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Friday, September 14, 2012
Wednesday, September 12, 2012
I've heard a rumor that history repeats itself. So, why don't you see if you find anything familiar in what happened after the James Franklin tied up in her home port of Bridgeport, Connecticut on Thursday, the 12th of July, 1878. The single masted schooner was a half century old already, 51 feet long and 18 feet wide, and built it seems to put the lie to the romance of the age of sail. She was a working ship, a hard lifetime of utilitarian cargo recorded in her thirty tons of chipped paint, rusted cleats, and patched gunwales. Her master (they dare not call him a captain) was the meager 23 year old Frank E. Bassett, a short young man whose alcohol tanned life was stretched taut over the forty miles between the docks of New York's treacherous East River, through the Hellsgate, up Long Island Sound to the mouth of the Pequonnock River, and back again - and again and again. The Franklin and her master and her crew were of value only so long as they were less expensive than a steam ship, and the owners invested in them accordingly.
Once the cargo had been unloaded and the crew paid their meager $40 for the month's work, Bassett invited crewman “Stuttering Jack” Rufus, “a well-meaning fellow”, to share a drink with him and his regular passenger, his common law wife, Lorena Alexander- a hard faced woman in her forties. And as the three comrades walked to Lorena's rooms at William and East Washington Avenues, in Bridgeport's East Side neighborhood, Jack was probably expecting little more than enough whiskey to dull his misery. He got that, certainly. But after clambering through the broken fence surrounding the abandoned Brewster carriage factory, he also received something far more mercenary.
Two months later Frank Bassett was arrested for the theft of a wallet containing $65 dollars in cash ($1,400 today). Desperate to make bail, Frank sold all the furniture from the Brewster factory apartment. A week later when Lorena returned from a trip and found her home stripped, she was infuriated. And being a woman driven by her passions, she was determined to get even. She told the police she knew something about Frank Barrett which would “put him where he belonged.” She said Frank had killed a poor simpleton named Stuttering Jack, for the cash to be made selling his corpse.
Lorena said that on the night of the 12th, she was in the bedroom “attending to some sewing” when Frank ordered her to come out. Stuttering Jack was passed out on the sofa and Frank ordered her to fetch a bottle of chloroform from the mantle. She says she cried out, “Oh Frank, what are you going to do with that? What are you about?” He replied, "Shut up, you act cowardly and child-like.” Lorena said she tried to run, but the domineering Frank Bassett ordered her to stay and help clean up the mess.
To validate her story Lorena lead them to the roads north of Shelton, Connecticut, and to a ravine near the new Ousatonic Water Company canal. In its shadowed recesses they found a barrel containing Stuttering Jack's body. They then traveled 8 miles to New Haven and spoke to Dr. Leonard Sanford, Professor of Anatomy and Physiology at the Yale College of Medicine. He confirmed that on Friday the 13th Lorena had offered him a body for sale. Dr. Sanford explained he required a valid death certificate, and Lorena responded by pleading, cursing and even wailing, begging for at least $5 to cover the cost of renting a horse and wagon - until finally the doctor had her escorted off the premises. But he did not call the police. And then, finally, the police confronted Frank Bassett with Lorena's story. And Frank told his own.
Frank said that on the nigf July 12th, 1878, he was in the other room reading the paper when Lorena entered and announced “she had got him fixed, and I says what. She says I have chloroformed him. She called me out of the room, and I told her she had done wrong. She said, "Never mind, Frank, we can got $25 for the body." Then she got the barrel, and I helped to put him in,.” Frank admitted, “In the morning I hired a team, and we both went to New Haven to see Dr. Sanford. After we got there the Doctor would not receive the body and we started for home.” And, “on the way we dumped the barrel in the woods where it was found.” To validate his version of events Frank lead police to the chicken coop behind the Brewster factory, beneath which he had buried the dead man's coat and shoes.
The newspapers were electrified. The New York World insisted “nothing like it ever happened here before or elsewhere...” The Hartford Courant headlined, “A Horrible Murder Discovered”, and the Boston Globe called it “A Shocking Example of Human Depravity”. The coroners' jury investigation garnered so much press coverage that Bridgeport brought in State's Attorney James Harvey Olmstead. His family name was engraved on the “Founders Monument” in Hartford, and he was a powerful member of the Democratic party. In fact his cousin, George F. Olmstead, was one of the owners of the James Franklin. James Harvey Olmstead proved his worth when he decided to charge both Bassett and Alexander with murder, but to try them separately. It meant their “he said, she said” defenses would work for the prosecution
As usual, as the trial approached the story got more complicated. It was revealed that the victim's name was not actually “Stuttering Jack”, or even John Rufus, although he answered to either. Legally he was Jack Weinbecker, and well known as a “simpleton”, who “belonged to a low, miserable, drunken class”, and he had a police record as a thief. But then, so did Frank Bassett.. Frank's mother explained to one reporter (as she would testify under oath) that little Frank – he weighed only 125 pounds – was also an alcoholic and “slow”. Frank had also been been arrested several times, once for assault on Lorena. But it was upon Lorena that the press focused most of their vitriol..
Lorena had been raised in Manhattan's Bowery, a lower east side neighborhood filled with brothels, opium dens, gay and lesbian bars, “German beer gardens, pawn shops and flophouse”. Still, she claimed she was a pious Christian, until “Men... turned her away from the Lord.” As usual the press was fascinated with her attire, describing her black silk dress accented with a flower pattern and a crown like hat of black velvet, editorializing “The woman’s personal appearance suggests natural shrewdness.” According to the New York Times, “ In 1872 she was living in East Houston-street...as Lena E. Coyne, and was employed at Harry Hill's (as a barmaid)...Among her effects is the outfit of a fortune-teller and astrologer.” Lorena admitted having been married three times, but the press uncovered at least three other co-habitations. She had a daughter who was only a few months younger than her co-defendant Frank Bassett, and during Frank's trial, one reporter noted, she was more engrossed in her two year old daughter playing on her lap, than in the testimony .
Frank's defense was described by the New York Times as, “he was so completely under the influence of Mrs. Alexander that she controlled him about as she pleased.” The jailer, the aptly named Wakeman W. Wells, told the jury, “"I was particular to ask him who chloroformed the man, and he said that Mrs. Alexander did ". Then the paper added, "The father of the prisoner, George Bassett, a man with straight hair, copper-colored complexion, and the features of an Indian, testified that his son...had never been very bright since an attack of scarlet fever when he was 4 years old” This defense was only a partially successful. Frank Bassett was convicted of murder in the second degree, and sentenced to life. At her trial in October, Lorena claimed Frank had conceived the entire plot, and had robbed Jack's body of $5.75. The jury did not believe her, and she received an identical sentence to his.
Both prisoners were sent to separate wings of Wethersfield Prison, just south of Hartford. On entering the prison their heads were shaved before they were confined to individual 3 ½ by seven foot cells, which were unheated, and had no water or toilets. Thankfully the inmates were required to work six days a week, marching in lockstep each way to and from the work yard. But no prisoner was allowed to speak at any time, except if being questioned by a guard. Suicides were common, usually by hanging, but there are records during this time of numerous prisoners cutting their own throats, and at least one man who lay on his bed, emptied his kerosene lamp on himself, and set himself on fire. Lorena endured this hellhole for six years, before being transferred to the State Insane Asylum at Middletown, where she died early November of 1878. No cause of death was given, nor is it explained what happened to her body. But it was also common for the bodies of prisoners to be provided to the Yale School of Medicine for dissection. Surely Lorena's demise was more horrible than Stuttering Jack's.
Frank did not die in prison, physically. According to the Hartford Courant, “At first Bassett was employed in the prison shop. When his mind began to slip from him, he was given employment as a runner and as a sweeper.” But, according to the story published on the fiftieth anniversary of the murder, “Friendless and feeble, the old prisoner spent the day in idleness, an inmate of the insane ward of the institution....playing in far-off lands and imagining strange journeyings which he describes to whoever will listen.”
The Courant also recorded Frank's death in 1937. “-The longest prison confinement in the state's history ended Friday when Frank Bassett, 82, died at Norwich State Hospital.... He is believed not to have any relatives. Years ago a woman in Chicago made arrangements with an undertaker...to care for his body.”
Sunday, September 09, 2012
I imagine that every one of the seven miles from Brightwood Park to the capital were very tense for Coxey’s men. The now 500 man Army was swollen by supporters to 4,000, who were hoping, I suspect, to protect the marchers with their bodies, if necessary. They were further supported by 12,000 witnesses, among whom was Mr. L. Frank Baum, who the next year would pen the children’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”. The crowds lined the route of the Army down 16th Street to Massachusetts Avenue, then across to Mount Vernon Square (to avoid passing the White House), south on 9th Street to Pennsylvania Avenue, which they followed directly to the capital building.
"This is a great comfort," he said. "I have been holding that axe in the air ever since I rusted, and I'm glad to be able to put it down at last. Now, if you will oil the joints of my legs, I shall be all right once more."
So they oiled his legs until he could move them freely; and he thanked them again and again for his release, for he seemed a very polite creature, and very grateful. "I might have stood there always if you had not come along," he said; "so you have certainly saved my life. How did you happen to be here?"
"We are on our way to the Emerald City to see the Great Oz," she answered, "and we stopped at your cottage to pass the night."
"Why do you wish to see Oz?" he asked.
"I want him to send me back to Kansas, and the Scarecrow wants him to put a few brains into his head," she replied.
The Tin Woodman appeared to think deeply for a moment. Then he said: "Do you suppose Oz could give me a heart?"
"Why, I guess so," Dorothy answered. "It would be as easy as to give the Scarecrow brains."
"True," the Tin Woodman returned. "So, if you will allow me to join your party, I will also go to the Emerald City and ask Oz to help me."
1900 L. Frank Baum "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz"
By this time the crowd was so large, it was being led by 25 mounted Metropolitan Policemen, just to keep the Army moving. Ray Standard Baker, covering the march for the Chicago Record, noted that “Coxey’s carriage (stopped) near the “B” street entrance to the grounds…Rising from his seat, he stooped over and kissed his wife, as if realizing something of the terrible ordeal to follow”.
Jacob Coxey then “leaped nimbly to the ground, and in a moment he and Browne were swallowed up in a wild surging mob of men which lifted them from their feet and bore them bodily across the street to the Capital grounds. More than four hundred mounted policemen…rode into the crowd with the intention of capturing the two…but they might as well have attempted to arrest a cyclone. The mob forced one of them against a stone wall…and threw his horse violently to the ground. Coxey…lost his footing and in a moment he was at the bottom of a pack of writhing, struggling humanity.”
“The mounted policemen lost their heads…and began striking everyone within reach. Women and children were ruthlessly ridden down…All this time Coxey had been struggling through the crowd toward the central steps of the capital….Before anyone knew it Coxey was bounding up the East front…He was up to the tenth step before he was recognized. Then the officers closed in on him.”Holding Coxey’s arm, Captain Garden of the Capital Police demanded, “What do you want here?” Coxey replied, “I want to make an address.” Gardner told him he would not be allowed to do that. “Then can I read a protest?” asked Coxey. The answer was no. It was all over in less than five confused minutes.
Jacob Coxey was not arrested on the capital steps, no matter what the history books say. He was ushered back to his carriage, and the Army, now under the command of his son Jesse Coxey, marched “like a funeral procession” toward their new camp, at the site of an old dump on M street, which they dubbed “Camp Tyranny”. However Carl Browne and another aide had been arrested in the melee.
On Wednesday, May 2nd. Jacob Coxey was in court to show support and pay the fines for his two friends. And then he was arrested. The charges laid against all three men were carrying banners illegally and walking on the grass. They were immediately thrown in jail. One week later, on Tuesday, May 8th, all three were tried in District Court, where it was revealed that the illegal banners they were charged with displaying were the three by two inch cloth lapel pins worn by every member of the Army. Coxey always maintained that he never stepped on the grass. It did not matter. All three men were found guilty, fined five dollars each and sentenced to an additional 20 days in jail.
Coxey’s Army stayed in Camp Tyranny for two weeks, playing baseball, drilling and attending rallies, until the D.C. Board of Health ordered them to move. They then returned to their camp at Hyattsville for another week. Then a hotel in Bladensburg, Maryland provided free rooms for the newly released Coxey and Browne, while the Army cramped in the back yard. Heavy rains in June drove the marchers to higher ground and this time they moved to Roslyn, Virginia. Finally, on August 11th their numbers had dwindled to the point that the Governor of Maryland dispatched Baltimore Police Officers to sweep in and arrest the remaining 80 men on charges of vagrancy. That whimper was the end of Coxey's Army of 1894.
In the speech Coxey had intended upon reading on the steps of the capital, was a desperate plea. “We choose this place of assemblage because it is the property of the people,” he had wanted to say. “We…say, help, or we and our loved ones must perish… we come to remind the Congress here assembled of the declaration of a United States Senator, “that for a quarter of a century the rich have been growing richer, the poor poorer, and that by the close of the present century the middle class will have disappeared as the struggle for existence becomes fierce and relentless.” That was what all he had wanted to say.
In the wake of Coxey’s Army, ex-President William Howard Taft was asked what a man with a family was to do when there were no jobs. The President replied “Lord knows. I do not.” He didn’t. Neither did he have any idea how to help revive the national economy. Two years later, the Denver News would still note, “There are millions of heads of families partially or wholly out of employment…In the agricultural districts wages have fallen one-half. In manufacturing…the aggregate of all wages paid is at the starvation point.” The depression would continue for yet another two long years, and during this lost decade, those with little imagination fiercely contended that there was nothing that could be done to mitigate the disaster; Nothing.
Then, in 1898 the United States went to war with Spain. We raised an army and invaded Cuba. And at about the same time the six year long depression came to an end. But conservative economists argue that this war could not have revived the economy. The budgets increases were far too small and it was far too short a war. Besides, increasing taxes and government investment in infrastructure could not revive a depressed economy. And that may be so. But if it is so, then the war spending and the end of the depression was one heck of a coincidence in 1898, and again in 1942.
I think the best memorial for those unnamed heroes of the spring of 1894 was provided by a bar fly in New York City named Feeb, who composed and preformed songs for his supper. “Come, boys, turn around the beer keg. And listen to my song, Great Coxey is among us, to right each grievous wrong. N'o more shall sorrow grip us, We're on the way to wealth…With a glass in every hand; Sing to Coxey and his army, And free lunch all in the land.”
"…and the Witch said to the Scarecrow, "What will you do when Dorothy has left us?""I will return to the Emerald City," he replied, "for Oz has made me its ruler and the people like me. The only thing that worries me is how to cross the hill of the Hammer-Heads."
"By means of the Golden Cap I shall command the Winged Monkeys to carry you to the gates of the Emerald City," said Glinda, "for it would be a shame to deprive the people of so wonderful a ruler."
"Am I really wonderful?" asked the Scarecrow.
"You are unusual," replied Glinda."
1900 L. Frank Baum "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz"
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