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“Any closer, I shoot.”

The pistol was “a sign language we all knew,” Bellon wrote. “The man was mad, steaming.” So they said “adios” and backed away.

Bellon may have survived his first two years in part because he could read how far to push a person. His protectors, however, advocated blunter tactics. Let’s go back right now, Weymouth urged, and “throw the old boy in the jug.” After all, he’d pointed a loaded firearm at police officers.

“But what if Curby’s trigger-finger became too happy?” Bellon asked.

“Then we shoot it out!”

“We’re 600 pounds of sinew, bone, and lard, total weight,” Bellon retorted. Such a big target, Curby couldn’t miss. “Let’s think on it.”

That night, Bellon decided to pull back. “We had lots of time in our favor, so we’d just play along.”

For the next 30 days, Bellon, Weymouth, and Townsend paid Curby a social call every afternoon at 2:00. While the owner held them at gunpoint, they spoke about having to tear the buildings down. Bellon even offered to move all three houses to any other lot Curby owned in San Diego, free of charge. “We have no intention of destroying your lucrative business,” Bellon said. “Just doing our job.”

Within days, Curby’s prostitutes began to migrate uptown, into the Stingaree. By week’s end, he was alone.

“When we arrived on the 13th day,” Bellon writes, “he was beaten.”

Bellon inched his hand through the gate. Curby handed him the “young cannon.” Bellon unloaded and returned it. Weymouth and Townsend escorted Curby to the station and placed him under detention. They phoned his daughter in Fresno. She came and took him away. Wreckers razed the buildings; the rotted wood proved unsalvageable.

“Joseph Curby’s name was not entered on the police blotter to my knowledge,” wrote Bellon, “neither were several other social lights living in the Golden Hill section…in the same soiled racket.” He added: the Curby incident “ended a siege of suspense. If we had acted hastily, blood would have been shed, perhaps death.”

About a year later, near Third and I(sland), an elderly man charged at Bellon with a double-bladed axe. Walter Weymouth, Bellon’s lookalike bodyguard, stepped in and caught the axe handle, some say, in mid-descent, and “the battle was over.”

The city planned a municipal pier at the foot of Broadway and wanted all “health hazards” in the vicinity removed. Bellon had condemned three buildings at the foot of Market, including the infamous Cozy Cottage. By early 1915, he and his crew had flattened over 75 tideland structures and 80 to 100 inland. But when Bellon moved toward the Cozy Cottage, “men in high places” went to the city council and demanded his dismissal. “Citizens who were loudest in the demands for a clean city were now my enemies.” Egged on by two dozen realtors, Lillian Pounch filed 21 affidavits against the health department. The charges ranged from bank robbery to rape. Bellon became, in his words, “the most hated man in San Diego.”

Attorney Henry Clark demonstrated that every witness in the affidavit had lied. The court dismissed the case — and the perjurers. Newspapers never printed their names.

Other lawsuits followed. One that stuck: In 1915, Mary Runkey charged that, although many city officials had the right to order buildings demolished, neither the sanitary inspector (Bellon) nor the health officer (Dr. Banks) did. Banks’s initial fear was correct: the demolitions had been illegal, after all. But those forces favoring the “cleanup” — who often shared a household with those opposed — saw to it that charges weren’t pressed for all previous efforts. Bellon and Banks lost the Runky lawsuit but not the campaign.

For the next five years, Bellon paid his half of the $856 settlement in monthly installments from his salary. After the verdict, he assured his attorney friend, Shelly J. Higgins, he wouldn’t “touch another piece of private property without plenty of authority, not even if it happened to be crawling with offensive critters!”

The Cozy Cottage was an upscale brothel outside the Stingaree. “The girls liked money,” Bellon wrote, “also men if they went together.” Visible for at least a mile up Market, the tall structure stood on pilings over the tideland and had its own boardwalk to the shore.

One Saturday afternoon in 1915, Bellon, his bodyguards, and wrecking crew went to the Cozy Cottage unannounced. When the fire department arrived, a crowd began to gather. Thick hoses, stretched across the street, blocked traffic. Passengers piled out of streetcars. They watched Bellon ceremoniously carrying a red, five-gallon can up the boardwalk. He entered the cottage and searched each room for drunks. When he found none, he poured kerosene around the perimeter, struck a match, and ran down the boardwalk, flames stretching skyward behind him. As the heat drove the crowd back, some spectators booed the loss of a legendary institution.

Bellon ignited the next of the three condemned buildings. When sailors aboard the Ohio and the Wisconsin, anchored out in the bay, saw blazing structures side by side, they feared the whole town would catch fire. Three boatloads of blue jackets furiously rowed ashore. Instead of forming a last-ditch bucket brigade, however, firemen thanked them for their concern and said all was under control.

As Bellon’s crew moved toward the third building, a one-room, square-front “miserable shanty,” a man and his attorney burst through the crowd. “Burn it and we’ll sue you for arson!” the man shouted.

“We can’t,” Bellon replied, “it’s too close to other buildings. We’re tearing it down.” Before he could order his crew to hold up, long crowbars had pried away the facade. It teetered, then flopped to the ground. Puffs of dust rose from the sides.

“To my amazement and the crowd’s,” wrote Bellon, “there stood a beautiful copper still, all intact and workable.” The owner and his lawyer elbowed their way back through the crowd. They were last seen running up Market. “The legal threats vanished with them.”

The building had a false partition, a perfect camouflage for distilling rotgut moonshine or Stingaree tanglefoot. “Who was benefiting from this well-concealed whiskey machine? The papers did not carry the story about the still. I know why.”

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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.


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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