Newspaper editors all over the country seemed to belittle him. A U.S. senator called him "an unduly inflated sack of gas." But Denis Kearney could rouse a crowd. He had a simple solution to the dire economic problems of the country in the 1879. "The Chinese must go," was his slogan.
Kearney had been on the other side a year earlier. He was a member of the "Pick-Handle Brigade" that saved San Francisco's Chinatown from the ruffians who engulfed the city in a two-day anti-Chinese riot.
But if ever there was a man who took advantage of an opportunity, it was Kearney. He emigrated from Ireland in 1868, became a citizen and started a hauling freight company. He got into politics to break the city-backed monopoly of the draying, or hauling freight, business.
He first attacked big business, especially the railroad magnates. He espoused the ideas of Karl Marx, terrifying the powers that be. He then realized that the out-of-work white man was blaming the Chinese immigrant for the high unemployment rate.
He joined the Workingman's Party and took it over. In 1879 that party won a third of the seats of the California Constitutional Convention. It was able to get a number of anti-Chinese provisions into the document.
"When the Chinese question is settled, we can discuss whether it would be better to hang, shoot, or cut the capitalists to pieces," he was quoted in the San Francisco Evening Bulletin. He boasted that he had 50,000 men ready to push the Chinese immigrants into the sea.
"If the ballot fails, we are ready to use the bullet."
Kearney traveled the country bringing his message as far as Boston. He was instrumental in getting Congress to pass the first Chinese exclusion laws in 1882 and he was proud of his involvement to the day he died.
But while the Chinese exclusion laws multiplied and stayed on the books until the 1940s, Kearney's and the Workingman's Party's power waned. It was over by the mid-1880s.
Even if his political power disappeared, Kearney did quite well financially.
"No man should have more than $100,000 at the outside. But I have enough for myself. I made quite a little money in Wall Street about eight years ago, more than I have now, but I have enough. I live on the interest and will leave the principal to my children. They will, I suppose spend it. Young people these days do not appreciate money; they let it slip through their fingers," he told the Fresno Republican on June 8, 1906.
Kearney died almost a year later in Alameda, where he had moved after his house burned because of the San Francisco earthquake.
"Fame is fleeting. Notoriety more so. Dennis [sic] Kearney is dead and the Associated Press devoted just three lines in relating the fact. Yet a little less than 30 years ago, Kearney was the most talked of man in all California," reported the Bakersfield California on April 27, 1907.
Days Gone By appears on Sundays. Contact Nilda Rego at firstname.lastname@example.org.