April 17, 1906
Orange hair flying, Patrick Reilly guided his winded mare
the throng crowding Mission Street—pedestrians, bicyclists,
pushcart peddlers, horse-drawn wagons, and the occasional
horseless carriage, which, in the new century, people were
calling “cars.” He spurred the horse up Mint Street, turned
down Jessie, and reined in at a reeking puddle of horse
piss by the loading dock of the Granite Lady, the San
Francisco Mint. Dismounting, he threw the reins to one
armed guard, while another pushed on the heavy iron doors.
Reilly stepped into the dim chill of the loading dock,
known at the Mint as the Shipping Gallery, or “Ship Gal.”
Against the far wall sat seventeen bulging canvas sacks.
Perched on top of them, four more guards played poker,
their rifles leaning against the wall.
“Mother of God,” Reilly snapped in a thick County Cork
brogue, “put the damn cards away! You’re guarding gold,
lads. Act like it.” Quickly, the guards did as they were
Reilly satisfied himself that no one had tampered with the
bags, and that they were not visible from Jessie even with
the iron doors open. Then he strode past the Assayer’s Room
and bounded up the stairs into the cool stately foyer of
the Greek temple that struck the coinage for the West.
Mint Superintendent Herbert Walther met him in the hall by
Stamping Room Number One—“Stamp One”—the larger of the pair
of cavernous halls where enormous coin presses ingested
smooth gold and silver blanks at one end, and at the other,
spat out finished coins that moved along newly electrified
conveyers to be washed, polished, and bagged. “Well, Red?”
Walther asked his second-in-command. He tried to sound
composed, but could not conceal an edge of anxiety in his
Reilly sighed. “The General’s gone to the Opera.”
The Opera. I might have known, Walther thought. The irony
was not lost on either man. Reilly had spent the better
part of the day on a round-trip ride all the way up to the
Presidio on San Francisco’s northern bluffs only to
discover that the Army commander, General Frederick
Funston, was just one block from the Mint at the Grand
Opera House in the boisterous throng waiting to see the
great tenor, Enrico Caruso, sing Don José in Carmen.
“Thank you, Patrick,” Walther sighed. “Get cleaned up, then
go home. I’ll handle things here.”
“But it’s my night to stay,” Reilly reminded his boss. For
the previous 10 days, with round-the-clock Double Eagle
production, the two men had alternated supervising the
night shift. “I slept at home last night. I’ll stay
tonight. You need the rest more than I do. And if you don’t
mind my saying so, you could use a shave.” The afternoon
was turning into evening, and the Mint’s new electric
lights came on, casting elongated shadows down the lengthy
“Do I look that bad?” Walther asked, stroking his chin,
finding prickly stubble. The two men had worked closely for
eight years, and despite their difference in rank and
age—Walther was 15 years older—their relationship had
transcended professionalism to friendship.
“Frankly, you do,” Reilly said with a mixture of sympathy
and concern. “But whether you stay or go, I won’t be able
to rest anywhere but here until the misstrikes are in
armored wagons on their way to Oakland.” Then Reilly added,
“And you know I’ve got a dead eye with a Winchester.”
“So you’ve told me … several times.” Walther felt too weary
to argue with his Production Supervisor. If anyone knew the
fix he was in, Red did.
“All right,” Walther sighed. “But since the Army’s not
going to take the bags off our hands tonight, let’s move
them from the Ship Gal up to Stamp One. Then wash up and
get some supper. And don’t shoot me when I check to see how
Reilly smiled. “So you’ll be going home this evening?”
The question hung in the air unanswered. Reilly descended
the stairs to supervise moving the gold.
Thank God for Patrick, Walther thought. Both men were
widowers, but unlike the childless Walther, Reilly had four
daughters who kept house for him near Mission Dolores.
Walther was godfather to two of Red’s girls. Reilly’s
friends joked that he worked too hard and drank too little,
which was precisely why Walther valued him so highly. The
Mint Superintendent had no doubt that Patrick would gladly
lay down his life before letting any hoodlum get near the
misstruck Double Eagles he was moving up to Stamp One.
Walther entered his office to find two of his men closing
the folding iron shutters mounted inside the windows that
looked across Fifth Street to Brunswick House. It was a
large, wooden, three-story tenement for working men and
their families, and like much of the rough-hewn
neighborhood south of Market Street—South of the Slot, in
local parlance—it was in sore need of a paint job. A dozen
Brunswick residents, many of them longshoremen, were
smoking and drinking beer on the wide front stoop,
unwinding after the day’s labor. Their wives were pulling
dry clothes off lines into the windows above, chatting with
neighbors, and shouting to their husbands on the street
below. A group of boys played baseball in Jessie Alley.
Pushcart vendors hawked cabbage and sausages. Then
everything went black as the iron shutters closed with a
The Mint men worked the hasps and secured the shutters with
large padlocks, then proceeded to the windows that looked
across Mission Street to a similar tableau, the
Cosmopolitan Hotel, another dingy workingman’s residence,
most of whose denizens toiled in the fish markets near the
Ferry Building or in the slaughterhouses of Butchertown by
South Beach. A few were leaning out of their windows
watching the line of fancy carriages carry the cream of San
Francisco society down Mission Street toward the Opera.
Walther’s gaze shifted to the line of carriages. He thought
he recognized James Phelan, developer of the magnificent
new Phelan Building, but the iron shutters clanged shut
before he could be certain.
In the shuttered twilight, Walther padded across the thick
Chinese carpet that his late wife, Helen, God rest her
soul, had persuaded him to buy to mark his ascendancy to
Superintendent. He would have preferred a blue rug, but
Helen insisted on dusty rose to complement the enormous
rose marble fireplace that dominated the room. Helen, the
artist, had strong feelings about color, feelings Walther
found incomprehensible. But when Helen decided he should
have a rose-colored rug, rose it was.
Walther leaned over his rolltop and opened the production
ledger. The West’s economy was booming. The entire region
was starved for coinage, especially ten-dollar gold Eagles
and twenty-dollar Double Eagles. Naturally, in the face of
unprecedented demand, the geniuses at the Treasury
Department had decided to replace Denver’s presses. They’d
thrown all Eagle and Double Eagle production to San
Francisco. Washington had cabled him three weeks earlier
with the news that two freight cars of Double Eagle blanks
were en route from Denver, and that he was to run San
Francisco’s presses round the clock to strike them. Walther
wired back saying that his presses needed overhaul as badly
as Denver’s and couldn’t handle nonstop production.
Besides, even if he could strike the Double Eagles, he had
nowhere to store them. The vault could hold only so much,
and Department regulations prohibited off-site storage.
Never fear, Washington wired back, General Funston has been
ordered to dispatch the Twenty-third Cavalry with armored
wagons to pick up the extra production and transport it to
the federal railhead in Oakland.
Walther noted that, except for the misstrikes, all the
extra production had been completed miraculously on
schedule. He closed his ledger and cursed under his breath.
Damn that Funston. The little Napoleon was so busy spouting
in the Examiner about Mayor Schmitz’s corruption (in
preparation, rumor had it, to run against him) that he
didn’t give a rat’s ass about the Mint’s security problem.
The General’s staff had assigned the gold transport to one
Major Wendell Legget, who was supposed to have arrived that
morning. But some incompetent at the Presidio got his dates
mixed up. Legget was in Monterey on maneuvers and was not
expected to return for a week. Now Walther was sitting on a
vault filled with $200 million in gold, twice his
regulation limit. The vault was so full, the huge doors
To make matters worse, the previous day, while stamping out
the last of the Double Eagles, an alignment screw failed,
allowing the blanks to wiggle in the press bed. Before any
pressmen noticed, they’d struck 6,491 Double Eagles with
serious errors on the reverse. The words “United States of
America,” and “Twenty D.” looked fine. But instead of the
eagle-and-shield in sharp relief, the graphic was blurred
and the San Francisco Mint mark “S” had been stamped twice,
“SS,” in Mint argot, “double die.” Such errors were totally
unacceptable. Those coins could never be allowed to
circulate. So all the misstruck Double Eagles—$129,820—had
to be culled, bagged separately, and specially marked for
melt-down back in Denver. They filled the seventeen bags
being moved up from the Ship Gal. With no room in the
vault, they could not be secured, which was a violation of
all Treasury Department storage regulations. But Walther
had no choice. There wasn’t so much as a cubic inch of
space left in the vault. Of course, those bags would have
been long gone had Legget’s armored wagons picked them up
that morning as Walther had been assured. But—damn them
both to Hell!—Legget was in Monterey, and Funston was at
Walther considered his predicament. Since the Mint had
opened in 1874, no one had ever attacked it. No one had
even tried. But the vault usually held just a small
fraction of the $200 million now residing there. That sum
was certain to tempt the hoodlums of the Barbary Coast,
who’d made San Francisco the roughest port north of
Panama—if they got wind of the treasure. That was why
Walther had sent Reilly to the Presidio in person. He
couldn’t risk using the telegraph or telephone. The gangs
bribed the operators to tip them to anything worth
Walther trusted his own men. But he couldn’t be sure about
the roustabouts at the Presidio. Soldiers’ pay was low, so
low that Funston and other heroes of the Spanish War were
urging Congress to raise it substantially. In the meantime,
some soldiers in San Francisco were bound to be on the
take. But once Legget had given him a transfer receipt for
the misstrikes, underpaid soldiers were his problem.
The Mint had iron shutters on its windows, and iron doors
on the Ship Gal and Receiving Dock. The metal looked
impregnable, but Walther knew better. After almost thirty
years, the hinges and hasps were worn and rusted. He’d
requisitioned replacements, but the bureaucrats were
dragging their heels. If some gang with ladders and
crowbars, or worse yet, dynamite, breached the iron,
Walther had all of two dozen men, maybe ten rifles, a
half-dozen pistols, and perhaps two thousand rounds.
Against an assault by, say, twenty armed men, they wouldn’t
stand a chance, and several of the city’s gangs could
easily muster twenty men or combine forces to field even
more. As for the vault, its eight-tumbler German
combination lock represented little deterrent. Any decent
railroad or mining man could drill it or set charges and
blow its doors clear across the bay. For all he knew, the
gangs were at that very moment huddling in basements along
Pacific Avenue or Morton Alley planning the attack.
Funston was a block away at the Opera. Helen loved the
Opera. They’d subscribed for years and had a box that
Walther kept after his wife’s ship disappeared in fog on
the way to Seattle. He still attended regularly, and
sometimes caught himself talking to the empty chair beside
him. His box was among a group reserved for ranking federal
officials. Funston’s was nearby.
The April evening was raw with a wet fog that precipitated
droplets on Walther’s face as he hurried down Mission
Street into the boisterous crowd of Opera-goers. The
appearance of the fabled Caruso was the event of the new
century, and tout le monde was there, dressed as if San
Francisco were Paris. Walther nodded to several
acquaintances, wishing he’d shaved and feeling woefully
underdressed in his work suit, high boots, and long coat.
He’d been so preoccupied waiting for the army and Reilly
all afternoon that he’d forgotten to dispatch a man to
Mei-Lin to fetch his Opera finery. Helen would have been
scandalized by his appearance. But Helen was gone, and this
was an emergency.
Walther pushed through the crowded lobby with its immense
crystal chandelier, the largest west of Chicago, the size
of the average workingman’s cottage South of the Slot. With
a nod here and a handshake there, he threaded his way up
the sweeping staircase to the Grand Tier and around the
horseshoe past his box to the general’s. He drew the heavy
velvet curtain aside and in a voice that mingled urgency
with contempt boomed, “General Funston? Is the general
A paunchy colonel appeared, filling the doorway, the
curtain draped over his shoulder, a burgundy velvet cape.
“And you are—?”
Walther identified himself and tersely explained that a
situation at the Mint required the general’s immediate
“I’m sorry, but the general’s not here.”
Walther’s pot boiled. “And where in damnation is he?”
The colonel did not expect this tone or vocabulary and took
a moment to compose himself before answering testily, “At
home. Mrs. Funston took ill and the general escorted her
“What’s his address?”
The colonel glared at the vulgar wild-eyed man standing
before him. He did not comport himself with the dignity his
office demanded. “I’m not at liberty—” and turned back into
But Walther was in no mood to be dismissed. He clapped a
big hand on the man’s shoulder, yanked him around until
they were nose to nose, and hissed, “Your Major Wendell
Legget was supposed to move a large shipment of gold for me
this afternoon, but never showed up. The general’s staff
sent him to Monterey to play games. Now, unless General
Funston takes immediate action as promised in this wire
from Washington—” he shook the paper in the colonel’s face
“—the Treasury Department will have him busted to private
despite his holy Medal of Honor and I will personally run
his balls through a coin press.”
The colonel blanched and shook Walther’s arm off him. “Are
you threatening the general?”
“He’s threatening himself—and the economy of the entire
The colonel eyed the mint superintendent. “The cable. Let
me see it.”
Walther handed it to him. All around them, gowns swished
and voices buzzed with excitement about Carmen. In the
afternoon papers, Caruso had promised the performance of a
lifetime, raising the anticipation level higher than Twin
Peaks. The lights dimmed. The audience hushed. From inside
the general’s box, a woman called, “Robert! The curtain!”
The colonel handed the telegram back to Walther. “Russian
Hill.” He muttered a number on Pacific.
Helen never would have forgiven him for missing the
incomparable Caruso. But as the curtain rose, Walther was
bounding down the magnificent, now deserted staircase,
modeled on the one in the Hapsburg Palace in Vienna. He
crossed the empty lobby and burst out into the foggy night.
Half the hansoms in San Francisco were lined up along
Mission Street, which smelled strongly of horses. Walther
jumped into one and roared the address, promising silver if
the man drew blood with his whip.
The cab took off, clattering up the cobblestones of Third
Street and across Market, slicing through fetid piles of
steaming horse shit.
“I could skirt Morton,” the cabbie yelled above the clatter
of hooves, “but it’ll take longer.”
Morton Street off Union Square was the most sinister two
blocks of San Francisco outside the Barbary Coast. Two days
earlier, a cab had been waylaid at Morton and Kearny, the
passengers robbed, the driver beaten.
“No time!” Walther called. “Straight up Kearny!”
The cabbie whipped the horse and the carriage hurtled past
Morton. Walther caught a glimpse of the garish rooster sign
that adorned The Crowing Cock whorehouse. A knot of men
loitered under it, maggots on rotting meat. What were they
doing? Something flashed in the fog-softened light of a
street lamp. A knife? Then Morton disappeared in the mist
as the cab rattled up Kearny, turned on Pacific, and
ascended Russian Hill.
Below them on lower Pacific, the Barbary Coast’s night life
was already in full swing. Walther saw the lights of its
grimy brothels, where the dregs of womanhood could be had
for a few coins, and its saloons, where, when he was
younger, many a hapless lad had been shanghaied to work the
ships bound for the Far East. He caught the distant strains
of the bands playing ragtime, and then the sharp crack of
the Coast’s signature sound, a gunshot. The only police who
ventured down there—or into Morton Street—were on the take,
which was one of Funston’s themes in his diatribes against
Walther tipped the hack a shiny new Barber dime, and
climbed the steep stairs to the General’s stately
Victorian. A Filipino servant, surprised at the unexpected
bell, asked his name, then asked him to wait. When he
returned, he bowed and ushered Walther into the parlor.
Walther and Funston had been introduced at a few functions,
but had never exchanged more than social pleasantries.
Neither was pleased to see the other.
“The hour is late, Walther,” Funston snapped. “My wife is
ill. And you look like hell. Don’t you shave?” Funston had
a notoriously short temper and treated his subordinates,
which to him meant everyone other than the President of the
United States, with disdain.
Walther had collected himself during the ride and succeeded
in holding his temper, but barely. He handed Funston the
cable and explained his twin problems—$200 million in gold
secured in his vault that had to be moved immediately, and
almost $130 thousand in misstruck Double Eagles that had to
be moved even sooner.
Funston studied the cable and rubbed his eyes. “No one
informed me of this. …” It was as close as his temperament
allowed to an apology.
Sensing an advantage, Walther demanded that the General
immediately send troops to remove the misstrikes and, as
soon as possible, more troops to lighten the vault.
“Laiken!” Funston bellowed.
A young officer appeared from the kitchen, and snapped to
attention. “Sir!” Funston introduced First Lieutenant David
“Do we have a company that could get to the Mint tonight
with a decent freight wagon?”
“An armored wagon,” Walther interjected.
Lieutenant Laiken had dark, wavy hair and a large mustache
that was unable to hide a boyish face only a few years out
of West Point. He pondered a moment. “I don’t know about an
armored wagon, but the Sixth Infantry is at the Customs
House. They’d have a freight wagon.”
“Do they have a telephone?”
“No phones,” Walther insisted, reminding the general of the
need for utmost discretion.
“All right. Run down there yourself, Laiken. Take my
bicycle. Then lead a company to the Mint. Make sure you
have the stoutest wagon available and the best teamster.
Oh, and Laiken, until Mr. Walther arrives in the morning,
you and your men are under the command of—” Funston looked
quizzically at Walther. “—What’s his name?”
“Patrick Reilly, my production supervisor. Everyone calls
Funston fixed his gaze on the young lieutenant. “Got that?”
“Yes sir.” Laiken saluted smartly, pivoted, and left.
For the first time all day, or maybe in weeks, Walther
began to relax. As he did, weariness crashed over him like
breakers on Seal Rock.
“You really do look like hell,” Funston reiterated, almost
tenderly. “When was the last time you got a good night’s
“It’s been a while. …” Walther considered relating the
story of Denver’s press overhaul and the round-the-clock
production that had him and Reilly living at the Mint, but
his lips were too weary to move.
“Go home, man. Get some rest.” The general clearly meant it
as an order. “Laiken will have a dozen men at the Mint in
an hour, and by the time you arrive in the morning, my
teamsters will be hauling that gold to the Ferry Building.
By tomorrow afternoon, I’ll have a battalion with armored
wagons to relieve your vault. You can count on it.”
Exhausted, Walther stumbled down Funston’s stairs to
Jackson Street and looked for a hansom to take him to Nob
Hill to his home on Pine. But there were none. He had to
walk. The fog was thicker now and the streets smelled of
horses, onions, and sewage. Dogs barked, which wasn’t
unusual. But they didn’t stop, which was. He passed the big
stable at Pine and Taylor. The night was calm, but the
horses were agitated. He heard the liverymen cursing them.
“What’s eating Blackie and Orville tonight?” one said.
“Beats me,” came the reply. “Damn horses.”
A block away, a cable car ascended Powell. It was all
Walther could do to climb his stairs and undress. Mei-Lin
was already asleep. The quilt rose and fell over her.
Walther stood at his bedroom window gazing down into the
blanket of fog toward the Mint. Outside, dogs continued to
bark. For a moment, the fog cleared and he could just make
out the new electric lights illuminating the dome of the
Opera House. He wondered what the papers would say about
Caruso, but felt too spent to regret missing the
performance. The Opera felt distant and unreachable, like
Helen, a chimera in fog. He tried to make out the Mint, but
could not. The misstrikes were in Stamp One by now under
Army guard. Reilly was there, God bless him. If a
contingent from Fort Mason didn’t arrive first thing,
despite regulations, he would have the soldiers move the
misstrikes to the Wells Fargo vault at Powell and Market.
Everything would be all right.