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The Last Time a Republican Reigned in Big Business - 1903

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

AN UNPAID DEBT

I would say it was the nastiest letter ever written by Ben Franklin (that we know of). On April 4, 1778, Franklin dipped his pen in his own long suffering wounds to write, “I saw your jealous, malignant and quarrelsome temper which was daily manifesting itself against Mr. Deane, and almost every other person you had dealings with.”

The object of this bitterness was Arthur Lee (above), youngest son of the powerful Lee family of Virginia, the man whom George Trevelyan described as “… the assassin of other men’s reputations and careers ..." Mr. Trevelayn added, "The best that can be said of Arthur Lee is, that in his personal dealings with the colleagues he was seeking to ruin, he made no pretence of friendship…and his attitude toward his brother envoys was to the last degree, hostile and insulting.” (pp 455-456 “The American Revolution Part III” Longmans Green & Co. 1907.) This man Lee was so filled with hate and bile that he almost destroyed the thing professed to love, the American Revolution.When Silas Deane arrived from France, carrying a treaty pledging French military and financial aid for the American Revolution, as personified by the French Ambassador to the new nation, M. Gerard, Deane was rightly expecting to be received as a hero. Instead he was treated like a traitor and grilled about the last packet of letters the Congress had received from the American delegation to France. When those secret dispatches had arrived in America in January of 1778 they had contained nothing but blank pages. Obviously the actual dispatches had been stolen and bare pages substituted; and Congressional paranoia set in. The ship’s captain was jailed and questioned and jailed again.
But just as obvious to Mr. Deane was that the members of the Congress now suspected him, and had been encouraged in that suspicion by Deane’s fellow diplomat in Paris, Arthur Lee. Lee had alleged in private letters to friends in Congress that Deane might have destroyed the dispatches because they contained letters accusing Deane of profiteering. But Lee even went further, to hint that “Dr. Franklin himself…was privy to the abstraction of the dispatches.”
The Congress listened skeptically to Deane’s spur of the moment defense. The account books that would have disproven the charges of his profiteering were in France. Deane was then forced to wait for Congress to issue him further instructions and reembursment. They - and it - never came. Finally, short of funds (which should have disproved the charge of profiteering), Deane did something foolish. He went public. In December 1778 he published his defense - in a pamphlet, "An Address to the Free and Independent Citizens of the United States" - in which he identified the problem in Paris as Mr. Arthur Lee. He also reminded the public of all the weapons and supplies he had bought in France for the American army with his own money, and for which the Congress had not yet repaid him.The public reaction in America was immediate and vicious. “The educated public saw in his (Deanes’) publication a betrayal of an official trust, and the public regarded it as effusion of an angry and detected man”. The public now joined the members of the Congress in believing Silas Deane of theft and betrayal.
No less a powerful voice for America than Thomas Paine (above), the author of “Common Sense”, and now serving as Secretary to the Foreign Committee of Congress, came to Arthur Lee's defense in a Philadelphia newspaper. He wrote that the supplies, “which Mr. Deane…so pompously plumes himself upon, were promised and engaged… before he even arrived in France.” Paine was merely repeating a charge that Arthur Lee had made back in 1776 in his private letters to relatives and allies in America. But that one sentence came close to unraveling the entire American Revolution.The British were thrilled with Paine's story because for the first time the Americans had revealed a rift within their own ranks. But more importantly, if the supplies had really been promised and assigned to America before Mr. Deane had arrived in France, then the King of France, Louis XVI (above), had lied when he publically assured the British and the Spanish that he was not helping the Americans prior to 1778. Worse, he had violated the Treaty of Paris of 1763, which had ended The Seven Years War (known as the French & Indian War in America.) To call the French King a liar and say he had violated a standing treaty was to say that his word was worthless.The brand new French ambassador, M. Gerard, was enraged and demanded an explanation. The Congress, recognizing they had been put out on a limb by Mr. Paine (and by Mr. Lee, although they never seemed to have realized that), beat a hasty retreat and announced that “…his most Christian Majesty…did not preface his alliance with any supplies whatever sent to America, so they have not authorized the writer of said publication to make any such assertions…but, on the contrary, do highly disapprove of the same." Congress also recalled what was left of the Paris delegation, both Franklin and Lee. They were replaced with one man, Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Paine was forced to resign his post, and became estranged from the revolution he had helped so much. His friends in Congress blamed Silas Deane for this. And Mr. Deane, who had first been maligned and smeared by Arthur Lee, and then had been accused and maligned by Thomas Paine and his allies in Congress, also found himself estranged from his American Revolution.Deane returned to Paris, intending to obtain his account books to prove his loyalty to the cause. But the books had been destroyed. Dejected and angry, Deane moved to London where he became friends with that other disabused American patriot, Benidict Arnold. That friendship did nothing to help Deanes' cause in America.
In the summer of 1780 Deane wrote a letter to his family suggesting that America would never win the war and should think about negotiating with the British to be accepted back into the empire. The ship carrying Deane’s letters was captured by an American privateer and Deane’s letters were published in a Conneticut newspaper, appearing just after the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781. It was a nasty case of very bad timing.Deane always dreamed of returning to America, and the last month of his life was spent preparing for the voyage. But he died (in September 1789) before his ship could sail. In his obituary published in a London newspaper Silas Deane received his final defense. “Having (been)accused of embezzling large sums of money entrusted to his care…Mr. Deane sought an asylum in this country, where his habits of life …penurious in the extreme, amply refuted the malevolence of his enemies. So reduced, indeed, was this gentleman, who was supposed to have embezzled upwards of 100,000 pounds sterling,...that he experienced all the horrors of the most abject poverty in the capital of England, and has for the last few months been almost in danger of starving.”And what about Arthur Lee, the source of all this venom? After the war Arthur Lee was elected to congress and for the first time his friends and allies got an up close view of him in action. They found him so “…perpetually indignant, paranoid, self-centered, and often confused” that his fellow Virginians, Jefferson and Washington, avoided all contact with him. I wonder if any of them gave thought to how they had depended on this man in their judgement of Silas Deane? Evidently not. Arthur Lee opposed the new American Constitution and after losing that fight he ran for a seat in the new congress. He was defeated. Arthur Lee died "embittered" on his 500 acre farm in Virginia in December, 1792.It was not until 1835 that Congress finally acknowledged the debts Silas Dean had incurred in defending America. Hs surviving family was paid $38,000 (the equivalent of almost a million dollars today). It was generally admitted that this was but a fraction of the money Silas Deane had spent in helping to create our nation. Thank you, Silas; for whatever it is worth.
And it was not until recently that letters from various English and French sources revealed that the true source of the leak in the American ministry in Paris, the real "snake in the grass" was the sloppy bookeeping and security arraingments of the pompous, paranoid Mr. Auther Lee of Virginia.


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Thursday, March 12, 2009

STILL CRAZY

I state without fear of contradiction that Harry Thaw was crazy. That some of the highest paid psychiatrists in America testified under oath that he was sane and that a court agreed is merely verification that in America money can buy anything. His own father, coal baron and railroad owner William Thaw, was so suspicious of Harry’s mental stability that in his last will and testament he limited Harry’s access to the family fortune, valued at $25 million dollars (the equivalent of $400 million today). Harry was to receive just $200 a month until “…the majority of executors shall believe he has shown discretion and fitness.” It seems that besides railroads, William Thaw knew something about crazy.
As a three year the old “Prince of Pittsburgh”- as young Harry would become known - would throw screaming temper tantrums until he got his way. His private tutors called him “unintelligible” and noted that when confronted Harry would crawl under his school desk. He became known about town for sudden violent outbursts. When sent to private boarding schools in Pittsburgh the “Prince” was thrown out of one after another. When William Thaw died, Mother Thaw (above, with Harry) raised her son’s allowance to $80,000 a year. It did nothing to improve Harry’s personality problems.
Harry always claimed that at Harvard he majored in poker, with minors in cockfighting and drinking binges. He did not stay there long. After he chased a cab driver through the streets of Cambridge with a shotgun he was expelled. On biographer noted that after his expulsion “…he became particularly well known for overturning the tables of fine restaurants.” He was an habitual cocaine and morphine user, and there were rumors that Harry occasionally used a dog whip on some of the chorus girls he was often seen escorting, but Mother Thaw’s fortune usually got him out trouble. And then Harry met Evelyn Nespit.Evelyn was one of the most beautiful, vivacious women of the gilded age, a famous artist’s model, a featured chorus girl and a mistress to famous and wealthy men, such as actor Lionel Barrymore. When Harry first met her, Evelyn was sleeping with architect Stanford White. But White was getting bored with Evelyn and Harry was ardent and showered her with gifts, including an all expense paid trip to Paris. Eventually, with Mother Thaw’s approval (she had been a chorus girl in her own day), Evelyn and Harry were married on April 4, 1905.From day one of the marriage Thaw was obsessed with Evelyn’s relationship with Stanford White, who he referred to as “The Beast!” Harry would beat Evelyn viciously and then apologized to her. He continually questioned her about the details of her sex life with Stanford White. And then in the summer of 1906 Harry suggested they take a trip to New York City.On the night of June 25, 1906, during a musical review in the crowded Roof Garden Theatre atop Madison Square Garden - which Stanford White had designed - Harry Thaw walked up to Stanford White’s table and in front of literally hundreds of witnesses, Harry shot White three times in the face. As they say, at least Stanford White died doing what he loved; drunk and leering over the chorus girls. During the ensuing pandemonium Harry told Evelyn “I probably just saved your life.”
There was no mystery. The headlines the next morning blared the entire story. Harry plead insanity, so the prosecutor called for a “lunacy commission” to examine him. Harry explained his motive this way; “After ten years during which a crew of moneyed libertines had made life almost as unsafe for virgins as did the Minotaur, a revolver made New York safer for other girls.” The commission came to the conclusion that, “Harry K. Thaw was and is sane and was not and is not in a state of idiocy, imbecility, lunacy, or insanity …” Any faith in the “science” of psychiatry should vanish in the presence of that judgment. It certainly confused the jury who deadlocked seven to five for conviction.At the second "Trial of the Century" Doctor Britton Evans, Alienist for the defense, testified that he “observed a nervous agitation and restlessness, such as comes from a severe brain storm,” in Harry Thaw, which “…is common in persons who have recently gone through an explosive or fulminating condition of mental unsoundness”. And Defense Attorney Delphin Delmas argued on April 9, 1907, in his summation, “…call it Dementia Americana…the species of insanity which makes every American man believe his home is sacred;…the honor of his daughter is sacred;…the honor of his wife is sacred;…that whosoever invades his home, that whomever stains the virtue of this threshold, has violated the highest of human laws…“
Yes, the defense managed to make any sensible juror want to believe that Harry was sane and evil. Luckily for Harry there were no sensible men on the jury. They adjudge Harry Thaw not guilty by reason of insanity. He was ordered confined in Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane until the doctors there judged him to be sane, which they did in 1915. Harry had served just seven years for a cold blooded murder. The lawyers, the publicity machine and the verdict had cost Mother Thaw at least $900,000.It might have cost Mother Thaw even more except she never paid Evelyn the million dollars she had promised her, in exchange for Evelyn's perjured smearing of Stanford White. But Evelyn was no longer a problem since the first thing Harry did as a legally sane man was to divorce Evelyn. However, Harry was still a problem, because the second thing Harry did was to sexually assault and horsewhip a teenage boy, Fred B. Gump Jr. Again a jury judged Harry to be nuts, and again he was sent to a hospital, and yet again for seven years.When he was finally released in 1924 Mother Thaw was mercifully dead. Perhaps that had some connection to Harry’s rages, because there is no record he ever had another. Harry bought a farm in Frederick County, Virginia near the small town of Clearbrook. He even joined the local volunteer fire company, marching in all their parades in his full regalia.
In 1927 Harry invested in a film company on Long Island, and attempted at one point to film the story of his own life. No film was ever produced and like so many other film companies this one ended up in court, with the final judgment in 1935 ordering Harry to pay $7,000 to his partners. Harry Thaw died of a heart attack in Miami, Florida in 1947. He was 76 years old and by all accounts still crazy after all those years.
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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

TELLING TIME

I remember a proverb that says opportunity knocks only once. That may be true, but it is also true that having heard the knock you still have to get off your arse and open the door. And, in one of the most amazing twists of history, when the scientists at the Royal observatory at Greenwich, England heard that knock they were mightily annoyed. So they pawned off the job of dealing with the disturbance to one of their servants. He turned that disturbance into a career. In fact he made three careers out of simply telling the time. The Royal Observatory was founded by Charles II in 1765 as part of his restoration and “re-scientific-ication” of government after the religious fanaticism of that great Puritan villain Oliver Cromwell. The observatory was to use the stars to perfect “the art of navigation.” But the builders, despite going over budget by all of twenty pounds, went cheap on the materials, and the observatory, which was to house the most accurate telescopes of the day, was constructed 13 degrees out of alignment. The Royal astronomers, like the NASA astronomers dealing with the orbiting Hubble telescope, have had to make mathamatical adjustments from that day to this.
But besides powerful telescopes, the scientist at the Greenwich observatory also needed accurate clocks. In order to say a particular star was at a particular point in the sky at midnight, they had to know precisely when midnight was. So they also installed two pendulum clocks, built by Thomas Tompion, each accurate to within seven seconds a day. By 1833 (sixty-four years later) the observatory had done its job so well that ships’ captains and navigators had come to rely on the precise time to follow charts provided by Greenwhich. That year the observatory began a practice they follow to this day.At exactly 12.55 p.m., (they do it then so as not to interfere with the weather observations made at noon) a large red “time ball” is raised half way to the top of a mast erected atop the observatory. At 12.58 the time ball is pulled all the way to the top. And then at 1:00 P.M., exactly, the ball quickly falls to the bottom of the mast. (If you have ever wondered why they use a ball to mark midnight on New Years Eve in Times Square, New York City, this is it.) Any ship’s captain waiting in the Thames River to set sail could now coordinate their onboard watches and clocks with the official time as they set off from the “prime meridian” or “longitude naught” - "0" degrees, "0" seconds and "0" minutes east/west, because Greenwhich is where longitude starts - and time.Two years later, in 1835, the observatory got a new boss, George Biddle Airy. He figured his primary job was to perfect the astronomical observations for those ships, and he hired more “computers”, which in the 19th century were actually men who did the dull and boring math required to confirm and correct the stellar charts used to navigate on voyages to the far flung corners of the empire. So when the London merchants appealed to Mr. Airy to share in the time service he saw them as an annoyance. He asked one of his assistants, a man not qualified to be a “computer”, Mr. John Henry Belville, to handle the problem.Airy gave Mr. Belville a pocket watch to use. It had been originally owned by Prince Augustus Frederick, the Duke of Sussex (above), the sixth son of George III, the favorite uncle of Queen Victoria and the man who gave her away at her wedding. The watch had been made by Mr. John Arnold & Sons in 1794 and was accurate to within one tenth of a second per day. Each Monday John Henry (he rarely used his last name because of the anti-French public bias in the post Napoleonic years) would present himself and “Faithful Arnold”, the watch, to a clerk at the observatory time desk. The clerk would set the watch and then hand John a certificate asserting to the watch’s accuracy for that day. Then John Henry would make his way by carriage and rail to London, where he would literally deliver the time to some two hundred customers; shops, factories and offices. For most of the people in London, John Henry Belville was the face of official time, and he was earning four hundred pounds a year doing it when he died in 1856.After John’s death his widow, Maria, still had a daughter to support. She begged the observatory to allow her to continue the time service as a private business, and they agreed. By now (1852) Charles Shepherd had designed and installed a “Galvano-Magnetic” clock (above) at the Observatories’ gate (now called Shepherd’s Gate) where anyone could get the time at any time day or night, for free. But still the London merchants continued to pay for Maria’s direct door service. Every Monday she strode up the observatory hill, watched while Arnold was synchronized with the official time, and then went on her rounds by rail and on foot. To those who saw her trudging across the streets of London, she became known as the Greenwich Time Lady.Maria retired in 1892, and her daughter Ruth now took over the employment (above), carrying the tool of her trade, Faithful Arnold, in her handbag. By now (1884) 25 counties had agreed to set their watches by Greenwich time, and every clock at every railroad station in England was connected directly via telegraph lines with the Royal Observatory. And still, the time delivered by Ruth Belville was more accurate, if slightly less convenient.Beginning in 1924 the BBC Radio began broadcasting “pips” before each hour announcement and in 1936 the Royal Observatory set up a “talking clock” which anyone could dial at any time to get the correct time to within a hundredth of a second. And still Ruth Belville was making her rounds, still serving more than fifty paying customers over a hundred years after her family business had begun.Finally, in 1940, Ruth celebrated her 86th birthday and decided to retire.
In America we would have long since replaced her with newer technology. But the English have more respect for keeping what works, particularly if it is a living person. On her retirement, Ruth agreed to pose for a photograph, looking a bit like a visitor from another time in 1940's London. And , since she had no one to pass the task on to, when Ruth retired the Belville family work was finally completed.
Ruth received a pension from London’s clockmaker’s guild, “The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers”, where "Faithful Arnold" was also granted a rest and a place of honor. Ruth retired to a home in Croydon. On night not two years later, during one of the night bombing raids of London, Ruth turned her bedside gas lamp down low to save fuel. The flame sputtered out, produced carbon dioxide, and Ruth Belville suffocated in her sleep.In effect, she ran out of time.
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Monday, March 09, 2009

THE IDES OF MARCH AWARD, 2009

I have celebrated The Ides of March as a political holiday for more than a decade now. It is a day to commemorate our entertainment and edification by political hacks from Pericles to George W. Bush, by marking the day 2,053 years ago when the Roman Senate brilliantly settled a political standoff by imposing term limits on Julius Caesar.
But who will win the Grand Prize this year? Who will take home the "Senior Shiv in the Solar Plexus" Where Brutus slipped it, and the respected "Knife in the Back Plaque", where Cassius paid off his old enemy? We had many contenders, but in the end there could be only one winner.The proper tone was firmly set by this year’s grand prize winner when he opened his front door on the morning of December 9, 2008 and found himself facing a team of F.B.I agents. The first words out of his mouth were “Is this a joke!” And it is that question, more than the bribery, the shakedowns or the spousal supported profanity which earned this twice elected political hack - who was he running against, Kevin Federline?
And now the unanimously un-elected ex-Governor of Illinois, the soon to be indicted unofficial poet laureate of the criminal justice system, the winner of the 2009 Ides of March Political Award, the Sanjaya of Springfield, Rod Blagonevich.
This prize has not been awarded to Mr. Blogoiejevich for trying to sell a senate seat, or for threatening to pull funding from a children’s hospital, for the federal charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and “play-for-pay” charges, nor even for committing his alleged crimes over his official phone lines even after the press told him the feds had them bugged , an act Jon Stewart has described as “a new low in dumb.” The day before he was arrested, Blagojevich told reporters, “…anybody who wants to tape my conversations, go right ahead, feel free to do it…” Did he think they wouldn’t? Yes, to be this crooked and this stupid deserves a prize – just not an Ides of March prize.All these offenses might violate criminal, civil and moral codes in any number of societies worldwide. But practical politics is not judged against a legal or moral scorecard, but by only one measurement. Can you get re-elected? And the answer here is unequivocal. The Ides of March 2009 prize has been awarded to a man who has never lost an election, who won his last (2006) election as Governor by 11 percentage points, but a politician who, by October of 2008 (two months before he was arrested) could find barely 10% of registered voters who wanted him re-elected. The same poll showed that 0% of voters rated his job performance as excellent, and only 4% rated him “good” while 64% rated his job performance as “poor”. As Jay Leno pointed out, Blagojevich’s approval rating was so low, he even disapproved of himself. Rod Blagoeijevich has managed to give crooked politics a bad name in Illinois. That ranks as an historic achievement.The farce of his senate appointment collapsing post swearing in, in a haze of conflicting testimony by now Senator Burris, was followed by the announcement of Blogoiejevich’s six figure book deal. This inspired Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roper to imagine what the finished book might offer up as a protagonist. “Blago…just like Batman… a misunderstood superhero who roams the streets of Chicago in a black outfit…painted as an outlaw. Maybe they can just call (his) book “He’s Batty.”While the ex- Governor has compared himself to Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart, David Letterman said that Blagojevich resembles “…a producer of an adult entertainment awards show….”. And then there is the helmet hair. Jay Leno suggested that not only should Blagojevich go to jail but his hairdresser should be given the death penalty. Jon Stewart has suggested that Rod himself be indicted for beaver pelt smuggling. Letterman observed that Blogo spoke for 47 minutes at his own impeachment trial in the Illinois senate. Afterward, Letterman said, “They had to rush him to the emergency room at Supercuts.” Worse; “…next month his hair goes digital.” And Jimmy Kimmel suggested, “They nabbed him with a butterfly net and some Aqua Net.”So there is no contest for this year’s award. The other competitors are simply not in the same game, not working down to the same shockingly low standard of behavior and illlogic as Rod Blagojevich, ex-governor of Illinois and charter member of the “Future Felons of 21st Century America”,...winner of the 2009 Ides of March Award!
Wear it in good health, ROD BLAGOJEVICH!
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