True-crime veteran Graysmith (The Girl in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shower, 2010, etc.) uses Mark Twain’s most famous character as a springboard for exploring San Francisco’s rocky beginnings as a boomtown plagued with crime.
For anyone who believes that the City by the Bay has always been a peace-and-love destination renowned for its bridges, seals and winding streets, this book will prove to be a wake-up call. Graysmith re-creates the lawless decade that began with the 1849 Gold Rush and the attendant lack of infrastructure that turned the city into a literal hotbed—in less than two years, an arsonist and his accomplices burned it to the ground on six different occasions. In their haste to get rich, prospectors had erected flimsy structures that practically beckoned firebugs to strike matches. Gangs stalked the streets, harassing, robbing and even killing citizens. The streets themselves were cobbled together from wooden planks and glass bottles, making the work of firefighters and police extremely difficult. Into this melee strode young Tom Sawyer, a former New York volunteer fireman who had gone west to seek his fortune. In the days before steam engines and gas lamps, a corps of boys ran ahead of the hand-pumpered fire trucks with torches to light the way through San Francisco’s treacherous streets. As one of the most loyal and dedicated torch boys, Sawyer caught the eye of visiting writer Mark Twain; the two became fast friends, with Twain mining Sawyer’s adventurous past for his novel. Graysmith also peoples this rich and sometimes overwhelming account with a bevy of characters instrumental in rebuilding San Francisco in the wake of each successive blaze.
While lively and chock-full of eye-opening tidbits, the book’s simultaneous coverage of firefighting history, Twain and Sawyer’s relationship, and crooked political alliances, along with its zigzagging timeline, threaten to deluge readers with details.