If there were ever a City Marshal who would typify an Old West tough guy, it would have been Adolph Gassen. Sworn into office in August 1872, Marshal Gassen took on the problem of the wild animals immediately when he impounded five cows that had been left running city streets. The next day he announced the impounded beasts in the San Diego Union and requested the owners come forward to be fined.
Dealing with the violence plaguing the town wouldn’t be as easy. As most of the murders were over land disputes or drunken brawls, there wasn’t a lot to be done in the way of pro-active crime fighting. There was also what was known as “The Code of the West” which stated a man should never back down nor should he shoot an unarmed man or a man in the back. Under this code, one man shooting another armed man to death face to face was not technically murder.
It also didn’t help matters that state law prohibited minorities from testifying against whites. Once, a white man killed an Indian in front of twelve members of the victims tribe. None of the witnesses were allowed to testify and without evidence the man went free.
On March 21, 1873, an exceptionally large man named Thomas Fulton rode into town and announced he had a fast horse he wanted to race. Never one to pass up a good race, the marshal agreed to put up his own horse to compete with the stranger. As a show of good faith, both men put $75.00 into a kitty with the winner take all. The next day Gassen showed up with his racehorse but Fulton was nowhere to be found. Figuring he changed his mind and forfeited, the marshal pocketed the money and went back to his office.
Fulton didn't show up because he had been in a local saloon drinking and forgot about the race. Despite being drunk, it took nothing away from him being upset over losing the $75.00. Arming himself with a Spencer rifle, the angry man jumped on a horse and rode over to the marshal’s office to tell him how he felt about being out the money.
Fulton reached the office a few minutes after 5 pm and yelled, “I am calling you out marshal.” As soon as Gassen stepped outside Fulton raised the rifle and pointed it at him. In a split second, the Gassen un-holstered his own gun, leapt up to the horse and smacked Fulton upside the head. The big man fell from the horse but landed on his feet and proceeded to pummel Marshal Gassen with his fists. He might have won the fight if it had not been for two deputies coming outside to help their boss. Now that there were three lawmen, the fight was a little different. After administering some frontier justice to the now quickly sobering giant, the battered prisoner was taken to Dr. Robert Stockton who sewed the man back up.
After leaving the doctor, Fulton was booked into jail and charged with attempted murder of a peace officer, a crime then punishable by hanging. Despite the serious charge however, Fulton was never charged with the crime. After being arrested he went on a hunger strike in protest and by the first week of May, had lost more than 30 pounds. When the county grand jury failed to indict him after six weeks in jail, the marshal had no choice but to let him go. Fulton was never seen again.
With his death-defying encounter with Fulton now becoming local legend, Gassen went back to what he seemed to spend most of his earlier time doing, catching wayward animals. The problem was not getting any better despite the council offering a $1.00 reward for every wild animal captured within the city limits.
It wouldn’t be long before Gassen’s encounter with enforcing animal laws would subject him to more danger than fighting an armed and angry giant. The trouble began when his office began receiving complaints about the Goose Lady, a large Irish woman who lived by the bay and kept a large stock of ducks and geese as pets.
Because her ducks didn't like walking on the muddy, unpaved streets of downtown, she allowed the animals to walk on the wooden sidewalks where they littered it with waste. Marshal Gassen’s request to keep the ducks off the sidewalk had no effect; the Goose Lady simply ignored him. War broke out between the two when a group of women stained their dresses with goose droppings as they were out on a downtown stroll at 5th and “C” Street.
Once again the marshal was forced to confront the Goose Lady but this time he couldn't back down. When his usual request to get the animals off the sidewalk was met with laughter, the marshal rounded up a posse of four young boys and grabbed the geese. It then became a comical foot race with the five carrying quacking geese and the Goose Lady screaming at them as they raced to the pound at 700 Broadway. Surprisingly, it was the Goose Lady who won and she threw herself in front of the pounds door blocking the entrance. Since the pound was located directly next to the jail, the Marshal threw open the door to the jail as a warning for the Goose Lady to back off.
Gassen should have predicted the Goose Lady would challenge him and she did. Using her weighted handbag, the Goose Lady hit the marshal on the head knocking him backwards and shoved him into the jail cell. It was then Gassen probably wished he had removed the key from the door. The Goose Lady locked the door and threw the key over a fence. Gassen’s posse quickly realized if the marshal who took down the giant could be overtaken that easily, they would be no match. The young boys ran away leaving the Goose Lady and her ducks standing outside the jail with the marshal screamed at her through the bars. With her nemesis safely disposed of, the Goose Lady walked her pets’ home along the sidewalk.
Gassen was finally released from the jail when he managed to attract the attention of a passerby who took the time to find the key.
With the marshal out of jail, he turned his attention to a problem that couldn't fight back, the packs of wild dogs that were running the streets. Gassen proposed poisoning the animals as a way of control. His plan was approved and in October 1873 he mentioned to the board of trustees thirteen dogs had been poisoned. By the end of October the number had jumped to more than forty. Also in October, Gassen reported to the trustees he was being sued by Albert Morine for $5,000 for excessive force and false imprisonment relating to an arrest.
In March 1874 Marshal Gassen reported to the trustees his office was still receiving reports of damage being caused by livestock running amuck. There was also a problem brewing in town with the Indians. Complaints were coming in they were encroaching on land owned by townspeople. In actuality many of the townspeople were taking the Indians land and then complaining when they didn’t leave. Gassen solved the problem by threatening the Indians with arrests.
In May 1874 the Marshal had enough of being the towns’ top lawman and tendered his resignation.
Sixteen years later Gassen was back in the news when President Benjamin Harrison visited San Diego and hired him as his escort. Fighting back an unexpected crowd of admirers who wanted to touch the president, Gassen began cursing and shoving people in the crowd. The next day the San Diego Clipper reported a foul mouth Gassen screaming, “Make way for me and the president.” Apparently the former Marshal didn't like the article very much as he tracked down the Clipper’s editor and beat him up.