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The Rise of the Billionaires Leaves the Middle Class Stranded

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

STEALING ABRAHAM LINCOLN

I would say, to use the criminal vernacular, that Big Jim Kinealy went 'Chinese angle' when the 'buttons' nipped his 'boodler'.
Benjamen F. Boyd was the Midwest’s foremost boodler, and maybe the finest engraver of conterfeit printing plates outside of the U.S. Treasury Department. Boyd’s queer fin was so good that by 1875 there were more than 300,000 examples floating about, maybe half of all five dollar notes in circulation. The treasury stopped issuing legitimate fins out of the Chicago branch entirely.
Then, in October, the Secret Service descended upon the little Mississippi river town of Fulton, Illinois and before Ben Boyd could slip across the railroad bridge to Iowa, slapped the bracelets on him right in front of his outraged wife. And that left Big Jim squarely behind the eight ball.Big Jim owned a stable in St. Louis, but that was just his dodge. He was “a born crook” and the high pillow to hundreds of finders, passers, runners, smashers, bindle stiffs, butter and egg men and fake-a-loo artists, in short everyone and anyone who passed the queer soft on to unsuspecting marks. So with Ben doing a decade in the Joliet caboose (above) you would guess that Big Jim would to be looking for a new slant. Instead he came up with a plan that was a real bunny; he would steal the body of Abraham Lincoln, and exchange it for the live body Benjamnn Boyd - plus $200,000, just as an afterthought.Late in January of 1876 Big Jim reached out to one of his Chicago passers, Ben Sheridan, who was looking for a vacation anyway after getting pinched and jumping bail. Ben was a cool customer and played the Jasper in his fancy suit with a full beard. Big Jim figured him as the man who knew just how far he could push the bulge.
So he set Sheridan and his four man crew of goons up in a tavern in Springfield, Illinois (above), complete with a full liquor stock, and they spent a couple of months just taking the lay of the land. They played tourists at Lincoln’s tomb in the Oak Ridge Cemetery several times and it looked like an eggs-in-the-coffee job to them. The rectangular granite monument sat atop the highest point in the cemetery. Two curving, confusing corridors met in the center of the marble monument at two rooms. In one room rested the body of Mary Todd Lincoln. In the other rested the President’s sarcophagus.The monument itself was surrounded by tall oaks that would hide any nighttime visitors. The cemetery was two miles outside of town, the room containing the sarcophagus had but a single padlock on its gate, the groundskeeper lived elsewhere, there were no bulls on duty at night and questioning a custodian revealed that the casket itself had been sealed with simple plaster of Paris.By the end of June things looked so Jake to Sheridan that he took a night off to relax. And that was when he stuck his foot in it. Drunk on corn in a local "can house" (above), Sheridan boasted to a chippy that on the night of July the third he was going “steal old Lincoln’s bones”. Well, the chippy called copper, which is to say she notified the local bulls, and in the morning the buttons paid a visit to Sheridan’s establishment just to let him know the caper was blown. Big Jim was not happy. He repossessed the liquor stock, locked the tavern tight and ordered the whole crew back to Chicago.
The truth was, Big Jim might have been lucky things went adrift at this point, because when John Carroll Power, the custodian, was interviewed later he described in detail the entire gang and offered the opinion that Sheridan was “of more intelligence “than all four goons “combined”, but “of exceedingly depraved morals”. Obviously Mr. Power was an observent judge of character and a powerful witness.That fall, in the back room of The Hub, a saloon at 294 West Madison Street in Chicago, Big Jim met with his second choice of conspirators; Terrence Mullen (above), the bar owner, and a passer named Jack Hughes (below).
But Big Jim decided that this time they needed an actual resurrectionist, a man familiar with the problems of body snatching. And he was lucky enough that just such a man had recently started hanging out at The Hub, an ex-sailor and life long bindle stiff and body snatcher by the name of Louis C. Swegles. Swegles knew the right people and they seemed to know him, so Big Jim brought him into the plot, now laid on for election night, “a da-ned fine elegant time to do it”, as Jack Hughes said.They caught the night train for Springfield and arrived at six on the morning of November seventh, and checked into the St. Charles Hotel. In their luggage they brought a can of blasting powder, a six foot fuse, a small file and a saw. They gang caught some sleep, leaving a call for 10:30 A.M. After breakfast Louis Swegles and Jack Hughs paid a visit to the monument. Hughes assured his fellows they wouldn’t need their tools to open the locked gate on the tomb. “I could fall against it and open it,” he boasted. Terry Mullen wanted to be certain, so that afternoon he stole an axe from a hardware store.
About nine o’clock that night they slipped into the looming silent monument. While Swegle held the lantern, Mullen began to saw through the padlock that Hughes had shown such disrespect for. And almost immediately the saw blade broke. Mullen was reduced to working the padlock with the file. It felt like it was going to take forever.
Finally the padlock fell apart and the three then prepared to attack the sarcophagus itself. Mullen wanted to use a sledge hammer but Swegles pointed to the copper dowels that were all that held the lid on. Having removed the lid (the open sarcophagus, above) they slid the President’s cedar covered lead coffin out. Swegles handed the lantern to Hughes and slipped back outside to bring the wagon up to the service door.After waiting a few moments for Swegles to reappear, Hughes and Mullen decided it would be better if they waited outside. They were standing under an oak tree a hundred feet away from the service door when they heard the crack of a gunshot echoing from inside the monument. Being experienced theives, they ran for it. Outside the cemetery walls they boarded the last streetcar for the night bound for downtown Springfield, and heard more shots and shouting behind them. Hughes and Mullen did not return to their hotel, but split up and made their seperate ways out of Springfield on foot.By November 9th Mullen was back in Chicago, tending bar at the Hub as if nothing had happened. Two days later Swegles reappeared with a harrowing tale of having escaped the bulls by the skin of his teeth. A week afterward Hughes showed as well. They were all thinking themselves very lucky to have escaped the Bulls.
But just as Mullen and Hughes started to ask themselves what had gone wrong, that was when the bulls swept them up. Both Hughes and Mullen were arrested and transported back to Springfield. Swegles was not arrested because he had been a stoolie for the Treasury bulls from the very beginning. From the second he had been asked to join the scheme, the bulls had been kept apace at every step of the way. Swegles had not gone for the wagon, he and alerted the bulls waiting in tomb to make the arrest. But instead they had ended up fighting a gunbattle with each other in the dark. And Big Jim? Well, he never liked to be close to the actual crime, and immediatly made himself scarce. The last he was heard of, Big Jim was heading for New Mexico territory.Oddly enough there was no law in Illinois against grave robbing, so Hughes and Mullen were convicted only of the theft of Lincoln’s coffin, value set at $75.00. They were sentenced to one year each at hard labor and then dissappeared from the pages of history. Big Jim would be convicted in 1880 of a land fraud in New Mexico Territory, and end up serving his time in the Joliet prison, the same institution once occupied by his onetime printer, Ben Boyd.
As for the corpse of President Abraham Lincoln, the unwilling player in this farce, Mr. Power had him secretly reburied in the basement of the tomb. And there he resided in obscurity in his own tomb until 1901 when Lincoln's son, Robert, had his father's coffin reburied. But this time it was placed inside a steel cage, lowered into a new 10 foot vault dug into the Illinois soil, into which was poured several tons of concrete and then the original stone sarcophagus was placed on top of it all, making it very unlikely anyone would ever try to steal Lincoln's corpse, ever again.
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Monday, January 26, 2009

MAN OF MYSTERY - NICHOLAS FLAMEL

I shall now relate, as best I can, the true story Nicolas Flamel. He was born about 1335 in village of Pontoise ("bridge on the Oise" - above today), about 17 miles north-northwest of Paris. The village in the 14th century still retained the flavor of a border town, balanced as it was between the "Ile-de-France", where the King of France ruled, and "The Vexin", where feudal lords, nominally vassals to the King, held sway. As a youth Nicolas must have studied for the priesthood, since he was trained to read and write, skills in the 14th century still restricted by law to the church or to nobility. Then, while still a young man, Nicolas received a small inheritance and about 1350 he set out for the capital.There Nicolas used his precious funds to buy paper and ink and set himself up in business on the street near the Cathedral of Saint-Jacques la Boucherue, (the butcher) as a scribe. The church (the bell tower, the only remaining structure) was at the center of the Paris market, Les Halles, the “stomach of Paris”, created in 1183 by Philip II. It was the financial core of the metropolis. And Nicolas, surrounded by butchers, bakers and sellers of everything from rare silks to local farmers’ produce, wrote and copied letters for a fee. Any merchant wishing to communicate with his clients or suppliers or debtors outside of Paris would pause at the cathedral the same way later generations would visit a telegraph office. And in time Nicolas moved from being a simple scribe into the greatest and most dangerous opportunity available to an ambitious young Christian in 14th century Europe; usery.“Nicolas Flamel”, she whispered dramatically, “is the only known maker of the Sorcerer’s Stone.”
This didn’t have quite the effect she’d expected.
“The what?” said Harry and Ron.
“Oh, honestly, don’t you read? Look – read that, there.”
“The ancient study of Alchemy is concerned with making the Sorcerer’s Stone, a legendary substance with astonishing powers. The stone will transform any metal into pure gold. It also produces the Elixir of Life, which will make the drinker immortal.”
There have also been many reports of the Sorcerer’s Stone over the centuries, but the only stone currently in existence belongs to Mr. Nicolas Flamel, who celebrated his six hundredth and sixty-fifth birthday last year, enjoys a quiet life in Devon with his wife, Perenelle (six hundred and fifty-eight).”
(Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. pp 219-220. J.K. Rowling. Scholastic, Inc. 1997)As recently as 1311 Pope Clement V had declared that charging interest on a loan was heresy for a Christian, and punishable by death at the stake. It was the function of Jews in medieval Europe to be the money lenders, and they were restricted from doing any other business with gentiles, leaving ambitious Jews little choice but to go into banking or money lending. The only problem was that every time the French nobility found their debts piling up they simply expelled the Jews and seized their property, as did the misnamed “Phillip the Fair” in 1306, Charles VI did again in 1394.

In between these persecutions the crown re-admitted the Jews because even medieval economies could not function without bankers. But the persecutions could break out again at anytime, with the slaughter of innocents, whose only crime was that they prayed to God on a different day of the week and in a different tongue than the King, and that they made a profit by doing something the Christian church disapproved of, at least publicly.

“I, Nicholas Flamel, a scrivener of Paris, in the year 1414, in the reign of our gracious Prince Charles the VIth, whom God preserve; and after the death of my faithful partner Perenelle, am seized with a desire and a delight, in remembrance of her, and in your behalf, dear nephew, to write out the whole majesty of the secret of the Powder of Projection, or the Philosophical Tincture,…”. The Testament of Nicolas Flamel

The testament continues for some 3,000 words, and not one word of it was actually written by Nicolas Flamel. He had no brother that we know of, so he had no nephew. And modern researchers have noticed in the testament the use of words and phrases that were not in use in 14th or 15th century France.The first the testament was ever heard of was in 18th century France, when it probably written and sold for a tidy profit to those who was wanted to believe they were buying the secret of unlimited wealth. There are always such people about, ask any Wall Street guru.Nicolas’ entry into banking was natural. When writing a letter for a merchant demanding payment of a debt, he would offer to forgo his usual fee in exchange for a percentage of the repayment. If the debt were not repaid Nicolas would not be paid. But by insisting in the letter that any payment be sent to him rather than directly to the merchant, Nicolas insured that his percentage – often upwards of 50% - was paid before the merchant recieved a sou. It was easy to keep this secret since the merchant was a co-conspirator and equally as guilty as Nicolas, in the eyes of the church.

As the profits began to roll in Nicolas was able to rent space for a stall that rested against the very columns of the front of la Boucherue. Now he had a roof over his head and some privacy when he did business: profits increased. And Nicolas was able to offer direct loans to tide customers over while waiting for their debts to be paid; more profit. In time Nicolas could afford a home, and eventually, a wife.“It is certain that he had been seen often walking along the Rue des Lombards, and furtively entering a small house at the corner of the Rue des Ecrivains and the Rue de Marivault. It was the house built by Nicolas Flamel, in which he died about 1407, and which, unoccupied ever since, was beginning to fall into ruins, so greatly had the hermetics and alchemists of all countries worn away its walls merely by scratching their names upon them…It was supposed that Flamel had buried the philosophers stone in these cellars, and for two centuries alchemists from Magistri to Father Pacificque, never ceased to worry the soil, until the house, so mercilessly ransacked and turned inside out ended up crumbling into dust under their feet.”
The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Page 134. Victor Hugo. Carey, Lea and Blanchard. 1834.About 1370 Nicolas married a widow, Perenelle. They lived frugally in a modest house on the Rue des Escrivains, in order not to attract attention to Nicolas' business - call it the Silas Marner syndrome. They had no children. In 1407 Nicolas built a shop at 51 rue de Montmorency (above,now a restaurant) where he employed other scribes and artists to create illuminated manuscripts. The most promimently dispalyed, no doubt, were the copies of ancient texts of alchemy. On the second and third floors of the house (now the oldest still standing house in Paris) Nicolas sheltered the poor, as he did in several other houses he owned and built in Paris.

And if Nicolas were not a money lender and a secret banker, where did all that wealth come from? Is it easier to believe he turned lead into gold and discovered something which still eludes science, or that he knew how to add and subtract and figure the percentages of interest rates? Even a trip Nicolas made to Spain to collect debts, and the visits Jews and nobility made to his shop after dark, were all protected by the legends of alchemy and magic which swirled around him. And this "cover story" was embellished by the scattering of mystical texts about his shop. It was far safer in medieval France to be rumored a magician than to be known as a banker.‘True, Sir. The two favorite studies of my youth were botany and mineralogy, …I have regretted I were not a man that I might have been a Flamel, a Fontana or Cabanas”
Page 523. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexander Dumas. Oxford World Classics. 1846 During his lifetime Nicolas endowed large sums to la Boucherue cathedral, and endowed seven churches, fourteen hospitals and three chapels; the church was no more likely to ask questions about the source of that income than a modern politician.

Perenelle died sometime around 1410. Nicolas himself died in 1418. They were both buried in the cemetery “…of the innocents” in Paris. Nicolas left his substantial fortune to the Catholic Church, which put his name and image on the hospitals and churches they built with his money. And that is how his name has survived, and why the mystery of his wealth has suvived for 500 years as well.

In his lifetime Nicolas Flamel was a money lender and a banker. But in his lifetime that was a crime. After he was dead he became a fabulous alchemist and a wizard to rival Merlin, finder of the mystical and illogical "Socerers' Stone" - but only after he was dead, when it was safe.

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