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The Man Who Built a 40-Foot Spite Fence Around His Neighbor’s Home

Nicholas Yung considered himself a lucky man. A German who immigrated to the United States in 1848, Yung had worked hard to carve out a living for himself and eventually prosper as the owner of a mortuary in San Francisco. The business allowed him and wife Rosina to purchase a modest lot on the top of California Street Hill, where they built a quaint, cottage-style home and planted a beautiful garden. Every day, California sunlight and fresh air would stream in through their windows.

Yung had no reason to believe that anything could interrupt his idyllic life, or that any one person could somehow deprive him of the beautiful days he had worked so hard to enjoy. But Yung also hadn’t accounted for Charles Crocker, a very rich and very petty man who would eventually become both his neighbor and the bane of his existence. With enough lumber to build a 40-foot-tall, blighting fence around much of Yung’s property, Crocker and his spite fence became a legendary revenge tale, a tourist attraction, and a lesson in the danger of escalating tempers.

Spite fence enthusiast Charles Crocker. Wikimedia Commons

At 6 feet tall and 300 pounds, Charles Crocker cut an imposing figure. He had filled his bank account by being one of the "Big Four" barons behind the building of the Central Pacific Railroad. By the 1870s, he could afford whatever he desired. And what he wanted was to loom over San Francisco like a gargoyle.

Crocker and his wealthy partners began scouting California Street Hill for its scenic views and proximity to the city’s financial district. One of his "Big Four" associates, Leland Stanford—former governor of California and future founder of Stanford University—suggested that the area would make for a beautiful residential plot if a cable car could bring residents up and down the hill. Stanford arranged to have one installed, and soon a group of wealthy men, including Crocker, were buying up all the homes on their chosen blocks. By the time Crocker was finished, he had erected a 12,000-square-foot mansion. With its new, wealthy inhabitants, California Street Hill was renamed Nob Hill.

As the project neared completion in 1876, there was one nagging detail: On the northeast corner of the block, Nicholas Yung was reluctant to sell. His cottage was dwarfed by the mansions going up, but he had come to enjoy the neighborhood.

There are varying accounts of what happened next. Some say Crocker offered Yung $6000 for his slice of the block. After some deliberation, Yung agreed to sell the land for $12,000. Crocker countered with $9000; Yung declined. The other story is that Yung became irascible, agreeing to a $3000 transaction and then bumping up his price every time Crocker capitulated, first to $6000, then $9000, and finally $12,000. At this latter figure, Crocker was said to have balked, spewing profanity and walking away from negotiations.

With one or both men causing acrimony, the end result was that Yung was not moving. Crocker's workers were busy razing the entire block, creating a steamroller of activity that should have seen them swatting Yung’s cottage down like a cardboard box. In an ominous sign of his frustration, Crocker ordered his workers to arrange their dynamite blasts so that rock debris would pelt Yung’s house.

If the goal was to drive Yung away, it had the opposite effect. Yung doubled down, refusing to move. Crocker refused to raise his offer. The two men were at a stalemate. Although Yung's obnoxious negotiating methods didn't make him blameless, it was Crocker who had the means to provide a real disruption.

At a reported cost of $3000, Crocker had his workers construct a wooden fence on his land that towered over three sides of Yung’s home. With its 40-foot-tall panels, the enclosure acted like a window shade, blotting out the sun and cool air and immersing Yung in darkness.

While Crocker gleefully had gardeners decorate his side with ivy, Yung saw his beautiful garden wilt. Despite the obvious interruption of Yung's environment, Crocker’s “spite fence,” as the papers came to call it, was perfectly legal.

Without other recourse, Yung threatened to install a flagpole that would fly a skull and crossbones, an act of defiance that might help blight Crocker’s view; he also wanted to place a coffin on his roof, ostensibly for advertising his business, but clearly to agitate Crocker as well. He had some members of the media on his side, who condemned “Crocker’s Crime” and criticized the financier for using his immense wealth to bully a family of more modest means. The San Francisco Chronicle later called it a “memorial of malignity and malevolence.” Tourists would take the cable car and ride up to Nob Hill just to gawk at the massive fence. But Crocker wouldn’t budge.

In October 1877, the pro-labor Workingmen’s Party of California (WPC) organized a protest rally near Crocker’s home. Condemning his hiring of Chinese immigrants, organizers led 2000 men through a demonstration. One man, known only as Pickett, stood up and admonished Crocker for the spite fence, telling him it would be torn down by Thanksgiving or the WPC would do it for him. But when WPC leader Denis Kearney was arrested on another site for inciting a riot, he told the press that his group had no reason to target Crocker or his fence.

If Yung harbored any hope that some vigilante justice would resolve the situation, it never came to pass. He and his family threw in the towel and moved out—but they still refused to sell the land to Crocker.

A look at the dark corner created by the spite fence. The Strand

Crocker may have thought the feud would end with Yung’s death in 1880. It didn’t.

His widow, Rosina, continued to rebuff offers to sell the now-vacant land, which was slowly becoming a place for empty cans and other garbage. After Crocker passed away in 1888, his heirs were just as unsuccessful in persuading Rosina to let the land go. In 1895, she tried to appeal to the city's Street Committee, arguing that the fence was a nuisance and rendered her property worthless.

The city agreed, but their legal counsel didn’t: There was no justification for having the Crockers remove the fence, which had been cut down to 25 feet after strong winds had repeatedly threatened to topple it over. (In or around 1956, California would put a law on the books prohibiting the construction of fences meant for the express purpose of irritating neighbors and/or obstructing their views. Most states cap the height of a fence at 6 feet for similar reasons.)

When Rosina died in 1902, the rivalry appeared to die with her. Her four daughters finally gave in to Crocker's descendants in 1904, selling the land—said to be worth $80,000—for an undisclosed sum. With no more neighbors to spite, the fence was torn down in 1905.

In retrospect, the Yung/Crocker feud would ultimately prove pointless. In 1906, an earthquake and related fire swept through San Francisco, gutting the Crocker mansion and neighboring buildings. Rather than rebuild, the family decided to donate the block to charity.

In a strange twist, the place where Crocker had once built a monument to spite and malice became a home for compassion and warmth. In donating the site, the Crockers opened an opportunity to erect Grace Cathedral, an Episcopalian place of worship.

Main image courtesy of Gawain Weaver Art Restoration and used with permission. Original photograph by Eadweard Muybridge and held at the Society of California Pioneers.

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Scientists Reveal Long-Hidden Text in Alexander Hamilton Letter
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iStock

Age, deterioration, and water damage are just a few of the reasons historians can be short on information that was once readily available on paper. Sometimes, it’s simply a case of missing pages. Other times, researchers can see “lost” text right under their noses.

One example: a letter written by Alexander Hamilton to his future wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, on September 6, 1780. On the surface, it looked very much like a rant about a Revolutionary War skirmish in Camden, South Carolina. But Hamilton scholars were excited by the 14 lines of writing in the first paragraph that had been crossed out. If they could be read, they might reveal some new dimension to one of the better-known Founding Fathers.

Using the practice of multispectral imaging—sometimes called hyperspectral imaging—conservationists at the Library of Congress were recently able to shine a new light on what someone had attempted to scrub out. In multispectral imaging, different wavelengths of light are “bounced” off the paper to reveal (or hide) different ink pigments. By examining a document through these different wavelengths, investigators can tune in to faded or obscured handwriting and make it visible to the naked eye.

A hyperspectral image of Alexander Hamilton's handwriting
Hyperspectral imaging of Hamilton's handwriting, from being obscured (top) to isolated and revealed (bottom).
Library of Congress

The text revealed a more emotional and romantic side to Hamilton, who had used the lines to woo Elizabeth. Technicians uncovered most of what he had written, with words in brackets still obscured and inferred:

Do you know my sensations when I see the
sweet characters from your hand? Yes you do,
by comparing [them] with your [own]
for my Betsey [loves] me and is [acquainted]
with all the joys of fondness. [Would] you
[exchange] them my dear for any other worthy
blessings? Is there any thing you would put
in competition[,] with one glowing [kiss] of
[unreadable], anticipate the delights we [unreadable]
in the unrestrained intercourses of wedded love,
and bet your heart joins mine in [fervent]
[wishes] to heaven that [all obstacles] and [interruptions]
May [be] speedily [removed].

Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler married on December 14, 1780. So why did Hamilton try and hide such romantic words during or after their courtship? He probably didn’t. Historians believe that his son, John Church Hamilton, crossed them out before publishing the letter as a part of a book of his father’s correspondence. He may have considered the passage a little too sexy for mass consumption.

[h/t Library of Congress]

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7 of History’s Most Unusual Riots
Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Some sociologists theorize that most rioters only join a crowd because the crowd is big enough to justify joining. But there’s always that one person who sparks the violence, and sometimes the reason for doing so can seem pretty baffling. Maybe a work of art scandalizes its audience, like the famous premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Or maybe it’s simply a notable act of disrespect, like history’s first recorded mooning (in Jerusalem in the first century CE). From balloonists to brown dogs to daylight saving time, here are seven weird reasons things just got out of hand.

1. THE MELBOURNE DART RIOT

The Darts Invitational Challenge, an international tournament held in Melbourne, attracted international gawking in January 2015 during the finals match between Michael "Mighty Mike" van Gerwen and Simon "The Wizard" Whitlock. The dart players weren’t making a scene, though: Rather, hundreds of spectators, many of them drunk and in costume, began throwing plastic chairs as they watched (pictured above). The reasons for the fight remain unclear; footage and photos show police trying to control adults dressed as Oompa-Loompas, numerous superheroes, and, in one instance, in a ghillie suit (heavy camouflage meant to resemble foliage).

2. THE LEICESTER BALLOON RIOT

In 1864, balloonists were the great daredevils of their time, and a major draw for eager audiences. That summer, Henry Coxwell, a famous professional aeronaut, was set to make an appearance for 50,000 paying ticketholders in Leicester, England. Unfortunately, a rumor spread that he hadn’t brought his biggest and best balloon to the event. After heckling from the crowd, Coxwell deflated his balloon, and attendees rushed it, ripping it to shreds, setting it on fire, and threatening to visit the same fate on Coxwell. Rioters even paraded the remains of the balloon through the streets of town, which briefly brought residents a new nickname: Balloonatics.

3. THE TORONTO CLOWN AND FIREFIGHTER RIOT

Toronto was still a pretty rough place in the 1850s, but not so rough that the circus wouldn’t come to town. As it turns out, circus entertainers were also a tough lot back then, so when a group of off-duty clowns spent an evening at a brothel popular with the city’s firefighters on July 12, 1855, tensions came to a head. Accounts differ as to who started the fight, but after one firefighter knocked the hat off a clown things escalated into a full-on rabble intent on chasing the circus out of town. Only the mayor calling in the militia put an end to the uproar, an incident Torontonians credit with kicking off much-needed local police reforms.

4. THE BELGIAN NIGHT AT THE OPERA RIOT

A painting by Charles Soubre of the Belgian Revolution
Charles Soubre, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Not many nations can claim their independence started with an aria, but for 19th-century Belgians sick of living under Dutch rule, an opera was just the right fuse for a revolution. To honor the birthday of King William I of the Netherlands, a theater in Brussels put on La Muette de Portici, about an uprising in Naples against Spanish rule. One song, "Amour Sacre de la Patrie" ("Sacred Love of the Fatherland"), aroused nationalistic passions so much that after the opera ended, the crowd began destroying factories and occupying government buildings. That was August 25, 1830; Belgium declared independence on October 4.

5. THE NEW YORK DOCTORS' RIOT

Hamilton fans, take note: Everyone’s favorite Founding Father once tried to quiet a mob bent on burning corpses. For centuries, anatomists and medical students relied on gruesome means to learn about the human body. Cadavers for dissection class often came from grave robbers, since the corpses of executed criminals were the only legal source—and they were in limited supply. In New York in 1788, rumors abounded that medical students were digging up paupers’ graves and black cemeteries. When one mob came after the doctors responsible, Alexander Hamilton tried, and failed, to restore the peace. The crowd swelled to about 5000 before militiamen intervened, leading to up to about 20 deaths.

6. THE BROWN DOG RIOTS

Photo of an anti-vivisection demonstration in Trafalgar Square, London, to protest the removal from Battersea Park of the Brown Dog statue
The Anti-Vivisection Review, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Riots against the dissection of dead human bodies were not rare in the United States at one time. But on December 10, 1907, a thousand Britons marched in support of vivisection, or surgery on live animals. At the center of the controversy was a small terrier allegedly vivisected without anesthetic in 1903 during a class at London’s University College. Animal rights activists erected a statue to the dog in 1906, which enraged area medical students, and protesters tried to destroy the statue using crowbars and hammers. For the 1907 march, 400 mounted police were deployed to contain marchers. The statue became such a flashpoint (and an expense to local authorities) that in 1910, it was removed and melted down.

7. THE EEL-PULLING RIOT

Palingtrekken (eel-pulling) was once a popular contest in Amsterdam, in which a writhing eel was suspended over a canal and hopefuls on boats would leap to snatch it as they passed beneath (usually landing in the water instead). However, “eel-pulling” was also illegal—the government deemed it a “cruel popular entertainment”—and in July 1886, police intervened at a particularly large gathering in the city’s Jordaan district. Civilians threw stones and bricks at police, and when some nearby socialist protestors joined them, a riot broke out that lasted for several days. The army finally intervened and opened fire on the protestors. All in all, 26 people died and 136 were wounded, but somehow, the eel itself at the center of the riots was allegedly saved and auctioned off in 1913.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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