According to the journalist Herbert Asbury, San Francisco’s Barbary Coast in the mid-19th century was a place where women were celebrated:
There was such a dearth of females in the San Francisco of gold-rush days that a woman was almost as rare a sight as an elephant, while a child was an even more unusual spectacle. It is doubtful if the so-called fair sex ever before or since received such adulation and homage anywhere in the United States; even prostitutes, ordinarily scorned and ostracized by their honest and respectable customers, were treated with exaggerated deference.—Herbert Asbury, The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld
As rare a sight as elephants? Honest and respectable customers? Was Asbury serious?
There’s reason to be suspicious of his information: Asbury was born in Missouri and spent his writing career in Atlanta and New York City. In fact it’s possible he never even set foot in San Francisco. He referred to sex workers as “harlots,” so anything he wrote about them should be taken with a grain of salt.
And since he wasn’t born until 1889, it’s almost certain that Asbury never met Mollie Wisner. That’s too bad, because she could have told him a lot about the Barbary Coast.
When we first meet Mollie, the year is 1877, the gold rush is long past and San Francisco is a well-established city. It has fancy hotels, nice restaurants and rich people living in beautiful homes. But its red-light district—the Barbary Coast—is still thriving and it remains a place of crime and human misery. It’s there that we find Mollie.
Mollie’s pimp, a violent man named Paul Jackson (almost certainly an alias) has been arrested for trying to murder her. Jackson was a sailor by trade and hailed from either Sweden or Russia. He was found guilty of the assault on Mollie and sent to the county jail for 15 months. In the 1880s he would do stints in both Folsom and San Quentin state prisons. I think it’s fair to call him a career criminal.
With her “protector” in jail, Mollie drifted east to Chicago. That November, she was arrested in the Windy City for larceny and spent 30 days in jail. Maybe it was the weather or perhaps she found the Chicago cops too zealous for her taste. Whatever the reason, by 1880 she was back in the Barbary Coast. And she had gained a nickname: “The Lost Chicken.”
Mollie joined up with some new pals: Joe Fagan and Charles Edwards. They broke into the room of a sailor named Olaf Hansen on the morning of February 3, 1880. The room was in an disreputable abode called the Iron-House—a hangout for “hoodlums”—on Montgomery Street between Pacific and Jackson. They stole jewelry, a coat and some shirts from Hansen’s trunk. They were arrested later that night.
At some point in her travels, Mollie picked up a fantastic hat. It was simple but elegant—beaded, plumed and flowered. When she was arrested, she was photographed wearing this confection of a chapeau. She was proud of it and wore it high on her head at a jaunty angle. That hat, along with the shrewd look on her face, tells us that despite her profession, the attempt on her life and her multiple arrests, life hadn’t beaten her down. Not yet anyway.
While she was out on bail, Mollie skipped town. That was a smart thing to do, since she almost certainly faced a conviction for larceny that would include jail time.
I wish I could tell you where she went from there, but I can’t. Mollie never appeared in any census records or any other records under the name “Mollie Wisner” or any variation of it. Goodbye, Lost Chicken.
Paul Jackson’s inmate photo from San Quentin State Prison. (California State Archives)