Abraham Ruef Trials: 1906-08
Reformers Begin To Battle Ruef, Ruef Is Convicted
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 business—legitimate or shady—with the city.
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