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Gray brothers had it coming all along

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Joe Lococco, a Sicilian immigrant who shot and killed George Gray for refusing to pay his wages, is pictured with the Telegraph Hill quarry, which George and Harry Gray regularly dynamited in the 1890s, destroying surrounding neighborhoods. (Courtesy photos)
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“He had it comin’, he had it comin’,
He only had himself to blame.
If you’d have been there, if you’d have seen it, I bet you would have
done the same.”
— “Cell Block Tango,” from “Chicago”

We love it when bad things happen to bad people, when karma hits and when what goes around comes around. And there was no one who had it coming more than George and Harry Gray.

The brothers made millions running strip quarries in Upper Noe Valley, Corona Heights and Telegraph Hill. The quarries supplied rock used in construction, street paving and Bay fill, and were an important part of the building boom in San Francisco. The damage the Gray brothers created by dynamiting on Telegraph Hill still causes landslides in the winter. They destroyed neighborhoods, ignored the law, bribed judges and cheated their employees. The City Attorney called them “constant law breakers.”

In their spare time, they probably pulled the wings off flies and ran over puppies.

The brothers opened their first quarry on the eastern side of Telegraph Hill. They began dynamiting the rock face without any regard for the people living nearby. As a result, many people were injured by falling rocks, and homes were damaged. The Gray brothers were kind enough to schedule their explosions, giving parents a chance to grab their children and hunker down while their neighborhood was destroyed. In January 1894, their explosions caused rockslides that crushed a duplex on Vallejo Street and knocked a Union Street home off it’s foundation.

A judge issued a permanent injunction in 1895, forbidding the Gray brothers from blasting on Telegraph Hill. In response, the brothers opened quarries in Corona Park and Billy Goat Hill at Castro and 30th streets. They also continued to blast on Telegraph Hill, though they tried to deny it.

Their excuses remind one of the pet shop owner in Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch. “We didn’t do it. It must be some other company.”

“Blasting? Not us. We are just grading the hill with picks and shovels.”

In 1900, when civic groups asked The City to preserve Telegraph Hill as a historic landmark, George Gray called it “very unsightly” and argued that “if Telegraph Hill were cut down, residents on the east side of Russian Hill would have a magnificent marine view they do not now enjoy.”

In 1909, the brothers used the Fourth of July fireworks to mask the sound of their own blasting.

Between 1906 and 1911, Harry and George were sued 52 times. The Grays were equal-opportunity defaulters — they cheated everyone. The plaintiffs included their bankers, suppliers of steel, machinery, explosives, hardware, repairs, groceries, cigars and the State of California. The only people who were paid on time were their attorneys, who set up the Western Development Syndicate, a Nevada corporation, as the quarries’ legal owners.

The lawyers made themselves the officers of the syndicate and said the Gray brothers were merely salaried employees. These legal shenanigans made it almost impossible to touch the Gray’s property. The Grays also protected themselves by giving generous bribes to judges and members of the Board of Supervisors. When people complained, the board promised to inspect the site, but never took action.

The Gray brothers’ most helpless victims were their employees. At the end of each month, the brothers paid their workers only 50 percent of their wages, giving a promissory note for the rest to be paid in 60 days. If the worker was not around in 60 days, they were not paid. For men who could barely get by with their full wages, this delay was financially devastating.

Workers were constantly suing the Gray brothers for wages. In 1909, a worker maddened by Harry Gray’s refusal to pay him shot and killed Carolyn Brasch, one of the Gray Brothers’ cashiers. The man was declared insane and remanded to a mental institution.

Finally, in 1914, karma arrived in the shape of Joe Lococco, a Sicilian immigrant. Lococco had worked for the Gray brothers but quit because of failing health. Because he had not been at work on payday due to sickness, George Gray did not pay him his back wages. As a result, Lococco’s family was facing eviction from their Potrero Hill apartment and had not eaten for two days.

In desperation, Lococco went to see George Gray again at the quarry at 29th and Castro streets. When Gray laughed at his tale of misery. Lococco lost control. He pulled out a gun and killed Gray. When he realized what he had done, he gasped, “God, forgive me.”

Whether God forgave him is a complex theological issue on which there may be conflicting opinion. Whether San Francisco forgave him is a simple matter of history.

Following a sensational trial in April 1915, the jury found Lococco not guilty by reason of temporary insanity and released him to great acclaim. The Gray brothers’ company ended at that time, and their firm went bankrupt, proving that “Time Wounds All Heels.”

Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco, www.crookstour.com.

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