Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Six)

William Walker’s War:
Imperialism, boxing, and piracy on the high seas

Walker's "Immortals" battle the Costa Rican army at the Battle of Rivas, April 1856. From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.

It was the fall of 1856, and Mike Brannigan was trying to get back to San Francisco, even though he knew that when he arrived the Committee of Vigilance might capture and hang him. After a drunk and eventful trip across Nicaragua, he had been stymied at the port of San Juan del Sur, when the captain of the steamer Sierra Nevada recognized him, and refused to let him board.

So Mike was stuck in Nicaragua, looking for options. Fortunately he knew a few people in Nicaragua—and one of them was president of the country.

"The Grey-eyed Man of Destiny," William Walker (Library of Congress)

Back in the early 1850s, William Walker had been a journalist in Gold Rush San Francisco. Grey-eyed, soft-spoken, and steel-nerved, Walker fought in several duels, including one against Democratic congressman Joe McKibben. Mike Brannigan had driven the cab in which Walker rode out to the sand dunes to meet McKibben (both men survived).

In the years since, Walker had become the most notorious military freebooter (or “filibuster”) of the 19th Century (if you look up “filibuster” on Wikipedia, there’s a picture of Walker). Walker’s ambition was to achieve glory through conquest, carving new “republics” (with himself as president) out of Mexico and Central America, which could later become new US states—after the pattern established by Texas and California.

Walker felt that Manifest Destiny, and what he saw as the innate superiority of the White race, would lead him to inevitable triumph—a belief that remained unshaken even as he was repeatedly trounced by the inhabitants of the “inferior” nations he invaded. After failed attempts to set up “republics” in Baja California and Sonora, he was invited to Nicaragua by that nation’s somewhat clueless president, to assist in putting down his enemies in a civil war. Walker took little time to seize power, declaring himself president of Nicaragua in July, 1856.

Walker's "Immortals" lounging between battles. From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (Library of Congress)

Walker’s army—who he called the Immortals—was composed of American, European, and Central American volunteers. Not all of them necessarily shared Walker’s racial supremacist philosophy. Many of his recruits came from California, including hundreds of former 49ers who missed the uproar and excitement of frontier days.

As president, Walker quickly made powerful enemies. He antagonized the people of Nicaragua by declaring English the official language, and legalizing slavery to encourage immigration and economic support from the Southern US. He had seized part of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Nicaraguan shipping line, and Vanderbilt sought revenge by working to undermine Walker’s regime. Walker’s military exploits alarmed the neighboring countries, and the armies of Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador joined forces to drive him out.

By the time Mike Brannigan was stranded on the beach in San Juan del Sur, Walker’s situation was looking increasingly desperate. As Mike later described it:
His men were starving—even captains being obliged to beg a plantain here and there, wherever they could get it. Walker, and some six or seven particular friends with him, had a whole barrel of pilot bread, along with some other provisions, and fared better than the rest. All of his own men who attempt to desert are shot if caught. 
... Walker is a man of few words, and harder on his own men than the enemy. Upon hearing of the capture of six Germans who had attempted to desert, he merely said, “shoot them,” and it was done at once.

(So much for being “Immortals.”)

Mike Brannigan was far too savvy to join a losing cause like Walker’s. Fortunately, he had another friend in Nicaragua: Christopher Lilly.

Yankee Sullivan was a New York prizefighter turned San Francisco shoulder-striker. After being arrested by the Vigilance Committee, he committed suicide in his cell. (Detail of image from the Library of Congress)

Like Charley Duane, Billy Mulligan, Ira Cole, and Yankee Sullivan, Chris Lilly was a prizefighter, one of the crowd of former Bowery boxers who travelled west to become San Francisco shoulder-strikers. Lilly was most famous for an 1842 match lasting 120 rounds, at the end of which his opponent fell dead. After that Lilly had to split New York, spending some time in England before making his way to New Orleans where he lived the "fancy" life of a gambler. When the Mexican-American War broke out, he joined the Louisiana Mounted Volunteers, in which he served as First Lieutenant; according to contemporaries, his war career was marked by both bravery and cruelty.

Arriving in San Francisco in 1852, Lilly set up a gambling house to rake in the gold of foolish miners. Along with his friends Yankee Sullivan and Billy Mulligan, Lilly quickly became an influential member of Broderick’s political gang. Lilly was one of the leaders of the movement to split San Mateo county off from San Francisco, in order to create a haven for drinking, gambling, and prostitution on the city’s southern border; the county line was drawn just north of Lilly’s saloon, The Abbey.

When the Vigilantes came to power, they arrested Lilly and shipped him into exile on the same day as Mike Brannigan. Lilly settled down in Nicaragua and—true to form—opened a gambling parlor to relieve Walker’s more gullible recruits of their savings. He used the proceeds to buy a small schooner called the Maria, and embarked upon a new career, shipping goods up and down the Pacific coast of Central America, and smuggling supplies to Walker.

Mike Brannigan joined Lilly’s crew as the ship’s cook. Along with Lilly and Brannigan, the rest of the crew were first mate Elisha Yates, Alan Parker, and “a Russian youth, 18 years of age.” The Maria sailed down to Costa Rica to load up on coffee, then returned to San Juan to sell to Walker.
Walker, however, had got so reduced in funds that he could pay but little cash, and Chris only sold him about half his load, for which he got some money, some cacao, and the balance in promises.

The money Lilly did get out of Walker was in his own scrip, which according to Brannigan, was “not worth a damn.”

Lilly tried to take his cargo of coffee and cacao north to Manzanillo, Mexico, but the little Maria was damaged in a storm and he had to put into the Nicaraguan port of El Realejo for repairs. Unfortunately for Lilly and his crew, the Guatemalan navy—consisting of two war brigs—was also in El Realejo, under command of Admiral William Knote.

Just like Brannigan, Lilly, Walker, and the rest, William Knote was an American adventurer, drawn to the region by the opportunities for profits and glory. Knote was not content with commanding the tiny Guatemalan fleet. He had just recently had one of his subordinate captains executed on a false charge, simply so he could take the man’s vessel; and when he saw Lilly’s defenseless schooner loaded with its valuable cargo, his mouth must have watered.

Feigning friendliness, Knote offered to tow Lilly and his crew to the larger port of La Unión, where repairs could be more easily made. Lilly, afraid of being charged with supporting Walker, nervously agreed. Once in La Unión, Knote clapped the Maria’s crew in irons on his warship the Santiago, declaring them prisoners of war.

However, Knote did not really want to deliver up Lilly and his crew—and their precious cargo—to the Guatemalan government. After a few weeks of deliberation, he decided to simply seize the cargo for himself, and get rid of the inconvenient prisoners. On February 16th, 1857, Knote ordered his marines to execute Lilly and his crew by firing squad in the hold of the ship:

Lilly fell dead at the first fire, but Yates, who was a very powerful man, was not immediately killed. In his agony he dashed his manacles at the head of his dead companion, and scattered his brains about the hold. Yates was finally despatched, and then the vessel raised anchor and went out to sea, to sink the bodies.


Luckily for Mike Brannigan, he had been set free earlier. It is not clear why; perhaps the lowly cook was not worth executing.

A few months later, he was back in San Francisco.

(Next time: Brannigan Is Back!)


After being kicked out of Nicaragua, Walker invaded Honduras, where he was executed by firing squad in 1860. (From RM Devens, (1878) Our First Century. Archive.org)



Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Five)

A Series of Mike Brannigan Events


Departure of a steamship, from the Annals of San Francisco. Image courtesy of the McCune Collection.


When Mike Brannigan was driven into exile from San Francisco by the Vigilance Committee, not everyone was happy to see him go. As the Daily Evening Bulletin admitted:
Mike, although he struck one woman in the face with a horsewhip, was a great favorite with certain others. He had formed associations and connections, very low ones indeed, but nevertheless they were associations, and he had quite a number of this class who would hail his safe re-appearance.

Mike was especially popular with the prostitutes of San Francisco—most likely, because he brought them clients—and the Bulletin reported that the bordellos of Pike street (now Waverly Place) competed in giving him the best going-away gift. The women of one house gave him a purse of money; another house gave him a diamond breast-pin. The famous Belle Cora herself—who had recently been married and widowed in one day, thanks to the Vigilantes—gave Mike some suits of clothing which had belonged to her late lover, the gambler Charles Cora.


New York City harbor in 1856; detail of a print by Nathaniel Currier.

Mike quickly made his way to New York City where he joined a group of San Franciscans in exile, including “Dutch Charley” Duane, prizefighter Billy Mulligan, and Mike’s former boss Johnny Crowe. Crowe—who could easily star in his own series of Misadventures—had also been exiled by the Vigilance Committee, for reasons that remain unclear (according to one observer, it was for being “a noisy, blatant, meddlesome fellow”).

The exiles were busy plotting revenge, mostly by filing lawsuits, though Mulligan took it upon himself to beat the crap out of any Committee sympathizers he came across in New York. Duane was hoping that the Vigilante movement would soon run out of steam, allowing the exiles a chance to return to San Francisco. The problem was deciding which of them should make the trip home first, thus serving as the guinea pig to tell whether the Vigilance Committee would execute them or not.

When Mike Brannigan showed up, they chose him as their test subject. Duane and Mulligan pestered Mike to make the trip home. As Mike later explained it:
It was a pretty sharp game in them, to want to try the experiment on me, and see how it would go. ... If I got hung, they would stay away; and if my returning took pretty well with the people, why they would come and try it too.

Even Senator John Weller helped put the pressure on Mike. He eventually caved. Duane, Mulligan, and Crowe saw him off at the docks.
Daily Alta California: Michael Brannigan left New York on the Texas, and, loudly protesting his innocence and threatening all sorts of horrible feats, announced his intention of returning to California and sacrifice himself.


YOU HAVE DIED OF DYSENTERY: Sailing the long way around Cape Horn wasn't much safer than crossing overland like a sucker. 

There were three ways to get to California in those days. The absolute worst and most dangerous way was to cross overland, as any modern player of Oregon Trail can tell you. The second-worst way was to sail around Cape Horn, a voyage of eight to twelve months, during which any number of things could go wrong.


The Nicaragua crossing, plied by Cornelius Vanderbilt's Accessory Transit Company. The "proposed canals" were never built. Image from http://voteview.uga.edu/vanderb2.html.

The best, and quickest route, was to cross Central America, though in the days before the Panama canal, this meant choosing one of three overland treks. Mike took the Nicaragua route which had been blazed by Cornelius Vanderbilt’s steamship empire. This required several steps. First, a week’s travel by steamer from New York to the Caribbean port of San Juan del Norte, also called Greytown. From there, travellers boarded a river steamer which took them up the San Juan River and across Lake Managua to the town of Rivas. The remaining twelve miles to the Pacific coast were crossed by stagecoach, muleback, or on foot, ending at the port of San Juan del Sur, where steamships could be boarded for the final two-week voyage to San Francisco.

Mike made it most of the way.

The other exiles loaned Mike some money for the voyage (he seems to have already run through what the prostitutes had given him), but he soon lost it gambling on the return trip, then “launched out in a tide of drunkenness and blackguardism.” By the time Mike landed in Nicaragua he was getting more and more uproarious. On the river steamer up the San Juan he became increasingly drunk, scandalously “exposing his person indecently in the cabin.” After starting—and losing—a series of fights with other passengers, Mike had used up everybody's patience, and the captain of the ship had him tied up on the lower deck for the rest of the trip.

Arriving at the Pacific port of San Juan del Sur, Mike got into a fight with a soldier, who beat him so badly “it was hard to tell what color his face had been the morning previous.”

Finally making his way to the docks, he tried to board the steamer Sierra Nevada, headed for San Francisco. Mike’s reputation, however, preceded him, and the captain refused to let him on board. The Sierra Nevada sailed away, leaving Mike stranded. He would have to find another way back to San Francisco.

The port of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, where Mike was stranded. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
(Read Part Six: William Walker's War)

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Four)

Exiled by the Vigilance Committee!

May 14, 1856: San Francisco's sad tradition of political assassinations starts with a bang, as Casey shoots King outside the Montgomery Block. Illustration for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (http://www.famsf.org/)

(Read Part Three: The Worst Cabdriver in San Francisco)

Two quarrels, and four murders, set off San Francisco’s own civil war in 1856. The first quarrel was between high-society couple William and Sarah Richardson, and low-society couple Belle and Charles Cora. Belle was a famous, beautiful prostitute, and Charles was a handsome gambling impresario. The Richardsons were far less interesting, so when Sarah Richardson and Belle Cora threw parties on the same evening, everyone who was anyone went to Belle’s party. Tensions grew until the men had a scuffle in the street, resulting in Richardson’s death, and Cora’s arrest for murder.

While Cora was still lingering in jail, the other quarrel came to a head. This was between rival newspaper editors James P. Casey of the Sunday Times, and James King of William of the Daily Evening Bulletin. Casey was a violence-prone, ballot-box-stuffing politician, and an ally of David Broderick; James King (who added “of William” to his name to make it flashier) was a flashy, pretentious, outspoken, in-everybody’s-face journalist, on a self-appointed crusade to expose political corruption wherever he could find it, whether it existed or not—especially if it could be tied to Broderick and his political machine. They fired accusations and smears at each other from their respective editorial offices. When King published revelations that Casey had spent time in New York’s Sing Sing prison, Casey walked up to him in the street and coldly shot him, point-blank.

Casey and Cora are hanged at Fort Gunnybags, May 22, 1856. Illustration from the Daily Town Talk, a pro-Vigilante newspaper. (Online Archive of California/Bancroft Library).
King’s death ignited the city like a match. To many, Casey and Cora represented the degenerate, nefarious, frontier lawlessness of the city’s early days; while their victims, Richardson and King, represented hope for a law-abiding, respectable future. Ironically, this desire for peace and justice led to a reign of terror. For the second time, a Committee of Vigilance formed, and swiftly seized power in the city. Squads of volunteers armed with bayonets stormed the city prison, taking Casey and Cora captive. The two men were summarily “tried” by the Vigilantes, and hanged at the Committee headquarters, known as Fort Gunnybags.

Not content with these deaths, the Vigilance Committee embarked on a campaign to banish from the city all of the “shoulder-strikers” and political thugs who had operated during the city’s elections. Although all of the city’s political parties employed similar tactics, the Committee’s ire fell primarily on David Broderick’s Free-Soil wing of the Democratic party (though Broderick himself was untouchable). Among the first wave of those the Committee banished were “Dutch Charley” Duane and several of his pugilist associates.

As the Committee worked through its list of criminal suspects and unpopular characters to ban from the city, their thoughts inevitably turned to Mike Brannigan. Not only was he a member of Broderick and Casey’s political camp (though a lowly foot soldier), he was also a friend of Belle and Charles Cora. Mike may have known the Coras from New Orleans; he drove his carriage in Charles Cora’s funeral, though he later insisted he was just hired for the job. And of course, his recent trial, and lack of punishment, for whipping a woman in the street was a sore point in the public’s memory. The Committee decided that Mike had to go.

City Hall and the Plaza cabstand, where Mike Brannigan was standing for hire on July 7, 1856. (Detail of image from Online Archive of California/Bancroft Library).
There was just one problem—Mike was standing for hire in the Plaza cabstand, which, being across from City Hall, was in the one part of the city where the Vigilance Committee’s opponents, who called themselves the “Law and Order” faction, still had control. To lure Mike away from this safe haven, the Committee members hatched a cunning ploy. Several newspapers recounted the tale with relish:
Sacramento Daily Union: Mike was sitting on the box of his hack, which was standing on Kearny street, near the City Hall, when a couple of gentlemen stopped and beckoned to him. “Cab, sir?” said Mike, jumping down and lowering the steps. “Yes,” replied the gentlemen, getting in. “Where to?”

The two “gentlemen” were members of the Vigilance Committee, and their destination was the Committee headquarters at Sacramento and Front, so-called “Fort Gunnybags,” where Mike would be arrested; but
Wide West: ... to avoid any excitement, [they] told Mike, who was standing on Kearny street, that [they] wanted him to drive down to the American Exchange on Sansome street, to get a load of passengers...


Daily Union: In an instant, Mike was in his seat, and cracking his whip—he shouted, “Get along! look out there! keep out of the way!” and drove in hot speed to the Fort.
Daily Evening Bulletin: When they arrived below Front, and in the vicinity of the Committee Rooms, they knocked upon the window of the hack, and Mike, stopping his horses, jumped from his seat, and opened the door, in an exceedingly accomodating manner.
True Californian: “All right, sir! here we are,” said Cabby, assisting the gentlemen out—”fare, dollar a piece, sir,” extending his palm. “Well, Mike, it’s all right, we’ll settle it up stairs.”
Daily Evening Bulletin: As soon as the Vigilants lighted on the ground, they took hold of Mike, one upon each side, and told him that he was a prisoner of the Committee...
Daily Union: The light broke in on Michael like a flash, and he saw that he was sold. In a bewildered and incoherent manner he inquired what he was arrested for, and what was to become of his cab. He was told there were several little things against his character, of which he would learn more up stairs, and that the cab would be sent to the stable.

It doesn’t sound like poor Mike ever got paid for the ride, or for that matter, got his cab back. The Committee pronounced a sentence of banishment on him—one of several dozen men ordered “to leave the State of California, never to return”—with strong implications of a bad end along the lines of Cora and Casey, should they step foot again in San Francisco.

On August 5th, 1856, a squad of Vigilante guards escorted Mike and three other prisoners down to the Pacific Mail docks. There was a busy scene on the wharf that afternoon; one hundred and forty San Francisco recruits were sailing for Nicaragua to join William Walker's mercenary army.

The Pacific Mail Steamer SS Sonora, on which Mike Brannigan rode into exile.
The Vigilante guards marched Mike onto the steamer Sonora, bound for Panama. He was twenty-seven years old, and exiled from San Francisco.


Thursday, March 16, 2017

We need better reporting from NPR about Uber

Here is the rant I just sent to NPR, regarding their recent Marketplace segment, "Why ride sharing companies are absent from SXSW":
As a transportation scholar who has conducted research on e-hailing services, including Uber and Lyft, I was surprised and disappointed to hear Molly Woods’ one-sided reporting from the SXSW conference. Your segment, “Why ride sharing companies are absent from SXSW” is 1) misleading (there are plenty of e-hailing companies in Austin, including both taxicabs and “ridesharing” services), and 2) your segment did not actually address the question of why Uber and Lyft are absent!
Uber and Lyft voluntarily left the city to avoid regulations which the voting public approved of. Regulatory limitations on Uber and Lyft, as well as AirBnB, are based on serious considerations of economic and social welfare—but these were dismissed as “quirky” on NPR, the one network from which we expect a more critical and even-handed perspective, now more than ever.
Just as infuriating were the implications that, for daring to challenge these corporations, Austin is somehow backwards, or non-tech-friendly. While other cities are still stuck with Uber and Lyft, Austin is incubating the next generation of e-hailing services—more responsible, and more accountable than the corporate giants. 
What the world wants to know—and what NPR can more responsibly report on—is how well these new, non-Uber-and-Lyft e-hailing companies are servicing Austin. We all know that companies like Uber are unsustainable. Austin is the place where we see what will happen next—please give us some reporting on that


I normally try to stay away from comments or emails like this, but this time I couldn't help it. I think I showed great restraint by not even asking them why they are still calling it "ridesharing" (though they must know better by now)...

I haven't looked closely at what has been happening in Austin since my early post about "ridesharing" apps swarming into Austin, right after Uber and Lyft left. It would be great to see some real reporting on how the new, local apps are working out. For a good start at this, see this recent article on Shareable.



Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Three)

The Worst Cabdriver in San Francisco

Carriages waiting for hire along the Plaza in 1855. In the distance, the harbor is a forest of masts. (Detail of image from the Online Archive of California)

(Read Part One)
(Read Part Two)

By the mid 1850s, San Francisco was starting to settle down and take itself more seriously as a city. The hack and cab business followed suit. For the majority of cabdrivers, this meant seeking respectability. These drivers worked to cultivate a reputation for honesty, reliability, and skill to attract repeat clientele. They could be found waiting for hire at established locations such as livery stables, or along the sides of the Plaza (today’s Portsmouth Square). Some drivers spent extraordinary amounts of money (sometimes more than the price of a house) buying fancy carriages to attract customers—as seen in the advertisement below, run by one such driver in 1855:

Advertisement in Daily Alta California, 1855. (California Digital Newspaper Collection). (More on John Glover)

Not all drivers found themselves able or willing to compete in this fashion. Some turned to cheating, even robbing passengers. Keeping alive the rough frontier ethos which the rest of San Francisco was trying to live down, such drivers prowled the streets at night, or hung around the wharf preying upon “verdant” newcomers to the city, who, unlike city residents, had no idea what cab rides were supposed to cost, or how to tell the difference between trustworthy and untrustworthy drivers. Once these drivers lured unsuspecting passengers into their cabs, they would carry them off to remote locations to shake them down for many times the amount of the legal cab fare. Call it the first “surge pricing.”

Some of the more notorious of these drivers became local celebrities of the love-to-hate variety; many of them went by colorful nicknames such as “Grizzly,” “Calico Pete,” “San Juan Jack,” and “Sinbad.” The most notorious of all was Mike Brannigan. He didn’t use, or need, a nickname. Everyone knew who Mike Brannigan was.

Mike had a reputation for violence. It was alleged that he carried a blackjack for beating uncooperative passengers into submission. He was a known thief, and had once bitten the nose off another cabdriver in a fight, but nothing tended to stick because of his political connections. These came with his second job, as a “shoulder striker,” or political enforcer for the local Democratic party, working during elections to make sure the voting went the right way.

It seems Mike was also a reckless driver. He ran down pedestrians on two separate occasions in the fall of 1854. After his second victim, Mike was sentenced to sixty days in jail; as the Daily Placer Times crowed, Mike was finally

CAUGHT AT LAST—Michael Brannagan, who has been arrested several times, but always contrived to escape the meshes of the law by aid of ingenious counsel, was sentenced on Saturday to sixty days in the county jail, for deliberately running over a quiet peaceable Frenchman, who was at work in the street. Brannagan was drunk at the time and was driving a hack.

Mike was soon to get in even bigger trouble. In April, 1856, a young woman named Frances Willis stepped off a steamer at the wharf, having returned from a trip to Sacramento. Frances was expecting to be picked up by her regular cabdriver, Johnny Crowe. Instead she was met at the wharf by Mike Brannigan, who told her that Johnny was unavailable, and he was to pick her up instead. Frances gave him her bags to load into his carriage. She probably knew Mike, as they had both lived in New Orleans before coming to San Francisco, as had Johnny Crowe as well.

But Johnny had made no arrangement for Mike to pick up his passenger—Mike was just trying to “steal a load.” Johnny turned up a moment later, and Frances got into his vehicle, angrily demanding that Mike return her luggage. Instead, Mike drove off with her bags to her home on St. Mary’s Place (now part of St. Mary’s Square). When she arrived with Johnny, Mike demanded she pay him $5 for transporting her luggage, which she refused to do. Mike resorted to “very insulting language” until the police arrived, and he was forced to give up the luggage, having made no money from the trip.

Mike couldn’t take defeat easily, and waited for his chance to get even. This came one evening a few weeks later, when Frances Willis came innocently walking down Washington street past the Plaza, where Mike was sitting on his hack, waiting for a fare. As she walked by, Mike suddenly yelled an insult and cracked his whip, striking her across the face.

Of all the despicable things Mike had done so far, this was considered the most shameful. Newspapers took to calling him “woman-whipper,” a name which stuck to him for years. Mike was hauled before the Recorder’s Court to be charged with assault and battery. His guilt was obvious. Mike had only one weapon to use against Frances: her race.

Frances, it turns out, had a white father and a black mother. Much like a much more famous early San Franciscan, Mary Ellen Pleasant (who was also from New Orleans), she had been considered black in New Orleans, but could pass for white in San Francisco.

According to California law at this time, “No black or mulatto person, or Indian, shall be allowed to give evidence in favor of, or against a white man” (this was interpreted as including Asians as well). Not only was this law horribly racist, it actually encouraged crime, by making it difficult to convict any white man of a crime unless there were white witnesses. To get off scot free, Mike had only to prove that Francis wasn’t white.

Mike and his defense attorney, Colonel James, succeeded in turning the main issue of the trial away from Mike’s guilt or innocence, into the question of whether Frances was black or white. After a long debate, the exasperated judge declared that because Frances looked white, she must be white, so her testimony against Mike was admissible. The jury took just forty-five seconds to convict.

Mike was sentenced to pay a $100 fine, or spend ten days in jail. His attorney promptly appealed the case on another technicality, and Mike was set free on bail. The newspapers expressed anger and bewilderment that the “woman-whipper” Mike Brannigan had been set free yet again.

The Brannigan case had one positive outcome—it helped influence public opinion against the so-called “Negro Testimony” law, which was repealed in 1863.

Mike’s appeal dragged on in court for several months before ultimately being dismissed. But by the time he was finally and definitively found guilty of his assault on Frances Willis, it no longer mattered.

By then, Mike Brannigan had fled San Francisco, in fear for his life.

(Next: Exiled by the Vigilance Committee!)

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Disrupt the Disruptors! An Interview with Kelly Dessaint

Cabdriver, zine publisher, and Examiner columnist Kelly Dessaint’s Behind the Wheel series is a must-read for anyone interested in an on-the ground view of how tech gentrification and the “sharing” economy have transformed the experience of life and work in San Francisco.

Kelly Dessaint's Behind the Wheel series chronicles his path from Uber/Lyft driver to licensed San Francisco taxi driver. They are available in print or pdf from his website, as well as from Amazon. He also writes the I Drive SF column for the Examiner.







 .
I’m inbound on Post street. While I wait for the light to change at Jones, I practice my double bass drumming on the steering wheel along to the Slayer CD blasting from the stereo in my taxicab. (Behind the Wheel 3, page 1)

Kelly Dessaint begins and ends his third installment of Behind the Wheel the same way he begins and ends most of the stories it contains—in motion through the streets of San Francisco. Dessaint was the first driver/writer to publish about the experience for driving for Uber and Lyft, and he has since joined the ranks of the city's licensed taxi drivers. Like most writing about cabdriving, the stories in Behind the Wheel take the form of fragmentary, slice-of-life episodes, but Dessaint’s stories are unified by a sense of movement, recurring characters, and a compelling theme of analog resistance to the digital colonization of everyday life.


One of the most striking characters is San Francisco itself. At least since Tex Reed’s 1970 book Hey Taxi, San Francisco cabdrivers have been writing complicated love stories to the city. Cabdriving memoirs from other cities often emphasize a sense of the alienation of disconnected service work, or even the despair of being caught in a dead-end job. San Francisco’s cab writers—including Dessaint—don’t overlook the downsides of the work, but they always balance it with a sense of intoxication with the city, and the myriad stories of the people they drive through it. The result is a mix of light and shadow, of spleen and ideal, a performance far more human and interesting than the sugar-coated kitsch of (for example) Lyft Me Up San Francisco. Dessaint calls it “the incurable madness of taxi driving:”

San Francisco is like a drug. When it gets inside you, each moment is a revelation. Until things get ugly. (Behind the Wheel 3, page 10)


Behind the Wheel paints a psychogeographic portrait of San Francisco, joining a tradition that includes Rebecca Solnit’s Infiinite City and Gary Kamiya’s Cool, Gray City of Love. Like the “spatial stories” described by the philosopher De Certeau, Dessaint’s stories are narratives in motion, lighting up the city through the movements of a cabdriver and his passengers:

And if you’re lucky, one ride follows the next, like jigsaw puzzle pieces falling into place. One minute you’re working the swanky hotels on Snob Hill, the next you’re dropping off in the oft-forgotten Bayview, where urban detritus collects like dust bunnies under a credenza.
And you’ve seen it all, cause you’re a cabdriver, or at least you’ve seen most of it, although in reality, you don’t know fuck all. (Behind the Wheel 3, pages 58-9)

We meet a myriad of other characters of course—passengers from all walks of life, taxi drivers hanging around the garage or the cabstand—but the most interesting is Dessaint himself. Unlike the wry persona affected by many cab writers (such as the Examiner’s old Night Cabbie columnist), Dessaint reveals his own reactions to what he encounters, showing his defeats along with his triumphs, and his exhaustion, uncertainty, and anguish at the hands of abusive passengers, particularly during his “ridesharing” phase:

It’s nights like these that make me want to curl up into a fetal position and rethink this whole ridesharing deal. (Behind the Wheel 2, page 28)

As a whole, the three Behind the Wheel books tell the story of Dessaint’s growth through cabdriving, and his own arc of progress from Lyft driver, to Uber driver, to licensed San Francisco taxi driver—in a direction diametrically opposed to the official narrative of the “sharing economy.” And this is one unifying theme of the Behind the Wheel series: it is a story of defiance, an act of political activism. The series is a war-cry against the gentrification of the city, and the intrusion of tech interfaces and algorithmic manipulation into everyday life. In one of the most important chapters of Behind the Wheel 3, Dessaint teams up with a disgruntled Uber driver to confront David Plouffe himself at a tech conference. In a later chapter he argues with some passengers who don’t realize the contradiction between supporting Bernie Sanders, and patronizing Uber and Lyft:

This new gig economy is regressive. It pushes the most vulnerable members of our society into wage slavery, where they’re paid for piecework rather than given an opportunity to secure a stable income. And what’s more, instead of seeing their profits increase by working more, due to the constant Uber/Lyft price wars, they actually make less in the process. How can you support a system like that? (Behind the Wheel 3, page 55)

The Behind the Wheel series is a must-read for anyone interested in seeing the real, gritty, human reality of how work and urban space have been transformed by the tech-centric “sharing” economy (And as a bonus, each book comes with a “Disrupt the Disruptors” bumper sticker!)


My Other Car Is A Taxicab

I interviewed Kelly by email about Behind the Wheel, along with his long-running zine Piltdownlad, his Examiner column I Drive SF, and his future plans.

How did you start writing a column for the Examiner?

I'd been blogging about my experiences driving for Uber and Lyft for a while and getting a decent amount of attention. I was extremely critical of both companies and how they were treating drivers. I'd already put out the first two zines and started writing for Disinfo.com and Broke-Ass Stuart. To explore other aspects of driving for hire, I was planning to go to taxi school and get my a-card.

On New Year's Eve 2014/2015, Flywheel ran that special where every ride was $10 and it killed business for Uber and Lyft, who'd been getting bad press about surge pricing. I worked that night and it was dismal. Just horrible. I drove around empty most of the night. The next day I wrote a blog post called "Night of the Living Taxi" that made the rounds. Several news outlets contacted me, including Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez of The Examiner. We talked on the phone for a while and the next month he recommended me to the new editor as a modern version of the Night Cabbie, but as an Uber driver. By this time I'd already started driving a taxi, so I pitched my idea of a column about a former Uber/Lyft driver turned cab driver. The editor was interested. When we met to go over the details, he told me that one of the things he wanted to do when he took over The Examiner was revive the Night Cabbie. Of course, in the beginning, and still to this day, comparisons are made between his column and mine. Except I'm not anonymous.

Incidentally, the editor was relieved that I wanted to use my real name. Though I quickly realized the advantage the Night Cabbie had by not revealing who he was. Writing for a newspaper is restrictive because there are limits to what you can write about. Which is why I find doing the zine more liberating because I can write whatever I want. And I'm not bound by a 700 word limit.

How did you first get into writing and zine publishing?

I've always written. It's something my parents encouraged me to do for as long as I can remember. Whether it was filling notebooks with derivative song lyrics or pecking away at my mother's Royal typewriter trying to compose bawdry poems, writing was a way I was able to truly express myself. And shock the adults around me.

As a teenager, I wrote vociferously. Exploring both verse and prose before eventually settling on prose as my preferred method of communication. After getting rejected by any half-way decent magazine I found on the newsstand, I started my own zine and book publishing empire. (And by "empire" I mean that Gateway computer set up in a burned out garage behind my mother's house in East LA.)

I modeled my publications on lit journals from the 60s that I'd found in used bookstores and collected over the years, as well as contemporary handmade, photocopied punk zines coming out of the underground, listed in the back of Maximum Rocknroll and Flipside.

From there, I just kept pushing the boundaries... writing and publishing and designing... collaborating with different artists and writers until we inevitably went our own ways... usually acrimoniously. But not always...

In 2010, I started my latest project: Piltdownlad: A Personal Narrative Zine. 

How did you pick the name for the zine? Some relation to Piltdown Man?

Pitldownlad comes from an album by the D.C. band Fidelity Jones entitled "Piltdown Lad." I combined the two words for aesthetic reasons. Fidelity Jones was the first punk band I saw live, during a visit to D.C. when I was 17. "Piltdown Lad" is their only full length LP. There is very little commentary associated with the album or a title song, but I assume it's an expansion on the idea of the Piltdown Man (a fake early man) to incorporate feeling "fake" as a young (new) person. Perhaps. Or a reference to arrested development. Or, the Peter Pan complex. I don't know really... 

I used Piltdownlad as a vehicle to explore the darkness of my childhood in relation to my current existence as a writer trying to make sense of the past and the future, as well as an outlet to review equally, over-personal zines. 

Where does the Behind the Wheel series fit into this?

After ten issues, around 2014, I discovered Lyft, the ride-hail company. I thought to myself, here is something that is culturally relevant - albeit entirely absurd - that I'd love to document. Something I was convinced surely wouldn't last for long. From Lyft, I delved into Uber, which I also assumed was a fly by night operation at best. 

As I documented the stupidity, the madness, the desperation of using one's personal car as a taxicab, I stumbled onto many fascinating discoveries... Namely, that I loved driving around San Francisco, witnessing the last gasps of a city that I'd always associated with free expression and limitless artistic possibilities as tech start ups took over and molded the cultural reality into something darker and sinister... And the realization that Uber and Lyft weren't going anywhere soon. 

That's where the Behind the Wheel series was born, and from which it has evolved: detailing the nightmare of what was, and what may never be again. And holding a torch for the last bastion of analogue technology: taxi driving. 

It's safe to say I may have bit off more than I can "eschew." And now I'm in a vicious circle. But I still believe that salvation comes from hard work. And driving a taxi in San Francisco is a challenge I have yet to master. And may never master. But I am keeping notes... 

What do you mean when you say you're in a "vicious circle"?

The vicious circle I referred to is driving a taxi to write about driving a taxi... The writing comes easy. The driving, not so much. I suppose I could just work a few days each month, collect some stories, talk to other cab drivers, get their stories and do the column without subjecting myself to the physical stress, the poor financial returns and the constant sense of futility. But that's not the type of writer - or person - I am. Unfortunately, the story I want to tell requires active participation. And that comes with a plethora of consequences, both personal and financial. 

When writing the three Behind the Wheel issues, do you have a particular audience or reader(s) in mind?

I do. And it changes with each issue. When I wrote the first one I thought of readers of my previous zines. The second, people who read my blog. And the third, readers of my column. I've been fortunate to receive a decent amount of messages and comments from people who read my stuff. I don't always reply but I try to incorporate responses in future writings, either through inside jokes or references that only a few will catch.

I know from talking to taxi drivers that geography is a major issue to them when they read about locations. So I always make sure not to fuck up my cross streets or routes. Cause when I do, I immediately hear about it.

A few months back, some guy left a comment on an old column of mine in which he questioned my claim that taxis serve poor people, or the working poor, rather. His argument being that Uber is way more affordable. True, but that's irrelevant. Obviously. The complete lack of insight into how poverty works makes my mind swell each time I think about his comment. I still haven't figured out a single rebuttal because there are so many to make. When I try my mind just goes pfffffftttttttt. And yet, I find myself incorporating the subject of poverty into what I'm writing, not in a direct way, but just adding small scenes along the way. It's a subtle reply, I guess.

What are the most important things you want your readers to learn or understand from your writing?

I think writing should be exciting to read. It should be honest. It should capture the feel of a time and place. It should break rules and constantly push boundaries. I don't see much of that today. I'm often amused by things I read, but rarely am I excited. Like first discovering Henry Miller. Or Thomas Pynchon. Or Hunter Thompson. Not that I actually believe I'll ever reach that caliber, you know, but at least try, right?

Will there be a 4th Behind the Wheel? Do you have other future writing planned?

I've started working on the new BTW. Which will be mostly unpublished stuff about the daily process of driving and going into the city every day from Oakland. "The Thin Checkered Line."


Before I started documenting my experiences driving for hire I was working on other personal narratives under Piltdownlad. I'm actually hoping the new zine will lead to a return to those past stories to wrap up a manuscript I should have returned to the publisher over a year ago. I released a book about my abusive childhood several years ago and that's what led to Microcosm, the publisher, approaching me about another book that dealt specifically with punk rock as a method of recovery from abuse, called No Fun: How Punk Rock Saved My Life.  


The Behind the Wheel series is available from Dessaint's website, or from Amazon.


Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Two)

Mike Brannigan, Gold Rush Cabdriver

The intersection of Clay and Kearny in 1854, from the Annals of San Francisco. Image courtesy of the McCune Collection.

Mike Brannigan claimed (a bit dubiously) to have been the first cabdriver in San Francisco. What is true is that he was one of the city's earliest drivers for hire. He was there in the early 1850s, driving passengers around San Francisco, while the frontier settlement transformed from a collection of tents lined up in the mud, into a real-ish city of wood and brick.

Illustration from the Annals of San Francisco, courtesy of the McCune Collection.
San Francisco's early street conditions were not always favorable to pedestrians--to put it mildly. Riding in a carriage was much nicer, and since almost nobody owned their own carriages, cab and hack business was booming.

At the time, San Francisco lived up to its reputation as a rough place. Brannigan’s favorite fares were duelists, riding out of town into the sand dunes to shoot at each other. As he later recalled:
There was always $75 in a duel. It was at San Mateo they generally fought; for though it was all right to get into a shooting scrap on Montgomery street, the Sheriff used to chase the boys if they went potting at each other after thinking the matter over all night.

The Broderick-Terry Duel. Mural study by Wendell Jones. Image courtesy of www.famsf.org                                                                                                                           
The first one I had on hand was between Ned Tobey and another young fellow—I forget his name. Hall McAllister was Tobey’s second, I remember, and four shots were fired, though nobody was hurt. Then I took out Miles D. Truitt when he fought Colonel Washington the newspaper man. The Sheriff chased us all over the sand hills, but the affair came off all right, and Washington wounded Truitt in the shoulder. Another time General Walker had a row with Joe McKibben, and I drove out the General and Colonel Kewen, who was seconding him. All such matters was a sure $75.

As San Francisco history buffs will recall, the most famous casualty of the city’s early dueling craze was Senator David Broderick (now remembered chiefly for the street carrying his name). Though Mike was not Broderick’s cabdriver on that occasion (another cabbie, Owen McFarland, did the honors), Senator Broderick played an extremely important role in Mike’s career, as we shall see shortly.

Mike’s first appearance in the news was in 1852, when a certain Ira Cole attempted to “annihilate Michael Brannigan with a broomstick;” the case was dismissed when Brannigan refused to press charges.

As the tale goes (and since it was Brannigan who told the tale, it may well be a very tall one), Mike had co-owned San Francisco’s first hired carriage, along with fellow Irish immigrants Johnny Crowe and Jim Travers. Mike’s relationship with Crowe and Travers went through some ups and downs. In July of 1852, while still driving for Crowe and Travers, he drunkenly carried a lamp into the stable and almost set it on fire; in September Crowe and Travers tried to get him jailed on trumped-up charges (as related in Part One). By October of 1852 he was driving for a different livery stable, but managed to get in a fist-fight with Johnny Crowe when they both tried to load the same passenger at the wharf.

The Great Fire of 1851. Image courtesy of www.famsf.org.
In November, while most of San Francisco was trying to stop one of the many early fires which threatened to burn the city down, Mike snuck into a burning building and stole a coat. He was later arrested and thrown in jail, but was somehow acquitted. This was the first indication that Mike had some kind of ... protection ...

After this Brannigan managed to stay off the police blotter for an entire year. This personal record was perhaps helped by the fact that the city’s population was overwhelmingly male, averaging about twenty years old, armed to the teeth, drinking heavily, and desperately in search of riches by any means necessary. This was the time and place where the word “hoodlum” was coined.

Somehow, despite their history, Brannigan started driving for Jim Travers once again (Crowe had branched off into his own business). Apparently, Travers had not learned his lesson from earlier experiences with Mike Brannigan. The expression, “once bitten, twice shy” was about to acquire a new meaning.

Travers now ran one of the largest livery stables in the city, located at Kearny and Broadway. It was here that, in early December of 1853, Mike got into a fight with another driver named John Dougherty. The Alta California described the result:
During a fight which ensued, Brannigan bit the end of Dougherty’s nose entirely off, and also a piece out of his cheek. [Dougherty] was also wounded in the head, and the physician testified that about one-fourth of the nose was gone.

Court cases in those days tended to resolve very quickly, by our standards, but this one dragged on into February of 1854, when Mike Brannigan was found guilty of assault and battery... and then immediately pardoned, by no one less than the Governor of California, “Honest John” Bigler.

Yep: Mike had that kind of protection.

Remember Ira Cole, who Mike forgave for attacking him with a broomstick back in 1852? Mike wisely chose to make amends with Cole, because Cole (man about town, part-time boxer) was the right-hand man of “Dutch Charley” Duane (San Francisco Fire Chief, retired boxer). For these guys, being both politicians and boxers was not an accident. Together they oversaw a gang of street toughs who helped make sure elections went favorably for the Tammany-esque political machine run by San Francisco’s first party boss—Senator David Broderick. Governor Bigley was one of Broderick’s many allies, and he wasn’t above protecting "one of the boys" if called upon to do so.

Mike had picked up a second job to supplement his income as hackdriver: political operative. His responsibilities included:

  • being a "shoulder-striker," in other words, a political thug, intimidating voters during elections;
  • "colonizing," which meant using his hack to ferry trustworthy/intimidated repeat voters from polling place to polling place;
  • and, when all else failed, stuffing ballot boxes.

Mike's second job came with some great benefits--best of all, a "Get Out of Jail Free" card. Throughout his career, Mike knew how to schmooze up to powerful people, and he was always willing to do whatever dirty work was needed to gain their trust.