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January 29, 2011 / johnoliversimon

The Wedding Day – 3

Coilumbia fencing team 1907. Oliver Kehrlein far left middle row.

We take up the backstory of my grandparents’ wedding day, celebrated at “Umadilla”  in Menlo Park on May 20, 1907.


Oliver Kehrlein, proud and happy on his wedding day, grinning boyishly as he piles into a buggy with his lovely bride Frances Cassandra Coon, granddaughter of a former Mayor of San Francisco, has some decidedly uncomfortable family history of his own. The Kehrlein boys, Oliver and his brother Emil, were a rather recent addition to polite San Francisco society. According to Lady Teazle, it was hostess Inez Shorb White who “discovered” the Kehrlein lads and decided “that two such handsome chaps could not be spared from smart set gatherings.”


The story, as revealed in the society pages, was that, although born in San Francisco, the Kehrleins had been educated in Europe before studying at Stanford and Columbia. Their mother, another columnist mused, was reputedly extremely wealthy, but for some reason had never gone about in society. Lady Teazle explained that the Kehrleins were descended from European nobility, being grand-nephews of the recently, and conveniently, deceased Sir Raymond Cresonpais of London, England.


Will Adams’s old buddy Mark Twain knew a Duke and a Dauphin who could have given us the low-down about Sir Raymond Cresonpais. The truth was a little closer to home. In the summer of 1899, Oliver and Emil’s father and uncle, Emil and Valentine Kehrlein, set up a company known as the Twinkling Star Corporation, which opened a most remarkable establishment at 733 Pacific Street, in the heart of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast. They named their place of business the Hotel Nymphia. “Had everything gone well with this enterprise,” writes historian Herbert Asbury, “it would within a short time have become by far the largest brothel on the Pacific Coast.”


The Kehrlein brothers’ original notion, according to Asbury, was “to call their cow-yard the Hotel Nymphomania and to populate it with women suffering from that condition. The police, however, refused to permit the use of the name.” The Hotel Nymphia had three hundred cubicles (the Kehrleins at one time had plans to add five hundred more), with a woman in each cell. The sex worker was charged five dollars for the use of the space, was obliged to remain naked at all times, and was required to supply her favors to any and all comers, regardless of color or creed. An original feature in the operation of the Nymphia was a long, narrow window cut in each door, with a shade which could automatically be raised by dropping a dime in the slot, so that those who, like Chauncey Gardiner, preferred to watch, could view the activity in any cell at any time. Unfortunately, the mechanism could easily be jimmied using a cheap slug, and regretfully had to be abandoned.


The downfall of the Nymphia was the result of a crusade conducted by Reverend Terence Caraher, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church and chairman of the Committee on Morals of the North Beach Promotion Association, who also inveighed heavily against the danger to body and soul posed by public roller-skating rinks. “After a Saturday-night inspection of the brothel,” writes Asbury, “when he found the hallways swarming with drunken men and saw things which he had supposed went out of fashion with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Father Caragher immediately launched into a vigorous offensive.” “This so-called Nymphia,” fulminated Father Caraher, “breeds degradation, vice, sin and the rotting of the soul.”


A grand vice-squad raid came just eleven days into the twentieth century. Acting Police Chief W.J. Biggy was pleased to pose for the Call’s cover artist in the act of smashing open the Nymphia’s front door with a timber axe. Thirty-three working women were arrested; they gave their names as Lillian Dale, Beulah Williams, Dora Bell, Edna Roberts, May Bell, Laura White, Fannie Wilson, Carrie Dewey, Lillian Forest, May Russell, Kittie Rodgers, Freda Belmont, Nellie Held, Dollie Ford, Carrie Thomas, Minnie McLaughlin, May Francis, May Allen, Lulu Lockwood, Elsie Woods, Sadie McGowan, Nellie Woods, Millie Gabrielle, Millie Blanche, Margaret Morgan, May Adams, Addie Wilson, Ada Lemar, Mabel Morino, May Smith, Gladys Lenard, Renie Adams, Mirth Wilson, and as the Call put it, “two Japanese women.” Each of these Millies and Nellies has her own story, to remain forever untold; it is unlikely that any of them was ever called upon to be a bridesmaid in a wedding in Menlo Park.


Emil and Valentine Kehrlein and their syndicate partners, Sam Blumenberg and a Mr. Frey, were found guilty of maintaining a nuisance and operating an illegal resort, and sentenced to six months in prison, which was reduced on appeal to a fine of $250 each ($5,938 in 2011 dollars). The Nymphia was back in operation as soon as the fines were paid, although a series of arrests and harassments kept the establishment under siege, and for a time uniformed police were posted at the front door, with orders to take the name of each customer who entered the building. “Judging from the lists of names these policemen turned in to their superior officers,” Asbury writes dryly, “no one except John Smith ever visited the Nymphia.”

Of course, the San Francisco political establishment was up to its ears in the Barbary Coast. It was inconveniently discovered, and trumpeted by the anti-administration Call, that one of the Chinatown gambling dens which was simultaneously raided around the corner from the Nymphia was owned by the family of current Mayor James D. Phelan. Meanwhile, former Mayor Coon’s son-in-law Dr. W.F. McNutt was serving as police commissioner, and the papers were asking embarrassing questions about his silence and/or complicity in the goings-on.

The Hotel Nymphia finally closed its doors in 1903, but Emil Kehrlein transferred his operations to the Marsicana, “a resort of singular depravity,” according to Asbury, “catering especially to the riff-raff of the Barbary Coast,” which stayed open until July 1905. The whole district burned down in the earthquake and fire of April 18, 1906, and nobody seriously tried to count how many prostitutes — or how many Chinese for that matter — lost their lives in the disaster, but brothels began reopening in tents and shacks along Pacific Street within a few weeks of the blaze.

The line between polite society and the netherworld of vulgar trade and immodest vice was historically thinner in San Francisco than on the staid and conventional East Coast. As the old ditty has it:


The miners came in Forty-nine,
The whores in Fifty-one.
And when they got together,
They made the Native Son.


All the nabobs, the railroad and mining barons, were self-made men. Jim Flood was a street-kid from Hell’s Kitchen who became a San Francisco bartender, and used information he overheard from miners in their cups to stake a claim called the Comstock Lode. Collis Huntington ran a hardware and mining-supply store in Sacramento at the same time that Will Adams was selling groceries there. Leland Stanford was a lawyer of rather lesser distinction than Henry Perrin Coon. Bill Sharon was a jackass prospector who made his fortune by the cold-blooded betrayal of his sponsor, Billy Ralston, whose first job was a clerk on a Mississippi River steamboat, perhaps the same boat on which Adams piloted, while the mate taking soundings from the river bottom cried out Mark Twain!

Writing in 1876, B.E. Lloyd snootily commented that in eastern cities “the prostitutes tried to imitate in manner and dress the fashionable, respectable ladies, but in San Francisco the rule was reversed — the latter copying after the former.” A number of ladies of the night successfully crossed the line and married into respectable society. Maud Heyman, a Stockton Street madam, married Charley Fair, the alcoholic son of Senator Jim Fair — so unsuitable! — and polite society was rather relieved when shortly after the ceremony bride and groom were both killed in an accident involving one of those new-fangled horseless carriages.

In 1884, William Sharon, by then a Senator from Nevada, was successfully sued for half his estate by a beautiful blonde call-girl, Sarah Althea Hill, whom he kept on a retainer of $1,000 a month ($19,786 in 2005 dollars) in a suite in the Palace Hotel just a few doors down from the room where Henry Perrin Coon drew his last breath. Popular fascination with the trial was only whetted as it became apparent that Miss Hill’s strategy was managed by an elderly but vigorous African-American civil rights activist, entrepreneur and Voudon priestess named Mary Ellen Pleasant.

Mary Ellen "Mammy" Pleasant

Pleasant, born a slave in Virginia around 1814, worked with Harriet Tubman on the Underground Railroad and helped John Brown organize his raid on Harper’s Ferry. She came to Gold Rush California because of its atmosphere of relative tolerance which allowed her to live openly with her white husband, made her fortune in the restaurant business, and together with her long-term associate Thomas Bell, helped establish the Bank of California. In 1868, anticipating Rosa Parks by nearly a century, she successfully sued two trolley companies whose conductors had refused to allow her to ride. By the time of the Sharon-Hill trial she was said to be worth thirty million dollars (over half a billion in today’s money).

Mary Ellen Pleasant apparently operated a so-called boarding house for attractive young women whom she groomed to associate with the rich and powerful. The Sharon trial presented the press with a luscious opportunity to smear her sinister influence, labeling her as “Mammy” Pleasant and playing up the Voodoo and madam aspects of her resume. People who crossed her did seem to die of mysterious causes from time to time but Pleasant was never charged with any crime. Senator Sharon passed away in December 1885, and Sarah Althea Hill promptly married her lawyer of record, Judge David S. Terry, the very same Confederate sympathizer who shot and killed Senator Broderick in the Lake Merced duel which Police Commissioner Coon found himself powerless to prevent in 1859.


Sharon Althea Hill Terry

When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field, working the California circuit as Supreme Court justices routinely did in those days, reversed the Sharon verdict, denying Sarah any claim to the late Senator’s estate, and specifically stating that the wealthy and powerful must be allowed a greater claim to veracity than the poor and destitute, as “property and position are in themselves some certain guaranty of truth in their possessor,” the Terry couple created a scene in the courtroom, accusing the judge of having been bought by Sharon’s son-in-law. Fisticuffs ensued, Sarah was relieved of a revolver and her husband of a bowie knife, and the Terrys were sentenced to six months in county jail for contempt. The next time their path crossed with that of Stephen Field, at a railroad depot in the Central Valley in 1889, Judge Terry hit Judge Field upside the head and was promptly shot dead by his bodyguard, a former jackass prospector turned U.S. Marshal named Dave Neagle. After Neagle was exonerated by a split decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, which found that he had been acting in the line of duty to protect Justice Field, Sarah Terry, who had always been at best a piece of work, entirely lost her frail hold on sanity and was committed to a mental asylum, where she remained until her death forty-five years later. Mary Ellen Pleasant, still a wealthy woman, lived to the age of eighty-nine; after her death, her ghost was said to haunt her gothic mansion at 1661 Octavia between Sutter and Bush until it was torn down in 1927.

The history of the Hotel Nymphia, and the protean and multiracial vigor of the underworld scene of which it was the iceberg‘s tip, certainly explain Frances Coon’s later-expressed ambivalence about the “vulgarity” of the family into which she was marrying. Years later, her son Karl Kehrlein assured his sister Frances that his grandfather Emil was always elegant and dignified, a real gentleman, who never personally took any cash from the hands of the working women. Emil’s father Valentin Kehrlein came from Prappach, Lower Franconia. As a young man, Emil was indentured in the jewelry trade. He made and lost three fortunes, spoke three languages fluently, and recovered sufficiently from his scapes in San Francisco that President Wilson appointed him as an emissary to the World Court. However, Emil never lost touch with his street smarts; accosted in his eighties by an obnoxious drunk, he slugged the offender and laid him out.

The Adams side of my family still refers disdainfully to Emil’s wife Katherine “Kitty” O’Brady Kehrlein as an “actress.” The line between the theatre and prostitution was extremely fine in San Francisco’s roaring eighties; it does appear that Kitty O’Brady trod the boards as a young woman. Later, when Oliver Kehrlein owned the latest in popular entertainment, a movie theatre, his mother would score the coming attractions at night after the theatre closed, and then coach the organist who was to accompany the silent films. In our one good close-up photo of her, Kitty stands between her two tall sons Emil Junior and Oliver, each of them wearing a dark stetson. Her red hair is up in ringlets, and her beauty is that of an Irish fighter who will take absolutely no guff. After taking Frances Kehrlein on an extravagant, hideous shopping spree in New York City in 1926, Grandmother Kehrlein only contacted her once more, with a telegram a few years later threatening to sue her for five thousand dollars, but nothing came of it. She did her exercises and kept her figure and died in the state hospital at Oxnard at the age of eighty-eight.


Money from the Nymphia and the Marsicana paid for Oliver and Emil’s exclusive education at prep schools in Switzerland where they could be shielded from details of the family business. The boys then returned to the Bay Area, where they were discovered by the social set, and Daddy’s money bought Oliver the first automobile ever owned by a Stanford undergraduate. Oliver graduated in 1905 with a degree in engineering, and went on to study medicine at Columbia, where he met an obstetric surgeon named A. Palmer Dudley and his lovely step-daughter. At some point after the San Francisco earthquake and fire, Oliver dropped out of med school and came home to work as a structural engineer (according to Lady Teazle) or a contractor (according to his daughter), profiting from the rebuilding boom. However, our group photo of the Columbia fencing team is dated 1907, so he probably was still in school until the spring he got married. Oliver certainly channeled the fury and shame of all that was forever unspoken into the point of his epee, as he went unbeaten, defeating all the finest collegiate fencers on the East Coast.

The newlyweds climbed into a buggy and drove away into the future. They honeymooned at Lake Tahoe, where they were greeted by an unseasonable summer snowstorm. By the next day, it had mostly melted, and they were sunburned, with peeling noses. Perched on a rock outcrop, Oliver caught a silver trout, and the honeymooners went hiking on trails ascending toward the dramatic profile of snow-capped Mount Tallac. We will not presume to enter the bedroom where they conceived their first-born, a daughter who would be named Frances Cassandra, the last of four Cassandras in a row.

There was a disagreeable incident on the couple’s return to Menlo Park. When they arrived home they left their trunks in the railroad station overnight and the next morning these were found rifled, with the bridal trousseau strewn across the floor, and lace, silks, and jewelry missing. The sheriff promptly apprehended three suspicious characters named Schroder, O’Connor and Gehr in a creek bottom hobo encampment. Schroder claimed to be deaf and dumb, but witnesses had heard him talking before the trio was arrested. “Meanwhile,” Lady Teazle sighed, “the finery of Mrs. Kehrlein’s trousseau has disappeared, and there is a cloud on the face of the honeymoon.”



Leave a Comment
  1. JoAnn Anglin / Jan 29 2011 1:08 pm

    This is so fascinating. Did you do all the research yourself, or did someone else, presumably an older relative, put most of it together. As always, extremely well written.

    • John Oliver Simon / Jan 29 2011 1:17 pm

      I researched the society pages from 1907 and 1899 in the San Francisco Library. My grandmother, Frances Cassandra Coon Kehrlein, who got married that day in Menlo Park, wrote a brief sketch of family history about 1950 with only a faint whiff of scandal leaking around the edges. Herbert Asbury told the story of the Hotel Nymphia in his book THE BARBARY COAST, which my mother, Frances Cassandra Kehrlein (Simon) Adler, iconoclastic first-born of the marriaage in question, pounced upon many years later.

  2. JoAnn Anglin / Jan 29 2011 1:24 pm

    Good reading – I just sent the link to my friend, an historian, and had also sent her the previous ‘Wedding Day’ entry, which she thoroughly enjoyed. it’s easy to see where the inventiveness and ‘iconoclasm’ come from. Thanks for sharing your history and your family.

  3. susafri / Apr 29 2014 2:31 pm

    What a great story!I stumbled across this while doing research on the history of the Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club of San Francisco, of which I am a member. Emil and his brother Valentine are founding members of the club in 1877. Never knew he had such a colorful past!

    • gloria lane / Apr 29 2014 10:01 pm

      Susan, have you stumbled across any photos of Emil or Valentine Kehrlein?

  4. susafri / Apr 29 2014 2:33 pm

    What a great story! I stumbled across this while doing research of the history of the Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club, of which Emil Kehrlein and his brother Valentine are founding members. I did not know the details of his colorful past!

    • / Oct 20 2014 10:30 am

      Can you put me in touch with the person doing research for the Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club? gloria lane

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