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Discover The Murders That Made Us

Bob Calhoun explores how crime shapes cultures, places, and people.

the murders that made us
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  • View of the San Francisco shoreline.Photo Credit: Library of Congress / Public domain

Any true crime fan knows the one murder or kidnapping that got them sucked into the world of twisted evildoers. For Bob Calhoun, that one murder is a bit different—it’s one that his own mother was briefly suspected of committing in the Bay Area in the late 1950s.

The revelation that his mother was questioned in connection with the murder of August Norry reframed Calhoun’s connection to his own history and that of San Francisco. Eventually, an 18-year-old blonde named Rosemarie Diane Bjorkland would be convicted of Norry’s murder. Bjorkland, who “wanted to see if [she] could commit a murder and not have it on [her] conscience”, confessed to a sheriff and was then immortalized in newspapers across the area as the “Blonde Murderess”. 

Discovering the full story behind this strange interlude in his family history led Calhoun to think about the ways in which crime over the years has shaped people, places, and culture. In The Murders That Made Us, Calhoun explores true crime over the centuries in the Bay Area. The roving, entertaining, and insightful book shares some of the strangest and goriest tales in San Francisco while making its culture over the years clear in new and fascinating ways.

We’re thrilled to be including The Murders That Made Us  as one of the books in our June/July Creepy Crate. Read on for a taste of the crimes you’ll discover, then sign up for Creepy Crate for your chance to receive a copy!

Read on for an excerpt of The Murders That Made Us.




While the great earthquake on April 18, 1906, and the fires that followed left San Francisco in ruins, commerce had already returned to downtown by late summer. Unfortunately for the merchants setting up shop along a rebuilt Market Street, they were soon terrorized by one of the city’s most brutal gangs.

German immigrant Johannes Pfitzner was waiting on a customer in his small shoe store at 964 McAllister Street late in the afternoon on August 20, 1906. As Pfitzner knelt down to help the man try on a pair of size 8 shoes, the man picked up a window weight and bashed in Pfitzner’s head with it. The killer took $200 in cash and a gold watch worth $130 and left the store as if nothing had happened. Pfitzner died later that evening at the Central Emergency Hospital.

the murders that made us
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  • Ruins after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

    Photo Credit: Arnold Genthe via Library of Congress

A little less than a month later on September 14, 1906, 15-year-old Thelma Anderton took her younger brother Robert out shopping for a new suit. No one came to meet them when they entered a clothing store at 1386 Market Street. After 10 minutes of unfettered browsing, they made their way to the backroom to see if anyone was there. They found proprietor William Friede lying in a pool of his own blood, his skull pulverized so thoroughly that you could see the brain through the fractures.

“We gazed at the awful sight for I don’t know how long,” Thelma Anderton told the San Francisco Chronicle. “The sight of the blood and the man lying in it nearly made me faint.”

Friede had been beaten with an unfound blunt instrument, and the cash register drawer had been yanked off its chain and cleaned out of every coin. A tape measure found on the floor indicated he had been killed while helping someone try on merchandise, just as in the Pfitzner murder. The position of Friede’s body also showed that more than one man had carried out the crime. A day later, Friede’s watch was found on Market Street at Dolores near a 14-inch piece of gas pipe covered in blood and wrapped in paper. 

On October 3, 1906, the killers stormed the Japanese-run Kimmon Ginko bank at 1588 O’Farrell Street. They beat bank teller A. Sasaki to the ground with a piece of gas pipe wrapped in paper before caving in the head of vice president S. Murakata. The San Francisco Call ran a diagram showing the thugs’ path of destruction and the location of the blows on the bankers’ heads. The Oakland Tribune’s report of the crime was peppered with racial slurs describing the victims. Sasaki survived his injuries but couldn’t remember much about his attackers. Murakata died later at the hospital. The thugs, as they were now called by the press, made off with $2,800.

The killers next moved on the Steiner Street jewelry store of Harry Behrend on November 3, 1906. While one man stood lookout, two others worked over the jeweler with their signature gas pipe. Behrend struggled against his attackers, causing one of them to slam his pipe down on his accomplice’s hand, nearly severing off a finger. Two of the robbers fled as Behrend, still covered in his own blood, grabbed onto the man with the gas pipe and held him until two cops rushed over from the bar across the street.

the murders that made us
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  • Men in San Francisco's Chinatown, circa 1901.

    Photo Credit: C.H. Graves via Library of Congress

The man that Behrend had captured was Louis V. Dabner of Petaluma. His roommate, John Siemsen, matched Behrend’s description of his other attacker. Siemsen, a Hawaiian who posed as the heir of a vast island fortune, was soon turned in by his father-in-law. Siemsen had married Hulda Von Hofen the day before the botched jewelry store heist in a ceremony that the bride later claimed was “forced upon her by the point of a revolver.” However, the Oakland minister who performed the wedding contradicted her, telling the Call that he’d never seen a more elated bride.

Police soon got a confession from Dabner detailing the gas pipe murders and their spending spree at the Macey’s Jewelry Company on Fillmore Street after knocking over the Japanese bank. Dabner also confessed to other robberies, including one that had the wrong man sentenced to 50 years in prison for it. Dabner and Siemsen were hung in the San Quentin prison yard on July 31, 1908, in front of 200 spectators. The third man in the Behrend robbery, Harry Kearney of Sacramento, served a sentence in Washington for another robbery. 

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