by Chris Ernest Nelson
Graduate student, San Diego State University
Thirty Dollars Every Thursday.
Forty Dollars Every Friday.
Sixty Dollars Every Saturday.
Seventy Dollars Every Sunday.
Million Dollars Every Monday.
Two Million on Tuesday.
Wake up on Wednesday.1
The Great Depression of the 1930s brought economic distress to many Americans. Although poverty was widespread, the elderly suffered more than any other segment of the population. Faced with a real threat of hunger, many Americans looked to government to provide them some form of financial assistance.
In response to this critical need, various special programs were proposed. The federal government’s New Deal initiative created the Social Security system in 1935. In California the most prominent pension schemes were Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty in California (EPIC) campaign, the Townsend Movement (named for its architect, Dr. Francis E. Townsend), and the Ham and Eggs2 or 3O-Thursday crusade, which proposed a $3O weekly pension for every resident fifty years of age and older.
The Ham and Eggs proposal was first presented to California voters as Proposition 25 in the 1938 general election. The initiative was narrowly defeated with a statewide vote of 1,398,999 to 1,143,670.3 Because of the closeness of the vote, the movement’s backers, the Retirement Life Payments Association (RLPA) decided to try again. They were able to secure over one million petition signatures–enough to persuade Governor Culbert Olson to call a special election for November 1939.4
Throughout the two-year history of the Ham and Eggs campaign, San Diego played a prominent role. The large population of retired persons in the community provided a strong base a support for the proposal; in fact, in the 1938 election the initiative carried San Diego County by 51.2%.5 The county’s majority vote for Ham and Eggs in 1938 would guarantee San Diego a place on the front lines of the campaign the following year.
The campaign for Ham and Eggs in San Diego is in large part the story of Roger M. Coffin, chairman of the local RLPA office. His is a compelling story of social activism, of unabashed demagoguery, of tireless struggle, and political ambition. He was involved in virtually every debate, every rally, and every controversy that attended the local campaign throughout two turbulent election contests.
Coffin arrived in San Diego, a serene and amiable community, in 1932, after a series of “haps and mishaps,” in the midst of the nationwide economic depression. He “succeeded in selling enough Chevrolets to keep the proverbial wolf from [the] door,” until in 1938 “destiny struck” in the form of Ham and Eggs.6
At first he thought operating a local office advocating an old age pension would be a good distraction for his wife’s parents, but the more he learned about the plan and its potential for benefiting the state’s elderly poor, the more he committed himself to the project. Despite warnings from friends and associates concerning the danger of confronting the local establishment, Coffin took a leave of absence from his job selling cars to devote his time to selling Ham and Eggs.7
With a salary of $25 a week from the Retirement Life Payments Association for himself and $15 for his wife, Wilma, who kept the organization’s books, with $25O in the bank and a ’32 Chevy (soon replaced with an “old clunker”), his only assets, Roger Coffin launched himself into a struggle that would have an unimagined impact on his life.8 Coffin’s first meeting, at Woodrow Wilson School, drew a crowd of seventeen (three from his own family).9 But soon the movement began to grow. The pitiable suicide of a 64-year-old La Jolla boarding house resident and county relief recipient provided the occasion that brought Ham and Eggs to San Diego with a vengeance.
On July 25, 1938, Archie Price swallowed poison and died in Balboa Park. He had notified the local press two years earlier that he would kill himself when his savings were depleted, because, as he put it in a letter found in his pocket with his last two cents, he was “too young to receive an old-age pension and too old to find work.” Price was buried, without ceremony, in a pauper’s grave.10
This inconsequential event would have faded from history if Coffin’s wife, Wilma, after seeing the story in the papers, had not hit on the idea of giving the unfortunate suicide a public burial. With Henry W. Merkley, a local funeral director and Ham and Eggs supporter, Coffin worked out a scheme to have Archie Price reburied in an imposing ceremony at the prestigious Glen Abbey Cemetery.11
“Ham Anders” from all over the state, from as far away as Eureka and Crescent City, but mostly from Los Angeles, came to San Diego in a monumental caravan of cars, numbering in the hundreds.12 A crowd estimated at seven thousand heard orations and political posturing by campaign heavy-weights Sherman Bainbridge, from the L.A. headquarters of the RLPA; Culbert L. Olson, gubernatorial candidate; Sheridan Downey, candidate for U.S. Senate; and Roger Coffin.13
With this flamboyant ceremony, San Diego gained an important place in the state-wide campaign of 1938. Roger Coffin was honored with an invitation to speak before a huge gathering of the Ham Anders at the Los Angeles Coliseum.14 With this notoriety the local campaign took off. Coffin was overwhelmed when the “money started coming in.”15 San Diego’s RLPA was ready to do battle, first to get the measure on the ballot and then to get it passed.
The measure was narrowly defeated in the 1938 general election, but the local Ham and Eggs campaign organization had proven its effectiveness. The 3O-Thursday initiative won a distinct majority in San Diego that year, validating the leadership and methods of Roger Coffin. The vote, 47,411 in favor of the measure and 44,521 opposed,16 gave Coffin his most powerful political tool and demonstrated to the opposition the necessity of a more vigorous effort when the issue was resurrected the following year.
The conventional campaign of 1938 gave way, the next year, to a no-holds-barred election brawl. The fact that the proposal carried San Diego in 1938 made this backwater town an important psychological battleground in the 1939 campaign. Opposition forces pulled out all the stops in an effort to overturn the local Ham and Eggs majority which they believed seriously threatened their business interests and their exclusive hold on power. A broad consortium of San Diego businessmen, bankers, politicians, and labor leaders united in an all out effort to ensure the decisive defeat of Proposition 1, the resurgent 3O-Thursday initiative. The opposition, or “Antis,” relied heavily on support from San Diego’s major newspapers during the 1939 contest. The local daily press universally opposed 3O-Thursday. Both the San Diego Union and San Diego Sun took editorial stands against the initiative. The Union‘s willingness to carry every conceivable feature or news story that might discredit the Ham and Eggs proposal, or its leaders, made it one of the opposition’s most potent allies.17 Only one publication stood in favor of Proposition 1, the weekly San Diego Herald:
If your conscience tells you to strike a blow for human happiness – FOR YOURSELF AS WELL AS OTHERS -if your conscience tells you that men and women and little children are the only valuable things on earth, then vote for Ham ‘n Eggs.18
Tired of being beaten up in the daily press, Roger Coffin decided to establish his own Ham and Eggs weekly newspaper, patterned after the successful Los Angeles party organ, National Ham and Eggs. The local RLPA put together the San Diego Californian. The first sample issue came out in January 1939, with the regular issues beginning February third.19
The Californian persuaded businesses to become a part of the growing pension movement by encouraging readers to shop only at establishments that advertised in the paper. Coffin offered 3O-Thursday supporters a subscription of twenty weekly issues of the Californian for one dollar. Appeals for subscribers were heard regularly on Ham and Eggs radio shows in the early months of 1939.20 The paper began ambitiously, hoping to replace other local papers in the homes of Ham and Eggers, with a full range of news stories and feature articles. But as the year progressed the size of the paper dwindled, until it faded away after the election. The last issue appeared on March 15, 194O.
The San Diego Ham and Eggs campaign of 1939 followed the same methods that had proven successful in 1938. The focus of its efforts were twofold: first, the public gathering of supporters; and second, extensive broadcasts over local radio stations. The campaign bore many similarities to traditional religious revivalism. The elements of inspirational rhetoric before large enthusiastic crowds, the call for dedications of time and offerings of money, family picnics, and colorful parades were characteristic of the campaign. In a manner reminiscent of the revival preacher railing against the devil, Ham and Eggs speakers virulently scorned the insidious “banking fraternity.”21 Roger Coffin used the mass meeting to raise money to buy radio time. Then he used the radio time to whip up public enthusiasm to attend meetings. This was the heart of his system, the two-fisted political punch.
Membership dues provided the financial support for the RLPA. Members not only paid their regular dues of thirty cents a month (“a penny a day”), but were encouraged to buy tickets to Ham and Eggs events (for themselves, their family members and friends), booklets, lapel buttons, and even copies of the proposition itself.22 At every meeting, each person who attended received a small deposit envelope and instructed to give, if able, an additional cash donation.23 Coffin recorded in his memoir that in the two years of the San Diego campaign the local RLPA received and spent over $8O,OOO.24
Two standouts from among the colorful variety of Ham and Eggs events in 1939 were a traveling stage show and a circus. The frolicking extravaganza, “Swing Your Ballot,” which had been touring the state in support of the initiative, arrived in San Diego on October 13, 1939 for a performance in the Russ High School auditorium. The Union‘s review of the performance said it belonged “strictly in the amateur class,” and avoided the “economic intricacies of Ham and Eggs.” But the audience apparently enjoyed the dramatic depictions of “unemployment, business failures, home foreclosures,” and “young people unable to be married and maintain a home of their own because of the burden of the old folks . . .”25 Many in the audience wept at the evocative scenes and then burst into cheers when the band played the Ham and Eggs theme, “His Truth Goes Marching On.”26
The “Ham & Eggs Circus” performed in San Diego November 3 and 4, 1939. In a review of the circus that appeared in the San Diego Californian, O. D. White bragged that there was a “complete absence of the bunco games that usually accompany such a circus.” To emphasize the event’s political message he wrote, “P. T. Barnum ran his show on the theory that `the people like to be fooled.’ We are going to prove that that theory is wrong – both with regard to circuses and State Government finances.”27
The most impressive Ham and Eggs events were held in Balboa Park’s Ford Bowl. Staged as mammoth pep rallies, the campaign meetings drew thousands. Three times the facility was filled to capacity.28 To build enthusiasm for speakers from all over California the multitude roused itself with the cheers: “Ham and Eggs! Ham and Eggs!” and “5-1O-15-2O-3O-Thursday!”29
Throughout the campaign, Roger Coffin affectionately called his supporters his “Fighting Wildcats.”30 As their campaign chief he regularly addressed these huge assemblies. Coffin’s oratory was volatile and clearly directed against his establishment opponents. An excerpt from one of his radio speeches may illustrate the provocative tenor of his public pronouncements:
The bankers and their stooges, the chamber of commerce, the bought and paid for press, and the so-called merchants associations whose leaders in most cases are owned body and soul by the bankers these are the special privilege[d] gentry who are spending a great deal of money and fighting desperately to see that the people of California don’t get Ham and Eggs. Why? Are there any of our California citizens so naive that they think the bankers love them and that these gentlemen are spending thousands of dollars to protect the interests of the people…?31
Besides Roger Coffin, the Ham and Eggs campaign had other effective speakers at their rallies. The most outstanding of these were the former adjutant general of the State of California, retired Maj. General H. H. Morehead; Reverend W. H. Williams, Dr. Clarence E. Romer, and Marybeth Kingsley, a recent graduate of San Diego High School and spokesperson for youth on the Ham and Eggs radio broadcasts.32
A favorite feature of these rallies was the all-girl band, organized by the H. W. Merkley Undertaking Company. The eighty “Merkley’s Musical Maids” were smartly dressed in bright scarlet and gold uniforms. The girls, who never went unchaperoned, boasted an average of two free performances every week during the campaign.33 They were a mainstay in Ham and Eggs promotional advertising and the stars of the pre-election downtown parade along Sixth Avenue.34
Roger Coffin’s schedule of public appearances was grueling. He put in appearances and made speeches at innumerable rallies, banquets, and debates. A debate sponsored by the Men’s Republican League of San Diego was among the most outstanding. On August 24 at the U.S. Grant Hotel, Roger Coffin faced C. Leon De Aryan, publisher of the local anti-establishment monthly, The Broom, in a debate over the feasibility of the 3O-Thursday plan and whether or not it would lead to a dictatorship in California. The audience was enthusiastic, greeting Coffin’s attacks on the banks and promises of prosperity with cheers and ovations. On the other hand, the noisy crowd responded with boos and hisses to De Aryan’s contention that the Ham and Eggs leaders were parasites, and that their success would mean a state constitution incompatible with federal constitution.35
Most of the RLPA’s funds went to purchase radio time.36 Roger Coffin could be heard every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday on station KGB, in ten minute segments, usually between 6:OO and 6:3O P.M.37 As the election drew near, the movement added KFSD, with broadcasts every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday around 9:OO in the evening.38
In his memoir, Coffin related an incident in which a delegation of businessmen threatened the radio station manager who was carrying the Ham and Eggs broadcasts with withdrawal of their advertising if he did not refuse air time to the RLPA. Coffin reported the manager’s response with satisfaction, “Not only did he tell the delegation what they should do but said if [they] withdraw [he would] take to the air and expose [their] threats.”39
This was only a small victory. The establishment was determined, if not to silence Coffin, to at least muffle his attacks. To protect the interests of KGB radio, the station manager previewed all scripts before broadcast to edit out any material he felt too provocative. An examination of the texts of Coffin’s radio scripts showing the deletions made by the station manager reveal the tense atmosphere surrounding the Ham and Eggs campaign. All specific references to individuals and institutions were struck from the scripts with red pencil. In a note stapled to the Friday, May 12 speech, station manager, Sidney W. Fuller wrote:
Same old story. To broadcast statements which strike at public confidence in our banking system is verboten. Furthermore, any campaign of money reform stated in terms of malice for the System is headed for the rocks. I’ve had a bushel of 3rd-degree hell on account of the copy I’ve already allowed you to use. As a matter of fact, I’m now a push-over for the boys you’ve been fighting with. All it would take is a complaint to the FCC. A citation would come bouncing back to me and my license would thereupon be in very serious jeopardy. What’s more the boys know that, and nothing in the world but their personal regard for me has kept ’em quiet. I know how you feel, and I respect your zeal, but you’re dragging me into a fight where I won’t have a chance . . . For the love of mud quit leading with my bruised and bloody chin . . . Sid40
Such menacing allusions demonstrated the sordid level to which the campaign would sink in the heat of the 1939 battle. The Antis knew if they failed to defeat the pension plan this time, 3O-Thursday would become part of California’s state constitution. On the other hand, the Ham Anders, defeated once already, knew if they failed to pass the measure in 1939 their chances of reviving it again were nil.
The San Diego Chamber of Commerce took the lead in opposing the proposal. The Chamber’s secretary-manager, Major Theodore C. Macaulay, a retired Army Air Force officer and resident of Coronado, organized the “Citizen’s Committee Against 3O-Thursday.”41 The Committee Against, marshaled support from local businessmen, raised money for anti-Ham and Eggs radio programming, established an effective voter registration drive, and created a highly successful precinct organization plan.42
As the pressure of the approaching election intensified, the battle between Roger Coffin and the Committee Against grew into a fierce, personal vendetta. In his memoirs, Coffin recorded details of personal harassment, which he attributed to his establishment rivals. He related an incident in which his home in Mission Hills was ransacked after he “foolishly” announced at a meeting that he and Mrs. Coffin would be out of town. Over the July 22 weekend, while Coffin was in Big Bear resting under orders from his doctor, “burglars” broke through the glass in the back door and pillaged the house, even prying up the “floor registers.” “Curiously,” Coffin reported, “nothing of value was found missing.”43
Roger Coffin also told how, over a period of time, he had received threatening letters and phone calls at his office. Initially he considered these threats the work of “cranks.” But he started to take them seriously when similar calls began to reach members of his family at home. Coffin disclosed that the caller(s) said his two-year-old daughter would be kidnapped or killed unless he got out of town. “This was just much too much,” he resolved, “so one dark night we loaded Mom Dad and the baby in the car. Drove them to a friends cabin in the mountains and there they staid until the end of the battle.”44 At this point the RLPA decided to provide Coffin a bodyguard. They selected Arthur Cain, of La Mesa, for the task. With his family safely hidden in the mountains and Art Cain at his side Coffin was prepared to continue the struggle.45
Roger Coffin would not be cowed. His response to the apparent danger was to go on the offensive against the people he believed were behind the threats, the Chamber of Commerce. On the September 15 he spoke to his audience of KGB listeners, attacking the Chamber’s campaign front, the Citizens Committee Against 3O-Thursday.
Beginning with his trademark “Hello Everybody,” Coffin revealed, in scathing language, the clandestine survey practices of the Committee Against, devised by T. C. Macaulay on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce. He accused them of “crooked dealings” in having concealed their association with the anti-3O-Thursday campaign. He railed against the “financial big shots who operate title companies, banks, daily newspapers and so forth,” who had, he reported, collected “$5O,OOO for the purpose of fighting `Ham and Eggs.'”46
Coffin was prepared to use the most potent weapon in his arsenal against the business community he saw as unscrupulously attacking his campaign. This weapon was the 1938 San Diego majority vote for 3O-Thursday. On the last day of September, the San Diego Sun ran a front page article asserting Roger Coffin had warned “politicians and business men that he and his Ham and Eggers have the voting majority in the county and that therefore they must knuckle under.”47
The Ham and Eggs muscle-flexing followed with a front page spread titled, “Merchants-Warning,” which attacked Dixie Lumber Company for having distributed to its employees a pamphlet, “Scrip-Tease or Objections to 3O-Thursday.” The San Diego Californian closed the presentation with the following threat:
We of Retirement Life Payments constitute a majority of the voters in San Diego County and our membership will deal properly now and after the election with such organizations as the Dixie Lumber Company.48
This began a boycott movement that became a cornerstone of the Ham and Eggs campaign in 1939. Each succeeding edition of the RLPA newspaper listed merchants who opposed the initiative under the headline, “Merchants Guilty of Disseminating False Propaganda About Ham & Eggs.” Each list ended with a call to arms for the 3O-Thursday majority: “You are at war. The above merchants are your enemies. Treat them as such.”49
In the closing weeks of the campaign, Roger Coffin threatened an appeal to the courts to block the election activities of the Chamber of Commerce. As reported in the Union, 23 October 1939, Coffin told two thousand supporters at a Russ auditorium rally that:
We are retaining an attorney tomorrow morning to seek an injunction to prevent the chamber of commerce from being able to use taxpayers’ money against the best interests of the majority of the taxpayers and in the prejudiced interest of the bankers . . . If there is such a thing as democracy in this country the will of the majority can make itself felt.50
At the same meeting Coffin announced plans to form squads of supporters to police the polls on election day, to see that “the opposition does not unjustly challenge any voter.”51 The plan was for four squads to move from precinct to precinct to watch for irregularities. If they spotted trouble, Coffin said, “they would march in and declare the precinct closed and use force if necessary to stop further balloting.” In response to this threat, District Attorney James B. Abbey warned Coffin that “if any strong arm gang halted election proceedings, its members would forthrightly be taken to county jail for incarceration.”52 C. Leon De Aryan, editor of The Broom, joined the opposition in the chorus of threats. He warned his readers that non-Californians were coming to the state and fraudulently registering to vote (without the one year residency required by law), just to get in on the anticipated hand-out. The monthly publication reported boldly in a commentary titled, “San Quentin For Illegal Voters”:
In the city of Coronado committees are being organized to challenge every new voter at the polls and examine their right to vote. In this way the citizens of Coronado expect to protect themselves against the refugees from other states who have no stake in California but expect to get something for nothing. The moment they catch a new voter who is registered illegally they propose to arrest him and have him sent to San Quentin upon conviction.53
More serious threats of jail confronted Ham and Eggs leaders as the campaign progressed. Of all the valid criticisms that plagued the movement, the most damaging to the reputation of the Retirement Life Payments Association was the unfortunate personal histories of many of the campaign leaders (especially those working out of the Los Angeles office).54 The question of ethics among the 3O-Thursday leadership provided the Antis a convenient vulnerability at which to aim their media assault.
Much has been written about the situation in the Los Angeles state headquarters run by the notorious Allen brothers, who were embroiled in a number of legal actions and controversies.55 Though it was principally these northern scandals that disgraced their efforts, the local San Diego office had its own highly publicized bout with ignominy.
Two days before the election mug shots appeared on the front page of the San Diego Union. The banner above the photographs read, “Speaker ‘Poses’ For Portraits,” and below, “Police Know Record of Speaker Scheduled For Ham-Eggs Talk.” The paper then related that Walter L. Thornton, “self-styled economist and champion of the needy, who has made numerous talks throughout the city and county in behalf of ham-and-eggs” was sentenced in 1937 to six months in county jail for passing “fictitious” checks. The paper also reported that Thornton had been arrested for grand theft in 193O and had been placed on three years probation with an order to make restitution.56
Roger Coffin noted, in his “The Truth About Ham and Eggs,” that Thornton came to him with excellent credentials, “so imposing that like an idiot I did not check them.”57 Thornton’s exceptional stage presence and speaking ability had made him a very effective advocate for the proposal.
The Ham Anders had been riding high, confident of victory, when the story of Thornton’s conviction hit the Sunday morning paper. Coffin was outraged by the public revelation of Thornton’s past. The story raised serious questions about the integrity of the local Ham and Eggs leadership in the crucial closing days of the campaign.58
Coffin, Art Cain, and two of Cain’s huskiest crew rushed to Thornton’s house to find him loading his car for a get-away. Coffin told how “after some applied pressure we got the truth out of him. He had been hired months before by the establishment . . .We could not get . . .the names of the individuals who had actually hired [him].”59
Roger Coffin, aided by the presence of Cain and his crewmen, forced Thornton to make his scheduled appearance that afternoon. Coffin “grabbed Thornton by his shirtfront and ground out . . .’You are going to tell the exact truth and make the best speech of your existence or your existence will come to a sudden end.'”60
The San Diego Union reported the pitiful words of Walter Thornton on that difficult occasion, “Although my heart is broken: I found the courage to come here and tell you that you mustn’t confuse my personal mistakes in what I had hoped was a dead past with the amendment to be voted upon Tuesday.”61
On Monday, the day before the vote, Coffin revealed his own personal outrage by staging a daring raid on the enemy’s downtown headquarters. Coffin ran into the Broadway campaign office of the Committee Against 3O-Thursday, ripped a poster showing newspaper clippings of Thornton’s criminal record off a display window, and ran out again. Ham and Eggs supporters kept vigil at the opposition office the rest of the day and again the next morning. “They crowded the sidewalk, evidently to keep an eye on what their opponents were doing.”62
The Ham Anders had cause for concern. Formidable forces were combined against them. In the final days of the contest two opposition stratagems provoked serious objections from RLPA headquarters. City and county employees had been authorized by the Civil Service Commission to take part in the campaign against Proposition 1,63 and posters bearing a warning from the governor regarding the “fallacy of the plan” were approved by the Board of Supervisors for display at San Diego’s 483 polling places. The controversial notice was permitted because it was part of a proclamation by California Governor Olson calling the 1939 special election.64 It read in part:
I would be false in my own conscience and sense of duty if I failed here to express my belief that, if adopted, this measure would fail to achieve its objectives, would disappoint the hopes of its supporters, and would retard instead of aiding our progress to a better economic order.65
This overt opposition by the governor was especially disturbing to the RLPA since Olson had supported the program in the 1938 election and Ham and Eggs voters were believed to have won him the governorship.66
Roger Coffin vigorously protested the partisan political activities of public employees,67 but District Attorney James B. Abbey ruled there were no legal barriers restricting a public employee’s rights as a citizen.68 “If 3O-Thursday were to be defeated,” a letter from the League of California Cities told city employees, “they had to help defeat it.”69
Hard-ball politics worked both ways; the Ham and Eggers made several creative attempts to ensnarl the Antis’ political machine. The San Diego Sun reported the day after the election that the Antis’ poll taxi brigade was nearly waylaid by a Ham Ander ploy. Early election morning phone calls began to pour into the Committee Against headquarters requesting rides to the polls by persons indicating a desire to vote against Ham and Eggs. But, the Sun revealed, the Antis became suspicious when a “person making the request was heard over the telephone to remark to someone in the room from which she was making the call: ‘How am I doing, Mr. Coffin?’ “70
With this awkward revelation, the RLPA’s clever ruse was thwarted. The efforts of the Committee Against to get their supporters to the polls continued uninterrupted. In spite of the best efforts of the Ham and Eggs party, it was too late in the game for any wily ploy to stop the roll toward a defeat that came closer with every San Diego voter who made it to the polls.
Tuesday, November 7, election day in San Diego, was overcast. Though the threat hung in the air, the Weather Service promised no rain would hinder voter participation. Prospects were good for a huge turn-out. Election officials predicted an impressive 82 percent of the 141,993 registered voters in the county would go to the polls. They were anxious not to have rain or violence dampen the promise of a record showing.71
Local law enforcement officials were active throughout the city and county in an effort to curtail any possible trouble at the polls.72 The heated exchange between Coffin and the District Attorney over the use of “strong arm” squads was still fresh in everyone’s mind. No one knew how the day would turn out. Partisans from both camps were prepared to challenge voters at the polls. The serious prospect of confrontation added to the intense anticipation that gripped the city. Although the day brought numerous complaints of electioneering at the polls and some supporters were ordered out of several precincts, generally the voting was orderly.73
After the polls closed that evening, Coffin and two associates arrived at the basement of the courthouse, where the votes were to be counted. Sitting at the press table, they carefully noted the tabulation as vote counts from local precincts began to come in. A reporter for the Sun described Coffin’s response as returns from fifteen precincts indicated that Ham and Eggs was headed for defeat: “Mr. Coffin mopped his brow and said, `Well it looks like another year yet.’ After 3O precincts were tabulated, Mr. Coffin stopped taking notes. After 4O precincts were in Mr. Coffin and company departed.”74
Wednesday morning the daily papers reported in bold black headlines that Ham and Eggs had gone down to defeat.
Roger Coffin remained publicly defiant. He warned his opponents that the “people” were still on the march. In spite of this public show of confidence, Coffin was described by the San Diego Sun as bitterly disappointed by the overwhelming defeat of the initiative.75 As of Wednesday morning, 481 of the 483 precincts in San Diego county reported a 73,38O to 4O,575 vote against the retirement pension plan.76 State-wide the initiative failed by nearly a two-to-one margin, 1,933,557 to 993,2O4.77
The following Sunday, during a post-election rally at Russ auditorium, Coffin reassured his supporters, “Our heads are bloody, but unbowed. We must go on whether we want to or not, because the problem is unsolved. They have licked us with a campaign of fear, but a trouncing does not feed our hungry people.”78
Although the Ham and Eggers tried to keep the drive for a state old age pension alive, their crushing defeat at the polls proved fatal. In a last ditch effort to hold on to their rapidly waning influence, and wreak political vengeance on Governor Olson (whom they believed had betrayed them), Ham Anders launched a feeble and short-lived attempt to recall the governor.79
In the aftermath of the contest, the County Grand Jury launched an investigation of the RLPA’s campaign finances. Coffin and his wife were summoned to appear with the organization’s books. Coffin had been careful to follow his attorney’s advise to protect himself against such a contingency. The San Diego office of the RLPA had entrusted its books to Coffin’s wife Wilma, who was an experienced bookkeeper. Coffin reported with satisfaction in his memoirs that “our records were as clean as a hounds tooth and at the last meeting we had with the Grand Jury the C.P.A. who checked the records turned to Mrs. Coffin with a smile and said he had never investigated a cleaner set of records.”80
Though the Coffins were cleared of any impropriety in their campaign finances, their lives in San Diego were wrecked. Their dream had been shattered and their reputations called into question. It was a dark time for a man who had worked so hard to advance a proposition he believed would provide financial security for the elderly.
The San Diego Herald, alone came to Coffin’s defense. In a front page editorial it declared:
The Herald believes, and hundreds of Ham ‘n Eggers with us, that Roger Coffin, San Diego county manager for the movement, is the man for the supreme leadership in the state . Of paramount importance is his character and reputation – both beyond reproach. Secondly is his ability, sincerity and courage. In these things none of the leaders – the unfortunate leaders – who wrecked Ham ‘n Eggs because of their own records, in and out of jail, comes close to Coffin. He should be the leader for all California, and unless he or someone like him is made the leader, the movement will again come to failure.81
In spite of this glowing endorsement of Roger Coffin and the determined efforts of a few dogged supporters to keep the movement alive, the 1939 defeat of Proposition 1 marked the end of the old-age pension movement in San Diego. The Coffins had bills to pay, but their income from the RLPA disappeared as enthusiasm for the movement waned. His controversial reputation cost him his job selling cars and made other employment in San Diego unlikely. Coffin conceded in his memoirs that his friends had been right, “my name was MUD and no one in town wanted any part of me.”82
Roger Coffin left San Diego in 1940, never to return. After a short but difficult stint in a Seattle shipyard, he moved back to California and established a new home for his family in Los Angeles. Coffin went on to enjoy a satisfying and successful career as an agent for Pacific Mutual Insurance Company. He died in 1972 at the age of eighty.83
A remnant of 3O-Thursday forces continued a meager effort to win a place for their proposal on the 1942 ballot. But when California’s Secretary of State disqualified thousands of petition signatures there remained little hope for a new contest.84 The political tide had turned against the California Pension Plan. The terrible decade of depression drew to an end as World War II began to stimulate the American economy. America’s war in the Pacific brought thousands of new jobs to the Golden State and the benefits of the national Social Security system significantly eased the plight of the elderly. The desperate conditions that gave rise to the pension movement in California ended with the new prosperity, and the battle for Ham and Eggs ended with them.
1. San Diego Sun, 18 September 1938, 5.
2. Jackson K. Putnam reported in Old-Age Politics in California (p. 93) that the name was coined by one of the movement’s most compelling advocates, Sherman Bainbridge, who is reputed to have shouted at a rally, “We want our ham and eggs!” Putnam, Old Age Politics in California (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1970).
3. John B. Canterbury, “‘Ham and Eggs’ in California,” Nation, 22 October 1938, 41O.
4. Putnam, Old Age Politics, 1O6.
5. Sun, 3O September 1939, 1.
6. Roger M. Coffin, “The Truth About Ham and Eggs,” (1969): 1. This is a fifteen-page document of typed memoirs, with annotations and corrections in Mr. Coffin’s own hand. It was written thirty years after the events described and briefly revised two years later, in 197O (two years before his death). These memoirs, the scripts of Mr. Coffin’s radio speeches of 1938 and 1939, and weekly issues of the San Diego Californian (OO January 1939 [a sample issue]-15 March 194O, inclusive), were in the private collection of Mrs. Wilma O. Coffin. They have recently been donated to the Research Archives of the San Diego Historical Society.
7. Ibid., 1-5.
8. Ibid., 5-6.
9. Ibid., 5.
10. San Diego Union, 26 July 1938, sec. A, 1 & 2; and Putnam, Old Age Politics, 97.
11. Ibid., 6 November 1938, sec. A. p. 3; Coffin, “The Truth About Ham and Eggs,” 9; Glen Abbey Cemetery records (Price is buried in plot 6, sec. 14, block 31).
12. Ibid.; Richard F. Pourade, The Rising Tide, Southern California in the Twenties and Thirties (San Diego: Union-Tribune Publishing, 1967), 234.
13. Putnam, Old Age Politics, 97; Union, 6 November 1938, 3.
14. Coffin, “The Truth About Ham and Eggs,” 9.
16. Union, 1O November 1938, sec. A, p. 3.
17. San Diego Chamber of Commerce, Minutes of Meetings, Executive Committee and Board of Directors, 12 October 1939, 5; 19 October 1939, 3; 2 November 1939, 3; and 9 November 1939, 3. Chamber of Commerce records indicate that thirty-six feature stories, which appeared in the San Diego Union, were prepared by the Chamber’s Publicity Department in the month before the 1939 election.
18. San Diego Herald, 5 October 1939, 1.
19. San Diego Californian, 3 February 1939.
20. Ibid., OO January 1939 (a sample issue); Roger M. Coffin, Scripts for Radio Speeches, 1938 and 1939, 3O January 1939, 11 August 1939.
21. Coffin, Radio Speeches, 3 May 1939, 1; 12 May 1939, 5.
22. Putnam, Old Age Politics, 96.
23. Coffin, “The Truth About Ham and Eggs,” 6.
25. Union, 14 October 1939, sec. A, p. 5.
26. Sun, 14 October 1939, 2. This song was most likely the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
27. Californian, 27 October 1939, 6. White referred to the 17 October 1939 performance in Riverside, California.
28. Coffin, “The Truth About Ham and Eggs,” 8.
29. Putnam, Old Age Politics, 97.
30. Sun, 9 September 1939, 5.
31. Coffin, Radio Speeches, 12 May 1939. The portion quoted here was struck from the text by the KGB station manager because of its inflammatory nature. Coffin’s public pronouncements would not have been so circumscribed.
32. Ibid., 21 July, 1939; 18 September 1939; and Union, 23 October 1939, sec. B, p. 1.
33. Californian, 1O November 1939, 6.
34. Sun, 4 November 1939, 2.
35. Union, 27 October 1939, sec. A, p. 14; and Sun, 28 October 1939, 2.
36. Coffin, “The Truth About Ham and Eggs,” 8.
37. Coffin, Radio Speeches, various.
38. Californian, 27 October 1939, 6.
39. Coffin, “The Truth About Ham and Eggs,” 8.
40. Coffin, Radio Speeches, 12 May 1939. The text of this note was typewritten and signed with a red pencil.
41. Sun, 8 November 1939, 1 & 2; and San Diego Chamber of Commerce, Minutes of Meetings, Executive Committee and Board of Directors, 9 November 1939, 7 November 194O, inclusive, from the Meeting of the Board of Directors of 9 November 1939.
43. Coffin, “The Truth About Ham and Eggs,” 6; and Coffin, Radio Speeches, 21 July 1939.
44. Coffin, “The Truth About Ham and Eggs,” 7. Coffin’s Punctuation.
46. Coffin, Radio Speeches, 15 September 1939.
47. Richard F. Pourade, “S.D. Ham & Chief Warns Town To Behave Or Else-,” Sun, 3O September 1939, 1 & 2.
48. Californian, 8 September 1939, 1.
49. Ibid., 15 September 1939, 1; 22 September 1939, 1; 29 September 1939, 1; and 6 October 1939, 1. There is also an article in the Sun, 9 September 1939, 3, which details Coffin’s criteria for placing merchants on the list.
50. Union, 23 October 1939, sec. B, p. 1.
52. Sun, 27 October 1939, 1.
53. The Broom, C. Leon de Aryan, editor-owner, 16 October 1939, 4.
54. Putnam related in Old Age Politics (p.1OO) that Lawrence and Wills Allen were accused of collusion with Los Angeles mayor Frank Shaw, who was recalled by his constituents for corruption. George Berger accused the Allen brothers of cheating him out of his third of Ham and Eggs profits and brought charges against them for forgery. Earl Kynette was sent to prison for attempted murder.
55. Putnam, Old Age Politics, 1OO.
56. Union, 5 November 1939, sec. A, p. 1.
57. Coffin, “The Truth About Ham and Eggs,” 12.
58. Ibid. Coffin reported that his precinct workers had estimated a 68% margin of victory.
59. Ibid., 12-13. Coffin voiced his suspicions as to the identity of one of the men who had set up the Thornton incident on page 14 of his “The Truth About Ham and Eggs”: “On Monday morning [the day after the story appeared in the Union] the president of one of San Diegos Banks called me on the phone and asked. How do you like it now Coffin, so I felt pretty sure I new one of the perpertraers of this dirty political chicanery.” (Coffin’s spelling and punctuation)
60. Ibid., 13.
61. Ibid.; Union, 6 November 1939, sec. A, p. 4.
62. Sun, 7 November 1939, 1.
63. Ibid., 3O November 1939, 7.
64. Ibid., 29 November 1939, 2.
66. Union, 8 November 1939, sec. A, p. 1. Indicates the belief that Olson owed his election to Ham and Eggs votes.
67. Californian, 13 October 1939, 1 & 3. Related how upon leaving the Council Chambers of the Civic Auditorium after a debate of the pension plan before the Municipal Employees Association of San Diego, Mr Coffin was called back into the hall to hear Deputy City Attorney H.B. Daniels blast Ham and Eggs. After Daniel’s discourse, Coffin requested an opportunity to respond to Daniel’s misrepresentations by reading directly from the act. Coffin was ruled out of order. Coffin submitted that “a goodly number of the members expressed great dissatisfaction with the tactics of their leaders.”
68. Sun, 3O September 1939, 7; and Union, 25 October 1939, sec. A, p. 13; and Sun, 2 November 1939, 13.
69. Union, 25 October 1939, sec. A, p. 13. From a letter by Richard Graves, executive secretary of the League of California Cities, distributed to city employees at the Civic Center, 24 October 1939.
70. Sun, 8 November 1939, 2.
71. Ibid. 6 November 1939, 1.
73. Union, 8 November 1939, sec. A, p. 1.
74. Sun, 8 November 1939, 2.
75. Ibid., 8 November 1939, 1.
77. Putnam, Old Age Politics, 111.
78. Sun, 8 November 1939, 1.
79. Union, 8 November 1939, sec. A, p. 1. and Sun, 8 November 1939, 2.
80. Coffin, “The Truth About Ham and Eggs,” 14. It was also reported in the Californian, 29 December 1939, that the Grand Jury returned their books with the statement that “the records contain nothing of a suspicious nature.”
81. Herald, 9 November 1939, 1.
82. Coffin, “The Truth About Ham and Eggs,” 15.
83. Nancy Brigham (daughter of Roger and Wilma Coffin). Telephone interview by author, 30 October 1992.
84. Putnam, Old Age Politics, 114.
Chris Ernest Nelson is a 1992 graduate of San Diego State University with a B.A. in history. He is currently associated with the SDSU Teacher Institute and is doing his student teaching at Crawford High School and Horace Mann Middle School. Mr. Nelson has lived in San Diego County since 1959 and resides in Jamul.