San Mateo born of election fraud, corruption

San Mateo County is getting ready to celebrate the 150th anniversary of its political birth, including events that earned it a reputation for many years as the most corrupt county in California.

Historians and politicos — including retired judge Quentin Kopp — will gather today dressed in their finest scoundrel garb and re-enact the rigged election of 1856, which put San Mateo County's first leaders into office. On Wednesday, the Fox Theatre will host a gala event to celebrate the incorporation of the county on April 19, 1856.

That incorporation came at the hands of a bill from Assemblyman Horace Hawes, who wanted to create a unified city and county of San Francisco and run the scoundrels — many of whom had been lured to the region by gold prospects — out of the city. It worked only too well.

At the county'sfirst elections in May, ex-prizefighters Chris Lilly and Billy Mulligan, allied with San Francisco politicians who favored the reunification, manned the election with guns and arranged for false ballots to be included in the vote.

At the time, San Mateo County had 2,000 citizens, including women and children. Somehow, more than 1,600 ballots were cast, according to county historian Mitch Postel.

Many of the ballots were submitted using the names of immigrants who came to California to work in the gold mines. The ballot boxes had secret compartments, so that someone with a quick hand could swap legitimate ballots out and insert forged ones.

Mulligan's brother was elected sheriff; Lilly's bartender, Robert Gray, was elected county clerk; and the two judges who certified the election, Charles Clark and John Johnston, won two of the three new Supervisor seats.

“I can't help but think some deal was made with those judges,” Postel said.

The Hawes decision suited San Mateo County well. As San Francisco grew to 50,000 people, Peninsula denizens felt the metropolitan politicians didn't represent their interests — and besides, it was a difficult 40-mile trek to do business at City Hall.

But it turned out to be a mixed blessing for San Francisco. The city, freed of its criminal underworld, became more mature, but had lost some of the things that modernizing cities needed, such as space for essential industries and facilities.

“It made it difficult for San Francisco to be a 20th-century town, because it lacked room for an airport and cemeteries,” Postel said.

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