The Toughest Gang in Town: Police Stories From Old San Francisco

by Kevin J. Mullen, Noir Publications, Novato, Calif., 2005, $16.95 paperback.

Police stories are often interesting in themselves, but the ones that Kevin Mullen tells are put into context, giving them more meat with the grit. The challenges faced by a city police department in any era are enormous, and Mullen provides sometimes surprising insight into the way the criminal system works. In this case, the city is San Francisco, and the stories from the dark side begin with a child killing in 1828, when Mexicans were the law enforcers, and ends with a public defender’s involvement in the killing of a widow. In between are plenty of short, intriguing episodes—including the matter of who killed Francisco Guerrero in 1851; the violent world of “Dutch Charley” Duane; the savage 1870 murder under the Pacific Wharf of 5-year-old Maggie Ryan; the shotgun killing of 27-year-old “Jeanne Bonnet, the Frog-Catcher”; the case of the theatrical celebrity who was caught in the act of killing a cop yet was saved by a resourceful defense team; and many more.

Before getting to these crime tales, don’t miss the prologue, even though it is titled “May 1979.” Mullen, who served in the San Francisco Police Department for 26 years in many different capacities, decided at the time of the so-called White Night Riot (after ex-supervisor Dan White executed San Franciso’s mayor and supervisor in City Hall) that he needed to withdraw at night from the daytime madness in his native community. His escape spot was the musty archives of the city to learn about the goings-on in earlier, supposedly more noble times. In short, he was reminded that that dark human impulses surfacing in nasty ways are hardly a modern development. Not exactly uplifting or pretty, but what the heck—it also led to his discovering the often riveting crime escapades that fill this 266-page book.

Mullen tells us in his introduction about the other anthologies of famous San Francisco criminal cases that have appeared through the years. “I do not include the usual incidents which can be found in any number of available books and instead search out the less well known, but, to me at least, equally interesting stories,” he writes. After reading and enjoying his “less well known” incidents, though, I sought out a book he mentions in the introduction as the “first, and perhaps still the best” book of this type—Police Captain Thomas Duke’s 1910 Celebrated Criminal Cases in America (only some of these cases from San Francisco, of course). Sometimes even law-abiding citizens who don’t like to step on spiders can’t get enough of this stuff.


Originally published in the February 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.