St. Patrick’s Day is March 17 so let’s salute the Irish who gave us San Mateo County. An exaggeration? Perhaps. Consider, however, the year the county was founded — 1856, a year displayed prominently on the county seal. In San Francisco, 1856 is known for something else: The year of the Vigilantes, a time when angry San Franciscans took the law into their own hands, hands that held guns and ropes — ropes as in hangings.
San Mateo County's seal: Note the year.
To this day, historians debate if the main aim of the vigilantes was to crush crime or rid San Francisco of a growing Democratic political machine run by Irish Catholics that was threatening the established power structure. Probably both.
“Anti-Catholic and anti-Irish feeling seethed” through the Vigilantes, wrote esteemed California historian Kevin Starr in “Americans and the California Dream.” According to Starr, the Vigilante movements of both 1851 and 1856 were fueled by “anti-foreign reformism on the part of outraged businessmen.” Sound familiar?
In 1856, the thinly populated Peninsula was part of San Francisco, which was approaching a population of 60,000. Some lawmakers felt that making San Francisco both a city and county under a consolidation act would end jurisdictional disputes in the prosecution of “toughs,” who were mainly Irish. The “toughs,” a term used in histories written during the era, viewed the Peninsula as a great place to spread their wicked, wicked ways, which included prize fighting, gambling and saloons. Their friends in Sacramento agreed to make San Francisco a city and county with the understanding that San Mateo County would be born.
So in 1856, San Francisco became a city and county and San Mateo County became independent, a role reversal that reverberates to this day. San Francisco is dependent on the Peninsula for land to hold water, prisoners and airlines, among other things.
This new arrangement was made to order for San Francisco’s criminal element. The initial San Mateo County election to pick officers as well as the county seat was replete with stuffed ballot boxes, physical intimidation at the polls by what were called “shoulder strikers” and other illegal methods. The state Supreme Court invalidated the results of the first election that saw Belmont picked as the county seat. A second election was held the next year and Redwood City became the county seat.
Brothers Bernard and Billy Mulligan and Chris Lilly played key parts in the fraud. The three were a specific kind of Irish, the kind depicted in the movie “Gangs of New York.” They lived by their fists and wits. Lilly had a big stake in the new county. He owned the Abbey House, a tavern located in what is now Daly City.
Lilly was arrested for his part in the San Mateo County election scam and was deported to Central America where he died. Billy Mulligan was also deported but returned to San Francisco where he killed two men in a gunfight in 1865 before he was shot to death by police. John Boessenecker wrote in “Against the Vigilantes” that Mulligan was an alcoholic who was delusional to the point he was convinced the vigilantes were still after him.
The Mulligans, Lilly and their kind were products of the big city politics of the East trying to come West. Their attempted coup came at a time when Peninsula residents, including many Irish, were trying to live off the land, mainly with farming, dairy and logging, all ventures needed to feed and house the giant city to the north.
Each year, St. Francis of Assisi Church in East Palo Alto holds a St. Patrick’s Day Dinner to recall the area’s Irish heritage. Father Larry Goode said that today the parish is a mix of cultures, including African-American, Latino and Tongan. You can’t miss the area’s Irish roots, however. Many of the streets bear Irish names. One of them is Kavanaugh, the family that donated the land for the church.
The story of the Irish is not too different than the story of the immigrants today in East Palo Alto, the priest said.
What he called the “most unique St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the Bay Area” is slated for March 12 starting at noon
The Rear View Mirror by history columnist Jim Clifford appears in the Daily Journal every other Monday. Objects in The Mirror are closer than they appear.