Of all the eccentric characters that have graced San Francisco’s history, Oofty Goofty must rank amongst the most bizarre. His real name (Leonard Borchardt appears to be the most likely contender), background (he may have been a deserter from the US Cavalry), and place and date of both his birth and death are all bones of contention, yet his strange antics intrigued and entertained residents of the City during the latter part of the nineteenth century.
Herbert Asbury‘s 1933 book The Barbary Coast, An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld, upon which most of the limited knowledge we have of of Oofty is based, explained that he acquired his name during his first sideshow appearance before the San Francisco public as a wild man on Market Street:
“From crown to heel he was covered with road tar, into which were stuck great quantities of horsehair, lending him a savage and ferocious appearance. He was then installed in a heavy cage, and when a sufficiently large number of people had paid their dimes to gaze upon the wild man recently captured in the jungles of Borneo and brought to San Francisco at enormous expense, large chunks of raw meat were poked between the bars by an attendant. This provender the wild man gobbled ravenously, occasionally growling, shaking the bars, and yelping these fearsome words: “Oofty goofty! Oofty goofty!”"
This frightening spectacle lasted no more than a week before he became ill, unable to perspire through his thick covering of tar and hair. Doctors at the Receving Hospital tried in vain for several days to remove his costume, and only when he was “liberally doused with a tar solvent” and “laid out upon the roof of the hospital” did it finally come off.
His wild man career abruptly cut short, Oofty turned to the theatre, initially securing a spot at Bottle Koenig’s, a Barbary Coast beer hall. After just one song and dance, however, he was flung into the street, a humiliating and painful experience had it not been for the fact that it showed him the direction in which his career, or “work” as he termed it, should now turn.
Despite being kicked ferociously and landing heavily upon a stone sidewalk, he discovered that he felt no physical pain. For the next 15 years he exploited this new found talent by touring the city and allowing himself, at a price dependent upon the degree of brutality inflicted, to be kicked and battered by others. Let Asbury again describe his modus operandi:
“Upon payment of ten cents a man might kick Oofty Goofty as hard as he pleased, and for a quarter……..with a walking stick. For fifty cents Oofty Goofty would become the willing, and even prideful, recipient of a blow with a baseball bat, which he always carried with him…..It was his custom to approach groups of men, in the streets and in bar-rooms, and diffidently inquire: “Hit me with a bat for four bits, gents. Only four bits to hit me with this bat, gents”.
It was only when heavyweight boxer John L. Sullivan struck Oofty with a billiard cue, fracturing three vertebrae, that he finally called it a day. He will no doubt have enjoyed Sullivan’s later World Championship defeat at the hands of San Francisco’s own James J. Corbett. The blow from Sullivan caused Oofty to walk with a limp for the rest of his life, and he was no longer immune to pain, flinching at the slightest touch.
There are many other colourful stories surrounding Oofty, for example:
acting as a human skittle in Woodward’s Garden where customers could win a cigar if they hit him with a baseball;
performing alongside Big Bertha (another candidate for inclusion in this series) in a Shakespearean parody entitled “Borneo and Juliet”;
attempting to push a shiny red wheelbarrow to New York for a bet (a challenge that failed after just 40 miles when he was knocked over in the dark and landed head first in a creek); and
being shipped upside down in a box to Sacramento as a joke gift for a young lady and being left in the unopened package over the weekend.
Despite his physical debility he moved to Texas where he continued to play the fool for his living, drinking beer with a bar spoon and engaging in quail eating contests.