San Francisco in Crisis, Part 3: Dreamland

See Part 1 and Part 2.

The San Francisco Examiner predicted a large turnout at the Reverend Smith’s mass meeting, but the crowd was massive. More than 7,000 people crowded into the Dreamland Rink.

“Without hysteria but with no uncertain voice…the people of San Francisco spoke their desires last night for a cleanup of the city’s nightlife. They spoke in tones of command. They turned out in thousands upon thousands. They filled the great Dreamland Rink to overflowing. The throng would have filled another such rink could the people have been accommodated. They would have filled the great civic auditorium,” the San Francisco Examiner reported. “First they listened. Then they acted. And when they acted it was to tell the city officials that 7,000 representatives of the people demand the enforcement of the moral laws…It was such a throng and such a message as must be heeded by all concerned.”

Thousands of San Franciscans who did not arrive in time to get a seat inside shivered outside in the January cold. They wanted to show their support for the anti-vice crusade.

Warren Olney, Jr., the chairman, shouted: “We want the people of San Francisco to understand the conditions which prevail in their city. We want them to realize the temptations to which their sons are subjected as they come along in age, and the ghastly exploitation to which their daughters are sometimes subjected.”

A notably subdued Reverend Smith addressed the crowd. The meeting that morning with Mrs. Gamble and the women of the Barbary Coast and the Tenderloin had shocked him. He was sympathetic toward them and perhaps he intended to help them, as he had promised. But Smith could not ignore the evidence that the city was turning into a slum. San Francisco couldn’t be rescued as long as prostitution and human trafficking and opium dens were allowed to flourish.

Rev. Smith addresses the crowd


“There was no hysteria in the great meeting…It was the calm, steady voice of a people that has been aroused to a sense of danger to their city and who insist that steps be taken to suppress the causes of the danger,” the Examiner continued. “There was no sign of politics in the gathering of the citizens. There was no heated attack or wild appeals to passion…It was the voice of the people, awakened and alert, a voice that must be heeded. And the people who made up that meeting are of a temper that will see to it that they will get what they demand.”

This was questionable. Police Commissioner Roche publicly referred to the Reverend’s Smith crusade as a tired “bluff,” and dismissed it as a “spasmodic” effort to reform the Barbary Coast and the Tenderloin. For years, city officials had ignored the public’s pleas to address crime and vice. They knew that eventually people would be pacified with a symbolic gesture, or they would simply give up.

The following month, the officials suddenly relented. The pressure from the people, who presented a united front in demanding relief from city officials, coupled with the vice crusade had gotten the city officials’ attention. But the decision to close the vice district came only after “Reverend Smith had begun to carry out his threat to name from the pulpit the owners of property where houses of bad reputation were operated.”

Later in 1917, the California Supreme Court rendered its final decision on the Red-Light Abatement Act, which is a vice law outlawing prostitution. Dancing was prohibited in all the Barbary Coast cafes and “unescorted women,” or suspected prostitutes, were not allowed in these establishments.

Rev. Smith had won his war on vice.

One of the casualties of his crusade were the bright lights and rhythmic music of the Barbary Coast. The cafés and saloons like the Black Cat, the Bucket of Blood, and Stack’s were shuttered. The women who worked in the area who had pleaded with Rev. Smith scattered to the four winds. What became of them? We don’t know.

But San Francisco was not destined to be a puritanical city. After all, Sunny Jim was still the mayor and Police Commissioner Roche was still in charge of law enforcement. Soon the stiff regulations were relaxed. Nevertheless, the prostitution, crime, and violence had been effectively curbed and the city was made livable again. As the streets were cleaned up and the crime rates went down, San Francisco became the free-spirited city it is known for being today. Strangely enough, that is partly thanks to the efforts of the Reverend Paul Smith and his willingness to play hardball. The rest of the credit belongs to the residents, who united together to demand better conditions, and saved the city of San Francisco.