Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Interlude)

Mike Goes To The Fair

The Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia was the greatest event of 1876. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

(Read Part Fourteen: The Worst Cabdriver in Galveston)

In 1876, Mike Brannigan decided to go to the fair. And not just any fair: the biggest, grandest fair in the world!

Which was, of course, The International Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the United States.

"Mommy, look!" Fairgoers enjoy the novelty of popcorn balls at the Centennial Exhibition. (Free Library of Philadelphia)

The Centennial Exhibition was a massive event, drawing in over ten million visitors within its six months of existence. People streamed into Philadelphia from across the US and beyond, to gawk at the latest technological marvels (such as the first working public exhibition of Edison’s telephone), a monorail, and exotic specimens of humanity. Some of today’s stereotypically all-American fare, such as popcorn balls, and root beer, were made popular at the Centennial.

Mike Brannigan, however, did not go to Philadelphia to sight-see, or to snack on popcorn. He went to make money.

Hacks line up outside a Philadelphia Hotel in 1876. (Detail of photo at the Free Library of Philadelphia)

All those people crammed into one city, trying to get around would need transportation—and Mike was just one of reportedly thousands of hack and carriage drivers who swarmed in from all over the country to provide that service, much the way Uber and Lyft drivers today travel long distances to work peak events in the hope of a payout big enough to make it all worthwhile.

And just like an Uber driver, Mike was no doubt looking for the chance to extract a little, shall we say, “surge pricing,” out of his passengers... He must have been as happy as... well, as a rat at a fair...

A cab with the Fare Controller and Indicator installed (behind the driver). (New York Daily Graphic, 1876).

It was during the Centennial Exhibition that the first attempt in the US at a taximeter-like device—the “Fare Controller and Indicator”—made its appearance, used by one of the cab companies servicing fairgoers. Like later taximeters, the fare controller was designed to keep a certain kind of cabdriver from overcharging passengers. Sadly, there is no record of Mike’s thoughts about this invention.

(For more about the Fare Controller and the Centennial Exhibition, see "How Ludwig van Beethoven Invented the Taximeter")

Hotels were full and places to stay were scarce during the Centennial (Free Library of Philadelphia)

Mike—for once in his life—doesn’t show up in the police reports or the papers in Philadelphia during his stay there; but many other vagrant drivers, including some from Texas, do. It appears that these drivers, not surprisingly, tended to overlook the city’s cab regulations concerning licensing and rates of fare. Also, drivers are reported to have slept in their vehicles at night, perhaps because beds in the overcrowded city were both scarce and expensive.

The Precariat, servicing party-goers since 1876! An Uber driver prepares to sleep in his car (Bloomberg)

And then, in the middle of the summer, a record heat wave struck the city. Attendance dropped; business became difficult. Perhaps Mike, desperate for money, worked himself harder than usual. On July 23, 1876, the Galveston Daily News reported the gossip on the street:
It was reported in hack circles yesterday that Mike Brannagan died of sunstroke in Philadelphia a day or two ago, the news having come by telegraph.

Since Brannigan just might have known Mark Twain back in San Francisco (why not?), it should be only fair that he get to deliver the punchline (which Twain never quite did):
“Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated!”

And if you, dear reader of this series, had been hoping against hope, that yes! Mike Brannigan had actually met the fate he deserved!—I am sorry. THE Mike Brannigan—who had already avoided death by hanging, firing squad, getting shot point-blank, and being torn apart by angry mobs (on two separate occasions)—could never meet his end in such a pathetic, footnote-like manner. Sunstroke? Think again.

Mike was fine, although very little of his experience at the fair is recorded. For instance: did his wife, of only two years, accompany him to Philadelphia, or remain in Galveston? There is no evidence either way. But my guess is that she did go. She had relatives in New York City, who she liked to visit. And also, a man like Mike Brannigan needs a close watch. I bet Mary went along to keep him in line, and this may well be why he never shows up in the papers for the usual infractions.

Uncle Sam's carved head adorns this souvenir cane from the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, which was sold at an auction in 2013.

We have only one more, slightly puzzling, detail regarding Mike’s experiences in Philadelphia: In September he sent a package of souvenir canes back to Galveston. The letter he sent to a friend, detailing how the canes were to be distributed, was published in the Daily News on October 5, 1876:

Centennial Mementoes. 
The following missive from Mike Brannagan, who went on to Philadelphia to make a raise with his vehicles among the Centennialites, was received yesterday by Pat. Tiernan, and created some amusement: 
September 22, 1876. 
Friend Pat—You will receive a package of canes. Please deliver them as they are marked. You can tell Dick Nagle there is a friend of his—a clerk—at the Transcontinental. Time is getting short. We will all leave here the day after the Centennial. One hundred and thirty thousand visitors at the grounds to-day. Deliver as marked, and oblige your friend. 
Col. Mike Branagan. 
The canes referred to present a curious variety, from the fancy tassel stick to the huge hickery. The following are the favored few: John Westerlage, Chief of Police Atkins, Grey Nichols, Col. Wood, Thos. Tydings, Dick Nagle, Frank D. Harrar, Barney Tiernan, Pat Tiernan, Thos. Ochiltree.

There are two curious things about this letter. First, this is the first recorded instance in which Mike refers to himself as “Colonel.” More on that later.

Second, there was some massive joke here, which made it funny enough to be reprinted in the paper, but which is now not easy to pick out. On the surface, Mike is sending some souvenir canes to his friends—each of whom gets a specific style of cane, ranging from a “fancy tassel stick” to a “huge hickory.” The recipients, though, are almost all prominent citizens of Galveston—the Police Chief and the Sheriff, two policemen, a capitalist, and several politicians. Mike did have a long-established pattern of cozying up to powerful people in order to get political protection. But were these folks really Mike’s cronies? Was he teasing a bunch of friends, or taunting his enemies?

The Centennial Exhibition came to an end on November 10, 1876, and the next day Mike decamped from Philadelphia, along with countless others, and returned to Galveston.

A few years later Mike and his wife moved to El Paso.

Next time (for real): The Best Cabdriver in El Paso

No comments:

Post a Comment