Chapter XXVIII

This whole episode proved to be a turning-point in Keith's career. His revulsion against the feminine--hence society--side of life brought about by the affair of Mrs. Morrell, might soon have passed, and he might soon have returned to the old round of picnics, excursions, dinners, and parties, were it not that coincidentally a new and absorbing occupation was thrust upon him. Dick Blatchford's case was only one of many that came to him. He became completely immersed in the fascinating intricacies of the law.

As has been previously pointed out, nowhere before nor since has pure legality been made such a fetish. It was a game played by lawyers, not an attempt to get justice done. Since, in all criminal cases at least, the prosecution was carried on by one man and his associates, poorly paid and hence of mediocre ability, and the defence conducted by the keenest brains in the profession, it followed that convictions were rare. Homicide in various forms was little frowned upon. Duels were of frequent occurrence, and, in several instances, regular excursions, with tickets, were organized to see them. Street shootings of a more informal nature were too numerous to count. Invariably an attempt, generally successful, was made to arrest the homicide. If he had money, he hired the best lawyers, and rested secure. If he had no money, he disappeared for a time. Almost everybody had enough money, or enough friends with money, to adopt the former course. Of 1,200 murders--or "killings"--committed in the San Francisco of those days, there was just one legal conviction!

It was a point of professional pride with a lawyer to get his client free. Indeed, to fail would be equivalent to losing a very easy game. The whole battery of technical delays, demurrers, etc., was at his command; a much larger battery than even the absurd criminal courts of our present day can muster. Delays to allow the dispersal of witnesses were easily arranged for, as were changes of venue to courts either prejudiced in favour of the strict interpretation of "law" or frankly venal. Of shadier expedients, such as packing juries, there seemed no end.

Your honourable, high-minded lawyers--which meant the well-dressed and prosperous--had nothing to do with such dirty work; that is, directly. There were plenty of lawyers not so honourable and high minded called in as "counsel." These little lawyers, shoulder strikers, bribe givers and takers, were held in good-humoured contempt by the legal stars--who employed them! Actual dishonesty was diluted through a number of men. Packing a jury was a fine art. Initially was needed connivance at the sheriff's office. Hence lawyers, as a class, were in politics. Neither the stellar lawyer nor the sheriff knew any of the details of the transaction. A sum of money went to the former's "counsel" as expenses, and emerged, considerably diminished, in the sheriff's office as "perquisites." It had gone from the counsel to somebody like Mex Ryan, from him to various plug- uglies, ward heelers, shoulder strikers, from them to one or another of the professional jurymen, and then on the upward curve through the sheriff's underlings who made out the jury lists to Webb himself. The thing was done.

In this tortuous way many influences were needed. The most honest lawyer's limit as to the queer things he would do depended on his individual conscience. It is extraordinary what long training and the moral support of a whole profession will do toward educating a conscience. Do not despise unduly the lawyers of that day. We have all of us good friends in the legal profession who will defend in court a criminal they know to be guilty as charged. They will urge that no man should go undefended; and will argue themselves into a belief that in such a case "defence" means not merely fair play, but a desperate effort to get him off anyhow--trained conscience. If such sophistries are sincerely believed by honest men nowadays, it cannot be wondered at that queerer sophistries passed current in a community not five years old. It was difficult to draw the line between the men who mistakenly believed themselves honest and those who knew themselves dishonest.

But once in politics there could be no end. In this field the law rubbed shoulders with big contracts, big operations. A city was being built, in a few years, out of nothing, by a busy, careless, and shifting population. The opportunities for making money on public works--either honestly or by jobbery--were almost unlimited. The mood of the times was extravagant. From the still unexhausted placers poured a flood of gold, hard money, tangible wealth; and a large percentage of it paused in San Francisco, changed hands before continuing its journey. Immigrants brought with them a lesser but still significant sum. Money was easy. People could and would pay high taxes without a thought, for they would rather pay well to be let alone than bother with public affairs. The city treasury should have been full to bursting. In addition, the municipality was rich in its real estate. The value of all land had gone up immensely; any time more cash was needed it could quickly be raised by the sale of public lots. The supply seemed inexhaustible.

Like hyenas to a kill the public contractors gathered. Immense public works were undertaken at enormous prices. Paving, sewers, grading, filling, lighting, wharves, buildings Were all voted; and the work completed in the quickest, flimsiest, most slipshod fashion; and at terrible prices. The Graham House, a pretentious frail structure that had failed as a hotel because a swamp lay between it and the city, was bought at a huge price to serve as city hall. It was a veritable white elephant, and even the busy populace spared time to grumble at the flagrant steal. Nobody knew what it would cost to make the thing habitable even. Soon, to every one's relief, it burned down. The property was then swindled over to Peter Smith. The Jenny Lind Theatre, an impossible, ramshackle structure, was purchased over the vigorous protest of every decent citizen, for the enormous sum of $300,000. Another $100,000 was alleged to have been spent in remodelling and furnishing it. Then it was solemnly declared "unsuited to the purpose." It also burned down in one of the numerous fires. But the money was safe!

To get such deals as these through "legally" it was of course necessary that officials, councilmen, engineers, etc., should be sympathetic. Naturally the big operators, as well as the big lawyers, had to go into politics. Elections came soon to be so many farces. In some wards no decent citizen dared show his face. "Shoulder strikers" were openly hired for purposes of intimidation. Bribery was scarcely concealed. And if things looked doubtful, there were always the election inspectors and judges in reserve who could be relied upon to make things come out right in the final count. The proper men were always returned as elected. If violence or fraud were alleged, lawyers always got the accused off in a strictly legal manner.

In these matters, it must be repeated, no opprobrium ever rested on either the big lawyers or the big operators. "Expenses" went to the underlings, and after some mysterious subterranean manipulation, of which the big fellows remained blandly unconscious, results came back.

In the world of public works Keith rapidly made himself a position. He was leading counsel for Dick Blatchford and one or two others. His job was to know all the rules of the game so well that there were no comebacks; to set the machinery in motion by which the contracts were procured; and to straighten out any irregularities that might arise afterward. His position was almost academic. The matters he fought and decided were so detached from actuality, as far as he was concerned, that they might have been hypothetical cases. When Dick wanted anything specific, Keith instructed Patsy Corrigan to see that the proper officials awarded the contract. If the matter ever came to the courts, Keith furnished the brains and Patsy somehow "saw" the sheriff and whoever was necessary from the mysterious underworld. Everybody was doing the same thing. In the minds of men profits of any sort were legitimate provided they were "legal," but especially against so vague an entity as a community. Civic consciousness had not been born in them, for the simple reason that the city was constituted perfectly to suit them. Only when men are dissatisfied with their government do they seek to become responsible for it. There was no active public opinion against them. Men were too busy to bother with such things. Occasionally a fairly vigorous protest against some peculiarly outrageous steal made itself heard, but the men who made it were either cranks or it was suspected they had been pinched in some way. They merely represented the opposition any active man expects.

And every last one of these merry, jovial pirates was inordinately proud of the ship he was helping to scuttle! That one fact, attentively considered, explains much.

The city was growing, it was taking on a permanent character. In spite of waste, shoddy work, and frequent fires, its vitality was triumphant. The sand hills had all been graded flat, and the material from them had filled in the water lots of the bay; miles of fireproof brick structures had been built on four or five streets; there were now a half score of long wharves instead of one; omnibuses ran everywhere; fine steamers plied to fashionable watering places about the bay; the planks in the streets were being replaced by cobblestones; telegraph service had been inaugurated to San Jose and Sacramento; several new theatres had been built; gas lamps were being placed about the streets; huge wooden palaces with much scrollwork ornamentation were being built on Stockton Street and the Rincon Hill. All these things, as well as the climate, the mines, the agricultural resources, the commerce, the scenery, were fully appreciated and enthusiastically made the most of by every mother's son. Any man among them was ready at a moment's notice to wax enthusiastic about the resources and the future of the place. They were "boosters" in the modern acceptation of the term.