Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Ten)

Escape from San Quentin!


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










(Read Part Nine: The Brannigan Outrage)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Mike was a free man. And that's how to escape from San Quentin...


(Next time: The Worst Scoundrel in Virginia City)



Friday, July 14, 2017

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Nine)

The Brannigan Outrage

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what of Mike Brannigan?

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

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

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

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

Exactly one year later, he was free.

(Next time: Escape from San Quentin!)



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




Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Eight)


The Worst Cabdriver in Sacramento


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

(Read Part 7: Brannigan is Back!)

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

For a minute or two. Then things went downhill.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Good times!

(Next: The Brannigan Outrage)




Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Seven)

Brannigan is Back!

San Francisco's waterfront in the 1850s. Detail of a print by Charles P. Kimball (Online Archive of California)

(Read Part Six: William Walker's War)

On the evening of June 7th, 1857, a hastily-assembled squad of Vigilance Committee volunteers grabbed their weapons and hurried down to the waterfront.

The wharves of San Francisco were busy that summer. Ships were arriving with passengers and goods from all over the world. Clipper ships and Trans-Pacific steamers came from distant ports: New York, Britain, Germany, Hong Kong, Singapore. The brig Jupiter was in from Costa Rica, as were the Bonita from Manila, the Diana from Bangkok, and the Colorado from Tahiti. More schooners sailed in from Guaymas, the Society Islands, and Manzanillo, along with forty-two “coasters” plying the Pacific shore.

The Vigilantes hurried to the Battery street wharf, where the three-masted German bark Wilhelmina had put in a few hours before. There was a rumor that in the course of her long trip “around the horn” from the European port Le Havre, the Wilhemina had stopped briefly in Guatemala, where she picked up a certain Mike Brannigan, bound for San Francisco.

Just a year earlier, the Vigilance Committee had banished Brannigan from the city on pain of death. Brannigan had been exiled for being “a man of very bad character;” he had once bitten off a cabdriver’s nose, and had horse-whipped a woman across the face in the middle of Washington street. He was the kind of guy who snuck into burning buildings to see what he could steal. But most importantly for the Vigilantes, he had been a “shoulder-striker:” a political enforcer and ballot-box stuffer working for the Democratic party. The San Francisco papers had followed Mike’s tumultuous return trip through Nicaragua, but had reported him vanished along with smuggler and fellow exile Chris Lilly, whose fate at that time was still unknown. But now Mike was back in San Francisco, thumbing his nose at the Committee of Vigilance. He would have to pay.

But by the time the Vigilantes stormed the wharf to arrest Brannigan, “the bird,” as the Chronicle lamented, “had already flown.” Without stepping off the docks onto the soil, Mike had hired a waterfront boat and fled across the bay to Benicia, where he boarded a river steamer bound for the safer, anti-Vigilante city of Sacramento.

A Sacramento River steamer (Online Archive of California)

On his ride up to Sacramento Mike installed himself in front of the ship’s bar, and related his adventures to a crowd of rapt listeners. A correspondent for the Daily Evening Bulletin recorded the scene:
Mike is a rather small, strongly built man, with a short, curly beard, and a mean, ugly mug. He is naturally nervous, and keeps moving all the time he speaks. He is also what the “b’hoys” would call a pretty good blower, and talked straight along concerning himself for over an hour.

It was here on the river steamer that Mike described the pressures put on him by the plotting exiles in New York City, his adventures in Nicaragua with Lilly, and the sorry state of Walker’s filibustering army. Turning to the subject of his persecution by the Vigilance Committee, Mike started to get a little hot under the collar:
Concerning himself, Mike insists that his character was always good in San Francisco, and that the Vigilance Committee did not give him a trial, or he would have proved this by their own members. ... He now intends to carry on his business in Sacramento; and he swore the Vigilance Committee would have a merry time if they attempted to take him; and that it could not be done without loss of life.
As soon as he commenced to speak in this strain, a considerate friend led him off to his hiding place....

Sacramento was a safe place for Mike—it was controlled by opponents of the Vigilance Committee, who called themselves the “law and order” faction. In Sacramento Mike’s political connections still protected him. He acquired a fine carriage, and started back on his old trade of cabdriving.

Stockton, California in 1858. Detail of a lithograph by Eugene Camerer (Online Archive of California).

But Mike couldn’t stay safe, or quiet, for long, and a few months later he was back in the news. Looking for business, Mike took his new hack down to the State Agricultural Fair in Stockton. Unfortunately, Mike arrived a few days early, and while waiting for the fair to begin, he started drinking. The Bulletin satisfied the reading public’s demand for hearing more of Mike’s misadventures:
Mike Brannigan, the Vigilance-Committee-exiled hackman, arrived here a day or two since, from Sacramento, bringing over a fine carriage which he intended to run during the Fair, and thereby make a pretty penny. Mike’s plan was not a bad one, as there doubtless will be more demand for coaches than the limited home supply of a small place like this can answer. But unfortunately for him, while loitering about waiting for the work to begin, he assuaged his thirst too often upon bad whisky, which tended to inflame his passions. Having nothing, or nobody else to find fault with, he just “cavorted” around loose, and pitched into the “Vigilance Committee.” This he cursed “up hill and down dale;” and vowed he could lick any member of it who would dare present himself, quicker than a certain nameless place (which is thought to be even warmer than Stockton) “could scorch a feather.”
This is a ‘law and order’ town,” said Mike, “and a gentleman can here have satisfaction out of the cowardly Vigilantes.” Presently, Mike got too noisy—so he was pounced upon by a constable, and marched off to the calaboose—and this in spite of his pertinacious declaration that he was a “law and order man,” and that he “always thought that Stockton was a law and order town!” Next morning Mike was arraigned before a Squire, on a charge of being noisy and disorderly. He denied being guilty, and claimed a jury trial. A jury was summoned—composed of Simon Pure “law and order men,” who patiently heard the evidence, and found that Mike was guilty! He was sentenced to pay a fine of thirty dollars, and to ten days imprisonment; and now lies in durance vile, which will continue for six days. I fear he will be at least a “day after the fair,” with his coach.

And so Mike spent the week of the fair in jail, and made no money from his trip to Stockton.

In October of 1857, the Vigilance Committee, as one of its final acts, issued a pardon to all of those who had been exiled. Mike immediately made plans to return to San Francisco. He had apparently made a decent impression in Sacramento—or at least, had not lived up to his notoriety. The Sacramento Daily Union even wished him well:
Vamosed The Ranch.”
Yesterday Michael Brannigan, neatly dressed in his best “Sunday-go-to-meetins,” might have been seen, and was seen, on our public streets, shaking hands with his friends, and bidding a final adieu to Sacramento. The recent rescinding action of the Executive Committee of Vigilance, has enabled him once more to return to San Francisco, the field of his glory. While in this city, it is but justice to say that he behaved himself with tolerable propriety. With the exception of having been once before the Recorder for running a hack without license, we are not aware that he was charged with any public offense requiring judicial chastisement. May his future life be as free from reproach, and at death, the biography of Michael present some bright page worthy the admiration of posterity!

The San Francisco Chronicle noted Mike’s return with a tone that, while not exactly welcoming, was at least tolerant:
Mike Brannigan, one of the exiles of the Vigilance Committee, taking advantage of the late action of the Executive Committee, has returned to this city. He was sent away in July, a year ago, and went to New York, where his banished companions made him up a sum of money and induced him to reëmbark for California on one of the Nicaragua steamers. On the passage he lost all his money, and on reaching Nicaragua he was compelled to remain there. After a while he strayed off into Guatemala, with Chris. Lilly, and succeeded in getting a passage on a vessel to this country. He was hurried off to Sacramento by his friends, and now returns to this city a “sadder and wiser, if not a better man.” Mike is well known to our old citizens as one of the pioneer hackmen. He will be tolerated just so long as he behaves himself.

But this was not to be Mike’s triumphant return to San Francisco. Within a month, he had decided to go back to Sacramento. Perhaps things were still a bit too hot, and memories too raw, in the City by the Bay.
Sacramento Sentinel: Returned—Mike Branigan, after a short sojourn at San Francisco, has come to the conclusion that there is no place like Sacramento, and has again become a resident of our city.

And so Mike’s daring return ended with an anti-climax. He went back to cabdriving, but had traded San Francisco for the much less exciting city of Sacramento. It may have seemed that the new “sadder and wiser” Mike Brannigan was finally calming down.

But Mike’s darkest hours, and his vilest deeds, were yet to come.




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 wasted no time in seizing 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 life of a gambler and a "fancy." 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 SCURVY: 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)