Mike Brannigan, Triumphant
|Mike Brannigan in 1894. (San Francisco Examiner)
(Read Part Fifteen: The Best Cabdriver in El Paso)
In 1888 the San Francisco Examiner featured the story of an old pioneer San Franciscan, returning to visit the scenes of his youth. As Mike Brannigan told the paper:
I have come back to San Francisco for the purpose of seeing some of my old friends of the Argonaut days of 1849, that is, as many of them are alive. I can tell you some interesting things about early times in this city. I owned and drove the first hack that ever rumbled over the streets of San Francisco.
Perhaps the fact that not so many of those “old friends” were still alive was what made Mike feel comfortable in coming back, 20 years after he had most recently been driven from the city, and 32 years after his original exile-on-the-pain-of-death. Almost all of the old associates who knew the dark secrets of Mike’s character were dead. Jim Travers and Johnny Crowe were both long gone. Frances Willis, who Mike had whipped in the street, had died in 1858 at her home on St. Mary’s street. Edith Mitchell, the actress Mike had raped in Sacramento, had died of dysentery in Bombay in 1868. The Committee of Vigilance, which had banished Mike from the City in 1856, had long since dissolved, and now was little more than a memory.
In short, Mike could tell the paper almost anything he wanted about the past, and almost nobody was around any more who knew better.
|By the late 19th Century, San Francisco was the cultural and economic capital of the West Coast. (Image courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library)
Among Mike’s surviving friends were many powerful and wealthy folks, and not least among these was William Randolph Hearst, whose father George had been one of Mike’s long-time protectors. In 1888, and again in 1894, Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner gave Mike a platform from which to tell his own, heavily adulterated, version of the past. These stories were then picked up and repeated by Hearst papers across the country. It is ironic that, while Hearst’s Examiner remains famous for its sensationalist yellow journalism, in Mike’s case they completely let go of a juicy story, instead letting the old coot tell his own watered-down version of history.
|Mike knew Lotta Crabtree back when she played the banjo at Gilbert's Melodeon (Online Archive of California)
I remember when Lotta Crabtree first appeared in this city. She used to play a banjo and dance jigs at Gilbert’s Melodeon, at the corner of Kearny and Clay streets, and got $6 a week. I think that was in 1854 or 1855. She went to Virginia City in 1860 and made a hit. Twenty-dollar gold pieces were showered on the stage for her benefit.
To the Examiner, Mike told his tales of the early days: $50 fares for rides of only a few blocks; the excitement of driving duelists out to the sand dunes, or Belle Cora and her friends out to the racetrack in the Mission.
|The cabstand at Portsmouth Square in 1891. The top-hatted driver at the front of the line (standing next to his carriage, talking to a messenger boy) looks a bit like Mike Brannigan, and is perhaps of the same vintage. See earlier chapters of this history for views of this same hackstand in 1855 and in 1865. (Detail of photo at OpenSFHistory)
San Francisco at the fin de siecle was a greatly changed city from Mike’s hackdriving days back in the 50s and 60s. With great wealth came great class divisions, a growing critique of capitalism, and the birth of a labor movement that would, after the turn of the century, seize control of the city government. Mike stood by his powerful tycoon friends on this issue, and gave voice to an early articulation of what has since been called (a bit unfairly) the “Californian Ideology;” hearkening back to the Gold Rush, he said:
I would like to see that state of things again, and we would have less complaints about capitalists and the like. Every body was a capitalist in the old days, and if only a few of the wealthiest exist now I don’t know why they ought to be blamed. We all had a chance to become millionaires, and if we did not why it can’t be helped, and there is no use in repining.
Mike told the papers many stories about his past, but completely neglected—somehow—to mention anything about his days as a “shoulder striker,” his conviction for the crime of rape, or how the papers used to call him “the woman-whipper,” and worse.
The most bold-faced lie he told was this one:
In 1856 he started on a tour home to Ireland with Billy Mulligan, Cy Shea, and Charley Duane, all sports of the period.
“Well, we'd about $25,00 or $30,000 between us when we got to New York and we started to show the folks there how we painted towns in California.
“I never got any nearer Ireland than that, for when we boys got sobered up three months later we hadn't a dollar between us, and old Commodore Garrison had to stake me to a trip back to the coast.”
In truth, Mike and his friends did not decide on their own to take “a tour home to Ireland,” and the “sports of the period” Mike mentions were his fellow exiles, driven out of California by the Vigilance Committee for criminal behavior and political corruption. Although it is true that Mike had a brief, uproarious stay in New York with Mulligan, Duane, and the rest, Mike’s friends raised the cash to send him back to San Francisco as a way to test the waters—if the Vigilantes did not execute Mike, it would be safe for the rest of them to return as well.
Mike’s later misadventures in Central America, Sacramento, Virginia City, Texas, and the cells of San Quentin were summarized in one sentence:
In later years Mike Brannigan drifted hither and thither, now losing money, now making it, but always happy.
To top it all off, Mike had now acquired a title: he called himself “Colonel Mike Brannigan.” Just how and why he came by this epithet is unclear. Although Mike and his contemporaries lived through numerous wars—most prominently, the Mexican-American War and the Civil War—Mike had stayed well away from both of these conflicts, and, indeed, had spent part of the Civil War locked in the state penitentiary. The closest Mike had come to a military career was when he helped smuggle arms to William Walker’s filibustering army; but on that occasion his title was not “colonel,” but “ship’s cook.”
But there it was, printed in the Examiner: Colonel Mike Brannigan, the city’s pioneer hack driver, visiting his old haunts, telling stories of the past, and being lionized by the press. History is written by the victors; and Mike, despite all his faults and terrible misdeeds, came out a winner.
Next time: A Joke on Somebody