The Grand Rapids Water Scandal

A Thematic View

The urban realities of Grand Rapids allowed the city's elite to fiercely compete in politics, while maintaining social relationships. Likewise, the elite simultaneously served as the city's civic reformers and facilitators of corruption. The city's mayor at the turn of the century, George Perry juggled appointing the best man for the job, appeasing his Democratic constituencies, and appealing to Republicans as the city drifted from Democratic to Republican control. Perry was a Progressive mayor, political boss, and shrewd politician all at once. In the same way Perry held many identities, so did organizations like the Civic Club, which was made of men even more entrenched within the city's social system than Perry. The blurring of insiders and outsiders helps explain the elite's contradictory attitudes towards corruption. Though the prosecution of the man alleged to be behind the many of the bribes, city attorney Lant Salsbury, shows an evolving standard of conduct, the willingness to “forgive and forget” for many of the men involved in the water scandal reveals an un-Progressive tolerance of urban corruption. Similarly, the election of a Republican majority common council after a campaign against civic corruption suggests the city was amenable to reform, but the reelection of Salsbury as city attorney shows Salsbury's troubles in Chicago were far from a politically toxic issue.


The personal politics of the Gilded Age, in which patronage was a reward for political friends, is most often associated with political machines, though, as Grand Rapids shows, corruption without a machine was very possible. The lack of a political machine made the personal politics and corruption in Grand Rapids a very complex affair. Mayor George Perry crossed party lines under the guise of Progressive impartiality, but then appointed men he would have likely seen frequently in social settings. This willingness to cross party lines when personal gain was at stake became even more evident in the water scandal as the city's aldermen from all parts of the political spectrum accepted bribes.

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George Perry's Appointments

Despite the fact that the Republican newspaper, the Grand Rapids Herald, frequently dubbed Mayor Perry and his supporters the “Tammany Club,” Perry's willingness to cross party lines to make appointments for the city seems Progressive. Historians have often interpreted the bureaucratization of the government, from civil service reform to city managers, as a Progressive aim. Perry's appointments seem to fit the anti-machine business-like style of government that reformers sought. In defense of his selection of a Republican for a private secretary, Perry invoked this very notion, saying, “If you can show me a Democrat with as much brains as Mr. Hunter has I will point him my private secretary”. The city's Republican newspaper, the Grand Rapids Herald even complimented Perry on choosing “to do what would be to the city's best interest.” The Herald drove the point home that Perry's appointments of Republicans was “for the public good and to insure efficient public service” and “for the welfare of the city” all out of “patriotic course,” and a “high sense of duty to the municipality.

However, Perry's appointments were not as self-sacrificing as they initially seem

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Perry's appointments clearly tap into the power structure of Grand Rapids. Son of leading Democrat Edwin Uhl, David Uhl was a clear up and coming citizen of Grand Rapids. He even had a membership in the ultra-exclusive Peninsular Club. Even better connected, Dudley Waters had business ventures with many other leading citizens like the People's Savings bank and the Grand Rapids National Bank, which placed him in frequent contact with the city's Democratic and Republican leaders alike. Similarly, Orson Ball functioned as an ideal connection to the Republican establishment through the Grand Rapids Savings Bank.

Even more than shrewd politics, however, Perry was appointing men who traveled in similar social circles. Dudley Waters, as well as another of Perry's appointees, Republican William Boyns, served on the board of directors of the Lakeside Club with Perry. The wives of Perry, Ball and Waters, as well as the mother of David Uhl, also all belonged to the preeminent women's social club, the Ladies Literary club.

Though wrapped in a discourse of Progressive non-partisanship, Perry's appointees represent the Gilded Age style of personal politics that emphasized rewarding friends


A Bipartisan affair

At the end of the water scandal, thirty-one men from Grand Rapids were legally implicated in one part or another of the bribery scheme, fourteen of them were aldermen. Even though the key local figures in the plan to profit from expanding the city's water supply were Democrats, City Attorney Lant K. Salsbury, Mayor George Perry, and Thomas McGarry, a political ally of the mayor, the aldermen involved were surprisingly bi-partisan in nature.

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Though evenly split, where the aldermen implicated in the water scandal lived once again suggests these men were partaking in a Gilded Age-style personal politics. The best example is the case of John Donovan and Adrian Schriver, aldermen representing the 5th ward, who lived at 32 Page St. and 29 Page St. respectively. While political allegiances may have divided them, their status as neighbors likely aided their participation in the water scandal's bribery scheme, for which they had to later paid fines.




Though the fact that the bribery scheme became a scandal in itself suggests that the citizens of Grand Rapids possessed some inclination to reform their municipal government, the way in which the reform was undertaken was often sloppy or not indicative of any Progressive "movement."

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Salsbury's Reelection

Even though calls for a grand jury investigation began within a week of the discovery of an alternative bribery scheme of Lant Salsbury's in Chicago, which seem to represent an emerging notion of reform and a desire to punish corruption, these calls do not reveal a Progressive movement. A grand jury was not actually formed until early May right after the city's common council reelected Salsbury as city attorney.

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Had Salsbury not been reelected by the Common Council, or quickly resigned, it would not be hard to envision the matter ending at his loss of political office. However, events unfolded differently and, instead of “forgiving and forgetting,” the grand jury convened and the water scandal began in earnest.

Although the water scandal implicated over half of the city's aldermen,

nearly all the council's Democrats, and some Republicans, publicly voted for Salsbury. Even though the city's Republicans took two additional seats after running a campaign against Salsbury's corruption, the Democrats on the council, as well as some Republicans, did not see Salsbury's all but admitted guilt in the Chicago affair as a politically toxic issue. In a secret ballot, at least one Republican joined the Democrats on the first ballot, which gave Salsbury twelve votes, and at least three joined on the next, which gave Salsbury fourteen votes, a majority of the council. Even after the council passed a resolution, which forced a public re-vote, Salsbury received two Republican votes and a twelve to eleven edge.

Furthermore, among the Republicans that voted against Salsbury, were Republicans who had accepted bribes from the city attorney.

In a city with bipartisan corruption, dealing with corruption became, for the most part, a partisan issue. The election of Salsbury reveals a gray area between reform and corruption in which city officials occupied contradictory stances, accepting corruption while abstaining from it and denouncing corruption while partaking.


Wesley Hyde and the Civic Club

While the city took the lead in prosecuting the trials of the water scandal, Wesley W. Hyde, the head of the Grand Rapids Civic Club, assisted the prosecution. The Civic Club was one of the early proponents for a grand jury to investigate Salsbury and the scheme behind him, but the relatively new club thought the “public authorities” would be able to handle the scandal despite the unfolding of a plant to bribe public officials. The existence of the Civic Club, its support of the water scandal prosecution, and its activity in pursuing corruption in other, albeit lower profile areas of city government, show that there were elements of an emerging reform consciousness, though they proceeded slowly in their movement.

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Certainly, Hyde's involvement in prosecuting the first water scandal cases suggests civic reform was active in the city, but the social and political positioning of the Civic Club reveals the club was another instance of the city's elite, not outside reformers, working through issues of corruption.

Hyde was a prominent lawyer within the city and had no troubling associating himself with the city's elite. Until leading Democrat Edwin Uhl retired, Hyde partnered with Uhl, that is after Uhl returned from serving as ambassador to Germany. Also in the club were the social and politically rising Clay Hollister, whose name was mentioned in connection with the water scandal, and the well connected banker Charles W. Garfield.

The Civic Club and Hyde's involvement in the trials of the water scandal highlight the city's emerging notions of reform and Progressivism, but because the Civic Club was made up of prominent citizens firmly entrenched within the political and social networks that the corrupt politicians also occupied, the seriousness of reform is again questionable. Like Perry, who could represent both outside reformer and corrupt insider, the Civic Club was a reform organization similar to many those examined by the traditional narrative of Progressivism, but one that contained no traditional reformers. The Civic Club, while pushing for urban political reform, also represented the elite class of men who dominated the political scene.