The corrupt politics of San Francisco

The crimes of those who caused the financial depression of 1855 were minor compared to the social and political corruption in San Francisco. This group included murderers, robbers, burglars, thieves, forgers, prostitutes, gamblers, bullies and vagabonds but also the regular experts in stuffing ballot boxes and those politicians who used, aided or gave encouragement to the manipulators of fraudulent elections. The depth of political corruption reached in San Francisco in 1854 and 1855 had perhaps never before been equaled in the United States.

Interior of the El Dorado

With the unsettled conditions of both business and society in the city itself alongside the feverish rush for gold, few among the respectable classes in the community took enough interest in public matters to attend nominating conventions, vote in the elections, or sit on juries. That left the management of municipal affairs, and national affairs as far as they depended on city leaders, in the hands of the worst of men. These were often politicians who had served an apprenticeship in New York or some other hot bed of corruption who were already well skilled in the art of defrauding the people of their best choice in the nomination of candidates and the election of officials.

Sacramento Street, San Francisco c. 1855

Nominating conventions became a farce and in the rare instance when the politicians could not have their way then bribery or fraud was used and, as a last resort, violence. The vote of an honest man was worthless and, if there existed any possibility of it being effective, then care was taken to prevent it being cast. Gangs of bullies were formed, if they weren’t enough to intimidate voters then rowdies were used to jostle the good citizens out of the way. Votes were openly sold to the highest bidders. Groups of men marched from precinct to precinct on Election Day repeating their vote at every stop. But it was the invention of the “double back action ballot box”, built with false sides so that any number of corrupt ballots could be dumped into the box at the proper time, that became the ultimate tool to insure elections came out exactly as desired.

 

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