RSB Books

RSB Books

Richard Schwartz
Writer, Historian

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RSB Books
Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley
Earthquake Exodus, 1906
Berkeley 1900
The 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.

RSB Books
Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley
Earthquake Exodus, 1906
Berkeley 1900
The Circle of Stones