Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Doing the Archives

When my place of employment moved offices from Potrero to Mission/Mid-Market last fall, we moved into an awkward building stuffed into a nonsensical arc-wedge-street just north of the Central Freeway. While some questioned the timeline for which we were to hang up pictures or how we would avoid, en route to Java Express, walking through piles of poop (and pig heads and moldy jeans and crumpled high heels and nerdles from the plastics store), I of course wanted to know who had lived in the building before us. 

I had already looked up the history of our previous building, a handsome squat one-story catty-corner to Jackson Park. To be sure, that land had been underwater /part of a questionably-navigable wetlands for much of San Francisco’s history, but I found it listed as “a nice business corner fronting a park”  in 1913, with all the modern amenities (including "the streetcar," ostensibly meaning everyone's favorite 22 Fillmore line, which at that point was owned by United Railroads, not yet merged with just-created Muni ).   I also, late one night, while eating granola and reading papers about something else entirely,  stumble into a  grisly report from December 1913, of a man who shot himself in the throat late at night near his shack;  horrified I’d clicked it closed, xxx-ing away unwanted details or suggestions (his claw-like hands around the pistol, blood-stained pillows on an iron bed), never to find the story again.

This the “danger” of archival reading. I want so badly to peel back the layers of every building, but history is full of mad and murdered people. Tautly reported obituaries referencing a death in one’s sleep, and other dryly reported paragraphs of husbands choking wives, mothers poisoning themselves by opening all the gas jets or swallowing cyanide pills, men run over in the street by dray teams.  Pistols - so many pistols.  So,every time I type an address into a search box in historical archives of San Francisco, I run the risk of discovering that a dead girl occupied my apartment, that maybe a husband threw a brick at his wife in my kitchen and then they argued about it in court, that a man took his life after gambling his wages away on a game of dice at  O’Reilly’s Tarvern below. Really,  every girl that lived in my apartment is now a dead girl, but the browsing through the archives sometimes feel like inch upon column inch of lurid details worthy of punk rock album covers of broken skulls and gunshots.

Two personality traits of mine that motivate my historical research – besides a nearly obsequious obsession with the San Francisco & San Jose railroad --  are finding a good story, and telling a good story.  So of course, sitting down to research our office building,  I was terrified that not only would I read the bad news about our old building, that I’d have to  break it to my colleagues at a staff meeting. I'd have to make a rogue agenda item, or stand up and boldy yet solemnly declare, “Guess what, guys, I found out something about our building..."  A lion escaping from Woodward’s Gardens, and rolling around in the grassy lot behind what is now our building would have been on the low end of possibilities. Splashy, gory headline describing details of a frenzied bloodbath triple-murder was another.  I can’t keep that shit in, either. If I find it, you find it too. 

And, you know, I helped a friend move to Long Beach, and she fell in love with a particular apartment that wasn't the right price; the landlord said he was having a hard time renting it but he was firm on the price. I, of course, looked it up and found that an occupant in the late 1960s had been bludgeoned to death by a fireplace poker by his son. My friend claimed I had gotten the address wrong and asked to stop (I hadn't.)

So, I was relieved to discover my first artifact of our office building’s former address was not a bloodbarth but nothing more than a pleasant advertisement for a company called Old Hickory Supply Company. How delightful! I also discovered that it was a uniform store for a number of years in the mid-century (cheerful! Pressed uniforms! I’ll bet it smelled good!).  Evidence of the German heritage in the neighborhood is obvious simply by visiting the nearby Zeitgeist, but we also start to suspect this when Old Hickory sold pleasantly Germanic things like fruit trees and Belgian hares in the spring (three cherry trees and some flop-ears, please!

But researching the occupants that popped up in the directories the most, I sunk into the pathos of a particulary German family, headed by William Muhlner.   Early on into my research, I had already identified early on that I had gotten the wrong parcel number and was researching a lot a few hundred yards from our office building location, but the Muhlners were an irresistible drama. William and his wife Cordelia (sometimes listed as Cornelia) were listed as living on Fell Streets, but the adults/student sons were listed as living at 23 Fell or 27 Oak at various times, until William’s death in 1885, when Cordelia and some of the sons and daughters decamped to 1661 Mission. Interestingly, Cordelia’s son married a woman whose parents had lived at 1661 previously, so it’s likely that when William H. Muhlner and his wife Gertrude moved out (taking Gertrude’s mother with them), they rented the rooms to his mother and their siblings.  The father was a stern German man who died of a heart attack while at the opening of a Grand Verein (a German social club), right there under the glimmer of the gas jets and the stupefying array of cocktails set out for the occasion. Guests had to hurry round to 23 Fell to tell the family.

William Muhlner's father in law, George Carr, was a tinner and then a carpenter who lived on Market street with other carpenters for a number of years. Sometimes the Muhlner sons are listed as living in the same building as Carr and his carpenters, and sometimes George's wife, Alexina, isn't listed anyhere. Sometimes she is. Confusing matters, there is a separate George Carr, also a carpenter, who lived over on Treat. 

William and the rest of the Muhlner siblings (photos finishers, dressmakers, clerks) had a brother, Loius, who was a weather observer at Point Reyes Station.  In 1895, it seems that he took a liking to a girl in Oakland, Jennie Lewis; Louis had maybe lent the family money and was pressing the brother for it, and he was in love with Jennie, but somehow Jennie wasn't as in love with him as he with her.  Scorned,  he gave Jennie a pair of diamond earrings; she accepted the earrings but didn’t seem to reciprocate Louis’ feelings. 

At a dance the next evening at Germania Hall,  Louis spotted his diamond studs on another man!  He approached the man,  Charlie Miller, to inquire why his earrings were "adorning finger and shirt bosom of his rival"; Jennie Lewis said she had merely loaned him, but Mr. Miller seemed to brag that she had given the earrings to him outright.   Louis was enraged. The next day, he sent a decoy letter to Jennie telling her that her beau Charlie Miller was injured in a lodging-house around the corner; Jennie was suspicious and took her landlady to the lodging-house, only to discover a crazed Louis Muhlner.  She declared she wanted nothing to do with Louis, but the following day, her neighbors saw him was roving around North Oakland where Ms Lewis was a housemaid. By  all accounts he was a madman, mumbling and sweating with his hat pulled low over his eyes. He went straight up to Rev. Mooar's house while she was on the porch, and they quarelled until he pulled out a pistol and shot her in the head. She died in the hospital a few days later after opening her eyes only once, unable to speak.

(Note to immature modern readers: a blurb immediately followed the report of the opening day of the trail for a play called "Too Much Johnson"; the sale of seats was reported as "already large"; so you see, it was not all bloody pistol wounds and dead girls in the late 1800s, but theater and innuendo as well).

Cordelia Muhlner and one of the sisters took the ferry to Oakland to see Louis in jail, and he seemed inconsolable (still probably wondering how killing Jennie didn’t inspire her to fall in love with him) and unable to "receive the sympathy" offered by his mother.   The trial - an epic one with generous newspaper coverage -- was resolved fairly quickly. He was later sentenced to ten years in San Quentin, but released early in 1903 for good behavior. A few years after, he petitioned the court for the return of his diamond studs; Charlie Miller  had kept them, claiming they had been a gift, and Jennie's parents had also claimed them. Somehow the Daily Call forgot to report on the outcome. (Found 'em!)(just kidding). Louis later got a job as a weather recorder again and seemed to live a placid life in Marin.   Cordelia died after moving to Oakland in 1904, William and Gertrude Muhlner lived fairly well off lives as William worked his way up in the Spring Valley Water Company, and the youngest daughter, Edith, ended up in a fairly young marriage with a plasterer who verbally abused her for 12 years before finally assaulting her with a hatchet in front of a neighbor, prompting the request of a divorce. Their daughter was a "clever young violinist" at a recital in 1905.

I paused at this point in the research to take in the fact that I was probably going too microscopic into this family.  I don't know that I needed to investigate them at the subatomic level to put together a portrait of our building's former lives. However, subatomic particles converge together to create both haystacks and needles, and we really never going to know what we're going to find.  I kept telling myself to stop with the Muhlners, and to start surveying another family (there were at least six other occupants).  But while looking for something else entirely, I happened to read a 1904 real estate transaction about a Mabel Carr, daughter of a Charles Haseltine. I noted it first because it was near my current apartment, and then secondly my eyes crossed a bit at the Carr. Sure enough, Mabel Carr was the wife of William H. Carr, brother of the Gertrude Carr who married William F. Muhlner over on Mission Street in 1884.

William H. Carr married Mabel M. Haseltine in 1898, which was probably fantastic for the Carr family, beacuse the Haseltines were a big deal. Charles Haseltine was one of the first stevedores in the city, and owned a number of properties. One of the properties he owned was one San Jose Avenue and 26th Street (part of the parcel that Mabel Carr was selling).  Had Charles Haseltine been one of the original owners of property that had to be sold to make way for the 1806 construction of the San Francisco & San Jose railroad, which blew right through the 26th and San Jose Ave inersection (ok, really straight through at Juri Commons). 

I had some reason to believe that there were two Mabel Carrs that were related to the parcels around 26th and San Jose Ave.  And although this felt somewhat confusing, this just seems to happen. Even now:  not only have I met someone else with my same name, I met her while volunteering in the kitchen at a Girl Scout camp in Camas, Washington, of all places.  She is an accountant in Portland and oftentimes I get very sensitive financial information emailed to me (I can only imagine what she gets emailed to her). I believe that there was more than one Mabel Carr because there were more than 3 George Carrs in 1883 San Francisco - including two carpenters - and many more unlisted. Rather than being completely unrelated, I have an easier time beleiving that hey probably all sat around and drank together at the carpenters' tavern on Market and Noe calling each other Mister Carr until their noses were red turnips.

Searching the records, for me,  for a story is really a search for not just dead girls and historic bullet holes, but for unconventional connections.  At the same time that William Muhlner's brother was being released from San Quentin and searching for his diamonds in court to bring back to their mother in the building I currently work in,  their sister in law Mabel was standing in front of a house selling the deed to the property after the death of her father, two blocks from my current apartment.

We are all really just a few molecules away from each other.