AUGUST 2017

AUGUST  2017
FACING DOWN THE RULERS OF WALL STREET A HUNDRED YEARS AGO. THEY ARE BACK.

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Saturday, October 16, 2010

1920 - CALL TO ORDER

I can’t imagine that U.S. Attorney General Palmer (first chair to the right) was pleased to see President Woodrow Wilson in the cabinet room, on April 14th, 1920. The President had not attended a cabinet meeting for the last six months. In that time the Congress had delayed action on the Treaty of Versailles ending WWI, and the League of Nations Treaty, an indication of the President’s weakened political clout. It was rumored that the chief executive had finally recovered from his illness, but Palmer’s road to the White House would have been much easier if Wilson had remained incapacitated and incommunicado for another six months.
“Professor” Wilson had suffered a series of strokes beginning on October 7th, 1919, that effectively paralyzed his left side and impaired his speech. The details were not shared with any of Wilson’s political advisors, and no one in his cabinet even knew what his affliction was or how serious. But the power vacuum was obvious to an ambitious man like Alexander Mitchell Palmer.
A congressman from Pennsylvania, and an unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Senate, Palmer had only joined the administration in 1917 as the Alien Property Custodian, charged with seizing and disposing of German and Austro-Hungarian property after America joined the Allies in World War One. In fact the way this son of Quakers had dispensed the corporate properties was heavy with the stench of graft. When the post of Attorney General had become available, Palmer had pushed for the job. Wilson resisted, looking for A.B.P. – anyone but Palmer – until finally, as yet another sign of his political impotence, the President was forced to appoint a man he did not trust or respect. And almost immediately, the man began to run for the Presidency.
Palmer counted on his public “Red Scare” to be the flag around which conservatives would rally to support his candidacy, and carry him into the White House. He had already escaped assasination when an anarchist  bomber blew himself up on the Attorney General's front porch. That photogenic escape had led to initial raids of Communists and anarchists in October of 1919 which had been widely approved of.
But the public reaction to the larger January raids had been largely negative. Emboldened by the criticism of the excesses, the Temporary (because this was yet another appointment Wilson no longer had the political power to secure) Under Secretary Of Labor, Louis Freeland Post, had cancelled most of the 4,000 arrest warrants Palmer and J. Edgar Hoover had issued, and most of the deportation orders for what Palmer called radicals, anarchists and communists. On examination, it seemed to Secretary Post, most of the arrests had been for simple union organizing.
Under Secretary Post (above) had even dared to call the warrants “illegal”.
Palmer’s supporter in these raids, J. Edgar Hoover, from the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation, had ratcheted up the fear by warning of a major communist uprising on the coming May Day, Saturday, May 1, 1920. And now Palmer had no choice but to wave the red flag himself. The week before the cabinet meeting, on Wednesday, April 7, 1920, Michigan had held its Democratic Party Primary. Palmer had finished dead last. It was now or never for Palmer, if he wanted to ride the red scare into the White House.
Palmer began the cabinet meeting of May 14th, by demanding that the Secretary of Labor, his fellow Pennsylvanian, William B. Wilson (above), fire under Secretary Post. He called Post a “'moonstruck parlor radical”, and alleged that he had quashed the warrants simply because of “'his own personal view that the deportation law is wrong.”
But Secretary Wilson was one of the few original members of the administration, and knew the President, despite his stroke and his weakened power, still wanted a third term. Secretary Wilson's loyalities still lay with President Wilson, and so he had no intention of helping propel Palmer toward the White House. Secretary Wilson defended his man, Post.
President Wilson made no comment on the argument, in part because he was simply not comfortable enough yet with his diction, and the meeting moved onto other items. But as the meeting wrapped up, President Wilson told Palmer that he should “not let this country see Red.”
This left Palmer with little choice. He pushed his supporters in Congress to impeach Post, and soon;  charging that he was soft on Communism. So as April ended the Senate Rules Committee opened hearings on whether Louis Freeland Post should be impeached. Meanwhile Palmer continued his drum beat of warnings about the imminent threat of a Communist May Day uprising. ''Like a prairie-fire, the blaze of revolution was sweeping over every American institution of law and order…eating its way into the homes of the American workmen, its sharp tongues of revolutionary heat were licking the altars of the churches, leaping into the belfry of the school bell, crawling into the sacred corners of American homes, seeking to replace marriage vows with libertine laws, burning up the foundations of society.''
The Newspaper headlines were clear; “: "Terror Reign by Radicals, says Palmer” Another newspaper screamed from its front page, “"Nation-wide Uprising on Saturday.”
On Thrusday, April 29, 1920, Attorney General Palmer claimed he had a list of “marked men” destined for assasination on Saturday by the communists. New York City put their entire 11,000 man police force on duty for that Saturday. In Boston the police stationed flying squads, with machine guns mounted on their cars, like fire fighters, in lower class neighborhoods, ready to handle any outbreak of violence before it could spread.
No such outbreaks occurred.  In fact, it was one of the most peaceful May Days in decades. And Palmer and Hoover looked like complete fools.
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Friday, October 15, 2010

GO ASK ALICE

I wonder how Alice felt when they called her “The Other Washington Monument.” The best nicknames are half jokes and half true, and the truer they are the funnier they are. Her first nickname had been “Princess Alice”, and her second had been bestowed by the press, who dubbed her “Alice in Plunder Land”. And to her credit Alice always got the joke, and always cackled in public. She was tough. When she was a little girl Alice contracted polio, leaving one leg shorter than the other. Her stepmother mercilessly forced the screaming child to painfully exercise her legs, day after day. So dutiful about this was her stepmother, that into her eighties Alice could touch her nose with her toe. Alice was proud of that, but it never earned her a nickname.
“One pill makes you larger, And one pill makes you small. And the ones that mother gives you, Don't do anything at all. Go ask Alice, When she’s ten feet tall.”
(Grace Slick – 1966)
Alice was born into the world with a silver spoon in her mouth, the first child of Alice Hathaway Lee and Teddy Roosevelt. Her inheritance turned to tin just two days her brith when her mother and her paternal grandmother both died on the same day. Father Teddy was so shattered that he never spoke his dear wife’s name again. That also meant he never spoke Alice’s name again, either. Teddy loved his child, and showered her with gifts, but he called her “Baby Lee” and he called her “Mousiekins”, but he never called her Alice. So deep was that scarring that Alice never referred to herself by her first name, either. And Alice was always talking about herself.
Teddy mended his grief by hunting grizzlies in the Black Hills, and Alice was left with her aunt, Anna Bamie Roosevelt. In her autobiography Alice noted, “There is always someone in every family who keeps it together. In ours, it was Auntie Bye.” But she also said that “If auntie Bye had been a man, she would have been president.” And Alice should know. Her father was President. When Alice was two her father remarried, to an English woman named Edith Carow, and Alice was sent to live with them. Edith and Teddy would have five children together. As Alice saw things, her father loved her “one-sixth as much as he loved his other children.”
“And if you go chasing rabbits, And you know you're going to fall, Tell them a hookah smoking caterpillar has given you the call. Call Alice, When she was just small”.
Alice grew into the physical embodiment of a John Singer Sargent painting, with a striking beauty, a vicious sense of humor and a first rate brain, allowing her to view the world with what she called a “"detached malevolence”
Her entire life Alice kept one gift, a pillow embroidered with the phrase, “If you can’t say something nice about anyone, come sit by me.” She had a simple philosophy; “Fill what's empty. Empty what's full. Scratch where it itches.” “The secret of eternal youth,” she said, “is arrested development.” And Alice should know.
“When the men on the chess board, Get up and tell you where to go. And you just had some kind of mushroom, And your mind is moving slow. Go ask Alice. I think she'll know.”
To Alice, all politics was personal, and everything personal was political. On the day that William Howard Taft was to replace her father in the White House, Alice lay a voodoo curse on Mrs. Taft by burning her effigy and burying it on the White House grounds. She said of Calvin Coolidge, “He looks like he was weaned on a pickle.” And Warren G. Harding’s White House simply appalled her; “…the study was filled with cronies, the air heavy with tobacco smoke, trays with bottles containing every imaginable brand of whiskey stood about, cards and poker chips ready at hand--a general atmosphere of waist-coat unbuttoned, feet on the desk, and the spittoon alongside.” Teddy’s White House was clearly superior in every way, in Princess Alice’s eyes.
Not that she made life easy for her father. When he was President, Alice constantly burst into the Oval Office with advice, until Teddy threatened to throw her out a window. Teddy explained to a visitor, “I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.” And Alice had no illusions about her father. “He wants to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral, and the baby at every christening, ” she said. It could have been used as the sketch of every successful politician, before and since.
Alice disliked Eisenhower, admired the Kennedys, tolerated Johnson, felt warm affection toward Nixon, and refused to even meet Jimmy Carter. But the President she disliked the most was her cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, noting that his branch of the family were “one step ahead of the bailiff from an island in the Zuider Zee.” She explained, “I am a Republican.... I am going to vote for Hoover.... If I were not a Republican, I would still vote for Mr. Hoover this time.” Later, she insisted, “I'd rather vote for Hitler than to vote for (F.D.R.)”, thus becoming the first Republican to use a Hitler analogy against a Democrat.
“When logic and proportion, Have fallen sloppy dead. And the white knight is talking backwards, And the Red Queen's “Off with her head!” Remember what the dormouse said.”
It took me a long time to understand why Alice married Ohio Congressman Nicholas Longworth. Her 1906 nuptials set the standard for White House weddings. But he was fourteen years her elder, a dedicated alcoholic and a prodigious Lothario. He was also socially skilled and very wealthy.
Still, it was difficult to imagine her enthralled with him, until I came across the story told of a fellow congressman who ran his hand over Nicholas’s bald head, saying, “It feels as smooth as my wife’s bottom.” Whereupon Nicholas ran his own hand over his head, and announced, “Yes, so it does.” A sense of humor can make almost any sin bearable.
It was not marital infidelity that separated the couple, it was political infidelity In 1912, Nicholas supported Taft’s re-election, while Alice, of course, supported Teddy’s run under the Bull Moose banner. Teddy lost. But so did Nicholas, by a mere 100 votes. It was also during this period that Alice conceived her only child, Paulina. Nicholas lost that election, too. He never let on that he knew Paulina was not his, and he loved his daughter for the rest of his life. He was  re-elected in the next cycle, and would eventually become Speaker of the House. So Alice was lucky, there.
 Nicholas died in 1932. And at his funeral someone asked Alice if she also intended on being buried in Cincinnati. Alice replied that would be a fate worse than death itself. When she died in 1980, Alice’s remains were buried in Washington, D.C.
“Feed your head. Feed your head.”
In her autobiography, Alice wrote of her stepmother Edith’s “fairness and charm and intelligence, which she has to a greater degree than almost any one else I know.” It was almost, but not quite, an acknowledgement of what a pain Alice had been to her stepmother . And it was certainly not an anpology. As far as I can tell, Alice never apologized to anyone.
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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

WORDS TO LIVE BY

I must tell you that Willie Sutton never said he robbed banks because that was where the money was. In his autobiography Bill Sutton, as he preferred to be known, did admit that “If anybody had asked me, I’d have probably said it.” But after robbing 200 banks over a 40 year career, Sutton enunciated his real philosophy as thus; “Go where the money is…and go there often.” And that idea becomes really interesting when you combine it with the philosophy of novelist Paul Theroux, who noted that “Almost anything is possible on a train…”
“RAILROAD, n. The mechanical device enabling us to get away from where we are to where we are no better off.” - Ambrose Bierce. The Devil’s Dictionary.
Frank Reno (above) began his criminal career running three-card monte games along the Columbus highway, which forded the White River near his family’s 1,200 acre farm, about two miles north of Seymour, Indiana. When neighbors who had been fleeced complained, Frank and three of his brothers - John, Simeon (Sim) and William - responded with arson. Over several years, as the boys matured, most of their hamlet of Rockford was burned down at least once. The brothers then invested their winnings, buying up distressed properties, including a hotel, the Radar House.
“DISOBEDIENCE, n. The silver lining to the cloud of servitude.” ibid
Beginning in 1863 the boys joined in the Union Army, not out of patriotism but with a fiduciary respect for the $400 bounties that were being paid for new recruits. So strong was the Reno sense of capitalism, that after a day or two of military service the boys would desert just to sign up again. It was called bounty jumping if they caught you, but only William was held long enough to receive an honorable discharge.
“RASCALITY, n. Stupidity militant.” ibid
In 1864 Frank and John (above) teamed up with a black man, Grant Wilson, to rob a store and Post Office 8 miles north of Rockford, in the Wayne County community of Jonesville, Indiana. The three were quickly arrested and under pressure Grant Wilson agreed to testify against Frank. However the officials in Wayne County did not know the Reno brothers well, and all were granted bail. Shortly thereafter Grant was mysteriously shot to death answering a late night knock at his front door. The Reno boys walked away free men.
“RETRIBUTION, n. A rain of fire-and-brimstone that falls alike upon the just and such of the unjust as have not procured shelter by evicting them.” ibid
In July of 1865 the Seymour Times warned visitors to “be wary of thieves and assassins”. In 1866 this warning was reinforced when the body of Mr. Moore Woodmansee, guest at the Radar House, was found floating in the White River, sans his head. His luggage and $2,800 in cash he had been carrying, were also missing. Then, in October, the Reno brothers got really inventive.
“HOMICIDE, n. The slaying of one human being by another. There are four kinds of homocide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy…” ibid
John and Sim Reno, along with a compatriot named Frank Sparks (above), boarded the 6:00 p.m. Ohio and Mississippi train out of Seymour. A few miles south of town they made their way to the express car, got the drop on clerk Elam Miller and removed $10,000 in gold coin and $33 in bank notes from the safe. It was the first robbery of a moving train in American history. George Kinney, a passenger on that train identified the Reno brothers as the robbers. They were arrested on October 11th. But after Mr. Kinney met with an unfortunate accident while answering a late night knock on his front door, no other passengers stepped forward, and, again, all charges against the Reno brothers had to be dropped. But local anger was growing.
“ABSCOND, v.i. To "move in a mysterious way," commonly with the property of another” ibid
Faced with increasing hostility from his neighbors, on November 17, 1867, John Reno and a friend named Val Elliot took a train to Gallatin, Missouri and robbed the court house of $23,000. However, Pinkerton detectives tracked John back to Seymour, and arrested him there in early December. The brothers tried to raise money for a good lawyer by robbing another train out of Seymour, but this only inspired the locals to form a vigilante committee, called the Scarlet Mask Society. The remaining brothers and their “friends” (above)  decided to look for financial opportunities elsewhere. So, with a lynch mob organizing, on January 18, 1868, John Reno faced the music in Gallatin alone and was sentenced to 25 years of hard labor in Missouri.
KILL, v.. To create a vacancy without nominating a successor.” ibed
This inspired the remaining brothers and their gang to move on to Iowa, where a robbery on February 18th at Magnolia netted $14,000. But the now incarcerated John seems to have been the brains of the group, because after another robbery in March, three members were arrested, and they just managed to break out for April Fools Day. The brothers now decided it would be safer to practice their trade closer to home. They were wrong.
“BRANDY, n. A cordial composed of one part thunder-and-lightning, one part remorse, two parts bloody murder, one part death-h--l-and-the grave and four parts clarified Satan.” ibid
On May 22nd, twelve men boarded a train Marshfield, Indiana, broke into the express car, threw the clerk off the train, and grabbed about $96,000. The clerk died of his injuries. Then on July 9th the Reno gang went a robbery too far. This time, when they broke into the express car, 10 Pinkterton detectives opened fire. Theodore Clifton and Charles Rosenberry, were wounded, and Volney Elliot, was captured. On July 10th, as the three prisoners were being transported south to the county courthouse, the Scarlet Mask Society waylaid the train, removed the prisoners at gunpoint and hanged them from a tree at a nearby crossroads. Indiana, it seemed, and gotten civilized enough to lynch evil doers.
“TREE, n. A tall vegetable intended by nature to serve as a penal apparatus.” ibed
On the 11th three more gang members, Henry Jerrell , Frank Sparks and John Moore, were arrested in Illinois, and dispatched to Seymour via wagon. On July 25th they were also intercepted by the Scarlet Mask and introduced to the same tree. The site became known as Hangman’s Crossing; today, simply as “The Crossing”.
“GALLOWS, n. A stage for the performance of miracle plays, in which the leading actor is translated to heaven” ibid
Two days later, on July 27th, William and Sim Reno were arrested in Indianapolis, where they had gone to gamble. They were tried and convicted of the Marshfield robbery, and after local officials heard rumors that the Scarlet Mask was preparing another neck tie party, the two men were shipped south to the strongest jail in Indiana, in the Ohio River town of New Albany(above). Said Sheriff Thomas Fullenlove, “These men were sent here for safekeeping and they will be safely kept, if it is in the power of the authorities to do so”. Shortly thereafter Frank Reno and Charlie Anderson were arressted in Windsor, Canada, arriving in New Albany at the end of October, 1868.
“ACCOMPLICE, n. One associated with another in a crime, having guilty knowledge and complicity, as an attorney who defends a criminal, knowing him guilty.” ibid
Just after midnight, Saturday, December 12th an unscheduled train arrived in New Albany. Some 65 hooded and masked men disembarked and made their way to the jail. There they surrounded the jail and beat up Sheriff Fullenlove before securing a rope to an iron stairwell support. Then Frank Reno was dragged from his cell. After he was dead, the mob lynched William and then Sim, with Charlie Anderson being strung up at about 4:30 a.m. However the overused rope finally broke under the strain of Charlie, dropping him to the floor. So the members of the lynch mob simply procured another rope and strung up poor Charlie again, and this time the rope held. It appears that the members of the Scarlet Mask also adhered to that other lesson later espoused by Willie Sutton, “Success in any endeavor requires single-minded attention to detail and total concentration.”
HANGMAN, n. An officer of the law charged with duties of the highest dignity and utmost gravity, and held in hereditary disesteem by a populace having a criminal ancestry.” ibid
No one was ever accused of participating in any of the lynchings. Ten years later, in February 1878, John Reno was released from prison and returned to Rockford. He quietly worked the family farm for five years before being arrested for counterfeiting. After serving another three year sentence, he died in his home, January 31st, 1895. And that was the end of the Reno gang of Indiana, if not the world’s best train robbers, at least the world’s first. And there is something to be said for that.
“A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car. But if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad.” Theodore Roosevelt.
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