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 coup├ęs 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, http://www.therestisnoise.com/2014/05/beethovens-grand-nephew.html
  • 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:





Friday, December 22, 2017

Sorry, Robot! A Rock Just Took Your Job


A big rock (Wikipedia).

Did you blink? The moment of the robo-cop has already come and gone. While the Knightscope K5 and its competitors kicked up controversy in 2017 just as easily as they ran over children and rousted the homeless, their jobs as peacekeepers in the class war-zone of today’s cities may be over.

Their replacements? Big rocks.

San Francisco, which has long been one of new tech’s bleeding-edge experiment zones, has already gone lithic. Tired of repeatedly clearing homeless encampments, the city has turned, not to perimeter-policing robots, but to “defensive boulders” to prevent the legions of out-of-work delivery workers, Uber drivers, and mall cops from returning to their homes-away-from-home.

We are seeing a glimpse of the future. After the humans have all been replaced by robots, the robots will naturally all be replaced by rocks.  Compared to robots and humans, rocks are cheaper, more efficient, and more sustainable. Unlike both humans and robots, rocks are uniformly well-behaved, and rarely malfunction. Rocks do not strew garbage, commit weird acts of violence, throw themselves into fountains, or rise up in revolution; none of that.

Rocks just sit there quietly, looking decorative.

The coming Age of the Rock will be long and peaceful. Then, over the millennia, by a process not unlike Moore’s law, but a lot more inevitable, they will gradually miniaturize. In this final utopia, the world will be as Shelley foresaw:



...boundless and bare,
  The lone and level sands stretch far away.




Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Fourteen)

The Worst Cabdriver in Galveston

A hack waits in front of a Galveston hotel (Galveston History)
(Read Part Thirteen: Pimpin' Ain't Easy)


On the afternoon of September 29th, 1874, a young woman stepped off a train in Galveston, Texas. Mary Burton was 22 years old and a seamstress by trade. She was a stranger to Galveston, with nowhere to stay, and had little more to go on than a list of potential employers.

She hired a hack from the cab line outside the depot, and asked to be taken to the first address on her list, one Mrs. Brown. Unfortunately, Mrs. Brown was not able to give her work. She rode the hack to two more addresses on the list, but neither of these employers were able to offer her a position.

Galveston in the 1880s (Library of Congress)
The hackdriver expressed some qualms over her ability to pay the mounting fare; she assured him she could pay. Yet it was beginning to get dark, and she had nowhere to stay that evening. The driver, Mike Brannigan, kindly offered to take her to a respectable boarding house.
“I will take you to a private family—a very respectable family, where you will be cared for.”

Downtown Galveston in the 1880s (Galveston History)

Galveston in the 1870s was a booming port city, rapidly growing in both population and importance. A center of trade and finance, it boasted a diverse populace and a reputation for vice. It must have felt a lot like early San Francisco. Mike Brannigan fit in just fine.

His attempt to reinvent himself in a new city where nobody knew his past was meeting with mixed success. He became part-owner of a livery stable, cycled through a series of co-owners, sold out his interest, and then ended up as owner again. He must have had a sizable fleet of hacks, because he remained in business after having to sell off several (Hacks 20, 21, 36, 45, and 46) to pay debts.

He was probably also back in business with the ladies of the evening. His livery stable at 25th and Postoffice streets was at the edge of the Line, a red light district that would become particularly notorious some decades later. The house to which he took Mary Burton was just a few blocks away at Postoffice and 29th, and belonged to a Mrs. Cockrill. As Mary later testified:
He said, you stay here, you can have all you want. This woman is poor but respectable. I know it, he said. In this town you must go to the poor to get shelter.

Twenty-Ninth and Postoffice in 1871 (Detail of map by C. Drie; Big Map Blog)

Mary entered the house, a “neat little cottage,” and Mike left her there, saying he would return later. She began to have doubts:
I was not there two minutes before I saw that the place was not such as I liked. I saw something spilt on the floor which attracted my attention, and caused me to look around. ... I saw the woman was intoxicated. I did not know what to do. I thought best to wait until he (the hackman) stepped out. I did not see where he put my things. He said, take a seat madam, I will be back soon. Then the thought entered my head, what have I to do with a hack-driver. I began to realize where I was. I said, madam, give me my basket, I want to go.

It was sundown when Mary left the house. Mrs. Cockrill made no attempt to stop her, or was too drunk to do so. Mary went to a neighbor’s house and asked the way to the Ursuline convent, where she hoped she could stay the night; they sent their teenage boy with her to see her safely there. The next day, she reported Brannigan to the police.

Had Mike’s motives been kind, or callous? Was he simply offering her a place to stay, if a bit humble? Or was he trying to lure her into a career of prostitution? As we know, he had been tried, and acquitted, of just that very thing a few years before in San Francisco.

Most of the titillating court case that ensued focused on just what sort of house Mrs. Cockrill ran. Witnesses were called, primarily neighbors, who described the reputation of the Cockrill home:
The next witness for the prosecution was Mrs. J.M. Malley: "I reside at the corner of Postoffice and Twenty-ninth street. … I told her I knew nothing of the house, only that the inmates bore the name of beer-jerkers, and I supposed that they were women of ill fame."
Mrs. Jenkins was the next witness for the prosecution: ... "Men and women visit there. Among the neighborhood the belief is that the house is one of assignation. ... Can not say in regard to the reputation of Mrs. Cockrill. She is regarded as a woman of loose habits."

Other testimony was riddled with words the papers were unwilling to print:
The fourth witness for the prosecution was J.M. Malley, who testified as follows: ...
"In the neighborhood the reputation of the house is not very good—it bears the reputation of being a ---- house, and everything else. I have seen young ladies go there. Have overheard their conversation. These are not such as would come from any decent house. I have noticed hacks going there early and late at night. ... I saw men go there frequently then. The character and general reputation of Mrs. Cockrill are that she is a regular -----. That is what I judge from what I can gather."

The judge determined that
The testimony proves conclusively and beyond a doubt that the house to which she was carried was one of assignation and public prostitution. There is only one question to be taken into consideration, and that is does taking a woman of respectability to a house of ill fame bring shame and reproach upon her.

Unfortunately, it was not clear what law Brannigan could be charged under. The prosecution tried to convict him of assault and battery—upon Mary’s reputation. In the end, Mike was let out on bail, and the case against him essentially vanished.

Mike had escaped justice once again. Or perhaps he was innocent, after all. But certainly his reputation in his new adopted city must have suffered from the court case.

Maybe Mike saw the need to turn a corner in his life story. In any event, just a few months later, he got married.

St. Mary's Cathedral, Galveston (Wikipedia)

On December 13, 1874, Michael Brannigan wed Mary O’Connell at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Galveston. He was forty-five years old; she was nineteen.

Very little is known of Mary O’Connell before her marriage to Brannigan. Like him, she was an Irish immigrant. Unlike Mike, she had a large family, living on the East Coast.

Somehow, under Mary’s influence, Mike changed. His court appearances for fighting and violating the hack regulations became less frequent. In 1877, he even joined a number of other hackmen in signing a letter denouncing the over-charging of passengers.

Could it be that Mike Brannigan—THE Mike Brannigan—was at last, becoming... respectable?


Next time: The Best Cabdriver in El Paso



Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Thirteen)

Pimpin' Ain't Easy;

Or, The Worst Cabdriver in San Francisco (Again)

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In 1873, the Sacramento Daily Union found him:

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


Next Time: The Worst Cabdriver in Galveston



Friday, November 3, 2017

Yet Most I Love Your Scars


San Francisco
(1913)


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




Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Twelve)

“It is Legal to Shoot Mike Brannigan”

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


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

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


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

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

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


Billy Mulligan. (San Francisco Examiner)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the sooner, the better.


Next time: Pimpin' Ain't Easy


Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Eleven)

The Worst Scoundrel in Virginia City

Fun times in a Virginia City saloon. Illustration from Harper's Monthly (Digital History Project)

(Read Part Ten: Escape from San Quentin!)

The Gold Rush put San Francisco on the map, but it was the Silver Rush that made the city into a financial powerhouse. Silver from the Comstock Lode funneled through San Francisco and made many fortunes. Easterners looking for riches, and old 49ers anxious for another chance, streamed into the Sierras. The center of the action—the new frontier—was the City of Virginia, Territory of Nevada.

Virginia City in 1861. Detail of lithograph by Kuchel and Brown (Library of Congress)

Constructed right on top of the Comstock Lode, Virginia City was a collection of saloons, gambling halls, and brothels sitting above a honeycomb of mineshafts and tunnels. A transfusion of San Franciscans and their institutions made Virginia a mini-San Francisco in the mountains. Tom Maguire opened a second Maguire's Opera House, in imitation of his more famous San Francisco location. Orrick Johnson, one of San Francisco's first livery stable owners, moved his business to Virginia City. Many an old San Franciscan character from the days of the Gold Rush could be seen on the streets of the new boomtown. Virginia even had its own home-grown committee of vigilantes, known as the 601.

Mark Twain writing for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. (Illustration from Roughing It.)

It was in Virginia City that a young, unsuccessful miner named Samuel Clemens wrote some amusing letters to the editor of the Territorial Enterprise and was promptly hired to write for that paper. Writing under the name Mark Twain, he entertained and infuriated the locals with a series of hoaxes and “squibs,” and every now and then, perhaps, the actual news.

And there was Mike Brannigan.

Mike showed up in Virginia City sometime in 1863, shortly after being sprung from San Quentin. San Francisco and Sacramento were both presumably too hot for Mike, due to his reputation as a rapist, thug, thief, brawler, and hired political goon. It's not clear what Mike did for a living while he was in Virginia City—he almost certainly did not drive a hack, as a man with his notoriety would have had a hard time obtaining patrons. It is also unlikely that he worked in the mines; Mike was never the kind of sucker who would go in for hard labor when there were easier, quicker ways of making money available.

George Hearst, founder of the Hearst dynasty, considered Mike Brannigan a friend. (Wikimedia Commons)
Mike did have some friends in Virginia City. John Davis, a business-partner from Sacramento days, was working as a smuggler; at least one of the San Quentin escapees from the 1862 prison break was in town as well. Mike could also have been connected at this time with mining impresario George Hearst, who made his fortune in Virginia City, and in later years counted Brannigan among his oldest friends.

In any event, in only a few months Mike managed to further tarnish his soiled reputation, almost get lynched by an angry mob, and finally be driven out of yet another city.

It all started with... well, let the Virginia Evening Bulletin of September 8, 1863 tell the tale:
Mike Branigan—This infamous brute, who was convicted but little more than a year ago for violating the person of Miss Edith Mitchell, the celebrated actress, in Sacramento, and was by a scandalous perversion of both law and justice, permitted to escape from the State Prison, to which he had been condemned for that offense, is again in jail for a crime of even greater enormity than that to which we refer. 
Last night about 11 o’clock this beast in human form was caught in bed with two little girls, one aged about six and the other nine years! where he had crawled during the temporary absence of their mother. As soon as he was discovered, the mother raised an alarm, and had it not been for the exertions of officer Cooke, who was called in to arrest the wretch, he would have been torn to pieces by the infuriate crowd that surrounded the house. As it was he got a severe beating.

The editors of the Bulletin waxed eloquent in their disgust for Brannigan, publishing a detailed account of his “disgraceful career” and suggesting that he be tarred and feathered:
Such depravity can only exist in a brute. When once the barrier of moral principle is broken over how naturally and rapidly does man descend from one degree of vice to another, until he reaches the lowest depth of infamy and crime. Some means ought to be found to clear the community of such men... Away with him, away with him. Send him to the mountains and deserts to associate with the coyotes and ground hogs.
 When, a month later, he was acquitted of attempted rape on the two children, the paper was furious:
Loose Again—The beast, Brannigan, who was indicted on two charges of attempt at rape on two little children, was tried yesterday and acquitted, and he is now at large again, polluting the very air of the place by his foul presence. We hope the narrow escape the fellow had of being torn to pieces by an enraged mob when he was last arrested, will have the effect of making him act more as becomes a man, than he has for some years past. (Virginia Evening Bulletin, November 10, 1863)

"Hurdy-gurdy girls," "singing Bacchanalian songs in Bacchanalian dens" in Virginia City. Illustration from Harper's Monthly (Digital History Project)

Brannigan, as always, swore to his own innocence of any evil intent. After his acquittal, Mike “had a jollification over his release” during which he got massively drunk, then charged into the Bulletin offices demanding that they retract their derogatory reporting on his character. This had the opposite effect:
Distinguished Visitor—Mishter Michael Brannigan called at our office last evening, to complain of some comments we made in reference to him in the Bulletin. We shall thank him never to show his ugly mug in our sanctum again, as his presence there yesterday has put us to some inconvenience—we have had to have the entire office cleaned out to drive off the effluvia of his filthy presence. (Virginia Evening Bulletin, November 11, 1863)

After leaving the Bulletin, Mike drunkenly “fell into a pot of some kind” and injured his spine. He spent the next few weeks in the hospital. Almost as soon as he got out, he was thrown back in jail—this time for seeking out his accuser, the mother of the two girls, and demanding that she retract the accusation:
In Again—Mike Brannigan is in jail again—this time for insulting the mother of the little girls he was charged with committing a rape upon—and kicking up a muss in the streets. Something ought to be done with this fellow Brannigan to rid the County of his presence, as his present personal appearance is anything but prepossessing—perhaps a good coat of tar and feathers would improve it—and a ride on a rail to the limits of the city would, perhaps, accelerate his improvements to leave a community where he is hated, detested and despised. (Virginia Evening Bulletin, December 7, 1863)

Mike languished in jail a few more weeks while the law of Virginia City decided what to do with him. In the end they took the Bulletin's suggestion—minus the tar and feathers:
Mike Brannigan, of vile renown, was discharged from the custody of the law, by Judge Leconey, yesterday, on condition that he would leave the city immediately and never pollute it more by his villainous presence. For a brave scoundrel we have a fearful admiration, or, as Channing expresses it, a “shuddering sympathy,” but for this despicable specimen we can hardly condescend to afford disgust. Instead of the city most people would be rejoiced to learn that he had left the universe. (Virginia City Union, December 24, 1863)

Barred from yet another city, Mike Brannigan fled back to his old haunts—the waterfront dives of San Francisco. Maybe he hoped he would be safe there. He wasn't.