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The Rise of the Billionaires Leaves the Middle Class Stranded

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Friday, June 11, 2010

THE FIRST DISSENTER

I suppose someone had to be first, but John was an unlikely choice. Rumor has it that John Bllington left England in 1620 to escape his creditors. That would not have been unusual in a time when debt was a crime. Still, if he was a Catholic, as others rumors indicate, John Billington would have been have driven to abandon the world he knew for the dangers of a distant, unknown shore for what became a basic American trait, religous freedom. What we know as fact, is that of all the voyagers who sailed on board the Mayflower, only forty could have been called "Puritans", or "Pilgrim Fathers". The majority, sixty-one men, women and children, were Anglicans and a few Catholics, who seem to have been dispised by their shipmates.
John Billington was also middle aged, about 40 years old, rather ancient for an adventurer. He brought with him a wife, Eleanor, and their two young sons, John Jr. and Francis. And together their family was beginning a great adventure they were not welcomed upon.
The voyage had been organized by a group who called (and saw) themselves as “The Saints”. And they were not pleased to find the financial investors in their dream, interested only in profit,  had betrayed them, leaving "The Saints" in a minority to “The Strangers”, as they immediatly began calling their new shipmates.
"The Saints" found themselves stuffed aboard a leaky ship, just 90 feet long by barely 24 feet wide, giving them 2,160 square feet of living space (a moderate sized two bedroom house) for 102 passengers and a twenty man crew. Instead of escaping the horrors of a multi-faith nation, "The Saints" found themselves imprisoned with one, dragging it along with them. And they found the burden oppressive.
After two and a half months of living hell on storm tossed seas the Mayflower anchored at the edge of the New World, a sandy spit of land. And it was here that "The Saints" faced with what they called a “mutiny”. Through the myopia of history, we choose to describe it as 'the birth of democracy'." It was unwelcome. You see, "The Strangers" were not being landed where they had been promised, in the established colony of Virginia, but on unexplored and unprepared ground far to the north. And "The Strangers" were suspicious that this had been the intention of "The Saints" all along. And indeed that seems to have been the truth. Just to get "The Strangers" to disembark and to agree to work together in this unknown land "The Saints" were forced to compromise their faith, right on the edge of religous paradise, and sign the Mayflower Compact with "The Strangers", pledging to “…combine ourselves into a civil Body Politic…”
"The Saints" had thus been forced to create a civil government in this new land, and not the religious domain they had intended to establish. And one of the signatures bought by that accursed compromise had been that of John Billington.
As if in punishment for this compromise of their religious purity, only fifty-three souls survived that first winter. Amazingly, in spite of their sinful Godlessness, John Billington’s family of "Strangers" survived intact – including Eleanor, who became one of only five adult women in the entire colony to live to see the spring. Both of John's sons also survived, another insult to the devotion of "The Saints", many of whom had buried children over the bitter winter.  The Billington clan had become a daily reminder that God’s Chosen were not always chosen. More evidence was to follow.
In the spring of 1623, the second full year the colonists had been ashore, pressure from the "Strangers" forced the Governor, William Bradford (a "Saint", of course) to divide all property equally amongst the survivors, one acre per family member, no matter their religous affiliation. And thus the Billington clan received four acres of the best land, “…on the South side of the brook to the Bay wards”. It was yet another reminder of the success of "The Strangers", while so many of "The Saints" had not prospered and had even died. These insults to the faith of "The Saints" would not be forgotten.
Meanwhile, "The Saints" back in England had begun spreading rumors about the failure of the colony, to drive down the value of the colonies' stock shares, making it easier for "Saints" to buy a controling interest in the company. And with each year they sent more "Saints" across the Atlantic, meaning to overwhelm "The Strangers" in Plymouth Colony. By 1624, the colony had grown to over 180 people. But two of the new arrivals, meant to build a Saint's majority, had in fact fed the growing tensions.
The Reverend John Lyford and Mr. John Oldham were both nominally "Saints". In fact Lyford had been sent out as the official priest for "The Saints" in the colony.
But Lyford's willingness to conduct an Anglican baptism for the new child of "Stranger" William Hilton offended "The Saints". These chosen of God saw no reason to tolerate religious tolerance for anyone but themselves. And Governor Bradford became convinced that Lyford and Oldham were both secretly corresponding with the stockholders back in England, contradicting the false rumors the English Saints had been spreading.
Bradford was able to intercept some of those letters, and confront the traitorous "Saints", catching them unprepared at a public hearing. Both Lyford and Oldman were banished from the colony that very night. At the same meeting there was an attempt to also charge John Billington with being a member of the same "conspiracy", but there was little evidence against Billington, and since he was popular, (although it seems unclear how he could have been so, given the negative descriptions of him that survive) "The Saints" were forced to retreat and bide their time, yet again.
The following year, 1626, James I of England died, and Charles I, a militantly devout Catholic, took the throne. The trickle of "Saints", escaping now from real religious oppression in England, bcame a steady flow.  John Billington still had allies in Plymouth, such as John Cannon and William Tench, but the pressures brought on by the constant arrival of new "Saints" drove both those men to leave the colony by 1627.
And in 1629 John Billington's eldest son died of illness. With his death, some of the flame went out of the old man. He was fifty years old now, and weary of the constant political fighting for his families' rightful place in the colony. By January of 1630 there were almost 300 citizens in Plymouth colony, the vast majority of whom were now, finally, "Saints". John Billington had become isolated.
In the late summer of 1630 a man’s body was found in the woods near John Billington’s property. The body was identified in Governor Bradford’s correspondence only as "John New-come-er”. No rational for Billington to have murdered this mysterious man was ever offered on the record. Instead surviving documents allege that the motive was the result of “an old argument between the two men”. But this would seem to have been unlikely, given that the dead man was, by every account, a literal “New-come-er”".
Dispite this glaring omission of motive, a Grand Jury was quickly convened and John Billington was charged with shooting the man in the shoulder with a blunderbuss, thus causing his death. Since a blunderbuss was generally loaded with whatever material was handy, rocks or metal, and was used as a short range (and still highly inaccurate) shotgun, using it as a weapon for an assination would have have been doubtful in the extreme.
But by this time there was little patience left in the colony for reason where the Billingtons were concerned. A trial jury wasted little time in finding John guilty of murder. And yet despite the singularity of this crime and possible punishment - Billington was the first Englishman in the colony charged with murder, and would be the first colonist to be sentenced to death - there is no record of any defense arguments offered on his behalf. "The Saints" had won their war against John Billington, and they would write his history. And yet because there was a lack of any apparent motivation for the crime, Governor Bradford sought the approval for the execution of this "Stranger" from his own fellow "Saints" in the younger, larger and more purely Saintly Massachusetts Bay Colony, centered on Boston. Such approval was instantly supplied.
On September 30, 1630, fifty year old John Billington was hanged according to the methods of the day. He climbed a ladder. The rope was placed around his neck and the noose pulled tight. The ladder was kicked away. And slowly the life was strangled out of him. The drop that quickly broke the neck would not become standard in hanging for another two hundred years. Plymouth Colony was thus finally rid of its most troublesome "Stranger" in a conregation of "Saints". The only even mildly generous epitaph written for John Billington came from the poison pen of Thomas Morton, another man who irritated "The Saints" who surrounded him. “John Billington, that was chocked at Plymouth after he had played the unhappy marksman...was loved by many.” And that is a piece of information not even hinted at in the history written by "The Saints" - that John had been loved by many.
Sixty years later the "Saints" would have to clean house again, this time in the village of Salem, and this time against their fellow "Saints" who were not saintly enough. Fourteen women and five men were hanged. Five others died in prison. All had been charged with being witches. What this re-occurance of justice from "The Saints",  showed was that even before there was religous freedom in America, there was hypocracy. 
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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

TO LIGHT ONE CANDLE

I wonder if you realize how dark the world has been for the last 10,000 years? For most of that time you could burn wood for light, but firewood was not a quickly renewable resource and Emperors and Kings prefered to build ships and thrones out of it, rather than incinerate it. Sure, you could burn olive oil in a lamp, but burning olive oil creates smoke, and it has a limited shelf life, and it is really not very portable. And then some Etruscan genius in the eleventh century B.C. invented a thing you could carry in your pocket until you needed it, and which when you needed it burned very slowly. It was such a great invention that it was given the Sanskrit name “cand” meaning 'to give light'. And whoever that Etruscan Thomas Edison was, I bet he got stinking rich,  because the stuff they usually made candles out of - rancid animal fat - tended to produce a powerful stench when it was heated. It is stunning to realize how much human effort over the next 3,000 years was devoted to inventing the stink-less candle.The guy who finally did it was a Jew who had escaped Seville just ahead of the Spanish inquisition.
Jacob Rodriguez Rivera landed in Newport, Rhode Island in 1748 because eight years earlier the English were so desperate for people willing to settle in America that King George II had rescinded the requirement that colonists pledge their loyalty to him "upon the true faith of a Christian." With the removal of those five little words America was endowed with all the brains, blood and brawn the rest of the world didn’t approve of on religous grounds. That is what made us what we are, which is not a Christian nation, but a multi-religious nation, the most consistantly sucessful nation (over the last 200 years) in the world.
Anyway, Jacob went into business with his brother-in-law, Moses Lopez, who was a candle maker. And while wandering the docks of Newport looking for supplies of animal fat, Jacob stumbled upon the slaughter of a sperm whale. Now, whale blubber had long been boiled down for the oil it contained, but burning whale fat stank even worse than cow or pig fat, and since whales were difficult to find, kill and slaughter, blubber was usually mixed with other fats to reduce the stench and stretch the more expensive stuff. But since the blubber was cheap, Jacob bought a couple of barrels to see what he could make of it, and while he was at it, he also bought some Spermaceti, because nobody knew what to make of that, either.
See, if you poke a hole in a Sperm Whale’s head, you will find gallons of the stuff. Maybe it helps the whales eco-locate their prey, and maybe it helps them dive so deep. No human is really sure. But it’s white and it's sticky and it looks like…well, you know what it looks like. That’s why they are called them Sperm Whales.
Within a few years Jacob developed the following process; each fall when the whaling fleets returned, the Spermaceti was bought from the whalers in 42 gallon barrels. (The barrels were filled with water going out, and after the crew drank the water, the empty barrels were returned, filled with Spermaceti.) The stuff was boiled down and the residue was allowed to congeal over the winter into a spongy, sticky stinky mess. Yuck. Then, in the spring, the congealed stuff was shoveled into bags and pressed until the “winter –strained oil” was squeezed out. This was considered the creme-de-la-crème of whale oil and sold for the highest price.
After more processing and squeezing, Jacob was left with a black cake that could be melted and formed into smokeless, stink-less candles, ready for shipment in the summer. When they burned, they actually smelled sweet and produced almost no smoke. And the light they made was such a pure white light that a “foot-candle”, the amount of light a Spermaceti candle produces at a distance of one foot, remains the standard for measuring pure white light to this very day. Jacob’s only problem was that within a couple of years several competitors had guessed or stolen his process.
So in 1761 Jacob and Moses helped to found the United Company of Spermaceti Chandlers, and pushed for the formation of a cartel, a Spermaceti cartel. Jacob Rivera teamed up with Obediah Brown and Company, primarily a Quaker family business based in Providence, and with other whalers along the coast down to Philadelphia. They were generally labeled 'The Spermaceti Trust’. The rules of The Trust set a top price of six pounds Sterling that its members would pay for a pound of Spermaceti, and set the bottom price its members would sell 100 finished candles at one pound and one shilling.
The hunt for the Sperm Whales was on. From 1770 until the start of the American Revolution, The Spermaceti Trust produced 45,000 barrels of sperm oil annually, compared to just 8,500 barrels a year of oil from all other types of whales.
After the War of 1812 The Trust became unofficially based on the Quaker power center of Nantucket Island, 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, where some 36 chandlers made the precious Spermaceti candles. So much money was made on Nantucket that the Brown family endowed an entire university with the profits. By 1846 the tiny harbor in Natucket supported more than 700 whaling ships and more than 70,000 jobs, full and part time.
Then, just after 11:00 p.m. on July 13 of 1846 a faulty stovepipe led to a fire which was whipped by high winds. By morning it had destroyed 250 buildings, seven chandler factories, tens of thousands of barrels of Spermacti oil stored in warehouses and on the wharves. Three of the town’s four wharves burned completely. Stores and warehouses, blacksmiths’ shops, rope-makers’ shop, and Sail-makers’ workshops were all consumed. Over 800 people were left homeless. The proud town was reduced to begging for “…provisions, clothing, bedding, money…” Help poured in but the golden age of the Spermaceti Trust was over. Nine years later the Trust was completly broken and the industry had been cut by half. By 1875 the island’s population had been reduced by two thirds, down to just 3,200 souls.
The reason for the breaking up of The Trust was not just the Nantucket fire, of course. That didn't help. And the wholesale slaughter of whales meant they were getting more difficult to find, that voyages to hunt the Sperm whales which had had once lasted six months, now took three years. But what really hurt was the discovery of gold in California. A ship owner could make as much in six months carrying miners and mining equipment to California, as he did on one three year voyage in search of whales.
In the forrest of masts of abandoned ships in San Francisco Bay, left adrift when their crews went hunting for gold, at least half were the masts of ex-whaling ships. And The Trust was also doomed by the development of drilling for petroleum, or rock oil, in Canada and Pennsylvania. Krosene lamps replaced Spermaceti lamps and candles because they were far cheaper and almost as odorless.
The new baron of oil would be John D. Rockefeller, who called his company “Standard Oil” to sooth buyers used to variations in oil grades produced from different species of whales. And he supplied his product in the same 42 gallon barrels used to supply whale oil. We still measure oil in terms of those 42 gallon barrels. John D. seemed to be reassuring his customers that nothing had changed in the oil business, except the names of the people who ran The Trust.
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Sunday, June 06, 2010

WHAT HAPPENED TO JUDGE CRATER --MAYBE

I can not prove what happened to Judge Joe Crater on the night of August 6, 1930. I know he had enjoyed a dinner at The Chop House with a chorus girl and a male friend. Afterward he climbed into a taxi and seems to have simply disappeared from the face of the earth. But I have a pretty good theory about what became of him. I think its pretty good, anyway.
This story comes together from three separate sources. The first source is Stephen Ellis, the son of Emil Ellis, one of the lawyers who represented Mrs. Stella Crater in her lawsuits against the insurance companies. The second source is from a letter marked “Not to be opened until after my death”, left behind in the first decade of the 21st century by a 91 year old widow. And the third source is from news stories published in the 1950’s. Each source is independent of the others, and although they would not pass muster in a court of law, in history research they are about as close as we are ever going to get to the truth. And at the center of all three is the infamous prohibition gangster, Legs Diamond.
The real Jack “Legs” Diamond was a thug, a sociopath, and a murderer, who was almost as famous for whom he betrayed as how he died. He got into big time crime working for “the Brain”,  Arnold Rothstein, the man who fixed the 1919 World Series. By 1930, the year that Judge Crater disappeared, Jack’s web of speakeasies in lower Manhattan was under siege from the rapacious Dutch Schultz mob, based in Harlem. There had already been three attempts on Diamond’s life by the Schultz mob. In fact he earned his nickname "Legs" by running to avoid these murder attempts.
Jack needed to maintain control of his power, and that included his control of the courts. And the usual method of controlling judges was to use women, in the case of Judge Crater, a showgirl named Connie Markus.
Connie Markus was one of a "chorus" of such women who worked for Jack Diamond. As part of her job she was an occasional mistress of  “Good Time" Joe Crater. Under instructions from Jack Diamond, it is alleged, Connie asked Judge Crater to reverse on appeal some lower court decisions which had hurt Jack's business interests.
According to the account by Stephen Ellis, it was papers related to those cases that Judge Crater reviewed in his office on August 6, 1930. Those papers had gone into one of the two locked brief cases he  left the office with that afternoon. In the other case had gone the $5,100 in cash he had received by cashing in stocks. The cash was meant as a payoff to Diamond. With the feds and reformers sniffing around, Judge Crater felt he could not overturn the lower court rulings, as Diamond wanted - not without drawing attention and raising suspicions.That evening, according to this version of events, Connie told Diamond of Judge Crater’s decision to reject his instructions and instead, attempt a payoff. But Jack could not afford to lose the cases, not with the Schultz mob sniffing at his heels. Either Connie must have told Diamond about Crater’s plans to have dinner at the Chop House that night, or else he already knew it from Sally Lou Ritz, the woman the Judge was having dinner with. Either way, Diamond decided to increase the pressure on the judge.
According to the letter and other documents left behind after her death by Stella Ferrucci-Good of Queens, New York, when Judge Crater stepped into the cab on West forty-fifth street that night, the driver was a Murder Incorporated "button man" employed by Jack Diamond named Frank Burn.
Just up 45th Street, According to Stella, the cab unexpectedly pulled over and two more men quickly climbed in. One was Charles Burn, a police officer and Frank’s brother. The other was Robert Good, Stella Ferrucci’s husband. Their intent was to scare the the judge, rough him up a little and let him know what would happen to him if he did not play ball with Diamond. But things did not work out that way. Crater thought it was a mugging and immediatly fought to get out of the cab.
The two mobsters fought back, trying to keep Crater in the cab. And at some point in the struggle that insipid smirk was finally wipped off Judge Joe Crater's face - forever. It is after the Judge was killed that the stories separate again. Stephen Ellis, relating the story he heard from his father, claims that the thugs drove Crater’s body to a crematorium in New Jersey, where it was disposed of, and that may be the truth. But I tend to believe the version recounted in Stella Frrucci’s letter, which says that Crater’s body was buried that night at the end of West Eighth Street, under the Coney Island boardwalk.
I believe that version because in 1956, while digging the foundation for the new New York City Aquarium, several human remains where uncovered under the Boardwalk near eighth street. Without DNA technology the bones were unidentifiable.
They were eventually reburied in pine coffins by inmates from Riker’s Island; just a few more of the 2,000 dead buried in the Potters Field on Hart Island each year, in unmarked mass graves; stacked three high and then two across, in rows of 25. To find Judge Joe Crater’s bones and identify them now, if they are there, would be effectively impossible.
Jack “Legs” Diamond would die just a year later, on December 18, 1931. And this time the assassins were taking no chances. Jack was shot three times just behind his left ear. The gun barrel was pressed so close the blasts scorched his scalp. Jack's direct connection to Judge Crater, the chorus girl Connie Markus, would end her days in the mental ward of Bellvue Hospital, catatonic from a drug overdose.
That same year, 1931, the homocidal cop, Charles Burn, found a new job, as the body guard for a thug nicknamed “Kid Twist”: real name, Abe Reles (above).
Ten years later, in 1941, Reles would become famous as “The canary who could sing but could not fly.” After testifying against another member of "Murder Incorporated", Kid Twist took a flyer out of a sixth floor window of the "Half Moon Hotel" on Coney Island, where police were supposedly guarding him.
And one of the cops on duty at the Half Moon that night was Officer Charles Burn.
In 1939 Stella Crater remarried, to Mr.Karl Kunz. They took their honeymoon cruise on the French cruiser “Normandie”. Just two years later that ship burned at the New York docks as it was being refitted for war duty. Stella’s marriage did not last much longer the cruise liner. In 1961 Stella Crater finally wrote a book about Joe’s disappearance, and about the man she now realized she had never really known. She titled book, “The Empty Robe”.
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