Select a letter below
Encyclopedia of San Francisco
Today in San Francisco History Biography of the Week Timeline of San Francisco History Image Gallery
Visit the SFM&HS website
Search the Site
About Us Contact Us Editors and Contributors

Duane, Charles P. "Dutch Charley"

San Francisco Gunfighter

Entry Author: John Boessenecker

Outlawed twice by the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance, first in 1851 and again in 1856, Charles P."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 knuckle boxer, gambler, saloon keeper, squatter, and gunfighter.

Charles P. Duane, about 1880
Courtesy of the author.

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

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.

Members of the Committee of Vigilance in 1856. They are wearing state militia uniforms.
Courtesy of the author.

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.


Against the Vigilantes: The Recollections of Dutch Charley
. Edited, with an Introduction and Notes, by John Boessenecker
(University of Oklahoma Press, 1999).


Born Charles Patrick Duane in Tipperary, Ireland, in 1827
In 1856 Dutch Charley was arrested and sent to Central America
Died in San Francisco on May 13, 1887


> David Broderick
> Second Committee of Vigilance


+ Babary Coast Trail
+ Malachi Fallon
First Chief of Police


Top of Page

Home | Today in History | Bio of the Week | Timeline | Gallery | About | Contact | Join