APRIL 2014

APRIL  2014
1955 - Pogo takes a swipe at Red Scare Republicans and Senator Joseph McCarthy


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Wednesday, April 16, 2014


I don't believe the rumors of a plan to poison Lorenzo and Guiliano de Medici in their family villa on the sun warmed slopes of Fiesole, four miles above Florence. First, how was the poison to be administered? If a member of the Medici staff had been subverted, why wait for the banquet in honor of Cardinal Raphael Riario, when everyone was on high alert, with enemies in their home? And poison was an uncertain weapon. It might merely sicken the victims. It seems likely to me the banquet was used to lull the Medici and their allies into complacency, and set the stage for the actual assassination to take place the next day, Easter Sunday, 26 April of 1478, inside the Basilica of Maria del Fiore,
There has been a church on this spot out side the city walls since the fifth century, earning it the Italian title “duomo”, meaning 'the bishop's former house.” By the end of the thirteenth century the Florence duomo was too small and decrepit for the growing city, so the council approved a new cathedral, the Church of Saint Mary of the Flowers, 500 feet long, 124 feet wide, with walls supported by Gothic arches soaring 75 feet above the floor, and capable of holding upwards of 12, 000 faithful. The first stone was laid in 1296. Delayed by the Black Death, the red dome was not finished until 1436. Wars would slow work on the facade, which would not be completed for another 500 years. And the decision to murder the two oldest Medici males in this sacred place, on this sacred day, was an act of the Pope's arrogance and desperation.
Cardinal Raphael Riario entered the church with the man the Medici had preferred as archbishop of Florence, Rinaldo Orsini, and with Pope Sixtus' original choice for that chair, the visiting archbishop of Pisa Francesco Salviati. Accompanying them was Lorezo de Medici and his close friend Frecesco Nori. Lorenzo took a pew in the front, and since his brother Guiliano had not appeared, Nori sat next to him. The cardinal would officiate at the mass, assisted by priests, and the two archbishops sat next to each other, in chairs near the alter. Before them the great space of the cathedral filled with 10,000 penitents.
At about noon priest Francesco de Pazzi and Bernardo Bandi appeared at Guiliano de Medici's home, seeking to accompany Guiliano to the service, arguing their joint entrance would show unity on this holy day. Perhaps Guiliano ( above) was still ill, or perhaps the visitors plied the rakish young man with wine, or perhaps their argument took time to be effective. In any case the three men left together and were late in arriving at the duomo. They were forced to take seats near the rear of the cathedral, with Guiliano sitting directly in front of Francesco and Bernardo. This late arrival separated the intended victims, but it also separated the assassins.
Cardinal Riaro began the mass at one in the afternoon, with the blessing in latin, “May the Lord be in your heart and on your lips, that you may proclaim his paschal praise worthily and well, in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” While the mass continued, other pieces of the conspiracy were falling into place. Outside of the city, the Duke of Urbano (above) and an in-law to Pope Sixtus, had gathered 600 mercenaries, prepared to storm the city at word the assassinations had taken place. Missing from the ceremony in the cathedral, if any Medici had taken note, was the old man, Jocopo Pazzi. He had gathered about 150 supporters , mostly members of the Perugia clan, in the surrounding streets. These forces were primed to murder the mayor and seize the city hall. But everything had to wait until the murders about to take place during the Easter Service.
Slowly, the mass progressed toward its climax, as Riaro raised the host to be blessed. This motion was a signal for the bells to be set off in the tower. And also for Archbishop Salviati.to rise silently from his chair and quickly move toward toward an exit, and, in the back of the cathedral, for Francesco de Pazzi to pull a knife from his priestly robes. He stood. He raised his arm, screaming, “Take it, traitor!" And with all the force he could muster he drove the blade deep into the top of Guiliano de Medici's skull (above). In its first instant the Pazzi conspiracy had achieved half of its goals.
Despite the loud tolling of the bells, there were screams and shouts of murder heard from the rear of the great cathedral. The two who had been assigned to murder Lorenzo de Medici, the priest Setefano da Bagnone and the vicar-in-training Antonio Maffei de Volterra, must have thought since Guiliano was absent the assignation had been postponed again. But now, as Lorenzo turned to investigate the clamor, one of them drew his dagger. Lorenzo saw the movement and staggered to his feet. The blade sliced across his throat, slicing into the skin and muscle, drawing blood. Lorenzo fell backwards into the aisle, where he could draw his own knife.
In the center of the insanity, and blocking the main entrance door, Francesco de Pazzi had thrown himself upon Guiliano Medici in such a frenzy, he stabbed himself in the leg, without noticing the wound. Bernardo Bandi could do little more than ward off any who were inclined to intervene. None were and Guiliano suffered 19 separate knife wounds before Francesco paused to catch his breath.
At the front of the sacred hall, Frecesco Nori drew his own knife and moved to block the attackers, as other Medici allies hustled Lorenzo from the nave and into the sacristy, where the priests robed before and after services. The Medici supporters blockaded the only door, and the two attackers, Stefano and Antonio had to satisfy themselves with cutting down Lorenzo's friend, Frencesco .
Parishioners were climbing over pews to escape the church, and were now streaming out every exit they could find. Families huddled to protect their children. The old and blind were abandoned in the general panic. The bewildered Cardinal Riaro was pinned against the alter by pro-Medici priests who a moment before had been assisting him. They would later insist he made no attempt to take part in the violence.
Archbishop Francesco Salviati, still dressed in his robes, walked quickly from the duomo, In the streets outside he was met by the 150 Pazzi and Pergia, headed by the Pazzi patriarch, Jocopo. Together they marched the less than a quarter mile south to the city hall, the old palace, the Palazzo Vecchio. By the time they arrived, the bloodshed at the cathedral had already ended, and Francesco Pazzi, bleeding from his self inflicted leg wound, and realizing that Lorenzo was still alive, was himself staggering toward the Palazzo Vecchio.
Entering the palace by the Sala dei Duecento, the hall of the two hundred, Jacopo and Salviati, in front of 150 angry looking men, demanded the guards take them to Cesare Petrucci, the Gonfloniere, or mayor, who lived in the palace. It was an unusual request for a Sunday morning, particularly from Salviati, who was supposed to be at the Easter Services. His guard already up, Cesare, a Medici supporter, agreed to speak to with Salviati only. The problem, for the Pazzi, was that the hall had originally been the city council or Signoria, meeting room, and the doors originally only led to rooms were ballots were counted. Because of this the door handles were cleverly recessed and hidden. Once Salviati entered the palace proper, he was cut off Jacopo and his soldiers, who could not find a door they could open.
Trying to convince Cesare to step outside to speak to Jacopo,  Salvati suddenly found words difficult. He was excited, and clearly worried, and Cesare responded by having his guards put the archbishop under arrest. At about the same time, the blood stained Francesco had made it to the Palazzo, and gave his father the bad news. Lorenzo de Medici still lived. Their only hope left was the 600 soldiers waiting outside the city under the Duke of Urbano.   Francesco, weak from blood loss, decided to return home. Jacopo decided to leave town. And the Pazzi and Pergia supporters who had done nothing but follow orders, were abandoned to fend for themselves. No one gave word to the Duke, to enter Florence.
The Pazzi Conspiracy, backed and funded by Pope Sixtus, had collapsed after murdering one unarmed man in the middle of a holy Easter Church service. And now the bill for the plot had to be paid.
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Sunday, April 13, 2014


I believe the bloody Easter Sunday murder in a crowded Tuscany church was set in motion twenty-two years earlier, in 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman empire. The loss of Byzantine middle men tripled the price Christians had to pay for a volcanic rock called alunite, used in tanning animal skins and fixing dyes into cloth. The resulting inflation threatened to blow up the entire European economy. So the Catholic church was over joyed when eight years later, a huge source of alunite was discovered in the Tolfa Mountains, just 50 miles north of Rome. Pope Pius II quickly annexed the mountainous region into his own Papal States, and immediately leased the mineral rights to the people who could pay him the most, the Vatican bankers, the House of Medici.
It was Cosimo de Medici who firmly established the family fortune by courting members of the 51 guilds who held the public political power in the Republic of Florence; The Guild of Wool, the Guild of Silk, The Guild of Doctors and Apothecaries, the Guild of Ferrirers and Skinners, Masters of Stone and Wood, etc. But behind the scenes Cosimo actually controlled the city by following a simple motto: “Envy is a plant you must not water.” As his biggest fan Niccolo Macchiavelli noted, “Never did he exceed the modest behavior of a citizen.” What others in Florence spent on personal luxury, guards and body armor, Cosimo de Medici spent on charity and bribes and gifts of public art by Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli. He depended on the loyalty of the guilds and masses to support and protect his family's massive fortune.
But when Cosimo's grandson, Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici, became head of the family in 1469, the empire seemed in decline. In five short years Lorenzo's father Piero the gouty, had emptied the family coffers of the modern equivalent of $460 million. True, along with his younger brother Giuliano, Lorenzo still guided a sprawling financial empire, with bank branches in Rome, Florence, Pisa, London, Bourges and Constantinople. But Lorenzo was only twenty years old and not that interested in banking, He had already acquired the look of a man who smelled something unpleasant.
In 1471 a bank in the Medici client town of Volterra, about twenty miles south west of Florence, refused to invest in the Medici alunite mines. So in June of 1472 an army of Medici mercenaries laid siege to Volterra, murdering, raping and looting the town for three days. They were stopped before any permanent damage was done, and once the smoke had cleared, Lorenzo publicly apologized and paid “blood money” to the survivors. But behind the scenes the offending bank now reversed itself and invested in the Medici mines. And that was what mattered in Florence.
A more difficult problem developed in Rome when 57 year old Francesco della Rovere was elected Pope, also in 1471. The ambitious man adopted the name of Sixtus IV, and quickly began promoting his family members to positions of money and power. He made six of his nephew's cardinals, and in 1472, married one of them, Giovanni della Rovere, to the lovely and wealthy Giovanna da Montefeltro, of Urbano. Her dowry was the fortress town of Imola, about forty miles northeast of Florence, and Sixtus decided to match it with a title and local office for his nephew, asking his banker, Lorenzo de Medici, to loan him 40,000 Florintine ducats for the title.
Except Lorenzo was not so foolish as to willingly help the Pope extend his power into Florence's backyard. It was like asking him to pay for his own execution. After getting promises of support from the 32 other banking families in Florence, Lorenzo turned the Pope down. Then, unexpectedly - at least to Lorenzo - one of those bankers pulled a double cross; Jacopo Pazzi.
In Italian the word “pazzi” means madman, and it was said the family patriarch earned that title in 1099 by being one of the first soldiers over the walls in the capture of Jerusalem in the first Crusade. True or not we do know this 11th century lunatic brought back to Florence a stone from the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. For this feat of fidelity the family received their new surname and a title, and the right to provide the spark used to reignite the cities' flame every Easter Sunday. Some of the luster went out of the honor in the 12th century when laws blocked nobility from holding elective office, and the Pazzi were forced to renounce their title. They kept their land and money, and never stopped trying to get the title back. Which made it all the more insulting when Cosimo de Medici pushed through taxes on the wealthiest citizens of the Republic to help feed and cloth the poor. In response, the Pazzi took a self imposed exile from their city. Like all who see themselves as entitled, the Pazzi were offended when titles came with obligations.
The aging Jacopo Pazzi, head of family bank in the winter of 1472, was still sharp enough to seize an opportunity by the throat. He had finally returned to Florence after the death of Piero, but his hatred of the Medici had not abated. . So he had no compunction about betraying his promise to Lorenzo. And even though it went against his penny pinching nature, and it almost bankrupted his bank, he now granted Pope Sixtus the 40,000 ducats denied him by the House of Medici. The grateful Sixtus transferred all the Papal Curia accounts from the Medici to the Pazzi bank, reinvigorating Jacopo's fortune. Sixtus also granted the Pazzi a monopoly for refining the alunite clawed out of the Medici mines, cutting even further into Medici profits.
Lorenzo responded by supporting anyone willing to resist the Pope. When Sixtus sent an army under another of his nephew cardinals, Giuliano della Rovere, to force a Medici ally, Niccolo Vitelli, out of his stronghold in the village of Citta di Cadello, about 40 miles south east of Florence, Lorenzo began to assemble mercenaries to lift Guiliano's siege. The nephew was not a soldier, and Sixtus was forced to order Guiliano's army to return to Rome, for the time being.
And then there was the matter of religious appointments Sixtus chose a favorite Francesco Salviati,, as the new archbishop of Florence. But Lorenzo was not willing to have Papal spy in his own city, and signed an allegiance with Venice and Milan, making it clear Salviati's appointment would mean open war. Sixtus was again forced to back down. As a consolation prize, he named Salviati the Archbishop of Pisa, 40 miles west of Florence. But Pisa was also a Medici client city, and Lorenzo ordered the city gates locked against Salviati, preventing him from presiding over his new parish for almost a year. After contemplating these insults, and a dozen others real and imagined, Sixtus decided he needed to remove the Medici entirely. There is no record Sixtus ever actually ordered Lorenzo's or Giuliano's de Medici's muder. In fact he was on the record as saying he supported a plot - “as long as no one is killed.” But no one in Italy could have believed the Medici would be stopped, short of their deaths.
The conspiracy now passed to the younger, more active hands of Jacopo's nephew  the priest Francesco Pazzi, and Jacopo's sons Andea and Poero Pazzi., and the young handsome Guflielmo Pazzi, who was also married to Bianca de' Medici, yet another peace offer the Pazzi had refused. Francesco's first plan was for the Pope to invite both of the Medici brothers to the Holy City for reconciliation talks. In Rome, isolated from friends and allies, both brothers would be murdered. At the same time in a coup d'etat, Pazzi conspirators back in Florence would seize the city hall, the Plaza del Vecioo, and execute any of the remaining Medici family who were still a threat. The plan failed because Lorenzo made the trip, but the younger intended victim, Giuliano Medici, excused himself because of illness.
But at the winter meetings in Rome, the 17 year old Raphael Riario (above), another of Sixtus' nephews, had engaged Lorenzo in a discussion about their shared passion for the arts. Although made a Cardinal the year before, Raphael was not yet ordained as a priest, and was tightly controlled by his mother Catherine, who rarely let him out of her sight. But this day, Raphael managed a private conversation with Lorenzo, and confided he had heard of the art collection the Medici kept hidden in their a villa in Fiesole, just outside of Florence. Raphael pointed out he would be in Florence in the spring, to deliver the Easter Mass in the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore (Church of Saint Mary of the Flowers). Could he impose on Lorenzo to show him the paintings? Charmed by the young man's innocence, and seeking to smooth things over with the boy's uncle, Lorenzo offered to not only to welcome Raphael into his home, but to throw him a banquet. In gratitude the boy spontaneously invited both Medici brothers to attend the Easter Mass as his personal guests.
And thus, almost by accident, the focus of the conspiracy shifted back to Florence, the Medici home court. And in the end, that would make all the difference.
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Saturday, April 12, 2014


I will tell you, Neal Dow was the worst type of politician - a true believer. If you travel long enough down any philosophical path you always reach the land of ad nauseum. But the true believer will never admit that such a place exists in their philosophy. So having reached ad nauseum this spiritual Puritan in Quaker garb, this five foot two inch tall Napoleon of Temperance, this two term Mayor of Portland, Maine, Neal S. Dow, could never find his way back to sanity. Even the Rum Riot of 1855 failed to convince Mayor Dow that his own blindness had set the cause of sobriety in America back by a generation..
The first time Neal Dow (above) was elected Mayor was in April of 1851. He had been carried into office on his support of the new “Maine Law”, which made the sale of alcohol in the state illegal, except for medicinal and industrial uses. Wrote Neal, “Portland wharves groaned beneath the burden of West India rum.” Eighteen other states quickly followed Maine's moralistic lead. But as in all the other states, the new law was popular in Calvinist Maine only so long as it was easily avoided.
The most famous bootlegger became “Handsome Jim” James McGlinchy, who along with his three brothers, operated the Casco Brewery, after the original name for Portland. It and a few distilleries survived the Maine Law because, officially, they exported all of their product. But a good part of all that rum seeped back into Maine. Such leaks in his prohibition boat infuriated Mayor Dow, who was also president of the Temperance League. And after raiding every Irish “grog shop” in Portland failed to plug the local traffic in the demon rum, the Mayor insisted on searching all trains, boats and wagons entering the city. Since Portland was the primary rail and sea connection with Canada, the delays this created infuriated merchants up and down the eastern seaboard. Dow was even burned in effigy on Boston Common. And in April of 1852, when Mayor Dow came up for re-election, merchants from all over New England funded his opponent, Albion K. Parris. Mayor Dow lost re-election by 542 votes out of 3,300 cast.
Being a true believer (his maternal great-grandfather had the given name of “Hate-Evil”), the diminutive Mr. Dow could not believe the fault was his or his cause's . He was convinced he had been victimized by a conspiracy of merchants who provided fake I. D.s for the 2,200 Irish immigrants in Portland who had brought to America their strange religion and their vulgar sinful ways. Even worse, they almost all voted Democratic. Still at least the new Mayor Parris was also a temperance man, if not quite as enthusiastic an enforcer of the law. So“The Grand Pooh-bah of temperance” as the Irish nick-named him, retreated to his house at 714 Congress Street, to lick his wounds, and plan his comeback.
Under the theory that the only problem with his temperance law was that it was too weak, in 1853 Dow lobbied the state legislature in Augusta to doubled down. The new sterner temperance law they passed allowed a search warrant to be issued if three private citizens claimed liquor was present in an establishment. It also made the mere possession of alcohol proof of intention to sell. Thus ever user was now a dealer. By now Dow was convinced the temperance movement was so strong...“The voters...will turn upon that point.” The little dictator even saw the growth of the Republican Party across the northern states not as primarily a condemnation of slavery, but as a rejection of alcohol.
In March of 1855 Maine passed two other pieces of legislation which Dow had come to see as essential for the eradication of liquor. First all immigrants must register and show their naturalization papers three months prior to election day. This disenfranchised hundreds of qualified voters for the approaching April elections, under the theory that what a local newspaper described as “Irish cattle” were also  “illegals” with false papers. The second law took care of most of the rest of Irish voter-wanna-be Americans. From now on, any voter rejected at the polls for whatever reason in Republican Maine, must appeal in Federal court. Cases here could take weeks just to get on the docket. The Democratic paper, the Eastern Argus put it best. “Dow...and company...have made up their minds to rule the state at all hazards.”
And they did. Dow was re-elected Mayor in April of 1855. But out of the 3,742 votes cast, Neal Dow's margin of victory was a mere 46 votes. Ignoring that slim margin his close friend and political ally, Elder Peck, said it was “...a victory over Rum…Catholicism, and Corruption.” In his inaugural address, the zealot Mayor Dow warned, “I shall not fail... to employ all the power which the law has put into my hands.” He even suggested that his administration would “restrain the right of suffrage, now exercised by our foreign population...to prevent their overawing and controlling our elections, as they have done.” Mayor Dow had thrown down the gauntlet. And it would slap him right across the mouth.
As part of his new duties, Mayor Dow and the city council were supposed to jointly appoint a committee to pick a new liquor agent, whose job it would be to purchase liquor which would then be legally sold to the apothecaries and industries of the city. However Mayor Dow was so certain of his own nobility, he appointed himself to the selection committee, and to save even more time appointed himself the temporary liquor agent. As such he purchased $1,500 of booze (in his own name) and had it shipped to City Hall. Only after it arrived did he notify the city council. After all, who could question the morals of Mayor Dow?
The answer was the city council could. Their council members got into a shouting match with the Mayor over his actions. And one of them leaked details of the shipment to the Eastern Argus. On Saturday June 2, 1855 the paper printed up and posted handbills all over Portland, which laid out the facts, in particular that the liquor had been bought under the name of Neal Dow. The handbills then asked, “Where are our vigilant police... who think it their duty to...often push their search (of the poor man's cider) into private houses, contrary to every principle of just law? We call upon them by virtue of Neal Dow’s law to seize Neal Dow’s liquors and pour them into the street....Let the lash which Neal Dow has prepared for other backs be applied to his own when he deserves it.”
The timing could not have been worse for Mayor Dow. This was the four year anniversary of the original Maine Law. Three men found a judge who witnessed their testimony that there was illegal alcohol in City Hall, and he was thus required to issue a search warrant. A small crowd gathered at City Hall, mostly to see if the police were going to arrest Mayor Dow. They were not. But still the crowd stayed. And as the day wore on, and the shifts at the locomotive plant and other factories let out, the crowd began to grow. By seven that evening there were 2,500 people milling around City Hall, their anger fueled by what they saw as the hypocrisy of the biggest temperance man in the state having his own $1,500 stash of booze protected by the police. To avoid antagonizing the crowd the ten police officers locked themselves in the Liquor Room in City Hall, with the booze. Mayor Dow sent word to two “private” militia companies to come quick.
At least one member of the militia sensed the approaching disaster. But when Sargent William Winslip suggested the militia should load blanks, Mayor Dow responded, “We know what we are about sir. We’ve consulted the law, sir.” At that point Sargent Winslip dropped out of the militia. At ten that night one company of about twenty men, formed up in front of City Hall. Backed by armed troops, Mayor Dow ordered the crowd to disperse. The crowd responded with a hail of trash and garbage. Dow now ordered the troops to fire over the heads of the crowd. But their commander, Captain Green, said he needed more men. And for the only time that day Mayor Dow let a cooler head over-rule him.
It was a mistake. The sight of the twenty militia men retreating encouraged the crowd to surge forward. Rocks and bricks now replaced the garbage. One energetic fellow, a 22 year old sailor from Deer Isle named John Robbins, crawled through a broken window into the liquor room, unlocked the door, and the crowd stormed in.  At this moment the reinforced militia returned, and under Dow's command, opened fire. The uneven battle continued for twenty minutes. Only the fact the militia were armed with flintlock muskets prevented the death toll from being higher. Robbins was killed, and seven others wounded. Eventually the crowd dispersed. To Republicans it was the Rum Riot. To Democrats it was the Portland Massacre.
Dow was charged with breaking the law he had helped pass, but he was acquitted after a one day trial for two reasons – first it was obvious the liquor was not really his, and second because the judge, Henry Carter, was a strong temperance man and a Dow supporter. Still, Mayor Dow learned nothing from the debacle. He immediately issued a “...Message on the Riot” which he blamed on un-named anti-temperance men, and claimed John Robbins was an Irish immigrant who was wanted by the law. But that charge fell apart when several witnesses under oath testified that John was a native American (i.e. born in America),  had never been arrested, was a mate on the barque Louisa Eaton and was a “steady, honest man, remarkable for his good nature and peaceable disposition.”  But whatever Robbins' disposition had been, it was suddenly clear the mob had been outraged at Mayor Dow's behavior and had not even been mostly Irish.
That fall the voters drove that point home by electing Democratic majorities to both houses of the state legislature, and the Governor's office, too. And quickly the Maine Law was overturned, ending Maine's five year experiment with prohibition. John Robbins was buried in the old Eastern Cemetery, with honors. Mayor Dow did not bother to even run for re-election. And even though prohibition was re-instated two years later, Neal Dow stayed out of that fight.
The new prohibition law was again rarely enforced. Thus it stayed on the books until the Federal government passed its own “noble experiment” in 1920. But long before then, in 1880, the bootlegger James McGlinchy had died, leaving behind an estate worth $200,000, marking him as one of the richest men in Portland. As for the true believer Neal Dow, he was lucky not to live long enough to see his dream produce what he feared most, the funding of organized crime, largely made up of foreign born and first generation immigrants, who fed an increase in public drunkenness and alcohol addiction. The Napoleon of Temperance died still blind to the truth of his follow in 1897 at the age of 93.
And if there is a lesson from the life of Neal Dow, it is that ad nausium is the land where all ideas end up. Or, to put it another way, life is not about perfection, its about balance - it's about leaning into the wind, and staying upright as long as you can. Everybody falls off at least once, in the end. And the lucky ones do it a couple of times. Because they learn from every failure, and they keep getting back on the wire.
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Wednesday, April 09, 2014


I came across a great story about an enterprising San Francisco merchant who scattered $20 worth of gold dust on the cobblestones of a public street, and was sweeping it up and panning it out in a horse trough just as a boatload of eager new 49ers arrived from “The States”. To them it seemed the streets of San Francisco really were paved with gold. The shop keeper even helpfully directed the newcomers to a nearby store where they could begin getting rich by obtaining their own twenty cent prospecting pan - for a mere $15.00 each. The new arrivals bought every pan in the store, and the merchant got rich. It's a myth of course, but not by much. The Frisco store was owned by Sam Brannan (above). And in nine short weeks in 1848 this alcoholic womanizer sold enough mining pans and picks and shovels out of his Frisco and Sacramento stores to profit the modern equivalent of $9 million. And he used that fortune, and four lengths of rope, to grab as much power as quickly as he could..
Samuel Brannan got his grub stake as the first President of the Mormon mission to California, when he traveled to Sacramento to collect tithes from the 100 Mormon workmen, contracted to build Mr. Sutter's mill (above) on the American River. His timing was fortunate because he saw the gold nuggets the Mormons had just discovered. Now, Sam should have turned that tithe money over to the Church of Latter Day Saints, which had dispatched him to California in 1846. But in 1847, after he had crossed the high Sierras, and met with the church's new leader, Brigham Young, Sam had urged Young bring his followers on to paradise in California. However the Mormon Moses was inspired instead to remain in the Utah wilderness. Returning alone to California, this disillusioned saint saw the “first world-class gold rush” as his own message from God. He became a prophet of capitalism. And when the church asked for the tithes he had collected, Sam told them, “When Brigham Young shows me a purchase order signed by God, I'll show him the money.” Or so the story goes.
As one of Frisco's first millionaires, Sam was a natural for the town council. But it was not an easy job. In the first 24 months after Sutter's mill, San Francisco went from 1,000 to 25,000 residents. Then, in 1850, the new California legislature slapped on a $20 monthly “foreign miners tax”, which drove most non-American prospectors out of the gold fields. Frisco soaked them up. Twenty percent of the town were now Chinese, and another twenty percent spoke Spanish, and a surprisingly large percentage were Australians, transported from England, usually for the crimes of being poor or a thief. Men outnumbered women in Frisco by a hundred to one, and 2/3rds of those few women were prostitutes. Half the population was sleeping in tents, the other half in ramshackle shanties or aboard the hundreds of ships, abandoned by their gold hungry crews, and left floating in the bay. And to make matters worse, the darn place kept burning down.
On Christmas eve 1849 a fire broke out that overwhelmed the towns 90 volunteer firefighters and devoured fifty buildings. During the inferno, capitalist were selling a bucket of water for a dollar each. On May 4, 1850, 300 houses and three lives were destroyed by another fire. This time entrepreneurs insisted on contracts paying $3 an hour to help the firemen. And when city council hesitated to pay their bills, some frustrated contractors threatened to start new fires. At about eight on the morning of June 14th, it happened again, consuming another 300 buildings. And on September 17th, the fourth fire in nine months swept up Jackson Street and burned out 125 buildings and eight city blocks. Then on May 4, 1851, a heavy wind drove yet another inferno that devoured yet another 18 city blocks, centered around the neighborhood called “The Barbary Coast”, or “Sydney Cove” - for the large percentage of Australians living there.
The entire city was made of wood and canvas, and the only source of heat and light were thousands of open flames, and the only potable fluid safe to drink was alcohol laced, so in retrospect conflagrations were inevitable. But rumors, and newspapers such as the California Star, owned by Sam Brannan, insisted that Frisco's 57 police officers and overworked judges were too corrupt to catch and punish the extortion- arsonists nicknamed “The Lightkeeper”.
At least a suspect was caught in the May 1851 fire, an Australian named Benjamin Lewis. He was even rumored to be a member of the gang, “The Sydney Ducks”. His trial on Tuesday, June 3, 1851 was interrupted by shouts of “Lynch the villian”. Court officials hoped Sam Brannan could calm the angry crowd, but instead he suggested that Lewis be handed over to “volunteer policemen” for trial and punishment. The crowd agreed, but the real cops managed to slip the defendant safely out of the court house. Within a few days, the evidence against Lewis collapsed, and all charges were dropped. But this only outraged the citizens of San Francisco even more. On Monday, June 9, 1851, a meeting was called at the California Engine Company by fireman George Oakes and merchant James Neall to organize a public response. They asked yet another volunteer fireman to head a vigilante committee – Samuel Brannan, of course.
The very next day a drunken John Jenkins (alleged to be another Sydney Duck) boldly strode into a shipping office on the Long Wharf, grabbed a small safe with $50 in gold coins inside, and walked out. As pursuers drew close he tossed the safe into the bay, then allowed himself to be taken into custody. Jenkins was certain his fellow Ducks would rescue him. But he had not been taken by police. Instead he was lead to the headquarters of the Vigilante Committee, a warehouse owned by Sam Brannan, directly behind the offices of  his “California Star” newspaper.  In less than an hour a rump court was convened, and two hours later Jenkins was convicted. At two in the morning, Wednesday June 12th , John Jenkins was jerked aloft from a gallows leaning against the Old Mexican customs house on Portsmouth Square, right in front of Brannan's newspaper. The Australian hung there for two hours.
The next day, Thursday the 13th, the goals of the Committee were published in the pages of Brannan's "Star" and other papers. “The citizens of San Francisco,” it announced, “do bind ourselves, each unto the other...determined that no thief, burglar, incendiary or assassin, shall escape punishment, either by the quibbles of the law, the insecurity of prisons, the carelessness or corruption of the police, or a laxity of those who pretend to administer justice.” It had been written by Sam Brannan. Within days 700 citizens had joined the vigilante committee. 
Over the summer Brannan's vigilantes' were busy, dragging people into their headquarters,  interrogating them, and doling out punishments as deemed necessary. One man was whipped in Portsmouth Square, 14 were forcefully deported back to Australia, another 14 were ordered to leave California, 15 more were handed over to the real police, and 41 were allowed to go free, but with a warning.  It is not known how many other Australians were refused entry at the port, or the number who “self deported” out of fear. Then on July 11th, the committee detained and hanged accused murderer “English” Jim Stuart from the yard arm of a ship docked at the end of the Market Street wharf (below)
It should be pointed out, that the committee also organized nightly fire patrols, and offered a $5,000 reward for any information concerning the identify of “The Lightkeeper”.  Fires diminished, in number and severity, but this success must have at least partly been due to the use of brick and mortar in new construction. But the $5,000 reward was never claimed, although at last, two Australians, Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie were arrested and convicted in the Vigilante court of arson as well as burglary and robbery Their execution was set for August 21st. 
The day before, the Governor, John MacDougal, issued a public proclamation, denouncing the “despotic control of a self-constituted association unknown to and acting in defiance of the laws in the place of the regularly organized government of the country.” He went further, and obtained a writ of habeas corpus (“prodcuce the body”) from a state Supreme Court Justice, and then served it himself on the sheriff, Jack Hays. That night the Governor, the mayor and the sheriff , along with three deputies, marched into the committee's headquarters and demanded Whittaker and McKenzie be handed over. The sleepy guards acquiesced, and by 3 AM the two Australians were heavily guarded in the city jail.
It was a clear and direct challenge to Brennan. But Sam waited until Sunday, the 24th, until he responded. That morning Sheriff Hays was lured out of town by an invitation to a bull fight. And at about 2 PM, as the prisoners were being allowed out of their cells to receive mass, 36 heavily armed vigilantes rushed the jail, grabbed McKenzie and Whittaker, and marched them back to Committee headquarters. In 17 minutes the men had been tried and convicted again, and hanged from the beams used for loading goods into a  warehouse's second floor windows. Sam Brannan even addressed the crowd of 5,000 who come to cheer and to stare in shock at his audacity.
But Sam Brannan (above) had finally gone too far. The Democratic Governor had an ally, in the local United States Military Commander, William Tecumseh Sherman, who noted in his autobiography decades later, “As (the Committee) controlled the press, they wrote their own history, and the world generally gives them the credit of having purged San Francisco of rowdies and roughs; but.... the same set of..rowdies that had infested the City Hall were found in the employment of the "Vigilantes”.”
How the message was delivered  is not known, but clearly a message was delivered. Quietly, the Committee did not meet again for five years, and never again under the leadership of Sam Brannan. That September, the sheriff was reelected. And Sam sailed for Hawaii, where he bought more land. He did not return to San Francisco for the better part of a year. After he did, in 1853 he was elected to the state Senate. But by then his Mormon Church had excommunicated, or "disfellowshipped", him, because of his vigilantism. Any dreams he had harbored about higher office would always break on that same rock.
Sam continued to build his fortune until until 1872, when his wife Anna could take his endless infidelities no more. So numerous were Sam's marital transgressions that the judge in their divorce awarded Anna half of all of Sam's wealth, in cash. Selling his properties left him almost bankrupt. With what he had left,  Sam bought a small ranch outside of San Diego, remarried and made enough speculating in Mexican lands to pay his debts. But Sam left his new wife with nothing when he died in 1889.
The Democratic machine Sam had put in control of San Fransisco continued even in his absence, its power maintained in part by another outburst of vigilantism in 1856. More miscreants and arsonists and murderers were hanged, and more were chased out of town, but this time they were usually Chinese. But the Barbary Coast remained the same sinful place, and 'Frisco politics remained dirty. In the meantime, about 14 billion in early 21st century dollars were dug out of the California gold fields, and almost all of it had passed through San Francisco. In retrospect it seems that by building his political power on fear, Sam Brannan had tried to grab too much too fast. And he didn't get to keep any of it. But those who followed him, did.
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