A painting of “Jeanne or Jean Bonnet” memorializes the life of the San Francisco frog catcher. (Courtesy Ria Brodell, 2012)

The Little Frog Catcher

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I wonder which toilet Jeanne Bonnet would have to use in North Carolina today? Jeanne, a famous 19th-century transgender person, would have found the new bathroom law disturbingly familiar. Bonnet was born into a family of French actors. She was a very popular performer, often playing the role of a young coquette on the stage. Then tragedy struck: Her mother passed away, her sister was committed to and died in an insane asylum and her father, emotionally and physically shattered, moved to Oakland.

By her teenage years, Bonnet “cursed the day she was born a female and not a male” and altered her gender.

Bonnet cut his hair short, wore men’s clothes and became the leader of gang of young criminals. His gang was quickly caught, and Bonnet was sent to a reformatory, called The Industrial School, located at what is now City College of San Francisco’s main campus. Although Bonnet was put in the girl’s side of the school, he often went into the male dormitory and attacked the largest boy to prove his dominance.

Upon his release, Bonnet chose an unusual but profitable trade: frog catching.

In the 1850s, the French were the largest minority group in San Francisco, with more than 30,000 people. Known as “the Paris of the West,” San Francisco claimed more French restaurants than any other city in the world other than Paris. And what is a French restaurant without Cuisses de Grenouilles (frog legs)?

Bonnet hunted the waters of Lake Merced, luring long-legged amphibiens to their tasty doom — pan-fried, covered in clarified butter, lemon juice and garlic.

Bonnet’s daily attire violated the law, which said people must dress in the clothing of their sex at birth, and he was often arrested for wearing pants. He was also arrested for drinking and fighting, primarily with French pimps, his arch nemesis. Bonnet made it his business to rescue French prostitutes from their exploitive procurers and make them his own. He taught them a new trade, larceny, to replace their former source of income. The angry pimps threatened Bonnet, who carried a gun for protection.

On Sept. 15, 1876, Bonnet was watching his latest rescue, Blanche Beunon, disrobe. They were in a bedroom in McNamara’s Hotel, located at what is now Sickles Street and San Jose Avenue, which then was a sleepy outpost located at the edge of The City. As Beunon bent over to remove her stockings, a shotgun blast came through the window.

“I am shot, Blanche,” gasped Bonnet. “The end has come. I go to meet my sister.” Bonnet died, and the assassin escaped unseen. It was a challenging case with many questions. Was it Beunon or Bonnet the killer’s true target?

Beunon’s pimp, Arthur Deneve, had threatened both of them after Beunon had left him for Bonnet. After these threats, Bonnet arranged for Blanche to stay with a Frenchman named Pierre Louis and his wife Caroline at a farm near McNamara’s Hotel. But police learned that Deneve had left for France days before the shooting. With the leading suspect cleared, the case went cold.

Suddenly, the police got a break. Captain of Detectives Isaiah Lees learned a Pacific Street saloonkeeper knew the identity of the killer. Under pressure, the bartender said that Louis, the man who had given Beunon shelter, was the killer. He claimed that Deneve had offered Louis $2,000 to kill Beunon as an example to the other girls. But when she bent down to take off her stockings, the shots went over her head and killed Bonnet.

Lees and his detectives hastened to Louis’ farm, but he and his wife had disappeared.

Later, another conspirator emerged. Beunon had another lover, a prosperous Italian merchant, who knew of her background but showered her with gifts and offered his hand in marriage if she remained faithful only to him.

When the merchant learned Beunon had taken up with Bonnet, he was furious. It was he who paid Pierre Louis to kill Beunon, according to the alternative theory.

There was also a third theory: Louis’ target was, in fact, Bonnet, and he was paid by the French pimps, who threw a big party in Alameda to celebrate after Bonnet’s death.

In late 1879, Capt. Lees received a letter from Louis’ wife Carolyn from Canada. She confirmed that Louis was the murderer and revealed his address, saying she was afraid he was going to kill her, too. Lees rushed up to Canada, but learned Louis had hanged himself the day prior.

In the end, the crime remained officially unsolved. Beunon went back to her Italian merchant, and the frogs in Lake Merced were once again at ease.

Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco, www.crookstour.com. Drexler will be speaking on Crime History at the San Francisco Historical Association, on Tuesday, April 26, at 7:00 p.m. at St Philips Church, 725 Diamond St.Jeanne BonnetNotorious CrooksPaul DrexlerSan Francisco

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