Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Thirteen)

Pimpin' Ain't Easy;

Or, The Worst Cabdriver in San Francisco (Again)

Sex workers in 19th Century San Francisco. (San Francisco Public Library)


On February 2nd, 1868, two young women stepped off the steamer Montana onto the Pacific Mail dock in San Francisco. Mary Keating and Kate O’Rourke, ages sixteen and seventeen, were “respectable young Irish girls” from Boston, who had made the voyage west in hopes of finding “an honest living at a more remunerative employment than the older cities afforded.” On the waterfront they hired a hack to take them to an uncle’s home on Dora street (Now Langton), out near Eighth. The driver of the hack was a friendly, charming man named Mike Brannigan.


San Francisco sprawls out to the west in this 1868 bird's-eye view. The Pacific Mail dock is at lower left. (Detail of lithograph by Britton & Rey, New York Public Library)

As Mike drove the carriage away from the waterfront and through the city streets, he may have pondered on the changes that had come over the city in the years since the early 50s, when he had been one of the first hackdrivers around, as well as a thug and a “shoulder-striker” for the Democratic party machine. Back then, much of what was now the South of Market had been a maze of sand dunes and marshes. Mission had been the only street that stretched west to any extent; and even it was interrupted by a bog (near today’s Seventh street) which had repeatedly swallowed the bridges built to cross it. Now the sand dunes were levelled and the bogs drained; a neighborhood spread out to the south and west, right out to the Mission, which had once stood at a good distance from the city. Streetcars, powered by horses or by steam, criss-crossed the growing city with a transportation network that would have seemed impossible a decade earlier.


Mike didn’t know it as he drove through those South of Market streets, but his greatest victim, Edith Mitchell, had died of cholera only a month before, halfway around the world in Bombay.

The girls’ uncle was a poor man, a “picker of rags and gatherer of bottles,” and when they arrived at the house on Dora—by all accounts a dilapidated hovel—Brannigan professed to be shocked. “This is a mean looking, dirty place for you to live in,” he told the girls. “Why don’t I come here to-morrow with a lady who will take you to a better place than this?” The girls were suspicious, and refused his offer.

But Mike did come back. He sensed that there was money to be made here.

Once again, Mike had picked up a second job to supplement the hackdriving trade. After all, most San Franciscans—indeed, many Californians—knew all about Mike’s sordid history, and were not likely to patronize his hack, or even to associate with him in public. The only place he could find business was on the waterfront, picking up out-of-towners who had no idea who he was. That, or working the night crowd, connecting drunk passengers with their vices of choice. The latter was more Mike’s style.

Back in 1856 when he had been exiled from the city by the Committee of Vigilance, the prostitutes of San Francisco had given Mike a going-away present of clothes and cash. Now he was back in league with the ladies of the night. For a kickback, he directed amorous passengers to the right locations. He assisted powerful madames in the shuffling of prostitutes from one city to another, even daring to venture back to Virginia City in the process. And he helped procure new flesh for the bordellos. It was in this role that Mike drove his carriage up to 505 Dupont street (now Grant), near Pine, to talk to Harriet Skillman, owner of a “house of assignation” at that address. Skillman had agreed to pay Mike $8 for leads on attractive young girls who could be lured into a life of prostitution.

All she had to do was lure the girls into her home. By the standards of the day, once a woman had spent any length of time in such a place, she was considered “fallen,” and could hope for no other prospects. It was the modus operandi of predators like Skillman (and Brannigan) to use this ideological trap to literally trap young girls in

the life of infamy and hopeless degradation from which there is no escape when once poor deluded victims fall into the hands of the procuress.
 (Daily Alta California, 11/2/1865, reporting on a similar case)

As promised, Mike returned to Dora street the next day with Mrs. Skillman in his carriage. She told Mary and Kate she was looking for a young woman whom she had been expecting to arrive on the Montana; she further claimed that she “was struck with the resemblance of one of them to the missing girl.” She invited them to come and work for her at her home on Dupont street. The girls, smelling a rat, declined; but Mrs. Skillman would not desist. Repeatedly she returned to their door, with and without Brannigan, each time imploring them to come and visit her home.

A 19th Century San Francisco police officer. (San Francisco Police Department)

The girls told all this to their uncle, who recognized Mrs. Skillman by reputation. The police were called in, and Detective Blitz was put on the case. Bernard S. Blitz, San Francisco’s first Hack Inspector, was under five feet tall, constantly active, a German-Jewish immigrant, a Mexican-American War veteran, a Forty-Niner, a drinking buddy of Mark Twain’s (according to one story), a teetotaller (according to another), and an absolute terror to all of San Francisco’s swindlers, thieves, and criminals during the 1860s. Twain wrote of him:

Blitz is a small man, but if there were eighteen more vacancies to fill in the police department, I think Blitz would come nearer filling the whole lot by himself and filling them well and doing justice to the position than any eighteen men in San Francisco.

With the dashing young Captain Hanna as his sidekick, Blitz hit upon a scheme to entrap the entrapper. He told the girls to accept Mrs. Skillman’s next offer, but to let him know; he and Hanna would follow them and catch Skillman in the act of enticing the girls into a house of disrepute.

A horsecar of the Central Rail Road passes 6th and Howard in 1868, about where Skillman and the girls would have boarded. (San Francisco Public Library)


The next afternoon, at 2 o’clock, Kate and Mary met Mrs. Skillman at a street-corner near their house, where they boarded a crowded streetcar. It was undoubtedly a horse-car of the Central Rail Road, which ran from South of Market, up through the Union Square area, and passed within a block of Skillman’s house at Dupont and Pine before heading down to the waterfront. A little after Skillman and the girls boarded the car, Blitz and Hanna slipped on, unseen.

On the ride, Skillman tried to charm the girls with talk of easy housecleaning work and trips to the Cliff House. Suddenly she caught a glimpse of Blitz and clammed up; but he allayed her suspicions by getting off the car. At Bush and Dupont, Skillman took the girls off the car and nervously shepherded them up the block, wary of being followed. They arrived at the steps of 505 Dupont, but

just as the door was opened and she supposed that she had the unsuspecting victims inextricably in her toils, the heavy hand of Capn. Hanna was laid on her shoulder, and she was taken to the Calaboose on the charge of conspiracy to reduce the girls to prostitution. (Daily Evening Herald, Stockton)

The girls were saved in the nick of time! Brannigan was arrested as well, on the same charge of conspiracy. It just goes to show: pimpin’ ain’t easy...

Skillman and Brannigan assembled a crack team of lawyers, including Col. James, who had helped Brannigan before, and ex-Judge Tyler. There were also rumors that Skillman—being, after all, a San Francisco madame—had plenty of dirt on “parties moving in the highest circles of society,” and would spill this dirt if she was convicted. The defense’s main strategy was the spreading of what we would now call “alternative facts,” producing witnesses to assert that Kate and Mary had already been prostitutes in Boston, were “addicted to intemperance and lewdness,” and had concocted the whole setup, intending to blackmail Skillman into a settlement. (And, just maybe, this was actually true).

There were trials, and then retrials. There were even all manner of side trials, of witnesses charged with perjury, of friends of the defense bribing witnesses; even Captain Hanna was accused of very improperly taking Kate O’Rourke out on a date. In the end, the defense succeeded in introducing doubt into the minds of the court. Skillman and Brannigan were convicted, but treated leniently; Skillman was fined $200, and Brannigan (who had spent some months in jail during the trial) was sentenced to time served, plus a fine of $60. The judge even went so far as to issue something unheard of: an apology (sort of) to Mike Brannigan!

Had some other man than Brannigan been tried for the offense, the verdict might have been different. … Still there is something surrounding certain men, a kind of magnetism, if it might be so called, which must influence jurors, and is not tangible. Doubtless the reputation of Brannigan—whether properly founded on bad conduct by him was not for the Court to determine—had an effect on the jury, and the fact was well known that at the time of the trial there was a strong prejudice against him in the community.

In other words, the Court recognizes that it’s hard out there for a pimp!

After paying his fine, Mike left San Francisco again. He appears to have spent some time in Sacramento, where he was arrested a few times for disturbing the peace. In 1870, he is mentioned in an article complaining about the presence of prostitutes at the State Fair:

The soiled doves have flocked to the city in large numbers this year, from all portions of the State, and are represented in force at the races, redolent of musk and paint, every day, in charge of such men as Mike Brannigan and his ilk.

After that he disappears for several years. Could Mike Brannigan's scandalous career be over at last?

In 1873, the Sacramento Daily Union found him:

The notorious Mike Brannigan, who was once convicted of rape in Sacramento, has turned up in Galveston, Texas, as a livery-stable keeper.


Next Time: The Worst Cabdriver in Galveston



Friday, November 3, 2017

Yet Most I Love Your Scars


San Francisco
(1913)


I love the flowing sky-line of your hills,
Blue spaces that encircle you with dreams;
I love the rugged contour of your strength
That points the sky with pinnacles of steel;
Your jaunty men make confident with health,
Their care-free swagger and their careless jokes;
The laughing pretty girls upon your streets,
Keen-eyed and heedless of the dusty winds;
I love the stinging fog that gives them zest,
That wakes ambition in the blood and snaps
The sparkling thought from fact to prophecy;
I love your round wind-hammered hills of sand
When I can see the sun-gleam on remote
Tremendous weavings of the western main;
I love your tall gray buildings, garish-new;
Stark flat-faced monuments to Opulence:
Your naughty lights o’night, — your loud cafes;
The stream of strife and merriment that glows
With the blood of people unafraid to live;
But most of all I love your lingering scars:—
Occasional split curbs, — blank-ending steps, —
And grim chaotic gulfs of broken brick,
Where one fierce day the furnaces of Hell
Roared red with courage of a molten race
Remoulded amid shuddering Templors.
Out of those pits of pain now rise serene,—
Upbuilt of hope,— pure shafts of palaces,
White against azure, tipped with domes of Dream;
Yet most I love your scars, our battle ground
Of death and dust and triumph, you are Home!




Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Twelve)

“It is Legal to Shoot Mike Brannigan”

San Francisco was hit by two great earthquakes in the 1860s. Mark Twain witnessed the collapse of the building in the center image of this depiction of the 1865 quake. (Print by D.E. Appleton,  Online Archive of California).


Banished from Virginia City, unwelcome in Sacramento, Mike Brannigan crept back to his old haunts along the San Francisco waterfront. The city had grown a lot since he had been exiled by the Committee of Vigilance in 1856, and had become richer as well on account of the silver flowing in from the Sierras.

Although the Vigilance Committee had been officially disbanded, it remained in power in the form of the People’s Party, which dominated San Francisco politics through most of the 1860s. While the People’s Party were less inclined to lynchings and paramilitary justice than the old Committee, they nevertheless continued to keep order with an iron fist, posting armed guards at polling places to discourage citizens from voting for the wrong party. All in the name of peace and justice, of course.


"Dutch Charley" Duane. (Guardians of the City)

Mike was not the first of the Vigilance-era exiles to return to the city. The trio of exiles who had seen him off from the New York docks on his first ill-fated attempt to return—“Dutch Charley” Duane, Billy Mulligan, and John Crowe—had each quietly slipped back into San Francisco over the intervening years.

Although their banishments had been officially revoked, all of the exiles encountered trouble on their return to the city. Crowe had been set upon and beaten up by a group of men as a warning. Dutch Charley, the erstwhile fireman and politician, was now effectively blocked from both careers. He went into real estate, got into the occasional shoot out, and set himself to denouncing the Vigilantes in his angry memoirs.


Billy Mulligan. (San Francisco Examiner)

Billy Mulligan had it the worst. Billy had been a New York boxer back in the 40s, along with Duane, Chris Lilly, and Yankee Sullivan. He had fought in the Mexican-American war alongside Lilly, with whom he had also helped found the county of San Mateo as a gambling haven. During his exile he had made a visit to Sing Sing, which was suspiciously cut short, not unlike Mike Brannigan’s brief stay in San Quentin.

Mulligan returned to San Francisco in 1863, and spent the rest of his life there drinking heavily and growing increasingly paranoid that the Vigilantes were out to get him. In 1865 he locked himself into a room at the old Saint Francis hotel on Grant and Clay, and started shooting out the window. In his insanity, he even shot a close friend who had come to talk sense into him. After several hours, the police finally brought Mulligan down with a hail of bullets.

Mike was trying to avoid that kind of outcome. As quietly as possible, he went back to his old trade of hackdriving.


Hacks lined up on the Plaza cabstand, 1865. (San Francisco Public Library)

The cab trade had also changed. In 1860, a group of drivers and livery stable owners had formed the Hackmen’s Association, to improve the public image of the city’s hack drivers. Johnny Crowe served as secretary. The association asked city officials to impose licensing requirements on the drivers of hired carriages, and to enforce the regulation of fares, in order to protect passengers from the bad apples who preyed on unsuspecting newcomers along the waterfront. The city complied with these requests, also requiring that hacks carry numbers (painted on the carriage lamps), and that drivers wear badges (pinned to their hats). In 1866 the city appointed its first Hack Inspector, Bernard S. Blitz, reputedly one of Mark Twain’s drinking companions.

Mike wasn’t the sort of cabdriver who supported this kind of regulation. Mike had more of a Travis-Kalanick-style philosophy—he resented having to get a license, and he practiced his own form of “surge pricing” every chance he got. He even was said to carry a blackjack so he could give uncooperative passengers some getting-hit-on-the-head lessons. Back in Mike’s time, his kind of driver was called a “nighthawk,” or a “scalper.” You can consider him the city’s first Uber driver.

Mike’s first appearance in the news was for getting arrested for not having a hack license.

His next appearance was for “using vulgar and obscene language” in the presence of a female passenger, who Mike claimed had refused to pay him for a ride.

Then, in September 1866:
Mike Brannigan Redivivus—The famous Mike Brannigan made his appearance at the Police Office last night, in a damaged condition and covered with blood... (Daily Alta California)

Mike told the police that he had been shot by a gambler named George Gilbert in an unprovoked “cold-blooded and murderous assault." The officers tracked down and arrested Gilbert, who was charged with assault with a deadly weapon. However, it turned out that “the circumstances were not exactly as had been stated.”

The fuller story came out during Gilbert’s subsequent trial. Brannigan and Gilbert had been at odds over the favors of a woman. The woman in question (who is never named in the news stories—the Alta describes her only as a “woman of the town”) apparently chose George over Mike, and moved in with him at his home at the corner of Clay and Pike (now Waverly Place). As we know, Mike never could take defeat well. After “following Gilbert for some time,” Mike showed up at his house and banged on the door, demanding to be let in. When Gilbert refused, Mike broke down the door and stormed into the room, throwing a large cobblestone at Gilbert’s head. Gilbert then pulled out a handgun and shot Brannigan in the arm, in self-defense.

Gilbert was acquitted. The news that Mike Brannigan had been in another scrape traveled up and down the state. The Alta lamented that the shot “did not take the top of his head off.” The Marysville Daily Appeal gave their take on the episode:

Lawful Game—At San Francisco, a few days ago, Mike Brannigan, the notorious, was shot by a man named Gilbert. Justice Barstow, after hearing the testimony, discharged the defendant, thus virtually deciding that Mike was lawful game for the shootists. Mike better go.

In other words, “it is legal to shoot Mike Brannigan.” The public had no sympathy for Mike. Surely, people must have thought, it wouldn’t be long before Mike’s notorious career came to a swift and violent end.

And the sooner, the better.


Next time: Pimpin' Ain't Easy


Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Eleven)

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.



Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Ten)

Escape from San Quentin!


Prisoners at San Quentin, about 1871. The striped uniforms were issued after the great prison break of 1862. (Online Archive of California)










(Read Part Nine: The Brannigan Outrage)

At His Trade—Mike Brannigan, immediately after his arrival at the State Prison, was set to work at his old trade—that of tailoring. His head was shaved, it is said, and his mustache cut off, against his earnest remonstrance. (Sacramento Daily Union, February 5, 1862)

On January 30, 1862, San Quentin officials entered the following description of their newest inmate:

Prisoner Number: 2308
Name: Michael Brannigan
Nativity: Ireland
Crime: Rape
When Received: January 30, 1862 
Term of Sentence: 10 years 
County Sent from: Sacramento  
Age: 32
Occupation: tailor 
Height: 5 feet, 5 3/4 inches 
Complexion: Florid 
Eyes: Hazle
Hair: Auburn
Course featured, large mouth, high cheekboned, forehead wrinkled, large scar on side, marks of cupping on breast and on left side of abdomen, large scar from burn.

It’s not clear if Brannigan had actually practiced the trade of tailoring before (if he had, it must have been way back when he lived in New Orleans, before the Gold Rush). It is equally likely that he claimed the trade of tailor to get into the prison tailoring workshop, where he had some connections.

This cell in "the Stones," a cell-block built in 1852, was still in use in the mid-20th Century. (California State Library)

California’s State Prison had begun only a decade earlier as the prison ship Waban, anchored off Angel Island. In 1852, the Waban sailed over to Point Quentin and the prisoners were put to work building their new, land-based prison. By the time Brannigan arrived in 1862, there were about 600 prisoners crammed into the cell blocks in what a report described as “dismal” conditions.

Nevertheless, Mike seems to have done okay. Even in prison, he still attracted attention, and people still wrote about him. A reporter for the Petaluma Argus mentioned him among the sights of a prison tour:
Mike Brannigan crosses his legs on the table daily; is subdued and quiet as a lamb, and probably feels that paternal derringers cannot be opened on him within at least ten years.

Fellow prisoner Charles Mortimer kept a diary in which Brannigan figures prominently. From Mortimer’s account we learn that Mike continued his longstanding policy of getting ahead by kissing up to whatever powerful people he could get access to. In San Quentin this meant prison guard and “whipping master” Edward Vanderlip, and Charles Hammond, a San Francisco thief who held the cushy position of foreman of the tailor shop where both Brannigan and Mortimer worked. Mortimer—a thief who would later be hanged for murder—had only contempt for Brannigan. As he wrote:
Mike Brannigan was in our shop for a diabolical rape upon an actress at Sacramento, Edith Mitchell, a fine woman of culture and refinement whose prospects in life were very bright until Mike crossed her path, the wretch, and he to boast of his deed as he did, too.

When Mortimer ran afoul of their gang, Brannigan and Hammond had him framed for stealing cloth, resulting in Mortimer getting twenty lashes of the whip from Vanderlip, “who seemed to delight in seeing how deep he could sink the lash into a man’s quivering flesh.”

Conditions in San Quentin were brutal and miserable, and among the inmates were some of the most desperate criminals of the day. On July 22, 1862, the boiling point was reached. Led by legendary bandido Tiburcio Vásquez, and San Francisco hoodlum Lewis Mahoney, a group of prisoners over-powered the guards, seized weapons, and took Warden John F. Chellis hostage. The gates were flung open, and up to three hundred prisoners—about half the population—ran out into the wilds of Marin, in what remains the biggest prison break in San Quentin’s history.


San Quentin and environs in 1874. Photo by Carleton Watkins. (California State Library)

The escape was, for the most part, a complete failure. The prisoners scattered and were re-captured in groups. The most organized group, with Warden Chellis as hostage, headed along Corte Madera creek, making for Mount Tam; but when they abandoned the heavy-set Chellis, their pursuers opened fire and many were killed. In the end, only about a dozen escapees, out of the original 300, made it to freedom.

Mike Brannigan was far too savvy to join such a risky endeavor. He was playing a longer, safer game. Mike spent the prison break in the tailor shop, hiding the sadistic and unpopular prison guard Vanderlip under a pile of rags. Such good behavior was bound to be rewarded in the aftermath of the escape attempt.

Meanwhile, Mike’s highly-placed friends outside of the prison had been working to get him out. In January, his lawyers managed to get him a retrial on the basis of alleged jury-tampering in the initial trial. According to San Quentin historian Kent Sorsky, Mike also faked consumption by pricking his gums with a needle, in order to help the case for his release. On January 30, 1863—exactly one year after being committed to prison—Mike Brannigan left San Quentin for good, and was taken back to Sacramento for his retrial. Within a few weeks, he was out on bail.

Mike’s retrial came at a suspiciously convenient time. Edith Mitchell, the crucial witness against him, had just left the state to tour Canada and could not return to take part in the trial. Lacking Edith's key testimony, the prosecuters had no choice but to abandon the case.

Mike was a free man.

And that's how to escape from San Quentin.





Friday, July 14, 2017

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Nine)

The Brannigan Outrage

Throughout these Misadventures, Mike Brannigan has been a bad man—violent, petty, and lacking in scruples. With this chapter, he will make the step from unlikeable anti-hero to outright villain. To counteract the villainous Mike Brannigan, let us introduce a protagonist—the pioneering frontier actress Edith Mitchell.

Patriotism was on the playbill when Edith Mitchell headlined at Maguire's Opera House during the first months of the Civil War. From the Daily Alta California, May 11, 1861 (California Digital Newspaper Collection)


Though often billed as “The Great American Tragedienne,” Edith Mitchell was born in London in 1834. Emigrating to the States at a young age with her theatrical family, she married a fellow expatriate English actor, William Melmoth Ward, who, though once a handsome leading man, had by 1852 become notable for his “heaviness and abdominal prominence,” in the words of a theater gossip columnist. When Edith headed west, her husband appears to have stayed in New York, and soon disappears from her story. Edith always used her maiden name on the stage.

The great Charlotte Cushman as Meg Merrilies. Edith's first big break was as Cushman's understudy in this role. (Wikipedia)

Edith began her acting career in Buffalo and in New York City. Raven-locked, and armed with a powerful contralto voice, she was drawn to melodramatic roles such as Lucrezia Borgia, the gypsy woman Meg Merrilies from Guy Mannering, and the vengeful and tragic Lionne from The Doom of Devillea part which she claimed had been written expressly for her. One critic noted approvingly that, in addition to acting ability, Edith had "external advantages in her favor."


About 1858 she started travelling the West. For the next few years she appeared onstage in several Western cities, including Chicago (where she was indifferently received), Milwaukee (where she was a smash hit), St. Louis (where she fired her manager for attempting to steal her $70 watch), and Louisville (where she “gained many admirers”). In April of 1861 she arrived in San Francisco, and headlined for seven weeks, first at Maguire’s Opera House, then at the American Theatre.

A pro-Union rally at Post and Market streets in early 1861, during the outbreak of the Civil War. (San Francisco Public Library)

It was an exciting spring. The Civil War had just begun, and Californians received updates on Eastern developments via the Pony Express. Patriotic, pro-Union sentiment was widespread, and one vocal supporter of the Confederacy had to flee town after being burned in effigy.

Accordingly, San Francisco’s theaters rose to the occasion with patriotic fare. One of Edith’s first performances at Maguire’s was as the star of Edith of Pennsylvania, a Revolutionary War drama written expressly for the occasion, accompanied with patriotic songs and speeches, and “a Grand Tableau of the Declaration of Independence.” During her seven weeks on the San Francisco stage, Edith also performed the pro-Temperance play, Ten Nights In A Bar-Room, headlined the tragedy Evadne, and of course starred in her reliable “sensation drama,” Doom of Deville.

Reviewers tended to emphasize the forcefulness of her performance. The Alta stated:
A large audience was in attendance at the second representation of the “Doom of Deville” last evening. The piece, though long, has many redeeming features, and some of the scenes are truly ludicrous in the extreme. ... Lionne is finely managed by Miss Mitchell, and her impassioned portrayal won warm and frequent applause. The part is very heavy, and requires strength and great elocutionary powers to sustain it successfully to the close.

The Bulletin opined that:
Unhappily, her figure is too stout to be very graceful on the boards; yet she possesses a strong, full toned voice, and recites very well.

In the opinion of the Golden Era,
Her intensity at times, ‘tis true, approximates to raving—an error into which she is betrayed by superabundant vitality, we should say, rather than lack of judgment.

Edith’s “superabundant vitality” was a necessary quality for a single woman in her twenties traveling the Western frontier. Apparently, Mike Brannigan was drawn to such strong, independent women, often with bad consequences. On the one hand, he was a close friend of Belle Cora, the tragic San Francisco madame, who had even given Mike some of her late husband's clothes when Brannigan had been exiled from San Francisco by the Vigilance Committee. On the other hand, when Frances Willis stood up to Mike, he had struck her across the face with a horse-whip.

Steamships departing for Sacramento from the San Francisco waterfront, 1860s. (Online Archive of California)

On June 22, Edith took the river steamer up to Sacramento, to begin a run at the Metropolitan Theater. Mike Brannigan met her at the docks and took her in his elegant carriage to her rooms at the St. George. The next day was a Sunday; when Edith descended the stairs of the hotel she found Mike waiting for her. The Sacramento Bee reported their conversation as follows:
Mike ... said, ‘Madame, while you are in this city my carriage is ever at your disposal. Would you not like to take a drive this afternoon?’
Miss Mitchell replied, ‘No, sir, it is too warm to-day.’
Perhaps you don’t remember me,’ said Mike; ‘I am the gentleman who drove you up from the boat last night.’
Ah, indeed, sir, you were very kind; but I did not pay you.’
Miss Mitchell here made a motion to take out her purse, when the hack driver interposed, ‘There is nothing to pay, madame. While you are in Sacramento my carriage is at your disposal, free of charge. All the actresses patronize my carriage, and I used to drive out Mrs. Hayne, Miss Hodson, and all the rest of them.’

Mike could be charming when he wished, and Edith eventually agreed to go out riding, as long as she could bring along two older women as chaperones. They spent the afternoon at Smith’s Gardens, a nursery and pleasure resort just outside of town, then stopped off for food and drinks at the Tivoli House on the way home. Here Edith noticed a funny taste in her beer—not mistakenly, as Mike had mixed it with brandy. She was suspicious enough to order another bottle which she poured herself.

Come evening, Mike had drunk too much to drive home, so two of his hired drivers rode out in a second carriage. Edith and her chaperones piled into the new carriage to head back to the St. George, while Mike climbed into the back of the other one. Mike called for Edith to come to his carriage and ride back with him; after a few minutes she complied. The carriages headed out in different directions. Along the way, Edith passed out, and Mike raped her.

About four in the morning, Edith woke up in bed in a strange house with Mike getting dressed next to her. Her arms and legs were covered with bruises. After she passed out again, Mike left and spent the morning bragging to various low-life friends about his conquest.

She woke again around seven, and made her way into the street. In addition to what she had already suffered, her situation was bleak. The cultural double standard regarding rape, which still persists to this day, was all the stronger back in 1861. For a public figure like Edith Mitchell, being the victim of rape could be devastating to her career. Brannigan was certainly counting on Edith to be broken by the experience, and to crawl back to San Francisco in shame. When she returned to the St. George, the management informed her that, due to her disreputable conduct over the night, she would have to seek other accomodations.

But Edith was tough, and she stood her ground. Summoning the police and a lawyer, J.W. Coffroth, she bravely gave her account of the night’s events. The police set up a search for Mike; and the hotel manager backtracked on expelling Edith, instead announcing that Mike Brannigan was no longer welcome on the premises of the St. George Hotel. After delivering statements to the police and reporters, Edith rested briefly and then, despite everything, went to the Metropolitan Theater and performed that very evening as Lionne in The Doom of Deville.

As word of the outrage spread on the street, Mike Brannigan wisely dropped out of sight. Anger spread through Sacramento like wildfire, and there was talk of lynching Brannigan if he could be found. Luckily for Mike, the police found him first, hiding in a stable, and clapped him safely in jail.

Through prompt, decisive action, and sheer strength of character, Edith Mitchell was able to prevent the rape from becoming a blight on her career. She finished her tour of Sacramento to high acclaim. The next year, she again headlined at San Francisco’s leading theaters, then toured Canada. In 1864 she decided to set off across the Pacific. While waiting for a ship to Honolulu, she gave what is remembered today as the first performance of Shakespeare in Seattle, a dramatic reading in which Edith played all the parts, “being the whole troupe herself.”

Advertisement from The Argus (Melbourne, Australia) of August 15, 1865. (National Library of Australia)

From Hawaii, Edith traveled on to Australia, headlining in Melbourne and Sydney (where she was panned by critics), and Adelaide (where she was a smash hit). Drawn yet again to the frontier, she traveled further West, where Edith and her colleague Annie Hill became the first professional women thespians to tour Western Australia.

Still seeking adventure, Edith continued her journey, setting off from Perth to India, intending perhaps to circle the globe. In India she toured Calcutta, Bombay, and the North-Western Provinces, but while en route to Ahmedabad she fell sick of dysentery. The American press barely noticed her death on January 2, 1868, at the age of 34.

And what of Mike Brannigan?

Once again, Mike gained access to a crack team of lawyers who were able to delay the case for month after month. In the meantime, Mike remained locked up in jail since, having lost his business, he had trouble making bail—or perhaps he was unwilling to post bail, seeing as Edith Mitchell’s father was rumored to be waiting for him with a pair of derringers.

J Street and the St. George Hotel during the Great Flood of 1861-2. (Sacramento Public Library)

In January of 1862, as Sacramento was ravaged by devastating floods, Mike’s case finally came to trial. He was defended by the great pioneer defense attorney, Col. G.F. James, who had also argued Mike’s defense in the Frances Willis case. The defense made almost no attempt to argue that Mike was innocent, instead drawing up a long list of irregularities and technicalities to get the case thrown out. The judges were not convinced, and the jury returned a verdict of guilty as charged.

On January 30, 1862, the gates of San Quentin shut behind prisoner 2308—Mike Brannigan, convicted to a sentence of ten years.

Exactly one year later, he was free.




Advertisement from Perth Gazette and West Australia Times, September 15, 1865. (National Library of Australia)




Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Eight)


The Worst Cabdriver in Sacramento


A lone carriage rumbles down Sacramento's K Street sometime in the 1860s. (From the Online Archive of California)

(Read Part 7: Brannigan is Back!)

In January, 1859, the San Joaquin Republican carried this story, as did several papers up and down California:

Not So Bad A Man—Michael Brannigan, hackdriver in Sacramento, found a large purse full of money in his hack, on Wednesday, and carried it to Wells, Fargo & Co.’s office, for the owner, whom he supposed to be a lady that had been riding in his carriage.

This was some surprising news. Mike Brannigan, “not so bad a man?” Mike Brannigan—the “Woman Whipper,” shoulder-striker, and petty thief, at one time the worst cabdriver in San Francisco,  and who had been driven out of that city by the Vigilance Committee—not so bad a man? Could some salutary change have come over Mike?

Certainly, Mike showed some signs of settling down and becoming respectable now that he was living in exile in Sacramento. He purchased a splendid new vehicle for $2,500, which the Sacramento Bee described as “one of the most elegant hack carriages ever imported to California,” with “silver trappings and lined with brocatelle and silk fringe.” He provided carriage service for the inauguration of Governor John B. Weller (Mike’s old associate from exile in New York). Mike became the owner of a small fleet, employing several drivers. By November of 1859, he obtained the privilege of operating the carriages for Sacramento’s premier hotel, as reported in the Bee:



The St. George Hotel at 4th and J Streets; where Mike Brannigan operated the carriage service. (Detail of a stereogram by Anthony & Co., at Online Archive of California)

Mike Brannigan announces that he is the sole proprietor of the St. George Hotel carriages, and all persons entrusting themselves to his care will be well treated and not subjected to extortionate demands. His charge for conveying a person to or from the boat, with baggage or to any part of the city, is $2.

Mike shows up in the 1860 census at the age of 30, with his own room in a large boarding house run by the Hutchinson family. Mike’s occupation is listed as “coach proprietor,” and his personal estate is valued at $3000. This was certainly a far cry from a few years before, when he had been penniless and hungover on the beach in Nicaragua.

It looked like the notorious Mike Brannigan had turned his life around.

For a minute or two. Then things went downhill.

For one thing, Mike couldn’t stop drinking and fighting, and he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. Once again he started appearing regularly in the Police Court, for disturbing the peace, using foul language, and for general uproariousness. As the Record-Union wrote decades later as part of a “Thirty Years Ago” news retrospective:

It was a poor day for items when Mike Brannigan, the notorious hackman, did not furnish one or more. On the 18th of June he had a bloody fight in front of the St. George Hotel with C. Driscoll, and on the same day he fell into the river and came near drowning.

But as always, Mike was not unpopular with everybody. His friendly manner and quick wit earned him numerous friends, and also made him a hit with passengers. When John L. Livingston, “a well-dressed man and of good address” arrived in Sacramento on business, he got into Mike’s hack at the landing, and, one way or another, ended up in a house of prostitution, where he not only enjoyed himself immensely, but met a charming young courtesan whose name history records as Kate, or possibly Clara, or possibly Elizabeth Riley. Livingston was so smitten with Kate/Clara/Elizabeth that a priest was called and the couple were married in the brothel before a crowd of inebriated witnesses.


Downtown Sacramento in the 1860s. (Image from the Online Archive of California)

The next morning, the new Mr. and Mrs. Livingston went for a carriage ride around the city:

The happy bridegroom had with him a large amount of coin (principally in twenties), and was driven around yesterday with his wife in a carriage by Mike Brannigan, paying visits to friends of the bride, and discharging any pecuniary demands against her.

By afternoon, the blushing bride had retreated to her chambers, where the Daily Union noted that “as is alleged, she was sick abed, or too drunk to appear.” Livingston himself was flat broke, and even had to pawn his luggage to get a ride back to the landing in time for his boat home.


The Antelope, a Sacramento River steamer. (Image from the Online Archive of California)

When he arrived, Mike Brannigan, “who had doubtless pocketed some of the squandered cash,” was in his usual stand waiting for passengers, but hid from Livingston until the latter was safely on the plank boarding the steamer Antelope; then calling out loudly for the crowd’s attention, Mike shouted ridicule and abuse on the “unfortunate dupe” who had been relieved of his money and his dignity by the sharps of Sacramento. Livingston stood morosely on deck as the Antelope pulled away to the sounds of laughter and derisive hoots from the landing.

Good times!