In 1862, the city of San Francisco spent $2,000 to build a fountain in Portsmouth Square.
The beautiful new fountain didn’t stay pristine for long.
“Many ignorant people mistake the fountain in the center of the Plaza for a spittoon, and are in the habit of throwing cigar stumps and other trash into it,” bemoaned the San Francisco Call.
Besides that, the dirty fountain was creating a problem “greatly to the disgust and annoyance” of two of the city’s most illustrious citizens. Their discomfort was so acute that city leaders were contemplating erecting a sign that read: THIS IS A FOUNTAIN.
The two citizens were named Bummer and Lazarus. They enjoyed bathing in the fountain each day. And they were dogs.
Bummer and Lazarus were early San Francisco’s most famous duo, so beloved that they were exempt from city ordinances and gifted, according to legend, nightly tickets to every opera house in town. They were both eulogized by Mark Twain, then working at the Call, and their taxidermied bodies were displayed at their favorite bar long after they died.
Unlike modern-day San Francisco, famed for its love of pets, the city then was no place for dogs, making Bummer and Lazarus’s fame even more unlikely.
San Francisco in 1860 was lousy with strays. “The city is infested with thousands of worthless mangy curs of dogs, whose numbers have at last become intolerable,” the Daily Alta California wrote. “We never knew a city in America so cursed with the canine nuisance as San Francisco.”
In 1862, the San Jose Mercury implored their newly formed city council to make one of their first acts passing an “Ordinance for the Extermination of Dogs.” In June of that year, the San Francisco pound keeper captured almost 300 dogs; all but 68 were killed.
The lives of stray dogs were mostly short and miserable. But one day in 1860, a big Newfoundland showed up outside of Martin’s Saloon on Montgomery Street. The previous saloon dog had been poisoned, dubbed a greedy nuisance, but this dog had a talent. He was prodigiously good at killing rats — the only problem bigger than dogs in the city.
The saloon-goers named him Bummer, a reference to the fact that he liked to “bum” snacks off the locals. They called him a “professional lunch-eater.”
Soon, Bummer ruled the streets around Martin’s Saloon. It was on a patrol of his territory in 1861 that he came upon two dogs fighting. Bummer chased away the aggressor and began to tend to the badly wounded dog. Bystanders assumed the dog would die, but within a few days, thanks to Bummer bringing him food and keeping him warm at night, the dog rose up and joined Bummer’s crew. He was dubbed Lazarus.
And so Bummer and Lazarus won the hearts of Californians all over, their exploits making regular news in San Francisco.
While the Civil War raged on, the canine friends provided the city with moments of levity. The pair were known for their exploits, often initiated by the dimmer Lazarus. Once, Lazarus decided to nip into Rosenfield’s Stationery Store on Montgomery for his evening nap. When he awoke, the store had been closed and locked up for the night.
“He tried to break jail but it was a no-go,” the Alta California reported. “He dashed his head against the thick plate glass, cracking it in several places, then jumped on the cases, and smashed up various delicate and valuable articles with perfect recklessness.”
Outside, onlookers reported, Bummer kept watch, perhaps rolling his eyes at his ridiculous friend.
The pair was also something of an early K9 unit. In 1861, the San Francisco Mirror reported that a police officer was serving a warrant for a man accused of assault. The man resisted, but Bummer and Lazarus were there to assist. They “pitched in,” tearing the man’s clothes and “barking” his legs until the man fell to the ground. Police took it from there.
Other adventures were less humorous. In 1862, Lazarus was picked up by the dreaded pound keeper. A city ordinance decreed that any dog not claimed in 48 hours could be killed and, as Lazarus’s clock ticked, a crowd of worried citizens gathered outside the pound. Lazarus was released into their custody by the wise dogcatcher, and the city passed a special rule that made Bummer and Lazarus city property. As such, they were the only dogs in San Francisco free “to wander unmolested in pursuit of their daily food.”
Alas, fame couldn’t give two stray dogs longevity. In October of 1863, Lazarus ate rat poison and died. His funeral was commemorated with a lithograph by cartoonist Edward Jump. Fellow San Francisco legend Emperor Norton presides over the service; in the background, the dog-catcher waits with his cart. Bummer looks on mournfully.
“Bummer saw the body, but left it with tears in his eyes, and for hours after walked the pave of Montgomery Street,” reported the Red Bluff Independent. “We may soon expect to chronicle the death of the faithful and inconsolable friend.”
Bummer staved off death for several years more but, without the companionship of Lazarus, became just another homeless pup. For a brief time in 1864, Mark Twain wrote that a “vagrant black puppy” was seen with Bummer on his rounds. Despite the hopes of locals, their friendship didn’t stick.
In 1865, the city learned that Bummer had been kicked to death by a drunk man. According to legend, the man was taken into police custody to keep him safe from retaliation. A Bummer fan met him in jail, though, and exacted revenge by punching him in the face.
On Nov. 11, Mark Twain’s obituary ran in the Call. The piece, called “Exit Bummer,” is a reflection on fame and mortality befitting the death of one of San Francisco’s first celebrities:
“[Bummer] parting with his life in the fullness of time, and in the due course of nature, sinks as quietly as might the mangiest cur among us. Well, let him go. In earlier days he was courted and caressed; but latterly he has lost his comeliness – his dignity had given place to a want of self-respect, which allowed him to practice mean deceptions to regain for a moment that sympathy and notice which had become necessary to his very existence, and it was evident to all that the dog had had his day; his great popularity was gone forever. In fact, Bummer should have died sooner: there was a time when his death would have left a lasting legacy of fame to his name.
“Now, however, he will be forgotten in a few days.”
Twain’s prediction didn’t quite come to pass. The taxidermied bodies of Bummer and Lazarus kept drinkers company for four decades at Martin’s Saloon, their old haunt, before being put in storage for good. Their names faded, little by little, as the 20th century wore on. But, in 1992, they returned anew to the city.
In a shady corner of the Transamerica Redwood Park, there’s a tree with a large bronze plaque dedicated to the faithful friends.
“Contrary to common belief, they were not Emperor Norton’s dogs,” it reads. “They belonged to no one person. They belonged to San Francisco.”