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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
Or so it seemed. But the future was in fact brighter than any member of Older’s group could have dared to hope. Even in the middle of the fight, a new mayor had been elected, Dr. Edward Robeson Taylor, who was not only a leading physician but a leading attorney as well; although he had stood aloof from the graft prosecution, he was a man of unquestioned probity who could be relied upon to put an end to the thieving. Moreover, the proceedings in the various cases had been watched not only in San Francisco but throughout the state, where many people did not share the San Franciscans’ laissez-faire attitude toward crime. Hiram Johnson had become a hero by taking Heney’s place; he now ran for governor, with the blessing of Older and his friends, on a platform of “turn the rascals out”—the rascals including not only the San Francisco bribers but the fixers for the Southern Pacific Railroad and other great business organizations that were not above stooping to corruption.
Johnson was overwhelmingly elected governor, and re-elected four years later, going from that office to the United States Senate. As governor he put through a series of reforms, including changes in the electoral system, that ended forever most of the worst practices of the graft ring. Today, San Francisco has an honest government, and the business organizations (or their successors) that handed out bribes half a century ago would look with proper horror on any suggestion that they should now resort to the old tactics.
Having finally put Ruef into prison, Older began to have qualms of conscience. He felt that the promise of immunity had been too cavalierly broken, that perhaps the community was more guilty than the little boss, and that Ruef had been made a scapegoat for many worse men. The editor now began a campaign in the Bulletin for Ruef’s release, but no one in a position of power shared his new-found Tolstoian attitude, and Ruef was not paroled until he had served a full half of his “net” sentence of nine years (after deductions for good behavior and for time in prison awaiting trial). His release came one month after it was legally possible—after four years and seven months.
In some other cases, Nemesis seemed to be at work. Fickert, a few years later, was discovered to have used a perjured witness to send Tom Mooney to prison, and his career ended in disgrace. One of the members of the state supreme court, who cast the deciding vote in some three-to-four decisions, was proved to have accepted a bribe of $410,000 a few years earlier in an important case involving the estate of a wealthy Californian, James G. Fair. Patrick Calhoun lost his fortune in land speculation, though many years later he partially recouped his losses in another city. Ruef, released from prison, went into the real-estate business and after some successes, went downhill into deepening poverty until he died bankrupt, a quarter of a century after he had gone to prison.
Ex-Mayor Eugene Schmitz fared better than any of his associates. He brazened it out in San Francisco for almost two decades; the city, perhaps remembering Steffens’ advice that the best possible official is one who has already been proved dishonest, elected him to several successive terms—on the Board of Supervisors!