Season of the Witch: San Francisco History from 1967 to 1982

San Francisco history led American society toward a greater live-and-let-live tolerance, a shared sense of humanity, and an openness to change that’s as relevant today as it was in the 1960s.

| July 2012

San Francisco was the cradle of the ‘60s, but also its coffin, giving rise to Charles Manson and his Family, the bloody Altamont rock festival, the freakish terrorism of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the shocking Zodiac and Zebra murder sprees, the Jim Jones cult and the biggest mass suicide in American history, the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, a wave of anti-gay violence, fiery riots, and a terrifying sexual epidemic. Few cities have endured so many calamities in such a short span. And yet San Francisco not only rose from this decade of wreckage, but gave birth in the process to a set of social values that have become the keystones of liberal America. Season of the Witch (Free Press, 2012) by David Talbot tells the gripping story of San Francisco history between 1967 and 1982. The following excerpt is from the book’s introduction. 

San Francisco was built on a dare. The city was tossed up overnight on the shimmying, heaving, mischievous crust of the Pacific rim. A gold rush city of fortune seekers, gamblers, desperadoes and the flesh-peddling circus that caters to such men, San Francisco defied the laws of nature. It was a wide-open town, its thighs splayed wantonly for every vice damned in the Bible and more than a few that were left out. San Francisco was the Last Chance Saloon for outcasts from every corner of the globe. If the earth didn’t swallow them first, hell soon enough would.

Great cities have usually been founded by wealthy burghers and craftsmen— their spires and monuments a testament to the holiness of the work ethic. But San Francisco high society was a devil’s dinner party, a rogue’s crew of robber barons, saloon keepers, and shrewd harlots. When the town’s painted ladies went to the theater, gentlemen would rise until they were seated. By 1866, there were thirty-one saloons for every place of worship.

After the great earthquake struck in 1906, a wandering Pentecostal preacher who found himself among San Francisco’s smoking ruins inevitably declared the disaster God’s vengeance on Sodom. In the emotional aftershocks of the catastrophe, the Holy Roller’s hellfire preaching attracted a flock of dazed souls. But the size of his congregation was dwarfed by the crowds that thronged the last theater left standing in the city, where San Franciscans lustily cheered their beloved burlesques.

San Francisco’s Barbary Coast district—with its black-stocking bars, live sex shows, and opium dens—rose again from the earthquake’s ashes. And well into the new century—long before Las Vegas assured tourists that it knew how to keep their secrets—San Francisco aggressively marketed its libertine image. During the Prohibition era, the local board of supervisors passed legislation forbidding San Francisco police from enforcing the dry law. Drag queen shows were written up in the tourist guides alongside the ferryboat rides and Fisherman’s Wharf dining spots.

By the 1930s, however, another San Francisco emerged: Catholic, working class, family oriented. The Church’s influence could be felt throughout the town, particularly in city hall and the police department, where an old-boy’s network of Irish Catholic—and later Italian Catholic—officials held sway.