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Friday, June 24, 2011


I contend that, politically speaking, Amos Kendall was one of our founding fathers. The fact that he was born a generation too late to experience the revolution is irrelevant. This child of poor parents from Massachusetts, by dint of his intellectual brawn and his drive to succeed, reshaped the political landscape in America and created the Democratic Party in his own image. He is mostly forgotten today in part because for the next hundred years, his sins were the Democratic Party’s sins. He was a partisan in the extreme and his politics were always personal. He never forgot and he never forgave. He served two presidents, and one of his enemies, President John Quincy Adams, said that those two chief executives were merely, “…the tools of Amos Kendall, the ruling mind of their dominion.”
Amos was tall, thin, asthmatic and prematurely white haired. He was also a puritanical workaholic and a hypochondriac with such a talent for venom that he carried a pistol for protection; although he was so nearsighted it is unlikely he could have hit anything. In the election of 1828 it was Amos’s talent for invective which made Andrew Jackson President.
Day after day, in the pages of his newspaper "The Argus of Western America, Amos, working under the guiding hand of campaign manager Martin Van Buren, eviscerated the incumbent President, John Quincy Adams (above). According to Amos, Adams was effete and too European. (Sound familiar?) Adams had permitted the rape of an American servant girl by the Russian Czar (a complete fabrication). He was living lavishly while average Americans suffered (an exaggeration). Adams had even, charged Amos, brought gambling into the White House. (Adams had bought a pool table and a chess set). Thanks in large part to Amos’ constant attacks, Jackson easily won the election. And when Jackson moved into the White House, Amos came with him.
Officially, Amos was given a vague job in the Treasury Department. But it was just a cover for his real career in Washington. According to Virginia Whig Henry Wise, Amos was…”the President’s thinking machine and writing machine and his lying machine… Nothing was well done without him”. Visiting English journalist Harriet Martubeau, noted in 1834, “I was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the invincible Amos Kendall, one of the most remarkable men in America. He is supposed to be the moving spring of the administration; the thinker, planner, and doer, but it is all in the dark.” And Virginia Democrat Colonel Augustine Clairborn described Amos as a “…little whippet of a man” who was “...the Atlas that bore on his shoulders the weight of Jackson's administration. He originated, or was consulted in advance, upon every great measure.”
Before Jackson (above), a President would look to his cabinet for advice. But cabinet members had to be approved by the Senate, and often saw themselves as the President’s future competitors. And Jackson did not intend on letting his opponents or his competitors give him advice. This produced a situation in which, wrote Nicholas Biddle, “The kitchen predominates over the parlor”. There was bitterness in that description, since Jackson and Amos were intent upon dismantling the Bank of the United States and firing its president, who was Mr. Biddle. And they succeeded. But, whatever the spirit, Amos was a member of the original “Kitchen Cabinet”, “the common reservoir of all the petty slanders which find a place in the most degraded prints in the Union”, according to Mississippi Whig George Poindexter.
During Jackson’s second term Amos was appointed the Postmaster General, and proceeded to empty the bureaucracy of every Wig sympathizer, replacing them with reliable Democrats. And every Wig contractor had their mail contracts cancelled, unless they hired only Democrats (a tactic duplicated by Republican Tom Delay's 2000-2004 K Street Project). Amos had thus created the “Spoils System”. This politicizing of entire departments of government was justified by New York Democratic Senator William Learned Macy, this way; “If (a politician is) defeated, they expect to retire from office. If they are successful, they claim, as a matter of right, the advantages of success. They see nothing wrong in the rule that to the victor belong the spoils of the enemy.” The President himself argued, “In a country where offices are created solely for the benefit of the people, no one man has any more intrinsic right to official station than another.” The speaker was Andrew Jackson, who innocuously described this conversion of government into plunder merely as the “rotation in office”. But the brain behind the argument was Amos Kendall.
It was Amos who ran Martin Van Buren’s (above) successful Presidential campaign in 1836. And when the “Little Magician” took the oath of office in March of 1837, it looked as if the Democrats would rule Washington permanently. But the destruction of the Bank of the United States came back to bite the Jackson Democrats.
During the first three weeks of April 1837, 150 businesses failed in New York City, wiping out $100 million in wealth. By the end of that summer unemployment nationwide had topped 10%, and mobs were raiding food warehouses. Van Buren’s only response to the “Panic of 1837” was to cut government expenditures, so tightly that they even sold the tools used to construct roads and bridges. As Republicans today might note, this action only deepened the depression, and insured that in 1840 the Whigs elected William Henry Harrison as President.
Amos (above) tried to go back to running newspapers. But the economic depression inspired at least in part by the Democratic economic policies, had become too deep. His publishing ventures failed. Then in 1845 Amos became Samuel F. B. Morse’s business manager. He helped Morse create and run the International Telegraph Company (it would later become International Telephone and Telegraph). This venture finally made Amos a wealthy man. He retired in 1860. But it did not last.
While Amos had been running the Post Office, he had decreed that local postmasters could refused any mail which they deemed to be either abolitionist or proslavery. That was a purely political decision, made because the Democrats in the 1830’s were pursuing a “Southern Strategy”, which sought to shore up their base of support in the South. The postmaster's decision was just one of the myriad of compromises which brought on the American Civil War, and certainly not the most important one. Still, it must be counted against Amos that while he never owned slaves, he did nothing to encourage slavery’s demise, when he had the chance. It is to Amos’s credit that, when the war finally came, he publically supported the Union cause, which, for a Democrat who was unending in his criticism of the Lincoln administration, was not an easy thing to do.
The amazing Amos Kendall died on November 12, 1869, at sixty years of age. An obituary writer tried to explain his extraordinary career by listing his fields of endeavor. Amos had been “a newspaper editor, party organizer, political propagandist, postmaster general, telegraph builder, and promoter of language for the deaf.” Amos had helped found, and had left most of his fortune to Gallaudet University, the unofficial national school for the deaf. And that is to his credit as well. But the Democratic Party that he founded has changed so much in the last 150 years, as to be all but unrecognizable. Still, he was a midwife at the birth, and that deserves tobe  figured toward his credit, as well.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


I want to label the late Bob Lincoln as a shlimazel, but its a Yiddish term and not generally well known. Most people would probably call him a Jonah – but that would not be entirely accurate. See, according to chapter ten in the Qur'an, God gave Jonah a dangerous job, and to avoid the assignment he jumped ship for someplace else. God sent a terrible storm to swamp the boat, and when Jonah confessed his sin to the the terrified crew, after a few moments of theological discussion, they threw the wayward prophet overboard. That is when, in the words of the Christian hymn “...A whale came up and swallowed him whole.” During the three days Jonah was inside the great fish he prayed for forgiveness, and guided by God, the fish “threw Jonah out on a bar of sand.” Every year on Yom Kippur Jews read the Book of Jonah and ask for God's forgiveness. And now you know why Christians, Jews and Muslims have spent the last 2,000 years slaughtering each other; its because they share so many stories like this one, which differ only in the details. But as Newt Gingrich can tell you,  its the details that can cost you an election. But I digress...
Anyway, a Jonah is somebody you don't want on your boat, or babysitting your 401K. A Jonah is cursed, and he drags his curse around with him, rubbing it off on unsuspecting victims who are drowned because God is actually trying to punch the ticket of the guy in next stateroom. And a shlimazel is just like a Jonah, except that God is not involved. So, I think of the very late Bob Lincoln as a shlimazel. Allow me to explain.
On the day President Abraham Lincoln died, his eldest son, the late Robert Todd Lincoln, (above, called Bob by his father) had just gotten back from the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House. He was late, of course, and when his parents invited Bob to go to the theater with them, Bob begged off and stayed home. He went to bed early and had to be awakened when word arrived that his father had been shot. He made it to the bedside before his father died, but then Bob had to share his private grief with the grief of millions of strangers. And maybe that was what infected Bob, and turned him into a shlimazel..
As the son of Abraham, it was inevitable that Bob Lincoln would be drawn into Republican politics, but he resisted as long as he could - late again. He never stood for election, and when President Rutherford B. Hayes offered him the post of Assistant Secretary of State, Bob said “No, thanks”. But, finally in 1881, he accepted the position as Secretary of War under President James Garfield. That job lasted barely six months, because that was only as long as his boss lasted..
Just after nine on Saturday morning, July 2nd, 1881, at the very beginning of another disgusting hot, humid Washington three day holiday weekend, Bob Lincoln was pacing around the central waiting room of the Gothic eyesore that was the Potomac and Baltimore railroad station (above), at the corner of Constitution Avenue and 6th street. The late Bob Lincoln was early this morning, I guess because he himself wasn't going anywhere. He was there to log-in a little suck-up time with his boss, President James Garfield, who was about to leave for a two week vacation on the 9:15 train to Baltimore.
Yes, Garfield had only been on the job for about three months, and it seemed a little quick to be taking a vacation, but he was the boss and the rules are different for bosses. So here was poor Bob, wandering around this cavernous hothouse, pathetically hoping to make some headway against his biggest rival in the cabinet, the even bigger suck up, Secretary of State James Blaine, known about town as the “monumental liar from the state of Maine”. Blaine at this very moment was walking into the station arm and arm with President Garfield. And that was when Charles Guiteau fired off two rounds of a Bulldog .44 caliber pistol right into Garfield's back.
Bob was not a cop. He did not run to the sound of the gunfire. But when he heard people shouting that the President had been shot, Bob ran toward the Constitution Avenue entrance. Once again he was late. He found Garfield lying on the floor of the “Ladies Waiting Room”. Guiteau had already given himself up, eagerly confessing to everyone and anyone within earshot. Bob and Blaine and Garfield's two sons helped the President to his feet, and escorted him up stairs, away from the lookey-loos. Here he was examined, and since the wounds did not appear to be life threatening – because he was not already dead - it was decided the President should be taken back to the White House. Bob left him there, and returned to his weekend.
It had all the makings of an obscure footnote in history, until the doctors showed up. There were sixteen of them, and several of them shoved their dirty fingers into the President's wounds, looking for the bullets. They did not find them, but within a few days Garfield found he had a raging infection. What finished the poor schmuck off, on September 19, 1881, was a heart attack, which is what kills you after two months of fever and diarrhea. Bob Lincoln was not at the death bed. He had already done his part.
Bob left government service after that and went back into private industry, as a lobbyist for the railroads. And it was as President of the Pullman Cars Association that he was invited to a Presidential reception at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, on the afternoon of September 6, 1901. Bob was late again, and as he was just running up the short steps of the Temple of Music Pavilion (above - X marks the spot), he heard two quick gun shots.
William McKinley, the third President of the United States to be assassinated, had just been assassinated. Bob raced into the exhibit, in time to see McKinley drop to the floor. He needed to rush, because thanks to the advances in medicine in the intervening quarter of a century since Garfield's murder, McKinley suffered for only eight days, before the doctors helped him to die on September 14, 1901. Bob Lincoln slink-ed out of town, determined to avoid contributing to any further bloody historical events. It would be the last time an American President would be assassinated until 1963, and who can say that was not because Bob Lincoln chose to be circumspect about being near another President. When it was suggested Bob might wish to attend another Presidential speech, Bob responded, “No, I'm not going, and they'd better not ask me, because there is a certain fatality about presidential functions when I am present.” But it turned out Bob's affliction not only affected Presidents.
Six years later, on Tuesday. August 9, 1910, Bob and his family boarded the SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, in Newark, New Jersey. They were looking forward to a few weeks holiday touring Europe when in the midst of the bon voyage celebrations an angry ex-city worker took a shot at brand new New York City Mayor, William Gaynor – shades of Garfield's shooting!  Gayner was hit in the throat, and in the famous photograph taken just seconds after the shots (above), the old man in the white hat rushing to assist Mayor Gaynor, is none other than the late Bob Lincoln - and thus we  have photographic proof that Bob was a shlimazel!  The doctors largely left Mayor Gaynor alone, and he died of his wounds, three years later.
The only other public occasion which involved a living President and Bob Lincoln was on Memorial Day, Tuesday, May 30th, 1922. Bob (above, on the right) was 78 years old by then, when he attended the dedication of his father's memorial in Washington, D.C. In fact there were three Presidents present at that ceremony. The fat man, (above left) was Chief Justice William Howard Taft, who had been President in 1911 when he signed the bill authorizing the construction of the monument. He survived his close encounter with Bob by another eight years. Vice President “Silent Cal” Coolidge was also there (not shown). He would become President, after the death of President William G. Harding (above center), who gave a rousing speech at the dedication. But Harding would not die until August of 1923, fifteen months and a day after rubbing shoulders with Bob – which seems like a rather extended time frame for an effective curse. And Coolidge would last another nine years before he died. The curse, it seemed, had been either broken or maybe it was just exhausted. Bob sure seems to have been. 
In fact, Bob Lincoln himself (above) would die sooner than any of his final potental victims. He suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage in the summer of 1926. When he died Bob was the last surviving member of the Garfield cabinet, having outlived his rival James Blaine, who did not even make it out of the nineteenth century (he had died, January 1893) . Bob Lincoln was also the only man in American history to have been present at the murder of two American Presidents, not to mention his relation to a third, his own farther. Bob  was also the only child of Abraham Lincoln to reach adulthood, and to have childern of his own.  But sadly his last heir - and thus Abraham Lincoln's last blood relative - died in 1985.  The line of Lincoln is no more. Bob could not be blamed for any of the unusual coincidences that marred his life, but neither could they be ignored. To call them bad luck seems a pathetic explanation. To call Bob a Jonah seems over-wrought. I think he was just an innocent shlimazel.
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Sunday, June 19, 2011


I wish I owned a time machine. The first place and time I would visit would be West 45th street in Manhattan, just after 9:00 PM on the night of August 6, 1930. With a little luck I would have seen a dapper, middle aged man, six feet tall, about 180 pounds, wearing a dark brown double-breasted coat and matching trousers, a bow tie, a Masonic ring and a gold wristwatch, a pair of pearl-gray pinstriped spats and all set off by straw panama hat, tipped at a jaunty angle, stepping into a cab outside of Billy Haas’ Chophouse, where he had just eaten dinner with friends. And if I had the chance I would get close enough to get a look at the cab driver’s face. Because if the driver was who I think he was, then the passenger would be the newly appointed New York State Supreme Court Judge Joseph Force Crater. And after that cab pulled into the New York night, he dropped off the face of the earth.
Judge Crater was, until Jimmy Hoffa, “the missing-est man in America”. One biographer has described him as a man with multiple personalities: “A jurist, a professor, a Tammany Hall stalwart, and a family man.” He was also “Good Time Joe”, with a penchant for liquor and lovely available showgirls. After he disappeared rumors said he had committed suicide or (more likely) run off with a show girl, or that he had died in bed with a prostitute or was killed for reneging on a debt. He was reported seen prospecting for gold in California, shooting craps in Atlanta, on a steamer in the Adriatic and running a bingo game in North Africa. But for all the hoopla over his disappearance, nobody even reported him missing for three weeks.
The judge had left his wife Stella on Sunday August 3, at their summer cabin in Maine. He told her he was going back to the city for a day or two to “straighten those fellows out”, but he promised to be back in Maine by August 9, her birthday. In fact he had already ordered her present, a new canoe. He took the overnight train to New York City, arriving on the morning of Monday, August 4, 1930 at Grand Central Station, just in time for the start of a heat wave of ninety plus temperatures.
Joe went immediately to their two bedroom co-op at 40 Fifth Avenue where he cleaned up and told the maid she could take a few days off, but to return on Thursday, August 7 to clean up after he had left again for Maine. That night Crater took in a show and had dinner at the Abbey Club, a notorious gangster and Tammany Hall hangout. On Tuesday he lunched with two judges he would serve with on the appeals court and in the evening he played poker with friends.
And on Wednesday, August 6, his last day in New York, in the early afternoon, Crater went to his office in the Foley Square Courthouse, where he began going through his files. He ordered an assistant to cash two checks for him, closing out some stock and bond accounts, totaling $5,150 cash. He left with the files and the cash in two locked briefcases. He then headed off to dinner with his friend Bill Klein and the showgirl Sally Lou Ritz. Sally was one Crater’s mistresses. They ate cool lobster cocktails and cold chicken for dinner.
Later, someone picked up the single ticket Crater had reserved at the Belasco Theatre. The show was a comedy that had opened the night before, “Dancing Partner”, but no one remembered seeing the judge there.
Stella grew worried when Joe did not return by the 9th of August. She called his friends and staff, and all of them urged her to remain calm and not raise a fuss because of the potential political complications that might ensue.
Joe Crater had been a surprising appointment to the New York appeals court because he was not openly affiliated with New York Mayor Jimmy Walker (above), or his friends at Tammany Hall, the center of graft and greed in New York City government since the 1840’s. But Crater was connected. The proof of this was that the standard practice in New York was that an appointment to the bench required the payment to Tammany Hall of one year’s salary, and in April of 1930, just after Governor Franklyn D. Roosevelt had announced Crater’s surprise appointment, Crater had withdrawn $23,000 from his bank (the equivalent of a a quarter of a million dollars today). That amount was exactly the yearly income of an appeals court justice.
But Roosevelt was already positioning himself for a possible run for the White House and he could not afford to be connected to the Tammany Hall machine in the public’s mind. State and Federal investigators were already sniffing around, looking for an opening to bring down the Tammany Hall machine.
One of New York’s most successful madams, Polly Adler, who had operated houses of prostitution for more than a decade under mob protection, had recently been busted. Many of the power players from Tammany Hall were her best clients. There were lots of people worried about just whose pocket one of Polly's distinctive calling cards might fall out of next. She and the missing Judge Crater were both now loose ends connected to Tammany Hall. Pull on either one  and the whole knot might start the great unraveling.
Finally, on August 16, ten days after her husband was last seen, Stella sent her chauffeur to the city to look for her husband. He reported that the Judge had left their apartment in perfect order, none of his clothes were missing and his luggage was still in the closet. The maid, of course had already cleaned it up. And no one at any of the Judges’ usual hangouts remembered seeing him. Still, Stella was counseled to keep quiet. Even when the courts re-opened after the summer recess on August 28 without Judge Crater, no public alarm was raised.
Then, finally, on September 3, 1930, the dam broke, when a desperate Stella finally called the New York City Police to report her husband missing. In an instant the bubble of silence was popped and everybody began rushing to correct their public statements - such as when Justices on the state Supreme Court were asked why they had claimed to have talked with Carter as late as August 14th.
Governor Roosevelt promised that if anyone ever proved that any of the Tammany Hall politicians were connected to kidnapping Crater, they would be prosecuted. Mayor Walker and the city council posted a $5,000 reward. A lawyer surfaced with a show girl client who had spent a weekend in an Atlantic City Hotel with the judge just a week before his disappearance. He announced that his client was ready to sue Joe Crater for “breach of promise”, asking for $100,000 (Over another million today.) A grand jury was convened, and Sally Ritz joined Stella Crater and half the denizens of Tammany Hall in testifying under oath. The story and the scandal was a great distraction from the bread lines and other depressing signs of the Great Depression.
The scandal over Judge Joe Crater and what it revealed about graft in New York City was the final crack in the walls of Tammany Hall, and spurred the election in 1933 of the reform Mayoral candidate Fiorello LaGuardia
But none of the revolations and sweeping reforms got anybody any closer to finding the Judge. In 1937 poor Stella Crater had to hire the law firm of Ellis, Ellis & Ellis, (brothers Myron, Emil & Jonas), to sue the insurance companies and force them to pay out on Joe’s life insurance policies. But without a body they could not be forced to pay the double indemnity clause. In 1939 Missing Person File # 13595 was closed, and the courts considered the Good Time Judge Joe Crater to be legally dead. But the debate continued in bar rooms around the country even until this day; what ever happened to Judge Crater?
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