Historical Essay

by Daniel Steven Crafts


The "Blind Boss" -- Christopher Buckley.

Daniel Steven Crafts describes the rise to power of the democratic political boss, Christopher A. Buckley, in the 1880s as San Francisco faced high unemployment, growing stratification, and a major influx of industry. Through patronage and Democratic clubs he remained a major force in San Francisco politics until 1891, when a changing political climate and the enmity of William Randolph Hearst led to his departure from city government.

Buckley was a shrewd lawyer and strategist, with a polished manner of speech. He was no street-thug risen to power, but rather a good-looking, educated manipulator of people. He was not given to public speaking to large crowds, but rather ran the city from behind the scenes. His first-hand and intimate knowledge of the city allowed him to consolidate otherwise fragmented bits of political clout. Buckley knew the value of appearing to be "politically correct" a century before that term was coined. His electoral tickets were consistently comprised of candidates who by their names seemed to represent the various ethnic communities of the city. His political machine won in both working class and ruling class districts, as Buckley skillfully appealed to the broadest possible cross-section. The "Blind Boss" was a master at playing politics.

As a young man in the 1860s Buckley briefly left San Francisco for Vallejo when many believed that small town might eventually eclipse San Francisco or Oakland as the major port. During the decade of the 1860s the city of San Francisco was growing from frontier town to city due in great measure to the silver boom, the Civil War, and the ultimate completion of the transcontinental railroad. There was a persistent shortage of labor during this decade, resulting in decent wages and the implementation of the 8-hour day, and a high level of prosperity in general. In 1873 when Buckley returned to San Francisco the city had become firmly established as a manufacturing center. But that transformation brought with it all the grunge and confusion of the industrial revolution -- factories, slums, boilerworks, tenements -- mostly located south of Market Street in an area Jack London called "South of the Slot." Contrary to popular belief that industry brings employment, unemployment was running at 20%; greater disparities of wealth had created a more stratified population. The "terrible seventies" saw riots and gangs terrorizing the city. Denis Kearney founded the Workingman's Party of California (WPC) in order to try to offset the deteriorating conditions of the working class. The city's existing political organization was designed to accommodate a small frontier town, not a growing metropolis. The opportunity for the emergence of a strong-armed political boss was ripe. Enter Christopher A. Buckley.

Denied a position in the Republican Party, Buckley joined the Democratic Party. (While there may have been some basic difference in political philosophy at the state level, party differences were insignificant when it came to city control). Huge numbers of Democrats had left the party to join the Workingman's Party of California. What was left of the Democratic Party was being reorganized. Elected to power in the mid-1870s, they were eclipsed by Denis Kearney and the WPC as San Francisco suffered a severe economic recession. Sometime during this period Buckley went blind. In 1881 Al Fritz, the head of the Democratic Party died as a result of his drinking -- but in the most bizarre circumstances. When he went on a binge, he had ordered his wife to restrain him with shackles. She did so one night before going out. She returned to find him strangled by one of the chains.

The party itself fell to squabbling amongst its various factions, but by 1882 Buckley had succeeded in reorganizing the party into a sweep of that year's elections. The "Blind Boss" was clearly in control of the city. Buckley held the city in his power through the establishment of Democratic clubs, which became social institutions and insured members of official positions in the government or in sympathetic businesses. Following the 1882 election he exacted from his successful candidates political payment in full. The Republican appointees in municipal office were removed even down to school janitors, and replaced by members of Buckley's Democratic organization. Those ousted bureaucrats protested as loudly as they had the means to do so, but it availed them little.

But nowhere was the system of patronage more abused than in the public school system, where it was reported that Buckley's ministers of education took in fees of $200 for teaching appointments. It was frequently said that under his administration only "whores and hoodlums" became teachers. The public school scandals became one of Buckley's few serious miscalculations. None of his candidates for school administrators won election in 1884, and he quickly learned that the system of patronage needed his own scrupulous supervision.

It has been said that Buckley's political machine succeeded not because of ignorance on the part of the voting public, but because it served the purpose of providing a transitional government flexible enough (through Buckley's essential dictatorship) to respond to a rapidly changing population and social conditions. Membership in such a political organization, even for the working classes, provided a range of services from employment opportunities to scholarships to immigrant services -- even wedding and burial services. Buckley's administration inherited an outstanding city debt of nearly half a million dollars. Mayor Bartlett attempted to solve the financial crisis through deep cuts in salaries and in city services (even suspending city street lighting for four months). But such measures resulted in storms of protest, even from the newspapers who had previously decried financial irresponsibility. Buckley himself solved the problem by, after much litigation, forcing two utilities, Spring Valley Water and San Francisco Gaslight, to pay their delinquent municipal taxes. Eventually each paid approximately a quarter of a million dollars, putting the city on a sound financial footing.

It was during the 1880s that transportation systems in San Francisco grew rapidly. The capitalists who wished to expand their routes gladly paid Buckley's high tolls for the rights to do so. The fees, as exorbitant as they may have been in themselves, were pittances in comparison with the enormous profits to be made from a city ravenous for new transportation systems. Buckley frequently played one company against another, parceling out portions of the city, but never giving any company a complete monopoly. He did the same with other utilities as well, to his own profit. The Blind Boss conducted business from the back room of the Alhambra Saloon which he owned. It was referred to as "Buckley's City Hall." The cost of engaging Buckley's services was steep and he never attempted to conceal that fact. "I placed a stiff value on my services and always rated myself as a high-priced man," he later wrote. His fee was said to range as high as $25,000. "Free" enterprise was never free. In 1883 he moved to the fashionable new Western Addition (on Polk street) where he could entertain in regal style. He also bought an estate in the Livermore Valley, but his need to closely scrutinize the workings of the city on a daily basis prevented his absence for more than brief intervals.

In the 1884 elections, however, the Boss' Democrats were soundly defeated. He had won his battles against those who challenged his authority within the party, but he had done so at the expense of the election. After selling his interest in the Alhambra Saloon, Buckley turned his attention to making money for himself, and through high-placed associates began to amass his fortune. During this time he was brought into court on several occasions to answer charges of accepting bribes. Each time he was acquitted, but not without a fight and much newspaper publicity. The court battles seem to have regenerated his political ambition, and shortly after the last of the litigation he began preparing for the 1886 campaign.

By 1886 the voters had become disgusted with the corruption of the Republicans in power in San Francisco. Utility rates had increased despite promises of improvements which had not taken place. Fights within the party had diminished its public reputation, just as those within the Democratic party had cost them the previous election. Buckley felt his time had come once again. With his usual diplomatic skill he brought together the discordant factions of the party sufficiently to sweep the 1886 elections, retaining control of the mayor's office and a solid majority on the Board of Supervisors. In his memoirs Buckley later commented that after that election "I was then at the zenith of my power." One of the Boss's political allies was George Hearst who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1886. When he left San Francisco for Washington, his newspaper, the Examiner, was taken over by his son, William Randolph Hearst. The younger Hearst who had once been denied a municipal printing contract by Buckley now began a vitriolic series of attacks on Buckley -- employing the services of the acid-tongued Ambrose Bierce -- regardless of how they might affect his father's career.

During this time a movement to reform the old city charter was gaining strength. It advocated, among other things, greater authority to the mayor's office. Buckley vehemently opposed any changes in the functioning of city government, for any attempt to modernize the system struck at the very heart of his power. He depended upon the patronage system and the generally diffused political authority in order to run his organization. By and large San Franciscans had rejected more centralized power, fearing reforms may create more problems than they would cure. But by the late 1880s they become utterly disgusted with exorbitant utility rates, incompetent police and fire departments, inadequate water services, irresponsible transportation companies, poor public schools and public health facilities. The smallpox epidemic of 1887 brought the point home with emphasis.

Buckley emerged victorious once again in the 1888 elections, but it became increasingly clear that due to changes in the population and growth of the city, and a growing influence of his enemies, the power of the "Blind Boss" was slowly eroding. He seemed also to be paying less attention to the minor details of politics. In 1890 Christopher Buckley announced his would "refrain in future from vigorous political involvement." Few took him seriously; he had made such announcements in the past and shortly after the announcement he began to work on the 1890 campaign. Early in 1891 one of his chief enemies, William Randolph Hearst of the Examiner, launched a particularly vicious attack on Buckley. The other newspapers soon followed suit. The San Francisco Bulletin wrote, "A blind bar-keeper turned Boss has his hand in the pocket of every man and woman in the State and is helping himself with great liberality."

Many of the city problems with transportation, sanitary services, faulty construction, et. al. were traced back to Buckley either directly or indirectly. But these newspaper attacks seem to have only bolstered his resolve to continue his role as Boss. Again at the campaign convention there was division amongst the party. At its conclusion the Boss had retained control of San Francisco, but his county and state influence had been shaken.

Once again due to lack of improvements in city services and general voter dissatisfaction, city politics changed hands. Buckley's Democrats were handed a resounding defeat. There were even charges than the Boss had sold out his party to Republican Leland Stanford for a large sum of money. Clearly, the anti-Buckley press campaign had made him a severe liability to the party. When he returned from a trip to Europe in 1891, he found a California Democratic Party intent on getting rid of him. Deciding not to fight the Committee of One Hundred, formed especially to remove him from power within the party, Buckley resigned his official positions. Still it was feared that the Boss would return again. In November of 1891 the Blind Boss was once again brought into court, this time on a charge of bribery associated with a street railway franchise. While the grand jury which brought the charge was eventually ruled an illegally constituted body, the adverse publicity effectively brought to an end some of the more excessive misuses of city power and as well as the career of Christopher Buckley, and ushered in the era of more "sophisticated" professional politicians. But again, in 1896, seizing upon a split within the Reformed Democrats, Buckley attempted once more to regain his foothold in San Francisco politics. But whatever differences the Reformed Democrats may have had within their own ranks they quickly united again Buckley denying his regular Democrats a place on the official ballot. Buckley then attempted not only to form his own Anti-Charter Democracy but even tried to infiltrate the ranks of the new San Francisco People's Party, a quickly-growing populist organization.

Neither attempt succeeded in the 1896 election. When Christopher Buckley died in 1922, the very newspapers who had attacked him as the devil incarnate in San Francisco politics, lavished praised upon him in three days of editorials. The song which became popular during Buckley's last campaign tells the truer story.


Come all of you little Democrats

And listen unto me,

I'll tell you of a Buckley man

Who is now across the sea,

He was the shrewdest little man

Though he could hardly see,

For many a year he boodled here

The great Democracy

Hush, hush, hush, here comes a Buckley man

You'd best look out for there's no doubt

He'll catch you if he can.

Look out you little Democrats,

Here comes a Buckley man.

He wore a dandy suit of clothes,

Likewise a diamond pin,

And if you wished to see the boss,

A darky let you in.

He owned a country mansion and

He drove a spanking pair,

And he put on all the airs and style

Of a boodle millionaire.

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