Charles Patrick “Dutch Charley” Duane

Charles Patrick “Dutch Charley” Duane

Tipperary, County Tipperary, Ireland
Death 13 May 1887 (aged 59–60)
San Francisco, San Francisco County, California, USA
Burial Colma, San Mateo County, California, USA
Memorial ID 107418522 · View Source
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Outlawed twice by the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance, first in 1851 and again in 1856, Charles Patrick"Dutch Charley" Duane was one of the most colorful and controversial figures of the California Gold Rush. He played many roles in his life: politician, fire chief, election rigger, bare

As the chief enforcer for California's urban Democratic political boss, David C. Broderick, Dutch Charley rose to the heights of power and prestige in San Francisco until his ignominious downfall at the hands of the vigilantes in 1856.Even Bret Harte took notice of him, writing, "Duane's reputation for lawlessness and brutal aggression has long been established in California."

Born Charles Patrick Duane in Tipperary, Ireland, in 1827, as a child he immigrated with his family to Albany, New York. Apprenticed to a New York City wagon maker at fifteen, Duane's physical size and fighting instincts soon attracted him to the rough and tumble world of Tammany Hall politics and the violent street gangs which were its allies. In the 1840s and 1850s, New York machine politics went hand in hand with firefighting and bare-knuckle prize fighting. Volunteer fire companies became the focal point of male social life; no local politician stood a chance of reelection unless he was a member. And prize fighters were essential in the violent elections of the era. Young Duane became a political bully, or "shoulder striker," and a close friend of such bare knuckle champions as Tom Hyer and "Country" McCluskey. Seeking power in politics and prestige in pugilism, Duane soon abandoned honest labor and relished a life of drinking, gambling, brawling, and womanizing. When he bested a German fighter nicknamed "Dutch Charley," Duane's friends appropriated the sobriquet for him. Although Tom Hyer jokingly changed it to "German Charles," the appellation "Dutch Charley" would cling to Duane until his death.

By the time Charley Duane was twenty-one, he was famous in New York's political and prizefighting circles. In 1849, when Tom Hyer fought Yankee Sullivan in one of America's greatest bare-knuckle matches, Dutch Charley carried Hyer on his brawny shoulders into the ring. Three months later, during the Astor Park Riot (a political disturbance which left thirty-one dead) city officials called on Duane to pacify rampaging street gangs. In January 1850, Dutch Charley, like many adventurous young Easterners, joined the Gold Rush to California. Duane made a brief tour of the gold region, but he had little interest in the backbreaking labor of the placer mines. Instead, he settled in San Francisco and became a shoulder striker for David Broderick, a fellow Irishman and Tammany Hall politician from New York. Duane chose wisely, for Broderick was already well on his way to becoming California's urban Democratic political boss. San Francisco had a large population of New York Irish, and Dutch Charley was well known to them. He became a leader in the city's new volunteer fire department, and would later
rise to its top position, Chief Engineer. Less than three months after his arrival in San Francisco Duane found himself in trouble with the authorities. On July 3, 1850, he was charged with assault and battery for "beating and bruising one of the quiet citizens of this city." Two days later Duane was fined a meagerly six dollars for the offense. This was the first of many times that he would escape punishment in San Francisco, primarily through the influence of David Broderick. Two months later he was arrested for "riotous conduct" at a ball in the section of town that would later become known as the Barbary Coast. And two months after that his ill temper brought him more trouble. After being bitten by a vicious dog, Duane whipped out his pistol and shot the animal, narrowly missing a passerby. When a policeman tried to arrest him, an enraged Dutch Charley came close to choking and stomping the officer to death. Duane's political connections got him off with a $100 fine.

Two months later Dutch Charley's violent temper brought him serious trouble. Early in the morning of February 18, 1851, with fellow shoulder-striker Ira Cole and several cronies, he attended the Adelphi Theater on Clay Street where its troupe of French actors gave a ball. The manager of the ball was an actor named Amedee Fayolle. Duane entered the ballroom without purchasing a ticket. When confronted, he knocked down the doorkeeper. Dutch Charley then headed upstairs to the dance floor, and when stopped by the attendant, seized him by the throat and head-butted him in the face. Fayolle later entered the barroom, where Duane and his friends were drinking. The Frenchman, accompanied by Eugene Mulard and Felix Marchand, gestured toward Duane. Dutch Charley, seeing the gesture as an affront, stepped up to him and asked, "What do you want here?"

Fayolle did not speak English, and a friend of Duane's translated for him. Fayolle replied, through the interpreter, "I want nothing. One of my friends will speak to you tomorrow."

Suddenly two heavy jabs from Dutch Charley's huge fists sent the actor reeling to the floor, his face bleeding heavily. Mulard and Marchand came to his assistance, but Dutch Charley knocked Marchand down with a single blow to the head and shoved Mulard across the room. Duane then turned on the prostrate actor and stomped him savagely in the head and body. Fayolle crawled toward the door. He was so badly beaten that he could not stand, so he grabbed the doorknob in an effort to get to his feet. As he did so Duane jerked out a pistol and fired once. At the same time Dutch Charley cried out, "The son of a bitch has got a pistol!"

The ball had torn into Fayolle's back near the spine and lodged in his abdomen. The badly wounded actor was carried to the French hospital. As it turned out, he had been unarmed. Dutch Charley was arrested and charged with assault with intent to kill. But he later went free when Fayolle failed to attend the trial. It was reported that David Broderick and other political friends of Duane had paid the Frenchman a small fortune to leave town permanently.

The common thread running through almost all of Charley Duane's violent behavior was his refusal to back down from a fight, and his violent redress of verbal insults and physical threats. Ernest de Massey, a French merchant, provided a vivid portrait of Dutch Charley, whom he termed "one of the outstanding American characters in San Francisco." De Massey described Duane: "He is a man some twenty-five or thirty years old, large, blond, a man of superb physique. He seems to be of more than ordinary intelligence and is generous even to the point of being prodigal. A born leader, ambitious, and a good mixer, he is usually to be found in one of the gambling houses. A notorious politician as well, he has a thousand votes at his command to be disposed of at elections by the simple plan of having his adherents vote three times in different sections of the city. Naturally he is flattered and bowed down to by all the political leaders. Although he has no visible means of support he lives regally on credit. . . .With his capriciousness, his viciousness, and his undeniable charm he would be a dangerous man in any walk of life -- whether in society, political life, or love-affairs."

By this time the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance of 1851 had been organized. They were well aware of Duane's violent record. When Dutch Charley savagely beat one of the vigilantes, he was arrested, tried in the regular courts, and sentenced to a year in state prison. But once again Dutch Charley's political connections saved his hide. Governor John McDougal, at the urging of David Broderick, granted him a full pardon. This enraged the vigilantes, and they issued an edict that Duane "leave this City of San Francisco and not to return under penalty of death." Dutch Charley wisely slipped out of town on a steamship bound for Central America.

The Committee of Vigilance gradually disbanded in the fall of 1851. This encouraged Charley Duane to return to San Francisco. Within three months of his hasty departure he was back in town and back in trouble. Charming, well-spoken, and always dressed in the height of fashion, he reveled in a second nickname, "Handsome Charley." As Ernest de Massey explained, "Girls and women, even those of the highest type, are captivated by his sympathetic manner, his flattery, his delicate attentions, and his pleasing compliments." Duane's close escape from hanging or other punishment at the hands of the vigilantes had changed him little. While he had been gone, an attorney named Tiffany had seduced Duane's woman. Dutch Charley challenged his rival to a formal duel, but Tiffany had no stomach for the field of honor. Duane was arrested, ordered to post a bond to keep the peace, and released. Once again the political influence of David Broderick kept him in good stead.

Dutch Charley was so brazen that he had little fear of the city police. Soon after, he had a run-in with San Francisco policeman Phineas Blunt, who noted the incident in his journal on January 7, 1852: "Tonight had difficulty with Charles Duane alias Dutch Charley. Also with John Barmore, Henry Drake and Sandy Rinton. All of them shoulder strikers, one of them offered to cut open
[Police Officer] Cornelius Holland, another offered to cut the liver out of me because I had arrested one of them, rather hard spot to be in. "The Democratic primary election of June 19, 1854, was one of San Francisco's most violent, and illustrated the election lawlessness which gave rise to popular support for vigilantism. Of course, Duane was involved. Reported the San Francisco Alta, "Never have we witnessed such intense excitement, attended with such disgraceful scenes of rowdyism, at any election that has ever taken place in this city. . . . As the day drew to a close, wild riot came . . . [and] black eyes and bloody noses abounded. . . . Knives were drawn and freely used, revolvers discharged with a perfect recklessness."

The worst violence took place that night, after the polls were closed. Duane was in the barroom of the Union Hotel with various cronies. At that time the Union was a popular gathering place for the political elite. Suddenly J.A. "Jack" Watson burst into the bar and engaged in a heated argument with several men present. Watson was a well known hothead and political leader from Los Angeles. Dutch Charley interceded and attempted to quiet Watson, but soon Duane's temper brought him to angry words. Watson turned to leave and strode toward the front door. As suddenly as he had entered, he whirled around, whipped out a revolver, and opened fire on the crowd. One of Duane's cronies dropped with a pistol ball in his left thigh. Dutch Charley yanked his own six-shooter and cried out to Watson to shoot at him, not at the crowd. At the same time Duane and several others fired at Watson, who went down with three wounds, one in his thigh, a ball in one hand, and a finger shot off the other hand. Thirteen shots had been exchanged at close quarters, but Duane was not scratched.

On November 7, 1855, Dutch Charley's precipitous temper nearly cost him his life. Duane, now fire chief of San Francisco, was in a gambling hall on the corner of Montgomery and Commercial streets. A drunken gambler named Gray insulted him. When someone present told the fire chief that Gray was a thief, Duane quickly placed him under arrest. Unknown to Duane, Gray was not a thief but was carrying a large sum of money and police officer B.C. Donnelly had been assigned to keep an eye on the inebriated gambler. Donnelly interfered with Duane's arrest and the fight was on. The officer struck Dutch Charley with his club, and Duane retaliated by striking Donnelly with his cane. At that, the policeman jerked his revolver and fired twice at close range. Once again Duane's Irish luck saved his life, for both shots missed. Ironically, it was Dutch Charley who had the policeman arrested for assault with intent to kill.

In 1856, official corruption, political violence, and electoral fraud led to a reorganization of the Committee of Vigilance. Many violent political criminals were rounded up by the vigilantes and deported on outgoing ships; four others were hanged. Dutch Charley was one of the first to be arrested. He was sent to Central America, but he managed to jump ship in Mexico and stow away on a northbound vessel back to San Francisco. Duane was discovered before the ship reached California and was forcibly put onto another southbound steamer. Duane's courage and his eagerness to go back to San Francisco to face his vigilante enemies cannot be doubted; nor can it be doubted that the vigilantes would have hanged him if he had reappeared in the city.

Dutch Charley returned to New York City. There he became partly paralyzed by drinking bad water from lead pipes. His vigilante enemies claimed that he drank bad liquor. Either way, Dutch Charley walked with a cane ever after. By 1860 the vigilantes no longer enforced their deportation orders and Duane felt safe in returning to San Francisco. He discovered that large tracts of city land that he had claimed during the Gold Rush had been taken over by squatters during his absence. The squatters claimed that Duane did not own the disputed land. Despite his disability, Dutch Charley would spend the rest of his life fighting for his property, with fists, guns, and lawyers.

In 1860, William G. Ross settled on a portion of the tract that Duane claimed, which was located at the northwest corner of what is now Fulton and Divisadero Streets. A typical California politician of that era, Ross was a dangerous man and had a reputation for being "on the shoot and cut." He boasted that he had killed two men in Iowa. In 1863 he broke a man's arm in a San Francisco brawl. By 1866 Duane and Ross were at loggerheads over the property dispute. They also hated each other's politics; Ross was a Secessionist and Duane a Unionist. Ross threatened to "shoot the lights out of the Abolition son of a bitch." He made numerous threats to "cook Charley Duane's goose" and said he was "heeled for him." When a mutual friend urged Duane and Ross to settle their dispute, Ross declared, "There is no chance for a settlement. It is war to the knife and the knife to the hilt."

On May 22, 1866, Charley Duane and his younger brother, John, drove out to the site and found Ross and some friends building a house. According to several witnesses, Dutch Charley stepped out of his buggy, pistol in one hand and cane in the other. As he walked forward, Ross grabbed a rifle and pulled the trigger. The weapon misfired. Duane left, swore out a complaint against Ross, and returned with police officers who arrested several of Ross's party. That night Ross's house burned to the ground.
The next morning Duane and Ross met in police court. Duane charged Ross with assault; Ross charged Duane with arson. The two were released on bonds to keep the peace. At two o'clock that afternoon, Charley and John Duane left the police court in City Hall and encountered Ross standing on the sidewalk, talking with two friends. Dutch Charley carried in his pocket a Deane & Adams five-shooter; his brother had a Remington six-gun and a derringer. Charley Duane later testified that Ross reached behind himself as if to draw a pistol. Dutch Charley whipped out his revolver and shot Ross twice in the back, at the same time shouting, "Draw and fire, damn you!"

Ross dropped to the sidewalk, crying out, "I am murdered!" He died two days later. No gun was found on his person. The Duanes were both promptly arrested, John as an accessory. Dutch Charley's violent past was raked up and recounted by the newspapers. The shooting was almost identical to that of Fayolle fifteen years earlier. The San Francisco press uniformly denounced Dutch Charley as a back shooter and cold-blooded murderer. The Duanes remained in jail for five months until their trial in October. Numerous witnesses testified during the eight-day trial, many describing the threats Ross had made to kill Dutch Charley. Duane's lawyers argued that it did not matter whether or not Ross had been armed; if Duane had a reasonable belief that Ross had a gun and intended to shoot him, the killing was justified. This argument struck a responsive chord among the jurors. Men in that era strongly believed in the right of self defense and in the perceived right to defend one's person and honor with deadly force. Charley's attorneys also played on the strong partisan feelings of the Civil War. They argued, "Do not condemn Duane because he is a Union man. Do not acquit him because Ross was a Secessionist."

It took the jury less than two hours to return a verdict of not guilty. The Duanes were immediately released and the charges against John Duane were dropped. But this was not Dutch Charley's last gunfight. In 1868 Duane and several companions engaged in gun battle with a group of rival squatters over a tract of land in what is now China Basin. One of Dutch Charley's rivals was wounded. In 1872 Duane quarreled with a neighbor, jerked his pistol, and fired at the man's head. Fortunately for Dutch Charley, he only shot off his neighbor's hat and escaped with a sixty-dollar fine.

There was more squatter trouble the following year, this time over eighty acres were claimed by Duane on Haight Street near what later became Golden Gate Park. Dutch Charley erected a small shanty on the tract and hired seven gunmen (whom he claimed were carpenters) to hold the land. On the night of December 3, 1873, Duane and his men were attacked by a band of rival squatters. Dutch Charley received a bullet in his foot and two of his men were badly wounded. The other "carpenters" fled but Duane remained and held the ground until daylight when he was carried to his home nearby to have his wound treated.

When Charles Duane died in San Francisco on May 13, 1887, few mourned his passing. He bore the dubious distinction of being the only man exiled by both the 1851 and 1856 Committees of Vigilance. His historical significance lies in his prominent connection with the vigilantes of 1851 and 1856, and the fact that he left the only memoir of any of the men who were arrested and deported by America's most important vigilance movement.

(From the Encyclopedia of San Francisco, Entry Author: John Boessenecker.)


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  • Created by: Athanatos
  • Added: 27 Mar 2013
  • Find A Grave Memorial 107418522
  • Find A Grave, database and images ( : accessed ), memorial page for Charles Patrick “Dutch Charley” Duane (1827–13 May 1887), Find A Grave Memorial no. 107418522, citing Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery, Colma, San Mateo County, California, USA ; Maintained by Athanatos (contributor 46907585) .