Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Seven)

Brannigan is Back!

San Francisco's waterfront in the 1850s. Detail of a print by Charles P. Kimball (Online Archive of California)

(Read Part Six: William Walker's War)

On the evening of June 7th, 1857, a hastily-assembled squad of Vigilance Committee volunteers grabbed their weapons and hurried down to the waterfront.

The wharves of San Francisco were busy that summer. Ships were arriving with passengers and goods from all over the world. Clipper ships and Trans-Pacific steamers came from distant ports: New York, Britain, Germany, Hong Kong, Singapore. The brig Jupiter was in from Costa Rica, as were the Bonita from Manila, the Diana from Bangkok, and the Colorado from Tahiti. More schooners sailed in from Guaymas, the Society Islands, and Manzanillo, along with forty-two “coasters” plying the Pacific shore.

The Vigilantes hurried to the Battery street wharf, where the three-masted German bark Wilhelmina had put in a few hours before. There was a rumor that in the course of her long trip “around the horn” from the European port Le Havre, the Wilhemina had stopped briefly in Guatemala, where she picked up a certain Mike Brannigan, bound for San Francisco.

Just a year earlier, the Vigilance Committee had banished Brannigan from the city on pain of death. Brannigan had been exiled for being “a man of very bad character;” he had once bitten off a cabdriver’s nose, and had horse-whipped a woman across the face in the middle of Washington street. He was the kind of guy who snuck into burning buildings to see what he could steal. But most importantly for the Vigilantes, he had been a “shoulder-striker:” a political enforcer and ballot-box stuffer working for the Democratic party. The San Francisco papers had followed Mike’s tumultuous return trip through Nicaragua, but had reported him vanished along with smuggler and fellow exile Chris Lilly, whose fate at that time was still unknown. But now Mike was back in San Francisco, thumbing his nose at the Committee of Vigilance. He would have to pay.

But by the time the Vigilantes stormed the wharf to arrest Brannigan, “the bird,” as the Chronicle lamented, “had already flown.” Without stepping off the docks onto the soil, Mike had hired a waterfront boat and fled across the bay to Benicia, where he boarded a river steamer bound for the safer, anti-Vigilante city of Sacramento.

A Sacramento River steamer (Online Archive of California)

On his ride up to Sacramento Mike installed himself in front of the ship’s bar, and related his adventures to a crowd of rapt listeners. A correspondent for the Daily Evening Bulletin recorded the scene:
Mike is a rather small, strongly built man, with a short, curly beard, and a mean, ugly mug. He is naturally nervous, and keeps moving all the time he speaks. He is also what the “b’hoys” would call a pretty good blower, and talked straight along concerning himself for over an hour.

It was here on the river steamer that Mike described the pressures put on him by the plotting exiles in New York City, his adventures in Nicaragua with Lilly, and the sorry state of Walker’s filibustering army. Turning to the subject of his persecution by the Vigilance Committee, Mike started to get a little hot under the collar:
Concerning himself, Mike insists that his character was always good in San Francisco, and that the Vigilance Committee did not give him a trial, or he would have proved this by their own members. ... He now intends to carry on his business in Sacramento; and he swore the Vigilance Committee would have a merry time if they attempted to take him; and that it could not be done without loss of life.
As soon as he commenced to speak in this strain, a considerate friend led him off to his hiding place....

Sacramento was a safe place for Mike—it was controlled by opponents of the Vigilance Committee, who called themselves the “law and order” faction. In Sacramento Mike’s political connections still protected him. He acquired a fine carriage, and started back on his old trade of cabdriving.

Stockton, California in 1858. Detail of a lithograph by Eugene Camerer (Online Archive of California).

But Mike couldn’t stay safe, or quiet, for long, and a few months later he was back in the news. Looking for business, Mike took his new hack down to the State Agricultural Fair in Stockton. Unfortunately, Mike arrived a few days early, and while waiting for the fair to begin, he started drinking. The Bulletin satisfied the reading public’s demand for hearing more of Mike’s misadventures:
Mike Brannigan, the Vigilance-Committee-exiled hackman, arrived here a day or two since, from Sacramento, bringing over a fine carriage which he intended to run during the Fair, and thereby make a pretty penny. Mike’s plan was not a bad one, as there doubtless will be more demand for coaches than the limited home supply of a small place like this can answer. But unfortunately for him, while loitering about waiting for the work to begin, he assuaged his thirst too often upon bad whisky, which tended to inflame his passions. Having nothing, or nobody else to find fault with, he just “cavorted” around loose, and pitched into the “Vigilance Committee.” This he cursed “up hill and down dale;” and vowed he could lick any member of it who would dare present himself, quicker than a certain nameless place (which is thought to be even warmer than Stockton) “could scorch a feather.”
This is a ‘law and order’ town,” said Mike, “and a gentleman can here have satisfaction out of the cowardly Vigilantes.” Presently, Mike got too noisy—so he was pounced upon by a constable, and marched off to the calaboose—and this in spite of his pertinacious declaration that he was a “law and order man,” and that he “always thought that Stockton was a law and order town!” Next morning Mike was arraigned before a Squire, on a charge of being noisy and disorderly. He denied being guilty, and claimed a jury trial. A jury was summoned—composed of Simon Pure “law and order men,” who patiently heard the evidence, and found that Mike was guilty! He was sentenced to pay a fine of thirty dollars, and to ten days imprisonment; and now lies in durance vile, which will continue for six days. I fear he will be at least a “day after the fair,” with his coach.

And so Mike spent the week of the fair in jail, and made no money from his trip to Stockton.

In October of 1857, the Vigilance Committee, as one of its final acts, issued a pardon to all of those who had been exiled. Mike immediately made plans to return to San Francisco. He had apparently made a decent impression in Sacramento—or at least, had not lived up to his notoriety. The Sacramento Daily Union even wished him well:
Vamosed The Ranch.”
Yesterday Michael Brannigan, neatly dressed in his best “Sunday-go-to-meetins,” might have been seen, and was seen, on our public streets, shaking hands with his friends, and bidding a final adieu to Sacramento. The recent rescinding action of the Executive Committee of Vigilance, has enabled him once more to return to San Francisco, the field of his glory. While in this city, it is but justice to say that he behaved himself with tolerable propriety. With the exception of having been once before the Recorder for running a hack without license, we are not aware that he was charged with any public offense requiring judicial chastisement. May his future life be as free from reproach, and at death, the biography of Michael present some bright page worthy the admiration of posterity!

The San Francisco Chronicle noted Mike’s return with a tone that, while not exactly welcoming, was at least tolerant:
Mike Brannigan, one of the exiles of the Vigilance Committee, taking advantage of the late action of the Executive Committee, has returned to this city. He was sent away in July, a year ago, and went to New York, where his banished companions made him up a sum of money and induced him to reëmbark for California on one of the Nicaragua steamers. On the passage he lost all his money, and on reaching Nicaragua he was compelled to remain there. After a while he strayed off into Guatemala, with Chris. Lilly, and succeeded in getting a passage on a vessel to this country. He was hurried off to Sacramento by his friends, and now returns to this city a “sadder and wiser, if not a better man.” Mike is well known to our old citizens as one of the pioneer hackmen. He will be tolerated just so long as he behaves himself.

But this was not to be Mike’s triumphant return to San Francisco. Within a month, he had decided to go back to Sacramento. Perhaps things were still a bit too hot, and memories too raw, in the City by the Bay.
Sacramento Sentinel: Returned—Mike Branigan, after a short sojourn at San Francisco, has come to the conclusion that there is no place like Sacramento, and has again become a resident of our city.

And so Mike’s daring return ended with an anti-climax. He went back to cabdriving, but had traded San Francisco for the much less exciting city of Sacramento. It may have seemed that the new “sadder and wiser” Mike Brannigan was finally calming down.

But Mike’s darkest hours, and his vilest deeds, were yet to come.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Six)

William Walker’s War:
Imperialism, boxing, and piracy on the high seas

Walker's Immortals battle the Costa Rican army at the Battle of Rivas, April 1856. From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.

It was the fall of 1856, and Mike Brannigan was trying to get back to San Francisco, even though he knew that when he arrived the Committee of Vigilance might capture and hang him. After a drunk and eventful trip across Nicaragua, he had been stymied at the port of San Juan del Sur, when the captain of the steamer Sierra Nevada recognized him, and refused to let him board.

So Mike was stuck in Nicaragua, looking for options. Fortunately he knew a few people in Nicaragua—and one of them was president of the country.

"The Grey-eyed Man of Destiny," William Walker (Library of Congress)

Back in the early 1850s, William Walker had been a journalist in Gold Rush San Francisco. Grey-eyed, soft-spoken, and steel-nerved, Walker fought in several duels, including one against Democratic congressman Joe McKibben. Mike Brannigan had driven the cab in which Walker rode out to the sand dunes to meet McKibben (both men survived).

In the years since, Walker had become the most notorious military freebooter (or “filibuster”) of the 19th Century (if you look up “filibuster” on Wikipedia, there’s a picture of Walker). Walker’s ambition was to achieve glory through conquest, carving new “republics” (with himself as president) out of Mexico and Central America, which could later become new US states—after the pattern established by Texas and California.

Walker felt that Manifest Destiny, and what he saw as the innate superiority of the White race, would lead him to inevitable triumph—a belief that remained unshaken even as he was repeatedly trounced by the inhabitants of the “inferior” nations he invaded. After failed attempts to set up “republics” in Baja California and Sonora, he was invited to Nicaragua by that nation’s somewhat clueless president, to assist in putting down his enemies in a civil war. Walker wasted no time in seizing power, declaring himself president of Nicaragua in July, 1856.

Walker's "Immortals" lounging between battles. From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (Library of Congress)

Walker’s army—who he called the Immortals—was composed of American, European, and Central American volunteers. Not all of them necessarily shared Walker’s racial supremacist philosophy. Many of his recruits came from California, including hundreds of former 49ers who missed the uproar and excitement of frontier days.

As president, Walker quickly made powerful enemies. He antagonized the people of Nicaragua by declaring English the official language, and legalizing slavery to encourage immigration and economic support from the Southern US. He had seized part of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Nicaraguan shipping line, and Vanderbilt sought revenge by working to undermine Walker’s regime. Walker’s military exploits alarmed the neighboring countries, and the armies of Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador joined forces to drive him out.

By the time Mike Brannigan was stranded on the beach in San Juan del Sur, Walker’s situation was looking increasingly desperate. As Mike later described it:
His men were starving—even captains being obliged to beg a plantain here and there, wherever they could get it. Walker, and some six or seven particular friends with him, had a whole barrel of pilot bread, along with some other provisions, and fared better than the rest. All of his own men who attempt to desert are shot if caught. 
... Walker is a man of few words, and harder on his own men than the enemy. Upon hearing of the capture of six Germans who had attempted to desert, he merely said, “shoot them,” and it was done at once.

(So much for being “Immortals.”)

Mike Brannigan was far too savvy to join a losing cause like Walker’s. Fortunately, he had another friend in Nicaragua: Christopher Lilly.

Yankee Sullivan was a New York prizefighter turned San Francisco shoulder-striker. After being arrested by the Vigilance Committee, he committed suicide in his cell. (Detail of image from the Library of Congress)

Like Charley Duane, Billy Mulligan, Ira Cole, and Yankee Sullivan, Chris Lilly was a prizefighter, one of the crowd of former Bowery boxers who travelled west to become San Francisco shoulder-strikers. Lilly was most famous for an 1842 match lasting 120 rounds, at the end of which his opponent fell dead. After that Lilly had to split New York, spending some time in England before making his way to New Orleans where he lived the life of a gambler and a "fancy." When the Mexican-American War broke out, he joined the Louisiana Mounted Volunteers, in which he served as First Lieutenant; according to contemporaries, his war career was marked by both bravery and cruelty.

Arriving in San Francisco in 1852, Lilly set up a gambling house to rake in the gold of foolish miners. Along with his friends Yankee Sullivan and Billy Mulligan, Lilly quickly became an influential member of Broderick’s political gang. Lilly was one of the leaders of the movement to split San Mateo county off from San Francisco, in order to create a haven for drinking, gambling, and prostitution on the city’s southern border; the county line was drawn just north of Lilly’s saloon, The Abbey.

When the Vigilantes came to power, they arrested Lilly and shipped him into exile on the same day as Mike Brannigan. Lilly settled down in Nicaragua and—true to form—opened a gambling parlor to relieve Walker’s more gullible recruits of their savings. He used the proceeds to buy a small schooner called the Maria, and embarked upon a new career, shipping goods up and down the Pacific coast of Central America, and smuggling supplies to Walker.

Mike Brannigan joined Lilly’s crew as the ship’s cook. Along with Lilly and Brannigan, the rest of the crew were first mate Elisha Yates, Alan Parker, and “a Russian youth, 18 years of age.” The Maria sailed down to Costa Rica to load up on coffee, then returned to San Juan to sell to Walker.
Walker, however, had got so reduced in funds that he could pay but little cash, and Chris only sold him about half his load, for which he got some money, some cacao, and the balance in promises.

The money Lilly did get out of Walker was in his own scrip, which according to Brannigan, was “not worth a damn.”

Lilly tried to take his cargo of coffee and cacao north to Manzanillo, Mexico, but the little Maria was damaged in a storm and he had to put into the Nicaraguan port of El Realejo for repairs. Unfortunately for Lilly and his crew, the Guatemalan navy—consisting of two war brigs—was also in El Realejo, under command of Admiral William Knote.

Just like Brannigan, Lilly, Walker, and the rest, William Knote was an American adventurer, drawn to the region by the opportunities for profits and glory. Knote was not content with commanding the tiny Guatemalan fleet. He had just recently had one of his subordinate captains executed on a false charge, simply so he could take the man’s vessel; and when he saw Lilly’s defenseless schooner loaded with its valuable cargo, his mouth must have watered.

Feigning friendliness, Knote offered to tow Lilly and his crew to the larger port of La Unión, where repairs could be more easily made. Lilly, afraid of being charged with supporting Walker, nervously agreed. Once in La Unión, Knote clapped the Maria’s crew in irons on his warship the Santiago, declaring them prisoners of war.

However, Knote did not really want to deliver up Lilly and his crew—and their precious cargo—to the Guatemalan government. After a few weeks of deliberation, he decided to simply seize the cargo for himself, and get rid of the inconvenient prisoners. On February 16th, 1857, Knote ordered his marines to execute Lilly and his crew by firing squad in the hold of the ship:

Lilly fell dead at the first fire, but Yates, who was a very powerful man, was not immediately killed. In his agony he dashed his manacles at the head of his dead companion, and scattered his brains about the hold. Yates was finally despatched, and then the vessel raised anchor and went out to sea, to sink the bodies.

Luckily for Mike Brannigan, he had been set free earlier. It is not clear why; perhaps the lowly cook was not worth executing.

A few months later, he was back in San Francisco.

(Next time: Brannigan Is Back!)

After being kicked out of Nicaragua, Walker invaded Honduras, where he was executed by firing squad in 1860. (From RM Devens, (1878) Our First Century.