By Amy O’Hair
With research contributed by Kathleen Laderman
More about the Sunnyside Conservatory.
It is perhaps the fate of some unusual structures to attract unusual people. The Sunnyside Conservatory was built in 1902 by one such man, the eccentric inventor William Augustus Merralls, whose interests extended to outré alternative medicine. In 1919, the property was bought from the bank that had repossessed it from Merralls’ destitute widow by another remarkable person, Ernest Van Beckh.
When he and his beautiful wife Angele Ricono Van Beckh moved to Monterey Boulevard, they left behind them a sensational tale—of years of criminal fraud under the guise of occult practices, of spending weeks as fugitives hiding out in the East Bay, of serious charges of grand larceny and a narrow escape from a prison sentence. Before the drama was over, Ernest had shot a man, gravely wounding him. It was a story that few people could live down, but they managed to, in style.
The Van Beckhs liked their luxury and were devoted to each other; Ernest’s crimes paid for his wife Angele’s social and cultural aspirations. When the scandal died down, that loot bought this unusual large property in a modest neighborhood. In Sunnyside, they lived quietly in the lush compound behind tall fences for another five decades, outside of the public view, their crimes safely locked in the past.
The price in 1919 was just thirty-five hundred dollars, and included the house at 258 Monterey Boulevard, the grounds, and the conservatory structure—seven city lots in total. It was a very small price for a man who reputedly had amassed half a million dollars as the ring-leader of a gang of self-proclaimed clairvoyants, fleecing hundreds of vulnerable, gullible victims between 1911 and 1916.
Stories of “The Big Five,” as both the reporters and the dogged Assistant District Attorney bent on their convictions insisted on calling the loose conspiracy, splashed across Bay Area newspapers during the first half of 1916. Then the criminal cases fell apart without convictions, and newer, more compelling events like the Preparedness Day Bombing occupied the attention of readers and local law enforcement.
Fake Silver Mines with a Real Silver Lining
It’s a story worthy of San Francisco, where many people over its short history have come to do the daring and the semi-legal, to make and remake themselves, to feed strange hopes and stranger beliefs, for a profit. Van Beckh used the power of the occult to sell worthless mining stocks and make piles of money. But the ironic twist now for all those in Sunnyside, and from further afield, who enjoy our landmarked local gem is that it was Van Beckh’s mix of ill-gotten wealth and the subsequent need to keep out of the limelight for decades afterwards that meant the Sunnyside Conservatory was mostly saved from destruction. Continue reading “The King of the Clairvoyants: The Man who bought the Sunnyside Conservatory”