“Some claim to have heard Senator Broderick’s mournful voice in the darkness while others have actually seen him. It is always the same. He appears on the steps of the house, makes his way down the walk and then vanishes into a cluster of trees. He is dressed as he was the morning of the duel in a long frock coat, a white shirt, and a broad black hat. The front of his shirt is stained with blood.”
A Famous Ghost Story
The haunting of the Haskell House at Black Point (Fort Mason) is one of San Francisco’s most famous ghost stories. It appears in every list, it’s the subject of Ghost Hunter shows, and I’m sure it’s on the ghost tours. It’s famous because the story of the ghost itself is famous, the duel that killed him is part of the founding mythos of San Francisco and of California as a whole – a story that we were a bulwark against racism, slavery, and “old” America here in the shiny and self-made West. Is that true? Kiiiind of. Like everything else about this state and this country, IT’S COMPLICATED.
Visiting Haskell House, you can see why folks think it’s haunted. It sits nestled in a little residential area above Aquatic Park. It’s built in the style of the Presidio – uniform, charming clapboard houses with wide porches and old fashioned windows. The houses cluster together on a promontory full of cypress. Early founder types, like John C. Fremont, lived here. A photo of his beautiful wife, her face hidden by a bonnet, graces a placard at the location. Cannons remain on display, still pointed out at the harbor. Haskell House itself is now privately owned, and the owners installed a large hedge around it, probably to keep fucking weirdos like me from trying to see in and catch ghost boomerangs for Instagram (HI, CAN I VISIT, PLEASE?!! I WILL BRING BEER!). Fog hangs over the place, it’s peaceful and slightly gloomy. You can hear the gulls and the foghorns and smell the Bay. It’s a preserved piece of the 19th Century here in the overdeveloped chaos of San Francisco, and if nothing else, that’s haunting.
According to the stories, Haskell House is haunted by the spirit of Senator David C. Broderick, who died in a duel with his frenemy, California Supreme Court Justice David S. Terry. Their beef was over politics — specifically, the expansion of slavery into the Western States. Wounded at the duel at Lake Merced, Broderick died at Haskell House three days later. Now his ghost walks the property and makes itself known in annoying and dangerous ways.
The ghost seems pretty pissy, TBH. He slams doors, flushes toilets, and knocks photos off the walls. He watches people, including in the shower (heyyyyy. Also – you’d do that shit too if you were invisible). He tips plants over and once pushed a painter off a ladder. Some report seeing him in a top hat pacing around, or walking off the porch and vanishing into thin air. Part of the charm of this story is that this house is called Quarters Three, and it housed career military officers – aka serious dudes who aren’t known for making shit up about ghosts. A whole string of them called the place haunted, which is pretty unusual in this line of inquiry. Cable ghost shows with names like HAUNTED: A HAUNTING IN HAUNTED NEW ENGLAND (EXCLUSIVELY ON THE DISCOVERY PARANORMAL CHANNEL) usually feature one-eyed fishermen who drink on the job or women who wear macrame jewelry and talk to spirits in their kitchen pantries. Not, like, ARMY GENERALS.
California in the Run Up to the Civil War
To understand the story of Senator David C. Broderick, we need some context about California and its role in the American Civil War.
The story of the West in the Civil War is pretty obscure to most of us. We don’t often think about the Far Western states and their role in the conflict. For many of us, this void means the West simply wasn’t involved. After all, we were neither the North or the South, right? No battles took place here. But the West was involved. California was definitely part of the Union, declaring for it right away when the war started in 1861. And while California was a “free” state, it still had a role to play in slavery. The White Americans who came in 1849 looking for gold were from somewhere else, after all. It turns out a lot of them came from the South, and brought their shitty ideas with them. California, besides being already settled by indigenous and Mexican people, wasn’t a blank slate in the way we might think of it. The same bigots who lived in the rest of the country settled here in the Golden State.
In 1859, Broderick was Senator, and the Democratic Party had control of the United States and California. President Buchanan was in charge. He was from Pennsylvania but supported by the “elite planter class” – AKA THE SLAVEHOLDERS – of the South. At that time, the debate between North and South focused on the expansion of slavery into territories and states rather than whether slavery was moral or should be legal. Expanding “slave” or “free” states meant an expansion of power for politicians and their party. There were far more people in the Northern free states, and the South constantly sought to expand its territory to gain more power in Congress.
For California, the battle lines drew up along which side the state took in the expansion debates: free soil or slave holding. California itself was technically a free state. The state constitution, drawn up hastily by men laser focused on mining gold, explicitly banned slavery. Placer mining, the preferred method of extracting gold at the beginning of the Gold Rush, was an individual labor and business effort. Miners developed a “one man, one claim” code of conduct: a man could only own as much as he could mine himself. They did this to democratize mining rights and keep corporations at bay for as long as possible. And they enforced the rules with mob violence.
The biggest fear of the Placer miners was White men from the South bringing their enslaved workers to California. This threatened the one man, one claim rule and unfairly increased competition. When Southern slaveholders showed up with bonded labor in tow, the miners ran them out of town at the end of a rifle. This pro-White-labor faction drove policy in California and helped get the state admitted to the US in 1850.
Southern slaveholding states saw this as an affront that “excluded” them from the gold rush. Obviously those White dudes could not go work a mine themselves! That’s what the people they OWNED were for! Losing the battle to have California admitted as a slaveholding state, they next sought to divide the state in two. This was part of a strategy to take over the entire Southwest, pushing out through Texas and into New Mexico, Arizona, and California. They envisioned California as their Pacific gateway, and raged at being denied a foothold in the state. They accused the North of “smuggling California in.”
You’ll notice I’m using scare quotes and “technically” to describe California as a “free state.” That’s because while slavery was banned by the state Constitution, it was still practiced to some extent in the state, and Black people were not free in any real sense. Part of the compromise for California’s statehood required it to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, a federal law that didn’t just allow, but required citizens to arrest, detain, and report suspected “fugitives from slavery.” In 1852 the state enacted its own fugitive slave law, which held that any enslaved persons brought into the state remained the property of their owner, as long as the “owner” brought them back to the South when they returned. The laws also prohibited the testimony of black witnesses in court, compounding the injustice. Black people couldn’t defend themselves or prove their status as free, leading to kidnapping and trafficking a la 12 Years a Slave. *
These laws were popular in California among free soilers and slavery supporters alike, because anti-Black racism was popular. White Californians didn’t want Black folks of any variety in their state. In fact, a provision like Oregon’s that banned the entry of all Black people was narrowly defeated. Add to all this business poll taxes and rampant discrimination, and FREE is a misnomer.
* I’m focusing on chattel slavery in this post – I’m aware that other groups were forced to labor in the state – it’s outside the scope of this post but we’ll get to it! For more info check out Gold Chains.
David C. Broderick and the Free Soilers of California
Our ghost, David C. Broderick, was a United States Senator for the new State of California. The state legislature appointed him in 1856 (this office was not elected at the time). He was a Democrat, which put him in the party of Buchanan – who supported slavery. He broke with the party, however, and publicly opposed the creation of more slaveholder states. In the parlance of the time, he was a free soiler.
Depending on who you ask, Broderick was either a working class hero or a vicious thug. Broderick made his bones as an agent of the infamous Tammany Hall in New York. Tammany Hall was famous for its violence and corruption – ever seen Gangs of New York? Under Tammany, he learned how to use violence, intimidation, and bribery to wield power. When he got to San Francisco, Broderick used these methods to amass power and patronage. He was the ultimate political boss in the city.
San Francisco was the Wild West when he arrived – “By the middle of 1855 [it] was again a hell-roaring swirl of crime and debauchery: once more the city swarmed with murderers, thieves, burglars, gamblers, prostitutes, and swindlers of every degree.” (Asbury, p. 82) Broderick’s machine, while corrupt, did bring some order to the chaos. Broderick himself was the son of a stonecutter, and his contempt for the political dandies of the era was probably well deserved. His opposition to slave ownership was rooted in his upbringing, and defense of the White working man.
But as they say, absolute power corrupts, absolutely. And Broderick was definitely corrupt by today’s standards. In the 1850’s, none of San Francisco politics could be considered even remotely legal today. Patronage ruled the day: if you wanted to run for office or be appointed, you had to go through Broderick. And Broderick charged a commission for this honor. The streets were still violent enough for a Vigilance Committee to form, and it seems like Broderick thrived in this environment. Then again, as brutal as it was, class still mattered, and “thug” could be code for “working/Catholic/Irish.”
Opinions also differ on how committed to ending slavery Broderick actually was. He was certainly not a champion of civil rights. His free-soil politics meant he was opposed to the expansion of slavery in the US, but remember, that position was firmly rooted in a populist support of White workers, not in moral opposition to slavery or support of Black people. His own biographer said that “his leadership in the struggle to prevent the extension of slavery to the Pacific Coast was more apparent than real.” (Asbury p. 77).
His record shows that he supported a lot more than just free soil, however. He opposed California’s 1852 Fugitive Slave Law, and stopped its progress in the state Senate. He conspired to kill the bill to divide California into two states (one free, one slaveholding). He fought against Nativist campaigns that demonized immigrants and he supported foreign born miners and their rights to work in California. He supported squatter’s rights and he also killed the bill to ban free people of color from entering the state. IDK – for the 1860s, this guy seems alright.
David S. Terry and the Chivalry Democrats
Now David Terry, our killer – different story! Sources agree he’s a bad guy. Get ready to boo this motherfucker!
Terry was a justice on the California Supreme Court. He was also a Democrat, but he was part of The Chivalry (the “Chivs”) – he supported slavery. The Chiv wing of the party aligned with Buchanan and the slaveholding Southern politicians, advocating for expansion of that territory. They supported dividing California into two states so the Southern half could hold slaves. William Gwin, the other Senator from California and Broderick’s political rival, was a Chiv.
Terry grew up in the South and came West for the Gold Rush, bringing his antebellum bullshit with him. There were a lot of these guys in California at this time: remember, the white people in the state came from somewhere else, and a lot of them were from the South. When Terry arrived at the California Supreme Court, he joined a Court stacked with other justices born and raised in the South. One of those, Peter Burnett (from Missouri), proposed the law banning free people of color from entering California – the law that Broderick helped defeat. Justice Terry, as you would imagine, concurred in an opinion (in re Archy) that confirmed slaver’s rights in the state.
David Smith Terry
As the battle over slaveholding in American territories heated up, the focus shifted to the Border Wars on the Western Frontier – Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri. A determination of slave or free had the potential to tip the fragile balance in Congress, and shit got ugly, fast. The fight over Kansas motivated the Chivs in California. Led by Senator Gwin, they attacked Broderick relentlessly on the campaign trail and in the press. It was this fight that led Terry to go after Broderick, and eventually kill him in the duel.
The Famous Duel
The first thing you should know is that these Davids were friends! They knew each other from politics; they were both Democrats. They were also both brawlers – always armed and ready for a fight. Terry even stabbed a guy and was set to hang until Broderick bailed him out. They were bail your bro out of custody level friends, But when things started to deteriorate between the Free Soil and Chiv wings of the Democratic party, their relationship fell apart as well.
The tipping point came when Terry talked shit about Broderick in a public forum. At a meeting of Chivs, he called the Free Soilers slaves to Broderick, and Broderick himself the slave of Frederick Douglas. Yes THAT Frederick Douglass, who was BLAAACKKK. Those were fighting words in the 1850’s, kids. Even to a free soiler, you ask? ABSOLUTELY YES. Most of these anti-slavery politicians opposed the practice of owning human beings, but they were definitely still super racist. Free soil meant FREE FOR WHITE PEOPLE. I think this is the crux of the insult – what led to the duel. Yes, Terry and Broderick were fighting over political bullshit, but to call a Broderick a slave to a famous Black abolitionist targeted his “honor” with surgical precision.
As the story goes, Broderick read the insult in the newspaper while eating breakfast in a restaurant. Seated near him was one Duncan Perley, a friend of Terry’s. Broderick turned to Perley and excoriated (CLAPPED BACK) at Terry. Perley snitched to Terry, who then challenged Broderick to a duel. Because this was 1859 and men were/are stubborn as fuck and couldn’t work it out live instead of tweeting insults past each other, Broderick accepted. Then again, who didn’t go through this exact rigamarole in Middle School when you told KIM that JEN S. was a slut because she flirted with JEN B.’s crush, and KIM told JEN S. and then JEN S. told MIKE that she was going to kick your ass at the dance so you told BRIAN that he better tell JEN B. you need back up then YOU ALL get summoned to the counselor’s office where you cry and participate in a circular firing squad of guilt and eventually decide to be best friends again. Until the next time you call her a slut, obviously.
AT ANY RATE, Broderick and Terry met at dawn on September 13, 1859 at Lake Merced. Dueling was illegal in San Francisco, and the location was just over the border in San Mateo County in what is now Daly City. (The site is still there, you guys! You can and should visit). Broderick won the coin toss, so he got to draw first, but Terry got to choose the weapons – his own. Terry’s guns had a hair trigger, and Broderick misfired. Terry marked up and shot Broderick right in the chest. Broderick was taken away to the home of his friend Leonidas Haskell (THE HASKELL HOUSE U GUYS). He died three days later, and this is why he haunts Haskell House.
Legend has it that his last words were “They have killed me because I was opposed to a corrupt administration and the extension of slavery.”
An angry public ran Terry out of town, and kicked him off the Supreme Court. He fled to the South and joined the Confederate Army. He was eventually killed by the bodyguard of a United States Supreme Court justice. This man was a mess.
The Terry-Broderick Duel: an Artistic Recreation
Broderick the Folk Hero and GHOST
This story is a fascinating encapsulation of the true Wild West nature of early San Francisco; the violence and corruption that built us, and the way it radiated out to Sacramento and up and down the coast. This story has everything you could possibly want! Friends turned enemies, crooked politicians, the terror of slavery and the conflict that led to the Civil War, culminating in a duel at a foggy lake at dawn. OBVIOUSLY this story haunts us. The wound of slavery is an open sore in this country, even in sunny California where we like to think we had nothing to do with that.
The Republican Party and the Free Soil Democrats made great hay out of Broderick’s death. They branded him as a martyr to the cause of abolition, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that his death helped Lincoln win California the very next year. Edward D. Baker, a Lincoln supporter, eulogized Broderick with this: “His death was a political necessity, poorly veiled beneath the guise of a private quarrel. . . What was his public crime? The answer is in his own words: ‘I died because I was opposed to a corrupt administration and the extension of slavery.’” They trotted Broderick’s portrait out on the campaign trail and Free Soil politicians hammered on this story at every rally, in every speech, in every op-ed. In this way, the story of the duel and the murder became famous, and embedded into our culture, imprinted onto the Haskell House as a mournful, angry ghost who seeks revenge or justice.
So why is his ghost so angry? I think there are two ways to look at it: one personal, and one political. Personally, Broderick seemed to know his death was coming. He finally made it to the position of power that he craved, only to find himself at odds with his own party, isolated and unhappy in DC, iced out by the President, and losing friends. He didn’t have a family, and there’s nothing in the record that I could find about romantic relationships. Rumors circulated that he had a price on his head and that the Chivs would do anything to be rid of him. As they gained power in the state, Broderick is said to have told friends “I am doomed.” After he died, the Republicans and Free Soil Democrats accused the Chivs of conspiring to murder him, and it’s not actually a stretch to come to that conclusion. Maybe this ghost is a reservoir of that loneliness and frustration; helplessness in the face of such doom.
Politically and historically, what is a better metaphor for our ongoing failure to curb the most violent aspects of racism than the residual haunting of a dead politician, doomed to suffer his own murder over and over again, with no relief, no justice, no change? How many times has this country been presented with overwhelming evidence of our violent, white supremacist history only to shrug, wring our hands, and move on? We’re in a critical moment right now, where this poltergeist of rage and grief and frustration can tip us over. But will we go on to make real change or fall back into crushing despair and entropy? I don’t know, you guys. As I write, it’s late September. This murder happened 161 years ago this month. There are 42 days until the election, there are 200,000 people dead from COVID-19 and the United States Supreme Court is about to be handed over to a conservative majority. I feel a little bit like that ghost walking out the door to campaign for change, only to walk back out just as bloody as before.