San Francisco Mayor Schmitz Is Found Guilty of Extortion

Supported by a major political boss, Mayor Eugene E. Schmitz shocked constituents when allegations of graft, extortion, bribery, and corruption within his administration came to light. Although he was eventually acquitted, his political career was ruined and an era of corruption came to an end.

Summary of Event

Eugene E. Schmitz was elected mayor of San Francisco in 1901, although not many people had taken his candidacy seriously. He had been nominated as the Union Labor Party candidate by lawyer Abraham Ruef, whose political machine was extremely powerful. Ruef had managed to accumulate the necessary number of votes to elect Schmitz through a variety of channels, some more questionable than others. [kw]Schmitz Is Found Guilty of Extortion, San Francisco Mayor (June 13, 1907)
[kw]Extortion, San Francisco Mayor Schmitz Is Found Guilty of (June 13, 1907)
Schmitz, Eugene E.
Ruef, Abraham
San Francisco;city graft
Bribery;Eugene E. Schmitz[Schmitz]
Schmitz, Eugene E.
Ruef, Abraham
San Francisco;city graft
Bribery;Eugene E. Schmitz[Schmitz]
[g]United States;June 13, 1907: San Francisco Mayor Schmitz Is Found Guilty of Extortion[00100]
[c]Corruption;June 13, 1907: San Francisco Mayor Schmitz Is Found Guilty of Extortion[00100]
[c]Organized crime and racketeering;June 13, 1907: San Francisco Mayor Schmitz Is Found Guilty of Extortion[00100]
[c]Government;June 13, 1907: San Francisco Mayor Schmitz Is Found Guilty of Extortion[00100]
[c]Politics;June 13, 1907: San Francisco Mayor Schmitz Is Found Guilty of Extortion[00100]
Burns, William J.

As soon as Schmitz took office in 1902, Ruef began to place his supporters in prominent positions. He even organized the Schmitz Club, forcing all holding government office in San Francisco to be a member. Ruef was amply compensated (reportedly with an annual salary of twenty-five thousand dollars) for starting and running the club. Soon, Ruef was the driving force behind San Francisco politics. Although Schmitz was technically the mayor, most people believed that Ruef was the one who was calling the shots.

Schmitz was born in San Francisco, California, on August 22, 1864, to a German father and an Irish mother. As a child he got a job at the Old Standard Theater in San Francisco as a drummer boy. He continued to work in the music industry, mainly as a violinist, and eventually became the leader of the orchestra at the California Theater, also in San Francisco. Because of his work in the music industry he was a member of the Musicians’ Union. It was through this membership that he met Ruef.

Ruef was born in 1864 in San Francisco and was a bright student who graduated from the University of California in 1883, receiving highest honors. He then attended Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, where he became active in politics in 1888, initially as a Republican. However, differences with the party soon led him to become active in the Union Labor Party, and he became the party’s head.

Although Schmitz was elected mayor for a second term in 1903 and then a third term in 1905, whispers of scandal and corruption in city hall soon followed. Accusations were made as well against the board of supervisors, the police and fire departments, and elections commissioners, a charge that was not surprising given that Mayor Schmitz had been elected for his first term as a virtual unknown. Although some of these charges were investigated, none materialized into convictions. Members of the police force who detected wrongdoing in government were dismissed, and other tactics were used to hush up scandals and close investigations. The rumors continued to circulate and build, but soon, with an impending natural disaster, the public had other, more important, things about which to worry.

In 1906, a massive earthquake rocked San Francisco, and Mayor Schmitz had a crisis on his hands. Large sections of the city were burning, and there were dead and injured people who needed medical treatment. There also was a significant level of looting. Schmitz decided to act, issuing orders that looters and others committing crimes were to be shot dead on the spot, no questions asked. This order is believed to have led to the deaths of five hundred or more civilians in the aftermath of the earthquake. Some reports indicate that soldiers and police officers not only shot looters but also those who disobeyed orders to work or those who were otherwise uncooperative.

Although the rumors of corruption in Schmitz’s administration subsided during the earthquake and its immediate aftermath, it did not take long for them to resurface. The charges of corruption were still many and varied, but the newest concerns focused on the illicit happenings at “French restaurants.” These establishments indeed had respectable first-floor restaurants (suitable for ladies and families, a concern of the time) and generally had more expensive, but less proper, eating establishments on the second floor. Above the second floor, however, there were a variety of illicit activities.

The French restaurants, which served alcohol, were required to have liquor licenses that needed to be renewed every three months. Public concern with the activities going on behind closed doors in the French restaurants, however, led police to slow their issuance of the licenses. The restaurants, though, were freed from licensing problems once Ruef got involved in the matter. He received ten thousand dollars from the restaurant owners to intervene on their behalf, and he gave half of that sum to Mayor Schmitz.

A federal investigation soon began into the Schmitz-Ruef political dealings of the previous five years. Secret service agent William J. Burns traveled to San Francisco to collect further evidence and conduct sting operations. His work led to the indictments of both Schmitz and Ruef. (Burns’s investigation techniques, in this case and others, as well as his persistence, eventually led to his appointment as head of the U.S. Bureau of Investigation, later the Federal Bureau of Investigation Federal Bureau of Investigation.) In March, 1907, Schmitz and Ruef were indicted on more than sixty-five counts of graft, extortion, bribery, and corruption. Ruef eventually pleaded guilty, and he appeared as a witness against Schmitz. On June 13, Schmitz was found guilty of extortion in a unanimous decision that took just one hour and thirty-five minutes to reach.

Ruef served four years in prison before being paroled and was eventually pardoned. Schmitz was jailed. He appealed the verdict and won his appeal because of technicalities and because an important prosecution witness had fled to Canada. Schmitz had been removed from his position as mayor upon his conviction, but he ran for mayor again in 1915 and again in 1919, losing both times. He did, however, win a seat on the board of supervisors for a few years.


The entire nation watched with fascination the trials of Schmitz and Ruef. All over the United States, in cities such as Chicago, New York, and New Orleans, there were tales of corrupt politicians and political machines, but nowhere had the corruption reached as high as that in San Francisco. Many of the wealthiest and most prominent citizens of San Francisco and surrounding areas also followed the trials, too, but they did so holding their breaths. They had been intimately involved with Schmitz and Ruef and some of their corrupt schemes.

Schmitz’s and Ruef’s convictions were cheered as major steps forward in the fight against corrupt politics, but the eventual dismissal of the charges against Schmitz was considered a step back. Ruef spent only four years in prison. His conviction did, however, send a message to other political bosses that the federal government was serious about prosecuting graft, fraud, bribery, and extortion.

After the installation of a new mayor in San Francisco, and after the appointment of new government officials, politics and big business in San Francisco underwent significant changes. Favors could no longer be so easily bought and sold. In the end, the conviction of Mayor Schmitz and Ruef helped end the era of big political bosses and major political corruption in San Francisco. Schmitz, Eugene E.
Ruef, Abraham
San Francisco;city graft
Bribery;Eugene E. Schmitz[Schmitz]

Further Reading

  • Adams, Charles F. The Magnificent Rogues of San Francisco: A Gallery of Fakers and Frauds, Rascals and Robber Barons, Scoundrels and Scalawags. Palo Alto, Calif.: Pacific Books, 1998. A collection of biographical sketches and histories of some of the most notorious individuals who lived, worked, or played in San Francisco.
  • Asbury, Herbert. The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2002. A history of the criminal underworld of San Francisco, beginning with the gold rush. Provides historical context for the Schmitz case and the period in which he lived and worked.
  • Hichborn, Franklin. The System: As Uncovered by the San Francisco Graft Prosecution. Montclair, N.J.: Patterson Smith, 1969. Originally published in 1915, this book tells the story of Schmitz and Ruef through their rise and eventual downfall.

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