Friday, July 20, 2012


I would say that Bertrand Snell is a shinning example of the “Peter Principle”. Bertrand (above, with his ideological opponent, FDR) started out life as a bookkeeper. Then he successfully ran a cheese factory, and then a lumber company in upstate New York. He was well qualified to fill all of those positions. For awhile he was the president of a small college. This success led, in 1915, to Bertrand being elected to congress. In 1931 he became the Chairman of the Republican National Committee. That led, in 1932, to his being elected Minority Leader in the House of Representatives. And that made him one of the primary architects of the disaster which befell the Republican Party the first time they ran against the brand new Social Security program of the New Deal in 1936. In short, it was Bertrand Snell’s fault. Of course, he had some help.
Herbert Hoover had not only lost the 1932 Presidential Election, he lost it by almost 18 percentage points. His ineffectualness at dealing with the Great Depression (the stock market crash had occurred just 6 months after he first took office) was so obvious that Herbert won only 6 states – Pennsylvania, Delaware, R.I., Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. And yet Herbert still had hopes he could engineer a come back. Yes, FDR’s New Deal had already created six million jobs, and had doubled industrial production and sent corporate profits from a $2 billion loss under Hoover to a $5 billion profit under Roosevelt. But there were still 8 million Americans unemployed, and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) was charging that the new Social Security Administration was part of a fascist/communist take over of the federal government. Does any of this sound familiar?  Anyway, back to our story...
On June 9th, 1936, Herbert addressed the Republican National Convention in the Public Auditorium in Cleveland, Ohio, and did his very best to rally the faithful to his cause. As Time Magazine detailed, “After 15 minutes (of) yelling, shrieking (and) hooting, (Hoover) was allowed to begin. …
He warmed up quickly. According to Time, Hoover told the faithful, "Fundamental American liberties are at stake. Is the Republican Party ready…to cast your all upon the issue?" "Yes!" roared the crowd….".. have you determined to enter in a holy crusade for freedom which shall determine the future and the perpetuity of a nation of free men?" "Yes!" roared the crowd in ecstasy.” The faithful went on chanting “Hoo-ver, Hoo-ver, Hoo-ver,” long after Herbert had left the stage.
Noted Time; “The demonstration could not be stopped for half an hour, even when Speaker Snell tried to introduce a little old lady, surprisingly pert for her 77 years, the widow of President Benjamin Harrison.” Finally Bertrand banged his big gavel and informed the crowd that Herbert had already boarded a train for New York. Stunned, the floor demonstrators paused for a breath, and in vague confusion the demonstrations petered out. 
Except, Herbert had not left the building. He was in fact, just off stage, waiting to be recalled by the carefully prepared demonstrations, and proclaimed the nominee by acclamation. That was his plan, anyway. But Bertrand had already determined that the party nominee would not be Hoover. It would be Governor Alf Landon, known affectionately to the faithful as “The Kansas Coolidge”. The party chairman had cut the ground out from under Hoover.
Alf, was the only Republican governor re-elected in 1934. He had a reputation as a fiscal conservative who cut taxes and balanced the state budget. That made him the Republican wonder-kid, the perfect man to oppose the “tax and spend” Roosevelt.
Alf's candidacy had a few problems, of course. First; Landon had balanced the Kansas budgets because the New Deal had kicked in millions of dollars to offset the state's deficits. Second; Alf publicly supported so many parts of the New Deal, including Social Security, that he was at odds with the Republican party platform. Third; Alf was a terrible public speaker. He mumbled. And like any good mid-westerner, even when speaking clearly he didn’t blow his own horn very much. As H. L. Mencken noted, he "simply lacks the power to inflame the boobs."
The party platform that Alf was going to have to stand on had been engineered by Chairman Bertrand and forty-four year old John Daniel Miller Hamilton (above), the “crinkly haired” “jut-jawed” G.O.P. general counsel, who reeked of “animal vigor.” Hamilton was paid $15,000 a year to be the parties’ attack dog. He was described by one fellow Republican as having, “…a seven-devil lust to live and shine under the blessings of the rich”.  Both Bertrand and Hamilton were Af’s front men, and Hamilton made Alf's nominating speech. And to seal the deal, Hamilton read a telegram from Governor Landon promising to support the anti-New Deal anti-Social Security platform. 
Said the Republican platform; “For three long years the New Deal Administration has dishonored American traditions…has been guilty of frightful waste and extravagance, …has created a vast multitude of new offices, …set up a centralized bureaucracy, and sent out swarms of inspectors to harass our people. It has bred fear and hesitation in commerce and industry, thus discouraging new enterprises, preventing employment and prolonging the depression…We pledge ourselves: To preserve the American system of free enterprise, private competition, and equality of opportunity...We advocate: Abandonment of all New Deal policies that raise production costs, increase the cost of living, and thereby restrict buying, reduce volume and prevent reemployment. …”.  Sound familiar? 
But the platform saved its most vicious criticism for that newest New Deal program, Social Security. It was Social Security that had "energized the base".  As it was initially passed the program did not cover farm workers, the self employed, state, federal or local government workers, railroad workers, or domestics. There was no aid for the disabled, and there were no cost of living alliances. Still,the Republican platform for 1936 charged, "The New Deal policies, while purporting to provide social security, have, in fact, endangered it", and claimed that "the fund will contain nothing but the government's promise to pay" and is "unworkable".  Again, does any of this sound familiar? 
Bertrand had a master plan for victory, funded by a $14 million war chest (equal to $207.5 million today), with over a million of that coming from just three families – DuPont, Pew and Rockefeller – and the rest almost entirely from business leaders anxious to prevent further Federal regulations of their business. 
And then there was “The Liberty League,” described by one historian as “…the best-financed and the most professionally run…anti-big-government organization ever to come down the pike.” The League was the original "Astro-turf" pesudo-grassroots organization. It raised and spent as much cash as the two established parties combined (30% of it coming from the DuPont family alone). Its national headquarters occupied 31 rooms in the National Press Building, and there were 20 state branches. Hamilton confessed later, "Without Liberty League money we (the GOP) wouldn't have had a national headquarters."
The campaign that followed saw the constant repetition of the attack. The New Deal became “The Raw Deal”. Franklyn Delano Roosevelt became “Stalin Delano Roosevelt”. William Randolph Hearst asserted in a pro-Landon editorial, “The Bolshevist tyranny in Russian has ordered all Bolshevists, communists and revolutionaries in the Untied States to support Roosevelt!" It all sounds so familiar in the post-health care bill world of 2012. Or the Republican attack on Social Security in 2012. The term "repetition" leaps to mind.
In late October 1936 the Republican National Committee sent checks for $5.00 to 400 black pastors in Maryland, along with a letter, which began, “Dear Brother,” and then argued that the G.O.P. had always done more to help blacks than the Democrats had - Not since the Civil War, but its the thought that counts, right?
The Young Republicans were founded during this election to get out the "youth" vote. And to encourage women to vote Republican, fashion shows were staged.  Every show would start with a woman wearing a wooden barrel on suspenders, marked, “If The New Deal Wins”, followed by lovely models in Paris designs, marked “If Landon Wins." Women were expected to be swayed by such "fashion politics".
A few weeks before the election, tens of thousands of workers opened their paychecks to find what looked like an official government notice. In fact it was from their bosses and the Republican Party, warning workers that if Roosevelt were re-elected, come January they would all suffer a 1% pay reduction. This prompted the head of the Social Security Board, a life long Republican, to issue an immediate response, asserting that
""Any political message in a worker's pay envelope is coercion. It is a new form of the old threat to shut down the mill if the employer's candidate isn't elected. We're supposed to be beyond that in this country."  Well, we are approaching a century later and we still aren't!
Finally, Landon himself was coaxed into joining the anti-Social Security bandwagon. In a Milwaukee speech, he called the program ""unjust, unworkable, stupidly drafted and wastefully financed."  It was socialism, communism, and an attempt at the redistribution of wealth. Boy, does that ever sound familiar!
However, it appears that most Americans saw all of this Republican effort in the same light as that expressed by the voter,  who said that Roosevelt was "the first man in the White House to understand that my boss is a son-of-a-b-tch"  In 1936 the Democrats came out swinging, including FDR, as illustrated in a speech he delivered in Boston, and which he wrote himself. “In the summer of 1933, said FDR, "a nice old gentleman fell off a pier. He was unable to swim. A friend ran down the pier, dived overboard and pulled him out. But his silk hat floated away with the tide. After the old gentleman was revived he was effusive in his thanks. He praised his friend for saving his life. Today, three years later, the old man is berating his friend because the silk hat was lost.”
The election of November 3, 1936 was the most lopsided since James Monroe ran unopposed in 1820. Eighty-three percent of eligible voters showed up at the polls and Roosevelt won almost 61% of their vote. He carried every state in the union except Vermont and Maine, giving rise to the Democratic twist on the old adage, “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont”. 
Roosevelt won 532 electoral votes to Landon’s 8. Seventy-one percent of Black Americans voted Democratic, as well as 57% of women, 63% of men, 76% of low income voters, 80% of Catholics and 86% of Jewish voters. After the election the Democrats held the Senate, 75-16, and the House, 332 to just 88 Republicans.
Landon would admit that his attack upon Social Security had been a mistake, and henceforth he publicly opposed any attempt to dismantle this New Deal program. John D. Hamilton would say after the election, "The Lord himself couldn't have beaten Roosevelt in 1936, much less the Liberty League." Maybe; but the election was the death knell of the Liberty League. They lingered into 1940, when the DuPont family finally pulled their funding, and the group then quietly died. Long before that John Hamilton had his own reactionary reckoning. 
In 1937 Hamilton's wife sued him for divorce, on the grounds of “gross neglect of duty, abandonment and extreme cruelty.” That same year Alf Landon had Hamilton removed as Party Chairman, as Landon tried to rebuild the party in his own Midwestern less reactionary less-ideological image.
Under Landon's non-red baiting non-FDR hating guidance the party stopped trying to overturn the New Deal and began to climb its way back. The Republicans would gain strength until 1948 when it looked like they were certain to regain the White House. But late in that campaign they gloated too publicly about finally overturning the New Deal, and that public gloating handed Harry Truman his come-from-behind re-election. It was not until Ronald Reagan in his 1981 inauguration speech that the G.O.P again openly call for overturning substantial parts of New Deal programs. It has become a mantra for the party ever since.
And Bertrand Snell, the Minority Leader of House of Representatives? He had been one of the few Republicans re-elected in 1936. But he did not run again in 1938. Instead, he went into the newspaper business. He published the "Potsdam, New York Courier-Freeman" and ran it until 1949. He also became the owner of the New York State Oil Company. He was ably qualified for both of those jobs. He died in 1958, while a Republican occupied the White House. That Republican was Dwight D. Eisenhower, He was a national hero, and a product of the Landon influence. But the conservative wing of the GOP charged that "Ike"was a Republican In Name Only, and his administration was nothing better than a "little New Deal" administration. 
It seemed that with time, the Republicans managed to forget the lesson Alf had sacrificed himself to teach them.  It is the lesson they seem determined to learn again. 
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Wednesday, July 18, 2012


I must tell you that Willie Sutton never said he robbed banks because that was where the money was. In his autobiography Bill Sutton, as he preferred to be known, did admit that “If anybody had asked me, I’d have probably said it.” But after robbing 200 banks over a 40 year career, Sutton enunciated his real philosophy as thus; “Go where the money is…and go there often.” And that idea becomes really interesting when you combine it with the philosophy of novelist Paul Theroux, who noted that “Almost anything is possible on a train…”
“RAILROAD, n. The mechanical device enabling us to get away from where we are to where we are no better off.” - Ambrose Bierce. The Devil’s Dictionary.
Frank Reno (above) began his criminal career running three-card monte games along the Columbus highway, which forded the White River near his family’s 1,200 acre farm, about two miles north of Seymour, Indiana. When neighbors who had been fleeced by  Frank and three of his brothers - John, Simeon (Sim) and William - complained, the boys responded with arson. Over several years, as the boys matured, most of their hamlet of Rockford was burned down at least once. The brothers then invested their winnings, buying up distressed properties, including a hotel named the Radar House.
“DISOBEDIENCE, n. The silver lining to the cloud of servitude.” ibid
Beginning in 1863 the boys joined in the Union Army, not out of patriotism but with a fiduciary respect for the $400 bounties that were being paid for new recruits. So strong was the Reno sense of capitalism, that after a day or two of military service the boys would desert,  just so they could sign up again. It was called bounty jumping if they caught you, but only William was held long enough to receive an honorable discharge.
“RASCALITY, n. Stupidity militant.” ibid
In 1864 Frank and John (above) teamed up with a black man, Grant Wilson, to rob a store and Post Office 8 miles north of Rockford, in the Wayne County community of Jonesville, Indiana. The three were quickly arrested and under pressure Grant Wilson agreed to testify against Frank. However the officials in Wayne County did not know the Reno brothers well, and all were granted bail. Shortly thereafter Grant was mysteriously shot to death answering a late night knock at his front door. The Reno boys walked away free men.
“RETRIBUTION, n. A rain of fire-and-brimstone that falls alike upon the just and such of the unjust as have not procured shelter by evicting them.” ibid
In July of 1865 the Seymour Times warned visitors to “be wary of thieves and assassins”. In 1866 this warning was reinforced when the body of Mr. Moore Woodmansee, a guest at the Radar House, was found floating in the White River, sans his head. His luggage and $2,800 in cash he had been carrying, were also missing. Then, in October, the Reno brothers got really inventive.
“HOMICIDE, n. The slaying of one human being by another. There are four kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy…” ibid
John and Sim Reno, along with a compatriot named Frank Sparks (above), boarded the 6:00 p.m. Ohio and Mississippi train out of Seymour. A few miles south of town they made their way to the express car, got the drop on clerk Elam Miller and removed $10,000 in gold coin and $33 in bank notes from the safe. It was the first robbery of a moving train in American history. George Kinney, a passenger on that train identified the Reno brothers as the robbers. They were arrested on October 11th.  But after Mr. Kinney met with an unfortunate accident while answering a late night knock on his front door, no other passengers stepped forward, and, again, all charges against the Reno brothers had to be dropped. But local anger was growing.
“ABSCOND, v.i. To "move in a mysterious way," commonly with the property of another” ibid
Faced with increasing hostility from his neighbors, on November 17, 1867, John Reno and a friend named Val Elliot took a train to Gallatin, Missouri and robbed the court house of $23,000. However, Pinkerton detectives tracked John back to Seymour, and arrested him there in early December. The brothers tried to raise money for a good lawyer by robbing another train out of Seymour, but this only inspired the locals to form a vigilante committee, called the Scarlet Mask Society. The remaining brothers and their “friends” (above)  decided to look for financial opportunities elsewhere. So, with a lynch mob organizing, on January 18, 1868, John Reno faced the music in Gallatin alone and was sentenced to 25 years of hard labor in Missouri.
KILL, v.. To create a vacancy without nominating a successor.” ibid
This inspired the remaining brothers and their gang to move on to Iowa, where a robbery on February 18th at Magnolia netted $14,000. But it seems the incarcerated John had been blessed with the brains of the group, because after another robbery in March, three members were arrested and jailed. They just managed to break out for April Fools Day. The brothers now decided it would be safer to practice their trade closer to home. They were wrong.
“BRANDY, n. A cordial composed of one part thunder-and-lightning, one part remorse, two parts bloody murder, one part death-hell-and-the grave and four parts clarified Satan.” ibid
On May 22nd, twelve men boarded a train Marshfield, Indiana, broke into the express car, threw the clerk off the train, and grabbed about $96,000. The clerk died of his injuries. Then on July 9th the Reno gang went a robbery too far. This time, when they broke into the express car, 10 Pinkterton detectives opened fire. Theodore Clifton and Charles Rosenberry, were wounded, and Volney Elliot, was captured. On July 10th, as the three prisoners were being transported south to the county courthouse, the Scarlet Mask Society waylaid that train, removed the prisoners at gunpoint and hanged them from a tree at a nearby crossroads. Indiana, it seemed, and gotten civilized enough to lynch evil doers.
“TREE, n. A tall vegetable intended by nature to serve as a penal apparatus.” ibed
On the 11th three more gang members, Henry Jerrell , Frank Sparks and John Moore, were arrested in Illinois, and dispatched to Seymour via wagon. On July 25th they were also intercepted by the Scarlet Mask and introduced to the same tree. The site became known as Hangman’s Crossing -  today, simply as “The Crossing”.
“GALLOWS, n. A stage for the performance of miracle plays, in which the leading actor is translated to heaven” ibid
Two days later, on July 27th, William and Sim Reno were arrested in Indianapolis, where they had gone to gamble. They were tried and convicted of the Marshfield robbery, and after local officials heard rumors that the Scarlet Mask was preparing another neck tie party, the two men were shipped south to the strongest jail in Indiana, in the Ohio River town of New Albany (above). Said the misnamed Sheriff Thomas Fullenlove, “These men were sent here for safekeeping and they will be safely kept, if it is in the power of the authorities to do so”. Shortly thereafter Frank Reno and Charlie Anderson were arrested in Windsor, Canada, arriving in New Albany at the end of October, 1868.
“ACCOMPLICE, n. One associated with another in a crime, having guilty knowledge and complicity, as an attorney who defends a criminal, knowing him guilty.” ibid
Just after midnight, Saturday, December 12th an unscheduled train arrived in New Albany. Some 65 hooded and masked men disembarked and made their way to the jail. There they surrounded the building and beat up Sheriff Fullenlove before securing a rope to an iron stairwell support. Then Frank Reno was dragged from his cell and made to dance at the end of that rope. After he was dead, the mob lynched William and then Sim, with Charlie Anderson being strung up at about 4:30 a.m. However the overused rope finally broke under the strain of Charlie, dropping him to the floor. So the members of the lynch mob simply procured another rope and strung up poor Charlie again, and this time the rope held. It appears that the members of the Scarlet Mask also adhered to that other lesson later espoused by Willie Sutton, “Success in any endeavor requires single-minded attention to detail and total concentration.”
HANGMAN, n. An officer of the law charged with duties of the highest dignity and utmost gravity, and held in hereditary disesteem by a populace having a criminal ancestry.” ibid
No one was ever accused of participating in any of the lynchings. Ten years later, in February 1878, John Reno was finally released from the Missouri prison and returned to Rockford. He quietly worked on the family farm for five years before being arrested for counterfeiting. After serving another three year sentence, he died in his home, January 31st, 1895. And that was the end of the Reno gang of Indiana, if not the world’s best train robbers, at least the world’s first. And there is something to be said for that.
“A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car. But if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad.” Theodore Roosevelt.
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