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Saturday, October 23, 2010

1920 - THE MERRY MONTH OF MAY

I don’t know the truth of what happened to Andrea Salsedo. His fellow prisoner, Roberto Elia, testified later he had jumped through a window of the 14th floor of the Park Row Building, in Manhatten (above). Some claimed that he was pushed. Some believe, to this day, that he was dropped while being dangled by his ankles. But there could be no doubt that both men had been beaten by officers of the Justice Department in that building for eight solid weeks. The Federal agents suspected that the two printers had helped publish an Anarchist-Communist pamphlet entitled “Plain Words”. The pamphlet in fact explained how to build bombs.
Roberto claimed that Andrea (above) had thrown himself through the window to avoid being forced to implicate his friends. This suicide plunge cannot be taken as proof that Andrea had anything real to confess. It may have been simply dispair and a refusal to lie, or even just to stop the beatings, but it may have been an admission of guilt. All we know for a fact is that at 4:30 A.M., on Monday, May 3, 1920, the little man with the passive eyes was found dead outside the headquarters of the U.S. Justice Department in New York City.
Far to the north, in Braintree, Massachuetts, on Wednesday, May 5th, four men, Nicola Sacco, Mario Boda, Riccardo Orciani and Bartolomeo Vanzetti attempted to pick up Boda’s sedan from the Elm Street Garage. But it was past closing time, and the garage was locked up. The four men crossed the street, to the home of the repair shop's owner, Simon Johnson. He put them off by explaining that the license plate on Borda’s sedan had expired. Legally Johnson could not allow the car to be driven off his property without a valid license plate. While he thus delayed the men, Mrs. Johnson scurried next door to call the Bridgewater police. They did not arrive in time. Boda and Orciani rode off in tandem on a motorcycle, while Mrs. Johnson watched. The mechanic followed Sacco and Vanzetti as they walked to a nearby streetcar stop.
At about 10:00 P.M., as their streetcar arrived in Brockton, Sacco and Vanzetti (above) were arrested by two police officers. Searched, they were both discovered to be carrying loaded pistols. Vanzetti was also found to be carrying shells for a shotgun. They both denied knowing Boda or Orciani. It was the first of a series of stupid lies they would tell. After that the only question for the Braintree police, was what crime to charge the two men with.
Meanwhile, May of 1920 was proving to be a most profitable month for another Italian immigrant in Boston. Where his compatriots were frustrated with American Capitalism, and seeking redemption in revolution, this cheerful little man saw American Capitalism as the American Dream.
In order to gaze upon his dream you had to merely find the arch along Washington Street in Downtown Boston, cross under it and enter Pi Alley, also known as Williams Court.
The narrow cobblestone passage lead to School Street, near the old City Hall. And at 27 School Street,  stood the granite walls and steel frame of the Niles Building. Up the stairs you would find Room 227. The painted door identified it as the offices of the “Old Colony Foreign Exchange Company”, the most extraordinary and successful investment program in all of 1920 America.
In February “Old Colony” had attracted $5,000 in new investments. In March the investors had coughed up $30,000. This May investors were forcing $420,000 into the companies’ coffers. The reason for such success was obvious. Profits for those investors were guaranteed, a return of 50% of their original investment within 45 days, a 100% return within 90 days. After that, every dime was pure profit.
“Old Colony” bought and sold International Reply Coupons, (IRC’s), a now defunct form of international postage. Bought in bulk in Italy for 11 cents each, they could be sold in America for 44 cents each. That was a 400% profit. The tellers in the Old Colony's offices were taking in cash from eager investors so quickly, there was no time to count it. The tellers would take the cash being proffered, hand over a preprinted receipt, and then drop the dollars into a large barrel, before moving on to the next investor. Periodically, some one would take away the cash filled barrels and would later return with empties. Hour after hour, day after day, the cash rolled in. Some days the line of people desperate to hand over their life savings ran down the stairs, across School Street, down the Alley and snaked back along Washington Street. And week after week, the investors were paid their dividends. Few dared to withdraw their original investments. The payouts continued, like clockwork, like magic, like sheer genius.
The magician at the center of this investment genius, was a smartly dress little Italian immigrant, who went by the name of Charles Ponzi, AKA Charles Ponei, AKA Charles P. Bianchi, AKA Carl or Carlo Ponzi. And Charles indeed had a secret at the core of his investment machine. He had never bought or sold a single IRC in his life.
On May 13, 1920 Mrs. Mary Wilcox (above, in an earlier family photo) arose to discover that during the night her 21 year old son Cyril Wilcox (center)  had committed suicide. In what was a fairly common method for 1920, the one time student at Harvard Collage had blown out the flame on the gas jets in his room. Without the cleansing illumination, the poisonous fumes had filled the unhappy young man’s bedroom until he passed out from lack of oxygen, and suffocated in his sleep.
Mary Wilcox was heartbroken. Her eldest son George was angry. Suicide has those effects on the survivors. The grieving mother ascribed her son’s death to his failure at Harvard. Cyril had been suspended after managing only five F’s, two C’s, one B and a  “passed” on his sophmore finals. But George was convinced he knew the real reason for Cyril’s unhappiness.
George had read a letter adressed to Cyrll, delivered the day after his death. George and had then tracked down the author, Harry Dreyfus. He was an older man who owned a bar on Beacon Hill called "Cafe Dreyfus", as well as a resturant in Cambridge frequented by Harvard students. George confronted the older man and then assaulted him, beating him badly until Dryfus admitted that he and Cyril had once been lovers. Then, on May 22, 1920, George called upon Harvard Acting Dean Chester N. Greenough. George shared the information he had been beaten out of Harry Dreyfus; that the cause of Cyril‘s suicide had really been his "victimization" by a "homosexual ring" at Harvard College. The ring, said George, was made up of students  Ernest Weeks Roberts , Eugene Cummings, Kenneth Day and a non-student named Pat Courtney.
The next day Dean Greenough asked five professors and deans to form a “court” to root out these homosexuals in the college. In the modern vernacular, it was to be a witch hunt.
During the bottom of the 4th inning, in a game between the Yankees and the Red Sox at Fenway Park, on Thursday, May 27, 1920, New York Pitcher Bob Shawkey had a melt down. With the bases loaded, Shawkey took offense when Umpire George Hildebrand called ball four and forced in a run. Shawkey shouted obsenities at the ump, who ignored the outburst. Shawkey then crouched on the mound and spent  five minutes tying his shoe. Again, Hildebrand ignored him. After striking out the next Boston batter (Harry Hooper) and retiring the side, Shawkey took off his cap and elaborately bowed to the umpire. As Shawkey joged to the New York dugout, Umpire Hildebrand quietly informed him that he had been thrown out of the game.  Shawkey then took a swing at the ump. The Yankees won the game, six to one. Shawky won a two week suspension and a $200 fine.  That was baseball, in 1920; class all the way - just like today.
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Thursday, October 21, 2010

FOLLOW THE LEADER

A leader in the Democratic Party is a boss, in the Republican Party he is a leader.
Harry Truman
I would descriibe it as a generation gap. When James Pendergast won big betting on horse named Climax, he invested the winnings in a bar, restaurant and hotel in St. Louis’s West Bottom neighborhood (middle, above). The town was then divided between the uptown establishment Republicans, and the working class Democrats who were litterly on the bottom. James' business was so scuccesful that he became one of the town’s most powerful councilmen. His competition for Democratic votes was Joe Shannon who controled the police department. But, rather than fight, “Big Jim” cut a powersharing deal with Shannon. To get what he wanted, James' first instinct was always to negotiate.
“You use a saw to shape wood, not a hammer.”
James Pendergast. 1892
James hired his youngest brother, Tom (above), as cashier and bookkeeper at the “Climax” in the early 1890’s. He also schooled Tom in local politics, lecturing him that, “The important thing is to get the votes.” In 1900 James secured Tom the position of Superintendent of Streets. Tom immediately hired two hundred new employees, all loyal goats, as Pendergast supporters were called. And every one voted the way the Pendergasts told them too. Then, in November of 1911, at just 55, James died of kidney failure. Tom stepped in to fill his brother’s seat on the council, but resigned after just five years. The position was no longer powerful enough for him. Tom’s first instinct was always to go for his opponent’s throat..
“Today, politics may be our friend, and tomorrow we may be its victims.”
Owen D. Young. Chairman of General Electric. 1922-1939
In 1916 Tom Pendergast had himself appointed to the leadership of the Jackson County Democratic Party, headquartered in a two story yellow brick building (above, left)  at 1908 Main Street. With the votes from the Irish and Italian neighborhoods in his pocket, Tom drove Shannon’s people out of the police department, making him the invisible hand in writing of the new city charter, adopted in 1925. “Boss” Tom could now manipulate both the city and county governments, Democratic and Repubican parties, from behind the scenes, following a simple rule; The important thing is to get the votes-no matter what.”
“Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.”
Plato 400 B.C.E.
Boss Tom’s name never had to appear on a ballot. As one St. Louis writer noted, “Pendergast never did hunt ducks with a brass band. It has always been hard to tell what he is doing, but easy to tell what he has done the day after the election.” Tom helpfully described the methods he had learned from his older brother. “Every one of my workers has a fund to buy food, coal, shoes and clothing. When a poor man comes to old Tom's boys for help….we fill his belly and warm his back and vote him our way.”
“Politics have no relation to morals.
Niccolo Machiavelli. 1532
James "Blackie" Audett explained the methods Boss Tom developed for himself.  “My first job in Kansas City was to look up vacant lots…we would give addresses to them vacant lots. Then we would take the address and assign them to people we could depend on – prostitutes, thieves, floaters, anybody we could get on the voting registration books. On election days we just hauled these people to the right places and they went in and voted…”
“The political machine triumphs because it is a united minority, acting against a divided majority.”
Will Durant.
With the arrival of the Great Depression, Boss Tom did not wait for Hoover to sympathize with Kansas Cities’ 38% unemployment. In November of 1930 the town voted a $40 million bond issue, for a “Ten-Year-Plan”. What Kansas got for its investment in the future was the “Power and Light Building”, still a landmark in KC., as well as a new City Hall, the Jackson County Court House, a new Police Headquarters, a new Municipal Auditorium, and several schools. When the KC “Star” described all these new buildings as “Pendergast’s concrete pyramids”, Tom merely smiled. The truth was that Pendergast Ready-Mix Cement was probably his only entirely legal business. But in fact what brought Tom Pendergast down, was another legal business; political consultant.
“There are no true friends in politics. We are all sharks circling, and waiting for traces of blood to appear in the water’
Alan Clark. 1974
Since 1922 the State of Missouri and 137 companies had been sparing over rate increases for fire insurance. The difference in any individual policy was small, but after 15 years the amount impounded while the courtroom wrangling continued was $10 million. Then, suddenly, the state agreed to a settlement, giving the insurance companies $8 million, and the right to increase future rates. In May of 1938 Republican Governor Loyd Stark (below, right), a Tom Pendergast pick (below, left), ordered an investigation. This discovered that the insurance companies had delivered a half million dollars in cash to Tom Pendergast as a “political consulting” fee, just before the settlement. Since Pendergast had no direct authority over the insurance commissioner, this fee was legal. However it was politically embarrassing. And in order to avoid the embarrassment, Boss Tom had not declared it on his Federal income tax. And that was illegal.
“The hardest thing about any political campaign is how to win without proving that you are unworthy of winning.”
Adlai Stevenson.
The end came quickly. On April 7, 1939 Boss Tom (above) was arraigned on two counts of tax fraud. On May 22, 1939 he pled guilty. He paid a fine and served 15 months in prison, and was never involved in Missouri politics again.
“An election is coming. Universal peace is declared, and the foxes have a sincere interest in prolonging the lives of the poultry.”
George Eliot.
The reformers patted themselves on the back, and the Republicans reveled in their triumph over Democratic sin. Governor Stark (above) hoped to use the toppling of Boss Tom to propel himself into the U.S. Senate. But in 1940, he lost a nasty contest to Harry Truman, who had also been a Pendergast man. After that Stark was through in Missouri politics. When Boss Tom died in January of 1945, his funeral was well attended, and the only thing that changed about Missouri politics was the names on the ballots.
“If you can’t convince them, confuse them.”
Harry S. Truman.
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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

WHY NOBILITY DIED

I offer you the poster child for why history has regulated noble blood to the dust bin: Richard Plantagenet, the biggest fool in Europe at a time when Europe was simply overflowing with fools. To know Richard was to despise Richard. The better you knew him, the better you despised him. He was the kind of violent lunatic thug that only a mother could love, and she had her moments of doubt. If he had been born in the twenty-first century Richard would have been confined in a mental institution as a child. But he was born in the Middle Ages, so they made him a King.
Physically, Richard was gorgeous. He spoke fluent French. He even wrote poetry in French. In fact he didn't speal English at all. He was tall and athletic, with red hair and soft grey eyes. He also had a passion for violence and poetry that was the romantic ideal in the 12th century. And most of the press in the English speaking world remains enamored of Richard even now - but then he only spent 6 months in England in his entire life, so they never got to know him in person.
Richard was the favorite and eldest( living) son of Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the smartest, most lovely, most duplicitous women of her age and clearly one of the worst mothers ever born. This woman should never have given birth to a living human child. Doctor Phill could have done an entire series of shows on her.
Richard was also the second son of Henry II, the smartest of the smart and violent Plantagenet Kings. Richard was like his father in every way, except he was more violent and less smart.
With the help of his mother, Richard finally cornered his sick and elderly father and took him prisoner. Richard then had the satisfaction of hearing his father call him “a bast-rd” from his death bed. And you thought you didn't get along with your old man. But it was the entitlement of nobility that raised Richard's simple neruoses to the level of a full blown psychosis.
Placing a crown on his head instantly converted Richard Plantagenet into Richard I, King of England, Duke of Normandy, Aquitaine and Gascony, Lord of Ireland and Cyprus, Count of Anjou and Nantes and Overlord of Brittany, also known as Richard Coeur de Lion, or Richard the Lion Heart.
Richard celebrated his coronation in June of 1189 by having the local Jews, who had showed up bearing gifts for him, whipped and flogged. He followed this by a general massacre of all the Jews in London and in York. Baldwin d’Eu, the Archbishop of Canterbury, summed up Richard's theory of nobility this way, “If the King is not God’s man, he had better be the devil’s”. And Baldwin should know, being the son of a liaison between an Archdeacon and a nun.
The first thing the new King did, after cleaning up all those Jewish corpses, was to lay heavy taxes on everybody to pay for a Third Crusade, to rescue the Holy Land from the Muslims, because they were so bad. To pay for that Richard announced “I would have sold London if I could have found a buyer." Of course Richard's loyal subjects in England never heard that particular royal comment.
In May of 1191 Richard’s army of 40,000 knights and 40,000 footmen arrived on the island of Cyprus, where Richard threw the local Christian ruler into a dungeon in chains, pillaged the island for even more money and slaughtered any Christian who objected. Being on crusade not only cleaned up Richard's past sins, it earned him a pass on any sins he might committ while on crusade; the Pope had said so. And evidently, Richard was going to put that pronouncement to the test.
After annexing Cyprus as his personal property, Richard then moved on to the Holy Land, where he joined the King of France and other European nobility in slaughtering Muslims, Christians and Jews without discrimination as to race, religion, age or sex. During the siege of Acre, Richard fell ill and had servants carry him about the fortifications in a sedan chair while he took pot shots at the defenders with a crossbow.When Acre fell, (and while its citizens were being slaghtered) Richard’s banner and that of Phillip of France were planted on the cities’ walls. But so was the banner of Leopold V, of Austria, who figured he was entitled as the sole representative on this crusade of the Holy Roman Emperor, who had died enroute.
Richard however, disagreed and had Leopold’s banner torn down. Well, Leopold already had a problem with Richard because Leopold was related through his mother to the ruler of Cyprus, whom Richard had overthrown and imprisoned. And the instant his banner fell to the gutters of Acre, Leopold pulled his entire army out of the Crusade and sailed for home.
Within a month Phillip of France had also gotten fed up with Richard's ego and he sailed for home, leaving the Lion Heart with only about a third of his army left, and burdened with more than 3,000 Muslim prisoners captured at Acre. The Muslum leader, Saladin, wasn't willing to pay the ransom Richard was demanding, so Richard had all the prisoners executed. That little faux paux ensured that Saladin, who had been trying to negotiate a peace treaty with the Christians, would continue the war just to make Richard bleed as much as possible. At the same time Richard’s overbearing rule even at a distance had produced a rebellion back on Cyprus, which eventually forced him to sell his island conquest to a cousin.
Richard's arrogance and ignorance also led to the election of an anti-Richard crusader, Conrad de Montforrat, as the new King of Jerusalem. That made Conrad the leader of the Christian army, which made him Richard’s boss. And Richard did not like bosses. Richard's participation in the crusades came to a bloody end on April 28, 1192, when Conrad was stabbed to death on the streets of Tyre by two Muslim assassins. So low had Richard’s reputation fallen that everyone assumed (and still assumes, I must add) that Richard had financed the murder. It was all based on flimsey evidence, but with Richard it was always the wise choice to believe the worst. His ego had finally run out his string.
In September 1192 Saladin finally decided to provide Richard with enough of a fig leaf to cover his escape. Salidin agreed to allow Christians to visit Jeruselum at anytime of year, something he had secretly negotiated with Conrad de Montforrat, before Conrad had been murdered. Richard could now claim he had secured the religious freedom of the Holy Land, even if nobody outside of Richard's sycophants believed that he was responsible for it.
Richard had gone on Crusade with a full war chest, 80,000 men and strong allies in France and the Holy Roman Empire. That money was now gone and most of the army was dead. Richard was leaving the holy land with just a handful of personal bodyguards and with every political power broker in Europe gunning for him. He had to sneak back home. And he didn't make it.
Just before Christmas 1192, at an inn outside of Vienna, his old fr-enemy Leopold V caught up with him. Richard was arrested while dressed as a lowly pilgrim. And it is interesting to note that there was not even a rumor that "the Lion Heart" so much as slapped the men who captured him.
Richard was hustled off to Durnsetin castle, high above the Rhine River. And once he was safely under lock and key Leopold set the price for his release at 65,000 pounds of silver. Who, the nobility of Europe must have wondered, would pay three times the annual income of the English crown to free the most pompous, most arrogant and most violent English King there was?
His mommy, that’s who; Eleanor of Aquitaine laid out her personal fortune, and put the squeeze on English churches, English nobility, English merchants and peasants from the white cliffs of Dover, to the mountains of Scotland. Of course, at the same time, Richard’s own younger brother, John, together with Phillip the king of France, were offering 80,000 pounds of silver if Leopold would just hold on to Richard for another year. I guess you could say that Eleanor won this contest, in that, in February of 1194, King Phillip sent brother John the following terse note, “Look to yourself. The devil is loose.”
And so he was. Richard might have wanted to pay back the entire continent for his bad treatment, but his huge ransom and his own boorishness and love of destruction had bankrupted him. He could no longer afford to make war on his neighbors. For the last five years of his life Richard the Lion Heart had to be content with butchering his own subjects, slaughtering them with all the zeal and blood lust he had once displayed on the international stage.
So it was that in the spring of 1199 Richard heard a rumor that a cache of Roman gold had been discovered in the Limousin region of the Aquitaine, a region so wealthy (before Richard) that luxury autos of a later age would later be named for it. There was no gold, and everybody told him so. But Richard the Lion Heart, Richard the Dunder-Head, Richard the Rush-in-where-angels-fear-to-tread, laid siege to the walled city of Charlus anyway and demanded payment of the non-existant gold. And it was during that pointless siege that a brave young defender named Bertrand de Gurdon pierced Richard’s shoulder with a crossbow bolt.
You know how you say to yourself about violent and dangerous lunatics, "I wonder why somebody doesn't just shoot him?" Well, somebody finally shot Richard. Gangrene set in and the arrogant nobleman was finally dead on Tuesday April 6, 1199, dying in his mommy's arms. As a final insult they buried the "bas-ard" at his father's feet, in Rouen Cathedral at Fontefrault.
On his deathbed Richard had insisted that the young crossbowman Bertrand was to be pardoned and set free with 100 shillings, but of course he didn't mean it. In his whole life Richard never chose nobility over violence. And it didn’t happen here, either. Instead, one of Richard’s captains had the sure-shot cross-bowman skinned alive and hanged. That man's horrible death was a fitting legacy for one of the most violent lunatics of the middle ages, a raving psychotic who had been made a King, as the thinking at the time insisted, by the grace of God.
But I think that God must have been rolling over in her grave when she heard that phrase applied to Richard.
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