Yesterday’s Crimes: The Gas Pipe Thugs

Shortly after the 1906 earthquake, a group of violent robbers terrorized downtown San Francisco.

Newspaper cartoon of the Steiner Street robbery. (San Francisco Call)

While the great earthquake on April 18, 1906, and the fires that followed left San Francisco in ruins, commerce had already started to return to downtown by late summer. Unfortunately for the merchants setting up shop along a rebuilt Market Street, they were soon terrorized by one of the city’s most brutal gangs.

German immigrant Johannes Pfitzner was waiting on a customer in his small shoe store at 964 McAllister St. late in the afternoon on Aug. 20, 1906. As Pfitzner knelt down to help the man try on a pair of size eight shoes, the man picked up what would now be an antique window weight and bashed Pfitzner’s head in with it.  The killer took $200 in cash and a gold watch worth $130 and left the store. Pfitzner died later that evening at the Central Emergency Hospital. 

A little less than a month later on Sept. 14, 1906, 15-year-old Thelma Anderton took her younger brother Robert out shopping for a new suit. No one came to meet them when they entered the clothing store at 1386 Market St. After 10 minutes of unfettered browsing, they made their way to the backroom to see if anyone was there. They found proprietor William Friede lying in a pool of his own blood, his skull pulverized so thoroughly that they could see the brain through the fractures.

“We gazed at the awful site for I don’t know how long,” Thelma Anderton told the San Francisco Chronicle. “The sight of the blood and the man lying in it nearly made me faint.”

Friede had been beaten with an unfound blunt instrument, and the cash register drawer had been yanked off its chain and cleaned out of every coin. A tape measure found on the floor indicated he had been killed while helping someone try on clothes just like the Pfitzner murder. The position of Friede’s body also showed that more than one man had carried out the crime. 

A day later, Friede’s watch was found on Market Street at Dolores near a 14-inch piece of gas pipe covered in blood and wrapped in paper.

On Oct. 3, 1906, the killers stormed the Japanese-run Kimmon Ginko bank at 1588 O’Farrell St. They beat bank teller A. Sasaki to the ground with a piece of gas pipe wrapped in paper before caving in the head of Vice President S. Murakata. Sasaki survived the attack, but couldn’t remember much about his attackers. Murakata died later at the hospital. The thugs, as they were now called by the press, made off with $2,800.

The killers next moved on the Steiner Street jewelry store of Harry Behrend on Nov. 3, 1906. While one man stood lookout, two others worked over the jeweler with their signature gas pipe. Behrend struggled against his attackers causing one of them to slam his pipe down on his accomplice’s hand, nearly severing off a finger.  Two of the robbers fled as Behrend, still covered in his own blood, grabbed onto the man with the gas pipe and held him until two cops rushed over from the bar across the street.

The man that Behrend had captured was Louis V. Dabner of Petaluma. His roommate, John Siemsen, matched Behrend’s description of his other attacker. 

Siemsen, a Hawaiian who posed as the heir of a vast island fortune, was soon turned in by his father-in-law. Siemsen had married Hulda Von Hofen the day before the botched jewelry store heist in a ceremony that the bride later claimed was “forced upon her by the point of a revolver.” However, the Oakland minister who performed the wedding contradicted her, telling the Call that he never saw a more elated bride.

Police soon got a confession from Dabner detailing the gas pipe murders and their spending spree at the “Macey’s Jewelry Company” on Fillmore Street after knocking over the Japanese bank. Dabner also confessed to other robberies including one that ended up with the wrong man being sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Dabner and Seimsen were hanged in the San Quentin prison yard on July 31, 1908 in front of 200 spectators. The third man in the Behrend robbery, Harry Kearney of Sacramento, was in prison in Washington for a similar crime.

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