Not Your Century

On hiatus as of March 2020 because of the coronavirus crisis. Get unlimited access to the Chronicle. | A daily celebration of the news — and the news media — of years gone by. King Kaufman takes you on a quick tour of the Bay Area and the world as it used to be, which often colors the world of your century.

1945: Adolf Hitler's Suicide
A day after Americans learned that the Nazi leader had died, they learned that Germany's official announcement that Hitler had died in battle was a lie. He had killed himself as the Red Army captured Berlin and closed in on his bunker.
4 min
1973: Conspiracy to Obstruct Justice at the Whi...
Investigators have evidence that high-ranking officials of the White House and President Nixon's reelection committee conspired to cover up the Watergate break-in. They haven't figured out Nixon's role yet, but John Dean is about to start talking.
4 min
1913: The SFPD Bunko Scandal
Fat envelopes of cash are being handed over the bars of North Beach. To the cops. And they're going down. The real scandal? A century later, not enough people use the word "bunko" anymore.
4 min
1986: The Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster
The USSR has finally admitted that something happened, but Western observers are worried it's worse than officials are letting on. The Soviets rarely ask the West for help, announce a problem on Tass, or say a government investigation is underway.
4 min
1958: U.S. Space Program Failing
The Soviet Union is sending Sputnik satellites into orbit, but for the United States, it's failure after failure. The latest Vanguard rocket has plunged into the sea from 140 miles up.
5 min
1963: Fidel Castro Visits Nikita Khrushchev
In something of a surprise, the Cuban premier heads to the Soviet Union for the first time amid rumors of tensions with the Soviet leader in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Meanwhile, Khrushchev opens a new front in the Cold War: Women's panties.
3 min
1894: The First March on Washington
The Butte, Montana, faction of Coxey's Army has stolen a freight train and is headed east, part of a nationwide convergence to demand a jobs and infrastructure program. So who was Coxey? And how'd he get an army?
5 min
1957: Failed the Bus Driver Test? Try Cable Cars
If you blow the San Francisco Municipal Railway's bus driver test, don't worry. They'll send you over for cable car training. The Public Utilities Commission thinks that's odd, but Muni defends its policy.
4 min
1935: Pan Am Clipper Crosses the Pacific
In the first of four test flights, Pan American's "flying boat" completes a round-trip to Hawaii with a water landing in front of 10,000 spectators at Alameda. It's the first step toward passenger service to Asia.
5 min
1993: Hacker Busted, Joe Montana's Farewell
Prosecutors are throwing the book at Kevin Lee Poulsen, a notorious hacker who rigged radio station contests to finance his life on the lam for other crimes. Plus: Joe Montana bids adieu to San Francisco and the 49ers.
5 min
1962: The Prehistoric Google Bus
Commuters are taking private luxury buses to their jobs on the Peninsula, and people are fighting mad about it. It's a preview of the Google Bus fights of a later century. But without Wi-Fi.
5 min
1912: Scant News from the Titanic
Three days after the great ship sank, news is still scarce. The rescue ship Carpathia has gone silent. But word is filtering in over the wires about who survived — and who didn't.
4 min
1990: Chinatown Is Closed
Mayor Art Agnos wants to tear down the Embarcadero Freeway, badly damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake. Chinatown shuts down as its business leaders head downtown to fight for repair of the road they say is their lifeline of customers.
4 min
Bonus: Mike Sager on Janet Cooke
Mike Sager worked with and dated Janet Cooke at the Washington Post and later wrote a book about her. The veteran author and magazine writer talks about his friend, "the fabulist who changed journalism."
17 min
1981: Space Shuttle Soars, Janet Cooke Crashes
Real news: The inaugural flight of the space shuttle Challenger. Fake news: The Washington Post returns Janet Cooke's Pulitzer Prize after editors discover she made up her story about an 8-year-old heroin addict.
4 min
1891: A Lot of Ruckus Over Oranges
The people of Chicago are amazed! They're coming by the trainload to gaze at produce from California. The oranges are the star of the show. It's a precursor to the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, which in turn would lead to a giant fair in Golden Gate Park in 1894.
4 min
1923: General Theory of Relativity Confirmed
You'll be glad to know Albert Einstein was right. Astronomers at the Lick Observatory in San Jose confirmed it by examining photos of a 1922 eclipse. How did that confirm Einstein? We asked an astronomer at the Lick Observatory. Plus: The curse of the mummy’s tomb!
6 min
1906: Mount Vesuvius Erupts
Untold thousands died when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., including Pliny the Elder. The death toll wasn't as high in 1906, but it was high. Vesuvius remains an active volcano. How am I going to be an optimist about this?
3 min
1952: Nationwide Labor Strife
Big Steel accuses President Harry Truman of being in bed with the labor unions after he nationalizes the industry to ward off a strike by steelworkers. There are huge strikes in industries across the country as labor battles the wage and price controls Truman had put in place at the beginning of the Korean War.
4 min
1975: Operation Babylift
85 Vietnamese orphans arrive at Travis Air Force Base in the latest flight of Operation Babylift — the massive, controversial evacuation of children from South Vietnam in the dying days of the Vietnam War. President Gerald Ford is there for a photo op.
3 min
1924: Ambushed in Albania—2 San Franciscans Killed
The U.S. Navy would send warships to the area after a pair of American businessmen are killed by a bandit gang. The accused killer claims he was under orders from the prime minister—who would later become king.
4 min
1961: Raising Muni Fares and Honoring Hydrant 12
San Francisco bus fares are the lowest in the nation and Muni, facing a deficit, wants to do something about that. Plus: A plaque for the hydrant that saved the Mission District in the 1906 earthquake and fire? Spoiler alert: Yes. You can go look at it.
5 min
1910: Teddy Roosevelt vs. the Pope
You've got to be pretty bold to tangle with the pope. Teddy Roosevelt was pretty bold. On a post-presidential world tour, TR wired to ask for an audience with Pius X, but when the Vatican asked him to submit to certain conditions, the old Roughrider got rough. Featuring guest star Jason Feifer, host of the history podcast Pessimists Archive, as Roosevelt.
7 min
1954: Last Stand at Dien Bien Phu
Viet Minh forces were laying siege to Dien Bien Phu, which the French had fortified in hopes they could bait the rebels into a battle the French thought they could win. They were wrong about that. Plus: A San Francisco boxing champ wins, and the Army makes a significant hire.
4 min
1997: Cult Left an Arsenal Behind
The beatific, peace-loving Heaven's Gate cult, whose members had committed mass suicide, left behind a cache of weapons and ammunition, police find. Plus: On Opening Day for the Giants, Matier and Ross note fans' sticker shock at the concession prices at Candlestick Park. Would you believe $4 for a beer!
3 min
1981: "I Am in Control Here, at the White House"
Secretary of State Alexander Haig takes heat for his behavior in the hours after the shooting of President Ronald Reagan, and authorities delve into the bizarre motive of shooter John Hinckley, who wanted to impress teenage actor Jodie Foster.
5 min
1981: "Honey, I Forgot to Duck"
President Ronald Reagan and three others are shot as he walks out of a Washington hotel following a speech to the AFL-CIO. The shooter is John Hinckley, who wanted to impress actress Jodie Foster. No one is aware the president has been hit until after he arrives at the hospital.
5 min
1928: Hundreds Dead, Mulholland Takes the Blame
You know the name Mulholland from the famous street in the Hollywood Hills. Did you know William Mulholland, who designed the aqueduct system that allowed Los Angeles to grow into a big city, was responsible for the second-worst disaster for loss of life in California history? "Don't blame anyone else," he told a jury. "You just fasten it on me."
3 min
1977: The First Female Chief Justice
Rose Bird was used to firsts. She was the first female public defender in Santa Clara County and the first female cabinet secretary in California, and now she was the first female state Supreme Court chief justice in California—and probably the first to get a kiss in public from the governor. But the good times wouldn't last for her.
4 min
1935: Fatso Rats Out Baby Face Nelson's Pals
It was dangerous to call George Nelson "Baby Face" to his face, but Baby Face was dead by 1935, when Fatso Negri walked into a San Francisco courtroom to testify against nine locals accused of helping the notorious gangster when he was on the lam out west. Still, Fatso looked plenty nervous.
3 min
1949: Anti-Semites in the New York Schools?
A litigious former magistrate is suing to get these purveyors of anti-Jewish feeling out of the curriculum. Their names? William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. Plus: The House Un-American Activities Committee had a book out too. It says there are 825,000 domestic traitors and spies in the U.S., and it didn't pull that number out of thin air at all.
3 min
1875: The Best Game of Base Ball Ever
It's a sparkling start to the 1875 season of base ball—which was two words back then. The crack San Francisco Club looks poised to wrest the championship from the Oakland players, having beaten them twice already. Center fielder Murkey is the San Francisco star. In one game, he made two fly-catches!
4 min
1946: Axis Sally Captured, Frank Sinatra Conquers
U.S. counterintelligence agents capture American Nazi propagandist "Axis Sally," who'd been hiding out in Berlin since the end of World War II. Back in San Francisco, bobby soxers with notes from their parents skip school to line up for hours to see Frank Sinatra, whom the Chronicle calls an "astonishingly inoffensive and almost colorless young man."
4 min
1913: Who Killed King George?
Why was King George I of Greece shot and killed as he walked the streets? Greek authorities have a suspect. His motive was a mystery, they say. And that motive would remain a mystery right up until he "fell" out of a police-station window six weeks later.
3 min
1974: The Children of the Divorce Wave
The first comprehensive study of the effect of divorce on children is being conducted as the divorce rate is roughly doubling in a decade. Many of the conclusions seem obvious today, but were anything but 45 years ago. Plus: Rotten advice from columnist Count Marco.
3 min
1907: Weigh a Soul? Nikola Tesla Says No
Nikola Tesla says, "It is altogether too absurd for discussion," and he's somehow not talking about Elon Musk. "It" was whether a person's soul can be weighed, which was a debate in 1907. Plus: Upton Sinclair's house burns down as he's researching a book on the steel industry. Suspicious?
4 min
1984: Larry Flynt and Dianne Feinstein
They didn't have anything to do with each other except they both were in the news. Flynt for wearing an American flag diaper in court, among other protest moves that got him locked up for contempt, Feinstein for talking, at the start of her second San Francisco mayoral term, about her political future. She says that having worked in both the executive and legislative branches, she sees her future in the executive. Narrator voice ...
4 min
1948: A Democratic Party Civil War
Southern Democratic governors, led by Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, vow to oppose the reelection of President Harry Truman, or anyone else who supports Truman's civil rights program. It's the first stirrings of what would become the short-lived Dixiecrat Party, with Thurmond as its nominee.
5 min
1976: Gov. Moonbeam Throws His Hat in the Ring
Jerry Brown, the charismatic 38-year-old governor of California, announces that he's running for the Democratic nomination for president. It's a bit late to do that — the primaries are already in full swing. But not to worry, Brown says. He's only running in California.
4 min
1924: The President's Plan to Slash Taxes
Sound familiar? President Calvin Coolidge wanted Congress to put aside all its other business and get to work on his proposal to slash income taxes. What was it that Silent Cal wanted Congress to stop doing to work on that tax cut? Investigating corruption in the executive branch.
5 min
1916: The U.S. Invades Mexico
In response to a raid on a small New Mexico town by Pancho Villa, President Woodrow Wilson taps Gen. John "Blackjack" Pershing to lead a force across the border to chase the revolutionary leader down. The Punitive Expedition would last until the U.S. entry into World War I the next year.
4 min
1964: Civil Rights at the Palace Hotel
After the biggest mass arrests to date in San Francisco history, demonstrators who had shut down the Palace Hotel were victorious: The city's hotels had agreed to fair hiring practices. As the triumphant protesters carried their leader on their shoulders, she shouted, "We got everything we asked for!" Her name was Tracy Sims. She was 18 years old.
5 min
1956: Gum Machines: Devil's Spawn
Eldon C. Middleton of King Street, Redwood City, has a clear idea of what lies "at the very foundations of wickedness which are threatening to engulf us all." Gumball machines. And he's letting the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors know the awful truth. Today, gumball machines. Tomorrow? "Pinball machines, slot machines, canasta and even Scrabble."
4 min
1913: A Monkey Cage for the Veep
Vice President Thomas Marshall doesn't think much of his new office. History doesn't think much of his tenure as V.P. — neither did the president Marshall served, Woodrow Wilson. But Marshall did leave us with a memorable phrase: "What this country needs is a good 5-cent cigar." Plus: Famous lawyer Clarence Darrow was in court. That certainly wasn't unusual but this was: It was Darrow himself who was on trial!
5 min
1896: Do You Poop Out at Parties?
An ad says the cure for "womb trouble" and all sorts of other female maladies is Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, Blood Purifier and Sensitive Wash, a version of which you can still buy at your local drug store. Plus: The climax of the Italo-Ethiopian War, and Spanish university students burn American flags.
4 min
1922: The Whiskey Heist Heroine
At the height of Prohibition, 100 cases of rare whiskey are stolen from a Menlo Park mansion in a daring robbery. The bandits, who tippled as they stole, didn't hurt anyone, thanks to the quick thinking of the family's nanny — also a noted "aviatrix."
3 min
1905: "I Am Poisoned!"
Jane Lathrop Stanford, co-founder of the university, survives a poisoning attempt at her palatial home in San Francisco. Devastated, she sails to Hawaii, vowing never to return to her house. She doesn't. A second poisoning kills her—a murder that Stanford's president covers up.
5 min
1980: A Murder in Berkeley
Al and Jeannie Mills are found dead in their home. They had been members of Jim Jones' People's Temple before leaving and becoming fierce critics. Fifteen months after the Jonestown Massacre, had surviving cultists carried out the killing on an order given by Jones before he died?
3 min
Bonus Episode: Marshall Kilduff
The reporter who exposed the abuses of Jim Jones and the People's Temple in 1977 talks about covering the murder of former temple members Al and Jeannie Mills for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1980.
7 min
1919/1969: The More Things Change
A hundred years ago, an education official says wealth inequity is the greatest threat to equal education. Fifty years ago, violent right-wing groups are making surprising appearances in the Bay Area.
3 min
1933: "Alfalfa Bill" Murray Empties the Jails
Imagine the surprise for the prosecutor when he looked out at the law class he was teaching and saw the face of the man he'd just put away for murder. Why was Oklahoma's controversial governor freeing so many prisoners?
5 min
1942: The Battle of Los Angeles
Weeks after Pearl Harbor—and one night after a minor attack on a Santa Barbara oil field by a Japanese submarine—Los Angeles is thrown into a panic by reports of an air raid on the city. There's no raid, but five people die, and calls for Japanese internment intensify.
4 min
Coming Soon: Not Your Century
Not Your Century launches February 25 from the San Francisco Chronicle, celebrating the news—and the news media—of years gone by.
1 min