The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1990, Volume 36, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Madam Ida and Other Gaslamp Tales.

By Henry Schwartz. San Diego: Rand Editions, 1989. Bibliography. Illustrations. 148 pages. $8.95.

Reviewed by Robert Carlton, a freelance editor/writer who lives in Vista.

This is an entertaining little book, rooted firmly in the journalistic tradition of vignettes of city life. Schwartz has an eye for a striking image: the sensationally promoted sword-fight between “Jaguarina” and Conrad Weidermann in 1888; the menagerie of birds, bears, and spiders in Till Burnes’s otherwise “spotlessly clean” saloon; Ida Bailey’s Canary Cottage in its heyday around 1904; and Kate Sessions adamantly planting trees in every bare spot she saw. These portrayals stick with the reader long after the reading.

Madam Ida does have some weaknesses. For one, the vignettes are of uneven quality, and some might well have been omitted. Also uneven is the quality of the editing. Beyond this, Schwartz’s unrelenting insistence on a light, entertaining tone eventually begins to grate upon the ear, as, for instance, in his dependence on terms like “harlot,” “strumpet,” “painted lady,” and “sisters in sin” to refer to the prostitutes of the Stingaree. Finally, those readers who want to learn more about Schwartz’s fascinating characters will wish he had provided more exact source citations.

Nevertheless, Schwartz’s tableaux vivants bring to life several entertaining chapters in the city’s past, some that are well known and others that will be new to most readers.

The longest chapter, a fine summary of Alonzo Horton’s role in the development of New San Diego, is one of the more satisfying. Schwartz quickly sketches Horton’s background: his brief real estate and business ventures in Wisconsin, British Columbia, and Northern California, and the furniture and household goods business in San Francisco that provided the capital for Horton’s first real estate purchases in San Diego. Schwartz evokes the period of Horton’s arrival in a few phrases: exploring the bare hillsides of what is now downtown San Diego, Horton is “transfixed–a bearded prophet in the wilderness.” His enthusiasm for the bayside location meets disdainful skepticism from most residents. But, undeterred by the failure of earlier attempts to shift the town’s center of gravity southward from Old San Diego, Horton pours his savings into buying as much as he can of New San Diego, and this time history follows him. Schwartz avoids over-dramatizing Horton’s financial vicissitudes in later years. Rather, he even-handedly describes Horton’s settling down in “his city,” his ups and downs in the 1880s and ’90s, and his penurious but dignified old age; Horton died in 1909 at the Agnew Sanitarium, 96 years old.

Without trying to cover up his characters’ shortcomings, Schwartz succeeds in making the reader share his affection for them. In sum, this is an enjoyable book that anyone with an interest in San Diego history will profit from.