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.

15 Old-Fashioned Hats Ready for a Comeback

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Whether we wear them to stay warm, protect our heads, hide our hair, or simply add flair to our ensembles, hats have always been a celebrated part of our wardrobes. In honor of National Hat Day, here are 15 once-iconic toppers that have fallen out of fashion—and should be brought back into style.

1. The Snood

Don’t call this knotted headdress a hair net—it’s actually a snood. In the late 1850s and early 1860s, it was in vogue for young women to hold their hair back with close-fitting, bag-shaped caps they’d woven from velvet, lace, yarn, or other materials.

The trend faded by the 1870s, but the snood made a comeback in the 1940s after female factory workers realized it added both practicality and panache to their work ensembles. The hat fell to the wayside once more after World War II ended and women returned to the domestic sphere.

2. The Cartwheel hat

Resembling a flying saucer affixed to one’s head, the cartwheel hat is a wide-brimmed circular or saucer-shaped topper that first became popular in the 1930s. It was typically worn at a rakish angle, and it was usually fashioned from materials like straw, felt, silk, or taffeta.

To our modern sensibilities, the cartwheel hat may seem bizarre, and records indicate that the look also perplexed the public when it was first debuted. “Do not be astounded if you notice a smartly gowned woman crowned with a hat of huge proportions, for she is but following fashion’s latest edict,” one 1914 newspaper article noted. “The new large hats are broad brimmed and have low crowns, which are not discernible when the hat is worn, hence they resemble cartwheels tilted at a becoming angle.”

3. The tri-corner hat

If you’ve ever seen a portrait of George Washington, chances are good that he was wearing a tri-corner hat, or a tricorn. 17th-century European and American men of all social classes wore these hats because the brim turned up on three sides, allowing them to show off their stylish wigs. The hats were also small, which allowed polite gentlemen to take them off and tuck them underneath their arms when entering a building.

Tricorners were either left plain or festooned with feathers, brocades, silks, or metallic fabrics. They often came in neutrals like black, grey, and tan.

4. cloche hat

Woman wearing a cloche hat
iStock.com/upheaval

Famous flappers were fans of the cloche—a fitted, bell-shaped hat that took Roaring Twenties style by storm. Invented in Paris, the cloche became popular among both European and American women during the 1920s. The hat fit neatly over a short bob, and its simplicity allowed the era’s “modern women” to dance, socialize, and move with abandon.

Today, women occasionally wear cloche-like styles. However, the hat still remains synonymous with the Jazz Age.

5. The bowler hat

Bowler hat and gloves
iStock.com/Kalulu

In 1849, London hat makers Thomas and William Bowler created a toque that gamekeepers on horseback could wear to shield their heads from low hanging branches. With its close fit, low crown, and sturdy make, the bowler hat was way more practical than a top hat.

Over time, businessmen, politicians, and celebrities became fans of the look. By the mid 1950s to 1960s, it was common for men to incorporate bowler hats into their suited ensembles. The look became less common by the 1980s. However, British cavalry officers still traditionally wear bowler hats and suits for their annual parade.

6. The coonskin cap

Young boy wearing a coon skin cap and carring a walking stick
iStock.com/spillover

While it’s a myth that Davy Crockett wore a coonskin cap, they were indeed popular among American frontiersman during the late 18th century. Early pioneers saw Native Americans wearing the warm, fuzzy hats, and they adopted the look for themselves. Soon, the coonskin cap became inextricably linked with the rugged, individualistic American settler.

Like all iconic looks, changing cultural aesthetics caused the coonskin cap to dwindle in popularity. By 1902, the fuzzy hat wasn’t perceived as “rustic”—it was straight-up redneck. However, the look exploded in popularity once more when a TV show based on Crockett’s adventures premiered in 1954.

Crockett fever faded in the 1960s, and the cap once more became a relic of a bygone era. However, bloggers report that a few brave souls have been spotted donning the coonskin cap while walking the streets of New York City’s SoHo and Williamsburg neighborhoods.

7. THE DEERSTALKER HAT

A deerstalker hat and tobacco pipe
iStock.com/homydesign

Not surprisingly, the deerstalker hat is worn for hunting. However, fictional detective Sherlock Holmes popularized the hat in the 19th century, trotting about in his novels clad in a cape and the smart headwear. Not surprisingly, the hat is most often worn by rural outdoorsmen—not by genteel city dwellers like Sherlock.

8. BOATER HATS

Straw boater hat
iStock.com/Easy_Asa

British sailors in the 19th century donned hard, flat-topped hats made from water-resistant varnished straw. Later, English sportsmen wore the stiff-brimmed hats while rowing along the Thames. The look caught on, and by the 1890s, everyone was wearing boater hats—even girls and women, who were becoming more active in outdoor sports.

Boater hats crossed the Atlantic, and were fashionable among middle-class men and college boys alike. During election campaigns, they were dressed up with red, white, and blue bands and transformed into political symbols.

9. THE PILLBOX HAT

The pillbox hat was a simple, elegant, and no-frills accessory hat that was popular from the 1930s through the late 1960s. The round, brim-less hats were worn perched on top of the head. True to their name, they were also shaped like a pillbox.

10. THE HENNIN


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Those pointy medieval princess hats with veils have a name: They’re called hennins. Worn by European royalty, the tall, stiff hats were fashioned from expensive fabric and girded with wire or padding. In France, some hennins reached heights of up to three feet. However, English versions of the hennin were smaller and less dramatic.

11. THE FASCINATOR

Woman wearing a fascinator
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Unless you’re running with a royal crowd, fascinators probably aren’t on your radar. But they should be: these decorative headpieces can be as simple or as elaborate as you’d like. All around the world—going way back to ancient times—women have dressed up their locks using feathers, cloth, flowers, and more, creating fascinator-like looks. Our favorite is probably the 13th century ramshorn, which involved a headband-brooch combo, plus two coiled buns reminiscent of a certain science fiction heroine.

12. THE BICORNE HAT

Black bicorne hat
iStock.com/sigurcamp

In the late 18th century, European and American military and naval officers (think Napoleon Bonaparte) wore bicornes. The hat had a broad, floppy brim, and its front and back section were folded over and pinned together. This feature made the accessory less cumbersome and easier to carry.

13. THE CALASH

The sky-high hairdos of the late 18th century demanded equally lofty protection. Massive bonnets called calashes fit the bill. Each had wood or whalebone sewn in for stability, but the super tall toppers were collapsible, too.

14. THE PHRYGIAN CAP

The Phrygian cap is most commonly associated with freed Roman slaves, who wore a variant of the soft, pointy hat to symbolize their independence. The hat was later adopted as a symbol of liberty during the French Revolution.

15. THE BALMORAL BONNET

The Balmoral bonnet
iStock.com/EuToch

This floppy, tasseled beret was named after Queen Victoria’s Scottish estate, Balmoral Castle. The traditional hat is worn tilted sideways, and is typically paired with Scottish highland dress.

17 Bizarre Natural Remedies From the 1700s

In the late 1740s, John Wesley—a British evangelist and the co-founder of Methodism—published Primitive Physick, or, An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases. The tome gave regular people ways to cure themselves with natural remedies, using items they could find in their own homes.

When in doubt, Welsey thought that drinking cold water or taking cold baths could cure most illnesses (including breast cancer); some of his suggestions, like using chamomile tea to soothe an upset stomach, have survived today. Other natural remedies he whipped up, though, are decidedly strange. Here are a few of them.

1. To Cure An Ague

Wesley describes an ague as “an intermitting fever, each fit of which is preceded by a cold shivering and goes off in a sweat.” There are many natural remedies for curing it, but all must be preceded by taking a “gentle vomit,” which, if taken two hours before the fit, Wesley says will generally prevent it, and may even cure the ague. If the vomiting fails, however, Wesley suggests wearing a bag of groundsel, a weed, “on the pit of the stomach, renewing it two hours before the fit.” The weed should be shredded small, and the side of the bag facing the skin should have holes in it.

Should this not work, Wesley suggests a remedy that requires a stronger stomach: “Make six middling pills of cobwebs, take one a little before the cold fit: Two a little before the next fit: The other three, if Need be, a little before the third fit. I never knew this fail.”

2. To Cure a Canine Appetite

Wesley turns to a Dr. Scomberg for the cure to this condition, which is defined by Wesley as “an insatiable desire of eating”: If there’s no vomiting, canine appetite “is often cured by a small Bit of Bread dipt in Wine, and applied to the Nostrils."

3. To Cure Asthma

Tar water, sea water, nettle juice, and quicksilver are all acceptable cures for what Wesley calls "moist Asthma" (which is characterized by “a difficulty of breathing … the patient spits much”). But a method that “seldom fails,” Wesley says, is living “a fortnight on boiled carrots only.”

Dry and convulsive asthma, meanwhile, can be treated with toad, dried and powdered. “Make it into small pills,” Wesley writes, “and take one every hour until the convulsions fade.”

4. To Prevent or Cure Nose Bleeds

Drinking whey and eating raisins every day, Wesley says, can help prevent nose bleeds. Other methods for preventing or curing the phenomenon include “hold[ing] a red hot poker under the nose” and “steep[ing] a linnen rag in sharp vinegar, burn[ing] it, and blow[ing] it up the nose with a Quill.”

5. To Cure a “Cold in the Head”

Getting rid of this common ailment is easy, according to Wesley: Just “pare very thin the yellow rind of an orange," he writes. "Roll it up inside out, and thrust a roll inside each nostril.”

6. To Cure “An Habitual Colick”

Today's doctors define colic as a condition suffered by "a healthy, well-fed infant who cries for more than three hours per day, for more than three days per week, for more than three weeks." But adults can get it, too; it's characterized by severe stomach pains and spasms (which, we now know, can be an indication of other conditions, like Crohn's disease and irritable bowel syndrome). To cure it, Wesley suggests this odd remedy: “Wear a thin soft Flannel on the part.”

6. To Cure “White Specks in the Eye”

While it's unclear exactly what "white specks in the eye" actually is—eye floaters, maybe—Wesley suggests that, when “going to bed, put a little ear-wax on the Speck.—This has cured many.”

7. To Cure the Falling Sickness

Those who suffer from this illness “fall to the ground, either quite stiff, or convulsed all over, utterly senseless, gnashing his teeth, and foaming at the mouth.” To cure the condition, Wesley recommends “an entire milk diet for three months: It rarely fails.” During fits, though, “blow up the nose a little powder’d ginger.”

8. To Cure Gout

“Regard not them who say the gout ought not to be cured. They mean, it cannot,” Wesley writes. (They, here, might be referring to regular practitioners of medicine.) “I know it cannot by their regular prescriptions. But I have known it cured in many cases, without any ill effect following.” Gout in the foot or hand can be cured by “apply[ing] a raw lean beef-steak. Change it once in 12 hours, ‘till cured.”

Curing the gout in any limb can be accomplished by beginning this ritual at six in the evening: “Undress and wrap yourself up in Blankets. — Then put your Legs up to the Knees in Water, as hot as you can bear it. As it cools, let hot Water be poured in, so as to keep you in a strong Sweat till ten. Then go into a Bed well warm'd and sweat till Morning. — I have known this to cure an inveterate Gout.”

9. To Cure Jaundice

Wesley suggests curing jaundice—which turns the skin and whites of the eyes yellow (thanks to too much bilirubin in the blood, we now know)—by wearing "leaves of Celandine upon and under the feet." Other possible cures include taking a small pill of Castile soap in the morning for eight to 10 days, or "as much lies on a shilling of calcin’d egg-shells, three mornings fasting; and walk till you sweat.”

10. To Cure “The Iliac Passion”

This decidedly unpleasant condition—which Wesley defines as a “violent kind of Colic ... the Excrements are thrown up by the mouth in vomiting,” eww—has a few cures, including “apply[ing] warm Flannel soaked in Spirits of Wine.” Most delightful, however, is the cure recommended by a Dr. Sydenham: “Hold a live Puppy constantly on the Belly.”

11. To Cure “the Palpitation or Beating of the Heart”

Among the remedies for this ailment are the mundane “drink a Pint of cold Water,” the stinky-but-probably-not-effective “apply outwardly a Rag dipt In vinegar,” and the very exciting “be electrified” (which is suggested for a few other illnesses as well).

12. To Cure Pleurisy

This illness is characterized by “a Fever attended with a violent pain in the Side, and a Pulse remarkably hard.” (It's caused, we now know, when the double membrane that surrounds the lungs inside the chest cavity becomes inflamed.) Wesley’s first suggested remedy involves applying “to the Side Onions roasted in the Embers, mixt with Cream." Next up is filling the core of an apple with frankincense “stop[ping] it close with the Piece you cut out and roast[ing] it in Ashes. Mash and eat it.” Sounds delicious!

13. To cure Quinsy

“A quinsy,” Wesley explains, “is a Fever attended with Difficulty of Swallowing, and often Breathing.” (Today, the condition is called peritonsillar abscess and it's known to be a complication of tonsillitis.) He suggests applying “a large White-bread Toast, half an Inch thick, dipt in Brandy, to the crown of the Head till it dries.”

14. To Cure “A Windy Rupture”

Wesley doesn't say what, exactly, this condition is, though a Google search brings up the term hernia ventosa, which another medical book of the same time defines as a "false hernia ... where the wind is pent up by the coats of the Testes, inflating and blowing up the inguen," or the groin area. Wesley prescribes the following method to cure it: “Warm Cow-dung well. Spread it thick on Leather, [throwing] some cummin seeds on it, and apply it hot. When cold, put on a new one.” This, he says, “commonly cures a Child (keeping his Bed) in two Days.”

15. To Cure a "Tooth-ach"

Wesley suggests being electrified through the tooth. If that’s too extreme for you, try “rub[bing] the Cheek a Quarter of an Hour ... Or, put[ting] a Clove of Garlick into the Ear.”

16. To Stop Vomiting

Induced vomiting was an important part of Wesley's medical theories (remember the "gentle vomit" that could stop the ague?). But if a patient was vomiting and it wasn't a part of the prescribed method for curing him, Wesley advised "after every Vomiting, drink a pint of warm water; or, apply a large onion slit, to the Pit of the Stomach."

17. To Heal a Cut

Wesley suggests holding the cut closed "with your thumb for a quarter of an hour" (what we might call applying pressure these days), then dipping a rag in cold water and wrapping the cut in it. Another method: "Bind on toasted cheese," Wesley writes. "This will cure a deep cut." Pounded grass, applied fresh every 12 hours, will also do the trick.

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