Read other tales of Sunnyside houses here.
By Amy O’Hair
This cottage on Staples Avenue has a juicy set of stories in its past, revealed by some recent research. It was the first in Sunnyside I’ve found whose first buyer ended his short residence there as a wanted felon, on the lam for ten years after stealing the money to buy it, and then fled to Portland where he continued his life of crime.
The carpenter who built this house for developer Rudolph Mohr—and its seven sister houses in that row—also had his own disreputable tale, involving serial bigamy. The residents that followed the escaped embezzler have more ordinary tales to tell, as we’ll see, but which hold interest as they touch on San Francisco’s perennial themes of immigration, labor history, and military service. In all this 110-year-old house was home to some characters of note.
Elegant Cottages, Strictly Modern
When in the summer of 1913 the last cottage in a trim set of eight on Staples Avenue was completed, it sold as quickly as the others; the construction company, Rudolph Mohr and Sons, was as competent as Mohr’s firm that handled the sales, Moneta Investments. Rudolph Mohr had been associated with Sunnyside since its founding in 1891, and he was as able a business manager as anyone in the city. Unlike Behrend Joost—the man who headed up the Sunnyside Land Company back in the wild 1890s and who was now bankrupt and disgraced—scandal or unseemly public behavior never stained the Mohr name during his long career in capital and property. It was a new century, and new business methods prevailed.
Everything the Mohr companies did was up to date, from advertising to financial arrangements; they kept tight control over all aspects of the process, foregoing bank-based mortgages by signing their buyers onto Deeds of Trust instead.
When Henry Brune, a seemingly well-employed husband and father in his early thirties, put down $1200 as payment and signed a deed of trust for the remaining $1600 with his wife Otteilie, there could have been no clue that anything was amiss with this happy young family. The couple’s daughter Edna was five years old, and they had come out to view the prospective house in a bright new Studebaker automobile—an expense that few could afford then. It cost him something approaching one year’s wages when he bought it the previous year.
Brune probably didn’t really have the money to afford a car. He definitely didn’t have the money to buy the new house. But he was a smooth talker, a believable grifter with a winning way, as we’ll see. Later, in another state, under another name, he convinced numerous juries not to convict him of various crimes he committed there.
Henry Brune, Big Spender
Brune was born Heinrich Adolf Erhard Brune to German-immigrant parents in New York City in 1880. Anglicizing his name to Henry A Brune wouldn’t be the last time he changed it. Sometime after age twenty, he went to California and became a seaman. In September 1903, the ship he was serving on, the Sierra, sailed from San Francisco, arriving at Sydney, Australia, in November. A week later, he was married in that city to a young woman named Otteilie Keller, a daughter of German immigrants. Henry soon left with his crew, and Otteilie joined him a few months later in San Francisco. Their daughter Edna was born there in 1907.
When they bought the Sunnyside house, Henry was well employed, a collection agent for a wholesale produce broker, Scheer, Grandi, and Co. His car gave him the ability to visit more customers daily, collecting more payments from the retail outlets that had ordered milk and butter from his employer.
For those businesses that bought on credit, there may have been growing amounts of interest to pay as well. He is likely to have carried a gun on his route, as we’ll see.
Even though as a salesman and collection agent Henry made three or four times the average worker’s pay, shelling out that amount for a car would have set him back something close to one year’s pay. I’m sure he thought it was worth it, to be able to take his wife and daughter out at the weekends in style, visiting their friends and showing off their prosperity.
Sometime shortly the Brunes moved into their new house in the summer of 1913, the management of his company, Gus Scheer and Calvin Grandi, figured out that Brune had been embezzling funds to the tune of $1600—just about covering the down payment and the car. They also discovered he had forged a check for $155. By the time the San Francisco Grand Jury indicted Brune in late November, he was said to have absconded to Australia—apparently to take refuge with members of his wife’s family.
Sadly, left to fend for herself and her daughter, Otteilie tried to raise money by selling Henry’s guns in the classified ads.
Back on the Market
The Mohr operation was adept at sales and business management; they wasted absolutely no time in reclaiming the house from the Brunes, as Otteilie was now without the means to make the payments, putting it up for auction a few days after Christmas 1913, just a few weeks after the Grand Jury indicted Henry Brune.
It is likely the Mohr company did not sell it but merely held onto it, as no one lived there for the next couple of years.
Back in the Driver’s Seat
Although the Brunes’ connection to Sunnyside ends with the house being repossessed, the drama of their story does not end with that close brush with the law. Instead of being chastised by the experience, Henry Brune moves his family to another state and sets about a life of bootlegging and drunk driving, with tragic consequences. When exactly Henry Brune returned from his alleged escape to Australia, I could not find out. But some two years later the Brunes appear in Portland, Oregon running the Hotel Australia downtown.
Perhaps in some vain attempt to rein in his destructive drinking, Brune had moved his family to a state that implemented Prohibition in 1915, before it became a federal law. It didn’t work. While Otteilie ran the hotel upstairs, which accommodated 20 or 25 lodgers, Henry, his name now changed to “Edward Dick Brune,” ran “cigar store” downstairs. Such things were, in the way that would become so familiar later elsewhere during Prohibition, largely places to buy bootleg liquor. He hid the bottles under the stair treads in the basement.
He was arrested many times for selling, but each time he insisted on a jury trial, and with one exception he talked his way out of every guilty verdict. He must have been a remarkably convincing man, although he was once convicted of assault and battery. Just after opening the hotel, Brune was accused of conspiring to kidnap a woman and take her to Vancouver for purposes of a forced marriage. But like the bootlegging charge, he weaseled his way out of any notion of his complicity in the crime.
Murderer Behind the Wheel
Years of drinking and driving fancy cars caught up with him when on late on a night in February 1918 he and Otteilie got into their car after a drive, presumably that involved a lot of drinking. Henry “Ed” was later found to have several bottles of illegal whiskey in his pockets, one half-empty. Heading home, she insisted on driving at first. But then she gave way and he got behind the wheel. Slobbering drunk and trying to maneuver the car into their garage near the hotel, he made a U-turn and slammed into a young woman crossing the street, skidding on thirty feet before he stopped, running her over and cracking her skull.
That victim turned out to be Geraldine Alderson, the promising and socially prominent daughter of the local superintendent of schools. She died of her injuries. She was a senior at Reed College and a public school teacher. Public outrage ensued. Brune’s previous (mostly dismissed) charges for drunk-driving were recalled by journalists. An editorial in the Oregon Daily journal denounced the growing phenomenon of drunk automobilists imperiling pedestrians. Brune was charged with murder, to make an example of him. Undaunted, Brune attempted to bribe one of the witnesses to the terrible collision, but the man refused the offer of “any money” to keep silent, and came forward to testify.
Unfortunately, too typically for the time, Brune was in the end convicted only of manslaughter. Astonishingly, it was the first such conviction in Oregon. Leave it to Brune. More astonishingly, he served only a few months in prison, perhaps due to that smooth way he had about him. At the end of April 1918 he was sentenced to “one to ten years”—yet four months later, the newspaper shows him obtaining a license for a brand-new Liberty automobile. Out of jail and back on the road.
In all his brushes with the law in Oregon, no one ever discovered he was a wanted felon in California. Until 1923 Brune’s name was listed in court records in San Francisco as pending arraignment. Perhaps harried into an early grave, Brune’s wife Otteilie died in Portland in her forties in 1925. Their daughter Edna grew up and moved out, working as a stenographer, then marrying late in life but having no children.
Apparently feeling safe from the threat of conviction for his old crime in California, Henry Brune moved back there in the late 1920s, living in various inland towns, and dying in San Joaquin County in 1944, but staying out of trouble to the extent that his name doesn’t show up in the newspapers.
Sometime Builder, All-time Lady Killer
To return to the story of the house on Staples Avenue. The man who built the house, and its seven sisters, was Oscar Braham, a Swedish-born carpenter who worked on most of the pre-war houses for Mohr’s development in Sunnyside.
After immigrating in his teens, Braham started out in San Jose as a farmer, marrying a woman named Josephine Anderson in 1897. He moved to San Francisco in the early 1900s. Without divorcing Josephine, he married another woman named Nora O’Neil in 1902, and worked for a while at a South of Market restaurant. Then, when construction of the Butte County Railroad began in mid-1903, he decided he had better opportunities working on that project. So he took Nora along to this remote woodlands area north of Sacramento when he went to work there.
In January 1904, Nora died in childbirth. Back in SF, his first wife Josephine Anderson seems to have got wind of his location up in Butte County, and sued him for divorce on the grounds of desertion, which was finalized by April 1905. Oscar, still out of town, was served with a summons, which I can surmise he was unlikely to have heeded.
Still in Butte, he then met his next wife, Emma Maxton, the widowed daughter of a pioneering Presbyterian clergyman, Andrew Jackson Compton. Emma was in her thirties and had a seven-year-old daughter. I think she also had a bit of money from her first husband. The couple were married by her father at Stirling City, a tiny logging town near Chico that had morphed into a vacation venue by virtue of the newly-built railroad, which could take you out to the remote spot from Sacramento.
After the honeymoon, the family settled back in San Francisco and Oscar went into the building profession, maybe using some of his new wife’s capital. By the spring of 1912 he was building houses for Rudolph Mohr and Sons in western end of Sunnyside, on Flood, Gennessee and Staples. Braham also bought two lots on Mangels Ave from Rudolph Mohr’s company, and built a house for himself at 470 Mangels. In 1915, he bought an additional lot from Mohr, behind the first two on Mangels. Now prosperous, Braham was naturalized in 1915.
The years that Oscar Braham spent working for the Mohr company building houses in Sunnyside were probably the best spent of his life. By the early 1920s, Oscar was in his fifties, and building houses was perhaps not as easy as it once was; his name ceases to show up in the building contract notices. By 1923 his wife Emma was found to be mentally ill, and incarcerated at Napa State Hospital for the Insane, where she lived out the rest of her life, dying there in 1957. Oscar sold their property, going to court to sue for sole ownership. Once liquidated, he went back to farming in San Mateo County.
There he acquired a fourth wife, albeit without being able to divorce the hospitalized Emma, and thereby becoming a bigamist once again. He died in 1938.
Good Work, Bad Man
Oscar Braham may have lived a less than upstanding life, but the work that he did for Rudolph Mohr seems to have been excellent. Braham is named as the builder for 29 of the 34 pre-war houses, completed in just over a year—from April 1912, when he built the first five houses on the 500 block of Flood Avenue, until he finished the last ones on Staples in the summer of 1913. (Complete list here.)
Inside the Staples Avenue house can be found nice paneling, original woodwork, and hardwood floors with decorative borders—modern in the 1910s without being plain.
In the set of eight houses on Staples, and the other sets of Mohr’s pre-war houses, the use of detachment on one side of each house, allowing for windows on that side, along with cleverly placed windows on the other side, means that each room is well supplied with daylight. This care in layout looks especially refined and desirable, given the penchant for box-like houses after World War II that resorted to rot-prone skylights to supply light to bathroom and the kitchen, two places one wants a window the most.
Interlude for an Investor
The year after Mohr’s company repossessed the Staples house from the Brunes, they sold the property to a twenty-one-year-old young man named Michael T Conway, who went in with his neighbor and buddy Clarence Beall, then eighteen. An Irish immigrant who lived with his family at Church and Liberty, Conway was in business school then, on his way to an ambitious and varied career. Perhaps this youthful investment was the result of what he was being taught, or something he’d read.
After a year, Conway bought out Beall. After another year, Conway sold the house back to Moneta Investments, presumably at a profit. Neither Beall nor Conway ever lived in the house, that I could find, each having large families in the Mission District, where someone would make their meals and wash their clothes. Conway’s foray into property as investment began and ended with the little cottage on Staples; he went into tax accountancy and was a prominent Sunset District resident. A survivor of both big quakes, Michael T Conway liked to tell his stories later in life; he died aged nearly one hundred. Here is his Examiner obituary.
A Bachelor and his Sister Set up House
In September 1916, William J Furey, then about 50, bought the house on Staples Ave from Moneta, as a place to live with his sister Mary A Furey, who was some 13 years younger than him. Both were unmarried. The Fureys were tidy householders who never made headlines or police blotters.
Immigrating from County Mayo in the northwest of Ireland in 1891, William had worked as a laborer in the Bay Area—first in Dogpatch, probably at Union Iron Works, in the mid-1890s, then serving in the Spanish-American War, and afterwards at the naval shipyard at Mare Island in the East Bay.
(Habitual readers of this website may wonder whether this William Furey was the same one married to Ellen Furey, the old Sunnyside dairywoman run over by a train in 1896. With much trouble I disentangled the two—this householder William Furey from the other William Furey, Ellen’s hard-drinking, horse-wrangling, estranged husband.)
The surprise of wedded bliss later in life
William’s sister Mary Furey had immigrated in 1902, and kept house for William. A few years after they set up house together on Staples, Mary met a retired soldier named Patrick O’Brien, and they were married in June 1920, when she was 40 and he was 52.
As a child Patrick O’Brien had come with his family to California from County Fermanagh, now part of Northern Ireland. He had served in the Army for many years, retiring in 1911 with the rank of First Sergeant. At the time of their marriage, he was living in Monterey, at the army base there. I don’t know how he and Mary came to meet and fall in love, but he may have known her brother from military service.
For ten years, Mary left her brother William to fend for himself on the domestic front, while she made a new life with Patrick. Then in 1928, William gifted the house on Staples Ave to his sister Mary. I think Mary’s husband Patrick was ill by then, and William was looking out for his sister’s future. The couple moved in with William on Staples Ave, and in March 1930, Patrick died. Mary once again took up the role of her brother’s housekeeper.
The two lived in the Staples house for another eight years, taking a trip back to Ireland in 1937 to visit family.
Then, in 1938, it was time to sell and move somewhere less labor-intensive as they aged. They put this ad in the paper.
By April it was not sold, and they continued to advertise, now with a twist, “San Francisco’s Cleanest Home”—a testament to the homemaking skills of Mary and the fix-it skills of William.
In June, still not moving the house, they sprung for a fancier headline with a truth-straining claim they were leaving town.
On 14 July 1938, William and Mary sold the house, twenty-two years after buying it, to a fellow Irishman, Patrick O’Meara. Then they moved to the Mission District.
The Fureys and O’Meara are likely to have known each other from their local parish church, St Finn Barr. Built in 1926, it replaced St John’s (off San Jose Avenue) as the parish church for Catholic Sunnysiders. O’Meara had been living with his adult son and his grandsons in nearby Westwood Park. It was the last years of the Depression, and William and Mary sold the house to O’Meara for something like $3000, less than they paid for it in 1916, such were the declining property values in those years. When O’Meara sold the house and retired, he moved to a flat very near the Fureys on Church Street.
Midcentury Army Family Stays Sixty Years
In 1945 Fred and Eleana Pawsey bought the Staples house. The information on the Sales Ledger at the Assessor’s office appears to indicate that the Dept of Veteran’s Affairs helped with the sale, which would make sense, as Pawsey was a life-long military man, from joining up in 1924 to his retirement in 1954.
Percival Frederick “Fred” Pawsey was born in Clapham, in London, England, in 1905, and immigrated to Ontario, Canada, with his family when he was a child. At age 19 he joined the US Army, and had a long career in service, spending time in a wide range of places around the world, but in particular he saw service in China in the 1930s—“an old China hand” as he was called in a later newspaper report. Along the way he picked up a lot of tattoos, “on arms, legs, and chest” according to his application for US citizenship later.
While in China in February 1938, he met and married a Russian girl name Eleana Evanovna, who was born in the far eastern end of Russia, in what used to be called Manchuria. Two weeks later Fred returned to the States and in Tacoma, Washington, he promptly applied to become a US citizen. Eleana joined him in August 1938, and their first child Brian was born in Tacoma nine months later. When the US entered the war in 1941, the Pawseys moved to San Francisco, living in the Mission and later in the Sunset. Eleana applied for US citizenship then.
‘We’re Headed in That Direction’
In December 1945, the Pawseys bought the cottage on Staples Ave and moved to Sunnyside. In October of the following year, their second son was born, Michael. Pawsey served during the Korean conflict, re-joining in November 1950. In March 1951, the California Guard’s 40th Division was about to ship out to Asia, and Pawsey was quoted, talking about facing danger and saying goodbye to family members.
“Master Sgt Percival F Pawsey knew that skyline. It was home. Out at 379 Staples Avenue were his wife Eleana, his sons Brian, 11, and Michael, 4. He had telephoned them the night before from Camp Cooke and said his goodbyes. For the word had been passed that no relatives would be permitted dockside in San Francisco.
“ ‘I remember the last time I sailed from here in a trooper,” he said. It was in ’43. We lived then on Geary and I could see my house as we stood out of the Gate. This time I won’t be able to see it.’
“An old China hand, Sergeant Pawsey. And old in the ways of the Army. He doesn’t know whether the Fortieth will wind up in Korea. Nor does he ask. He just says: ‘We’re headed in that direction. What is the logical assumption?’ ”
Read the article here (SF Examiner, 30 Mar 1951): Page 1 and Page 3.
Fred Pawsey died at just 57, in 1962. His wife Eleana lived in the Staples house until her death in 2005. Her son and caretaker Michael passed away in 2014, having married for the first time in 2007—rather late in life, and only after his mother had died.
Local stories from old-timers on that block of Staples tell of Eleana toward the end of her life wandering the street, partly naked, talking to herself, a cigarette dangling from her lips. Was she the last of the infamous characters to inhabit the house?
Read other tales of Sunnyside houses here.
My heartfelt thanks to Brian and Wenny Marabello for generously sharing their house with me, and all interested readers.
- For the genealogical records that inform the stories in this post, I assembled family trees at Ancestry.com. The site is by subscription, but offers free trials. Trees include census records, directories, newspaper citations, and other references. I’m a bit weary of doing this work, so have taken this shortcut for footnoting everything. Visit this page for links to all the family trees for characters in this post. ↑
- “Murder Change Lodged against Autoist Brune: Severest Accusation Made Because It Is Alleged Driver of Auto was Intoxicated; Man in Trouble Before,” 18 Feb 1918. ↑
- The newspapers of the time tell Brune’s nasty tale. All from the Oregon Daily Journal (Newspapers.com): “Proprietor Denies Place Was Raided,” 9 Oct 1916; “Woman Complains of Forced Marriage,” 10 Oct 1916; “Acquitted of Bootlegging: Jury’s Verdict in Face of Direct Evidence of Guilt,” 1 Feb 1918; “Supt Alderson’s Daughter Killed: Edward Brune, Driver of Automobile, Arrested; Had Whiskey in Possession at Time,” 16 Feb 1918; “Murder Change Lodged against Autoist Brune: Severest Accusation Made Because It Is Alleged Driver of Auto was Intoxicated; Man in Trouble Before,” 18 Feb 1918; “Ed. Brune faces Numerous Charges,” 21 Feb 1918; “Companion is Star State Witness in Brune Prosecution;” 23 Apr 1918;”Ed Brune Guilt y of Manslaughter,” 25 Apr 1918; and “Brune’s Conviction [op-ed],” 26 Apr 1918. ↑
- “Week’s Motor and Truck Record,” Oregon Daily Journal, 8 Sep 1918. ↑
- As shown in the San Francisco Recorder, weekly dates between 1913 and 1923, listed as “For Arraignment: 5198–Henry A Brune, forgery (indict). ↑
- Again, documentation for Braham’s and others’ genealogies are contained in Ancestry.com family trees, linked here. ↑
- According to Chico County Cemetery Association Funeral Home Records. “California Deaths and Burials, 1776-2000”, database, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:HG43-DQ3Z : 8 April 2022), Oscar Braham in entry for Nora E. Braham, 1904. ↑
- For a list of Mohr’s pre-war houses, mostly built by Braham, see this spreadsheet. https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/17U_WDhphLhaokMmLRlL6It7gIj-qHUVwzPvm3VO2U1k/edit?usp=sharing ↑
- “California County Naturalizations, 1831-1985”, database with images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Z435-YX6Z : 12 June 2020), Oscar Braham, 1915. ↑
- Braham married Mabel Meon in Oct 1928 in San Mateo County. “California, San Mateo County Records, 1851-1991,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-GY1F-7RV?cc=1878749&wc=MDJ2-T38%3A174973701%2C180758401 : 4 April 2017), San Mateo > Marriage license applications vol 3 1928-1929 > image 37 of 504; County Clerk, Redwood City. ↑
- According to the Sales Ledger at the San Francisco Assessor-Recorder’s office. ↑
3 thoughts on “A House with Character(s): The Stolen Down-Payment, the Bigamist Builder, and Some Old Soldiers”
Great, as usual!
I’m trying to figure out the directions in that first classified ad: “Take Sunnyside car No. 10 on Mission to 14th St., to Guerrero, direct to Sunnyside.” Was that part of the city virtually undeveloped at that time? Did Guerrero run all the way to that part of town as opposed to ending near 28th Street and becoming San Jose Avenue?
The San Francisco and San Mateo Electric Railway was founded by a private company as the city’s first eleectric streetcar system in 1892 (and integral to establishing the district of Sunnyside, by the same people). It ran from Soma out 14th, down Guerrero, over 30th, down Chenery, and out Monterey, turning around at Gennessee. It became the No.10 line in the URR system when they bought it out soon after. Map here of the original SFSM Electric Railway here. https://sunnysidehistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/1899-SF-Sewer-City-map-SFSMRR-marked.jpg
More on the exciting (and often injurious) history of the pioneering railway, and the Sunnyside Powerhouse (now sadly gone). https://sunnysidehistory.org/2018/05/02/the-sunnyside-powerhouse/