The Grafters Club

The Membership


Robert W. Speer


The Boss.


Robert W. Speer

Our first connection came in an article that happens to represent our earliest indication Lou was already king of the bunks in 1902. Speer was not yet mayor.

Denver Times, August 7, 1902

Investigates Dealings of the "Welchers' Syndicate."
Governor Orman has taken official cognizance of the operations said to have been carried on by Police Magistrate Thomas, working in connection with certain other Denver men, in which the gamblers of the city are described as having "made restitution" of several large sums of money.
Charles F. Wilson and C.L. Burpee, who at present constitute the fire and police board, were closeted for several hours with Governor Orman this morning. R.W. Speer of the board of public works was also with the governor, but his visit is said to have had nothing to do with the Thomas matter. Wilson and Burpee told the governor what they knew and what they suspected regarding the operations of the police magistrate, and were asked to investigate the matter further.
Magistrate Thomas now claims, so it is understood, that the money he collected from the gamblers was money which "a relative" had lost over the tables. He will be invited by the governor to produce the relative, said to be a connection by marriage. It is probable that when the gamblers see that there is a possibility that the syndicate which Thomas is thought to have represented is to be deprived of its power through his removal, they will come forward with their side of the case.
Evidence in the possession of the fire and police board shows that "Lou" Blonger, who has been in charge of the wholesale bunco operations in this city, had a long conference on Saturday evening in the "red room" at the corner of Sixteenth and Curtis streets, and that upon leaving he told a friend he had the matter fixed up so that his bunco game might resume operations, with not a pretense of prosecution by the police department. Indications are now that the police department will tell all it knows of the grafting operations carried on, and that thereby the danger of an investigation of the police department will be averted.

Additional articles don't connect Speer to Lou, but to Ed Chase. Under the circumstances, however, it would be hard to imagine Lou did not have a relationship with Speer as well.

Linda Womack, writing on

In 1891, another Boss came into Denver's history. Robert W. Speer began his political career as a board member of the Denver Police and Fire departments. This granted Speer the authority to oversee liquor licenses and garnered him a following among Denver's underworld. Ed Chase soon became a great benefactor to Speer. The two became fast friends as each helped the other, financially and politically. Speer developed an eyes-closed policy to the gambling establishment, while Chase provided money and voters for Speer's Mayoral election. Together, the duo managed to manipulate political control of the city.
In 1904, Speer won the election to mayor in what many called the dirtiest, most fraudulent elections ever held in Denver. The Denver Times reported fictitious names gained from obituaries numbered in the thousands, as registered voters in Speer's behalf. In short, it was a winning relationship between Speer and Chase. Speer helped Chase protect his gambling enterprises, while Chase saw to it that voters cast their ballots for Speer.

Consider what we know:

  • Sam and Lou were actively influencing Denver elections on behalf of the vice industry as early as 1890.
  • The influence in the early 90s of gambling interests over the Police and Fire Board (including Speer) led Gov. Waite to lay siege to City Hall.
  • The Blongers, like Chase, were engaged in gambling, though we don't know when they closed their last gambling house.

You might understand why I'm tempted to think that "Blonger" could well be substituted for "Chase" in Womack's quotation above without diminishing its veracity.

A 2004 report titled Honest Corruption: Mayor Robert W. Speer and Bossism in American Democracy, by University of Denver student Todd Martinez, suggests an ambivalence about simply labeling Speer a grafter. In some circumstances, he argues, the public can benefit from autocratic leadership that gets things done, even if that means making deals with the devil. A Boss, in other words, is needed in tough times, when powerful and widely disparate interests might threaten to tear the community apart if the right deals can't be struck.

The point being that Speer is remembered today for being a friend to the utility barons and vice lords, but also for transforming Denver from a boomtown into an aesthetically attractive modern city, for numerous civic improvements, for raising the wages of city laborers, for installing facilities for Denver's homeless to wash, for providing cheap bread and produce to Denver's poor — which is to say simply that he loved Denver, and he made it work. You just don't want to know the details.

He goes on to state that the Police and Fire Board instituted by Waite after the City Hall War "proved powerless to control the economic chaos of the city and to mitigate the tension between greedy businessmen and laborers." And so, in 1902, home rule returned to the Mile High City, and the "local voters" regained control of their government.

But what interests would prevail? The utilities were said to be the real power brokers prior to Speer. The gambling interests were squared off against the moral progressivists like the WCTU, and the working man's general invisibility was fueling growth in the populist movement.

So, the first hurdle in 1902 was the formation of a new city charter, and the battle lines were drawn.

The first charter, largely shaped by Denver's moral progressivists (WCTU, Anti-Saloon League), called for the strict regulation of the utilities and ultimate municipal ownership of them and their franchising. It also contained prescriptions to mitigate social vice (gambling, prostitution), abusive corporations, and the spoils system that was plaguing the municipal administration. This charter would grant much-needed power to the municipal government and temper the clout of the business elite in Denver, however, as Speer recognized, it had its drawbacks. Its strict regulation could potentially scare away business from the city, and Speer recognized that this could be devastating to a city that inevitably relied on business for its prosperity.
The first charter was defeated in what was a highly controversial election, which the Speer machine was reported to have rigged. The extent of Speer's role in fixing the election remains uncertain, but it is clear that political maneuvering on the part of Speer's growing political machine prevented the passage of the first charter.

Yet another scandal to research...

Such corruption would mar Speer's reputation for the rest of his career, but it is arguably an example of "honest corruption" because Speer clearly had a shrewd understanding of Denver's needs — perhaps better than the populace itself — and knew what type of municipal structure was in the city's best interest. In the end, Speer and his machine successfully backed second charter that gave more freedom to the utilities, but one that also created an equally powerful municipal leadership to offset the influence of the business world. From a democratic idealist's perspective, the alleged tampering of the charter election clearly represents an egregious corruption in the democratic system, but from a pragmatist's perspective, it may have ultimately proved to be in the city's best interest. It set the stage and created the framework for an impressive period of recovery and progress under the leadership of Speer. Had democratic principles been obeyed and the first charter passed, the city may have remained in chaos as the business community, working class, and the municipal government could have become further alienated.

I don't want to offend any readers, so you may insert your own wry observations here.

So, the fat cats could deal with him, the vice lords counted on him, the working man thanked him and the poor man blessed him. But there was one loser during the Speer administration:

However, one constituency that Speer never won over was Denver's moral community, for he had a reputation as being a friend of public vice and the underworld community. However, it would be unfair to say that Speer approved of public vice, but rather that he acknowledged the inability of any municipal government to enforce morality, and thus he felt his efforts were more effectual in mitigating it.

And then, a little closer to the crux:

Like his alliances with the business elites, Speer's alliance with the barons of the underworld provided him social and financial capital: "from Chase and Chucovich [Denver's gambling barons], Speer got money to help the needy. In return, the Speer-controlled police force closed its eyes to violations of liquor and gambling ordinances". This tactic was classic Speer, for while it smacked of political corruption, it was a pragmatic arrangement in which Speer could capitalize on ineradicable public immorality in order to, ironically, finance a moral cause. Understandably, however, the moral idealists of Speer's time refused to see the practicality in this and did a good job of portraying Speer as a corrupt, morally-bankrupt politician who had trampled on American democracy.

He continues:

However, Speer's achievements would not be allowed to overshadow his shady dealings and dubious results from the election. In the years from his election in 1904 to 1912, a movement of progressive reformists was mobilizing to remove Speer from office and restore clean government in Denver. Villifying cartoons and articles in the Post as well as the News portrayed Speer as a power-hungry tyrant who catered only to economic interests. In 1912, after successfully playing up a scandal in which Speer dismissed his city attorney Henry Arnold for allegedly exposing the administrations over-taxation of homeowners, the movement was able to generate enough public outrage to lose him the election in 1912.

Another essay:

In 1885 Mr. Speer was appointed by President Grover Cleveland to the position of postmaster of Denver and in 1891 Governor Routt appointed him president of the Denver fire and police board. From Governor Adams he received appointment to the position of president of the board of public works and became thereby ex officio member of the fire and police board. He was also appointed to the same position by Governor Thomas and so continued to serve until 1904. All through this period of office holding Mr. Speer was a diligent student of municipal government.

Here the author skips over the governor's assault on the police board, going on to list the mayor's many achievements:

He searched out the best principles utilized in the government of larger cities, read every authority upon municipal problems and when he was called to the mayoralty in 1904, he entered upon the duties of his position with high ideas and ideals, many of which were regarded as revolutionary but which through his practical efforts became tangible assets in the city's development and upbuilding.
Mayor Speer
For two consecutive terms he continued as Denver's mayor and transformed a straggly and somewhat unsightly western town into a city beautiful. Utility, sanitation, comfort and beauty all figured as dominant features in his plans. His labors resulted in the building of the Twentieth street viaduct and he was the first to suggest construction of the Colfax- Larimer viaduct. His efforts led to the paving and graveling of many of Denver's streets and his initiative brought about the building of extensive sanitary and storm sewer systems. He established the boulevard and parkway systems and he felt that not only utility but beauty must be considered and that the city's development should be upon a plan that would produce a harmonious whole. He therefore created and planned the civic center, regarded as one of the most beautiful and inspiring works of man. He carried forward a system of tree culture that won the plaudits of artists and horticulturists throughout the world. An unsightly dumping ground was transformed into beautiful sunken gardens and Cherry Creek, which for years had remained an unsolved problem of other city heads, was curbed by him through the building of a great retaining wall, along one side of which was constructed a beautiful driveway that the city fathers named in his honor.
Beauty entered into his plan for city lighting and unsightly telephone and telegraph poles were placed in alleys. He opposed the construction of buildings more than twelve stories in height because such would obstruct a view of the mountains; and to Denver's parks he turned his attention, establishing new parks and boulevards, from which he discarded the signs "keep off the grass." He also opened many playgrounds, especially in the more congested districts, that the children might have opportunity for healthful fun.
He was also instrumental in establishing the museum at City park, one of the finest and most complete in the world, and also in establishing the public bathhouses. His initiative resulted in the building of the Welcome arch and one of the public improvements in which he personally took greatest delight was the Auditorium, which will ever stand as a monument to his public spirit. "His greatest pleasure," said the Denver Times, "was had when the big building was thrown open free to the public for some great concert or other entertainment. Then, always, Mayor Speer, his expansive and genial smile spreading over his face and his eyes aglow with the joy he could not conceal had he tried, was to be found hastening here and there about the entrances, seeing that none was turned away."

He goes on about free concerts with seats for "the old and the feeble, the crippled and the ill," his support for outdoor sports and parks, and his program to supply coal to the needy at reduced prices.