The following is an excerpt from a draft of the conclusion to my thesis. If anyone is interested in reading more I’d be happy to provide additional text as well.
The water scandal came to a rather quiet end. In February 1906, the prosecuting attorneys dropped the charges against former mayor George Perry nearly two years after jury could not agree on a verdict, as well as the remaining open cases. Five years after the water scandal first broke, the prosecution did not believe they could convict anyone else. The city’s residents had become, as Grand Rapids historian Z. Z. Lydens phrased it, “weary if not yet quite bored.” Despite the ending, for five years the city had made efforts to deal with the scandal and punish corruption. Before, the city only nominally took care of other scandals, if not completely overlooking them. The water scandal, though, occupied the courtroom for five years and the city’s memory for quite a bit longer.
The fact that the water scandal was a scandal, and such a large one at that, sets the bribery scheme hatched by Lant Salsbury and company apart. The “culmination of a long series” of corrupt events, the water scandal marked the city’s first efforts to confront corruption as unacceptable under new Progressive notions of good government. Though these efforts were not always smooth or successful, over the course of the water scandal, the Progressive system becomes increasingly important.
Initially, personal politics guided actions, as the city largely ignored the forged checks exposed by mayor Perry and defended Salsbury when his name came up in a Chicago criminal investigation. Partisanship stunted the first efforts of reform. The Common Council, on almost a party line vote, did not oust Salsbury as city attorney, even though he was under the indictment of the Cook County grand jury. When a Kent County grand jury began to investigate the rumors of bribery, party lines continued to play an important role in the direction of the investigation.
Even with a slow start, the grand jury successfully moved the scandal forward. The prosecution of many of the water scandal cases was not always interesting. George Perry’s trial focused on determining what he knew about the bribery scheme and when, focusing mostly on his correspondence and personal character. However simple the questions of the trial were, though, these trials represent a victory for the Progressive ethical system. Perry could not rely on the simple defense strategies of former city clerk Frank Warren. Only a few years earlier, Warren based his case for acquittal of embezzling city funds around pity for his wife and kids and arguing other people also misused public funds and were not punished so the court should not punish him either.
While the city could have easily pinned the blame for the bribery plot on the outsiders who organized the scheme and brought in the money, Grand Rapids was more interested in its own corrupt politicians. This focus on reform and cleaning up the government, not just the mess that it created, aided the Civic Club and the city’s fledgeling reform movement. The water scandal strengthened the city’s focus on Progressive reform. The legacy of the water scandal lay in the outcomes of that reform movement, the rise of non-partisan politics and the commissioner-manager system of city governance.
The Grand Rapids water scandal reveals the manner in which many cities moved from municipal governments centered on personal relations and connections, to one based on more Progressive, professional managers and their administrations. No political machine was dismantled. No dominant family displaced. Grand Rapids made the transition through its adoption of Progressive ideas, specifically an ethical system that informed the role of good government and the meaning of corruption. The water scandal was the vital first step in this transition.
Historians have largely overlooked the path of Grand Rapids and other small cities to Progressivism. Grand Rapids was small enough for Chicago newspapers to roast the city over its corruption, suggesting that, in this case, the farmer had swindled the huckster. However, Grand Rapids was big enough to shock its own hinterland. A juror from rural Kent County found the whole scandal “as fascinating as a dime novel,” noting that farmers had “to come into the city to learn how a great boodling scheme is planned and executed.”
To understand Progressivism, we must recognize these alternate, less heroic, paths to reform. Perhaps national leaders can be described, as creating an “epic of reform,” as Michael McGerr does.4 However, in small cities like Grand Rapids, Progressivism came through the gradual adoption of Progressive ideas. Though created on the national stage, city leaders, often slowly and unevenly, applied the Progressive ethos to their municipality.