Maurice Coffey – Part I – The County Roscommon Grappler


Maurice Coffey

    If you asked a dozen people about Galveston you might well get a dozen different answers. One would say it was a minor port city, one would say it was a sleepy southern city and one might say it was a resort city – without gambling – and they would all be right, but not quite right. If you ask the same dozen about history they might all very well respond by referring to the 1900 or some later storm. The storms have all been moments of high drama where man faced nature at its most savage and more often than not triumphed at a terrible cost. If you think that the storms are all there is to Galveston history you are missing out on some of the great things that happened there and just how integral to the American story it has been.

The Irish had immigrated to this country before the Potato Famine and had suffered for being Irish and for being Catholic. They had come in waves as a result of the Potato Famine and had suffered all the more because there were more of them and they were steadfastly Irish and even more steadfastly Catholic. Possibly because they proved they could be steadfastly American on a hundred battlefields of the Civil War and because they continued to move west with the country they gathered at least a grudging acceptance.

Their political genius and success might earn them such epithets as Ambrose Bierce’s, “I never said all Democrats were saloonkeepers. What I said was that all saloonkeepers are Democrats.” but with the presidential election of 1884 won by a Democrat, Grover Cleveland, because of the virulence of Republican James G. Blaine‘s Presbyterian supporter, Reverend Dr. Samuel Burchard, making his fatal statement, “We are Republicans, and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” the Irish were on their way.

By this time the Irish had  Finley Peter Dunne and the immortal Mr. Dooley, his Irish saloonkeeper and bete noir of the pious, who advised, “Trust everybody, but cut the cards.” [Apparently he also gave the Democrats their marching orders for the future, “Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.”, although that was actually a part of his description of what newspapers did.] Our subject for this entry could have stepped out of one of his stories and been as at home with Mr. Dooley as he was with Galveston.

When you live is an accident of history. Where you live may be part accident and part design and it may tell a good deal about you if only how you played your cards after they were cut. Where you choose to be buried may say as much about you as where and how you lived. In a corner of Calvary cemetery in Galveston there is a white marble monument that has weathered storms since well before 1900 and the east side bears the name Coffey and has an elaborate inscription in honor of Mary Coffey the wife of Maurice. The west side bears the name Young and marks the resting spot of Margaret Edythe Young’s siblings Loretta, Maurier, Cecelia, Clifford and Anna who never reached their majority as well as other family members.

Edythe’s father John Young and Maurice Coffey were two Irish immigrants who became great and good friends in Galveston in the last part of the 19th century. It was a city that no one who visits there today would recognize. Other than the sturdiest churches there were few prominent buildings there then and what few there were have mostly been destroyed by storms, fires or wrecking balls since. It was a town divided between the gentility of southern sensibilities in the better families, the worst aspects of poor white society among the poor and a sort of wild west egalitarianism for the middle. Intertwined among these groups were immigrants and blacks that made their own contributions to the society without being part of the mainstream.

While John Young, an immigrant, climbed steadily to the highest level that he could achieve through his commercial endeavors Maurice Coffey, an immigrant, a saloonkeeper and a Democrat occupied a different world. More on the edge of the mainstream than in it he tended bar and ran a boarding house. He provided jobs for his saloon patrons and boarders and became a labor contractor. From that base he became a political operative and a man of some influence but he never left his saloon even though he finally wound up laid to rest by his old friend.

Our friend, Finley Peter Dunne, tells us, “There ain’t any news in being good. You might write the doings of all the convents of the world on the back of a postage stamp, and have room to spare.” Maurice Coffey probably contributed handsomely to the convents of Galveston and was probably a member in good standing of St. Patrick’s since he wound up buried in consecrated ground. That was probably where his piety ended. Virtuous he may have been but in a boisterous way that made him good copy for over thirty years and it is thanks to the Galveston Daily News  – and its online archive at the Rosenberg Library – that we can reconstruct parts of his story.

Maurice, his brother Matthew and his sister Mary Ann immigrated from Ireland in 1858 at the height of the Potato Famine. There is some documentary evidence to suggest that they landed in Philadelphia but how they got to Galveston is a matter of conjecture. We first meet Maurice in the pages of the Galveston Daily News on the 80 degree evening of August 20, 1874:

At the unbewitching hour of 9 o’clock last night, a cry of distress was raised near the corner of Market and Twenty-second streets. The noise floated into our editorial sanctum, and aroused the fraternity to a state of excitement seldom, if ever, witnessed.
“What is up?”, said one.
“You mean DOWN.”, said another.
The street swarmed with citizens, who came from far and near to see the row, and several spirited gentlemen, who believed themselves attacked, indulged in a few spars by the way.
The local stopped in the middle of a heavy drainage article and made a “spurt” for the scene of action.
Mr. Maurice Coffey was on top and E. Mangan, Esq., was underneath, while Alderman Marlow was all about trying to stop the pugilistic exhibition.
For a short time all seemed lost, and so snugly were the contestants laid out among the railway timbers that it would have been a matter of doubt as to where the duo had wound up had not the word “enough” come forth from chaos and floated out upon the evening air; calmly yes decidedly enunciated by the manly Mangan. At this state of the game, Marlow, the proprietor, raised his boot and felt it strike something, and forthwith Coffey,wildly ejaculating, “O! me.” Mangan left unceremoniously, shouting lustily — not from injury that had done him, but from the serene thought of escaping what might have been done.
Nobody knows the cause of the combat, nor does it make any difference, for it was a neat little mill, and showed what can be done without the tedious preliminaries of training, and a prize ring and so much a side – things  peremptorily required by the rules of the ring.

We must excuse the purple prose and enjoy what could be a scene out of one of our favorite westerns and the Galveston of the day was quite a bit wilder as we note a few column inches above the account of the fight that, “Mary Murphy was up before Justice Johnson yesterday on a charge of keeping a house of ill-fame. The evidence being conclusive as to the guilt of the accused, she was placed under a bond of two hundred dollars to appear before the criminal court.” Apparently the law and order candidates were beginning their campaign early at the behest of the decency league.

The Marquess of Queensberry Rules had only been promulgated in 1865 and I doubt much cognizance of them was taken in the waterfront taverns and boarding houses that occupied Post Office, Market and Mechanic streets from Twenty-third street west. Our next encounter with the Coffey family is recorded in the July 8, 1875 edition where we find that, “the trial of Mr. Maurice Coffey in the Recorder’s Court, charged with being drunk and disorderly, resisting and assaulting an officer, resulted in his conviction. The jury fined defendant $25 and he was also placed under peace bond of $200.” At the bottom of the same column we find that his brother Matt Coffey was fined $10 for “interfering with an officer in the discharge of his duties.” We don’t know if both items stemmed from the same incident or not but we find, in addition to whatever imbroglios occurred, “the attention of the police authorities is again called to the flagrant violations of the bathing ordinances. Bathing in a nude state within forbidden limits is still practiced, to the annoyance of persons driving on the beach.” Going back to our old friend, Finley Peter Dunne, we are reminded that, “Vice is a creature of such hideous mien… that the more you see it the better you like it.”, at a minimum it seems to have been a very difficult thing to suppress in Galveston.

In one of those ironies that was not that uncommon for the time the police apparently decided it was easier to have Matthew with them than against them and we find him in the next census with his occupation listed as a policeman. Mary has married and is living in Galveston and having probably been advised that a change of climate might not be injurious to his health Maurice has gone west to seek his fortune in the Leadville silver rush.

Denver may be the mile high city but at 10,152 feet Leadville, Colorado claims not only the title, The Two Mile High City, but is the highest incorporated city and the second highest incorporated municipality in the United States. In one of those ironies that seemed only to happen in the 19th century, prospectors looking for gold found silver – about $700 million dollars worth in the final accounting, created a bonanza and gave birth to more tall tales than would fit in a thick book. Galvestonians were by no means exempt from the siren’s call and the Galveston Daily News reported on their prospecting and prospects.

The first report we find is dated June 27, 1879 and gives a salutory if cautioning view of the place. We learn among other things:

  • “I would have written sooner but a slight attack of pneumonia, followed by a dose of mountain fever and supplemented by a general ailment of the larynx has kept me in such a state of health that to write was all but an impossibility.”
  • “The fact is that the rarefication of the atmosphere is such at this altitude that no one can come to Leadville without at least suffering in some way from throat affections.”
  • “The water, too, contributes to derangement of the kidneys and the arsenic fumes from the smelters may also play a part in the general disorganization of the new comer.”
  • “Where all this is to be said to the disparagement of the town, this significant fact attests the truth that as soon as one is acclimated he gains generally good, if not excellent, health: the men, women and children who have been here sometime have blooms upon their cheeks… The miners themselves are, with few exceptions, strong and healthy, although they work in damp shafts which must of necessity be poor places for health-building.”

Having given the health report and warning off those with pulmonary diseases and throat disorders the reporter continues with the chamber of commerce section of his report finding:

  •     “Leadville is not only the greatest camp, but further, she has not yet attained the full scope of her greatness.”

The rumors of the decline of the camp are debunked as the grousing of merchants who have lost money because they could no longer realize exorbitant prices on any goods they cared to offer.  Sound advise is offered:

  •     “Goods can be bought today in Leadville as cheap as in Denver. Consequently and Galvestonian or Texan who contemplates bringing out a stock of goods to this point will act wisely to forego his undertaking. He will positively lose money by his enterprise.”
  •     “There is only one way to realize on a stock of goods here. It is to bring out a very large. with a good solid capital in the back ground, and await the winter trade. When the heavy snows fall in the passes, hauling will become difficult and costly… The prospectors will all return from the mountains to hibernate…This is the only method of a merchant realizing handsome profits in this camp.”

Apparently supply and demand still worked then for although there were also real estate booms and busts with prices reported to have fallen as much as fifty percent and the price of lumber to have dropped over sixty percent. Rents had fallen. “still I can safely say that improved real estate here is paying four times the income of real estate in any other city in the United States.” Without regulation apparently the market is genuinely efficient.

Speaking to the men who might come west as prospectors the reporter’s advice to the poor is not encouraging, to the rich it has all the positivity of a broker recommending a stock he doesn’t own:

  •     “Great fortunes are undoubtedly to be made here, but thousand of men will turn their faces east without a cent. Men without money should not come here. Their chances are as good for fortune in any lottery… Men of means who come here themselves, or who have competent agents to look after their interests, are almost sure of success. It will be the exception if they fail.”

Having gone through three-quarters of the column we finally come to the news the readers were waiting for:

  •     “I have heard it estimated that there are five hundred Texans in this camp… The proportion of Galvestonians is large. The establishment of Harlan, Chapman & Co. [Bank and Exchange] is the finest of its kind in the city… Messrs. Sachs & Henderson have a bar and a wholesale liquor store. Penn and Tojan are both in the restaurant business, as is also Maurice Coffey.”

After relating the other Galvestonians in business there we are given one of those stories that were the staple of 19th century journalism:

  •     “A few nights ago F. Tojan, of Galveston, who is recollected by the frequenters of the wharf, was arranging his room when the revolver of Kerufim, also well-known in Galveston, was in some manner jostled from a chair on which it had been laid. The fall fired the weapon, and the ball took effect in Mr. Tojan’s leg, causing a dangerous wound. Medical aid was summoned and amputation was decided upon. The surgical operation was gone through with, and Mr. Tojan lost his foot and part of the lower leg. Happily he is doing well now and the physicians hope for his recovery.”

Going forward in time to April 9, 1880 we find our next Daily News article about Leadville with information gathered largely from a letter written by a well-known Galvestonian. He starts out recounting the travails of another citizen of the island in getting to Leadville, “I do not think he enjoyed the mountain scenery much while coming ‘over the range’ for he had all of his toes frost-bitten and now walks as if he were picking up tacks with his bare feet.”

Speaking for himself, Shiloh – the man from Galveston – says, “Galveston is a paradise compared with this miserable place, and I know for my part I would a thousand times prefer to be a cart driver in Galveston than to be a bonanza king in Leadville.” He may not have been alone in the sentiment because the letter goes on to report that no one from Texas has made a fortune by mining.  And then the author tells us:

  •     “No attention should be paid to what is printed in the Leadville papers, as one-half of the articles they publish are gross exaggerations. A stranger, from reading them, would infer that Leadville was a perfect health resort – a sort of Saratoga Springs or Long Branch – with Italian skies and so forth: but what I find most singular is that they never publish the weekly mortuary report. I suppose they think, as a great many do, that if they did, the statement would be so appalling as to cause people to hesitate before coming here.”

It always amuses me to hear one immigrant make a xenophobic comment about other immigrants and our correspondent relates hearing from Maurice Coffey responding to a charge that Galveston was boring compared to Leadville, “it is not to be wondered at, as the city [Galveston] was controlled entirely by foreign office holders. Take for instance men like Marlow and Barry, who have recently been re-elected aldermen. Such men are not only the ruination of the city but a curse.”

We started this entry with tales of Coffey’s legerdemain as a grappler – he was never a boxer or a wrestler – and leave him, for now, in Leadville, Colorado running something that was probably part hash house, part gin mill and maybe a little something else as well. He will be back in Galveston before the next snow falls in the higher elevations, he will still be a publican – but never a Republican – and he will be up to his armpits in the contact sport that was Democratic politics in Galveston and in Texas in the late 19th century.

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