On Nov. 3, 1906, San Francisco residents, still busy rebuilding the city after April’s earthquake and fire, were startled by a truly bizarre sight. It was a four-horse truck hauling a refugee “cottage” through the city streets, from Fillmore’s Jefferson Square Park all the way down to Ingleside. Hanging out of one of the structure’s windows was an agitated, gray-haired woman in her late forties clutching two placards. They read, “We demand a share of the Relief Fund,” and “We demand a distribution of food and supplies.”
The defiant protester in the window was Mary Kelly, a cleaning woman by trade whose family had been residing in a camp in Jefferson Square since they lost their home and worldly belongings in the earthquake. After months of surviving in cold, leaky tents with her invalid husband William, Kelly had begun squatting in the cottage—a small uninsulated shack with no sanitary provisions—out of sheer desperation. Heads of the city’s Relief Corporation—the organization set up to distribute supplies and donations to refugees—ordered Kelly’s removal on the truck after a month of her refusing to move out or pay rent. As they hauled her away, she is said to have shouted, “I’ll stay with this house if they take it to the end of the Earth!”
What was happening to Kelly was by no means standard practice for the Relief Corporation. It was an unusually harsh and public punishment doled out against an individual who had spent seven months loudly and persistently demanding dignity for those who lost their homes in the April 18 disaster. In that time, Kelly had transformed herself from a private, hard-working wife and mother into one of the most tenacious activists in the city. Her efforts made her a leader in her community, but a sharp thorn in the side of city officials and the Relief Corporation.
Once delivered to Ingleside, for three whole days, Kelly stayed inside her cottage, "firmly roped to the truck," the San Francisco Call noted. She later reported that she was subjected to daily harassment and verbal abuse from Relief Corporation employees that would "turn the crowd of thugs in a tenderloin saloon, let alone a respectable woman."
On her third day on the truck, the Relief Corporation roughly dismantled the cottage with Kelly still inside. “There seemed about ten men with axes and crowbars and hatchets getting on the roof and ripping off the shingles,” Kelly later wrote in a pamphlet titled Shame of the Relief. This despite the fact that Kelly was, according to the San Francisco Call, “worn and feeble” due to “a fast developing case of grip or pneumonia sapping her energy.”
“I had a perfect legal right to the cottage,” Kelly wrote in April 1908, “as it was built out of the money which had been sent here to San Francisco to rehabilitate the suffering and destitute refugees ... The cottage was built on public ground, and it was not right to pay six dollars or any other sum per month for rent of these cottages.”
So what exactly had Kelly done that spurred the Relief Corporation into taking such cruel and unusual action towards her? It started almost immediately after the earthquake and fire.
When city officials encouraged camp residents to leave the parks, she was one of the loudest objectors. The rents in San Francisco were inflated after the fire—they doubled in the unburned Western Addition, for example—and many locals had lost their places of work. The working poor simply couldn’t afford to move into new homes.
When city officials encouraged camp residents to leave the city for towns with cheaper rent, Kelly publicly spoke out about the financial impracticality of doing so. The money she would have to come up with for her own, and her family’s, daily commutes to San Francisco for work, were entirely unfeasible.
Soon, Kelly was leading marches and making speeches on behalf of her community—in her words, a “steady, honest, hard-working class of people who never asked for charity from anyone and always paid their own way.” She demanded cash grants be distributed directly to the refugees. She publicly criticized camp administrators, city officials, and the Relief Corporation.
Kelly didn’t just go after the slow-moving bureaucracy that prevented the refugees from receiving their due, she went after the men at the head of the organizations. At one point, she accused “nearly every man that held any prominent position at the Relief Headquarters” of using relief money to buy expensive cars for their own personal use. At another, she led and made speeches in front of 3,000 protestors outside a banquet attended by city officials. “Let the whole world know,” their banners read, “that while we are starving, they are feasting.”
Kelly had no qualms about calling out these individuals and publicly portraying them as sniveling, self-serving cowards. Of the attendees at that particular banquet, Kelly later wrote, “Fearing that we might force an entrance and partake of their fine menu, they very quietly sneaked out of the back entrance of the hotel and rode away in their autos, not to again return to finish their banquet until after the poor, suffering refugees had returned to their cold and dreary tents.”
Though Mary’s delivery sometimes erred on the side of the dramatic, her keen sense of injustice was not without cause. Funds and provisions to assist earthquake survivors were woefully mishandled at times, and in ways that served to reinforce the pre-earthquake class structure. Financial assistance from the Relief Corporation, for example, was distributed on a tier system that benefited property owners, business owners and the well-connected first. The poorest, most hungry and least able to find work were often left to languish the longest.
One particularly egregious example of this occurred after the Relief Corporation attempted to sell some of the flour sent from Minneapolis to distribute to hungry refugees. When donors heard of the corporation’s intent to sell, they objected. The corporation responded by dumping multiple barrels of the flour into the Bay. This kind of spiteful mismanagement is what prompted Kelly, along with about a hundred other women, to storm the city’s main relief warehouse on July 6, 1906 and walk out with 2,000 pounds of flour. “The women declared that the flour had been sent here for them,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported, “and they were going to take it.” The incident was characterized by the local press as a “riot” by “irate” women who “would not listen to reason.”
The war between Kelly and city officials was granted a brief reprieve only after tragedy struck. In January 1907, two of Kelly’s daughters were tragically murdered by their sister’s husband. Joseph Rabley targeted the entire Kelly family after his wife, Mary Jr. left him after suffering beatings at home. After Rabley gunned down Elizabeth Kelly, 16, and Martha Krueger, 28, near the intersection of McAllister and Octavia, he turned the gun on himself, “tearing off the top of his skull,” the San Francisco Call reported.
Just two months after they had paraded her through the streets and destroyed the cottage she claimed, the Relief Corporation finally granted Kelly and her husband a similar shelter at Dolores Park. The respite, born out of sympathy for the loss of Kelly’s daughters, lasted only eight months. That August, the city demanded refugees relocate their cottages out of the park. Unable to come up with the money to do so—on average, it cost $71 to move the structures—Kelly and her husband stayed put as long as they could. On Sept. 28, 1907, their cottage was torn down, leaving the couple to sleep entirely unsheltered.
It’s unknown how and when exactly Kelly’s war with the city ceased. But her own ending was not an unhappy one. On Oct. 18, 1911, the Chronicle reported that Mary Isabella Kelly was among the first wave of women who registered to vote in California. She was, at that time, living at 47 Julia Street, near City Hall, and had not returned to cleaning houses. Rather, she now listed her occupation as “a nurse and labor unionist.”
In the end, Kelly’s tireless fighting for those who were left with the least in 1906 changed her life permanently. It politicized her, it made her a leader, and it taught city officials a thing or two about respect. In the latter half of her life, Kelly tirelessly demanded fairness and equality, and never backed down from a fight, even against people and organizations far more powerful than herself. She would have undoubtedly appreciated the description the Chronicle once gave her. And it’s probably how we should remember her now: “The arch agitator of the refugees.”