If one neighborhood has set the tone for San Francisco and cemented our city’s reputation for rebelliousness, it has to be the Barbary Coast. The environ we now call North Beach has had a persistent influence on the city’s development, and still does to this day. San Francisco’s no-holds-barred Barbary Coast origins still reverberate here and throughout the city, expressed in the ambition and limitless sense of possibility that SF has come to be associated with.

But as we’ve learned, this anarchic spirit also has its dark side. With license comes the licentious, and the history of San Francisco is populated with the widest variety of reprobates, rapscallions and social outliers that any American city has ever seen. To commemorate these noteworthy ne’er-do-wells, we bring you this third edition of Vagabonds, Lunatics And Scoundrels in San Francisco History.


We’ll start back in the late 19th Century, with one of San Francisco’s most notoriously fiery madams: Tessie Wall. Raised in San Francisco’s Mission District, Tessie was born in 1869, and seems to have led a relatively normal childhood. A comely and curvaceous blond, Tessie married early, supporting herself and a dependent, alcoholic husband with her job as a housekeeper. But when she lost her first child to illness within just months of his birth, the marriage dissolved, and Tessie’s path was forever altered.

Tessie Wall San Francisco History - Joe Content

The Only Surviving Photo Of San Francisco Madam Tessie Wall

Her work in upper-crust homes had exposed Tessie to the prurient appetites of her wealthy benefactors, and she quickly discovered a way to put them to use. Once free of her marriage, Tessie purchased a bordello in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, hiring a stable of young girls to staff it. From the jump, business was brisk at Tessie’s sumptuously appointed ‘parlor house,’ and she was soon opening another location. Her houses were very popular among the city’s socialites, and frequented by many patrons whose homes Tessie used to clean.

A natural promoter, Tessie would secure the latest fashions straight from Paris and New York, dressing her ladies in them and staging parades down Market Street that worked wonders at boosting business. She was also an unnaturally prodigious drinker, and once defeated legendary boxer John L. Sullivan in a champagne-drinking marathon, and after downing 21 glasses of the bubbly, the one-time heavyweight champ was on the floor at Tessie’s feet.

But of all her notable features, it was her wild, romantic heart that secured Tessie’s enduring place in San Francisco history. Like many in her profession, she had a keen craving for social acceptance, and chose to marry a politician–prominent Republican Frank Daroux–who was also a club owner. But Daroux’s business was gambling, a vice that at the time didn’t interfere with his political career. Brothels were another matter though, and Daroux made no small effort to get his wife to leave the business. He even built her a house in the country at one point, but Tessie was headstrong to say the least, remarking that she would rather “be an electric light pole on Powell Street than own all the land in the sticks.”

The couple fought constantly, and the tempestuous marriage came to an end when Tessie learned that Daroux had betrayed her with another woman. Distraught, she followed him to the theater, where she confirmed what she had heard; seeing her husband with a strange woman on his arm was more than Tessie could bear. She waited in the shadows outside the theatre until he emerged and stepped onto the sidewalk, lighting a cigar. So deep was his reverie that he didn’t hear his wife’s approach. Tessie fired her revolver point blank into his chest, and as he fell backward, fired twice more.

When the police arrived, Tessie was kneeling over her husband, weeping, the empty pistol in her hand. Asked why she had shot him, Tessie cried “I shot him ‘cause I love him, goddamn him!” Daroux survived, though his political career did not. Remarkably, although Tessie also tried to shoot his mistress through a café window soon afterward, neither ended up pressing charges. Tessie Wall returned to the bordello business, and died 16 years later at the age of 63–from an impacted tooth.



Now we jump forward to the Summer of Love, a period not so much chronicled as mythologized by writers and the press in the decades since. In 1967, San Francisco was teeming with all things new, and extreme personalities and fabulous oddballs were the order of the day–along with plenty of psychedelic drugs. LSD was the elixir of choice, the X-factor, and it had its share of prominent champions, people like Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey–and Owsley Stanley.

The early manager and financier of the Grateful Dead, Owsley was responsible for creating the laboratory-grade LSD that helped define the late Sixties counterculture. He was reportedly the first to ever mass-produce the drug, in a bathtub near the Berkeley campus (a process he mastered during a marathon 3-week session at the university library).

Owsley with Jerry Garcia in 1969. | Photo: Rosie McGee/Reuters

It’s hard to overstate Owsley’s impact during this period: his legendarily pure blotter powered Ken Kesey and the Merry Prankster’s famed Acid Tests, and Owsley is said to have turned both Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon on to the drug. Lennon reportedly contracted for a lifetime supply of Owsley’s LSD, said to have been a major influence on the Beatle’s Magical Mystery Tour album and film.

Early on, Owsley had all the earmarks of a people’s pharmacist; he was thrown out of military prep school in the ninth grade for supplying alcohol to his classmates for Homecoming. In the Air Force he learned electronics, a skill set he would later use to perfect the Grateful Dead’s celebrated “Wall of Sound” live sound system. His association with the band lasted well into the 70’s, and he recorded nearly every show the Dead played during this period; Owsley was even behind the band’s iconic “Steal Your Face” skull-and-lightning-bolt logo.

The Dead’s ‘Steal Your Face’ Logo, Designed By Owsley Stanley

Nicknamed “The Bear” for his hairiness (quite a distinction in San Francisco at the time), Owsley was at the very center of the psychedelic scene here, and is said to have produced as many as five million doses of his signature LSD. He served two years in prison for narcotics possession, and led a reclusive life in his later years, relocating to the bush country in Australia. Owsley was immortalized by several popular songs in the 70’s, including Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne,” but the ultimate tribute may have come from the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines Owsley as:

Owsley: An extremely potent, high-quality type of LSD; a tablet of this. Frequently attributive, especially as Owsley acid.


As the city credited with launching the Sexual Revolution, San Francisco has always had more than its share of pornographers. But none had quite the impact of a pair of quarrelsome brothers from the East Bay: Jim and Artie Mitchell.

In 1969, the brothers renovated a dilapidated building on a Tenderloin street corner and opened what would be their first of 11 adult cinemas: the now legendary O’Farrell Theatre. From this humble start the brothers would build a multimillion dollar adult entertainment business that continues to this day.

Artie (right) and Jim Mitchell in 1977. | Photo courtesy Associated Press

They revolutionized the porn trade, and were the first to transfer erotic films to video tape and market them through adult magazines. The money they made was arguably as obscene as their output, and they quickly became fixtures on the San Francisco scene. Their Tenderloin sex emporium became a déclassé gathering spot for a certain contingent of celebrities, including the band Aerosmith, Hunter S. Thompson and journalist and local gadfly Warren Hinckle.

Their first taste of national notoriety came when they produced “Behind The Green Door,” featuring Marilyn Chambers, then a new arrival to the adult film scene. Soon after the film’s release, it was revealed that Ms. Chambers was the same woman currently adorning the front of the Ivory Snow detergent box on store shelves across the nation. Though it was pure chance, no advertising agency had ever concocted a more devious publicity stunt, and sales of the film went through the roof. Produced for around $60,000, Green Door went on to gross over $25 million. The Mitchell Brothers porn empire had been born.

Marilyn Chambers Poses With The Now-Legendary Ivory Snow Box

With money flying in the door at an increasing rate, business acumen fell by the wayside. The brothers hired high school friends to help manage things, who reportedly spent much of their office hours drinking, drugging and shooting pool. At the center of the disorder was Artie Mitchell, whose cocaine and alcohol abuse had become so bad that friends begged Jim to intervene. On February 27, 1991, Jim drove to Artie’s home, armed with a .22 rifle he inherited from their father. The two argued, and Jim drew the rifle and shot his brother and longtime business partner dead. After a long trial, Jim Mitchell was prosecuted for voluntary manslaughter, and was released from San Quentin after serving only 3 years.

On July 12, 2007, Mitchell passed away at his ranch house in Sonoma, the victim of heart failure. His funeral was attended by former District Attorney Terence Hallinan, Mayor Willie Brown and some 300 others. Jim Mitchell was interred at Cherokee Memorial Park in Lodi, California, in the plot next to his brother Artie.

Years later, tragedy struck the family again when Jim’s son Jim Mitchell was arrested for the Novato murder of his ex-girlfriend. The mother of his year-old daughter, Danielle Keller was bludgeoned to death by Mitchell with a baseball bat on her front lawn. During his trial, the partial heir to the Mitchell Brothers business and fortune claimed he was railroaded by the press and courts, and simply the victim of his ‘notorious’ Mitchell name. The jury wasn’t buying, and the younger Mitchell was sentenced to 35 years in prison.


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