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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
In this atmosphere of mounting community disapproval, Ruef was finally tried for bribery. Because he had persisted, in trial after trial, in partly repudiating his confession and in insisting that all payments made to him had been merely legal fees, Heney canceled the promise of immunity; Ruef responded by pleading not guilty. The bitterness of San Francisco sentiment was shown by the fact that getting a jury took from August 27 until November 6, and used up a panel of almost fifteen hundred talesmen.
While examining prospective jurors Heney had publicly revealed the fact that one man on the panel, Morris Haas, was ineligible because he had many years earlier served a term in San Quentin Prison. Heney did not need to humiliate Haas publicly in this way; he did so in anger, believing that Ruef was trying to plant the man on the jury. Haas deeply resented Heney’s action and brooded over it for many weeks. While the trial was in temporary recess, Haas approached Heney in the courtroom, whipped out a revolver, and shot the attorney in the head; the bullet lodged behind the jaw muscles, where a difference of a fraction of an inch in any direction would have produced a fatal wound. Heney was carried away on a stretcher, mumbling, “I’ll get him [Ruef] yet.” His place was taken by a bright young assistant named Hiram Johnson, and the trial went on.
Haas was placed in a prison cell with a policeman to guard him; but in spite of these precautions he was found dead the following evening, a small pistol beside him. Those who believed Haas had been hired by Ruef to murder Heney now believed, naturally, that some other gangster in Ruef’s employ had done away with Haas so that he could not talk. The chief of police was deeply hurt by Heney’s public criticism of him for negligence in the Haas case, so much so that some time later he committed suicide by jumping overboard from a launch during a nighttime crossing of San Francisco Bay.
Heney did not die, as he had been expected to, and some days later the trial was concluded. Detective Burns had given Johnson the names of four jurors who, Burns said, had been bribed, and in his summation Johnson called each of them by name, pointed a forefinger at him, and shouted: “You—you dare not acquit this man!” Nevertheless, when the jury retired for its deliberations everyone expected that it would let Ruef go, or would disagree, as had happened in almost every other case growing out of the graft prosecution.
While the jury was out Heney telephoned Older to say that he was much recovered, and proposed to come down and pay his respects to the judge. Older, with his usual flair for the dramatic, told Heney not to come until the editor gave the signal. While most of the community was by now against the prosecution, there was a minority on the side of honesty, which had organized a League of Justice pledged to help at a moment’s notice. Older now hastily sent word to dozens of these men, who came and crowded into the courtroom, which was directly under the chamber in which the jury was deliberating. Evelyn Wells, in her biography of Older, tells what happened when Heney entered the courtroom on Older’s arm:
The “minutemen” raised a shout of welcome. Older himself trumpeted like a bull elephant. The rest of the crowd joined in. … It was a cheer of welcome, but to the scared jury on the floor above it sounded like a bellowed demand for lynching. A few minutes later twelve good men and true filed hurriedly into the courtroom. They had hastily made up their minds. All were deathly white. Some trembled. A few were weeping.
But their verdict was “Guilty,” and Ruef was sentenced to fourteen years in prison. Of all the sentences meted out to leading figures in the whole course of the prosecution, it was the only one that was made to stick.
Another municipal election was approaching, and Langdon, the weary and battered district attorney, refused to run again. He was discouraged, with good reason: a key witness, the supervisor who had paid off his fellows on Ruef’s behalf, had fled the country. In desperation, Heney himself ran for district attorney, and was defeated by a football hero from Stanford University, Charles M. Fickert, whose liaison with the grafters was notorious.
Fickert promptly and contemptuously refused to go on with any of the pending cases against the big businessmen. He pretended not to know the whereabouts of the supervisor who had fled, although everyone else knew that he was rusticating in Vancouver, British Columbia. William P. Lawlor, the honest judge who had presided in several of the cases, excoriated Fickert and ordered the others to trial; but he was overruled by the court of appeals, which decided that all of the large number of remaining indictments should be quashed.
The graft prosecution was over, having ended in almost total failure, with only Ruef in prison.