The fraud of Henry Meiggs

The various improvements to San Francisco made by Henry Meiggs, such as the wharf he built, cutting a road around Telegraph Hill and the Musical Hall on Bush Street, ingratiated him to the residents in general and to North Beach in particular, so much so that in 1853 he was elected as a delegate to the convention to revise the city charter, a revision that was never adopted, and in September of that same year he was elected to the board of aldermen of the city council. Here he represented North Beach with zeal. One of the ordinances he helped pass was to remove the bodies buried in the old graveyard between Stockton, Powell, Lombard and Chestnut Streets to Yerba Buena cemetery, but he took special interest in street contracts. Much of the grading and improvement of streets from North Beach to Telegraph Hill were due to his skill as a municipal manipulator.

North Beach 1856

Unfortunately Meiggs incurred far more liabilities than he was able to meet. If, perhaps the depression of 1854 had been postponed, or if property in North Beach had risen in value like water lots in Yerba Buena Cove, then Meiggs might have been able to sell out for a large sum of money. But when he found himself insolvent, instead of admitting his problems and facing the consequences, he chose forgery and entered this nefarious endeavor with the same verve as he had shown in all others. Payment for street work done in the city at that time was by means of warrants drawn against the city treasury. And Meiggs knew all about it.

Meiggs’ Wharf 1885

The necessary printed forms, bound in book form, were first filled out by the controller who would then get the signature of the Mayor and then sign his own name, but this was soon found to be inconvenient so the controller simply signed whole books of the forms and had the mayor do the same. Smyth Clark, the clerk for Mayor Cornelius K. Garrison, was a particular friend of Meiggs. As a contractor involved in much of the street work Meiggs also found himself often in the office of Controller Stephen R. Harris. Somehow Meiggs managed to acquire one or more books of warrants signed by both the mayor and controller and either filled them in himself or had them filled in by others, and then used them to suit his own purposes.

 

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