The Ghosts of Sutro Forest


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The Ghosts of Sutro Forest

A Legacy of Suicides

by Rex Bell
October 2011

Sutro Forest is one of the most beautiful places in the City. It’s a lush, green woodland of thousands of densely-packed eucalyptus trees, with a floor blanketed by ferns, ivy, and wild berries. Originally planted in the 1880s on a bare mountain by Adolph Sutro, the forest is now a nature preserve owned and maintained by University of California - San Francisco (UCSF), which lies just below it to the north. But I’ve come to learn that this beautiful majestic place has a dark and disturbing past. A little over 100 years ago, this forest was the site of numerous suicides. It seems that most, if not all of the suicides that took place there were men, and the most common means of self-inflicted death was by hanging – owing to the abundant choice of trees on which to end it all.


The road leading to Seventh Avenue from Laguna Honda with Sutro Forest above, 1910s. -

It was also a very secluded place, so the act of suicide could be carried out in privacy, helping to guarantee that it would be successful and without intervention. In fact, it was once so secluded that the bodies of many of those who died there often went undiscovered for days, weeks, or even months. The corpses were sometimes so badly decomposed that identity could only be ascertained by personal effects or documents found on them. The following is a series of articles, mostly from the San Francisco Call, all dating from the late 1800s and early 1900s, and all documenting death in Sutro Forest.

From the San Francisco Call – November 16, 1903:

FOREST YIELDS GRISLY SECRET
Suicide's Body Found in Shadows of the Sutro Wood.
Grim Evidence of Hanging Meets Eyes of Mushroom Gatherers.

Spectrally swaying from the limb of a tree in Sutro forest, the dead body of an unidentified man hung until natural decomposition parted the head and trunk of the corpse. Then the trunk rolled off in one direction and the head in another. The looped rope, hanging from the limb, alone gave mute evidence of the cause of the tragedy. Whoever it was who gave himself up to death deliberately months ago in the dim shadows of the wood, he over looked not the smallest detail that would prevent his identity from becoming known. In the clothing of the dead man there was nothing by which it could be learned what man had tenanted the bundle of rags enwrapping the grisly skeleton.

The grewsome find was made by John Landini of 1207 Stanyan street and George Prosek of 1215 Stanyan street. They had gone to the forest to pick mushrooms and midway between the Affiliated Colleges and the Almshouse they came across the headless trunk, lying at the base of a little knoll. Above dangled a light rope with a noose at the end. Further search disclosed the head, some twelve feet away from the body. They ran from the shadows of the forest and telephoned to the Coroner's office. Deputy Coroner Brown went at once to the scene and took charge of the body.

Clothing Bears No Marks

Alongside of the tree from which dangled the rope was found a heavy chinchilla overcoat. The body was dressed in a dark brown coat of cheap material, fustian jacket, dark striped trousers and gray waistcoat. As far as could be ascertained the underwear was of rough material.

In the pockets of the coat were found an empty pocketbook, a memorandum book without any trace of writing, a copy of the constitution and by-laws of the Pacific Coast Marine Firemen's Union and a certificate of membership in the union. Apparently the name of the member and the date of his admission, which had originally been written in ink, had been erased with a knife. Instead was scrawled across the face of the certificate the pathetic message, unsigned. "If you want to bury me, I'm thankful to you." The handwriting gave evidences of extreme nervousness, as though the writer were appalled at the swift plunge into eternity he was about to make.

A close examination of the erased certificate failed to reveal the slightest clew to the name. On the date line could be deciphered the letter "J" which may have been January before the erasure. Rain and wind had dealt harshly with the clothing and no mark could be deciphered on any of it. Nothing but the bare bones of the skeleton and the grinning face of the skull remained to tell of one who found the burden of life too heavy to bear and chose the shadows of a forest and a hangman's knot to solve the problem of the hereafter.

The officers of the union are making every effort to ascertain the identity of the suicide and hope by a thorough search of the records of the organization to learn whose body it was that lay for so many months the prey of weather and decomposition until all traces of what he once was were wiped away.

San Francisco Call – March 26, 1904:

SUTRO FOREST SUICIDE REMOVED.

The remains of a man that committed suicide in the Sutro forest were removed to the Morgue yesterday afternoon. They were found on top of the hill east of the Almshouse after a search of three hours and a half by Deputy Coroner Meehan and Messenger Carrick. The clothing worn by the suicide was a gray checked summer weight suit, well worn; a soft black hat and a pair of heavy black laced shoes. The body had been lying in the brush for more than a month and was unrecognizable.

San Francisco Call – April 18, 1904

THOMAS MURNANE HANGS HIMSELF FROM A TREE
Once Wealthy Resident of City, Later — Inmate of Almshouse, Kills Himself.

The body of Thomas Murnane, once a wealthy business man of this city, later a physical wreck and inmate of the Almshouse, was found yesterday hanging to the top branch of a tall eucalyptus tree in the Sutro forest. The body was found by L. K. Pryer of 660 Broderick street and A.E. Pinching of 1104 Divisadero street. Murnane had evidently been dead for two months. The body was taken to the Morgue. Nothing of value was found on it.

On February 27 last, Murnane, who formerly lived at 36 Sixth street, disappeared from the Almshouse. The day before his disappearance he told one of his friends, also an Inmate of the Almshouse, that he had tired of a life of poverty. "My last child died a few months ago," he said, "and since that time I have been dependant on the city for alms. What is life to me, now, where once I had the best of everything?

The next day Murnane disappeared. He was last seen strolling toward the dense growth of trees near the Almshouse, known as the Sutro forest. Although 52 years of age, Murnane climbed the smooth trunk of the tree and, fastening the noose, swung himself into a better world.

San Francisco Call - November 24, 1904:

DESPAIR CAUSES SUICIDE
Baker Missing for Nearly Two Weeks Chooses Lonely Spot at Which to Die
Woman’s Search Ends in Park
Mrs. Daniel Pfeefer Finds Long Looked For Body of Her Husband in Forest

Two weeks ago Daniel Pfeefer, a baker, who lived at 4057 Twenty-fifth street, was reported missing from his home and his faithful wife, had spent the weary fortnight trying to find trace of him. The woman's search was rewarded yesterday afternoon when she stumbled across his remains strung to the limb of a tree in Sutro Forest, near the Corbett road.

Every day since Pfeefer had been missing his wife hunted over the hills and among the sand dunes for her husband's body. She was convinced that he had taken his own life and her surmise proved startlingly correct.

Until about six months ago, Pfeefer conducted a small bakery on Church street, near Seventeenth. When he sold out he made no effort to acquire another business or secure employment. About a month ago it was noticed that he acted strangely. He was pensive and he seldom spoke to anyone. On the morning of November 14, he left his home saying that he would return in the evening, but when he did not do so his wife started a search for him. First she visited all of her husband's haunts, and when she found he had not been seen in any of these, she started about the city inquiring if anyone had seen "a man with a coat buttoned over an undershirt rambling about." Yesterday, in company with her brother-in-law, Conrad Dettling, she visited the Sutro forest. After several hours tramp she came upon the body, then she went to St. Boniface's Church for advice and the priests told her to notify the officials.

A strange feature of the case is that while Pfeefer has been missing nearly two weeks, he hanged himself within twenty-four hours of the time he was found. This was determined by the condition of the body. Just where Pfeefer spent the intervening time is hard to tell, but the Morgue officials will endeavor to ascertain. His family say he was, without doubt, insane, and the deed is attributed to insanity.


The Ingleside Inn on the southeast corner of today's Ocean Avenue and Junipero Serra Boulevard, - San Francisco Call, November 17, 1895

San Francisco Call – September 6, 1908:

BODY FOUND IN SUTRO FOREST

Acting upon information received from J. F. Elliot, proprietor of the Ingleside Inn at Ingleside, a squad of policemen were dispatched to the Sutro Forest late last night to search for the body of a man. Elliot telephoned to the Coroner’s office later that he had discovered a body in the densest part of the forest. Armed with lanterns, the Mission street squad left for the scene about midnight.

San Francisco Call - December 19, 1899:

FOUND DEAD IN THE WOODS
Sutro's Forest Again the Scene of a Suicide
Keeper McGinnes of the Sutro Forest notified the Morgue officials

Yesterday afternoon that the body of a man was found in the woods back of the Affiliated Colleges. Deputy Coroner Lacombe who was detailed on the case, found the body a few feet from one of the many paths.

The deceased wore a striped suit of worsted material, a black sweater and a pair of bicycle shoes. In the pockets were found a bicycle pump. a pair of pants protectors, and a packet white crystals marked “poison" - the contents of which were afterward found to be cyanide of potassium. A postal card on which was the printed address of the Cascade Laundry and the name of Frank Parker written in pencil, was also found on the body. From appearances the man had been dead about two days and the case looked like a suicide. The body is that of a man about 35, years of age.

From the Sacramento Record-Union December 20, 1899:

BODY OF A SUICIDE IDENTIFIED - SAN FRANCISCO, Dec. 19.

The body found in the Sutro forest yesterday has been identified as that of Frank Parker, who came to this city from San Jose some time ago. The deceased committed suicide by taking cyanide. He was a machinist by trade and was a victim of strong drink.

From the San Francisco Call - December 21, 1899

GRANT BELL, SUICIDE.
Frank Parker Was Not the Name of the Sutro Forest Suicide.

Frank Parker was not the name of the suicide found in the Sutro forest back of the Affiliated Colleges last Monday, as already announced. Police Patrolman Fontana had identified the body as that of a man who had asked him to arrest him and put him in Jail, and who showed symptoms of delirium tremens.

The man gave the officer his name as Frank Parker, and there was no mistake about the identification, no matter whether the name given by the stranger was his real name or not.

Positive identification by a man who had been acquainted with the dead man for a long time was made yesterday, when J.J. Zimmer of 112 Golden Gate avenue identified the remains as those of Grant Bell of San Jose, who worked for a while as bicycle repairer for Olten & Co. in San Jose. Zimmer last saw him alive last Thursday, struggling with an attack of delirium tremens. He had been on a spree for a long time.

San Francisco Call – October 28, 1908:

BODY FOUND HANGING FROM LIMB OF TREE
Man Believed to Be Samuel Anderson Despondent From Ill Health.

While walking through the Sutro forest yesterday Attorney C. S. Gardner discovered the body of a suicide suspended from the limb of a tree, by a steel wire about the neck. The Coroner's office and police were notified by the attorney, who guided them to the body.

After working for several hours the deputy coroners and the policemen succeeded in carrying the body of the suicide, from the forest to the Sunset avenue road. The man is believed to be Samuel Anderson and the police think despondency due to ill health prompted him to end his life.

San Francisco Call – March 26, 1904:

FOREST YIELDS ANOTHER BODY
Ends Life With Pistol
Remains of Unidentified Man Discovered on Ledge of Rock in Sutro Woods

The body of some unfortunate who had tired of life and killed himself perhaps more than a month ago, was discovered on the highest point of Sutro woods, back of the Affiliated Colleges building, yesterday. The body was first seen by a passerby, who informed a street car conductor, and he in turn told the police.

Patrolmen C. B. Weekend and A.C. Williams of the Park police station repaired to the woods in search of the corpse. They hunted through the brush and undergrowth from 3 o'clock till 5:15 before their efforts were rewarded by the finding of the grewsome object.

The officers came upon the body of the unfortunate man in the thickest part of the woods. The corpse was in a sitting posture, leaning against a large rock. The left hand and the left leg below the knee were entirely eaten raw by wild animals and the face was utterly decomposed.

The body of the man had evidently been undisturbed for a month or more. A black soft hat was discovered about ten feet away from where the corpse lay. A large British bulldog pistol lay rusted at the feet of the dead man, showing only too plainly how he had rid himself of his troubles.

The patrolmen made no attempt to remove the body, but at once notified the Central police station and the Morgue. This morning at 10 o'clock a detachment of police and Coroner's deputies will repair to the scene, make an investigation, and remove the body to the Morgue, where an effort will be made to ascertain the identity of the unfortunate.

A Midnight Walk in the Woods

There have been many articles written about haunted places in San Francisco but none, to my knowledge, have ever been written about the haunting of Sutro Forest. Is this place really haunted, as I suspect it would be? Perhaps the spirits of those who committed suicide here still walk these woods. After reading the accounts detailed above, I believe that certainly might be the case. I decided to find out for myself - first hand – at night.

On a damp, foggy night, I start my walk. I begin on Johnstone Street, just off of Clarendon Avenue. There is a path into Sutro Forest that starts here. As I walk down the path, the glow of the final streetlight fades to nothingness, and I now have only one companion - darkness.

This dense forest, mystical and enchanted by day, is incredibly eerie at night. My eyes have not yet acclimated to the absence of light. Light... I now realize that it’s something we take for granted. Light is as essential to our feeling of security and sense of well being as food is to sustenance, or air is to life. Put us in a strange environment, take away the light, and our confidence quickly erodes. I know. I’m beginning to experience it now.

Now my pupils are beginning to dilate as my eyes acclimate to the dark. There is a slight luminescence as the glow of the city below refracts through the dense fog. Odd forms and shapes in the woods attract my attention. I imagine figures crouching and lurking behind trees in the darkness.

Sutro Forest - What is lurking behind these trees? -

Millions of eucalyptus leaves rustling in the wind combine to make a powerful roar. Condensation is dripping from the trees, almost like rain. I can feel the large drops hitting my shoulders giving me the sensation that someone’s tapping me from behind.

My vision, diminished by the darkness, is replaced by a heightening of my mental senses and my sense of sound. I'm on alert. I stop. I listen. Am I being watched? Am I being followed?

I hear the snap of a twig and the crunch of gravel. A shot of adrenaline pumps through my system. WHAT WAS THAT???!!! A raccoon??? A possum??? A skunk??? A human??? SOMETHING ELSE??? Maybe it’s just the sound of moisture hitting the ground as it drips off the trees.

I’m now just above UCSF - the former site of the Affiliated Colleges. Is this the place, where in 1899, I would have encountered the dead body of Grant Bell, the bicycle mechanic - lifeless, pale, and wide-eyed, clutching his envelope of cyanide?

Postcard image of the Affiliated Colleges buildings (today UCSF), early 1900s. - Courtesy of Dennis O'Rorke.

Now it's my eyes that are sending me messages. I see something move laterally across the trail ahead of me about 100 feet away. It was white and wispy; unmistakable – there one second and gone the next. WHAT WAS THAT MANIFESTATION??? I KNOW I SAW SOMETHING!!! Again the chill, but I keep walking forward, my eyes fixed on that spot. It manifests itself a second time. Just the fog. . . a thick visible breath of moisture in the night air. WHEW!!! My heart is pounding fast, but I exhale a breath of relief.


Ishi -

These are the same paths that Ishi, the last native California Indian living in the wild, walked almost 100 years ago. After he wandered out of the woods near Oroville in 1911, he was brought to the City, to the Affiliated Colleges, located on the northern edge of the Sutro Forest, to be studied. That site is just below me.

Free to roam as he pleased, Ishi spent time here in Sutro Forest because it reminded him so much of his wild Northern California homeland. That was until his death from tuberculosis in 1916, a disease against which he had no defenses. When Ishi died, his protector and benefactor, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, was away on the East Coast.

Ishi had left specific instructions that he was not to be autopsied or dissected upon his death. But against his will, they tampered with his body. In Professor Kroeber’s absence, physicians at the college couldn't resist cutting open Ishi’s skull and removing his brain for further study – to see if it differed in any way from the White Man’s - all in the name of science. It was disrespectful sacrilege. I’m certain that Ishi's spirit was angry. Does his angry spirit wander these woods, or is it a forgiving, benevolent one?

Somehow I know Ishi is here right now, not far from where I am. I can feel it. Out of respect, I don't want to disturb him. I stop and listen. Is that the echo of his chanting I hear? Or is it just the wind?

A little further on I stop at the most amazing chert rock formation I have ever seen. It is a huge elaborate twisted mass of sedimentary rock – almost 20 feet in height located in a dense part of the forest near the top of Mount Sutro. “This”, I think to myself, “must be the place where the body of the unidentified man who ended his life with the pistol was found in 1904, lying lifeless against the rock, decomposed beyond recognition, pistol at his feet, self-inflicted bullet wound in the head”. I stare at the rock. If I stared any longer, I’d see blood running down its surface, as I’m sure it once did.

These things happened here, and they were as real as this moment is right now. I can see them clearly in my mind’s eye and the images are disturbing.

Then I hear something - a groan. I stop; I listen. There it is again!!! U-U-U-U-H-H-H-H. WHAT ON EARTH WAS THAT???!!! Probably just the trunk of a eucalyptus tree flexing in the wind. A sound I would have recognized by day becomes strange and unnerving at night. I keep walking. I'm bundled-up against the cold moist wind, but I feel a chill - not from the damp night air, but from deep within. I'm strong and fit, but that type of strength doesn't counter this type of fear. It’s a primordial fear, synthesized by the senses and enhanced by the imagination.


Adolph Sutro in the Sutro Heights Album, Page 21 -

As I continue my walk, I try to step silently to avoid attracting the attention of anyone, or anything, that might be lurking in the darkness. Then, I suddenly feel a presence behind me. I stop again. It’s unmistakable. I turn around slowly. I fully expect to see Adolph Sutro himself, attired in a 19th century suit, standing on the path right behind me, wide eyed, staring at me in silence. Nothing there. But again, the deep chill. I keep walking. [Insert Picture 5] Adolph Sutro.

I stop at a small clearing. I’m about midway between UCSF (once the Affiliated Colleges) and Laguna Honda Hospital (once the Almshouse). Is this the place where, a little over 100 years ago, I would have seen the body of the unidentified man dressed in the gray waistcoat and dark striped trousers, dangling by the neck from the limb of a tree, swaying back and forth in the wind? Is this the very place where I would have seen his headless corpse lying on the ground, just as those boys from Stanyan Street who made the gruesome discovery did in November 1903? I shudder, then try and steel myself against the fear.

Lithograph depiction of the old Almshouse on the present-day site of Laguna Honda Hospital. -

I know these woods well by day, but by night, I’m slightly disoriented. The path forks. Should I go to the left or to the right? I don’t want to make the wrong decision because I’m ready for this experience to be over. I’m getting to the point where I’ve had enough. The combination of fear and adrenaline is exhausting. I take the left fork. Good choice. Through the curtain of fog I soon see the light of Christopher Drive in Forest Knolls below. I make my way toward it. The narrow path is now steep and slippery. I’m careful not to loose my balance and fall in the dark. I step out of the forest and onto the wet pavement. Again I exhale in relief. The fog of my breath reminds me of the “ghost” I saw a short while ago. I take my pulse to measure the combination of exertion and fear; 96 beats per minute. Then I calm down and wonder, “Do the people sleeping in these houses on this quiet residential street realize what powerful spirits exist only a few feet away?” I distinctly felt the presence of those spirits this night.

So you now ask, “Is Sutro Forest REALLY haunted???” My answer – “Yes, it is.” Haunted in the sense that it clearly communicates with the mind, the imagination, and the senses about the disturbing things that happened here in the past. It echoes the melancholy chants of Ishi, homesick for the woods he once knew. It invokes incredible sensitivities and feelings like I’ve never experienced. The events that occurred here, and the people they involved – as real as you or I - reach out and touch you as you walk the paths in the darkness of night. Something you just don’t sense in daylight.

Whether you live in The City or come here occasionally to visit, you are likely to see majestic Sutro Forest, either up close or from a distance. Next time you glimpse this amazing place, keep this story in mind. You will see the forest as more than just a beautiful tree-covered mountain. There’s much more here than meets the eye. Believe me, I know. I’ve experienced it first hand.


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