John Twohig: Breadline Banker - Journal of San Antonio

John Twohig, born in Cork, Ireland, became one of San Antonio’s most memorable pioneers. After serving as an apprentice on a British vessel and engaging in the coastal trade between New Orleans and Boston, he came to San Antonio in 1830. He brought a stock of goods and opened a store on Commerce Street and Main Plaza. In 1835, he fought in the Battle of Bexar, in which Texans, led by Benjamin R. Milam and Francis W. Johnson, defeated the Mexican forces under Gen. Martin Perfecto de Cos in house-to-house fighting around Main Plaza.

On March 5, 1842—six years after the battle of the Alamo, the defeat of Santa Anna, and the establishment of the Republic of Texas—the Mexican forces of Gen. Rafael Vasquez returned to Texas and took over San Antonio without resistance. Alerted that the Mexican army was approaching the town, John Twohig invited the poor to take what they wanted from his store, and then blew it up in an effort to keep the gunpowder and other supplies from the enemy. Again, the invading forces came a few months later, on September 11, when Mexican Gen. Adrian Woll led his forces into San Antonio. Captured along with more than 50 San Antonians, Twohig and the others were taken to Mexico and imprisoned in Perote Castle in the state of Vera Cruz. Surrounded by a moat, the castle was a strong government prison. Samuel A. Maverick, Judge A. Hutchinson and William E. Jones were released from prison in April 1843 through the efforts of the U. S. Minister to Mexico, Waddy Thompson. A few months later, on July 2, 1843, Twohig and about a dozen other San Antonians finished digging a tunnel out of the castle and escaped. Twohig was one of the nine men not recaptured. Disguising himself as a peddler, he walked through Vera Cruz, boarded a ship for New Orleans and returned to San Antonio in 1844. [Handbook; The Irish Texans; Ramsdell (31); escape detail etc. pg 114 Boyce House; The Story of the Witte Museum, 1922-1960, pg 98-99; pg 192-193, Sam. Maverick Texan]

Twohig resumed his mercantile business, which included an extensive trade with Mexico, shipping his goods in mule-drawn prairie schooners. A quarter century later, in 1869, he turned exclusively to banking on the corner of Commerce and Soledad streets at Main Plaza. He had correspondent banks in New Orleans, New York, St. Louis, San Francisco and London, and advertised himself as “banker and dealer in foreign and domestic exchange, coin and bullion.”

The Twohig house stood beside the river, across from the present St. Mary’s church, which he attended regularly. St. Mary’s, founded in 1857, was called by some the “American church,” the “English church,” or the “Irish church.” It was established for the English-speaking San Antonians, but, until St. Joseph’s Church was built in 1868 for the Germans, they also attended St. Mary’s. From his home, Twohig walked to his commercial bank across the river on Commerce Street by a little footbridge he had built near his house. [Ramsdell, 188; Chabot, Makers, pg 348-9]

After his marriage to Elizabeth Pendleton Calvert of Seguin, he made additions to his two-story stone house and had stone guest houses built beside it—all surrounded by colorful gardens and tall trees. [Chabot] He played host to many notable visitors to town, including Robert E. Lee, Sam Houston, Phil Kearney, Joseph E. Johnston and Bankhead Magruder, all of whom stayed in his guest houses. He entertained guests with sumptuous banquets of imported foods and native game.

In 1941, the Witte Museum moved the Twohig house stone by stone to its campus and reconstructed the large limestone house and its hip roof. [Texas Catalog, Historical American Bldgs Survey pg 203; Witte book)

Twohig, known fondly in San Antonio as “the breadline banker” for his practice of buying bread by the barrel and handing out loaves to poor families at his home each Saturday, was quick to give money to those in need, especially to the Brothers of the Society of Mary who came from France to start a school in San Antonio. A devout Roman Catholic, he became a life-long friend and benefactor of the Brothers.

Twohig advised the Brothers to build their school on land on the East bank of the San Antonio River, fronting on what became College Street. Beginning in 1853 as St. Mary’s Institute, the school served male students of all grades, some who boarded at the school, and some who came to school after crossing the river by boat. Later the school took the name of St. Mary’s University. [The Society of Mary in Texas, J.W. Schrnitz, pg 29)

--Frank W. Jennings, 1992