A record turnout of 71 walkers and four K-9 best friends were on hand last Wednesday for our Piedmont Recreation Department's Walking on Wednesdays group's annual pre-Halloween walking tour of the Mountain View Cemetery. It was impossible to name all the participants, but there were many walking with us for the first time and some walkers returning after being away for a while. Among the latter was Betsey Lim, who was on the very first Walking on Wednesdays walk on April 18, 2018.
We were in front of the cemetery's main mausoleum for a tour that was to be conducted by long time docent Jane Leroe. Jane was back for her third year with us. She is a retired, ground-breaking, trial attorney who describes herself as a "feminist" before there were "feminists." Jane has developed an extensive knowledge of the Mountain View Cemetery and loves sharing it.
However, she acknowledged that good storytelling may sometimes include some embellishment.
Jane's theme for the tour was "Roques, Rascals, and Scandals." She was going to share secrets about some of Mountain View's inhabitants, but she started off with some basic cemetery history. In the early 1860s a group of twelve, leading, local businessman led by Samuel Merritt, a San Francisco physician and also the 13th mayor of Oakland from 1867 to 1869, decided the area
needed a private cemetery. Two public cemeteries existed, but they were not well maintained, and the group wanted something better for their final resting places. They bought 200 acres of fields far from the center of Oakland at a cost of $13,000, and the Mountain View Cemetery was established in 1863. Twenty-six acres were added later, so the cemetery has a total of 226 acres. About one hundred and seventy thousand people are buried at Mountain View, and there is room for an additional 170,000. The founders paid Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who also designed New York City's Central Park and much of UC Berkeley and Stanford University, $1,000 to design it, but it is uncertain if he ever got paid.
Then it was time for Jane to lead us off to hear the really scandalous stuff. She took us through the main mausoleum, which with its chapel and marble vaults is truly beautiful, and we emerged at its back. Jane took us up a hill to the grave of Clara Bedell. Clara was a well-known madame in San Francisco in the latter part of the 19th century. Her "house of ill-repute" was located at the current location of the Prada store near Union Square on Post Street in San Francisco. She was one of highest paid women in San Francisco at the time. But in 1891, at the age of 37, she was found dead in her room. She had mixed opium with some wine and overdosed. Witnesses said
she had been drinking champagne all day. Her estate was valued at $25,000, a substantial sum for the time, especially for a woman. And three years after her death she was named the beneficiary of a $10,000 life insurance policy from a local judge.
Then we were off to see some Victorian family vaults. One belonged to Dr. Orran Warren. It has been stripped of the family name at the family's request after a robbery in January 1988 when a graduate of Skyline High School and a friend broke into the vault. They opened two coffins and
removed the skulls of two women. One had died in 1921 and the other just a year before in 1987. The Skyline grad refused to identify his accomplice, who allegedly had possession of the skulls. The young men reportedly had a "thing for science fiction and monsters and goblins."
That was a lot, but Jane had more. Frank Norris, who wrote the novel The Octopus, was a member of the Fiji fraternity at Cal in the late 19th Century. The fraternity has custody of his grave, where liquor bottles commonly take the place of flowers. Edsom Adams leased Oakland land from the
Peralta family, who were the original Spanish land grant recipients, and then Adams sold the land to others. He made a fortune doing it. Cal student Everett Brown stole the Stanford Axe in 1899 by hiding it under a dress he put on. Jane Sather made a gift of Sather Gate to UC Berkeley as a memorial to her husband, but marble panels on it had naked women and men, and an inscription "Erected by Jane K Sather 1909." This was an embarrassment and she had the panels removed.
Jane Leroe also took us up to one of the cemetery's main attractions, "Millionaires' Row," which is on the peak of a hill with expansive Bay views. This is where the most grand, elaborate crypts stand, housing some of the cemetery's most wealthy residents. One is Charles Crocker. He was one of the "Big Four" who helped bankroll the construction of the transcontinental
railroad. Crocker built a mansion on Nob Hill, and also a 30-foot-high fence around three sides of the home of a neighbor who wouldn't sell him his property. There was some payback because two years later when the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake fire burnt Crocker's mansion to the ground, and the land was donated f or Grace Cathedral. Jane also talked about Samuel Merritt
and the attached group photo with her was taken on the steps of his tomb. There's also one of her talking to us.
These stories were all very interesting, but the most enjoyable aspect of the tour was Jane Leroe herself and her storytelling. Her opinions and humor gave life to these long dead people. At the morning's end we expressed our thanks to her for a most enjoyable pre-Halloween tour.