A Victorian San Francisco Mystery
By M. Louisa Locke
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 by Mary Louisa Locke
All rights reserved.
Cover design © 2015 Michelle Huffaker
All rights reserved.
Friday, early evening, July 2, 1880
“Kearny, Montgomery, and Market street are already assuming a gala appearance and further elaborate private decorations are in progress.” San Francisco Chronicle, July 3, 1880
“Time to head out, Dunk. Mr. Rashers will have our hides if we’re not back by seven-thirty, sharp.” Seth Timmons sorted through his coins and threw down two quarters, which included a generous tip for the amiable waitress.
Dunk mopped up the last of his gravy with the end of his roll and stuffed it into his mouth. “Don’t you want to take that with you?” the young apprentice mumbled, pointing to the two chunks of potato and a strip of beefsteak left on Seth’s plate.
Seth told him no and pushed himself away from the table as Dunk took out an ink-stained handkerchief and rolled up the left-overs, sticking the soggy bundle back into his jacket pocket. The boy was only fourteen, but he already neared six feet and looked to have a few more inches to go if his prodigious appetite was any indication. Seth remembered what it was like to be that young and feel on the brink of starvation all the time. He also remembered what it was like to really starve.
Slamming the door on the dark thoughts of the war and Andersonville prison, he said gruffly, “You think that’ll tide you over till quitting time?”
Dunk grinned. “Well, I guess I forgot to mention that Ma packed me supper. But since you were so nice as to treat me to a meal, I’ll split that with you later if you get a little peckish.”
Seth chuckled, put on his stetson, and turned to wend his way through the crowded restaurant. The menu at Hank’s Restaurant was limited, but the coffee was excellent, and for five cents you could get all the refills you wanted. He started coming here in March when he began working at Rashers Printing Company. Like many San Francisco teachers, he’d been forced to find a second job when the school board began to delay issuing pay warrants for the spring term. When school ended at three, he would go to the Mechanics Library on Post Street and grade homework. Then he’d stop off at Hank’s for a bite and coffee before starting his shift at Rashers at seven-thirty. He’d get home at one in the morning from his job as night pressman, sleep four hours, then get up in time to do any last minute preparation for his job teaching forty-five energetic fourth graders.
Life was a little easier now that the school term was over and he was working full time at Rashers. Not that he had much time for anything else––or anyone else––for that matter. But he still appreciated the pick-me-up that three cups of Hank’s coffee gave him during his dinner break, which was about half-way through his twelve-hour shift. The steam-powered Babcock printing press he and Dunk operated had gears that were happy to crunch a misplaced finger if you nodded off.
At the door of the restaurant, Seth stopped and took out his tobacco pouch, watching the throngs of people push past. Clay Street was unusually crowded, even for a summer evening. This block, between Kearney and Montgomery, was where San Francisco’s Fourth of July procession would make its turn to go back down south to Market Street. All day people had been checking out the decorations going up along the parade route. The city as a whole seemed to have gone mad for bunting. Flags, banners, and red, white, and blue triangles stuck out from every house window, draped across every shop front, and hung between lamp poles.
Seth didn’t really understand all the fuss and thought a lot of the decorations seemed pretty tawdry. He supposed it was good for business. What he minded most was the pop, pop, pop of firecrackers that ricocheted off the buildings at unexpected intervals. Fifteen years had passed since the war ended, and he still reacted like a gun-shy horse to the sound.
Shrugging, Seth tapped out half the usual amount of tobacco before licking the end of the paper and deftly rolling a cigarette. They only had to go up two blocks to get back to work, and he hated waste. He stepped aside to let Dunk pass and then lit the cigarette and let the lad lead the way east on Clay. Dunk wasn’t quite tall as Seth yet, but he was twice as wide, with the beefy shoulders of a farm boy, and he plowed a nice furrow through the crowded sidewalk.
The nightly fog was already snuffing out what residual light was left from the setting sun. Nevertheless, when they crossed Montgomery Street, Seth could still make out the huge white letters spelling out “Rashers and Company, Printers” on the story-high billboard affixed to the corner of the Niantic Building. This modern brick edifice was rumored to have been constructed over the buried hull of a ship that ran aground in the San Francisco Bay in forty-nine and was promptly abandoned by gold-seekers.
Light gleamed from the arched windows of the Niantic’s fourth floor where a box factory was still in full operation. On the second floor, which Rashers shared with a book bindery and a shoe factory, only Rashers’ windows showed any light. The third floor, which housed the steam generators and gas plant for the building, was bleeding light from the edges of pulled-down shades. The first-floor commercial shops, each with their own Independence Day trimmings, were closing up for the night, but there were still a good number of shoppers, messengers, and deliverymen darting in and out, and the one restaurant was in full swing.
They crossed Sansome Street and continued to the building’s Clay Street entrance. The night porter was having his usual dispute with a cabbie over whether or not his hansom could stand in front of the delivery entrance while waiting for a fare. Seth tipped his hat and said, “Good evening, Crockett,” and followed Dunk into the building and up the dark set of stairs next to the freight elevator.
Once on the stairs, he could hear the omnipresent rattle and hiss of the steam engines that made this building feel like a living entity, day or night. From below, a sudden burst of high-pitched voices and the pounding of multiple feet caused Seth to move quickly up against the wall.
A stream of young women returning to the cigar box factory from their dinner break pushed past. One of the girls said, “Going to be late, you two,” and playfully snatched Dunk’s cap as she went by.
Dunk was staring up at the retreating skirts, sputtering, when the cap came sailing back down. Seth caught it and clapped it back on the boy’s head, saying, “You heard her, get a move on.”
The service entrance to Rashers consisted of a set of double doors that made it easy to wheel in supplies and wheel out the stacks of unbound books and magazines that made up a significant part of Rashers’ business. Entering, Seth looked clear across the large cluttered room to Joshua Rashers’ office. Its door was only partly closed, letting out a narrow triangle of light. The rest of the room appeared empty; the gas lights turned down everywhere except along the wall to his right where the big Babcock press sat silently waiting for them.
Seth flung his stetson on the hook near the door and turned to Dunk. “Looks like Mrs. Sullivan isn’t here yet, Dunk. Rashers said she would be setting up a last minute order that we will need to get out tonight. I will go check to see if he still needs us to do that before we get going on the Demokrat.”
The California Demokrat was the main German language newspaper in San Francisco and the primary reason Seth had gotten this job. He hadn’t set much type since he was Dunk’s age and working at his uncle’s newspaper back in Pennsylvania, right before he enlisted. After the war, in between cattle ranching jobs, he’d gotten some training with different-sized presses as he worked his way west. What he didn’t have was a union card or references. When he started looking around for work to supplement his wages from teaching, he hadn’t much luck until he’d seen Rashers’ ad in the Chronicle.
Joshua Rashers wanted to land the Demokrat account, with its nearly five thousand daily subscribers and ten thousand Sunday subscribers. That meant he needed someone who could read German well enough to proof the copy. Seth’s German ancestors had migrated to Pennsylvania nearly a century earlier, but his grandmother still spoke the language and taught him to read German as a boy.
When he started working towards his teaching credential, first at Kansas and then San Jose Normal School, the German came back quickly and was right helpful in his philosophy classes. He figured if he could read Kant and Hegel in the original, he could proof a German newspaper. Joshua Rashers thought so as well and was delighted he’d also found someone who could work with both the small Gordon jobbers and the big Babcock press.
“Go on and get out the paper and load it up top. When I get back, you can go upstairs and have them start the engine for the Babcock,” said Seth as he walked through the crowded room towards Rashers’ office. As he got close, he was surprised to hear what sounded like a woman’s soft cries.
Damn the man, does he have to conduct his dalliances in the office? Seth started to walk away.
The office door slammed against the wall behind him, and he spun back around.
There stood Rashers’ chief compositor, Florence Sullivan, her usual neat appearance marred by the red liquid that dripped down her up-turned hands and lay smeared across her pale cheeks.
“Mrs. Sullivan, ma’am, what has happened? Are you injured?” Seth started to move towards her.
She shook her head, whispering, “I couldn’t help…there was so much blood.” Then she wailed, “Oh, whatever will become of us? Joshua’s dead,” before closing her eyes and crumpling to the floor in a dead faint.
Sunday, late afternoon and evening, July 4, 1880
“Jefferson Square, located far out in the western division…is an epitome of what skillful gardeners, working in conjunction with California Climate, can do.” San Francisco Chronicle, June 27, 1880
“He said that he would be here by three at the latest,” Annie replied, trying not to be annoyed by the repeated questions from her companions about when Nate Dawson was supposed to arrive at the Jefferson Square Park where they were going to have a picnic.
Annie Fuller, a widow of twenty-six, owned a boarding house on O’Farrell Street, and Nate Dawson was a local lawyer who had been courting her for nearly a year. Her cook and housekeeper, Beatrice O’Rourke, and her maid, Kathleen Hennessey, took a keen interest in the progress of their employer’s relationship with Mr. Dawson.
“He’s probably finding it difficult to push through the crowds,” Annie added. “I would imagine that the July Fourth parade is over by now, and the horse cars must be packed with people returning home.”
Annie shivered and looked up to see that one of the tiny clouds that had been scudding across the sky all day was stalled in front of the sun. This was her third summer back in San Francisco, so she thought she would be used to how chilly it could get in July. As a child, she’d found it odd to pack wool dresses for her annual summer trip to visit her aunt and uncle in the city. The summer-time temperatures at her own family’s Los Angeles ranch routinely hovered in the high nineties, with scorching winds out of the eastern deserts.
The winds that swept over the San Francisco peninsula were just as strong, but they came from the cold Pacific to the west, and today she was having trouble keeping her reddish blond curls from escaping the pins anchoring them up under her hat. She was glad she decided to wear her wool navy for the picnic, never mind that it wasn’t the least summer-like or that Nate had seen it on her a thousand times.
“Thank goodness Kathleen had the presence of mind to suggest that we bring all those old horse blankets we found in the attic to sit on,” Annie said, pulling her shawl up around her shoulders. “At least the ground isn’t damp, but I don’t know what it will be like later if the fog moves in.”
Kathleen grinned at her and went on placing the various food baskets they had brought onto the corners of the blankets to keep them from blowing away in the gusts of wind that skittered across the park.
Hard to believe that nearly two and a half years had passed since Kathleen had shown up––looking about twelve––to work for Annie. Equally hard to believe she’d been skeptical when Beatrice said the petite girl would be able to help them turn the old home Annie had inherited into a boarding house. Today, Annie believed there wasn’t a thing on earth Kathleen couldn’t do if she put her mind to it. And, at eighteen, she was definitely no longer a child.
“Well, dearie,” said Beatrice, interrupting Annie’s thoughts, “at least it isn’t blazing hot like last year, when half the grand ladies riding in the procession fainted before the whole march was over. Patrick was assigned to the parade route last year. Do you remember the stories he told us?”
“Yes, I do. If I recall correctly, he came by after the parade was over. Of course, at the time I thought he was just being kind, stopping by to see his aunt.”
Annie smiled at the blush that stole across Kathleen’s cheeks at her comment. Patrick McGee, Beatrice’s nephew, had been “walking out” with Kathleen over the past year. He had promised to swing by the park tonight on his supper hour––no doubt why Kathleen was wearing her best dress, the light gray herringbone wool that showed off her neat and definitely womanly figure, and why she had refurbished her straw hat by replacing the daises with pink artificial roses.
Beatrice and Kathleen had been baking and cooking all day in preparation for this excursion, and the three of them took a cab to the park early, before the parade downtown ended, so they could stake out a fairly flat section. They found a nice place, partially shaded by an oak tree near Eddy Street, the northern boundary of the park. However, it was now nearly three, and in the last ten minutes, a steady stream of other picnickers had begun to arrive, which was why Annie thought the parade must have ended. Along with Nate Dawson, they were expecting six other friends and boarders to join them.
Peeking into the basket sitting next to her, Annie said, “How many pies did you make this year, Beatrice?”
Pulling out a stack of checkered napkins, the motherly, gray-haired woman said, “I made four. Two cherry, one strawberry rhubarb, and one apple.”
“That should do it, but I might want to have a slice of that apple now, just to make sure I get a piece.”
“You keep out of that basket and leave that pie alone,” Beatrice said, gently slapping at Annie’s hands. “I know you, my dear, you…oh my heavenly stars!”
Annie looked up quickly to see what had upset Beatrice, and she saw the older woman was staring at her hands…well, staring at the ring on her left hand, to be precise. It was now Annie’s turn to blush.
“Well, Bea,” she said, “I wondered how long it would take for you to notice.”
Kathleen, who’d rushed over, said, “Oh, Mrs. Fuller. What a lovely blue color that center stone is. And are those diamonds?”
Annie looked down at the small square-cut sapphire that was set in a filigree of tiny gold flowers, each with a chip of diamond. She nodded and smiled. “Yes, Mr. Dawson gave it to me last night. You both had already gone to bed, and then this morning, everyone was so busy getting ready for the picnic and parade that I thought I would wait to show it off until we were all together.”
What she didn’t say was that she’d wanted more time to keep her feelings about last night’s events to herself. All of Annie’s life, she had been forced by circumstances––her mother’s early death, her strange upbringing by her father, her miserable first marriage, and her widowhood––to rely on herself. Her father, when he was alive, was really her only friend, and even with him she’d felt shy about sharing her emotions. Since she moved to San Francisco and set up the boarding house, all that had changed. Now she was surrounded by loving friends who cared about her.
But sometimes she found that very affection uncomfortable. As a result, when Nate left the boarding house last night, she realized she didn’t want to tell anyone how deeply moved she’d been when he slid the engagement ring on her finger––his voice trembling as he confessed how much he loved her, how much he hoped she was pleased with the ring.
She wasn’t even able to find the words to tell Nate why it was so precious to her—particularly compared to the flashy, expensive diamond ring her first husband, John, gave her. She knew that Nate had been working tirelessly the past four months to save enough money for a proper engagement ring. Yet how to explain to him that if it had been no more than a band of tarnished silver, she would still love it? How could she explain to anyone that the ring’s modest size and understated tastefulness made it perfect, whereas John’s ring––furnished by his father as a symbol of his family’s wealth––had only brought her happiness once—when she sold it to fund her trip out west to start her new life?
“Annie love,” Beatrice broke into these thoughts, “now that the secret is out, do tell us exactly what happened last night, before everyone else arrives.”
“Oh, ma’am yes, do,” chimed in Kathleen. “What did he say? Was the ring a surprise? Is it what you expected? Did he go down on one knee like they do in the stories?”
Beatrice interjected, “Now Kathleen, you know that Mr. Dawson and Mrs. Fuller have been formally engaged since February. But Annie, what I want to know is, does this means you two have finally set the date for the wedding?”
Annie looked down at the ring again, then looked up at the smiling faces of her friends and said, “No, Kathleen he didn’t go down on one knee, but the ring was certainly a surprise. And I think it is very beautiful. Yes, Beatrice, we have decided the wedding is to be sometime the second week of August. That’s the one window of time his parents and brother and sister-in-law have between the hay harvest and the fall round-up. And a month should be enough time for us to plan a simple wedding, shouldn’t it?”