BARBARY COAST – Enter the seedy underworld of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, circa 1849; at the height of the Gold Rush. The Barbary Coast by Herbert Asbury is filled with scandalous salacious details – a hedonistic city falling off the edge of civilization- with money to burn. The red light district was bordered Montgomery, Washington, Stockton and Broadway. Particularly notorious was Pacific Avenue leading directly from the wharf to Portsmouth Square. There are tales of government officials on the take: from opium dens, brothels run by pimps, pick-pocket street urchins, coalitions of the wealthy and vigilante lynch mobs. With a less than flattering early history- social, economic and racial tensions between the Chinese, Italian and Irish – the very working class immigrants responsible for California infrastructure; transforming it into the economic powerhouse it is today. Asbury finds his voice as a crime historian in Barbary Coast along with other titles; Gangs of New York, Gangs of Chicago and French Quarter. This is a reprint from the original 1930’s version. One might think it dry or old fashioned. However, I didn’t find that to be true at all. This is a great book taking you deeper into the colorful history of an iconic city.
NOTE – My novelette Weirder is inspired by the bearded lady and will be promoted at Serving Fish on Friday 5-4-12 @ 10 pm.
BEARDED LADY – Julia Pastrana was excessively hairy over her entire body. She had a jutting jaw and swollen gums. In odd juxtaposition to her physical appearance, she possessed graceful poise and a buxom feminine figure. Domestically civilized, she was linguistically fluent in her native language (from the Root Digger Indians) in addition to Spanish and English. Under her handler’s management, her exhibition was a resounding success. She sold out venues on the sideshow circuit and was a media celebrity in the middle 1850’s. During her performances, she sang romances in both Spanish and English; and danced to traditional numbers dressed in fancy costumes. Mr. Lent (her handler) was afraid of losing profits and married her. He forced her into physician examinations, prevented her from leaving home and barred her from walking about in daylight. She became pregnant and doctors were fearful due to her height and narrow hips. Julia was more concerned the child would take after her cruel husband. In 1860 her fears were confirmed when she gave birth to a newborn completely covered in hair. The child lived only thirty-five hours. Julia died five days later. Mr. Lent had the bodies of his wife and child dissected and mummified to put on display. The corpses- of the bearded woman next to the mummified infant- were dressed in a dancing costume and sailor suit. The sideshow performer’s sad story is a study in contrast. Ultimately, Julia Pastrana is remembered for her unusual physical characteristics but even more important is her intelligence, talent and sophistication.