In search of political ethics

Today’s small-time cheats vs. people who really knew how to go about it

The legislature’s angst this year about ethical failures is based on a little bribery here, some lying to federal investigators there, and some political relationships that are—ahhh, how do we put this—unconventional. The Missouri Senate has an ethics reform bill before it. The House soon will have one after a special committee writes a compromise of several proposals submitted.

But all of this misbehavior behind these reform efforts is small change compared to the Baking Powder Scandal of 1903.

That’s right: baking powder, that wonderful, versatile, amiable substance that only wants to do so many useful tasks. Take a look at this story and see if some of the stuff we’ve been reporting in recent months doesn’t seem pretty small-time. When it came to subverting democracy, the guys writing Missouri’s laws at the start of the 20th century were light years ahead of today’s generation of wayward politicians when it came to venality. Bribery was called “boodling” in those days and the boodlers of the early 1900s were running rampant in state and city governments. This story focuses only on the boodling for baking powder. But there was so much more of it going on.

No one could forecast how the young minister of the First Christian Church in Jefferson City would trigger a state government scandal in weeks to come as lawmakers and reporters began gathering in Jefferson City late in 1902 for the 1903 legislative session. The Reverend Crayton S. Brooks was known as a strong temperance preacher, a crusader and was not about to let his recent arrival in Jefferson City stand in the way of challenging the status quo.

Shortly after the legislative session began, Brooks began attacking the wide-open nature of the capital city. One newspaper headline about his preaching said, “Gambling Made Easy,” with a sub-headline reading “Over $40,000 Has Changed Hands in Three Weeks.” His criticisms so embarrassed city fathers that the mayor eventually ordered all saloons to be closed on Sundays. The mayor also ordered all of the city’s gambling parlors closed, permanently. Clearly, Brooks was an aggressive, outspoken, attention-getting preacher unafraid to challenge the status quo.

Now let’s back up and introduce you to William Ziegler, who organized the Royal Baking Powder Company. A few years later, technology showed that alum and soda made better baking powder than the cream of tartar used by Ziegler’s company. Ziegler’s company launched a big and well-financed counterattack claiming alum was poisonous. By 1898 Ziegler had combined his company with two others to form the Royal Baking Powder Trust which set out to buy influence in state legislatures. Missouri became a particular target. The trust was not above spreading money around to get laws passed banning alum in baking powder and such a law was passed in Missouri as a Pure Food Bill in 1899, passed in a way that the alum ban was completely missed by Missouri’s independent baking powder companies that relied on alum as an ingredient. Officials of twenty of those companies were astonished when they were arrested for violating the anti-alum law. They decided to launch a repeal effort, which failed in the 1901 session.

Former St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor Claude Wetmore later wrote it was “common talk” in Jefferson City that a lot of money bought votes on the baking power bills of 1899 and 1901 and on many other issues.

As all of this was shaping up, a young lawyer named Joseph Folk was establishing himself in St. Louis. He was elected Circuit Attorney (prosecutor) in 1900. Folk immediately went after St. Louis political boss Edward Butler and broke his hold on local politics,

That same year of 1900, John Adams Lee was elected Lt. Governor. Lee was the editor of the Interstate Grocer magazine that relied heavily on advertising from the anti-alum baking powder interests based in New York. Lee went to New York to meet with the Royal Baking Power agent Daniel Kelley and told Kelley that he, as Lieutenant Governor, could control senate committees and could arrange for the Pure Food repeal bill to go to a hostile committee. He asked Kelley for a $500 donation to his Lieutenant Governor campaign. Kelley gave him $750.

That sounds like a paltry amount today. But in 1900 it was a sizeable donation at a time when legislators were only paid five dollars a day. We checked with the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank a few days ago and found a calculator on its website that determines how much $750 in 1913 money (the earliest the bank’s calculator calculates) would be today. We also checked another website that calculated from 1903-2008 and the results are about the same. One dollar then is the equivalent of $25 today. Kelley’s $750 donation in 1903 is the equivalent of about $18,750 today. Making that conversion might provide some context as we go along.

Lee kept his promise, sent the bill to a hostile committee that never acted on it, and the bill died. But some in the legislature knew what was going on. State representative William Lightholder told his colleagues in the House that he could have gotten the bill out of that committee if he had had $2,500 (today about $62,500) to spread among the members.

In the fall of 1902, Lee started talking openly of running for Governor on a platform of legislative reform. In a seeming reversal, he promised Missouri’s independent baking powder producers he would sent an alum repeal bill to a friendly committee that he would pick—for proper support from the anti-Royal Baking Power Trust forces.

Enter now another figure: J. J. McAuliffe of the Post-Dispatch, known as an enterprising, persistent reporter who had picket up the smell of something rotten in Jefferson City earlier and had been compiling information that he took to Folk at the end of 1902. He told Folk he was convinced Lee was the custodian of the boodle (bribe) funds and had directed money to lawmakers in 1901. Some of the money, he said, had changed hands in St. Louis, which gave Folk jurisdiction to prosecute. Folk started visiting Jefferson City and picking up information on his own and holding frequent meetings with Attorney General E. C. Crow.

Sometimes reporters and prosecutors have to sit on information until somebody does something that blows the top off an issue. The record is not clear that McAuliffe and Brooks, the minister, knew each other. But it might be suggested they talked and McAuliffe fed the crusading preacher some information.

Sunday night, March 1, 1903, Rev. Crayton Brooks, speaking at the 7:30 p.m. service at the Christian Church about five blocks from the Capitol, tells the congregation, “I am reliably informed that some men who never before had a thousand dollars of their own have exhibited thousand dollar bills here since this legislature has been in session.”

McAuliffe was there for the sermon and so, apparently, was a Kansas City Star reporter who said the next day the comments “have caused much talk this morning.” But the Star, in a slight jab at Brooks perhaps, reported lobbyists had reported “it has been a bad winter and that $500 is the largest amount that has been paid for a vote this winter.”

McAuliffe reported that when the House met Monday, one representative sent a copy of the Post-Dispatch to the clerk’s desk and requested McAuliffe’s article about the sermon be read. After the article was read to the silent chamber, Rep. Marion Murphy asked the committee to appoint a special committee to investigate the church. A suggestion that Brooks be called to the well of the House to give names of people circulating the money was turned aside. The House then defeated Murphy’s resolution. McAuliffe called the vote a “decisive victory of the lobby.” Speaker Thomas H. Whitecotton, however, did appoint the special committee a few days later. The hearings were behind closed doors but a transcript of them is in the legislative library at the Capitol. Brooks told the committee he had been told a representative of the country press was one of those with a $1,000 bill. He also had heard from a reporter for the Kansas City Star that six men had received a total of $9,000, He related other rumors of other people bribe money available.

The representative of the country press was Inman Page of Bonne Terre, who claimed the money had no connection with the legislature. He refused to say where he got it. But correspondent F. E. Burton the St. Louis Republic testified Page had gotten his bill from Lt. Gov. Lee and it was to be used to influence votes on the alum bill. A clerk in the Senate, N. C. Hickox admitted he had two $500 bills but he refused to say how he got them (Hickox was paid $3.50 a day in his clerk’s job).

McAuliffe testified that he had met a man who told him Representative Colin Selph had hinted he could buy off enough senators to pass the alum bill for $8,000. Another reporter, E. T. Harkrader of the St. Louis Chronicle testified that Rep. Ben Luig had told him he knew $40,000 (at the rate of $25 of today’s dollars for each 1913 dollar, that’s $1,000,000) had been brought to Jefferson City to put a textbook bill through the legislature.

The committee’s final report made no accusations against specific people but it did ask that the transcript be given to Cole County Circuit Judge James Hazell for use by a grand jury.

Brooks’ sermon had, indeed, blown the top off the scandal. The House committee investigation stemming from it led to the grand jury called to meet March 23. McAuliffe testified on April 5. Within hours, Attorney General Crow demanded a meeting with Lee and told him what was shaping up. Lee broke down and admitted he had distributed bribe money provided him by Daniel Kelley of the Royal Baking Powder Trust. One-thousand dollars had been given to Senators Buel Matthews and Charles Smith. Five-thousand dollars had been given to Senator Frank Farris of Crawford County, who would keep $1,000 and distribute the rest to five other Senators. Lee went before the grand jury the next day, testified, and was told to report to the St. Louis grand jury the next day. Instead, Lee fled to Kansas City and then to Chicago. The grand jury indicted Matthews, Smith, and Farris on one charge each and filed three charges against Kelley. It later indicted Senator W. P. Sullivan..

The final report of the grand jury said, “The extent of the venality existing among the makers of our State law sis alarming to those who believe in free government. Our investigations have gone back for twelve years, and during that time the evidence before us shows that corruption has been the usual and accepted thing in State legislation…Laws have been sold to the highest bigger in numerous instances.”

Lee, from Chicago, tried to blackmail Kelley and some other lobbyists for $100,000, for which he would stay away form Missouri. But the effort backfired. Kelley had kept about 60 letters and other messages from Lee outlining the depth of his cravenness. And when McAuliffe went to Montreal, where Kelley had taken refuge, the trust’s agent let McAuliffe see many of them.

Sullivan was convicted and fined $100, the maximum. The Matthews cast was dismissed for lack of evidence. When Farris went to trial, the indictment against Lee was dropped in return for his testimony. But the jury acquitted Farris 8-4. The case against Smith was dismissed because of the failure to convict Farris.

Rev. Brooks left Jefferson City not long after the scandal broke, had a long career as a minister and as an evangelist and died in Moberly in 1946. Senator Matthews returned to the legislature a few years later for one term and when the Capitol burned was an early advocate of moving the seat of government to St. Louis. Frank Farris sat out for a few years before being elected from Phelps County to the House and then going back to the Senate. When he died in 1926 he was the Chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party and tributes to his life filled several pages of legislative journals. John Adams Lee stayed in Chicago where he spent his life as a leader of the grocery industry.

On January 9, 1905, Joseph Folk became Governor of Missouri. He called for major reforms in government in his inaugural address. The legislature passed several of the reforms Folk sought although some were not as tough as he had hoped.

The anti-alum law was repealed.

Folk tried for a U.S. Senate seat in 1918 but lost. He died in 1923 at the age of 53.

The Missouri Senate is likely to resume the ethics reform debate later this week. It is the latest in perpetual efforts to make sure the people we trust to make our laws do so in the best way possible. Certainly today’s laws that require reporting of campaign contributions and lobbyist gifts and other expenditures give all of us more chances to follow the money.

Fact is, we probably wouldn’t be discussing this issue at all if it weren’t for some lawmakers who have been convicted of things that, by the standards of the great Baking Powder Scandal of 1903, are pretty penny-ante stuff.

Maybe that’s a sign of progress.

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