis Carroll’s character in Alice in Wonderland, who it would seem was not actually an example of a hat worker with mercury poisoning. See https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1550196/pdf/bmjcred00586-0061.pdf

[11] “Mercury Toxicity and Treatment: A Review of the Literature,” Robin A Bernhoft. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3253456/ ; “The Not-So-Mad Hatter: Occupational Hazards of Mercury,” http://www.cas.org/news/insights/science-connections/mad-hatter .

[12] The record of the RJ Tiffany probate case begins her and goes for almost 60 pages:     https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc2.ark:/13960/t6zw1g769;view=1up;seq=502

[13] See previous note for link to complete text of probate decision.

[14] Judge Coffey’s obituary: https://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=SN19190125.2.36&srpos=3&e=–1919—1919–en–20–1–txt-txIN-+james+vincent+coffey——-1 . This link sometimes does not work, but keep trying it. Sorry!

[15] SF Chronicle, 25 Dec 1887, p15.

[16] See Section 4.1.1, “Mercury Toxicity and Treatment: A Review of the Literature,” Robin A Bernhoft. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3253456/

[17] James W Jefferson and John R Marshall, Neuropsychiatric Features of Medical Disorders, New York: Plenum Medical Book Co., 1981, p235.

[18] The post-mortem is detailed, and anyone qualified to weigh in on the matter of cause of death and correct my guesses, please do write me SunnysideHistory@gmail.com with a better diagnoses. See pages 492-500 or so: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc2.ark:/13960/t6zw1g769;view=1up;seq=502

[19] For testimony of John Mason, brewer, in Judge Coffey’s probate decision, see link Note 10.

[20] This corner of his property first went on sale August 1880: “Six choice lots in Tiffany-Dean Tract,” Alta California, 5 Aug 1880.

[21] As per the SF Directory Streets Guide for that year.

[22] Alta California, 19 June 1880.

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