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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
Older, as the more aggressive fighter, ran even more serious risks. When in 1905 Schmitz was re-elected despite the opposition of the Bulletin , a riotous mob gathered in front of the newspaper, smashed all its windows, and followed Older and his wile, hooting and jeering at them, as they walked clown the street a few blocks to their home in the Palace Hotel.
One day in 1907, after two plots to kill him had misfired, Older was lured into a trap by an anonymous telephone call promising him “important information” if he would come to the Savoy Hotel on Van Ness Avenue. He could not resist the invitation, although he warned his colleagues at the Bulletin that it might be a trick. As he walked toward the hotel an automobile with four occupants stopped beside him. He was shown a Los Angeles warrant for his arrest, and was told to get into the car. A day or so earlier, a reporter for the Bulletin had, for one edition, confused the identity of two men named Brown, one of whom was head of the secret service for the United Railroads. This man had gone to an obscure justice of the peace in Los Angeles, 475 miles away, and obtained a warrant for Older’s arrest on a charge of criminal libel. Of the four men in the automobile, two were private detectives representing the United Railroads; the other two were deputies representing the Los Angeles justice of the peace.
In the automobile, Older was told he would be taken to the chambers of a San Francisco judge, where he could arrange for bail. Instead, the car shot away out of the city at high speed, while one of his captors kept a gun pressed into the editor’s ribs; in an accompanying car, Older recognized several employees of the United Railroads. By now he was really frightened, suspecting that they intended to kill him. He was right. Gangland had not yet learned to use the term, but Older was being “taken for a ride.” The two Los Angeles men planned to take him aboard a train at a station a few miles down the coast, leave the train at another station in the early morning, and take Older up into wild mountain country. There he would be “shot while attempting to escape.”
Older’s life was saved by an extraordinary development. The Los Angeles men, since they were technically court officers, made no attempt to conceal Older’s presence on the train, and took him into the dining car for dinner. A young San Francisco attorney happened to be on the same train, thought he recognized Older, and grew curious as to why he was traveling with such odd companions. When one of the Los Angeles deputies admitted Older’s identity, the lawyer broke his journey, got off the train in the middle of the night at a way station, and telephoned the office of the San Francisco Call , owned by the brother of Rudolph Spreckels, who was working with the graft prosecution.
“Is Fremont Older missing, by any chance?” the attorney asked.
“My God, yes,” came the answer. “The whole city is looking for him.”
The attorney described Older’s situation. A judge in Santa Barbara, a few miles north of Los Angeles, was routed out of bed by a long-distance telephone call, and a writ of habeas corpus was issued.
In spite of the early hour, word of what was happening spread through Santa Barbara, and when the train reached the city the station was thronged with interested citizens.
“Must be a wedding party,” said one of the kidnappers as he looked out the compartment window. But he was wrong; a sheriff’s posse boarded the train and took Older “into custody.” A few hours later, in a Santa Barbara courtroom, he was,set free. His four captors were subsequently arrested; the two from Los Angeles turned state’s evidence and admitted the plot to kill Older. Of the other two, one jumped bail and was never recaptured; the fourth man, brought to trial a year later, was acquitted by a San Francisco jury presumably influenced by Ruef.
By 1905, Older and those working with him had realized that the grafters controlled nearly all the machinery of justice so completely that outside help would be necessary, and that this would be very expensive. Two prominent and wealthy citizens sympathized with Older and were helping him as much as possible. One was James D. Phelan, a millionaire businessman (and afterward United States senator) who had given San Francisco an honest and efficient government as mayor for three terms, just before Schmitz took office. The other was Spreckels, who came of a wealthy family but had quarreled with his father and made a fortune of his own before he was thirty.