How English convicts from Australia terrorised Gold Rush San Francisco and California.
By Paul Merry
It’s been two months since my last post, so let me apologise. My excuse is: I’m busy making a film about how English convicts from Australia ran riot in Gold Rush California, between 1849 and 1852. It’s not about historic blues or rock, like my posts are supposed to be, admittedly, but the film will include early blues and rock in the soundtrack. At the moment I’m featuring Sylvester Weaver, the first recorded blues guitarist, and Uriah Heep, one of the forerunners of heavy metal. Here’s the story, all of which is true.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, at the height of California’s Gold Rush, escaped and former convicts from Britain’s Australian penal colonies turned San Francisco into the most violent city in American criminal history.
These convicts murdered people in their hundreds (possibly thousands), controlling San Francisco’s waterfront, running extortion rackets, gambling halls, sex clubs, child prostitution, brothels and animal fights.
In 1849, roughly 14,000 men from Sydney joined 250,000 other opportunists from around the world, lured to America’s most isolated city by news of spectacular gold discoveries.
While Australia’s genuine gold seekers made their way directly to California’s gold fields, a hardcore of between six and seven thousand hardened British criminals, from the jails of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, settled in San Francisco’s red-light district between the waterfront and Telegraph Hill. San Franciscans feared them collectively as the Sydney Ducks.
Wrote Gangs of New York author, Herbert Asbury, 74 years ago, in his book The Barbary Coast, “By the early autumn of 1849, the arrivals from Australia (to San Francisco) had become so numerous, and so thoroughly dominated the underworld, that the district in which they congregated began to be known as Sydney Town, and it was so called for some ten years.
“It was this area that later became notorious throughout the world as the Barbary Coast, although the latter designation did not come into general use until the middle 1860s.”
The Sydney Ducks included some of the worst criminals ever transported from England to Australia, men like Samuel Whittaker from Manchester, Robert McKenzie from Cumbria and John Jenkins, an ex-convict so depraved he was known as The Miscreant. Many Ducks bore the mark of the branding iron on cheek or thumb, and the scars of the lash across their backs. By late 1849, one in every five men in San Francisco was from Australia. They made the Australian quarter, Sydney Town, the most dangerous district in the most violent city in the world.
In 1849, the lack of women in California forced men to dance with men in the crowded dance halls. Miners playing the part of the female wore bandannas on one arm, or coloured patches on their trousers. Gay, in more ways than one, hey? Gambling was rampant and many English criminals from Australia were accomplished cardsharps, who cheated the more innocent American gold miners out of fortunes. This, too, added to the general resentment in California against Australians, already being sown by the Sydney Ducks, even though British-born convicts were causing the mayhem.
Early in 1850, three ships loaded with 200 prostitutes sailed from Sydney, New South Wales, Australia and moored in San Francisco Bay. Sex-starved miners crowded into rowing boats in their hundreds to get at the women, fighting amongst themselves as they clambered aboard.
During the next six months, over 2000 women arrived in San Francisco to satisfy the cravings of California’s miners. All but 100 of these females were prostitutes, representing, it’s said, every country in the world.
Chinese girls advertised their charms on the street, shouting, “Two bitty looky, four bitty feely, six bitty fucky.”
Many high-class call girls made fortunes in San Francisco’s many casinos, where they had their own private sex booths behind muslin curtains. Due to a lack of virtuous women in town, top prostitutes took an active part in San Francisco’s early social life.
Many married prominent citizens and became leading society ladies of the day. One local wit noted that women from Australia, known for their loose behaviour in Sydney, married respectable men in San Francisco, and “presumably mothered the social leaders of the city’s next generation”.
A San Franciscan journalist described the scene in April, 1849, “On the steep hillside, shabby little dens, tents and hovels, patched with canvas, carpet, board and linen, dispensed drinks behind the usual Old World ale-house names: the Boar’s Head, Bird in Hand, Jolly Waterman.
“In the doorways, villainously-looking vagabonds watched the street furtively. Their features were concealed by slouch felts or tattered cabbage-tree hats.
“Australians, who were used to convicts, noticed that some of these hangdog fellows walked with the peculiar swinging gait a man learns during years in leg-irons.”
Notorious establishments in San Francisco’s Sydney Town district included the Goat & Compass and the Golden Rule, both owned by Hell Haggerty, an escaped ticket of leave man from New South Wales.
Perhaps the lowest of all dives in Sydney Town were the Boar’s Head and the Fierce Grizzly, where a live female bear was kept chained beside the door. The Fierce Grizzly was noted for sex exhibitions between the bear and a man, while the main attraction at the Boar’s Head was a live sex show between a woman and a boar.
Said this contemporary report, “The rich miners and well-off merchants and enterprisers would go slumming in Sydney Town, to visit the harbour tarts working for the Sydney Ducks, to watch strange games in obscene shows in which the Australians specialised, at 50 cents to five dollars a gamy performance of oddly paired groups. Visitors, unless well protected by bodyguards or the bribed law, found it easy to get their heads bashed in and their pockets emptied.”
When the Australians first arrived in San Francisco in 1849, an amalgam of New York street gangs, the very ones featured in the film, Gangs of New York, was already terrorising San Francisco.
Called the Hounds, the gang included members of New York gangs such as the Plug Uglies, the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys. The Hounds strutted around in military uniforms, demanding protection money from white businesses, beating blacks and Latin Americans senseless; once shearing the ears off a Negro and tearing a Mexican’s tongue from its roots, simply because they answered back.
Said San Francisco’s city records of 1855, “The Hounds and Ducks terrorized the corrupt political establishment who were more interested in looting the treasury and taking their cuts from the gambling halls, saloons and bordellos, than enforcing the laws.
“The Ducks were worse than the Hounds and were from the convict settlements of Australia. They all lived along the waterfront between Broadway and Pacific Streets in an area they called Sydney Town. They were even more depraved than the Hounds and more adept at rabble-rousing. Dozens of murders had gone unsolved that spring (of 1849) and none brought to justice.”
Of the first 16 white men arrested in San Francisco in 1849, 12 were ex-cons from Sydney. It was illegal for people with criminal records to enter California, so some respectable Australians living in San Francisco made a point of boarding incoming ships and identifying their convict countrymen, to stop them entering the port. But so few could do little against so many.
The Sydney Ducks soon vastly outnumbered the New York Hounds, who were run out of San Francisco late in 1849 by San Francisco vigilantes for one attack too many (and one rape too many) on Latinos.
On 24 December, 1849, the first of six great fires attributed to the Sydney Ducks, started in Dennison’s Exchange, an upmarket saloon and gaming hall on San Francisco’s Portsmouth Square.
Of the 70 men arrested on suspicion, 48 were from Sydney. The Ducks, it was alleged, torched the saloon after its management refused to pay for protection. Nobody was ever charged.
In early 1850, one of the most notorious of all Sydney Ducks, James Stuart, arrived in San Francisco, overland from America’s east coast.
Infamous as English Jim, Stuart was given 12 years in England for forgery in the 1830s, aged 16. Transported to New South Wales, he received his ticket-of-leave around 1847, and promptly escaped to New York. With another absconded Sydney ticket-of-leave man, Stuart worked his way through New York, Boston and up to Vermont where he, “Robbed six banks, floated a large quantity of counterfeit money, and swindled a score of merchants and other business men.”
The mate was captured, and locked up for 14 years, but Stuart escaped to San Francisco, “Where he at once became one of the chief ornaments of Sydney-Town”.
In a few months, recorded San Francisco’s annuls, English Jim Stuart had committed, or assisted in, more murders and burglaries than any other man in California of his time. When Stuart arrived in San Francisco in early 1850, torrential rains had turned the city streets into mud so deep, horses and mules sank and drowned. By April 1850, the cost of living in San Francisco was astronomical. The best rooms cost US$1000 a month, about A$30,000 in today’s money, rent in advance. Good boots were $100 a pair, laudanum, or opium, a dollar a drop. It might take 50 drops to get you to sleep.
As well as gambling, girls and boozing, entertainment included bare-knuckle fighting, cockfights, Mexican-style bullfights, and contests where bears fought to the death against bulls.
On May 4, 1850, San Francisco’s second great fire broke out. A third blaze followed a month later, destroying 400 buildings. All three fires had started in the gambling district around Portsmouth Square, as the wind blew away from Sydney Town. The Sydney Ducks knew not to put their own district in danger. They had borrowed the idea of using fire from the Aborigines’ method of burning the bush to flush out game back in Australia.
Three city infernos in six months fired up San Francisco’s newspapers, which demanded urgent action against the Australians. A law was passed ordering every business in Sydney Town to shut by midnight. This was ignored by the Sydney Ducks, who started a fourth great city fire on December 14, 1850, in retaliation.
Again, nobody was arrested. Soon afterwards, early in 1851, two Australians called Burdue and Windred were arrested for robbery with violence. It was a genuine case of mistaken identity, and the Sydney Ducks were acquitted. despite a mob of 5000 angry San Franciscans attacking the courthouse. Later, 10,000 people bayed in a city square for Burdue and Windred’s blood. In retaliation for the authorities’ audacity in locking up their mates, a gang of arsonists led by Sydney Ducks, Jack Edwards and Ben Lewis, started a fifth fire in May, 1851, which set San Francisco’s entire business district alight.
The blaze, it was said, could be seen from 100 miles out at sea and from as far down the Californian coast as Monterey. The Australians destroyed 2000 buildings in San Francisco that night. Over 20 city blocks, a mile long by over half a kilometre wide, were totally razed. Damage was estimated at $12,000,000, US$2 billion in today’s money.
As before, in the mad confusion caused by the fire, packs of Sydney Ducks roamed the streets of San Francisco, looting the burning stores and warehouses; taking whatever they could carry.
But this time the San Franciscans struck back, their confidence raised by the recent mob rage shown against Burdue and Windred, the two Australians recently acquitted. After the fifth fire, looting Sydney Ducks were shot and killed, others cornered by groups of enraged citizens and beaten to death.
The fifth great fire destroyed three quarters of San Francisco. But when a corrupt court released the Australians accused of starting the blaze, Jack Edwards and Ben Lewis, enraged San Franciscans took the law into their own hands.
In June 1851, San Francisco’s first Vigilance Committee was formed and, two days later, publicly lynched one of the most notorious of all Sydney Ducks, John Jenkins, the depraved ex-convict known as the Miscreant. Jenkins, accused of robbery with violence, died a slow and painful death.
The Committee then ordered San Francisco’s entire criminal population to leave the city within five days, or face death or deportation. Warnings were sent to prominent Sydney Ducks. All incoming ships were boarded by Committee vigilantes and checked for Australians and other criminals. If those aboard weren’t considered decent and honourable, they were told to go back to where they came from.
“If they don’t look right, git,” went the rule.
“For a few days after the hanging of the Miscreant,” wrote a US historian, “the small steamers which made frequent voyages up the Sacramento River to the gold-fields were crowded with frightened rascals. But it soon became apparent that the exodus was confined almost entirely to the small fry; the really dangerous inhabitants of Sydney-Town remained under cover in San Francisco, confident that they could still depend upon their friends the politicians.”
On June 22, 1851, a few days after the passing of the Committee’s five-day deadline, the Sydney Ducks retaliated with their sixth fire, burning down another 18 city blocks.
English Jim Stuart was next to be captured by the vigilantes. Like the Miscreant, Stuart was charged with robbery with violence. English Jim, though, was an even bigger prize. His would be the most important public hanging yet seen in San Francisco, and would show the Sydney Ducks that their goose was well and truly cooked.
Manacled in heavy irons, English Jim was paraded through San Francisco at the head of a huge procession. A crane on the Market Street wharf was adapted into a scaffold. The crowd was so enormous, spectators took to the harbour in their rowing boats to get a better view.
Said this eye-witness report from San Francisco’s city records: “Hitherto the prisoner had preserved much coolness, but towards the close, fear was beginning to overcome him, and he was at last obliged to be supported by two of his guards. So soon as the procession reached the spot, the fatal rope was fastened, and the condemned quickly hoisted up with a jerk upon a derrick. He did not struggle much.
“After hanging a few seconds, his hat fell off, and a slight breeze stirred and gently waved his hair. This was a sorry spectacle – a human being dying like a dog, while thousands of erring mortals, whose wickedness only had not yet been found out, looked on and applauded!”
Unlike John ‘The Miscreant’ Jenkins, English Jim Stuart’s neck was broken immediately.
Stuart had named two accomplices to his kangaroo court, Sam Whittaker and Robert McKenzie, both Englishmen from Australia. They were immediately convicted of robbery, arson and burglary, and sentenced to death.
What followed was a trial of strength between the Committee of Vigilance and California’s Governor, John MacDougal. As Whittaker and McKenzie waited to hang, the Governor ordered police to snatch the two Australians from Committee headquarters, in Battery Street, and take them to City Hall, to be tried legally. It was August 21, 1851.
Wrote a US historian, “For two days the Vigilance Committee made no move, but on Sunday, August 24, 36 heavily armed Vigilantes overpowered the Sheriff’s guard and forcibly entered the jail. They seized Whittaker and McKenzie and rushed them in a carriage to the rooms of the committee, where the entire membership had assembled.
“Within 20 minutes, Whittaker and McKenzie were dangling from heavy redwood beams run out of the windows of the main meeting-room. Outside, a crowd of several thousand citizens had gathered, and as the struggling bodies were swung from the windows, the multitude expressed its approval by a great shout of triumph and satisfaction.
“The two Sydney Ducks remained hanging for half an hour.”
Nothing the Governor could do, the Committee of Vigilance declared, would stop the vigilantes from hanging every criminal and Sydney Duck who dared to stay in San Francisco. The battle for the streets of San Francisco, and its waterfront area of Sydney Town, was over.
“Its rascally inhabitants left San Francisco in droves, and within two weeks there remained in that vicious quarter only a few dance-halls, saloons, and houses of prostitution, all of which were carefully operated in strict accordance with the law.”
The Committee of Vigilance made, in just six months, 91-recorded arrests. Four Sydney Ducks were hanged, one flogged, 14 deported to Australia, 14 ordered to leave California and 15 handed over to the authorities. The Committee had won an emphatic victory against crime for the people of San Francisco. But in doing so, with no effective opposition from the authorities, they also planted the seeds of a vigilante culture that was part of the American West for years to come.
The Sydney Ducks’ behaviour blackened the name of honest Australians in the United Sates for over 50 years. No wonder the history books hardly acknowledge their existence. Here’s a rough video I made that examines the issue further.