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Abe Ruef - America’s Most Erudite City Boss

Few figures in San Francisco’s history are as interesting, or as enigmatic, as that of its turn-of-the-century city boss, Abe Ruef. Born Abraham Rueff (he eventually dropped the second “f”) in 1864 to a prosperous Jewish merchant family in San Francisco, he was regarded as a child prodigy in his youth. He had a natural gift for languages, and eventually spoke eight, including Cantonese and ASL. He also displayed an early passion for history, law and politics. Barely fourteen, he matriculated at the University of California at Berkeley, majoring in the classical studies. At the age of eighteen, he graduated with the highest honors, then enrolled at Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. He was accepted to the California bar less than three years later, immediately after reaching the then minimum age of admittance: twenty-one.

Strangely, Ruef had begun his interest in politics with the zeal of an idealist while a student at Berkeley. Along with several young friends, he formed the “Municipal Reform League” to study ways to fight the rampant corruption that was rife at that time in local and national politics. They corresponded with like-minded figures around the country, people who would soon take prominent positions in American life, including a young New Yorker just starting in politics: Theodore Roosevelt. Unfortunately, California at that time was the last place that welcomed or encouraged reformers. Southern Pacific Railroad controlled both political parties, and other moneyed interests used their power to create trusts and monopolies. San Francisco was home to many of the most powerful people of the West, and the less scrupulous of them reinforced their power through corrupt politicians and city bosses.

Ruef soon adopted the position of “If you can’t beat them, join them” and quickly studied the ways and methods of how the political system actually operated in San Francisco. City politics were a brutal business in the nineteenth century, and strong-arm tactics and violence were common methods to discourage people or legislation opposed to those who controlled the strings of government. Ruef brought sophistication to the manipulation of San Francisco politics that generally avoided the rougher and more violent techniques used by his predecessors, and within the span of a few years, he became one of the most formidable persons in the city.

Ruef saw the rise of organized labor as one of the few movements that could challenge the moneyed interests. He looked for a way in which he might control this emerging power, and his creation of the Union Labor Party in 1901 was the result. For the election that year, Ruef chose a relatively unknown person, Eugene Schmitz, president of the Musicians Union, to run for mayor. Schmitz was a tall, handsome man, a commanding speaker, possessed of a genial nature, and happily-married with two children. He also had no scandals in his past. If Schmitz proved malleable enough, Ruef believed that the violinist and amateur composer was the right human clay into which he could mold the perfect candidate, one that could not only become mayor of San Francisco, but Governor of California as well.

Schmitz allowed himself to be tutored by Ruef in the art of California politics. Ruef made him memorize the California Constitution, the City Articles, and introduced him to hundreds of important people. Ruef wrote his speeches, and planned his public appearances. In effect, Schmitz was Ruef’s puppet. And to the surprise of practically everyone except Ruef, Eugene Schmitz was elected mayor of San Francisco. By 1906, Ruef’s political machine controlled the Board of Supervisors, the Chief of Police and several judges as well. One critical mistake, though, was his choice for District Attorney, William L. Langton. Believing Langton would take his marching orders, Ruef was rudely surprised when, shortly after the 1905 election, the new District Attorney began enforcing city’s rarely observed vice laws. San Francisco always had the reputation of an “anything goes” town, and its notorious dance halls, brothels and barely concealed gambling pens attracted the lurid interest – and business - of people throughout the West. The Ruef / Schmitz administration wasn’t the first to close an eye to this seamier side of the city, or accept bribes for keeping that eye closed, but more and more citizens were demanding a “clean up” of the city’s notorious Barbary Coast. This was also the age of the radical puritans, like Anthony Comstock, and the prohibitionists were slowly gaining ground as well. Loose morals were seen by many as symptomatic of corrupt government. Langton attacked the brothels and gambling halls with relish – and he had allies. The political reformers, among whom Ruef had once belonged, had gradually become more powerful over the previous decade, and many of them now pooled their resources to oust the Ruef / Schmitz regime. Fremont Older’s newspaper, the Bulletin, backed Langton’s actions, and crusading editor soon convinced the millionaire, Rudolph Spreckels, to bankroll a Federal investigation of corruption at City Hall. The 1906 Earthquake briefly interrupted the investigation, but by the following year indictments were handed down against Ruef, Schmitz, a number of city officials and several prominent telephone and railroad executives. After a long, sensational trial and numerous appeals, Ruef was convicted and was sent to San Quentin prison to serve a term of fourteen years, the maximum sentence for bribery.

Ruef was the only person convicted in the corruption scandal who spent more than a brief spell in jail. Schmitz’s conviction was overturned shortly afterwards on appeal, as well as those of most of the businessmen, and the majority of the city officials indicted turned states evidence to escape imprisonment. The hated city boss was left alone to serve as the single scapegoat for a whole system gone wrong. Also, many people felt that anti-Semitism played a role in prosecution’s focus on Ruef, and its leniency towards the other principals. Among those who had second thoughts about the severity of the sentence was Fremont Older, without doubt the most virulent of Ruef’s former opponents. They began to correspond, and Older soon started campaigning for Ruef’s release. He also paid Ruef to write a serialized account of his long career in city politics for his newspaper, the Bulletin. Despite his efforts, no appeal was successful, and no pardon forthcoming. Ruef served almost five years before receiving parole.

On February 29, 1936, Ruef died penniless and half-forgotten, in the city he loved and once ruled. People who knew Ruef personally, said that he was unfailingly polite and possessed a disarming and courtly manner. He could converse intelligently on almost any topic, but rarely discussed his years in San Francisco politics. The two biographies of Abe Ruef concentrate almost exclusively on the corruption trials and were based on testimony of hostile witnesses at his trail, as well as the memoirs of the prosecutors. Little was said of the many small, but positive contributions he made to the city, and about which he almost never talked about. Ruef has been called everything from a “debonair scoundrel” to a “political realist.” Maybe he was both, but a balanced biography on this most remarkable man still waits to be written.

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