Biography of Judge George E. Crothers
San Francisco, CA Biographies

Judge George E. Crothers, of San Francisco, has been an outstanding figure in legal, judicial, financial and educational circles of California for the past quarter of a century. "Like most men of achievement," said a contemporary biographer, "he was a son of the soil, born and reared on a farm in Iowa, and comes of a line of sturdy Scotch ancestry."

One of his father's ancestors of the same name was given five "town lands" by Cromwell for distinguished services as an officer in his army of "covenantors," upon which the family lived until the last of them was sold by his grandfather. His mother was descended from the Fairs and Grahams, who were prosperous farmers and for generations owned quarries and were master builders in both wood and stone, employing a number of journeymen and apprentices in their plant. His father and his family were baptized and confirmed by the Lord Primate of Armagh, in whose diocese they lived, while his mother's people received the same services from the Bishop of Claugher, these being two of the three bishoprics established by St. Patrick. His mother was a sister of the late James G. Fair, famous as one of the developers of the Comstock lode and one of the early financiers of San Francisco.

George Edward Crothers, son of John and Margaret Jane (Fair) Crothers, was born at Wapello, Iowa, May 27, 1870. Soon afterward the family removed to a farm near Manchester, in Delaware county, where George Crothers spent his boyhood until the age of nine, when the family removed to a new home on a tract of prairie land north of Arthur, Iowa. Four years later his parents rented the farms in Iowa and brought their family to California to secure better educational advantages for their ten children, and in October, 1883, located at San Jose. Of the ten children one died at six years of age, and eight of the others enjoyed a college education.

Young Crothers attended the San Jose high school, graduating in 1891, having been president of his class throughout his high school course. Entering Leland Stanford Junior University, he received the degree of A. B. in 1895 and A. M. in the law department in 1896. Throughout his high school and college courses he worked during every vacation and earned a considerable part of the necessary funds to provide his education. Once in a newspaper interview Judge Crothers said: "I've worked since I was about twelve years old. I mean by that I had some definite job during all of my vacations. It seems to me that the habit of industry is the greatest asset a boy can acquire." He was admitted to the California bar in 1896 and subsequently to practice in all of the federal courts. In 1897 he formed a partnership with his brother, Thomas G. Crothers, distinguished in legal and insurance annals of California, and was soon retained as one of three attorneys of record for the executors and trustees in the famous litigation in defense of the $18,000,000 Fair trust and estate. He had personal charge of the forgery branch of the litigation, and won a notable victory in the proof of a forgery by original mathematical lines of deduction based upon consecutively numbered checks. After protracted litigation, extending from 1899 to 1902, he made the closing argument in both the Craven and the Fair trust cases. The fact that he was permitted by his associates to argue these important cases when he had been in practice but five years speaks well for his standing as a pleader at that age.

In the meantime, in 1898, Mr. Crothers was retained by Mrs. Leland Stanford as sole active trustee of Stanford University, to write a constitutional amendment to reduce the tax burden upon the University and permit her to convey to the University a quarter interest in the Southern Pacific Company and other taxable securities which, if taxed, as the law required, would absorb more than the entire University income and force a sacrifice sale. Owing to defects discovered by him in the enabling act, founding and supplementary grants and attempted amendments to the University trusts, made without or against proper legal advice, he found it necessary to broaden the scope of the proposed constitutional amendment, to prepare and cause to be passed not only the amendment but several acts of the legislature, and to revise the University trusts and confirm or eliminate illegal provisions in the founding and endowment grants, and prepare new endowment grants upon trusts so validated, to grant corporate and other essential powers to the trustees, and to provide for and permit the resignation of all powers of Mrs. Stanford as surviving founder and the immediate succession of the trustees to power as such. He drafted and caused the legislature to adopt an act creating a special proceeding under which all of his work and the competency of the Stanfords, and the validity and legal effect of all the grants, trusts, corporate powers, amendments, confirmatory conveyances, and Mrs. Stanford's resignation and surrender of all powers over and legal interest in the University and its endowment, were determined by judicial decree. Finally, he drafted the will under which Stanford University was made residuary beneficiary of Mrs. Stanford's estate (which remained unchanged except for the purpose of replacing the name of an executor omitted on account of ill health), thereby permitting the subsequent preparation by him as attorney for the trustees of the residuary clause in the decree of distribution under which the University can claim title to the entire Stanford estate not specifically disposed of to others, regardless of the legality of other Stanford grants or gifts to the University. Subsequently he acted as sole trustee during Mrs. Stanford's lifetime, and conveyed to the University upon her death, several million dollars in securities.

Mrs. Stanford's transfer of a quarter interest in the Southern Pacific Railroad Company stock, together with millions of other securities, was made possible by the passage of his constitutional amendment through the legislature and by his assurance to her that it would be adopted by the people, and that the securities so transferred would be rendered non-taxable by legislative enactment pursuant thereto. He advised Mrs. Stanford to retain the Southern Pacific stock, believing that Senator Stanford was right in his prediction that the stock would soon be selling for par or better, but she was induced to sell the stock pursuant to a conference with her advisers in New York, at a small fraction of its subsequent value, thereby preventing Stanford University from becoming by far the most richly endowed university in the world.

He and his brother directed and financed, without any promise of subsequent reimbursement or remuneration, all of the campaigns for the adoption of the constitutional amendment and acts above referred to. For all his legal and other work for Mrs. Stanford and the University, covering a period of six vital years of legal and financial worries, Judge Crothers refused to accept any remuneration until, after her resignation, Mrs. Stanford demanded in writing that he must thereafter accept the usual compensation for such services. After her death he waived the statutory fees as sole trustee of the special trust to the amount of more than sixty thousand dollars, accepting for his services both as special trustee and attorney for the trustees even less than the amount paid to each of the other attorneys merely having to do with the closing of Mrs. Stanford's estate, in which he acted pursuant to resolution of the board, as attorney for the board of trustees of the University.

His services to Stanford University were not confined to the long chain of measures formulated and carried through by him in association with his brother, Thomas G. Crothers, relating to the validity and revision of the trusts governing the University and the granting of corporate powers to the trustees, but as a member and subsequently chairman of the organization committee of the trustees he formulated the by laws and rules of order of the board of trustees, and he and his fellow trustee, Horace Davis, in cooperation with a committee of the faculty, formulated the articles of organization of the faculty of the University, which was adopted by the board of trustees March 31, 1904, and was designed to make the faculty a living, working organism with responsible functions in the management of the University. He caused the board of trustees to adopt a resolution approving the principle of military training in the University. He cooperated with Professor Lange in securing necessary state legislation providing for public junior colleges, and after the University of California had adopted the plan of the upper and lower divisions in the colleges of the University, he caused the board of trustees to approve this plan of college organization in principle for Stanford University. He also caused the trustees to adopt the policy of giving the president of the University the untrammeled initiative without affirmative suggestions from the trustees, either as individuals or otherwise, but with full power of veto of such appointments in the board of trustees. He formulated a standing resolution of the board of trustees under which no member of the faculty can be removed by the president for cause without the right to a statement of the cause and a hearing thereon, and at his suggestion Mrs. Stanford withdrew her proposal to empower the trustees to eliminate women students from the University immediately prior to her resignation of all powers over the University, including the power of amendment of the trusts. He suggested, and his brother formulated, Mrs. Stanford's communication to the board of trustees of February 13, 1905, establishing the Jewel Fund, which assures to the University an adequate fund for the purchase of books for the library. As chairman of the committee on medical education he brought about the consolidation of Cooper Medical College with Stanford University, and formulated the terms and conditions effecting the transfer of the properties and the government of the medical department. In this connection he made a thorough study of hospital methods, equipment, and accounting, both in England and America, and inaugurated the English system of accounting at the University hospital. As a committee of one he allocated the area upon the Stanford grounds to be used for athletic purposes by the board of athletic control and prescribed their powers and duties with reference thereto, and, pursuant to resolution of the trustees, he designed the University seal and selected and placed thereon the motto "Semper virens." He formulated the provisions of Thomas Welton Stanford's gifts and bequests to the University, including one for the investigation of the occult. Shortly before Mrs. Stanford's death she complained to President Jordan that Judge Crothers had refused to accept compensation for legal services to her or the University, and the latter wrote stating that next to the founders themselves he was the most unselfish person ever connected with that institution.

Shortly before her death Mrs. Stanford wrote that she could not have gone on without the assistance of Mr. Crothers, and that she held him closer than she had any other person since the death of Senator Stanford. However, while always loyal to her, he never hesitated when occasion required to exert his influence in behalf of others connected with the University with whom she had differences of conflicting opinions.

For ten years Judge Crothers served as chairman of the board of trustees of the San Francisco State Normal School, until 1921, when all such boards were abolished. In this connection he cooperated with Frederic Burk in the most extensive and successful experiments ever made in the publication and use of pamphlets covering elementary school subjects. These required the personal initiative of each pupil to solve the problems given and called for the aid of the teacher only when the pupil could not understand or apply the instructions contained in the pamphlets. The purpose of this system was to develop personal interest in the problems and self-reliance in their solution.

He is also a life trustee of the Stanford Kindergarten Trust, which contributes to the support of five kindergartens in San Francisco, and resulted in the establishment of the first kindergarten in America in the early eighties.

Desiring to have the vast wealth of historical and scientific material in the California State Library at Sacramento available to the students of Stanford and University of California for reference at a point convenient for both, Judge Crothers drafted a bill to permit the state librarian to establish a branch in the Ferry building at San Francisco, and to transfer such material as he considered suitable to it. Librarian Ellis assented to the proposition, but said that he had a vision of branch libraries or library agencies throughout the state. Upon his suggestion the bill was modified to authorize the present system of branches and agencies of the state library at scores of points throughout the state, making the California State Library one of the outstanding institutions of its kind in the entire country, if not the leader in the service of students and readers in the most inaccessible portions of the state.

Early in life Judge Crothers began to assume an active interest in local and general political affairs. From 1909 to 1912 he was chairman of the independent republican movement, and chairman of the republican county committee in 1912 and 1913. In 1909 he represented President Roosevelt in urging the governor and leaders of the California legislature to prevent provocative land legislation directed against Orientals. In 1924 he outlined the progressive record of Calvin Coolidge and predicted the course he would pursue in eliminating "every odor of oil" from his administration. On receiving a copy of it President Coolidge wrote that he had "not only given me a great deal of pleasure but has heartened and encouraged me more than I can say. I want you to know of nay sincerest appreciation and grateful thanks." This outline was subsequently printed on the back cover of a pamphlet upon Coolidge's "Labor Record," of which millions were distributed among the workers of America.

It is generally believed that the loss of harmony between the progressive and "regular" wings of the republican party in San Francisco, which resulted from his resignation as chairman of the local county committee to go on the bench, caused the defeat of Hughes for the presidency in 1916 by a narrow vote.

A native of the same state and a classmate of Herbert Hoover throughout his college days, he has always been a warm friend and supporter. During the last presidential campaign he delivered an address on the life and work of Hoover to the Engineers' Hoover Club at St. Louis, of which James W. Good, western manager of the republican national committee, said: "I am genuinely sorry that I did not have before me a copy of this address early in the campaign. I should have had printed a very large number of them for general distribution."

On November 10, 1928, a few days after his election as president, Herbert Hoover wrote to George E. Crothers: "Your many years of friendship have been a fine contribution to this success."

As chairman of the independent republicans of San Francisco, and afterwards chairman of the republican county committee, he was probably the first person in responsible political position to be quoted in the press as advocating in political campaign speeches laws providing for old age pensions, employers' liability for accidents to workmen, workmen's health insurance, and abandoned mothers' pensions, and on his recommendation as chairman of the San Francisco organization, made to an informal committee of local leaders under his chairmanship held the previous day, the equal suffrage plank was put in the California republican platform of 1910.

He was appointed judge of the superior court in San Francisco on August 12, 1913, and on November 3, 1915, was elected to succeed himself for the term 1915-21, having been endorsed for reelection by the highest vote of the San Francisco Bar Association ever given to a candidate for election to the position. In 1919 he served as presiding judge of the superior courts and reentered active practice of law in January, 1921. While on the bench he introduced improved procedure in the assignment of cases and appointed the Harrelson grand jury, which rectified long standing abuses.

Other activities of Judge Crothers have taken a wide scope, ranging from cooperation with others in the organization and maintenance of the San Francisco Boys' Club, which operates nine boys' clubs in the less advantaged parts of the city of San Francisco, to aiding in the founding of the San Francisco Opera Association, and disseminating his own addresses and other publications against communism among the leaders of the nationalist movement in China, for which he received the thanks of China's representative in America, and the reorganization of Western States Life Insurance Company as one of the soundest and strongest institutions of the kind in the west. He was elected one of the directors of the San Francisco Chapter of the American Red Cross, to fill a vacancy after he had served three times as chairman of its nominating committee, and has been otherwise identified with various civic and philanthropic work.

While Judge Crothers' work has been principally along legal and educational lines, his leisure has been devoted largely to study and the practical application of his conclusions. Aside from being a close student of law and international relations, he has gone far in the study of physics and other sciences, augmented by experimental work along various lines.

Together with his brothers, William H. and Thomas G., he studied and conducted electrical experiments even before he entered high school, where he was asked by Professor L. B. Wilson to conduct the class in physics upon the subjects of telephony, light and photography. He denied sufficiency of the still prevailing theory of light and ether and held that light, electricity and matter were closely related, if not derived from an identical source. He made many forms of telephones and microphones and coils to cut out induction interference in high potential telephone circuits, and was made president of the Peoples Telephone Company of San Jose, California, where his experiments were put to practical application in the use of very small and inexpensive cable wires and high potential toll line circuits with highly sensitive receiving sets. He was granted the privilege of proving the perfect practicability of using his high power experimental telephone sets upon the long distance iron wires of the Western Union Telegraph Company about 1897, when the long distance sets then in use in the Bell Telephone System still used the low potential toll line circuits which called for expensive heavy copper wires.

Subsequently he experimented with the curative properties of electric and other heat rays and applied them, first in the case of friends and then with the assent of physicians and hospital authorities in the reduction of local and general infections with what one physician of national reputation designated as unbelievably favorable results. There is reason to believe that the knowledge of success of the experiments in California resulted in the world-wide notoriety of their successful use since the latter part of 1928.

In 1926-28, Judge Crothers was treasurer of the Legal Aid Society of San Francisco. He is a life member of the American Law Institute and of local, state and national bar associations. He has been for over a quarter of a century a member of the American Historical Association, the American Political Science Association, the National Municipal League, the Seismological Society of America, and a member of the National Council of the National Economic League. He was temporary chairman and second president of the pioneer class (1895) of Stanford University, president of the Stanford alumni 1899-1900 and 1913-14, being the first alumnus to be reelected to the position, and Was the first graduate of Stanford University to serve a ten-year term as a university trustee (1902-1912). He is a member of the Masonic fraternity (thirty-two degrees) and of the following clubs: University, Pacific Union, Stanford Faculty, Press, Masonic, Commonwealth, Menlo Country, Monterey Peninsula Country, and Schoolmasters of California. He is affiliated with the Protestant Episcopal Church and a member of the cathedral committee and completion committee of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco.

On March 23, 1911, Judge Crothers married Miss Elizabeth Mills, the gifted daughter of the late W. H. Mills of San Francisco, who died August 18, 1920. He resides at 1010 California street and has offices in the de Young building, San Francisco.

Endowed by nature with a fine physique and a genial personality, Judge Crothers has preserved the appearance of youth throughout his many years of unusual activity, and considers that his life's work has just begun. If the future holds in store as much as the past has achieved, he will have indeed been a benefactor of mankind, stamped his name indelibly upon the history of this commonwealth and "left footprints on the sands of time."

The History of San Francisco, California
Lewis Francis Byington, Supervising Editor
Oscar Lewis, Associate Editor
The S. J. Clark Publishing Company
Chicago-San Francisco 1931

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