Letter From a City Missionary

San Francisco News Letter/August 15, 1868

EDITOR NEWS LETTER:–One day last week, while passing along Pacific street, upon an errand of mercy, my attention was attracted by a fine assortment of unearthly sounds, proceeding from the basement story of a building, the ground floor of which is occupied by a well known resident of this and other cities—by name, Cheap John. The missionary ear is always captivated by unearthly sounds—the missionary bowels of compassion are always moved by them. To your true missionary, unearthly sounds are more heavenly than the tinkling of a triangle or the breathing of a lute. It is needless to say that I was touched. The touch came from a benevolent lady—doubtless a co-worker in the moral missionary vineyard. I followed her sadly and slowly down a pair of stairs, and as she opened a baize-covered door, with a familiar push, I saw a sight which was calculated to, and did, appal the stoutest heart. The room was occupied by about forty persons of both sexes, and this entire family was laboring under the attacks of the most frightful diseases. About a dozen of these unfortunates were gathered in the middle of the floor, jumping, whirling and gesticulating violently. They clung to each other for support and consolation, and I had here an illustration of the mutual dependence of the sexes upon each other in their hour of extremity. Brother fastened on to sister, and sister on to brother, as if in fraternal love now lay their only hope. A few were affected with the terrible Hypochondria, and lay listlessly upon benches and chairs, utterly prostrate, regarding the horrible convulsions of their frantic companions with a fixed stare of stolid indifference. One poor fellow had shut himself up like a jack-knife—to use an ungodly comparison—and seemed quite dead. I noticed a pair of female executors searching silently and sadly in his pockets for his will; while the anxious expression of his bereaved relative behind a sort of counter, as he nervously and furtively watched the operation, was harrowing in the extreme. A good apothecary at his side was engaged in the noble and disinterested work of putting up verbal prescriptions; but the various diseases of his patients had so far advanced that each dose seemed but to aggravate their symptoms. Several of the patients were struggling with tetanus, and I observed one in particular who had been seized with a spasm while in the very act of masticating a caviar sandwich. The sandwich remained for a moment locked tightly in his rigid jaws, and then as the reaction came on, disappeared bodily down his throat. I would not have undertaken to cure him for ten thousand dollars. One miserable wretch was raving in insanity, and with a most fiendish glee was clawing the keys of a piano, adding a most unearthly simulation of joy in a ribald song. But why recount all these horrors? The bare recital of them causes the flesh to creep under my clerical waist-coat. I thrust my hand in my pocket for my purse to relieve a part of this misery. The purse was gone and I turned to the benevolent lady to ask if she had seen it. The benevolent lady had departed. I at once sought the office of the official organ of our society, the Alta California, and a gentleman connected with it kindly volunteered to draw up an appeal for charity. It appeared next day, and I was surprised to learn that my pet patients were one and all afflicted with small-pox. Pecuniary relief poured in unto the editors, and yesterday the amount received—after a slight dedication for printing—was handed over to me. So soon as I can take heart to again face so much squalid misery, I shall hand over the money, in small installments, to the good physician above mentioned. Very truly yours,


  (Source: California State Library, Microfilm Collection)