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Unforgettable: A Walk on the Stingaree Side, Part 5

THE MOST HATED MAN IN SAN DIEGO. From 1910 to 1912, Walter Bellon inspected San Diego’s waterfront, Chinatown, and the Stingaree district for the health department. If an owner failed to make basic improvements, the department would have to tear the structure down, by sledgehammer or fire. Bellon had done his “spade work,” he told the press in 1912. He’d handed out the citations and now was “ready to strike.”

On a Saturday in November, 1000 San Diegans gathered at the waterfront to watch him raze his first targets — the 13 rundown hovels at the foot of Eighth — even though many questioned the legality, since only the owners could give final approval.

Bellon had played to the crowd, bustling around, shouting orders to his wrecking crew and firemen. But before he could apply the torch, smoke rose from behind a shack, then flames hopscotched from structure to structure. “In a minute,” onlookers claimed, “the entire nest was an inferno.”

Was it a sign? Throughout 1912, San Diego fumed in a moral frenzy. From February to the fall, police and 400 vigilantes had battled Free Speech demonstrators in the Stingaree. On November 10, police raided the district: 138 prostitutes, at least half under age 17, received walking papers. To those for whom purging San Diego — of immorality and even dissent — had become a crusade, the crackling shacks at Eighth symbolized divine approval of anti-vice rectitude.

Since no one could blame the health department, Bellon’s supervisor, Dr. A.E. Banks, also read the uncoaxed conflagration as a sign: Bellon could commence his demolition phase with impunity.

Several parts of the Stingaree and Chinatown began making changes. Led by Ah Quin, their unofficial mayor, residents of Chinatown installed toilets, sinks, and skylights. Hundreds of “inside rooms,” with neither light nor ventilation, were destroyed. While tearing down a shack in Chinatown, someone found a “snow bird’s” (an addict’s) dream under the floor: 51 cans of opium, “enough dark goo,” wrote Bellon, “to float anyone to a most glamorous and satisfying feeling.”

Some owners of the Stables, between J and Third, leveled condemned cribs and kept the lumber. “Perhaps when they estimated the cost of our health notices,” Bellon wrote, “they decided to remove the structures themselves. It was cheaper.”

A worker named L.L. Alumbough, formerly a detective in the Midwest, told Bellon he’d “never in his life seen such a place as the wreckage revealed”: huge rats scurrying for cover, open cesspools, a human skull.

Under a crib behind Yankee Doodle Hall, a workman uncovered 250 beer bottles. He sold them across the street for 30 cents a dozen. Rumor had it that, near the Pacific Squadron, someone found something so valuable he tucked it under his coat and disappeared into the maze of “blind” rooms behind the cribs. Some said the cache shone like silver.

Bellon’s strategy: raze condemned buildings along the waterfront first — where he’d handed out 83 citations between 1910 and 1912 — then move inland. He and his three-man wrecking crew worked weekends: courts weren’t in session, and owners couldn’t plead for injunctions. He never announced his next goal.

Sanitary conditions determined whether they tore down a building nail by nail, with pickaxes and sledgehammers, or torched it. Aided by the fire department, Bellon burned the structures — most often those built close to the ground — infested with vermin and, possibly, contagious diseases.

After he’d leveled at least 40 shacks, several waterfront property owners hired a lawyer and began proceedings. “The press published the account, but my department was never served, so we kept pushing forward.”

Bellon began receiving anonymous threats. He’d grown accustomed to grit-toothed curses as he passed saloons and gambling halls. He considered the anonymous messages to have “about as much intestinal fortitude as a scared rabbit.”

In late December 1912, Bellon turned inland. He announced the demise of Yankee Doodle Hall and Pacific Squadron Hall, on J between Third and Fourth, hailed as the “pilot lights” of the Stingaree. Two men came to his office. While the legal owners of most red-light buildings demanded anonymity (“their names did not even appear on the tax rolls”), these gents openly claimed to be landlords.

“It was obvious they were covering up for someone else,” wrote Bellon. He had “no desire to find out” and leveled the infamous structures.

After the demise of Yankee Doodle and Pacific Squadron — a strike at the heart of the Stingaree — the health department began receiving enough phone threats and hate mail to concern police chief Keno Wilson. Even Bellon felt the pressure: “Things began to get real hot…. Time was running out for me, if they didn’t pull me off. The waterfront supported some tough characters, and my hide was going to be stretched, then tanned.”

One morning Bellon found two men in his office, both over six feet and 200 pounds.

“From now on, we’re traveling together,” said Walter Weymouth, who looked and dressed so much like Bellon they could pass for twins.

“Thing’s can’t be that bad,” said Bellon.

“From what Keno briefed us on,” said Reginald Townsend, one of San Diego’s first black police officers, “we must be careful.”

Chief Wilson didn’t just lend Bellon two of his top officers. Even though Bellon bragged he was a crack shot and had fearless fists “like TNT,” Bellon’s good friend ordered him to hire bodyguards.

For two years, Bellon had worked alone. It took him a few days not only to adjust to his companions — he called them his “small army” — but also to the gravity of his job, since “danger began to jell.”

The trio served final notices to brothels at 423, 514, and 775 on waterfront row. The owner, Joseph Curby, was the financial backbone of vice along the shoreline. He made at least $50,000 a year, tax free. The stocky man in his mid-50s, who “guarded his feminine business with a strong arm,” stopped them at the gate. He aimed a .45 caliber horse pistol between Bellon’s eyes.

“Any closer, I shoot.”

The pistol was “a sign language we all knew,” Bellon wrote. “The man was mad, steaming.” So they said “adios” and backed away.

Bellon may have survived his first two years in part because he could read how far to push a person. His protectors, however, advocated blunter tactics. Let’s go back right now, Weymouth urged, and “throw the old boy in the jug.” After all, he’d pointed a loaded firearm at police officers.

“But what if Curby’s trigger-finger became too happy?” Bellon asked.

“Then we shoot it out!”

“We’re 600 pounds of sinew, bone, and lard, total weight,” Bellon retorted. Such a big target, Curby couldn’t miss. “Let’s think on it.”

That night, Bellon decided to pull back. “We had lots of time in our favor, so we’d just play along.”

For the next 30 days, Bellon, Weymouth, and Townsend paid Curby a social call every afternoon at 2:00. While the owner held them at gunpoint, they spoke about having to tear the buildings down. Bellon even offered to move all three houses to any other lot Curby owned in San Diego, free of charge. “We have no intention of destroying your lucrative business,” Bellon said. “Just doing our job.”

Within days, Curby’s prostitutes began to migrate uptown, into the Stingaree. By week’s end, he was alone.

“When we arrived on the 13th day,” Bellon writes, “he was beaten.”

Bellon inched his hand through the gate. Curby handed him the “young cannon.” Bellon unloaded and returned it. Weymouth and Townsend escorted Curby to the station and placed him under detention. They phoned his daughter in Fresno. She came and took him away. Wreckers razed the buildings; the rotted wood proved unsalvageable.

“Joseph Curby’s name was not entered on the police blotter to my knowledge,” wrote Bellon, “neither were several other social lights living in the Golden Hill section…in the same soiled racket.” He added: the Curby incident “ended a siege of suspense. If we had acted hastily, blood would have been shed, perhaps death.”

About a year later, near Third and I(sland), an elderly man charged at Bellon with a double-bladed axe. Walter Weymouth, Bellon’s lookalike bodyguard, stepped in and caught the axe handle, some say, in mid-descent, and “the battle was over.”

The city planned a municipal pier at the foot of Broadway and wanted all “health hazards” in the vicinity removed. Bellon had condemned three buildings at the foot of Market, including the infamous Cozy Cottage. By early 1915, he and his crew had flattened over 75 tideland structures and 80 to 100 inland. But when Bellon moved toward the Cozy Cottage, “men in high places” went to the city council and demanded his dismissal. “Citizens who were loudest in the demands for a clean city were now my enemies.” Egged on by two dozen realtors, Lillian Pounch filed 21 affidavits against the health department. The charges ranged from bank robbery to rape. Bellon became, in his words, “the most hated man in San Diego.”

Attorney Henry Clark demonstrated that every witness in the affidavit had lied. The court dismissed the case — and the perjurers. Newspapers never printed their names.

Other lawsuits followed. One that stuck: In 1915, Mary Runkey charged that, although many city officials had the right to order buildings demolished, neither the sanitary inspector (Bellon) nor the health officer (Dr. Banks) did. Banks’s initial fear was correct: the demolitions had been illegal, after all. But those forces favoring the “cleanup” — who often shared a household with those opposed — saw to it that charges weren’t pressed for all previous efforts. Bellon and Banks lost the Runky lawsuit but not the campaign.

For the next five years, Bellon paid his half of the $856 settlement in monthly installments from his salary. After the verdict, he assured his attorney friend, Shelly J. Higgins, he wouldn’t “touch another piece of private property without plenty of authority, not even if it happened to be crawling with offensive critters!”

The Cozy Cottage was an upscale brothel outside the Stingaree. “The girls liked money,” Bellon wrote, “also men if they went together.” Visible for at least a mile up Market, the tall structure stood on pilings over the tideland and had its own boardwalk to the shore.

One Saturday afternoon in 1915, Bellon, his bodyguards, and wrecking crew went to the Cozy Cottage unannounced. When the fire department arrived, a crowd began to gather. Thick hoses, stretched across the street, blocked traffic. Passengers piled out of streetcars. They watched Bellon ceremoniously carrying a red, five-gallon can up the boardwalk. He entered the cottage and searched each room for drunks. When he found none, he poured kerosene around the perimeter, struck a match, and ran down the boardwalk, flames stretching skyward behind him. As the heat drove the crowd back, some spectators booed the loss of a legendary institution.

Bellon ignited the next of the three condemned buildings. When sailors aboard the Ohio and the Wisconsin, anchored out in the bay, saw blazing structures side by side, they feared the whole town would catch fire. Three boatloads of blue jackets furiously rowed ashore. Instead of forming a last-ditch bucket brigade, however, firemen thanked them for their concern and said all was under control.

As Bellon’s crew moved toward the third building, a one-room, square-front “miserable shanty,” a man and his attorney burst through the crowd. “Burn it and we’ll sue you for arson!” the man shouted.

“We can’t,” Bellon replied, “it’s too close to other buildings. We’re tearing it down.” Before he could order his crew to hold up, long crowbars had pried away the facade. It teetered, then flopped to the ground. Puffs of dust rose from the sides.

“To my amazement and the crowd’s,” wrote Bellon, “there stood a beautiful copper still, all intact and workable.” The owner and his lawyer elbowed their way back through the crowd. They were last seen running up Market. “The legal threats vanished with them.”

The building had a false partition, a perfect camouflage for distilling rotgut moonshine or Stingaree tanglefoot. “Who was benefiting from this well-concealed whiskey machine? The papers did not carry the story about the still. I know why.”

Bellon went about his cleanup with a cold eye. Only once did he pay last respects. On October 2, 1915, he tore down the “worm-eaten timbers” of the Old Tub of Blood Saloon. The most “wretched relic” of the Stingaree, at the southwest corner of Third and I, the Old Tub was the meanest bar on San Diego’s meanest street. Inside looked like a life-long alcoholic. Wrinkled walls had dents punched by human heads. Splotches of tobacco juice blackened the bar’s plank floors and corners. This vile-smelling arena,” Bellon wrote, where “feminine charm displayed [itself] in the shadows of the evening hours” and where “men fought to music,” was “laid low to the ground by my health department crew.” He doffed his felt hat and moved on.

When he concluded the waterfront demolitions, Bellon had torn down over 80 shanties. The last condemned structure was a square, two-story shambles at the foot of F. The owner, whom Bellon doesn’t name, was San Diego’s most successful realtor: “a leader of civic pride, the type found in all cities [who say] remove all unsightly structures but [do] not touch my shacks.” Rather than destroy “that piece of horrible scenery,” Bellon left it alone. “Let it stand,” he said, as a symbolic eyesore, representing the neglect of all absentee landlords. And since he’d condemned the building, no one could occupy it.

“It’s not what you do,” Bellon quoted the Stingaree philosophy, “it’s what you get caught at that counts.” He nabbed the owner by spreading his name around town. “Eventually, his pride was injured and so was his pocketbook.” The owner ripped the “monument” down at his own expense.

During his six years on the job, Bellon had a rule: no sanitary inspections at night. He always went mid- to late-morning, when the “enforcers” were either conked out or too hung over to cause trouble. On March 15, 1916, Bellon broke the rule. He and Weymouth met down at the waterfront around midnight. At 2:30 a.m., their work done, they shook hands. Bellon climbed into his old Model T and drove home. When Weymouth turned the corner at Eighth and K, a man crept out of the shadows, screamed angry gibberish, ran up, and shot Weymouth through the abdomen. Weymouth went down. By the time he reached Agnew hospital, doctors and the next day’s newspapers gave him no chance to live.

After several months in critical condition — the bullet tore 16 holes through his intestines — Weymouth recovered and moved away.

“Had the gunman intended Weymouth as his victim,” asks Bellon’s biographer Randy Van Horn, “or had he shot the wrong Walter?”

The two men not only looked alike, they wore the same bulky suits, vests, and dark-brown hats. Many years later, Bellon wondered if he was, indeed, the target. “There was a time during the many cleanup raids [when] Weymouth was taken for the health inspector and I perhaps as the flatfoot.” For every person who knew who Weymouth was, there were dozens who wanted Walter Bellon dead.

Bellon, who served as a “law and order” County Supervisor from 1937 to 1944 (he died in 1972), loved to trumpet his accomplishments. Of his six-year campaign he wrote: “The waterfront had been cleaned up, the Stingaree had been wiped out, Chinatown had almost disappeared, and minimum health standards had been met. The Redlight District was no more.” But even the boastful Bellon had to admit that, in the end, “the trade had spread all over town.”

QUOTATIONS:
1. San Diego Union editorial: “The evil does not hide itself nor shun publicity. It obtrudes its hateful presence in the public thoroughfares and walks abroad in the open light of day.”

  1. San Diego Union, letter to the editor: “It would be just as reasonable for the United States government to take all the lepers from the island of Molokai and scatter them about in an effort to blot out leprosy...as it is to try to eradicate vice by scattering it.”

  2. Elizabeth McPhail: “As Chief [Keno] Wilson had predicted, the [prostitutes] who remained moved to other parts of town, [becoming] “hostesses” in Mission Hills, and operating “a string of houses along El Cajon Boulevard, then an unpaved stretch leading to La Mesa.”

SOURCES:
Bellon, Walter, “Memoirs,” ms, San Diego Historical Society archives; “This is My Story,” quoted in Shelley J. Higgins, “This Fantastic City,” ms, San Diego Historical Society.

Brandes, Ray, et al, “San Diego’s Chinatown and Stingaree District,” archaeological report, University of San Diego, 1986.

Hon, Katherine, “Once Upon a Time in North Park: Walter Weymouth, the Policeman Who Lived,” North Park Community Association Newsletter, northparksd.org.

McCanna, Jr., Clare V., “Prostitutes, Progressives, and Police: The Viability of Vice in San Diego, 1900–1930,” Journal of San Diego History, vol. 35, number 1, Winter 1989.

McPhail, Elizabeth C., “When the Red Lights Went Out in San Diego,” Journal of San Diego History, vol. 20, number 2, Spring 1974.

Van Horn, Randy, “He Worked Out of City Hall: the Biography of Walter C. Bellon,” masters thesis, University of San Diego, 1986.

…articles from the San Diego Union, the San Diego Sun, and the Los Angeles Times.


Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 1

Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 2

Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 3

Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 4

Go to A Walk on the Stingaree Side Part 6

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Comments

I'm concerned about what happened to all that opium. 51 cans! That could solve a lot of problems. Always remember: there's no hope without dope.

Aside from the first three paragraphs being a repeat, this series continues to be must reading. “It would be just as reasonable for the United States government to take all the lepers from the island of Molokai and scatter them about in an effort to blot out leprosy...as it is to try to eradicate vice by scattering it.” A lesson people still haven't learned.

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