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
When Received: January 30, 1862
Term of Sentence: 10 years
County Sent from: Sacramento
Height: 5 feet, 5 3/4 inches
Eyes: HazleHair: 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 seems 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.
And that's how to escape from San Quentin.
(Next time: The Worst Scoundrel in Virginia City)