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 thefuneral 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.