Friday, November 19, 2010


I don’t understand why anyone believes the popular myths about Thanksgiving. The truth is our Puritan forefathers were a humorless bunch who showed their gratitude by going hungry - fasting. Their God was not interested in contentment, just punishment. And the only feasts they had were in the summer, when food was plentiful. By late November they were already deep into their grain stores, and watery stew. Why would they be saying “thanks” for staving to death?
The mother of Thanksgiving was actually the widow and poet (she wrote “Mary Had a Little Lamb”.) Sarah Hale, the 19th century Martha Stewart. For forty years Sarah was the editor of the prestigious “Godey’s Lady’s Book” magazine. And each November Sarah would bombard her 150,000 subscribers with recipes for Roast Turkey, Turkey stuffing, Turkey gravy, and Turkey stew. All this kitchen chemistry was required because 19th century turkeys were scrawny and almost exclusively dark meat. Sarah championed turkey because her middle class homemakers were on budgets, and the randy, strutting bird brains cost less than half per pound what a chicken might.
But the real Turkey revolution came in 1934, when the United States Department of Agriculture discovered the key to making turkeys palatable; artificial insemination. In 1932 the average American ate just two pounds of turkey a year. Today that amount is closer to twenty pounds.
But the popularity has come at a price. Today’s buxom white breasted Tom Turkey is too obese to climb atop an equally buxom white breasted hen. Ah, ceste se la guerre. But this brings us to my real topic, which is the year when Thanksgiving became a real la guerre; 1939
It was the third year of President Franklyn Delano Roosevelt’s second term as president. And Republicans were determined that he should not get a third term. However they were not in a good position to prevent it, holding only 177 seats in the House of Representatives (to 252 Democrats) and a paltry 23 seats in the Senate (to 69 Democrats). But then in August, Roosevelt handed them an early Christmas present.
Franklyn had received a July visit from Fred Lazarus (1bove), head of the Federated Department Stores, the single biggest volume retail chain in America, including Macy’s and Bloomingdales in New York City, Filenes in Boston, and Strauss in Brooklyn. Fred pointed out to the President that in 1939, November would have five Thursdays; the second, ninth, sixteenth, twenty-third and thirtieth. And Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation for a day of Thanksgiving, issued after the battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and now traditionally reissued by Presidents every year, specifically designated Thanksgiving as the final Thursday in November – in this case the 30th . The last time this had happened had been 1933, and the truncated shopping period (just 20 days) had been a disastrous retail holiday season. Lazarus wanted Roosevelt to move the Turkey Day forward one week, to give merchants another week to tempt their customers.
Roosevelt listened to this plea, and at a Press Conference held August 14th, he said that “I have been hearing from a great many people for the last six years, complaints that Thanksgiving came too close to Christmas”. After Lazarus, the President had also heard from the National Retail Dry Goods Association, as well as executives of Gimbels and Lord & Taylor. Roosevelt reminded the press that Thanksgiving was still not an official holiday, and that each year the President picked the date. And, since these experts believed that adding another week to the shopping season would increase sales by 10%, Franklin announced, this year, at least, he was moving Thanksgiving to Thursday, November 23rd.
The first alarm should have gone off when Fred Lazarus ran into his younger brother Simon. Simon was ranting over the change because it had disrupted his Ohio State Universities’ Thanksgiving day football game. “What da-n fool got the president to do this?” Simon barked. He was just the first.
The Republican attorney general for Oregon, turned to poetry. “Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November; All the rest have thirty-one; Until we hear from Washington.” A shopkeeper in Kokomo, Indiana preferred to protest in prose. “Do your shopping early. Who knows, tomorrow may be Christmas.” Republican Senator Styles Bridges of New Hampshire urged the President to simply abolish winter by fiat. And Methodist minister Norma Vincent Peal was outraged, calling it “…questionable thinking and contrary to the meaning of Thanksgiving for the president of this great nation to tinker with the sacred religious day with the specious excuse that it will help Christmas sales. The next thing we may expect Christmas to be shifted to May first to help the New York World’s Fair of 1940.”
Twenty-three governors went with the President’s switch, and twenty-two did not. Texas and Colorado couldn’t make up their minds and recognized both days as the holiday in question, although the governor of Colorado, Ralph Carr, announced he would eat no turkey on the 23rd. . The 30th was labeled as the Republican Thanksgiving, while the 23rd became the Democratic Thanksgiving, or, as Nucky Johnson, the recently indicted Republican mayor of Atlantic City called Franklin Roosevelt’s holiday, “Franksgiving”.
There were a few real problems hidden under this haze of invented outrage. Calendars could not be changed over night. And schools were suddenly uncertain of vacation schedules. Some families found their holiday dinners split between the two dates. But it turned out that the real problem had been identified by Simon Lazarus.
The headline in the New York Times said it all; “PRESIDENT SHOCKS FOOTBALL COACHES” The coach of Little Ouachita college in Arkansas warned, “We'll vote the Republican ticket if he interferes with our football.'” Chairman of the Athletic Board at New York University wrote to Roosevelt, “…it has become necessary to frame football schedules three to five years in advance, and for both 1939 and 1940 we had arranged to play our annual football game with Fordham on Thanksgiving Day…” And then Roosevelt had changed the date!
A Gallup poll found that 62% of Americans wanted the President’s decision reversed. It was too late for Roosevelt to change his mind in 1939. And FDR was too stubborn to admit defeat in November 1940, which also had five Thursdays, and was a Presidential election year. Despite the addition of even more politics into the mix, nine states switched from the Republican Thanksgiving to the Democratic one. That left just sixteen celebrating the “old” Thanksgiving. And that seems to have been enough of a victory that as November 1941 approached, (also with five Thursdays) Roosevelt asked New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to study the sales figures. Was that extra week really helping the economy? In fact it had, but not very much; certainly not enough, considering all the angst and confusion.
In early May of 1941, LaGuardia’s report informed the White House that “the early Thanksgiving date has not proved worthwhile". So on May 20th 1941, Roosevelt announced the program to help retailers had not worked. The President thus set Thanksgiving 1941 as the last Thursday in November. And in a rational world, that would have settled that. But, of course, politicians are not rational beings.
When the bill on Thanksgiving (House joint resolution 41) reached the Senate, those gentlemen simply had to improve upon it…somehow. They rewrote the resolution as a law, noting that there was nothing to designate the day as a holiday except the Presidential Proclamation each year. So the Senate made it a law, changing just one word. Thanksgiving would now be not the last Thursday in November, but the fourth. As Connecticut Senator John A. Danaher pointed out, in four out of five years, the last Thursday in November was the fourth Thursday in November. Roosevelt signed the new law into effect on December 26, 1941. And amazingly, since that date, almost nobody seems to have noticed, he won.
So, no matter what the right wing sympathizers may chortle about in their blog posts, Roosevelt won. He got his earlier date for Thanksgiving when the counrty needed it. He just called it something else, so the Republicans would swallow the common sense of it without chocking on their own bile. And that is something we can all be thankful about.
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Wednesday, November 17, 2010


I’ll bet Officer Lester Free had no trouble spotting the ten year old bulbous, toothy Buick Roadmaster, even in holiday traffic. It hesitantly appeared at the peak of the bridge across Lake Worth, and passed him, sulking onto the palm tree lined boulevard of Royal Poinciana Way. As the patrol car blended into traffic under the warm December sun, Officer Free noted the interloper’s New Hampshire plates matched the alert, and he called it in. He judged where best to make his standard traffic stop once his back up arrived. What Officer Free could not know was that he was already four days too late.

Five days earlier, on Saturday, December 10th, the old man spent almost an hour in the parking lot of his West Palm Beach motel, wrapping seven sticks of dynamite around four large cans of gasoline. He then inserted blasting caps into the sticks, and wired the infernal machine to the Buick’s cigarette lighter. When he pushed the lighter in, the bomb would be powerful enough to, an agent later admitted, “level a small mountain.”
Early the next morning, Sunday, December 11th, the old man crossed the nearly deserted bridge and drove quietly across the narrow island. He pulled his Buick into the brush flanking Monterey Road. Ahead of him was the nondescript intersection with North Ocean Boulevard, and the hidden entrance to the estate at 1095.
The old man knew that beneath its clay tile roof and white stucco walls (above), there were 7 bedrooms in the two-story 11, 000 square foot home. And although he could not see the Atlantic, the 73 year old knew it was just a few hundred feet beyond the house. People who could afford ocean front property on Palm Beach Island were not interested in sharing what they had, not even the view. And the man the old man had come here to kill, lived in that estate.
The old man, Richard Pavlick, knew his target would be going to Sunday Mass. It was Richard’s intention to crash his car into the target’s car, and then set off his infernal machine, killing them both. Richard was thus ready, just before ten that morning, when the target car edged out of the driveway from 1095. His hand was on the Buick’s ignition key.
But as the car edged onto the street, in the back seat of the limousine, Richard saw a woman with dark hair. It had to be the target’s wife, which meant the target’s two children were probably in the car too. Richard waited. What stopped him at that crucial moment was not the police or the Secret Service, but some shred of sanity floating free in Richard’s mind.
There would be another time. But this target must die. In Richard’s eyes, this man had used his privilege and wealth to steal the office of President of the United States.
In a nation that seems obsessed with being more partisan today than ever before, the presidential election of 1960 shouts for attention. According to the history books, the election was settled on Tuesday, November 8th. But in fact, the decision dragged out for weeks, with lawsuits in 11 states. On Tuesday, December 11th, 1960, a Federal judge in Texas rejected a Republican lawsuit asking for a recount, and two hours later the state awarded all 27 of its electors to Kennedy. That put Kennedy over the top, and it was not until the next day, December 12th, that the state of Illinois rejected a similar Republican lawsuit, and awarded its 24 electors to Kennedy.
Still, the margin of victory was breath taking-ly slim; by one tenth of one percent of the 68 million votes cast. It is still accepted by many partisans that the election was stolen by voter fraud in Chicago and Texas (both Democratic strongholds in 1960) and even earlier, when Joe Kennedy spent the equivalent of $100 million to secure the election of his second son, John.
But even if Kennedy had lost Illinois, he still would have won where it really counted, in the electoral collage. And in Texas, which Kennedy carried by only 46,000 votes, 2% of all votes cast, there were at least two precincts which showed more Democratic votes than registered voters. But an examination of all Texas voting records (as well as Illinois) show similar errors for both candidates through out the state. In an election casting, counting and recording 68,000 million votes in one day, errors will always occur. And in an election in which six states were decided by less than 1%, 3 more states by less than 2%, and seven more states by less than 3% of their totals, partisan conspiracy theories were certain to spring up. In every case, a second look at the evidence shows that no fraud actually occurred. But, in the case of the partisan Richard Pavlick, there was another reason to suspect John Kennedy of stealing the election that trumped all others.
Kennedy was the first Catholic elected president of the United States. Writing for the newspaper The Texas Baptist Standard, L.R. Elliot warned, that Catholicism followed “a consistent pattern of seeking and using all the power and control it can gain to advance its agenda"  – a charge strikingly similar to later charges laid against Muslims. And Richard Pavlick was well known, in his home town of Belmont, New Hampshire - “The best town by a Dam site” - for his anti-Catholic rants at public meetings. He was also a rabid letter writer to the local paper on the same issue, and obsessed with proper etiquette in displaying the American flag. One of his few friends had been Thomas Murphy, Richard’s old boss and the Postmaster for Belmont. And it had been Postmast Murphy who had warned the Secret Service about Richard’s behavior since the election.
After the November 8th election, Richard had signed over his farm to a neighboring youth camp, packed up his remaining belongings in his car, and left town. Murphy later received a post card from Pavlick postmarked Hyanis Port, on Cape Cod, where the Kennedy family had a home. And when Murphy received a similar card from Pavlick posmarked from Palm Beach, where he knew Kennedy was staying in the transition after the election, he immediately notified the Secret Service.
The Secret Service, charged with the security of the President, but not yet with protecting candidates or the President-elect, began interviewing people around Belmont. They learned he had bought dynamite, and had a rifle convescated after threatening a water meter reader. This inspired their alert to the Palm Beach police chief Homer Large. And upon hearing Officer Free’s call for back up, Chief Large ordered that all units were to converge on the suspect’s car.
They stopped the Buick in the middle of the street, and asked the driver to step out. They found he was clean shaven and “craggy faced”. Richard was pleasant and cooperative, readily producing his New Hampshire drivers license. He explained that he had been living out of his car, until he got to Florida, and that this morning he was headed for St. Edward’s Catholic Church, on North Country Road, because, he said, he wanted to see where the new President went to church. The conversation was going along pleasantly, and the officers’ guard had begun to drop when Officer Free called out the single word, “Bomb”. That ended the polite converstion.
In some ways Richard Pavlick seemed almost releaved that he had been caught. He watched impassivly while the bomb was disabled, and his car carefully searched. And later, when questioned at the police headquarters on South County Road, he explained, “I had the crazy idea I wanted to stop Kennedy from being president.” But he also added, “The Kennedy money bought him the White House. I wanted to teach the United States the presidency is not for sale.”
Richard was committed to Public Health Service Hospital in Springfield, Missouri, at the end of January. In March he was indicted for threatening the life of John Kennedy. It would not be a federal offense to threaten the life of the President until after November 22, 1963. Charges against Richard were still pending at that time, but they were dropped in December of 1963, although he was not released from hospital until December 13, 1966. He died unnoticed to the public, at the V.A. hospital in Manchester, New Hampshire on Veterans Day, 1975.
It cannot be argued that his mad man was inspired by the anti-Catholic rhetoric of the politicians, or the bigotry of the pundits of his day. But neither could it be said that they did anything to discourage him. And that is the way it is with madmen. They receive far too little discouragement, until we actually see them coming over the rise in the bridge. And sometimes that is far too late.
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Sunday, November 14, 2010


I hate to point it out, but in 1920 the Boston Red Sox began the month of July on a very sour note. The legendary pitcher for the Washington Sentators,  “Big Train” Walter Johnson, threw a no hitter shutout against the Red Sox on the very first day of the month. His achievement dropped the Sox record to 30 wins and 32 losses, with one tie. The rest of July would be even worse, with the team that had begun the year by selling Babe Ruth to the rival New York Yankees, finishing the July 13 games below .500, at 40 wins and 53 losses.
Worse, on July 17th, Babe Ruth, broke his own and major league baseball's record for home runs in a single season, hitting numbers 30 and 31 against the Chicago White Sox. And to drive the point home even more strongly, on July 27th, he hit number number 35, leading the hated Yankees over the Red Sox, 8-2; and the season was only half over.
But July was even worse for Bartolomeo Vanzetti. He was already charged with the April 15, 1920 robbery and double murder in Braintree along with Nicola Sacco. But then he had been brought to trial by himself for a Christmas Eve 1919 attempted robbery in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. That trial had opened on Tuesday June 22nd and the guilty verdict had been read out just one week and two days later, on Thursday July 1st.
It is almost impossible not to call this trial a travesty of justice. Twenty witnesses testified they had bought eels from Bartolomeo at his stand in Brockton on the day of the robbery, but they were all Italians who spoke only broken English, and the jury simply refused to believe them. All the witness for the prosecution admitted they had not gotten a good look at the suspect with the shotgun, but they were all Protestants, and were all fluent in English. The only actual physical evidence against Bartolemeo were the shot gun shells found in his coat pocket at his arrest. They might have fit the shot gun used in the attempted robbery, but neither the gun nor any spent shell casings were ever found. Sill the jury was willing to believe that Vanzetti was guilty.
The defense attorney did such a bad job that modern readers of the transcripts suspect he might have even thrown the case. And he did later go into private practice with the prosecutor. Bartolomeo’s Vanzetto’s sentencing was set by Judge Thayer(above) for  the middle of August. His trial with Sacco would not begin until the summer of 1921. But with this conviction, the prosecutor might have suspected that Vanzetti would turn on his fellow defendant. He did not, perhaps because he could not.
Meanwhile, in downtown Boston, and in “The North End”, Charles Ponzi was having a very good month. A financial reporter for the Boston Post, Princopio Santosuosso, wrote a column, questioning Ponzi's financial scheme, and Ponzi sued him for liable. And to everyone’s amazement, Ponzi won a $500,000 judgment. He was never paid, of course, but it stilled any public concern about his investment scheme. And it stiffled most of the press as well. The Post even ran a July 24th story filled with praise for the Old Colony Foreign Exchange, Ponzi’s company. That really opened the flood gates and even more money poured into Ponzi's scheme.
By this time Ponzi’s offices, in room 227, in the Niles Building at 27 School Street, were receiving $1 million every three hours from new investors. Of course, most of that money had to go right back out in order to pay dividends to earlier investors. Of course, as long as every day brought in more money than the day before, Ponzi’s business plan stayed afloat. But the editors at the Post had not rolled over after the lost liable case. In fact they were more determined than ever to put the little Italian out of business.
Publisher Richard Grozier and city editor Eddie Dunn had enlisted a “short, rotund powerhouse”, to reinvestigate Ponzi. Their man was a proven expert in finance, and wealthy enough and so well connected to the power strucutre in Boston and New York that he was not afraid of the little Italian’s lawyers. His name was Clarence W. Barron (above), and besides residing in a mansion at foot of Beacon Hill, he was also the owner and editor of “The Wall Street Journal.” Within a year he would also found “Barron’s”, making him the unofficial “diarist of the American Dream”.
First, Barron’s staff checked the public records. What they discovered was that Ponzi (above on the right) was worth about $8.5 million. But they also discovered that Ponzi had invested none of his own money in his own company. Then they did a little math and learned why.
To have covered all the money invested in the “Old Colony”, the company would have had to buy at least 160 million international postal reply coupons. However, according to the U.S. Postal Service, there were only about 27,000 coupons in circulation, worldwide. Which meant Ponzi's business model was not possible.
This information, combined with what the investigative staff of the Post had already collected, portended doom for Ponzi. The cheerful little man from Italy had been released from a Canadian prison in 1911, after serving a sentence for forgery and financial fraud. He had then almost immediately run afoul of American Immigration authorities for his part in a immigrant smuggling scheme, and served two years in the Atlanta Federal Prison.
Upon his release, he had gone to work for his father-in-law, as a lowly clerk in an Italian grocery (above). But Ponzi did not stay there long. It was only a few months later, in mid-1919, that he had registered his Old Colony Foreign Exchange” with city hall.
By the beginning of August, The great Red Scare, which had begun with such a furor in January, was pretty much over. Attorney General Palmer had predicted a communist-anarchist uprising on May Day. It had not happened. He had predicted another on July 4th. That rebellion had not happened either. By the middle of July both Palmer and J.Edgar Hoover, his man at the Justice Department’s Investigation Bureau, had both been reduced to laughing stocks. Palmer’s dreams of reaching the White House had faded away.
August and the hot dog days of summer were on the horizon. And by all indications, August would be a very eventful month in Boston.
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