Friday, 2 January 2015


San Francisco. 1850.
‘It was the end of the continent, nobody gave a damn.’ Jack Kerouac.

This blog comes as a footnote to a previous one, A Free Man, in which I talked about my great,great grandfather, Patrick Bell, taking off to San Francisco. Further research indicates that Paddy may have been a member of a criminal gang called the Sydney Ducks.

The Sydney Ducks  were one of the more violent criminal organisations ever set up in America. They had the dubious honour of been California’s first criminal gang.  The majority of them were Irish who had arrived in Australia during the Irish Famine. Many were labourers. Paddy Bell certainly fitted that demographic. A few were ex-convicts who had served their time in Australia.

When news of the gold discovery in California hit Australia, they were on the next boats to San Francisco.  However, the Australians soon found that mining for gold was for idiots and decided that a life of crime was more lucrative.

The gang set up shop in an area of San Francisco that became known as Sydney Town ( renamed The Barbary Coast in the 1860's). Sydney Town soon became a cesspit of saloons, gambling dens and brothels.  Assaults, murders, looting, robberies and arson happened on a daily basis all over the city.

Arson attacks on businesses was the big earner for the Ducks.  While people were distracted trying to put out the fire, the gang was be looting others.  In one major arson attack, the criminals nearly burnt out central San Francisco. The gang always made sure Sydney Town never burnt;  only lighting a fire when they knew the winds wouldn’t blow in that direction.    

In a few months, a hundred people were murdered. The authorities were either incompetent or corrupt; probably both. The gang members were never prosecuted.   
As Herbert Ashbury, says in his book,' The Barbary Coast'; ‘the nearest approach to criminal anarchy that an American city has yet experienced.’

But the good citizens of San Francisco had had enough. A vigilante committee was formed and soon after, the lynching’s and deportations started. It was all over for the Sydney Ducks.

 Their two year reign of terror that had lasted from 1849-1851, was over.