In his autobiography, famous muckraker Lincoln Steffens mentions that Pittsburgh "was utterly corrupt, worse than St. Louis," and that William Flinn was the cause. Who was William Flinn? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

In his autobiography, famous muckraker Lincoln Steffens mentions that Pittsburgh "was utterly corrupt, worse than St. Louis," and that William Flinn was the cause. Who was William Flinn?

Question submitted by: Thomas Bates, McCandless

Anyone who's ever been past the City-County Building knows the Richard Caliguiri statue, which depicts the beloved late mayor in a characteristically self-effacing shrug. What a lot of people don't see is that on the other side of the columns, tucked away like a relative everyone's embarrassed by at a wedding party, is a bronze plaque less than three feet high. It honors one William Flinn, born in 1851, dead in 1924 and described by the plaque as "A Builder For and Among Men."


It's appropriate that Flinn's likeness lurks in the shadows of City Hall, because that's where Flinn spent much of his life. For William Flinn was a "builder" in much the same sense that renowned Mafioso John Gotti was a "family man." He took one of the noblest roles a person can play and turned it into an instrument of corruption.


In life as in public sculpture, somewhere behind the friendly-faced politician is the businessman who supports him and benefits from his reign. Flinn was the guy standing behind one of Pittsburgh's most notorious, and most storied, mayors: Christopher L. Magee.


During Magee's tenure as mayor in the late 19th century, he and Flinn set up their own version of the public-private partnership, in which businessmen supported politicians who could advance their interests. Well, OK, that's more or less how today's public-private partnerships operate. But Magee and Flinn were much more flagrant.


Flinn operated the city's largest contracting firm, Booth & Flinn, and by an amazing string of coincidences he seemed to win a lot of city contracts to build streets, trolley lines and bridges. By an equally amazing string of coincidences, he supported Magee's causes and hired a lot of Magee's protégés. As Steffens himself put it in Shame of the Cities, his landmark 1903 book on urban corruption, "Magee wanted power, Flinn wealth. ... Magee spent his wealth for more power, and Flint spent his power for more wealth. ... Magee attracted followers, Flinn employed them. He was useful to Magee, Magee was indispensable to him. ... Molasses and vinegar, diplomacy and force, mind and will, they were well mated." And they set up a political ring the likes of which today's politicians can only dream about.


Edward M. Bigelow, who was the father of Pittsburgh's park system -- and the cousin of Christopher Magee -- was in charge of drawing up contract specifications and awarding work. Flinn seemed to have a way of getting any large public-works project: As Steffens put it, "Flinn had a quarry, the stone of which was specified for public buildings; he obtained the monopoly of a certain kind of asphalt, and that kind was specified."


In fact, in a career rich with graft and influence peddling, among the few times Flinn was caught was when he took this game too far. One city project required a kind of stone called "Ligonier block," which Flinn's quarries, of course, produced. Unfortunately, they weren't the only ones to do so: A competing firm offered the same material at almost half Flinn's price. If Flinn were a John Gotti, he would have had the competition fitted for a pair of concrete -- or Ligonier block -- overshoes. But Flinn was subtler. As Steffens tells it, the contract requirement was rewritten to demand stone "of a bluish tint rather than a gray variety." Guess which variety Flinn offered.


Even for Pittsburgh, this was pretty blatant, but while there was a public investigation, the charges, Steffens writes, "were directed against the Director of Public Works, not William Flinn. [Flinn] was not an official, and not responsible."


Speaking of officials and not being responsible, Flinn also played a part in bequeathing the city its current form of government.


Pittsburgh's legislature was once divided into two separate bodies -- the Select and Common councils -- with dozens of councilors between them. Under Magee, they'd been easy to control. After Magee's death in 1901, Flinn ousted Bigelow from the public works office in a political dispute. Bigelow rallied disempowered reformers, Democrats and other hopeless cases to try to take back government. Relying on the state legislature to free Pittsburgh of its own sorry leadership (sound familiar?), the reformers arranged to have Flinn's men ripped from office by state fiat. But once you're in like Flinn, so to speak, it's hard to be dislodged: The reformers were corrupted after they took office, and the cycle began again, with Flinn using his own connections to state legislators to control the city anew. Eventually, a city charter passed in 1911 to limit Flinn's power. His greatest legacy may be the government he helped to forge: a mayor and nine-member city council -- several of whom possess a gray-tinted density that could probably give Ligonier block a run for its money.

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