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Friday, December 03, 2010

GETTING A HEAD

I would call it the definitive way of dealing with a swelled head. Oh sure, Oliver Cromwell had some doubts while he was dying. And it was about time he did. All his life Oliver had been such an imperious narcissistic autocrat that in retrospect, the despotic and conceited Charles I now seemed reasonable - once Oliver had beheaded Charles. But then Oliver went on the ultimate ego trip, launching a bloody war trying to eradicate Catholicism from Ireland. He would have had better luck trying to reintroduce the snakes. Oliver was so supercilious that in 1650 he wrote to a Scottish opponent, “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ think it possible you may be mistaken,” and just three years later he suffered no such introspection while making himself dictator, because, “…the spirit of god (was) so strong upon me, I would not consult flesh and blood.” Flesh and blood has bowels, Oiliver, it seems, did not. It turns out the one nation Oliver never even attempted to conquer was Gaul
And then at the age of 59, on his death bed, on the afternoon of September 3, 1658, Oliver was beset by humility at long last (as well as a urinary tract infection – which is what kills you when you don’t have antibiotics). Oliver whispered, “My design is to make what haste I can to be gone.” But it was too late to be hasty. Even dead, Oliver could no longer escape the judgment of those who had suffered under his turgid arrogance.
His corpse was entombed in Westminster Abbey, along with all those kings and queens he thought himself superior to. His followers attached a plate to his coffin reading “Oliver Cromwell, Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland”, so that on Judgment Day there would be no chance Oliver would be overlooked. They might as well have planted a big arrow above his crypt that read “Dig Here!”
Judgment day arrived less than three years later. As soon as Charles II was crowned king, he had 12 of those who had participated in his father’s trial tried for high treason. The inevitable executions which followed produced a macabre precursor of Super Bowl Week. From Monday October 8th through Saturday the 13th , 1660 (on the old Julian calendar), the twelve were each subjected to what contemporary witness William Harrison described as “The greatest and most grievous punishment used in England….drawing from the prison to the place of execution upon an hurdle or sled, where they are hanged till they be half dead, and then taken down…”. It wasn’t until after the hanging that the festivities really got started.
The guest-of-dishonor was stretched naked on a butcher block table. First, his genitalia were removed and displayed to him. They were then thrown into a fire. Then, according to English Wikipedia, “A splash of water was usually employed to wake the man if unconscious…A large cut was made in the gut…and the intestines would be spooled out on a device that resembled a dough roller. Each piece of organ would be burned before the sufferer's eyes, and when he was completely disemboweled, his head would be cut off.” And not quickly removed, with a single swipe of a massive sword or an axe, but via repeated whacks with a meat clever. The idea was not to kill the unfortunate honoree, but to torture him, and thus to entertain the crowd.
This was a spectator sport, drawn out for hype and hyperbole. Samuel Pepys was there for the anticlimax. He noted in his diary, “Saturday 13 October…went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered…He looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy…After that I went…home, where I was angry with my wife for her things lying about, and in my passion kicked the little fine basket, which I bought her in Holland, and broke it, which troubled me after I had done it.” Ah, death, where is thy operant conditioning?
Oliver Cromwell, being legally and retroactively the villain-in-chief would not be spared these humiliations just because he was deceased. He was spared the pain, but then there had been the urinary tract infection. On the morning of January 30, 1661 Oliver’s corpse and those of two of his fellow deceased co-conspirators, were hung by their necks at Tyburn, the traditional place of execution for “commoners”. Ouch, that little insult must have hurt. The un-dearly departed hung in public, like hams in a smoke house, until four in the afternoon. Then their heads were removed; I presume they cut off Oliver’s last, as we are told it took eight chops. The poor executioner must have been shagged out from removing the first two heads.
After this academic execution, Oliver’s corpse was discarded into a pit and his head was raised upon a 20 foot wooden pole above the south side of Westminster Palace. Finally, Oliver was as aloof as he had always imagined himself to be, head and shoulders above all other contenders...except he no longer had any shoulders. And there he bobbled about in heavy winds until at least 1672, by which time it seems, people had begun to forget just whose head was which head.
Legends claim that Oliver’s pole was blown down in a storm and Oliver’s dome rolled into the hands of Mr. John Moore, a guard, who snuck the coconut home and stuffed the noggin in his chimney. When it was realized that the arch villain Oliver Cromwell had somehow escaped, rewards were offered and notices posted demanding and threatening punishments unless he were returned. To remain descret, Mr. Moore gave the head to an apothecary in King Street, who then sold Oliver’s skull to a Mr. Humphrey Dove, Esq. Lawyer Dove kept Oliver confined to a chest until his death in 1687 – Mr. Dove’s death that is. After this it appears that Oliver made a clean getaway, no mean feat for a man with no feet...or legs. Or torso.
In 1710 a Claudius Du Puy opened a museum of curiosities in London containing as its most curious curiosity of all, the head of Oliver Cromwell. That the exhibit was a financial failure was no fault of Oliver’s. He did his part. He was still dead. He still had no body to support him . But was this head really Oliver’s head? Or was it an imposter’s skull masquerading as the demon Protestant?
It would not be until the 1930’s that two scientist issued a 109 page report authenticating to a “moral certainty” that the head in question was unquestionably the head of Oliver Cromwell. And on March 25, 1960 Oliver’s morally certain head was finally buried somewhere near the chapel of Sidney Sussex College, in Cambridge, England. And nobody knows exactly where.
And that anonymity must be driving Oliver out of his skull!
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Wednesday, December 01, 2010

THE VALUE OF MONEY

I understand why Republicans have such naive faith in capitalists. Certainly, the businessmen or women who risk their own futures on the vagaries of markets, deserve universal respect. But it seems to me that the farther you get from the pain of your own mistakes the less you are a capitalist, and the more you become an elitist. As proof, I present to you a German flute maker who made his fortune in England, and doubled it by investing in the American fur trade; John Jacob Astor (above). He made in his life time the modern equivalent of $110 billion, so much money that his fortune survived two hundred years, it survived the great depression, four generations of 20th century “death taxes” and two world wars, so that his distant heirs are still enjoying its benefits. Astor’s “genius” was that he saw the American fur trade was not about fur, it was about dope.
See, post-revolutionary war American didn’t have enough customers to support a native industry. America had to be an exporter. Her nearest customers were in Europe. But by 1810, hunters had so decimated eastern populations of beaver, otter, squirrel and fox, that trappers were shipping furs fifteen hundred miles just to reach an Atlantic port. Overland transportation costs now made American fur a luxury item in Europe. But, and this was Astor’s genius, the west coast of North America was still filled with fur, swimming and walking around. And just across the Pacific were millions of Chinese opium addicts. And Astor saw the connection between those two.
Plugged into the global English banking system, Astor realized he could buy furs in the Pacific Northwest from native Americans for the price of some fish hooks and axes, sell them in China and Japan for working capital, with which he could buy Afghanistan opium, which could be sold in China at an enormous profit. All he had to do was buy enough British politicians to send the Royal Navy to force the Chinese to leave his opium fleets alone. That was what the British meant by Freedom of the Seas. And the real magic was that Astor never had to go to any of those places himself and look dead otters or dead addicts in the face. He hired others to do that. Of course, it turns out, working at a distance has its own price.
To put his plan in motion Astor hired two men. First he dispatched Wilson Hunt, who was a New Jersey businessman (and a junior partner), at the head of 64 French Canadian trappers, to head overland for the Columbia River. And then he convinced the U.S. Navy to loan him Lieutenant Jonathan Thorn, hero of the battle of Tripoli. And it turns out neither of these guys had any business running anything.
Thorn left first, on September 8, 1810 in command of the 290 ton, 10 gun ship, the Tonquin. She carried 34 seamen, French Canadian trappers and clerks, and everything needed to set up Astor’s fur collecting station at the mouth of the Columbia River. But barely had they passed out onto the Atlantic when Captain Thorn turned into Captain Bligh. He cursed the crew for singing a sea ditty. And when Alexander McKay, another junior partner in the venture, commented on the lousy food, Thorn called him “the most worthless human who ever broke a sea biscuit.” That night McKay wrote in his notebook “I fear we are in the hands of a maniac” McKay had no idea.
Wilson Hunt and his party left St. Louis on October 21, 1810, but traveled only 450 miles up the Missouri River before winter forced him to camp just south of present day St. Joseph, Missouri. They were in birch bark canoes and the plan was to follow the Lewis and Cark trail over the Rocky Mountains. But over the long dark winter months Hunt started to think for himself, a mistake which was to prove disastrous.
By early December, when the Tonquin stopped for fresh water in the Falkland Islands, the passengers had begun speaking only French in the presence of Captain Thorn, because they knew he did not speak French and it drove him crazy. He paid them back by acting the petty tyrant. When five of his passengers went sightseeing and missed his deadline to return, Thorn weighed anchor and set sail, leaving them desperately rowing for three hours to catch up. He would have abandoned them to their fate, had not the wind fortuitously shifted and allowed the exhausted Canadians to collapse, vomiting, back on board. Everybody now had a thorn in their side; Captain Thorn
On Christmas day this happy ship rounded Cape Horn, at the southern tip of Africa. And on the 12th of February 1811, after stops in India and China to confirm business arrangements, the Tonquin anchored off Hawaii, for pork and water and to pick up a few additional workers. Thorn had by now convinced himself there was going to be an armed rebellion at any moment. His opportunity for dealing with this perceived threat arrived on March 22, 1811, when the Tonquin stood off the mouth of the Columbia River, at a cape with attractive title of Desperation Bay.
Captain Torn ordered his first mate, Ebenezer Fox, to take four of the Canadians and find a route over the treacherous sand bar at the river’s mouth. (Even today, the U.S. Coast Guard station at Desperation Bay responds to 400 calls for help every year.) Fox begged to be allowed to replace the Frenchmen. “I am to be sent off, without seamen, in boisterous weather, and on the most perilous of missions.” Captain Thorn bellowed, “Mr. Fox, if you are afraid of water, you should have remained at Boston. I command here! Mr. Fox, do not be a coward. Put off!” At about 1:00 p.m. Mr. Fox and the Canadians did just that, and were never seen again.
The next day Captain Thorn dispatched another seaman and three unhappy Hawaiians to find a passage. They also disappeared into the surf. Only now, with the ranks of his opponents thinned, did the captain dispatch able seamen. With difficulty they found the opening in the bar, and led the ship to the safety of the bay. The survivors were overjoyed to be on dry land and away from the insane Jonathan Thorn. Wrote one of the party, “The loss of eight of us within two days was deeply felt.” They immediately began building a fort, which they christened with the name of the man who signed their pay checks (and who had hired Captain Thorn!); Fort Astor.
Captain Thorn did not wait for the construction to be completed. Now that he had put the worst of the troublemakers ashore, and before the supplies had been completely unloaded, he sailed north, intending on returning in few weeks. Mr. McKay, ordered to accompany the madman north, handed over his journals and bade his friends goodbye. “If you ever see us again it will be a miracle”.
There was no miracle. Off Vancouver Island Captain Thorn applied his powers of diplomacy to a local tribe, who in response butchered the entire crew (including Thorn). Somehow fire reached the ship’s magazine, and the resultant explosion killed most of the avenging natives as well. Thus ended the naval and diplomatic career of Lt. Jonathan Thorn, dispensing death to everything and everyone he touched. He also left 16 survivors back at Fort Astor, stranded on the lonely west coast of North America, without supplies and with no way of communicating their plight to anyone who cared to listen.
Meanwhile, as you may remember, Wilson Hunt was now leading a party of 65 French Canadian trappers out of Missouri. And after thinking the thing over carefully, Mr. Hunt decided not to follow the trail blazed by Lewis and Clark. With the arrival of April 1811, he bought horses from the local indians and mounted up his French Canadian trappers, each of whom had been hired because of their skills in handeling a canoe.
By September of 1811, these miserable dudes had got as far as the North Fork of the Snake River (also called Henry’s Fork), in present day Idaho. Here Mr. Hunt faced an open rebellion from his French Canadians, who found their thighs badly chaffing. So they gave their horses as gifts to the local Indians, and the trappers set about constructing birch bark canoes. This proved to be a bad idea, as just two days after launcing their tiny armada, two men drowned and two canoes were overturned (dumping all their food and supplies) as the river alternated between cascades, rapids and rock stewn shallows. Progress was so slow the party cleaned out every edible creature within reach of ther river. In desperation, the starving Canadians split up into four groups. One turned back for civilisation, stumbling upon the broad South Pass through the Rockies along the way, while the other three groups headed further down “The accursed mad river.”
As they decended the Snake River they entered a narrow canyon. Quickly they were trapped in a quarter mile wide abyss, between 700 foot high walls of solid basalt. There was nothing to eat here beyond the fish in the river. As Richard Neuberger would write, “It was a winter of famine, and they boiled their buckskin footgear and drank the fetid broth. Two more voyageurs were swallowed up by rapids and another went mad.”
The survivors finally exited this purgatory by climbing out of the canyon. Again under Mr. Hunt’s command, they scattered in search of food. Luckilly they were stumbled upon by compasionate Indians, who fed and reclothed the men before passing them on, tribe after tribe, until they were welcomed, each sad ragged party after the other, by the survivors of Astor’s ccean going disaster. Of the 64 who had set out from St. Louis in the fall of 1810, barely 45 staggered into Fort Astor, the last arriving in February of 1812…just in time for the war of 1812, between the United States and Great Britian.
Captain William Black, of HMS Raccoon, was startled at what he saw. “Is this the great Fort Astoria I have heard so much of around the world? Good God, I could batter it down with a four-pounder in two hours!” But he did not have to. The Astorians, as they referred to themselves, surrendered to reality, secure in the knowledge that whatever nation’s flag was flying over the fort it remained the private property of an English citizen who had hired mostly French Canadians to do his dirty work. The war was, at worst, an inconvenience.
When the Treaty of Ghent was signed in December of 1814, a special clause had been written in which specifically transferred Astoria from Britain back to the United States, where Mr. Astor had now taken up residence. Average men might occasionally die for a flag, but for banlers, money always trumps patriotism.
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Sunday, November 28, 2010

1920 - GOING OUT WITH A BANG

I admit that the game of Tuesday August 31st, 1920 between the last place Philadelphia Phillies, playing 23 games below .500 and nineteen games out of first place, and the Chicago Cubs, battling for the National League title, arouses some suspicion just by reading the box score. The cellar dwelling Phillies won, three to zip.
The losing pitcher for Chicago was their best, right hander (Old) Pete Alexander. He had not been scheduled to pitch that day, but hours before the start time the Chicago club president, Bill Veeck, had offered Alexander a $500 bonus if he won the game. The problem seems to have been that somebody else was offering other members of the Chicago Cubs more if they threw the game.
The Phillies scored two runs in the second inning, and one in the ninth. Chicago right fielder Max Flack, with a .306 batting average, went one for four that day. Short stop Zeb Terry went oh for three. The heart of the Chicago batting order, Robertson, Barber and Paskert, went one for sixteen. The Cubs left 6 men on base and batted a sickening .172. It might have been written down as an off day for the Cubs, but Bill Veeck had received several telegrams warning that the game was fixed. The Chicago Herald Examiner had also gotten a letter claiming that Detroit gamblers had bet “thousands” on Philadelphia.
The public reaction to the newspaper’s allegation convinced Illinois State’s Attorney Maclay Hoyne to convene a Cook County Grand Jury on Tuesday, September 7, 1920, to investigate the game. On advice from Chief Justice Charles MacDonald, Hoyne broadened the investigation to include the rumor plagued 1919 World Series. The Black Sox scandal was off and running.
While this was going on, the Boston Red Sox were beginning their long retreat into mediocrity. On Thursday, September 2, 1920, they split a four game series against the New York Yankees, which brought their record to 62 wins and 64 losses.
On Saturday, September 11, 1920 Sacco and Vanzetti were indicted for the robbery and two murders in Braintree, Massachusetts. It was not a surprise. Many saw it as justice. And many others saw it an example of racism and religious bigotry.
On Sunday, September 12, 1920, the Boston Globe ran a feature story, under the headline, “Marry Young If You Wish Success, Says Millionaire, Once Newsboy” The millionaire was 37 year old Archie Andrews. He told the readers, “There is nothing in the world that drives a man like responsibility.” He also advised young men to begin their business careers in sales. “He can learn to know men in this way as in no other, no matter whether (you are) selling shoes, phonographs, real estate or insurance…It is only a question of psychology, anyhow.”
Just before noon, on Thursday September 16, 1920 a lesson in psychology was offered to the American protestant ruling class, if they cared to learn such a lesson. A produce wagon, pulled by an old dark bay horse, was driven through the narrow streets of Manhattan’s financial district. At that hour the streets were jammed with autos and horse drawn cabs and delivery wagons, and pedestrians. The nondescript wagon stopped at the corner of Wall and Broad Street.
To anyone in the world in the know this was simply “The Corner”.  Down Broad Street was the New York Stock Exchange. In 1920, at 14 Wall Street was Federal Hall,  now a Federal Reserve Bank. On the south side of the street was number 23, the fortress offices of J.P. Morgan (above), the world’s most politically powerful bank. Unnoticed in the self obsessed rush, the driver abandoned his wagon, in the back of which were 500 pounds of dynamite connected to a clock and timer, surrounded by 500 pounds of cast iron sash weights. At one minute after noon the bomb went off.
The expanding shock wave shattered the wagon and the horse. The sash weights were likewise converted into shrapnel. Flesh and blood, metal and concrete were ripped apart. Bone was shattered. Window awnings 12 stories above the blast caught fire from the heat. The huge windows in the front of NYSE shattered, showering glass on the trading floor. A woman’s head, still wearing her hat, was stuck to the exterior wall of the JP Morgan building. A financial reporter watched as a mutilated body in the street, “half-naked and seared with burns, started to rise. It struggled, then toppled and fell lifeless to the gutter.” “A messenger lay decapitated, a packet of stocks smoldering in his hand. An eyeless clerk, his feet blown off, tried to crawl away.”
Joe Kennedy, who would be the father of a President and three senators, was thrown to the floor of the stock exchange by the blast wave. J.P. Morgan’s son was killed, as was the chief clerk for his father’s bank. In all 38 died, 143 were seriously wounded. Almost all the victims were, like the horse, beasts of burden, messengers, clerks, brokers and stenographers. The truly powerful perhaps heard the blast, or saw its aftermath, if they were quick enough and interested enough to approach the scene.
For the first time in its history, trading on the NYSE exchange was halted. 1,700 police officers and 75 Red Cross nurses poured into the disaster scene. A company of troops from Governor’s Island marched through the streets. At 3:30 p.m. the board of governors for the NYSE decided to reopen for business the next day, as usual. Overnight the streets were cleaned, sweeping up the blood and the evidence and carting it away.
The next morning the Stock Exchange opened on time. At noon, Friday September 17, 1920, a rally sponsored by the Sons of the American Revolution, drew thousands to “The Corner.” Patriotic songs were sung and patriotic speeches were made. But no one was ever charge for this act of terrorism.
Chief amongst the suspects was Mike Boda, AKA Mario Buda, the owner of the car whose retrieval had led to the capture of Sacco and Vanzetti. He was in New York City on the 16th, and shortly thereafter returned to Italy. He was never even questioned about the explosion.
One week later, on Friday, September 24, 1920, New York Giants Pitcher Rube Benton testified before the Cook County Grand Jury that he knew the 1919 World Series was fixed, and he mentioned the names of several Chicago Cubs players who were involved. The following Monday, September 27, 1920, details of the secret grand jury hearings appeared in several newspapers. The next day, Cubs pitcher Eddie Ciotte appeared before the jury at his own request and confessed. On Wednesday the 29th , the New York Times headline read, ““Eight White Sox Players Are Indicted, On Charge of Fixing 1919 World Series, Cicotte got $10,000, And Jackson $5,000” in payoff money.
This same day, Chicago outfielder, “Shoeless “Joe Jackson called the courthouse to say he also wanted to confess. Charley Comisky (above), owner of the Cubs, immediately suspended all players named before the Grand Jury. He insisted he knew nothing about the scandal, even tho Shoeless Joe had tried to warn him at the time. Cominsky had refused to hear him. The Yankees, in a publicty move, offered their entire team to the deaf man in Chicago to replace his suspended players, but he never took them up on it.
The Red Sox would end September and their season with 72 wins, against 81 losses; 25 ½ games out of first place. During the year they scored 650 runs, but gave up 698. Against the Ruth’s Yankees (above) they had  nine wins against thirteen loses. The next time the Red Sox had a chance at winning the American League Championship would not come until long after Babe Ruth retired from the Yankees in 1934.
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