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December 11, 1997

Winter Solstice: A True Story

San Francisco is a deceiver, a suitor whose smooth charm conceals a sadistic streak. The city's extraordinarily beautiful setting and its perpetual siren song of new opportunities  conspire to convince wayfarers that life will be easy if they but settle within its borders. Of course it isn't. It never has been. Visitors quickly discover that even snowless winters can stretch on interminably and a sunset splashed with fuschia often serves as prologue to a long, dark night.

In December 1864 the city was bustling. Its population had just exploded for a second time as people traveled west by the tens of thousands, drawn by dreams of Nevada silver or driven by distaste for the slaughter of civil war. San Francisco, hardly touched by the national conflict, served as the nation's banker. Its factories screeched as they ran at full capacity, and its wharves groaned, piled high with raw materials and finished goods. Fortunes were being made overnight, but most of the men and women in the wooden houses that lined the unpaved streets were more concerned with earning a daily living.

On one particular day a couple sat silently eating breakfast in the middle of a dimly lit kitchen. Outside, the morning was cold. Swept clean by the south wind, the air smelled slightly salty. Farther inland, on Mason Street, a group of boys discovered a patch of ice where the frigid night had captured a large puddle, but near Mission Bay the breeze merely kicked up puffs of gray dust and blew them in heaps against the front steps. Inside the house the stove had begun to take the chill off the air, but still the man and woman at the table huddled deeper into their heavy sweaters every time a gust forced its way through the uncaulked chinks in the wall. Unnoticed by their accustomed senses, the cloying odor of blood and freshly carved flesh, the trademark of Butchertown, filled the kitchen, brought forth from their clothes and bedding by the spreading warmth.

Henry Schram stared as a line of ants crawled up the table leg and past his plate, apparently uninterested in the biscuits before him as they blindly searched for shelter. His skin tingled as he watched. As if reminded of a long-festering injury, he raised his eyes to his wife's face. He looked with disgust at her pallid skin and the long hair that hung messily over her shoulder.

"You could have fixed yourself up before you called me," he grunted.

"I'm sorry. I was up all night with the baby."

"There's no excuse for slovenliness."

Even on a warm, pleasant morning, this was a poorly matched pair. Henry, at thirty-five, had lived by himself too long to adjust easily to female company. Although not vicious by temperament, when he had been drinking, as he often did these days, his impatience with his young bride tended to erupt into violence. And Ellen was very young. Married at fifteen for reasons of poverty or pregnancy, she found herself a year later with a house to manage and an infant to care for.

"I notice you find the time to make yourself presentable for your friends. If you paid more attention to what's needed here instead of running and laughing all over the place with them, this might be a real home."

Ellen watched with alarm as Henry's face flushed and his usual guttural grumble swelled into a full-force bellow. Almost automatically, she reached forward and placed both hands about her enameled mug, drawing it toward her. She looked intently into the coffee, as though a response was lurking in its depths. But there was nothing, only the heat of the metal and a bitter, burnt aroma.

She waited. Sometimes impassiveness provided a breathing space from which her husband emerged, distracted and calmer, on the other side.

Not this time. Instead, her expressionless face seemed to provoke him. With a sudden thrust, he hurled his plate against the opposite wall, spattering the floor with crumbs and shards. Her plate followed it, and then his mug. The baby began to cry.

Henry leaned forward, peering into her eyes like a bellicose orangutan trying to provoke a fight. When Ellen refused to move, he pushed back his chair, stood up, and tipped the heavy wooden table toward her lap. As she leaped aside, her chair clattered onto the bare floor behind her. The table crashed down on top of it, crushing the seat and knocking the doweled legs in all directions. Wails from the baby's bed in the corner flooded the room.

For an instant, husband and wife remained frozen, half-crouching, each warily watching the other. Ellen broke first. She darted across the room, with Henry in clumsy pursuit. He seized her by the wrist and pulled her sharply toward him.

The next few moments gave earthly meaning to the hellish realm of Pandemonium, as bodies hurtled against walls and incoherent roars muffled anguished shrieks. The battle culminated in a frenzied struggle at the door. Ellen wrenched open the latch and rushed outside. Skirt askew, sweater torn, she ran down Gilbert Street. Even today the broad alley that connects Bryant and Brennan near Seventh provides a quiet haven from the din of the jackhammers that pound incessantly beneath the nearby freeway. On that cold December morning, the street was very peaceful indeed. All that could be heard was the rumble of a few delivery wagons, the hush of the waves against the shore, and Ellen's screams.


* * *



But San Francisco was not settled by lily-livered women. Ellen quickly dried her tears and straightened her clothing. Marching downtown to the police station, she filed a charge of assault and battery against her husband. When Henry, his head still spinning from the fight, answered a knock at the door shortly afterward, he saw a policeman standing before him with an arrest warrant in his hand.
It seems strange for a city where women were in short supply, but arrests for domestic violence were common in nineteenth-century San Francisco and procedures for handling them were almost routine. Henry was taken to the police court, in the City Hall building at Portsmouth Square, where he was arraigned and released on bail with instructions to return for trial the following day. He went home to find the house deserted. Ellen had returned in his absence, bundled up the baby, and fled across Mission Creek to her mother's house on Potrero Point.

Shaken and subdued, Henry walked through the tiny house, kicking aside broken crockery and furniture fragments. He ran his rough fingers along the binding of the quilt on the brass-framed bed. He rested his large, square hands on the pine chest next to it, his eyes transfixed by a grease mark on the wall. He paced back and forth, in long strides that traversed first one room and then the other. Abruptly he reached a decision. Circling purposefully, he gathered up everything he could find that belonged to Ellen. Her rocking chair. Her sewing machine. A green glass bowl. The baby's bed. Heaping them every which-way in a pile just outside the door, he trudged down the next block to borrow a cart. Loaded them up and transported them to the nearest used-goods shop, where he sold the lot.

Henry picked up a bottle of whisky somewhere and walked back to the nearly empty house. He closed the door. All night long, he sat on the edge of the bed, drinking slowly, all by himself.

Next morning he returned to the police court as promised. To his surprise, Ellen awaited his arrival. Appeared with him in court. Testified against him. Standing at the front of the windowless room, surrounded by drunks and prostitutes and the overpowering stench of sweat and stale liquor, she described in uncomfortable detail the private things that had transpired between the two of them as husband and wife. The judge listened with obvious boredom, barely stifling a yawn as he delivered the verdict. Guilty.

The Daily Alta of December 22 reported that Henry had been released, to return the following morning for sentencing. Henry left City Hall and walked along Kearny Street, wound up tight by whisky and by shame, like a somber jack-in-the-box about to spring its cover. He went home, pulled a revolver from a wooden box under the bed, and set out to find Ellen.

Then, as now, Potrero Point was a hodgepodge of houses, factories, and loading docks. Henry stumbled along the bridge at the end of Brannan Street and wandered aimlessly up and down the rutted roads that criss-crossed the land between the creek and the bay. The afternoon was warm. The winds of the previous day had dissipated, leaving behind a sky of lupine blue reflected in the water below. If he had looked east, he would have seen the curved summit of Mount Diablo towering behind the Oakland hills. Closer to shore, water birds congregated, dark spots punctuating the gleaming, flickering surface.

Still Henry wandered.

About four o'clock, as the shadows began to lengthen and cloud wisps hid the sun's soothing warmth, he  passed a row of old brick kilns. Up ahead, a street lined with one-story frame houses led toward the smokestacks of the Mission Woolen Mills. Ellen walked toward him. When he approached, she greeted him, perhaps convinced that no harm could come to her on a public thoroughfare. He pulled the pistol from inside his shirt.

"Now, missy," he said, "you've had your say. You'll never talk so bravely in court again. No, you'll never draw another breath beyond this spot."

He fired twice. The first bullet passed through the side of her neck, drawing blood but doing little damage. The second entered her left side just above the hip. It sent her falling to the ground, where she lay motionless.

Henry looked at Ellen's body huddled on the roadbed at his feet. Then --- was there a spasm of understanding that he had inflicted pain on a person he loved? a burst of comprehension that he had traveled beyond the possibility of self-forgiveness? --- he put the pistol in his own mouth and fired once. He died instantly.

Police officers arrived almost immediately. In the deepening twilight, they picked up Henry's body and carried it to Massey's undertaking rooms to prepare it for an inquest. They transported Ellen to City and County Hospital.

There, in the dark, a woman sat beside her bed, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, a single candle lighting her vigil. The watching figure shuddered as she felt the cold in the room deepen. Toward morning a faint sound, like the mewl of a kitten, escaped from the bundle she held in her arms. Ellen stirred. Her eyes slowly opened, and she watched the air flutter the curtains where the window frame was poorly fitted, a portent of the turbulent winter to come. A ray of pale sunlight slid through the whorled glass, illuminating the faces of her mother and the sleeping baby. She smiled. The long night was over.

--Copyright Betsey Culp 1997

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