The thugs who ran the operation for our first fraudulent election were not just your ordinary crooks. They were from the upper echelon of San Francisco’s political bad guys. They were experienced ruffians who managed to come to positions of power.
William Mulligan was an immigrant from Ireland where he was born in 1825. He came to New York as a child and was apprenticed to a cooper. Had he applied himself, he could have eked out a living making barrels. Instead, he gained a political education at Tammany Hall. The crooked politics of New York at the time helped hone the skills that he would use later in California.
Although he was short in stature, Billy became a prizefighter and then a shoulder striker, the quaint old term for an enforcer. He was jailed for burglary in 1847, but escaped. He went to New Orleans, where he joined the Louisiana Mounted Volunteers and fought in the Mexican American War.
Billy joined the Gold Rush and arrived in California in 1849. He went to the mining area and became a gambler, fight promoter and claim jumper. He fought in duels and was injured in saloon fights as one might expect. In 1851 he shot and killed a man in a bar brawl in Sonora
In San Francisco, he started out as a gambler and then became a prizefighter, gaining something of a following. He reunited with David Broderick, who he had known in New York. He became a political enforcer for him. At party-nominating conventions he would sell nominations to city offices to the highest bidder. As much as $28,000 was reportedly paid. This did not carry any guarantee of actually winning an election.
As he rose in notoriety in San Francisco, he co-owned a saloon, the Gibraltar, on Merchant Street. He became a tax collector and then a deputy sheriff. Both of these jobs, though legitimate, would seem to make use of his special skills. He played a prominent role in the fraudulent San Mateo County election of 1856, but it was his brother Bernard, or Barney, who was put up to run for sheriff of the new county.
Ironically, when the Committee of Vigilance came to the jail to seize a man, Mulligan was one of the jailers who tried to uphold law and order. Later, however, he was one of the high-profile crooks the committee targeted, so he himself was taken prisoner June 1, 1856. On June 5, he was put aboard the steamer Golden Age and shipped off to Panama. He ended up back in New York with some of his fellow deportees and, like some of them, tried to file a lawsuit against the Committee of Vigilance for their actions. The cases were dismissed, as the New York court claimed they had no jurisdiction over events in California. Mulligan amused himself by beating up any Vigilance Committee member who happened to travel to New York. In 1860, he was again sentenced to prison for shooting a New York City police officer.
By 1863, Mulligan was back in San Francisco. In 1865, Billy became agitated and, during a bout of delirium tremens, killed two men. In his delusion, he thought the Vigilantes were after him again. He was shot and killed by the police.
Rediscovering the Peninsula appears in the Monday edition of the Daily Journal. For more information on this or related topics, visit the San Mateo County History Museum, 750 Middlefield Road, Redwood City.<