Saturday, March 31, 2018

"Reconstructing the Jehus:" How the Telegraph Tamed the "Hack Menace" in San Francisco

My new article on the history of how the first dispatched cab service was invented in San Francisco, way back in 1877, has been published ahead-of-print in the Journal of Urban History:

There is also a pre-print version (aka a rough draft) available for free download:

Abstract: In the late 1870s, the American District Telegraph in San Francisco introduced an intra-urban telegraph network, marketed to businesses and upper-class homes. Subscribers, needing no knowledge of telegraphy, used a dial to order pre-set services, such as messengers, police, and coal delivery. One of the service’s most noted innovations was the ability to summon hired carriages through the callbox. To provide hack service through its network, the ADT bought up many of the city’s carriages and consolidated them into the United Carriage Company, one of the first dispatch-oriented cab fleets anywhere. By controlling cab dispatch, the UCC also promised to reform the unruly occupation of hackdrivers. Though the telegraph box was soon supplanted by the telephone, it had put in motion a reorganization of the city’s cab industry which quickly became intricated with the politics of class and control in public space.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Eighteen)

Gone To His Reward

Mike Brannigan; from the El Paso Herald, July 24, 1899.

(Read Part Seventeen: A Joke on Somebody)
(Read Part One: The First Cabdriver in San Francisco?)

From the El Paso Herald, July 24th, 1899:


Mike Brannigan, the Hackman, Died Suddenly Last Night

Was Widely Known

He Numbered His Friends and Acquaintances Among Millionaires and Could Secure a Pass on Any Road in the United States.

Colonel Mike Brannigan, the hackman and one of the best known residents of El Paso, died suddenly this morning at four o’clock of heart failure at his residence on North Oregon street.

Mike, as he was familiarly called by all his friends and acquaintances, was slightly ill yesterday and Dr. Justice called to see him during the day and left a prescription. The sick man complained of pains in his left side in the region of his heart, but the trouble was not considered serious.

Last night he was restless until about 3 o’clock. He talked constantly about the business of the morrow and was up and down during the night.

“Just about 4 o’clock,” said Mrs. Brannigan, “I told him he had better leave a sofa in which he was sleeping and get in bed. A few minutes later I heard him breathe heavily and went to him. I shook him violently and told him to get up, but he did not stir and continued to gasp for breath.

“I ran to a neighbor’s and awakened them and asked them to send for a priest, but before the priest arrived poor Mike was gone.”

The funeral will take place tomorrow morning under direction of Emerson and Berrien. It will be held at the Catholic church, at 8 o’clock, and requiem mass will be said.

Deceased came to this city from California and had been a resident 13 years. He was born in Ireland and was 70 years old. In 1846 he landed in New Orleans and during the gold excitement in California left New Orleans for that state and was there during the rush of ‘49 and ‘50. Mike was known from San Francisco to New York and had friends among all the millionaires who prospected in California in the early days. He and millionaire John W. Mackay were boon companions in 1849 and whenever he passed this point he and Mike always spent a social hour together talking about old times.

Mike was intimately acquianted with the late Senator Hearst and some time ago the widow presented the hackman with a double harness trimmed with silver on account of the friendship existing between him and her husband.

It was Brannigan’s boast and pride that he could get a pass over any railroad in the United States on account of his influence with millionaire railroad men.

Brannigan leaves a widow, but no children. He was married 24 years ago in Galveston. His nephews, Edward and Pat and Jim Sexton will arrive from Chihuahua and John Sexton from Casas Grandes to attend the funeral.


“Mike Brannigan was a man with a heart as big as a house,” said Mr. Berrien this morning, after he had called at the residence of deceased to look after the body.

“He was known to every man, woman and child in El Paso, and nobody ever asked him for a favor and was turned away empty handed. He was lacking in education, probably, but he had many noble qualities.”

Mike Brannigan led an eventful career in the early days in California, if reports be true. Prior to the time he married and settled down his life was full of exciting incidents.

He was a gold digger in ‘49 and not meeting with any great amount of success concluded to seek his fortune in another direction. He owned and operated hacks both in Sacramento and San Francisco, California, and made money. Mike was of a turbulent and restless disposition when he was young, however, if reports be true, and got into some trouble in California, when the population was unsettled and lawless, and was given notice by the vigilantes to leave town. He went to New York and the entire press of the country was in an uproar about it. Mike was interviewed by reporters of all the leading papers and quickly became widely known. He threatened to sue the city but nothing ever came of it. He afterwards came to El Paso and located and during his residence here has been exceedingly hard working and attentive to his business and made money while his competitors slept.

He used to tell a good story on himself about selling a Chihuahua dog to a tourist. He had a little Newfoundland pup and sold it for a fancy price to a man who wanted to buy one of the famous Chihuahua dogs. The man took the dog east and it grew to be the size of a burro.

Months afterward he came to El Paso and upbraided Mike for deceiving him. Mike said:

“Faith, if you had kept that dog in Texas it would have been a Chihuahua dog, but I couldn’t guarantee that it wouldn’t grow any bigger, if you took it east.”

The tourist had to laugh and admit that the joke was on him.

From the El Paso Herald, July 25th, 1899:

Mike Brannigan’s Funeral.

Mike Brannigan’s funeral occurred at 8 o’clock this morning. It was attended by a large number of friends of the deceased.

Requiem mass was said at the Catholic church and the funeral procession afterwards wended its way to the cemetery.

Brannigan, who had been a hackman in this city so many years, owned and operated the first hack in San Francisco at the time when it cost $100 to take a ride in a carriage.

El Paso's legendary Concordia Cemetery, where Mike Brannigan is buried. (NPR)

(Next time: The Last Word)

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Seventeen)

An El Paso train station in the 1890s (Detail of photo at the DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University).
(Read Part Sixteen: Mike Brannigan, Triumphant)

From the El Paso Herald, August 6, 1898:


Today as the Texas & Pacific was about to pull out a city hack drove up to the station in a great hurry and on the box of the hack beside the driver was Officer Pat Dwyer.

As soon as the hack stopped the policeman and the driver alighted and the driver pointed out a young man as the one he had a complaint against, for having run off without paying his bill for hack hire. The policeman went up to the young fellow and told him the hackman’s trouble and told him he would have to either dig up three dollars, which was the amount of the bill, or go with him to the police station. The young man looked thunder struck and asked what he meant. He didn’t owe the hack driver any thing, he said, as he was an invited guest, using the carriage in seeing the sights of El Paso and Juarez this morning, and he knew nothing of the hack driver’s bill, and he wasn’t going to dig up any three dollars.

After some argument between the men Dwyer went to the telephone and rung up the police station and asked if the chief was there. He was informed that he was not, so he came out and told the fellow he would have to stay here another day and settle the matter.

The young man asked the officer if he had a warrant for his arrest and the officer didn’t have one. So the young fellow told the officer that he had orders to take a squad of men out on today’s train and he was going to take them.

The Herald reporter was on the scene during the debate and after the heated part of the conversation was over he asked Sergeant McMurry, for that was who the young man was, what was the matter and he said: “When I was coming out here with Major Jadwin I met an old man on the train who said he lived in El Paso. His name was Col. Mike Brannigan, and when I got to El Paso he would take pleasure in showing me around. From his talk I thought that he was a wealthy man and owned a livery stable or something of the kind and so when I arrived in El Paso the other day I met the colonel and yesterday he asked me if I didn’t want to go around in a carriage and see the city. Of course I did, but was too busy yesterday afternoon, so this morning, about ten o’clock I guess, the proffered carriage came around to the Hotel Pierson and this man was driving it. The colonel was not in the carriage, but I thought that he was too busy and had just sent a carriage for my disposal, so of course, I took the ride and there you have the whole story.”

El Paso's Pierson Hotel in the 1890s. (Photo courtesy of the DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University)
The hack driver said, “Mike Brannigan came to me and told me that there was a load for me at the Pierson to ride over town so I went up there and this young fellow got in the carriage and used it all the morning.”

A man who was going off on the train told the policeman if he didn’t have a warrant for the arrest of that man he had better not take him off the train as it might give him trouble. At one point in the conversation the hack driver offered to compromise the bill and take two dollars, but the young man said, “No, I don’t owe you a cent.”

(Next time: Gone To His Reward)

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Misadventures of Mike Brannigan (Part Sixteen)

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