- 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 supervisors saw that they were licked, and seventeen of them silently acquiesced. By some accident, however, one honest man had got on the board; he was not at the historic meeting, nor did he participate in the subsequeni disiribution of graft. Let his name be recorded for history: Louis A. Rea.
A typical example of how the Ruef system worked was the fighl between two competing telephone companies. The Pacific States Telephone and Telegraph Company was already operating in San Francisco, while the Home Telephone Company wanted to set up a competing system there, as it had clone in a number of other cities. Pacific States had for some time been paying Ruef $1,200 a month as “attorney’s fees.” Home Telephone now offered him a flat $125,000. (Ruef’s custom was to share about halt the money among the seventeen dishonest supervisors, and to divide the other half between himself and Schmitz. in varying proportions, often equally.)
Pacific States now heard what was going on and proceeded to approach eleven of the supervisors directly, giving each of them about $5,000. When he learned of this, Ruef was furious; he told the supervisors that they would have to vote for the Home Company (which a majority did), and that they should give back at least part of the Pacific States bribes. The distribution of the Home Company money is interesting. According to Walton Bean in his authoritative book, Boss Ruef’s San Francisco , Ruef kept about one fourth of the $125,000 and gave another fourth to Schmitz. The rest was distributed among the supervisors on a carefully graduated scale, according to whether or not they had accepted Pacific States bribes, and whether they had voted for or against the Home Company. Rea, the honest supervisor, of course got nothing. One other man, Patrick McGushin, also got nothing; in public speeches he had committed himself so thoroughly to municipal ownership that he did not dare vote for either corporation.
Many other companies and individuals at about this time felt it necessary to indulge in bribery, and found Ruef a willing recipient. The largest sum he received was $200,000 from the United Railroads, which controlled the city’s streetcars. There was an agitation in San Francisco to have the overhead trolley wires put into underground conduits, and United Railroads paid the bribe to block this expensive project. Head of the United Railroads was Patrick Calhoun, an aggressive, able, and unscrupulous financier, grandson of John C. Calhoun, former Vice President and states’ rights leader. Patrick Calhoun sent his chief counsel, Tirey L. Ford, to Ruef, who passed on part of the $200,000 to Schmitz and the seventeen supervisors.
On another occasion and from another source Ruef was promised a far larger bribe. San Francisco needed a supplementary supply of water from the Sierra Nevada, far across the state to the east, and owners of mountain land near Lake Tahoe proposed to build a water system there and sell it to the city at a profit of three million dollars; one third of this was to go to Ruef, who in turn would split with the supervisors. Before the plan could be carried out, however, the storm broke over the members of the graft ring.
The storm was created primarily by one individual, Fremont Older, who in 1895, at the age of thirty-nine, had become managing editor of the San Francisco Bulletin . Older, generally considered by journalists to be one of the half-dozen top newspaper editors in American history, was a huge man, six feet two and broad-shouldered, with Hashing eyes above a big beak of a nose, and a voice that rose to a roaring bellow when he was excited or angered, which was almost continuously. (I was a part-time cub reporter on the Bulletin for several years during the fight against the graft ring—while working my way through Stanford University as a campus correspondent—and I can testify to the equal amounts of terror, admiration, and passionate loyalty that Older inspired in every member of his staff.)
Why he possessed such a deep and burning zeal for municipal honesty is something that must be left to the psychiatrists, it was shared by few if any of the top executives of the other San Francisco newspapers, and certainly not by Older’s boss, R. A. Crothers, part owner and active manager of the Bulletin . When Older came into the office the paper was moribund. It was also, as he relates in his fascinating autobiography, My Own Story , on the payroll of the Southern Pacific Railroad for $125 a month, the customary stipend paid at that time to all weak newspapers and many strong ones. During all the years of the fantastic struggle to expose the grafters, the Bulletin played a leading part. But Crothers, to put it mildly, dragged his feet. This, however, did not exempt him from the wrath of the graft ring. At one stage in the battle he was struck down in an alley behind his office, severely beaten, and left for dead.