If one neighborhood has set the tone for San Francisco and cemented our city’s reputation for rebelliousness, it has to be the Barbary Coast. The environ we now call North Beach has had a persistent influence on the city’s development, and still does to this day. San Francisco’s no-holds-barred Barbary Coast origins still reverberate here and throughout the city, expressed in the ambition and limitless sense of possibility that SF has come to be associated with.

But as we’ve learned, this anarchic spirit also has its dark side. With license comes the licentious, and the history of San Francisco is populated with the widest variety of reprobates, rapscallions and social outliers that any American city has ever seen. To commemorate these noteworthy ne’er-do-wells, we bring you this third edition of Vagabonds, Lunatics And Scoundrels in San Francisco History.


We’ll start back in the late 19th Century, with one of San Francisco’s most notoriously fiery madams: Tessie Wall. Raised in San Francisco’s Mission District, Tessie was born in 1869, and seems to have led a relatively normal childhood. A comely and curvaceous blond, Tessie married early, supporting herself and a dependent, alcoholic husband with her job as a housekeeper. But when she lost her first child to illness within just months of his birth, the marriage dissolved, and Tessie’s path was forever altered.



Tessie Wall San Francisco History - Joe Content

The Only Surviving Photo Of San Francisco Madam Tessie Wall

Her work in upper-crust homes had exposed Tessie to the prurient appetites of her wealthy benefactors, and she quickly discovered a way to put them to use. Once free of her marriage, Tessie purchased a bordello in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, hiring a stable of young girls to staff it. From the jump, business was brisk at Tessie’s sumptuously appointed ‘parlor house,’ and she was soon opening another location. Her houses were very popular among the city’s socialites, and frequented by many patrons whose homes Tessie used to clean.

A natural promoter, Tessie would secure the latest fashions straight from Paris and New York, dressing her ladies in them and staging parades down Market Street that worked wonders at boosting business. She was also an unnaturally prodigious drinker, and once defeated legendary boxer John L. Sullivan in a champagne-drinking marathon, and after downing 21 glasses of the bubbly, the one-time heavyweight champ was on the floor at Tessie’s feet.

But it would take more than that to make Tessie Wall notorious. To find out what, read the rest of the story at Belle Cora’s  Kindred Spirits Blog.

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