10 Tales of the Muckrakers During the Progressive Era

Lincoln Steffens wrote of the rampant corruption in American machine politics in several cities. Library of Congress

Lincoln Steffens

Lincoln Steffens was one of the earliest writers of the style which became known as muckraking, starting his career as a journalist with the New York Evening Post. In 1901 he joined McLure’s Magazine, which became a leading publisher of the investigative pieces as well as fictional works by well-known writers of the day. Steffens was hired as an editor, a position with which he struggled, and in the spring of 1902 he was sent out of town in search of stories which would help him learn his responsibilities. Steffens learned of a newly elected attorney in St. Louis who was investigating corruption in the city government.

Steffens hired a St. Louis based freelance writer to write the piece for McLure’s, but when that writer failed to provide much of the details of the story out of fear of retaliation, Steffens rewrote the entire piece. Entitled Tweed Days in St. Louis, the piece was a highly detailed description of the corruption and how it worked between the city’s leading businessmen and the government. Steffens followed the St. Louis article by producing a series of articles describing corruption in Minneapolis, more on the attempts to remove the corruption in St. Louis, and articles on corruption in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Steffens documented the corruption he found, and in the case of Chicago a city relatively free of graft.

The series proved to be popular as Steffens described the manner of corruption in each city, allowing the residents of communities not included in the series to recognize the signs of corruption as it applied to their homes. Several of the articles led to investigations and convictions, as in Minneapolis where the Mayor’s brother was convicted and the Mayor himself fled the state to avoid arrest. Illegal gambling in Minneapolis, from which the mayor and corrupt police officers had profited, was removed by reformers. When Steffens returned to St. Louis to study the progress of reformers he found that although the investigation was ongoing the general attitude of the public was one of apathy.

Steffens found the citizens of Philadelphia to be similarly unmoved by the corruption in their city. His piece on the City of Brotherly Love was entitled Philadelphia: Corrupt and Contented. According to Steffens the former Mayor of Philadelphia had announced his intention of taking all that he could out of his office, and that the city’s charter, reformed in 1885, had been done so with the presence of corruption included by design. In New York Steffens found Tammany Hall to be “corruption by consent” and described the spread of its graft as the largest he had ever experienced, although he found the mayor’s office to be essentially honest in its operation.

The articles were later published in a book under the title The Shame of the Cities. The second article on St. Louis, The Shame of St. Louis, was cited as motivating the citizens of that city with undertaking real reform of the government and the removal of the political machine there. Steffens later wrote another piece covering the St. Louis reform movement reporting the triumph of the progressives in removing the corrupting influences. Steffens later wrote approvingly of the rise of the communist power in the Soviet Union, but as he aged his favorable view of the communists waned. Steffens died in 1936, after a lifetime of progressive activism.