AUGUST 2017

AUGUST  2017
FACING DOWN THE RULERS OF WALL STREET A HUNDRED YEARS AGO. THEY ARE BACK.

Translate

Amazon Contextual Product Ads

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

THE END OF THE WORLD

I believe the world came to an end on April 5, 1761. And if you haven’t heard about it, well your ancestors were just not paying attention. In a world where many still believed in the literal history of a real Adam and a real Eve, a certain William Bell, a trooper in the Life Guards, went about London, England telling anybody and everybody who would listen that doomsday was nigh. And thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of people listened and believed him. And what is amazing is that Corporal Bell was right. The world did end on Sunday, April 5, 1761. But Mr. Bell was right for the wrong reasons. And reason made all the difference.February 8, 1761 dawned cold, as was to be expected in a world still in the grip of “The Little Ice Age”. Most winters the Thames still froze over, and the great city was chocking on her own coal smoke to keep warm. The “Picadilly Butchers”, as the members of the Life Guards Household Cavalry were called, were gathering for their Sunday parade, set then, as now, for 11:30 A.M.

Then, from Greenwich below London on the south bank, to Richmond, on the upstream north shore, the entire Thames valley shuddered. In Hampstead and Highgate houses shook. Amongst the ship construction ways in Limehouse the chandler’s tools were vibrated off their frames. In the tiny village of Poplar across from the Isle of Dogs in the great bend of the Thames River, chimneys were shaken apart, their bricks crashing to the ground. In ‘The City’ itself pewter keepsakes slipped off mantles and chairs were upended. It was over in a few seconds. The dust settled. Nerves calmed. Normality returned.On Sunday, March 8, 1761, between five and six on in the morning, the Thames valley shuddered again. This time the shaking was stronger and lasted longer, roiling from north to south and back again. In St. James Park a section of an abandoned canal in the private gardens behind Buckingham House collapsed. Panicked, the richest and poorest citizens of central London ran from their beds, convinced their homes were about to collapse around their heads. Some did. But the most well known collapse in this second earthquake to strike London was a loss of sanity in the person of William Bell, a “Tinned Fruit”, a corporal in the Household Cavalry. He became convinced that the shaking of February 8 (the first Sunday in the month) and March 8 (the first Sunday in that month), would be followed by a truly catastrophic shaker on the first Sunday in March - the fifth. His visions were so intense and detailed, and his passion to tell it so commanding, that he shared his nightmare with any and all who would listen. And it took hold of the city like a fever.Charles Mackay’s excellent book, “Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” (Harmony Books – 1843) records that, “…all the villages within a circuit of twenty miles …(were) crowded with panic-stricken fugitives, who paid exorbitant prices for accommodation to the housekeepers of these secure retreats. Such as could not afford to pay for lodgings at any of those places, remained in London until two or three days before the time, and then encamped in the surrounding fields…and hundreds who had laughed at the prediction a week before, packed up their goods, when they saw others doing so, and hastened away. The river was thought to be a place of great security, and all the merchant-vessels in the port were filled with people, who passed the night between the 4th and 5th on board, expecting every instant to see St. Paul’s totter, and the towers of Westminster Abby rock in the wind and fall amid a cloud of dust.” One enterprising chemist even advertised pills which he claimed to be “good against earthquakes”, although exactly how the pills proposed to save the swallower, was never fully explained.Needless to say, the world did not end on Sunday March 5, 1761, at least not in the way Corporal Bell had anticipated. As Mackay recorded, “The greater part of the fugitives returned on the following day, convinced that the prophet was a false one; but many judged it more prudent to allow a week to elapse before they trusted their dear limbs in London.” Corporal Bell became a man scorned, a repository for all those angry with themselves for having believed his prediction. And although he tried his hand at other doomsday prognostications, Corporal Bell was soon confined for some months in an insane asylum. Edward W. Brayley recorded in his book “Londoninania” (Hurst, Chance and Company – 1829) that Bell “…afterward kept a hosier’s shop in Holborn Hill during many years, and …retired to the neighborhood of Edgeware where he died a few years ago”.Some things did change because of the twin quakes. Due to damage his royal highness George II picked up Buckingham House at a bargain price. He kept the gardens but filled in the collapsed canal and turned it into a Parade for the Household Cavalry. He renamed the residence “The Queen’s House”, but over the years, as additional buildings were added, the old name returned and it became known as “Buckingham Palace”. The channel between the Isle of Dogs and the hamlet of Poplar was bridged at two points and eventually became the East End of London. But something more fundamental had changed with the Earthquakes of 1761, and while the superstitions of William Bell were largely forgotten, another man was inspired to a vision that gave birth to a new world.His name was James Hutton, an ugly little man with a great big brain who was trained as a lawyer, a chemist, a doctor of Medicine, a businessman, and late in his life, a farmer. But the earthquakes of 1761 had awakened his curiosity as to what had caused them. He had already come to the observation that the forces of erosion he saw on his farm, (streams and rivers, wind and rain) must be have been working in the time of Adam and Eve. But how long ago was that? Hutton didn’t know, but he was curious and sure enough of his God given brain to believe that he could understand the process. He allowed the idea to percolate in his mind until 1788, when he went sightseeing with the mathematician John Playfair. And while walking at the cliff edge at Siccar Point in Scotland, Hutton saw a single formation of rock that utterly lifted the veil of superstition from his eyes.There, in front of Hutton, was a bed of schistus, (to the right)thrusting up vertically from below. And sitting directly on top of this was a bed of sandstone, (left side of picture) lying in opposition to the schist. The junction point between the two rocks came to be called an “Angular Unconformity.” They were different kinds of rock and they could not have been formed in the same place or the same time, or even close to each other. Something between them must be missing; that was the unconformity.

Sandstone is produced by compressing desert sand under tons of more dessert sand. Any water present will chemically alter the rock, so we know it had to be formed when England was at the same latitude as the Sierra Desert is today, and looked very similar.

Schist is created by lava cooling deep under water, then reheating the rock almost to the melting point and forcing it to cool quickly, but again under pressure. Each of these processes take millions of years by themselves. And the angular junction of the two beds was like the missing pages in a book, missing pages that tell a story of other mountains perhaps rising and wearing down but leaving no record behind; of seas and valleys and millions of years whose record has been destroyed; all lost between the crystals of the schist and the grains of the sandstone.

The Angular Unconformity that Hutton stood over that day hinted at why earthquakes happen in England (above, evidence of the most recent); not because God is seeking to destroy a sinful humanity, but because this is how God made the world, and how he is remaking it, a single grain of sand and a single crystal of schist at a time - the same way he made our brains, and out of the same stuff.


- 30 -

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Bon Voyage, George.

I say this with all compassion and sympathy to our outgoing President: Good riddance. George Bush once said that if he hadn’t been elected President, he wanted to be Commissioner of Baseball. That makes the elections of 2000 and 2004 the two best things to happen to Major League Baseball since Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees.George Bush leaves office as living proof that a desire to be President must be matched with a desire to do something as President. Mr. Bush wanted to be on vacation. When all of the most significant crises of his two administrations happened, he was on vacation: the blunt memo warning that bin Laden wanted to attack America in America was received by him in Texas; the decision to invade Iraq was finalized at a meeting with the Brits in Crawford; Katrina came ashore during August, while George was in Crawford; and the beginning of the economic meltdown was not noted during his annual August clearing of brush in Crawford. Bush gave so much attention to clearing brush (16 months out of his 96 months as President) that after leaving the White House, he chose to move to Houston, not Crawford. I guess he was looking for a change of scenery. And isn’t it interesting that few have bothered to take note of his endless vacations of late. It’s as if we now all feel safer when he’s out of town.As a parting gift George signed a rescue bill providing a $35 billion loan for American auto makers. The loan offer was loaded with requirements, including a ban on executive pay raises, and was dragged out over months by George’s dithering over the method of payment. But this was the same President who signed with amazing alacrity a $750 billion rescue bill for Wall Street banks with almost no restrictions. The result, the Associated Press reported, was that “the banks that are receiving government bailouts paid their top executives nearly $1.6 billion in salaries, bonuses, and other benefits last year. The average amount paid to each of the banks’ top executives was $2.6 million…Lloyd Blankfein (CEO of Goldman Sachs) took home nearly $54 million last year”. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s panic over the financial melt down reminds me of a circus clown attempting to put out a blaze with a bucket of confetti. He can’t be accused of fanning the flames only because his efforts are not that coordinated. But as a fire fighter it can only be said that “Pauly did a heck of a job’.So what will history say about George W. Bush? It can’t be much more insulting than the present has been. The current Iraq Information Minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, called George “…a very stupid man.” Chinese President Jiang Zemin called George “Logically unsound, confused and unprincipled, unwise to the extreme”. Al Franken described him as the guy “…who could not find oil in Texas.” Paul Begala compared Bush to McDonald’s; “…prepackaged, filled with empty calories and controlled by corporate interests.” Jay Leno described him as more handsome than Dan Quayle “…but was not as smart.” And surrealistic English comedian Alexai Sayle sought to explain to his audiences why Americans had elected Bush: “Americans have different ways of saying things. They say ‘elevator’, we say lift. They say ‘President’, we say “stupid psychopathic git.”What is truly amazing is that after bungling (by leaving unfinished) a vital war in Afghanistan, and bungling (by starting) an unnecessary war in Iraq, and bungling the rescue of New Orleans, George will probably be best remembered for his bungling of the American economy. Who’d a thunk it? He did this by a blind adherence to the so called “Trickle-down theory of Economics”, which John Galbraith explained as “…if one feeds the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows.” Can you imagine how fat the horse has to be before the birds are well fed? What am I saying? Of course you can imagine it, being yourself a sparrow which has been force fed a diet of horse paddies for the last eight years. And why was George so attached to this particular economic theory? Because “Lassie Fair” economics is just another name for “Don’t bother me, I’m on vacation.”But perhaps the most coherent description of America in the wake of the George W. Bush era is found in the old joke about the young boy who asks his father to describe politics. The father says, “I'm the breadwinner of the family, so let's call me Capitalism. Your Mom, she's the administrator of the money, so we'll call her the Government. We're here to take care of your needs so we'll call you the People. The nanny, we'll consider her the Working Class. We’ll call your baby brother the Future. Now, think about that and see if it all makes sense to you." That night the boy wakes up to hear his baby brother crying with a dirty diaper. He tries to tell his mother but she is asleep, smells of alcohol and won’t wake up. He tries to tell the nanny but her door is locked and the boy hears his father’s voice from inside her room. At the breakfast table the next morning the boy proudly tells his father, “I understand politics now. Capitalism is screwing the Working Class, the Government is asleep, the People are being ignored, and the Future is in deep s--t."Bon voyage, George. Enjoy your retirement. Let’s see if you can tell the difference between it and your eight year vacation.
Will history say that he was worst President in American history? It really doesn't matter. He was the worst American President in our lifetime. What could possibly be worse, for us?

- 30 -

Thursday, December 25, 2008

THE LEGACY OF MR RANDOLPH

I agree with William Plummer’s 1803 assessment of John Randolph of Roanoke, Virginia; “I admire his ingenuity and address, but I dislike his politics.” John Randolph represents the mother root of two great branches in American conservative politics, patrician conservatives and gay conservatives; because if John Randolph wasn’t gay, then neither was Roy Cohen. Some biographies of Randolph insist that he suffered from a condition called “Klinefelter’s syndrome”, but that condition occurs in only 1 out of every 500 males, or 0.02% of the general population, while homosexuality is a genetic variation that occurs in (conservatively) 5 – 6% of the population, making it much more likely that Randolph was gay. And in any case both conditions are genetic variations, having nothing to do with sin, intelligence, choice or morality. So, from a purely practical standpoint, it is just simpler to concede that Randolph was gay and move on.

Randolph was a slave-owning elegantly dressed ‘fashionista’, described by one author as “The most notorious American political curmudgeon of his time”. That may be putting it kindly. John Randolph specialized in what the Romans called the “Argumentum Ad Hominem” or the ‘argument against the man’. As a verbal tool it allows the speaker to change the subject by tarring a political position with the alleged sins of its advocates, and forcing the advocates to defend themselves. And if that method of attack sounds familiar, it is confirmation of the connection between Randolph’s ideological bloodline and its present practitioners, like Karl Rove. John Quincy Adams borrowed from Ovid to describe John Randolph; “His face is ashen, gaunt his whole body, His breath is green with gall; His tongue drips poison.” It is a fair description of the “…abusive eloquence which he possessed in such abundance”. Either description could have been used for Mr. Rove by his opponents.

It is a shame that both of those distinguished blood lines are now being excised from the Republican Party in preference to the “Joe the Plumber” template. The idea that a dumb, uneducated heterosexual conservative is preferable to a smart homosexual conservative is akin to abandoning a talking dog because you don’t like the way he pronounces “BĂ©arnaise sauce”. “Joe” and his supporters remind me of the words of British Prime Minster Lloyd George who said of one opponent; “He has a retail mind in a wholesale business.” Or, to paraphrase John Selden, ignorance of the law may be no excuse, but ignorance in general is inexcusable.

Randolph’s first biographer, Lemuel Sawyer, described him this way; “As an orator he was more splendid than solid; as a politician he (lacked) the profound views of a great statesman, and a larger stock of patience, gentleness, and pliability…he was too intolerant…” But John Randolph admitted to enjoying “That most delicious of all privileges – spending other people’s money.” He was elected to congress at 26 years of age in 1799 and served off and on in both houses (as well as in the Virginia State legislature) until his death. He never married, and admitted “I am an aristocrat. I love liberty, I hate equality." And in describing his chosen career Randolph observed that “If electioneering were allowed in heaven, it would corrupt the angels.” As if to prove his point, in 1824 Randolph turned his cutting tongue loose on Speaker of the House, Henry Clay of Kentucky, and then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams (below). Randolph gave the most important speech of his life on the floor of the U.S. Senate which was described by one author as “rambling, sometimes incoherent, funny, insulting and devastating….filled with literary and classical allusions, among other odds and ends, and delivered with a delightful insouciance.”
Randolph attacked the Federalist position and said any compromise with Clay or Adams, was anathema; “…their friendship is a deadly distinction, their touch pollution”. And as to the very idea of a strong central government, Randolph called it “That spirit which considers the many, as made only for a few, which sees in government nothing but a job, which is never so true to itself as when false to the nation.” I’ve read that speech at least ten times and each time it makes less sense to me than it did before. At the time, however, it had a great effect on its audience. Then Randolph got down to the most troublesome part of his attack. He described Henry Clay as “…so brilliant yet so corrupt, like a rotten mackerel by moonlight, he shines and stinks.” Amongst southern aristocrats, being called a ‘stinking mackerel’ were fighting words. Henry Clay (above) was willing to overlook the insult until, in 1826, the insult was repeated in print, in the United States Telegraph newspaper. Clay could no longer pretend Randolph had not said the words, and after a properly stiff exchange of notes, Clay issued Randolph a challenge to what one witness described as the “…the last high-toned duel I ever saw”. They met at about 4:30 p.m. on April 8th 1826, just over the Little Falls Bridge from Georgetown. Randolph was resplendent in a bright yellow coat. Clay was coldly determined. The night before Thomas Hart Benton had paid Randolph a visit and pleaded with him not to go through with the duel, saying Clay had a young son and wife who would be left destitute if Clay were killed or seriously injured. Randolph had replied ““I shall do nothing to disturb the sleep of that child or the repose of the mother.” But I don’t think anybody told Clay he had nothing to worry about.The men paced off ten steps apart (about 30 feet), and then as the countdown began Randolph’s gun misfired. The gun was reloaded and the countdown began again; “Ready, aim, fire.” Clay’s shot hit the dirt in front of Randolph, whose shot struck a stump behind Clay. The men then reloaded and the insanity began again. This time Clay got off the first shot, sending a ball through the hem of Randolph’s expensive yellow coat. Randolph held his fire, and then dramatically fired his shot into the air. Then he strode forward with his hand extended. The men shook hands in the center of the “field of honor”, and Randolph dryly said, “You owe me a coat, Mr. Clay.”I don’t think Clay ever paid for the coat, because when John Randolph died in May of 1833, his will instructed that his slaves be transported to Ohio and freed, his body was to buried in Virginia and he was to be planted facing west, so he could keep an eye on Kentucky’s Henry Clay. It could be said of John Randolph that he had opposed most if not all of the famous men of his time, that he gave as good as he got and that he made the most of the talents that God gave him; not a bad legacy.

- 30 -

Monday, December 22, 2008

CAN YOU SAY PONZI SCHEME, TOO?

(I wrote the following column in October of 2008, and thought it might make interesting reading in light of the Bernie Madoff scandal which broke in December, with an update at the end.) I doubt that you have ever heard of 67 year old Robert Dean White, but you really ought to hear what he has to say. Federal prosecutors have an extensive library of the imparted wisdom of Mr. White, and my personally favorite “cut” is his description of the parent firm he worked for, “The Petters Group Worldwide”, as “…a Ponzi scheme.” They have recently been replaying that little tune in every hedge fund board room in Greenwich, Connecticut. It has been the Musak of the Bush era Neo-con dead-end investment club we have all recently become investors in. This is what becomes of people who actually start to believe that there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the people running for public office. There is always a difference, even if it’s just their price tag.

Charles Ponzi (above -AKA Charles Ponei, AKA Charles P. Bianchi) was far from the first to invent this kind of scheme. He just put his name on it. He was an Italian immigrant who stumbled upon the International Postal Reply Coupon, a now defunct system of international postage. The price of IPRC stamps varied from nation to nation, and Ponzi convinced investors that he was buying the stamps cheaply in Italy, in huge bulk, and selling them for a profit in America. He promised a 400% return on investments and seemed to be making good on that promise. People actually paid him to take their money. Ponzi went from a penniless ex-con in 1919 to a millionaire in 1920: in July alone he made $420,000. And that was in 1920.

Then in August the Boston Post asked the U.S. Post Office how many IPRC’s Ponzi had actually exchanged and found out the number was zero. Ponzi was using new investments to pay off old investors, and pocketing a substantial profit. By September of 1920 Ponzi was in jail. The vast majority of his investors lost everything. A team of accountants searched valiantly for months but were never able to reconstruct where all the money had disappeared to. After serving his sentence and being deported Ponzi told an Italian reporter not to feel sorry for his victims, “Even if they never got anything for it, it was cheap at that price,” he said. “It was easily worth fifteen million bucks to watch me put the thing over.”

Tom Petters, the 51 year old High School graduate behind The Petters Group World Wide (“Partnership Defined”), a self described $2.3 billion investment group with 3,200 employees, founded his first company when he was just sixteen. He leased an office in downtown St. Cloud, Minnesota, out of which he sold stereo equipment to college students. When his father found out about the venture the budding entrepreneur was pulled up by his short hairs and forced to close it all down. But Tom was just starting slow.

In 1988 he formed The Petters Group. In June of 2002 Tom and Ted Deikel bought the name and inventory of “Fingerhut” from Federated Department Stores. A year later he bought s"eBid.com". Two years later he shelled out $246 million for "Polaroid". In October 2006 he joined with Whitebox Advisors to buy "Sun Country Airlines". In February 2007 he bought the marketing company "Juice Media Worldwide", and in November he became sole owner of "Sun Country". In 2008 his acquisitions accelerated. He bought "EducAsian" in January, the magazine conglomerate "Metropolitan Media Group" in July and the charter airline "Southwest Aviation" and "Enable Holdings, Inc.", both in August. And in September of 2008 the F.B.I. raided John’s offices, his home, and the home of Mr. Robert Dean White. Tom’s entire house of cards folded like…well, like a house of cards.

Just a month prior to his personal Goetterdaemerung, Tom explained to the fawning students of the Carlson School of Management, “You’ve got to figure out how to leverage and move things forward and not backwards. Sometimes sideways and left and not always how you had anticipated.” But evidently Tom did anticipate what was coming because he is heard on one of the F.B.I tapes admitting that he cheated on his taxes, and used an employee to create false documents for investors, but that he “didn’t know what choice” he had. I guess honesty was not a viable choice.

The Feds allege that for ten years Tom has been showing investors purchase orders to prove he was selling merchandise to Walmart. But when one investor finally checked with Walmart, the discount chain said the P.O. numbers were fake and they had never bought anything from any of Tom’s many, many companies. This revelation led to a Federal audit of PGW that showed $1.9 billion in the “in” drawer and $3.5 billion in bills, the “out” drawer. And since the Feds lack the imagination of the Wall Street types, owing more than you own equals bankruptcy. Ah, if they only had the imagination of Tom Petters, or of Charles Ponzi, they would know that being in debt was just another opportunity. Have you ever noticed that none of these wise guys have any interest in history? To me that explains a lot.PS: December 24, 2008 Page One ;"The Minniapolis Star Tribune";
"The man accused of trying to swindle Tom Petters' defense attorney out of $250,000 received a sentence Wednesday of nearly three years in prison Before sentencing, Derrick Riddle simply said to the judge, "Give me what you got." Hennepin County District Court Judge Mark Wernick sentenced him to 34 months with credit for two months served since his arrest in October....Riddle initially contacted lawyer Jon Hopeman, saying he could help influence a judge in Petters' favor in exchange for $250,000. ...Petters, once a high-flying Twin Cities businessman, is in federal prison awaiting trial on multiple fraud charges alleging that he ran a $3.5 billion Ponzi scheme for more than a decade."

- 30 -

Saturday, December 20, 2008

FAMILY TIES

I have been contemplating, of late, the passing of Saxon England. It died, officially, on the battlefield at Hastings in 1066, but to tell you the truth it was not badly missed. Consider Edward, the penultimate Saxon King of England. They called him “the Confessor” but that was more of a twelfth century public relations gambit than an actual description of the real ninth century King. Edward had his own mother arrested on trumped up charges of adultery just so he could seize her property, if that gives you an idea of his family life. In 1045 Edward married Edith Godwin. He was about forty-five years old at the time and Edith was all of sixteen. The only thing they had in common was that Edith’s father, Leofric Godwin, the powerful Earl of Wessex, had turned Edward’s half brother, Alfred, over to his enemies. They had him blinded. Alfred later died from his wounds and Edward was on record as saying that the only way he would forgive the Godwins is if they brought Alfred back from the dead. So I suspect that Edward’s marriage to Edith Godwin was not a love match. Leofric owned most of southern England and his wife was Lady Godiva of naked horse riding fame. In addition to Edith they had produced five sons, in descending order of seniority and brains, Sweyn, Harold, Tostig, Gyrth and Leofwine. And by all accounts they were all trouble. In 1046 Sweyn was accused of seducing the Abbess of the monastery of Leominster. The modern translation of the Saxon term for “seduction” is “rape”, and King Edward had Sweyn banished. It took a year for Leofric to blackmail Edward into letting the little monster come home. Sweyn never forgot daddy’s delay in rescuing him, and Edward became determined to get rid of the whole Godwin family.In 1051 the citizens of Dover got fed up with an extended visit by some of Edward’s Norman relatives and they staged a riot. It is likely that Edward’s relatives had intended to inspire just that response because Edward immediately ordered Leofric to punish the citizens Dover. But since Dover paid rent to Leofric, he would be punishing himself. So Leofric refused. And that gave Edward the excuse he needed. He ordered Leofric and his sons banished from England, (they hid out in Ireland and France) and Edward shipped poor Edith off to a nunnery. But in this dispute, the youngest son, Leofwine Godwin, sided with Edward. It was the “smart” play for Leofwine since, as the youngest son he was never going to get rich living off his older brothers’ leavings.But the banishment only lasted a year before Leofric and his sons invaded England and forced Edward to return all of their seized lands and let Edith out of the monastery. And, of course, Leofric also forced his own youngest son, Leofwine, into exile in Scandinavia; after all, turnabout is fair play. Leofric died in 1055, not long after the death of Sweyn, cause unknown in either case. That made Harold the head of the family, and that made his brother Tostig his problem. Tostig was running Northumbria and had doubled the taxes while boozing it up and stealing from the local nobels. In 1065, while Totsig was out of town, the noblemen of York, Lincoln and Nottingham rose up and slaughtered Tostig’s sycophants and marched on Oxford, the local government center. King Edward decided he didn’t have the energy to fight and Harold agreed with him, and together they turned the government of Northumbria over to the rebel leader, Morkere. Totsig was out of a job and very unhappy with his brother. He immediately sailed for Scandinavia.Near the end of 1065 Edward fell into a coma and finally died on January the fifth, 1066. Harold, never one to waste time, was crowned King, Harold II, on January sixth, the first king ever crowned in Westminster Abby. And poor Edith, the daughter of Lady Godiva, the girl who had been a queen at 16, a divorcee and a nun at 24, and a queen again at 25, was now, at the advanced old age of 26, a widow and a nun again. Her loving brother Harold, shipped her off to a brand new abbey at Winchester, where she died in December of 1075, at the age of 36. The Saxons were very hard on their women.
Almost as hard as they were on their men and kings; the new King Harold was facing two immediate challenges. From Normandy there was Edward’s cousin William, who claimed that Harold had promised him the throne. And on September the Eighth a Viking army under the King of Norway, landed at the mouth of the river Tyne. With the Vikings were Harold’s brothers Tostig and Leofwine. Who was it who said that family ties were the best of ties, the worst of ties? I think it was me.Harold immediately marched his army north, moving so quickly that on September twenty-fifth he caught the Vikings without their armor on, at Stamford Bridge, just North of York. According to legend, Harold met Tostig before the battle and offered him a chance to change sides - again. Tostig asked what Harold could offer the Vikings if they would peacefully go home. Harold replied that he could offer each of them six feet of English soil, or more if they were taller. Making peace and saving lives did not interest the Saxons very much. Harold’s army than fell on the Vikings and almost wiped them out. It was a great victory, spoiled only when word arrived that William and his Norman army had landed on English soil on September twenty-seventh.Harold now marched his exhausted men 240 miles south to meet William’s army at Hastings on October the fourteenth. There, nine hours of slaughter reduced the vaunted Godwin family to just Edith, sewing away in her nunnery. William was remembered as the “Conqueror”, and Harold as the “Conquered”. But really, history must have been glad to see the back side of such a bloodthirsty pack of cannibals as the ruling Saxons of England.

- 30 -

Thursday, December 18, 2008

IRONY AS FUEL

I guess the irony was that if it had to happen, this was the best of all possible places and times for it to happen. It was a Saturday, so the streets around Washington Square Park at the bottom of 5th Avenue, and the junction of West 4th Street were not as crowded as they would have been on a regular work day. That meant the rescue efforts were not slowed. The building in which the fire had been sparked was the ten story Asch Building, a modern “fire proof” structure. And the flames were born just after 4:30 p.m., so it was still daylight. Winter darkness would have made the hell that was about to descend on lower Manhattan, just that much worse. It was March 25, 1911.
The first alarm was sent in from Box Number 289 on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, just one block East of Washington Square Park. It was just 4:40 p.m. The fire at that moment was less than five minutes old. The alarm sounded at Company #18 on 12th street. At the sound of the bells the three horses on each unit began to move on their own from their stalls. In addition the lead horse in each team had been trained to pull ropes that opened the fire house doors. The fire horses were eager to answer the alarm. Upstairs the firemen, just as eager, leapt to their lockers, pulled on their boots, baggy pants and great coats. By the time they were sliding down the brass pole all the horses were waiting in place beneath the traces, hanging from the ceiling. The traces were dropped onto the team’s backs and the crews slapped on the leather. Within moments the “steamers” (pumpers able to produce 1,000 gallons of water a minute), the hook and ladder wagon (company #20, carrying the tallest extension ladders in the city - another piece of luck), the hose wagon (company #72) and the supply wagons, all with their crews hanging on for dear life, were speeding their way toward Washington Square Park.In a squat block-sized building at the corner of 10th Avenue/West Side Avenue and Gransevoort Street, the same alarms sounded as well. Here, in the Granesvoort Pumping Station, was the city’s answer to the invention of the skyscraper; five Allis-Chalmers electrical centrifical pumps, able at the flick of a switch to send 300 gallons of water a minute into the pipes. The new High Pressure System was less than five years old and was designed to increase water pressure at each fire hydrant in the district from 25 to at least 90 pounds per square inch. In tests this system had been able to send a stream of water as high as a ten story building. As soon as the alarm sounded on that Saturday afternoon the pumps were turned on. Within three minutes the lines were fully pressurized, before the pumpers had even arrived on the scene . But it was already too late.It was 4:44 p.m. As the first pumper turned the corner onto Greene Street, the horses heading on their own toward the fire plug, reared and suddenly stopped. The firemen on board were almost thrown to the ground. One fireman dismounted to see what had spooked the horses. He saw a bolt of cloth lying in the street. He moved to pick it up before he realized it was a woman’s body, crumpled on the pavement.
As he stood in shock a second woman plummeted to the ground with a sickening thud. He saw smoke pouring out of the upper story windows. On the sidewalk and street were the bodies of previous jumpers.At about the same moment “Hook and Ladder Company # 20” barely made the turn onto Washington Place, when the horses here also reacted with horror to the carnage on the street. Firemen grabbed blankets and nets, designed to catch people leaping out of buildings. But these women, some as young as 13, were dropping from the ninth floor and they ripped right through the fabric and thudded onto the concrete. The rescue nets and blankets were useless.
As Fire Chief Worth arrived firemen were leading the horses and pumpers through the rain of bodies into position. Chief Worth immediately sent in a second alarm. It was 4:48 p.m. As soon as the pumper and ladder units were in position firemen disconnected the horses and led them to Washington Square Park where they could be watered and calmed down.Immediately upon arrival fireman from Company 18 began to fight their way up against the stream of frantic civilians, pouring down the stairs. The firemen found fire on the 8th floor, and per their training they stopped to fight it. To have gone higher would have put them above the fire, a suicidal position in a building blaze.But one floor above them, the fast majority of victims died, some leaping to their deaths as the flames began to engulf their clothing.
Outside the ladder companies began to crank their extensions toward the huddled victims on the ninth floor ledges. But the ladders only reached to the seventh floor. The streams of water from the high pressure hoses, even with the aid of pumpers, could only manage to reach the sixth floor. The desperate women and girls, seeing salvation fall short of reaching them, stepped into space, dropping to their deaths rather than suffer the flames licking at their skirts. Some waited too long and fell like flaming meteors. The corpses were pilling up on the street like discarded dolls. Some were so badly burned it was impossible to tell if they were male or female, some so broken by the fall that they could be gathered into bushel baskets.
Firemen were now dragging their high pressure hoses into the building and up the stairwells, hitting the fire directly. At 4:56 p.m. Chief Worth sent in third alarm. At 4:57 p.m. the last body thudded to the pavement on Greene street. By 5:10 p.m., when the fourth alarm was sounded, the fire was well out. As David Von Drehle noted, “The entire blaze, from spark to embers, lasted half an hour.” (“Triangle, the fire that changed America”)
In that brief span of time the fire had killed 141 people, most of them seamstress for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. The fireproof building, true to its name, did not burn. Only the furniture and the people inside it did. The building still stands today. It was a day in American history when everything went right and 141 people died in less than 30 minutes.

- 30 -

Blog Archive

Amazon Deals