AUGUST   2020


Friday, January 27, 2012


I hate the image of Lincoln that most Americans hold, the five dollar profile of “The Great Emancipator”. You see, Abraham Lincoln saved the Union and ended slavery not because he was a saint but because he was the greatest politician who has ever occupied the White House. And to those who despise “professional politicians”, my response is they have probably never seen a real professional in action. Such Pols  don’t come along often, but when they do, they make the puny impersonations that must usually suffice seem like clowns.
And Lincoln’s professionalism was best displayed in his handling of the biggest clown in his cabinet, a man you have probably never heard of but whose best work you see every day of your life, Salmon Portland Chase. If Chase had been half as smart as he was ambitious, he would have been President instead of Lincoln. That to his dying day he continued to think he deserved to be so, shows what a clown he really was.
Doris Kerns Goodwin has called Lincoln’s cabinet “A Team of Rivals”, but I think of it more as an obtuse triangle. At the apex was Lincoln. He was the pretty girl at the party. His suitors didn’t really want to know him, but they all wanted to have him. On the inside track was the brilliant, obsequious William Seward - the Secretary of State who thought of himself as Lincoln’s puppet master. And the right angle was Salmon Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, born to money and brilliant,  but with a stick up his alimentary canal. And on Tuesday, December 16, 1862 the competition between these two paramours of Old Abe's banged heads in the head of Senator Charles Sumner, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and leading Senatorial Cassandra.
Sumner had come into procession of a letter written by Seward to the American Ambassador to France. In the letter Seward complained that “…the extreme advocates for African slavery and its most vehement opponents are acting in concert together to precipitate a servile war, the former by making the most desperate attempts to overthrow the federal Union; the latter by demanding an edict of universal emancipation as a lawful and necessary if not, as they say, the only legitimate way of saving the Union.” To Sumner this passage was proof that behind the scenes Seward was not fully committed to destroying slavery and the Confederacy. And it confirmed what he already heard from Chase.
Stephen Oates writes in “With Malice Toward None”, “Chase in particular felt snubbed and resentful…what bothered Chase the most was the intimacy between Lincoln and Seward…In talks with his liberal Congressional friends, Chase intimated that Seward was a malignant influence on the President...that it was (Seward) who was responsible for the administration’s bungling. So it was that Seward became a scapegoat for Republican discontent.” (pp 355-356)
Sumner convened what I call "The Magnificent Seven", the Republican Senate caucus. Once the Seward letter was read out loud, Senator Ira Harris from New York recorded the reaction. “Silence ensued for several moments, when (Senator Morton Wilkinson of Minnesota) said that in his opinion the country was ruined and the cause was lost…” Senator William Fessenden from Maine added his two cents worth. He had been told by a member of the cabinet there was “…a secret backstairs influence which often controlled the apparent conclusions of the cabinet itself. Measures must be taken”, Fessenden concluded, “to make the cabinet a unity and to remove from it anyone who does not coincide heartily with our views in relation to the war.”
It is sad to say there was not a first rate mind in that room. There might have been, but arrogance drops a smart person’s I.Q. by forty points or more. It can drop the average mind to zero. Not one of the seven seems to have suspected they were being manipulated by Chase, that it was Chase who had whispered Fesseneden's ear, and Wilkinsen' s ear as well. But each was convinced they they and they alone held the solution as to how to conclude the Civil War. It is startling to think that men who used an outhouse every day, could be that arrogant.
They skewered up their courage for two days before saddling up and calling on the President at 7 P.M. on Thursday, December 19, 1862. For three hours they harangued poor Mr. Lincoln on the dangers of Seward. Lincoln remained agreeable but noncommittal, and proposed that they meet again the next night. And the amazing thing was that throughout the meeting Lincoln actually had William Seward’s resignation in his coat pocket.
Understand, Seward had not offered his resignation out of nobility. He was a politician. After hearing of the intentions of the Seven, Seward had a flunky deliver his resignation in private, as a back door demand that Lincoln pick Seward over Chase, the genial New Yorker over the prig from Ohio. Of course, the loss of support from New York would poke a fatal hole in Lincoln’s ship of state. So Seward was not expecting Lincoln to pick the prig for the poke
Lincoln’s problem was he also needed the prig. Chase’s handling of the Treasury  was brilliant. He was financing the entire war. It was Chase who had begun issuing official U.S. government backed paper currency, greenbacks. That had not been done since the American Revolution. It was Chase who had put the words “In God We Trust” on every bill, and its still there today. Of course, Chase had also put his own face on every $1 bill, as a form of political advertising, but Lincoln was willing to tolerate that because Chase was honest, doing a good job, and because without Ohio, the Union would lose the war.
The other factor was that the whispers about Seward’s “backstairs influence” were false. By December of 1862 it was dawning on even Seward that Lincoln was thinking for himself. When Lincoln had first heard about the Magnificent Seven’s deliberations (from Senator Preston King, the flunky who had delivered Seward’s resignation), the President had exploded. “Why will men believe a lie, an absurd lie, that could not impose upon a child, and cling to it, and repeat it, and cling to it in defiance of all evidence to the contrary?” Lincoln was beset by arrogance from all sides. It seems that everybody in Washington thought they were smarter than Lincoln. But the skinny lawyer from Illinois was about to prove them all wrong.
At ten the next morning Lincoln told his cabinet about the previous night’s meeting. He made no accusations, but Chase immediately blubbered that this was the first he had heard about any of this matter. The President, who had mentioned no names and made no allegations, asked them all, except Seward, to return that night to meet with the Seven. Seward felt the ground giving way under his feet. He had never expected Lincoln might pick Chase. At the same time, Chase was not entirely certain he had.
That night the Seven were now the audience to a bravo performance. Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy (then a cabinet office) recorded the festivities. The President “…spoke of the unity of his Cabinet, and how although they could not be expected to think and speak alike on all subjects, all had acquiesced in measures when once decided. ...Secretary Chase endorsed the President's statement fully and entirely…” There were hours more of talking but right there, when Chase agreed with Lincoln, that was the end of Chase's mutiny. As the Magnificent Seven were leaving the White House a stunned Senator Browning of Illinois asked one the leaders of the mutiny how Chase could tell them that the cabinet was harmonious, after all his talk to them about back stairs influence. The reply was simple and bitter; “He lied.” Chase was done as a malignant political influence in the cabinet. No Republican was going to believe anything he ever said again.
The next morning Lincoln called both Seward and Chase to the White House. Welles was again present, I suspect as a witness for Lincoln. Wrote Welles,  “Chase said he had been painfully affected by the meeting last evening, which was a total surprise to him, and…informed the President he had prepared his resignation…“Where is it?” said the President quickly, his eye lighting up in a moment."
“I brought it with me,” said Chase, taking the paper from his pocket…”Let me have it,” said the President, reaching his long arm and fingers towards Chase, who held on, seemingly reluctant…but the President was eager and…took and hastily opened the letter. “This," said he, looking towards me with a triumphal laugh, “cuts the Gordian knot.” An air of satisfaction spread over his countenance such as I have not seen for some time. “You may go to your Departments,” said the President;…(This) “is all I want…I will detain neither of you longer.”
Both Seward and Chase spent a nervous night, not certain as to what Lincoln would do. They had both just been reminded who was in charge of this game. And it was not until a few days later that Lincoln sent a message to both Chase and Seward, saying that the nation could not afford to lose either of their talents. And it did not. Seward never tried to pull Lincoln's strings again. Chase petulantly continued to resign annually until late 1864, when Lincoln could finally afford to take him up on the offer. But never a man to waste talent, Lincoln appointed the clown to the Supreme Court, where Chase’s firm stance for racial equality would have the best influence on America’s future.
And that is what it looks like when a professional is on the job.
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Wednesday, January 25, 2012


I do not believe the Reverend Kelly. But I am not sure if I don’t believe him when he said he did not murder those eight people, or when he said he did.  What I do know is that five years later, passengers on board the westbound number 5 train,  which had pulled out of little Villisca, Iowa at 5:19 A.M. that Monday morning, remembered the twitchy, diminutive preacher telling his fellow bleary eyed travelers that he had left eight butchered bodies back in Villisca. The bodies would not be discovered until almost eight that morning. So if the sleepy witnesses correctly remembered the words spoken to them five years earlier by a strange little preacher they had never seen before, then he was guilty of an unspeakable horror. If they were wrong, he was innocent. Of course, either way, he was crazy as a loon. And don't get me started on why none of the travelers told anybody at the time, about the odd little preacher.
Villisca is a self proclaimed “community of pride where the rivers divide”, the rivers being the West and Middle branches of the Nordaway River. It lies  80 miles southwest of Council Bluffs, Iowa.  Montgomery County was settled in the mid 19th century mostly by people from the old Midwest, upstate New York and Pennsylvania, people with names like Bates and Bowman, Kennedy and Hoover, Powers and Preston and Wymore. They arrived on the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroad, called by her customers just “The Q”.  At the time no community in Iowa was more than a few miles from an active passenger rail line. Most of the residents of Villisca either sold services or equipment to the local farmers or worked for the railroad. And it is not likely that in 1912 the little town was much smaller that it is today, when the population is just about 1,000 souls.On the morning of June 10th, 1912, inside a  sad looking two story house (now at 323 East 4th.Street) were found the bodies of Mr. Josiah Moore, his wife Sara, their daughter Katherine and their sons Herman, Boyd and Paul, as well as the bodies of their overnight child guests, Lena and Ina Stillinger. The children were aged 5 through age 12. All the victims were found in their beds, with their heads covered with bedclothes. All had their skulls battered 20 to 30 times with the blunt end of an ax, which was found wiped clean in the downstairs sewing room/bedroom,  along with the bodies of the Stillinger girls. The ceilings in the parent's bedroom and the children's room upstairs showed gouge marks, apparently made by the upswing of the ax blade.Downstairs little Lena Stillinger’s nightgown was pushed up, leaving her gentialia exposed. But the doctors said there was no evidence of molestation. There was an odd bloodstain on her knee and an alleged defensive wound on her arm.  A two pound slab of bacon was found, wrapped in a dishtowel, on the bedroom floor.  On the kitchen table was a plate of uneaten food and a bowl of bloody water. The medical estimate was that all of the murders had occurred shortly after midnight, the morning of 10 June, 1912.In June 11th, Mr. Sam Moyer was arrested for the murders.  He was released on the 15th. On June 20th Mr. John Bohland was arrested for the murders. He was released a few days later.  On July 5th, Mr. Frank Roberts (“a negro”) was arrested for the murders. He was released a few days later. On December 28th farmer and victim Sara Moore’s ex-brother-in-law, Mr. Lew Van Alstine, was arrested for the murders. He was released a few weeks later. On July 15th, 1916 Mr. William Mansfield was arrested for the murders. On July 21st he was released. On March 19, 1917, the Reverend J.J. Burris told a Grand Jury sitting in the county seat of Red Oak, that a mystery man had confessed on his death bed to the murders. And then, on April 30th, 1917 a warrant for the arrest of the Reverend George Kelly was issued. He arrived to surrender himself two weeks later, oddly enough on the No. 5 train.
The authorities first became interested in the Reverend (above, on the left) a few weeks after the murders, alerted by recipients of his rambling letters in the village. He had arrived in Villisca for the first time the Sunday morning before the murders, and had attended a Sunday school performance by the Stillinger girls. He had had left Villisca the following day, Monday morning. Two weeks later he had returned posing as a detective, and had even joined a tour of the murder house with a group of real investigators.  (There was virtually no control of the crime scene.) The only thing stopping police from arresting him immediately was that it was abundantly clear the Reverend was absolutely crazy.Lyn George Jacklin Kelly (above, again with his wife) was the son and the grandson of English ministers, who, as an adolescent, had suffered a “mental breakdown”. He had immigrated to America with his wife in 1904 and preached at a dozen Methodist churches across North Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas and Iowa. Preaching from the pulpit he was “...a confident, well-versed, and articulate speaker”. But in personal interactions the 5 foot, 119 pound minister displayed “...a nervous demeanor, shifty eyes, and often spoke so quickly that saliva would dribble down his chin”. He had been assigned as a visiting minister to several small communities north of Villisca, where he developed a reputation for odd behavior; late night walks, rumors that he was a peeping tom and unconfirmed stories that he had tried to convince young girls to undress for him. In 1914, while preaching in South Dakota he had advertised for a private secretary. One young woman who responded was informed by return post that Kelly wanted her to type in the nude. He was convicted of sending obscene material through the mail, and spent time in a mental hospital. While there he wrote to the Montgomery County D.A. that he expected at any moment to be arrested for the Villisca murders.Finally, after investigating just about every other possibility, the Grand Jury indicted Kelly for the murder of Lena Stillinger. All through the summer of 1917, while in jail awaiting trial, Kelly was interrogated. The last interview was on August 30th , a marathon session that lasted all night. At 7AM on the morning of the 31st Kelly signed a confession to the murder, saying God had whispered to him to “suffer the children to come unto me.”At trial he recanted, and on Wednesday, September 26 the case went to the jury, which deadlocked eleven to one for acquittal. A second jury was immediately empanelled, and in November the Reverend Kelly was acquitted by all 12 jurors. No one else was ever tried for the murders. And the crime remains one of the most horrific, unsolved mass murders in American history, known simply as the Villisca Axe Murders. Did he do it?  I don't know. The passangers on the number 5 train that Monday morning were pretty sure he had confessed to them, three hours before the bodies were discovered. But did they really remember the confession, five years later? Was it really the morning of of the murders? Or had it happened two weeks after the murders, when Reverend Kelly had impersonated a detective? It is enough to shake your faith in any certainty in this world. (
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Sunday, January 22, 2012


I believe the murder was set in motion far from the scene of the crime, in modern day Turkey, in a patch of desert about ten miles north of the border with Syria. In 53 B.C.E., this spot of emptiness was called Carrhae, and in Roman history that name is synonymous with shame. It was at Carrhae that 20,000 Legionaries died, and worse, 10,000 were captured, and even worse, it was here that the aristocrat’s aristocrat, the greedy Marcus Licinius Crassus (above), was killed. His death should not have been a great tragedy, as not many outside his immediate family had reason to mourn his demise. But within ten years of his death, the Roman Republic would collapse, and the cause of democracy would be set back two thousand years – and all that occurred because Crassus got what he deserved. I would label all that followed his death, the horrible unintended consequences of a good thing.
Crassus, the richest man in Rome, had also once been a hero. He led the right wing at the battle of Coline Gate, which made Sulla dictator of Rome. He had defeated the slave armies of Spartacus, and lined the Appian Way with 6,000 crucified slaves. Then he had turned to running the finances of Sulla' s brutal regime. Now, at 60, he wanted to be a hero again. His plan to achieve this was to invade Parthia, the empire centered upon present day Iran. But age had not made Crassus more intellectually flexible or humble of spirit. When offered assistance from the King of Armenia, Crassus chose to keep all the plunder for himself.
So, in the spring of 53 B.C., at the head of seven veteran legions and 8,000 cavalry commanded by his son, Publius, Crassus crossed the Euphrates river at Zeugma, and almost immediately started making mistakes. He hired a guide who led him deep into a treeless desert near Carrhea (above), and then vanished. And once the legions were ankle deep in sand and desperately short of water, only then did the Parthian army appear - 10,000 cavalry armed with powerful bows.
Arrows showered upon the massed legions, wounding men and sapping moral. The Roman tactical response was to form the infantry into turtles (testudos) (above), closing ranks tightly, with the center ranks marching beneath their shields, and the soldiers on the edges presenting the enemy with a moving wall. But so strong were the Parthian bows that some arrows even penetrated the turtle's shells. It went on for hours. The turtles could only march in a straight line, and not very quickly under a baking desert sun. Eventually, reasoned Crassus, the Parthian bowmen would run out of arrows. But then he spotted large camel trains approaching, each dromedary carrying a fresh supply of arrows.
In desperation Publius's cavalry charged the camels, but the Parthian's proved adept at shooting while retreating - the famous Parthian shot (above), the sting in the scorpion's tail. Publius was killed and his cavalry scattered. The Parthians closed in again and the arrows continued to shower down upon the turtles. The sun continued to beat down. Eventually Crassus was forced to retreat into the village of Carrhea. After a night without water, his officers forced Crassus to parlay with the Parthian commander. The meeting was a disaster. The deaf Crassus perceived an insult in some Parthian translation, and moved to remount his horse. A Parthian officer grabbed the horses' bridle. A proud Roman officer pulled his gladius to defend his commander's honor, and the Parthian generals slaughtered the Roman officers, including Marcus Licinius Crassus. After that, the Parthians fell upon the leaderless legions, and effectively wiped them out.
The legend is that after the slaughter, the Parthians poured molten gold into the severed head of the greedy Crassus. It sounds like a terrible waste of a precious metal, but then the war had been a terrible waste of seven irreplaceable Roman legions. But the two men in all the world who understood intuitively what a disaster Crassus' death really was for Rome, were his two greatest competitors.
The sardonic Sulla had nicknamed Gnaeus Pompeius, as Pompey the Great (above). But Sulla had meant it as a joke - whatever else he was, Sulla was a ruthless judge of character. Sent by Sulla to secure the Roman grain supplies in Sicily, the young Pompey had earned another nickname, 'the adolescent butcher'. When the citizens of one small Sicilian village argued his attack upon them was illegal, Pompey responded bluntly, “Stop quoting laws. We carry weapons!” Returning home, Pompey demanded a triumphal parade, usually reserved for military victories. After Sulla's death, the Senate dispatched Pompey to crush a rebellious general. Pompey bribed one of the rebel officers to kill the general, and then eliminated the traitor. His justification was typically blunt. “A dead man cannot bite”. And he claimed another triumph. Sent to crush pirates who were raiding Roman grain fleets, Pompey bought them off, and again, claimed a triumph - Pompey Maximus, indeed.
As the two richest and most ambitious men in Rome, Pompey and Crassus had initially cooperated to strengthen the tribunes. This was not out of some faith in the Senate, but to use the tribunes as a buffer between them. For four hundred years these 'Tribunes of the Plebs' had been a counter-balance to the aristocrats in the Senate. Elected by the whole male population, tribunes could not make laws, but they could veto any law passed by the Senate (above), and lead soldiers in battle. Sulla had reduced the tribunes to a ceremonial post. But Pompey and Crassus, increasingly driven apart by suspicion, paranoia and envy, used the tribunes to enact their policies. And one of the men supported by Crassus for tribune of the people was Gaius Julius Caesar.
Sulla had taken one look at the smart, ambitious young Caesar (above), and marked him down for elimination. Julius avoided Sulla's assassins by joining the army. Once Sulla died, Julius returned to Rome, where Crassus backed his election as a Tribune and then sent him to Spain. While there Caesar had defeated two small tribes. This earned him the right to a triumph. Instead, Caesar asked Crassus for help, meaning money, to run for Consul of Rome.
A Consulship was the executive position in the Republic, the equivalent of an American President. But Romans were so afraid of someone wanting to rule over them as a  king, that the term of office was just one year long, and there were two equal consuls elected each year. Each had the power of veto over any action by the other. This was a system designed to ensure deadlock.  As a result of the election of 60 B.C., Caesar (Crassus' man) was elected. But the other consul elected that year, Marcus Bibulus, was Pompey's man, meaning more deadlock. Every law Crassus backed, Bibulus vetoed, ever law Pompey pushed, Caesar vetoed. And it was Caesar’s political genius that he saw the way to use this deadlock to increase his own power.
In 59 B.C., Caesar pushed for a law Pompey had long supported, a land reform act that would give farms to Pompey's veterans. Bibulus, who was an aristocrat and a land owner, tried to veto Caesar’s bill, but thugs hired by Caesar drove Bibulus out of the forum, and even dumped a dung bucket on Bilbulus's head. Caesar’s bill passed, and that quickly power in Rome was changed, from a deadlocked confrontation between two men, into a more balanced government ruled by three - The First Triumvirate. At the end of his term, in exchange for his work bringing peace between Crassus and Pompey, Caesar was appointed Governor of Trans-alpine Gaul, what today is France, for ten years..
Thus the Romans divided their known world between these three men. Caesar went west, to conquer and plunder Gaul with four legions. Pompey, who saw himself as a great general, stayed in Rome, without legions, to guard and plunder the Republic. And the financier Crassus had turned eastward, to conquer and plunder Parthia with seven legions. But in 53 B.C.E. Crassus had gotten himself killed, and the Roman Republic, carefully crafted over 400 years to exist as a balance between opposing forces, was abruptly reduced to a confrontation between two men. It was a contest which must result in the death of one of them.
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