Abraham Ruef Trials: 1906-08

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Abraham Ruef Trials: 1906-08

Defendants: Abraham Ruef and Eugene E. Schmitz
Crimes Charged: Bribery and extortion
Chief Defense Lawyer: Henry Ach
Chief Prosecutors: Francis J. Heney, Hiram Johnson, and William Langdon
Judges: Frank Dunne, Maurice T. Dooling, and William P. Lawlor
Place: San Francisco, California
Dates of Trials: 1906-08
Verdicts: Ruef: Mistrial, mistrial, guilty; Schmitz: Guilty (later reversed on appeal)
SIGNIFICANCE The Abraham Ruef trials revealed the rise and pervasiveness of graft and the power of political bosses in modern industrial America, and the growth of the Progressive movement that challenged such forces.

In 1901, San Francisco's reformist mayor, James D. Phelan, angered many labor groups when he authorized the use of force to break a citywide strike. In response, a powerful coalition supposedly representing the labor movement formed the Union Labor Party (ULP) and helped get Eugene E. Schmitz, head of the Musicians' Union, elected as the new mayor. But in reality, the new party did not represent any of the city's large labor interests or unions. Instead the ULP and Schmitz were the creatures of Abraham Ruef, a well-connected, littleknown local lawyer. Within a few years, Ruef would use the ULP and the officials that it helped elect to become San Francisco's undisputed political boss.

Following Schmitz's 1901 election, Ruef began collecting "retainers" from "clients" who wanted contracts with the city or who wished to gain protection for their illegal businesses of gambling, prostitution, and the like. As time went by and Ruef managed to place more and more cronies in the city government, especially the all-important Board of Supervisors, his "fees" grew to astronomical proportions. In one transaction with a streetcar company, Ruef charged $200,000; in the wake of the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of April 1906, Ruef paved the way for the grant of a telephone monopoly for a "fee" of $125,000. Since the politicians he helped to elect owed him their allegiance and he shared his "fees" with them, "seeing Ruef," as the phrase went, was soon the only way to conduct businesslegitimate or shadywith the city.

Reformers Begin To Battle Ruef

But Ruef had also made political enemies along the way, people who wanted to put an end to graft, clean up the city government, and put Ruef behind bars. Chief among them were Fremont Older, managing editor of the San Francisco Bulletin; the former mayor, James Phelan; and Rudolph Spreckels, a sugar tycoon whom Ruef had once crossed, who now offered to underwrite the cost of Ruef's prosecution. With the cooperation of President Theodore Roosevelt, these men brought in the incorruptible federal prosecutor Francis J. Heney to take on Ruef. Heney, in turn, hired the great detective William J. Burns to help him.

William Langdon, the city's honest district attorney, quickly appointed Heney as a special prosecutor. Just as quickly, Ruef got Mayor Schmitz to fire Langdon and to appoint Ruef in his place, but a judge blocked the maneuver as illegal. A few months after the massive earthquake, with the city still in ruins, Heney filed bribery charges against Schmitz and Ruef in connection with the licensing of several "French restaurants"in reality, brothels. After pleading not guilty to the charges Ruef jumped bail and went into hiding. However, Detective Burns and court officers soon found him and brought him back to court to face trial.

By now the reformers had decided to go after not only the politicians and bosses, but also the businessmen who had bribed them. After all, one can't be bought off without someone doing the buying. Among these were many prominent and popular San Franciscans, and the reformers began to lose public support. Heney offered Ruef a plea bargain in exchange for information about those who had bribed him. Ruef eventually agreed to the plea bargain, but then refused to give Heney any names. Heney retracted the offer and instead charged Ruef with several more counts of bribery and extortion, which caused a public outcry.

At this point, things took a violent turn. Fremont Older, the Bulletin's editor and Ruef's strongest critic, was kidnapped and later released; a prosecution witness's house was blown up; the officer who had discovered Ruef's hideout was found dead floating in San Francisco Bay. During the trial a former convict whom Heney had rejected as a juror, walked up to the prosecutor in the courtroom and shot him in the face, although Heney survived the attack. While he recovered, a young prosecutor named Hiram Johnson filled in for Heney; this was the start of a career that would take Johnson to the governor's office and ultimately to the U.S. Senate.

Ruef Is Convicted

In the end, none of the havoc saved Ruef, whom a jury finally convicted in 1908. He was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment in San Quentin, and finally, after exhausting his appeals, began serving his sentence. Of all of the bosses and corrupt politicians who had controlled the city since 1901, he was the only man to go to prison for his deeds. Mayor Schmitz was also convicted of bribery and extortion, but an appellate court overturned the verdict.

In August 1915, after serving fewer than five years of his term, Ruef was granted parole. During the course of his career he had taken at least half a million dollars in bribes. However, by the time he died in 1936 he had become bankrupt.

Ruef's case is one of the more dramatic stories of the rise of urban graft, the influence of political cronyism, and the battle of labor and party bosses with the emerging forces of the Progressive movement. Rarely in American history has a private citizen so tightly controlled a city's political machinery, and rarely has his downfall been so notorious and complete.

Buckner F. Melton Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Bean, Walton. Boss. Ruef's San Francisco: The Story of the Union Labor Party, Big Business, and the Graft Prosecution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

Older, Fremont. My Own Story. Oakland, Calif.: The Post-Enquirer Publishing Co., 1925.

Thomas, Lately. A Debonair Scoundrel: An Episode in the Moral History of San Francisco. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962.

Abraham Ruef

views updated May 21 2018

Abraham Ruef

An American political boss in San Francisco, Abraham Ruef (1864-1936) was convicted of bribery in a famous antigraft trial.

Abraham Ruef, the son of French-Jewish immigrants, was born in San Francisco, Calif., Sept. 2, 1864. A precocious young man, he graduated in 1883 from the University of California with high honors. He studied at Hastings College of Law in San Francisco and was admitted to the bar in 1886. Cultivated, moderately well-to-do, and dynamic, he was first attracted to politics as a reformer, but reform proved too uncertain an avenue to power.

About 1888 Ruef shifted his loyalties to San Francisco's corrupt Republican political machine. As "Boss Ruef," leader of the Latin Quarter (North Beach) district, he became an engaging campaign speaker and fully mastered the fine points of ward politics.

Ruef's desire for power and advancement led him to break with the Republican leadership in 1901. He first tried to defeat the organization in primary elections and, failing that, allied himself with the Union Labor party movement. San Francisco was a strong union town, but the party's leadership needed an experienced political "kingmaker." Ruef was adept at just such behind-the-scenes services. After selecting Eugene Schmitz, the handsome president of the musicians' union, as the party's candidate for mayor, Ruef masterminded Schmitz's successful campaign in 1901 and his reelection in 1903 and 1905. The 1905 election was an especially triumphant one, since not only Schmitz but Ruef's handpicked board of supervisors were elected.

However, Ruef's triumph was also in large part the source of his downfall. Since Schmitz's first victory, large corporations had sought Ruef out as their "confidential attorney," paying him lucrative fees as a way of assuring the administration's friendship. Initially, these fees were retainers, not outright bribes. After 1905, however, Ruef's greedy allies sought direct payment for their votes on many measures: restaurant licenses, street railway franchises, utility rates, permits for boxing matches. Ruef became the middleman in an alliance between influential corporations and political grafters, demanding huge sums of money to distribute to the pliant supervisors.

In 1906 a small group led by Fremont Older of the San Francisco Bulletin brought legal indictments against Ruef. After a spectacular, and sometimes bizarre, trial Ruef was convicted of bribery in 1908. When his appeals were turned down, he entered San Quentin Penitentiary in 1911. Largely owing to the efforts of former enemies such as Older, Ruef was paroled in 1915 and pardoned in 1920. Avoiding politics, he tried his hand at real estate investments. He prospered in the 1920s but went bankrupt during the Depression years. He died in San Francisco on Feb. 29, 1936.

Further Reading

The colorful story of Ruef's career is told in vivid detail by Walton Bean, Boss Ruef's San Francisco (1952). See also Lately Thomas, A Debonair Scoundrel (1962).

Additional Sources

Bean, Walton, Boss Ruef's San Francisco: the story of the Union Labor Party, big business, and the graft prosecution, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981. □

Ruef, Abraham

views updated May 08 2018


RUEF, ABRAHAM (1864–1936), U.S. politician. Ruef, who was born in San Francisco, was a precocious student at the University of California, graduating at 18 with high honors and gaining admission to the bar three years later. A brilliant attorney, he first entered city politics as an idealistic young Republican reformer, but he soon lost faith in the possibilities of reform. In 1901, when the Union Labor Party of San Francisco was created, Ruef opportunistically took control of it and secured the election of his friend Eugene E. Schmitz as its candidate for mayor. Four years later, he also secured the election of the entire Union Labor ticket for the board of supervisors, which had authority over both city and county, and thus gained almost complete control of the government. The San Francisco Graft Prosecution revealed that Ruef had received huge attorney's fees from public utility corporations and had bribed most of the supervisors with part of the money. He was convicted of bribery in 1908 and served a sentence in San Quentin penitentiary from 1911 to 1915. Released partly through the efforts of Fremont Older, the newspaper editor who had helped initiate the investigation, Ruef amassed a fortune in real estate; it was swept away in the depression of the 1930s.


W. Bean, Boss Ruef's San Francisco (1952).

[Walton Bean]

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