Friday, April 13, 2012


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

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


“Ambition aspires to descend.”
Pierre Corneille, 15th century playwrite
I believe it all started in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. A spinning mill was opened there in 1789, powered by the 50 foot falls of the Blackstone River. But it was a financial failure until Samuel Slatter arrived from England in 1790. His head was filled with the patents and hi-tech systems England was trying to keep secret, and he assured the owners that if they made him a partner, “If I do not make as good yarn as they do in England, I will...throw the whole of what I have attempted over the bridge” But if  Samuel Slatter was offering his actual suicide or merely an alliterative death, it is clear there something about that bridge 50 feet above the falls, which inspired men to vision a leap of faith. Sam Slatter did make good yarn and his mill became ground zero of the American Industrial revolution.
“Oh that I were seated as high as my ambition, I'd place my naked foot on the necks of monarchs”.
Horace Walpole, 17th century art historian
At six years of age Sam Patch was abandoned by his alcoholic father, Greenleaf Patch. At seven he joined his siblings tending to the spinning mules in Mr, Slatter's mill. The boy's position as a “doffer” required him to scuttle between the working looms, replacing bobbins and redirecting errant shuttles. Work began at five in
the morning,  and did not end until half past seven, six days a week. The usually exhausted Sam was lucky not to be disabled by the unshielded whirling belts and flying equipment inches from his head and hands, and eventually he was promoted to weaver and a weekly salary of $2.50. Summers, during his half hour lunch breaks, Sam often threw himself off the bridge into the cool water of the tidal pool at the foot of the falls. Each plunge was a brief moment of weightless freedom, an escape from his pitiless existence.
Ambition may be defined as the willingness to receive any number of hits on the nose.”
Wilfred Owen, 20
th century poet
In 1824, in a unified action, the mill owners in Pawtucket demanded that workers accept a simultaneous 25% cut in wages and loss of half their 1/2  lunch hour. In response Sam Patch, who had fourteen years experience in the mills, helped to organize the first workers strike in America. The owners were forced to back down, but they then systematically removed as many of the “trouble makers” as they could. Sam was forced to leave Pawtucket. Twice Sam tried to run a mill of his own, and twice his addiction to whiskey, possibly a self medication for injuries suffered on at his job. spoiled his chances. By 1826 he had found work as a loom supervisor at the Hamilton cotton mill in Patterson, New Jersey, powered by the 70 foot high falls of the Passaic River. He was now an abusive alcoholic himself, “an angry and not particularly admirable” man, known to box the ears of the young duffers working under him.
Ambition is pitiless. Any merit that it cannot use it finds despicable.”
Eleanor Roosevelt
On the Western shore of the Passaic falls there was an island of escape, called the Forest Garden. It was wild terrain used as a picnic ground by the mill workers, until August 14th of 1827 when it was purchased by Timothy Crane, owner of a grist and saw mill on Van Houten Street in Paterson. Crane then transformed the idyllic spot into a private park, complete with an upscale tavern/restaurant, “The Cottage on the Cliff” and scenic walks, beer gardens and well manicured versions of nature. He even planned a bridge across the falls, to restrict access to only those who could afford the two penny toll. The bridge was assembled on shore and on Sunday, September 30, 1827, Crane staged a grand celebration as the bridge was pushed out across the falls. A small crowd gathered to cheer the endeavor, but more disenfranchised mill workers stood about watching their picnic grounds claimed by a wealthy overlord. And then who should step out on a rock outcrop above the falls but a weaver, proudly dressed in his white linen uniform; Sam Patch.
Somebody ought to tell him his ambition is showing.”
Harry Essex  20th Century American Screenwriter
The police, who were patrolling the crowd, were horrified. The drunken Sam had been locked up in a basement all morning, to keep him away from the ceremony. Somehow he had escaped and they were worried that he might start a riot. Sam indeed shouted out to the crowd, but he did not call for violence. He announced that Timothy Crane had indeed done great things, but now Sam Patch would do great things as well. William Brown, a wittiness, remembered, “He walked back a few yards, turned, and took little run to the brink of the cliff, and jumped off, clearing the rocks about ten feet.”
“Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself And falls on the other side”
William Shakespeare, 17th century playwright
He hit the water feet first, as was his style, and for several seconds the crowd was convinced he had died on impact.. He did not. He bobbed to the surface, and was greeted by almost universal cheers. Afterward he told the newspapers, “I am perfectly sober and in possession of my proper faculaities”. The citizens of Paterson were impressed - – except of course for Timothy Crane, who had the feeling his thunder had just been stolen by a drunken lout. And it had.
“The universe is not required to be in perfect harmony with human ambition.”
Dr. Carl Sagan, 20
th century American scientist
Crane tried to get it back. On Wednesday July 4th, 1828, he announced a fireworks display to be held above his exclusive Forest Garden. But that afternoon Sam Patch did it again, leaping off the same rock and plunging 77 feet into the water. The newspapers reported the words of wisdom from the “Yankee Jumper”; "Some things can be done as well as others." People could not stop talking about his amazing, death defying leaps, which had yet again upstaged Mr. Crane's ostentation. And Sam Patch did it a third time, on Thursday, July 19th. Then on August 11th 1828, in Hoboken, he lept 100 feet from the mast of a sloop, and splashed down into the Hudson River. The paying crowd was only 500 in Hoboken, but the New York newspapers had begun to take notice of “Patch, the New Jersey jumper”, the working stiff risking his life to make a living.
“Ambition if it feeds at all, does so on the ambition of others.”
Susan Sontag
By 1830 there were four million factory workers in America, and their lives were genuinely miserable. Barely ten miles from Paterson, amongst the 150,000 citizens of New York City, 10,000 were in debtors prison – half because they owed less than $25. One in five of the metropolis's citizens were receiving “public assistance” either from a church or the government. Clearly the industrial revolution was not benefiting very many in America. Food prices were rising, and if you fell ill you could not earn the $500 a year required for a minimal diet. The average life span was barely 33 years, because so many got sick. Every day workers risked their lives to earn a living, toiling in unsafe factories, working past exhaustion day in and day out. They were the unsung heroes of the Industrial Revolution.. And now they had a hero of their own, a man who knew from experience the quiet desperation of their lives, the risks they took every day to feed themselves and their families.
“Ambition is like love, impatient both of delays and rivals.”
Sam Patch's next opportunity arrived in the form of an invitation from businessmen in the city of Niagara Falls, New York. They had recently discovered a cave which protruded from beneath an outcrop beneath Goat Island, which divided the American Falls. Seizing upon the cave's official opening for tourists on October 5th,  for promotion they had scheduled a series of black powder blasting around the gorge and a kamikaze voyage of a two masted schooner over the falls. A dive by the Yankee Leaper off a 125 foot ladder against the backdrop of the falls at the exit of the “Cave of the Winds” seemed the perfect fit. And they only had to pay him $75 for the stunt.
“I hope the ambitious realize that they are more likely to succeed with success as opposed to failure.”
George W. Bush. American President
The only problem was Sam was now suffering from bouts of delirium tremens, and he missed his jump-off date. He apologized in a one sheet broadside to those who had not yet left town, and assured them “...on Wednesday, I thought I would venture a small Leap...of Eighty Feet, merely to convince those that remained to see me...I was the TRUE SAM PATCH, and to show that Some Things could be Done as well as Others...” . Ten thousand showed up to see if he would make the leap. He did, coming down feet first into the whirling white eddies below the falls, and then did it again on Saturday, October 17th , this time in a pouring rain storm. As he climbed out of the river after the last jump, Sam greeted the adoring crowds with the words “There’s no mistake in Sam Patch!”
The psychoanalysis of neurotics has taught us to recognize the intimate connection between wetting the bed and the character trait of ambition.”
Sigmund Freud
Sam was a hit. The businessmen in Rochester, New York, immediately booked him to leap from atop the 99 foot high falls of the Genesee River, in their town. And on Friday, November 6, 1829 Sam fell to fame. The response was so positive, that Sam scheduled another leap on the following week, Friday, November 13th.  During the week a 25 foot high platform was constructed atop the falls, making this drop his  highest yet, 125 feet in total. It was publicised as “Higher Yet! Sam's Last Drop”.
Hasty climbers have sudden falls
Italian Proverb
There were 8,000 witnesses along the banks of the Geneseese River, just about everybody in town. .
As he climbed the ladder, some would later say Sam Patch staggered a bit. He had taken at least a single glass of brandy before climbing that ladder. And once atop the tower, Sam shouted down to the crowd. “Napoleon was a great man and a great general. He conquered armies and he conquered nations, but he couldn't jump the Genesee Falls. Wellington was a great man and a great soldier. He conquered armies and he conquered nations, but he couldn't jump the Genesee Falls. That was left for me to do, and I can do it, and will.”
“Ambition is a drug that makes its addicts potential madmen.”
Emile M. Cioran 20th century Romanian philosopher and Nazi apologist.
He began his plunge as usual, straight as an arrow. But then his arms drifted up, away from his sides, he began to lean, and he entered the water at an angle. There was a huge splash. And when the water calmed, there was nothing. Sam Patch was no more, dead before the age of 30.
"Ambition never comes to an end."
Yoshida Kenko 14th century Japanese Buddhist Monk and poet.
They dragged the river, but did not find his remains until March 17th, 1830,  when farmer Silas Hudson.
broke the ice of the Genesee River five miles downstream, near the river's joining with Lake Ontario. As the Silas' horses drank the cold water, the farmer was started to see a body under the ice, jammed against the shore. They identified the corpse by the black scarf around the neck and the frozen features. They buried him near where they found the body, in the Charlotte Cemetery, on River Street. His original marker read simply, “Sam Patch – Such is Fame” A later marker, paid by donations in the late 1940's, got his birth date wrong. It said he had “leaped to his death over the upper falls”, as if he had committed suicide. But then “suicide” implies Sam had a choice.
“Ambition has but one reward for all: A little power, a little transient fame; A grave to rest in, and a fading name!”
Walter Savage Landor 19th century English Poet.
- 30 -

Blog Archive