Sunday, October 30, 2022

The Barbary Coast Strangler 1880

Some say it was Halloween, but in fact, it was just before Midnight on October 20, 1880, when a heavy-set middle-aged bald man entered a San Francisco Police Station. On duty at the front desk was San Francisco Police Sergeant John Shields. It had been a fairly slow night at the station house located at Washington and Kearny streets. And really, that was a strange thing for such a station truly in the middle of the Barbary Coast.

San Francisco's Barbary Coast was an evil place of lawlessness and danger, all brought on by those who were the most worthless of that city. Prostitutes, pimps, cheats, killers, crooks, that red-light district was named for an expanse of North African coastline from Morocco to modern-day Libya for a reason. 

The area got its name, "the Barbary Coast," from sailors who came ashore and waded through the saloons and brothels, the widespread "shanghaiing," that horrible practice of drugging and kidnapping able-bodied men to serve on ships in need of sailors. So yes, like the Barbary Coast of Northern Africa, San Francisco's Barbary Coast was home to West Coast pirates, slave traders, and killers who would do anything for money.

On that October night of 1880, as soon as George Wheeler opened his mouth. the heavy-set middle-aged bald man changed what was a slow-moving night filled with the same old saloon brawls, stabbings, and the usual unidentified floater found in among the ship's anchored in the bay, to a night of true mystery and sadness.

Looking directly at Police Sergeant Shields, the stranger said, "My name is George Wheeler and I wish to surrender, as I have just strangled my sister-in-law, Delia Tillson. Here is a key to a trunk in room 14 at 23 Kearny street. Go there and you will find her body." 

As he made his statement, Sgt. Shields noted that Wheeler appeared very calm and actually relaxed about what he reported to have done. Sgt. Shields and the other Police Officers were understandably skeptical at first. They knew full well that all sorts of kooks would come in and confess to all sorts of things for various reasons; some simply wanted a place to sleep and a free meal while the law sorted things out.

While a little skeptical, Sgt. Shields sensed something different about this and immediately took Wheeler into custody. He then sent officers to the location of Wheeler's room. 

At the boardinghouse, they found his room, and the officers used the keys turned in by Wheeler to open the trunk. It was in the middle of the room just as it was described. Upon opening it, the officers found what they described as "the body of a good-looking and well-proportioned young woman." Her fully dressed body had been stuffed into the trunk.

As soon as finding her body, officers immediately started interrogating the people who resided in the boardinghouse. The officers learned that the woman was known as Wheeler's wife and not his sister-in-law. They also learned that another woman, who was out at the time, was actually known as his sister-in-law. 

After the officers returned to the station, they further questioned Wheeler. As for Wheeler, it was reported that "without coercion," he voluntarily made an additional statement. 

Here is that statement, "Delia Tillson, the girl whose body you found, is my sister-in-law, regardless of any statement made to the contrary, and she was 21 years old a few months ago. I married her sister Mary in Massachusetts eleven years ago. 

Six years later I became intimate with Delia, who lived in the same house with us. About a year afterward Delia confessed to my wife that she was in a delicate condition and that I was responsible for it. Their folks were highly respected, and to avoid a scandal Mary protected Delia and the child was bom in our house, but it died a few weeks afterward. 

Shortly after this the three of us came to San Francisco. But, failing to obtain employment, I took both women to Cisco, Placer County, where I was employed as an engineer. At this place, Delia met a man named George Peckham, with whom she became intimate, according to her confessions to me. 

By this time I had grown to love Delia as much as I did Mary, my wife, and the three of us occupied one room. When Delia made this admission, I became furious. But, I forgave her with the understanding that she should cease her relations with Peckham and accompany me to San Francisco where we engaged the rooms in which I strangled her tonight, and where we were known as man and wife. 

We came here about five months ago. About one month ago my wife located us and came to live with us, she posing as my sister-in-law. 

Tonight I went out to see Officer Moorehouse on business, and when I returned Delia was in the rooms and had on her hat and gloves. I asked her where she had been. She sat on my knee and confessed that she had been in constant communication with Peckham ever since we left Cisco and that it was he who told my wife where we were located. 

Delia furthermore told me that she and Peckham had met that night, and had agreed to go to Sacramento and live as man and wife. This admission crazed me, and as she sat on my knee I strangled her. I then crowded the body into the trunk. My wife was out at the time."

As a result of Wheeler's very descriptive confession, the San Francisco Police searched for the true Mrs. Wheeler. She was finally located and questioned at length. During her questioning, she is said to have reluctantly admitted that her husband's statement was true. She was his wife and Delia was her sister. 

Some say that Wheeler must have come to his senses during his first trial since it was about then that he seem to realize that he was facing being hanged for the murder of his sister-in-law. Some surmised he did since that was when he started to fight being hanged. 

It's true. In fact, a few organizations against capital punishment provided him with lawyers to fight being hanged. And yes they did just that.  Over the next three and half years in one trial after another, Wheeler and his legal team fought against his being hanged for what he did. And really, for a while, it looked as though he was going to cheat the hangman of making sure such a person never had the chance to do such a thing again.   

What's interesting is that even though he confessed and there was no question of his guilt, believe it or not, Wheeler's lawyers got him four trials. And after each trial, after each appeal for a new trial, Wheeler was still found guilty. 

Of course, in the end, after legal maneuvering couldn't save him, George Wheeler, the man who became known as "The Barbary Coast Strangler" for a very short while, was finally hanged on January 23rd, 1884. Yes indeed. he was finally hanged as he should have been. Thus making sure that the fiend that some called "The Barbary Coast Strangler" would never strangle another woman ever again.   

Tom Correa

1 comment:

  1. This gives me an idea for a sort-of Western television series. I will call it "Barbary Coast Detective". It will be like "Tales Of Wells Fargo" but better. My character, San Francisco Police Sergeant John Shields, will travel the world and along the way he will bump into some familiar TV Western characters from time to time. Let's say for example he's investigating a murder in China and he bumps into Paladin. Or he investigates a stagecoach robbery in Texas and he runs into Jim Hardie. Or he investigates a murder in Italy and he runs into Nick Barkley. Or he investigates a murder in England and he bumps into Dan Troop from "Lawman". Or he runs into Maverick while going undercover as an outlaw in Kansas. Or he might even see Matt Dillon on his way to investigate a family massacre in Wyoming. Or he tries to prove Billy The Kid's innocence in New Mexico Territory. Or he's arrested by Wyatt Earp in Tombstone after being mistaken for a member of the Clanton Gang. Oh the possibilities. And every episode will open with this. "Whenever danger arrives, I chase it. Whenever there's a problem, I solve it. And wherever there's trouble, I'll be waiting. I'm San Francisco Police Sergeant John Shields. And it's MY mission to keep the Barbary Coast, and California in general, safe. They call me the Barbary Coast Detective". Wish me luck. I think I might succeed.


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