Vaudeville actor with Hannibal ties eye witness to famed ’06 SF murder
Lem Welch was pictured in the Oct. 7, 1906 edition of the San Francisco Call newspaper, as an eye witness to an historical bank robbery and murder. Chronicling America
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
Lem Welch was casually standing in front of San Francisco’s Novelty Theater on O’Farrell street during the noon hour on Wednesday, Oct. 3, 1906, when two young men drove up in a horse-drawn carriage. Welch paid particular attention, because the horse reminded him of one from his childhood.
While Welch, a vaudeville actor from Newark, N.J., awaited a colleague, the two men in the carriage parked in front of the nearby Kimman Ginko bank, (also known as the Golden Gate bank) at 1588 O’Farrell Street. One man walked inside, and soon thereafter, the second man followed suit.
What Welch didn’t realize at the time was that he had inadvertently become an eye-witness to a crime that would be later be labeled “The Gas Pipe Murders.”
Inside the bank, the two men subsequently assaulted (with a gas pipe) and killed the bank’s president, critically injured a clerk, and robbed the bank of $4,000 (or more) in gold.
In his role as eye witness, Lem Welch became the recipient of far greater publicity than he ever obtained as a Vaudeville performer. His role gained him prominent ink in the Oct. 7, 1906 edition of the San Francisco Call newspaper, where his likeness - along with those of other primaries in the robbery - was prominently displayed on page 21. (Chronicling America)
Detained by police, who took him to headquarters for interrogation, Welch told detectives what he saw, while offering resistance to being held, because he said he had a billing to fulfill that afternoon at the Vallejo theater.
Theater-goers back in Hannibal, Missouri, may have felt a familiarity when they learned of Lem Welch’s role in solving the famed San Francisco murder case. Eight months earlier, during the week beginning Feb. 5, 1906, Welch (billed as “The Jew,” and “Hebrew Fellow”) had been a headliner at Hannibal’s “People’s Theater,” located at 205 N. Main Street.
During the 2021 renovation of the building, its new owner, Martin Meyer, uncovered a time-preserved playbill etched into an interior wall, dated Feb. 5, 1906.
“Peoples Theatre first week’s attraction,” the makeshift playbill reads.
Geo. W. Evers (Pork Chop);
Royer and French;
The Jew, Lem Welch;
Fred Burr; and
Note: Fred Burr aka Fred Buhrmeister, was a ragtime singer from Quincy, Ill., and was previously featured in this historical series.
San Francisco earthquake
Significant to this story is the fact that just 10 weeks after Welch’s Hannibal performance - on April 18, 1906 - the city of San Francisco was virtually destroyed by a monumental earthquake and subsequent fires. Every theater - in this city known for its theatrical venues - was destroyed.
An excellent newspaper column, written by Sam Loverich and published in the Los Angeles Herald on July 4, 1909, captures the essence of the theater scene in the weeks and months following the San Francisco earthquake. Loverich, at the time, was manager of the Princess Theater Company.
Six weeks after the disaster, Loverich opened the first playhouse in San Francisco, amid the ruins of the city. It was located the corner of Steiner and O’Farrell streets.
As innovative as P.T. Barnum had been in New York City following his theater’s fire, (The Greatest Showman), Loverich saw opportunity. He obtained a tent from Denver. The Santa Fe Railroad hauled it to San Francisco for free.
Excerpts Sam Loverich’s column follow:
“When I opened the flaps of a big circus tent … and watched those crowds of men and women, literally starved for amusement, pack it to overflowing and stand around the entrances bidding any price I wanted to name just for standing room.
“We had genuine sawdust underfoot and the roughest kind of wooden benches for seats. It was the middle of May that we opened with a vaudeville bill, while they blocked the streets trying to get near the box office.
“To meet the demand we built a theater right over the tent without missing a single performance under canvas. At the north end our vaudeville turns went on while a new stage was being erected on the east side, and the hammering of the carpenters sometimes drowned the points of the best jokes. The first day the new stage was used the seats still faced north, and those patient people just turned on their benches to see the acts on the east side of the building.”
The resurgence of the theater in San Francisco brought a bevy of actors to town, each in turn hopeful of filling the city’s theatrical bills. Among those actors was Lem Welch, who, according to the San Francisco Call, boarded at 2419 Mission street in early October 1906.
The loss of buildings and population in the city resulted in a stark reduction in property taxes that could be collected. To offset this loss, in 1906 San Francisco cut its police force by roughly 20 percent.
This opened the door to lawlessness.
Paul Drexler wrote about “The Gas Pipe Gang,” under the heading Notorious Crooks, first published in the San Francisco Examiner on June 5, 2016, and updated Jun 16, 2022:
“The worst of the criminals were known as the “Gas Pipe Gang” because they used an iron gas pipe to attack victims. The gang worked in broad daylight, striking at will and bludgeoning two storekeepers to death. When the gang killed the manager of a Japanese bank, the city’s panic hit fever pitch.”
Louis Dabner and John Seimsen were later convicted of the gas pipe murder. According to the web site, “Historical Crime Detective”, both men were hanged from the same scaffold at San Quentin on July 31, 1908.
Lem Welch, aka Lemuel Welch Bernheim, was born in Russia circa 1880, and came to America with his parents, Elias and Anna Bernheim, circa 1888.
Elias Bernheim established the Bernheim Funeral Home, in Newark, Essex County, New Jersey. The facility was later operated by Lem’s brother, William Bernheim, and was still in business into the 1960s. Elias Bernheim died in 1909, and his son William Bernheim died in 1957.
Lemuel (Lem) Welch Bernheim was married to Stella Becker Babka, and they had three children, Bernard Bernheim (Born Buffalo, NY 1917-1981) Louis Frank Bernheim (1919-2002) and Esther Bernheim (born 1927).
Lem Welch Bernheim died in 1953, and his wife, Stella, died in 1957.
A few of Lem Welch’s bookings, as culled from online digital newspaper sites:
February 1906, People’s Theater, Hannibal, Mo.
May 1906: Lem Welch performed in his new act, entitled “That Funny Little Hebrew Fellow,” by George Cohen, at the Kramer Grand, Elwood, Indiana.
November 1905: Lem Welch performing at Smith’s in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
October 1909: Lem Welch played Firtz Stahl, a Dutch storekeeper, in “Deadwood Dick’s Last Shot,” in Augusta, Maine.
March 20, 1910: Headliners were Morris, Welch and Co., in “Bughouse Comiques,” at the Wilson Theater in Baltimore, Md.
December 1910: Lem Welch, Hebrew and Dialect Comedian, performed at the Electric Theater, Lancaster, Pa., and the Majestic Theater in Washington, D.C.
April 1911: Lem Welch performed at the library theater in Bennington, Vt.
May 1911, New York Age reports: “Who do you think was in town? LEM WELCH. Yes, sir, he was here with his walking suit and cane and diamonds. Yes, sir, he's doing a four act, the ‘Welch Comedy Four,’ and has a brand new act and idea that he put together himself, namely, ‘Shadow: or, the Coming Man.’ He admits he has a little of ‘Razor Jim,’ ‘The Doctor Shop,’ ‘A Dollar for a Squigilum,’ ‘Ghost in the Pawnshop.’ But outside of this his stuff is all original.”
Undated: Lem Welch played in “Wine, Women and Song,” on Broadway.
Read Paul Drexler’s story in its entirety:
An advertisement in the Sept. 6, 1908 edition of the St. Louis Post Dispatch lists Lem Welch as a key performer at the Standard theater in St. Louis.
The story of the gas pipe murder was reported in the Quincy (Illinois) Daily Whig on Thursday, Oct. 4, 1906. Accessed via the Quincy Public Library’s web site.
The playbill, etched into the wall of what was once The People’s Theater, 205 N. Main, Hannibal, Mo., features the name of Vaudeville performer Lem Welch. Photo courtesy of Martin Meyer, the building’s owner.
Mary Lou Montgomery, retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Books available on Amazon.com by this author include but are not limited to: "The Notorious Madam Shaw," "Pioneers in Medicine from Northeast Missouri," "The Historic Murphy House, Hannibal, Mo., Circa 1870,” and “Hannibal’s ‘West End,’” 47 stories of the Market Street Wedge and on west to Lindell Avenue. Montgomery can be reached at Montgomery.email@example.com Her collective works can be found at www.maryloumontgomery.com