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MARCH  2017
The Last Time a Republican Reigned in Big Business - 1903

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Friday, November 04, 2011

THE ROAD TO REVERE

I present to you a symbol of the Gilded Age, a captain of industry, a practitioner of power and a advocate of wealth; George Morgan Browne. I'll wager you've never heard of him. He was a lawyer and was responsible for one of the most infamous train wrecks in American history - and I'll bet you've never heard of that, either. He graduated from the New Haven law school (Yale) in 1836 and four years later, before he was thirty, he had opened his own practice in Boston . He never doubted the nobility of his beliefs - after all his second wife was a Cabot, and this was Boston “...The home of the bean and the cod, Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots, And the Cabots talk only to God.”. And what God told  George Browne was that the rich in America did not have enough power. “They are in a small minority at the polls”, he wrote, and “their influence in....elections is notoriously less than that of an equal number of voters.” His villain would be familiar to a political observer today. “The spoilsmen avail themselves of whatever party is in power, and are equally at home in either.” The “spoilsmen” were, of course, progressives..
The same year that George Browne graduated law school, the Eastern Railroad was chartered in Massachusetts, capitalized with just $1,300.000. That was barely enough to lay a single line of tracks eight miles north from Boston to the beach hamlet of Revere, then 3 miles further to Lynn, then Salem, Marblhead, Newburyport and finally all the way to Portland, Maine. The Eastern line carried 75, 000 weekly working class commuters at fifty cents for a ticket to Lynn, a dollar to Portland. But it was so underfunded that from the beginning it struggled with shortages of equipment. and personnel.
One of the conductors would later describe the job as “...down one day and up the next, and rest the third, and brake by hand the whole way as...(the) cars were not fitted with the air brake” The Westinghouse air brake was invented shortly after the Civil War, but the Eastern did not trust it anymore than they trusted the 30 year old telegraph. The management avoided these “unnecessary” expenses, and despite its reputation for shoddiness in service and equipment, the Eastern was always able pay annual dividends to its stockholders of between 6 and 8%. It was a business model that seemed to work, at least until July of 1855 when President and Treasurer, Mr. William Tuckerman, was forced to admit that he had lost $281,000 (equivalent to $64 million today) while gambling to make corporate ends meet. (Sound familar?).
The hard nosed Mr. John Howe replaced Tukerman as President, and new blood was brought onto the board as well - including George Browne. Sixty-five of the firm's 354 employees were laid off, and the remaining workers scrambled to keep 26 trains running every day. For the time being, dividends were forgotten. In 1858 Mr. Howe stepped down and George Browne became President, at a salary of $5,000 a year (equivalent to over a $1 million today) .
After eight years of rigorous penny pinching President Browne had returned the yearly corporate dividends to 8%. According to an official company history, the Eastern's 29 locomotives, 48 yellow passenger cars (fewer than they had owned in 1858) and 13 baggage cars, were not considered “worn out until (they) had been rebuilt from one to three times” despite assurances in the annual reports that the equipment was “...equal of any first class railroad in New England”
George Browne, who signed those annual reports, even managed to pick up a cheap Confederate locomotive which had been captured by Union troops. The Eastern's maintenance chief complained this bargain was so prone to breakdowns, he refereed to it as “The Rebel”.  Even after the war the 28 trains scheduled to run on the Eastern line daily still did not have “air brakes”, nor did the company use the telegraph to communicate between stations. But the 55 tired locomotives, 98 worn out passenger cars and 27 baggage cars owned by the Eastern Railroad were simply not enough to keep the system running smoothly. Delays and breakdowns were daily events,. and passenger complaints fell on deaf ears because the company was listening to the stockholders, not the customers. The Eastern was the only line servicing the fishing villages along the coast, turning them into suburbs of Boston but also making them captive customers. The stock rose to $125 a share.
Finally, in the spring of 1871, in an attempt to deal with the endemic over-stretched company, President Browne authorized doubling the shares available – increasing the working capital for the road to eight million dollars. The goal was to buy more locomotives and cars, but no one was so impolite as to point out that this was just the sort of “gamble” which had gotten poor Mr. Tuckerman into such trouble. But it was already too late.
The problem came to a head on a sweltering Saturday, August 26th, 1871. Because of the summer weekend traffic, the single track line was again overloaded. The schedule called for 152 trains this day, but the passenger load forced the overworked staff at the Eastern's Boston terminal to send out 192. They spent the day desperately jamming passengers into hastily turned around cars and dispatching trains as quickly as they could. The schedule was in tatters, the customers were grumbling about the even worse than usual service, and express trains were slipped in between scheduled ones whenever possible. Just about 8:30, as the exhausting day was finally drawing to a close, a misty fog settled in off Revere Beach, the first truly public beach in America. A local from Everett pulled into the tiny station at Revere, running 20 minutes late. And while the passengers were still edging past each other through the open doors, the rear car was suddenly illuminated by the headlight of an oncoming express, bound for Sargus at thirty miles an hour. The Sargus engineer slammed on the locomotive’s brakes, but inertial drove the following cars onward.
The collision, it would be later judged, occurred at well under 20 miles an hour. A survivor in the fatal rear car told the New York Times, “Suddenly I...saw the crowd of passengers rushing over the seats and through the aisle, and the locomotive coming like fury after them.” The cowcatcher on the front of the engine split the wooden passenger car like a can opener. Yellow painted wood was instantly converted to kindling, which the kerosene lamps illuminating the car set aflame. The engine's smokestack snapped off, along with its steam valves. Victims, struggling to catch their breath, sucked scalding air into their lungs.
Reported the Newport, Rhode Island Daily News, “The shrieks and groans of the wounded and scalded, their frantic calls for help and their wild ejaculations caused by a frenzy of pain formed a continuation of sounds such as no mortal ear desired to hear a second time...Some were pinned with splinters, some had arms and legs broken, while other were mangled beyond recognition. Many, in fact the majority of the dead, were apparently free from bruises, but the peeling skin and deathly pallor which overspread the flesh told plainly that steam and scalding water had been frightful and effective agents of death.”
Of the 75 people jammed into the last passenger car, 29 died instantly or over the next several days. Along both trains, 57 more were injured, and many more emotionally maimed for the rest of their lives. It was far from the worst rail accident in American history - 101 dead in Nashville, Tennessee in 1918 - but it was the seminal event in rail safety, thanks to Charles Frances Adams – grandson of John Quincy Adams – and director of the Massachusetts Board of Railroad Commissioners.
Adams' investigation discovered that the company had a regular policy of issuing schedule changes at the last minute, and verbally. It was a system which almost seemed designed to cause confusion, delays and accidents - and it had repeatedly caused all three. And the Commission's final report explained the failure in terms even a businessman like George Browne might understand; “A very large proportion of the rolling stock of the Eastern railroad was rendered unavailable...when it was the most needed, because trains were standing still at points of passing, waiting for other trains which were out of time...to the equal loss and inconvenience of the public and the corporation.”
Adam's report, and two coroners' juries, blamed the conductor and engineer of the express for the accident. That was as standard as citing “pilot error” in an airline crash. But Adam's report went further. It dwelt on the management of the Eastern, and it named in particular George Browne, who had directed the Eastern Railroad for fourteen years. The public agreed. Said a politician, “There is no accident in this case...only the greed of the Eastern Railroad Company”. Six months later, on February 5, 1872, George Browne resigned. His replacement invested in telegraph lines, and Westinghouse air brakes, and electric signals to warn engineers of trains ahead of them. All these improvements (and settling the civil lawsuits) cost the Eastern $510,600 (the equivalent to $90 million today). No dividends were paid in 1872, and the stock value dropped to $51 a share. In retrospect the cost of safety seemed cheap. To an ideologue, this was proof that unrestricted capitalism worked. But ideology failed to consider the moral cost of the the 29 dead and the many more scared survivors.
To escape the public outrage, George Browne left the country, living in Europe for a year. But he never altered in his views or his willingness to make them known. He even wrote letters to the London Times, correcting British politicians in their thinking. And when he came home to Boston he became a consultant for other corporations, always an advocate for the wealthy against what he termed “the vicious caprices of the populace”. In 1881 he moved to Washington, D.C., and lobbied for railroads and his vision of capitalism. He died there on April 25, 1895, at the age of 73.
By then the Eastern Railroad had been gobbled up by its competitor, The Boston and Maine. That is the nature of capitalism - its strength and its sin – at its core, it is cannibalism.

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Wednesday, November 02, 2011

A VERY BAD IDEA


I don’t suppose there is any way of knowing exactly when the idea was born, but at some point in early 1881 it occurred to New York City actress Miss Jennie Rhett that she needed to stand out from the chorus. My guess is that she read a newspaper story about two young women who had recently fallen off an excursion barge into the East River. And from that chance news story, and from her own ambition, the actress hatched a very bad idea. Miss Rhett searched amongst the piers of the lower east side of Manhattan until she found the young swimmer who had saved the two women. He was handsome, smart and just as ambitious as she was, and Irish too. And that was when I suspect that this idea took its very first steps. Some time later Miss Rhett was discovered off Coney Island Beach near the new Iron Pier (above), floundering in the sea. Just in the nick of time a tough young Irishman pulled her to safety. Later, in front of a small crowd and a reporter, Miss Rhett presented the young man with a “gold locket” in gratitude for his bravery. The reporter did not think to ask what a young Irishman from the Bowery was doing swiming at Coney Island. In any case, it was a small news story. And sadly it does not seemed to have propelled Miss Jennie Rhett to the stardom she sought. After this publicity stunt she disappears from out story. But the young Irishman had learned an important lesson, and we will hear from him again.New York City in the 1880’s was the kind of place where any idea seemed possible, even fame and fortune for those surviving on their wits in the Bowery or "Hell’s Kitchen". The twin towers of the Brooklyn Bridge, begun in 1870 and nearing completion, were the hightest structures in New York City. But as tall as they were, they still seemed human in size.Standing at the foot of the Brooklyn tower it was possible to feel the audacity of a world, still powered largely by horses and humans, which had dared to make the 5,989 foot long unsupported throw across the open expanse of the East River. So it was not surprisingly that the next step in the evolution in this bad idea should leap into some lunatic’s mind even before the great bridge had been completed.One night in 1882 a young man was detained by bridge employees on the unfinished center span of the Brooklyn Bridge. He was in the process of undressing. Eager not to be seen as a common pervert, the young man identified himself as “Professor” Robert Emmet Odlum, from Washington, D.C.; a well named swimming instructor and author of pamphlets on diving. "Professor" Odlum told the police he had made a $200 bet that he could safely dive from the unfinished bridge. After explaining to Mr. Odlum that he could not hope to survive the 175 foot drop, the “Professor’s” mother was notified and he was put on a train back to Washington. The New York City police made a note to never admit Mr. Udlum onto the bridge again, even after it opened in May of 1883. It was at this point in the evolution of the bad idea that chance intervened, in the form of a love-sick 22 year old woman in far off Bristol, England.On May 8, 1885 Miss Sara Ann Henley received a note from her boyfriend breaking off their engagement. In a fit of pique Miss Henley walked half way across the Clifton Suspension Bridge, high above the Avon River Gorge, and threw herself off.  As she plummeted the 245 feet toward oblivion her crinolined petticoats caught the air like a parachute and slowed her descent. She was even more fortunate when she spashed down into shallow waters along the shore, where her landing was softened by thick forgiving mud. She was badly injured, but she lived. Her extraordinary survival made all of the English papers, and was picked up and republished extensivly in America.A week after Miss Henley’s great fall the New York police got word that ‘Professor’ Odlum had been inspired to give the Brooklyn bridge another “go”. They alerted the toll collectors, and on Sunday afternoon, May 19, 1885 (ten days after Miss Henley’s plunge) a collector reported a suspicious cab lingering on the bridge. Police officers found it parked against the railing, half way across the span. But it was a decoy. While they were searching the cab, two wagons further back, "Professor" Odlum leapt from beneath a covered flatbed wearing a swimsuit emblazoned with his name, clambered over the railing and before the cops could reach him, threw himself into space.Imagine the "Professor's" surprise when he discovered that the cops had been right. He entered the water feet first (as was the accepted diving position at the time) and shattered every bone in his frame from heel to skull. He was pulled from the river unconscious and died a half hour later. His friends shipped his body home. Ten days later Robert’s sister came to town ten demanding that the coroner explain what had become of her brother’s liver and heart. She never got a satisfactory answer, but my guess is they had both been reduced to jelly by the impact. A little math shows that “Professor” Odlum hit the water going sixty-three and a half miles an hour. At that speed water is almost as fluid as cold concrete. But it was Robert Odlum’s tragic foolishness that was the catalyst for the return of the Irish hero to our story.He was 23 years old by this time, making his living as a newsboy and a bookie amongst the denizens of the Bowery. Like a certain actress he had worked with, Steve Brodie now needed to escape the chorus; except in his case the chorus was a carcophony of poverty. The story that he later told police was that a friend, James Brennan, had dared him on a $100 bet that he would not jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. But I doubt that Mr. Brennan had ever seen $100 in his life.Steve Brodie claimed to have made the leap on Friday morning, July 23, 1886. Mr. Brennan claimed to have witnessed the jump. There was even a sworn affidavit from a barge captain who had pulled the daredevil from the river. Sceptics said Brennan had thrown a dummy off the bridge while Brodie had swum out from shore, but it didn't matter if the story was true or not. Overnight, dardevil or spinner of tall tales, everyone in New York City knew the name of Steve Brodie, the man who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge.Brodie parleyed his 15 minutes of fame into his own bar, with a little theatre in the rear where he re-enacted his alledged dramatic plunge into the East River several times a week for the tourists. In 1891 promoters built a Broadway melodrama (“Mad Money”) around his dive,  and another muisical in 1894, (“On the Bowery”).And on the wall next to a painting of his fabulous plunge, was displayed the following homely, “Cursing and swearing don’t make you any tougher in the eyes of people that hears you. Steve Brodie".  Of course, Steve's success at selling the idea, did not make it any better of an idea.In 1895 Mrs. Clara McArthur, married to a disabled railroad worker and mother of a young daughter, jumped off the bridge at 3:30 in the morning. She was seeking a share of Steve Brodies’ pot of gold for her destitute family. The desperate Clara was wrapped in an American flag. She had water-wings strapped under her arms and a punching bag tied to her back to keep her afloat after landing. Her socks were filled with sand to keep her feet below her head (again, the accepted, best attitude to enter the water).But Clara landed on her side, spreading the impact over the length of her entire body. That is what saved her life. The shock ripped the water wings under her arms to shreds. She struggled to the surface, but the punching bag kept flipping her over onto her face, and the socks kept pulling her down. After struggling for several long seconds, Clara finally passed out, face down in the water. Two men in a rowboat waiting under the bridge finally managed to pull her to safety. She never made a dime from the effort, even though she had several reliable witnesses that she had actually made the jump. The Victorian public simply didn't want to know the details of a woman forced to risk her life to provide for her family. Clara McArthur is one of only ten people (two of them women) known to have actually jumped off the bridge since the 1881, and who survived the plunge.Steve Brodie is not counted as one of those ten. He was always an agreable fellow. If he had money, his friends and family shared in it. He gave generously to charity his entire life. But it is extremely doubtful that he actually made the jump. He tried to extend his fame by claiming to have lepted off a railroad bridge in upstate New York, and later claiming to have gone over Niagara Falls wrapped in inner tubes and metal bumpers. The Niagara stunt, real or not, almost killed him. He settled in Buffalo, New York, and operated a bar there for a few years before his asthma forced him to move to San Antonio, Texas, where he died in 1901 of complications of diabetes. Steve Brodie was all of 38 years old. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery, in Woodside, Queens, New York. Thankfully the idea of jumping from the bridge for fame and fortune died with him.The longest living survivor of all these daredevils was the accidental one. Sara Ann Henley (below), the woman who tried to commit suicide in 1885 by jumping 240 feet off the Clifton Suspension bridge, finally earned her angel’s wings in 1948. She was 84 years old, married, but with no children, perhaps because of injuries sustained in her fall into the Avon River Gorge. Such silly feats, for fame or to protest fortune, are never good ideas.
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Sunday, October 30, 2011

BOO, WHOM!

I do not understand why, once a year, I am expected to provide a sugar rush to every kid in the neighborhood. And should I try offering these adolescent vagabonds real food, some sliced ham, a couple of ‘buffalo wings’ or, God forbid, a little rice pilaf,  my house would be egged. What this ‘Kinder Mafia” demand is pure extravagance; mere empty calories. Their obsession with processed sugar is neither healthy nor logical. Oh, sure, they dress it up in fairy costumes and go door to door chanting, “Treat or trick”. But what they really mean is "Treat or else . This is the annual fall shakedown. This isn’t a holiday. It is income sugar wealth redistribution, socialism out of the barrel of a gummy bear.
The roots of Halloween were planted long before Christians had enough saints to celebrate the night before All Hallowed Saint’s Day. The Aztecs were celebrating Dia de los Muertos even before they were speaking Spanish., maybe 3,000 years ago. And the Druids in Ireland were celebrating “Samhain” by carving turnip Jack-o-lanterns 2,500 years before they saw their first pumpkin. ‘And how’, you may ask, ‘could offerings to Mictecacihuatl, the Aztec Goddess who was still born, become individually packaged bags of M&Ms’ handed out to a skeleton named Catrina? And I will answer you, ‘Only in a world where the love child of Salvador Dali and Ma Barker is allowed to design holidays, that’s where!
This is the night when the line between the dead and the not-yet-dead (also known as The Living) is supposed to become fuzzy, and everyone is concerned about ghosts, spooks, ghouls and zombies. But its common knowledge that ghosts can’t manipulate physical objects, so they can only harm you psychologically, meaning Scientologists are safe since they don’t believe in psychology. And nobody should be afraid of “spooks” because once you speak a spook’s name they are “spooken for” and rendered harmless; which is what happened to the spook Valerie Plame.
Now Dick Cheney, he’s a real life ghoul, one of  those creatures who, every time you think they're dead they come back to life again on Fox News. That a whole network is staffed by zombies, is a perfect example of how we are terrified of all the wrong things in this life - and evidently the afterlife is even worse.
But on October 31st, I too will be answering my door bearing a bowl filled with tribute, because I don’t want to spend half of November pulling toilet paper out of my rain gutters. But who remembers that this is also Reformation Day, when, in 1546, Martin Luther nailed his “95 Things I Hate About The Pope” to the front door of the Wittenberg Castle Church and was later arrested for deformation of church property. So, logically, children could be going door to door, calling, “Treat or I’ll nail your butt to the door, you papist low life, and, oh, by the way have you got any Jews hiding in here?” So I guess we’re lucky we got the screwed up holiday we did get. It could have been far worse.
The truth (as if that ever mattered about holidays) is that Martin Luther defiantly nailing his arguments to the church door was probably as real as the legend of George Washington chopping down a cheery tree; neither one really happened. And that may be yet another reason why you never see Martin Luther costumes on Halloween Night. I did see a George Washington once, but that was so long ago the costume was probably made in the United States.
This year Americans will spend over $6 billion on this mish-mash of a holiday. Almost all of our black and orange fix, like cocaine, is provided by overseas suppliers who have no other connection to us, and although that kind of chump change would barely support the occupation of  Afghanistan for a month, it does work out to about $65 per family this year. Our family is not spending anywhere near that much, so I figure Donald Trump and his Wall Street buddies must be spending like a billion each to make up for what us po' folks are'nt spending anymore - call them  the ghoul creators.
About 4 million Americans will even be buying costumes for their dogs this year, like PetSmart’s spider web dog collar for $12, or PetCo’s dogie Pumpkin dress- up for $16. It gives a whole new meaning to the term "Puttin' on the dog". Still, this canine costume capitalism is surprising. considering that dogs and skeletons would seem to be a natural costume combo, popular with dogs as well as the humans. And once the holiday was over you would not have to store the costume -  you just let Rover bury it.
But as a nation we seem determined to spend as much as possible, to prove the depth of our emotional commitment to this “dead holiday thing”.  We, as a nation, will be putting 2 million pirates (mostly boys) on the streets Wednesday  night, along with 4 million princesses (mostly girls) to look cute, forcing adults to follow behind them, as a back-up muscle. At the ring of the door bell us older folks, cowering in our homes, then answer the door armed with only a half-empty bowl of bite sized Three Musketeers, and hope that is enough to buy us protection for another year.
And that is where all smart adults should be, dreading the sound that fills the night with horror and chills the bones; “Trick or treat, trick or treat, give us something good to eat. Or else.”  Yes, Trick or Treat, and bon appetit, my fellow cowering masses. And if you survive this night, you have two weeks until the next horror; election day!
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