MAY 2017

MAY  2017
The Billionaires Playground - 1890 - The Last Time the National Wealth was this Unbalanced

Translate

Amazon Contextual Product Ads

Friday, March 11, 2011

TOO MANY GOVERNORS

I am surprised that nobody got lynched in Nebraska during the winter of 1890-91. Well, a few people may have been shot, but the newspapers probably buried the details. Tempers were a little tense on the prairie that winter and the newspapers all had a dog in the hunt, so to speak, and they could not be trusted to be either fair or accurate. In the election on November 4, 1890, the Republicans and Democrats spilt seven seats in the state senate and forty-six seats in the house between them. But every other seat, eighteen in the senate and fifty-four in the house, gave a clear majority to an upstart third party, the so called “hogs in the parlor”, the People’s Independent Party. And to those who dream about the transforming- log-jam busting magic of a third party in Congress, let the experiences of the PIPs be a lesson in reality.
Cornhusker politics have often been a lot more colorful than the reticent citizens are wont to admit to outsiders. What other state’s tourism motto could boast with a straight face “We go both ways”? Either they don’t think anybody else is bright enough to get that joke, or they aren’t. And either possibility is not a compliment for the denizens of Nebraska.
Even before Nebraska was admitted to the union, on January 7, 1859, a fracas of fisticuffs fractured the Nebraska territorial legislature, between those who lived north and those who lived south of the Platte River. It may seem pointless to be divided by a stream famously described as “too thick to drink, and too thin to plow”, a river which, in the late summer, resembles more plain than flood plain, but politics is rarely about reality and doubly so in Nebraska, where reality is so flat and peppered with cow poo. After the brawl the South Platte faction removed themselves across the river to the hamlet of Florence, which had, according to the newspaper “Nebraskian”, “…been, for months, laboring assiduously to delude strangers that it was a city”.
The entire place only became a state over President Andrew Johnson’s veto in 1867. And in the 1870 Supreme Court decision “Baker V. Morton” the justices had to slap down the state’s power structure for stealing land from a poor sod buster and using it to bribe state legislators in the infamous “Skriptown scandal”. But all of this would prove a mere foretaste to the bounty of bovine pie hurling offered up after the election of 1890.
To the farmers living on the Nebraska prairie in the 1880’s it seemed the railroads were standing on their throats. And to those concerned that Health Care Reform or Union busting I urge you to study the century long struggle against the railroad monopolies. All across the American west, farmers had bought their land from the railroads. The banks which held their mortgages were owned by the railroads. The only way to get their wheat and corn to market was via the railroads. The only silos to store their harvested crops while awaiting shipment were owned by the railroads. The railroad monopolies set the shipping rates and the silo rates and there was no appeal to their heartless bookkeeping.
Try and start a bank to break the railroad monopoly, and the state legislators would make it illegal. Try and build your own silo, and the state legislators would make it illegal. Politics in Nebraska were so rotten it was said the Union Pacific Railroad picked one of the States’ two Senators, while the other was chosen by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.
Theoretically the American two-party system would offer the oppressed a choice. But by 1890, thanks to political contributions from the railroads,  the Democrats supported a laissez faire approach to capitalism, while the Republicans were tied to an activist government in favor of the capitalists (i.e. the railroads). The oppressed majority were cow pied out to luck.
Thus was born the Farmer’s Alliance, which morphed into the People’s Independent Party. It was forged in response to decades of railroad corruption, railroad influence selling, and political stagnation - sound familiar? (I'll give you a hint - substitute the word bank or insurance company for the word railroad)  And then on top of that, a drought not equaled again until the dust bowl of the 1930’s reduced many Nebraska farmers to poverty. According to one mocking Republican observer, the ideal world envisioned by these “hayseeds” was a combination of a Victor Hugo plot and a Baptist revival meeting. But the truth was, all that most of these farmers wanted was for somebody to just acknowledge the railroads were standing on their wind pipe. It was their cry for justice which had produced the results of the election of November 1890. And when the Nebraska legislature convened in joint session in January of 1891 things very quickly developed into that Victor Hugo melodrama.
To begin with, the new speaker of the House, Independent Sam Elder, decided he was going to bypass the acting President of the Senate, Republican George Meiklejohn (who was also the lieutenant-governor) and preside over both houses of the legislature all by himself. That was plainly illegal and extra-constitutional but Sam figured that desperate times called for desperate measures.
However, Elder’s plans for a grand investigation of election fraud and a remaking of state government were derailed when Meiklejohn grabbed the gavel off the podium and refused to return it. There was a shoving, grasping cat fight for the precious totem, which Meiklejohn eventually won. From this point the business of government in Nebraska got very noisy and ground to a complete halt, all over the issue of the certification of the new governor.
As these things were normally counted, the clear election loser was the Republican candidate L.D. Richards, who received just 68,878 votes. The Democrat, James Boyd, had received 71,331 votes, and was, according to county election officials from across the state (who were all either Democrats or Republicans, of course), the winner. But Speaker Elder was certain the actually winner had been John Powers, the candidate of Elder's People’s Independent Party. Officially Powers had received 70,187 votes, making him second by 1,144 votes. But Elder believed with good reason that 2,000 fraudulent votes had been cast for Boyd in Douglas County, centered on Omaha. And Speaker Elder was demanding an immediate investigation.
With the Republicans siding with the Democrats against the Independents, neither side dared to adjourn. Elder presided from the podium, calling on speakers and announcing votes, while Meiklejohn sat at the clerk’s desk, doing the same. Nobody got anything done because nobody could hear anybody else. Sometime after midnight, with the Republicans caucusing with their Democratic allies in an anteroom, Speaker Elder ordered the doors locked and told the sergeant-at-arms to admit no one without a written pass from him; check.
Meanwhile, the presumed victor, James Boyd, had requested and received an immediate hearing before the State Supreme Court. Boyd was asking for a writ of mandamus (“…a court order that required another court, government official, public body, corporation or individual, to perform a certain legally required act”). Boyd’s attorney argued his case before three judges of the Nebraska state Supreme Court, in a hearing room crowded with armed angry spectators from various political factions. After the hearing it was expected that the judges would retire to consider the arguments. Instead the justices held an immediate huddle and after a few moments Chief Justice Cobb announced that the weighty issues of freedom of speech, suffrage, democracy, public order and good government were all irrelevant. The court had decided that certifying election results was simply a clerical duty and not a matter of choice. Cobb signed the writ of mandamus on the spot and then ran for the exit; checkmate.
The spectators were so stunned they were frozen. And that was probably the only reason none of freshly disenfranchised voters in the room started shooting. The sheriff of Lancaster County (a Democrat), surrounded by deputies (more Democrats), smashed down the locked doors of the legislative chamber, charged to the front of the room and forcefully served the writ upon Speaker Elder. They practically threw it in his face.
And to everyone’s surprise, Speaker Elder did as he was ordered to do. John Boyd was officially declared the official governor of the state of Nebraska. “Thus”, said Judge Bayard Paine forty-five years later, “tragedy was averted in Nebraska statecraft.” Instead, tragedy was converted into low comedy.
At that point in time the most hated man in Nebraska was probably the outgoing governor, Republican John Thayer. It was Thayer’s open kowtowing to the railroads over the previous year which been most responsible for the defeat of the Republican Party in the past election. And he now refused to surrender his office, saying he would “hold on to the chair, the seat, and the office of Governor until the cows come home.” Whatever happens in Nebraskan politics, one way or the other, it always seems to come down to cows.
While the legislature bickered downstairs, Thayer barricaded himself in the governor’s offices upstairs. He called up 25 men of the State militia under the appropriately named Captain Rhody, and the Omaha Police Department, to stand guard over his self. Having finally taken the oath, Boyd moved into other offices in the State House and dispatched the Lincoln County sheriff (again) to take procession of the executive suites. But this time the sheriff ran up against an armed militia which refused to surrender. Fist fights again broke out, until Boyd ordered his side to retire.
On January 10th it finally occurred to the Captain Rhody that he and his little band of men had been maneuvered out on a limb, and if that limb collapsed he was the one most likely to be lynched from it. Rhody announced to Thayer that “I have saluted you for the last time”, and then marched his little army back to their barracks. Abandoned, Thayer surrendered the Governor’s offices, and Boyd moved in.
But Thayer was far from ready to give up. He hired his own attorney and on January 13th 1891, appealed to the state Supreme Court. His argument was inventive; John Boyd was not qualified to be governor because he was not an American citizen because he had not been born in America. And that made John Thayer the original “birther”.
Indeed Boyd had been born in Ireland in 1834. His family had immigrated to America when he was 14. His father had begun the naturalization paperwork in 1849 but events, both personal and political, had intervened. In 1856 the Boyd family had moved to Nebraska territory and had become involved in business and local politics. They were still residents in 1867 when Nebraska had been admitted to the union over President Johnson’s objection. But Boyd’s father had never completed the naturalization paperwork. Ergo, argued ex-Governor Thayer, John Boyd was not qualified to be the current governor of Nebraska.
And on May 5th, 1891 the State Supreme Court agreed with Thayer. Of course most of the judges had been appointed by Thayer, but Boyd chose not to call the Lincoln County Sheriff again. Boyd was out and ex-governor Thayer was Governor again. The Nebraska governor's office was beginning to resemble the prize in a game of musical chairs, but without the music. But what Thayer had done was a desperate power grab and doomed to failure in the long run, if for no other reason than it assured that any Irish Republicans in Nebraska were not likely to vote Republican again in the near future.
More immediately, Boyd appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Their decision was announced by Chief Justice Fuller: “Manifestly,"  he said, "the nationality of the inhabitants of territory acquired by conquest or cession becomes that of the government under whose dominion they pass…The judgment of the supreme court of Nebraska is reversed…” It was an 8 to 1 judgment, issued on January 2nd, 1892. And thus the election of 1890 was finally decided, over a year later. Boyd resumed his office on February 3. But, since the Governor of Nebraska served just a two year term, the antics of Governor Thayer and Speaker Elder, had effectively cut Boyd’s term in half.
And that is the kind of political victory that only makes sense when figured by the quarterly profit and loss statements of a corporate boardroom. Politically, the Republicans were still out on that limb, in strong disfavor in Nebraska, and the Democrats made the smart move of courting the Independents.
The frustrated farmers and their leaders had come to the realization that to fight the large railroads would take a national political movement, and the Nebraska Independents joined similar groups around the nation. They found themselves drawn toward the Democratic Party, and in the Presidential election of 1896 they aligned themselves behind Nebraska Democratic Senator William Jennings Bryant, for President. He lost.
And that defeat deflated the Independents nationally. They never gave up. But they never completely beat the railroads, which retained a great influence over national politics well into the 1950’s. But rather than the Democrats absorbing the Independents, in fact the Independents absorbed the Democratic Party. What came out of their joining was a populist Democratic party, a party that saw government as a force to redress grievances, a party which, for all its numerous failings, was a people’s party. And in that small way, the Nebraska populists won.
- 30 -

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

THE BOY JONES

I begin this tale by reminding you of the central thesis of all of my columns, including this one, which is that biologically we humans have a limited number of emotional responses to stimuli, so we tend to repeat ourselves. As that repetitive plotter Antonio puts it in The Tempest, “What's past is prologue”, which he says while plotting yet another assignation. Not that he wants to be king - Antonio is no Richard the Third. He just can't stop himself from plotting. To bring the play to a close, Shakespeare is even forced to induce magic to convert Antonio to pacifism, but that is a dramatist's trick. The reality is not that people never change, it is that PEOPLE never change, from Jack the Ripper to Boy George to Mahatma Gandhi to Genghis Khan to Richard Nixon, history is not a trail of regrets, it is a Mobius strip. Still, if there is nothing new in the story about a lad being arrested with Queen Victoria's undies stuffed down his pants, it is at least entertaining to read about it.
Early on the morning of June 20th, 1837 Alexandria Victoria made a typically teenager's entry into her diary; “I was awoke at 6 o'clock by Mamma....I am Queen.” Except in her case it was real. 
And thus the diminutive monarch was set upon a collision course with an equally abbreviated young lad, who first made his appearance in history on December 14, 1838, when his soot blackened face suddenly appeared at the glass door entrance to The Marble Hall in Buckingham Palace...from the inside. No strangers were supposed to be in the palace at that hour. The night porter, Mr, William Cox, was startled by the apparition, and called for assistance. A chase began in the Marble Hall was concluded outside on the Palace lawn, when the intruder was captured near St. James Street by Constable James Stone. The stubby scoundrel was carrying a sword, linen and a letter written to Queen Victoria, amongst other items purloined from the Palace. Oh, and he also had several pairs of her majesty's bloomers stuffed down the front of his trousers.
That afternoon the frightful looking young man (everyone agreed he had a very large head and ugly features) was arraigned in the Queen's Square Police Court, where he gave his name as Edward Cotton. He claimed that a year earlier, while living in Hertfordshire, he had met a man who induced him to travel to London and sneak into the Palace.  He claimed that the unnamed man had long since departed, but that he had been living in the palace for the past year, dressed as a chimney sweep to allay suspicions if he were spotted during the day. 
During the evenings he sat upon the Queen's throne, and examined the books and paintings in her library. He slept in closets and empty rooms each night, and found what food he could in the kitchen after hours. He often, he claimed, hid behind the furniture and overheard the Queen and her ministers discussing matters of state.
At his next appearance in court, at his trial, our hero was confronted with the truth. His name was actually Edward Jones - the London press began referring to him as “Boy Jones - and he was just 14 years old. He lived in a one room apartment he shared with his poverty stricken father, a tailor, and his five siblings, on York Street in the Westminster section of London. The boy had a “ mischievous and restless disposition”, explained the father, and would often disappear for days with no explanation when he returned. He rarely bathed, and spent his time reading and rereading scrap papers he bought for a penny. In desperation his father had sent Edward to work for a builder. His employer explained that Edward was fascinated with the Queen and often spoke of her, always respectfully. 
Edward had entered the Palace, it developed, by coating himself with bear grease and squeezing through a crack in a marble arch by the Palace's front door. And he had been in the palace not for a year, but just for that night. He had first attempted to escape via a chimney, which is how he came to be covered in soot. With the puncturing of his inventions, and with the help of his lawyer Mr. Pendergast, the jury saw Edward as a pitiable character who had no malicious intent. He was found not guilty of trespass and released without bond.  The officials hoped that since the boy had been chastised and would be kept under a close watch, he would stay away from the Queen and the Palace. But as David Letterman could explain, chastisement is not enough to disparage a determined stalker.
During this same time Queen Victoria was busy as well. On February 10th, 1840 she was married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and within a few months she was pregnant. On November 21st, of 1840 Victoria gave birth to a daughter. The nation celebrated and cheered, but Victoria thought all infants were ugly and that breast feeding was barbaric. 
Thus the Palace was crowded with more than the usual number of servants eleven days later, when, just after one in the morning on Thursday December 2nd , a night nurse named Mrs. Lilly caring for the new princess Victoria, heard a noise coming from the Queen's dressing room. She called other servants and the room was searched. Under the sofa, upon which Victoria had been sitting just two hours earlier, was discovered the grinning horrible edifice of Edward Jones. What might have been cute in a 14 year old was now just creepy in a 17 year old. . 
He was described by the author Charles Dickens who interviewed him as “ of a most repulsive appearance; but he was unconscious of this defect as he affected an air of great consequence”. Boy Jones never actually got to meet the Queen, which was good because the young majesty confided to her diary the next day, “But supposing he had come into the Bedroom, how frightened I should have been.” Quite.
This time it was decided to avoid the courts and the publicity. Edward was tried in secret by the Privy Council. Here he claimed that he had actually entered the Palace on Monday November 30th , by scaling a wall to reach an opened window. But because of the large number of people about he had left again, unseen. But he had come back the following night, December 1st, at about 1 A.M., and had hidden in the Palace all the next day until he was caught. The Privy Council noted the new lapse in security, found Edward guilty of being a rogue and a vagabond and sentenced him to three months in the brand new Tothills Fields Bridewall prison, also known as the Westminster House of Correction.
The new Tothill Prison was considered the epitome of modern penitentiary science in 1840, where the most common violation of the rules by inmates was talking. The prisoners were required to be silent for all but a few minutes each day. And for “Boy Jones”, talking seems to have been a primary form of personal entertainment. 
Which makes his response to the magistrate who visited him the day before his release disturbing. The officer encouraged Edward to join the Royal Navy. Edward refused. The magistrate then ask him to promise not to ever invade Buckingham Palace again. Edward refused. And the next day, March 2nd, 1841, Edward was released from Tothill. Thirteen days later, Edward was back in the Palace. It makes me wonder why they didn't just hire him.
Just after 1 A.M on March 15th,  as a police officer (part of the beefed up security detail inspired by Boy Jones) walking across the grand hall of Buckingham Palace saw a man staring at him through a glass door of the throne room. The officer immediately recognized Edward Jones and started after him. Edward, deciding on a brazen approach, charged the officer. The approach did not work. Edward was nabbed, pinched and restrained. Examining the throne room, officials found a handkerchief filled with cold meat and potatoes, filched from the Palace kitchen, sitting on the arm of the throne. Again the Privy Council considered what to do, and again Edward was sentenced to three months at Tothill Prison, but this time at hard labor.
The labor of choice for prisoners in this most modern of English prisons in 1841 was spending six hours a day walking on the treadmill, described by the “Hidden Lives Revealed" web site as “a big iron frame of steps around a revolving cylinder”, or Picking Oakum (above), defined as teasing apart the strands of a hemp rope so that the strands could be twisted into another rope, which would be presented to inmates to be teased apart again. 
After three months of enduring this repetitive repetition in silence, another magistrate offered Edward another chance to join the Navy. Again he refused. Again he was asked to promise to never visit the palace again. Again he refused. 
This time, before his release, he was also offered £4 a week (about $600 dollars today) to make appearances at a London Music Hall. This too Edward turned down. What was going on in that huge misshapen head of his, we will never know. Because. this time, as he was released from Tothill, Edward was kidnapped and shanghaied aboard a British Man-of-War bound for Brazil. He actually made it to South America and back to England in 1843. Here, Edward managed to jump ship and walked the 60 miles from Portsmouth to London. There he was arrested loitering near Buckingham Palace, and was returned to his ship under arrest. This time the orders were to keep him away from Britain and under watch.
The next year Edward jumped from ship again, this time into the Mediterranean Sea between Tunis and Algeria. He was rescued and after six years of enforced service was finally set free in the isolated port of Perth (above),  on the lonely west coast of  Australia. There Edward worked for a time as the Town Crier, until he was arrested for burglary. Then he was sent to Freemantle Prison. After his release from here he got a job as a pie seller. But the pull of the Palace was strong, and Edward somehow managed to return to England, where he was arrested for theft in 1856. 
In 1860 one of his brothers, who had a good job in Melbourne, Australia (above), invited Edward to live with him. Back down under, Edward disappeared into anonymity, and there he stayed, until the day after Christmas, celebrated as Boxing Day in England and Australia. 
On that day of celebration, Edward Jones, the Boy Jones, got drunk and fell off a bridge over the Mitchell River in Bairndale, Queensland (above). He landed on that enormous head of his and broke his neck. Says his modern-day biographer, Jan Bondeson, “He didn't have any children and never wanted anything to do with women, apart from his beloved queen."
Though out most of his life, Edward Jones remained infamous for those nights he spent in Buckingham Palace with Victoria's underwear in his pants. He hated the teasing and ribbing about it to the day he died.  But it made it into his obituary in most of the newspapers in the English speaking world. We don't know what Victoria felt when she heard the news. But I am dying to know what was going in her head, when she did..
- 30 - 

Sunday, March 06, 2011

AMERICAN ARCHETYPE; PART TWO

I can say with confidence that Meriwether Lewis was, at 35, an American hero. He had been the official leader of the Lewis and Clark expedition . And on his return in 1807 from that three year, 6,000 mile trek across the continent, President Thomas Jefferson had rewarded him with the governorship of the Upper Louisiana Territory. And just two years later he was dead, in an isolated hostel just over the border of Tennessee, shot twice and with knife cuts across his throat.
Before the march over the Rocky Mountains, before he even served as the personal aide to the President, Lewis exhibited all the indications of suffering with a mild form of asperger syndrome. He was socially inept. He was a painfully shy, solitary man, “touchy, opinionated, and quarrelsome”. Making friends was difficult for him, and he had the sorry capability of turning first-time acquaintances into instant lifelong enemies. 
And then there had come the expedition, the greatest achievement of his life. But it had cost Meriwether more than is or was then generally understood. While on this three year adventure, not only had he repeatedly starved, been frozen, and nearly drowned several times, he had also been shot by one of his own men (by accident). And he had probably contracted syphilis (I assume another accident).
There is no unambiguous proof of this later affliction, of course. But the average incubation period for syphilis is about 21 days. And, “Six to eight weeks after the initial sore disappears the patient will feel tired, may experience a headache with a fever, have swollen lymph nodes and a sore throat. Some patients may even experience weight loss, hair loss and a skin rash...These symptoms can last for over three months, and sometimes as long as six months.”
We know from the private journals kept by its members, that on the 13th and 14th of August of 1805 Captain Lewis and some of the men from the expedition ‘partied’ with some Shoshone women. Twenty-eight days later, on September 19th,  Meriwether Lewis became so ill he stopped writing in his diary for three months. And when the expedition returned to St. Louis in late September of 1806, they tarried there for six weeks without any reasonable explanation.
Today an infection of syphilis would be treated with a course of antibiotics. But in the 19th century the standard was a month's treatment with the poisonous metal mercury -  taken either orally, applied as a balm, breathing in the vapors, or by a direct injection. Physicians at the time can be forgiven for thinking mercury could cure syphilis because in the normal course of the disease, the symptoms disappear and then reappear at random, perhaps with years between outbreaks. But even more misleading was that the symptoms of mercury poisoning – numbness and pins and needles in the hands and feet, loss of coordination, muscle weakness, mood swings, memory loss, impairment of speech and hearing and mental disturbance- are the same symptoms as advancing syphilis. It is not merely a case of the cure being worse than the disease. In this case, the cure reinforced the disease.
After his month long delay in St. Louis, the captain was feeling better. In March of 1807 he reported to the President in Washington, D.C. Jefferson then appointed the Captain to the governorship of the Upper Louisiana Territory, with its capital back in St. Louis. Then he released Lewis to visit with his family in Virginia, and prepare his journals for publication.
Then, unexpectedly, before Meriwether was ready to assume his new post, the President added to Captain Lewis’ burden. He asked him to go to Richmond to attend the trial of that lightning rod of Federalist politics, Aaron Burr.
Burr (above) was, depending on whom you choose to believe, either a hero seeking to strike a blow against the Spanish empire, or he was a traitor who had raised a small army to foster rebellion within the United States. Jefferson chose to believe the latter because he hated Burr. 
After Burr was acquitted, Meriwether Lewis returned to his mother’s home,  not far from Jefferson’s home at Monticello. He wrote to a Philadelphia friend, Mahlon Dickerson, in early November, “What may be my next adventure, God knows, but on this I am determined, to get a wife.” Many women were interviewed for the job, in Virginia and Philadelphia and even Cincinnati, but none were willing to move with Lewis to the distant frontier, even as a Governor's wife. Meriwether's relations with women were as clumsy and difficult as his relations with men.
By late November the still single Meriwether and his brother Reuben had arrived at the falls of the Ohio River, in Louisville, Kentucky (above). There Lewis hired Joseph Charles to run the newspaper he intended starting in St. Louis, and in early January 1808 he advertised for subscribers at $3 a year. It was a shrewd political move, making certain his side of political events made it into print, and had probably been suggested by Jefferson.
Lewis would need all the help and support her could muster, as in St. Louis he was walking into a den of thieves.
- 30 -

Blog Archive

Amazon Deals