The New York Times may have said it best: “Billy Mulligan’s Death; Shot Down Like a Mad Dog by Policemen. A Reminiscence of the Last Vigilance Committee That Purified San Francisco.” It was a long fall from Mulligan’s glory days, when he strutted down the streets of San Francisco, impeccably dressed, followed by a gang of hoodlums, eager to win his praise.
When Mark Twain said, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog,” he could have been talking about the 5-foot-tall Mulligan. Even John Morrissey, the world heavyweight champion, feared Mulligan’s sudden rages.
Born in Ireland, Mulligan was a slugger for New York’s Tammany Hall political machine until he was arrested for burglary in 1847. Escaping jail, Mulligan went to New Orleans, where he joined the Louisiana Mounted Volunteers and fought in the Mexican-American War.
Like other Tammany toughs, Mulligan came out to California, not to mine gold but to mine the miners. He staged crooked prizefights and fought in many drunken bar brawls. After killing a man in an 1851 Sonora fracas, he came to San Francisco and worked for political boss David Broderick. Mulligan soon mastered the art of political chicanery in the Democratic Party. At party-nominating conventions, he would sell nominations to city offices to the highest bidder. Men would pay thousands of dollars for a position, which was essentially a license to steal from The City.
Mulligan was given the lucrative job of collector for the county treasurer for two years and later served as deputy sheriff. But he clearly preferred breaking the law to preserving it. On New Year’s Eve in 1852, Mulligan led a crowd of 25 rowdies down California Street on a path of celebratory destruction, leaving smashed windows, splintered furniture and broken bones in their wake.
In 1855, newspaper editor James King of William led an anti-corruption crusade that quickly gained momentum. Mulligan and his friends decided to move south and take over the newly formed city of San Mateo. They won the election by stuffing the ballot boxes for their candidates, but they went too far. Mulligan’s candidates received more votes than there were voters. In Belmont, a town with only 30 voters, Mulligan’s group received 340 votes. The public was outraged, the election results were thrown out, and a new election was scheduled.
The following year, when James Casey assassinated King for revealing his criminal record, the Second Vigilance Committee took over San Francisco. The vigilantes hung Casey and gambler Charles Cora and seized Billy Mulligan and a dozen of his friends. The men were put on outbound ships and banished from The City under pain of death.
Mulligan returned to New York and became a gambler and leader in the sporting community, but he did not forget his treatment by the vigilantes. Whenever a San Francisco vigilante visited New York, Mulligan and his friends would attack them. His political connections, and a host of friends willing to perjure themselves, kept him out of jail. At worst, he’d get off with a $250 fine.
These assaults were only a small part of Mulligan’s exercise routine; he kept himself in fighting shape by brawling in bars, threatening to shoot people and participating in at least two duels.
Finally, after shooting at a policeman who tried to stop his attack on yet another visiting member of the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance, Mulligan was convicted and sent to Sing Sing.
The Brooklyn Eagle commented, “The fashionable bully Billy Mulligan — the wild tremendous, roaring, tearing, fighting Mulligan — that has battered the countenance of some quiet citizen on an average once a week for the past five years with perfect impunity was sentenced to prison for 4½ years for merely attempting to shoot a policeman. … If Billy serves out his sentence it will astonish everybody yet more.”
Absolutely no one was astonished three months later when Mulligan was granted bail and a new trial, in which he was acquitted. He learned that some of his exiled friends had safely returned to San Francisco and decided to follow them. The San Francisco he returned to in 1863 was a very different place from which he had left seven years before.
The City’s government was under the control of the supporters of the Vigilance Committee, and many of his Mulligan’s cronies had died, been killed or had left.
Still, Mulligan took to his old life around the gambling and drinking saloons, but by now, his body was ravaged by alcoholism.
On the night of July 6, 1865, suffering from delirium tremens, Mulligan screamed that the vigilantes were after him and asked to sleep in the police station. He was released the next morning and took a room at the St. Francis Hotel at the corner of Grant and Clay streets. His delirium returned, and he barricaded himself in the room and started firing out the window.
One of his shots killed a young fireman walking across the street. Police and clergymen tried to reason with him. Jack McNabb, an old friend, approached Mulligan with a bottle and tried to drink with him. Mulligan shot him fatally. Finally, a police sharpshooter killed Mulligan with a well-placed shot, giving him the dishonorable death he richly deserved. Mulligan was 36 years old.
Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco. For more information, visit www.crookstour.com.