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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
Phelan and Spreckels promised to put up the money for an independent investigation and prosecution, which they thought would cost $100,000 (the final tab was about two and a half times that much). There was no doubt as to the man they wanted as prosecutor: he was Francis J. Heney, an attorney born in Lima, New York, but raised in San Francisco, a man of tremendous self-confidence, a bitter-end fighter, and a combined bloodhound and bulldog when he was on the trail of evil-doing. At the moment, Heney was being used by the United States government to prosecute a series of land-fraud cases in Oregon. Older went to Washington and easily obtained the promise of President Theodore Roosevelt to have Heney lent to the San Franciscans as soon as the Oregon cases were concluded. Since this was his home town, Heney gave his services without pay for a fight that was to last several years. He brought with him William J. Burns, a detective who had made a notable career in the Secret Service of the United States Treasury Department.
So intent were Older and his friends on tracking down the grafters that the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of April 18, 1906, which cost more than four hundred lives and almost completely destroyed all the important parts of the city, delayed them only temporarily. A few weeks later the prosecution was ready to proceed. With great audacity Ruef, well aware of what was going on, struck first.
The district attorney, William H. Langdon, had been appointed with Ruef’s consent but had unexpectedly turned out to be honest, and had co-operated with the prosecution by appointing Heney as an assistant district attorney. Ruef responded by ordering Mayor Schmitz to dismiss Langdon and replace him by none other than Ruef himself! The prosecution succeeded in bringing the matter into court the next day, and the judge agreed to give his decision at 2 P.M. In the early morning, Older rushed out a special edition of the Bulletin telling what was happening, and distributed many thousands of free copies throughout the city. The paper invited honest residents of San Francisco to come at the zero hour and line up on the lawn outside the judge’s chambers, which happened to be on the ground floor. Many hundreds of leading citizens responded, and as two o’clock approached, they stood packed together and silent, looking in at the judge. He ruled for Langdon.
The prosecution began its work with plenty of suspicion of bribery, but little solid evidence. Indeed, on several occasions both Older and Heney made public charges, which Older printed in the Bulletin , that went far beyond anything they were able to prove. The first break came, as it so often does, when the thieves fell out. Two minor members of the graft ring, joint owners of a skating rink, had reasons to dislike Ruef and to respect the power of Older and Heney. They now approached the prosecution with offers to help, and a trap was set for some of the dishonest supervisors.
The prosecution prepared an ordinance that would have crippled the operations of the skating rink by forbidding entrance to unchaperoned minors, and Mayor Schmitz was tricked into sponsoring it with the Board of Supervisors. Several members were then sounded out as to whether they would be willing to vote against it for a suitable sum of money. This was long before the days of dictaphones, but the trap was set efficiently, nonetheless. The first supervisor was approached in the office of the skating rink, and while Burns and two other men watched through holes bored in the wall, he accepted $500 in marked bills. Another supervisor fell for the same ruse. A third was bribed in the home of one of the skating-rink owners while Burns, a stenographer, and another witness watched from a darkened adjoining room through folding doors left slightly ajar.
From the beginning, the prosecution wanted to reach the big businessmen who gave the bribes; Heney was willing to offer immunity to the lesser figures, including the supervisors. Such offers were not legally binding on the courts, but judges usually respected them. With the damaging evidence against the supervisors who had taken the money in the skating-rink affair, and with promises of immunity to their colleagues, Heney soon had detailed and documented confessions from almost all of the seventeen men.
The grand jury was known to be packed with henchmen of the graft ring, and a new one was clearly needed. District Attorney Langdon dismissed the old jury and had an honest one impaneled. Ruef and Schmitz were promptly indicted for mulcting the French “restaurants.”
Both men exhausted every legal avenue to avoid trial, or to postpone it as long as possible. When Ruef’s case came up, he did not appear in court, apparently believing that through a legal technicality he was not required to do so; he was promptly arrested. Since the sheriff was one of his own men, the duty of guarding him was transferred to the coroner. But he, also, was in the graft ring, and was not to be trusted. Ruef was therefore confined in a hotel under the care of William J. Biggy, a special officer called an elisor.