Father Joseph McQuaide leads a funeral procession for former San Francisco Police Chief William Biggy in 1908. (Courtesy photos)

Father Joseph McQuaide leads a funeral procession for former San Francisco Police Chief William Biggy in 1908. (Courtesy photos)

The mysterious death of Chief Biggy


“When constabulary duty’s to be done,
A policeman’s lot is not a happy one.”

— Gilbert and Sullivan, “The Pirates of Penzance”

Around midnight on the foggy night of Nov. 30, 1908, police engineer Bill Murphy eased the San Francisco police boat, Patrol, into its Mission Street wharf. After he secured the boat, he turned around and, to his horror, saw that his passenger, San Francisco Police Chief William Biggy, was missing. Biggy was never seen alive again. How and why Biggy disappeared has been debated for more than 100 years …

Biggy was appointed in 1907, during San Francisco’s most turbulent times. The City had just gone through its worst natural disaster and its worst political disaster: the 1906 earthquake, and the indictment and conviction of political boss Abe Ruef, Mayor Eugene Schmitz and many other politicians, respectively. The Board of Supervisors, mayor and police chief had been swept out of office. Biggy, previously a state legislator, a supervisor and a police commissioner, was appointed police chief by new Mayor Edward Robeson.

To succeed, the new police chief would have to be politically savvy, principled and able to work with others. Biggy had only one of these characteristics. He was honest and incorruptible, but he was moralistic, intractable and thin-skinned.

Biggy began trying to root out corruption in the Police Department — and he didn’t have to look far. Account books found in a brothel at 971 McAllister St. revealed regular payoffs of $5 to patrolmen and $10 to police sergeants. More than 100 police were investigated, which did not endear Biggy to the rank and file.

Biggy’s efforts to wipe out vice and gambling alienated many. He tried to limit prostitution to Chinatown; this alienated merchants in the Tenderloin and Fillmore, who feared a loss of business. The Chinese leaders protested, calling the move “an outrage to our feelings and a disaster to our business interests.”

The Chinese Chamber of Commerce denounced his ban on playing dominoes and was furious when police raided legitimate businesses but ignored the real gambling dens.

Biggy sometimes enforced the laws himself. In June 1908, he gave Supervisor Paul Bancroft a speeding ticket, an act guaranteed not to win friends and influence people. But the worst was yet to come …

As part of the corruption case that put Biggy at the helm of the Police Department, District Attorney Frances Heney indicted the top railroad and PG&E bosses for bribery. On Nov. 13, 1908, as court was about to convene, Heney was shot in the head and seriously wounded by Morris Haas, a former juror. Police seized Haas and put him in jail. The next day, when Haas killed himself with a derringer in his prison cell, many people thought Biggy was responsible. Biggy then got into a bitter feud with the District Attorney’s Office when he blamed DA investigator William Burns for not thoroughly searching Haas for weapons.

Calls for Biggy’s resignation grew. The newspapers were merciless in their attacks. San Francisco Call editorials read: “Biggy is a blowhard … Biggy is chicken hearted and chicken witted … Biggy has surrounded himself with crooks in uniform whom he knows to be crooks — crooks who hate the prosecutors. Nobody respects him.”

Biggy started to crack under the strain of these constant attacks. In the early morning hours of Nov. 29, without notifying anyone, Biggy staged a bizarre one-man raid on Tessie Wall’s infamous brothel, an establishment he had been trying to close unsuccessfully for months. The next day, the gleeful headlines of the San Francisco Call read: “Raids In The Name Of Biggy. Pudgy Person, Apparently Intoxicated, Breaks Into Resort of Tessie Wall.”

Biggy later showed strain at the Ferry Building, when he left his gun in the restaurant bathroom. As he boarded the police boat, headed for the Belvedere home of Police Commissioner Hugo Keil, Biggy claimed that two men on the pier were really spies sent by investigator Burns. At Commissioner Keil’s house, Biggy offered his resignation. The attacks on his character and the derisive articles in the San Francisco Call had deeply affected him. Keil convinced Biggy that his resignation would play into the hands of his opponents and convinced him to stay on.

Biggy boarded the boat again and vanished during the trip back. His body was recovered two weeks later. At first, there was speculation that Biggy killed himself. But without proof, and knowing that a verdict of suicide would prevent Biggy from being buried in consecrated ground, his death was called accidental.

His funeral was one of the most impressive in San Francisco history. The same people who previously hounded him printed effusive testimonials. The San Francisco Call quoted parts of the eulogy: “As a public officer he was absolutely honest … The tender ties that bound his breast, his care and solicitude for his family, his generosity of purse, his friendliness of manner, his honesty of speech and action need only to be mentioned.”

Two years later, a murder theory that has persisted to this day emerged when Murphy, the police boat pilot, was committed to Agnews State Mental Hospital. As he was taken away, Murphy screamed, “I don’t know who did it, but I swear I didn’t do it.”

Combined with the fact that certain documents related to Biggy’s death were suppressed, Murphy’s outburst gave conspiracy buffs another mystery on which to speculate, in addition to the Kennedy assassination, Bigfoot and the Zodiac killer.

Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco. For more information, visit www.crookstour.com.

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