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The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld

3.87  ·  Rating details ·  689 ratings  ·  96 reviews
The history of the Barbary Coast properly begins with the gold rush to California in 1849. If the precious yellow metal hadn't been discovered . . . the development of San Francisco's underworld in all likelihood would have been indistinguishable from that of any other large American city. Instead, owing almost entirely to the influx of gold-seekers and the horde of gamble ...more
Paperback, 318 pages
Published October 9th 2002 by Basic Books (first published January 28th 1933)
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Average rating 3.87  · 
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Apr 30, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: you always suspected "the real story" was different from grammar school textbooks
This book is fantastic. Brilliantly entertaining stories, and most of them close to agreed upon historical consensus. Lurid details of the "Underbelly" of the Barbary Coast. I couldn't get enough of it, and this book launched me into an obsession with the history of San Francisco. At least a particular side of SF. Great to read in tandem with "You Can't Win", by Jack Black ... ...more
Melanie Spiller
This book was published in 1933, not all that long after the Barbary Coast was shut down and modern San Francisco took its shape. In that regard, it's clearly drawn from the writer's own experiences as well as some research.

I enjoyed the sense of the time that I got, going back to 1848 and as far forward as the 1920s. The book is light on contextual history, heavy on politics and prostitution. I needed a map, so I printed one from GoogleMaps, and taped it to the inside cover. I live in SF, but
Michael Burnam-Fink
Feb 24, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2020, history
Early San Francisco was a profoundly strange city. The Gold Rush exploded a sleepy port into an expensive haven of vice and villainy, designed to separate miners and sailors from their cash with booze, prostitution, and blunt objects. The dense area of houses of ill-repute, named the Barbary Coast, was a real-life version of that Simpsons song about New Orleans. Asbury's book is from 1933, and takes pretty much every lurid newspaper article from the time at face value. There are some interesting ...more
Amina Ahsan
Jan 17, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Great look back at the start and end of the Barbary Coast. The SF underworld. The waterfront district of SF in the 19th century, notorious for its cheap bars, nightclubs, prostitute abs gambling houses abs the high incidence of crime. As an SF resident it bring to life all the neighborhoods and streets that we are so familiar with in the 21st century.
Paul Bauer
Dec 13, 2020 rated it it was amazing
"The Little Lost Chicken was a tiny girl in her middle twenties. She knew but one song, a ballad which began: 'The boat lies high, the boat lies low; she lies high and dry on the Ohio.' This she sang in a quavering falsetto, invariably bursting into tears at the last note. She so obviously required protection against the cruel blasts of the world that many gentlemen very chivalrously offer it; but always to their financial distress, for in her artless way the Little Lost Chicken was a first-rate ...more
Aaron Hertzmann
Jul 26, 2019 rated it liked it
Interesting window into the past, but also focused on the lurid and sensational at the expense of broader context. Couldn't sustain interest after 100 pages. ...more
Aug 29, 2007 rated it it was ok
Beh. This is one of those books I'll pick up and put down for years to come when I'm bored or in the can or something. Someday I might finish it, or not. I don't really care either way.

This isn't to say it's not interesting. It is. But it's hard to tell what is true and what is conjecture. Some interesting history in here though. SF!
Nov 08, 2011 rated it really liked it
"Informal history" means that legend is mixed in with fact. Most legends are based on fact anyway.... ...more
Oct 29, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
SF is still fucked up. But now everyone has ironic haircuts and iphones.
Nov 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.
Jun 03, 2019 rated it liked it
When I first started reading this, I didn't realize that it had been written in 1933 and that the author also wrote Gangs of New York and other books detailing crime in cities such as Chicago and New Orleans. But as I started to read this, it became rather obvious that the book was written in a less politically correct era when Chinese were referred to as Celestials or Chinamen and some of the words used such as bagnio (bordello or brothel) are little used today.

But overall, this is a very exten
Jonathan Fesmire
What an incredible look at San Francisco history!

From the earliest days of the California Gold Rush in 1848 until the final doors were forced shut in 1921, the Barbary Coast district of San Francisco was home to extreme crime and debauchery. Many of the city's most memorable historical figures profited from the Barbary Coast. Between it, Chinatown, and the Upper Tenderloin district, San Francisco has perhaps the most colorful history of any U.S. city.

This account of that infamous district, first
Jan 15, 2021 rated it really liked it
Historical book about the Barbary Coast in San Francisco from the Gold Rush in 1849 to its demise in 1917. The first half of the book is more about the history of San Francisco itself than just the Barbary Coast—and it is a horrible history, filled with lawlessness and horrendous crimes. Early San Francisco was inhabited primarily by men, most of whom were violent and not held accountable for their crimes since the police and politicians were corrupt. Examples include young Chinese girls sold i ...more
Apr 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, nonfiction
A fascinating, salacious read, paints early San Francisco out to be a mix of the Wild West and a Capone-esque gangster world, with at times a Dickensian black-humored twist.

Caveat: the book is a time capsule of the period it describes, but also of the period in which it was written. The author puts forth what in his time must have been a notably progressive take on his subject matter, but ultimately can't help sounding like a product of his time. Just something to be aware of.

Summary: recommende
Steve Scott
I love Asbury’s books.

Critics have said he embellished his works, but it appears he researched them. No doubt many of the tales grew with the telling and were magnified by the time Asbury got to them.

He chronicles the vice of San Francisco from the Gold Rush days up to ten years past the 1906 earthquake. He writes of racism, child exploitation, violence...all fascinating and tragic accounts of the era that explode “Golden Age” myths of modern times.

Sometimes the stories are darkly funny as well.
Nov 26, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: about-sf
It's not a big surprise that this book is hard to read since it was written in 1933 and consist of a very thorough analysis and list of all the establishments, personalities, and activities it also shows the reason why San Francisco is such a weird city.
Homelessness, crimes, corruption, lawlessness, and lack of proper management were always present in this city in much bigger amounts, so it's not a big surprise that the spirit of Barbary Coast is still present here, just maybe changed the neighb
Leila Kern
Aug 04, 2017 rated it really liked it
This book took a long time for me to read. Not because the story was not interesting but the writing rambled somewhat. This book was an interesting read; history I had not heard or read about. And, having been born and raised in San Francisco, I was extremely interested in reading about San Francisco's early history. I did not realize that the Barbary Coast existed for so long. I would recommend this book as an addition to other history written about San Francisco. ...more
Jun 13, 2017 rated it liked it
I did enjoy finding out some history I did not know about my home town of 22 years but this book was often painful to read. Granted it was written in the early 1930s but it was so full of racism and sexism - ouch.
Kat Cui
Dec 05, 2019 rated it liked it
Very um... lurid as advertised/promised? I feel like Herbert would b hella mad that Chesa Boudin is DA now. I was happy to have reached the end of this book which is never a good sign. Literally the only humanizing excerpt from this book comes three pages to the end
Jul 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
It was written in 1933 so you have to keep that in mind, but I appreciated the non-fiction account of life in early San Francisco. It added much to a historical fiction story I just finished.
Jo Ann
Mar 14, 2018 rated it liked it
Wow! When I'm in San Francisco in a few weeks, I'd like to check out some of the addresses where the historical underground of this magnificent city began! Recommended to me by Wes Egan... ...more
Apr 22, 2018 rated it it was ok
Its an older book. But still fascinating. I think the last third or so was repetitive and didn't really carry to story along as well as the first ⅔ did. But still worth the time. ...more
Jun 03, 2018 rated it it was ok
So. Much. Prostitution.

An interesting history, but recounting the history of every single bar and brothel in the city got old.
Sep 29, 2019 rated it liked it
Well researched. highlights the dangerous characters and bawdy times of early SF
Dan McGirt
Oct 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A colorful and entertaining informal history of San Francisco's criminal underworld and vice dens from the days of the gold rush to the early 20th century. ...more
Christine Jeffords
Apr 26, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
There was a time when San Francisco was called "the wickedest, most corrupt and godless city on the face of the Earth—even more wicked than Marseilles or Port Said." This classic study shows you why. Following up on "The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld," which Asbury had written five years earlier (still to come were "French Quarter: An Informal History of the New Orleans Underworld" (1936) and "Gem of the Prairie: An Informal History of the Chicago Underworld" (1940)), ...more
Louise Carlson Stowell
My grandmother had told me many stories about San Francisco when I was growing up there. So many mysteries remained about certain areas she would briefly gloss over...and about a house "For Sale" she and her mother had been shown back in the 1930's close to Telegraph Hill. In the basement were numerous tiny cells, bars on the windows, and a couple of padlocked small doors in the otherwise vacant three story house. My grandmother said she had always wondered about the history of the place. It was ...more
Aug 21, 2012 rated it really liked it
The Barbary Coast suffers only because its subject matter demands chronology. Its goal is to tell the history of the infamous Gold Rush Era (and beyond) red light district of San Francisco, from birth to death. In this way it falls into the trap of many biographies, being bound to the entire life span it fails to create any sort of dramatic, narrative, or thematic arc other than "things started, then ended."

Still, each chapter is filled with fascinating (and hyperbolic) anecdotes from every era,
Feb 09, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2013, true-crime
Warning: this book is NOT for the faint of heart!

Wow. This book really surprised me because I like to think of myself as tough (I read Andrew Vachss. Enough said) but after reading this, I realize I am tough in the area of "fiction". When you read page after page of incredibly disgusting violence (95% directly towards women) and that violence is absolutely true and a part of history....and took place 5 minutes from your's a little discouraging. This author speaks about streets in San
Jun 07, 2009 rated it really liked it
Lots of people seem to think that the world gone mad, and we need to get back to the good old days. Personally, I tend to feel that the people have gotten dull ... and we need to get back to the good old days. Clearly, thought, there's a limit. Genghis Kahn's life was a bit too exciting for my taste. San Francisco circa 1852 may have been as well. That said, it makes for good reading.

Asbury gives a quick history of the gold rush days in San Francisco -- mainly the ugly crazy bits -- and the ori
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Herbert Asbury (September 1, 1889 – February 24, 1963) was an American journalist and writer best known for his books detailing crime during the 19th and early-20th centuries, such as Gem of the Prairie: An Informal History of the Chicago Underworld, The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld and The Gangs of New York.

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