Happy Belated Birthday Governor Gage!

Christmas Day 1852 is the birthdate of California’s 20th governor, Henry Tifft Gage, whose one term at the turn of the 20th Century was overshadowed by a bubonic plague outbreak in San Francisco that the Los Angeles Republican spent most of his tenure denying. 

The political issues during his term straddled the two centuries, highlighting the state’s metamorphosis into a global power.

In his 1899 inaugural address, Gage called for annexation of the Philippines, a territory won through the Untied States’ victory in the Spanish-American War, as a means to improve the state’s trading posture.

At the same time, the walrus-mustached chief executive decried the alleged fraud in $287,615 in claims for coyote scalps as well as insisting the federal government pay California for the $4 million in costs incurred during the Civil War.

The New York native, who spent his teenage years in Michigan before moving to California in 1874, signed the 1901 legislation creating Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and authorized the $250,000 purchase of 3,800 acres of sequoias at Big Basin in Santa Cruz County.

Described by James White in The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, as “witty, kindly mannered and an inimitable raconteur,” Gage  hired the first women doctors for the “State Hospitals for the Insane” and was the first governor to mediate a strike – Teamsters on San Francisco’s waterfront. According to an account in the Los Angeles Times, he disguised himself as a stevedore to personally assess the mood of strikers.

 “My career in office has not been one of pleasurable ease nor have I ever sought, at the expense of public duty, my own aggrandizement,” Gage said in his second biennial message to the Legislatureon January 5, 1903, shortly before leaving office.

Henry T. Gage

“Mistakes may have been made sometimes, perhaps through want of that diplomatic tact which graces many in public life — and which too often deceives — but for such, and all mistakes, wherever made, I shall be answerable to the judgment of my fellow-citizens in the quiet and just criticism of private life.”

Like most state politicians of the time, Gage was in the control of Southern Pacific Railroad, the most powerful corporation in the state and owner of 85 percent of California’s rail right-of-way.

The company’s “Political Bureau” picked candidates of both parties and quashed all legislation threatening to weaken its monopoly. The Railroad Commission, which allegedly regulated the industry, was known derisively as the “Southern Pacific Literary Club.”

Gage didn’t take kindly to be accused of being in Southern Pacific’s thrall.

An anonymous cartoon of him being led on a leash by Collis P. Huntington led Gage as governor to sponsor and sign legislation requiring newspaper articles and cartoons challenging the integrity or reputation of an individual to be signed.

His second biennial address to lawmakers includes  a lengthy section encouraghing libel to be made a felony.

Gage — his oddly spelled middle name Tifft being that of his uncle — was a sheep dealer for the first three years he lived in California.

Using the law degree he earned in Michigan, he opened a Los Angeles law office in 1877.

Southern Pacific became a client, which meant the state’s four richest and most powerful men were Gage’s allies – as long as he was theirs.

Southern Pacific backed Gage for more than 25 years.

In 1880, Gage married Francisa – Fannie – Rains, the great granddaughter of Californio Antonio Maria Lugo, an alcalde of Los Angeles.

They took up residence in the family adobe in what’s now Bell Gardens. Gage lived there until shortly before his death in 1924.

Gage Near His Mine in Acton

Gage’s measured rise in Republican party ranks began with his election as Los Angeles City Attorney in 1881.

With a cadre of other investors, Gage purchased several mines in the Santa Clarita Valley the following year, among them the Red Rover Mine near Acton, which became Southern California’s most successful gold mine, clearing $1.5 million before it closed.

As governor, Gage proposed moving the Capitol from Sacramento to Acton, according to the City of Acton’s website. It’s unclear how serious was he proposal. The Legislature didn’t acquiesce.

In 1888, Gage seconded the nomination of Levi P. Morton for vice-president at the GOP National Convention in Chicago.

Gage’s profile was heightened three years later when he was chosen to assist US Solicitor General William Howard Taft, later president and Supreme Court justice, in prosecuting the crew of a Chilean steamer, the Itata. The federal government claimed the vessel was transporting arms illegally purchased for rebels fighting the country’s president, Jose Manuel Balmaceda.

Gage said the evidence didn’t support prosecution and declined to bring a case, arguing that the arms shipment was private property over which the federal government had no jurisdiction.

Taft filed charges and lost.

Gage’s corporate practice and connections in business circles – plus not-so-tacit backing by the “Big Four” and his long-time friend, Gen. Harrison Gary Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times — won Gage the GOP nomination for governor at the 1898 convention on the first round of voting.

The general election wasn’t exactly a mandate. He beat his Democratic opponent, James Maguire, by 6.7 percentage points.

In his inaugural speech, Gage advocated annexation of the Philippines and, presciently, foresaw California’s future as a Pacific trading power.

“The center of commerce must move westward. California, favorably situated, will, among other advantages, reap the harvest of trade with these new territories, developing our many varied and growing resources, creating a western merchant marine for the carriage of our imports and exports, and luring to our markets the nations of the world.”

He was also free with advice for lawmakers, criticizing pork-barrel projects and vote-trading.

“In the heat of legislative business, agreements have been made with fellow-legislators having other measures to be passed by which votes have been exchanged and, thereby, excessive appropriations have passed both houses.

“On account of this system of bartering in votes, and the facility with which large appropriations have been obtained, the officers of these public institutions have become reckless and prodigal in the expenditure of public money.”

Sounding eerily like Republican politicians of 110 years in the future, Gage said:

“We suffer much from over-legislation. The best laws are not usually the most complex. The aim and art of government is to attain simplicity. The best-governed state has the fewest laws and the wisdom of legislators may sometimes be shown to the advantage of the public weal by refraining from legislation.

“If our constitution were amended so that our legislative sessions should be held every four instead of two years, the people would derive much benefit and a more stable and economic government would follow.”


“Were our lawmakers to spend more time in repealing than in enacting surplus statutes, the public interest would be better served. Already we have too many state boards and commissions, with extensive lists of subordinate employees, drawing larger pay than could be earned by them for similar services within the lines of private business, and this should be corrected.”

Gage’s term in office was defined by an outbreak of bubonic plague in San Francisco in 1900 that remained uneradicated until 1903, when Gage’s GOP successor, Geroge Pardee, took office.

During his entire tenure in office — despite medical evidence from several sources to the contrary — Gage refused to acknowledge such a plague existed.

His view — and that of his business interest allies — was that admitting a plague existed would lead to drastic economic harm to the state.

The cause in brief:

Six months after Gage’s inaugural address the Nippon Maru docked in San Francisco. For several months plague reports had filtered in from Hawaii and Hong kong.

The Nippon Maru steamed into port with a yellow flag flying from her mast, the sign of plague. Two passengers had died of it en route. She was brought to Angel Island where the chief federal medical officer, Dr. Joseph Kinyuon, examined the vessel. 

Dr. Joseph J. Kinyuon in His Lab

Kinyuon, trained in Europe in the new science of bacteriology, was stationed at Angel Island with the Marine Hospital Service, the progenitor of the National Institutes of Health.

Nine Japanese stowaways were found on the Nippon Maru. Two jumped ship and, a few days later, their bodies were hauled from the bay.

No outbreak occurred but inspections became more thorough.

The Australia arrived in San Francisco on its regular run from Hawaii in January of 1900. The four-master was quarantined at Angel Island, searched and, after no trace of infection was found, allowed to dock – at the mooring where the sewers of Chinatown emptied.

“Easing into the dock, the Australia delivered the sanitized bags of her 68 passengers and a shipment of fumigated mail – along with some four-legged stowaways that, somehow, escaped detection,” writes Marilyn Chase in The Barbary Plague: the Black Death in Victorian San Francisco.

The rodents were the most likely cause of the epidemic that subsequently broke out in the warren-like slums of Chinatown.

Sparing no irony, 1900 was the Chinese Year of the Rat.

The first victim was Wong Chut king,a 41-year-old lumber salesman who died March 6 1900.

A 12-block section of Chinatown, containing an estimated 25,000 residents was cordoned off the following day. Kinyuon’s examination determined plague as the cause of death.

US Surgeon General Walter Wyman recommended “Antipest serum” be administered to all exposed to the plague and a vaccine to the other residents of Chinatown.

Within two weeks, three more Chinatown residents were dead.

The Chinatown quarantine was lifted but house-to-house inspections were undertaken as were disinfecting efforts.

“Newspapers lampooned the plague cleanup,” Chase writes.

 “Cartoonists sketched doctors plucking germs off Chinese scrolls. The bacteria were depicted as grinning, gargoyle-faced tadpoles. Caricatures of pigtailed immigrants were shown fleeing town.”

On April 1, Texas imposed a quarantine that while not naming California specifically effectively embargoed California goods. Colorado imposed an embargo in May.

As the number of deaths mounted, Gage – along with Southern Pacific and other large business interests – decided that only secrecy would prevent the economic casatastrophe of a national embargo on California goods.

Aided by San Francisco’s Call, Chronicle and Bulletin, Gage’s campaign of denial began.

On June 13, in response to inquiries about the outbreak by US Secretary of State John Hay, Gage telegraphed back a 14-point refutation of plague allegations. Gage’s sixth, seventh and eighth points were:

“There has been no epidemic in Chinatown. The municipal records show the proportion of deaths in Chinatown has been no greater than that of any other portion of San Francisco since the date of the discovery of the alleged plague in Chinatown.

“I cannot find proof that the plague alleged to be here is either infectious or contagious. I find no proof that any person has contracted it from another; and I farther find that certain individuals who have been repeatedly exposed at autopsies and elsewhere to the alleged plague, and others who have moved about in the houses and rooms where the suspects expired, having done so without taking any precaution whatever against the supposed malady, have neither contracted the same nor spread the disease elsewhere.”

The telegram was also signed by, among other luminaries, former Gov. James Budd, Levi Strauss and Levi Cooper Lane, the founder of Cooper Medical School, which later became Stanford School of Medicine.

In his January 7, 1901 first biennial address to the Legislature , Gage refers to the outbreak as the “bubonic plague scare.”

He repeatedly uses the word “alleged” to describe investigations of victims and criticizes the press that weren’t part of his cover-up.

“A few sensational newspaper organs, like carrion birds, scented the subject and boldly espoused the cause of the plague creators, publishing daily sensational accounts of suspected cases and declaring them to be cases of the plague, Gage told lawmakers.

Gage sought legislation to gag such reports of plague. Lawmakers balked at passing it.

After his “impartial” examination, Gage said, “I finally became convinced beyond doubt that the bubonic plague did not exist  — and had not existed – notwithstanding the alarming reports to the contrary.”

A major part of the campaign was defamation of Kinyuon, including the suggestion he injected corpses with the plague. 

“Could it have been possible,” Gage said in the same speech, “that some dead body of a Chinaman had innocently or otherwise received a post-mortem inoculation in a lymphatic region by someone possessing the imported plague bacilli and that honest people were thereby deluded?”

The antipathy toward Kinyuon from the Republican governor and others was enough to drive him to carry a gun and seek police bodyguards.

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo 1907

“Kinyuon’s role in the early phases of this controversy was exemplary,” wrote Vernon Link in A History of Plague in the United States of America from the Public Health Monograph No. 26, 1955. “He had the courage to face what amounted to the most severe personal criticism, almost approaching martyrdom.

“The campaign of vilification launched against him and others who contended that bubonic plague was present in San Francisco has never been equaled in its unexampled bitterness or unfairness.”

Shortly after Gage’s address to the Legislature, the federal government appointed a three-person commission to investigate the deaths and determine if plague was the cause.

Gage protested. A bill was introduced January 31 to halt the commission’s work but it didn’t pass.

Not surprisingly the commission declared the cause of deaths to be plague.

Gage fought back claiming states rights – the federal government was intruding an exclusively California concern. He denied the commissioners the use of University of California labs to continue their studies.

In April 1901, 1,200 Chinatown houses were scoured. Nevertheless plague cases mounted.

Despite a $100,00 publicly funded campaign to deny the plague, the Associated Press, the Sacramento Bee and others began to report what the federal commission and Kinyuon had been saying all along.

The GOP governor sent emissaries to Washington DC, including several newspaper publishers and the top lawyer for Southern Pacific to Washington to negotiate a deal.

If the federal government would not brand the cause of death as plague, the state would allow them to take the steps necessary to stamp it out.

By 1904 – despite Gage’s steadfast refusal to acknowledge it — the plague had killed 122 Californians, all but a handful in San Francisco.

The plague also exhausted his political capital.

Gage had reopened the state printing office, closed by his predecessor as a cost cutting move.

He’d peacefully mediated the Teamsters strike in San Francisco. And he had purchased the Big Basin redwoods.

He urged lawmakers to increase appropriations to the University of California but in light of Phoebe Hearst’s generosity, not as much as UC wanted.

Gage also felt that Stanford University, the beneficiary of tax free status for the trusts and endowments that supported thanks to voter approval of 1900’s ACA 23, gave it a “quasi-public” status that required it to admit residents of California free of tuition.

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, which Gage created, was to “furnish young people of both sexes mental and manual training in the arts and sciences, including agriculture, mechanics, engineering, business methods, domestic economy, and such other branches as will fit the students for the non-professional walks of life.”

An appropriation of $50,000 was provided for the purchase of a site in San Luis Obispo County and construction and maintenance of necessary buildings.

Gage also launched the statewide career of Ulysses S. Webb, the district attorney of Plumas County, who he appointed Attorney General in 1902.

Webb held the office 37 years.

But despite his other achievements and his fealty to business interests, Gage’s position on the plague outbreak led Southern Pacific to seek another standard-bearer in 1902.

Their choice was made easier when a stalemate developed at the 1902 convention between what were labeled the Railroad and the Reform Republicans.

The Reform Republicans were the genesis of the Progressive Party which within 10 years would create the initiative process that helped end Southern Pacific’s political stranglehold by letting Californians go directly to the ballot.

To help break the convention deadlock, Southern Pacific abandoned Gage and supported George Pardee for governor.

Pardee had been a student at the Cooper Medical College in San Francisco and also studied medicine in Germany.

 Shortly after his inauguration, the Oakland native immediately authorized the proper public health steps be taken by state, local and federal authorities to eradicate the plague, swiftly ending the mounting calls for a nationwide boycott of California products.

Gage returned to Los Angeles and his law practice.

Named minister to Portugal by President Taft in 1909 Gage only held the post for several months because of his wife’s ill health.

Henry Gage 1911

As footwear, Gage favored boots and kept a Bowie knife inside one.

He ordered 14 pairs before departing for Portugal. He balked at wearing the court attire of tights and short pants.

“That’s out. I will not appear in Lord Fauntleroy pants. I’ll wear my own pants or, by golly, I’ll go home, the Los Angeles Times quotes Gage as saying. He greeted the king in long pants, black tie and boots.

Returning home, he was retained by Clarence Darrow to represent Bert Franklin, the defense lawyer’s chief jury investigator in the trial of the John and James McNamara, brothers who dynamited the Los Angeles Times over an open shop labor dispute, killing 21 employees. 

Darrow realized the brothers’ guilt but tried to get them acquitted.

Franklin was arrested at a street corner in downtown Los Angeles while attempting to pay money to a juror. Darrow had arrived on the scene moments before the arrest.

Franklin eventually cut a deal with the prosecution and in January 1912 he testified before a grand jury that Darrow orchestrated the bribery attempts. Gage was paid at $10,000 fee from the McNamara defense fund, which was bankrolled by the American Federation of Labor.

Darrow beat the bribery rap through a plea bargain that stipulated he never practice in California again.

During the same period, Gage also worked with a team of 16 other lawyers unraveling the estate of millionaire Lucky Baldwin.

Gage died August 28, 1924 at the age of 71.




Filed under: California History

1 Comment »

  1. Thank you for your interesting article. As a Gage descendant, I appreciate the effort made herein to publish photographs and articles which otherwise would rarely if ever see the light of day.

    Comment by Donia Gage Hunter — 4.26.2014 @ 8:53 pm

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