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Friday, July 06, 2012

FIFTY-FOUR FORTY OR FIGHT!


I can't help wondering why so many politicians are calling for a new approach to politics Aren't the same politics we've been using for the last 2,500 years good enough?  Maybe the real problem lies not with the lying, two faced, double dealing, back-stabbing, opportunistic, insincere politicians but with the idiots who vote for them: i.e. us. Check my math, please: politicians lie, politicians get elected; could there be a connection? Let me give you a little example from ancient history, so nobody feels insulted.
James K. Polk was America's eleventh President, serving from 1845 to 1849. He was, until Richard Nixon, our most secretive President. He didn’t even tell his own cabinet members what he was thinking. He was a Jackson Democrat,  and no matter what your history books tell you he did not campaign on the phrase "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight" – that came up later. During the campaign, what Polk was most famous for was for not branding his slaves. And trust me, this smear was so good they still haven’t figured out who did it.
The story was first published in the August 21, 1844 edition of the Ithaca New York Chronicle, (a Whig newspaper) and claimed to be a 3 paragraph extract from an unpublished book, “Roorback’s Tour Through the Western and Southern States…” It claimed to detail Baron Von Roorback's conversations with a group of slave traders on the Duck River in Tennessee. “Forty of these unfortunate beings had been purchased, I was informed, of the Honorable J.K. Polk…; the mark of a branding iron, with the initials of his name on their shoulders, distinguishing them from the rest.” Even in 1844 the idea of branding human beings, even those treated as slaves, was appalling to many people...in places where the economy hadn't been built on slavery.
Which was why the story was picked up by the Albany Evening Journal, and other Whig newspapers, particularly in the 1844 “battleground states” of New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Many voters in those swing states were outraged that a man standing for President would do something so despicable as to brand human beings. To Whig politicians that story was almost too good to be true. And almost as quick as Republican bloggers caught Dan Rather, the Democratic press found out there was no such book and no suchBaron. The details about Polk had been inserted into a real travel book, of a run in with some slave traders on Virginia’s New River. Polk’s farm was in Tennessee, so the inventor of the lie had shifted the scene to where it would do the most good. Besides, it was not common practice to brand slaves since, like whipping scars, brandings tended to reduce their price, like a car door a different shade than the other three. It would be marking the slave as difficult to work with, and likely to escape in the future. Slaves were certainly whipped and branded because it wasn’t illegal. Most people in 1844 America still believed slaves were property and would have been equally offended if some government official tried to tell them how to treat their horses or how to slaughter their hogs.
Still, embarrassed at being caught repeating what was so obviously a fabrication, the Whigs pinned the whole thing on William Linn, a lawyer and a Democratic operative in Ithaca. But why would a Democrat smear his own candidate? Well, if I were a believer in conspiracy theories, I might say that this very kind of allegation against Polk was actually a fairly safe charge to make. Polk did own slaves, but his Whig opponent in the election, Henry Clay, owned even more slaves than Polk did. And it has been suggested by some historians that the “Roorback” story was a case of nineteenth century “wedge” politics. Abolitionism was still a minor issue in 1844, but abolitionists formed a solid voting block in New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, those key battleground states. Convince enough abolitionists in at least two of those states that the Whigs were lying to them, and they just might choose the Democrat Polk over the Whig Clay as the lesser of two evils. And the letter to the Ithaca Chronicle had been signed, “An Abolitionist”, thus adding insult to the injury.
Well, maybe....And maybe that theory implies a level of sophisticated conspiracy that did not exist in the simpler culture and times of 1844 – and certainly would not have existed in Athens in 415 B.C., when Alcibiades was accused of vandalizing statues of the god Hermes.
You see Hermes was the mythical inventor of fire, and "...a robber, a cattle driver, a bringer of dreams, a watcher by night, a thief at the gates....who protects and takes care of all travelers, miscreants, harlots, old cronies and thieves and injured athletes".  Each Greek home had an anatomically correct statue of Hermes standing on its front lawn, and it was common practice for visitors to pause at the stature and stroke his stone phallus for good luck before knocking on the front door. And when the owner left the house for the day or a business trip, they would also give the statue a tug for good luck.  And that was why it was so shocking that on the morning that Athens was launching a massive naval assault on Sicily, the city awoke to discover that every home statue of Hermes had its phallus knocked off during the night.  
It almost sounds to modern ears as if the neighborhood kids had been drinking sour wine on the street corner and started smashing phalluses as a prank. But to the devout in Athens (and there were many who believed in the gods) it was also sacrilege. And rumors began almost immediately that the person responsible was the golden boy politician who was heading the expedition, and known for his past sacrilegious opinions, Alcibiades (above). Of course Alcibiades had his own theory. He thought it had been the work of his chief political opponent and co-commander of the Sicilian expedition, Nicias.  Two thousand five hundred years later, it is impossible to know who the phallus breakers were. But whether they planned it all or just took advantage of the situation, the one thing we know for certain is, that the people arguing both sides of the scandal were all politicians.     
The point is, politicians have been gaming voters since voting was invented. And voters have been playing along, else the game would not have remained so popular for so long. And that is why when a politician tells me he is selling something new, especially when it is something I want to believe, my reaction ought to be, “Pull the other one.,”  When the American political system works  (which it has not been doing recently)  it is been based upon pragmatism, as it was in the 1844 election results: Polk won 49.5% of the popular vote to Clay’s 48.1 %, and part of that razor thin margin was victories in New York and Pennsylvania - by less than 6,000 votes each of those two states. Those two states gave Polk 62 Electoral Votes, out of his sixty-five vote margin of victory (170 to 105). It seems that if the Roorback story was a double blind trick, it worked.
Oh,... and remember the phrase “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!” that was not used in the 1844 election? Well, it was actually invented by Ohio Senator William “Earthquake” Allen, well after the election. The number was  the Southern border (54 degrees & 40 minutes of latitude) claimed by Russia when they owned Alaska. A simple glance at a modern map will confirm that the modern border between America and Canada,  agreed upon by President Polk, was (and is) the 49th parallel. So much for the “…Or fight!” part of the slogan. Have you noticed how often politicians don’t actually mean what they seem to say? You might say they make a career out of it. And always have. And we expect them to.
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Wednesday, July 04, 2012

CRIMINAL MASTERMINDS


I hasten to point out that the men who sought shelter at the Inn were not a harmonious quartet of criminal masterminds. It turns out they were not master criminals, either. But then, how many people are masters in any line of work? The lead voice in this particular choir was Charles Gibbs, a diminutive thirty-six year old fire plug - and the last pirate in New York City who did not work on Wall Street. His Achilles in crime was the baritone Thomas Wansely, a tall and powerfully built black man too curious by half. The bass was voiced by Robert Dawes, cook and nonentity, a plump man with no criminal record, as of yet. But tenor and ringer and lead singer was John Brownrigg, who possessed a fatal combination of a conscious and stupidity, which caused him to first commit a crime and then to confess it unbidden to a complete stranger.
Perhaps it was the warm food, or the hot rum or perhaps it was the flames of purgatory in his imagination which drove John Brownrigg to draw innkeeper Samuel Leonard aside and spill his tale on that stormy afternoon of November 24, 1830. The four men, explained John, had all been crewmen of the small brig Vineland, docked at Vera Cruz, Mexico, loaded with a cargo of cotton bales, and casks of molasses and rum. Have you noticed how often piracy begins with rum?
Late in the day Thomas Wansely had been ordered by Captain William Thornby to stack a half dozen heavy barrels in the Captain’s quarters. The strain and curiosity drove Wansely to pry open one of the leaden barrels for a peek. Inside he found newly minted silver coins – Mexican pieces of eight. And as the tide pulled the Vineland into the Gulf of Mexico, Wansely shared his discovery with first mate Charles Gibbs.
By Gibb’s figuring the barrels together held today’s equivalent of over one million dollars in untraceable cash. It was untraceable because, without a standardized national currency of their own in 1830, Spanish and Mexican coins circulated so commonly in America, that prices were figured as the equivalent in Spanish (and Mexican) currency, to the point that today’s ubiquitous American “$” sign was borrowed from its Spanish inventors.
In the morning, Gibbs and Wansely opened one of the barrels of rum and shared it with Dawes, Brownrigg and the other crewmen. And once they were all well intoxicated, Gibbs first told them of the cargo of silver, and then confessed that the previous night he had thrown Captain Thornby overboard. With that much money at stake, explained Gibbs, they were now all under suspicion of murder. So, Gibbs suggested, why not share the crime and the silver between them. One crewman balked and joined the captain in the briny deep. The others quickly agreed to become pirates. As the Vineland crossed the Gulf, bound for New York, a second man sobered up and expressed regret. He joined the other two in the sea.
The crew's doubts thus drowned, on November 23, 1830 the Vineland reached the westernmost barrier island off New York. Its name derives from the Dutch ‘Conyne Eylandt’, meaning Rabbit Island, known today as Coney Island. The freshly minted pirates anchored in an isolated corner of Jamaica Bay. And it was there, with a nor’easter brewing in the gathering darkness, the four men struggled to lower a skiff and fill it with their heavy burdensome barrels of silver. They then scuttled the Vineland and set her afire. As she sank into the muddy waters of the bay the four men in the low riding skiff set off for shore, at what is today Rockaway Beach.
It was not beach weather. The surf was pounding. A gale was approaching. The landing was a disaster. In the crashing waves the four seamen lost most of their booty, and were able to save just 10% of the coins. Wet and cold and exhausted, soaked by a pounding downpour, the gang of four came to the realization they had not thought things through as well as they thought they had. While Wanesly and Brownrigg stood a shivering guard over what was left of their loot, Gibbs and Dawes walked to a tavern Gibbs recalled in the isolated village of Carnarsie.
The tavern was run by the Johnson brothers, John and William. The youngest, William, who answered the door that night, recognized Gibbs and was willing to loan him a horse and wagon for an hour or so. Gibbs explained he had a heavy load to transfer from a boat.
Having thus obtained the tools required, Gibbs and Dawes returned to the beach, and, according to Brownrigg, the four men buried the remaining $56,000 in Mexican silver, marking the spot with a strand of ribbon tied to a blade of saw grass. They then returned to Johnson’s house and Gibbs paid for the rental with a generous bag of brand new Mexican coins.
The four pirates were headed for lower Manhattan, where they would claim the Vineland had been lost in the storm. But their convenient alibi was by now pounding the coast, and after having crossed Coney Creek, the quartet was forced to seek refuge in John Leonard’s Sheepshead Bay Inn, where John Brownrigg spilled his guts.
The Inn keeper, Mr. Leonard, was nothing if not decisive. Quietly he gathered his staff and they fell upon the three villains. Well, two of the villains. Gibbs and Dawes were quickly tied to their chairs, but Wanesly broke for the woods, followed by the courageous waiter Robert Greenwood who was armed with an unloaded flintlock pistol. An hour later Greenwood returned, with Wanesly in tow.
The local justice of the peace, John Van Dyck, was summoned, and the next morning Brownrigg lead the authorities to the buried treasure. Only the treasure was not there anymore. Under questioning Dawes decided to cooperate as well, and related the tale of the visit to the Johnson brothers tavern. So, Justice Van Dyke and several officers proceeded to the tavern.  Under questioning the Johnson brothers confirmed the details of the pirates visit, but, no, they insisted, they knew nothing else. Van Dyck was certain that they did. And he was correct.
In fact the instant Gibbs had crossed William Johnson’s palm with the silver, he had converted William into a mastermind as well. With newly minted silver in his palm, Wiliam knew that something serious was afoot. Perhaps if the payment had been less generous, or if Gibbs had paid in any other currency, his secret might have remained a secret. As it was, 19 year old William Johnson immediately woke up his older brother John, and after examining the weary horse’s hooves, the two brothers searched the beach. They quickly found the cache of stolen silver and re-stole it. They dragged it inland a few hundred yards, divided and re-buried it in two new caches, one of about $40,000 worth and the second of about $16,000 worth. And then they returned home for a hearty breakfast.
Justice Van Dyke suspected all of this, or most of it. But he could prove none of it. And once a beachcomber had discovered Mexican eights rolling in the surf, and was joined by hundreds of others combing the sand, there was no way of proving where the crazy eights had come from, the reburied re-stolen cache or the surf. Van Dyke could only choke the four birds he still had in his hand, held for now in the Flatbush Jail.
And then something curious happened, or perhaps inevitable. William Johnson began to suffer from the same aliment which had plagued John Brownrigg. He approached the insurance company (yes, even in 1830 there were insurance companies), and inquired what they might pay as a reward for the return of some of the missing silver. The insurance company replied that they would be willing to make a generous settlement which might not leave the Johnson brothers filthy rich, but at least they would be free from worry of future legal entanglements. Encouraged, William returned to the Coney Island Beach to confirm the security of the two caches, whereupon he made a most distressing discovery.
The larger cache was gone. Also missing was his older brother John. Had the 21 year old John become a mastermind, twice over? Perhaps; but John was married, so there was his wife’s criminal mastermind-ey-ness to consider as well. Evidently either John or his wife had reached the conclusion that even though John had not actually heard opportunity knock on their tavern's front door that night, he had been awakened to it. Thus he was deserving of the larger share of the stolen silver than the brother who had actually heard opportunity knock. So he took it. Broken hearted, betrayed and abandoned, 17 year old Willaim Johnson returned the $16,000 in pieces of eight left behind in exchange for a very small reward. And a clear conscious. 
On April 22, 1831, on the site that would one day support the Statue of Liberty, criminal masterminds Charles Gibbs and Thomas Wansley climbed the thirteen steps of a scaffold, where they were both hanged by the neck until they were dead. Gibbs had been convicted of piracy, and was the last man hanged for that crime in America - so his death was not entirely without meaning. Wansley died for the crime of murder. Dawes and Brownrigg, who had co-operated,  served short jail terms, and then disappeared from history. William Johnson the more honest of the two brothers, remained in Brooklyn. He married and raised at least one son and a daughter. He died in 1906.
But of the two remaining masterminds, the elder brother John Johnson and his wife, were not heard from again after escaping with today’s equivalent of $800,000 in cash. And that is curious. That much money does not usually simply disappear.  I would very much like to know what became of this pair of masterminds, because if, as I suspect, he or she later turned up dead, then we would know if the percentage of criminal masterminds in this affair was 20% or less - less being the historical average. Greed has a way of making otherwise smart people fatally stupid. Greedy people are no longer masters of their own minds. 
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Sunday, July 01, 2012

GREAT EXPECTATIONS Pt. Ten THE LAST STAND

I doubt there was any surprise that the first words James Reavis-Peralta spoke when he finally showed up in court, on Monday June 10, 1895, was to ask for a continence, while he tried to find a new attorney. When Mathew Reynolds, lawyer for the government, objected, Reavis retreated and made a motion to dismiss the case. Despite being the plaintiff, his motion was dismissed. But he was granted a one day continuance. And when the trial reconvened on Tuesday, June 11th, the Baron of Arizona announced that he was going to be doing a single: lawyer, plaintiff and witness. He spent most of his direct testimony by describing his dealings with Huntington, Crocker, various Senators and cabinet members. If the jury was impressed, they had little time to be, because Reynolds began his cross examination that very afternoon.
No matter what question Reynolds presented to him,  Reavis' answers were endless and rambling. Did he not notice that the documents he claimed to have discovered in the San Xavier record books, were on a different paper than the others, and at right angles to the standard pages? What about his marriage contract with his wife? And what about the questionable testimony regarding Sophia's noble birth? Did he pay anyone to lie in  their testimony? But no matter how long Reavis talked, no matter how many twist and turns he made in responding, Reynolds just kept attacking. By Wednesday, June 13, Reavis had been forced to admit that even he had doubts about some of his documents. His explanation was that he just filed them, he wasn't vouching for them.
On Monday, June 17, the Baroness Sophia Reavis Peralta took the stand. She admitted she had no knowledge about any of the documents filed supporting her noble birth. Perhaps it was the paternalistic Victorian machismo at play, but the courtroom was convinced the lady was telling the truth, as she believed the truth to be. Presented with convincing evidence that she was in fact the daughter of John A.Treadway and an Indian squaw named Kate Loreta, she broke down in tears, but still insisted, through her sobs, that she was the wife and granddaughter of the Baron of Arizona..
Having put his wife through this torture, on Tuesday the clean shaven Reavis introduced a portrait he claimed was of Don Miguel Nemecio de Peralta de la Cordoba (above), and noted the facial resemblance to his own two sons (below).
 After that he just ran out of gas, reduced to rants about grand conspiracies and lunatic explanations and justifications. During his closing Reavis did not bother arguing his case, but rather entered a list of 52 objections to rulings the court had made. They would be ignored.
The government did not even bother to present a final argument. Ten days later, the Court of Private Land Claims, created by political allies to control the Peralta Grant case, found “the claim is wholly fictitious and fraudulent”, and dismissed it entirely.. That was, of course, not the end. James Reavis (above) had gone too far for that to be the end of the affair.
Reavis was arrested as he left the courtroom, and charged with 42 counts of forgery, presenting false documents to the Land Court and conspiracy to defraud the United States Government. Bail was set at $500. And although the court allowed him to telegraph his connections in California and Washington, D.C., nobody stepped up. James Reavis spent the next year in jail, awaiting trial, which began on Saturday, June 27, 1896 and ended on Tuesday June 30, with a verdict of guilty. Two weeks later, on Friday July 17, James Reavis was sentenced to two years – one of which he had already served – and a $5,000 fine –about $130,000 today.
To pay the fine, the mansion in San Francisco was sold, and Arizola, the fortress that represented the single reality of the Peralta grant, was seized by the U.S. government. It was later used for a barn.  When James Reavis was released from prison in April of 1898, he and his family lived in Denver, where he tried for many years to find investors for his various schemes and plans. But all that any one was interested in buying from him was “The Confessions of the Baron of Arizona”, which were serialized in his old newspaper, The San Francisco Call. He may not have even written it himself.
But whoever the actual author, it was presented as a classic Victorian morality tale. “The plan to secure the Peralta Grant and defraud the Government out of land valued at $100,000,000 was not conceived in a day. It was the result of a series of crimes extending over nearly a score of years. At first the stake was small, but it grew and grew in magnitude until even I sometimes was appalled at the thought of the possibilities. I was playing a game which to win meant greater wealth than that of a Vanderbilt. My hand constantly gained strength, noted men pleaded my cause, and unlimited capital was at my command. My opponent was the Government, and I baffled its agents at every turn. Gradually I became absolutely sure of success.”
"As I neared the verge of triumph”, wrote Reavis, “I was exultant and sure. Until the very moment of my downfall I gave no thought to failure. But my sins found me out, and as in the twinkling of an eye I saw the millions which had seemed already in my grasp fade away and I heard the courts doom me to a prison cell. Now I am growing old and the thing hangs upon me like a nightmare until I am driven to make a clean breast of it all, that I may end my days in peace.”
No where in his “clean breast” account did James Reavis mention Mr. Huntington, or Crocker or any of the other wealthy and powerful men who had financed his scam. It seemed that Reavis had learned something from the affair, after all. Sophia had certainly gained in knowledge. In 1902, she filed for divorce on the grounds of “nonsupport”. And the old forger who began his career at 18, faking passes for his army buddies, died alone, at the age of 71 on November 20, 1914, in Denver Colorado. Cause of death was listed as bronchitis, but I suspect he just ran out of ideas. He was buried in paupers grave. Sophia, once the child of royalty and then the daughter of an Indian squaw, lived the last years of her life under the name Sophia Treadway Reavis.  She died on April 5, 1934. Her obituary in the Rocky Mountain News failed to even mention the Peralta Grant. That was probably not an accident.
In 1963 the National Park Service decided that it was not financially feasible to save the the fortress south of Casa Grande. The ten room mansion of Arizola was allowed to slowly decay and collapse into the desert. The next year they erected maker on Arizona route 84 at milepost 181, to explain the significance of the spot to passersby. It reads (inaccurately), “James Addison Peralta Reavis was a brazen forger who claimed over 12 million acres of Central Arizona and Western New Mexico as an Old Spanish Land grant. He and his family lived here in royal style until his fraud was exposed. From the barony he went to federal prison in 1895 “
And that is all most people will ever know about this story. But now,  you know better.
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