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Talbot Green and His Green Street

by Gail MacGowan

Running from the Embarcadero to the Presidio, Green Street was named in William Eddy’s 1849 survey of San Francisco. But just who is the Green of Green Street? Like many of San Francisco’s earliest settlers, he was not who he seemed. Talbot Green came west in the spring of 1841 in the first immigrant party to travel over the Sierras to California. The arduous journey of this group of forty-eight settlers who set off together from Independence, Missouri, was chronicled in the diary kept by their secretary, John Bidwell.

After surviving the grueling journey, Green traveled to Monterey and joined Thomas Larkin as a junior partner, conducting business on Larkin’s behalf in Los Angeles and Santa Cruz. In 1844, after Larkin was named United States Consul for California, Green took over responsibility for all of Larkin’s retail trade. Green moved north, and in 1847 on Larkin’s recommendation, he was admitted to the San Francisco mercantile firm of Howard and Mellus. Within a year the firm’s name was changed to Howard and Green.

Green was known and liked by all and generous to those in need. Men chose him to arbitrate business disputes; he was appointed U.S. customs collector for San Francisco and named to the town council. As Californians anticipated admission to the Union, Green was urged to accept the nomination as United States Senator, but he declined. Then he was urged to run for Mayor of San Francisco, but once again refused. When he became engaged to a prominent widow from San Jose, his friends were ready to throw them an elaborate wedding, but Green insisted on a simple civil ceremony.

But as one of the City’s most respected and well-liked businessmen, Green could not escape notice. In October 1850, when word finally reached San Francisco of California’s admission to the Union the previous month, Green was given the honor of leading the City’s celebratory parade. This proved Green’s undoing.

A woman recognized Green – and insisted she had previously known him as Paul Geddes, with a wife and five children in Pennsylvania. Green vehemently declared that she was mistaken, and his prominent friends believed him. The next month when the local Democratic party met, Green was their favored candidate for mayor. But on the morning before their final vote, a local scandal sheet published a front page article exposing Green as a fraud who had changed his name from Geddes after embezzling money from a bank in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Supported by his close friends Thomas Larkin, Sam Brannan, and William Howard, Green marched to the newspaper office and demanded to know its source. Told the man’s name, they went together to interview him. The man calmly repeated his claim, insisting that he had known Geddes in Pennsylvania. Green continued to deny the accusation, but the faith of his friends began to waver. They begged him to tell them the truth, promising to stand by him and even offering him money to repay any debts he might owe. Green stuck by his claim of innocence.

But the next day Green booked passage to Panama, telling friends he planned to continue on to Pennsylvania to gather proof of his innocence. This was a curious decision, for in fact Green WAS Paul Geddes, wanted for embezzlement. A decade before, the bank where he worked had given him $7,000 in banknotes to be redeemed in gold. But en route to accomplish this task, Geddes had stopped off for a quick game of poker and lost the money. Like many before and since, rather than face his accusers, he had abandoned his family, taken a new name, and set off for the west to make a fresh start.

And what became of Green after he sailed for Panama? His San Francisco friends, seeking word of his fate, heard he was in Texas speculating in land, once again under the name of Paul Geddes. He was seen in New Orleans, then in Tennessee. Finally Green wrote to Larkin, admitting his misdeeds and begging for help in making amends. Larkin helped him collect money owed him in California so that he could repay his debts. Green did return to San Francisco, but was shunned by many former acquaintances. It soon became clear that he could not resume his old life. He returned to Pennsylvania, reconciled with the family he had deserted, and was not heard from again by his former friends in San Francisco. Only Green Street remains as a memorial to this generous, well-liked businessman who, alas, was a fraud.

Check out portions of Green Street on the City Guides tours of North Beach, North Beach By Night, Telegraph Hill, Russian Hill, and Cow Hollow.

Sources: The Immortal San Franciscans for Whom the Streets Were Named by Eugene B. Block (1971) The Magnificent Rogues of San Francisco by Charles F. Adams (1998) San Francisco: Port of Gold by William Martin Camp (1947) San Francisco Street Secrets by David B. Eames (1995) Thomas O. Larkin: A Life of Patriotism and Profit in Old California by Harlan Hague and David J. Langum (1990)

Historic photo reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library.

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Green Street, shown here looking west from Kearny in 1927, was named in Eddy’s 1849 survey. By the next year, Talbot Green had been exposed as a fraud.

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