William Stephens was an American politician
who served as the 24th Governor of California
(1917-1923), and was a 3-term U.S. Congressman
He served briefly as Lieutenant Governor
of California, and acted as interim mayor
of Los Angeles for a few days in 1909.
Stephens was active in the public affairs
of Los Angeles and played a prominent role
in the creation of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
Biographical fast facts
Full or original name at birth: William Dennison Stephens
Date and place of birth: December 26, 1859,
Eaton, Ohio, U.S.A. *
Date, place and cause of death: April 25, 1944,
at Santa Fe Hospital, Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.
(Heart ailment) **
Spouse: Flora Rawson (m. June 17, 1891 - April 21, 1931)
Wedding took place in Poway, San Diego County, California, U.S.A.
Daughter: Barbara Stephens
Father: Martin F. Stephens (b. September 24, 1827,
Preble County, Ohio - d. 1902, Los Angeles, California)
Mother: Alvira Leibee (b. April 24, 1830, Middletown,
Ohio - d. July 28, 1888, Los Angeles, California)
Burial site: Rosedale Cemetery, Los Angeles,
Error corrections or clarifications
* A couple of sources erroneously report
December 18th as his date of birth.
** A few sources erroneously state Governor
Stephens died "April 24, 1944." All contemporary
accounts were in agreement that he died
April 25, 1944, at Santa Fe Hospital, in
Los Angeles, California.
William Dennison Stephens was the third of nine
children born to Martin and Alvira Stephens. He
made his debut in the world in Eaton, Preble
County, Ohio, on December 26th, 1859.
Though he'd studied law extensively throughout
high school, he was initially unable to pursue
a career as a lawyer since finances required
that he immediately begin contributing to the
After graduating from Eaton High School in
1876, he spent three years as a schoolteacher.
He next worked for a railroad construction
company as a member of their engineering
corps (1880-87). Looking for warmer, drier
air to improve his mother's health, the
Stephens family made the move to Los Angeles,
California, in 1887. The climate proved to
be of little benefit as she was dead just
a year later.
He found work as a traveling salesman and
manager for an area grocer, then in 1902
became a partner in the wholesale and retail
grocery business of Carr & Stephens. He
increasingly became involved in civic affairs,
serving on the board of directors of the
Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce from 1902
to 1911, had a brief stint as its president
in 1907, and was chairman of its harbor
committee. He was also a member of the Los
Angeles Board of Education (1906-07); served
on and also presided over the Board of Water
Commissioners and was a member of the advisory
committee for building the L.A. Aqueduct.
Built by William Mulholland, the Los
Angeles Aqueduct was a true engineering
marvel. At over 200 miles in length, it
was the world's longest aqueduct at that
time. As a dedicated member of the advisory
committee, W.D. Stephens was one of those
with the foresight to recognize the city's
future need for additional water supplies
in order to maintain its rapid growth.
The water it brought south from the melting
snow pack of the Sierra Nevada Mountains
allowed the dry city of 100,000 to eventually
grow into the second largest city in America.
He briefly served as vice president of
American National Bank in 1909, and as a
member of the California National Guard,
Major Stephens was on the scene of the
devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake
and subsequent fire. He and his First
Brigade figured prominently in relief
efforts that followed.
In 1909, he acted as interim mayor of Los
Angeles for a few days. The following year,
Stephens, a Republican, received nearly
three times the number of votes tallied
by his Democratic opponent to represent
the 7th District in the U.S. Congress. He
remained a member of the U.S. Congress for
three terms, serving the 7th District from
1911 to 1913, and the 10th District from
1913 to 1916. He resigned from congress
in 1916 when he was appointed Lieutenant
Governor of California.
He would have little time to make much of
an impact in his new position. In March 1917,
Governor Hiram W. Johnson resigned to serve
in the U.S. Senate. Stephens served the
remainder of Johnson's term, before winning
election in 1918 to a full term in his own
One of the most contentious issues Gov. Stephens
faced was the case of labor leader Thomas J.
Mooney. Mooney had been convicted of complicity
in the deadly 1916 San Francisco Preparedness
day parade bombing. Following Mooney's conviction,
Stephens' administration faced numerous threats
and extortion attempts that culminated in an
explosion at the governor's mansion. A dynamite
bomb detonated at the rear of the residence and
did extensive damage to the kitchen. The governor
was uninjured in the attack, which was blamed
on activists with the Industrial Workers of the
World (IWW). The now-forgotten December 17, 1917
bombing served to harden positions on both sides
of the issue.
Worldwide attention was increasingly focused on
the questionable evidence used to convict Mooney,
and great pressure was brought to bear on Governor
Stephens to grant clemency to the convicted labor
leader. After President Woodrow Wilson personally
appealed to the governor, Stephens commuted his
death sentence to life imprisonment. More than
20 years after his conviction and long after
Stephens had retired from public life, Thomas J.
Mooney was pardoned. The militant labor organizer
later admitted he was responsible for a series of
unrelated bombings that targeted Pacific Gas and
Electric Company assets. He reported his campaign
of dynamiting PG&E electrical towers was done
in support of the company's workers.
Governor William D. Stephens was a leader in
the campaign to secure passage of criminal
syndicalism laws that targeted violent tactics
used by some labor movements. The laws which
prohibited doctrines and activities involving
the use of violence as a means of social change,
became increasingly popular in the U.S. in the
waning days of World War I. Stephens was also
a supporter of prohibition, and an early
proponent of major new highway construction.
Long before World War II, he was one of the
earliest and most prominent public officials
to sound the alarm about the growing threat
posed by Japan and the escalating influx
of Japanese into California. Gov. Stephens
was an advocate of strict exclusion laws
to blunt what he saw as a growing menace
posed by ever-increasing Japanese immigration.
As California's governor during World War I,
the welfare of returning veterans was of
paramount concern to him. He spoke eloquently
of the need to provide benefits, retraining
and employment for vets and was instrumental
in establishing a veteran assistance program.
His long-delayed early dream of becoming an
attorney was finally realized when he was
admitted to the bar while still serving as
William Stephens' tenure as the 24th Governor
of California stretched from March 15, 1917,
to January 8, 1923. After failing in his bid
for reelection, he returned to Los Angeles
and established a law practice. He would
never again hold public office, though he
remained active in public affairs.
Governor Stephens passed away nearly
13 years to the day after the death of
his wife Flora. His death occurred April
25th, 1944, at Santa Fe Hospital, in Los
Angeles, California and was the result
of a heart ailment.
The most in-depth of more than two dozen sources
consulted in preparing this profile: American Genealogical Record (various editions) Biographical Directory of the Governors of the United States (various editions) Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year 1945 Peter Stephens and Some of His Descendants, 1690-1935 (1936) Who's Who in America (various editions) Los Angeles Daily News obituary (April 26, 1944) Los Angeles Examiner obituary (April 26, 1944) Los Angeles Times obituary (April 26, 1944)
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