The Boodling Boss And The Musical Mayor

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In November, 1901, the little town of Sonoma, California, a few miles north of San Francisco, lay dreaming in the haze of Indian summer. There were few guests in the town hotel, and only two were strangers. One of them was a small man with bright, beady eyes above a huge mustache; he looked like Ren Turpin with his eyes uncrossed. The other was big and broad-shouldered; he had a head of thick, curly black hair and a luxuriant mustache and Vandyke beard that, in pictures of him, give an irrepressible impression of being glued on.These visitors seemed to be instructor and pupil. They had a single document with them, a copy of the San Francisco city charter, and hour after hour the little man could be heard through the thin walls of the hotel room explaining its provisions to the big one, quizzing him on its contents, expostulating when his companion got the answers wrong or didn’t remember.

The people of Sonoma promptly recognized the pair, for their faces were well known in California. What the townsfolk did not realize was why they were there. The little man was Abraham Ruef, San Francisco’s corrupt political boss who reaped the profits of bribery and corruption with unparalleled sang-froid . The big one was Eugene Schmitz, lately orchestra leader at San Francisco’s fashionable Columbia Theater, whom Rucf had turned into a political figure only a few months earlier and, almost singlehandedly, had had elected mayor. Now, in the Sonoma hideaway immediately after the election, Ruef was trying to teach his henchman the rudiments of public administration.

For Abraham Ruet’s vivid imagination was already looking ahead to a dramatic future. Years later, from his cell in San Quentin Prison, he recalled those days in Sonoma in his autobiography, The Road I Traveled :

We were the only strangers in the little village. We had left our whereabouts unknown except to our immediate families. There, in undisturbed peace, we talked and planned day and night. There in the tranquil Sonoma hills I saw visions of political power; I saw the Union Labor Party [to which he and Schmitz belonged] a spark in California which would kindle the entire nation and make a Labor President; I saw the Union Labor Party a throne for Schmitz, as Mayor, as Governor—as President of the United States. Behind that throne, I saw myself its power, local, state—national … I saw myself United States Senator.

To understand how Ruef was able to put his grotesquely unqualified nominee into the mayor’s chair, and how he himself could end up a lew years later in a prison cell, it is necessary to glance brielly at San Francisco’s earlier, turbulent history.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the city could look back on a solid fifty years of sin, violence, and corruption, ft had been a drowsy Mexican village of a thousand people when it was taken over by the Americans in 1846. Only five years later, the town having mushroomed following the discovery of gold, crimes of violence were so common and the local government so venal or spineless—or both—that the citizens organized the famous extralegal “vigilantes”—officially the Vigilance Committee—to restore order. Their method was simple and effective: hanging, after the briefest extemporaneous trials, some of the more conspicuous wrongdoers. The next few years saw the leading newspaper editor shot down by an indignant subscriber; a United States senator killed in a duel with the chief justice of the state supreme court; and howling mobs burning the houses of the Chinese, who were believed to be undercutting Americans in the labor market. For the whole half century, prostitution, gambling, and drunkenness raged through the town; its Barbary Coast was infamous for the public display of every sort of vice.

For a good part of that time, the venality of most municipal officials was duplicated in the capitol at Sacramento. The state was controlled politically—and to some extent economically—by the big corporations, especially the Southern Pacific Railroad, a situation dramatically and accurately described by Frank Norris in The Octopus . Distributor of money and favors for the Southern Pacific was its chief counsel, William F. Herrin, who, besides dispensing more serious bribes, saw to it that whenever the legislature was in session, a weekend round-trip ticket to San Francisco was dropped on the desk of every lawmaker every Friday.

When the twentieth century began, there was little evidence that very many people in the city objected to this state of affairs, and much evidence that most of them at least tacitly approved. They would have been dumfounded it they had been told that during the next decade San Francisco would be torn asunder by what was probably the greatest struggle in American history to end municipal corruption.