Yesterday's Crimes: The Disappearing Police Chief

Wiliam J. Biggy

There's been a high rate of turnover among police chiefs on both sides of the Bay lately, but there was a time when a San Francisco chief of police disappeared into the briny depths of the bay itself.

William J. Biggy was maybe the only honest man in a thoroughly corrupt city when he was appointed chief of police in September 1907. Mayor Eugene “Handsome Gene” Schmitz had been found guilty of extortion only three months earlier in June. Biggy's predecessor, Chief Jeremiah Dinan, was forced to resign while facing perjury charges.

Political boss Abe Ruef, the head crook who installed all these other crooks in office, was on trial in a massive corruption case where every member of the Board of Supervisors confessed to receiving bribes from Ruef and his bagmen. Biggy himself rose to prominence when he was appointed as to guard Ruef at the St. Francis Hotel because nobody who worked in the jails could be trusted with the job.

[jump] But Biggy couldn't remain above the fray for very long. On Nov. 13, 1908, Ruef bagman Morris Haas, who was on trial for extortion — what else? — smuggled a pistol into the courtroom and shot Assistant District Attorney Francis J. Henney. While Henney survived, Haas somehow didn't. Haas was found dead in his cell the next day with a pistol ball lodged in his brain. A small, one-shot Derringer was found in his shoe. Papers called it a suicide, but, like everything else in 1908 San Francisco, it was suspicious as hell.

Following the shooting and suicide, Biggy was hammered in the pages of the San Francisco Call. Charges of “gross incompetency and inefficiency” were filed against him. The embattled police chief countered by filing charges against the officers who allowed a gun to get into Haas' cell, but trying to redirect the blame couldn't free Biggy from a crisscrossing web of corruption.

In the early evening on Nov. 30, 1908, Biggy boarded the SFPD launch for a clandestine meeting in Belvedere with Police Commissioner Hugo Keil to discuss stepping down. Keil advised Biggy against doing “anything hastily” and the two agreed to meet again in Keil's office the next morning. Biggy then boarded the boat for the trip back to San Francisco, but when it docked in the city, Biggy was no longer aboard.

The police chief had disappeared.

The only other person on the launch with Biggy was its pilot, Captain William Murphy. Fighting back sobs, Murphy said that he last saw his chief when the boat had passed Alcatraz. The two men talked about how cold it was, and then Biggy returned to the boat's cabin, and was never seen alive again.

Biggy's body was found two weeks later “floating with an ebb tide in the channel midway between Yerba Buena Island and the Lombard Street wharf” according to the Call.

The Call spared no details, reporting that “the features of the late chief had been destroyed beyond the possibility of recognition” and the head was “reduced to a skeleton.” By the time William Biggy’s body was brought back to the Hunter’s Point Shipyard, “hundreds of morbidly curious idlers had gathered at the wharf and were packed far into East Street into a solid mass.”

The body was identified through clothing and personal effects.

City officials were quick to rule that Biggy's death an accident, but questions about the drowning remained. Before his disappearance, Biggy had told several police officials that he believed he was being followed and that his life was in danger.

“He (Biggy) knew that they would go to any length to get rid of him,” acting police chief A. D. Cutler testified during the coroner's inquest. When pressed for further details however, Cutler refused to elaborate. If Biggy had met with foul play instead of just falling off of the boat, the people investigating the potential crime were probably the ones that did it.

Two years after Biggy's death, Captain Murphy, the boat pilot, was committed to a mental institution.

“I don't know what happened. I don't know what happened,” he muttered repeatedly.

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