Arts Listings

Books: Delightful Characters of Bygone Berkeley

Tuesday August 28, 2007



If, in the year 2107, someone were to write a book like Richard Schwartz’s latest effort, he could well be one of its subjects. 

Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley is a guiltless pleasure, a delightful collection of tales about some of the city’s most fascinating and wrongly forgotten characters. 

A builder by trade, Schwartz is Berkeley’s resident amateur historian, the author of two previous works of community history. 

After his Berkeley 1900 account of the city at the dawn of a new century and Earthquake Exodus, 1906 with its account of Berkeley’s response to the Great Earthquake of 1906, Schwartz moves on to profile in words and contemporary images some of the folks who help the city’s justifiable reputation as home to some of the most colorful, cantankerous and fascinating folks on the nation’s Left Coast. 

Take Emperor Norton for example—that genteel and majestically delusional soul and legendary San Franciscan whose funeral in 1880 drew 30,000 mourners. 

Self-proclaimed Emperor of North America and Protector of Mexico, he was also a familiar figure in the city across the bay from the seat of his realm, conducting reviews of UC Berkeley military cadets and upstaging a real-life emperor who’d come to lecture on a university stage. 

Then there was John E. Boyd, an oft-lauded and occasionally arrested homespun essayist and sometimes city-official-cum-town-drunk—in addition to his self-anointed role as Boss Baggage Buster of Beautiful Berkeley. 

A vivid stylist whose wordsmithing some thought comparable to Twain’s, he also became a cinematic hero, a rescuer on horseback in the 1906 film A Trip to Berkeley, which still plays on the Pacific Film Archive’s silver screen. 

Courts closed when he died, the City Hall flag flew at half-mast and Odd Fellows Hall filled with mourners. 

The opening essay tells the tales of Irish immigrant Martin Murrey Dunn, who owned some of the choicest acreage in the Berkeley hills, and of Dave, the fire horse who loved him. 

In affably agreeable prose, Schwartz describes the unique role of the horse in fighting fires and of the affection that bonded the highly intelligent animals and their human trainers and partners in firefighting. 

Part of the land where Dunn raised his horses is today occupied by the Claremont Hotel, built eight years after his death. 


Land battles 

In Berkeley of late, all the serious politics have been about land use, often pitting neighbor against neighbor, and neighborhoods against developers and officialdom. 

The landmarks ordinance, the Gaia Building, UC Berkeley’s construction boom and Western Berkeley rezoning have generated endless debate, litigation (threatened and often realized) and political campaigns while consuming reams of print and barrels of ink. Even that most venerable of Berkeley battles, the contest over the fate of that plot of land dubbed People’s Park, has been heating up again. 

So it should come as no surprise that confrontations about human real estate “improvements” have deep Berkeley roots—replete with threats, a murder and a feisty homeowner who literally laid her life on the line. 

The most compelling of Schwartz’s land battle stories is the saga of Mary Townsend, a real-life pistol-packin’ momma. 

A small woman with a pleasant smile who made her living as a domestic worker, Townsend had seen her share of life’s miseries. Widowed by the Civil War and burdened with a ne’er-do-well son, she had become a highly respected figure in 1870s, and owned a home on Shattuck Avenue south of Channing Way. 

And then a man memorialized in two Berkeley streets, Frances Kittredge Shattuck, teamed with James Barker to entice the Central Pacific Railroad to run a line up Shattuck from Oakland. 

While most property owners accepted the railroad’s buyout offers, Townsend and neighbor Peter Maloney refused, since the property sought by the railroad would put the tracks right at their front doors. 

Momentarily stymied, the railroad curved the tracks to avoid the two lots, then enticed the county to launch condemnation proceedings. 

Rejecting further settlement offers which included a swap for an unusable lot and angered by the railroad’s refusal to pay for moving her house, she took legal action and a Solomonic court split the legal baby in an 1877 decision, giving the railroad an easement on the lots, while leaving legal title to the land and a $1,030 award to Townsend. 

But railroad baron Charlie Crocker refused to pay, and threatened to leave town with his tracks unless Townsend’s neighbors coughed up the cash. They did. 

It took another two decades for the battle to erupt anew, this time over the city’s move to pave between the tracks to keep down dust. Before it ended, Townsend had moved her house onto the tracks, lain across the rails and shoved a pistol into the chest of the town marshal. 

The rest of the story is for the reader to discover.  

Schwartz’s 17 chapters are like kernels of hot, buttered popcorn—crunchy and delightfully tasty, and almost impossible to devour one at a time—with the last one vanishing with regret at the feast’s end and with appreciation for the pleasure they brought. 

This reader, for one, didn’t stop until the whole volume had been consumed. 

Though “amateur” has evolved into something of a condescending slur, Richard Schwartz restores the word to some of its earlier luster. 

Only in athletics does the word retain its original meaning as a “lover,” someone whose passion for the beloved is motivated by love, not money. 

Schwartz is a passionate amateur of Berkeley history, approaching his discipline with both passion and rigor and crafting his words with affection and humor coupled with the more orthodox demands of accuracy and attribution.  

Infectious enthusiasm combined with the larger-than-life natures of many of the characters he profiles prove an irresistable combination. 

He offers us stories of folks whose names deserve their places on the city’s roster of streets—though one subject’s horse did leave its moniker, Prince, on the South Berkeley street that a certain Daily Planet writer calls home. 


Photograph of Emperor Norton.