Harriet & Emma Eliza McElroy

This is a selection from CELEBRATING 150 YEARS OF HISTORY AT OCTAGON HOUSE: 1861–2011 by Janis M. Horne. The article originally appeared in the Spring 2011 edition of The Argonaut, Vol 22. No.1.  The Argonaut is the Journal of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, San Francisco, CA www.sfhistory.org. icon-pdf See PDF of Complete Article.


On January 29, 1870, just over one month after her father’s death, eighteen-year-old Emma Eliza began keeping a scrapbook, which is preserved in the Octagon House’s archives. The first two items she pasted in the scrapbook were her father’s obituaries. A typical Victorian woman’s scrapbook in many ways, Emma’s journal contained morally-uplifting essays, poems, anecdotes, and illustrations interspersed with humorous poems and cartoons, as well as dried leaves from picnics and other outings. The last dated entry was May 1888, although most items were pasted in the scrapbook without dates and out of chronological order. Nevertheless, the scrapbook is a revealing record of Harriet’s and Emma Eliza’s lives after William’s death.19

Emma Eliza became  a schoolteacher at the Broadway Primary School, located on the north side  of Broadway  between  Montgomery  and Sansome streets in San Francisco. Toward the end of the 1870s, she may even have been an assistant principal at the school. Throughout the decade, she apparently lived with her mother at the Octagon House. Harriet McElroy continued to be a good manager of money—the 1870 census lists her as owning real property worth $30,000 and personal property of $3,000. However, mother and daughter supplemented their income by renting rooms in the house to a variety of boarders. A dressmaker named Amelia Woolf and the family of laundryman Leopold Bower were cited as living there in the 1870 census. Four single boarders were listed in the 1880 census.20

Emma Eliza apparently was in no hurry to marry. Her views of men and marriage may have been reflected in one of the earliest dated entries in her scrapbook, a humorous poem titled “The Men I meet in the City.” It ended

“They will do very well for flirtations, But sure twould be a disaster,
If one should become their poor victim
And call him her lord and master; But I like them quite well as gallants, and wouldn’t mind one for a beau,
Yet when it comes down to proposals, Excuse me if I answer ‘No!’”21

Throughout the 1870s, Emma Eliza’s scrapbook records excursions, with no mention of a beau, to such places as Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Yosemite, the  redwoods  in Sonoma County, Saratoga, Piedmont, and Contra Costa. In 1876, she travelled to the East, perhaps to attend the “Brilliant Wedding” of a Miss Bettie Shober (possibly a family relative) in her mother’s home town of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.22

It is not until February 22, 1879, that the first mention of her future husband appears in Emma Eliza’s scrapbook. He was Samuel Tallman, a grocer-merchant  listed  in the  1880 census  as a forty-eight-year-old widower from Ohio. Between 1879 and 1881, the couple visited Belmont, Golden Gate Park, Meacham’s Orchard, the Santa Cruz fair, Felton Big Trees, and Mission Dolores, among other places. They were finally married on January 25, 1882, by the Rev. T. K. Noble in San Francisco. They celebrated their wedding with a visit to Monterey. Emma Eliza memorialized the honeymoon by pasting coral into her scrapbook with the notation, “Hubby and I” and the place and date—Monterey, January 27, 1882.23

The couple may have lived with Harriet McElroy at the Octagon House while Samuel continued his grocery business. Sadly, the marriage lasted only five years. Samuel Tallman died of typhoid pneumonia at the age of fifty-six on May 1, 1887. This may have been the same epidemic that led the San Francisco Board of Health to lobby for the closure of all the dairy farms in Cow Hollow due to unsanitary conditions. Tallman was buried at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park in Colma in a lot that, not surprisingly, had been purchased by his mother-in-law, Harriet McElroy. His obituary invited “Friends and acquaintances … to attend the funeral … from his late residence, 2618 Gough street. Internment private; no flowers.” A year later, in the last dated item in the scrapbook, Emma Eliza and her mother visited one of Tallman’s relatives “on their way east for the purposes of spending the summer.”24

Emma Eliza continued to live with her mother in the Octagon House until remarrying, on April 4, 1889, a forty-five year-old widowed attorney from Ohio named Abraham P. Van Duzer. They were married by the Rev. Robert McKenzie of the First Presbyterian Church. The marriage announcement appeared in the April 7, 1889 issue of The San Francisco Morning Call. After the wedding, the newlyweds resided at Abraham’s home at 822 Guerrero Street in San Francisco.25

1890 was the last year that Harriet McElroy was listed by the city directories as living at the Octagon House. The aging widow then moved into her daughter and son-in-law’s home on Guerrero Street. From then on, the McElroy family would rent the Octagon House to tenants.26

The first and perhaps most famous McElroy tenant was the poet and journalist Daniel O’Connell,  who lived at the Octagon House with his family from 1891 to 1892. He was a co- founder of the Bohemian Club, where he was active in organizing poet- ry readings and staging plays. His daughter, Mabel O’Connell Moran, later described the Octagon House “as a place of cheer and hospitality … the scene of many a gay din- ner party with such old-time friends as Charles Rollo Peters, Raphael Weil, Joe Strong, Henry D. Bigelo, Charles Stanton, little Alma de Bretteville (Spreckels) and a host of others …. It  was  here  that my father wrote the opera, Bluff King Hall.”27

Fiorenzo Cavagnaro, a wine merchant, and his family moved into the Octagon House in 1893. While the house was being repaired, they lived in Oakland, but returned in 1907.  Photo of Octagon House after the 1906 earthquake. Courtesy of Octagon House archives.

Fiorenzo Cavagnaro, a wine merchant, and his family moved into the Octagon House in 1893. While the house was being repaired, they lived in Oakland, but returned in 1907. Photo of Octagon House after the 1906 earthquake. Courtesy of Octagon House archives.

The Octagon House was next rented to wine merchant Firenzo Cavagnaro, who lived there with his family from 1893 until his death in about 1905. His widow Magdalen Cavagnaro and her family continued to live at the Octagon House through 1907. “During the time we lived there,” their daughter, Mrs. Cristina Farlatti recalled, “it was a comfortable old home full of charm and beauty. The grounds were filled with the choicest of old urns.”28

Harriet McElroy’s newspaper obituary, The San Francisco Call, Friday, January 20, 1899.

Harriet McElroy’s newspaper obituary, The San Francisco Call, Friday, January 20, 1899.

In 1898, Harriet S. McElroy deeded the title of the Octagon House to her daughter Emma Eliza “in consideration of Love and affection which first party bears toward second party, and for her better maintenance, support, protection and livelihood.” The very next year, on January 12, 1899, Harriet died at the age of eighty-two of acute bronchitis. Imagine the changes that Harriet had witnessed in San Francisco in the fifty years since her arrival in the gold rush year of 1849. Harriet’s obituary noted that “She had a wonderful memory and often entertained her friends with graphic recitals—of the stirring events of the early history of our city.”29

Emma Eliza still owned the Octagon House when the Great Earthquake of 1906 destroyed so much of San Francisco. The Octagon House suffered considerable damage, but fortunately did not burn because it was west of Van Ness Avenue, where the great fire was stopped. Sisters Mabel C. Reston and Gladys I. Reston, neighbor children who lived at 1917 Green Street, later recalled how they gaped at the damage to the Octagon House, which they called the inkwell house due to its octagonal shape. “It amused us children to see a red rocking chair precariously balanced and ready to topple into the garden below, and a tall parlor table lying on its side; also pictures hanging in topsy-turvey fashion on the walls and the family sewing machine with treadle and wheel ready to slide down the steeply sloping floor.” The renting Cavagnaro family was forced to flee to Oakland until the Octagon House was sufficiently repaired for their return.30

Next Section: Changes in Ownership

Thanks to  Janis M. Horne and San Francisco Museum and Historical Society.

19. Scrapbook, Octagon House archives; Jones, “Another
View”, p..1.
20. Jones, “Another View,” pp. 7-8.
21. Scrapbook, Octagon House archives.
22. Ibid., Jones, “Another View,” pg. 7.
23. Marriage announcement for Samuel Tallman and Emma Eliza McElroy, The Morning Call, Jan. 27, 1882; Scrapbook, Octagon House archives; Jones, “Another View,” pp. 7-8.
24. Samuel Tallman obituary, The Morning Call, May 2,
1887; Scrapbook, Octagon House archives; Jones, “Another View,” p. 8.
25. Marriage announcement of Emma L. Tallman to A.P.
Van Duzer, The Morning Call, April 7, 1889; Jones, “Another View,” p. 9.] 26. Baird, “A History of Octagon House”; Jones, “Another
View p. 9.
27. Hogan, “Colonial Dames Come to the Rescue”; Baird, “A History of Octagon House.”
Note: Henry Derby Bigelow (1862-1928) was night editor of the Hearst Daily Morning Examiner. Charles Rollo Peters (1854-1899) was a San Francisco-born painter noted for canvases depicting moonlights on missions and California sites. Joseph Dwight Strong, Jr. was a well–known painter and bohemian who married Isobel Strong, daughter of Mrs. Robert L. Stevenson. Raphael Weill (1835-1920) was the French-born part- ner of the White House department store in San Francisco, a leader of the French and Jewish communi- ties, and bon vivant (a chicken dish bears his name). Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, with her husband, donated the California Palace of the Legion of Honor art museum to San Francisco in 1924. The information in this note is courtesy of Judith Robinson, a member
of the NSCDA-CA.
28. Ibid.
29. Harriet McElroy’s obituary, The San Francisco Call, January 20, 1899; Baird, “A History of Octagon House”; Jones, “Another View.”
30. Julia Bell, ed., “Eyewitness to Disaster: Five Women
(each in her own words) Tell Their Stories of the 1906
Earthquake and Fire in San Francisco,” pamphlet pub- lished by The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in California, 1987, p. 34; Hogan,
“Colonial Dames Come to the Rescue.”