JUNE 2020

JUNE   2020
He Has Dragged Us Back Forty Years.


Saturday, October 09, 2010

1920 - STICK 'EM UP!

I would say that spring was most welcomed in New England in 1920. There had been a bitter cold spell at the end of January. On Saturday the 31st the day began at 8 degrees below zero, and the next morning, Sunday, February 1st, started barely warmer, at 7 below zero; those two record lows have stood for almost a century. April, when it finally came that year, must have been felt like hope reborn.
On Thursday, April 15, 1920, a sunny spring day, James Bostock, was trapped inside, repairing machinery at the two Slater and Morrill shoe factories in South Braintree, about 12 miles south of Boston.
The larger factory was on Railroad Avenue,  on the hill above the railroad station, with a smaller facility and the management offices on Washington Avenue, a quarter mile across the tracks and down hill from there. Intersecting Washington was Pearl Street, along which stood the shoe factory of Rich and Hutchins, where James also occasionally did repair work. Just after three o’clock, James left the main Slater and Morrill factory, intending to catch the 3:15 trolley for his home in Brockton. He passed two men, lounging against a fence, but paid them no attention.
Just after he crossed onto Pearl Street, James met an old friend, Frederick Parmenter (above), who was the payroll officer for Slater, and his guard, Alessandro Berardelli. They were coming up Washington Street, each man carrying a box resembling a safety deposit box, containing the cash filled payroll envelopes for the employees at the upper factory. Parmenter and Bostock spoke for a moment about a pulley that needed repair at the upper factory, and then, after exchanging pleasantries, James continued on his way. He had just passed Lewis Wade, who was refueling Mr. Slater’s car, parked outside the management offices, when he heard gun shots.
James Bostock walked quickly back up the street. He saw Beradelli, the guard, in the street, on his knees, with his right arm “draped” over his head, as if fending off blows. Five feet away, on the sidewalk, stood a man holding a pistol. James watched, stunned while he fired at the guard four or five times. Beradelli was hit in the chest and arm. In shock, Bostock realized that Parmenter was across the street, running toward the Rice and Hutchins factory. From somewhere James heard more shots, and Parmenter fell. At that point Bostock realized that the shooter had turned on him, and James began to run away, toward the cover of a water tank along the railroad tracks. As he did, he heard a car accelerating up the street.
Lewis Wade, a 16 year employee of Slater and Morrill, had seen the man who shot Parmenter, crouching not five feet from the retreating company paymaster. Wade also saw the car race up Pearl Street and screech to a halt. A pale faced man jumped from the running board. The two shooters grabbed the cash boxes, and jumped into the car. It sped away, with the pale-faced man back on the running board, firing a shotgun to discourage witnesses getting too close. Wade ran into the company offices to call the police.
The fleeing robbers passed James Bostock, so closely that he could have touched the spokes on the wheels. The entire robbery had taken less than a minute. Wade came back to see if he could help either victim. Berardelli was still breathing, but blood was bubbling from his mouth. He seemed to be clearly dieing. Wade and Bostock helped other witnesses to carry Parmenter into a house across the street. Then Wade returned to hold Berardelli in his arms while the guard bled to death.
Alessandro Berardelli died right there, leaving behind a wife, Sara, and two children. Frederick Parmenter died the next day, Friday April 16, 1920, at Quincy Hospital. He left behind his wife Hattie, and a son, age 11, and a daughter, age 6. The robbers had murdered two men for $15,773.51 in cash.
A few hours after Frederick Parmenter died, inspector O.L. Root, from J.Edgar Hoover’s Bureau of Inspection, and Police officer Frank LeBaron entered a two story shack in a seedy section of Braintree. It was occupied by a number of Italian immigrants, and was known locally as the Puffer Place. The officers were looking for Ferruccio Coiacci, who had been scheduled to be deported on the 15th for labor organizing activities at the L.Q. White shoe company in Bridgewater. (Coiacci had recently been fired from Slater and Morrill for the same reasons.) Coiacci had called the immigration service on the morning of the 15th, to say he would be delayed in leaving the country because his wife was ill.
The two officers found Coiacci at the kitchen table, talking with his wife, who appeared to be in good health. The officers told Coiacci that his deportation could be delayed, but Coiacci now insisted on leaving with the officers, saying goodbye to his sobbing wife and children at the shack's front door.
On Saturday, April 17th , the stolen Buick used in the South Braintree robbery was found two miles from the shack where Coiacci had been detained the night before. The closeness of that car to the "Puffer Place"  caused the Braintree Police Chief to become curious, But he just missed being able to ask Coiacci, because he was deported back to Italy on April 18th.
On a hunch, on Tuesday, April 20th, the Chief and another officer in plain clothes returned to the shack, where they were met by Mario Boda. Boda said he rented a room in the shack for himself, and the shed out back for his car. He even showed the officers the empty interior of the shed, explaining that his car was in the Elm Street Garage for repair. But the officers noticed that there were two different tire tracks in the mud leading into the shed. One set would be Boda's car, but could the other track have been made by the Braintree getaway car?
Futher, it occurred to the police that there might be a connection between the Braintree robbery and a December 24th,  1919 botched robbery of the payroll at the L.Q. White company in Bridgewater. The thieves in that case had been armed with pistols and covered their retreat with a shotgun, just as at the Braintree robbery. Ciacci had worked at both places. But the next time the police checked the Puffer Place, it was empty. All of the immigrants had vanished, even Ciacci's wife and children. The police asked the owner of the Elm Street garage, Simon Johnson, to call if anyone attempted to pick up Boda’s car. It was the last thin lead they had. Following it would lead the entire nation down a very unhappy road.
- 30 -

Thursday, October 07, 2010


I blame the Democrats for what happened to James Gillespie Blaine (above). The donkeys were supposed to be doing their nominal job of keeping Republicans honest, but because the Democrats jumped the ideology shark and backed the South in the run up to the Civil War, there weren’t a lot of them around when James was first elected to congress in 1862 as a Republican. Nor was it James’s fault that his brother-in-law, Eben C. Stanwood, was so greedy. There was a lot of money floating around Washington during the civil war, the kind of money even a brother-in-law could get his hands on, and James Blaine would have been a saint if he hadn’t been tempted by the offer on the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad. Of course Blaine didn’t have to jump in quite so enthusiastically…
The Little Rock Railroad was supposed to have been completed before the civil war broke out, but it went bankrupt. And that was when Boston speculator Josiah Fisher convinced a group of investors (including the brother-in-law Eben) to buy up the worthless stock. It was Eben - and another crooked “investor” named Joshua Caldwell - who dangled fat sales commission checks in front of the new Congressman James Blaine. And from the second he heard about the idea Blaine wanted in. In fact, Blaine wrote to Fisher on the 10th of September 1867, in a letter marked “Strictly Private”, “…my position will enable me to render you services of vital importance and value….I do not feel I shall be a dead head....Are you not willing to aid me (elsewhere) where you can do so with profit to yourself at the same time?” Fisher did not reply to this crude solicitation, so evidently Blaine paid him a visit in person. We know about the agreement they reached because Blaine was helpful enough to lay out the details in a second letter he wrote to Fisher, which he helpfully marked “Burn after Reading.”
By September of 1869 Blaine had sold over $130,000 in Little Rock railroad bonds (worth about $2 million today), mostly to other railroad barons. And he had been paid very handsome commissions for those sales. By then passengers could board the train in Little Rock. However they were required to cover the last fifty miles to Fort Smith in a stagecoach, a 3 ½ hour living hell of dust, mud and potholes. Not surprisingly, the railroad went bankrupt yet again. But despite this Blaine was still demanding that he be “compensated” for having done the favor for the bankrupt business venture. This was in addition to the commission checks he had cashed long ago. Fisher was reluctant to treat Blaine kindly, until one of the other robber barons reminded Fisher, “…it is important that he should be conciliated…However unreasonable in his demand he may appear to you…he should in some manner be appeased.” So Speaker Blaine was “appeased” with loans he was not expected to repay. But Banker Fisher was not likely to forget he had been made to feel like one of the suckers of his own scam.
After serving three profitable terms as Speaker, James Blaine stepped down so he could concentrate on a run for the White House. As the campaign season of 1876 approached, he was a serious possibility. However, things had changed in Washington by then. The Democrats were back, and had captured control of the House of Representatives. That gave them the power of subpoena, and they used it to subpoena a certain Mr. James Mulligan, who was a Boston bookkeeper in the employ of Banker Josiah Fisher. Remember him?
It seems that Mr. Mulligan had never burned an incriminating letter in his life. On May 31st , 1876 under the gentle guidance of Judiciary Committee Chairman, Democrat Proctor Knott (I love that name!), Mr. Mulligan casually admitted that he had in his possession “certain letters written by Rep. Blaine to Mr. Fisher”. Given the high sign by Blaine, the senior Republican on the committee immediately moved to adjourn for the day. That night Rep. Blaine appeared at Mr. Mulligan’s door at the Riggs House hotel, and proceeded to chase Mulligan all over his room, begging and whining and reminding Mulligan what disgrace would mean to Blaine's children. Finally, in the spirit of fairness and embarrassment Mulligan allowed the Congressman to read the letters. But once he had his hands on them Blaine announced that since they were “his” letters he was going to keep them, and left with the letters safely in his own pocket.
On the floor of Congress the next day the Democrats demanded that Blaine hand the letters back over. Finally, on June fifth, James Blaine rose to speak in front of packed House galleries. He thundered, “I have defied the power of the House to compel me to produce these letters…but, sir,…I am not afraid to show the letters. Thank God Almighty, I am not afraid to show them.” As proof of his willingness, he showed the letters. He waved them over his head. “These are they…and with some sense of humiliation,…with a sense of outrage which I think any man in my position would feel, I invite the confidence of 44 million of my countrymen while I read those letters from this desk.” And so he did, with commentary and asides in his own defense. The Republicans were persuaded, but the Democrats were not.
Having read the letters himself Chairman Knott knew that Blaine had avoided reading certain incriminating sections of the letters, and he rose to challenge Blaine’s version. And that was when James Blaine pulled the rabbit out of his hat. He quietly asked Knott if the committee had received a transatlantic cable from Joshua Caldwell (remember him??), supporting Blaine’s version of events. In fact Caldwell had sent such a cable. But Caldwell was a well known liar, and nobody in their right mind would believe anything he said - certainly Proctor didn't. Still, that was not the question. Rep. Blaine stomped right up to Proctor’s desk and accused him, nose to nose, of suppressing the Caldwell cable. Blushing, Proctor was forced to stammer that indeed they had received such a cable. The galleries erupted in thunderous applause for Blaine.
Chairman Proctor Knott himself described it as “…one of the most extraordinary exhibitions of histrionic skill, one of the most consummate pieces of acting that ever occurred upon any stage on earth.” Blaine had so completely turned the tables on the Democrats that nobody except them seemed to notice that he had not, in fact, denied the basic allegations of bribery in the letters.
Still, the effort had extracted a toll on Congressman Blaine. That Sunday he collapsed on the front steps of his church, and passed out. He was bedridden for several weeks and the committee investigation faded until it simply evaporated. But James G. Blaine's dreams of the White House had to be put off for the time being. Of course, being one of the biggest egomaniacs of his age, he never said never. And come 1884 he would try for the White House yet again. Which is when those letters would resurface.

- 30 -

Wednesday, October 06, 2010


I bet the hero of this story was not Frederick Wells (above). He is the man credited with finding the legendary jewel, but it seems very unlikely to me that in the South Africa of 1905 a white man would have been at the dig’s face, where the physical labor was being done, and where, in fact, the huge crystal was found. Still, the legend has it that Frederick spotted the rock embedded in the wall just above his head, reached up and pried what he first thought was glass out of the stone with his pen knife. And if that seems as unlikely to you as it does to me, we should both remember that everything about this particular artifact is unlikely.
The nursery where this carbon crystal grew was an odd place. First, the surface above it had to have been stable for 1 to 3 billion years – maybe three fourths of the age of our planet. And for all of that time 90 to 120 miles below this stable surface the temperature had to be a constant 1,000 degrees centigrade and the pressure about 653,000 pounds per square inch. The longer a carbon crystal remains under that pressure and temperature the larger the crystal might grow and this one grew to one and a half pounds. There are only a few spots in the earth where the temperature and pressure has remained consistent for so long; beneath the Canadian Shield, beneath Siberia, beneath the center of the Indian subcontinent, beneath northwest Australia, and beneath South Africa.
The heat allows the molecular bonds of carbon atoms to become plastic, but does not break them down completely, while the immense pressure squeezes them into an eight side crystalline shape. Over eons such carbon crystals grow slowly and they must be fairly common in these regions of the mantle. But then something unlikely happens. The earth burps.
If one of these carbon crystals rises to the surface slowly, over decades or even years, the atoms binding its carbon molecules together return to their fail safe state, which is graphite – pencil lead. For carbon to remain a crystal, it must reach the surface in a burst, over no more than a few hours. To travel from the nursery to the surface, then, the stone must reach speeds of several hundred miles an hour. Such a speed can only be reached if the capping pressure is suddenly punctured through by a narrow fissure, at which point the temperature and pressure produces a massive volcanic explosion at the surface. For that to happen is unlikely. But over a billion years unlikely becomes inevitable.
The first European who “owned” the surface above this jewel was a Dutch farmer named Cornelis Minnaar. But this was not Holland. It was the southern part of Africa, north of the River Valaal, 25 miles east of the city of Pretoria (Tshwane). The Boers, as these Dutch transplants called them selves, had made the trek to this region to avoid the British, who had stolen their colony. In 1861 Cornelis sold a section of his land to his brother, Roelof , who in 1896, sold an even smaller part to Willem Prinsloo (above) who was just starting a family. The sale price was 570 English pounds, and it was William who owned the land when another Dutchman named Fabricus arrived looking for buried treasure.
Being experienced in this sort of thing, Fabricus first inquired as to where the Minnarrs and Prinsloo households had dug their “sanitary pits”. This was a euphemism for the holes used to bury the products of your outhouse, politely known as “night soil”. Since to date nothing unusual had been found, Fabricus assumed he would have to look elsewhere. Once he had located some “virgin dirt”, he scrapped away the thin red soil, and then hacked his way through ten feet of yellow limestone gravel, the bi-product of primordial coral reefs, before reaching a blue slate gravel peppered with tiny red garnets, a rock called Kimberlite. Fabricus had struck pay dirt
Fabricius was working for an Englishman named Henry Ward, who had an option so search on Prisloo’s land. But Ward didn’t have the money to make the buy, and besides Prisloo was not interested in selling at the moment, since it looked like war was about to break out between the Boers and the English. Which it did. By the time the war was finally settled in 1904 – The British won – Ward had sold out to Thomas Major Cullinan (above), and Willem Prinsloo was dead. So Cullinan made an offer to Wlliam’s widow, Maria Prisloo. Broke and defeated, she sold the farm for 52,000 pounds. Not a bad profit.
Cullinan and partners named their new venture The Premier Mine. Production started at the end of April 1903, and in a year 2,000 people, mostly natives, were blasting, chopping, digging and hauling blue Kimberlite out of the open pit. They were looking for diamonds.
Most diamond mines start out as open pits. A Kimberlite Pipe is famously “carrot shaped”, wide at the top, narrow towards the bottom. And after less than a year of digging, on January 25th, 1905, this new mine is credited with producing the largest diamond ever found. Diamonds are not rare, but gem quality diamonds are. On average two hundred tons of ore must be culled for every 1 caret diamond, (there are 141.7 carets in every once) and only one out of every five million diamonds weighs two carets or above. The one and one half pound diamond Mr. Wells pulled out of the rock face that January afternoon, was rated at 3,106 carets. In the name of good publicity, it was named after Mr, Cullinan.
After a nondescript voyage to England via the royal mail in an unmarked plain brown box, The Cullinan, as it was now known, was presented to King Edward VII. He asked as many experts as he could find - geologists, gemologists and even the physicists Sir William Cookes (above) -  how to cut this hunk of rock.
Cookes noted that “Round' a small black spot in the interior of the stone the colors were very vivid, changing and rotating round the spot as the analyser was turned. These observations indicated internal strain…there was a milky, opaque mass, of a brown color, with pieces of what looked like iron oxide. There were four cleavage planes of great smoothness and regularity.” At issue was how to turn this indescribably rare nondescript lump into something indescribably rare and beautiful.
Diamonds had been known since the tenth century, but it was not until the 17th century that they became popular amongst the aristocracy, not until the first “Brilliant Cut” by Italian jeweler Jules Mazarin, really showed the beauty that was hiding inside. His diamonds sparkled with 17 facets, each one reflecting light back out at the viewer. By 1900 the skill of the diamond cutter had increased the possible reflections to 57 facets.
The general consensuses was that the best cutter for this job was Joseph Asscher, ironically another Dutchman. He studied the Cullinan for six months in his shop in Amsterdam, surrounded by a small crowd of bankers, experts and royal representatives, laying out a plan of attack.
As the London Evening News reported in mid-January, of 1908, “…a special model of the diamond in clay was made…It was cut into pieces to give an idea of what would happen if the genuine stone were treated in the same way. After several experiments a definite plan was arrived at…”
Finally, on Monday, February 10th, 1908, at 2:45 pm, Joseph was ready. Surrounded by a small crowd of anxious interested third parties, Joseph poised his hammer over the chisel, the blade of which was lodged against the precise point which he had calculated the first strike had to be made. If he missed, or struck a glancing blow, the one of a kind diamond worth a million pounds would be rendered scared. Joseph drew a breath, and sharply struck the chisel….which cracked apart against the diamond.
Immediately Joseph ordered the room cleared, except for the notary republic for the bankers, who were financing this entire thing. Joseph checked the Cullinan and found it, thankfully, undamaged. He checked his tooks, re-examined his plans and announced a week's delay while he fashioned a new, larger, chisel.
So it was that on February 17, 1908, alone in the room with the diamond and the notary, Joseph lined his hammer up for a second time over The Cullinan, and struck the precise strong blow, directly above the dark inclusion. And the diamond fell apart into three perfectly clear pieces. Despite legends to the contrary, Joseph did not faint. He did, however, drink a glass of Champaign.
The Cullinen was cut into nine large stones and 96 smaller diamonds, so many that it took 8 months just to polish them all. And if you ever get to the Tower of London, you might make a note that the Crown Jewels of England on display there, might be literally billions of years old, but they have only in the royal families’ possession for about a hundred years. But they will always be a testament to the creation of timeless beauty under pressure.
- 30 -

Sunday, October 03, 2010


I have the feeling that Prohibition was just a bad idea whose time had come. On the day the 18th Amendment became the national law of the land, January 16, 1920, 65% of America was already “dry”, including 19 entire states. The Amendment merely banned the sale of “intoxicating liquors”, but then Congressman Andrew J. Volstead, made it worse. He put his name to a law that specifically defined what an “intoxicating liquor” was; any beverage containing more than 0.05% alcohol, less than the current legal limit to drive. Woodrow Wilson vetoed the Voltstead Act, but the pandering politicians in Congress over powered the weakened President in less than 12 hours. It was a national "Last Call".
It was the will of the public, certainly the public will in Massachusetts, which was one of the first states to ratify the 18th Amendment. Ex-baseball player and evangelical preacher Billy Sunday staged a funeral for “John Barlycorn", asserting “The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and jails into storehouses."
It did not happen that way. The problem would prove to be that the public were hypocrites. What they condemned in church and the polling booth, they practiced in private. Comedian Will Rogers, noting the popularity of temperance amongst southern politicians, put it this way, “The South is dry and will vote dry. That is, everybody sober enough to stagger to the polls.”
Lots of people in Boston saw the business opportunities in the prohibition hypocrisy. Russian immigrant Charles Solomon (AKA the “King”) who ran the vice in Boston’s West End considered illegal booze to be a natural extension of his drugs, gambling and prostitution operations. And in 1920 Phil (Filippo) Buccola arrived from Sicily, and immediately began to “organize” the Boston water front to smuggle in illegal booze, and anything else he could hijack. But the fastest rising of the prohibition mobsters in Boston were the Wallace brothers from the neighborhood once known as Dorchester Neck.
Separated by the potato famine from their Irish homeland, tens of thousands of Catholic immigrants had been confronted on arrival in Boston by signs reading “No Irish Need Apply”, for an apartment or a job. The descendants of English Protestants forced the "Papists" into tenements south of the East Point Channel, a section which became known as South Boston, or Southie. In the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, Catholics in Boston were as despised, feared and hated as Muslims are today, and for all of the same reasons.
South Boston was connected by the Old Colony Rail line to Boston proper, but the locals were not encouraged to mix with the Brahmins of the old town or the Back Bay. Southie became a vast industrial park of iron foundries, machine shops and shipyards, embedded amongst the tenements of the workers who serviced them. And here, on the very ground where George Washington had planted the artillery that drove the English out of Boston, Steve, Frank and Jimmy Wallace found their pot of gold.
They adopted the title of the Gustin Gang, after a block long appendage of Damrell Street, south of Old Colony Avenue. Before the revolution it had been the farm of John Gustin. But in 1920 Gustin Street had only two businesses, William Lynch at number 15, and William Baker at Number 14. They were both barrel dealers, part of a dirty pragmatic business district that was the heart of Southie, a name that would come to inspire equal parts of pride, shame, hatred and love in its residents.
Frank Williams was the brains and Steve, the ex-boxer, was the enforcer. By the second decade of the twentieth century they were known locally as the “Tailboard Thieves”, who looted delivery vans when they paused at Southie intersections. The brothers quickly took the next step, hijacking the entire rig and unloading it elsewhere. From there they moved to armed robberies, and protection rackets. With the arrival of Prohibition they transitioned into using these same methods to supply their Speakeasies with booze and broads. This same transition was made by mobsters in every city in  America.
The name "speakeasies" came from the way you were expected to utter the password which admitted you to the now illegal bar; speak easily or softly. Women, rarely seen in pre-prohibition taverns, were frequent customers in the Speakeasies, such as “The Spotlight”, run by brother Jimmy Wallace, or “Kelly’s Cork and Bull”, at 232 Old Colony.
Eventually the Gustin Street Gang were operating their own fleet of boats, which steamed from the harbor every afternoon, to restock from “Rum Row”, the fleet of alcohol laden supply ships that circled just beyond the three mile limit, in international waters. Then, under cover of darkness, the boats would return, carrying their now illegal cargo, and smuggle it ashore, much as Sam Adams had smuggled tea under the noses of the lobster backs in King George III’s custom house.
Being illegal, the profits were tax free. And being illegal, the competitors like King Solomon, could not call a cop when the Gustin Street Gang hijacked one of their boats off shore, and stole an entire shipment. And being illegal, murder was worth the risk to steal your competitor's profits, because the profits were huge. A beer, which before prohibition had cost a nickle, was now half water and cost a quarter.
The higher prices were, in part, required, because of the graft which was now paid the police to look the other way, to finance the politicians who refused to fund more prohibition agents, and to hire the “muscle” that discouraged any civilians who felt morally bound to report distilleries and speakieses in their neighborhoods. It is interesting to note that several times during the 1920’s Frank Wallace was arrested for assault and battery, breaking and entering, gambling, larceny and trespassing, but he was never convicted. By the end of 1920, the Gustin Street Gang had so many politicians in their pocket that the Wallace Brothers had come close to running South Boston.
Mrs. White, manager of the Elizabeth Peabody Settlement House, in South Boston would later note that neighborhood dances had to be abandoned because after prohibition so many young men were showing up with hip-flasks, which they passed around. She also noted that many poor families had gone into the production of “bathtub gin”, so called not because it was mixed in the bathtub, but because the bottles were too tall to be watered down from the faucet in the kitchen sink.
In Boston, with a population of 106,000 in 1920, during the first year of national prohibition, 21,800 people were arrested for public drunkenness. In 1922 that number would jump to 30, 987; by 1922 it would be 37,500. And by 1925 it would rise to almost 40,000.
Within a year, Congressman Volstead would be rejected by the voters of his home state, but the Williams brothers and their ilk in every city in America, would be around for a lot longer than that.
 - 30 -

Blog Archive