Most anyone familiar with Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City can relate to the character Mary Ann Singleton, the naïve, wide-eyed young woman from Ohio who found herself immersed in 1970s San Francisco. On a normal day in the counterculture capital, life could be a surreal experience, but natural disasters excepted, there was arguably no more turbulent month in the city’s history than November 1978.
I once worked with a woman who moved to the city from Kansas on the 18th of that month, which was the day prominent San Franciscan Jim Jones and nearly a thousand others from the area, including 276 children, died in an act of mass suicide/murder at his Jonestown compound in Guyana. The Jonestown Massacre was the most deadly single non-natural disaster in U.S. history until September 11, 2001, and also remains the only time in history in which a U.S. congressman was killed in the line of duty.
Less than ten days later, shots rang out at city hall and reporters gathered to learn what happened. Diane Feinstein, then president of the board of supervisors, delivered the unimaginable news that Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated by former Supervisor Dan White.
The San Francisco of the sixties and seventies was a great experiment. The people who gravitated to that place did so with a purpose, often to be part of a movement, to forge new territory and reimagine reality. Like any other experiments, some of the results were wonderful and some were disastrous.
November 1978 was a month that would change the course of history, ending lives, launching political careers and galvanizing a movement.
Jonestown and the Milk/Moscone assassinations aren’t often remembered together, but they were products of that unique time and place, and each year around this time I remember my own Mary Ann Singleton and her remarkable first month in San Francisco.