JULY 2020

JULY   2020
Everything Old Is New Again!


Saturday, July 11, 2020


I am glad I was not there on that Easter Sunday, 26 March, 1894, when what the press would call “Coxey’s Army” set out from Massillon, Ohio. It would have been a depressing sight. It was raining and it was cold, and only 86 men showed up to begin a march which was intended to change the course of American democracy. On the plus side, they were joined by 42 reporters from various newspapers, just about one reporter for every two marchers. The press corps was further augmented by four Western Union telegraphers and two line men. Along the route they could tap into a telegraph lines,  sending dispatches about the progress of the army. William Stead, from the magazine Review of Reviews, noted that “Never in the annals of insurrection has so small a company of soldiers been accompanied by such a phalanx of recording angels.” It would quickly develop that he was one of the few sympathetic angels.
"The road to the City of Emeralds is paved with yellow brick," said the Witch, "so you cannot miss it. When you get to Oz do not be afraid of him, but tell your story and ask him to help you. "
1900  L. Frank Baum  "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz"
History records that they were singing new words (written by Carl Browne) set to the tune sung by Sherman’s Army as it burned it's way to Savanna.  “So now we sing the chorus,  Wherever we may be, While we go marching to Congress.” But if they did sing, it was not for long. At least they waited until the "warmth" of  the afternoon before, with collars turned up against the cold, they began their trek.
First there came a man on foot carrying an American flag, who was dutifully identified as a “negro” by the recording angels -  thus mocking Coxey’s determination to treat all races in his army with equal respect.  He was followed by Carl Browne, mounted on a stallion, and bedecked in his buckskin jacket and a huge western hat.  
Behind him, riding in a Pheaton buggy drawn by a matched pair of magnificent horses, came the financial support and ideological inspiration for the march, Jacob Coxey.  He was one of the richest and most successful businessmen in Ohio. And behind him came the “army”,  all 86 of them,  on foot and bicycle. But who were “them” really?
Later, Chicago University Professor Hourwitch actually tried to find out who they were. When the marchers had grown in number and in fame, he polled 290 of them. Their average age was 31 years old and on average they had been unemployed for five months. Almost two thirds were skilled mechanics, but less than half of those were union members. There were 88 Democrats in the army, 39 Republicans and 10 who declared themselves to be members of the Populist Party. One in four had needed charity to survive the winter just passed. The study also noted that five or six were of “questionable character”. 
"After a few hours the road began to grow rough, and the walking grew so difficult...The farms were not nearly so well cared for here as they were farther back. There were fewer houses and fewer fruit trees, and the farther they went the more dismal and lonesome the country became." 
1900  L. Frank Baum  "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz"
The New York Times noted in their dispatch that by the end of the first day’s march of just eight miles, ending outside of Canton, Ohio, twenty-five men had “dropped out”.  Another paper noted that of the “seventy-five stragglers” who had begun the march, several had spent the previous night in the local jail, and were released just before the march had begun. 
And calling the marchers “stragglers” was one of the kinder characterizations. Routinely they were identified as “bums”, or “tramps”.  The reporters did not pass up any chance to mock and degrade the "Army of the Poor". 
But four days before the march began the magazine “The Coming Nation” noted, “There is to be a presidential election this year; in view of which it may be well to remark-- That workingmen will not be taxed less under a Republican president than they have been under a Democrat. That there will be no more opportunities open to labor in the next four years than there have been in the past four…That there will be no more flour in the bin with a McKinley in the White House than there has been with a Cleveland….We admit that this is rather a gloomy forecast; but experience warrants it and events will justify it.” They certainly did.
What Coxey wanted from the Federal government was not charity. He wanted half a billion dollars to be spent on building and improving roads. We know today, as the beneficiaries of the interstate highway system, that the investment in infrastructure Coxey was promoting would improve the nation, would create new wealth by creating new opportunities for business and in the short run provide honest work for the unemployed.  But the tired, plaintive ideological repetitions were heard just as loudly in 1894 as they are today. Then -  that surface roads built by the government were somehow less “moral” than the railroads which were privately owned, even though both were built and run as government endorsed monopolies. In the eyes of the wealthy, who owned the railroads, one was moral and one was not. You need not guess which was which.
Put in such stark black and white imperatives the argument may seem absurd to us today, and, in fact there are indications it seemed just as absurd to the citizens of 1894.  But at issue was not what the average American thought, but what the bought and paid for politicians in Washington and the various state capitals were willing to publicly seriously consider. For, much as they are today, the press and the politicians, to their mutual advantage, avoided any honest discussion of the middle ground, preferring instead to debate positions that most people considered absurdest extremism. 
Carl Browne was described as, “...strongly built with a heavy mustache, and a beard with two spirals. He wore a leather coat fringed around the shoulders and sleeves. A row of buttons down the front were shining silver dollars. Calvary boots, tight-fitting, well polished, came to his knees…He handed me a card with his written signature, at the end of which was a grand flourish and the words, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’”
Carl Browne (above) was a part Christian mystic, a part theatrical ham, part artist and illustrator and a part time poet. Coxey had conceived of the method to help the unemployed, but the march on Washington by "The Army of the Commonweal", was all Carl Browne.
But the cause of the common man was not helped by the men Browne (above, center) had brought in to be his Marshals -  the second tier leaders of the army.  David McCullaum was an economic author and a supposed Cherokee Indian  who had written a pamphlet entitled "Dogs and Fleas" under the non de plume of “One of the Dogs”.   Also there was "Mr. One"  who claimed to subsist only on oatmeal. Then there was Cyclone Kirtland, an astrologer who predicted the army would be “invisible in war, invincible in peace.” Beside him stood Christopher Columbus Jones (above, left) , the leader of marchers out of Philadelphia, who always wore a silk top hat, which merely accented his diminutive five foot tall frame. There was also the trumpeter named “Windy” Oliver. Together they more closely resembled circus side show barkers than the managers of a political movement.
But the most disturbing of all them all was a man who insisted upon being known as “The Great Unknown”. It was not a name chosen at random, but self promoted. “The Great Unknown” was always followed about by a woman who wore a veil and never spoke. But Carl Browne knew the Great Unknown  was an ex-circus barker and a current patent medicine “faker” named A.B.P. Bazarro. 
In an earlier life The Great Unknown and his wife had made their living selling a "Blood Purify-er" concocted in their makeshift lab on the west side of Chicago. And just to make it easier for the newsmen traveling with Coxe's Army, The Great Unknown let it be known that he would also answer to the name of “Smith”. So the press dubbed him "The Great Unknown Smith".  And like Fox News, Bazarro knew the value of mixing politics with the sales pitch.
In their previous existence, while Bazarro's wife passed through the crowds collecting cash for their  "Purify-er",  Browne (above) would make his appearance and pitch his political theology of  abandoning the gold and silver standards and union organizing.  
Browne was also the self elected “Great Wizardo” of the “American Patriots”, a self created political organization. And it was because of his success with selling politics and snake oil, that Browne had asked “The Great Unknown”, to join the march.
So, the newspaper men might be forgiven for treating these desperate men as if they were members of a sideshow confidence game. Some of their leaders had recently been just that.  Some still were.
Except. of course, that required that the reporters also belittle and dismiss the millions of their desperate fellow citizens whose plight the march was trying to publicize.  The crime was that the news media of 1894, like the media of today, were perfectly willing to portray the march as a joke. But at least the joke, such as it was, was on it's way.  It was left to see if the desperate marchers on that Easter Sunday, 26 March, 1894, could turn this comedy into a national drama.
"Am I really wonderful?" asked the Scarecrow. 
"You are unusual," replied Glinda"
1900  L. Frank Baum "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz"
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Friday, July 10, 2020


I heard about a guy who came up with a brilliant idea, convinced some money people to invest in his dream, and made a billion dollars. He built himself a huge mansion and lived happily ever after. It happens. Of course you never hear about the fifty or sixty guys who came up with exactly the same idea and then went broke. The text books call this capitalism. I call it the “Savannah Effect”, that being the name of the first ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean between America and Europe using steam power. And if you were wondering why Detroit doesn’t have an electric car ready for mass production, or why the U.S. spent billions on a Space Shuttle that was an unsafe hybrid, the answer is the “Savannah Effect”.
It happened in 1819 and if you check the history books you will discover that the first steam ship to cross the Atlantic was the “Great Western” or the “Cape Breton” in 1833, or the “Siruis” in 1838.  It depends on which book you read. But whichever book you read you will not read about the “Savannah” because, well, because it never made a dime. And in a capitalist culture this is the big secret, I mean besides the secret that advertising lies. Other than that, failure, is the big secret.
The alternative energy folks are now selling the idea that sailing ships can cross the ocean powered by the free fuel of the wind: except the wind is not free. It requires masts and sails and a lot of rope and it once required a large crew to handle it all. And even with all of that you could only move when and where the wind was blowing.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century the world had five thousand years invested in sailing technology. And living with wind technology meant that the advantages of steam power were obvious.
A steam ship could leave port when it wanted to, and even travel against the wind. The crew could be a tenth of the size needed on a sailing ship, which meant more of the power was used for moving cargo and less for moving the crew.  And crews are expenses. The cargo is the profit. And the new nation of America had a shortage of manpower, meaning a shortage of sailors. Steam ships were the obvious way to increase profits. And that is what capitalism is all about. Because it sure ain't about efficiency. That is the other great secret of capitalism, which is that "the check is in the mail".
Anyway, in 1818, the successful Savannah Georgia cotton merchant William Scarbrough paid $50,000 for a 319 ton packet ship then under construction at the Fickett and Crockett shipyard, on the East River, in New York City.  Mr. Scarbrough was convinced that the future of naval commerce was in steam, and he was president of (and principle investor in) the newly formed Savannah Steamship Company. Do you like they way they worked the hi-tech product into the company name?  Sort of like calling your new electric car "The Volt".  Mr. Scarbrough was intent upon establishing a regular steam ship service between America and Europe. And to shepherd that intention into reality Scarbrough sought out Captain Moses Rogers.
Moses Rogers seemed to have been born at almost the perfect time and place for a young man with a maritime heritage, a mechanical bearing of mind and an adventurous spirit. Fifty years earlier those talents would have been wasted. But at the turn of the 19th century he seemed to be perfectly  positioned - seemed to be.
He was pure Yankee, born in New London, Connecticut. He had been one of the first captains of Robert Fulton’s “North River Steamboat” (Later called the “Claremont”) and in June of 1808 he had shared command of John C. Steven’s steamboat “The Phoenix”. Now, Stevens had missed beating Fulton to the honor of first steamboat in America by just a month, and missed profitability by not having the Governor of New York as his partner.
While Governor Livingston had granted Fulton (his partner, of course) the sole right to operate steamboats on the Hudson River, Steven’s designs were forced to make the  riskier runs between New York and Philadelphia. And it was in coastal waters that Rogers built his reputation as a navigator and an engineer, because the engines kept breaking down. It was, at the time, a relatively rare combination of skills. Also, Captain Rogers had already discussed the idea of oceanic steamships with Stephen Vail.
Vail owned an iron works in Moorestown, New Jersey. Vail employed engineers who had worked with Watson Watt, the developer of the steam engine. Vail’s engineers not only had personal experience at building steam engines but they had also managed to smuggle that vital data out of England. It seemed like a partnership of these three men was made in heaven. How could they fail? I shall pause now while we all snicker.
On 22 August, 1818 the newly named “Savannah”, 98’6” long by 25’10” wide, with three masts and a man’s bust for a figurehead , slid off the ways in upper Manhattan and immediately sailed to Vail’s Speedwell Iron Works, at Mooristown, New Jersey where a 90 horsepower 30 ton steam engine, removable side paddle wheels and a 17’ bent smokestack were installed. The work took six months. On 29 March 1819 the Savannah sailed on her shakedown cruise to her namesake port. Then on 22 May she set sail for Liverpool, England.  Scarborough could already smell the money piling up in his pockets.
The correct word here is “sailed” as the Savannah’s engine gobbled up 10 tons of coal a day. She could only carry 75 tons (with about another 5 cords of wood as an emergency backup). Besides, under sail, the Savannah could make 10 knots an hour, while under steam alone she could only average about 5 knots. So the steam power was used only when the winds failed. She used her steam engine less than 80 hours in total during her crossing.
The Savannah broke no speed records. She covered the 3,000 miles in a mediocre 22 days, and ran out of coal in the process. The boilers had to be fed the wood so the Savannah could make her "grand entrance” into Liverpool under steam.
The British were not impressed.  In the first place they had not invented the thing, the Americans had. Pish posh, and poo hoo. It seemed to the Limeys that the limited power of the steam engine was not worth the loss in the cargo space the engine took up.  And they were right.
Given the cold shoulder in England the Savannah sailed for Copenhagen, where the King of Sweden offered to buy the ship for $100,000. But not having been authorized in advance to sell the ship, Captain Rogers said no. Ah, if he had only said yes, this story might have had a happier ending, because back home in America, the nation was being rocked by the Panic of 1819, and Mr. Scarborough needed an immediate cash infusion.
Record numbers of people in Boston were sent to debtors’ prison. In Richmond, Virginia, property values fell by half. Farm workers, making $1.50 a day in 1818, were a year later earning fifty-three cents a day. Wood cutters were being paid thirty-three cents for a cord of wood in 1818, but only ten cents for a cord by 1821. (Does any of this sound familiar?)
And one of the bigger victims of the panic was William Scarborough, of the Savannah Steamship Company. On 15 June, 1819 Scarborough had to take out a mortgage on his new mansion to secure his debts, which then totaled $87,534.50. A year later, 13 May, 1820, Scarborough was forced to sell his beautiful home to Robert Isaac, his brother-in-law, for $20,000.  He had to sell his house to his brother-in-law; that must have stung! Oh, Isaac allowed William to continue to live in the house. But the very next day he laid claim to everything else that Scarborough still owned, including his shares of the steamship Savannah.
Once back in America The Savannah was stripped of her boilers and put back into service as a standard packet sailing ship. She was a failure at that too. In November 1821, in a gale, she ran aground and broke up off of Long Island, New York. Gee, I hope she was insured.
Stephen Vail, whose Speedwell Iron Works had installed the engine on the Savannah, was still owed $3,527.84 for his work. He never got paid. Moses Rogers went back to work running a dull coastal steamer, the “Pee Dee”.  He died of yellow fever at Georgetown, South Carolina on 15 November, 1821, at the age of 42.  And somehow I am sure a contributing factor to his early death was his loss of faith in The Savannah.
William Scarborough, the inspiration for this noble misadventure, lived out the rest of his life in his own home, (thanks to his brother-in-law), even leaving it to his daughter in his will, just as if he still owned it. He died in 1838, at the ripe old age of 62 and is buried in the Colonial Park Cemetery in Savannah.  His home is still standing. It's address is now 42 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, an address which might take some explaining to an old slave holder from 1818. But the building now houses "The Savannah “Ships of the Sea” Maritime Museum", featuring a model of that amazing failure, the steamship Savannah. And that should make the old man proud.
The steamship Savannah was a good idea. But like most ideas, good and bad, it was judged a failure. Nobody got rich off the Savannah and most people associated with her went broke. And that is why they should be remembered. It's the way capitalism moves forward, the way it's supposed to move forward. If death is required to give life meaning, then failure is required to give capitalism meaning. And somebody should explain that to the Wall Street Bankers and the Health Care Leeches who think they are entitled to suck America dry so they can avoid going broke. Please remember, luck is always part of the balance sheet. The Savannah should serve as yet another reminder of that.
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Thursday, July 09, 2020

FLIGHT OF FANCY - "The Most Beautiful Suicide"

I doubt Galileo ever considered the full human implications of his experiments with falling objects. But the formula he came up with reduces the problem to startling simplicity. Six and one half seconds after she threw herself off the 86th floor Observatory of the Empire State Building, Evelyn McHale landed on the roof of a limousine parked on West 33rd Street, 1,050 feet below. The science of that event was very simple. The humanity - not so simple.
You would not know it to read the headlines but every year twice as many Americans kill themselves as kill each other. Suicide is the dirty little secret about being human. There is another suicide in the United States every 17 minutes. It is only the 11th leading cause of death overall ( 7th leading cause of death in males, 16th in females), but suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for all humans between the ages of 15 and 24 years of age, and the second leading cause of death in college students. And the working theory seems to be that if we just don't talk about it, it will go away. Honestly, that simply does not seem to be working.
In 1947 Evelyn McHale was a 20 year old bookkeeper at the Kitab engraving company, in the Long Island community of Baldwin. 
Over the weekend of 19 April she traveled by rail the 67 miles to the little town of Easton, Pennsylvania. It was known as the “City of Churches”, with the highest ratio of houses of Christian worship to overall population in America.  How could anything bad happen there?
But during prohibition it had also been known as “The Little Apple” where police protected the speakeasies, which every weekend were filled with New York City tourists looking to get drunk. On the hill overlooking Easton was the (then) all male Lafayette College, a military school of higher learning. And one of the 2,000 students attending Lafayette College in 1947 was Evelyn McHale’s fiancee.
In 1929 the twin luxury hotels, the Waldorf and the Astoria, occupied a block on Fifth Avenue, between 33rd and 34th streets (above). For over fifty years these jointly managed edifices were the social abode of the vaunted "Four Hundred", the supposed cream of New York society. The number represented how many could comfortably fit in Mrs. Astor’s ballroom.  Between the four star restaurants in each hotel ran a winding corridor, lined with marble Corinthian columns and dubbed “Peacock Alley”, for all the elegantly dressed women who strolled there to be seen. That year the management company sold both properties for $13.5 million to the Empire State Corporation. And the instant the sale was finalized, the president of Empire State, John Jacob Raskob, led the contractors through the front doors. He was intent upon capturing for his Connecticut estate the peacock alley columns he had often admired. To his disappointment, those symbols of Gilded Age luxury and extravagance proved to have been plaster impostors.
Construction began on the Empire State Building on 17 March, 1930. The frame rose at the astounding rate of 4 ½ floors a week. Midway into the construction, one of the steelworkers was given his notice while on the job. He threw himself down an open elevator shaft, becoming the first person to commit suicide on the new premises.
John Jacob Raskob may have thought about joining him, because 410 days later, a month and a half ahead of schedule, the building opened. The final cost was $5 million under budget, mostly because the depression had devalued the dollar. And because of that, on opening day, May Day, 1931, the Empire State Building was well over half empty.  It remained so for years. A decade later the press was still referring to The Empire State Building as  the "empty State Building" - a financial disaster.
Evelyn McHale's 1947 visit to Pennsylvania had also proven to be a disaster. Her fiance had broken off their engagement. In some ways this kind of thing was to be expected. So many lives had been placed on hold during the Second World War, and so many lives had changed during the war, and were still changing once the war had ended.
The divorce rate, which pre-war had been two out of every one thousand marriages, had doubled in 1946. But those were statistics, and human beings are not.  When Evelyn returned broken hearted to her bookkeeping job on Monday morning, the numbers she oversaw brought her no comfort. And in the weeks that followed she obsessed on her disappointment.
People do not commit suicide (from the Latin “sui caedere”; to kill yourself) because they are depressed. But add depression to alcohol or other drugs, and the risk of suicide increases by 90%. Add easy access to a fire arm they become a certainty. 
If there is a family history of suicide, a history of physical or sexual abuse, or if friends have recently committed suicide, the risk grows even greater. And finally, if the person at risk is a Christian the risk is greater still. Protestants and Catholics kill themselves much more often than do Jews, or Buddhists or Muslims.
In the first fifteen years after its opening, 16 people threw themselves to their deaths from the Empire State Building.  But 1947 was a very bad year. In January a suicide injured an innocent pedestrian on the street below, and a lawsuit was threatened. The Empire State Corporation, which still owned the building, began to slowly consider alternatives.
Still, at about 10:30 on the morning of Thursday May 1st, 1947, when Evelyn McHale stepped from the elevator on the 86th floor observatory, there was nothing between her and eternity, except the impulse to clamber atop the chest high wall (above)  and take the step.  First she took off her grey (or perhaps green) cloth coat and draped it over the wall near the south west corner of the observation deck. 
Then she laid her purse on the floor. She removed her shoes. Then she deliberately let her scarf float from her fingers into the void. She watched it swirl and float in the wind eddies. And when she saw it begin to slip downward, she pulled herself up atop the lip of the wall, stood and after a brief moment, threw herself into space.
Six seconds is long enough to think, and if Evelyn McHale was not radically different than those who attempted suicide from San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge and lived, then we know what she was thinking as she plummeted weightless toward the pavement. Universally these failed California suicides report that their first thought after jumping was, “This is the worst mistake of my life.” After that first second, however, the sensory overload would likely have not left her with the ability to even think of a prayer.
In the first second of the end of her life Evelyn McHale dropped 32 feet, or about three stories. Over the next second she fell an additional 64 feet. Over the third second she traveled another 128 feet. Over the fourth second she fell 238 feet. By the fifth second she was traveling over 60 miles an hour, and the sensation of falling would have caused her body to release massive amounts of adrenalin. But she would never feel its effects. She would have felt an eerily calm, which I suspect surprised her. She might have realized she was falling away from the building, driven by the wind and by her effort to avoid the abutments and ledges that lined its sides. And if she had felt the regret for her decision to jump, it was now too late. At the speed of about 100 miles an hour, her body slammed into the sheet steel roof of a Cadillac limousine parked 200 feet up 34th Street from 5th Avenue.
Something caught traffic cop John Morrissey’s eye. He was working at the corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue. When he looked up he saw a white cloth, dancing lightly about the upper floors of the Empire State Building. It was just 10:40 A.M. and suddenly there was a loud crash, and the wrenching sound of bending metal and shattered glass tinkling on concrete. Officer Morrissey ran west on 34th Street.
He found a crowd gathered around the big black limo, with United Nations’ license plates, parked on the north side of the street. All of the windows were shattered, and the roof had been caved in. There, embraced by the folded steel, Officer Morrissey saw the body of a young woman.
Her white gloved left hand seemed to be playing with the pearls strung around her neck, almost as if counting a rosary. Her white gloved right hand was cautiously raised as if seeking permission to interrupt. She was barefooted. One stocking was bunched about her crossed ankles, as if she had been caught in the act of undressing. There was no visible blood, no dismemberment. She was a sleeping beauty. But images can be deceiving, as the workers from the medical examiners office could have testified.
When they picked her up, her once firm body must have behaved more like Jell-O. Every bone would have been fractured and splintered, and her internal organs turned to mush by the violence of her death.
Those who contemplate suicide should consider the impact of their actions on the innocent who must clean up after them. Suicide is the rudest way to exit this world.
A few moments after her death, Robert Wiles, a young photography student, approached the scene. He had been eating breakfast across the street, at the same lunch counter as the limo’s driver. Now he approached the scene and snapped a single photo. He immortalized Evelyn McHale. He sold the photo to Life Magazine, which published it a week later, on page 43. The caption (above) read; “At the bottom of the Empire State Building the body of Evelyn McHale reposes calmly in the grotesque bier her body punched into the top of a car.” Robert Wiles never took another professional photograph. Each suicide, it is figured, shatters the lives of six other people. I suspect, Robert Wiles was one of the first shattered by Evelyn McHale's suicide.
The New York Times headlined the story, “Empire State Leap Ends Life of Girl, 20”. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said, “Doubting Woman Dives to Death”, and the Chicago Tribune claimed, “Afraid to Wed, Girl Plunges to Death from Empire State.” (above)  The photograph, now labeled as "The Most Beautiful Suicide”, may have been at least partly responsible for the 14 July, 1947 fatal leap of a 22 year old man from the same observation deck. Guards were now stationed to stop any copycats.  And during October and November, they managed to avert five more deaths. .
Finally the management was forced to admit this was not a temporary trend, and in December the now iconic inwardly curving fencing was installed to discourage those possessed by the impulse to end their lives.
If you think someone might be suicidal, then they are. Do not leave them alone. Immediately remove their access to firearms and all drugs, and call 911. Death can be a release, but it is never beautiful. Never.
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