In my September 2, 2017 post I wrote about one of Gertrude Atherton’s last books entitled ‘My San Francisco – A Wayward Biography’. In one of the chapters, Atherton wrote about a mystery story by Mary Collins called ‘The Sister of Cain’ explaining that it’s set in “the weird old Humphrey-Giffen house on Chestnut Street.” Her review of the book was so enticing that I ordered a copy from the internet. It took three weeks to arrive but it was worth it; it’s a neat little mystery written and set in San Francisco during World War Two that captures the war time atmosphere of San Francisco deliciously! Spooky locations that the heroine visits to try to solve the mystery, usually during the middle of the night, are well described. I followed the adventures of Mrs. Collins main character around San Francisco visiting many of the locations as I read the book. It was a delightful mystery to read and from Mary Collin’s descriptions of areas in the book she writes about it’s clear that she went to these locations as she wrote the book, and leaves a descriptive map of the eerie and dangerous adventures of the book’s main character, Hilda Moreau. The book was published in 1943 and is set in September of 1942, exactly 75 years to the month before I first heard of it. Mrs. Collins at the time, like Hilda, was in the early stages of pregnancy, but I couldn’t find a lot of information about her except that she was born in St. Louis in 1908 and attended Miss Burke’s School for girls when she came to San Francisco. (What is it about that school that inspires such talented ladies?) Well, let’s get on with the mystery. I’ll try not to give anything too important away if anyone is interested in reading the story.
Above are the cast of characters and the Moreau sisters are deserving of a little background information. Pauline, the oldest sister, is wicked and controlling who continually interferes and ruins her other sisters chance to find love and happiness. It comes as no surprise that she’ll be the first one murdered. Sophie is the most pathetic of the girls. Because of Pauline’s control over her she no longer takes care of her looks and is the one the reader will feel the most sorry for. Anne is the most successful of the Moreau sisters and the strongest. She lives next door to the old Humphrey House and is not afraid to challenge Pauline. Elise is the most attractive of the girls, but she has one problem she’s a falling down drunk. She makes W. C. Fields look like a beautified candidate for sainthood! Marthe, pronounced “Mart”, I think she was my favorite. She’s pretty, a close tie with Elise as the prettiest, feisty, fun loving, and she likes to get plastered occasionally herself. That’s always a good sign. The baby of the family is Rose, easily frightened and often childlike, she has no will whatsoever to oppose Pauline. There was also a sister named Berthe, Collins doesn’t say if her name is pronounced “Bert”. Berthe is only referred to in flashbacks, or in a book I guess they’re called writebacks. Berthe fell, jumped or was pushed from the three stories back of the house many years before the current story takes place, and, obviously, this is something to keep in mind. Hilda Moreau has arrived by train from Cleveland, Ohio. She is married to David Moreau, the only Moreau brother in the family. Hilda has arrived in San Francisco to clear some legal matters up and she is recently pregnant with David’s child. David is in the North Atlantic on World War Two duty. The story takes place during the first few weeks of September in 1942 and Hilda’s baby is due in February.
I wondered why Gertrude Atherton was so keen on the book until I saw Mary Collins’ dedication.
Most of the story takes place inside an old house on the northeast corner of Chestnut Street at Hyde. At the time it was the oldest house in San Francisco, built in 1852. Efforts to save it failed and it was demolished in 1948, five years after ‘The Sister of Cain’ was published. Above is an old photo of the house and the apartment building that’s there today.
“This is it lady.” The cab driver said over his shoulder. He swung his yellow taxi at right angles to the sidewalk. I can’t see no number, but the place next door is 980 so this must be 986 here on the corner.” He tells Hilda. (Vintage picture from the San Francisco Library)
“We went up a flight of seven or eight crooked wooden stairs which led to a veranda that ran across the front of the house.”
“Old house, ain’t it lady?” the cab driver remarks. Hilda makes it clear from the beginning that she does not like San Francisco. This is something to keep in mind when you reach the end of the book. Here are some of her thoughts.
“It was bad enough to have my charming, affectionate, intelligent husband gone to the wars” “but to have to come clear across the country to this steep, cold, grey, alien town and into this horrible house,” or later on, “I wanted to go home to Cleveland and never see the Moreau house or the city of San Francisco again!”
I know what you’re thinking, “Well, that’s all we need to know about her.” but I’ve never been to Cleveland, and you can’t expect everyone to fall in love with San Francisco. Besides, as I hinted earlier, San Francisco has a way of winning visitors over.
The above picture is the jacket cover for the hardback edition of the novel with the Humphrey house on the cover.
The vintage photo from OpenSFHistory.org shows a cable car approaching Chestnut Street at Hyde in 1938. The Humphrey house is clearly seen on the right.
A little farther down Hyde in the 1920’s shows part of the back yard of the Humphrey house on the right. (OpenSFHistory.org)
The top photo is the side of the old house that faced San Francisco Bay. This is where Berthe, fell, jumped or was pushed to her death. This is also where Hilda sneaks out of the house several times in the middle of the night looking for clues. Oh, yes, you guessed it, Mary Collins novel isn’t going to be overlooking this part of the house. The lower picture is my photo from the same spot looking up at the back of the apartment building that’s there now.
A picture taken during the 1950’s a little up Hyde Street from Chestnut shows the apartment building on the northeast corner of Hyde and Chestnut that replaced the Humphrey house when it was demolished.
Sophie Moreau is in love with a gentleman who works in a pharmacy at Union and Hyde Streets. Pauline through meanness has forbidden her to see him. In a rare moment of courage, Sophie sneaks out of the house to go to him while Pauline is away. Hilda narrates,
“I was just in time to see Sophie scrambling nervously onto a Hyde Street cable car and disappear up the hill. Poor Sophie, when she got home there would be hell to pay.”
This would be where Hilda watched Sophie make her dash. After Pauline is murdered, the first of three in the book, Hilda, herself, isn’t above sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night looking for clues. Both times she nearly gets herself killed.
In the first of Hilda’s clandestine capers she sneaks out of the house through the back way at two o’clock in the morning to break into a house in the 200 block of Leavenworth Street. Hilda has learned that Pauline herself used to visit this house in the middle of the night. She goes down the corner of Chestnut Street and Columbus Avenue.
“I found a taxi in front of a nightclub and told the driver to take me to the 400 block of Leavenworth.”
Hilda is being clever here; she doesn’t want the cab driver to know the exact block in case he’s questioned later. Or maybe Mary Collins just forgot that she referred to the house as being on the 200 block of Leavenworth earlier. That may not be classified as a night club on the corner of Columbus and Chestnut in the top picture today, but it’ll fit. That looks like a fun place; I’ll have to get back there!
“We bumped around past stores and bars and apartment buildings that looked remote and dismal in the dimmed-out city, and then we went through a long, noisy, white-tiled tunnel, and after a while we swung back to the right.”
No guess work here what tunnel they entered at two in the morning. From Hilda’s route description they would have traveled south through the Stockton Tunnel, seen in the bottom picture. The white tiles are still there, although that paint job, kind of, worries me.
Photographs from the San Francisco Library on the Calisphere website from the University of California have some old pictures taken inside the Humphrey House. Incidents from parts of the book take place where some of these photos were taken.
“I got up and put on a robe and followed Marthe into Rose’s room, whose windows overlooked the bay. The wind had blown the fog away, and the view was superb. Alcatraz, the famous “Rock” stood out like something on a picture post card, and an enormous blue-grey battleship was just passing it.”
The girls watch as a parade of ships head past North Point to the Golden Gate Bridge. The Ghirardelli Tower can be seen. Cry-baby Rose had a nice view indeed!
On the roof of the house was a cupola. The girls go up there a number of times and you just know that this little room is going to play an important part in this book before the story is over. In one chapter of the book Hilda is watching war time searchlights on San Francisco Bay at night from the cupola. These were some of her thoughts from here.
“From every corner of the Bay the great long shafts of light stabbed the clear night sky.”
“I thought almost guiltily that here was one phase of war that was wonderful to watch, not ugly or grey or deadly.”
“My eyes swept the sky all around me. I must remember this I kept saying to myself. I must remember this to tell my grandchildren. The big searchlights on San Francisco Bay a few months after Pearl Harbor.”
When Coit Tower was erected in 1933 it was not well received by many at first. Gertrude Atherton herself wrote that the “harmonious skyline is now distorted by Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill,” and “Today there is a small park on the crest of the hill where tourists may enjoy the view and that eyesore the Coit Tower which looks more like a lighthouse or an incinerator.” or “So there it stands, insulting the landscape. Lily Hitchcock deserved a better memorial.” When Inspector Cassidy is taking Hilda down to the Russ Building to meet with an attorney he tells her a little bit about North Beach.
“He was being awfully nice to me in a sort of social way, so I thought I’d do him a good turn when he finished telling me about the North Beach District and a dreadful-looking thing sticking up on a hill which he said was Coit Tower. A long time afterward David told me the colloquial name for the tower which was obscene and funny.”
It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what naughty little nickname for the tower her husband told Hilda that she got such a kick out of.
Hilda has lunch with Mr. Pearson at the Palace Hotel.
“Mr. Pearson took me to the Palace Hotel for luncheon and recommended that I eat a delicious concoction called Palm Court Salad. I was suitable impressed with the great Palm Court and promised to read a book called Bonanza Inn which would tell me the history of the hotel before the fire, as Californians are pleased to call the 1906 Earthquake.”
I’ll finish up with the location of one of the key scenes in the book, and then you’re on your own. Janet Holmes, one of the suspects at this point along with Hilda, and a fugitive, sends a note to Hilda to meet her at a park near where the Moreau House is at midnight. Hilda, three months pregnant, decides to go, not because she’s a fool, but because she couldn’t reach a police officer to accompany her. Hilda’s in this pretty thick and she’s looking for any information she can find to clear herself.
“I pulled out Janet’s note and looked at it carefully. According to the map, I was supposed to walk one block west, then one block south, go up some steps, wander down a path in the park, and meet Janet at a bench. All of this was to be accomplished at the witching hour of midnight.”
I retraced the route from where the Humphrey house once stood. One block west and one block south took me to the steps that lead up to what is now called George Sterling Park, named after the poet who wrote of San Francisco as, “The cool, grey city of love.” When Hilda arrives at the park she comments on a memorial erected to George Sterling near the bench where she waits for Janet. I walked down a path to a bench where a girl was sitting and thought to myself that this may have been where Hilda was supposed to meet Janet Holmes. George Sterling Park is much better lit with tennis courts and a baseball diamond on top today than the dark, spooky park Hilda Moreau describes. Hilda has a knife thrown at her and stumbles on to another murdered body in the park on this night and becomes the number one suspect now, intensely disliked by the rest of the Moreau sisters. I’ll leave my readers in the dark here like Hilda was at midnight up on George Sterling Park or I’ll reveal too much of the book.