The Hensler Vault: San Francisco’s Weirdest Bedroom (1900)

The November 18, 1900 issue of The San Francisco Call ran a fairly lengthy feature about a homeless California transplant who’d been arrested for trespassing after living for two months in Calvary Cemetery. Thomas James, formerly a Montana dry goods clerk, relocated to San Francisco less than two years prior to his arrest. Unable to find work the “pale, cadaverous” unfortunate ran out of money and sought refuge in a most unusual place: the Hensler family mausoleum. Homeless people taking cemeterial shelter concerned those in charge of maintaining municipal burial grounds: “The managers at Calvary don’t want homeless citizens, hoboes, or lunatics to begin to begin the fashion of taking up residences in well-ventilated and spacious family vaults. The peace and dignity of the dead must be preserved.

What I found so interesting about this piece was that it almost read like a tour of a celebrity’s residence in an interior design magazine, but with a sad and slightly macabre twist. (I also got a kick out of the graphics that the Call printed with James’ story.)

James only spent his nights in the mausoleum, leaving the cemetery during daylight hours to do whatever it was that occupied his time. James had no fear of eating and sleeping amongst the corpses sealed in coffins. “Afraid? What of? Those dead people couldn’t be any deader than they were, and they were so dead they couldn’t budge. Dead people are all right; they’re the only kind I ever met that’ll let you alone.”

The article details the interior of the Hensler vault, which from the outside appeared to be one of the finest tombs on the grounds but the interior was falling into a state of disrepair because “the dead owners apparently left no funds to keep it up.”

He considered his crepuscular bedroom quite comfortable, decorated with a battle-themed lithograph, an image of McKinley hung on a wall, and instead of a “Home Sweet Home” type of banner, he had cleaned a tablet to reveal the word “peace” leaving “rest in” covered by mold and dirt. Flower urns served as food storage and  his dinner table was broken tomb slab which once concealed a coffin. Neither the exposed coffins nor the fear of ghosts spoiled his hearty appetite. James was able to cook and heat water for coffee with a makeshift stove fashioned from a five gallon oil can. He noted that he only cooked at night so as not to attract the attention of the living. “Graveyards are not much frequented at night, except by spooks and spooneys. And as James pertinently observed, ‘spooks mind their own business and spooneys don’t see anybody except themselves.‘” (Speaking of spooneys, if you fancy reading about graveyard trysts, I’ve got you covered.)

Due to the length of the feature I won’t transcribe it completely, but I will share a few of my favorite parts.
Imagine a vault about ten feet square, the walls, ceiling, and floor of the cold gray stone, unbroken by any device save where a heavy grilled iron door protestingly admits stray, chilly beams of light. Around the lower sides are four inscribed tablets, almost illegible for mold, where the dusty remains of people have been sealed for nearly half a century. On the floor are two moldy coffins, which, for some reason, have long since been removed from their crypts.”

Over the moldy floor are scattered dust and crumpled leaves that been blown helter-skelter into the silent, creepy place. The lock on the heavy iron door is broken and has been replaced by a piece of common rope. So James did not have to force his entrance. Looking through this grilled iron door is a prospect of close-cropped shrubbery and patches of green, spotted with everlasting tombstones, monoliths, and mausoleums.”

So at nightfall, when, according to the poet, churchyards yawn and graves give up their dead, Thomas James flung wide the portal of his palazzio on Rosebud avenue west, Calvary Cemetery, lit up his coal oil stove full blast, cocked his heels on the nearest coffin and feasted right royally on the choicest handouts of the season. A candle stuck in a beer bottle supplied the light. The citizens’ wives of the cemetery ward must have been generous with their ‘handouts.’ The feast of bread, bits of cold meat and scraps of pie being over James used to sweep clear a space among the debris of food and there, by the light of the flickering tallow dip, amuse himself with games of solitaire. The envious grave tenants roundabout might have longingly inclined to him him in his pastime, but James, as behooved one living in such exclusive society, never designed to notice them, but played his trumps to suit his own fastidious taste.”

James probably could’ve maintained his secret residence longer than two months, but a police officer happened upon a suspicious scene near the Hensler vault.

The extraordinary sight of a week’s wash hung outside a vault occupied by people long since dead simply dynamited the attention of an unobtrusive policeman. Besides the flagrant rags flapping in the gleeful air were in a quarter of the cemetery assigned exclusively to the purse-proud rich and the most obtuse passerby knew no vault tenant in that aristocratic section would be guilty of doing his own wash.”

As if ghosts existed, the rich ones would still be able to employ servants to tend to their laundry.

James made a few good points about the benefits of living in the crypt: “Nobody bothered me while I was taking it easy in among them coffins. There wasn’t any landlord kicking for his rent and any plumbers to pay when the roof leaked.”

The writer seemed to agree with James’ views on living the easy life in a mausoleum, adding that James had “nothing to do but keep his back toward the dead and his eye peeled for the quick.”

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