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Friday, September 05, 2008

THE MAIDS

I don’t know why the case of “The Two Maids” fascinates me, but it always has. It begins and ends with a mystery. On the evening of Thursday, February second, 1933, Monsieur Rene Lancine, a retired lawyer living outside of Le Mans, France, became concerned when his wife and eldest daughter, Genevieve, did not arrive at a friend’s house for a planned dinner party. He had not seen them since morning but he knew they were both looking forward to the dinner, and when they failed to arrive he anxiously returned home
He found all the doors of his home locked and the house dark- except for what looked like a single candle burning in the attic room where two servant girls slept. M. Lancine was concerned enough that he immediately went to the police station. Several officers accompanied M. Lancine home again, and one officer climbed over the back wall of the house and thus gained entrance. In side, on the landing half way up the main staircase, were the battered and mutilated bodies of Madam and Mademoiselle Lancine, still wearing their coats and gloves. The murder weapons were scattered about the landing, dropped from the hands that had wielded them; a kitchen knife, a hammer, and a heavy pewter pot. But the bludgeoning had only been part of the assault.. The eminent psychiatrist Jazues Lacan put it succinctly; “They tore out their eyes as Bacchantes castrate their victims.” One of the daughter’s eyes was found on the carpet. Both of Madam Lancine’s eyes were found in the folds of her scarf, still around her neck. And in the bare attic room the police discovered the two servant girls, Christine and Lea Papin, naked and huddled together in one bed. The police wrapped them in bathrobes and brought them in for questioning. Already the press photographers were showing up. Both girls readily admitted to having committed the murders. But they failed to offer an explanation for the brutal slaughter.The case was an immediate sensation and a cause celebre’ for every side of the moral and political debate in France - to the Paris tabloids the sisters were “The Monsters of Le Mans” and “Les Arracheuses d’Yeux” (The Eye Gougers), and the murders were “…the most terrifying and cruel murders ever committed.” Jean Genet, author of “Waiting for Godot” was inspired by the trial to write a play, “The Maids” in which he has Christine say, “Madame likes us like she likes her armchairs. And maybe not that much!” Simone de Beauvior commented, “…there are no doubt women who deducted the cost of a broken plate from their maid’s wages, who put on white gloves to find forgotten specks of dust on the furniture:…one must accuse their childhood orphanage, their serfdom, the whole hideous system set up by decent people for the production of madmen, assassins and monsters.” And to the new science of psychology there were dark undertones of incest and the assault upon the victim’s eyes was thought significant. The case was a theatre d’ete (a summer theatre), or perhaps a sarriette (a summer treat), in much the same way that the murder of Sandra Levy and the O.J. Simpson trial were to be a half century later. But after 77 years the central mystery of the Papin sisters remains; why?The sisters were born into the brutal and cruel life of the French peasantry, still common in rural France between the World Wars. It was a life with little education, and what passed for a social safety net was administered by the Catholic Church as charity and moral lesson. There were originally three Papin sisters. The eldest daughter, Emilia, had been raped by her drunken father when she was nine years old. The mother had divorced the beast, but that threw the family into bitter poverty. Emilia had been sent to a nunnery and she rarely saw her family again. The mother hired out as a house maid. The younger sisters were sent to an orphanage. And when Lea and Christine were thought to be old enough (their early teens) they too became servants. As often as possible the sisters worked together. But after a few years they no longer spoke to their mother.When the Papin sisters moved into the Lancine home, Christine was 24 and Lea just 20. They had worked in several other homes around La Mans, and had good work records. And they worked for the Lancine family for seven years without trouble. Mademoiselle Lancine was known to be strict about cleanliness, and often ran one of her white gloves across surfaces to check the sisters’ work. But the only thing that might have been unusual about that particular afternoon was that mademoiselle and madam must have come home unexpectedly. It was then that the rulers of the home would have discovered that the fuses had been blown by a badly repaired electric iron. It was that relative minor inconvenience which had somehow precipitated the explosion of bloody violence on the landing.After their arrests, the sisters were separated. Christine began to wail and cry out for her sister. After several days they were allowed contact again, and Christine showered Lea with kisses. The doctors sent to examine the girls decided that Lea was a simpleton and that Christine was mentally and emotionally unstable. At one point Christine became so distraught at the separation that she tried to gouge her own eyes out and had to be restrained in a straight jacket. When their trial finally came in September of 1933 Christine was sentenced to the guillotine, but this was later commuted to life in prison. Being alone again in prison she went into a profound depression and stopped eating for long periods. She lost weight. Eventually she was transferred to an insane asylum, where in 1937 she died of “cahexia”, a diagnoses which basically meant that she simply gave up fighting to stay alive. Lea was sentenced to ten years of hard labor, of which she served eight. After she was released, Lea was reunited with her mother and they moved south to Nantes, where Lea worked as a chamber maid at a hotel under an assumed name. She died in 2000.It is a sad story, and I have not more than touched on the details here. It highlights a world now long gone, and the life of two bourgeoisie peasant girls, born into a universe that seems to have had little use for them until they achieved fame by doing something despicable. And the instant they did it no longer mattered who the Papin sisters really were. At that point they became merely characters in someone else’s play.
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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

SERIOUS JUSTICE

I feel much empathy for Judge Charles G. Bernstein, sitting in his Eighth Circuit Court, Part 12, Criminal Division, last month, when Corrections Officer Deborah Barron attempted to explain to him what her morning had been like. It must have immediatly occurred to his honor that he was not going to like what he was about to hear, and he must have suspected right from the start that there wasn’t a lot that he could do about it. But this is the story that he was forced to sit through.
Officer Barron began by explaining that at 9AM that morning she had escorted prisoner Marcus Anderson from the reception area of the minimum security Pre-Release Unit in Jessup, Maryland, and delivered him a half block away to the Brockbridge Correctional Facility, also minimum security, where Anderson was to be collected by a corrections department “road crew” for transportation to the Clarence Mitchell, Jr. Courthouse on North Calvert Street in downtown Baltimore, a distance of 17.63 miles, where Anderson was to appear before Judge Bernstein on a parole violation hearing. But when Officer Barron and Prisoner Anderson arrived at the Brockbridge Facility the road crew had already left. And when Officer Barron informed her supervisor by phone of the missed connection the supervisor replied, “Oh, Lord. Okay” and promptly hung up. Officer Barron then testified that as a 19 year employee of the Corrections Department she considered the response “Oh, Lord. Okay” as an indication that she should deliver the prisoner on her own, even though she had never been asked to do so before. As she explained it, the supervisor didn’t specifically tell her not to deliver the prisoner so she presumed he must have wanted her to.
So without any further instructions or authorization, Officer Barron loaded the six foot three inch, two hundred twenty pound twenty-two year old convicted drug dealer Marcus Anderson not into a "paddy wagon" or even a van with cages in the back but into the passenger seat of a standard corrections department van and headed off for Baltimore. As Judge Bernstein shook his head in amazement, Officer Barron described how she had followed I-95 north for six miles before getting onto I-395 and then onto the Howard Street exit in downtown Baltimore. She had almost reached the courthouse she explained, and had in fact paused at the stop light at the intersection of Baltimore and South streets, when prisoner Anderson suddenly and without warning opened the passenger side door (which was unlocked) and leapt from the van.
And it was not until this moment that it had occurred to Officer Barron that not only was the prisoner not shackled or even handcuffed, the van did not have a radio and she did not even have a cell phone with which to notify the Department of Corrections or the Baltimore Police Department that her prisoner had escaped. So, while Judge Bernstein listened with his head in his hands, Officer Barron explained “…there was nothing for me to do but to proceed. I had a green light. Vehicles were blowing their horns. I reported to the garage [at the courthouse] ... and notified the sheriff, the Jessup Pre-Release Unit and 911."
It was a sorrowful tale, indeed. Prisoner Anderson was last seen running through the crowded streets of Baltimore (where he lives) wearing a light blue Division of Corrections v-neck shirt and tennis shoes. And Officer Barron was left, so to speak, holding the bag. But oddly enough Officer Barron’s tale did not bring tears to Judge Bernstein’s eyes. Instead, with evident sarcasm, he asked if perhaps Officer Barron had given Prisoner Anderson bus tokens, to aid in his escape. Luckily Officer Barron assumed this was a rhetorical question and did not attempt an answer. Then Judge Bernstein suggested that, “If I were a young enterprising criminal, I'd come to Baltimore to set up my practice. This is the place to be. This is the Promised Land." And to the world weary Judge, so it must seem.A jury later convicted Marcus Anderson "in absentia" of being a convicted felon in procession of a firearm and transporting a firearm in a motor vehicle. He faces five years without parole as well as the three years he was already facing for violating his parole on the drug conviction. Felony escape charges are still pending, since nobody has seen Marcus Anderson since he was remanded into the custody of Officer Barron. Yes, a sad tale indeed.A much more engaging tale was recently presented to Judge Brigitte Koppenhoefer, one of the most respected members of the Superior Court in Dusseldorph, Germany. Normally Judge Koppenhoefer presides over complicated cases involving corporate law and dealing with hundreds of millions of Duetchmarks and Euros, such the Mannersmann trial she just completed against Duetsche Bank and its CEO Josef Ackerman. But as the summer vacations came around Judge Koppenhoefer found herself rotated by luck to decide a simple property dispute between two neighbors. The honorable judge listened with a straight face as the litigants detailed the escalation of conflict between them, as their war of words escalated to insult filled letters, to letters adorned with cockroaches, followed by an actual egg fight, culminating in the express delivery of packages filled with feces. And through it all Judge Koppenhoefer maintained her judicial restraint, and a straight face. But then, as the litigants were overcome with emotion and began to shout at each other across her courtroom, describing each other as schinehunds, smelly bum and donkey face, poor Judge Kippenhoefer lost her composure and burst out laughing. She was forced to call for a brief adjournment so she could retire to her chambers and release the belly laughs she had been restraining. Five minutes later the Judge resumed the bench, but just long enough to dismiss the case as “ridiculous” and hit the plaintiff with a $750 fine for having wasted the court's time with the whole mess. At which time Judge Koppenhofer repeated, “This was just so ridiculous.” It is a phrase that should be displayed above the front door of every law school in the world. And maybe it should be on the bar exam, too, just as a reminder.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

HIS MASTER'S VOICE

I never believed old Joe Kennedy’s story about getting a stock tip from a shoe shine boy. In 1929 Joe’s fortune was already estimated at $4 million. Joe claimed that tip convinced him the market was crowded with naive money, which is why he unloaded most of his stock before the Black Friday crash of October 1929.

In fact Joe sold out most of his stock portfolio as part of a stock manipulation, and used the profits to sell short the same stocks he had just unloaded. It was a typical manipulation that was the plague of Wall Street before the crash. But like most successful moguls, in retrospect Joe’s luck made him a shrewd investor. By 1935, feasting on the financial corpse of his competitors, the Kennedy fortune was supposed to be worth $180 million. And yet if his timing had been a little bit slower or faster Joe would have been wiped out like all those other shrewd Wall Street investors. The only time people get in trouble on Wall Street is when they start thinking they are too smart to get caught.

The classic example of the games played in those days was the RCA stock pool, formed by the brockerage house M.J. Meehan and Company. In the modern vernacular the process is called “a pump and dump”. In the slang of 1929 it was “painting the tape”, as in ticker tape. First the stock was quietly accumulated by the pool members, who also sold the stock “long”, meaning they made a behind the scenes bets that the price would go up. Then the reputation of the stock was made to look better than it actually was by sales between pool members at inflated prices, and by articles planted in newspapers. This attracted buyers from outside the pool who were either fooled by the games or who suspected what was actually happening and gambled they could follow the “smart money”.

And then the pool members would begin to quietly sell the stock short, betting it would go down, which, of course, they were about to insure that it did. In the final act the pool would suddenly dump all their stock. The RCA pool started on Saturday March 9, 1929, (the NYSE met for half day sessions on Saturdays at the time) when shares of RCA were selling at $93 each. Two weeks later, Saturday March 30, the stock was selling for $109.75 a share. It was time to pull the plug. After the dump the stock fell to $80 a share. And for what was in essence two weeks work the pool members made $5 million ($60 million in 2007 value). The only problem was that $5 million the “smart money” had just squeezed out of the market had to come from someplace. Lots of the “suckers” who had bought RCA on a standard 10% margin were suddenly caught short by the switch to “dump” mode. They would now either have to pay the 90% they still owed for the stock (which most could not do) or come up with another 10% to maintain their margins. The rush to raise cash to meet the margin calls did two things at once. First, as people sold other stock to meet their short falls on RCA, that drove down the price of lots of other stocks. The New York Daily News called it a “selling avalanche”. And two: as those who either could not or chose not to sell other stocks to avoid the “margin calls” on RCA looked for the funds to meet their margins, their demand for cash drove the price of loans higher and higher. It was an instant liquidity crises- sound familiar? In a single day, Monday, March 25th, the market abruptly dropped 4% across the board. What stopped Monday, March 25, 1929 from becoming Black Monday was that on Tuesday, March 26, 1929 at about 1:30 in the afternoon, Charles Mitchell, a member of the Federal Reserve Board, boldly walked onto the trading floor and placed a loud “buy” order for U.S. Steel at higher than the then depressed market price. He also announced that he had $25 million to stabilize the market ($300 million in 2007 value). Immediatly the panic on Wall Street stopped, and conservative Democratic Senator Carter Glass called for Mitchell’s resignation because he had violated "purity" of the market. The famous “Sleeping Prophet” Edgar Cayce would write a letter in the first weeks of April 1929 famously predicting the October collapse of Wall Street. In fact the near collapse at the end of March was repeated again with another 4% drop in value on May 22 and again on May 27 and yet again on August 9 and yet a fifth 4% drop on October 3, and a 6.3% plummet on October 23, and all of these preceding the infamous Black Monday collapse, when in a single day the market dropped 12% of its total value. You would have had to been deluded not to have seen the market collapse was just around the corner. Unfortunately, Wall Street was filled with desperate, deluded people who for lots of reasons refused to see the approaching abyss. And Edgar Cayce has been making converts ever since with his mystical prediction that doesn’t seem so mystical in retrospect.

The list of the well connected and well informed experts who continued to predict that all would be well on Wall Street is almost endless. On Friday, October 18, the editor of the Wall Street Journal said in a speech that stock manipulations on Wall Street were “impossible”. Yale Economics professor Irving Fisher observed that “Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau”. And every time one of these “experts” predicted that the dark skies were going to clear up, the market would bounce back from the brink of disaster, reaching its all time peak on September 3 of 381.17. After the 1929 crash the NYSE would not return to that level until 1954.In the immediate aftermath of the debacle of 1929 Senator Carter Glass helped fashion legislation (The Glass-Steagall Act) that divorced commercial banks from intimate ties with brokerage firms, one of the primary fuels in the collapse. And Joe Kennedy helped write new rules that banned “insider trading”, such as pools. But the Glass-Steagall Act was largely repealed in 1999, because the magicians on Wall Street are still selling the idea that secret knowledge and magical skill can trump luck on Wall Street, and they are still finding idiots who want to believe them and are willing to pay for the idea. And where ever he is at the moment, heaven or hell, Old Joe Kennedy must be having a very good laugh about the “spike” in oil prices that the experts assure us is certainly not the product of speculation.



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