Written in Stone: The Sydney Ducks

The short piece below is a test of the Beta release of Write in Stone, a new tool for capturing and sharing research. To view the full Writeline for this story, or to rate the research, click on the widget. Feedback (on the tool, not my dodgy writing) is welcome! Email me at cassie (at) writeinstone.com

The Sydney Ducks

‘Sydney Town’, looking north to Telegraph Hill, 1851.

It was only after I had been living in San Francisco for almost two years that I discovered the Sydney Ducks. From memory, it was in an Uber on the way to a trust in journalism event with Austin Mackell that I found out about them. At first, I didn’t believe such an excellent story could possibly be true. Not only was there a gang ex-colonials from Sydney that had roamed around in what is now lower Telegraph Hill but that they were truly called the Sydney Ducks. Wikipedia, however, confirmed it.

The Sydney Ducks were a loose coalition of former Sydneysiders, some ex-convicts, many Irish, who made their way over to San Francisco lured by the thrill of the gold rush and the promise of riches. In Sydney-Town (now known as The Barbary Coast), it was said that if a really awful crime was found to have occurred, people said: “the Sydney Ducks are cackling in the pond”.[1]

A couple of Sydney Ducks had a near escape in 1851 when a local merchant, Charles Jansen was beaten and robbed. Thinking he was James Stuart, a notorious Australian villain and murderer, the police arrested Thomas Berdue and fellow Duck William Wildred for the crime the next day. The police paraded Berdue and Wildred before a delirious Jansen, who claimed that they were the attackers. Berdue and Wildred narrowly avoided trial and execution by angry mob before a jury found them not guilty. Later it was proven that they had not committed the crime.[2]

This story is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to the Sydney Ducks. Mostly, they committed the crimes – and plenty of them. They ran protection rackets and debauched grog shops up and down the San Francisco waterfront. Evidently, many of them had found gold mining difficult to get into and the opportunities in the city easy to grasp. The citizens of the city, by 1851, had had enough. They formed a fully blown pitchfork and torch-wielding justice league known as the Committee for Vigilance.[3] After a series of kangaroo courts and public hangings, most of the Ducks left the city, many of them returning to Australia, where another gold rush – and plenty of opportunities for enterprising young criminals – beckoned.

[1] Asbury, Herbert. The Barbary Coast. 1933: New York. Available via the WayBack Machine at: https://web.archive.org/web/20080802182823/http://www.sfgenealogy.com/sf/history/hbtbc3.htm

[2] John Bossenecker, Gold Dust & Gunsmoke: Tales of Gold Rush Outlaws, Gunfighters, Lawmen and Vigilantes, Wiley and Sons, 1999, p35. Digitized by the Internet Archive 2011. Available at: https://archive.org/stream/golddustgunsmoke00boes#page/n9

[3] “The Sydney Ducks and Vigilante Justice in SF, 1851” https://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/Sydney-Ducks-and-vigilante-justice-in-SF-1851-4097306.php#photo-3794412

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