By Herbert C. Hensley
One day, while prowling my beat as waterfront reporter for the Union, somewhere about 1905 it was, I went aboard a big British sailing ship just arrived from Australia with coal, and then lying at Spreckels’s coal bunkers wharf. About the first person that caught my eye was old Benjamin Judkins, engaged in gathering up and tying together his few possessions, evidently preliminary to quitting the vessel. There were no indications of any tearful leave-taking.
Judkins, I might explain, was one of the town’s colorful figures. He used to get out a little pamphlet entitled Facts of Science, the science promulgated being astrology. This innocuous booklet he would hawk about the plaza on band concert nights. He was a big, stoop-shouldered, straggly bearded, rather pudgy, old fellow. He would also, on occasion, hold forth, to anybody who would listen, on street corners, at other times. I believe that, having formed the habit of pre-empting the corner of Fifth and E street, by the bank, he got badly at odds with the Salvation Army, who also desired to occupy that busy spot.
While seemingly gentle and inoffensive, I suppose that the city fathers had come to look upon him as a possible future burden on the community. As it happened, Benjamin had begun to bruit about some hazy intelligence to the effect that there was a big estate in England, whence he had come to this country, to which he had some claim. His story had to do with the mysterious activities of one Imblay Clark, who had dug himself a great fortune in California’s gold rush days, and then had seen fit to disappear. Since that time he had been rumored seen in various parts. What Judkins had to do with the story I don’t know, but he was sure he could find Clark and cure all his financial troubles.
At any rate, since he agreed to take a lot of Chamber of Commerce literature and advertise San Diego at every opportunity, a fund was subscribed sufficient for his traveling expenses and Benjamin was off. Some years passed with no word of the wanderer. But here he was again, and showing no signs of having succeeded to any fortune.
It was clear to me that relations between Benjamin and his shipmates were far from clubby. Dark looks and ribald comments were directed at him as he went over the side. He had been put aboard in Australia by the American consul, to work his way home, but what useful work he had been capable of doing on the long voyage from Australia I couldn’t imagine, unless, perhaps, he had been of some use in the galley.
His uselessness, as well as his constant preaching to the crew, had made him highly unpopular, and he had been considered a Jonah besides. The men no doubt thought themselves very fortunate in reaching port safely, under such a handicap. Benjamin confided to me that the voyage had been a terrible ordeal, following his failure to find riches in England, and being assisted on his way to Australia in further pursuit of the elusive millionaire. Having no luck there, he had now completed his long, triangular jaunt, and was ready to take up the thankless task of instructing San Diegans in the truths of science, right where he had left off.
While we were talking, at the foot of the gangplank, fire was opened on him from the ship with potatoes and lumps of coal, until we conducted a strategic retreat.
Poor Benjamin was quite naturally outraged at such disrespect for a man of science. “In Adelaide,” he told me proudly, “they called me ‘The Immortal Judkins.’ “
Judkins assured the city fathers that he had been assiduous in extolling San Diego’s charms and importance throughout his travels, and no doubt he did. Whether or not this netted the town any particular profit would be hard to tell.
NOTE — The foregoing article was extracted from the memoirs of the late Herbert C. Hensley who, until shortly before his death, was one of the San Diego History Center’s most active and enthusiastic members. Journalistic skill, coupled with meticulous accuracy, make these memoirs, now preserved in the Serra Museum library, an invaluable source of data on San Diego life in bygone days.