On February 15, 1898, the Monterey sailed into San Diego Bay. The ship had been at sea for more than a month. The next day around noon, half the crew got liberty and hurtled through San Diego’s Stingaree district like escapees from an asylum. They sought pleasure or mayhem, whichever came first.
To deep-water sailors accustomed to the rhythms of the ocean, the Stingaree felt like Mardi Gras: pianos, scratchy fiddles, and the high laughter of painted ladies drowned out the clomps of horses and lazy creaks of wagon wheels.
By nighttime on February 16, a sailor from the Monterey, J.F. Stohlgren, had saloon-hopped his way through the district. He hoisted beers on lower Fifth. He roamed west on J, past Mamie Goldstein’s upscale Turf (her German organ music too classy for his tastes). He may have imbibed at the Pacific Squadron or the Legal Tender across the street. But then he pushed on, turned right at the Yankee Doodle, and headed up Third to I (now Island Avenue).
At around 11:00, Stohlgren entered Till Burnes’s Tub of Blood Saloon, on the southwest corner of Third and I. Burnes also owned the Last Chance, near the wharf, and the elegant Acme, at Fifth and J. But if you put “blood” in the name of your saloon, you aren’t advertising refined conversation. The Tub, a one-story frame shanty, had rustic chairs and tables and a long bar, but no mirrors, windows, or chandeliers. The manager, Charley England, even kept the bottles below bar level.
The saloon offered “music of a weird brazen sort,” wrote the San Diego Sun, “and those who didn’t dance to it fought to it.” Some said Burnes encouraged violence at the Tub to draw it away from his other establishments. Sailors from square-riggers or steel-hulled windjammers have a beef? Union and scab laborers beg to differ? Meet at the Tub, which became known as “the last stand of the men and women who had gone the limit and who wouldn’t or couldn’t turn back.”
On February 16 around 11:00 p.m., Stohlgren edged into a wall of noise and ordered the Tub’s special: Monongahela whiskey, a bourbon-like liquor aficionados called “the living stuff.”
The bartender, Mickey Ryan, said or did something Stohlgren didn’t like. Or vice versa. It happened so fast, none of the Tuesday-night regulars — longshoremen, wharf rats, and hopheads — knew for sure. But that was common, as was the sight of two men, shoulders arched, elbowing their way through the crowd to settle differences in the cold night air.
Stohlgren went first, his curses adding to the general din. As Ryan, a thick-set former boxer, came through the door, Stohlgren turned. A jackknife glinted in his right hand. He slashed off the bartender’s nose. Before anyone could stop him, Stohlgren sliced Ryan’s upper lip and carved a three-inch gash from his right ear to his jawbone.
Patrons wrestled Stohlgren to the ground. Officer Couts charged him with assault. Stohlgren couldn’t pay the $500 bail and did jail time.
“The affair occurred at Third and I Streets,” the Union reported. For San Diegans at the time, and for years to come, the location was no surprise. Third and I was the meanest corner of San Diego’s meanest street.
From the 1880s to 1912, the most dangerous part of Third was only two blocks long, between J and H (Market) Streets. By the late 1890s, the Stingaree stopped on the east side, and Chinatown began on the west. On February 18, 1888, almost ten years to the day before Stohlgren assaulted Ryan, a Union reporter wrote: “There are 30 vile dens of vice, each containing from one to thirteen inmates. They are of the lowest class…at least a dozen negro and 30 Chinese women competing with their depraved white sisters in the nefarious traffic.”
The rickety structures along Third, some tilting at odd angles, looked like a ghost town waiting to happen. As San Diego spread farther north, brick buildings rose on lower Fifth. But Third remained a deregulated zone. No building code determined the style, or even the safety, of a structure. Constructed with one-inch redwood boards and few studs, they were built as if for a Gold Rush boomtown: not to last, just to withstand nightly abuse.
Redwood doesn’t usually burn. But the cheesecloth tacked to the wood, and the wallpaper pasted over, made most of the walls on Third a natural fire hazard. Yankee Doodle Hall and the Pacific Squadron had so many blazes that the regulars doubled as volunteer firemen. In 1897, a fire broke out at Yankee Doodle. An unnamed prostitute, dressed in “scanty raiment,” died when she raced into the flames to save her dog.
The Green Light, in the middle of the block between J and I, was a parlor house without a parlor. The two-story structure had a courtyard in the rear. Balconies looked down on fountains with goldfish and lush vegetation. Some say the Green Light resembled an English inn; others, that it recalled San Francisco’s famous Hotel Nymphomania, a three-story “cow-yard” with 150 cubicles facing a compound.
In April, 1898, an African-American named Jesse Daley tended bar at the Tub of Blood. “The most popular of the colored race in the city” (San Diego Union), Daley had lived with Ida Tracy, daughter of a Caucasian captain and a Chinook woman, in the Stingaree for several years. Newspapers called Tracy a “habitué of the lower portion of the city,” implying that she worked as a prostitute, possibly at the Green Light, a few doors down Third from the Tub of Blood.
On April 26 at 8:30 a.m., after a two-day quarrel with Tracy, a despondent Daley told coworker Ben Wilkinson, also an African-American, to watch the saloon for a few minutes. Before he left, Daley pulled a .45 caliber out of a drawer and asked Wilkinson how to use it.
Daley went outside, where the unsuspecting Tracy stood on the sidewalk. He ushered her into a little room next to the Tub. Their voices rose. Denizens of the saloon heard four quick cracks through the wall. Then a pause. Then a fifth.