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.
First on the scene was Adolph “Frenchy” Jioux, a Stingaree pimp. He stumbled outside babbling incoherently. At first, Wilkinson and others thought Jioux did the shooting, since he was waving the still-smoking revolver like a war club.
Then they went inside. Tracy lay sprawled on the floor, her face a bloody hole. Next to her, Daley breathed his last. After firing four rounds at his lover, Daley stopped for a few seconds, then pointed the revolver under his own chin and pulled the trigger.
For the next several days, the murder became a sensation. Daley was a “remarkably cheerful man,” wrote the San Diego Sun. And Tracy was always kind and considerate. Neither had been in trouble before. Daley fired the shots, but the Stingaree itself was to blame. Something must be done. Nothing was.
Wilkinson had heard that cry before. He worked at the Tub of Blood when another of the Stingaree’s most infamous tragedies occurred.
In 1891, the Chilean steamer Itata violated American neutrality laws and fled from San Diego. On May 8, the Navy cruiser Charleston went off in pursuit. The Itata surrendered, and the Charleston returned to San Diego on July 7. Brass bands boomed from the docks. White handkerchiefs waved around the bay. Hundreds of townspeople rowed to the anchorage, midway between the Santa Fe Wharf and Coronado Island, and took guided tours of the Charleston. While visitors attended church services on board, 115 sailors came ashore for a well-earned liberty.
The Charleston was scheduled to sail on the 15th. At noon on the 14th, Captain G. Remey sent the names of 11 AWOL sailors to the San Diego police station. They missed the 8:00 a.m. deadline. Remey offered a $10 reward for each.
It’s unclear who deputized them (San Diego papers say U.S. Marshal George Gard; the L.A. Herald says police chief Crawford), but at around 12:30, seven men, led by Charles Breedlove, were sworn in at the police station.
“Is this all right?” A.F. Coates asked the chief.
“Yes,” Crawford replied. “You’re now a Deputy U.S. Marshal.”
Breedlove had rounded up most of his posse at the Court Exchange Saloon on Fifth. He promised them “$2.50 apiece for an hour’s work,” plus $2 for each sailor they returned to the Charleston. He never said in what condition.
Breedlove and the others pocketed handcuffs and revolvers and marched down Fifth pounding their palms with billy clubs. They’d all been drinking, testified J. Kennedy, bartender at the Court Exchange. Breedlove, he said, “had a pretty good load on.”
Nine of the 11 AWOL sailors were “drinking hard,” said one, at the Silver Moon, a two-story dive across from the Tub of Blood. Earlier that morning they hired J.B. O’Connell to row them back to the ship. Around 12:45, wondering what was up, O’Connell went to the Silver Moon to “get the boys together.” They said they were waiting for Jerry Flynn and Edward Jose, hoisting a few at Pete Cassidy’s bar at 452 Fifth, to join them.
The sailors at the Silver Moon heard war whoops coming down I street. Jose, a slender black man, burst into the saloon, shouting, “They’re beating up Jerry Flynn!”
The sailors raced outside and up I Street. They saw thugs wielding clubs near Fourth. Two “deputies” stood over Jerry Flynn, handcuffed, on his knees. Breedlove had tried to arrest him at Cassidy’s. Flynn had escaped, but he tripped on Fourth Street’s deep cart-tracks. The deputies began beating him.
As he and the sailors ran toward Flynn, James O’Leary saw civilians clubbing his mates “and knocking them down for keeps, too. We did not know they were officers.” The deputies dressed as civilians, several in straw hats, and showed no badges. The sailors thought they were notorious Stingaree “hoodlums,” who would maul “a tenderfoot for a two-bit piece.”
Before O’Leary could reach Flynn, a stout man in a long black leather coat bashed him from behind. It was Breedlove, who only attacked from the rear, many testified at the trial, and shouted “Uncle Sam’s come to help!”
Deputy Coates pounced on O’Leary and cuffed him.
“By God, I’ve fixed my man,” Coates proclaimed.
“You’re the one should be fixed,” yelled a bystander.
A mob formed around the melee. They turned the air blue with threats and curses. “Intimates of the dives in ‘Stingaree Town’ poured into the street,” wrote the San Diego Sun, “some of them seemingly for the first time.”
Bystander George Merritt saw four men, with fat clubs behind their backs, sneak up on four sailors. Without a word of warning, the deputies clobbered the blue-jackets to the dirt and flailed away until bystanders pulled them off.
A cry went up from the crowd: “Kill the deputies!”
A coal-oil wagon made a hard left at the corner of Third and I. The driver, named Gillespie, zigzagged down I. He struck Owen Givens with the butt-end of a whip. Blinded by a gash near his right eye, the sailor made it back to the Silver Moon “some way.”
Gillespie aimed his two-horse team at sailors. The wagon ran over “Paddy” Burns, a hoof grazing Burns’s skull. As battered shipmates dragged him back to the Silver Moon, the semi-conscious Burns feared he was dying.
Joseph “Brownie” Brown, a second-class fireman on the Charleston, reached Jerry Flynn first. Coates and Charles Wilson held Flynn down. Brown dove-slid between them and tried to lift Flynn up. Coates and Wilson clubbed Brown at the same time.
Flynn staggered away to the Russ Lumber Yard.
Township constable C.M. Stetson, who watched the fray from a buggy, ordered one of his deputies to unlock Flynn’s cuffs.
“I did not pay particular attention to the trouble,” Stetson said at the trial. “I was busy that day and, having other things on my mind, do not remember the affair sufficiently to give a clear account.”
Police chief Crawford also witnessed the havoc from his buggy. “My orders were not to have anything to do with the matter,” he testified, not mentioning who gave the orders.
Brown, who had just saved Flynn’s life, lay pinned on his left side, in the grasp of Coates and Wilson. As Brown wrapped his arms around his head for protection, Breedlove struck him four times with a “policeman’s billy,” a short club.
Brown tried to rise but fell back. His limbs quivered. His assailants ran off.
As the crowd, estimated between 100 and 200, began to surge forward, deputy Tell Grether pulled out a pistol and yelled, “stand back, you sons of bitches, or I’ll shoot every one of you!”
Breedlove, Coates, and Wilson rounded up three sailors they had “bagged” and took them to the wharf in a wagon. Along the way, Breedlove showed his bloody club to bystander J.O. Burgess, boasting that he had “pounded the livin’ hell out of the sailors [so much] their own mothers wouldn’t know them.”
Breedlove paid J.B. O’Connell, the man the sailors contracted, to row the deputies and their catch to the Charleston. O’Connell shoved off without Breedlove, who ordered, “come back, in the name of the President of the United States!”
Joseph Brown crawled west on I Street. “My head is gone,” he told a bystander, “I’m done for.”
Brown reached the Kansas Livery Stable at Fourth and I (where the Horton Grand Hotel stands today). F.C. McGuire, keeper of the stables, watched Brown stumble in “dazed and exhausted,” but paid him no mind — just another drunk wanting to snooze it off in the hay room.
Around 2:30, McGuire checked on his tenant and noticed blood over Brown’s left ear. He sent for a doctor. Too late. Brown was dead, murdered by “a blunt instrument delivered from behind.”
Breedlove was found guilty of manslaughter; all other charges were dropped. At the trial, angry San Diegans demanded changes for the Stingaree. None were made. But the incident became a legend in sea-faring circles.
On November 6, 1902, 11 years after the Charleston riot, San Diego police arrested two apprentice sailors from the British bark Pass of Melfort. Sailors from the USS Boston rushed through the Stingaree, shouting: “Remember the Charleston!” They urged blue-jackets to storm the jail and rescue their fellow seamen. When a mob armed with belaying pins and brass knuckles surrounded the jail, the police let the prisoners go.
As always, after this incident San Diegans demanded that something must be done about the Stingaree. Ten years later, something was.
Next time: Walter Bellon: “The most hated man in San Diego.”
Jerry MacMullen: “To put the policing of ‘Sailor Town’ in the hands of a crowd of fee-hungry amateurs was just asking for trouble.”
Herbert C. Hensley: quoting a man leaving San Diego after the Charleston riot: “I would rather live in peace and security in the fitful climate of the East than to have a bullet accidentally lodged in my body when walking out to enjoy the balmy air of the Pacific in San Diego.”
Rick Crawford: After he was released on bail pending an appeal to the state Supreme Court, “Breedlove made a trip to Baja.” On the way home, he and two others “apparently ran out of water in the desert and died of thirst and exposure.”
Brandes, Ray, et al, “San Diego’s Chinatown and Stingaree District,” archaeological report, University of San Diego, 1986.
Castanien, Pliny, To Protect and Serve: A History of the San Diego Police Department and Its Chiefs, San Diego, 1993.
Crawford, Rick, “Town roiled by 1891 slaying of sailor on liberty,” San Diego Union, July 5, 2008, p. CZ3.
Hensley, Herbert C., “Memoirs,” ms, San Diego Historical Society archives.
McCanna, Jr., Clare V, “Prostitutes, Progressives, and Police: The Viability of Vice in San Diego 1900–1930,” Journal of San Diego History, vol. 35, number 1, Winter 1989.
MacMullen, Jerry, They Came by Sea, San Diego, 1969.
McPhail, Elizabeth C., “When the Red Lights Went Out in San Diego,” Journal of San Diego History, vol. 20, number 2, Spring 1974.
Mills, Jim, “Sin, Sailing Ships, and the Stingaree: Our Vanished Barbary Coast,” San Diego Magazine, 9, October 1957.
…articles from the San Diego Union, the San Diego Sun, and the Los Angeles Herald.
Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 1
Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 2
Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 4
Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 5
Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 6