Friday, December 19, 2008

Eugene Edward Schmitz: Golden Gate graft

Eugene Edward Schmitz and Abe Ruef. Photos from

Born in 1864, Eugene Edward Schmitz found himself in California when his parents joined the gold rush. A musician and orchestra conductor, he was the head of the Musicians' Union at the beginning of the 20th century when he was tapped by lawyer Abe Ruef to run for mayor of San Francisco on the Union Labor Party ticket. He was elected to the office in 1901, replacing incumbent mayor James D. Phelan.

The New York Times, commenting several years down the line, said, "It was not long before everyone knew that while Schmitz, the fiddler, was Mayor, Abe Ruef, the lawyer, was making all the music about City Hall." Graft spread under "Handsome Gene" Schmitz's administration as "Boss" Ruef accepted retainers and bribes to facilitate business in the city. While Schmitz and Ruef may have been at the head of the graft, the San Francisco Chronicle looked back on the time by noting that approximately 3,000 indictments related to corruption were handed down over a five-year period.

Following Schmitz's re-election in 1905, Fremont Older, editor of the San Francisco Bulletin, appealed to President Theodore Roosevelt for federal assistance in investigating the corruption in the city and county government. Roosevelt agreed, and sugar magnate Rudolph Spreckels stepped in to help bankroll the $100,000 needed for the job. William Burns, of the United States Secret Service, started the investigation.

Schmitz, Ruef, and the other corrupt politicians in the city won a brief if not particularly welcome reprieve when a strong earthquake rocked the city on April 18, 1906. The quake and subsequent fires destroyed about 500 blocks-28,000 buildings-in the city.

In November of 1906, indictments were handed down against Schmitz and Ruef. The two men were accused of extorting money from French restaurants (i.e., brothels). Several city officials and business executives were also indicted on corruption charges.

Despite the indictment, Schmitz still maintained some authority as a public figure. Tensions between Japan and the United States were rising, due in part to xenophobia and school policies on the West Coast that called for the segregation of Japanese-American students. Schmitz and school officials traveled to the White House to discuss the issue with Roosevelt, which was resolved, however inadequately, with in the 1907 "Gentlemen's Agreement" allowing integration in exchange for a hold on further Japanese emigration to the United States.

Though Ruef preempted a trial by pleading guilty to charges, Schmitz chose to go ahead with a trial. He was accused of using his influence as mayor to compel police commissioners to withhold licenses from the French restaurants. According to the alleged scheme, Ruef would then guarantee the restaurant owners a license if they agreed to pay him $5,000 a year. Once they did so, Schmitz would go back to the police commissioners and push for the license to be granted. He was also accused of removing a commissioner who had been against granting the establishments any licenses at all.

Schmitz denied the charges, but the most damning testimony came when Ruef himself took the stand and said he'd given Schmitz half of the extortion fees he'd collected. The jury found Schmitz guilty in June of 1907 and the mayor's office was declared vacant. After choosing Charles Boxton as a temporary replacement, the Board of Supervisors appointed Edward Robeson Taylor as the next mayor.

Sentenced to serve five years in prison, Schmitz won a reprieve when an appellate court determined in January of 1908 that the indictment was insufficient. Ruef was also freed by this decision, and it is worth noting that his second go-round in the courts was marked by considerably more turmoil. Jurors were bribed, and federal prosecutor Francis J. Heney had to review 1,450 of them before an unbiased sampling could be found. The home of a key witness, and other buildings he owned, were bombed. On November 13, 1908, an ex-convict who had been removed as a potential juror shot Heney in court. Miraculously, Heney survived, though the bullet was lodged in his jaw and the prosecution was taken over by Hiram Johnson, who would go on to become Governor of California and a U.S. Senator. Ruef was found guilty in December and sentenced to serve 14 years in prison.

Schmitz's successful appeal essentially marked the end of his troubles. In 1912, a judge dismissed 27 indictments on gas and trolley matters that had been levied against him. One of the factors in the dismissal was Ruef's refusal to take the stand a second time against Schmitz.

Older felt remorse for Ruef in the years after his conviction, and began advocating his release in the Bulletin. Ruef served four years and seven months in prison before he was paroled, and died in 1936. Schmitz made two unsuccessful runs for mayor in 1915 and 1919 before being elected to the Board of Supervisors, ironically the same board that replaced him following his conviction. He died in 1928.

Sources: The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco, Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, "Mayor Schmitz Found Guilty" in the New York Times on June 14 1907, "Drop Schmitz Graft Case" in the New York Times on May 26 1912, "In San Francisco" in Time on Sep. 9 1929, Embattled Dreams: California in War by Kevin Starr, Strange But True San Francisco by Lisa Montanarelli and Ann Harrison, American Reformers, 1870-1920 by Steven L. Piott, Volume XCI of The Outlook, "The System" as Uncovered by The San Francisco Graft Prosecution by Franklin Hichborn, It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own by Richard White, National Trust Guide - San Francisco by Peter Booth Wiley, "San Francisco, the First 150 Years--Circa 1900" at

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