Crime was on the upswing in San Francisco in the 1870s as new, disruptive railroad technology allowed cheap goods from other parts of the country to flood the city. Local factories closed, forcing the children who used to labor in them to form hoodlum gangs. As a result, they robbed the Barbary Coast blind.
“There is one evil which I mention with regret,” San Francisco Police Chief Patrick Crowley wrote in his 1872 annual report. “It is the disposition on the part of many young men and lads to commit acts of violence and mischief.”
Journalists started using the phrase “hoodlum” to describe the violent youths that plagued San Francisco as early as a Cincinnati Commercial article in 1871. In 1875, Samuel Williams wrote in Scribner’s Monthly that, “The Hoodlum is a distinctive San Francisco product,” and, “He drinks, gambles, steals, runs after lewd women, and sets buildings on fire.”
However, not all of the hoodlums were male.
“The memberships of many of the early hoodlum gangs included girls and several were captained by maladjusted representatives of the so-called gentler sex,” Herbert Asbury wrote in The Barbary Coast, his 1933 tome on crime in early San Francisco.
“These girls were almost more ferocious than their male companions,” Asbury continued, “and their fertile minds devised most of the unpleasant methods of torture which the hoodlums employed upon their victims.”
Mary Avery was just 13 years old when she led a gang that included boys as old as 16. Known as Little Dick, Avery became notorious after a night in the San Francisco City Jail on March 28, 1877. She smuggled cigarettes and a knife into the holding tank using her “petticoat of double-thickness” that the Chronicle speculated she used “as a means of concealing her plunder” from shoplifting.
Guards confiscated the smokes and the blade, but Little Dick finally went too far when she propositioned a boy in the cell next to hers using “the unintelligible slang used by criminals, and in which they were adept.” They confined Avery to a dark cell, and described her antics as “one of the worst cases of juvenile depravity that they had ever witnessed.”
Despite her “corpulent and careless-looking” mother’s pleas, the judge committed Avery to serve at least some time. But Little Dick was out by November 1877, which is when she masterminded the burglary of Feigenbaum & Co. at 122 Sansome St. on a Sunday afternoon.
Little Dick and her crew broke in by lifting up a grating in the back of the store and made off with three large music boxes, 19 steam engines, and some toys. Three days later, the gang got their hands on something way deadlier than toys and music boxes; They pilfered 112 revolvers from a shop at 515 Market Street. It took three trips to clear all the guns out of the store.
With a veritable arsenal out on the streets, cops scoured Tar Flat, a section of South of Market that reeked from toxic sludge produced by the company that became PG&E. One of the kids, Bennie Schmidt, was caught trying to sell 11 revolvers. More arrests followed until police busted Little Dick after finding six pistols in her house.
Avery was sent to the Industrial School, a grim workhouse for juvenile offenders near what’s now City College where kids were abused far more than they were reformed. Two years later, Little Dick was boozing it up on a rooftop on Jesse Street with several young boys who were “screaming and swearing at the top of their voices.” The boys split when the cops climbed onto the roof, but Little Dick and another girl were taken back to the City Prison.
“…The round oaths which fell in a continuous from their lips were shocking in the extreme,” the Chronicle reported on May 22, 1879. The tender-eared City Prison guards once again shut Little Dick into a dark cell of her very own.
Special thanks to hoodlum expert Anthony Oertel for research assistance.