In 1906, San Francisco was struck by two major infernos. The fire that swept San Francisco after the April earthquake was the first. The second one, three months later, was a conflagration of crime.
With most of The City ruined after the earthquake, half of the population, more than 200,000 people, left town. And with the tax base decimated, The City was forced to lay off 20 percent of the police force. Army troops kept order for the next three months, but by August the military was withdrawn. As insurance money began to pour into The City, the saloons reopened, and the Barbary Coast roared back to life.
With the odds in their favor, criminals poured into San Francisco, creating a wave of lawlessness unparalleled in The City’s history.
Muggers lurked in the shadows of the darkened streets waiting for unwary victims. Every part of The City was vulnerable. The elegant St. Francis Hotel warned its guests to stay within one block of the hotel at night or to use an armed guard. Theatres were empty, and most people stayed home at night. Frightened residents purchased 20,000 guns in one month.
“Thieves and thugs do as they will,” read a headline in The San Francisco Chronicle, which kept a daily list of the number of robberies, hold-ups and murders committed in The City since August 1906. By October 10, the number had grown to 60.
The worst of the criminals were known as the “Gas Pipe Gang” because they used an iron gas pipe to attack victims. The gang worked in broad daylight, striking at will and bludgeoning two storekeepers to death. When the gang killed the manager of a Japanese bank, The City’s panic hit fever pitch.
“Women Aroused By Crimes: Society Leaders Demand that Murder and Robbery Be Ended,” cried the San Francisco Examiner. The furloughed police were hired back, and the governor offered a $1,500 reward for the capture of the gang.
There’s a famous saying: “Never play poker with a man named ‘Doc’ and never eat at a place called ‘Moms.’” To this, I would add: “Never mess with a man named Henry Behrend.”
On Nov. 3, 1906, Behrend was sitting in his jewelry store at 1323 Steiner St. when two men entered. One of the men bought a watch chain and gave Behrend a $10 gold piece. When Behrend turned to open the safe, a third man entered the store and grabbed the pistol and club that Behrend kept behind the counter. Another of the robbers pulled out an iron bar, and all three attacked Behrend. Unfortunately for them, they chose a man with a quick mind and a hard head.
“I knew that they would not use the gun because of the noise,” Behrend said later. He fought back fiercely despite the blows raining upon him and bit one of the thugs on the thumb, causing him to flee. The second attacker also left, but Behrend grabbed onto the third man and bulled his way through a plate-glass window. He held on to the man who continued to belabor his head with the iron bar. Behrend’s wife Annie, hearing the noise from the upstairs apartment, ran down and jumped on the robber. Police arrived moments later and subdued the attacker.
The man identified himself as Louis Dabner, the son of a prominent Petaluma family who had no previous criminal history. Dabner admitted to the murder of the Japanese banker and gave the location of the gang’s leader, John Sieman.
Police located Sieman at the house of the Von Hofen family, whose daughter Hulda he had recently married. Sieman was surprised by the police, and the Von Hofen family was totally staggered by the news. They believed their son-in-law was John Simpson, a successful contractor. Sieman had an unusual background. He was born in Hawaii, the son of a prosperous American planter and a native Hawaiian. He had served five years in San Quentin for robbery and recruited his gang largely from men he knew in prison. After Sieman’s arrest, the Von Hofens claimed he had hypnotized them and suggested his behavior was due to his Hawaiian blood.
Sieman might not have known how to frame a building, but he definitely knew how to construct an alibi. After fleeing Behrend’s store, he went to the police and claimed that he had been robbed by thugs, showing his bloody thumb as evidence of the attack.
The rest of the gang was soon rounded up and given long prison sentences. Dabner and Sieman, who confessed to the banker’s murder, were tried, convicted and executed. With their death, the Gas Pipe Gang became nothing more than a sinister memory.
Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco. Drexler will lead a Crooks Tour of Chinatown on Saturday, June 18, at noon. For more details, visit www.crookstour.com.Gas Pipe GangHenry BehrendJohn SiemanLouis DabnerNotorious CrooksPaul Drexler