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Monday, September 23, 2002

Have we come full circle? In March 1904 the muckracking magazine McClure's ran an article by investigative reporter Lincoln Steffens that resonates eerily a century later.  Steffens focused on incidents in St. Louis to reveal the complex network of corrupt businessmen and politicians who were exploiting their city – and state and country – for their own benefit. 

Enemies of the Republic, Part 1

The political leaders who are selling out the state of Missouri, and the leading business men who are buying it - business as treason - corruption as revolution

By Lincoln Steffens

Every time I attempted to trace to its sources the political corruption of a city ring, the stream of pollution branched off in the most unexpected directions and spread out in a network of veins and arteries so complex that hardly any part of the body politic seemed clear of it. It flowed out of the majority party into the minority; out of politics into vice and crime; out of business into politics, and back into business; from the boss, down through the police to the prostitute, and up through the practice of law, into the courts; and big throbbing arteries ran out through the country over the State to the Nation - and back. No wonder cities can’t get municipal reform! No wonder Minneapolis, having cleaned out its police ring of vice grafters, now discovers boodle in the council! No wonder Chicago, with council-reform and boodle beaten, finds itself a Minneapolis of police and administrative graft! No wonder Pittsburg, when it broke out of its local ring, fell, amazed, into a State ring! No wonder New York, with good government, votes itself back into Tammany Hall!

They are on the wrong track; we are, all of us, on the wrong track. You can’t reform a city by reforming part of it. You can’t reform a city alone. You can’t reform politics alone. And as for corruption and the understanding thereof, we cannot run ‘round and ‘round in municipal rings and understand ring corruption; it isn’t a ring thing. We cannot remain in one city, or ten, and comprehend municipal corruption; it isn’t a local thing. We cannot “stick to a party,” and follow party corruption; it isn’t a partisan thing. And I have found that I cannot confine myself to politics and grasp all the ramifications of political corruption; it isn’t political corruption. It’s corruption. The corruption of our American politics is our American corruption, political, but financial and industrial too. Miss [Ida] Tarbell is showing it in the trust, Mr. [Ray Stannard] Baker in the labor union, and my gropings into the misgovernment of cities have drawn me everywhere, but, always, always out of politics into business, and out of the cities into the state. Business started the corruption of politics in Pittsburg; upholds it in Philadelphia; boomed with it in Chicago and withered with its reform; and in New York, business financed the return of Tammany Hall. Here, then, is our guide out of the labyrinth. Not the political ring, but big business, - that is the crux of the situation. Our political corruption is a system, a regularly established custom of the country, by which our political leaders are hired, by bribery, by the license to loot, and by quiet moral support, to conduct the government of city, state, and nation, not for the common good, but for the special interests of private business. Not the politician, then, not the bribe-taker, but the bribe-giver, the man we are so proud of, our successful business man - he is the source and the sustenance of our bad government. The captain of industry is the man to catch. His is the trail to follow.

We have struck that trail before. Whenever we followed to successful politician, his tracks led us into it, but also they led us out of the cities - from Pittsburg to the State Legislature at Harrisburg; from Philadelphia, through Pennsylvania, to the National Legislature at Washington. To go on was to go into state and national politics, and I was after the political corruption of the city ring then. Now I know that these are all one. The trail of the political leader and the trail of the commercial leader are parallels which mark the plain, main road that leads off the dead level of the cities, up through the States into the United States, out of the political ring into the System, the living System of our actual government. The highway of corruption is the “road to success.”

Almost any State would start us right, but Missouri is the most promising. Joseph W. Folk, the Circuit Attorney of St. Louis, has not only laid wide open the road out there; he knows it is the way of a system. He didn’t at first. He, too, thought he was fighting political corruption, and that the whole of it was the St. Louis ring. But he got the ring. Mr. Folk has convicted the boss and members of the “boodle combine” that was selling out his city; yet the ring does not break. Why? Because back of the boodlers stand the big business men who are buying the city up. But Folk got the business men too: Charles H. Turner, president of the Suburban Railway company, president of the Commonwealth Trust company; Philip Stock, secretary of the St. Louis Brewery Association; Ellis Wainwright, the millionaire brewer; George J. Kobusch, president of the St. Louis Car Company; Robert N. Snyder, banker and promoter, of Kansas City and New York; John Scullen, ex-president of street railways, a director then and now of steam railways, a director then and now of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. These are not “low-down politicians”; they are “respectable business men.” Having discovered early that there was a bribe-taker, there also was a bribe-giver, Folk hunted them in pairs. And in pairs he brought them down. And still the ring does not break. What is the matter?

That’s what’s the matter. “That man Folk” is attacking the System. If he had confined his chase to that unprotected bird, the petty boodler, all might have been well. Indeed, there was a time, just before the first trial of the boss, Col. Ed. Butler, when the ring was in a panic and everybody ran. If he had stayed his hand then, Folk could have been Governor of Missouri, the leader of his party, and a very rich man. But he would not stop. These were not the things he was after. At that moment he was after Boss Butler; and he got him.

“And the conviction of Butler,” he said recently, “is the point there we passed out of the ring into the System.”

Butler was not only the boss of the ring; he was the tool of the System. He was the man through whom the St. Louis business man did business with the combine, and Folk hadn’t caught all the business men involved. The first time I met him, early in his work, he was puzzled by the opposition or silence of officials and citizens, who, he thought, should have been on his side. The next time I saw him this mystery was clearing. One by one those people were turning up in this deal of ‘way back of that one. He could not reach them; he can never reach them all; but there they were, and they, their relatives, their friends, their lawyers, their business and social associates - “nobody can realize,” says Mr. Folk, “the infinite ramifications of this thing” - they, and “this thing,” the “vested interest” of St. Louis, are the St. Louis System.

Corruption was saved, not ended, by the very thoroughness of Mr. Folk. The ring was rallied, not smashed, by his conviction of its boss. The boodlers who had wanted to turn state’s evidence “stood pat.” Why? They had an assurance, they said, that “not one of them would go to the pen.” Who made this promise? Butler. Ed Butler, himself sentenced to three years in the penitentiary, gave this explicit assurance, and he added (this was last summer) that “the courts will reverse all folk’s cases, and, when Folk’s term expires, we will all get off, and the fellows that have peached will go to jail.” Maybe Butler lied; some of the politicians said that it would be “bad politics” to reverse “all Folk’s cases,” and that some, possibly Butler’s own, would have to be affirmed. Butler, however, was not afraid, and sure enough, in December his case was reversed. All the boodle cases so far have been reversed. Not a boodler is in jail to-day (January 22nd), and the same court gave a ruling which made it necessary for Folk to reindict and retry half a dozen of his cases. The boodlers are a power in politics. Butler sits in the councils of the Democratic party. He sat there with the business men and new, young leaders who drew up the last platform, which made no mention of the boodle, and he assisted in the naming of the tickets. After the last election, Butler was able to reorganize the new House of Delegates, with his man for Speaker, and the superintendent of his garbage plant (in the interest of which he offered the bribe for which he was convicted) for chairman of the Sanitary Committee. But the nominations he had helped to make were not only those of aldermen, but of the candidates for the vacancies on the bench which was to try boodle cases, and also for that court which was to hear these cases, and his own, on appeal! And the presiding justice of this, the criminal branch of the Supreme Court of Missouri, went upon the stump last fall and declared that a man who thought as Mr. Folk thought, and did as Mr. Folk did, had better leave the State!

Appalling? It did not appall Mr. Folk. He realized then that it was a System, not the ring, that he was fighting, and he went after that. There was another way into it. One Charles Kratz, the head of the council combine, did business, like Butler, with and for business men. Kratz fled to Mexico, with means supplied by his business backers, but Mr. Folk used the good offices of the President and the Secretary of State to get the man back. And he succeeded; he had Kratz brought back. The hope was that Kratz would confess and deliver up his principals. The other boodlers, however, received Kratz with a champagne dinner and he also stood pat. But even if Kratz should surrender, and even if Folk thus were to smash the Butler ring and catch not five or six, but fifty, of the captains of industry behind it - still, I believe, the System would stand. Why? Because “this thing” is more than men, and bigger than St. Louis.

All the while Mr. Folk was probing the city he kept an eye on the state. That was out of his jurisdiction, but it affected his work. Some of the silent opposition he encountered came from state officials, and the court which was inspiring so much faith in boodlers was a state court. These officials were not implicated in his exposures, and these judges were honest men, but the State Legislature, at Jefferson City, sent forth significant rumors, and about these Folk gossiped with the St. Louis boodlers, who explained that corruption was an ancient custom of the state. Helpless, but informed, Folk watched and waited, till at last his chance came.

One day in February, 1903, when a bill in which the speaker of the House was interested failed of passage, that officer left his chair in anger saying, “There is boodle in this.” The House was disturbed. Folk’s work had opened the public mind to suspicion, and the newspapers were alert. Investigations were ordered, one by the House committee, which found nothing; another by a Jefferson City Grand Jury, which resulted in a statement by Circuit Attorney R. P. Stone that it was all “hot air” and that, anyhow, he had no ambition “ to become a second Folk.” (Stone was indicted himself afterward.) Then the Governor directed Attorney-General E. C. Crow to take charge, and Crow took charge. Picking Lieutenant-Governor Lee for a weakling, he concentrated on him. Lee was telling things, bit by bit, but he kept denying them, and the jury was uneasy and reluctant. The outcome of the inquiry was in doubt in Jefferson City, when Mr. Folk heard that “floating all around town” was a lot of thousand-dollar bribe bills which were distributed at the Laclede Hotel. The Laclede hotel is in St. Louis, and St. Louis is Folk’s bailiwick. Folk jumped in. He traced the bills, and in a jiffy, he had the whole inside story. He gave out an interview directed at Lieutenant-Governor Lee, who saw it; saw, he said, “that Folk had him,” and ran to Attorney-General Crow to confess. Changing his mind, he fled the State, but Folk gave out another interview that brought him back. Meeting and agreeing on a course, Folk and Crow worked together. They got Lee’s confession in full, and his resignation of the Lieutenant-Governorship; and with all this for a lever, they opened the mouths of other legislators. Indictments followed, and trials; Crow took all the evidence and carried on with ability the dull slow trials which we need not follow. The lid was off Missouri. The stone Mr. Folk had had so long to leave unturned, was lifted. What was under it? Squirming in the light and writhing off into their dark holes, were state senators and state officers, state committee-men, and party leaders, but also there were the Western Union telegraph company, the Missouri Pacific Railroad, the St. Louis and San Francisco, the Iron Mountain and Southern, the Wabash; Mr. Folk’s old friend, the St. Louis transit company; the breweries, the stock yards, the telephone companies; business men of St. Louis, St. Joseph, and Kansas city - the big business of the whole State. There they were, the “contemptible bribe-taker” and the very “respectable” bribe-giver, all doing business together. So they still traveled in pairs; and the highway still lay between the deadly parallels - business and politics. The System was indeed bigger than St. Louis; it was the System of Missouri.

What, then, is the system of Missouri? The outlines of it can be traced through the “confessions of state senators which,” Folk’s grand jury said, “appall and astound us a citizens of this state. Our investigations,” they added, “have gone back twelve years and during that time the evidence shows that corruption has been the usual and accepted thing in state legislation, and that, too, without interference or hindrance….We have beheld with shame and humiliation the violation of the sacred trust reposed by the people in their public servants.”

Just as in the city, the system in the state is corruption settled into a “custom of the country”; betrayal of trust established as the form of government. The people elect, to govern for them, representatives who are to care for the common interest of all. But the confessing Senators confessed that they were paid by a lobby to serve special interests. Naturally enough, the jurors, good citizens, were incensed especially at the public servants “who sold them out.” But who did the buying? Who are the lobby? The confessions name Col. William H. Phelps, John J. Carroll, and others, lawyers and citizens of standing at the bar and in the state, and they were the agents of the commanding business enterprises of the state. Moreover, they were aggressive corruptionists. You hear business men say that they are blackmailed, that the politicians are corrupt, and that the “better people” have to pay.

Colonel Phellps, an officer of the Missouri Pacific, and the lobbyist of the Gould interests, has said that he had to exercise great cunning to keep the Legislature corrupt. New legislators often bothered him, especially “honest men,” Senators who would not take money. Sometimes he “got” them with passes, which was cheap, but not sure, so he had been compelled sometimes actually to “ rape” some men, as he did Senator Fred Busche, of St. Louis.

Busche is himself a business man, a well-to-do pie-baker, and he went to Jefferson City full of high purpose and patriotic sentiment, he said. Among the measures up for passage was a bill to require all railways to keep a flagman at all crossings. It was a “strike” bill. Phelps himself had had it introduced, to prove his usefulness in killing it, perhaps, or to raise money for himself and his pals. (The corrupt corporations are often cheated by their corrupt agents.) At any rate, Phelps asked Busche to vote against the bill, and Busche did so. A day or two later Phelps came up to Busche, thrust a hundred dollar bill into his pocket, then hurried away and remained out of sight till Busche had become reconciled to the money. “After that,” Busche added, “Phelps had me.” Busche accepted a regular salary of $500 a session from the railroad lobbyist, and other bribes: $500 on the St. Louis transit bill, $500 on an excise bill, etc. He estimated that he had made corruptly some $10,000 during his twelve years.

Phelps put Busche into the “Senate Combine,” which is just such a nonpartisan group of a controlling majority as that which Colonel Butler wielded in the municipal legislature councils of St. Louis. Butler, however, was a boss; Phelps is not. There is no boss of Missouri as there is of New York, Pennsylvania, and other more advanced states. Phelps is the king of the lobby, and the lobby rules by force of corruption. The lobbyists, representing different special business interests, bought among them a majority of the legislators, organized the Senate, ran dominant committees, and thus controlled legislation. You could do business with any lobbyist, and have the service, usually, of all, or you could deal with a member of the combine. Indeed, the “combine” was free to drum up trade when times were dull, and Mr. Folk quotes a telegram from a member sent on such a mission to St. Louis: “River rising fast,” it said. “Driftwood coming down. Be there to-morrow.’

“Driftwood” was boodle bills for business men, and some of it was blackmail, but it was all irregular. The regular business was more businesslike. The “combine” was only the chief instrument of the lobby and was made up of dishonest legislators. The lobby controlled also the honest men. For these belonged to their party. The corporations and big businesses contribute to all campaign funds, and this is the first step toward corruption everywhere. It is wholesale bribery, and it buys the honest legislator. He may want to vote against the “combine,” but the lobby serves the party as well as business, and the “State committee” has to "stand in.” That is the way the Democratic party got control of the police and election machinery of the cities and forced those normally Republican communities into the Democratic line. The lobby delivered the dishonest votes, and, in return for such services and for the campaign contributions, the State Committee of the dominant democratic party has to deliver the honest votes, and often, too, the Governor of the State. And as for the minority party, the Republicans in Missouri are like the minority everywhere: just as corrupt and more hungry than the majority. Disrupted by quarrels over the Federal patronage, the Republican legislators follow the Democrats for more, for dribblets of graft, and the first Senator convicted by Crow was a Republican.

[To be continued.]