Tales of the City

Feb 29, 2012 at 12am

 “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” This adage and personal mantra to one of my closest, albeit, least credible friends, says it all. Urban legends are true, or half true, or not at all true. Does it really matter? People believe them because they want to. Urban legends justify our experiences, reinforce stereotypes, or make the world around us just a little more interesting. They’re the kind of stories that make your heart race, send chills down your spine, or at the very least, make you go “huh?” 

It comes as no surprise that San Francisco, with its rich, complicated, at times seedy past (and present), has its fair share of stories that are too good not to share. But are they too good to be true?  Let’s find out.


Anyone who’s ever experienced San Francisco’s frigid, un-California-like summer will take comfort in this saying, supposedly uttered by the Huckleberry Finn author and one-time San Francisco resident. But did he ever really say it? I checked in with Jacques Lamarre, director of communications at the Mark Twain House & Museum in New York, who was unable to find any attribution of the quote to Twain. “This does not mean that he didn't say it, because he wrote so many letters, speeches, short stories, and novels,” Jacques says. “Sometimes he would say things conversationally that would be reported or re-quoted by others.” But in the absence of any definitive proof, the story of Mark Twain’s clever remark on the summer in San Francisco is about as probable as a heat wave in July.



These pathways allowed Chinese gangsters to access speakeasies and opium dens, or so the story goes. By some accounts, an entire city lay underground, complete with casinos, brothels, and drug lairs. Some say the secret underworld was destroyed in the 1906 fires, while others claim their living friend, neighbor, or uncle once played blackjack in a dark enclave beneath Stockton Street.

Not so, says Charlie Chin, staff member at the San Francisco chapter of The Chinese Historical Society of America. “Not only people from outside the community, but people from within the community have assured me that such tunnels exist,” he says. Yet, no one has been able to show him a single tunnel. “What I have been shown in San Francisco and New York's Chinatowns, are old cellars, coal chutes, and abandoned storage rooms, but no actual tunnels.”

According to Charlie, the perpetuation of this myth speaks to the Chinese American community’s history as a target of fear and suspicion. Tales of secret societies and “mindless minions who blindly obey some mastermind criminal” have been a fixture of literature since the 1880s and continue through TV and movies. He says, “Much of the action in these stories takes place, where else, but in the ‘underground tunnels’ of Chinatown.”


Lillie Hitchcock Coit was a wealthy San Francisco socialite who commissioned the construction of the iconic concrete column. She had a very strong, some say unusual affinity for the men in red: She’d ride along with them chasing fires, nurse them when they were ill, and pay special tribute when they passed away. So the idea that the tower was designed to look like the end of a fire hose would seem a logical conclusion. But the website for the Recreation and Parks Department puts the kibosh on this theory. And the truth is, the eccentric Ms. Coit – a cigar-smoking, pants-wearing thrill seeker and notorious gambler – was far more legendary than the inspiration behind her namesake landmark.


Calling our bay waters “shark-infested” may have deterred Alcatraz inmates from plotting their escape, but was it true? Sort of. Although there are 11 known shark species that make the bay their home, they’re mostly small, bottom-eating species that pose no threat to humans. Still, great whites do occasionally make their way into the Bay. Researchers from the Tagging of Pacific Predators (TOPP) program, who tracked the movements of 179 great white sharks off the California coast between 2000 and 2008, found that five of them strayed from their normal route, swimming through the Golden Gate. Where they went, how long they stayed, and what they did remain unknown. So although running into a great white at Aquatic Park is unlikely, I think I’ll stick to dry land, thankyouverymuch.


Some terrifying stuff came out of Playland at the Beach. There’s Laffing Sal’s creepy cackle (still audible at the Musee Mecanique); rides such as the Diving Bell, which took guests underwater in a metal chamber; and the story of the sailor who literally lost his head on a rollercoaster. Did that really happen? Yes and no, says James R. Smith, renowned San Francisco historian and author of Playland at the Beach: The Early Years. “I knew the legend well, hearing my dad recount it,” James says. He shared with me an archival copy of the Oakland Tribune dated May 15, 1945, which tells the story of a 23-year-old sailor by the name of Edward Tobiaski, who was celebrating his return from the South Pacific. When Tobiaski stood up mid-ride – something he was often known to do – he hit his head on a heavy beam and was killed instantly. Smith says that although the man’s head did fall into his friend’s lap it was still connected to his body at the time.


This showdown happened on the 14 Mission. Or, it happened on the “Dirty 30” and became the inspiration for that moniker. It happened in the ’70s. It happened just a few years ago. Everyone saw it, or at least someone you knew saw it. Some say the lady swung the bird around till its neck cracked, while others claim she slammed it against the side of the bus. Of all the urban legends I investigated, this was one of the most pervasive. It was also the most difficult to prove. At press time, a Muni representative was still looking into its credibility. Like the one about tunnels beneath Chinatown, this story feels rife with racist undertones.


The thief in question, who had just stolen a Mercedes – or a Porsche or a BMW – from the parking lot at Candlestick Park, met his demise when the Cypress structure of the Nimitz freeway collapsed. The car belonged to a Modesto couple who had come to San Francisco to watch that now-infamous World Series. I spoke to Glenn Scott, a former columnist for the Modesto Bee, who reported on this story when it first began to circulate. At the time, Glenn checked with the California Department of Transportation and the CHP to find out if any of the cars crushed in the collapse were registered in Modesto. None were. “It clearly was an urban myth, and a classic example,” he says. “It picked up on the anxieties that people in the hinterlands felt about driving into the metropolitan streets of the Bay Area, where they worried about thefts and carjackings and simply the high prices and difficulties of parking.” The fact that a very similar story came out of Northridge following the 1994 earthquake casts further doubt on its credibility.


Curiosity around the means and frequency with which the bridge is painted is so common that the bridge’s website has three – three! – FAQs dedicated to it. Some think it’s painted yearly. Others say it’s every seven years. A quick search disproves both. Since its construction in 1937, the bridge has been repainted twice, both times as part of an upgrade. Other than that, touch-up paint is applied as needed (which, by the sound of it, is ongoing).


Everyone knows we are a city of dog lovers. Bars, restaurants, hotels, even workplaces are canine friendly. We like kids, too, just not as much. But seriously, have you noticed the absence of screaming toddlers on your grocery run? You’re more likely, at least at my local Safeway, to hear the screams of a madman. For better or worse, the high canine-to-kids ratio is a very real phenomenon – according to the 2010 U.S. Census and the Animal Care and Control, there are at least 120,000 dogs and just 108,000 children in San Francisco.


It’s hard to believe that shanghaiing actually happened. But it did. A cast of shady characters like “Shanghai” Kelly, “Horseshoe” Brown, and “One-Eyed” Curtin slipped knockout drops of opium to unsuspecting saloon-goers, then shipped their limp, unconscious bodies off to sea in exchange for blood money. It’s even harder to believe that shanghaiing happened at our beloved Old Ship Saloon, but it did. The bar’s website tells us that much. To find out more, I tracked down Paul Drexler, crime historian and director at San Francisco’s Crooks Tour, who shed some light on the term itself. “It originally meant ‘to send on a Shanghai journey,’” he says. This sounds about right given that many of the victims ended up in the Chinese port city. But Paul doubts the term originated at the Old Ship Saloon. What’s more important, at least to me, is picturing this popular FiDi happy hour spot as a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean.


What riveting, unverified San Francisco stories have you heard or told? Share them in the comments below.

Special thanks to Dr. Jan Harold Brunvand, author of the Encyclopedia of Urban Legends, and to Tom Wyrsch, producer of the documentary Remembering Playland at the Beach, for their help with my research.