Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Lewis Rhoton and the "Boodlers": Political Corruption and Reform during Arkansas's Progressive Era

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Lewis Rhoton and the "Boodlers": Political Corruption and Reform during Arkansas's Progressive Era

Article excerpt

During a visit to Llittle Rrock on Ooctober 25, 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt delivered a speech titled "Law Enforcement and Civic Righteousness," which called for reforming laws that obstructed prosecution of wealthy and influential men guilty of crimes like bribery and corruption. Afterward, in a reception line, the president enthusiastically greeted Lewis Rhoton, prosecuting attorney of Arkansas's sixth judicial district:

And you are Rhoton, the prosecuting attorney? I am indeed glad to meet you. I had you in mind when I was making my address. I have watched your official course with interest and approval. I desire to say that you and [Joseph] Folk and others who have the courage to expose official corruption and prosecute criminals against the public have rendered invaluable service to the state and nation. I want to thank you for what you have done.1

Missouri's Joseph Folk, made famous by muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens' 1902 article in McClure's magazine and again in a chapter of The Shame of the Cities (1904), was the first of several prosecutors in the first decade of the twentieth century whose exposures of political corruption spurred further reforms.2

Arkansas's Rhoton was another such figure. His exposure of legislative corruption served as an important catalyst for the rise of progressivism in his state. Historian Richard L. McCormick has argued that revelations of corruption during a critical period, 1905-1906, cleared a path for passage of progressive reforms in a remarkable number of states across the country, some twenty-three by his count (which does not include Arkansas). "[A] burst of legislative activity immediately following the awakening of 1905 and 1906" ended "the paralysis that had gripped the polity."3 Contemporary observers credited Rhoton with such a role in Arkansas during the state's first full flowering of progressivism from 1907 to 1910. Between 1905 and 1908, he secured indictments against sixteen path for passage of progressive reforms in a remarkable number of states across the country, some twenty-three by his count (which does not include Arkansas). "[A] burst of legislative activity immediately following the awakening of 1905 and 1906" ended "the paralysis that had gripped the polity."3 Contemporary observers credited Rhoton with such a role in Arkansas during the state's first full flowering of progressivism from 1907 to 1910. Between 1905 and 1908, he secured indictments against sixteen state senators and representatives, one mayor, and three other individuals, and the Arkansas Senate's expulsion of a member who had confessed to taking bribes.

Rhoton never garnered much national attention. During their early stages, corruption trials in Arkansas received only brief notices in single paragraphs in the New York and Washington, D.C., press and only slight mention in various newspapers thereafter. When the Philadelphia Ledger did take notice, it taunted Arkansas for the trivial sums needed to bribe its legislators, although later estimates by historian David Y. Thomas placed the total "boodle" upwards of $200,000 ($4.7 million in 2016 dollars).4

Yet Rhoton's pursuit of "boodlers," an epithet for bribe-takers, received much acclaim at home.5 Even Gov. JeffDavis, in 1905, said that Rhoton had "a backbone of steel, as big as this old grip I carry, and I wish he were a candidate for Governor." He would admire Rhoton's strength of character less after the prosecutor helped to undermine and then overturn Davis's political dominance in the state, leading to the election of George W. Donaghey, Arkansas's first truly progressive governor.6 Despite his statewide fame for exposing the worst scandal in Arkansas's legislative history, however, Rhoton never won higher office and has since become a forgotten figure in Arkansas history.7

Born in Indiana in 1868 and educated at Illinois State Normal College, Rhoton was hired as principal of Little Rock's Scott Street School in 1890 and later headed Peabody School, the city's new high school. …

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