by Paul R. Spitzzeri
With the news that former president Donald Trump’s compound at Mar-a-Lago in Florida was raided today by the FBI on a search warrant, the inevitable claims that this action, in the works for some time, is a political ploy to derail his hopes for a comeback in the 2024 election were immediately issued by him and supporters.
This is hardly a novel strategy, however, having been practiced many times before, including in Los Angeles in the spring 1919 campaign for mayor. In that instance, incumbent Republican Frederic T. Woodman (1871-1949) was, as the early May primary and early June election approached, indicted by the Los Angeles Grand Jury on a bribery charge. His defense attorneys, including former district attorney John D. Fredericks, pushed for an immediate trial because of the impending vote, and the situation got very interesting on the eve of the election.
The featured artifact for this post is a press photograph, taken by The International Film Service, Inc. of New York and then later filed in the Reference Department of the News Enterprise Association. Though the stamp for the latter bears the date 9 August 1923, it is clear the photo was from some years earlier, probably September 1916. More on that below, as well as about the drama of 1919, after a bit of background on Woodman.
He was born in Plainfield, New Hampshire, in the center of the state along the border with Vermont, and where his father, a Civil War veteran who, after some years as a sailor, was a tailor and then a farmer. Woodman was educated at Concord, the state capital, attended Norwich University in Vermont, and then Albany Law School in the capital of New York. He was admitted to the bar in 1898 and was in private practice for about a decade.
Woodman, however, was politically ambitious from a young age and was a delegate to the Republican Party state conventions in New Hampshire from 1893 onward, as well as a party leader in Concord and in Merrimack County. At just over 30, he was elected to the state legislature and was, to date, the youngest chair of a committee, the judiciary, in that body. He served a single two-year term from 1902-1904 and was encouraged to run for state senate, but declined the invitation.
It is not known why Woodman, immediately after his marriage to Etta May Sanborn (the two lived in the same boarding house in the 1900 census) in February 1908, decamped to Los Angeles, though it is possible that it was for the benefit of his or his new bride’s health—she died after just eight years of marriage, so that seems likely. In any case, Woodman hung up his barrister’s shingle in the Angel City after being admitted to the state bar two months after his arrival.
Woodman’s path in local politics was through the powerful Harbor Commission, which he joined in 1912 with his legal knowledge and acumen proving valuable as the Port of Los Angeles, at Wilmington and San Pedro, was expanding greatly along with the region and as the Panama Canal was being readied for completion, with the expectation of a dramatically increased maritime trade for the Angel City.
With his reputation and bona fides as a straight-shooting, progressive Republican, Woodman was suddenly a prime contender for chief executive of Los Angeles when Mayor Charles E. Sebastian, a former police chief, resigned in early September 1916 over a scandal, covered here previously in a post. Elevated to the position, Woodman was shown in a photo from a Los Angeles Express article of 6 September in what looks to be the same clothing and nearly the same pose, except the article shows him with pen in hand as if signing an important city document, while the press image has him taking a critical phone call.
For the most part, Woodman’s short appointed tenure seems to have gone well and it was only about half a year later when he had to begin campaigning for election for a full two-year term (four year terms did not begin until a new city charter was adopted in 1925.) When he did, there seemed little reason to question his capability. The California Eagle, a Black newspaper aligned to the party of Abraham Lincoln, enthusiastically supported the mayor’s campaign, opining:
The reasons are many and sufficient why Mayor Woodman should be elected mayor of Los Angeles, but no reason is more sufficient than that in the short term he is now filling, HE HAS MADE GOOD . . . he has thus far made the best mayor this city has ever had in the memory of a great majority of its citizens, that too, at a period that has furnished innumerable difficulties, and not the least of them is the present high cost of living.
That last point might resonate with us as the 2022 midterms approach and, of course, economic issues are always in the forefront of the minds of voters, including African-Americans who were more affected by inflation or economic downturns than whites.
In its 22 May 1917 edition, the steadfastly Republican Los Angeles Times reviewed candidates for city offices and asserted that the mayor’s “record is one of achievements in the interests of the people,” adding that Woodman “is conscientious and fearless.” Claiming that “he has started some mighty big things and should be permitted to finish them” and calling the candidate “a doer,” the paper averred that “the general sentiment is that it is the duty of the people [interesting phrasing to be sure!] to keep him on the job.”
By contrast, former mayor and Democrat Meredith P. Snyder was portrayed as “a hard-shelled politician” who’d already served three terms as the 19th century closed and the 20th dawned. Having been a banker, Snyder sold it to jump back into electoral politics, but, while he was credited for being stubborn, the Times felt “it is best for the city that he should not be elected over Woodman.”
With a motto of “A Square Deal for All,” Woodman captured the primary by 1,045 votes and avoided having a runoff against Snyder in the June election a month later. With America’s recent entry in World War I, the mayor lobbied vigorously for the main southern California training camp of the American Expeditionary Force to be in or near Los Angeles, but it was decided to establish Camp Kearny (named for the Army general who participated in the seizure of Mexican California during the Mexican-American War) north of San Diego.
When the Angel City and environs proved disappointingly unenthusiastic about subscribing for the Liberty Bonds that funded the American military build-up for the war, Woodman led the effort to essentially shame the citizens of Los Angeles to dig deeper and buy more bonds with ads proclaiming that the city “faces the greatest crisis in its civic history.”
Instead of being a pariah among major American metropolises and “held up to scorn and ridicule throughout the land, seared with the mark of having FAILED THE NATION AND FAILED HER OWN SONS IN THE RANKS OF THE BATTLE ON THE FIELDS OF FRANCE,” the city had to prove it was “A REAL AMERICAN CITY” and not “THE ONLY LARGE SLACKER CITY IN AMERICA” by going all out in purchases as it was “stripped naked before the world” and could only redeem itself immediately as “DELAYS ARE DANGEROUS.”
After war’s end, Woodman turned to a project long envisioned by city leaders as the stunning growth of Los Angeles demonstrated how far behind it was in public works of all kinds. At the beginning of 1919, he announced plans to form a committee for the development of a new civic center, beyond just a city hall (then on Broadway between 2nd and 3rd streets), but one that would include all city departments in convenient proximity to one another.
It took several years, with some of the more grandiose plans for a civic center shelved, but a monumental City Hall, built on the block owned and developed by the brothers Jonathan and F.P.F. Temple, finally did open in 1928, while other governmental buildings were grouped nearby, mainly along Temple Street, including the Hall of Justice, with the jail and county courts in one structure.
Speaking of the courts, it was just two months later that Mayor Woodman was indicted, arrested and booked on the bribery charge. Relying solely on the testimony of a figure in his administration, Horace Karr, the district attorney was Thomas Lee Woolwine, who was profiled here when he was prosecuting the city’s chief executive.
Basically, Karr charged that Woodman was to be paid $2,500 a month by “negro divekeeper” George Brown, and “negro politicians” Julius McAllister, George Brown (unrelated to the other) and George Henderson so that they could continue to operate their “gambling houses, immoral resorts and sell liquor unlawfully in the Central avenue [this being downtown, where the African-American community largely resided] and Chinatown districts.” These men, and purported “go-between” Edward Swartz, a hair dye salesman also accused of shaking down women who owned massage parlors and baths (with all that went on in those kids of establishments), were also indicted with Woodman.
For his part, the mayor insisted that the indictment was a “frame-up” calculated to sink his reelection campaign with the primary just a matter of weeks away. Fredericks charged that “this indictment is in the nature of a political fight” and asked the court to rearrange its calendar to prioritize the case. Woodman issued a statement in which he noted:
I would not have been more surprised had the charge been murder in the first degree . . . I have been in positions where the opportunity to receive dirty money was far greater than anything alleged at this time, but I can positively and unqualifiedly state that in all my public life I have never received, solicited, or agreed to accept a dishonest dollar in any manner or under any guise.
He alleged that underworld figures were aiming to bring him down because of his vigilance against vice and the mayor added that public servants “must expect assault from those elements whose interests are adverse to law enforcement.” He intended to vigorously fight the charges against him as “my own good name requires it” and “the reputation of this great city demands it.” Woodman said “divekeeper” Brown was driven out of business and had no contact whatever with Henderson.
Noting the indictment was filed the day after his formal announcement for reelection, the mayor asked the public to withhold judgment “and when the iniquity of this accusation is apparent,” he continued, “let that judgment take such action as will better safeguard faithful public officials in the future.”
It turned out in testimony at trial that Karr admitted to collecting money but kept it and there was no adduced proof tying the mayor to it and the jury took a few hours in deliberation before returning a verdict of not guilty for Woodman. This was literally several days before the election and the incumbent, who was unable to campaign during the proceeding, aggressively tried to make the case that he was totally vindicated and the victim of a smear campaign.
The Times of 3 May passionately defended the mayor, saying “there is not the least public surprise at the verdict” and that “HE NEVER SHOULD HAVE BEEN INDICTED” as it was manifestly unfair to Woodman and the city’s good name. It actually called for the elimination of grand jury indictments as ruinous to reputations “and some other method substituted,” though it offered no alternative. The concept it alleged “is a cruelty equal to any ever devised by the Hohenzollerns,” the family of the Kaiser who led Germany into the First World War.
With the “monstrous wrong” done to him, Woodman deserved a fair shake from the voter, the paper argued, after having “the hell-dogs of the yellow pro-German press hounding him.” While that vile attack could not be undone, “the people can help repair the frightful damage done the Mayor.” Proclaiming, “give him simple justice,” the Times asked it readers to “GIVE HIM A PLACE ON THE TICKET” and demanded “fair play for the Mayor at the primary!” It ended its plea with: “The Times cannot imagine the others of Los Angeles being so deaf to the dictates of justice as to fail to give Mayor Woodman his rightful place on the ticket.”
That, however, is exactly what transpired. Snyder did not win enough votes at the primary to capture the seat outright, but easily bested Woodman at the June election, garnering about 45,000 votes to the incumbent’s 27,500 or so. The Democrat served his two-year term before losing to George E. Cryer in the 1921 race, which Woodman contemplated entering, though he demurred and never did seek elective office again.
The former mayor continued practicing law and also operated an automobile loan business, while also serving as a director with the Bank of America. The last three decades of his life were relatively quiet (he remarried in 1921, while his sister Katherine Leighton was a well-known artist of the period). In the 1930 census, Woodman and his wife lived two doors down from Cryer, who, after great turmoil, ended his mayoral career just the prior year. When he died in 1949, relatively little space was given the former mayor in his obituary and he was already largely forgotten.