The Worst Cabdriver in Galveston
On the afternoon of September 29th,
1874, a young woman stepped off a train in Galveston, Texas. Mary
Burton was 22 years old and a seamstress by trade. She was a stranger
to Galveston, with nowhere to stay, and had little more to go on than
a list of potential employers.
She hired a hack from the cab line
outside the depot, and asked to be taken to the first address on her
list, one Mrs. Brown. Unfortunately, Mrs. Brown was not able to give
her work. She rode the hack to two more addresses on the list, but
neither of these employers were able to offer her a position.
The hackdriver expressed some qualms
over her ability to pay the mounting fare; she assured him she could
pay. Yet it was beginning to get dark, and she had nowhere to stay
that evening. The driver, Mike Brannigan, kindly offered to take her
to a respectable boarding house.
“I will take you to a private
family—a very respectable family, where you will be cared for.”
Galveston in the 1870s was a booming
port city, rapidly growing in both population and importance. A
center of trade and finance, it boasted a diverse populace and a
reputation for vice. It must have felt a lot like early San
Francisco. Mike Brannigan fit in just fine.
His attempt to reinvent himself in a
new city where nobody knew his past was meeting with mixed success.
He became part-owner of a livery stable, cycled through a series of
co-owners, sold out his interest, and then ended up as owner again.
He must have had a sizable fleet of hacks, because he remained in
business after having to sell off several (Hacks 20, 21, 36, 45, and
46) to pay debts.
He was probably also back in business
with the ladies of the evening. His livery stable at 25th and
Postoffice streets was at the edge of the Line, a red light district
that would become particularly notorious some decades later. The
house to which he took Mary Burton was just a few blocks away at
Postoffice and 29th, and belonged to a Mrs. Cockrill. As Mary later
He said, you stay here, you can have
all you want. This woman is poor but respectable. I know it, he said.
In this town you must go to the poor to get shelter.
|Twenty-Ninth and Postoffice in 1871 (Detail of map by C. Drie; Big Map Blog)|
Mary entered the house, a “neat
little cottage,” and Mike left her there, saying he would return
later. She began to have doubts:
I was not there two minutes before I
saw that the place was not such as I liked. I saw something spilt on
the floor which attracted my attention, and caused me to look around.
... I saw the woman was intoxicated. I did not know what to do. I
thought best to wait until he (the hackman) stepped out. I did not
see where he put my things. He said, take a seat madam, I will be
back soon. Then the thought entered my head, what have I to do with a
hack-driver. I began to realize where I was. I said, madam, give me
my basket, I want to go.
It was sundown when Mary left the
house. Mrs. Cockrill made no attempt to stop her, or was too drunk to
do so. Mary went to a neighbor’s house and asked the way to the
Ursuline convent, where she hoped she could stay the night; they sent
their teenage boy with her to see her safely there. The next day, she
reported Brannigan to the police.
Had Mike’s motives been kind, or
callous? Was he simply offering her a place to stay, if a bit humble?
Or was he trying to lure her into a career of prostitution? As we
know, he had been tried, and acquitted, of just that very thing a few
years before in San Francisco.
Most of the titillating court case that
ensued focused on just what sort of house Mrs. Cockrill ran.
Witnesses were called, primarily neighbors, who described the
reputation of the Cockrill home:
The next witness for the prosecution
was Mrs. J.M. Malley: "I reside at the corner of Postoffice and
Twenty-ninth street. … I told her I knew nothing of the house, only
that the inmates bore the name of beer-jerkers, and I supposed that
they were women of ill fame."
Mrs. Jenkins was the next witness for
the prosecution: ... "Men and women visit there. Among the
neighborhood the belief is that the house is one of assignation. ...
Can not say in regard to the reputation of Mrs. Cockrill. She is
regarded as a woman of loose habits."
Other testimony was riddled with words
the papers were unwilling to print:
The fourth witness for the prosecution
was J.M. Malley, who testified as follows: ...
"In the neighborhood the reputation
of the house is not very good—it bears the reputation of being a
---- house, and everything else. I have seen young ladies go there.
Have overheard their conversation. These are not such as would come
from any decent house. I have noticed hacks going there early and
late at night. ... I saw men go there frequently then. The character
and general reputation of Mrs. Cockrill are that she is a regular
-----. That is what I judge from what I can gather."
The judge determined that
The testimony proves conclusively and
beyond a doubt that the house to which she was carried was one of
assignation and public prostitution. There is only one question to be
taken into consideration, and that is does taking a woman of
respectability to a house of ill fame bring shame and reproach upon
Unfortunately, it was not clear what
law Brannigan could be charged under. The prosecution tried to
convict him of assault and battery—upon Mary’s reputation. In the
end, Mike was let out on bail, and the case against him essentially
Mike had escaped justice once again. Or
perhaps he was innocent, after all. But certainly his reputation in
his new adopted city must have suffered from the court case.
Maybe Mike saw the need to turn a
corner in his life story. In any event, just a few months later, he
On December 13, 1874, Michael Brannigan
wed Mary O’Connell at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Galveston. He was
forty-five years old; she was nineteen.
Very little is known of Mary O’Connell
before her marriage to Brannigan. Like him, she was an Irish
immigrant. Unlike Mike, she had a large family, living on the East
Somehow, under Mary’s influence, Mike
changed. His court appearances for fighting and violating the hack
regulations became less frequent. In 1877, he even joined a number of
other hackmen in signing a letter denouncing the over-charging of
Could it be that Mike Brannigan—THE
Mike Brannigan—was at last, becoming... respectable?
Next time: The Best Cabdriver in El