AUGUST   2020


Friday, April 15, 2011


I don't know of any better way to describe Ronald Finney, than to say he was a man susceptible to temptation. He had the advantage of being raised in the “Prairie Hay Capital of the World,” the flat-lands of Woodson county, Kansas, where temptations were few and far between. If you sought more drama than the wheat fields offered, or a little “cultural stimulation”, you had to travel the 100 miles due south to Tulsa, or 50 miles due north to Topeka, or the 60 miles due west to Wichita. Certainly Neosho Falls, the counties' largest town, must have had a seedy side, but with less than 20,000 citizens in 1900, most of whom worked for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, the local cast available for seductions was limited indeed. Yes, Ronald was lucky to be born into a region that prided itself on its lack of temptation. But Ronald had the disadvantage to be the son of Warren W. Finney, who was perfectly capable of generating all the temptation his son would ever need.
W.W. Finney was a man of vision and ambition. Just after dropping out of college, in 1895, he had organized the Neosho Falls Telephone Company. By the turn of the century W.W. had gotten married (to Mabel Tucker), produced a son and heir (Ronald) and a daughter (Mary Jane), had been elected mayor of Neosho Falls (above) and to one term in the state legislature, and had risen to a position of leadership in the local Congregational Church. Then in 1905, W.W. sold his Neosho phone company and bought another in Emporia, Kansas, Lyon county. Moving to that town, by 1920, he had pieced together a conglomeration of small community telephone companies, and had achieved such success that he could afford to make the mistake of starting to buy banks.
First there was the Farmers State Bank at Neosho Falls, then the Neosho Falls State Bank, and then the Fidelity State and Savings Bank at Emporia and finally the Bank of Eureka, Kansas. The banks gave W.W. access to foreclosures, which allowed him to become a gentleman farmer, stocking his expanding acreage with prize cattle and breeding horses. He even acquired a few oil wells in the nearby Flint Hills, which led to an endless string of fast cars. His parties in the family's 25 room mansion outside of Emporia or at the Emporia Country Club became legendary - at least in rural Kansas. Attendees included a veritable who's-who of Kansas politicians and power brokers. And W.W.'s life became even more perfect in 1921, when, at the age of 21, Ronald graduated from Cornell University, and went to work in his father's banks.
Ronald Finney worked at various posts in his father's banks for most of the decade. And if there were rumors that he was not the brightest penny in the bunch, he was a hard worker, and like his father he was known about Lyon county as a “swell”. It was after all the “roaring twenties”, and although Kansas had inspired national prohibition, the whole country had merely traded alcohol intoxication for getting drunk on paper profits; Kansas too. And so it was to be expected that in 1928 young Ronald (he was now 30) would approach his father with a request. Could he see what he could make with the banks' bond business? After all, Ronald was not selling high flying risky corporate bonds, but dull practical municipal bonds, for schools and water systems and hospitals and city offices. Daddy said yes. How could he have said no?
In 1928 Ronald opened an office in a suit at the Jayhawk Hotel in the state capital of Topeka, to tend to his contacts with the state's political structure. And his hard work backing, buying and selling bonds paid off very well. Back in Emporia he built his own mansion, complete with a lighted tennis court. He collected fast cars, just like W.W., but then Ronald went his father one better by buying an airplane. On one of his farms he raised Arabian thoroughbreds. He hardly noticed the depression that was gripping the country.
In one of his schemes, Ronald invested in bonds for Hinsdale county, Colorado. Why Ronald chose to invest in this isolated, inaccessible unpopulated mining region deep in the Rocky Mountains was never clear, but he urged his friends and business partners to follow his example. He built luxury cabins in the midst of an abandoned mining camp, and talked about the place as an exclusive resort. But in 1933 Colorado authorities charged Ronald and several members of the county government with fraud. It seemed Ronald had bought up the counties' bonds at a discount, paying as little as thirty cents on the dollar, expecting to sell them back to the county at full face value. A trial date was set for April 11, 1934. But that was in Colorado, where morality was well known to be compromised by greed, unlike in good solid bedrock dependably boring Kansas.
In early August, as the part of Roosevelt's New Deal regulation of the nation's banking system, a Federal bank examiner descended upon the National Bank of Topeka, Kansas. There he found something odd in the numbers for the Kansas State School Fund Commission. They did not add up. The examiner notified the U.S. District Attorney, who called up the State Treasurer Tom Boyd, and asked if he could please physically examine the School bonds held in the State's vaults. To his surprise, Mr. Boyd said no. Doing the politically correct thing, the D.A. notified the Kansas Governor, and Tom Boyd's boss,Republican Alf Landon. Governor Landon immediately issued an executive order opening the vaults for the Federal examiners.
It took them less than forty minutes to find the bonds in question – twice. The first set were in the files, where they were supposed to be. The second set, clear forgeries and copies of the first, were stacked near the door; $329,000 worth of bonds, twice. Eventually the total of forged copies and real bonds used as collateral for  bank loans, would be figured at $840,000. Jumping to a conclusion, Governor Landon ordered the Kansas National Guard to take possession of the vault, and he ordered the immediate arrest of Treasurer Tom Boyd, and the man who had sold the state of Kansas both sets of bonds, originals and forgeries -  Ronald Finney.
Ronald turned himself over to police in the state capital the next day. He was driven to Topeka by W.W., who insisted his son was honest. He told reporters “His transactions from the first of the year showed a profit in excess of $200,000, according to information given me by his auditors.” He told Governor Landon, “I am not going to let (my) bank be closed. I have run it for 20 years.” The Governor sent the old man back home to Emporia, with several state bank examiners in tow.
This time it took a little longer but by morning, examiners at the Fidelity State and Savings Bank had discovered another $600,000 in fake government bonds. One set had been handed over to the state to hold as collateral for loans to the bank, while the second, forged set, signed by one sad sack employee, Leland Caldwell, were handed over to a Chicago brokerage house as collateral for even more loans. As long as the bonds were never sold, the were never reported, and nobody had noticed there were two of each of them, until now. In fact, just weeks earlier, Ronald had told Tom Boyd the truth, or part of it anyway. But instead of turning him in, Boyd had handed Roland a state check for $150,000, to cover his accounts and avoid a collapse. The total fraud reached $1.5 million in 1934 - $250 million today. It was impressive for a couple of hay seeds, not versed in the moral laxity required to be a big city politician. Said W.W., “I am heart broken.”
Three banks were closed because of the scandal. A Chicago brokerage house went bankrupt. In Kansas' moral vision of the universe, someone had to pay. Both Attorney General Boyd and State Auditor Will French, were impeached. The state Senate failed to convict either of them. But AG Boyd was not so lucky before a Federal jury. He was sentenced for 4 to 10 years in Federal prison. And on November 9, 1934 W.W. was sentenced to from 36 to 600 years in prison. On the day he was supposed to begin his sentence, the old man drove out to a fishing cabin on the Neosho River and put a bullet in his brain.
Ronald cut a deal with the prosecutors for fifteen years on 31 counts. But rumor has it that the night before sentencing the judge got a phone call from Governor Alf Landon, who was up for re-election that year and was considering a run against Roosevelt in 1936. “Hammer him”, ordered Landon. The next morning Judge Paul Heinz announced he was not going along with the plea deal. “Would it make any difference as to your guilt or innocence?” he asked. Ronald responded, “My rights have been disregarded in having me plead guilty under an agreement that was not kept.” The Judge ignored his argument and sentenced Roland to from 31 to 635 years in prison.
In jail Ronald took courses in creative writing (like he needed that), and after serving just 12 years of his 635 year sentence, he was released in February of 1945. He made a comfortable living writing for trade journals and spent the last years of his life between summers in Oregon and winters in St. Petersburg, Florida. He died in the humid Gulf air of acute bronchitis and emphysema in 1961. He was 63 years old.
The last half of his life had been free from any major legal or moral transgression. And half a good life is a reasonable achievement for a human being so susceptible to temptation.
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Wednesday, April 13, 2011


I come home in the morning light,
My mother says "When you gonna live your life right?"
Oh ,mother,dear, We're not the fortunate ones,
And girls, They wanna have fun.
I am not sure how to describe the Pharaoh's women. Collectively they were called a harem, but that conjures up Victorian images of sex starved coquettes waiting impatiently for the a few moments attention from their sugar daddy -  a male Egyptologist's fantasy if ever there was one. It also seems an inefficient use of resources, what with years of housing, feeding and clothing so many sperm receptacles when, in the end, only one counted. Surely these ancient women had to be multi-taskers. For example, we know the Pharaoh's harem had a very nice choir.
But besides harmonizing, the ladies of the harem must have earned their keep between reproductive sessions by cutting ribbons at temple openings, encouraging teenagers to just say no to drugs and reminding stone masons of their vital role in the Pharaohonic economy. Proof of the importance of women in Ancient Egypt can be found in events which occurred some 4,200 years ago, at the end of what is called "The New Kingdom" - which gives you some idea of how old Egyptian civilization really is. In the spring of 1167 B.C.E. Ramses III sat down to talk with his wives, and he almost did not get up again
Usimare (Ramses III's real name) was a good example of the vagaries of picking a Pharaoh. He was tall for the age - about 5.8", smart, competent and dedicated. His reign should have been as successful as his idol's, Ramses II, who during his 67 years of rule (according to tradition) threw those freeloading Israelites out Egypt. But Usimare was also a really unlucky guy.  Just before he became Pharaoh a volcano in Iceland blew its top, and the shadow of its ash cloud damaged crops for twenty years. The price of wheat skyrocketed, and entire civilizations of farmers and fishermen became hobos, stealing that they could not buy, be it food or and new place to live. In the Middle East they were called Philistines, and they spent a couple of hundred years bringing "tsuris" to the wayward Israelites. In Tunisia they established Carthage, and a thousand years later became the Roman Republic's worst enemy. In Egypt they were called the Sea Peoples, and fighting them off left the treasury flat broke. That distant volcanic eruption wasn't Ramses III's fault, but he got the bill. He just wasn't lucky. He wasn't even lucky in his death, in that he did not die fast enough.
The phone rings in the middle of the night,
My father yells "What you gonna do with your life?"
You know you're still number one,
But girls, They wanna have fun
By the spring of 1167 B.C.E., poor, unlucky and broke Ramses III was about 65 years old and had been Pharaoh for thirty-two years. He had dragged his entire court to Thebes for the five day celebration of his Heb-Sed, or Feast of the Tail of the Jackal. This was a cross between Victoria's Diamond Jubilee and the carnival in Rio. There were parades, dinners, banquets and lots of drinking, and on the fourth day the Pharaoh had to "run" a course and shoot arrows to prove he was still fit enough to rule. What they would have done if the old boy had not been up to it, I don't know. But in the Old Kingdom they used to kill him if he was too feeble.
His harem had of course come with him, headed by his new Great Wife Isis-Ta-hemseret. The harem had given Ramses III ten sons, of whom six were still living including Isis' boy, 22 year old newly crowned Prince Heqamatre, but also Prince Pentaweret, who was Usimare's son with Queen Tey aka Tiy. Tey's two eldest sons had already died, and Penatweret was just a few months younger than Heqamatre. But that slight seniority had moved Heqamatre next in line to be Pharaoh over Pentaweret, and replaced Tey as the Great Wife with Isis. Ramses III could have overridden these automatic adjustments in his royal household if he had felt one heir more suited than the other, but for whatever reason he did nothing. And that would prove to be a fatal choice because Tey was the kind of a girl who carried a grudge. She could have stared in the "Jersey Shore".
Well, she wasn't a girl, she was a grown woman who had given birth to three sons, and she was at least forty years old by now. Still, Tey must have been an impressive broad, because six of the other wives sided with her in this matter. And they were all the daughters of powerful families.
In addition, Tey had considerable support from the bureaucracy which maintained the harem. Chief of the Chamber, Pebekkamen, and his assistant were down with her plan, as well as Peynok, Overseeer Of The Harem and his scribe and seven royal butlers, who were all titled members of the bureaucracy. Tey also managed to draw the army into the conspiracy. The sister of an officer in the Nubian Archers, who was one of the "harem six", urged her brother to "Incite the people to hostility! And come thou to begin hostility against thy lord." Well, I suppose, she could have been more circumspect. In any case, Tey even had conspirators working inside the Thebian police force. She was also attempting to seduce the head of the Egyptian Treasury, which was called The White House. And Tey even managed to enlist Iroi, Ramses III's personal priest-physician. But it appears he was the only priest who joined the conspiracy.
Some boys take a beautiful girl,
And hide her away from the rest of the world.
I wanna be the one to walk in the sun.
Oh, girls, They wanna have fun.
See, ancient Egypt was peppered with temples, large and small, and each had their priests and their grain fields to support them, and slaves to work those fields. By the best estimates, 14 % of the irrigated land and 2% of the population were owned by the temple priests. The temples also owned 500,000 head of cattle, 88 large ships and some 53 workshops and shipyards. And in 1167 B.C. all of this was tax exempt, which shifted more of the tax burden onto the nobles and peasants. Does any of this sound familar?
Ramses III tried to reduce his expenses by replacing his bureaucrats and large parts of the army with slaves, supplied by independent contractors, a practice in current vogue with the American government. But Ramses III also contributed to this power shift to the priesthood by continuing the practice of donating large sums to the temples. Gold and silver went straight out of the government coffers and into the collection plates. Ramses III boasted on a temple wall, "I did mighty deeds and benefactions...for the gods and goddesses of South and North." Those benefactions hastened the bankruptcy of the national treasury. Familar again, right?
Just three years before this original "Year of the Woman" the artisans working in the royal tombs had stopped work because their pay had stopped. Ramses crushed this first worker's revolt in history as if he were the Governor of Wisconsin. But that wildcat strike indicated that Tey was not just trying to make her son Pharaoh, she was trying to reverse the decline of the power of The Pharaohs.  The whole thing came to a head, say the ancient accounts, when he decided to spend a night with the girls
Since Ramses III's mummy was discovered in 1886 we know that the Pharaoh received no knife or spear wounds. And his skeleton reveals no broken bones. I'll bet that Usimare was poisoned, not killed but weakened enough that within a few days after setting down to spend some time with the girls, he died, perhaps of heart failure or dehydration. A hint is that in later centuries, Egyptians invoked Ramses III's name when seeking divine assistance in the case of snake bite. And like a snake, Ramses III lashed out from his death bed against those who had stepped upon him.
In three scandalised trials conducted after Ramses III's death, twenty-seven men and six women were convicted of treason, including her boy, Pentaweret. Pentaweret was forced to drink poison. Every one else, including Tey herself  was slowly simmered to death on a barbecue, cooked until the flesh was just falling off their bones. And then their bones were ground up and their ashes were scattered to the four winds, condemning the immortal souls of these original resurectionists to wander the after-life without a body. Tough, I know. But if you are going to shoot at the Pharaoh, you had better not miss.
And it is a shame Tey did miss. In his will, Ramses III donated 86,400 slaves to the estates of the god Amon's temples. His son and heir, Heqamatre, became Ramses IV, but he ruled for just six years. Ramses now followed Ramses with such rapidity that the High Priest of el-Kab who had helped Ramses III celebrate his Heb Sed, was still in office when Ramses IX died in 1111 B.C.E. By then the priest werethe power in Egypt, and the country was run for their benefit, sort of like the bankers run America today, and Egypt slipped into a cneturies long dark age.  
When the working day is done,
Oh, girls, They wanna have fun.
Ah, if only Tey aka Tiy had been quicker, then the New Kingdom might have lasted a few hundred years longer, and women might have played a bigger part in history. After all, the girl just wanted to have fun.
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Sunday, April 10, 2011


I must say the last two weeks of Meriwether Lewis' life were very hard. On Friday Morning, October 6th , 1809, the Governor and Indian agent James Neelly, along with their two servants, left the primary Chickasaw village before dawn, heading north along the Natchez Trace. They reached Bear Creek that first day. On the next day they reached the Tennessee River, at Corbert's Ferry.
George Colbert was described by the whites who had to deal with him as both “shrewd, talented and wicked” and as an artful and a designing river pirate. This half-Scot, half-Chickasaw Indian had a monopoly on crossing the wide Tennessee River for fifty miles in either direction. And he charged accordingly – usually fifty cents per man or horse, (a dollar for a man on a horse) and whenever possible, more.
His two story wood frame home (above), which stood above the ferry, was described as a “country palace” by travelers used to a hut or a lean-too. It was also known by the envious as the Buzzard's Roost. From this house, George oversaw the 100 slaves who worked his plantation. George Colbert presented his worldview this way, “Indians never know how to steal until white man learn them...We are free and we intend to keep so.”
The standard tale is that having paid their fees for a ten minute boat ride across the river, Lewis and Neeley (et al) stumbled on to camp that night along the Sweet Water Branch of Rock Creek. They awoke on Monday, October 9th and returned to the trail, described as a “snake-infested, mosquito-beset, robber-haunted, Indian-pestered forest path." At the end of the day they reached the attractively titled Dogwood Mud-hole and camped out for another chilly fall night. Sometime after midnight a rain storm rumbled through and the campers were soaked. 
When the men climbed out from under their wet blankets on the morning of Tuesday, October 10th , it was still raining and colder. And, they discovered,  two of their horses had wandered off during the night. So while the servants and Neeley stayed behind to recapture the horses, Lewis continued up the trail alone. But I have a question about all of that.
If you believe what Neeley wrote a week later to Thomas Jefferson, he stayed behind on the morning of the 10th  to help search for the missing horses. But both servants showed up later that day with the missing horses, while Neeley was still unaccounted for. And according to court records from Franklin, Tennessee, on October 11th, 1809, James Neely was in a courtroom there, signing a promissory note to repay a loan. That courtroom was at least three days travel from Lewis' campsite on the morning of the tenth. The only conclusion I can come to, is that James Neeley was not with Governor Meriwether Lewis on that Tuesday morning.
It seems to me that the lex parsimonoae - AKA Occam's Razor - is that shortly after the party crossed the Tennessee River on the afternoon of Sunday, October 8th, James Neeley rode ahead on his own, racing to meet his court date, leaving his own servant behind to help Lewis. But I suspect that Neeley did not want  President Thomas Jefferson to know that he was being sued over a debt, nor did he want the President to know he had abandoned the ailing Meriwether Lewis on the Trace, after assuring Captain Russell at Fort Pickering that he would keep a close watch over Lewis. This little scrap of dirty linen seems more than embarrassing enough to have inspired Neeley's lies about where he was on the night of the 10th/11th,  particularly after Governor Lewis was suddenly dead.
This is a much simpler explanation than any of the convoluted conspiracy threads that some have weaved around the last 24 hours of Governor Meriwether Lewis' life. This simple explanation requires only that people act like people you know, that they lie for small and petty reasons a lot more often than they lie for big complicated ones. And they disguise their small lies much more badly. But. of course, this explanation also leads us to a few more questions.
Sometime around 5:30 on the evening of October 10th, 1809 Priscilla Grinder saw a lone rider approaching the three split rail, un-chinked and un-plastered cabins of her families' “Stand”. She immediately sent her two daughters to the kitchen cabin, a few steps behind the others. And only then did she step outside to greet the traveler.
He was a tall and athletic man who wore a blue and white striped and faded “duster”, and he was accompanied by a dog. Their first meeting, as were most meetings along The Trace, was wary.  Each party inspected the other for mutilations, cropped ears, missing fingers or branded flesh. It was common practice at the time for suspected thieves to be so marked as a warning for potential future victims. But as far as we know, Priscilla bore no such marks. And we know Lewis did not. But both of them would have been armed.
Meriwether asked if he could receive an evening's lodging and a meal. Priscilla said yes, and asked if he were traveling alone. Lewis explained his servants would be arriving shortly. He dismounted and removed his saddle. He hobbled his horse, and carried the saddle inside the cabin. He asked for a drink, but did not seem interested in it after he was served. It is possible that the beverage, probably the same corn mash Priscilla's husband was selling to the Chickasaw, had little appeal for a man who had tasted wine at Thomas Jefferson's table.
A few minutes later two more men rode up. Lewis identified them as his servants, even though only one, John Pernier, actually was. The other was Neeley's man. Lewis asked Pernier to fetch some gunpowder, saying he had a canister of it somewhere in his luggage. Priscilla did not hear the reply, as she had to go out to the kitchen cabin to begin preparing the meal for the three men. Still, there is no indication that Lewis identified himself to his host.
After the meal had been served, Pernier and Neeley's man took the horses off to the other cabin, used as a barn. They would bed there for the night. Priscilla said later that as she gathered up the dishes, Lewis began to intensely pace up and down the room. According to her, “Sometimes he would seem as if he were walking up to me, and would suddenly wheel round, and walk back as fast as he could.” Then he stopped, produced his pipe and lighted it, pulled a chair close to the front door of the cabin and announced, “What a sweet evening it is.”
It smacks me as an unlikely comment from a man who had been soaked to the skin for the last twelve hours. But then as I said at the very beginning, I don't trust the stories this lady has to tell about the last night of Meriwether Lewis' life. 
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