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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
Heney, eager to reach the men higher up, now offered Ruef immunity if he would confess. For a long time the little boss refused; his story was that all the money paid him by everybody had been merely legal fees. But at last he broke down, after many appeals by two rabbis and a dramatic scene in the bedroom of his mother, who was gravely ill. He then made a complete confession, naming those who had bribed him and telling the amounts and where the money had gone. Describing the members of his own graft ring, he remarked that “They were so greedy they would eat the paint off the City Hall,” leading the public to call them, for years thereafter, “the paint eaters.”
Schmitz was now tried on the extortion indictment. Although he pursued the course that he followed to the day of his death—flatly denying every charge, no matter what anyone else might say—he was found guilty and sentenced to prison. Before this, the question had arisen as to whether the supervisors, nearly all of whom had now confessed to accepting bribes, should be turned out of office, and the prosecution had approved keeping them in their places temporarily, lest Ruef should furnish a new and worse set from his seemingly endless supply of underworld characters. As Lincoln Steffens pointed out at the time, this Board of Supervisors was “the best in America”: they did not dare misbehave further, with their confessions of wrongdoing on record. With Schmitz in jail, and with no honest replacement in sight, the prosecution agreed to put one of the bribe-taking supervisors into the mayor’s office temporarily.
As Heney began to tighten the noose on the big businessmen who were behind the corruption, a sudden turn appeared in San Francisco public opinion. As long as the quarry had been men from the lower social strata, the “best people” had heartily approved; but now Heney’s detectives were getting close to important citizens, and the prosecution quickly became highly unpopular. Western rough-and-tumble mores still prevailed; the businessmen who were accused were, after all, self-made men and leaders of the community. As for trade-union members, they still thought of Schmitz as their spokesman. Since Ruef was a Jew, the prosecution was accused of anti-Semitism; since Patrick Calhoun, the streetcar tycoon, had come from Georgia, lhe bloody shin was waved. Several of the other men who had taken bribes belonged to the Protestant Episcopal Church, and Heney and Older were attacked for prejudice against that institution.
Those allied with the prosecution were subjected to pressure both subtle and direct. Big advertisers withdrew from Older’s Bulletin , and wealthy depositors took their money out of Rudolph Spreckels’ First National Bank. The foreman of the honest grand jury, Bartley P. Oliver, was in the real-estate business; he was boycotted severely. (When it was all over, he had to move away from San Francisco and start life anew, as did Heney.)
Calhoun, while under indictment, was asked to a dinner at the fashionable Olympic Club, where he was warmly applauded and asked to make a speech; when one of the oldest members of the club, Dr. Charles A. Clinton, protested, he was expelled—and Calhoun was elected in his place. Mrs. Fremont Older described the social ostracism: “Members of the prosecution were not bidden to entertainments where people of fashion gathered … [where] women reserved their sweetest smiles for the candidates for state’s prison … [and] to ask whether one believed in looting the city became a delicate personal question.”
The Bulletin was the center of the storm, and the members of its staff worked under a tremendous strain; I myself saw plenty of evidence of this. Many reporters and advertising solicitors habitually carried revolvers. Every setback for the prosecution—and there were many—became a personal tragedy to everybody who worked for Older.
The change in the city’s moral climate was soon registered in the actions in the courts. Tirey L. Ford, who had bribed Ruef with $200,000 on behalf of Calhoun, was tried three times; in spite of ample evidence of his guilt, the jury disagreed once, and twice he was acquitted. (Each trial was for bribing a different supervisor; there were so many of these cases that the prosecution could have gone on for years.) The higher courts of the state, many of whose members were deeply respectful of men of property, also conspicuously sided against the prosecution. The district court of appeals soon freed Schmitz, on astonishing grounds: he was not guilty of extortion, it said, because the French “restaurants” were undoubtedly houses of prostitution, and their licenses could properly have been revoked; to threaten to do a legal act is not extortion. The state supreme court upheld this remarkable argument and added one of its own: that the whole trial of Schmitz was illegal anyway because the indictment had failed to mention that he was mayor of San Francisco, or that Ruef was a political boss!