Abraham Ruef

An American political boss in San Francisco, Abraham Ruef (1864-1936) was convicted of bribery in a famous antigraft trial.

Abraham Ruef, the son of French-Jewish immigrants, was born in San Francisco, Calif., Sept. 2, 1864. A precocious young man, he graduated in 1883 from the University of California with high honors. He studied at Hastings College of Law in San Francisco and was admitted to the bar in 1886. Cultivated, moderately well-to-do, and dynamic, he was first attracted to politics as a reformer, but reform proved too uncertain an avenue to power.

About 1888 Ruef shifted his loyalties to San Francisco's corrupt Republican political machine. As "Boss Ruef," leader of the Latin Quarter (North Beach) district, he became an engaging campaign speaker and fully mastered the fine points of ward politics.

Ruef's desire for power and advancement led him to break with the Republican leadership in 1901. He first tried to defeat the organization in primary elections and, failing that, allied himself with the Union Labor party movement. San Francisco was a strong union town, but the party's leadership needed an experienced political "kingmaker." Ruef was adept at just such behind-the-scenes services. After selecting Eugene Schmitz, the handsome president of the musicians' union, as the party's candidate for mayor, Ruef masterminded Schmitz's successful campaign in 1901 and his reelection in 1903 and 1905. The 1905 election was an especially triumphant one, since not only Schmitz but Ruef's handpicked board of supervisors were elected.

However, Ruef's triumph was also in large part the source of his downfall. Since Schmitz's first victory, large corporations had sought Ruef out as their "confidential attorney," paying him lucrative fees as a way of assuring the administration's friendship. Initially, these fees were retainers, not outright bribes. After 1905, however, Ruef's greedy allies sought direct payment for their votes on many measures: restaurant licenses, street railway franchises, utility rates, permits for boxing matches. Ruef became the middleman in an alliance between influential corporations and political grafters, demanding huge sums of money to distribute to the pliant supervisors.

In 1906 a small group led by Fremont Older of the San Francisco Bulletin brought legal indictments against Ruef. After a spectacular, and sometimes bizarre, trial Ruef was convicted of bribery in 1908. When his appeals were turned down, he entered San Quentin Penitentiary in 1911. Largely owing to the efforts of former enemies such as Older, Ruef was paroled in 1915 and pardoned in 1920. Avoiding politics, he tried his hand at real estate investments. He prospered in the 1920s but went bankrupt during the Depression years. He died in San Francisco on Feb. 29, 1936.

Further Reading on Abraham Ruef

The colorful story of Ruef's career is told in vivid detail by Walton Bean, Boss Ruef's San Francisco (1952). See also Lately Thomas, A Debonair Scoundrel (1962).

Additional Biography Sources

Bean, Walton, Boss Ruef's San Francisco: the story of the Union Labor Party, big business, and the graft prosecution, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981.

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