- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Basic Books (October 9, 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1560254084
- ISBN-13: 978-1560254089
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 43 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #76,143 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld Paperback – October 9, 2002
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"A classic chronicle . . . a violent exposition from which the infant city emerged full-grown and raging wild." -- Police & Security News, December 2002
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Some of what you'll find in these pages may shock you (though none of it is terribly graphic; the book was, after all, written in 1933), and judging by what I've been able to discover in most of a lifetime researching the social history of the 19th Century, San Francisco customs shouldn't be taken as being followed in the smaller towns and villages that dominated the country till well into the 20th. The chief fault of the book is that it doesn't always clarify when certain things happened or certain people and resorts were a part of the picture; if you're reading it for factual background, as I was, you'll find you have to go online and do some backup searching to get a clear idea of chronology. On the other hand, it shows as few other books do just how corrupt the city's government was for nearly 60 years, and why. It's a superior example of what it is, and a necessary read for those who wonder just how bad the biggest cities of the US were in their early years.
From the earliest days of the California Gold Rush in 1848 until the final doors were forced shut in 1921, the Barbary Coast district of San Francisco was home to extreme crime and debauchery. Many of the city's most memorable historical figures profited from the Barbary Coast. Between it, Chinatown, and the Upper Tenderloin district, San Francisco has perhaps the most colorful history of any U.S. city.
This account of that infamous district, first published in 1933, is an entertaining and sometimes shocking read.
"The Barbary Coast" is one of the books I've read as research for the next book in my steampunk zombie western series, which will take place in San Francisco in late 1876 and will involve this district and many of its more dangerous inhabitants from that time. I wish I could thank Herbert Asbury for this detailed resource.
I bought The Barbary Coast as one of a number of reference books for use in writing my Amos Kuttner series (the first of which, "Tamer: An Amos Kuttner Novel," is now available here at Amazon). These novels are set during the Gold Rush period in California and San Francisco is a key locale in three of the four books I am writing for the series. Asbury's book is precisely what I needed for general background on the early days of crime and law enforcement in the city by the bay.
Actually, he provides much more than general background: the books include material from a variety of historical sources, including contemporaneous newspaper clippings and other historical artifacts, and is well indexed to ease in finding specific subjects. It is broken into chapter headings by subjects -- for example, the Sydney Ducks, the Hounds of Tammany Hall -- and follows the trail of corruption and criminality up to the election of James Rolph and the defeat of Boss Abraham Ruef's Workingmen's Party, a political organization that tolerated wholesale thievery because it engaged it in itself.
The one weakness of the book is its lack of formal footnoting. Sources, where attributed, are done so in standard journalistic fashion (eg: in a section on the nickel dance emporiums that were hotbeds of crime at the turn of the century, Asbury directly quotes a lengthy passage directly from a story in the San Francisco Call, but he does not cite the date of the paper or the page or section in which the passage was found).
Nevertheless, the book is a valuable compendium of useful knowledge about the gangsters, whores and thugs who plied their trades during the 60-odd year period after Marshall's gold strike in Coloma. It is written in a chatty and sometimes florid style that gives it the pace and attractiveness of pulp magazine crime yarns.Adding to its value in a peculiar way is the fact that "The Barbary Coast," which was published in 1933, is written in the lurid journalistic style of the period, adding it a touch of dime-novel panache drier, more tradition accounts lack. Thus, Chinese immigrants are referred to as Chinamen or Celestials, African-Americans are called "Negroes," prostitutes are "harlots," brothels are "bagnios," etc.
Though the inadequate sourcing renders the book less than ideal for a series researcher, the breezy quality of the text and Asbury's propensity for humor make it perfect for a reader who is simply interested in the subject matter but unconcerned with pushing Asbury's research further.