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Friday, July 23, 2010


I have stumbled upon a fascinating tale which begins before dawn on March 27, 2009, in the tiny village of Stokestown, County Roscommon, in Ireland’s western midlands. At about 4 A.M., while the honest world slept, thirty-five year old Anthony Dowling, a father of three, used his shoulder to crack open the back door of Sheehan’s Pharmacy. He then stood lookout while twenty-nine year old Robert Dempsey ransacked the establishment. They took some drugs and cosmetics, and a small safe, which they loaded into their van before driving the two hours back to Dublin.
During the drive, the duo discovered their efforts with the safe had earned them some family papers, a few photographs and an envelope, marked “1947”, which they never bothered to open. Disgusted, they dumped the safe into a canal and its contents were tossed into a trash bin in front of apartments on Reuben Street in Dublin. The thieves then split up, returning to their beds before the sun shed light on their sins. But what the two miscreants did not know, was that their crime had now tied them to six thousand years of similar human cupidity.
Humans walked into Ireland across the land bridge from Wales about 4,000 B.C.. Like Greenland, the ancient name of “Eire” was a sales pitch. In Gaelic it means “land of plenty”. Six thousand years ago, as the glaciers retreated back to Scotland from whence they had come, the melting ice left Ireland dotted with lakes, much as upper Wisconsin is today. These lakes became choked with decaying leaves, which turned the waters acidic and consumed the oxygen. Without oxygen new vegetation falling into the lakes could not decompose, and began to pile up until the lakes became bogs which became fields. The compressed vegetation became peat.
One of those early Irishmen is known to history only as Clonycavan Man. He about five feet two inches tall, and favored a spiked “Mohawk “hair style, accentuated with a thick gel imported from France. And one soft summer day this twenty-something was waylaid in a peat bog by an enemy armed with an axe. The first blow split the victim’s skull wide open. The second, probably delivered as he fell, sliced open his face, from his nose to just under his right eye. The passions behind this assault have long since cooled, but they remain common today, in Ireland and everywhere humans breed,. as shall be proven shortly.
The bogs of Europe are pockmarked with similar corpses, some sacrifices to forgotten gods, and a few, like Clonycaven man, crime victims. And all that remains of their humanity is a tannin stained body, as proof of passion spent and left undigested, until, usually, a farmer harvesting the peat for fuel, uncovers the crime scene.
In March of 1945, a farmer named Hurbert Lannon, of the village of Fourmilehouse, in County Rosscommon, struck metal while harvesting peat from his bog at Coggalbeg. He did not think much of the three pieces of metal he had uncovered. But, being a practical man Mr. Lannon held onto them, and on March 22, 1947, probably to pay a bill, he handed them over to the new pharmacist, Patrick Sheehan, who had just moved to the village of Stokestown, a mile and a half away.
Patrick Sheehan had a romantic youth. He had won a few road rallies and drove a red Triumph. His eldest daughter described him as “very into education”. He dragged his wife and seven daughters down to the local dump on the night of October 4th, 1957 to watch the tiny light that was Sputnik race across the night sky. In 1965, Patrick showed his eldest daughter Sunniva, the pieces of jewelry from the safe. He described them to her as a “collar and two buttons”. “It came out of the bog” he told her. Sunniva didn’t find the story very interesting. “It didn't mean a whole lot to me -- it was a flat piece of gold and I didn't think anything of it. It wasn't something you could wear or make use of,” The jewelry went back into the safe and Sunniva forgot all about it.
Patrick (Paddy) Sheehan died of cancer in the late nineteen sixties. “The business was nearly non-existent because he had been in bad health,” related Sunniva. Luckily she had graduated with a 3 year bachelor’s degree, which was all that was needed at the time in England to dispense medication. So she took over her father’s shop. “I had a mother to support and six sisters younger than me. So it was hard keeping things together, never mind thinking about a gold necklace in the safe.” Then, forty years later, came the robbery.
Sunniva Sheehan called in the Gardia, the “Guardians of Ireland” as the police are titled, to report the robbery and list the stolen items. The Gardia asked the locals, who remembered two strangers in a red van who had been acting suspiciously. The Gadia even went so far as to check the survalence video from a nearby highway toll booth. That video produced a photo of red van and a license plate number. This led them to the master crimminals Mr. Dempsy and Mr. Dowling, back in Dublin. Meanwhile, one of Sunniva's sisters reminded her about the gold from the safe. So she called and added them to the list of stolen items. And it was at this point that serendipity entered the story.
When Sunniva had added the gold to her list of items lost, one of the police officers bothered to call the National Museum in Dublin, and describe the jewelry, on the off chance it might be valuable. The museum immediatly dispatched two curators to Stokestown, to show Sunniva some photos. What she identified was a photo of a lunnula.
It is Latin for “little moon”, and is applied to any number of crescent shapes, from the white arc at the base of your thumb nail, to the gold necklace worn by Bronze Age kings of Ireland. There are only 21 similar gold necklaces known to have survived over the last 4,000 years, and they were all the work of a few bronze age master artists in Ireland. And when the police explained to Robert Dempsey, now in police custody, what he had thrown away, he was motivated to identify the trash bins on Reuben Street.
The police collected all the bins just before they were emptied. In the parking lot of a police station Sergeant John Costello waded through tons of garbage and trash to recover the lunnula and the two gold pins. And that was the final journey of the four thousand year old collection of gold, now called the “Coggalbeg hoard”, from the hands of an ancient artist, to the modern day Dublin National Museum of Ireland.
All of which leaves a few unanswered questions. How did a King’s jewelry come to be lying, abandoned in a bog? It may be it was not abandoned. It may be that Hurbert Lannon also found a body in the bog, but decided not to deal with the attention such a discovery would have brought him. The manner in which he disposed of the gold certainly hints at a man protective of his privacy. And it may be that the lunnula and pins were the booty of a Bronze Age robbery, not unlike the twenty-first century one that brought them to the public attention. As for Mr. Lannon, he died three weeks before the break in at the Sheehan Pharmacy, at the age of 93.
Anthony Dowling pleaded guilty to breaking and entering, and Robert Dempsey pleaded guilty to receiving stolen goods. They both received suspended sentences. Anthony Dowling was even free to visit the Museum and view the booty he had thrown away. But it seems the booty was not yet finished with Anthony Dowling.
The press attention caused by the gold threw a light on Mr. Dowling, when he probably would have preferred to remain in the shadows. The light revealed that this was not his first conviction. It was in fact his 33rd. And it was not even his first suspended sentence.
On January 13, 2008, Anthony was involved in a serious altercation in the Deputy Mayor’s Pub, in Dublin. He and a friend, Charlie Russell, attacked one Peter Rogers, because they thought Roger had insulted Russell’s mother-in-law. In fact he had not.
But, drunk and bent on revenge, Anthony, armed with a claw hammer, and Charlie, who was carrying a samurai sword, assaulted Mr. Rogers without warning, and severed Mr. Rogers’ left hand. Mr. Rogers, who was also drunk and was unaware of his injuries, punched Charlie Russell in the face with his bloody stump. Twelve hours of surgery were able to reattach the hand, but Mr. Rogers, who had been a carpenter, will never regain its full use.
Charlie Russell received eight years (not suspended) for his part in the attack. And as was said, Anthony Dowling’s sentence was suspended. However,...
....the attendant publicity of this latest theft and the publicity about the pub assault, has made Anthony Dowling unlikely to receive another suspended sentence, as he is now the most famous criminal in Irish history, at least since the murderer of Clonycavan Man. The Irish government has now even banned the sale or ownership of samuri swords.
Meanwhile, Mary Hanafin, Irish Cultural Minister, has called the “Coggalbeg Hoard”  an “an amazing find…because it is Irish and part of who we are.” Yes, Minister, and a part of who we all are.
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Wednesday, July 21, 2010


I have been contemplating of late the passing of Saxon England. To tell you the truth, I don't miss it that much. After the Saxons cashed in their chips officially, on the battlefield at Hastings in 1066, I suspect you would have have heard a collective sigh of relief which arose across the length and breadth of England.
Consider Edward, the penultimate Saxon King of England. They called him “the Confessor” but that was more of a twelfth century public relations gambit than an actual description of the real ninth century King. Edward was a pretty ruthless guy. He had his own mother arrested on trumped up charges of adultery just so he could seize her property, if that gives you an idea of his actual family values.
In 1045 Edward married Edith Godwin. He was about forty-five years old at the time and Edith was all of sixteen. The only thing they had in common was that Edith’s father, Leofric Godwin, the powerful Earl of Wessex, had kidnapped Edward’s favorite half brother, Alfred, and handed him over to his enemies. Those not very nice people had blinded Alfred, and he later died from his wounds. As a result Edward was on record as saying that the only way he would forgive the Godwins is if they brought Alfred back from the dead. So I suspect that Edward’s marriage to Edith Godwin was not exactly a love match.
Leofric owned most of southern England and his wife was Lady Godiva of naked horse riding fame. Did the Lady really ride bare-back through the village of Coventry just to lower the tax burden on the felons, meaning the free people living in the village? I doubt it. In the first place, it would chafe. And, forgiving taxes  sure doesn't sound like something Leofric would have gone along with. Although...I am willing to believe the part of the legend about the one curious man named Tom who was struck blind because he just had to take a peek at Lady Cadiva's canter. That made him the original "Peeping Tom".
In addition to Edith, Leofric and Godiva Godwin had produced five sons, who were, in descending order of seniority and accending order of brains, Sweyn, Harold, Tostig, Gyrth and Leofwine. And by all accounts they were all trouble. As an example, in 1046 Sweyn was accused of seducing the Abbess of the monastery of Leominster.
The modern translation of the Saxon term for “seduction” is more of a “rape”, and King Edward had Sweyn banished for that crime. It was a year before Leofric could bribe Edward into letting the little monster come home again. But, being a spoiled brat Sweyn forgot that daddy had rescued him and remembered only how long it had taken for daddy to rescue him. In the meantime Edward became determined to get rid of the whole Godwin clan.
In 1051 some of Edward’s French relatives over stayed their welcome in Dover, and the townsfolk staged a riot to drive the freeloaders out of town. Of course it is likely that Edward’s relatives had intended to inspire just such a response, because Edward immediately ordered Leofric to punish the citizens Dover for insulting his family. See, since Dover paid rent to Leofric, he would just be punishing himself. So Leofric refused. And that gave Edward the excuse he needed. He ordered Leofric and the entire Godwin family save one banished from England, and Edward shipped poor Edith off to a nunnery.
In this dispute, one, the youngest son, Leofwine Godwin, had sided with Edward. It was the “smart” play for Leofwine since, as the youngest son, he was never going to get rich living off his older brothers’ leavings. Meanwhile the banished Leofric and his loyal sons hung out in Ireland and France for a year, gathering their strength.
And when they were ready, the Godwins came home, which is another way of saying they re-invaded England and forced Edward to return all of their seized lands and let poor Edith out of the monastery. And then, of course, Leofric forced his own youngest son, Leofwine, into exile in Scandinavia; after all, turnabout is fair play. And they were all Saxons, which is to say they were a couple of generations removed from being Vikings.
Leofric Godwin died in 1055, not long after the death of his eldest son Sweyn, cause unknown in either case. Suffice it to say that I'll bet Edward shed not a tear at their funerals. But Harold may have. Harold was now the head of the Godwin family, which made his little brother Tostig, his problem.
Tostig was running Northumbria and had doubled the taxes while boozing it up and stealing from the local gentry. In 1065, while Totsig was out of town, the noblemen of York, Lincoln and Nottingham all rose up and slaughtered Tostig’s sycophants. The rebels then marched on Oxford, the local government center. King Edward saw no reason he should be paying to straighten out another of the Goodwin brood, and frankly, neither did Harold. So Harold simply turned Northumbria over to the rebel leader, Morkere.
That left Totsig out of a job, and very unhappy with his elder brother. Tostig sailed for Scandinavia and a reunion with his younger brother, Leofwine.
Near the end of 1065 Edward the Confessor fell into a coma and finally died on January 5th, 1066. Harold, never one to waste time, was crowned King, as Harold II, the very next day, January 6th. Harold was the first king ever crowned in Westminster Abby.
And poor Edith, the daughter of Lady Godiva, the girl who had been a queen at 16, a divorcee and a nun at 24, and a queen again at 25, was now, at the advanced old age of 26, a widow and a nun again. Her loving brother Harold shipped her off to a brand new abbey at Winchester, where she died in December of 1075, at the age of 36. The Saxons were very hard on their women.
They were almost as hard on their kings. The new King Harold was facing two immediate challenges. From Normandy there was Edward’s cousin William, who claimed that Harold, while hiding out in France, had promised him the throne of England.
And on September 8th, 1066, a Viking army under the King of Norway, landed at the mouth of the river Tyne. With the Vikings were the Godwin brothers, Tostig and Leofwine. Who was it who said that family ties were the best of ties, the worst of ties? I think it was me.
Harold immediately marched his an north, moving so quickly that on September 25th, 1066 he caught the Vikings without their armor on, at Stamford Bridge, just north of the town of York. According to legend, Harold met Tostig before the battle and offered him a chance to change sides - again. Tostig asked what Harold could offer the Vikings if they would peacefully go home. Harold replied that he could offer each of them six feet of English soil, or more if they were taller. Making peace and saving lives does not seemed to have interested the Godwins very much.
Harold’s army than fell on the Vikings and almost wiped them out. Amongst the piles of dead were both Tostig and Leofwine. And it does not seem that Harold felt any sorrow that so little of the his family was left. It was a great victory, spoiled only when word arrived that William and his Norman army had landed on English soil on September 27th, 1066, far to the south.
Harold now marched his exhausted men 240 miles south to meet William’s army at Hastings on October 14th, 1066. There, nine hours of more slaughter reduced the vaunted Godwin family to just Edith, sewing away in her nunnery.
William the Norman would be remembered as the “Conqueror”, and Harold II the Saxon King, as the “Conquered”. But really, history must have been glad to see the back side of such a bloodthirsty pack of cannibals as the Godwins, the last ruling Saxons of England. With family like that, you don't need enemies.
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Sunday, July 18, 2010


I think it was no coincidence that Herman Melville’s last novel, “The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade”, was published on April Fools Day, 1857. And in that strange and odd little book is one of the most troubling and depressing lines ever written by an American; “…in new countries, where the wolves are killed off, the foxes increase.” It is an idea which can give you nightmares if you think about it too much.
Anthony De Angelis had little physical resemblance to either a wolf or a fox. Truly dangerous humans have that unpleasant ability to not look dangerous, nor to think themselves as such. Norman C. Miller noted that “Under (Anthony’s) folksy exterior…lie the vast self-confidence and the fierce ambition of a Caesar.” And one time analyst for CNBC Ron Insana described Anthony in his book “The Message of the Markets”, “As his bank account grew fatter, (Anthony) grew too - to a remarkable 240 pounds that hung heavily on his 5'5" frame.” All his life Anthony had a ravenous appetite. And at last, he was getting his fill.
For five years Anthony deceived the inspectors from American Express Warehousing with a simple slight of hand to produce fraudulent inventories for his Constable Hook tank farm. He had then used the phony receipts as collateral for advances from the brokerage houses of Ira Haupt and Williston and Beane for purchases of vegetable and fish oil Futures. That drove the value of his invatories up, which drove the price of the Futures up again. But somehow Anthony was always behind the curve. He even began to claim product in some 30 tanks on Constable Hook which he did not own, some of which actually held fuel oil and some of which did not even exist.
When the inspectors asked to see the new tanks, Anthony’s boys drove them around Constable Hook until they were confused enough to verify tanks they had already inspected. It was the old shell game played out on an industrial scale. Allied eventually claimed to have more salad oil stored at Constable Hook than existed in the entire United States; but Anthony was still running to catch up.
In early November of 1963 Anthony found himself facing a $120 million bill for an actual delivery of 1.2 billion pounds of real soy bean oil, which he had no place to store. Not that it mattered, because he didn’t have the cash to pay for the delivery, and could not raise it. And when Anthony explained this problem to the employees of Ira Haupt they immediately did two things.
First they got on the phone and began desperately trying to find someone to buy 1.2 billion pounds of oil. They failed. And secondly they took a hard look at Allied’s accounts, and what they saw did not make them happy. Their firm was on the hook for $18.6 million in Futures contracts that Anthony De Angelis could not meet. Anthony was bankrupt. And if he was out of business so was Haupt, and so was Williston and Beane, and maybe so was American Express.
At last the brokerage houses sent their own inspectors out to Constable Hook. They had AMEX receipts for $45.6 million of vegetable oil which were supposedly stored there. They climbed atop the tanks themselves, dropped their own tape measures into the tanks themselves, and read the tape themselves. What they found was about $1 million of oil.
On November 19, 1963 Anthony De Angelis filed for bankruptcy, but when he was unable to come up with a $20,000 bond for court costs, the judge denied Allied Crude Vegetable Oil Refining Corporation even the protection of Chapter 11. And there was no bail out for Anthony. He was not an insider, and speaking corporately, he was not too big to fail. The entire company and all assets were quickly sold at public auction for $3.5 million. Authorities put the total Anthony still owed at $175 million.
Some 51 companies had made loans to Anthony or one of his companies, for oil which did not exist. Sixteen companies were forced into bankruptcy. J.R. Williston barely survived. Ira Haupt did not. American Express survived only because of their profitable credit card business, and because an Oklahoma stock fund manager bought 5% of the company for just $20 million. It was a bargain price, even in 1963. But the influx of that $20 million saved American Express. And the profits from this deal made Warren Buffet his first million dollars, and established his reputation as a smart investor.
The entire stock market was saved from a disaster caused by Anthony's scam because the assassination of President John Kennedy gave the NYSE an excuse to close early that Friday afternoon, November 22, 1963. All over Wall Street the captains of industry breathed a sigh of relief and then tried to figure out how to avoid a similar disaster next time they fell for a confidence man. And they would fall. Because that is human nature, and you can't argue with mother nature.
On June 4, 1965 a judge gave Anthony a choice; tell the F.B.I. what became of all the money or serve ten years in prison for four counts of fraud and conspiracy. Anthony revealed a $500,000 Swiss bank account, but he also took the Fifth Amendment 58 times. He was sentenced to ten years in Federal Prison at Lewisburg, Pa.
In 1975 Congress finally created the Securities Investor Protection Corporation, another one of those government/private corporations Wall Street is convinced are misbegotten. It gave investors in the stock market the same protections available for banking customers for their savings or checking accounts. No investor lost another dime in a Wall Street brokerage house failure...until the geniuses of finance decided again that they were too smart to fall for a confidence man, and tore down the regulatory walls in the 1990’s.
In July of 1972 Anthony De Angelis was released from Lewisburg. He had lost 170 pounds while in jail and credited prison with saving his life because of it. But the Anthony who came out of jail was still looking to wheel and deal. It was his nature.
Almost immediately Anthony got involved in a scam involving the Ozark County Cattle Company of St. Joseph, Missouri. Anthony complained that he preferred jail. “There you had peace. It was tranquil. You come outside and try to make a living and all the big guys try to shoot you down.” Anthony was arrested and sent back to jail.
He was not heard from again until 1992 when the following story ran on the Associated Press wire: “Rochester, New York. Anthony De Angelis, the infamous commodities swindler of the 1960s, was sentenced to 21 months in prison…Federal judge Michael Telesca also fined the 78 year old Mr. De Angelis and sentenced him to three years probation, during which he is banned from the food processing industry….(and) must make restitution to Maple Leaf Foods (after he had used a forged check to purchase $1.1 million worth of meat from them)…Based on his criminal history the judge said Mr. De Angelis uses his wit, charm and business ability to manipulate situations that suit him best. Although he has been a great teacher while incarcerated…he has been a very poor pupil in learning to change his ways…”.
Said Anthony, after the collapse of his Salad Oil empire in 1963, “It's not beyond the realm of possibility for me to make up these losses. If given the opportunity, I could make a million or five million dollars a year, simple as anything."
“He had neither trunk, valise, carpet-bag, nor parcel. No porter followed him. He was unaccompanied by friends. From the shrugged shoulders, titters, whispers, wonderings of the crowd, it was plain that he was, in the extremest sense of the word, a stranger.”
“The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade” Herman Melville. 1857
Ah, Herman, you got that wrong. A good confidence man is often popular. At one extreme he is a succesful captain of Wall Street. And they are always popular, an example to be emulated, whose every word is cherised and recorded for posterity. Only at the other extreme are they friendless. Capitalism is a manic expression of humanity and fraud is at its core; always has been and always will be.
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