Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Three)

The Worst Cabdriver in San Francisco

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

(Read Part One)
(Read Part Two)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Next: Exiled by the Vigilance Committee!)

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