The Looting of San Francisco Before and After the Great Earthquake

“That corruption was rampant everybody knew, but the mass of the laboring men were loath to believe that their chosen officials were corrupt. The confession of Ruef and the eighteen members of the board of supervisors revealed conditions that were astonishing even to those who were more or less familiar with what was going on. There was nothing too large or too small for the rapacity of this administration.”

James D. Phelan. Former Mayor of San Francisco. New York Evening Post: June 1, 1907.

Part One: Report on the Causes of Municipal Corruption in San Francisco

The full text of the report is available online courtesy of the Museum of the City of San Francisco.

Part Two: James D. Phelan’s Report

Comments from James D. Phelan, mayor of San Francisco (1896-1902), while in Boston as he attempted to raise relief funds to replace those embezzled by public officials.

The mayor Eugene Schmitz, “Boss” Ruef, the Board of Supervisors, and other political operatives – with a helping hand from PG&E, Pacific Telephone, and various real estate interests – had so weakened the city financially through widespread graft, that not only were there no funds on hand to deal with the emergency, but also relief funds pouring in from all over the world were stolen by members of the political machine.

From: Boston Sunday Herald, June 16, 1907

Conviction a Blessing

“The conviction of Mayor Schmitz and the rout of [Abraham “Abe”] Ruef, the political “boss,” who made a confession which has criminally involved his followers and “patrons,” have at last brought the government of graft, which existed for several years in San Francisco, to an end.

“I am not surprised that the East should have had a poor opinion of San Francisco so long as it supinely endured shameless pillage and unrestrained corruption.

Hard Work to Clean City

“Rudolph Spreckels, president of the First National Bank, representing the citizens, brought to his assistance Atty. Francis J. Heney, who had successfully prosecuted the land frauds in Oregon, and William J. Burns of the Secret Service. Dist. Atty. Langdon of San Francisco considered himself bound only by his conscience, and after nine months’ work indictments and trials are following in quick succession, and it may be said now that, so far as municipal government is concerned, San Francisco is purged of its evils and, in the hands of the prosecution, is guaranteed clean and stable rule.

“The grafting officials are not, however, the only culprits. The officers of the telephone, street railway, gas, and electric companies must answer to charges of bribery. These corporations were not “held up”; they sought privileges, and they are suffering now from the consequences of ordinary corporate greed.

Large Bribes Given

“The street railway company, for instance, wanted a privilege to convert a cable system into an overhead trolley against the protests of the citizens, who urged them to use the underground conduit system and to pick up the trolley in the suburbs. They preferred to pay $200,000 in bribe money for the privileges.

“The telephone company paid a large bribe to keep out a rival, and the rival paid a large bribe to get in.

“The gas company paid a bribe to the supervisors to prevent them from carrying out their pledges to reduce the gas rate to 75 cents, and it was fixed at 85 cents.

Part Three: Timeline – 40 days in San Francisco

March, 7, 1907
Detective Burns trapped Supervisor Lonergan in a sting operation and forced him to confess to the graft operations at City Hall. Lonergan exposed the Home Telephone, Bay Cities Water, PG&E, Pacific Telephone Co., United Railroads, and the Parkside Realty bribery scandals.

March, 8, 1907
Coroner W.J. Walsh and Sheriff O’Neil told the court they could not find Abe Ruef. Judge Dunne disqualified Walsh and named William J. Biggy a representative of the court with the power to arrest Ruef. Ruef was found two hours later by Biggy and Detective William J. Burns at the Trocadero House in what later became Stern Grove. Ruef’s henchman Myrtile Cerf was with him when arrested.

March, 9, 1907
Supervisor Wilson went to the home of Ruef’s attorney Henry Ach at 2 a.m. to confirm the rumor of Ruef’s capture.

Abe Ruef was held prisoner at the St. Francis Hotel because the jails were unreliable. Police Chief Dinan was also indicted in the graft scandal.

March, 18, 1907
Sixteen of the eighteen Supervisors confessed to a grand jury that they had taken bribes from United Railroads, Pacific Telephone Company, and PG&E, among others.

March, 20, 1907
Abe Ruef was charged with 65 more counts of graft.

Ruef sent word to Heney, through Detective Burns, that he might confess if granted immunity. Heney refused.

“Chronicle” reported that Gov. Gillett might remove Mayor Schmitz and appoint a successor. Unfortunately, the Charter did not contain a mechanism for removing the mayor during his term.

Theodore V. Halsey of Pacific States Telephone Co. was indicted for graft.

March, 23, 1907
Louis Glass, vice-president of Pacific States Telephone Co., was indicted for bribing supervisors.

April 3, 1907
“Chronicle” questioned why the “boodle board” remained in office after confessing to taking bribes. It was Heney’s position that if board members resigned Mayor Schmitz would only appoint people of equal “honesty.” Heney wanted Schmitz convicted and the board to then elect a prosecution mayor, and resign. The new mayor would immediately appoint new pro-prosecution supervisors.

April 16, 1907
David Clienhall, a clerk for the relief committee, was arrested for embezzling relief funds.

And on and on and on.

Source: The Museum of the City of San Francisco

Editor’s note: How little times have changed.

The charter change in 1995 is similar in character to the one San Franciscans approved in 1900 and the response of contemporary political “operators” to the opportunities for theft it created has been almost identical

“During James Phelan’s administration (1896-1902), the people adopted a charter that gave the mayor’s office almost autocratic powers, made municipal franchises subject to initiative and referendum, and vested legislative control in a board of 18 supervisors.

After the election of 1905 (which gave Ruef control over the Board of Supervisors as well as the Mayor’s office), the Ruef/Schmitz machine threw restraint to the winds, and politics in San Francisco reached an all-time high-water mark for venality and corruption.”

Source: California in Our Time, Robbert Glass Cleland. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947. p. 19-21.

The mayor Eugene Schmitz, the reigning political “fixer” Abe Ruef, the chief of police, and all eighteen members of the board of supervisors were eventually indicted on charges of graft and political corruption.

Accomplishing this feat took the combined efforts of San Francisco District Attorney Langdon; Fremont Older, the publisher of The Call, a leading paper of the time; Francis Heney, one of the country’s most capable prosecutors; William Burns, a top criminal investigator specializing in fraud and political corruption; Theodore Roosevelt; and heavy cash investments from James D. Phelen, the former mayor, and Rudolph Spreckels.

In the course of the trial, the prosecutors were socially ostracized; the Chronicle and the Examiner ridiculed their efforts; Fremont Older was kidnapped; a witness’ house was dynamited, and Francis Heney was shot in the head at point-blank range in the courtroom by a “madman.”

Chicago and New Orleans ain’t got nothing on San Franciso!

Back article