The Worst Scoundrel in Virginia City
|Fun times in a Virginia City saloon. Illustration from Harper's Monthly (Digital History Project)|
(Read Part Ten: Escape from San Quentin!)
The Gold Rush put San Francisco on the map, but it was the Silver Rush that made the city into a financial powerhouse. Silver from the Comstock Lode funneled through San Francisco and made many fortunes. Easterners looking for riches, and old 49ers anxious for another chance, streamed into the Sierras. The center of the action—the new frontier—was the City of Virginia, Territory of Nevada.
|Virginia City in 1861. Detail of lithograph by Kuchel and Brown (Library of Congress)|
Constructed right on top of the Comstock Lode, Virginia City was a collection of saloons, gambling halls, and brothels sitting above a honeycomb of mineshafts and tunnels. A transfusion of San Franciscans and their institutions made Virginia a mini-San Francisco in the mountains. Tom Maguire opened a second Maguire's Opera House, in imitation of his more famous San Francisco location. Orrick Johnson, one of San Francisco's first livery stable owners, moved his business to Virginia City. Many an old San Franciscan character from the days of the Gold Rush could be seen on the streets of the new boomtown. Virginia even had its own home-grown committee of vigilantes, known as the 601.
|Mark Twain writing for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. (Illustration from Roughing It.)|
It was in Virginia City that a young, unsuccessful miner named Samuel Clemens wrote some amusing letters to the editor of the Territorial Enterprise and was promptly hired to write for that paper. Writing under the name Mark Twain, he entertained and infuriated the locals with a series of hoaxes and “squibs,” and every now and then, perhaps, the actual news.
And there was Mike Brannigan.
Mike showed up in Virginia City sometime in 1863, shortly after being sprung from San Quentin. San Francisco and Sacramento were both presumably too hot for Mike, due to his reputation as a rapist, thug, thief, brawler, and hired political goon. It's not clear what Mike did for a living while he was in Virginia City—he almost certainly did not drive a hack, as a man with his notoriety would have had a hard time obtaining patrons. It is also unlikely that he worked in the mines; Mike was never the kind of sucker who would go in for hard labor when there were easier, quicker ways of making money available.
|George Hearst, founder of the Hearst dynasty, considered Mike Brannigan a friend. (Wikimedia Commons)|
Mike did have some friends in Virginia City. John Davis, a business-partner from Sacramento days, was working as a smuggler; at least one of the San Quentin escapees from the 1862 prison break was in town as well. Mike could also have been connected at this time with mining impresario George Hearst, who made his fortune in Virginia City, and in later years counted Brannigan among his oldest friends.
In any event, in only a few months Mike managed to further tarnish his soiled reputation, almost get lynched by an angry mob, and finally be driven out of yet another city.
It all started with... well, let the Virginia Evening Bulletin of September 8, 1863 tell the tale:
Mike Branigan—This infamous brute, who was convicted but little more than a year ago for violating the person of Miss Edith Mitchell, the celebrated actress, in Sacramento, and was by a scandalous perversion of both law and justice, permitted to escape from the State Prison, to which he had been condemned for that offense, is again in jail for a crime of even greater enormity than that to which we refer.
Last night about 11 o’clock this beast in human form was caught in bed with two little girls, one aged about six and the other nine years! where he had crawled during the temporary absence of their mother. As soon as he was discovered, the mother raised an alarm, and had it not been for the exertions of officer Cooke, who was called in to arrest the wretch, he would have been torn to pieces by the infuriate crowd that surrounded the house. As it was he got a severe beating.
The editors of the Bulletin waxed eloquent in their disgust for Brannigan, publishing a detailed account of his “disgraceful career” and suggesting that he be tarred and feathered:
Such depravity can only exist in a brute. When once the barrier of moral principle is broken over how naturally and rapidly does man descend from one degree of vice to another, until he reaches the lowest depth of infamy and crime. Some means ought to be found to clear the community of such men... Away with him, away with him. Send him to the mountains and deserts to associate with the coyotes and ground hogs.
When, a month later, he was acquitted of attempted rape on the two children, the paper was furious:
Loose Again—The beast, Brannigan, who was indicted on two charges of attempt at rape on two little children, was tried yesterday and acquitted, and he is now at large again, polluting the very air of the place by his foul presence. We hope the narrow escape the fellow had of being torn to pieces by an enraged mob when he was last arrested, will have the effect of making him act more as becomes a man, than he has for some years past. (Virginia Evening Bulletin, November 10, 1863)
|"Hurdy-gurdy girls," "singing Bacchanalian songs in Bacchanalian dens" in Virginia City. Illustration from Harper's Monthly (Digital History Project)|
Brannigan, as always, swore to his own innocence of any evil intent. After his acquittal, Mike “had a jollification over his release” during which he got massively drunk, then charged into the Bulletin offices demanding that they retract their derogatory reporting on his character. This had the opposite effect:
Distinguished Visitor—Mishter Michael Brannigan called at our office last evening, to complain of some comments we made in reference to him in the Bulletin. We shall thank him never to show his ugly mug in our sanctum again, as his presence there yesterday has put us to some inconvenience—we have had to have the entire office cleaned out to drive off the effluvia of his filthy presence. (Virginia Evening Bulletin, November 11, 1863)
After leaving the Bulletin, Mike drunkenly “fell into a pot of some kind” and injured his spine. He spent the next few weeks in the hospital. Almost as soon as he got out, he was thrown back in jail—this time for seeking out his accuser, the mother of the two girls, and demanding that she retract the accusation:
In Again—Mike Brannigan is in jail again—this time for insulting the mother of the little girls he was charged with committing a rape upon—and kicking up a muss in the streets. Something ought to be done with this fellow Brannigan to rid the County of his presence, as his present personal appearance is anything but prepossessing—perhaps a good coat of tar and feathers would improve it—and a ride on a rail to the limits of the city would, perhaps, accelerate his improvements to leave a community where he is hated, detested and despised. (Virginia Evening Bulletin, December 7, 1863)
Mike languished in jail a few more weeks while the law of Virginia City decided what to do with him. In the end they took the Bulletin's suggestion—minus the tar and feathers:
Mike Brannigan, of vile renown, was discharged from the custody of the law, by Judge Leconey, yesterday, on condition that he would leave the city immediately and never pollute it more by his villainous presence. For a brave scoundrel we have a fearful admiration, or, as Channing expresses it, a “shuddering sympathy,” but for this despicable specimen we can hardly condescend to afford disgust. Instead of the city most people would be rejoiced to learn that he had left the universe. (Virginia City Union, December 24, 1863)
Barred from yet another city, Mike Brannigan fled back to his old haunts—the waterfront dives of San Francisco. Maybe he hoped he would be safe there. He wasn't.
(Next: "It is Legal to Shoot Mike Brannigan")