Elizabeth Creely

Places, names, and things in California

Month: December, 2018

Why Hannah got her gun: outtakes and postscripts

In June of 1910, Hannah McCarty Welsh stepped over the threshold of J.H. Kruse’s hardware store on the corner of 23rd Street and Shotwell and bought a gun. This seems like an act of reckless bravado. But what is more likely is that she was exhausted when she did it, and very frightened.

She and her husband John had been served with an eviction notice the day before, informing them that the homestead he’d established in 1879 on the north side of Bernal Hill, was no longer legally their home, due to a foreclosure by the Hibernia Bank, and the predatory practices of a Geary Street money lender named E.W. Lick.

Ew, indeed. John Welsh’s bitter comments to the press, two or three days later, as he stood in the street with his worldly possessions scattered around him, suggests that Lick talked Hannah into signing something she shouldn’t have. The result was an expulsion from the Edenic surroundings of Bernal Heights, then and now a serene and secluded spot in San Francisco.

Hannah had been arguing their case before the courts earlier that year. This earned her the attention of the San Francisco Call, which showed puzzled admiration for her after she spent two days in court in February, acting as her own lawyer. Calling her a “woman attorney”, the reporter reported that she showed a “knowledge of legal procedures that would surprise some members of the bar.” Did she want to go to law school? Where did her unsanctioned and raw expertise come from?

We’ll never know. Most of the media attention implied that what she really was, was a braying loudmouth. Although she “bravely essayed” to represent her case, and was described as “confident” and dexterous in her questioning, and unshaken by the technical questions from Lick’s lawyer, Mr. Gaylor, the surprise that greeted her confidence carried the unmistakable stink of misogyny. She was alternately derided and condescended to in the press. She “complained’ rather than reported the bribe she claimed had passed between her neighbor and a city surveyor, was called “noisy” and “lawless” as she objected to the eviction proceedings, and was declared insane for making “scenes” as she fought to stay in her home.

The whole sorry episode stinks to high heaven. The only comfort I can take is that two and a half years later, after her husband died, she was released from the asylum and cleared of all charges. By 1922, she was working as a “matron” (a professional shusher at movie theaters) at the Orpheum Theater and owned a house in Noe Valley. She lived with a man named George Hamilton Bohm, thirteen years younger than she, and an employee of the U.S. Post office. He’s described as a boarder in Hannah’s home in the census record from 1930. Four years before she died, he died. She reported his death to the H.F. Suhr & Co funeral home, who handled his remains, and is described in Bohm’s obit as his “dear friend.”

That is the substance of a happy ending: the restoration of home, the happy amity of friendship (maybe he was gay? I sort of hope he was) and the promise of a peaceful dotage. She even managed to be interred in San Francisco, due to her husband’s status as a Civil War vet.

Hannah stayed put in a city that shakes people off its back as effortlessly as a dog shakes water from its coat. But in order to do that, she had to face down the kind of fear that immobilizes people. Eviction at the age of fifty is a banishment to the margins of civilization, of society, of settled existence. She was facing that fear as she stepped over the threshold of J.H. Kruse’s hardware store and bought a gun. Was this necessary? Did it help? It depends.

It didn’t reverse the court’s decision that Lick could evict her. But if you take all events in a narrative as innately causative, and fate-shaping, then sure. It was necessary. So was her fear. So were the mistakes she undoubtedly made: signing papers, losing her temper, talking too much, caring too much, and probably ignoring her husband’s advice. The mistakes she made—and her husband’s pension— might have been necessary prerequisites that led her to 1538 Church street and an old age supported by a dear friend, and her extended family.

Maybe. That’s a nice summation, probably too nice. How Hannah got her gun was simple: she bought it from her friendly neighborhood gun dealer. How she got her resilience and determination to keep her hand in after she lost her home and was institutionalized is more of a mystery.

Some people are just really bloody-minded: by this, I mean that I think that the fiery instinct of Fuck You blazed within Hannah’s soul, granting her some protection from depression and inertia.

She’s in my heart these days. I, too, am in my fifties and have made many mistakes, wasted decades, been bumptious and ill-advised, ill-timed—hysterical even— and am very bloody minded. Fuck You is my rejoinder to all those mistakes, the rebuke they’re lobbing at me, and the fear they’re trying to instill in my soul of what I’ve become: a writer who makes no money. Hannah had her gun; I have my computer: both of us want to be heard.

What is prompting all this over identification with Hannah? you may be wondering. Reader, I’ll tell you. (and I’m sorry to be so outbursty on my blog.) I’ve recently had two or three long dark nights, and at least two days, of the soul, following some galvanic shocks only the universe is capable of delivering. I encountered some writing in major publications that I could have and should have done. And when I say “could have”, I’m not exaggerating.

One of these articles, which was very well written and needful of publication, told a story I began to tell back in 2004, and then abandoned. But here’s the kicker: it wasn’t until I saw the story, that I realized that I had, in fact, abandoned it.

Why did I abandon it?  Do you have all day? Neither do I. Chalk it up to a combination of confusion about what I was doing and how to do it, isolation from a peer group, and a lack of self-confidence, which looks and feels like laziness. In other words, the usual suspects hamstrung me and have continued to do so intermittently for the past fifteen years.

This is hard for me to admit. Like Hannah, I’m not a quitter, and yet… time that is unbound by the normal constraints (a nine-to-five job) appears to be closer in the rear view mirror than it really is. One, two, twenty years: I’m not sure what I’ve been doing since I graduated from San Francisco State University with an MFA and married Jay three years after that. Those seem to be the high points in a decade and half that now, in my current six-of-cups mood, feel mired in betwixt-dom.

The fact of the matter is, I’ve started more than I’ve finished (so far) and while these are terrible words to write, they are true.

Happily, I have friends and family who can remind me gently that I have done some things, and so thus endeth—sort of abruptly, cause I ain’t got no more insights to offer—my peroration. It’s all good. I’ll survive. Hannah survived. But I want more than survival, and I think Hannah did, too. What might she have been, had she been sprung from a culture that saw her as uncontrollable and therefore insane?

And where is Hannah now? She’s around. In the mid-eighties, during a divorce which tested her to her limits, my aunt—Hannah’s great-great grandniece—finished law school, passed the bar and practiced law until she retired. She has since retired to a house she owns, and is greatly loved by her family. We’ll be celebrating her 82nd birthday this month.

Into every generation a slayer is born. Hannah lives, I say, and has been sprung from the institutional constraints she struggled against. My aunt survived, I will as well, and my nieces and younger cousins will do that and more, I prophecy, while being as bold, talkative and as dammed obstreperous as they see fit to be.

Cue the music and let the credits roll.

3145 23rd Street, the (former) site of JH Kruse Hardware store.

 

Written in a highly reflective mood, and with love to Ania, Madeline, Delphina, Cosette,  and the littlest Creely of all, darling Becca.

December 7, San Francisco, CA

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From the mixed up files of the Creely-McCarty family: why Hannah got her gun.

 

Hannah McCarty Welsh, as she appeared in the pages of the San Francisco Examiner in June, 1910.

 

Hannah McCarty Welsh is my 3rd-great grandaunt, and sister to Daniel “Whitehat” McCarty, a source of dismay to his extended family. Hannah might have been as well, but by the time she shot the Sheriff’s deputy—not the Sheriff—at her home at 120 Ripley street, the Creely-McCarty family was preoccupied by other family scandals and may not have taken any notice.

The house on north side of Bernal Hill is still standing, trim and well-maintained, and gives no hint to the turmoil that peaked in June of 1910. I wonder if there are any bullet holes in the house, particularly near the side door. It received the worst treatment during the shoot out; that, and Sheriff’s deputy John A. Barr’s left and right cheeks.

Hannah’s crime happened during a trigger happy era in San Francisco. The graft trial of Abe Ruef and Eugene Schmitt, and the 1907 Carmen’s strike both included shooting. Hardware stores like J.H. Kruse’s at 3145 23rd street, which is where Hannah got her gun, must done a brisk trade in the sale of small handguns during those years.

An armed woman facing down a posse of policeman might not have made the papers before 1910. But she chose her historic moment well. San Franciscan’s were tired of reading about the graft trial, and Hannah, as one newspaper account reported, was “known” around town, because she was Whitehat’s sister, and also because she talked a lot.

Hannah didn’t dislike media attention. There’s a picture of her, four months before the shooting, smiling for the camera and holding the corner of her collar in an unmistakably cocky and self-confident manner. She was in court that day contesting the claims of one E.W. Lick, money lender, to the rightful possession of the title on her house. Lick was trying to evict Hannah and her aged husband, John.

Eviction, along with rotten potatoes, would have been very triggering for Hannah. Although Hannah was born in Boston in 1859, her parents, my great-great-great grandparents Timothy and Mary McCarty, were not. They were born in Cork, Ireland in the early eighteen-hundreds, and had the awesome luck of surviving Trevelyan’s economic schemes for Ireland, which included exporting food out of the Ireland as the potato crop failed.

This isn’t the kind of luck I’d wish on anyone. I have no story about their life in Cork prior to immigration, but statistically the odds were not in their favor. Abusive and absentee landlords, terrible workhouses, like the one in Skibbereen, failed crops: the entire panoply of famine, death, displacement and British bureaucratic derangement formed the backdrop to their departure and arrival in America, and probably the rest of their lives in sunny California. Their only luck was their ability to get the hell out.

I don’t know what their immigration year was (looking for a McCarty in a census record from the mid-eighteen hundreds is a thankless task) but anyone who fled a famine no matter where it happened—Ireland, India, North Korea—knows this: the feeling that people are trying to get rid of you is not paranoic fantasy. They are.

In 1910, E.W. Lick was trying to get rid of Hannah and John. They purchased the property from the Hibernia Savings and Loan Society seven years earlier for $250. Adjusted for inflation (it comes out to $6921.73) that’s still a good deal. It’s a roomy lot: 5,625 square feet and 75 feet deep, and it backs up to a hillside. The house has neatly symmetrical second-story fenestration overlooking the street that made a perfect shooting gallery for Hannah.

A page from the 1907 San Francisco Block Book ,showing the lots owned by Hannah and her husband John. After Hannah accused Samuel Boyd of encroaching on her property, she and her husband sold a part of their original lot to Mr. Dettling.

The trouble began in 1905. That year, Hannah complained to the Department of Public Works that their surveyor improperly measured the lot next to hers, an error encouraged by a bribe offered to the surveyor from her neighbor at 130 Ripley, Mr. Samuel Boyd. This, she said, resulted in four and a quarter feet being deducted from her property. Her complaint was ignored. She was determined to be heard and to obtain justice, but sadly this ancestral vigilance, formed in the crucible of the famine in Cork, was her doom. Prior to the earthquake and fire of 1906, she borrowed $500 from the money lender Lick in order to bring suit against Boyd.

Today, a house stands between 120 and 130 Ripley, but in 1910, there was only an empty field and enough neighborly antipathy billowing across that empty space to make today’s Nextdoor.com dramas pale in comparison. Dumping mattresses is one thing: taking four feet and quarter inches is a trespass not to be born.

Neither Hannah, who was a tailoress, or her husband were working, which is perhaps why the Hibernia Bank foreclosed their $600 mortgage sometime in 1906 through their collection agency, Rauers Law and Collections Agency, which had the snappy motto “We Do Get The Money If The Debtor Has It!” The debtor didn’t have it, but Lick did, and so the die was cast and the drama began churning along.

Lick, whose name rhymes with dick (funny, that) secured a ruling that evicted the Welshes from their home sometime late in 1909, or early in 1910. Hannah refused to budge and ended up in court in February of 1910 for violating section 419 of the penal code, which forbids an evictee from returning to their former abode.

Hannah acted as her own lawyer: this was both affordable and in keeping with her forthright nature. She was helped by a mysterious young woman during the irregular proceedings that day, identified only as “Portia Gray”. Portia claimed she had been admitted to the bar “in another state”, but refused to say any more about it. She and Hannah carried on “whispered consultations” throughout the day, and got a continuance of the case.

Portia Gray never shows up in any other article, and no amount of googling has uncovered her identity. Was she a family member or friend, or maybe even a colleague sent by my great-grandfather James, an attorney, who was used to extricating his family from perilous legal situations? Who knows? Not me.

Things, meaning legal decisions, didn’t go Hannah’s way. Her husband was 74 years old, a veteran of the Civil War, and well within his dotage. This must have weighed on her. When she purchased the revolver from J.H. Kruse’s hardware store that June, one day after being served with a writ of eviction by Barr, the man she later shot, she did so believing that Lick’s men had no right to enter her home.

“I have been told by my attorney that they had no right to enter and that I could have a revolver there to protect my home,” she told a reporter as she sat in jail awaiting arraignment. No article specifies the type of revolver she purchased that day. It was the type you had to reload, which she did at least once during the shoot-out. Perhaps it was a Colt. That detail has been lost to history, but what happened a week later, has not.

It was 54 degrees and clear the morning of June 16, 1910 when Deputy Sheriff John A. Barr climbed the steps of 120 Ripley street, accompanied by Sheriff’s keeper James Logan, and two other policeman. They were there to remove Hannah and her husband from the house and place their belongings in the street. Her husband had gone to plead their case to the presiding judge, George H. Cabaniss, a superior court judge, and Hannah was alone, sick in bed, she said later, but ready to defend herself. When Barr arrived, he found the door barred against him.

Barr sent the other men around to a side door, and ordered Hannah to open up “in the name of the law”. That’s when she fired the first shot.

Hannah McCarty Welsh shooting at John A. Barr, as depicted by the San Francisco Call, June 17, 1910

The shot went wild, and ricocheted off the wall, near the two policemen crouched outside. Barr put his shoulder against the front door and forced it open. Looking up, he saw Hannah, half dressed, pointing her revolver directly at him. She pulled the trigger and shot him through his left cheek. The bullet passed through his open mouth, exiting above his right ear. He “staggered” out of the house and collapsed, not dead—he didn’t die—but perhaps wishing he was.

She fired her next shot at Policeman Logan, after he forced his way in through a side door. He promptly fled. Hannah opened her front door and stood on her porch, holding the smoking revolver. “I’ll shoot any man that tries to come in here,” she announced. And that’s exactly what she did for the next chaotic hour as policemen in squad cars answered the riot call and rattled up Ripley Street. A crowd of 200 people gathered outside the house, watching and waiting. A neighbor was sent inside to reason with her, but left empty-handed.

Finally, Detective Michael V. Burke from the Mission station forced his way through a back door—not before she shot at him three times—and subdued her. “Although the struggle was between a stalwart policeman and a frail little woman, she fought like a tigress,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle breathlessly the next day. Hannah was taken to the city prison where she was charged with assault to murder.

Hannah’s husband John arrived home and was advised that his wife was in prison. With the doors of his home closed against him, an eviction notice nailed to the front door, and his furniture and personal belongs scattered around him in the street, he spoke with the Chronicle reporter. “This is my property and no matter what my wife borrowed on it or what she was led into signing, it is still mine and they have no right to put me out,” he said. His eyes flashed. “Lick didn’t get it fairly. He has no right to my property.”

His neighbors—maybe the Mahoneys, who lived next door, or the Dettlings, or the maybe the McGarrigals or the Mulcahy’s, all of whom had witnessed the Welsh’s struggle to stay put—gathered around him, offering assistance. Someone gathered up his belongings, and someone else took him away, and gave him shelter that night.

Hannah was arraigned in Judge Deasy’s court on July 14th, and then declined to appear again, and vanished for a month. It was an open secret that she had returned to the scene of the crime and was occupying the house on Ripley Street. The long arm of the law caught up to her in September, and she appeared in Judge Dunne’s court after he threatened to jail her husband. The charges against her were read again, and bail set at $1,000 in cash.

She fired her attorney, Philip Boardman, and, insisting on representing herself, tried to convince the judge to throw out the case. “Shrieking woman breaks up court” was the headline that day: after failing to convince Judge Dunne of the merits of her argument, Hannah screamed so loudly that court proceedings in other rooms came to halt. She was removed from court and taken to a nearby paddy wagon, still screaming that she was being deprived of her rights.

Her persistence didn’t go unrewarded. In October, commissioners with San Francisco County Insanity Commission, announced that she was paranoic, and insane, due to her peculiar conviction that she was better able to represent herself and, moreover, that the courts and officers of justice were in a conspiracy and trying to cheat her.

The commissioners suggested that she be remanded to a private insane asylum. She was placed in the county jail while her friends (they are never named in any of the articles) were encouraged to find such a place. She was officially declared legally insane on November 10, 1910, by Dr. C.D. McGettigan, insanity commissioner, who said that she suffered from “litigious paranoia”. It’s not clear where she was held from November, 1910 to August 17, 1913: the Stockton State Asylum has no public record that shows her as an inmate. Perhaps she was at San Francisco General Hospital. Or perhaps the Creely/McCarty’s funded her stay at a private asylum.

Wherever she was, she proved to be a model inmate. Two years later, on August 17, 1913, Hannah was pronounced sane and released, three months after her husband John died at the age of 77.

Hannah bounced back. After her release, she lived on 24th street, near the intersection of Shotwell, a funny locale for a woman who hadn’t. She made her living as a vest-maker. By 1920, she was sixty-one years old, and working as a matron in the Orpheum theater and living in a rented room on Guerrero street. John’s pension as a veteran would have been available to Hannah; this, combined with her tailoring skills, may explain why, after so much strife, fraud and trickery, she was able to purchase a home at 1538 Church street in Noe Valley.

She passed out of this crazy world 35 years after her impassioned defense of her home, at the ripe old age of 85. She outlived her siblings, Margaret and Daniel, and possibly Catherine and John, too.

There’s no obituary for her, just a record from Carew and English, the funeral home that received her remains. The information in it came from her niece Anna Creely, and confirms the information we, who were born in the aftermath of our ancestor’s immigration, were told in sporadic moments of recollection: that her parents were Timothy and Mary (Rice) McCarty, that Hannah was born in Massachusetts, and that everything we never really knew, was true after all.

Less important, but most illuminating to me is this fact: Hannah was born under the astrological sign of Cancer the Crab, that clever, tenacious, legalistic, and resilient sign most associated with domesticity, and all matters pertaining to the thing we call home.

She and John are buried in the National Cemetery, in the Presidio, in grave 1015, on the west side, under a plain white headstone made by the Green Mountain Marble Co. in Vermont. Requiescat in pace.

120 Ripley Street as it appears today.

 

Written with love (and a very stiff neck) for Aunt Hannah and Uncle John.

“… the exiled Irish took with them the bitterest memories of the land system which drove them from Ireland… ” Mícheál Davitt, excerpted from the speech he delivered in defense of the Land League in 1890.

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