Julia Flynn Siler illuminates San Francisco history with a profile of the residents of a building near Nob Hill. We follow the managers and residents of Mission Home from 1848 through the 1960s. They survived an earthquake and fire, plague and pandemic, political and gang corruption, and racism.
“The White Devil’s Daughters” combines history and biography with photos and descriptions culled from diaries, newspaper articles, and state archives. The stories of resilience are centered in an address on the edge of one of San Francisco’s most prestigious neighborhoods.
On the intent of the Christian missionaries who started Mission Home in the mid-1800s and the expectations they had for helping prostitutes in San Francisco’s Chinatown
They hoped it would be an orderly home in which women could take refuge and ultimately become Christians and find husbands. Now remember, we’re in the Victorian era and that was the ultimate aspiration of a woman. That was the goal of this safe house.
On how the title of the book, “The White Devil’s Daughters,” came to be
Dolly Cameron arrived in 1895. She quickly rolled up her sleeves, got to work and she became such a threat to the [sex] traffickers at the time that they gave her the name “The White Devil.” That is racist, but it was what they used at the time. In turn, Dolly Cameron was deeply loved and respected by many of the young women who took refuge at the home. They came to refer as Mother, or Lo Mo, and she referred to them as Daughter. So that’s where the title of the book comes from.
On how she knew this was a story she needed to write
I wanted to write a story set in San Francisco. Originally, I was thinking of writing a story about San Francisco, but I realized that it was a better idea tell the story of the city – tell the story of the bubonic plague, tell the story of the earthquake, tell the story of the war years, the flu pandemic of 1918 — through a single house and, ideally, a few characters living in that house over a period of 70 years. So it was remarkable to find a house where there were such good records.
On the lessons we carry forward from that time to now
For me, the most striking lesson of the story is that a very small group of people can make a big change. If you look at the lives – the collective lives of those two to three thousand women who took refuge there and then started families – that’s potentially tens of thousands of people whose lives changed because of that small idea that someone had early on.
Those pioneers give us insight into a fight that we’re still fighting now, which is a fight against human trafficking. They employed some methods that today’s activists are employing as well. They testified in front of legislators, they fought to have the first anti-trafficking law in California passed.