Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Four)

Exiled by the Vigilance Committee!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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