Thomas Desmond

It’s not unusual to find a few corrupt people in law enforcement across the world – in fact, it has become all too common. There have been countless examples of collusion and many abuses of power throughout the course of history on every continent and they continue to this day. It is more rare to find someone who went from being a very publicly seditious outlaw to the sheriff of one of the most well-known cities in the world. The first who comes to mind that fits that bill is Thomas Desmond.

Thomas Desmond was born in Cobh but he emigrated to the United States at the age of sixteen. He did not abandon his Irish roots while in America and he fought for a free Ireland from the US. He was a member of two secret organizations, the Fenian Brotherhood and Clan na Gael, both of which were considered dangerous and illegal by the English government. Desmond was instrumental in one of Clan na Gael’s biggest rescue missions and helped plan and facilitate the escape of six Irish prisoners who were being held in an English penal colony in Australia. He was one of a two person team who laid the foundation for the prison break. He returned with the six escaped prisoners on the Catalpa, which sailed from Australia to America and freedom.

Desmond made his way back to San Francisco where the large Irish community celebrated his involvement in the Catalpa’s daring adventure. He had a hero’s welcome and soon became a member of the Workingman’s Party of California, an Anti-Chinese group that was sweeping into power statewide. He rode their wave of bigoted success all the way into the Sheriff’s department. The man who brazenly broke all kinds of laws soon started enforcing them as the sheriff of San Francisco.

Thomas Desmond was an unpredictable politician who was not cut out for law enforcement. He served only one term and that term was problematic. He was good friends with Mayor Isaac Smith Kalloch who had nearly been killed before being elected by Charles De Young, the owner of San Francisco’s newspaper, the Chronicle. As such, when the mayor’s son avenged his father by murdering De Young, Desmond gave him special treatment. He allowed the young Kalloch to leave the jail on a number of occasions and the population of the city noticed and did not approve. The Chronicle waged a campaign against Thomas Desmond and all the other officials who were involved with the Workingman’s Party or the Kalloch family. He was eventually indicted on a number of charges and while he beat them in court, he lost the next election.

Desmond then started a carriage-making business and settled into life outside the public sector. He returned to his Irish roots, maintaining membership in a number of shadowy organizations devoted to a free Ireland. Rumors circulated about his involvement in various crimes and the occasional murder but he never served a day in prison. He died on this day in 1910 and is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, CA.

Thomas Desmond’s allegiance to Ireland is still remembered today by many in the San Francisco Irish community. In 1976 an elaborate new headstone was placed at his grave. Modern-day supporters of Irish freedom gather there every Easter to honor those who fought for Ireland. Thomas Desmond can be counted in those ranks, regardless of whatever else he may or may not have done in his life.

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