Bierce in California 1870


The Wickedest Man in
San Francisco
by Don Swaim

On the last day of the year in 1870, Bierce, Mulford, Stoddard, and Bowman, well fortified with brandy, decided to pull down a cross erected on the highest elevation of Golden Gate Park. Below them, San Francisco sparkled from the lights in the windows of the revelers. Occasionally, a rocket would light the sky. Sporadic bursts of celebratory gunfire heralded the imminent arrival of midnight. In the Bay, the boats were asleep at their anchors.

It had been a good year. Bierce published his first short story, "The Haunted Valley," in the Overland. It was the tale of Whisky Jo Dunker, a man who was haunted by guilt for murdering a Chinese man, and who was terrorized by a knot-hole in the wall that had turned into a human eye. Joaquin Miller wrote from London that he was now the toast of British society and had become the protege of Tom Hood the younger. Twain was living in Hartford after marrying the daughter of a wealthy coal and iron magnate. Thumbing his nose at his creditors, Bret Harte packed his wardrobe and his family to go to Morristown, New Jersey. He had signed a ten-thousand-dollar contract, the most ever paid to an American writer, to publish his work exclusively in the Atlantic Monthly and Every Saturday. Such was the luck of Bret Harte.

"I'm not sure this is a good idea, Bierce," Prentice Mulford said. Mulford was notorious for his timidity. He lived in a decaying whaleboat on the Bay.

"Nonsense," Bierce said. "We must strike a blow against the forces of superstition. We're the Bay area's official representatives of reason."

They had practically Shanghaied Mulford to get him to come this far. Bierce, Stoddard, and Bowman carried the ropes. Mulford was armed with the extra flasks of brandy, a vital necessity (they maintained) to ward off the chill of a new morning and to develop sufficient courage to confront the new year. Above them, at the top of the hill, rose a sixty-foot wooden cross erected by the God-fearing members of the community who generously sought to share their faith with those who had little or none.

"Wait, gentlemen," Mulford said. "Perhaps our revelry at the Russ House tonight has overwhelmed our senses. What if we were to be caught in the act of pulling down the cross? The constabulary takes a dim view of such vandalism."

"I assure you, Mulford," Bierce said, "the constabulary is currently out in force in the Barbary Coast and lacks a single man for such benign duty as park patrol."


"Mulford, there are two breeds of San Franciscans," Bierce said. "The first is safely tucked into his bed in righteous slumber, killing the hours before his morning prayers. The other is in celebration at such places of gaiety as Shanghai Kelly's, Cowboy's Rest, the Grizzly Bear, and the Bowhead."

"This is as far as I go," Mulford said. He squatted on the ground.

Bierce said, "Leave him here with the firewater. The three of us are sufficient for the task."

"Let me take this opportunity to wish you all a happy New Year and a belated Merry Christmas," Mulford said.

Bierce said, "It's a mystery to me why Christmas should always be merry but never happy, and why the New Year should be happy but not merry."

"A matter of sentimental gaiety," Mulford said.

"Mulford," Bierce said, "each year is three-hundred-sixty-five days and then it starts all over again. You sentimentalists who don't exhaust yourselves by the excesses of Christmas still manage to squeeze out your last pitiful dregs of emotion to baptize the New Year."

"Tradition, Bierce."

"Tauri excretio, Mulford," Bierce said. "Commemorating the New Year is about as sensible and dignified as the custom of savages who beat their sounding dogs to scare away an eclipse. Pass me the hootch."

They left Mulford behind and climbed to the top, worn out by their exertions and dizzy from drink.

"We're going to remove that cross like a team of oxen," Bierce said. "We'll wrap the ropes around us and pull in tandem."

Bierce had some affection for Jesus Christ as a literary figure. And it was a remarkable achievement to be the inspiration for a whole new religion. But in the final analysis, Bierce believed that the common adoration of Jesus was merely a primitive form of superstition adopted by the unwashed, the unhinged, and the unworthy.

"I wish I were a preacher," Bierce told his friends.

"You?" Stoddard began to laugh. "The Almighty God Bierce?"

"So that I could tell my flock the truth as I see it," Bierce said. "I admit that I'm indifferently versed in theology, of which I don't believe one word. But if I were a preacher think of the nonsense I could spew without fear of contradiction. My congregation would accept my words just as blindly as they accept the drivel of the dolts in the pulpit."

A rocket, trailing sparks, shot into the night and exploded into a blazing rain. Then another. And another. A new year was at hand.

"Gentlemen," Bierce said, "the cross above us was erected by missionaries. I maintain that missionaries constitute a perpetual menace to peace. The sons-of-bitches never give up. I know. My sister Almeda's somewhere in Africa saving souls. If mankind's lucky, she'll be boiled in a pot and eaten. Let's go forward, men."

"Lead the way, General Bierce," Bowman said.

The men unraveled their ropes.

"Lasso the crossbar," Bierce ordered.

Bowman swung his rope over his head but the rope missed its target. Stoddard's rope also fell short. Giddy, Stoddard collided into Bowman.

"Clumsy oaf!" Bowman yelled.

Bierce twirled his rope and flung it at the T of the cross. The rope fell on his head. Bowman swung his rope again and again missed the beam, as did Stoddard, who managed to slip and fall on his rear. Red-faced with exertion, Bierce kept tossing the rope and failing each time.

"I think we're doing this wrong, men," Bierce said. "Here's the way to do it."

Bierce took one end of his rope, wrapped it around his waist, and tied it tightly. The others followed his example. Then, with Bierce in the lead, they wrapped the opposite ends of their ropes to the base of the cross and secured them with heavy knots.

"All right, men, at my signal we're to start running while pulling with all our might," Bierce said.

"One. Two. Three!"

The men ran until they reached the ends of the tethers and were jerked off their feet. They got up. A cloud drifted over the moon, making it hard to see. Stoddard became disoriented and as he circled the cross his rope entangled with the other ropes. Bowman ran to the far side of the cross and pulled. Bierce continued to yank but the cross was as solid as a redwood. Stoddard careened into Bierce. Their ropes entwined. In confusion, they circled the cross like disoriented dancers around a May pole. Finally, the three men collapsed at the base of their cross, exhausted, dazed by alcohol, hopelessly enmeshed by rope.

Below, Prentice Mulford awoke when heard the twittering of a sparrow and saw the sun come up. He looked toward the top of the hill. The cross was still standing but where were his friends? He stood, stiff and chilly. He urinated in the direction of the sun. He shook one of the flasks and heard the liquid splashing inside. He opened the flask and took a drink. Then he poured some of the liquor onto his hands to wash them. Mulford straightened his back, pocketed the flask, and climbed up the hill to the summit. He saw them. Bierce, Stoddard, and Bowman were lashed to the base of the cross by their own ropes, snoring the drunken, guilty sleep of the profane. Mulford began to laugh, the irony of it all. Bierce opened one eye, then the other. He tried to sit up but was firmly restrained.

"Get me out of here, Mulford." Bierce said."I'll not be bound to a cross. Better a bullet in the brain."

© 1996 by Don Swaim

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The Wickedest Man in San Francisco, 1870
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Ambrose Bierce Resources on the Web

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