March 17, 2008
Asylum — A San Francisco story
Long before a bright orange bridge spanned the Golden Gate, long before tourists lined up to take the ferry to Alcatraz, long before Angela Alioto imagined the construction of a national shrine of St. Francis in North Beach, men and women came to San Francisco in search of old
promises and new beginnings. This is the story of one of them.
In those days, guns ringed Alcatraz Island, facing outward. Three
soldiers sat at the base of the largest, their dark blue coats
unbuttoned in the afternoon heat. The soldier in the middle stretched
out his legs and leaned back.
“D’ye know, Simon, I don’t think I’d mind if the war went on forever.”
As he spoke, the sun washed over his face. It carved shadows into his cheeks and made his dark mustache glisten.
Simon Kennedy, the soldier to his left, angled up his long legs so
that his feet rested on the step just below where he was sitting. He
turned to look at his friend and settled his right arm comfortably on
the top of the brick embankment.
“That’s just grand, Jamie. I’m sure Mister Lincoln will be glad to
know how you feel. He’s likely to be so pleased, he’ll send you one of
those bright, shiny medals with the pretty ribbons hanging down.”
The third soldier was much younger than the other two. He sat to the
right, a little apart, with his hands folded stiffly in his lap.
“I don’t care what you fellows say, I wish the war’d end tomorrow.
I’ve spent long enough sitting around waiting for a battle that’s never
going to happen. If I don’t get out of here pretty soon, I’ll be too old
to lay my hands on some of the money that’s floating around California.
Anyway, the two of you better be careful how you talk, or they’ll run
you in as Secesh sympathizers and you’ll find yourselves stuck in the
guardhouse until the war’s over.”
The guardhouse stood on the opposite side of the island. There
criminal and political prisoners crowded into the basement, a dark,
narrow room reached only by a trapdoor from the floor above. At this
time of year someone peering out of its musket-slit windows could see
the dried, yellow grass on the Contra Costa hills.
Simon leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees.
“No, thank you. Rob, I’ve spent too many nights cooped up below deck
in the doghole. I’d rather go down fighting than go back to quarters
He breathed deeply, as though driving foul air from his lungs. It was
one of those days when the sky seemed to sparkle, and the air about him
smelled clean and faintly moist. He looked at the big gun overhead,
letting his eyes travel along its entire length. It pointed directly
west. In its line of fire, twin cliffs stood tall on either side of the
Golden Gate, completely dwarfing the three-story, brick casemates of
Fort Point to the left. He looked out through the open water of the
gate. Beyond was nothing, nothing but the blue Pacific Ocean stretching
Simon remembered the day he first came into San Francisco Bay.
Although the fog had begun to lift, it still hung cold and gray about
the lighthouses. Through it, he could see rolling sand dunes, broken
here and there by the dark green of scrubby plants. A fierce wind
spattered spray across the deck, soaking through his sweater and
chilling his hands.
His ship entered the bay and anchored just off Alcatraz. As Simon
tried to peer through the riggings that stood like a burned-out forest
between him and the city, a small boat pulled alongside. Several
foul-smelling men climbed aboard. Their pockets bulged with bottles of
whiskey and pictures of plump young women, which they passed among the
crew. Simon drank eagerly and examined the pictures with solemn
curiosity. Suddenly he felt his head grow befuddled, and his knees
refused to hold his legs properly. Even before the ship was made fast,
he followed one of the men over the side into a waiting skiff. There he
sat stupidly as he was rowed to the entrance of a waterfront boarding
house. For the next several days, he was aware of little except the
taste of cheap whiskey, accompanied by a bitter aftertaste he could not
Simon turned back and followed the line of the gun in the opposite
direction. New white buildings dotted the island. There had been nights
when the fog completely engulfed them, hiding even the lighthouse on the
southern tip, but on this afternoon even the wispiest clouds had
vanished. A gentle breeze stirred the bean hills in the vegetable
garden. Butterflies visited the snapdragons and marigolds, and a bird
As he listened to the waves whispering below, Simon agreed with
Jamie. In all his life, he had never been so happy. He blessed the day
that, head pounding and mouth tasting of mold, he stumbled into the army
recruiting station on Davis Street. He had known then that this was his
one chance to break out of the cycle that had held him for the past
eight years. With shaking hands, he signed the enlistment papers and
accepted the bounty. With that money, he could pay off the crimps and
sailing masters. He could free himself forever from attacks by bucko
mates, from meals of rancid bacon and weevil-ridden biscuits, from
typhoons and windless days when the water tanks had gone dry.
The army had saved him. For the first time since he had become a man,
he could look forward to three meals a day and a dry mattress at night.
True, he had to stand guard for hours at a time, but against what? An
occasional British cruiser that forgot to identify itself? His rifle was
well oiled and his bayonet was polished, but he felt certain that he
would never have to use them.
Simon knew that the other soldiers considered him withdrawn and
unfriendly, but he did not care. Years of avoiding the blows of
holystones and belaying pins had created an attitude of constant
suspicion. The sight of beatings and even murders for a few pieces of
beef jerky hade mad him wary of the people around him. He did not need
to make friends. Yet, almost in spite of himself, he had grown close to
For Jamie, too, the army had been a salvation. Despairing of ever
making a decent living in Ireland, he had left Limerick seven years
earlier and traveled to San Francisco with his wife and two-year-old
son. A series of temporary jobs had allowed the family to survive, but
the army provided more security than he had ever known before. Jamie was
the opposite of Simon — dark where Simon was fair, handsome and
easygoing where Simon was pinched and suspicious. Jamie loved a good
story. He delighted in plying Simon with questions until his silence
broke down and the words poured out, telling tales of love in Shanghai
or aborted mutiny on the South Seas. On several Sundays, Jamie took
Simon home with him. In the morning, they all trooped into St. Francis
Church, where the three adults and five children squeezed into one pew.
Simon watched the light from the stained-glass windows tint the white
arches red and blue. As Father Cotter murmured the ritual, Simon
remembered how, long ago, he used to sit on a similar wooden bench,
wedged between his brothers and sisters. To his surprise, the familiar
Latin phrases brought with them a great feeling of peace. The mood
continued at dinner. The little Fitzgeralds saw “Uncle Simon” as a
heroic figure, and as he joked with them, he felt the events of his past
life become less real and more romantic.
The sun was growing warmer in the sheltered corner of the island
where the soldiers sat. The smell of hot oil rose from the base of the
revolving turret. Jamie pulled his cap down over his eyes and settled
his head against the embankment.
Simon poked him on the shoulder.
“Are you going to sit dozing all afternoon? Let’s take a quick swim to cool off.”
“You and Rob go on ahead, and I’ll come down later, after I’ve had a wee nap.”
The other two men got slowly to their feet and made their way along a
narrow path that traced the western rim of the island. Rob chattered on
about how he would become a millionaire after the war was over. With
the money he saved from his pay, he was going to buy a clothing shop on
Steuart Street, not a large shop, but big enough for a start, and in a
couple of years, he would sell it and buy a string of riding horses and
open a stable and a riding school for young ladies. Since he had noticed
that many girls were interested in riding but shied off at the thought
of appearing foolish in public, he planned to build a special private
floor in the school where they could take their lessons without being
seen by curious onlookers. He would also have horses for hire, so that
men and women who could not afford horses of their own could ride along
the coast and out into the country. When the stable began to make money,
he might invest in a racehorse or two. And then, he said, his blue eyes
gleaming, Simon would be able to boast to his friends that he knew the
owner of a champion like Flora Temple or the son of Patchen.
The path ended abruptly at the edge of a cliff. The men climbed down a
steep flight of wooden stairs. They removed their uniforms and laid
them on a large rock set well back from where shallow waves were
breaking. The sun overhead picked up the white of their bodies as they
stepped gingerly over the rough stones covering the beach. Just across
the bay, the barracks and officers’ houses on the bluff at Black Point
gleamed white and green.
In spite of the warmth of the sun, the water was cold. They both
hesitated, allowing the waves to swirl around their feet. With a whoop,
Simon dashed forward and dived into the icy water, sending out an arc of
spray as he surfaced. Ever since he was a boy in St. Joseph, he had
loved the water, and he and his friends had spent long summer afternoons
swimming across the river and back. Perhaps that was why he had gone to
sea. Even in storms where waves splintered the masts and shredded the
sails, he had never been afraid. It was only human aggression that
Simon swam lazily from the shore. Just beyond the middle of the cove,
the current suddenly grew swift and the water began to pull at his
chest and legs. He turned back. Although he was probably strong enough
to compete with it, he had no desire to exert himself. He looked toward
the beach, where Rob still stood with his legs bent awkwardly. When
Simon shouted in encouragement, he waded into the water and began to
swim. Suddenly he jackknifed, his white buttocks glistening just before
he disappeared. As he bobbed up at Simon’s side, he propelled himself
forward, leaping onto Simon’s back and pushing his head under the water.
The two men struggled and splashed. They separated and eyed each other,
blowing menacing bubbles as their eyes danced in amusement.
Simon raised his head. Tiny drops of water clung to his red fringe of a beard.
“Race you to shore!”
He started back, followed by a wake of churning foam. When he reached
the little beach, he slapped both palms against a rock and looked back.
Rob was still in the middle of the cove. An expression of pain
contorted his face. While Simon watched, Rob thrashed his arms and slid
under the surface. Seconds later he reappeared, several feet closer to
the invisible line where the water of the cove collided with the water
of the bay.
Simon called out to be careful. He pushed himself away from the side
and pulled himself through the water with all his strength. Rob
disappeared again. This time he was submerged longer. When he came up,
he had been carried well into the channel outside the cove. He began to
float swiftly away from the island. Once more he disappeared.
Simon swam furiously toward the spot where Rob had gone down. The
current tugged at him so hard that he soon had to devote all his energy
to maintaining his course. For one frantic moment, he peered across the
waves, searching. He could see nothing but water. He pulled his body
against the current until he felt the calmness of the cove.
Mechanically, he swam to shore.
Boatloads of soldiers searched the bay until dark, but Rob’s body was
never found. As the older and more experienced swimmer, Simon blamed
himself for the young man’s death. He and Jamie talked far into the
night, but nothing Jamie said could convince Simon that he was not
guilty of a terrible sin.
On the next day, Simon began to hear voices. They called him a
murderer and whispered that he was going to hang for his crime. Although
he never heard the voices when he was alone, he was not able to trace
them to any of his fellow soldiers. Was someone playing a cruel joke on
him? Was he going mad? He did not know.
He found himself growing suspicious of everyone, prepared to fight at
the slightest provocation. After about a week of torment, he grew
increasingly violent and felt that he was completely losing control of
his actions. He told his commanding officer of his fears. Captain Winder
advised him to continue his regular duties during the day but suggested
that he sleep in the detention room of the guardhouse, where minor
offenders were confined at night. By partially isolating himself, he
could protect himself from the whispers if they were coming from his
companions. If they were the product of his own distraught mind, the
separation would allow him time to rest and recover his equanimity. The
captain also sent Simon ashore to see Father Cotter, in the hope that
the priest’s experience with troubled souls could provide him comfort.
Simon followed Captain Winder’s advice. After several days, he heard
the voices less often, and gradually he grew calmer. Then his company
was transferred across the bay to the fort at Black Point. There, too,
Simon stood guard during the day. At night, he was confined in the
guardhouse, along with several soldiers who had committed minor
infractions. One of these soldiers was Jamie Fitzgerald. The confinement
was rather informal. After their duty ended, the soldiers were
escorted, fully armed, to the guardhouse where they cleaned and oiled
their rifles. When it was time to retire for the night, the sergeant in
charge collected the weapons, distributed straw pallets, and departed.
He locked the door from the outside, leaving the prisoners in total
Simon spread out his pallet near the wall and lay down, with Jamie
beside him. The men talked in low voices for a few minutes. They fell
silent, and the night grew still. All Simon could hear was soft
breathing and the sound of waves against the edge of the bluff. He
relaxed. The evil demon that had pursued him ever since Rob died seemed
to have left him at last.
A sharp whisper pierced the darkness. Murderer! Simon’s body
stiffened. He buried his head in the jacket he was using for a pillow.
That was no imaginary voice. He was certain that it had come from across
the room. He listened without moving. Murderer! The whisper came from the far side of the room, near the door.
Simon covered his head with his jacket, trying to muffle the sound.
He lay curled up on his side, his body rigid and his fists pressed
against his ears. After several minutes of silence, he began to relax.
This time he would manage to ride calmly through the attack without
harming anyone. Murderer! You’re going to hang! Simon wedged
his body against the wall, removing himself as far as possible from the
voice. How long could he stand it? His right knee pressed against
something long and narrow. He reached down and felt the cold smoothness
of a bayonet that someone had left behind when the sergeant collected
the cleaned weapons.
Once more he heard the whisper. He seized the bayonet and lunged
across the room, throwing himself upon a soft body. Like a vengeful god,
he raised the blade and ran his left hand along the body in search of a
point of entry. The person beneath his hand sensed his danger. Drawing
up both knees, he placed his feet against Simon’s stomach and sent him
flying back across the room.
Simon could think of only one thing. At last he could put an end to
the accusing voices. He felt himself rolling over mounds of flesh and
clothing until he stopped near a wall. In the dark, he had no idea where
he was. He reached out with his left hand and encountered the rough
weave of a cotton shirt and the warmth of a shoulder. Down swung the
bayonet. It stopped when it met an obstacle. Down it came again, and
again, and again.
The soldiers inside the guardhouse began to scream. Darkness weighed
upon their bare arms and filled their mouths. Unable to identify the
cause of the frenzied movement in their midst, they only knew that they
were trapped with something horrible. One of the men pounded on the
door, his panicked cries for help mingling with the voices of his
The door opened. A sergeant stood in the doorway with a lantern in
his hand. As he peered into the dark, the prisoners dashed past him
Simon ran with them. The image of Jamie’s bloodstained body frozen in
the light of the sergeant’s lantern floated before his eyes. What had
he done? He had to find someplace to hide.
Soldiers ran in all directions. Amid the confusion, Simon entered the
barracks that adjoined the guardhouse. He made his way to the
compartment where his clothes were kept and drew out a dark sweater and a
pair of soft shoes. No one paid any attention to him as he walked down
the stairs and around the far side of the building.
Half crawling, he scrambled down the hillside and over the crumbling
bricks of an ancient Spanish embankment. Above his head, lanterns swung
back and forth, and voices clamored. Near him, nothing moved. He
trampled down the grassy slope until he found a path leading to the
beach. Across the bay, the Alcatraz signal light was flashing. If only
he were back on the island!
As Simon ran down the path, exposed roots stabbed at his bare feet.
He passed a pier jutting into the water. Here he had disembarked only
two days before, when he came to Black Point. He ran on. Tiny waves
sputtered against a boathouse. Directly ahead, the streetlights of the
Simon reached the bottom of the hill and crouched behind a low
building. He pulled off his shirt, which was sodden with blood and
sweat, and threw it under a bush. His hands trembled as he pulled the
clean sweater he had brought from the barracks over his head and fitted
the shoes onto his feet. He could still hear shouting on top of the
hill, but no one seemed to be following his trail.
He climbed over a low wooden fence and set out along the beach. Here
and there, half-eaten fish and broken shells gave off an odor of brine.
Two large fishing boats in dry dock loomed on his right, but their
owners had gone home long ago. He could hear waves slapping against the
hull of a clipper anchored to his left. The sky was unusually clear for
August, and a half-moon cast long shadows across the hollows in the
Laughter drifted toward him from the saloons at the end of Meiggs’
Wharf. He felt himself drawn toward their bright lights. If he wandered
into one of them, no one would think it strange or ask him any
questions. He could sit with the other patrons, quietly getting drunk,
until somebody decided he was good seaman material and packed him off.
Once back at sea, no one would care who he was.
Simon paused. Escape was possible. All he needed to do was walk out
on that long wharf. But he knew that returning to the sea meant a living
death. Why not just die now instead? Many a night, people staggered out
of the Cobweb Palace and leaped into the black waters that flowed past
the end of Meiggs’ Wharf. Sometimes their bodies lodged in the rotting
piles and were discovered the following day. Sometimes the swift current
carried them away, as it had carried Rob Duffy’s body, and no one knew
what became of them. To die in the sea would not be painful. Simon
remembered the feel of cold salt water drenching him as it poured past
the bowsprit. The ocean was deep and dark. A man would be safe within
But he had given up all rights to the ocean’s protection when he
decided to abandon it. Like the sea king’s daughter who fell in love
with a human, he had cast his lot with people of the land. He turned his
back on the wharf and the lighthouse that flashed directly beyond it.
Before him, a broad street led into the heart of the city.
Simon ran up the street. Noticing that his feet pounded hollowly
on the wooden sidewalk, he moved out into the road. Tiny puffs of dust
rose behind him at every step. Frame houses rose like specters on either
side, their shadows more distinct than the houses themselves in the
gaslight. The street was open and deserted. An empty carriage stood with
its shafts tilted against the curb. Across the street, a church with no
steeple blocked out the moon.
He could feel the road begin to climb. What time was it? If he did
not hurry, the people sleeping in the houses would begin to waken. He
did not want to meet anyone on this road.
The houses grew taller. Hills rose higher and higher behind them,
until Simon felt that he was about to be buried in a great canyon. Yea,
though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but whose
death? Rob’s? Or his own? He was not afraid of dying, but he did not
want to be interrupted before he completed his journey. In any case,
they would not kill him. Clearly he was mad, he must be. They would send
him to Stockton, where all the mad people of San Francisco went. Simon
knew about the insane asylum in Stockton. When Mary Maguire began to
parade about in her petticoat, the police bundled her off to Stockton.
When Peter Lenehan tried to burn down his neighbor’s house, he soon
found himself aboard the Stockton steamer. It was a large brick building
on an adobe plain, a place so crowded that inmates spent the night on
the floor, kept awake by the ceaseless babble of voices, a place where
the attendants did not hesitate to apply cold water or hard fists to
control their charges. Had he left the sea to discover a new confinement
Even though he was breathing hard from the climb, he increased his
pace. When he reached the corner of Vallejo Street, he turned left. The
street spread out before him, every rut and pebble accented by the faint
light of the day. A lone dog padded across, heading for a pile of
refuse in front of one of the houses.
Simon came to the stone façade of St. Francis Church and stumbled up
the steps. He pushed one of the heavy doors open a few inches and
slipped inside. Before his eyes grew accustomed to the dark, he was
assailed by the odor of smoke and incense. He stood in the doorway,
uncertain what to do. A dark figure entered from a side door and walked
toward the altar. Simon ran down the center aisle.
He stammered out his story. The priest spoke to him gently, trying to
find the words that would wipe the terror from his eyes. At last, he
took Simon by the shoulder and led him outside. They walked through the
narrow alley that separated the church from the wooden wall of the
distillery next door. Behind the church was a one-story cottage
surrounded by a neatly swept garden. Father Cotter guided Simon inside,
into a drab sitting room, where the two men sat until the San Francisco
police arrived an hour later.
In the end, Simon proved his voices wrong: he did not hang. Nor did
he return to Alcatraz, to join the prisoners in the guardhouse whose
only view of freedom was the dried, yellow grass of the East Bay hills.
Instead — for this is a “true” story — he made history, of a sort.
After a few days in the city jail, Simon Kennedy was turned over to
the military authorities for trial. At his request, his commanding
officer, Captain William A. Winder, served as counsel for the defense.
The transcript of the trial shows that Winder, who knew the depths of
his anguish, defended him passionately, arguing that in the civil
no questions are there presented so difficult, so
refined, so subtle, and so full of responsibility, as those of mental
aberration…. [But] in the books relative to courts martial, a single
authority cannot be found when the plea of insanity has been made in a
capital case. So far as I am informed this is the very first that has
been presented in the United States to a military court.
He asked the court to commit the defendant to “one of those
institutions which human charity has dedicated to just such human
frailty and weakness as has been unmistakably developed by the prisoner
at the Bar.”
The plea was too novel. It seemed destined to fail. On August 4, 1864
a court-martial found Private Simon Kennedy guilty of manslaughter and
assault with intent to kill, and sentenced him to life in prison.
But the story doesn’t end there. The case made its way to the top, to
the desk of Major General Irvin McDowell, the commander of the
Department of the Pacific of the U.S. Army. McDowell saw gray where the
lower court had seen black and white, reprimanding the guards for
allowing weapons in the possession of prisoners, especially one who was
“suffering from mental derangement.” But he added, “As there is abundant
evidence to show that the acts were committed whilst the prisoner was
insane, he will be held in confinement till he can be sent to the insane
And so, like many other human beings who have wandered through the
streets of San Francisco, Simon Kennedy faded from sight. Or at least he
would have, if the tale of the Black Point murder hadn’t caught the
attention of an aspiring young writer at the San Francisco Daily Morning Call.
— Copyright Betsey Culp 2008