Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Eighteen)

Gone To His Reward

Mike Brannigan; from the El Paso Herald, July 24, 1899.

(Read Part Seventeen: A Joke on Somebody)
(Read Part One: The First Cabdriver in San Francisco?)

From the El Paso Herald, July 24th, 1899:


Mike Brannigan, the Hackman, Died Suddenly Last Night

Was Widely Known

He Numbered His Friends and Acquaintances Among Millionaires and Could Secure a Pass on Any Road in the United States.

Colonel Mike Brannigan, the hackman and one of the best known residents of El Paso, died suddenly this morning at four o’clock of heart failure at his residence on North Oregon street.

Mike, as he was familiarly called by all his friends and acquaintances, was slightly ill yesterday and Dr. Justice called to see him during the day and left a prescription. The sick man complained of pains in his left side in the region of his heart, but the trouble was not considered serious.

Last night he was restless until about 3 o’clock. He talked constantly about the business of the morrow and was up and down during the night.

“Just about 4 o’clock,” said Mrs. Brannigan, “I told him he had better leave a sofa in which he was sleeping and get in bed. A few minutes later I heard him breathe heavily and went to him. I shook him violently and told him to get up, but he did not stir and continued to gasp for breath.

“I ran to a neighbor’s and awakened them and asked them to send for a priest, but before the priest arrived poor Mike was gone.”

The funeral will take place tomorrow morning under direction of Emerson and Berrien. It will be held at the Catholic church, at 8 o’clock, and requiem mass will be said.

Deceased came to this city from California and had been a resident 13 years. He was born in Ireland and was 70 years old. In 1846 he landed in New Orleans and during the gold excitement in California left New Orleans for that state and was there during the rush of ‘49 and ‘50. Mike was known from San Francisco to New York and had friends among all the millionaires who prospected in California in the early days. He and millionaire John W. Mackay were boon companions in 1849 and whenever he passed this point he and Mike always spent a social hour together talking about old times.

Mike was intimately acquianted with the late Senator Hearst and some time ago the widow presented the hackman with a double harness trimmed with silver on account of the friendship existing between him and her husband.

It was Brannigan’s boast and pride that he could get a pass over any railroad in the United States on account of his influence with millionaire railroad men.

Brannigan leaves a widow, but no children. He was married 24 years ago in Galveston. His nephews, Edward and Pat and Jim Sexton will arrive from Chihuahua and John Sexton from Casas Grandes to attend the funeral.


“Mike Brannigan was a man with a heart as big as a house,” said Mr. Berrien this morning, after he had called at the residence of deceased to look after the body.

“He was known to every man, woman and child in El Paso, and nobody ever asked him for a favor and was turned away empty handed. He was lacking in education, probably, but he had many noble qualities.”

Mike Brannigan led an eventful career in the early days in California, if reports be true. Prior to the time he married and settled down his life was full of exciting incidents.

He was a gold digger in ‘49 and not meeting with any great amount of success concluded to seek his fortune in another direction. He owned and operated hacks both in Sacramento and San Francisco, California, and made money. Mike was of a turbulent and restless disposition when he was young, however, if reports be true, and got into some trouble in California, when the population was unsettled and lawless, and was given notice by the vigilantes to leave town. He went to New York and the entire press of the country was in an uproar about it. Mike was interviewed by reporters of all the leading papers and quickly became widely known. He threatened to sue the city but nothing ever came of it. He afterwards came to El Paso and located and during his residence here has been exceedingly hard working and attentive to his business and made money while his competitors slept.

He used to tell a good story on himself about selling a Chihuahua dog to a tourist. He had a little Newfoundland pup and sold it for a fancy price to a man who wanted to buy one of the famous Chihuahua dogs. The man took the dog east and it grew to be the size of a burro.

Months afterward he came to El Paso and upbraided Mike for deceiving him. Mike said:

“Faith, if you had kept that dog in Texas it would have been a Chihuahua dog, but I couldn’t guarantee that it wouldn’t grow any bigger, if you took it east.”

The tourist had to laugh and admit that the joke was on him.

From the El Paso Herald, July 25th, 1899:

Mike Brannigan’s Funeral.

Mike Brannigan’s funeral occurred at 8 o’clock this morning. It was attended by a large number of friends of the deceased.

Requiem mass was said at the Catholic church and the funeral procession afterwards wended its way to the cemetery.

Brannigan, who had been a hackman in this city so many years, owned and operated the first hack in San Francisco at the time when it cost $100 to take a ride in a carriage.

El Paso's legendary Concordia Cemetery, where Mike Brannigan is buried. (NPR)

(Next time: The Last Word)

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Seventeen)

An El Paso train station in the 1890s (Detail of photo at the DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University).
(Read Part Sixteen: Mike Brannigan, Triumphant)

From the El Paso Herald, August 6, 1898:


Today as the Texas & Pacific was about to pull out a city hack drove up to the station in a great hurry and on the box of the hack beside the driver was Officer Pat Dwyer.

As soon as the hack stopped the policeman and the driver alighted and the driver pointed out a young man as the one he had a complaint against, for having run off without paying his bill for hack hire. The policeman went up to the young fellow and told him the hackman’s trouble and told him he would have to either dig up three dollars, which was the amount of the bill, or go with him to the police station. The young man looked thunder struck and asked what he meant. He didn’t owe the hack driver any thing, he said, as he was an invited guest, using the carriage in seeing the sights of El Paso and Juarez this morning, and he knew nothing of the hack driver’s bill, and he wasn’t going to dig up any three dollars.

After some argument between the men Dwyer went to the telephone and rung up the police station and asked if the chief was there. He was informed that he was not, so he came out and told the fellow he would have to stay here another day and settle the matter.

The young man asked the officer if he had a warrant for his arrest and the officer didn’t have one. So the young fellow told the officer that he had orders to take a squad of men out on today’s train and he was going to take them.

The Herald reporter was on the scene during the debate and after the heated part of the conversation was over he asked Sergeant McMurry, for that was who the young man was, what was the matter and he said: “When I was coming out here with Major Jadwin I met an old man on the train who said he lived in El Paso. His name was Col. Mike Brannigan, and when I got to El Paso he would take pleasure in showing me around. From his talk I thought that he was a wealthy man and owned a livery stable or something of the kind and so when I arrived in El Paso the other day I met the colonel and yesterday he asked me if I didn’t want to go around in a carriage and see the city. Of course I did, but was too busy yesterday afternoon, so this morning, about ten o’clock I guess, the proffered carriage came around to the Hotel Pierson and this man was driving it. The colonel was not in the carriage, but I thought that he was too busy and had just sent a carriage for my disposal, so of course, I took the ride and there you have the whole story.”

El Paso's Pierson Hotel in the 1890s. (Photo courtesy of the DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University)
The hack driver said, “Mike Brannigan came to me and told me that there was a load for me at the Pierson to ride over town so I went up there and this young fellow got in the carriage and used it all the morning.”

A man who was going off on the train told the policeman if he didn’t have a warrant for the arrest of that man he had better not take him off the train as it might give him trouble. At one point in the conversation the hack driver offered to compromise the bill and take two dollars, but the young man said, “No, I don’t owe you a cent.”

(Next time: Gone To His Reward)



Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Sixteen)

Mike Brannigan, Triumphant

Mike Brannigan in 1894. (San Francisco Examiner)

(Read Part Fifteen: The Best Cabdriver in El Paso)

In 1888 the San Francisco Examiner featured the story of an old pioneer San Franciscan, returning to visit the scenes of his youth. As Mike Brannigan told the paper:
I have come back to San Francisco for the purpose of seeing some of my old friends of the Argonaut days of 1849, that is, as many of them are alive. I can tell you some interesting things about early times in this city. I owned and drove the first hack that ever rumbled over the streets of San Francisco.

Perhaps the fact that not so many of those “old friends” were still alive was what made Mike feel comfortable in coming back, 20 years after he had most recently been driven from the city, and 32 years after his original exile-on-the-pain-of-death. Almost all of the old associates who knew the dark secrets of Mike’s character were dead. Jim Travers and Johnny Crowe were both long gone. Frances Willis, who Mike had whipped in the street, had died in 1858 at her home on St. Mary’s street. Edith Mitchell, the actress Mike had raped in Sacramento, had died of dysentery in Bombay in 1868. The Committee of Vigilance, which had banished Mike from the City in 1856, had long since dissolved, and now was little more than a memory.

In short, Mike could tell the paper almost anything he wanted about the past, and almost nobody was around any more who knew better.

By the late 19th Century, San Francisco was the cultural and economic capital of the West Coast. (Image courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library)

Among Mike’s surviving friends were many powerful and wealthy folks, and not least among these was William Randolph Hearst, whose father George had been one of Mike’s long-time protectors. In 1888, and again in 1894, Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner gave Mike a platform from which to tell his own, heavily adulterated, version of the past. These stories were then picked up and repeated by Hearst papers across the country. It is ironic that, while Hearst’s Examiner remains famous for its sensationalist yellow journalism, in Mike’s case they completely let go of a juicy story, instead letting the old coot tell his own watered-down version of history.

Mike knew Lotta Crabtree back when she played the banjo at Gilbert's Melodeon (Online Archive of California)

I remember when Lotta Crabtree first appeared in this city. She used to play a banjo and dance jigs at Gilbert’s Melodeon, at the corner of Kearny and Clay streets, and got $6 a week. I think that was in 1854 or 1855. She went to Virginia City in 1860 and made a hit. Twenty-dollar gold pieces were showered on the stage for her benefit.

To the Examiner, Mike told his tales of the early days: $50 fares for rides of only a few blocks; the excitement of driving duelists out to the sand dunes, or Belle Cora and her friends out to the racetrack in the Mission.

The cabstand at Portsmouth Square in 1891. The top-hatted driver at the front of the line (standing next to his carriage, talking to a messenger boy) looks a bit like Mike Brannigan, and is perhaps of the same vintage. See earlier chapters of this history for views of this same hackstand in 1855 and in 1865. (Detail of photo at OpenSFHistory)

San Francisco at the fin de siecle was a greatly changed city from Mike’s hackdriving days back in the 50s and 60s. With great wealth came great class divisions, a growing critique of capitalism, and the birth of a labor movement that would, after the turn of the century, seize control of the city government. Mike stood by his powerful tycoon friends on this issue, and gave voice to an early articulation of what has since been called (a bit unfairly) the “Californian Ideology;” hearkening back to the Gold Rush, he said:
I would like to see that state of things again, and we would have less complaints about capitalists and the like. Every body was a capitalist in the old days, and if only a few of the wealthiest exist now I don’t know why they ought to be blamed. We all had a chance to become millionaires, and if we did not why it can’t be helped, and there is no use in repining.

Mike told the papers many stories about his past, but completely neglected—somehow—to mention anything about his days as a “shoulder striker,” his conviction for the crime of rape, or how the papers used to call him “the woman-whipper,” and worse.

The most bold-faced lie he told was this one:
In 1856 he started on a tour home to Ireland with Billy Mulligan, Cy Shea, and Charley Duane, all sports of the period.
“Well, we'd about $25,00 or $30,000 between us when we got to New York and we started to show the folks there how we painted towns in California. 
“I never got any nearer Ireland than that, for when we boys got sobered up three months later we hadn't a dollar between us, and old Commodore Garrison had to stake me to a trip back to the coast.”

In truth, Mike and his friends did not decide on their own to take “a tour home to Ireland,” and the “sports of the period” Mike mentions were his fellow exiles, driven out of California by the Vigilance Committee for criminal behavior and political corruption. Although it is true that Mike had a brief, uproarious stay in New York with Mulligan, Duane, and the rest, Mike’s friends raised the cash to send him back to San Francisco as a way to test the waters—if the Vigilantes did not execute Mike, it would be safe for the rest of them to return as well.

Mike’s later misadventures in Central America, Sacramento, Virginia City, Texas, and the cells of San Quentin were summarized in one sentence:
In later years Mike Brannigan drifted hither and thither, now losing money, now making it, but always happy.

To top it all off, Mike had now acquired a title: he called himself “Colonel Mike Brannigan.” Just how and why he came by this epithet is unclear. Although Mike and his contemporaries lived through numerous wars—most prominently, the Mexican-American War and the Civil War—Mike had stayed well away from both of these conflicts, and, indeed, had spent part of the Civil War locked in the state penitentiary. The closest Mike had come to a military career was when he helped smuggle arms to William Walker’s filibustering army; but on that occasion his title was not “colonel,” but “ship’s cook.”

But there it was, printed in the Examiner: Colonel Mike Brannigan, the city’s pioneer hack driver, visiting his old haunts, telling stories of the past, and being lionized by the press. History is written by the victors; and Mike, despite all his faults and terrible misdeeds, came out a winner.

Next time: A Joke on Somebody

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Fifteen)

The Best Cabdriver in El Paso

Advertisement from the El Paso Evening Tribune, Dec. 8, 1891

(Read Part Fourteen: The Worst Cabdriver in Galveston)

On December 11, 1891, Myar’s Opera House in El Paso presented The Millionaire, written by Leander Richardson. The play was a timely piece of anti-union, pro-capitalist propaganda that wasn't above stirring up ethnic rivalries. The protagonist, James O’Brien, was a contractor trying to finish the transcontinental railroad, despite the machinations of a sinister Italian labor agitator named Ferreti. The production had traveled across the country, led by star actor Daniel Sully in the lead role of O’Brien. In each city, a large band of “supers” were hired, to play the crowd of Irish and Italian laborers working to build the railroad.

As the San Francisco Wasp reported,
In El Paso, Tex., the "supers" were all Mexicans with one exception. His name was Brannigan — Mike Brannigan — and in the day-time he was a hack-driver.

In a crucial scene, the workers go on strike, and Ferreti and O’Brien face off across the tracks. Ferreti is backed by a band of Italian workers, while O’Brien tries to rally the Irish workers to his side:
The train is seen crossing a trestle in the distance, when O'Brien, disguised as a section-hand, impassionately importunes the striking sons of Erin in the following terms : “Remember, boys, O'Brien is an Irishman like yourselves.”

At this point in the performance, Mike Brannigan realized that he was standing on the wrong side, being counted as an Italian:
He forthwith started to cross the stage, but Ferreti told him sotto voce to remain where he was. "I'm d--d if I will," yelled Mike ; " I'm an Irishman, and I'll go over to the Irish whether you like it or not." It is needless to say Mike made a hit.

Mike didn’t just make a hit on the stage. He made a hit in El Paso.

A hack waits on an El Paso street in the 1880s (detail of photo held by the DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University)

He and his wife had arrived in 1885, probably attracted by the frontier character of the growing city. El Paso—also known as “Sin City” and “the Six-Shooter Capital”—had more than a little of a rough and tumble atmosphere that must have reminded Mike of his days in Gold Rush San Francisco. With the arrival of the railroad, El Paso had also emerged as a colorful tourist destination, and a favored stop for travelers heading from one coast to the other. Mike set up shop with a livery stable and soon became one of the most well-known and popular characters in town.
Jerry Collins has retired from the hack business, having been bought out by that most popular driver, Mike Branagan. (El Paso Times, Sept 20, 1890)

As always, Mike made the papers frequently, but no longer for his old practices such as fighting, causing public disturbances, or overcharging customers. Instead, he was the subject of quaint anecdotes such as the following:
Col. Mike Brannigan has two strange looking birds in a cage. On being asked what kind of birds they are, he said they are Chinese birds from Japan. (El Paso Herald, Oct. 15, 1889)

With his hack business flourishing, Mike and his wife invested in real estate, and soon became comfortably well off, enough to travel frequently. They took almost yearly visits to Mary’s family on the east coast; Mike also made several visits to his old stomping grounds in California. In 1893 they went to the Chicago World’s Fair—this time not to work the fair, but simply to visit as tourists.

The Brannigans became El Paso society figures, with their comings and goings noted in the papers. Although Mike and Mary never had children of their own, Mary had a large Irish family back east, and many of her nieces and nephews came to Texas to stay with the Brannigans in their cozy brick cottage on Oregon street.

Mike became a beloved El Paso fixture, which must come as a shock to anyone familiar with what Mike used to be like. Adding to his popularity were the visits he started receiving from famous people. With Mike’s sordid past now comfortably receding from memory, old friends started making a point of dropping by and visiting Mike whenever they passed through Texas. And so, we can now see who some of the powerful people were who had protected Mike back in the day, and who now were willing to openly call Mike Brannigan a friend.

George Hearst, founder of the Hearst dynasty.

George Hearst, founder of the powerful Hearst dynasty, may have known Mike from the Gold Rush days of the 1850s. Hearst made his true fortune in Virginia City, and he and Mike were active there at the same time. After Hearst’s death in 1891, his widow Phoebe Hearst sent Mike several presents and mementoes of his old friend, including a silver set of harness for his carriage, and a painted portrait of the late Senator.

William Randolph Hearst (Wikipedia)

Following his father’s example, William Randolph Hearst also considered Mike Brannigan a friend. He owned ranches in Texas and Mexico, and employed one of Mike’s nephews as a captain for cattle drives.

C.P. Huntington (Wikipedia)

Mike often bragged that he could ride any railroad in the country for free, on account of his friendships with powerful railroad millionaires. By this he was certainly referring to Collis P. Huntington, one of the “Big Four” founders of the Central Pacific. Huntington may have first known Mike from his Sacramento days. Despite his polite, businesslike demeanor, Huntington reputedly had a private preference for “outré” stories, and this may well have drawn him to Mike Brannigan. As a railroad magnate, Huntington traveled the country in his own private railcar, and in 1895 he made a special visit to El Paso to see his old friend, Mike Brannigan. There may have been a spat, though:
Mike Brannigan indignantly denied the report that he was fired out of C.P. Huntington’s private car by the colored porter. (El Paso Herald, November 25, 1895)

John William Mackay (Online Nevada Encyclopedia)

Irish-born John William Mackay was one of the Bonanza Kings who made their fortunes in silver from Virginia City, during the same years in which Brannigan was there. Whenever he passed through Texas, Mackay would stop by to see his old friend, and “he and Mike always spent a social hour together talking about old times.”

Drury Malone (JoinCalifornia)

Drury Malone owned a warehouse in Sacramento during Mike’s time there, and later went to Virginia City for the silver rush. Meeting no luck as a prospector, Malone had the fortune to marry into wealth, and became one of the most wealthy and powerful men in California, serving as Secretary of State in the 1870s. Once he had taken her wealth and risen to power, Malone divorced his unfortunate wife. He stopped by in 1893, and Mike showed him the sights of El Paso and Cuidad Juarez.

Heavyweight Champion of the World James Corbett (Wikipedia)

“Gentleman Jim” Corbett was the son of Patrick Corbett, a San Francisco hackdriver and livery stable keeper who would have known Mike Brannigan from the 1860s. In 1894, while Corbett was World Heavyweight Champion, he toured Texas, but did not make it to El Paso. Corbett sent Mike Brannigan an apologetic telegram: “Impossible to play. Very sorry. Remember me to all my friends. J. Corbett.”

With such powerful allies as the Hearsts, Huntington, Mackay, Malone, and Corbett, Mike decided it was safe to show his face in San Francisco, once again.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Interlude)

Mike Goes To The Fair

The Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia was the greatest event of 1876. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

(Read Part Fourteen: The Worst Cabdriver in Galveston)

In 1876, Mike Brannigan decided to go to the fair. And not just any fair: the biggest, grandest fair in the world!

Which was, of course, The International Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the United States.

"Mommy, look!" Fairgoers enjoy the novelty of popcorn balls at the Centennial Exhibition. (Free Library of Philadelphia)

The Centennial Exhibition was a massive event, drawing in over ten million visitors within its six months of existence. People streamed into Philadelphia from across the US and beyond, to gawk at the latest technological marvels (such as the first working public exhibition of Edison’s telephone), a monorail, and exotic specimens of humanity. Some of today’s stereotypically all-American fare, such as popcorn balls, and root beer, were made popular at the Centennial.

Mike Brannigan, however, did not go to Philadelphia to sight-see, or to snack on popcorn. He went to make money.

Hacks line up outside a Philadelphia Hotel in 1876. (Detail of photo at the Free Library of Philadelphia)

All those people crammed into one city, trying to get around would need transportation—and Mike was just one of reportedly thousands of hack and carriage drivers who swarmed in from all over the country to provide that service, much the way Uber and Lyft drivers today travel long distances to work peak events in the hope of a payout big enough to make it all worthwhile.

And just like an Uber driver, Mike was no doubt looking for the chance to extract a little, shall we say, “surge pricing,” out of his passengers... He must have been as happy as... well, as a rat at a fair...

A cab with the Fare Controller and Indicator installed (behind the driver). (New York Daily Graphic, 1876).

It was during the Centennial Exhibition that the first attempt in the US at a taximeter-like device—the “Fare Controller and Indicator”—made its appearance, used by one of the cab companies servicing fairgoers. Like later taximeters, the fare controller was designed to keep a certain kind of cabdriver from overcharging passengers. Sadly, there is no record of Mike’s thoughts about this invention.

(For more about the Fare Controller and the Centennial Exhibition, see "How Ludwig van Beethoven Invented the Taximeter")

Hotels were full and places to stay were scarce during the Centennial (Free Library of Philadelphia)

Mike—for once in his life—doesn’t show up in the police reports or the papers in Philadelphia during his stay there; but many other vagrant drivers, including some from Texas, do. It appears that these drivers, not surprisingly, tended to overlook the city’s cab regulations concerning licensing and rates of fare. Also, drivers are reported to have slept in their vehicles at night, perhaps because beds in the overcrowded city were both scarce and expensive.

The Precariat, servicing party-goers since 1876! An Uber driver prepares to sleep in his car (Bloomberg)

And then, in the middle of the summer, a record heat wave struck the city. Attendance dropped; business became difficult. Perhaps Mike, desperate for money, worked himself harder than usual. On July 23, 1876, the Galveston Daily News reported the gossip on the street:
It was reported in hack circles yesterday that Mike Brannagan died of sunstroke in Philadelphia a day or two ago, the news having come by telegraph.

Since Brannigan just might have known Mark Twain back in San Francisco (why not?), it should be only fair that he get to deliver the punchline (which Twain never quite did):
“Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated!”

And if you, dear reader of this series, had been hoping against hope, that yes! Mike Brannigan had actually met the fate he deserved!—I am sorry. THE Mike Brannigan—who had already avoided death by hanging, firing squad, getting shot point-blank, and being torn apart by angry mobs (on two separate occasions)—could never meet his end in such a pathetic, footnote-like manner. Sunstroke? Think again.

Mike was fine, although very little of his experience at the fair is recorded. For instance: did his wife, of only two years, accompany him to Philadelphia, or remain in Galveston? There is no evidence either way. But my guess is that she did go. She had relatives in New York City, who she liked to visit. And also, a man like Mike Brannigan needs a close watch. I bet Mary went along to keep him in line, and this may well be why he never shows up in the papers for the usual infractions.

Uncle Sam's carved head adorns this souvenir cane from the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, which was sold at an auction in 2013.

We have only one more, slightly puzzling, detail regarding Mike’s experiences in Philadelphia: In September he sent a package of souvenir canes back to Galveston. The letter he sent to a friend, detailing how the canes were to be distributed, was published in the Daily News on October 5, 1876:

Centennial Mementoes. 
The following missive from Mike Brannagan, who went on to Philadelphia to make a raise with his vehicles among the Centennialites, was received yesterday by Pat. Tiernan, and created some amusement: 
September 22, 1876. 
Friend Pat—You will receive a package of canes. Please deliver them as they are marked. You can tell Dick Nagle there is a friend of his—a clerk—at the Transcontinental. Time is getting short. We will all leave here the day after the Centennial. One hundred and thirty thousand visitors at the grounds to-day. Deliver as marked, and oblige your friend. 
Col. Mike Branagan. 
The canes referred to present a curious variety, from the fancy tassel stick to the huge hickery. The following are the favored few: John Westerlage, Chief of Police Atkins, Grey Nichols, Col. Wood, Thos. Tydings, Dick Nagle, Frank D. Harrar, Barney Tiernan, Pat Tiernan, Thos. Ochiltree.

There are two curious things about this letter. First, this is the first recorded instance in which Mike refers to himself as “Colonel.” More on that later.

Second, there was some massive joke here, which made it funny enough to be reprinted in the paper, but which is now not easy to pick out. On the surface, Mike is sending some souvenir canes to his friends—each of whom gets a specific style of cane, ranging from a “fancy tassel stick” to a “huge hickory.” The recipients, though, are almost all prominent citizens of Galveston—the Police Chief and the Sheriff, two policemen, a capitalist, and several politicians. Mike did have a long-established pattern of cozying up to powerful people in order to get political protection. But were these folks really Mike’s cronies? Was he teasing a bunch of friends, or taunting his enemies?

The Centennial Exhibition came to an end on November 10, 1876, and the next day Mike decamped from Philadelphia, along with countless others, and returned to Galveston.

A few years later Mike and his wife moved to El Paso.

Next time (for real): The Best Cabdriver in El Paso

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Digital Mediation, Soft Cabs, and Spatial Labour

The new special issue of Digital Culture & Society on "Mobile Digital Practices" has been released, featuring my article on "Digital Mediation, Soft Cabs, and Spatial Labour:"

A copy will be posted here after De Gruyter's twelve-month embargo on repositories. I can be contacted via the emails on this page.


Critics of digitally mediated labour platforms (often called the “sharing” or “gig economy”) have focused on the character and extent of the control exerted by these platforms over both workers and customers, and in particular on the precarizing impact on the workers on whose labor the services depend. Less attention has been paid to the specifically spatial character of the forms of work targeted by mobile digital platforms. The production and maintenance of urban social space has always been dependent, to a large degree, on work that involves the crossing of spatial boundaries - particularly between public and private spaces, but also crossing spaces segregated by class, race, and gender. Delivery workers, cabdrivers, day labourers, home care providers, and similar boundary-crossers all perform spatial work: the work of moving between and connecting spaces physically, experientially, and through representation. Spatial work contributes to the production and reproduction of social space; it is also productive of three specific, though interrelated, products: physical movement from one place to another; the experience of this movement; and the articulation of these places, experiences, and movements with visions of society and of the social. Significantly, it is precisely such spatial work, and its products, which mobile digital platforms seek most urgently to transform. Drawing on several recent studies of “ridesharing” (or soft cab) labour platforms, I interrogate the impact of digital mediation on the actual practices involved in spatial work. I argue that the roll-out of digital labour platforms needs to be understood in terms of a struggle over the production of social space.

Monday, January 15, 2018

How Ludwig van Beethoven Invented the Taximeter (a true story, with some caveats)

In 1876, a new technology for managing interactions between drivers and passengers promised to transform the cab-riding experience.

People converging on the Centennial Exhibition via multiple means of transportation (Library of Congress).

The year was 1876; the place, Philadelphia; and the event was the grand Centennial International Exhibition, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the United States.

The Centennial was a massive event, drawing over ten million visitors, who strolled the grounds viewing such wonders as the first public demonstration of the telephone, and a massive arm and torch which would later be part of the Statue of Liberty, while enjoying such novel (but afterwards well-known) treats as popcorn and non-alcoholic root beer.

Getting all these people to the exhibition gates was both a challenge and a business opportunity. Railroads, streetcars, and omnibuses moved passengers. Hack and cab proprietors came from as far away as Texas, looking to make money operating their vehicles during the Exhibition.

This caused a bit of concern for the city fathers. Cab regulation was still in its early days, and they had few ways to keep this flood of out-of-town vehicles from swamping their streets. The city council passed laws requiring cabs to be licensed, which most of the out-of-towners ignored; they also proposed that real Philadelphia carriage drivers be issued uniforms, so they could be distinguished from the horde of outsiders.

Opportunities for misunderstandings between drivers and passengers were rife. Before the existence of the taximeter, the fares for most trips were calculated by the mile, which was usually estimated based on the number of blocks that had been travelled. Visitors unfamiliar with the city did not always know the rates of fare or the distances between places, so they were liable to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous drivers.

Sometimes fares were reckoned by time, but this led to its own difficulties in an era when not everyone carried watches, and when they did, the watches did not always agree.

On top of this there was the issue of class conflict. It was primarily upper middle class visitors who could afford to ride in hired carriages, and they did so because they didn’t want to mingle with the hoi polloi in the public streetcars. But to ride in a hack meant to put themselves under the control of low-status, working class drivers, who were often immigrants to boot (at the time, mostly Irish). Class anxiety mixed with suspicion meant that passengers often accused drivers of cheating them over the fare, even when they were not, in fact, cheating.

Something needed to be done, both to exert more control over drivers, and to ensure their upper-class passengers that the system could be trusted.

To the rescue: the “Ingenious German,” Ludwig van Beethoven.

The great composer, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was unable to attend the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. (Wikipedia)  

Okay, so not that Ludwig van Beethoven. That famous composer, however, had a grandnephew, Ludwig Johann van Beethoven. The younger Ludwig was born in 1839, the son of Karl van Beethoven, the “old Ludwig Van’s” dissolute nephew. This part of the family tended to free-load off their more successful relatives, while also changing the “van” in their name to “von,” to give the impression that they were descended from nobility.

Marie and Ludwig Johann van Beethoven (The Beethoven Family Trees)

Music writer Alex Ross has described the younger Ludwig as an “energetic and determined character, though somewhat lacking in moral fibre. Posing as the “grandson” of Beethoven, he wormed his way into the court of Ludwig II of Bavaria, but had to flee Europe in 1871, due to charges of fraud and embezzlement. Arriving in the New World, Beethoven changed his name to Louis von Hoven. Although he later claimed that this was to avoid constantly being harassed by fans of his great ancestor, historians agree that the name change was meant to avoid creditors and possible prosecution, and to enable von Hoven and his family to start afresh in America.

Ludwig’s—I mean, Louis’s—wife Marie was an accomplished concert pianist, and her performances supported the young “von Hoven” family as they rambled from city to city in the US and Canada. Louis started working for railroad companies, presumably in some technical capacity, as he soon showed an interest in the use of technology to organize and control the flow of information, people, and goods. He developed an on-demand messenger service, the New York Commissionaire Company, which operated in New York and Chicago. He also invented a new check register. In 1876, Louis von Hoven was in Philadelphia for the Centennial Exhibition. He may have been involved in running a “rolling chair” company, renting wheelchairs to fair-goers.

Then came his greatest achievement: the invention of the taximeter.

Alright: so he didn’t invent the taximeter per se. The “taximeter” (a device which calculates cab fares using both distance and time) would not come into existence until 1891, and is attributed to German inventor F.W.G. Bruhn. What von Hoven did invent was an important, and very revealing, precursor to the taximeter, which he called the “Fare Controller and Indicator.”

It wasn’t the first proto-taximeter: as early as the 1840s there had been a “patent mile index” installed in some London cabs, and in Paris in the 1860s at least four different kinds of “compteur” had been tried, none of which proved satisfactory. Von Hoven’s invention, however, had some novel features.

Mechanical devices intended to rationalize driver-passenger relations often simply created new controversies (Punch).

Von Hoven’s fare controllers were installed in the carriages of the National Cab Company, which had formed that same year to provide service during the Exhibition. To ride in such a cab, you hailed one of its vehicles off the street, distinguished by a “little blue illuminated sign” on the front, reading “To Hire.” Upon stepping into the carriage, you saw these instructions posted on the wall:

Much like with later mechanical taximeters, the driver then pushed down the “To Hire” flag, engaging a mechanism which recorded the time duration of the trip in quarter-hour increments. This action also swung a clock in front of the passenger’s face, so that they could verify the time at which the trip began.

At the end of the trip, the driver restored the “To Hire” sign, thus stopping the trip recorder. As the passenger paid, the driver pushed another button, making a gong sound, for each quarter in payment; the result is that both the duration of the ride and the payment received were recorded.

As a contemporary newspaper put it, “what has all along been needed has been some way to manage the driver.” Now passengers could put their faith in a mechanical device instead of in their drivers. At the same time, in von Hoven’s words, “each passenger will thus become a sort of detective against the driver,” ensuring that all the money taken in by the driver during a shift would be reported to the owner of the vehicle.

A carriage with von Hoven's Fare Controller and Indicator installed; when the driver pushes down the "To Hire" sign behind him, a clock appears inside the carriage (New York Daily Graphic).

But von Hoven’s device had one more trick up its sleeve: it was also a transformer. While carrying a passenger, with the “To Hire” sign swung down out of view, not only did the vehicle no longer advertise itself as for hire, it no longer looked like a “for hire” vehicle at all:
By a special ordinance of the municipal government they are allowed the unusual privilege of concealing their license numbers when engaged. This, with tidy-looking drivers dressed in neat livery and well-groomed horses, takes away all the ordinary marks of a public vehicle and makes them as finely appointed turnouts as any private coupés in town. (New York Herald)

This ability to transform from hired cab to (apparently) private vehicle was all-important for the class-conscious passengers of the day, who wanted nothing more than to be mistaken for members of the truly rich, who rode around in their own private carriages. This desire for social distinction is what gave rise to the historical division between taxicabs (with taximeters, prominent numbering, and often garish colors), and limousines and black car services. And who better than Louis von Hoven—himself a transformer, with his name changes and pretensions to nobility—to understand and cater to such class anxiety?

The end of the Exhibition, in November 1876, led to a dramatic curtailment of the transport business in Philadelphia, and with it the end of the National Cab Company. This also meant the end of von Hoven’s fare controllers and indicators in operation. An attempt to install them in a New York carriage company came to naught, and the device disappears from history.

The precise reason for the disappearance of the von Hoven fare controller is unclear. Perhaps, like many other early precursors to the taximeter, its physical mechanism was just no match for the continuous jolts and wear and tear of the cab trade. It is also possible that von Hoven was once again in financial trouble: by the end of 1876, both the National Cab Company and the New York Commissionaire Company had gone out of business, and the inventor and his family returned to Europe soon thereafter. In Paris in 1877, von Hoven filed a new patent for a compteur de voiture, with some improvements, which never appears to have been put into service. Von Hoven once again seems to have lived off gifts from wealthy friends and kin; once again “Ludwig van Beethoven,” he died in Brussels in 1913. With the deaths of his wife and son within a few years, the Beethoven surname came to an end.

Von Hoven’s proto-taximeter was not just a device for calculating cab fares: it was a technological means to intervene in person-to-person interaction at a site of social and class anxiety. As such, it bears more than a passing resemblance to the cab-reforming technology of today:

  • Much like von Hoven’s invention, the “soft meter” (like a taximeter, but on a smartphone) used by companies like Uber, Flywheel, and Lyft makes an appeal to the prestige of cutting-edge technology to serve as an arbiter between passenger and driver, even if today it’s all about algorithms and GPS, rather than mechanical gears and clockwork.
  • Through the infamous five-star rating system, Uber and Lyft enlist their passengers to be “detectives against the driver,” just like von Hoven imagined.
  • Just like von Hoven’s transformer-carriage, Uber and Lyft dispel the image of the taxicab by getting rid of its symbols, turning the cab into a “rideshare,” and semantically replacing the cabdriver with either a “private driver” or a “friend with a car” (it is for this reason that “soft cab” is the best name for these services).
  • And finally, just like in 1876, these technologies are about a lot more than simply calculating a fare for getting people from point A to point B: they are about enabling middle and upper class mobility through increased control over a working class, largely immigrant workforce.

On Louis von Hoven and his family:

  • Paul Nettle (1957) “Beethoven’s Grand-Nephew in America,” Music & Letters, 38:3, pp. 260-264.
  • Alex Ross (2014) “Beethoven’s Grand-nephew” The Rest is Noise,
  • Michael Lorenz (2016) “The Beethoven Family Graves in Vienna,” The Beethoven Journal 31:2.

Or click here for a detailed history of the taxanom/taxameter/taximeter in the late 19th Century: