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    ‘Hugged by a Boy’ on the Barbary Coast

    By Dr. Bill Lipsky–

    The San Francisco Call was shocked, shocked to discover there were such goings-on. “Hugged by a Boy” read the headline in its August 3, 1894, issue. There was certainly nothing newsworthy about that, as mothers everywhere, after sending their sons to school, could verify. This boy, however, was different. Not dressed in overalls or a Fauntleroy suit or a freshly pressed white shirt and trousers, this boy was not in a classroom, but a bar room—and most definitely not dressed as a boy.

    The newspaper summed up the story in mocking terms: “A Female Impersonator Robs a Rustic” and “Will Exchange Skirts for Trousers” that were “Adorned with Broad Stripes.” It was about to tell the “laughable” story of a man who “fell in love with a female impersonator, who drank beer with him, kissed him and robbed him.”

    The female impersonator was Bert Larose, “a beardless youth, with a falsetto voice.” According to the Call, he “made a precarious living by performing as a woman in Barbary Coast theaters and dives.” Originally from Ohio, 5′ 5 3/8” tall, he had blue eyes, chestnut hair and a “florid” complexion. In 1894 he was 18 years old, but looked much younger.

    The “rustic” was C. E. Bernick (or Berwick), 58, of Napa County. He was “an old man whose beard of gray has been caressed by the amorous zephyrs of many summers.” Visiting the City for a meeting of the Carpenters’ Union, he “subsequently … made his way to the Barbary Coast in search of excitement and steam beer. He had $280 (about $7840 today) in bills in his inside pocket when he entered Bottle-Meier’s theater” at 513 Pacific Street.

    Larose, “nicely painted and wearing his skirts, was sitting at a table with a genuine member of the softer sex. The old man leered at them and they leered back. After a time be sat down with them and drank two bottles of beer (at $1 each, now about $28 each). It soon became apparent that he was smitten with the fictitious charms of the actor.”

    Bernick asked Larose “in cooing tones to go with him into a box and drink.” Larose accepted the invitation “and while in the box caressed the graybeard and absorbed all the liquid refreshment that he desired.” Shortly after midnight, “Bernick was thrown out of the place … . Wandering dazed about the coast, he was arrested and taken to the old City Prison. His pockets were empty.”

    Although Bernick first “declared that he had been robbed by the policeman who arrested him,” the “accused bluecoat … soon learned what had happened to him at the theater.” Larose, “vehemently professing innocence, was arrested and charged with grand larceny.”

    At his trial, Larose’s attorney tried both to embarrass and discredit his accuser, asking him questions to detail the intimacy he shared with a man 40 years his junior. “‘Now, Mr. Bernick,'” he asked, ”’do you mean to tell me that you thought this boy was a woman?’ ‘I did so,’ faltered the aged one, whose cheeks were slowly reddening.” Clearly, the “rustic” could not tell the difference between a woman and a man.

    Then the questioning turned to expressions of their tender affinity. “‘And you took him into a box at Bottle-Meier’s theater?’ ‘I did.’ ‘And you caressed him there?’ ‘I suppose so.’ ‘Kissed him?’ ‘Maybe I did.’ ‘And hugged him?’ ‘I guess. so.’ ‘And be hugged you, did he?’ ‘Well, I should say be did. That’s how he got my money.'” Printed by the Call, the testimony was a rare public account of sexual intimacy of any kind between two men.

    When the San Francisco Chronicle reported the same story, it was slightly more sedate, but much more specific. Describing the theater as one of the coast’s “amusement resorts of a doubtful character,” it casually mentioned that Larose, whom it identified as “a queer young man,” had been “sitting on Berwick’s [sic] lap and fondling him in an affectionate manner” when he “picked his pocket.”

    Larose was convicted of grand larceny and sentenced to six years in San Quentin. As prisoner 16065, he began his term on September 1, 1894. After serving four years, two months and four days, he was “Restored” on November 4, 1898.

    The Call printed another scandalous same-sex story about the coast in 1908, the year Billy Harrington  and two silent partners bought the Seattle Concert Hall at 574 Pacific Street. He renamed it the Dash, installed a row of private, curtained booths on each side of the dance floor and ensconced “male degenerates who wore women’s clothing” in them. For a consideration they entertained customers “in a way that may be imagined, but may not be described.”

    Unable to detail what specific entertainments they provided, the newspaper could only describe the establishment as “one of the vilest saloons and dance halls ever maintained in San Francisco,” the “home of unspeakable vices and the most depraved type of men.” It delighted, however, in revealing that Harrington’s two silent partners were officers in the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Carrol Cook.

    The newspaper had opposed Cook for years and its articles led to his defeat in the fall election. The Dash closed soon after. Not until 20 years later, when the Finocchios allowed gay men to have a quiet corner of their speakeasy at Sutter and Stockton streets, was there a bar or club in San Francisco where those of a “refined nature” could meet.

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.