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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 like that.”

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 on forever.

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 identify.

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 sang overhead.

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 Jamie Fitzgerald.

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.”

Jamie grunted.

“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 terrified him.

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 darkness.

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 companions.

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 toward safety.

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 city glowed.

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 sand.

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 it.

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 in hell?

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.

“Father Cotter!”

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 courts,

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 asylum.”

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