- Historic Sites
The Boodling Boss And The Musical Mayor
A corrupt lawyer and his complaisant ally ran San Francisco as their private preserve until a crusading editor toppled their plots and schemes, and sent one of them to jail
December 1959 | Volume 11, Issue 1
The forerunner of that struggle was a savage waterfront strike in the summer of 1901 that lasted about two months and left enduring scars. It was broken with the aid of the municipal authorities, who put city police on the drays to protect nonstriking drivers. Since the days of the gold rush, when labor was in desperately short supply and workers were able to dictate their own terms, San Francisco had always been a strong union town. With their defeat on the water front, the shocked and embittered workingmen turned to politics for revenge. They organized the Union Labor party and began to talk big about taking control of the city. This talk might easily have come to nothing but for the presence of Abraham Ruef.
The little boss, born of a prosperous Jewish mercantile family in San Francisco, had a fine mind and great personal ambition. He went through the University of California at Berkeley, studying classical languages. Graduated subsequently from San Francisco’s Hastings College of Law, he began to practice and immediately went into politics as a Republican. He was successful in both careers from the first, aided by his native shrewdness and his unusual abilities as a writer and public speaker. In 1901 he was thirty-seven, and for more than ten years had already had many dubious underworld connections. He saw in the new Union Labor party an opportunity for himself, for power —and money. He needed a Trilby to whom he could play Svengali, and he soon found one. Like the original Trilby, his came from the world of music.
Eugene Schmitz, the orchestra leader, knew nothing of politics and did not want to run, but Ruef assured him victory was practically certain. “The psychology of the mass of voters,” said Ruef, “is like that of a crowd of small boys or primitive men. Other things being equal, of two candidates they will almost invariably follow the strong, finely-built man.” Ruef proved a good prophet. The Republican and Democratic opponents were weak, and every union man in the city was still smarting from the broken strike; Schmitz was elected.
After a tew days of the Sonoma crammer’s-course in the art of government, the two men returned to San Francisco, and soon thereafter Schmitz formally took office. Before very long, newspapermen and other knowledgeable people in the city began to hear that graft was on the increase, and that nearly all of it was channeling through Ruef. His method was admirably uncomplicated: he became attorney for any individual or group that had bribes to offer; the money was then paid to him as “legal fees,” and he divided it with Schmitz and with anyone else who was entitled to a cut.
One of the important early sources of graft under this system was San Francisco’s famous group of French “restaurants.” Although owned by different people, these operated on a uniform and disreputable system. The ground floor was a respectable dining room, catering to the family trade and serving excellent food and wine at reasonable prices. There were always, however, several higher floors with private dining rooms and bedrooms, where prostitutes operated brazenly. These restaurants had to have city licenses, which came up for renewal from time to time, and before the Schmitz administration was very old the owners were told, to their dismay, that their licenses were to be canceled. They promptly hired Ruef as their lawyer, paid him many thousands of dollars, and the threat of trouble faded away. Among the dozens of houses of prostitution which then flourished openly in San Francisco was one on Jackson Street, with seventy inmates, in which Mayor Schmitz was generally believed to have a heavy part-ownership. This was nicknamed “the Municipal Crib” and was so known throughout the city for years.
Other varieties of graft developed with great rapidity. The police in Chinatown were accused of collecting regular weekly immunity fees from gamblers. Various types of business had to pay for permission to do certain things, some of which were entirely legal and unobjectionable.
With the Republicans and Democrats still divided, and with the workers on the whole still behind the Union Labor party, Schmitz was re-elected in 1903 and again in 1905. He and Ruef had consolidaied their power and gained experience, and in 1905, for the first time, nearly all eighteen members of the Board of Supervisors were their henchmen. Some came from ihe ranks of union labor, but olhers were variegated friends of Ruef, with backgrounds as dubious as his own. Almost at once it developed that most of them had heard that the city was full of easy money, and they iniended to get their share; soon Ruef was told that individual supervisors were openly asking payment to vote in accordance with the wishes of various businessmen.
The boss saw that this would never do; with a number of men seeking bribes individually, open scandal could not be averied. Accordingly, he called an unofficial meeting of the board and made a short speech. His exact words have been lost to history, but of the substance there is no doubt. “You men owe your jobs to me,” he said in effect. “You will do what I say, or you will be replaced. If anybody wants to make a gift to the supervisors in return for their consideration of his wishes and needs, this money will be collected and disbursed by me. You are not to know ihe name of the donor; you will simply vote as I tell you in all cases.”