Suicide Club Initiation (4/5/78)

Suicide: Just for the Fun of It

by Jayson 0. Wechter

The switchboard in the Taraval Police Station in San Francisco lit up with calls on the night of June 18th, 1977.

Apparently a long line of people were waiting for a bus, and almost all of them were blindfolded. In the Sunset district — a quiet, residential neighborhood south of Golden Gate Park — such behavior prompts many folks to cal the cops.

Two policemen in a cruiser soon arrived and were told not to worry; nothing weird was going to happen — yet, and certainly not in their district." What did happen was that 45 blindfolded people were taken to Ocean Beach aboard the Muni. They were escorted into a dark, clammy tunnel where their blindfolds were removed, and instructed by a man in a death costume to walk ten miles — from the zoo to Fisherman's Wharf — in the dark, along the shore.

Most of them did, and at the end of the trek the survivors were initiated, with fire, into the San Francisco Suicide Club. They agreed to put their worldly affairs in order, to enter into the world of chaos, cacophony and dark Saturnalia, and to live each day as if it were their last. Then they paid two dollars to cover the mailing costs of the Suicide Club newsletter, which lists events ranging from explorations of hotels and underground sewers to infiltration of religious cults and Nazi bars to elaborate pranks involving gorilla costumes, water balloons and large quantities of pies.

Its members — who now number over a hundred — view the Suicide Club as everything from "a group of people who have agreed to experience things they've never experienced before" to "a bunch of people helping each other live out their fantasies" to "a vehicle for pranks, adventures and just plain fun."

Bob Campbell, who joined the club in February, thinks that "it's beyond any one person's clear conception. I think it's an idea with a life of its own that's autonomous from its creators and its participants." Its official creators are Nancy Prussia, Adrienne Burk, Gary Warne and David Warren, who stood together on a sea-wall as 20-foot waves splashed over them during a storm last January. They decided afterwards to "do this sort of thing with other people."

The name comes from a story by Robert Louis Stevenson about a group of men who aid each other in ending their lives. But Warne concedes that the name was chosen to alienate and frighten people away. "We didn't want dilettantes," he said.


The Suicide Club was offered as a class that semester in Communiversity, a totally free university without fees, credits or walls. Sixty students signed up, with 45 attending the first initiation, held February 9th in a set of abandoned artillery bunkers at Fort Funston. [ED note: The date of the first initiation was February 2nd, 1977 not February 9th]

Initiates were blindfolded, separated into groups of six, and given one match to find their way out in the dark. They cleverly set fire to the blindfolds, and easily found The Golden Hinde [ED: The Golden Hinde was a replica of the Golden Hind, Sir Francis Drake’s ship. It was docket in San Francisco at the time of the initiations].

In inflatable rafts, the club members were spotted by harbor police, and immediately began to sing buccaneer songs and feast on a dinner they had brought. When a policeman yelled down, "What are you people doing in the water?" they replied, "Having a birthday!”

Simulating the many San Franciscan’s riding to work nude, the Suicide Club stripped down the early morning dew on the Powell & Mason St. cable car.


The club has no leaders, no rules, no consensus and no formal meetings. Its newsletter is written by whoever feels like leading an event and "members vote on ideas with their feet" by attending or not attending. Among other adventures, both planned and spontaneous, the club has eaten dinner with the Moonies, staged a giant treasure hunt ending in a pie and water-balloon fight, attempted to board The Golden Hinde {a replica of an 18th century sailing ship), spent the night in a ghost town, climbed up a 40-foot rope ladder into an abandoned hotel, impersonated a group of mental patients in downtown San Francisco, had a giant frog enter a human in the annual Calaveras County Frog Jumping Contest (he was disqualified), explored the Oakland sewers at night, posed naked on an early morning cable car for a postcard reading "WELCOME TO SAN FRANCISCO," and had a champagne dinner on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Not all these events have met with local approval.

At the culmination of the treasure hunt, the teams converged on a cache of pies hidden in old bunkers in the Presidio. They were suddenly surrounded by several cars full of military policemen, who trained spotlights on the group. But the tension was immediately eased when Shirley Sheffield managed to talk a young MP into hitting her in the face with a pie.

Another time, while attempting to board party for the Queen." It was, in fact, the Queen of England's birthday and the Suicide Club, by lucky coincidence, had brought a cake along. The police let it go at that.

The audiences are not always so appreciative, however. Members of the club, led by Sheffield, recently entered a theater with a vaudeville show playing. Crashing a bon voyage party or a vaudeville show as a kazoo band doing the Daffy Duck theme song. Dressed as clowns, gorillas, squirrels, bathing beauties and death figures, ten of them stumbled onstage and, as Sheffield puts it, "really did die out there. But it was fun. The chances to be on a vaudeville stage are few and far between. It was always one of my fantasies to do something like that."

The ability to live out fantasies is a common theme of the club. On April Fools' Day, Gary Warne saw a long-time fantasy of his come to life when the Suicide Club took over two elevators in the Union Square parking garage and filled them with strange and elaborate scenes. There was a candlelight dinner with a violinist, a barber and customer, a gorilla with several bound and gagged hostages, a shower scene complete with a curtain, people in towels and a recording of running water, and an elevator crammed full of balloons.

On July 17th. Cathy Hearty will lead would-be, had-been and wish-they-were hippies through the Haight-Ashbury, giving out flowers in a re-enactment of the "summer of love." Sometimes, the fantasies seem to be shared by outsiders as well. One elderly woman entered the elevator with the shower scene and said, "Hey, this is fun. How long is this going on?" And Shirley Sheffield will never forget the two young military policemen who approached her after the pie-hitting incident and asked, out of earshot of their superior, "Where are all you people going after this? Maybe could meet you.”