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Friday, October 05, 2012

SISSYSPHUS ON THE WABASH


I want to take you back to a time when there were just two million Hoosiers in the whole world, and yet Indiana had 13 seats in the United States House of Representatives and 15 electoral votes. Today they have just eight nine, and 11 electoral votes. Even more improbable to modern ears, this smallest state west of the Allegheny mountains was a crucial "battleground" state, oscillating like a bell clapper, clanging first Republican and then ringing Democratic, changing six times between 1876 and 1888, swinging each time at the whim of some 6,000 fickle independent voters.
Things came to a head over the winter of 1885 when the dynamic Democratic Governor Isaac Gray (above), seeking a lasting majority for his adopted party, jammed through a gerrymander redistricting of state legislative offices, by re-designing ten traditionally Republican state Assembly seats so they would elect Democrats instead. This would prove to be such an outrageous power grab, a Federal court would declare it unconstitutional in 1892 However, the savvy Gray knew that the voters would take their revenge much sooner than the courts.
So, in the summer of 1886, Grey convinced his Lieutenant Governor, Mahlon Manson. to take early retirement. Then he scheduled to fill that post in the mid-term elections, midway through his four year term. And as Gray had expected, the Republican base was so energized by the gerrymander, that their party was swept back into power that November with a 10,000 vote majority, recapturing seven of those redistricted Assembly seats. (The state Senate, serving 4 year terms each, remained 31 Democrats and 19 Republicans.)  
But more importantly for Governor Gray, the newly elected Lieutenant Governor was a Republican, Robert Robertson. Thus, should Gray offer his resignation in exchange for the Republican dominated legislature appointing him an United States Senator , they were likely to agree, since that would make the Republican Robertson the new Governor. And that would move Gray to the United States Senate, one step closer to the White House. This was not an impossible dream, as another Hoosier politician would shortly prove – one, Benjamen Harrison.
Yes, Grey (above) had a nifty plan, clever enough to be worthy of Machiavelli. But it faced one insurmountable hurdle. Governor Isaac Grey was without doubt the most hated Democratic governor among Democrats, in the entire history of the state of Indiana. He was the original DINO, Democrat in Name Only.
Twenty years earlier, at the close of the Civil War, this same Isaac Grey had been the Republican Speaker of the state Assembly (above). To achieve that task Gray had literally locked the doors, preventing Democrats from bolting the building and thus denying a quorum to the Republican majority. While the trapped Democrats sulked in the cloak room, Speaker Grey staged votes for the 13th, 14th and 15th reconstruction amendments to the U.S. Constitution. It had been another scheme worthy of Machiavelli. But loyalists in the Democratic party never forgot Grey had counted them as "present but not voting". And as the Assembly session for 1887 opened, these hard liners were willing to set the state on fire if they could also burn up Isaac Gray's Presidential dream boat.
The Indiana State Senate (above)  was about to come into session at  9:35 on the morning of Saturday February 24th, 1887, when Lt. Governor Robertson entered the second floor chambers to take his seat as President pro tempore of the Senate. The Democrats physically blocked him from reaching the dais. He shouted from the floor, "Gentlemen of the Senate, I have been by force excluded from the position to which the people of this state elected me.” But at this point the acting-President pro tempore, Democratic Senator Alonzo Smith, ordered the doorkeeper, Frank Pritchett, to remove the Lt. Governor, “...if he don't stop speaking.”
As the doorkeeper and his assistants advanced on Roberts, he announced, “They may remove me. I am here, unarmed.” Smith testily responded, “We are all unarmed. We are fore-armed, though.” That belligerent mood was now general in the chamber. Republican Senator DeMotte from Porter county shouted something from the floor, and acting President Smith ordered him to take his seat. Responded DeMotte, “When he gets ready, he will.”
As the Lt. Governor was dragged toward the rear doors of the Senate Chamber a Republican Senator shouted that if he went, all the Republicans were going with him. President Pro tem Smith shouted back, “They can go if they want to. They will be back, ” he predicted. At this point Republican Senator Johnson challenged the chair directly, telling him, “No man will be scared by you.” “You're awfully scared now, “ said the Democrat. “Not by you”, answered the Republican. .
A general fight now broke out in the Senate chamber, with the outnumbered Republicans giving such a good account of themselves that one Democrat drew a pistol and – BANG! - shot a hole in the brand new ceiling of the still unfinished statehouse. Into the acrid gun smoke and sudden silence this unnamed Democrat announced that he was prepared to start killing Republicans if they kept fighting.
With that, Lt. Governor Robertson was thrown out of the Senate and the doors were locked and bolted behind him. As the official record notes those were “...the last words spoken by a Republican Senator in the 55th General Assembly.” The Senate then tried to get back to business, appropriately taking up Senate bill 61, setting aside $100,000 for three new hospitals for the mentally insane. It was decided it was self evident the state was going to need them, and the measure was approved by a vote officially recorded as 31 Ayes, 0 nays and 18 “present but not voting”. Ah, revenge must have seemed sweet – for about half an hour.
Outside in the central atrium, the gunshot had attracted a crowd, mostly from the Republican controlled House on the East side of the capital. Faced with a bruised and enraged Robertson, the Republicans caught his anger. Similar fights sparked to life in the chamber of the House of Representatives, and a “mob” of 600 angry Republicans descended upon every wayward Democrat in the building, punching and kicking them, and, if they resisted, beating them down to the marble floors of the brand new “people's house”.
Eventually, the pandemonium returned to its source; the Republicans laid siege to the Senate chamber. They beat against the doors, and smashed open a transom. Vengeful Republicans poured into the great room. The haughty Democrats were assaulted in their own chamber and thrown out of it. By now Governor Grey, down in his offices on the first floor, had heard the ruckus, and had called in the Indianapolis Police. Four hours after the legislative riot had begun, order was restored to the capital of Hoosier democracy. History and many newspapers would record it as the “Black Day of the Indiana Assembly.”
The following Monday the triumphant Assembly dispatched a note to the battered Senate Democrats, that they would have no further correspondence with the upper house. The Senate counter-informed the Republicans in the lower house, ditto. State government in Indiana had ground to a halt. Lt. Governor Robertson never presided over the Senate, and Governor Gray never served as a Senator. He came to be known as the “Sisyphus of the Wabash”, after the legendary Greek king, renown for his avariciousness and deceit. A few years later Hoosiers elected to choose their Senators by popular vote, I suppose under the theory that the general population of drunks and lunatics could do no worse then the professional politicians had done already.
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Wednesday, October 03, 2012

ONE NIGHT IN DODGE CITY


I suppose the way these three men crossed paths could be called fate or kismet. But to label it a mere chance encounter could be seen as denigrating the life of one who died and the one who killed him. And, yes, there were great invisible social forces guiding events that hot summer night, and cold blooded economic factors as well. But there was also poetry, and the wild card of alcohol. But whatever the cause, in 1878 when a “rather intelligent looking young man” named George Hoyt, a young vaudevillian named Eddie Foy, and a young assistant sheriff named Wyatt Earp collided in Dodge City, Kansas, they made history.
Dodge City owes its fame to a tiny tick, the Boophilus microplus, which carries anthrax. The tick and the disease were endemic among the herds of Texas Longhorns, which had developed a resistance to the fever. But in 1868 anthrax on imported Longhorns killed 15,000 cattle across Indiana and Illinois. So as the sod busters plowed across Kansas they insisted the state restrict the rail heads for Texas cattle drives further and further westward, away from their farms. 
In 1876 the demarcation line was moved to the 100th meridian, which made the town on the north bank of the "Are-Kansas" River, the new “Queen of the cattle towns”, the ‘Wickedest Little City in America’, "The Beautiful, Bibulous Babylon of the Frontier", Dodge City, Kansas.
Like the other ten to fifteen cowboys in his crew, George Hoyt had just ended two months of hard, dusty, dangerous and monotonous work. He now had $80 cash money burning a hole in his pocket. And it was the business of the merchants of Dodge City to separate George from as much of that cash as possible before he left town. In essence Dodge City was a tourist trap, dependent for its yearly livelihood on the May through August ‘Texas trade’.
The little town of less than 1,000 year-round citizens could boast, during the season - June to September - 16 saloons. And south of the “deadline” (Front Street, which bordered the tracks of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroad) it was worse. On the wrong side of the tracks there were assorted brothels and dance halls where “anything goes”.
All the bars served the latest mixed drinks and ice cold beer, and enticed customers with a piano player or, in the case of the Long Branch saloon, a five-piece orchestra. There was the cavernous Ben Springer’s Theatre. The even larger, The Lady Gray Comique” (com-ee-cue), at the corner of Front and Bridge Street (modern day 2nd Avenue), was divided between a bar and gambling parlor in front and a variety theatre in the back.
In July of 1878 the Comique featured an entire vaudeville show headlined by “…that unequalled and splendidly matched team of Eddie Foy and Jimmie Thompson.”Eddie Foy had been dancing and clowning in Chicago bars to feed his family since he was six. He was now 22, and this was his second swing through the western circuit, telling such local jokes as “What's the difference between a cow boy and a tumble bug (a dung beetle)? One rounds up to cut, and the other cuts to round up”: Hilarious. Eddie had an appealing V-shaped grin, and a comic lisp, which he offered each night in a solo rendition of the plaintive homesick poem, “Kalamazoo in Michigan” 
At about 3 A.M. on Friday, July 26th, while Eddie was just beginning his reading, George Hoyt and several of friends were just leaving the Comique. Loaded with drink and unloaded of their money, they saddled their horses at a nearby stable, and then buckled on their gun belts. While no one was allowed to wear guns while in town, most check their weapons where they checked their horses. George and this friends then mounted up, and headed back to their camp, out of town.  As they rode up Bridge Street on their way back to camp, they passed the Comique. And for some reason George suddenly wheeled his horse and returned to the side of the theatre.
George pulled his six shooter and banged out three quick shots into the side of the building. 
According to Eddie Foy, inside the hall “Everyone dropped to the floor at once, according to custom.”  Amongst the crowd of 150 gamblers and poetry aficionados in attendance was lawman Bat Masterson and gambler Doc Holiday, both of whom, according to Eddie, beat him to the floor. “I thought I was pretty agile myself, but these fellows had me beaten by seconds at that trick.” The Dodge City Globe agreed. “A general scamper was made by the crowd, some getting under the stage others running out the front door and behind the bar; in the language of the bard, “such a gittin up the stairs was never seed”. Observed Bat Masterson, “Foy evidently thought the cowboy was after him, for he did not tarry long in the line of fire”.
But in George Hoyt’s impulsive decision to blast away at the Comique, he had failed to notice two men lounging in the shadows on the sidewalk right in front of him. One was Jim Masterson, younger brother to Bat and a fellow city deputy. The other shadow was soon to be legendary lawman Wyatt Earp.
Wyatt on this night was 30 years old. He stood about six feet tall, and weighed a skeletal 160 pounds. He had pale light blue eyes. But what friends and opponents remember most about Wyatt was his manner. The editor of the Tombstone Epitaph would later note his calm demeanor, saying he was “…unperturbed whether...meeting with a friend or a foe.” Bat Masterson described him as possessing a “… daring and apparent recklessness in time of danger.” But those were later descriptions.
After serving in an Illinois regiment during the Civil War, Wyatt became a teamster between the port of Wilmington, outside of Los Angeles, and the desert mining town of Prescott, Arizona.  He had then managed houses of prostitution in Peoria, Illinois for several years, before becoming a lawman in Wichita, Kansas. He lost that job in 1874 for embezzling county funds, which he probably used to finance his education in gambling.
Moving on to Dodge City along with the cattle herds, Wyatt was hired again as a police officer. During the off season he traveled to Texas and Dakota Territory to continue his schooling in poker and games of chance. As a “cop” in Dodge City Wyatt's fame did not extend beyond stopping spit ballers disrupting an evening’s performance at the Comique, and his recent slapping of a prostitute named Frankie Bell.
Frankie spent a night in jail and was fined $20, while Officer Earp was fined $1. But the incident made clear that the nominally bucolic Wyatt Earp would not sit idly while his honor or his life was insulted, not even by a woman.
So when George Hoyt began blasting away in the dark, Wyatt made the immediate assumption that the cowboy meant to kill him. As George galloped his horse back up Bridge Street, chasing after his friends, Wyatt drew his own weapon and fired after the fleeing cowboy; once, and then a second shot. The second bullet hit Hoyt in the arm.
Bat Masterson claimed years later that George Hoyt fell from his horse, dead on the spot, but that seems embellishment. Bat, as we now know, was on the floor of the gambling parlor. His brother Jim was outside standing next to Wyatt, but Jim never spoke of the shooting. But other accounts agree that the two lawmen, Masterson and Earp ran up the street together after Hoyt, who had fallen from his horse.
Given the lack of adequate street lighting in the frontier cattle towns of 1878, as he rode up the street Hoyt would have soon disappeared in the dark. And that makes it seem likely that Bart got that much right; Wyatt fired only twice. And George Hoyt just wasn’t fast enough in escaping. The cowboy fell from his horse, and either from being shot or from the fall, he broke his arm. Wyatt and Jim Masterson caught up with Hoyt and first disarmed him. Then sent for Dr. T. L. McCarty,  to treat the injured cowboy.
The Globe commented that George Hoyt “…was in bad company and has learned a lesson “he won’t soon forget”.  George didn’t. Gangrene set in and the cowboy died a slow and foul death, passing at last on Wednesday, August 21st, 1878; 26 days after Wyatt shot him. Whatever the cause of death, the Legendary Wyatt Earp had killed his first man.
Eddie Foy would later claim that his suit, hanging back stage, was punctured twice by the gunfire. However the Dodge City Times said the bullets went through the theatre’s ceiling. But it made a good story for Eddie's stage show. 
Eddie Foy went on to a successful career on the vaudeville stage, appearing for several years with his children in an act billed as “Eddie and the Seven Little Foys”. He was the last of the great vaudeville entertainers before the advent of film, and so is almost forgotten today. Eddie Foy died of a heart attack in 1927 at the age of 71.
In September of 1878 a cattle broker and gunman named Clay Allison came to Dodge looking for a showdown with Wyatt Earp. One story told is that Allison was a friend of George Hoyt’s, and was looking for revenge. But again there was no classic street shoot out. It seems that Wyatt sensibly stayed out of sight until Allison left town, despite Wyatt's later stories to the contrary. 
For whatever reason, in 1879 Wyatt and his brothers moved on to Tombstone, Arizona. There, in October of 1881, he took part in the infamous Gunfight at the O.K Corral, which in fact was little more than a gang fight,  which occurred in a vacant lot between two buildings, down the street from the rear entrance to the O.K. Corral. But none of that reality stopped the fight from becoming the most famous twenty seconds in the American West.
Wyatt remained a professional gambler all his life and died in Los Angeles of a chronic bladder infection at the age of 80 years, in January of 1929.  He is mostly portrayed today as a hero, mostly it seems to me because he had no aversion to spinning tall tales and because he was that true rarity, a gambler who usually won.
After the railroads penetrated south Texas in the mid 1880’s the need to drive cattle a thousand miles to Kansas came to an end. And with it the “Queen of the Cattle Towns” became just another small American town of some 25,000 people. It’s only living connection to its past is the Dodge City Cargill packing plant, whose 2,500 employees can slaughter up to 6,000 head of cattle a day, turning them into four and a half million pounds of meat, which is shipped all over the world.
That was always the unpleasant underside of Dodge City. The town depended for its fame and fortune upon the death of so many. 
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Sunday, September 30, 2012

GEORGIA PEACHES Part Three

I don't think we should judge Patrick Henry too harshly. When his beloved Sarah went mad in 1771,
shortly after the birth of her sixth child, the doctors diagnosed her as being possessed by demons. Two centuries later we believe she suffered from puerperal (or post patrum) psychosis, which strikes 1 in 1,000 new mothers - meaning "Sallie" had probably been hearing voices for two decades. Andrea Yates, a sufferer from the same condition, had the benefit of 20th century drug therapy, and she finally succumbed to her delusions after the birth of her fifth child. In June of 2001, during an errant hour, Andrea drowned all her children in a bath. The humanity of Sarah Henry's slaves probably prevented her from committing a similar act. Instead of prison, which Andrea endured, or the bedlam of an asylum, Sarah was kept locked away, in a cellar “apartment” beneath her own home and cared for by her eldest daughter Martha, and, again, her slaves. The standard treatment – exorcisms, restraints, regular enemas and laxatives, bleedings and beatings – all probably hastened her death in 1775. But the story of these two woman, two centuries apart, are not all that different. Time, it seemed, does not actually heal wounds. We just learn to live with the scars.
On December 21, 1789, Georgia governor Edward Telfair, signed grants of five million acres between the Apalachicola River and the Mississippi,  to the Virginia, Tennessee and Carolina Yazoo companies.  In exchange within two years they were to pay Georgia $207,000 – or about twenty-four cents an acre. The first payment was to be made in six months. A disinterested observer might ask, when land claims in the region were certain to be disputed by Indians who lived there and Spanish who claimed the place, and even the American government which did not accept Georgia's claims, and since undisputed claims elsewhere were selling for two pennies an acre, how could the investors in the Yazoo swamp – er, Yazoo lands – hope to make a profit? Well, there was the golden rule of business - Caveat Emptor
The concept has officially been a part of English law since 1603, when a goldsmith named Lopus sold what turned out not to have been the magical gallstone of a wild goat to Mr Chandler, for 100 pounds. When Chandler realized he had bought a useless rock, he sued, and a court ordered Lopus to give him his money back. But on appeal the case was thrown out, because the higher court said it didn't matter what the seller's sales pitch had been - “for everyone in selling his wares will affirm that his wares are good...(yet) the warranty ought to be made at the same time of the sale.” In other words, without a written guaranty, there was no legal promise. That was quite a barrier to justice when the vast majority of the population could not read or write. In the 400 years since Lopus v Chandler English business developed the shady reputation of horse traders, used car salesmen and bankers. And in Georgia in 1790, buyer beware was the business model for all three of the Yazoo companies, never mind that the buyers were Georgia taxpayers.
But again, how do you make a profit buying swamp land for 24 cents an acre, when adjacent dry land is selling for 2 cents an acre? Simple - you pay in play money. And in 1789 there was a lot of it around.
At America's lowest point in the revolution, a desperate Continental Congress had created the Bank of North America, and it had furnished the financial framework to support Washington's army. The BNA was the great unsung hero of the revolution. But after the war the new congress, voted into office only by those who owned property, had attacked the institution. Like the hyperventilated debate over the Health Care Reform Act in 2010, the attack on the BNA involved wild charges and paranoiac drum beating. But the primary political objection seems to have been that the wealthy bankers and unscrupulous investor class did not like competition for control of the money supply. So, in 1785 the bank's charter was withdrawn, leaving the Federal government with $11 million in debt to France and Spain, and the states about $48 million in debt to their own citizens. In exchange the moneyed class got “free market” banking.  Everybody was happy - right?
Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry's Virginia continued to do fine under this “laissez faire” banking, but within two years everywhere else markets went to hell. Bonds issued by the American government were selling for ten to fifteen cents on the dollar, and most state bonds were selling for less than that. Legislatures were reduced to borrowing money just to pay the interest on loans used to run their bare-bones governments. There were more than fifty currencies in circulation, including English pounds and Spanish “eights”. Individual cities were chartering banks, which then issued their own money. And in the woods of western Pennsylvania, where their were no banks, the standard medium of exchange was home brewed whiskey. The collapse of the American economic system was the major reason the Articles of Confederation were scrapped in 1787.
Under the new Constitution, the fix was the responsibility of President Washington's bright-eyed boy, Alexander Hamilton. And having been orphaned twice while growing up (even his adoptive parent had died), the new Secretary of the Treasury had an aversion to chaos. Hamilton's imposition of economic order was simple, brilliant and realistic. I am certain what he wanted to do was tell Jefferson and Henry's Virginians to “stick it in their ear”, but rather then doing that, he bought them off. And he had a little help when reality kicked the Virginia money class right in their pocket books.
That summer, when agents for the Virginia Yazoo Company showed up in Georgia to make their first payment for the Yazoo land grant, they were carrying a huge pile of money – sort of; meaning it was “sort of” money. What it was, was paper. Some of it was Federal bonds, and the rest was cash issued by various state banks, all bought at a discount. None of it was gold or silver and Patrick Henry and friends expected their payment to be accepted at "face value". Well, the horror of figuring what each individual piece of paper was really worth was bad enough. But once the state had done all of that they came to the horrible realization that it wasn't worth anywhere near what the contract required.  So Georgia canceled the sale. They canceled the land grants to all three Yazoo companies – No sale.
That left Patrick Henry and David Ross, et al, holding huge piles of paper which had just been officially declared worthless. Which is when Alexander Hamilton offered to exchange their “worthless” paper “at par”, meaning at the best rate offered in the open market - for new U.S. government bonds. In other words, he was offering something of nothing. And all they had to do was convince the state of Virginia to allow the Federal government to take debt, and control any western lands they were laying claim to. Oh, and Hamilton also wanted to set up a new Bank of North America - this time to be called The First Bank of the United States.
It was easy for the Virginia money class to convince Virginia - after all, they were Virginia. And that is the deal which saved their collective behinds. In fact it made them a little richer. And it got the new Federal City  located between the southern states of  Virginia and Maryland. But still, it bothered the Virginia speculators that all those profitable schemes they had used to amass their fortunes were now out of reach. Thomas Jefferson, the man who had written the Declaration of Independence, and a life long land speculator, would later say Hamilton had fooled him. It was very unlike Jefferson to admit he had ever been bested by Alexander Hamilton. Besides, Jefferson only said what he said that after he had cashed Hamilton's check and spent the money.
So the Yazoo swamp land deals were dead and buried. Except they weren't. Like movie zombies the land speculators would rise again. It is the nature of capitalism that its keeps ripping open its scars.. Have I mentioned that greed makes you stupid?
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