Billy McGarrahan: Fruitless Prosecution of a Just Claim

From Poverty to Affluence
Billy McGarrahan cried like a baby as he stood in the Capitol corridor and heard that the celebrated McGarrahan claim had passed congress. There has been many a day when McGarrahan has gone without a square meal while pleading with congress to recognize the justice of his claim, but now he has suddenly jumped into great wealth, and the list of American millionaires will now have to be revised. Yesterday he had nothing but the clothes on his back, but today his fortune is variously estimated at from $3,000,000 to $10,000,000. The claim covers valuable quicksilver lands in California, which the government granted to McGarrahan and then regranted to others. The claim now goes to the court of claims, but the bill just passed is so drawn that the reference to the court is purely formal.

The McGarrahan claim has been a celebrated one for thiry-four years, and in that time nearly every lobbyist has had a hand in it. It is said that Crane, the actor, took the theme of “The Senator” from it. It has passed the senate or house fifteen times, but never got through both houses until now. In the thirty-four  years of unceasing endeavor McGarrahan has had a hard struggle to exist, but his finally acquired millions show what perseverance can accomplish. He was a young man when the fight began, and now he is 70.

The News (Frederick, Maryland)  July 20, 1892

Sketch of His Life.
William McGarrahan was born in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, in the north of Ireland, in October, 1828. The family had been extensive landholders, but at the time of his birth were only in moderate circumstances. He spent his youth in Sligo with an uncle, and until his death attended a private school, and on the death of his uncle began business as a grocer and wine dealer and was for some years successful in amassing a competence.

He very early took part in the cause of Ireland, and when barely seventeen was a delegate, with the mayor aldermen and other distinguished citizens, to represent the city of Sligo at the national ceremonies at Dublin, May, 1845, to celebrate the liberation of O’Connor and his seven martyr friends. Among the representatives on that occasion were Smith O’Brien, Thomas Francis Meagher, Thomas Devin Riley and Thomas D’Arcy McGee. When, in 1848, the French revolution resulted in the overthrow of the monarchy, a mass meeting was held in Sligo and an address adopted congratulating France on the establishment of a republic. Young McGarrahan, then under twenty years of age, the mayor of Verdan and Alderman O’Donovan were elected to present the address to the French republican government.

During the repeal agitation McGarrahan, despite his years, took a prominent part, and when the division came between O’Connell and his whig followers and the “young Ireland” party, the future claimant seceded with “young Ireland,” under D’Arcy McGee, who proposed him as a member of the Irish confederation, the parliament of the party. He continued an active member of this party until it disbanded, in 1848, when most of those with whom he acted had been seized and sentenced to banishment by the British government. Soon after the writ of habeas corpus was suspended and McGarrahan’s house was searched for arms and papers.

A price of L500 was put on D’Arcy McGee’s head, and a penalty of fourteen years imprisonment for any one who harbored or assisted him, but McGarrahan sheltered McGee until he could escape from the country. McGarrahan then sold out his exensive and prosperous business and property and followed his companions to America, arriving here in March, 1849. After a residence of some months in the east and New Orleans he determined to make California his home, where he arrived in October, 1849. He invested his capital in his former business, and in 1853 he was one of the leading merchants on the Pacific coast. He returned to Ireland in that year, and in Dublin was entertained by Charles Gavin Duffy and John Neil McKenna, both since knighted and members of the British parliament. After an extended visit to the continent, he returned to California in 1854, resumed his business and purchased a ranch in San Jose valley, which he stocked with the first improved herd in the state. About this time he purchased from Gomez the Mexican title to the Rancho Panoche Grande and with it came all his trouble and such and experience of the devious methods of ????tion as was never before known in this country. From that time, December, 1857, Mr. McGarrahan’s history is conspicuously of record in the courts of California, the supreme court of the United States, the interior department and congress tothe present day.

The Atlanta Constitution (Atlanta, Georgia)  April, 29,  1894



Robert Graves Contrasts Latter Day Lobbying with the Style Formerly in Vogue.
McGarrahan’s Claim — Laziness and Selfishness the Chief Congressional Vices.
[Special Correspondence.]

WASHINGTON, July 26. — We are at the end of the first session of the Fifty-second congress. Every congress, every session of congress, has its secret history, and this one is no exception to the rule. There are many things about this session which I would like to tell but dare not, for I should be sure to give offense in one direction or another. There are men whom I should like to denounce for the demagogy, their laziness, their indifference to the public welfare, their narrowness, their selfishness.

Probably the two greatest faults of our public men are laziness and selfishness. Corruption direct, unmistakable dishonesty is happily rare in congress. I often think the public has a mistaken notion concerning the corruption which is popularly supposed to exist in high places. Probably if the innermost secrets of this session of congress were laid bare not one case would appear of a member or senator actually taking a direct bribe. Only a few days ago a bill was passed which was worth $3,000,000 to one man. I speak of poor old Billy McGarrahan, of whose good fortune after more than thirty years of poverty and struggle you have doubtless read something in the telgraphic dispatches. But perhaps you do not know that when congress passed the bill referring his claim to the court of claims it not only placed $3,000,000 in his pocket, but $300,000 in the pocket of a man who is known as a lobbyist, and who makes no secret of his connection with the McGarrahan bill.

Inasmuch as this case gives us an insight into the character and methods of modern lobbyists, I will tell you something about it. McGarrahan has been here almost a third of a century, trying to get justice from congress. Repeatedly his bill has passed one, or the other house, but it has never before passed both in one congress. There has been no doubt all these years of the justice of his claim. Committee after committee has looked into it and decided in his favor. Some of the biggest lobbyists of the last quarter of a century Sam Ward, the prince, Matt Carpenter and several others whom I am not at liberty to name have had his interests in charge at various times.

Finally McGarrahan asked Colonel Ayres, a former newspaper man, to see what he could do. This was known as the economical congress. Its leaders were striving to keep appropriations down to the smallest limit. Men of genius, under more favorable circumstances, had endeavored to put that bill through and had failed. Yet Ayres did not hesitate. Making an agreement with McGarrahan by which he was to have 10 per cent of the proceeds, whatever that might be, he began his campaign. His weapons were argument, demonstration of the justice of the claim, appeal to the decency and generosity of senators and representatives. I am sure not a dollar was improperly used. Eloquence, tact, energy wond the day in the senate. The bill passed that body by a large majority. In the house the session was drawing to a close, and if anything were to be done there it must be done quickly. Colonel Ayres canvassed the ground very carefully. For months he walked, ate, sat, almost slept with members. Finally he was ready for a vote. He felt confident he could pass the bill if a roll call upon it could be had. The vital question was, Could the bill be brought up? That depended upon one man, Speaker Crisp. Hundreds of measures were pressing for favor. Influential men were supporting them and rivaling each other for the speaker’s favor. How did Colonel Ayres get over this difficulty?

He called one night on Speaker Crisp and told what he wanted. He wanted a chance to call the bill up. “You can’t have it,” said Crisp. “Well, then.” retorted Ayres, “you will have to bury poor old Billy McGarrahan. Take your choice; give me a vote or bury my man. He has reached his limit; he can endure no more. Disappointment after disappointment he has borne, he has nearly starved, he has changed from a young and vigorous man to a whitehaired, broken wreck while waiting for justice at the hands of the American congress. He can go no farther if we can’t have a vote this week he’ll be dead by the time you bring your gavel down for the final adjournment.”

This was an appeal to his manhood which the speaker could not resist. He could do nothing less than give the bill a chance to be voted on. Responsibility for its passage or defeat was not his, but rested with the 300 members of the house.

“You will make something out of this yourself, will you not, Ayres?” Mr. Crisp asked.
“I do not deny that, Mr. Speaker. But I will tell you what I will do. Give us a vote, and if the bill passes I pledge you that my fee shall be turned over to any charitable institution which you may name. All I want is justice for my client.”

The speaker promised the bill should have a chance, but he did not think it necessary to rob Ayres of the reward of his work, though he felt confident this man, lobbyist though he was, would keep his word. The bill had its chance in court, was passed, and when the news came out to the corridor poor old Billy McGarrahan wept for joy. His blue eyes blazed with a peculiar light. Had the verdict been the other way no doubt he would have died within a week.

Now this is a sample of lobbying of the latter day style. Had the cause been anything but a just one it could not have mustered a dozen votes in the house. For thirty years it has been as meritorious as it is now and had failed a score of times. All honor, say I, to the men who voted this tardy justice. All honor, too, to Colonel Ayres, who, though a professional lobbyist, brought the American congress to a realization of its obligations and responsibilities. Ayres by this one stroke becomes a wealthy man. It is the greatest victory won by a professional lobbyist in many years. As a character study it is worthwhile noting that this man could never….[the rest of the sentence is unreadable] He never went back on a friend. He never failed to help a fellow being in distress. So, you see, even in lobbying character is worth something, and I believe in giving the devil his due.

I have more respect for this man than I have for some of the members of congress who refused to vote for poor old Billy McGarrahan’s bill because they thought somebody might charge them with being corrupt. There is where the cowardice of public life comes in, and the selfishness of it also. “Voting for this measure subjects me to possible criticism.” thought the average congressman, “and I can’t see that it will help me in my approaching campaign. It won’t popularize me, because McGarrahan has no friends in my district.” It was just such views as this that defeated the bill time and agina in the past; it is precisely this narrow, selfish stand that defeats hundreds of worthy measures and perpetuates hundreds of monstrous injustices done in the name of the public.

[the column continues taking about congress etc, which I did not transcribe]

Trenton Times, The (Trenton, New Jersey)  July 27,  1892


A Chapter in the Story of Washington Life.
The McGarrahan Claim and What it Has Had to Encounter

[Special Correspondence to The Times]
WASHINGTON, July 2, 1892.

William McGarrahan, whose success in Congress last week caused universal rejoicing where he and his celebrated claim are known, enjoys the distinction of being the only man whose enemies started a newspaper in order to destroy him. The Washington Capital probably would never have been begun by Don Piatt if Neely Thompson, the man who engineered the New Idria Quick Silver Mining Company, had not guaranteed the sum of $6,000 a year on condition that Piatt would abuse Billy McGarrahan. Piatt wanted fun and dollars and he cared not a particle whether the claim was a just one or not.

When McGarrahan finally gave him a drubbing in the Senate lobby Piatt told him “You ought to have licked me long ago,” which was about the truest thing he ever said. Neely Thompson got millions out of the New Idria mine. A small fortune was disbursed by Thompson every year from 1870 to 1880, the era of the good time in the lobby. One celebrated dinner at Welcker’s, at which Sam Ward and a number of newspaper men were present, sixteen in all, cost over $100 a plate.

McGarrahan’s claim and its history make the best chapter in the story of Washington life. For over a third of a century he has stood before the doors of Congress pleading for justice for the right to establish his claims to property that had been wrongfully withheld from him by a powerful corporation. At last the representatives of the people and of the States granted his demand. But after all the President saw fit to veto it. [link  to the veto]

Trenton Times, The (Trenton, New Jersey)  Aug 3, 1892



Steadfastly and Patiently Working Through This Long Period for Confirmation of His Title to Land in California — No Doubt that His Claim Was Just — Bill for His Relief Passed by the Fifty-second Congress Vetoed by President Harrison.

Above is the headline for the New York Times article, which gives a good, but brief  history of the land claim. Read the rest  of the article here (PDF).


Funeral of William McGarrahan.
WASHINGTON, April 26. — The funeral of William McGarrahan was held in St. Peter’s Catholic Church here at 9:30 o’clock this morning. A large number of members of Congress and employes of the Capitol followed the body to the church and thence to the grave. The pall bearers were Senators Teller of Colorado and Hunton of Virginia, Representatives H.D. Money of Mississippi, Joseph H. O’Neill of Missouri, and J.J. Noah, E.W. Ayres, Luke Devolon, and Col. John Ennis. From the church the body was taken to Mount Olivet Cemetery, where the burial was made according to the ritual ofthe Roman Catholic Church.

The New York Times, Published April 27, 1894

* Notice Mr. Ayres, the lobbyist, was one of the pall bearers.

The New Idria Mine

New Idria Mine

New Idria Mine

From the time line on the website:

1894, April – McGarrahan dies bringing an end the New Idria legal battle. J. W. C. Maxwell, superintendent of the mines for the New Idria Mining Company, upon learning of McGarrahan’s death stated, “He ought to have died years ago. He set up some kind of a fraudulent claim to our mine and cost the company $1,000,000.”

Link to the Idria Mine Website.

If you enjoy reading legal language:

U.S. Supreme Court

McGarrahan v. Mining Co., 96 U.S. 316 (1877)

McGarrahan v. Mining Company

96 U.S. 316

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