The Conviction of Abraham Ruef, A Notorious ‘City Boss’

Historical Essay

by Daniel Shiferaw

This article explores the trials of Abraham Ruef, the (in)famous founder and boss for the Union Labor Party for the Eugene Schmitz mayoral administration in San Francisco, on charges of bribery and extortion, for which he was convicted and sentenced to the maximum penalty of fourteen years in jail. While Ruef admittedly engineered the backdoor graft and scheming that helped (unethically) establish the almost total control the Union Labor Party exerted over San Francisco in the early twentieth century, he was ultimately the only man convicted for any criminal wrongdoing, although other politicians and prominent businessmen involved, including Schmitz himself, either successfully won their appeals or otherwise avoided conviction altogether. Ruef, initially an idealist himself, was not an entirely unscrupulous man but rather recognized that he needed to work within the political machine in order to gain the power he wanted.


Abe Ruef on the courthouse steps during his trial.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Abraham Ruef, born to Jewish merchants in San Francisco in 1864, became one of the most compelling and controversial figures in the history of politics in the city as the (in)famous founder and boss of the Union Labor Party for the Eugene Schmitz mayoral administration from 1902-1906 before his conviction on charges of bribery and extortion and sentencing to the maximum penalty of fourteen years in jail (albeit he served five before he could arrange for his release). While Ruef admittedly engineered the backdoor graft and scheming that helped establish the funds and almost total power the Union Labor Party and its administration exerted in San Francisco politics in the early twentieth century, he was ultimately the only man convicted for any criminal wrongdoing. The other politicians and prominent businessmen involved, including Schmitz himself, either successfully won their appeals or otherwise avoided conviction altogether.

A child genius and speaker of eight different languages, Ruef was a erudite and charming young adult who switched from studying the classics to criminal justice at the University of California-Berkeley in part to stamp out the rampant corruption of San Francisco, forming the “Municipal Reform League” with friends at the university to expose and fight off unethical behavior in local and city politics in the late nineteenth century.(1) As was typical of the Gilded Age, major California railroad, mining, and other industrial businesses, including the Southern Pacific Railroad, established inroads to the municipal, city, and state governments and judiciaries through their massive reach and wealth. Many politicians had symbiotic relationships with these businesses who helped funded candidates’ campaigns and operations in exchange for preferential treatment, including favored access, relaxed legal standards, and the like, helping to establish the paradigm of the political machine and its all-powerful boss that reigned in the United States in the late 1800s. Recognizing that he could only gain power by assimilating to the current political system of San Francisco, Ruef employed extensive alliances, backdoor deals, and undercover operations and control to quickly establish himself as perhaps the most powerful man in San Francisco. After failing to leverage the power he wanted in the Republican party, Ruef drove his self-made Union Labor Party and Eugene Schmitz to seize the office of mayor in 1902 and extensive municipal control of San Francisco in 1905.


Abraham Ruef

While San Francisco political machines of the late nineteenth century resorted to violence and intimidation to seize power, Ruef separated himself through his charm and refinement. Harnessing the rise of organized labor through his establishment of the Union Labor Party, Ruef cultivated Schmitz, a relatively unknown musical composer and pianist with no experience in California politics, to the mayorship and even won control of the Board of Supervisors, the Chief of Police, and several judges through his extensive political engineering and widespread victories in the aforementioned 1905 Municipal Elections. Working as a legal attorney of sorts for several major businesses (while in reality providing almost-exclusive monopolistic access to citywide service) while serving as the boss for the Union Labor Party, Ruef utilized the often hefty compensation as part of his services to continue to extend and consolidate his reach in city politics. Ruef also took bribes from gambler pens, brothels, and dance houses in return for overlooking their unseemly (and illegal) activities, attracting the ire of the rising Progressive and radical Puritanism movement that demanded a moral cleansing of the city. Moreover, former Republican politicians and their allies from big business, indignant at having their political influence stripped away by the rise of Ruef and the Union Labor Party, also desired to destroy Ruef’s pre-eminence in San Francisco. These two coalitions eventually gained more popular support and powerful allies for legal action against Ruef, who also fomented more unrest and distrust among local businesses due to his juggling of alliances with rival telephone companies and questionable granting of a permit to the United Railroads to “trolleyize" their lines.(2)

Fueled in part by these factors and the devastation of the earthquake of 1906 that convulsed the city, a citizens committee successfully ordered a federal investigation of the Ruef/Schmitz administration. Led by Rudolph Spreckels, a sugar tycoon, and also including Fremont Older, managing editor of the Bulletin, and James Phelan, the former mayor of San Francisco still fuming over his ousting at the hands of Schmitz, Ruef, and their administration, the committee leveraged the services of the “incorruptible” federal prosecutor Francis J. Heney who eventually charged Ruef, Schmitz, city supervisors, and allied businessmen for bribery and extortion. Ruef went into hiding to avoid facing a trial but was eventually found and forced to submit to the prosecution.(3) After at first accepting a plea bargain to indict some of his formerly allied businessmen involved in graft, Ruef refused to give names and Heney levied several more charges of bribery and extortion, severely upsetting the public (many of Ruef’s allies were popular San Franciscans or businesses and the ULP was still quite popular among the working class). After some violent incidents, including the kidnapping of Older, the execution of an officer that seized Ruef when he was in hiding, and an assassination attempt on Heney, Ruef was eventually convicted and, after failing to win any of his appeals, serve his time in jail.(4)

After pleading guilty to his charges and being deserted by his attorney and other advisers, Ruef gave a compelling statement confessing his crimes and demonstrating his sorrow and guilt over his wrongdoing, attributing his “honesty of purpose and desire to hold together to hold together a political organization,”(5) whose sustenance would have been “impossible”(6) without his admittedly unscrupulous machinations, to the subsequent corruption of his “high ideals”(7) and fall to decadence after the 1905 municipal elections. He promised to try to restore his honor and otherwise maintain standards of good citizenship after the trial. Despite his clear “trembling” and “pallid” condition, Ruef was originally sentenced to fourteen years in prison for bribery, the maximum possible sentence at the time, while all his accomplices eventually escaped scot-free.

While Ruef lead an extraordinarily corrupt administration, the level of unscrupulous behavior was not so different from that of many other political administrations at the time. He also made many small but positive contributions to San Francisco as a whole. He is not just a scoundrel or another egomaniacal political boss but a dynamic, complex, and morally ambiguous figure towering over early-twentieth-century SF politics to this day. Perhaps he truly intended to champion the working class and protect it from big business and capitalistic domination but realized that he needed to use the political machine in order to seize the power and influence he wanted. Ruef was the only figure convicted for his actions among all the politicians and businessmen involved in his unethical scheming.


6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.