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

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)

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