Centennial of Corruption in Pittsburgh 

The city has been described physically as "Hell with the lid off"; politically it is that same with the lid on. I am not going to lift the lid. The exposition of what the people know and stand is the purpose of these articles, not the exposure of corruption, and the exposure of Pittsburg is not necessary. There are earnest men in the town who declare it must blow up of itself soon. I doubt that; but even if it does burst the people of Pittsburg will learn little more than they know now. It is not ignorance that keeps American citizens subservient; neither is it indifference. The Pittsburgers know, and a strong minority of them care; they have risen against their ring and beaten it, only to look about and find another ring around them. Angry and ashamed, Pittsburg is a type of the city that has tried to be free and failed.

- Lincoln Steffens, "Pittsburgh, A City Ashamed," McClures, May-October, 1903, p. 24

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Brian O'Neill

Corrupt Pittsburgh politics: those were good ol' days

By Brian O'Neill, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Sunday, March 21, 2010

One of the worst corruption scandals in American history erupted 100 years ago today in Pittsburgh.

That's right, boys and girls. On this day in 1910, some 41 Pittsburghers - council members, bankers and industrialists - were indicted for corruption.

This was back when a Republican machine ran the city. (Pittsburgh has been chronically allergic to two-party government.) A bicameral City Council had more than 100 members, all of them unsalaried and most willing to do any industrialist's bidding for the right price. When the city celebrated its bicentennial nearly five decades later, historian George Swetnam looked back and said:

"For two full generations, almost without a break, the city was in the grip of one or another faction of the most cold-blooded and vicious political ring that ever ruled an American city."

Dan Sullivan alerted me that this was the centennial for Graftapalooza. Mr. Sullivan, 60, who lives on a dead-end street he describes as "a little section of West Virginia between Oakland and Squirrel Hill [actually, Polish Hill -ds]," has been tweaking city hall for the 22 years I've known him.

He sent me ancient newspaper accounts that he'd gotten from the Internet. I began reading and entered a world that made modern politics seem - dare I say it? - almost honest.

Voters in the Gilded Age had tried to reform this booming city, but new scoundrels kept replacing the old. By 1910, Pittsburgh had swallowed the city of Allegheny and renamed it the North Side, making this briefly the eighth-largest city in the country. Mayor George Guthrie, reform mayor of the new "Greater Pittsburgh" of more than a half-million souls, quit in 1909 because he had no prayer of beating the well-organized council commandoes down the hall, who regularly passed bills over his veto.

The most compelling rogue on council, judging from contemporary accounts, was "Smiling Johnnie" Klein, a Monongahela "wharf rat" who in 1909 made the mistake of waving six $5,000 bills in front of a saddler friend who actually worked for a living.

That man, Ernest Lee Frey, paid taxes. He didn't appreciate Klein's easy money. So he went to the city auditor Frank Kimball, who knew that just a few days before, Smiling Johnnie's crowd had designated six banks as depositories of city funds.

Soon began an investigation that took the smile off Johnnie's face. Mayor Guthrie brought in a lawyer, Leo Weil, financed by well-heeled reformers. (Some say Andrew Carnegie was among them.)

Mr. Weil was good. A few years before, he'd stopped crooked council members from turning over the new Grant Boulevard (later renamed Bigelow Boulevard) to a railway. Mr. Weil took a train to Washington and persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt to send his best bank examiner.

Mr. Weil also brought in a Scranton private eye who posed as a lumber baron who wanted to pave the city streets with blocks of wood. He invited council members into his hotel room at the Fort Pitt Hotel (then at the corner of 10th and Penn). He bored holes in doors of his room so witnesses could listen to every bribe he received for the scheme to pave Fourth Avenue from Grant to Market Street.

Arrests followed by the score. Smiling Johnnie sang like a canary. The reports I could find didn't say how many wound up in the slammer, but council would never be the same. The old, two-tiered setup - a Select Council with one member from each ward and a Common Council with representation based on the amount of taxable property - was replaced in 1911 with the single, nine-member, salaried council we have today.

"And when the reform way stops rolling it's likely that Pittsburgh will be washed clean," The New York Times wrote in a 1910 story headlined "Pittsburgh's Amazing Story of Graft."

Washed clean? Not by a long shot, but whatever else can be said about today's politics, it not only could be worse, it has been.

Mr. Sullivan notes that the old Council was modeled after the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

"Today we have the Act 47 [state] oversight board serving as the House of Lords," he said. "We have almost come full circle."

I should also mention that a hundred years ago, Pittsburgh was spelled "Pittsburg," without the "h." That lasted from 1890 to 1911, the same years the city was its most corrupt. Coincidence? Maybe, but it makes me wonder how much Smiling Johnnie and the boys got for that silent letter.

Comments by Dan Sullivan:

Although Brian told the story about as well as possible within the limited space of his column, I would disagree with his view that "modern politics seem... almost honest" by comparison. I do not believe that there is less corruption, but only that it is more sophisticated and less blatant. Direct bribes have been replaced with campaign contributions, which seem to work just as well, and the transfer of publicly created wealth into private hands, in the form of subsidies, tax breaks and other favors, vastly exceeds the level of such transfers as occurred in these "Graftapalooza" days.

The reform government that was created in 1911 was indeed superior, partly because the reform council was properly paid, and partly because it replaced a strong-mayor system, weak council by district system with a strong, at-large council system. The corporate-backed Home Rule Charter reinstated the strong-mayor system, and a later referendum returned us to a district council system.

The district-council system is not a problem in itself, but it aggravates the strong-mayor system. Council members who buck the mayor find that their districts are punished with worse city services. As most deals are brokered under the mayor's auspices, it is important to have a council that will readily stand up to the mayor.

Allegheny County is much worse, because County Council is grossly underpaid and understaffed. As a result, County Council ends up being a rubber stamp for the county executive.


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