Mrs. Fay Buck, a woman well known in the Tenderloin, was arrested in Sacramento yesterday on a warrant sworn out by Mrs. Rose Decker of 236 Mason street, charging her with grand larceny. Mrs. Buck formerly lived with Mrs. Decker, and it is alleged that she got into her landlady’s wardrobe one day, got all her finery and then went to Sacramento.
— San Francisco Chronicle, November 26, 1904
Fay Buck was in big trouble, arrested for stealing clothing and furs valued at $540 (more than $15,000 in 2018). Despite the dire circumstances she found herself in Fay obviously took the time to style her hair. The updo she sported in her mugshot is nothing short of magnificent.
If you’re wondering why Rose Decker, Fay’s “landlady,” had such valuable clothes, the answer is because she was a madam who ran a “sporting house” in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. Dressing well would have been a necessity of the job.
Fay testified that she’d arrived in San Francisco without money or friends and had been enticed into a “house of ill-repute.” She said she’d stolen the clothes in order to turn them into cash and escape from a “life of shame.”
Stealing nice clothes was a practice Fay might have learned from Rose. A few months before Fay absconded with Rose’s clothes, Rose herself stole a trunk full of the belongings of Nellie Bennett, one of the working girls in her house. Nellie was late on her rent to the tune of $110 (over $3000 in 2018) so Rose figured she’d help herself to the trunk, which contained clothing and photographs of Nellie’s admirers. Nellie agreed to drop the charges and give the clothes up as long as the photos were returned to her.
Fay wasn’t so lucky. Rose pursued the charges and Fay was convicted of grand larceny. When she appeared before Judge William P. Lawlor for sentencing, in February 1905, she begged for probation. In support of her plea she presented a letter that her husband, J. Douglass Bucke, had written to the court from his home in Butte, Montana.
Douglass wrote that Fay had always been of good character. He took responsibility for her plight, writing that he should have met her at the dock when she landed in San Francisco. Evidently the plan had been for Fay to travel on her own from her home in Washington State via San Francisco to Montana. How she could do that without funds was an unanswered question. Douglass claimed he was “unable to appear in person to plead for one whom I love and who is alone in the world with the exception of myself.”
Judge Lawlor wanted to hear from Douglass in person so he postponed Fay’s sentencing for a month. The month went by and Douglass wrote again, saying he was now sick in the hospital and couldn’t travel.
A few more weeks went by and still no Douglass. Tired of waiting for him to show up, Judge Lawlor placed Fay on probation in the care of Matilda Christ, a matron at the San Francisco City Prison. Matilda agreed to be Fay’s guardian and to provide a “good home” in the house she shared with her sister’s family. The deal was that Fay would be paid $10 a month to take care of Matilda’s young niece.
Six weeks later Fay absconded to Seattle. Matilda accused Fay of stealing two of her rings and some of her clothes and underwear. Judge Lawlor put out a bench warrant for Fay. She was arrested in July 1905 and hauled back into court.
Instead of the nanny job she’d been promised, Fay told the judge that Matilda had forced her to work as a waitress in a restaurant. According to Fay, Matilda also made her turn over much of her salary to pay for her room and to pay back a loan she made to Fay for clothing purchases.
After a few weeks of long, tiring days at the restaurant Fay claimed that Matilda came up with an alternative. She suggested that she could rent a flat for Fay to “solicit men” for sex and they’d share in the profits!
Disgusted by the idea and unwilling to return to that life, Fay ran away from Matilda’s home.
Matilda was “white with rage” when she heard the story Fay told the judge and strongly denied it. However she admitted that Fay hadn’t stolen anything from her — she’d found the items in her house and “forgot” to tell the court about it.
Judge Lawlor found no hard evidence of the bordello scheme — it was the word of one woman against the other. However he gave Matilda a “severe censure” for not telling the court she’d been mistaken about Fay stealing from her. She was forced to resign from her job as prison matron.
Fay admitted during one of her many court hearings that she wasn’t actually married to Douglass Bucke.
Judge Lawlor said he “didn’t believe Fay was of the criminal class” and released her on probation into the custody of the Mother Superior of St. Catherine’s Home for wayward girls. She later married Douglass but filed for divorce from him on the grounds of desertion in July 1907.
Judge Lawlor was promoted to associate justice of the California Supreme Court in 1915. He held the position until his death in 1926.
Rose Decker continued to have run-ins with the San Francisco Police throughout the first decade of the 20th century. The Hotel Nikko San Francisco now stands where her bordello was located in 1904.
Featured photo: Fay Buck, December 10, 1904, Bureau of Identification, San Francisco Police Department. Collection of the author.