Ward and Barrett

The reelection of Lant Salsbury as city attorney in face of clear connections to a bribery scheme ignited the Grand Rapids water scandal. The scandal's primary figure, Salsbury, was also the first to face legal charges for the corrupt plot. While the scandal was a turning point in the city's history as it transitioned to a more Progressive-style ethical system of governance, Salsbury's initial defense tactics encapsulate the problematic nature of viewing this incident as Progressive reform's triumph.

Salsbury and his lawyers challenged the grand jury indictment and alleged an improper execution of the legal system. Salsbury's grand jury was widely noted by observers as the first in a long time, and the court was clearly rusty. The law stipulated that the court select jurors according to where they lived, saving a spot on the grand jury for someone from each of Grand Rapids' wards and several of the surrounding towns. While this process sounds comprehensive, the execution was another matter. When two members selected for the grand jury could not serve, the court simply added two people who happened to be in the courtroom that day.

The court selected bystanders to complete the grand jury

Salsbury took his objections further, alleging more than a simple misstep in procedure. Salisbury claimed that Charles Ward, the assistant prosecutor overseeing the grand jury proceedings, had instructed one of the men added at the last minute, Glen J. Barrett, to be at the courtroom that day so that Ward could place Barrett on the grand jury. In exchange for sitting on the grand jury, acting as a liaison for the prosecution, and securing an indictment, Ward would arrange Barrett to receive a position as an assistant prosecutor. The rather ironic prospect of Salsbury's indictment for bribery hinging on the prosecutors rigging the jury suggests many possibilities. Salsbury was paranoid. His defense was grasping for straws. Grand Rapids was in fact a hotbed for corruption. As usual, the truth was much more complicated.

The case's first witness, Barrett testified extensively to his relationship with Charles Ward. Despite the fact that they were "not intimate enough" to be on a first name basis, they were neighbors who chatted nearly daily when Ward passed Barrett's house. After around five years of friendly chatter, Ward knew Barrett wanted to pursue a career in law. In fact, Ward had put Barrett in contact with the prosecutor for a potential position in the office. The position would only be as a stenographer, not an assistant prosecutor or clerk. The discussions about the job were mostly vague. But Ward had invited Barrett down to the courtroom the day that the grand jury convened in order to meet about a job. Salsbury's claim against the prosecution had substance.

While presenting to the grand jury, Ward invited Barret to his home

Job negotiations ceased when Barrett found his way onto the grand jury, but the neighbors continued their friendly interactions. While Ward was presenting his case to Barrett and the grand jury, Ward invited Barrett to his home a few times, including once for dinner when Barrett's family was not in town. During another visit, Barrett brought his notes for Ward to get witnesses' names. Barrett maintained they only spoke generally about the grand jury, but he testified that he went to Ward on behalf of the grand jury to ask for some clarification of the laws pertaining to evidence. This clarification was legally permitted, though presumably also normally done in a courtroom, not a personal residence. The judge ultimately found nothing in Barrett's relationship to Ward that would sustain Salsbury's objection and he strongly instructed the jury to see the facts the same way, to which Salsbury's lawyers also objected.

The casual nature in which the court composed the grand jury reveals the the legal system's inexperience and underscores the importance of the water scandal cases actually going to trial. Likewise, the relationship of Barrett and Ward grants insight into how the nature of a small city affected reform and middle-class values shaped proceedings. The neighbors refused to allow their legal interactions to change their routines. They still stopped at neighboring houses, made small talk, and dined together. When they did have to interact in their legal roles, they did so in a neighborly way.

A grainy picture of Gerrit Albers
Gerrit Albers

Procedural improprieties plagued many later water scandal trials as well. Thomas McGarry unsuccessfully appealed his conviction on a technical issue of jurisdiction. Alderman James Mol successfully argued in front of the state supreme court that his rights were infringed when jurors from a different water scandal case were allowed to sit on the jury for his case. Gerrit Albers, one of the first men the circuit court grand jury indicted, also won his appeal to the state supreme court. After a jury found Albers not guilty of “corruptly offering money to an alderman,” he was convicted of perjury for his testimony. The court overturned this conviction, reasoning he could not be acquitted for a crime and then prosecuted on the assumption that he had in fact committed the act. George Perry objected to jurors from past water scandal trials sitting on his jury and challenged the entire system of jury selection in Grand Rapids. In the past, the city, as well as the county, had previously relied on jury commissioners to divide the city into districts and select men who “would make suitable jurors.” After this selection, the commissioners would form the jury pool by randomly selecting a equal number of names from each ward in his district. The judge in Perry's case threw out this system and ordered new jurors chosen without regard for their residence.

While the prosecution of the water scandal meant Grand Rapids was committing to a more Progressive style of government, the personal and social connections within the city colored this process. Ready for change, they city still had to figure out how to implement reform.

A Political Tool

When the city did implement reform, it was an imprecise process. But the motivations behind this push for change were complicated and not always purely for the public good. The initial grand jury had broad powers and both Republicans, who targeted Mayor George Perry, and Democrats, who targeted the influential Hollister family, saw political potential. They each wanted to use the court's reform effort to their advantage. Though still a significant step in the development of Progressive reform in Grand Rapids, the grand jury set up a struggle between the Mayor Perry and the nominally-non-partisan Civic Club, both of whom claimed leadership over the city's reform efforts.

An scene depicting three witches labelled with the names of the Herald, Hyde, and Press, over a cauldron with words like Crime, Burglary, and Murder coming out with the smoke.
“Shakespeare's 'Macbeth' Up to Date”
Grand Rapids Morning Democrat, April 3, 1902, 1.
Click Here for a transcription of the above cartoon
Black spirits and white				Mingle, mingle, mingle
Blue spirits and gray...			Yet that mingle may.

Smoke Words: [indecipherable], Murder, Burglary, Assault, Crime, Robbery

Witches: Herald, Press, Hyde

Double, double toil and trouble,		Hints and Innuendoes, too–
In the Witches' Caldron bubble,			Any whispered rumor'll do– 
Round and round the caldron go,			“Stall saloons,” or “Taxes higher”–
In the poisoned slanders throw–			Any lie from any liar–
“Deficits” and “water deals,”			Any sneaking, cowardly game.
“Burgalries” and “petty steals,”		That may smirch George Perry's name.
“Highway holdups,” “party boss,”		Double, double, toil and trouble
“Bailey Springs” and Cameron “hoss”		in the hell broth squeak and bubble
			–Shakespeare's “Macbeth” Up to Date

The Morning Democrat attacked the Civic Club as yet another Republican mouth piece, as noted in the cartoon above. A play on the three witches of Macbeth, they represent the city's two Republican newspapers, the Herald and Press as well as Wesley Hyde, the Civic Club president.

Perry and the Civic Club clashed over the prosecution of Frederick Garman and Robert Cameron, the New York con-men who orchestrated the bribery scheme behind the water scandal. Garman and Cameron returned to the city to testify in front of the grand jury, which, according to the Republican assistant prosecutor overseeing the grand jury, Charles Ward, gave them immunity. Ward and the Civic Club believed the problem of corruption in the city to be greater than these two men.

However, Perry objected to giving the New Yorkers a free pass. He arrested the pair for submitting forged checks to his administration the previous fall during the bidding process for the Lake Michigan pipeline at the heart of the scandal. Though the Perry was now taking the prosecuting of corruption into his own hands, Republicans, did not view his actions in the same light. Rather, the mayor's actions were an attempt to silence Garman and Cameron. Democrats viewed Perry as putting criminals behind bars and Republicans attempting to break them out, while Republicans saw another instance of the Democratic machine protecting its own corruption.

The cartoon below depicts the frustration Democrats felt with Republican prosecutors allowing the organizers of the bribery scheme, con-men Robert Cameron and Frederick Garman to escape prosecution while local men, including prominent Democrats, faced potential charges. The cartoon has Cameron and Garmon sitting in a jail cell. Above their window it reads: “This cell is occupied by two notorious forgers, perjurers, and conspirators.” Republican leaders are breaking the con-men out of the jail by destroying window bars that say “Michigan Statutes,” “American Criminal Law,” and “Public Protection” with hammers saying “Self-Preservation” and “Sheriff's Force.” This cartoon exemplifies the Democratic feeling that the prosecution violated the legal process with their choice to pursue local participants rather than the men at the center of the bribes.

A picture depicting two men breaking the bars of a jail exterior.
“The Jail Breakers at Work,” Grand Rapids Morning Democrat, June 6, 1901, 1.
View larger image

When Perry took office in 1898, he and Wesley Hyde, the president of the Civic Club and a lawyer that assisted in the prosecution of the water scandal cases, lived in the midst of the Grand Rapids elite only blocks apart. Shortly after the grand jury, in 1902, Perry and Hyde found themselves neighbors on Fulton Street, the heart of the city's elite. With the elite concentrated in a small section of the city, when Grand Rapids began to adopt Progressive notions of reform and corruption, it was often their neighbors caught in the crossfire.