MARCH 2020

MARCH   2020
The Lawyers Carve Up the Golden Goose


Saturday, May 30, 2009


I will now relate the life of a proud man. Two days after he died, on October 22, 1806, the Newburyport Herald carried his lengthy obituary. “Departed this life, on Wednesday evening last, Mr. Timothy Dexter, in the 60th year of his age — self-styled "Lord Dexter, first in the East." He lived perhaps one of the most eccentric lives of his time…Born and bred in a low condition in life, and his intellectual endowments not being of the most exalted stamp, it is no wonder that a splendid fortune, which he acquired by dint of speculation….(though perhaps honestly), should have rendered him, in many respects, truly ridiculous….His ruling passion appeared to be popularity, and one would suppose he rather chose to render his name "infamously famous (rather) than not famous at all." His writings stand as a monument of the truth of this remark; for those who have read his "Pickle for the Knowing Ones,"…find it difficult to determine whether most to laugh at the consummate folly, or despise the vulgarity and profanity of the writer. His manner of life was equally extravagant and singular.”Timothy Dexter never attended school. He had been sent to farm work at the age of eight and at 16 he became an apprentice. In 1769, at the age of 29, Timothy Dexter opened his own glove making shop in Newburyport, Massachusetts. A year later Timothy married the widow Elizabeth Frothingham; “…an industrious and frugal woman” who was nine years his senior. Besides having given birth to four children, Elizabeth ran a “Hucksters shop”, where she sold second hand items and local produce. After the wedding Timothy moved into her house at the corner of Merrimack and Green streets and opened his own shop in the basement; “…at the sign of the Glove, opposite Somerby's Landing.” There were some in Newburyport who disapproved of the uneducated Timothy Dexter, who were offended by his ambition and ignorance. They noted he drank too much, and spoke clumsily. They scoffed at his luck and were impatient for his fall.During the Revolutionary war Timothy was a patriot. But wartime inflation threatened all he had built. In July of 1777 a bushel of wheat cost eight Continental dollars. Just a year later it cost almost thirteen. Over the same year a pound of coffee rose from 48 Continentals to 120. It was no wonder then that many holding the shrinking Continentals sold them to speculators at a fraction of their face value, for quick gold or British pounds. But urged on by his savvy wife, Timothy gambled on the Continentals. He bought thousands of dollars worth, for hundreds. And to the surprise of many, in the “dinner table compromise” of 1790, Congress decided to buy all the outstanding Continentals at face value. Overnight Timothy was made a wealthy man. In fact, at the age of 49, Timothy Dexter was rich enough to retire.
With his new fortune Timothy invested in civic minded projects, like the 1792 Essex Bridge across the Merrimack River. Timothy bought ten shares toward the construction, and was given a prominent place in the opening ceremonies on July 4th. Afterward, he dared to make a public toast; “Ladies and Gentlemen, this day, the 18th year of our glorious independence commences...Permit me, then, my wife and jolly souls, to congratulate you on this joyful occasion. Let our deportment be suitable for the joyful purpose for which we are assembled --- Let good nature, breeding, concord, benevolence, piety, understanding, wit, humor, Punch and wine grace, bless, adorn and crown us henceforth and forever. Amen” Of course, Timothy’s remarks were delivered in French! It was a harmless speech, made, he supposed, amongst friends, and he sent a copy of it (translated into English) to the local newspaper. He explained the readers should not be surprised he could speak French because “…Frenchmen express themselves very much by gestures…”. But there were those present who were not Timothy’s friends, who insisted he had made a drunken, rambling and barley coherent speech (in English), and that more educated supporters had improved the English before committing it to ink. Wrote one critic; “He has been regarded as the most marked example of a man of feeble intellect gaining wealth purely by luck.” Then in 1795, when Timothy offered to construct at his own expense a public market house for Newburyport, these envious men and others who trusted them, voted to reject his offer, with thanks, of course. Stung by the insult Timothy decided to leave town.He sold his new house on State Street (now part of the public library) and moved to Chester, New Hampshire (that home now "The Dalton Club"). But he lived there for only two years. And when he returned to Newburyport in 1798 he was a changed man. Any hesitation for what others thought of him had evaporated. In fact he seemed determined to remind those who despised him, just why they hated him.He built himself a most unusual house on High Street. “He put minarets on the roof…(and)in front placed rows of columns fifteen feet high…each having on its top a statue of some distinguished man….and occupying the most prominent position were the statues of Washington, Adams and Jefferson, and to the other statues he gave the names of Bonaparte, Nelson, Franklin…often changing them according to his fancy. In a conspicuous place was a statue of him self, with the inscription, "I am the first in the East, the first in the West, and the greatest philosopher in the Western world." They were gaudily painted, and…attracted crowds, whose curiosity deeply gratified the owner, and he freely opened his grounds to them.”According to John James Currier in his “History of Newburyport”, Timothy “…would transact no business when intoxicated, and made his appointments for the forenoon, saying he was always drunk in the afternoon.” Timothy took to calling himself “Lord Timothy Dexter”, and had a coat of arms painted on the door of his carriage as if he were nobility. But those who missed the joke were unaware that his wife Elizabeth’s maiden name had been “Lord”. He claimed to have given Elizabeth $2,000 to leave him, and “hired” her back at the same sum two weeks later. He told other visitors that Elizabeth had died and that the "drunken, nagging woman" wandering about the property was her ghost. And then Timothy decided to write a book. He called it “A Pickle for the Knowing Ones or Plain Truth in a Homespun Dress”.
The first edition had 8,847 words, no punctuation and was filled with misspellings. That edition sold out. When the second edition was printed he added a page of random punctuation marks, explaining, “…I put in a nuf here and (the reader) may pepper and salt it as they please”. In the book Timothy claimed to have sold coals to Newcastle (at a profit), warming pans and mittens to the West Indies (at a profit), bibles to the East Indies and stray cats to Caribbean (both also at a profit). None of it was true of course, but anyone with a sense of humor got the joke. Many of his neighbors did not. That year, when a visitor finished a prayer for a meal, Timothy turned to his son and exclaimed, “That was a d----d good prayer, wasn’t it, Sam.”In 1805 Mr, James Akin did an engraving of Timothy as he was often seen about Newburyport, with hat and cane, and followed by his little dog. It is the only image we have of the man. Timothy Dexter died on October 26, 1806 at the age if sixty. He left an estate valued at about $36,000. (worth about half a million in 2007.) Elizabeth followed him in 1809, aged 72. Said Timothy’s biographer, Samuel Knapp, " Many who attempted to take advantage of him got sadly deceived. He had no small share of cunning, when all else seemed to have departed from him…In buying he gave the most foolish reasons to blind the seller, who thought that he was deceived, when deceiving.”The website devoted to honoring Timothy points to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s advice on living; “Be silly. Be honest. Be kind: for indeed, these were three simple dictates which guided Lord Timothy Dexter.”

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Thursday, May 28, 2009


I keep reading that the election of 1884 was one of the “dirtiest” in American history, which strikes me like saying that a sewer is dirtier than a septic tank. Still I have to admit that there was a lot of mud flung around by James Blaine and Grover Cleveland. And as usual, he who flung the most, won. Blaine got in the first shot.
The Democratic convention in Buffalo, New York, ended on July 11th 1884, after having nominated hometown hero, “Honest” Grover “The Good” Cleveland. Just ten days later the “Buffalo Evening Telegraph” reported “A Terrible Tale”; that in 1874 Cleveland had an affair with a young widow from New Jersey, Maria Helpin. In September Mrs. Helpin had given birth to a son she named Oscar Folsom Cleveland (Folsom was Cleveland’s law partner). According to the “Telegraph”, Maria ended up in an asylum and the poor innocent boy had ended up in an orphanage. The Republican faithful began the chant, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.”
It was a great story, and parts of it were true. But Cleveland refused to panic and instructed his followers to “Just tell the truth”, which is easy to say at those rare times when the truth actually helps you. The truth was that Mrs. Helpin had had affairs with several men (something that probably happened a lot more often than anyone in 1884 was willing to publicly admit), and there were several men who might have been the father. Cleveland never admitted parentage. But he had supported the infant after Maria started drinking heavily. Later, when it became clear Maria was not going to get sober anytime soon, Cleveland had paid her $500 to give up Oscar, and the boy was adopted by a friend of Cleveland’s. Oscar eventually ended up graduating from medical school. As the full story came out the initial Blaine attack resulted in Cleveland sounding more honest than he had before.
The second Blaine attack backfired even worse. There were two “third parties” in 1884; the Greenback Party and the Prohibition Party. The Greenback Party seemed likely to hurt the Democrats most, so Blaine’s supporters actually gave them money. “The Dry’s” had nominated John St. John, three time governor of Kansas. Blaine’s people were worried that St. John would siphon off Republican votes in upstate New York. They urged St. John to drop out of the race, and when he refused they spread the story that St. John had abandoned a battered wife and child in California.
Again, the smear was true, sort of. After his parents had died when St. John was just 15, he had joined the ‘49ers, looking for his fortune in the gold fields. He didn’t find gold but at the age of 19 he had found a wife and had fathered a child. And at his wife’s request he had “granted” her, to use the old phrase, a divorce, before returning, broke, to Illinois.
Like most smears this one hurt St. John the most amongst his most fervent supporters. Prohibitionists have always been a priggish bunch of humorless unforgiving bores, and they abandoned St. John as if they had just discovered the sacramental wine was actually wine. But St. John had that other trait you often find in prohibitionists; he considered revenge a matter of principle. Knowing he now stood no chance of even winning Kansas, St. John concentrated his efforts in upstate New York, just the place the Republicans were the most worried about.
Meanwhile, James Blaine, the Republican candidate, had his own problems, with the “Mugwumps”. This was yet another group of holier than thou Victorian prigs, but these prigs were Republicans, and they had a hard time deciding whether or not to support Blaine because he was so…well, crooked. They took their name from a supposed Algonquin word for “big leader”, but it was "New York Sun" columnist Charles Dana who defined them as Republicans who had their “mugs” on one side of the fence and their “wumps” on the other.
In defending Blaine Republican commentators went so far as to imply that the Mugwumps were members of the “Eastern effete”, or to use the vernacular, “Man millners”, i.e. homosexuals. And yes, it turns out there have always been gay Republicans as well as gay Democrats, and "gay baiting" has always been used to work up "the base". But it also turns out there is a reason they call it the "base"; because it is. I think we would be a healthier nation if our history books actually tried to tell the unvarnished truth about the past; its called perspective.
Meanwhile the Democrats were throwing everything they could think of at "James Blaine, the Continental Liar From the State of Maine", like calling him "Slippery Jim" - which worked about as well as calling Bill Clinton "Slick Willie". The Democratic commentators dragged up the old charge of “Burn this letter after reading”. And the Indianapolis Sentinel even discovered that Blaine had married his wife only after her father had threatened him with a shotgun. Blaine sued the Sentinel for liable but the paper then produced the certificates showing the couple had been married in March, 1851 and their first child had been born less than three months later. Blaine came up with a story about two ceremonies, one private in 1850, and a public wedding a year later, but by the time he finish the audience had turned to the comic pages.
But the final nail in Blaine’s coffin was supposedly driven in by the Reverend Samuel Burchard, who at a New York City Republican rally, with Blaine sitting at the dais, announced that the Democrats stood for “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion”. The press had a field day, implying the phrase was anti-southern (rebellion) and anti-Catholic, (which it was) and that by his silence that Blaine had approved of it. But that last part was absurd. Blaine’s mother was a practicing Catholic. His sister was a nun. The Republicans had even been hoping to attract some Catholic votes away from the Democrats. But none of that mattered to the press, or to the Democrats who very publicly organized "Catholic Democratic Lawyers" in case they had to contest the official election results from New York.
In the end it is difficult to say precisely why Cleveland won and Blaine lost. It was close. The popular vote cast on Election Day, November 4, 1884, was four million eight hundred seventy-four thousand for Cleveland (48.5%) and four million eight hundred forty-eight thousand (48.2%) for Blaine. But as we all know the popular vote is meaningless. What counted was the Electoral College, and there Cleveland won two hundred nineteen votes to one hundred eighty-two for Blaine, giving Cleveland a 37 vote electoral victory. The difference was New York State’s 36 votes, which Cleveland won by a mere 1,047 votes out of one million one hundred twenty-five thousand and forty-eight votes cast in that state. I think what made those 1,047 votes so powerful were the twenty-four thousand nine hundred ninety-nine votes cast in upstate New York for the Prohibitionist Party candidate, John St, John.
It may have been the last time a prohibitionist could proudly say, “Here’s mud in your eye.”
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Monday, May 25, 2009


I know the recipe by heart. Coal, “…a readily combustible black or brownish-black sedimentary rock”, is simply captured carbon, concentrated out of the air by plants. Take a few hundred million tons of plant material and leave it buried under piles of new vegetation for 8 or 9 thousand years, and you get peat. Leave that buried for thirty to sixty million years and you get lignite coal; leave it buried for 200 million years and you get Bituminous coal; cook it for 300 millions years and you get Anthracite, the cleanest burning coal there is ("My gown stays white / From morn till night / Upon the road of Anthracite") - “cleanest” being a very relative term. But once you have coal it takes just a couple of centuries more to produce greed and monopolies. And that is when the real fun begins.
Humans adapted the best word they already had to describe the burning stone; charcoal. And since it was first recognized washed up on beaches near Durham along the Scottish boarder, they called it sea-coal. It was so rare that it was a prized New Years gift long before there was a Christmas amongst the Saxon savages. Its fire was so smoky that thieves carried chunks with them to conceal their crimes. Other than that it had little practical use. But as the forests of England were chopped down for palaces and fleets, and wood became expensive, the peasants turned to heating their miserable huts with sea-coal. And that is when things started to heat up.Journalist Edwin Black described the early economics of coal in an article at (5-18-09); “In the last four decades of the thirteenth century, the cost of wood increased about 70 percent, while sea coal increased only 23 percent… Londoners had no choice but to resort to sea coal, which was rapidly becoming known simply as "coal." By 1300, London's total annual wood fuel demand was 70,000 acres. By 1400, it was only 44,000, despite prodigious industrial, commercial and population growth.” The street in London where merchants sold their cargos still bears the name “Seacoal Lane”. The price stabilization for coal was caused by two rules of economics; the first that a price increase produces an increase in supply - in this case miners went looking for sea-coal on land and under it – and second rule is that an increase in profits produces an alteration in the tax codes - as merchants share their new wealth with government bureaucrats to protect that wealth. In this case the merchants were a forgotten class of lobbyists called “Hostmen”. Originally these were the medieval equivalent of Days Inn and Motel 6 operators. On July 24th, 1567 Queen Elizabeth I granted a patent to Mr. William Tipper as the sole provider of lodging and meals to “merchant strangers” or “merchant adventurers” visiting London. For that privilege Mr. Tipper paid her Majesty 40 shillings for each traveling salesman who paid him, and that is the origin for the term “a big tipper”, as in an extra payment for service. But the Hostmen of Newcastle-on-Tyne had bigger plans.In 1529, to make the tax collector’s job easier, the crown decreed that every commodity harvested or produced within the watershed of the small River Tyne and its tributaries (in the vernacular, the Tyneside), had to be transshipped through the port city of Newcastle-on-Tyne. That also made it easier for the hostmen of Newcastle to gain control, since “…once the coal was on a boat, it was in the hands of merchants and shippers.” (Ibid) “By the fifteen hundred and fifties, the Hostmen (so) commanded the coal--from ground excavation to river distribution—that…in 1590, the Lord Mayor of London complained “…of the monopoly and extortion of the owners of Newcastle coals." (ibid) The tip left on the table for Elizabeth was one shilling paid to her for every 36 bushels of coal shipped. And it was said that 10 men - the Lidell, the Ridell, the Carr and the Clavering families (and the Queen) - controlled the sale of coal throughout all of England and much of coastal Europe.After the Virgin Queen’s death in 1603, Parliament moved to cancel the royal monopolies, but the Hostmen of Newcastle too valuable to be interfered with, i.e. too big to fail. Their profit margins remained as high as 65%. Not even the bloody English Civil War could break their control of coal. “The Hostmen always produced smart defenses, polished cost justifications and retained the best spokesmen to make their case.” (ibid). By 1661 Thomas Fuller could define the popular phrase ‘to carry coals to Newscastle’ as “…to busy one's self in a needless employment.”The next step was described in “Extracts from the Company of Hostmen, Newcastle-Upon- Tyne (1901): “…(coal) miners soon drove shafts down to underground water levels, and mines had to be drained before production could be raised to meet the new demand…In 1712 Thomas Newcomen's first coal-fired, steam-operated pump was installed in a coal mine in the West Midlands. It pumped 600 liters of water (150 gallons) a minute from the bottom of a shaft 50 m (160 feet) deep…”
In less than a hundred years that steam engine, used as a pump to drain the coal mines, would be placed on wheels and fed coal from the same mines to produce a loco-motive. And it was that invention, intended to further strengthen the power of the Hostmen, which finally proved the death of their 400 year old monopoly. As Edwin Black observed, “With trains, coal mines far beyond Newcastle were finally able to free themselves from river transport….(and) That was how the Hostmen cartel was finally broken up.”The final cost of the Hostmen’s monopoly was highlighted on Saturday December 6, 1952, in the Great Fog of London, when, acerbated by thousands of coal fires heating homes and businesses, visibility fell to one foot and “smoke ran like water.” The next day 6,500 people died while walking to London hospitals because the fog was so thick ambulances could not safely navigate city streets. On Monday, with most people locked in their homes and avoiding all physical effort, only 900 died. On Tuesday, December 9, the wind finally swept the fog away, leaving a final death toll of 12,000 killed in just four days while just breathing the air.
All killed by the rock that burns.

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