The Man Who Won a Fortune: the life and times of Daniel “Whitehat” McCarty
by Elizabeth C. Creely
Daniel McCarty, a.k.a “Whitehat” McCarty, was a tough guy to keep up with when he was alive, ninety-one years ago. He still is. Whitehat is one of the more notorious members of my family, and his life was simultaneously celebrated and used as a cautionary tale when I was growing up. He was nationally acclaimed for his skill as a horse trainer and has been credited as a co-founder of the racecourse at Tanforan. He was a flamboyantly talkative fabulist, often impoverished and on the run from creditors, and a frequent subject of gossip columns in San Francisco newspapers during the bibulous frivolity of late nineteenth-century San Francisco, when men gathered in gilt and marble bars to hobnob, network and brag.
I grew up with Whitehat because of my family’s horrified fascination with him. My grandmother Diddie explained that he was the older brother of my great-great grandmother Margaret McCarty Creely. He embarrassed her, she said, because something was always happening. Neither she nor my father specified what the “something” was: they didn’t know anymore but knew enough that whatever it was, it was hard on the family. (He boasted about being arrested 57 times.) The flamboyance was most obvious in his choice of chapeau, the source of his moniker: a tall white beaver-skin hat, that he always wore. Why did he wear that kind of hat?, I asked someone. Because he was short, the adult told me. This was mere self-consciousness: Whitehat was about five feet and six inches tall, hardly diminutive. Nevertheless, he owned more than 15 of these hats.
Ancestry.com describes him as my 3rd-great grand-uncle which makes him feel entirely fictional. Everyone’s got an tragic/embarrassing family member, but very few people have a “3rd great grand-uncle”. Whitehat, Margaret and their siblings John, Annie and Mrs. Thomas Crowell, (her given name is unknown) were the children of Timothy and Mary McCarty. According to family history, this family immigrated from Cork, Ireland in the mid-eighteenth century, lived on the east coast for less than a decade, and made their way to Stockton, California sometime after the Civil War. Whitehat hit the ground running like a true horseman, leaving behind hundreds of newspaper articles in his wake, more anecdotes than facts, and a reputation for glamorous instability that got lots of attention. That, and the millions he spent acquiring horses. Hundreds of horses.
“I was in the horse business then as I am now, and always will be,” Whitehat told the San Francisco Call at the Palace hotel in 1913. Whitehat was 82 at the time and decidedly down on his luck, it having deserted him twice already: once after he started losing his horses, and again on April 18th 1906, when he lost everything, except his debts, in the earthquake and fire. Whitehat stated the facts. He was born on March 12, 1831 in Ireland, and immigrated with his family to Boston, starting life there as immigrant “turfman” in New York city before the Civil War. He owned stables on Kings Highway in Brooklyn, near the Gravesend racing track. He sold horses to the “government” in 1861, during the Civil War, and claimed he got the sobriquet “Whitehat’ while living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
He arrived in San Francisco in 1869 and opened a livery stable with a man named Nathan Hopkins, at 679 Market near the intersection with Annie, close to the Monadnock Building. The 1873 Crocker Langley city directory lists him as a “horse dealer”, a plain turn of phrase. His dwelling was 635 California street, located across the street from Old St Mary’s. His sister and brother-in-law, James and Margaret Creely, were living south of the slot at 55 Minna street, keeping house, as it were, and making a living from my great-great grandfather’s trade as a ferrier who hammered out one hot horseshoe after another over a forge to support his growing family.
Whitehat joined them in SOMA shortly thereafter, moving to 754 Mission street, close to the present site of Yerba Buena. In 1876, he was living at 874 Folsom street and had a new livery stable down the street at 821 Folsom. He called it Daniel McCarty and Son. Within the next twenty years Whitehat acquired two ranches (not at the same time), one in Wesley and one in Pleasanton. Along with this, he purchased some of the best racehorses in the country. He estimated later that he spent 400,000 to pasture and maintain them.
Whitehat was a married man, with wife named Cassie and five children. The sons were Joseph, Daniel, and William, and two daughters were named Gertrude and Genevieve. In the late 19th century, local newspapers routinely documented society and communal events. Thus it is a fact, not an anecdote, that on the evening of August 6, 1899, the Creely/McCarty family got together for a party at the house of Mrs. Thomas J. Crowell, Whitehat’s sister, at 769 Hayes street.
Whitehat’s wife, Mrs. D. McCarty was there with her daughters Gertrude and Genevieve McCarty, who played the piano. Anna and Margaret Creely, my great-grandfather’s sisters, were there, too. This account—it sounds like they were having a hooley, a party held in a home with guests providing the entertainment—rescues Whitehat from the isolated splendor of family myth, which has him in perpetual motion, always drinking and horse-racing, and driving his brougham at breakneck speeds down Market street.
There’s no question that he did these things, sometimes unsuccessfully: in 1901 he crashed his horse and buggy though the window of a tailor’s shop on the corner of Mason and Geary. (Editorial note: He blamed it on San Francisco’s newest mode of transportation, the automobile, which endears him to me even more.) In reality, he probably woke up at home as often as not, regarded his wife and children, hopefully with fondness, and pondered their future, and his.
He and his horse usually survived their speedy forays through the city, making it in one piece to the Palace Hotel, where, as I was told, he would turn dramatically into the circular driveway, fling himself out of his carriage and spend the rest of the day drinking and hob-nobbing. This is the exact scenario I was presented with as a child: this is what Whitehat did. He drank at the Palace, the adult told me.
There was drinking, in those days and, like the horses, a lot of it, often at the Palace bar. It was here that Whitehat made an unlikely friend: the right Honorable (not really) Cecil Talbot Clifton, later Baron Grey de Ruthyn, a Englishman in San Francisco, who unlike the “dookes” of Mark Twain’s novels, really was a peer of the realm. I was hoping to discover that Clifton was a fake name, and that he was really a man named Sid from the East End, but no such luck. He was a remittance man, waiting for his brother, the current peer, to die, and whiling his time away in San Francisco spending money and carrying on, especially with Whitehat.
Clifton rode one of Whitehat’s horses in a race in Los Angeles; Whitehat later named one of his racehorses after Clifton. Whether this meant as a complement is uncertain. (The horse was struck by an express wagon and died in 1898.) The San Francisco press had a field day commenting on the odd couple. Clifton, a tall man with a hawk nose and Whitehat, a small man with a big hat, both had the same ability to spend money they didn’t have. Clifton was sued by an appliance company in San Francisco for not paying them for customizing his apartment at the Maison Riche, a hotel and restaurant with an illegal gambling den at the intersection of Geary and Grant. After a spell in the Klondike, prospecting for gold, and trying his hand at being a gentlemen-rancher in Montana, Clifton claimed the golden spurs after his brother died in 1900.
There were limits to San Francisco’s social elasticity: even it couldn’t efface the difference between a peer of the realm—who likely did not want those differences erased—and an immigrant who left Ireland because of the collapse of the economy during the potato famine. British arrogance and Irish shrewdness may have met cute in in the pages of the San Francisco Call, but beneath the jocular stories ran a whiff of British patronage from Clifton towards his would-be man of business.
Early in 1895, Clifton proposed to operate a “society coach” between the Palace Hotel and Burlingame. The proposed route was from Market to Golden Gate avenue, through Golden Gate Park, and past the “almshouse” on Laguna Honda road, which, the anonymous writer noted acidly, “will be skirted at sufficiently close range to give the …swells who patronize the society coach an object lesson on the fickleness of riches,”* After stopping in the “cool woods” of Ingleside for a break at a roadhouse—perhaps the Ingleside Inn at Ocean Road and Junipero Serra Boulevard—the coach passed through Colma and ended at the Burlingame Country club where the club “had consented to allow” passengers to lunch at the clubhouse.
This plan depended on keeping up appearances: the grand black-and-yellow coach, made in England, the nouveau riche of San Francisco who were expected to pay 2.50—roughly 73.00—for the privilege of lurching through San Francisco’s often unpaved streets in order to lunch at a county club, and the finishing touch: the transformation of Whitehat’s Irish brogue into an English accent. (The exact accent isn’t specified. It’s safe to assume it wasn’t an RP accent) Whitehat had objections, rendered in the article as a near incomprehensible phonetic Corkian brogue.
“Talbot, me bye,” sputtered Whitehat, “wot the juice is yez givin’ me? D’you tink oi can go bach on the Ould Dart loike thot? Not on your broory! Nay nay!”
Later that year, the two men journeyed to the Burlingame country club. Clifton, as the story goes, signed himself in as J. Talbot Clifton and “valet.” Whitehat, whose “bump of humor is well enough developed” muttered something under his breath and signed himself in as “McCarty and valise”. The financial value of their relationship is probably what made Clifton’s attitude bearable. Whitehat sold him horses, the very best and often his own. “…the best proof that the veteran horseman is doing the best he can by his lordly and wealthy friend,” reported the SF Call “is that he has sold him all his own stock first.”
Clifton left San Francisco in 1896, after living large and paying little. He left Whitehat his “effects” in his apartment at the Maison Riche, some of which were unpaid for. Whitehat lost his gifts to creditors, and, later, the ability to provide for his horses. In March of that year, 300 of “Turfman McCarty’s blooded horses”, were reported to be dying for lack of pasturage on John. M. Canty’s ranch in Modesto. Forty horses died. Canty claimed that McCarty had not paid the pasturage bill and that he was prepared to let the animals starve to death. Both Whitehat, and his son Joseph were arrested for failure to pay their bills. A jury later acquitted the McCarty men. Canty and another man were arrested, for absconding with the remaining 240 horses, which had been placed in receivership. McCarty ultimately lost all those horses, and went onto to lose more.
The following year an advertisement for an auction of 100 horses ran in the November 1, 1899 edition of the SF Call. “STANDARD BRED TROTTERS.ROADSTERS. CARRIAGE HORSES. And many others Suitable for All Kinds of Work. Property of Dan McCarty.” McCarty was sued again in 1901 for failing to provide payment for pasturage for thirty-six of his horses in San Jose. He hung to some of his horses. In 1904, Whitehat enlisted the legal services of his nephew, my great-grandfather, attorney James H. Creely to help him recover a bet he made on a sorrel mare he owned named Lillian Palmer. But the stories about Whitehat from this time report his poverty more often than not or play heavily on nostalgia: the “palmy days” when he had beautiful things, and millions of dollars of the best, most beautiful racing horses in the state. Within the first decade of the twentieth century, the man who “owned more horses than any other man in the world” had no more horses. Sorrento, Dexter Prince, Venus: all his beautiful horses were gone.
McCarty lived in San Francisco and continued to drink. On July 11th, 1915, Whitehat had his daughter Mary Gertrude, “25 years old, and pretty,” committed to the Detention Hospital for the Insane on Stevenson street. He was found the next day wandering in the street, “raving” and taken to the same hospital where father and daughter lay on adjoining beds. Physicians diagnosed his daughter as “insane” and Whitehat as an acute alcoholic. He was spotted in 1920, back at the Palace, by the manager, William Shepard. “It is not every day in the year that we see a trio like that around here,” remarked Shepard. He pointed to three men, described as “old-time political figures.” One was Whitehat.
Whitehat died on December 4th, 1926. His funeral mass, which was held St. Patrick’s church, was well-attended for a man who, the paper noted, had lived in seclusion in his later years. It’s hard to imagine—and a bit painful— that anyone who loved attention as much as he did totally withdrew from San Francisco’s gregarious downtown culture. The “golden shekels”, the beautiful horses and the tall hats are gone, and so are the racetracks Whitehat founded and frequented.
Whitehat is now simply Daniel J. McCarty and is lying peacefully in his grave at Holy Cross in Colma. You’ll find him in section E, row 13, area 1, plot 1, if you want to pay him a visit.
He’d like that.
*the disapproving tone of this article is delicious. Whoever wrote it, did not like Clifton.
Written in the season of the thinning veil with a lot of love. ‘Tis the season to welcome your family; show them interest and hospitality.