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Historical Vignette 024 - The Bribe that Went Up in Smoke

William Ludlow (1843-1901) (pictured at right at the time of the Spanish-American War) graduated from West Point in 1864. After brief but distinguished service in the Civil War, he held rivers and harbors assignments and was Chief Engineer of the Department of the Dakota. In 1883 he accepted appointment as chief engineer of the Philadelphia Water Department. During the next three years he "reorganized and rejuvenated the city water system which had fallen into a deplorable state of inefficiency." A story in an 1884 issue of the Engineering News and American Contract Journal demonstrated how Ludlow epitomized the Army value of integrity.

"That's a cool fellow," said an up-town manufacturer pointing across Chestnut Street, where Colonel [William] Ludlow, the Chief of the Water Department of Philadelphia, was waiting for a streetcar. "Let me tell you something that happened a few days ago to a friend of mine, whose large establishment consumes a great deal of water, and who has frequent favors to ask of the Water Department.

"He recently visited the Chief's office, and found Colonel Ludlow, as usual, very polite. My friend, before proffering all of his requests, took a $50 bank bill from his pocket and passed it over to the Chief, who examined it curiously for a second and then spread it upon the desk before him.

"He did not utter a word at the moment, but when his visitor was about to go away, said: 'Now, my dear sir, what is this for?' holding up the bill. 'Oh! That's to buy cigars for the boys,' was the careless reply. 'Yes,' said Ludlow, 'then I suppose that you are fond of the weed yourself?' My friend said that he enjoyed nothing better than a good cigar. 'Then allow me,' said the Colonel, suavely, 'to insist upon your trying one of these,' moving to a secretary and taking down a box of Henry Clay Specials.

"Each gentleman took a cigar and bit off the end. Then with a careless gesture Colonel Ludlow rolled up the $50 bill into a paper lighter, reached up to the gas, allowed it to become thoroughly ignited, and slowly lit his own cigar. This done, the Colonel turned with an easy and polite motion, and said: 'Permit me,' and held the blazing bill under the nose and up to the cigar of my amazed and startled friend, whose eyes had now become almost as big as dinner plates.

"When the bank note had been completely reduced to ashes the Colonel turned to his visitor and said carelessly: 'How do you like your cigar?' The gentleman admitted its excellence and took his departure, attended to the door by the Chief, who with the utmost courtesy shook him by the hand, and then closed the door to resume his work at his desk. My friend gets purple in the face every time he thinks of the affair, and confided it to me simply to warn me how to behave myself at the Water Department." 

The Fairmount Waterworks and West Philadelphia Standpipe (right) were part of the Philadelphia water system when Ludlow took charge in 1883.

   


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May 2001