Born in Philadelphia on March 12, 1813, the American ne'er'-do-well Judge Edward 'Ned' McGowan was a bon vivant with a fearful temper, a friend of President James Buchanan--and one of the most notorious characters in pre-colonial B.C. history. "He was supposed to be a murderer, a pimp who ran a brothel in a San Francisco hospital,"; writes Donald Hauka in Ned McGowan's War (New Star, 2004), "the inventor of the false-bottomed ballot box, a shoulder-striking bully-boy, corrupt politician and magistrate, a disgraced police superintendent who masterminded a bank robbery, and an all-round cad."; But according to Hauka, McGowan has been given a bum rap by history. Yes, McGowan was involved in a knife fight in the Pennsylvania legislature. Yes, he did run a roulette wheel on the second floor of a whorehouse before he became a San Francisco County judge. And yes, in the mid-1850s, he did have to disguise himself as a Mexican in order to escape from the Vigilante Committee, using a corset to push in his substantial stomach. But in those days California's first legislature was known as 'The Legislature of a Thousand Drinks'. When the little-remembered American Party, known as the 'Know-Nothings', rose to power in California, McGowan lost his patronage appointments and tried to salvage his reputation with a book called "The Narrative of Edward McGowan, Including a Full Account of the Author's Adventures and Perils While Persecuted by the San Francisco Vigilance Committee of 1856.";

Hauka makes a good case that McGowan was mostly the victim of a vicious and fraudulent era requiring extreme combativeness. A skilled and witty writer, McGowan published 25 issues of his scandal sheet, the Phoenix, followed by 18 editions of its follow-up, the Ubiquitous, in 1857 and 1858, but to no avail. He fled Sacramento and, after a failed murder attempt on his life outside a San Francisco courtroom, he made haste for the Fraser River gold rush. McGowan unfortunately first arrived in Victoria in the company of some American mercenaries who had helped William Walker to assume the presidency in civil-war-torn Nicaragua. To celebrate their arrival on July the 4th, they fired a 100-gun salute, thereby earning the enmity of Governor James Douglas. It also didn't help that McGowan's bad press had preceded him. When the influx of unruly Americans threatened the autocratic regime of Douglas, McGowan was eventually brought before pro-British judge Matthew Baillie Begbie in a log-cabin courtroom in Yale in 1859. Ultimately the 30,000 American insurgents long the Fraser River failed to annex the British Columbia mainland to the United States-and McGowan fled the Fraser Canyon gold rush for good in 1859, thereby missing the 1862 smallpox epidemic that claimed the lives of approximately one-third of the indigenous First Nations population.

Back in the American mid-west, McGowan tried to resurrect his reputation, successfully suing the Californian historian Hubert H. Bancroft, but not gaining a penny. He dabbled in journalism but never advanced in society, having backed the losing side during the American Civil War. After McGowan died a poor man in San Francisco at age 84, on December 8, 1892, only two friends attended his funeral cortege.


The Narrative of Edward McGowan, Including a Full Account of the Author's Adventures and Perils While Persecuted by the San Francisco Vigilance Committee of 1856. (San Franscisco, 1857).


E.F. Miller, Ned McGowan's War (Toronto: Burns & MacEachern, 1968).

Donald J. Hauka, McGowan's War (New Star, 2003)

[BCBW 2004] "Early B.C." "1850-1900"