December 1959 | Volume 11, Issue 1
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
In November, 1901, the little town of Sonoma, California, a few miles north of San Francisco, lay dreaming in the haze of Indian summer. There were few guests in the town hotel, and only two were strangers. One of them was a small man with bright, beady eyes above a huge mustache; he looked like Ren Turpin with his eyes uncrossed. The other was big and broad-shouldered; he had a head of thick, curly black hair and a luxuriant mustache and Vandyke beard that, in pictures of him, give an irrepressible impression of being glued on.These visitors seemed to be instructor and pupil. They had a single document with them, a copy of the San Francisco city charter, and hour after hour the little man could be heard through the thin walls of the hotel room explaining its provisions to the big one, quizzing him on its contents, expostulating when his companion got the answers wrong or didn’t remember.
The people of Sonoma promptly recognized the pair, for their faces were well known in California. What the townsfolk did not realize was why they were there. The little man was Abraham Ruef, San Francisco’s corrupt political boss who reaped the profits of bribery and corruption with unparalleled sang-froid . The big one was Eugene Schmitz, lately orchestra leader at San Francisco’s fashionable Columbia Theater, whom Rucf had turned into a political figure only a few months earlier and, almost singlehandedly, had had elected mayor. Now, in the Sonoma hideaway immediately after the election, Ruef was trying to teach his henchman the rudiments of public administration.
For Abraham Ruet’s vivid imagination was already looking ahead to a dramatic future. Years later, from his cell in San Quentin Prison, he recalled those days in Sonoma in his autobiography, The Road I Traveled :
We were the only strangers in the little village. We had left our whereabouts unknown except to our immediate families. There, in undisturbed peace, we talked and planned day and night. There in the tranquil Sonoma hills I saw visions of political power; I saw the Union Labor Party [to which he and Schmitz belonged] a spark in California which would kindle the entire nation and make a Labor President; I saw the Union Labor Party a throne for Schmitz, as Mayor, as Governor—as President of the United States. Behind that throne, I saw myself its power, local, state—national … I saw myself United States Senator.
To understand how Ruef was able to put his grotesquely unqualified nominee into the mayor’s chair, and how he himself could end up a lew years later in a prison cell, it is necessary to glance brielly at San Francisco’s earlier, turbulent history.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the city could look back on a solid fifty years of sin, violence, and corruption, ft had been a drowsy Mexican village of a thousand people when it was taken over by the Americans in 1846. Only five years later, the town having mushroomed following the discovery of gold, crimes of violence were so common and the local government so venal or spineless—or both—that the citizens organized the famous extralegal “vigilantes”—officially the Vigilance Committee—to restore order. Their method was simple and effective: hanging, after the briefest extemporaneous trials, some of the more conspicuous wrongdoers. The next few years saw the leading newspaper editor shot down by an indignant subscriber; a United States senator killed in a duel with the chief justice of the state supreme court; and howling mobs burning the houses of the Chinese, who were believed to be undercutting Americans in the labor market. For the whole half century, prostitution, gambling, and drunkenness raged through the town; its Barbary Coast was infamous for the public display of every sort of vice.
For a good part of that time, the venality of most municipal officials was duplicated in the capitol at Sacramento. The state was controlled politically—and to some extent economically—by the big corporations, especially the Southern Pacific Railroad, a situation dramatically and accurately described by Frank Norris in The Octopus . Distributor of money and favors for the Southern Pacific was its chief counsel, William F. Herrin, who, besides dispensing more serious bribes, saw to it that whenever the legislature was in session, a weekend round-trip ticket to San Francisco was dropped on the desk of every lawmaker every Friday.
When the twentieth century began, there was little evidence that very many people in the city objected to this state of affairs, and much evidence that most of them at least tacitly approved. They would have been dumfounded it they had been told that during the next decade San Francisco would be torn asunder by what was probably the greatest struggle in American history to end municipal corruption.
The forerunner of that struggle was a savage waterfront strike in the summer of 1901 that lasted about two months and left enduring scars. It was broken with the aid of the municipal authorities, who put city police on the drays to protect nonstriking drivers. Since the days of the gold rush, when labor was in desperately short supply and workers were able to dictate their own terms, San Francisco had always been a strong union town. With their defeat on the water front, the shocked and embittered workingmen turned to politics for revenge. They organized the Union Labor party and began to talk big about taking control of the city. This talk might easily have come to nothing but for the presence of Abraham Ruef.
The little boss, born of a prosperous Jewish mercantile family in San Francisco, had a fine mind and great personal ambition. He went through the University of California at Berkeley, studying classical languages. Graduated subsequently from San Francisco’s Hastings College of Law, he began to practice and immediately went into politics as a Republican. He was successful in both careers from the first, aided by his native shrewdness and his unusual abilities as a writer and public speaker. In 1901 he was thirty-seven, and for more than ten years had already had many dubious underworld connections. He saw in the new Union Labor party an opportunity for himself, for power —and money. He needed a Trilby to whom he could play Svengali, and he soon found one. Like the original Trilby, his came from the world of music.
Eugene Schmitz, the orchestra leader, knew nothing of politics and did not want to run, but Ruef assured him victory was practically certain. “The psychology of the mass of voters,” said Ruef, “is like that of a crowd of small boys or primitive men. Other things being equal, of two candidates they will almost invariably follow the strong, finely-built man.” Ruef proved a good prophet. The Republican and Democratic opponents were weak, and every union man in the city was still smarting from the broken strike; Schmitz was elected.
After a tew days of the Sonoma crammer’s-course in the art of government, the two men returned to San Francisco, and soon thereafter Schmitz formally took office. Before very long, newspapermen and other knowledgeable people in the city began to hear that graft was on the increase, and that nearly all of it was channeling through Ruef. His method was admirably uncomplicated: he became attorney for any individual or group that had bribes to offer; the money was then paid to him as “legal fees,” and he divided it with Schmitz and with anyone else who was entitled to a cut.
One of the important early sources of graft under this system was San Francisco’s famous group of French “restaurants.” Although owned by different people, these operated on a uniform and disreputable system. The ground floor was a respectable dining room, catering to the family trade and serving excellent food and wine at reasonable prices. There were always, however, several higher floors with private dining rooms and bedrooms, where prostitutes operated brazenly. These restaurants had to have city licenses, which came up for renewal from time to time, and before the Schmitz administration was very old the owners were told, to their dismay, that their licenses were to be canceled. They promptly hired Ruef as their lawyer, paid him many thousands of dollars, and the threat of trouble faded away. Among the dozens of houses of prostitution which then flourished openly in San Francisco was one on Jackson Street, with seventy inmates, in which Mayor Schmitz was generally believed to have a heavy part-ownership. This was nicknamed “the Municipal Crib” and was so known throughout the city for years.
Other varieties of graft developed with great rapidity. The police in Chinatown were accused of collecting regular weekly immunity fees from gamblers. Various types of business had to pay for permission to do certain things, some of which were entirely legal and unobjectionable.
With the Republicans and Democrats still divided, and with the workers on the whole still behind the Union Labor party, Schmitz was re-elected in 1903 and again in 1905. He and Ruef had consolidaied their power and gained experience, and in 1905, for the first time, nearly all eighteen members of the Board of Supervisors were their henchmen. Some came from ihe ranks of union labor, but olhers were variegated friends of Ruef, with backgrounds as dubious as his own. Almost at once it developed that most of them had heard that the city was full of easy money, and they iniended to get their share; soon Ruef was told that individual supervisors were openly asking payment to vote in accordance with the wishes of various businessmen.
The boss saw that this would never do; with a number of men seeking bribes individually, open scandal could not be averied. Accordingly, he called an unofficial meeting of the board and made a short speech. His exact words have been lost to history, but of the substance there is no doubt. “You men owe your jobs to me,” he said in effect. “You will do what I say, or you will be replaced. If anybody wants to make a gift to the supervisors in return for their consideration of his wishes and needs, this money will be collected and disbursed by me. You are not to know ihe name of the donor; you will simply vote as I tell you in all cases.”
The supervisors saw that they were licked, and seventeen of them silently acquiesced. By some accident, however, one honest man had got on the board; he was not at the historic meeting, nor did he participate in the subsequeni disiribution of graft. Let his name be recorded for history: Louis A. Rea.
A typical example of how the Ruef system worked was the fighl between two competing telephone companies. The Pacific States Telephone and Telegraph Company was already operating in San Francisco, while the Home Telephone Company wanted to set up a competing system there, as it had clone in a number of other cities. Pacific States had for some time been paying Ruef $1,200 a month as “attorney’s fees.” Home Telephone now offered him a flat $125,000. (Ruef’s custom was to share about halt the money among the seventeen dishonest supervisors, and to divide the other half between himself and Schmitz. in varying proportions, often equally.)
Pacific States now heard what was going on and proceeded to approach eleven of the supervisors directly, giving each of them about $5,000. When he learned of this, Ruef was furious; he told the supervisors that they would have to vote for the Home Company (which a majority did), and that they should give back at least part of the Pacific States bribes. The distribution of the Home Company money is interesting. According to Walton Bean in his authoritative book, Boss Ruef’s San Francisco , Ruef kept about one fourth of the $125,000 and gave another fourth to Schmitz. The rest was distributed among the supervisors on a carefully graduated scale, according to whether or not they had accepted Pacific States bribes, and whether they had voted for or against the Home Company. Rea, the honest supervisor, of course got nothing. One other man, Patrick McGushin, also got nothing; in public speeches he had committed himself so thoroughly to municipal ownership that he did not dare vote for either corporation.
Many other companies and individuals at about this time felt it necessary to indulge in bribery, and found Ruef a willing recipient. The largest sum he received was $200,000 from the United Railroads, which controlled the city’s streetcars. There was an agitation in San Francisco to have the overhead trolley wires put into underground conduits, and United Railroads paid the bribe to block this expensive project. Head of the United Railroads was Patrick Calhoun, an aggressive, able, and unscrupulous financier, grandson of John C. Calhoun, former Vice President and states’ rights leader. Patrick Calhoun sent his chief counsel, Tirey L. Ford, to Ruef, who passed on part of the $200,000 to Schmitz and the seventeen supervisors.
On another occasion and from another source Ruef was promised a far larger bribe. San Francisco needed a supplementary supply of water from the Sierra Nevada, far across the state to the east, and owners of mountain land near Lake Tahoe proposed to build a water system there and sell it to the city at a profit of three million dollars; one third of this was to go to Ruef, who in turn would split with the supervisors. Before the plan could be carried out, however, the storm broke over the members of the graft ring.
The storm was created primarily by one individual, Fremont Older, who in 1895, at the age of thirty-nine, had become managing editor of the San Francisco Bulletin . Older, generally considered by journalists to be one of the half-dozen top newspaper editors in American history, was a huge man, six feet two and broad-shouldered, with Hashing eyes above a big beak of a nose, and a voice that rose to a roaring bellow when he was excited or angered, which was almost continuously. (I was a part-time cub reporter on the Bulletin for several years during the fight against the graft ring—while working my way through Stanford University as a campus correspondent—and I can testify to the equal amounts of terror, admiration, and passionate loyalty that Older inspired in every member of his staff.)
Why he possessed such a deep and burning zeal for municipal honesty is something that must be left to the psychiatrists, it was shared by few if any of the top executives of the other San Francisco newspapers, and certainly not by Older’s boss, R. A. Crothers, part owner and active manager of the Bulletin . When Older came into the office the paper was moribund. It was also, as he relates in his fascinating autobiography, My Own Story , on the payroll of the Southern Pacific Railroad for $125 a month, the customary stipend paid at that time to all weak newspapers and many strong ones. During all the years of the fantastic struggle to expose the grafters, the Bulletin played a leading part. But Crothers, to put it mildly, dragged his feet. This, however, did not exempt him from the wrath of the graft ring. At one stage in the battle he was struck down in an alley behind his office, severely beaten, and left for dead.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!