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THE MOST HATED MAN IN SAN DIEGO. From 1910 to 1912, Walter Bellon inspected San Diego’s waterfront, Chinatown, and the Stingaree district for the health department. If an owner failed to make basic improvements, the department would have to tear the structure down, by sledgehammer or fire. Bellon had done his “spade work,” he told the press in 1912. He’d handed out the citations and now was “ready to strike.”

On a Saturday in November, 1000 San Diegans gathered at the waterfront to watch him raze his first targets — the 13 rundown hovels at the foot of Eighth — even though many questioned the legality, since only the owners could give final approval.

Bellon had played to the crowd, bustling around, shouting orders to his wrecking crew and firemen. But before he could apply the torch, smoke rose from behind a shack, then flames hopscotched from structure to structure. “In a minute,” onlookers claimed, “the entire nest was an inferno.”

Was it a sign? Throughout 1912, San Diego fumed in a moral frenzy. From February to the fall, police and 400 vigilantes had battled Free Speech demonstrators in the Stingaree. On November 10, police raided the district: 138 prostitutes, at least half under age 17, received walking papers. To those for whom purging San Diego — of immorality and even dissent — had become a crusade, the crackling shacks at Eighth symbolized divine approval of anti-vice rectitude.

Since no one could blame the health department, Bellon’s supervisor, Dr. A.E. Banks, also read the uncoaxed conflagration as a sign: Bellon could commence his demolition phase with impunity.

Several parts of the Stingaree and Chinatown began making changes. Led by Ah Quin, their unofficial mayor, residents of Chinatown installed toilets, sinks, and skylights. Hundreds of “inside rooms,” with neither light nor ventilation, were destroyed. While tearing down a shack in Chinatown, someone found a “snow bird’s” (an addict’s) dream under the floor: 51 cans of opium, “enough dark goo,” wrote Bellon, “to float anyone to a most glamorous and satisfying feeling.”

Some owners of the Stables, between J and Third, leveled condemned cribs and kept the lumber. “Perhaps when they estimated the cost of our health notices,” Bellon wrote, “they decided to remove the structures themselves. It was cheaper.”

A worker named L.L. Alumbough, formerly a detective in the Midwest, told Bellon he’d “never in his life seen such a place as the wreckage revealed”: huge rats scurrying for cover, open cesspools, a human skull.

Under a crib behind Yankee Doodle Hall, a workman uncovered 250 beer bottles. He sold them across the street for 30 cents a dozen. Rumor had it that, near the Pacific Squadron, someone found something so valuable he tucked it under his coat and disappeared into the maze of “blind” rooms behind the cribs. Some said the cache shone like silver.

Bellon’s strategy: raze condemned buildings along the waterfront first — where he’d handed out 83 citations between 1910 and 1912 — then move inland. He and his three-man wrecking crew worked weekends: courts weren’t in session, and owners couldn’t plead for injunctions. He never announced his next goal.

Sanitary conditions determined whether they tore down a building nail by nail, with pickaxes and sledgehammers, or torched it. Aided by the fire department, Bellon burned the structures — most often those built close to the ground — infested with vermin and, possibly, contagious diseases.

After he’d leveled at least 40 shacks, several waterfront property owners hired a lawyer and began proceedings. “The press published the account, but my department was never served, so we kept pushing forward.”

Bellon began receiving anonymous threats. He’d grown accustomed to grit-toothed curses as he passed saloons and gambling halls. He considered the anonymous messages to have “about as much intestinal fortitude as a scared rabbit.”

In late December 1912, Bellon turned inland. He announced the demise of Yankee Doodle Hall and Pacific Squadron Hall, on J between Third and Fourth, hailed as the “pilot lights” of the Stingaree. Two men came to his office. While the legal owners of most red-light buildings demanded anonymity (“their names did not even appear on the tax rolls”), these gents openly claimed to be landlords.

“It was obvious they were covering up for someone else,” wrote Bellon. He had “no desire to find out” and leveled the infamous structures.

After the demise of Yankee Doodle and Pacific Squadron — a strike at the heart of the Stingaree — the health department began receiving enough phone threats and hate mail to concern police chief Keno Wilson. Even Bellon felt the pressure: “Things began to get real hot…. Time was running out for me, if they didn’t pull me off. The waterfront supported some tough characters, and my hide was going to be stretched, then tanned.”

One morning Bellon found two men in his office, both over six feet and 200 pounds.

“From now on, we’re traveling together,” said Walter Weymouth, who looked and dressed so much like Bellon they could pass for twins.

“Thing’s can’t be that bad,” said Bellon.

“From what Keno briefed us on,” said Reginald Townsend, one of San Diego’s first black police officers, “we must be careful.”

Chief Wilson didn’t just lend Bellon two of his top officers. Even though Bellon bragged he was a crack shot and had fearless fists “like TNT,” Bellon’s good friend ordered him to hire bodyguards.

For two years, Bellon had worked alone. It took him a few days not only to adjust to his companions — he called them his “small army” — but also to the gravity of his job, since “danger began to jell.”

The trio served final notices to brothels at 423, 514, and 775 on waterfront row. The owner, Joseph Curby, was the financial backbone of vice along the shoreline. He made at least $50,000 a year, tax free. The stocky man in his mid-50s, who “guarded his feminine business with a strong arm,” stopped them at the gate. He aimed a .45 caliber horse pistol between Bellon’s eyes.

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DocValentine Aug. 2, 2009 @ 7:04 a.m.

I'm concerned about what happened to all that opium. 51 cans! That could solve a lot of problems. Always remember: there's no hope without dope.

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rickeysays July 30, 2009 @ 11:51 p.m.

Aside from the first three paragraphs being a repeat, this series continues to be must reading. “It would be just as reasonable for the United States government to take all the lepers from the island of Molokai and scatter them about in an effort to blot out leprosy...as it is to try to eradicate vice by scattering it.” A lesson people still haven't learned.

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