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RSB Books

Richard Schwartz

Writer, Historian


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RSB Books

The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty

Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley

Earthquake Exodus, 1906

Berkeley 1900

Circle of Stones

Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley

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Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley
            cover painting



Did you know?

-- Berkeley citizens mounted a fight to save an old oak tree from the developers axe from 1896 to 1908? It resembles the same fight going on in Berkeley in the 21st century to save a grove of old oak trees.

-- A founder of University of California, Berkeley, hosed down his wife at the official opening of the water system he helped create?

-- That the assassination of President Lincoln in 1865 directly affected the fate of the university in Berkeley for a period?

-- That a Hindu ranch worker in Wildcat Canyon read palms and fortunes in Berkeley and Oakland on his days off in the 1880s?

-- Ranchers always saw the tallest waterfall in all of Alameda County as they led their cattle out of Wildcat Canyon and into Berkeley? Do you know what happened to it?

-- Berkeley had a Civil War veteran who acted as a spy in Africa and helped catch slavers and freed a ship packed with Africans who had been kidnapped in the slave trade?

-- Emperor Norton had a regular and frequent presence in Berkeley and the University in the 1870s?

-- Berkeley almost had a huge city park like San Franciscos Golden Gate Park just north of Solano Avenue all the way to Cerrito Creek?

-- That Wildcat Canyon was the scene of a grisly homicide of a rancher whose murder was solved by pulling a piece of a newspaper from the ranchers wound?

-- It was so dark in Berkeley that residents could clearly see the Aurora Borealis at night and needed kerosene lanterns to walk home without falling into deep mud holes?

-- Berkeley was the home of the nations leading hot dog expert who hung a sign at his outdoor cart that said, Eat here, die at home.

-- A forgotten African-American was a town founder of Berkeley by virtue of his participation in the Citys first election, and the inventor of an important landscape implement, the ubiquitous lawnmower grass catcher.



Berkeley's enduring reputation as a haven for eccentrics-the magical, the magnificent, and the malevolent-has contributed greatly to the community's rich cultural history. Though most of today's residents and visitors are unfamiliar with Berkeley's earliest roster of offbeat characters, their legacy became part of the foundation for one of the country's most vibrant intellectual communities.

In the mid-twentieth century, Berkeley grabbed the national spotlight as a bastion of free thinkers and rabble-rousers. But the area had been long established as a fertile home for visionaries and individualists in the 1870s and 1880s, and even as far back as the gold rush era.

Early Berkeley was a true frontier town embodying all the excitement, potential, and danger of America's Wild West. From the outset, it was a place where new ideas were tested, and where people who didn't feel quite at home in other locales seemed to find comfort and camaraderie.

Of course, most of the town's population consisted of stalwart men and women-from ranchers, road builders, and business owners to maids, saloon keepers, and farmhands-who worked hard following their careers and visions of their lives. And among them lived innovators, artists, and campaigners whose head-turning discoveries and endearing antics were preserved in local newspaper accounts. These publications also captured the more sordid events of the day. In a place where urban areas hardly encroached on endless acres, disputes over land led to sad cases of murder; early attempts to mete out justice were often inconsistent and accounts of them are often baffling. Some of the events and sentiments of that era are still quietly influencing our culture today.

A century or more ago, anyone on the street would have easily identified these famous local characters. Over the years their stories sadly faded from common memory. But any community will benefit from reexamining its forgotten social and cultural roots. To that end, I present this book about early Berkeley's eccentrics, heroes, and cutthroats as a tribute to all those whom ever have dreamed here or called this place home.


Richard Schwartz

Buy it Now

Forward | Introduction

Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old

ISBN 978-0-9678204-2-2 $24.95 Trade paper edition

ISBN 978-0-9678204-3-9 $39.95 Cloth edition


Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Martin Murrey Dunn and Dave the Fire Horse

Chapter 2 The Hangman's Tree

Chapter 3: Samuel Hopkins Willey and the First University Waterworks, 1867

Chapter 4: Pat Curran's Ranch, Wildcat Canyon

Chapter 5: The Tragic Saga of Squatter Zelotus Reed

Chapter 6: The Railroad Meets the Berkeley Spirit: The Mary Townsend Saga

Chapter 7: John E. Boyd: The Boss Baggage Buster of Beautiful Berkeley

Chapter 8: Emperor Norton in Berkeley

Chapter 9: Richard Parks Thomas and the Standard Soap Works of Berkeley

Chapter 10: Benjamin D. Boswell, the Man behind the Mysterious Boswell Ranch

Chapter 11: The Wagner Ranch Road and Benjamin Boswell

Chapter 12: The Boundary Dispute of Pat Sullivan and Robert Lyle, Wildcat Canyon

Chapter 13: Mary Thompson--Berkeley's Wonderful, Well-Known, Working Widow

Chapter 14: Bill "Hot Dog" Henderson

Chapter 15: Henry S. Peterson and the Berkeley Lawn Mower Invention

Chapter 16: "Indian Girl Was Homesick"

Chapter 17: Professor Joseph Voyle's Buried Ancient City under UC Berkeley

December, 2009, The Website of the San Francisco Chronicle,, posted a photo gallery of images from the book Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley. It can be found at

The San Francisco Chronicle picked Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley as a Holiday Gift Book of the Year.

David Crosson, Executive Director, California Historical Society

Too often history is presented as an abstract force outside of human control that has happened to others sometime in the past. Humans did not shape history but were shaped by it. Worse yet, those same humans never really become people, especially people like you and me or, for that matter, anyone who you and I know. In truth, however, history is created by people very much like us. In the end (to paraphrase Tip O'Neal) all history is local. All history is personal. And all history is a story or the undetermined sum of many stories. All modesty aside, we common sort can be pretty fascinating.

If you want proof of this simple truth, all you have to do is pick up Richard Schwartz's collection of stories on Berkeley, California, and the East Bay in the last half of the nineteenth and first quarter of the twentieth centuries. In this small book of stories on a single community, Schwartz touches all of the abstract themes that you will find in grand histories: class struggle, ethnic conflicts, economic greed, and political intrigue. To be sure, you will meet a full cast of outlandish characters that you would expect to find in Berkeley: a national caliber humorist known locally as "the Boss Baggage Buster of Beautiful Berkeley," a lone widow washerwoman who maintained a 20 year fight against the power of both the City and the railroad, and a hotdog maven who advertised with a sign that read, "Eat Here; Die at Home."

At the same time, however, all of these dead, historical people come dressed in clothes, wearing the faces, and speaking the voices of people we will recognize. By the time Richard Schwartz is through with each portrait, we don't just know the story, we know the person. Wait, doesn't she live next door? The past, as Richard Schwartz tells it, is comprised of a lot of people who look, act, and sound a lot like us. For me, at least, that is comforting news.

David Crosson

In Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley, author Richard Schwartz seems to have leaned so far over the magic hole of history that he fell in and lived with the people he studied. The intimacy he has developed with men and women of nineteenth and early twentieth century Berkeley blurs the fact that these people and events are of another time. The seventeen stories Schwartz tells here remind us of an often-overlooked reality: that the face of humanity of the past is the same as our own. Although the world these wise and colorful characters inhabit is in so many ways different from ours, their spirit rings true to our modern sensibilities. Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley shows how deeply we share the emotions and motivations of our ancestors whether she be a Native American girl trapped as a Berkeley domestic, a Civil War veteran gossiping and reminiscing his way down Shattuck Avenue in a horse-drawn wagon, or an African American dairyman whose keen observations bring him riches in a community that embraced him as a town founder. Schwartz brings forth these long-forgotten people from their resting place, and does so with such skill as a storyteller that we can, for a time, straddle two worlds and sense their profound continuity.

Robert Birgeneau, Chancellor, University of California, Berkeley

I finally found time to look through your book and to read the chapters you recommended on Samuel Hopkins Willey and "Prof." Joeseph Voyle. I enjoyed both very much. I was particularly taken by the photographs in the Willey chapter. Also, the chapter on Volye reminded me that some things never change, at least, here in the city of Berkeley. Thank you so much for sending me this elegant and informative book.       

Malolm Margolin, founder Heyday Books

Combining the research skills of a careful historian with the flair of a yarn-spinner, Richard Schwartz brings early Berkeley alive with such vibrancy and immediacy that you might imagine he had witnessed it first-hand. What an informative, engaging, ultimately thought- provoking exploration of our Berkeley roots! In his many years of plowing the local soil, Schwartz brings forth a rich harvest of stories and memories that nourish a deeper sense of place.

David Crosson, Executive Director, California Historical Society

Too often history is presented as an abstract force outside of human control that has happened to others sometime in the past. Humans did not shape history but were shaped by it. Worse yet, those same humans never really become people, especially people like you and me or, for that matter, anyone who you and I know. In truth, however, history is created by people very much like us. In the end (to paraphrase Tip O'Neal) all history is local. All history is personal. And all history is a story&emdash;or the undetermined sum of many stories. All modesty aside, we common sort can be pretty fascinating.

If you want proof of this simple truth, all you have to do is pick up Richard Schwartz's collection of stories on Berkeley, California, and the East Bay in the last half of the nineteenth and first quarter of the twentieth centuries. In this small book of stories on a single community, Schwartz touches all of the abstract themes that you will find in grand histories: class struggle, ethnic conflicts, economic greed, and political intrigue. To be sure, you will meet a full cast of outlandish characters that you would expect to find in Berkeley: a national caliber humorist known locally as "the Boss Baggage Buster of Beautiful Berkeley," a lone widow washerwoman who maintained a 20 year fight against the power of both the City and the railroad, and a hotdog maven who advertised with a sign that read, "Eat Here; Die at Home."

At the same time, however, all of these dead, historical people come dressed in clothes, wearing the faces, and speaking the voices of people we will recognize. By the time Richard Schwartz is through with each portrait, we don't just know the story, we know the person. Wait, doesn't she live next door? The past, as Richard Schwartz tells it, is comprised of a lot of people who look, act, and sound a lot like us. For me, at least, that is comforting news.

Zach Smart, Staff Writer, Westport News,,

"Richard Schwartz's new book, "Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats Of Old Berkeley" hits the nail squarely on the head with gusto. His latest book is well-written, well-documented, extremely descriptive, and a top-tier execution in all respects...This is more than regional history. His ability to rehydrate the mindset of some of the most forgotten and intriguing characters of old Berkeley (an era stretching from from 1850-1925) is staggering. Schwartz brings these personalities to life with his flair and detail, providing readers with stunning visual elements as well. He has captivated the townsfolk once again and seems to be achieving icon status, which is well earned. He has given everyone a myriad of history lessons--and an insight on the eccentric founding fathers of Berkeley in 218 pages. This time, he offers up a literary ride with humorous, dramatic, and surreal historic events and an abundance of quirky personalities from the era to embrace.

The Berkeley Daily Planet, August 28, 2007

Books: Delightful Characters of Bygone Berkeley By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

If, in the year 2107, someone were to write a book like Richard Schwartz's latest effort, he could well be one of its subjects.

Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley is a guiltless pleasure, a delightful collection of tales about some of the city's most fascinating and wrongly forgotten characters.

A builder by trade, Schwartz is Berkeley's resident amateur historian, the author of two previous works of community history.

After his Berkeley 1900 account of the city at the dawn of a new century and Earthquake Exodus, 1906 with its account of Berkeley's response to the Great Earthquake of 1906, Schwartz moves on to profile in words and contemporary images some of the folks who help the city's justifiable reputation as home to some of the most colorful, cantankerous and fascinating folks on the nation's Left Coast.

Take Emperor Norton for example-that genteel and majestically delusional soul and legendary San Franciscan whose funeral in 1880 drew 30,000 mourners.

Self-proclaimed Emperor of North America and Protector of Mexico, he was also a familiar figure in the city across the bay from the seat of his realm, conducting reviews of UC Berkeley military cadets and upstaging a real-life emperor who'd come to lecture on a university stage.

Then there was John E. Boyd, an oft-lauded and occasionally arrested homespun essayist and sometimes city-official-cum-town-drunk; in addition to his self-anointed role as Boss Baggage Buster of Beautiful Berkeley.

A vivid stylist whose wordsmithing some thought comparable to Twain's, he also became a cinematic hero, a rescuer on horseback in the 1906 film A Trip to Berkeley, which still plays on the Pacific Film Archive's silver screen.

Courts closed when he died, the City Hall flag flew at half-mast and Odd Fellows Hall filled with mourners.

The opening essay tells the tales of Irish immigrant Martin Murrey Dunn, who owned some of the choicest acreage in the Berkeley hills, and of Dave, the fire horse who loved him.

In affably agreeable prose, Schwartz describes the unique role of the horse in fighting fires and of the affection that bonded the highly intelligent animals and their human trainers and partners in firefighting.

Part of the land where Dunn raised his horses is today occupied by the Claremont Hotel, built eight years after his death.

Land battles

In Berkeley of late, all the serious politics have been about land use, often pitting neighbor against neighbor, and neighborhoods against developers and officialdom.

The landmarks ordinance, the Gaia Building, UC Berkeley's construction boom and Western Berkeley rezoning have generated endless debate, litigation (threatened and often realized) and political campaigns while consuming reams of print and barrels of ink. Even that most venerable of Berkeley battles, the contest over the fate of that plot of land dubbed People's Park, has been heating up again.

So it should come as no surprise that confrontations about human real estate "improvements" have deep Berkeley roots; replete with threats, a murder and a feisty homeowner who literally laid her life on the line.

The most compelling of Schwartz's land battle stories is the saga of Mary Townsend, a real-life pistol-packin' momma.

A small woman with a pleasant smile who made her living as a domestic worker, Townsend had seen her share of life's miseries. Widowed by the Civil War and burdened with a ne'er-do-well son, she had become a highly respected figure in 1870s, and owned a home on Shattuck Avenue south of Channing Way.

And then a man memorialized in two Berkeley streets, Frances Kittredge Shattuck, teamed with James Barker to entice the Central Pacific Railroad to run a line up Shattuck from Oakland.

While most property owners accepted the railroad's buyout offers, Townsend and neighbor Peter Maloney refused, since the property sought by the railroad would put the tracks right at their front doors.

Momentarily stymied, the railroad curved the tracks to avoid the two lots, then enticed the county to launch condemnation proceedings.

Rejecting further settlement offers which included a swap for an unusable lot and angered by the railroad's refusal to pay for moving her house, she took legal action and a Solomonic court split the legal baby in an 1877 decision, giving the railroad an easement on the lots, while leaving legal title to the land and a $1,030 award to Townsend.

But railroad baron Charlie Crocker refused to pay, and threatened to leave town with his tracks unless Townsend's neighbors coughed up the cash. They did.

It took another two decades for the battle to erupt anew, this time over the city's move to pave between the tracks to keep down dust. Before it ended, Townsend had moved her house onto the tracks, lain across the rails and shoved a pistol into the chest of the town marshal.

The rest of the story is for the reader to discover.

Schwartz's 17 chapters are like kernels of hot, buttered popcorn; crunchy and delightfully tasty, and almost impossible to devour one at a time; with the last one vanishing with regret at the feast's end and with appreciation for the pleasure they brought.

This reader, for one, didn't stop until the whole volume had been consumed.

Though "amateur" has evolved into something of a condescending slur, Richard Schwartz restores the word to some of its earlier luster.

Only in athletics does the word retain its original meaning as a "lover," someone whose passion for the beloved is motivated by love, not money.

Schwartz is a passionate amateur of Berkeley history, approaching his discipline with both passion and rigor and crafting his words with affection and humor coupled with the more orthodox demands of accuracy and attribution.

Infectious enthusiasm combined with the larger-than-life natures of many of the characters he profiles prove an irresistable combination.

He offers us stories of folks whose names deserve their places on the city's roster of streets; though one subject's horse did leave its moniker, Prince, on the South Berkeley street that a certain Daily Planet writer calls home.

The Daily Californian, Thursday, September 6, 2007

Book Revives Quirky Characters of Bygone Berkeley Past by Jessica Kwong

Richard Schwartz is a Berkeley resident and author of a book on the particularly colorful characters of the city's past.

Berkeley resident and self-proclaimed historian Richard Schwartz unearths and documents the little-known, eccentric history of the city of Berkeley and the UC Berkeley campus in a book published this summer.

Far from a collection of urban legends, Schwartz's book "Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley," breathes new life into pivotal pre-1960s personalities who not only added color to the local area, but laid the foundations of Berkeley's quirky character.

"So many of the stories draw you in, and you fall in love with these people. You also learn that the eccentric culture of Berkeley started in the beginning of Berkeley, not in the 1960s," Schwartz said.

A building contractor by profession and Berkeley resident since 1973, Schwartz said he was first inspired to write the book in 1996, when he came across a stack of hundred-year-old newspapers that the Berkeley Historical Society had set aside for the trash.

"As I was studying the history of Berkeley, I came across these extraordinary people who back then would have been known by everybody in the town, and a generation after they passed away were forgotten," Schwartz said. "I realized that these people set the course of the culture of Berkeley."

The product of six years of work, the book resurrects roughly 65 years of Berkeley's history, beginning in the 1850s and ending in 1915.

Each of the 17 chapters focuses on a different character and offers a pictorial peek into Berkeley's past, with old photographs, articles and pen-and-ink drawings incorporated throughout into the prose.

A number of stories center around UC Berkeley. Among them are those of Samuel Hopkins Willey, the mastermind behind the campus waterworks, and Joshua A. Norton, better known as Emperor Norton, who was influential in the building of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

Schwartz also writes of Bill "Hot Dog" Henderson, the entrepreneur who pioneered the first hot dog stand with UC Berkeley students as his first customers, and of Professor Joseph Voyle, who claimed to have found an ancient city buried beneath the campus.

"It's like being an explorer. I feel like I've gone to far away places, but I've done it in history as opposed to a spaceship," Schwartz said. "My reason for writing was for people in Berkeley to be able to walk around and be able to see these places and have a better sense of being grounded, knowing its history."

According to Schwartz, the book gives context to many of the issues facing the campus and city now, such as the oak tree protests by the stadium. One of the stories in the book, called "Hangman's Tree," is about the same controversy-to save the oaks from early developers in the 1890s and early 1900s.

"It gives the conflict that is happening now a much bigger perspective because this is a repeating theme in Berkeley, and nobody knew that," he said.

"Eccentrics" is Schwartz's fourth book to be published by RSB Books, which he founded in the early 1990s.

"I've been a longtime resident and it's fascinating to see how things have changed. (The book) makes history come alive more, it makes it not just dryness," said Berkeley resident Nancy Whitney.

Contact Jessica Kwong at

 San Francisco Chronicle, Leah Garchik column, September 13, 2007

Leah Garchik
"Eccentrics, Heroes and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley," Richard Schwartz's new book, focuses on Berkeley from 1850 to 1915. These charmers certainly sound more appealing than encountering screamers on downtown streets nowadays. So what's the difference between an old-fashioned eccentric and a modern pariah?

"Eccentrics, although they are very different for one reason or another," says Schwartz, "haven't lost cohesive social skills. They actually are some kind of savant, have more social skills, although they've gone off the deep end in another way. ... They're often lovable."

Would Berkeley's late Naked Guy have qualified as an eccentric or disturbed? "I can't take these people out of their time," said Schwartz. "You're an eccentric because the rest of the society around you is different. Society around these people in an earlier day was so different. I don't think they would have tolerated a naked guy. He wouldn't have survived."
Schwartz speaks at the California Historical Society in San Francisco tonight at 6, a free event that comes with wine and cheese and where presumably, eccentrics will be welcome.

East Bay News, September 14, 2007

He wasn't born here, but Richard Schwartz has done more to enrich local history than nearly any native you can name. The licensed contractor, raconteur, and historian invoked Native American life, disaster relief, flatland farmers, and fin-de-siècle serenity in The Circle of Stones, Earthquake Exodus, and Berkeley 1900. Now, in Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley, Schwartz introduces remarkable real-life characters who made their marks between 1850 and 1928. At Mrs. Dalloway's, he hosts a slide show revealing that Berkeley's uniqueness didn't start with the Bubble Lady or the Hate Man, nor will it end with them.

 Burl Willis, author and historian, (winner of Governor's History Book Award), September 15, 2007

Bravo Richard! Your new book is phenomenal, a masterpiece of research, photos, and untold stories...A staff of a dozen researchers could not have done what you accomplished.

Your very grateful fan,

Burl Willis

 Berkeley Voice, October 19, 2007 and in the Oakland Tribuine, October 20, 2007

Book Resurrects Berkeley Wackos

By Martin Snapp

Many people know about Emperor Norton's connection with San Francisco. But what nobody knew until now is that his majesty loomed large in Berkeley's history, too.

So says Richard Schwartz, whose new book, "Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley," reveals that Norton, the self-styled "Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico," spent a lot of time on this side of the Bay, too.

"The Emperor would come over here on the ferry, dressed in his full regalia, to review the cadets at Cal," said Schwartz. "The students loved him so much, they would swarm him and sing songs in his honor. One pretty young woman got an appointment as ambassador to Bulgaria."

In 1876 a real emperor -- Dom Pedro of Brazil -- came to Berkeley for a campus convocation. He and university president Daniel Coit Gilman were sitting on stage in front of a huge audience when Norton unexpectedly walked in, wearing his full regalia, and sat down beside them.

"Dom Pedro looked puzzled and asked the president what was going on," said Schwartz. "The president whispered something in his ear, Dom Pedro smiled broadly, and the ceremony went on as planned. After it was over, the two emperors had a great time talking together for hours."

Norton's Berkeley connection is just one of many buried treasures that Schwartz has unearthed.

"History is not as easy to come by as you might expect," he said. "Even though this story -has been dug up a thousand times, it has never been seen for 131 years."

Another well-known Berkeley character was John E. Boyd, or, as he billed himself on his business cards, "The Boss Baggage Buster of Beautiful Berkeley."

"He was an expressman," said Schwartz. "He had a wagon and a horse named Slow and Easy, and he'd deliver anything -- your furniture, your mail or you, wherever you'd want to go."

Boyd had a colorful history even before he came to Berkeley, serving in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. His job was capturing slave boats, arresting the slave traders, and freeing the captive Africans.

"He participated in a very important historical event with great bravery, but it's completely forgotten today," said Schwartz.

Boyd's adventures were faithfully chronicled in the local papers, who knew a good story when they saw one. Typical is this story from the May 12, 1883, issue of the Berkeley Advocate, which hinted at Boyd's fondness for liquor:

"John E. Boyd, the expressman, has again fallen from grace. He indulged in too much tangle-toe a few days since and tumbled into Strawberry Creek, where he remained waterlogged for two hours. He was extricated from his dangerous position by some friends, and is now sick in bed."

But Boyd recovered from the mishap and went on to be appointed as both a policeman and the janitor at the newly erected Town Hall, earning the princely salary of $10 per month.

He sung his own praises in the papers, often writing under assumed names, and was a prolific poet who penned ode after ode about his favorite subject -- himself.

This bit of doggerel appeared in the Jan. 18, 1888, issue of the Berkeley Advocate:

"The snow has gone from Grizzly Peak/The hills wear a greenish dress/The Town of Berkeley is booming/And so is Boyd's Express."

Boyd was irascible, opinionated and sarcastic, and yet he was the most popular person in town.

"He knew everyone, and everyone knew him," Schwartz said. "But he's completely forgotten now."

Schwartz has resurrected other undeservedly forgotten characters, including Mary Townsend, a cleaning woman who successfully defied the city's attempt to condemn her house to construct what is now Haste Street; Bill "Hot Dog" Henderson, who operated the city's first hot dog cart (featuring a sign reading, "Eat here; die at home") and UC Berkeley chemistry professor Joseph Voyle, who walked around campus with a piece of radium in his mouth and was convinced that an ancient city is buried in the middle of the campus.

"He was an absolute wacko, but you have to admire the man for living his vision, unadulterated and unveering, for his entire life," Schwartz said.

But Schwartz never set out to be a historian. He's a contractor by profession -- the name of his self-publishing house, RSB Books, stands for "Richard Schwartz, builder" -- who fell into history writing by accident.

By coincidence, he happened to be visiting the Berkeley Historical Society one day in 1996, just as it was about to toss several cartons of 100-year-old newspapers for lack of room.

"I said, 'Hey, I'll take them,' just to keep them from being thrown away," he said.

Those newspapers became the genesis for his first book, "Berkeley 1900: Daily Life at the Turn of the Century," published in 2000. It was followed in 2005 by "Earthquake Exodus 1906: Berkeley Responds to the San Francisco Refugees."

Over the past decade, he has supplemented this core collection with letters, memoirs, photographs and other artifacts he picks up at library and garage sales. And he says more books are in the offing.

"The magical part is when you learn enough, you start to see the Web of interactions. When you pull on one person, all of a sudden you're pulling on the stories of all the other people. And that's when you know you're doing your job as a historian."

Reach Martin Snapp at 510-262-2768 or e-mail


Richard Schwartz will discuss his new book, "Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley," Sunday at a meeting of the El Cerrito Historical Society. The meeting will take place at 1 p.m. at the El Cerrito Senior Center, 6510 Stockton Ave. El Cerrito Historical Society meetings draw attendees from all over the East Bay, and you do not have to be a member to attend. Refreshments will be served. For more information, call 510-526-7507 or visit

He will also discuss the book at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave. A reception and book-signing will follow, across the street at the McCreary-Greer House, 2318 Durant Ave., the association's headquarters.

"Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley" is available at local bookstores, hardware stores, online bookstores and at the author's Web site,

East Bay Monthly, The Kilduff File, by Paul Kilduff

East Bay Eccentrics |   Richard Schwartz unearths Berkeley's colorful characters.

Stroll down what's left of Telegraph Avenue and you would be hard-pressed not to surmise that the cast of colorful characters you have to sidestep either arrived with the counterculture sometime in the mid-1960s, or are their descendants. You imagine that before the Free Speech Movement, Berkeley was just another tranquil little college town full of virginal freshmen and malt shops. Alas, your assumptions would be inaccurate. As Berkeley historian Richard Schwartz has discovered, the city has been a magnet for weirdos since its birth in the late 1880s. As his new book, Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley (RSB Books), reveals, Berkeley's past is chock-full o' nuts like Professor Joseph Voyle who got a lot of people to believe that an ancient city existed beneath Berkeley. I rang Schwartz recently to get him to spin some more tales of Berkeley, past and present.

Paul Kilduff: Hey Richard. You'll be perfect for this column.

Richard Schwartz: How do you know that?

PK: Even if the interview sucks, just the subject matter will redeem it. Is geographic determinism at work here, as far as Berkeley's proclivity for attracting nutcases&emdash;is it something in the water?

RS: Well, certainly it seems to be a safety valve. It's like people talk about going west as the safety valve of American society until there was no place west to go and maybe Berkeley was the safety valve for people in San Francisco, too.

PK: Gold-miners who decided OK, this getting-filthy-rich thing isn't working out; here's a calm place I can lay my hat. Yeah. I get it.

RS: And it was so much more rural at the time than San Francisco. Even though it's just across the Bay, this was like wilderness whereas San Francisco was just gangs and wooden houses burning and smoke and commerce and gambling and all that stuff. It was very different over here.

PK: So there really were "farms in Berkeley" as the old radio commercial once asked?

RS: Plenty of 'em. Lot of Irish immigrants.

PK: Whenever an area has an artsy feel to it&emdash;for instance the Niles district of Fremont&emdash;invariably it will be referred to as the "Berkeley" of that area. Wassup widdat?

RS: When I first came out here to live in '73, I was astounded at how everybody here seemed to be working part-time and following some artistic dream. It was just like heaven on earth. And I just thought it was the most amazing place because of that. Now, of course, over the years all the communal households and all the people kind of got a little older and got married and got their own houses and Berkeley's taken on the complexion of a place that's a lot more run by money than art at this point.

PK: But is that just symptomatic of the fact that the average person who wants to pursue some sort of Bohemian, artistic lifestyle can't really live in Berkeley, in maybe the way you could have in the '60s or the '70s without being homeless or a tree sitter?

RS: I paid $65 a month for a basement.

PK: OK. Case closed. I mean, they talk about the Summer of Free Love? I always call it the Summer of Cheap Rent. I think that applies to Berkeley as well. Twenty years ago I had a place off of Telegraph the size of cracker box for $200 a month. You don't find those kinds of deals anywhere in any urban centers of American. What does that do to artistic and creative types?

RS: It's interesting I can remember like 15 years ago my friends and I talking about how it seems like the kids at Cal are much more business-oriented now. And I think part of it is just what you're talking about. It's that there's no opportunity to get out of the flow of commerce now. It's almost like you have to survive and the pressures are much greater. I just remember when I first came out here and I had my father send my set of drums via Greyhound bus and I picked them up on San Pablo in Oakland and I used to take drum lessons from this incredible drummer in San Francisco and I was taking on gigs. I think about those days and I think anybody who attempts to do that I admire tremendously. I don't know how anyone could these days with rent being what it is, and that is really sobering. And you just read about all the pressure on the artists in West Berkeley getting squeezed out by development. It's like this massive wheel that's turning. And Berkeley attracts some really incredible artists from all over the world. The artists are not in control of the direction of the economy in the culture and they're kind of at the mercy of the bigger forces. The bigger forces seem to be set by city governments and developers, and they're at the opposite ends of the spectrum.

PK: So who were these Berkeley characters from way back? What about the frequently inebriated John E. Boyd&emdash;the Boss Baggage Buster of Beautiful Berkeley? Today would this delivery man/writer be considered the town drunk?

RS: It's interesting you say that, and my answer to that is that you can't take these people out of their time. Working-class people in general drank a whole lot more back then than they do now and you just can't compare now to then.

PK: Yeah. Wasn't there just a whole lot of drinking going on at the turn of the last century?

RS: Well here's the thing. West Berkeley was a lot of immigrants. Immigrant culture back then in general drank a hell of lot more than we imagine now. The rum ration in the Civil War for the average infantryman was one quart per day. To those immigrants, that was normal. But interestingly enough, to the people of east Berkeley that was horrible and there's always been this huge battle between the temperance people and the working- class people. And the temperance people, many of them drank, but they drank in the privacy of their own home. They just felt that public drinking was a disgrace and caused social problems. And the working people complained, "All we can afford is a couple of shots after work so we have to drink publicly so leave us alone."

PK: But even today, would the Boss man's behavior be more acceptable in West Berkeley than in the east?

RS: Well, you make a point. West Berkeley is certainly more of a working-class place to this day. It's still where the industry is and that's kind of by the design that was set up so long ago. The houses were smaller. In those days people lived near where they worked because it wasn't as easy to get around. And people congregate with those of their same class because they like to do the same things and they feel most comfortable with their own. So I think people just tended to congregate down there. And the retired military men and professors and higher-end merchants, well, they liked congregating near the University.

PK: What about this character in your book, Bill "Hot Dog" Henderson. Why did he keep coming back to Berkeley to reopen his hot dog stand?

RS: Well, that's the $64 dollar question. See, he started out cooking food for a circus and he heard all these animals and, being the crazy guy that he was, he would start imitating them. That's how he got his kicks. He was always singing and chopping his food in rhythm with his knife. He'd hand you coffee and do sleight of hand and make you think his thumb's in the coffee. He'd say, "Oh, don't worry, it's not hot enough to burn me." He had signs up like, "Eat Here, Die at Home" and "Ice Water Is Free: That's Why We Don't Have It." He just loved razzing people and the people loved it, too.

PK: You've got to love the guy as well for blowing his fortune on the ill-conceived idea of being a theatrical producer.

RS: He's really just wanting attention and he's a performer. He had it at the hot dog stand but when this guy comes and lights the fire about the stage you could just see he was so vulnerable to that, because that's what he really wanted. He wanted an audience and he felt, "Wow, this is way bigger than what I've had." He took a shot, stupid as it was . . . . These people had a perseverance and stubbornness of who they were. And with that, I think, they for the most part had more social skills &endash;even though they might have been really out there in some ways&emdash;in many ways they had heightened social skills. But I think the main thing was they stubbornly held on to who they really were and they weren't about to change.

PK: One of the key Memorial Stadium oak tree-sitters is Berkeley mayoral candidate Zachary "Running Wolf" Brown. Will we reading about him in 100 years?

RS: He's up there because I made some statement about there being burial grounds up there I found in an old newspaper stated by a professor shortly after the stadium was built. See, one of the things I do is I find Indian sites. I've recorded maybe 160 previously unknown Indian sites around here. When he said that I was kind of floored. You've got to respect a guy who spends 300 days of his life [up there]. He put his money where his mouth is. One of the reasons I wanted to get this book out as fast as I could is because there's a chapter in there called the hanging tree. And what that chapter reveals is this same exact issue came up in the 1890s through 1908 between people wanting to preserve a famous oak tree and developers who wanted to cut it down. And you go, "Holy cow, the same thing played out 100 years ago." It really gives you a perspective that you wouldn't have without that knowledge. What's clear is this place is a cauldron of creativity and new ideas more than most places. And why? It certainly started that way. The University started that way. These people were in the midst of people absolutely crazed and drunk with getting gold in the Gold Rush. Here shows up some of these calm, religious people who want to [give] an education to everybody, and that's what they cared about, when everybody around them was grabbing up as much wealth as they could. That was the culture at that point. And here you had these people with this amazing vision and they basically start east Berkeley and the University with this radical vision of education for everybody . . . . There has been a tradition in Berkeley of vision. But I tend to think the eccentrics back then were&emdash;it's like of like one of my favorite eccentrics since I've been here was this guy we used to call Zippy. And he used to just sit on campus and do silly things. Quiet guy. I don't think he ever talked. And then there was that guy with the beard.

PK: The cross-dressing guy with the beard?

RS: Oh yeah, there was him, too. But this other guy, he had food in his beard a lot and he was brilliant and he used to give talks out in Sproul Plaza, but he was really out of it. And I do think in our day the eccentrics that we see do have an element of illness to them, mental illness. Whereas these people back then, I think they had this stubbornness and they had these skills. It's like they had a greater gift in some way than most people would have and they were different, therefore they became eccentrics. But they were quite capable. It's almost like they were eccentrics because they were capable in an odd way.

PK: What would the baggage guy have done in today's world?

RS: I could almost see him selling health bars or something in his wagon, going around town. Part of him was how much he loved people and how much he loved interacting. He was not an easy guy. I think he was amazing because number one, he was lovable in spite of being a very difficult character. I mean he did a lot of fighting and arguing and he was a cantankerous guy. But what really blew me away was, you know, I've gone through every newspaper from like the first one in Berkeley in 1877 all the way through after the turn of the century so I went looking for every article on this guy. And what I found, what he endured in his life, was mind-boggling. The loss of so many children. His wife's total alcoholism. Abusing the kids. Being unfaithful to him. His own injuries. His own foibles. It's almost like he wrote to speak to his better angels. And it was through writing that he kept himself together and kept himself on the right track, kind of tapped this elixir inside him that everybody benefited from. Because he could have very easily just turned into what you just said, the town drunk, but he didn't. Instead he became an incredible resource to the town and he wound up being very creative. Definitely he was a working-class guy which is one of the reasons I loved the guy, because, you know, I crawl underneath houses for a living.

PK: So, you're a contractor and a historian. Why? Aren't you tired at the end of the day?

RS: Well, it's getting more and more as I get older and older. But don't write that. I'm an American. We don't talk about that.

PK: We don't get old.

RS: That's right.

PK: I used to work for the Forest Service. Just one season I fought forest fires, but it changed my life and I would go back up to the district I worked in with my dog and we'd go looking for arrowheads and that's where I kind of learned where to find things. And I was interested in Native American history but I wasn't interested in American history. One day in 1996 I went to the Berkeley Historical Society on the day they were about to throw away a foot and half of 100-year-old newspapers. When I heard they were going to put them in the Dumpster, I just wanted to save them. So I took them home and opened them up on the dining room table. I thought I would just put them in the shelf in the stairway and just store 'em there, but I made the mistake of opening them up on the dining room table, and two or three days later I was staggered. I called them and said, "You have to take these back. These are way too important. These are phenomenal." And they said, "No, we're not taking 'em back." I was absolutely mesmerized by these things and I would read them all night and I put Post-its on the ones that really rang a bell for me.

Contra Costa Times, NILDA REGO: DAYS GONE BY

"Colorful characters live again in pages of book"

Article Launched: 10/28/2007 03:06:26 AM PDT

Richard Schwartz, backpacking his way from Philadelphia to the Pacific Coast in 1973, found Berkeley so incredible, he never went back.He rented a room on Neilson Street and had his father ship out his drum set."I got into construction work. I wanted to be outside. The sun felt so good."A few years later, he went to work for the U.S. Forest Service, putting out fires."It changed my life. I was astounded by the mountains and the Indian artifacts all around. There was this 65-foot stone circle outside of Truckee. I took a year off to research it. After nine months, I'd figured it out."He wrote about it, and his article was published in the Coyote Press, which specializes in archaeology."But it was read mainly by archaeologists."Schwartz wanted the world to know about the stone circle. He self-published a book on it and sold 100 copies. But he wasn't ready to turn into a full-time writer."I felt I had something to say, and I said it. I went back to my construction trade. Then fate took over."

Paper trail

A friend told Schwartz about a 1906 film being shown by the Berkeley Historical Society."I went to see it. I found out they were about to throw away a stack of 100-year-old newspapers. I said, 'I'll take 'em.' I got them and then made the mistake of putting them on my dining room table."By this time, Schwartz was living in his home on Tacoma near Solano Avenue in Berkeley. When I saw the amazing articles, I started Xeroxing them."He then would stack the Xeroxed articles in categories."I had 30 piles on the living room floor. One was on children, another on leisure, medicine, women, Asian-Americans, African-Americans."The piles led to his first book, "Berkeley 1900.""Turns out, technology being what it is, you can do this on your own."It is quite a financial burden. My construction work still pays the bills. But how often in life do you realize you are meant to do something and you have to do it?"

After "Berkeley 1900," Schwartz wrote and published "Earthquake Exodus, 1906" and, just recently, his third book inspired from that same pile of newspapers, "Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley.""It took me six years for the 'Eccentrics' book, most of 2006 and 2007. There are 300 images in it, hundreds of endnotes."Schwartz says that most everyone in Berkeley would have known the people in his book in their day."And yet a generation or two later, they are forgotten. Basically, I think these people started the culture of Berkeley. I wanted to make these people's lives and stories part of culture today. In 1908, there was this huge battle to preserve this historic oak tree."

Thereby hangs a tale

The tree stood east of Shattuck Avenue near Strawberry Creek. People knew it by various names: Gibbet Oak, Vigilante Oak and Hanging Oak. It was rumored that a horse thief was hanged from it in the 1850s. John E. Boyd, the "Boss Baggage Buster of Beautiful Berkeley" and one of Schwartz's favorite eccentrics, told conflicting stories about the tree, one supporting the hanging legend and one stating that the horse thief got away after the judge and jury got drunk holding court under the tree. Both stories were published years apart in local newspapers.Schwartz believes Boyd concocted the second story to save the tree. In the end, the developers got their way, and the tree was chopped down.

An early Berkeley protester who won Schwartz's heart was Mary Townsend. A Civil War widow, she lived on Shattuck Avenue in a little house that she had moved by oxen from its previous location on Ellsworth Street. She cleaned houses for the best people in Berkeley and did their laundry. She took in boarders. She worked hard, and her personality was such that her clients kept her picture with their own family photos.But Mary's pleasant attitude turned explosive when Berkeley landowners Francis Kittredge Shattuck and James Barker convinced the Central Pacific Railroad to continue its steam railroad up Shattuck Avenue. Mary's front yard was in the way. The train would chug right by her front door.

Battle royal

At the time, Berkeley was not yet incorporated. The Alameda County Board of Supervisors was in charge.On Oct. 11, 1877, the Berkeley Advocate reported Mary's appearance at the hearing on her lot:"Mary Ann Townsend, of Shattuck avenue railroad notoriety, attacked Mr. Shattuck, who made some remarks not to her liking. She seized him by his long beard and gave him several lusty jerks. As he was about to resent her attack, several supervisors loosened Mary Ann's grip and put her out of the Court-house."

Mary fought for her rights for almost the next 30 years. She even had her house moved on top of the railroad tracks. Of course, the railroad won, but Mary gave as good as she got, and Schwartz tells her tale in his free-flowing prose and uses the newspaper stories of the time.

"Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats" is filled with fascinating characters, and gives weight to Schwartz's contention that Berkeley's culture dates back to these early pioneers.

Schwartz will be discussing his "Eccentrics" book Dec. 8 at 1:30 p.m. at the Clayton Books history series. The store is located at 5433 Clayton Road in Concord. "Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley" sells for $24.95 paperback and $39.95 hardcover. It can be found at local bookstores and online.

Nilda Rego's Days Gone By appears Sundays in A&E. Reach her at  


San Francisco Chronicle

Book Review Section

2007 Holiday Gift Book Picks

Regan McMahon

Coffee Table Genre

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley

By Richard Schwartz

RBS BOOKS; 244 PAGES; $39.95

 California historian, building contractor and Berkeley resident Richard Schwartz gave us the lowdown on turn-of-the century Berkeley in his "Berkeley 1900." Now he focuses his lens on the colorful characters that defined the town and its iconoclastic character between 1850 and 1925. Meet squatter Zelotus Reed; successful businessman Francis Kittredge Shattuck; Mary Thompson, the "working widow," allegedly cursed, who opened a saloon and hotel to support her nine children; Bill "the Hot Dog Man" Henderson and many others who tussled over land grants and rights-of-way to create a city known for its obstreperousness to this day.

Pegasis and Pendragon Book Stores Holiday Newsletters, "Books We Love This Holiday Season" picks "Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley" in the nonfiction catagory, December/2007 . "Berkeley is and always has been a unique town. They may not all be here-- that would be a much longer book-- but Schwartz profiles the cream of Berkeley's eccentric historical crop, from Emporer Norton to Mary Townsend."

December, 2007 Cody's Books puts "Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley" on their "Unique Gifts and Favorites from Cody's Staff" picks and is on that named table in the front of the store.

December, 2007, Alameda Magazine picks "Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley" for "Tomes for the Holidays, Don't-Miss Reads for Book Lovers" by Nick Petrulakis as one of three picks for holiday gifts.


Tomes for the Holidays

Don't-Miss Reads for Book Lovers


For the person on your list who may not have the time to devote to a novel, and prefers to browse through those delightful books full of information and miscellany, don't miss Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley by Richard Schwartz.

    Schwartz makes East Bay history come alive with his colorful tales. Emperor Norton is here, reviewing university cadets in Berkeley, "sword in one hand, cane in the other … gallant to the ladies as ever," but Schwartz has also unearthed lesser lights who still blaze with the absurdity of Norton. There's the cursed Mary Thompson, a successful widow&emdash;or "a blot upon the neighborhood, a supporter of drinking and gambling;" and John Boyd, Berkeley's town poet, under threat of arrest for calling E.A. Schmidt "divers vulgar names after an altercation over the settlement of a bill." 

    These characters and dozens more populate a book that any fan of local history will be sure to welcome.

    Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley by Richard Schwartz (RSB Books, 2007, 244 pp. $24.95)

 December 16, 2007, Oakland Tribuine Sunday Paper.

April, 2008, Alameda County Historical Society Quarterly, Volume XXXIV, No. 2

    ...for an entirely different and original approach to Berkeley's colorful history we are delighted to recommend Richard Schwartz's newest work, ECCENTRICS, HEROES, AND CUTTHROATS OF OLD BERKELEY because it depicts life as it was really lived about one-hundred years ago and how it parallels the trials, tribulations, and foibles of the 21st Century Amercia we live in now.
    Virtually none of Schwartz's characters are well known today, the one possible exception being "Emporor Norton in Berkeley"which adds a new dimension to what we already know about the troubled financier and real-estate speculator, Joshua A. norton. Norton often took the San Francisco ferry to Berkeley where he "was always swarmed by excited students begging for appointments to his royal government." But it didn't end there: Norton would occasionally attend University-wide ceremonies hosted by the University President or some such, and then pontificate on issues of the day-Asian immigration, the need for a bridge spanning the Bay between Oakland and San Francisco, the abolition of the federal government and especially the Democratic and Republican parties. Berkeley swooned.
    There are some seventeen major anecdotes in all, among them: The Hangman's Tree, Pat Curran's Ranch: WIldcat Canyon, The Railroad Meets the Berkeley Spirit: The Mary Townsend Saga, Henry S. Peterson and the Berkeley Lawn Mower Invention, and Professor Joseph Voyle's Buried Ancient City Under U.C. Berkeley.
    Schwartz's sidebars, usually from contemporary newspapers, are priceless and the illustrations are priceless-plus.
Treat yourself to what is  probably the most enjoyable California historical joyride of the decade.
-Harlan Kessel

June, 2008, Signals Magazine of the San Francisco Corral of Westerners.

       "...Richard Schwartz has written not one but two new books on the history of Berkeley. One is "Earthquake Exodus, 1906." It has to do with the East Bay's response to the destruction of San Francisco by the earthquake of 1906. The other volume is "Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley." Both $24.95 softcovers are extra-illustrated books whose heavily coated paper makes for good reproduction of most of Schwartz's historic photos. Berkeley suffered little damage from the seismic storm of 1906 and welcomed a flood of San Francisco refugees. Many decided agasint trading the warmth to return home. The result? Berkeley's population rose from 26,000 to 36,000 after the quake. there is much material here, in text and photos, on S. F. as well as the East Bay.
          In the second volume Schwartz unearths a cast of "characters" for old Berkeley. Some are obvious choices, like Emporer Norton, and perhaps Samuel H. Wolley, founder of the Collge of California, later U. C., but others are not so well known, like Martin M. Dunn, who bred fine horses, part-percherons, for the fire departments of the locality. Then there are the early ranchers of Wildcat Canyon and thereabouts- Pat Curran, Captain Benjamin Boswell and General Theodore Wagner. Among the victims of early shootings when Berkeley was part of the Wild West, were rancher Pat Sullivan and squatter Zelotus Reed.
           Most interesting is the career of John E. Boyd, a Civil War veteran turned East Bay expressman. He becameits resident poet and philosopher, writing editorials for the local press, and even a book in 1900. It was Boyd who first proposed the founding of a Berkeley Historical Society.

-Richard Dillion

December, 2009, The Website of the San Francisco Chronicle,, posted a photo gallery of images from the book Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley. It can be found at


RSB Books

The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty

Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley

Earthquake Exodus, 1906

Berkeley 1900

Circle of Stones