Behind The Scenes In St. Louis by William Cowper Brann

Story type: Essay


Col. Robert Ingersoll once said of the city of St. Louis that, as to Missouri, it was “a diamond pin in a dirty shirt.” I will not maintain the immaculateness of the shirt; but the diamond has flaws, and is, in some respects, as a gem not far removed from the “phony.”

They call St. Louis “the solid city.” It is solid. Also stolid. It’s a little Chinese. It regards the stranger as the enemy. In St. Louis they don’t gather in the stranger and skin him, as they do in Chicago; but if he happens to have four dollars to invest he is regarded as having designs upon the coagulated capital of a select assortment of “stiffs,” known as leading citizens. If he have brains, they dicker with him and let him in on their deals for a share in his. St. Louis is a close corporation. Less than twenty men run it. Jim Campbell, Dave Francis, Geo. A. Madill, Sam Kennard, Ed. Butler, Charlie Maffit, John Sculin, Edwards Wittaker, Thomas H. West, Julius S. Walsh, George E. Leighton and a few more own the town. They dare do anything. They control the banks, the trust companies, the street railroads, the gas works, the telephone franchises and the newspapers. Almost all the ability in the town is engaged in their service. They gather it in as it develops, and the multitude is made vassal to them. They own everything in St. Louis worth owning. They are the local nobility. They can crush anyone who ventures to oppose their desires. When they war among themselves they manage that no interloper shall come in for a share of the spoils. They unite against the newcomer and crucify him. They control municipal legislation. They buy aldermen like cattle. The city is at their mercy. They are all religious and moral men; their crookedness is purely commercial and political. Their different monopolies oppress the town, and the press is their tool. Most newspaper warfares upon them are mere “blinds” to draw off public attention to one quarter, while they gobble up something valuable in another.

St. Louis has had a reputation for a long time, for public spirit. It’s there all right, but it is public spirit for private gain. Take the exposition. A job. Public money built the structure. The city gave the ground, right in the heart of the business-district-to-be. All the subscribers are frozen out but a few shrewd ones own the whole business. They have a piece of property worth at least eight million dollars. It is untaxed. They rake in the coin accruing from the exposition. They work the public up into supporting the venture, and three or four men in large retail stores get all the benefit. They advertise their private business by their public spirit, in capturing an enterprise that in its inception was somewhat communal in character.

St. Louis boasts of her fine Planters Hotel. Well, eight or ten men have confidenced the public out of that property, and its stupendous increment. Once there was subscribed $600,000 for what are known as the Fall Festivities. There were illuminations for a few years, and the Veiled Prophet pageant still survives; but there has been no accounting for the $600,000 that anyone has been able to understand. It is a legend in St. Louis that a large wad of the $600,000 was invested in the Planters Hotel, in the names of the individuals who made up the Fall Festivities Association. They are drawing from the splendid institution the earning upon money raised by miscellaneous public subscription. No paper dare take up these matters and discuss them. If one were to do so, it would not have five advertisements of the leading retail dealers in anything in the whole city. Col. Charles H. Jones, when editor of the Post-Dispatch, once criticized Mr. Sam Kennard for something, and forthwith Barr, Nugent, Crawford, Scruggs, Vandervoort and Barney, and the other big dealers withdrew their patronage in order to prevent his making the sum of money each year prescribed in his contract with Joseph Pulitzer as the sine qua non to his retention of his place. They drove him out of journalism finally. You’ve got to stand in with all this gang, or go to the wall. The only person who gets anything from them is the person who will do their work.

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You go to the city hall in St. Louis, the old one, which looks like a rickety tobacco warehouse, or the new one, which is a realization in material of a bad dream consequent upon too much rarebit, and you might as well be in Berlin. You are lost without an interpreter. You must talk German or a Joe Emmet dialect, to make yourself understood. Money only doesn’t have to talk German at the city hall. That is transferred without being translated. The mayor of the town talks, in his public addresses, a lingo that would make the fortune of a vaudeville comedian of the Dutch Daly stripe; and his son, who is his secretary, has the physiognomical symptoms of intellectuality that you might expect in a dude who eats with his knife, or any Brummel of “the bad lands.” The lower branch of the municipal legislature is a bedlam. Its sessions are eruptions of obscenity. Talk is indulged in that would cause the ejectment of the talker from a bawdy- house parlor. The august body never rouses into activity save over some measure with “stuff” in it. The combine will take as low as twenty-five dollars to beat or pass a bill. They introduce bills to induce the franchise holding syndicates to put up money to kill them, and business is at its best when two or three street railroad bosses can be led into bidding against each other for the passage or defeat of some measure. The St. Louis house of delegates is as fine a gang of rapacious ruffians as ever invited mob law in an American city.

Politics in St. Louis is practiced by the pimps and pothouse habitues, just as in other cities. Two of the best known office holders in the city have been accused publicly of stealing $1,200 that was given them to support a measure for capitol removal at the last general election. They got the money to divide among the members of the city committee, and no member of that body ever saw a copper of it. The check was cashed, however. The governor appointed to their present offices the men who got the money.

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It costs more to conduct the city government of St. Louis than it costs proportionately to govern New York. The town is overrun with an army of men drawing salaries, and few sober breaths, but doing nothing else. The present head of government when he left the office of city collector, lost or destroyed his books, that they might tell no tale of the monstrous malfeasance of his administration. Corporations were held up for sums that never appeared on the books. Instead of paying licenses and taxes, merchants, manufacturers, saloon keepers, brewers and others paid tribute to the then subordinates of the present mayor. Corruption is rampant all through the city government. Every one knows it; but no one feels like expressing it for the reason that such exposures are “chestnuts” to the St. Louisan. There have been reform waves in every large city in the Union, now and then. In St. Louis, never. The syndicate of snappers that holds the franchises won’t have it. Reform doesn’t go. They want the old gang they have been dealing with, in power. No matter which gang dominates, Democrat or Republican, the syndicate owns them. It doesn’t like the prospect of dealing with strangers. It likes to buy over and over again the same old crowd to enact or defeat certain bills. When the gang in power is Democratic, Ed Butler does the buying. When the gang is Republican, Chauncey I. Filley takes the money and dictates what his creatures shall do. Butler disgorges something; Filley nothing. Butler deals with Filley when Filley has fooled the people into electing his men, and vice versa. It is Croker and Platt over again on a smaller scale. These two men have all the corporations by their throats. They are both men of genius in their line, commanding an insane devotion among the slums and a certain amount of admiration and awe, from among the wealthy, if not the respectable, of that city.

The St. Louis police force is demoralized by politics. Robberies and burglaries multiply. Purse-snatching from women by white and black ruffians is sunk to a mere commonplace in the daily newspaper reports. Thieves flourish, and are protected by petty politicians. Real estate dealers work the police department about once a year to chase the prostitutes out of one section of town into another. It’s all a job. The prostitutes pay big rents, $60 per month for a house that would rent to decent people for $25. One crowd of agents gets the upper hand and starts an agitation to get the “girls” out of the district they occupy into another, in which the agents interested have a great many empty houses. After a time another real estate combination is made, and the poor bawds have to move again. Result of this? Many of the women open assignation houses in the West End, or go “living decent” under some man’s care in that quarter, make the acquaintance of good women, and innocent girls, and collect a “maiden tribute” from among the latter for numerous old rakes who prefer the sexually initiative to the referendum in the case of women in the territory known as “tamale town.” Kept women, the mistresses of men driven from downtown, have been known to ingratiate themselves, in the West End, with women moving in the very best society. And all this to enable a few real estate men to rent at exorbitant figures a few ramshackle houses to the women who must stay “on the town.”

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St. Louis society is not so bad and vulgar as society in some other cities. The city is so much like a village that no opportunity is afforded for intrigue or depravity among the swell set. Every one in St. Louis knows the business of every one else. A woman cannot “go wrong” without being discovered. Most of the details that you hear about the corruption of St. Louis society are imagination wholly. There is a great deal of excessive drinking at functions among women, but it is said that this is notable rather because of the amount the girls can stand without showing it than because of its prompting them to ribald Terpsichorean evolutions. The world outside the swell set hears occasionally of some girl who patronizes the punch bowl until she falls into hysterics, but as a rule the up-to-date St. Louis girl can “carry a load” with much dignity and grace.

St. Louis society is cheap and garish in spots. Some of the newly rich are unbearably snobbish. The Granite Mountain set carries its nose in the air most heinously and its chief female representative is celebrated for her absurd malapropisms. There is but one “fast” set in the town and that “fast” set is looked down upon quite generally and quite sincerely. It is composed of gay young married women who affect the Bohemian by drinking cocktails in public and cutting up at the Jockey Club. One of the members of this last set is the daughter-in-law of a Missouri senator and a very pretty woman. Another of this set is the woman who was voted the best dressed woman at the horse show in a newspaper scheme. Her father is a millionaire doctor and her husband is a thoroughbred. It cannot be said even of this set, however, that it is fast in the immoral sense in which that word usually is employed. It is gay and the women are only unfortunate in having nothing to do and in dispelling weariness by silly and flashy pranks in a social way.

There are some awfully funny society people in St. Louis. For instance, I am told that one of the women who has recently blossomed into the society columns is the wife of a millionaire lumber man who lives in a swell place and whose stinginess is peculiar in that it applies to everything but the feeing of the reporters who write up his wife and daughter. There is another woman whose burst into society has occasioned a great deal of comment of late. She is the wife of a cattleman and certainly not well trained in the graces, but she has her name in the papers continually by virtue of presents of such things as bolts of silk to society editresses. The wife of one of the police commissioners, who used to be the widow of a former mayor, is a fearful and wonderful matron in her methods of attaining distinction. She dresses gorgeously at all public occasions and has more color than a spectacular show at the theater. St. Louis society is dull and unintellectual. As a rule, however, it does not mask any corruption. There are not enough men in society to give opportunity for corruption. Nowhere in the country are there so many pretty girls without admirers. They have to go to the theaters with their own fathers and brothers. The few men in society are a lot of “cheap skates” who can not repay their social obligations in the fashion supposed to prevail among them. The St. Louis society belle has no good time of it. She doesn’t get rushed to any great extent at any time, and this is the more remarkable because the wealthy girls are as much neglected as the poor but pretty ones. St. Louis is the finest field in the world for a man with nothing who wants to marry money. St. Louis society doesn’t patronize the theaters extensively. It is not appreciative of music. It doesn’t care for art. It is hopelessly unaesthetical as a whole. The picture dealers, music dealers and book sellers declare that their patrons come mostly from the people who are not in the swell set. A peculiarity of St. Louis society is that its members are as a rule procreative. There is no suppression of increase and multiplication such as prevail in the swell mob in other cities. A woman in St. Louis is not disgraced by having three or four babies. As a rule also St. Louis society women are not disposed to set up a rigid standard of exclusiveness. They have taken up recently the wife of a young man who was a singer with the Bostonians and it is the fad at present to rave over her. The whole world knows, of course, that a St. Louis girl insulted the Prince of Wales by refusing to meet him, when he never had asked to have her presented. That, however, was the most glaring effort ever made by a St. Louis girl to get a lot of newspaper notoriety and at a cheap rate. To the credit of the local high society it must be said that it does not cultivate the newspaper habit of exploitation. It tolerates the journalistic abuses of papers and write-ups. To be perfectly just to society in St. Louis, about all that can be said of it is that it is dull, principally, because it is decent. A man who is an authority upon such matters tells me that there is not in real society in St. Louis one woman of whom there has ever been any scandal. The very highest society in St. Louis–the old families are all Catholics, and very strict Catholics at that, and so there is not the taint of animalism about it that you find else where in the realm of the high flyers.

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St. Louis cannot be said to be a moral city. It is as immoral as any in the country. I am told that the professional Social Evil in St. Louis is an unprofitable occupation “because of amateur competition.” I am quoting a gentleman who is interested in sociological questions very largely. From what he said I deduce the conclusion that the daughters of the poor are preyed upon by the men so successfully as to account for the prevalence of virtue in the wealthier circles. Fearful stories are current of the immorality of the working girls, but these, I suppose, may be discounted to a certain extent. I hesitate to tell you some things I have heard about the tribute exacted of the girls in some of the big dry goods emporiums. Suffice it to say that these stories are told of three of the great merchant princes. One of them is said to make it a rule that no girl shall be employed who fails to understand that she is liable to his advances. Another merchant prince, portly and domineering, who gained unenviable notoriety because of his attempt at political coercion of his employes, had a bad reputation in this same line. Still another merchant prince who runs a strictly cash store, had one of his girls arrested for stealing goods and refused to prosecute her when she threatened to tell all she knew about how girls held their places in his establishment. As I say, these stories should be discounted, in all probability, but where there is smoke there is fire and most of the stories come from the girls in the big stores.

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The city of St. Louis is hopelessly monotonous. It is a big place. A great business is carried on there, but it seems to be done by people somnambulistically. The soporific atmosphere that the readers feel when perusing the “Globe-Democrat” or “Republic” is characteristic of the town. The great majority of the people seem unable to arouse themselves to any action, even of viciousness. The crowd just lives as if it were soaked and sodden in the city’s vast beer output. It is content to let a few men and a few big concerns monopolize all the business. It scarcely has energy enough to try to amuse itself. It goes to bed at half past nine, and never thoroughly wakes up. The town is sleepy, notwithstanding its size and its boasted progress. It grows because it can’t help itself. The people appear to be good because they’ve not energy enough to be otherwise. St. Louis, Mo., November 10.

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