A Brief History of Bernal Heights Rogues, Hoodlums, and Characters of Ill Repute

Bernal Hill, circa 1924. View looking south, roughly from above Precita Avenue,, Folsom Street at left; Coso to the right. The ad on the hilltop is for Maxwell Automobiles. Courtesy of OpenSFHistory.org.

Bernal Hill, circa 1924. View looking south, roughly from above Precita Avenue. Folsom Street at left; Coso Triangle to the right. The ad on the hilltop is for Maxwell Automobiles.

There’s a terrific new story posted by SFGate that provides lots of colorful detail about Bernal’s shady past:

Sometimes the digital archives tell a story, uncovering long forgotten history. My dig in the Bernal Heights archives even revealed the moment in 1873 where the courts determined that Holly Park was public ground. Stories of gang activity in the neighborhood were found over and over in the early days. Reporting soon painted a picture of abject violence that seemed to rule the hill in the 1870’s.  […]

Bernal Heights was originally part of the Rancho de las Salinas y Potrero Nuevo, and owes its name to Jose Cornelio de Bernal, to whom the land was granted in 1839 by the Mexican government. In the 1860s the rancho was subdivided into small lots, and was first populated primarily by Irish immigrants who farmed the land and ran dairy ranches. According to legend, a mini gold rush was triggered in 1876 when con artists planted the hilltop with traces of gold. We found evidence of people claiming the “Eureka Lode” in reporting from the 1870s.

The article also includes some tasty archival tales of Bernalese rogues from centuries past. Here’s just one example:

December 3, 1877 Lawlessness of the Bernal Heights Gang
On Friday Dan Murphy and Charles Manchester, members of the Bernal Heights gang of hoodlums, were held to answer to a charge of assault to rob, and the former was also sentenced by the Police Judge to one year’s imprisonment for simple assault. These men, with five others, a few nights ago went to the house of Patrick Haight and his wife and with terrific blows upon the door awakened Haight and his wife. They demanded admittance upon the ground that they were policemen, and wished to search the house. Upon obtaining admittance the seven men, partially masked by handkerchiefs tied around the lower part of their faces, attacked Haight and his wife and demanded money. They ransacked the house from top to bottom and beat the inmates unmercifully. Mrs. Haight was knocked down and beaten about the face while kneeling in her night clothes upon the floor. But an accidental raising of the handkerchiefs, with the recognition of the voices of two of the robbers enabled Haight to identify Manchester and Murphy and bring them to justice. The six ruffians did not succeed in finding any money, and went off empty-handed after their attack. On Friday, after the two criminals had been held to answer, Herbert Manchester, a brother of Charles, and a member of the Bernal Heights gang, with four others, went to the house of Haight and entered the yard. Haight’s cow was lying there, and the brutal ruffians at once seized her and cut her throat. The arteries were not reached, but the trachea was severed so that the air enters the lungs in great measure, through the cut. This Bernal Heights gang is now under the captaincy of Tom Farron, and it has an open field for operations, there being no policemen beyond Twenty-sixth Street. The lawless characters have for some time kept up a reign of terror in that locality, and have so impressed the people with their ability and willingness to do any act, that they are afraid to testify against criminals when caught or to make complaints. The members of the gang are said to make frequent raids upon the houses, disguising their features by a liberal supply of soot or blacking. Saturday morning Herbert Manchester and John Smith were before the Court on charges of petty larceny. Thomas Brown, who lives at Bernal Heights, discovered these two young men walking along a fence at 6 o’clock in the morning, carrying a bag that contained geese. Seeing that the fellows had no gun Brown gave chase and captured them. In the bag they found four geese. They were found guilty as charged, and will receive sentence today.

By all means, read the whole thing… and enjoy all the terrific old photos.

PHOTO: Top, 1924 aerial view, courtesy of OpenSFHistory.org.

4 thoughts on “A Brief History of Bernal Heights Rogues, Hoodlums, and Characters of Ill Repute

  1. Most curious about this “police judge.” I’m guessing 1877 still saw old Vigilance Committee members peppered amongst the police force, must have been an interesting time for Bernal.

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