Cleaning Up Philadelphia

The Job's Never Been Easy

As you walk through the north portal of City Hall from north Broad Street headed south and look to your left, you will see a plaque inscribed with William Penn’s “Prayer for Philadelphia.”

Look directly to the right and you will see a plaque dedicated to Brigadier General Smedley Butler, director of public safety, 1924-25.

I don’t know how many times I walked by that plaque and wondered who the hell Smedley Butler was that he warranted such special treatment. In fact, if you search the vast concrete walls of the City Hall facade you won’t find another plaque dedicated to an individual except the one for good old Smedley. Ben Franklin doesn’t have one. Neither does William Penn. Not even the Philly Phanatic. [SIGNUP]

Finally, my curiosity got the best of me several months ago, and I decided to Google Smedley Butler. A son of a congressman, Butler was a highly decorated Marine when he was recruited in 1924 to become the city’s top cop to clean up Philadelphia during the height of prohibition. The city’s new mayor W. Freeland Kendrick promised him a “completely free hand. …Without interference from any source whatsoever.”

Butler was no shrinking violet. He designed his own police uniform, using the cape from his Marine uniform with a bright red lining, quickly reorganized the police department, fired some officers and vigorously enforced the Prohibition laws.

In fact, he enforced them too vigorously for Mayor “You have a completely free hand” Kendrick. It seems Butler decided the elite Ritz Carlton and Bellevue Stratford hotels were operating as speakeasies and decided to shut them down. That was a little bit more enforcement than Mayor Kendrick bargained for, and Smedley was sent packing after about two years on the job.

As Smedley was on his way out, The Philadelphia Public Record noted: “He was honest … but he was 100 percent honest” and that was a “little bit more than the mayor had ventured on.”

Butler, who spent nearly 34 years in the Marine Corps and received 16 medals, five for heroism and two medals of honor and was the most decorated Marine in history at the time of his death, noted that “cleaning up Philadelphia was worse than any battle I ever saw.”

And that was before Vince Fumo and Abscam.

Many years after leaving Philadelphia, Butler returned to give a speech at a rally at Reyburn Plaza, now the site of the Municipal Services Building across from City Hall, in opposition to the nation entering World War II.

By this time an arch isolationist, Butler had written a 52-page book called War Is a Hoax. “I spent 33 years and four months in active military service,” he wrote, ”and during that period I spent most of my time as a high-class thug for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.”

And that was the tame part of the book. As I said, he was no shrinking violet.

Butler died in 1940 at the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia, but thanks to the Internet he made a reappearance when the Bush Administration began its build up to invade Iraq in 2003. The blogosphere discovered War is a Hoax, and Butler suddenly became a cult hero to many antiwar activists who quoted the highly decorated Marine to justify their opposition to the Iraq war. And Inquirer columnist Dan Rubin mentioned him in a column on prohibition recently.

Smedley Butler is still hanging around City Hall, right near the north portal. So next time you pass through, look for him. And don’t forget to read William Penn’s prayer.

We need all the help we can get.