Saturday, May 5, 2018

The Hanleys: Murder and Mayhem in ‘Frisco



“Beer and whiskey were involved,” reported San Francisco’s Daily Alta newspaper about the shooting death of Daniel Hanley, founder of a liquor merchandising tradition carried on by his wife and son.  Nor, as will be seen, would Dan be the last family member to make the newspapers in an altercation in which a Hanley got the worst of it. 


The Hanley family story began in Mitchellstown, County Cork, Ireland, where Dan Hanley was born in 1837.   Unlike most communities in Ireland, Mitchellstown, shown above, was a planned town, located on the site of a medieval village that was torn down by a British lord to build a place of his own design, shown here.  It is likely that in Mitchellstown Hanley met Mary Sullivan, a woman eight years younger, whom he eventually would marry.

It is not clear when the couple emigrated to the United States.  Hanley first surfaced in San Francisco directories in 1863 working as a bartender at the Rotunda Saloon and living at 5 O’Farrell Street.  Before long, the Irish immigrant was listed owning a grocery store and liquor business, including a saloon.

In 1877, the Hanleys were living at 33 Eddy Street, likely above their establishment.  They had three children,  John about 5, James 3, and Molly, under one year.  Also living with them was John Hanley, Dan’s older brother.   According to an account in the San Francisco Bulletin, the Hanleys had fenced in some property to the objection of a neighboring land owner named Dennis Ryan.  The result was ongoing trouble between the two families.

In October 1877, during a raucous party at Ryan’s house, a dispute broke out between the two Irishman.  Both sides had firearms and shots were exchanged.  John Hanley was hit in the hand and Dan was shot through the right thigh.  Ryan and an accomplice were arrested on a charge of assault to murder.  After lingering for six months Dan, only 37 years old, died of blood poisoning and the charge against Ryan became manslaughter.  Asked about what fueled the fight, witnesses told the press:  “Beer and wine were involved.”

Left with three small children to raise, Mary Sullivan Hanley, shown right, proved to have “the right stuff.”  Without skipping a beat she took over management of the family grocery, liquor sales and the saloon.  At the outset brother-in-law John was available to help.  By the time her son John was seventeen, he was tasked with working in his mother’s enterprises, thereby learning the liquor trade.  A younger son, James, was able to go to law school, ultimately becoming a prominent San Francisco attorney and eventually its assistant district attorney.  

At some point during the early 1890s, the Hanleys apparently shut down their business and John, shown right,  went to work for a string of other San Francisco wine and liquor dealers.  He was recorded, for example, as secretary of the Golden Gate Champagne Co.  By 1896 he had settled in as the bookkeeper and secretary for the Joseph Melczer Co., located on Front Street.  Melczer was a Hungarian immigrant who had talent for wine and had built a prosperous San Francisco wine and liquor business.

While in this employment, John married.  His bride was Ella Cronin, born in California in 1877, the daughter of John and Ella Cronin.  Inexplicably, their wedding announcement in the San Francisco Call identified John as hailing from Nogales, Arizona, and said the couple would make their home in that state.  No evidence exists, however, that they ever left Frisco.  Their children, three sons and four daughters, all were born in California.


Hanley worked for Melczer & Company through 1904, and in 1905, the wealthy Melczer, with his wife Elizabeth, retired. Making an unrevealed financial arrangement with his former employer, Hanley took over the management of the wine and liquor house, soon changing its name to the Hanley Mercantile Company. The new owner wasted no time in issuing his own brands of whiskey. His flagship was “Hanley Rye,” shown here in two amber flasks, one with a label, the other as embossed in the glass.

Hanley’s timing might have been better. In 1906, the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire burned out Front Street, the avenue shown above in ruins.  In the conflagration, like many local whiskey men, John lost his entire stock of whiskey.   Undaunted, he opened again the very next year on Florida Street, advertising his liquor as “Good Goods.


Hanley Merchantile has been credited with a canny marketing move. In 1904 Oregon had enacted a “local option” law and a number of communities went dry. Meanwhile, San Franisco stayed predictably wet. Taking advantage of the Interstate Commerce Clause, Hanley advertised heavily in Oregon and did brisk business by mail order there, using the Southern Pacific Railroad to deliver the goods. 

 Customers would send Hanley Merchantile five dollars and the company would send back four bottles of Hanley Rye or perhaps Ashborne Rye, a name I believe can be related back to the San Francisco fire. Everything sent to Oregon, naturally, came in a plain brown wrapper.

By 1909, John Hanley had settled into more permanent retail quarters on Eddy Street when a incident occurred that would unwillingly thrust him into the newspapers.  The San Francisco Call of May 8, 1909 headlined:  “Mrs. Elizabeth Melczer, Rich Society Woman, in a “Fistic” Role, Seeks Dividends from Mercantile Company and Pummels Its President; Pulls Hanley’s Hair and Puts Up a Good Fight.”

Leaving from her mansion home in Palo Alto, shown here, the now Widow Melczar had gone with her attorney to Hanley’ office to collect dividends she said were due her from the liquor business.  The discussion deteriorated into an argument between the dowager and Hanley.  In the fracas, Elizabeth pulled Hanley’s hair yanking some of it out and chased him around his desk.  Hanley tried to protect himself with a chair that subsequently was broken. The eyeglasses of Mrs. Melczar’s attorney were broken in the melee. Hanley was forced to take cover under a table until the attorney could hustle the outraged female from the room.  The newspaper story the next day had all San Francisco laughing.

For a day or so, Hanley could not be found, clearly lying low until the buzz receded.  The Call ended its lengthy news account by reporting:  “According to Hanley’s friends,  Mrs. Melczer had business transactions with him, and expectations were that these would be settled within a few days.”  One can image John’s Irish mother, Mary, wishing she could have gotten in a few licks on the Widow Melczar.

Whether it was this event or the increasing momentum of Prohibition, by 1918 the Hanley Mercantile Co. was out of business. In 1913 Congress had closed the loophole that Hanley had exploited. In addition, Oregon had gone totally dry in 1914 cutting off an important source of his revenues.   John Hanley went on to other pursuits.  When he registered for the World War One draft, he was working in a steel mill.  In subsequent census records he was recorded employed as a cashier for the railroad.

Mary Sullivan Hanley, continued to live in San Francisco all her life, dying in October 1924 at the age of 79.  Devoted to her Catholic religion, she was a member of the third order of St. Dominic.  Given a solemn requiem high mass at St. Charles Church on S. Van Ness Avenue, she was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, the burial town for San Francisco.  A widow for 44 years, Mary lies next to her late husband, Daniel, in Section H, Row 4, Plot 45.  In 1942 John died and joined his parents in Holy Cross Cemetery.  The Hanley cross-shaped monument is shown here.

Note:  Much of the material in this post earlier appeared in an article in “Placer Trails,” a publication of the Genealogical Society of Auburn, California.  Dated April 2014, it was written by Jacqui Marcella, whose Irish ancestors were from Mitchellstown and possibly related to the Hanleys.  
































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