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The Last Time a Republican Reigned in Big Business - 1903

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Friday, December 07, 2012

A DESIRE FOR SUCCESS


I have no doubt that when Stephen Puter put two $1,000 bills on the Senator's desk, John Mitchell promptly picked them up. At his trial John denied he took the bribe, but nothing in his previous life even hints at the possibility that the Oregon scoundrel would have left that much cash unattended so close to his own pocket even for an instant. He was a garden variety sociopath, raised to high office by his ambition. Noted one Oregon newspaper, “His political methods are indeed pitched on a sufficiently low scale, but not below his methods as a lawyer.” That did not make him unusual for a gilded age politician. It was the reliability of his depravity that made him a star.
Senator John H. Mitchell grew up John M. Hupple about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1855, when he was twenty, John was fired from his teaching job after impregnating his 15 year old student Sarah Hoon. Forced to marry the unfortunate girl, John switched professions, and two years later he passed the state bar exam. However, the new lawyer beat his Sarah in public so often that a patrilineal grand jury was convened. John escaped being indicted by convincing his naive 19 year old bride into dropping the charges. Whereupon John stole $4,000 from his legal clients, abandoned Sarah and his three children and fled to California with his mistress, teacher Maria Brinker. A few years later, when Maria's medical expenses threatened to consume John's ill gotten grubstake, he abandoned her as well.
Arriving in Portland, Oregon in 1860 (above) with his new mistress, Mattie Price, John switched his moniker to John Hupple Mitchell and hung out his shingle. In a matter of weeks John was named the city attorney to the 1,000 inhabitants of what the locals appropriately called, “mud city”. His skills as a lawyer could be attested by the unfortunate Marcus Neff, an ambitious illiterate seeking help in expediting his 10 year old homestead filing. Neff had paid $2.50 an acre for his 160 acre property, occupied and worked it, and in May of 1862 Neff paid John Mitchell $6.50 to file an affidavit reaffirming his bonafidies. Then, in November of 1863, John Mitchell sued his own client for what he claimed were $253.14 in unpaid fees.
In court, the amoral attorney Mitchell (above) swore under oath that Neff could not be found, even tho in July of 1863 the Oregon land office successfully delivered the final homestead deed to Neff in California. In February of 1864 Neff's homestead was sold at sheriff's auction, where it was purchased by future governor and Portland mayor, Sylvester Pennoyer, aka “His Eccentricity”, AKA “Sylpester Annoyer”. John got the $294. 98 paid by Sylvester, and Sylvester got the 160 acre homestead. It would take a decade and require the intervention of the U.S. Supreme Court, before poor Mr. Neff's stolen property would be returned.
As this episode demonstrated, John Mitchell was always willing to help the Oregon power structure get richer, to his own benefit of course. In particular there was his toadying with the “stagecoach king” Ben Holladay (above), who had just sold his California mail routes to Wells Fargo for $1.5 million ($24 million today). Beginning in August of 1868, and financed largely by distant German investors, Holladay began building a railroad along the Willamette river valley, from the capital of Salem north to Portland, and then south over Grant's Pass to California. It was Holladay who, in 1864, financed John's divisive election as President of the Oregon State Senate – it took 53 days and 27 ballots. And in 1872, Holladay supplied $15,000 in bribes to secure John's election by that same legislature as a U.S. Senator. So obvious was Mitchell's toadying for his patron, ( "Whatever is Ben Holladay's politics is my politics, and whatever Ben Holladay wants I want") that both offices were one term endeavors. But it remains a testament to John's grit and greed that when Ben Holladay went bankrupt in the “Panic” of 1873, John simply switched his loyalty to the next richest man on his horizon.
The 18 year old Friedrich Weyerhauser arrived in America in 1852. He so hated working on his cousins' Pennsylvania farm that he drifted west and landed a job on the Rock Island Railroad in Illinois, which led him to a job in a saw mill, making railroad ties. He ended up owning the mill, and started buying lumber mills until the Weyerhaeuser Syndicate controlled every tree processed on the upper Mississippi River. The only thing standing between Friedrich and total domination of the lumber industry was that he did not own the land on which the trees grew. Oregon offered him a remedy to that little problem.
Out on the Great Plains, railroads could be financed by awarding them a 20 mile wide swath of government land on either side of the rails. The builders could then sell this land to homesteaders who then became the completed railroad's customers. That was how Holladay financed his Willamette Valley line. But everywhere else in Oregon’s mostly vertical terrain, money grew on trees. The state has been selling lumber to China since 1833. By 1870 there were 173 sawmills in Oregon. And it was the combination of the well intentioned homesteader program and Weyerhaeuser's ambition which remade Oregon politics for the next hundred years.
The middle man between Oregon's past and its future was one time surveyor Stephen A. Douglas Puter.     In his book, “ Looters of the Public Domain” Stephen described a process which began on board foreign vessels tied up at Portland's docks. “I have known agents of the company to take at one time as many as twenty-five men...to the county courthouse”, he wrote, “where they would...declare their intention to become citizens...(then) they would proceed direct to the land office and make their filings, all the location papers having previously been made out. Then they would appear before Fred W. Bell, a notary public, and execute an acknowledgment of a blank deed (transferring the land to the lumber company), receive the stipulated price of $50, and return to their ships...As fast as this land came into the market, the company gobbled it all up.”
All told, it cost "entryman" like Puter about $320 for each 160 acre homestead. Then, instead of land hungry farmers, Puter sold the parcels to Weyhausser through his railroad or lumber companies for a hundred dollar profit. The Oregonian newspaper estimated that between 1870 and 1904 75% of all land transferred in Oregon was sold in this fraudulent way. The great scam only came to an end because in 1903 Stephen Puter was convicted of fraud, and after serving 18 months was pardon by President Teddy Roosevelt after agreeing to turn state's evidence. With Puter's testimony, Federal grand juries indicted more than 100 people, and convicted 33 of them. But no where on any legal papers did the name of Friedrich Weyerhauser appear, and his corporation's titles to the land were never questioned. However, John H. Mitchell's name did show up.
When John had first arrived in Washington, D.C. back in 1874, he found the capital abuzz with stories about his abandoned Sarah, back in Pennsylvania. Since John had married Mattie Price in 1862, without divorcing Sarah, he was now a bigamist. But the Senate decided morality was a matter for the voters back in Oregon, and allowed John Mitchel to sit on the Senate Railroad Committee, which is just where Ben Holladay wanted him. After his defeat for re-election in 1879,  John tried for the state legislature, but lost. In 1885 he was campaigning for a return to the Senate when, four days before the election, "The Oregonian" published love letters John had written to Mattie's sister. What kind of a man carries on a five year sexual liaison with his wife's sister? Evidently, in Oregon, a re-elected United States Senator. An opponent called his election “a disgrace to the state and a reproach to humanity.”
And yet John was easily re-elected yet again in 1890, and tirelessly maneuvered to legally steal land from Indian reservations to benefit Weyerhauser's syndicate.  In 1896 John ran yet again, but the opposition finally adopted John's own “political ethics (which) justified any means that would win the battle” The legislature was deadlocked for two years, leaving the state without a second Senator. Then, in 1901 the 65 year old Mitchell won his last campaign. And it was in Senator John Mitchel’s Washington office on Sunday, March 9, 1902, where Stephen Puter laid down those two $1,000 bills. And John picked them up.
The newly named Chairman of the Committee on Inter-oceanic Canals, now grown old and fat, responded to his indictment with a carefully worded press release. “I defy any man to charge me successfully with any conduct that is otherwise than honorable” he wrote, adding “I am sure I cannot be connected in any way with any land frauds”. No where did John claim innocence. He merely dared others to prove his guilt. So they did.
This first trial of the century for the 20th century was held in June of 1905 in the newly expanded Court House on Pioneer Square in downtown Portland. It had to compete for the public's attention with the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition out on Guild's Lake. While the fair, whose federal funding Senator Mitchell had pushed, attracted over 11,000 visitors a day, the courtroom could hold less than a hundred spectators. But it was the tribunal which attracted far more newspaper coverage. Testifying against Senator Mitchell was Stephen Puter, and John’s law partner, Judge Albert H. Tanner, and even John's personal secretary. The defense tried reminding the jury about the recent death of John's daughter, and the Senator's age – he had just turned 70. But on Monday July 3, 1905 the jury found him guilty, anyway. It was the climax to the Oregon Land Fraud Trials, and a fitting end to Mark Twain's Gilded Age. John was sentenced to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
He never served an hour in jail, of course. And he never paid the fine. Not because of his political connections, this time, but because of a visit to the dentist. Five months after the verdict, on Friday December 8, 1905, John had four teeth pulled, and the strain was too much for the old thief’s heart. He died, said the press, of complications after surgery. The old Republican was replaced by a Democrat.
John H. Mitchell – ne John Mitchell Hupple – was survived by a second daughter, Marie Elisabeth, who in 1892 had married the very wealthy Alfred Gaston, the 5th duke of Rochefouald and Duke of Anville. But the only place in Oregon which still carries his name is the tiny hamlet of Mitchell, with less than 200 residents. Three time in its history the town has been destroyed by floods, and three times by fires. But the residents keep rebuilding, making it a perfect monument to a man described  as lacking either ethics or ability, but making up for that with “persistence and (a) desire for success.”
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Wednesday, December 05, 2012

BY ANY OTHER NAME


I can think of no more misbegotten group of failures and frauds and grief stricken dullards than the men who collectively are responsible for one of the most vital and fundamental inventions of the modern world. But I have to wonder, if we called it something else, would it have become so ubiquitous in our world? 
It all started with a Parisian named Barthelmy Thimonnier, who invented the sewing machine in 1830. I know, you think it was invented by Elias Howe, but that is because Elias Howe was a “patent troll” and a liar.And because, in 1840, a mob of French "Luddiet" tailors broke into Thimonnier’s factory, smashed his machines, burned the factory down and almost lynched Barthelmy. He died flat broke and forgotten in 1857. But first he invented the sewing machine. The vacuum he left behind was filled by the American Walter Hunt, who was a mechanical genius and a business boob from upstate New York. Walter invented the safety pin, U.S, patient #6281, and a repeating rifle, and a bicycle and a road sweeper. And then, in 1834, he improved on Thimonnier’s sewing machine.What Walter Hunt actually invented was a sewing needle with the hole - aka, the eye - at the pointy end. As the needle pushed through the cloth the eye carried the thread with it. When the needle stopped it formed a loop in the thread behind it, and a second thread (from the bobbin) was pushed through the loop. The needle was then withdrawn, pulling the loop tight or “locking” it, around the bobbin thread. This “Lockstitch” was sheer genius, a brilliant insight, but Hunt never did anything with it because he didn’t want to be lynched by American tailors and he was safely making plenty of money from his safety pin. And that opened the door for Elias Howe.Elias Howe told at least two versions of how he "invented" the sewing machine. In the sympathetic version he spent hours watching his poor wife (since dead, and unavailable to testify) earn extra money doing piecemeal sewing work to support his family. In the Freudian version, Howe dreamed about Indians shooting arrows through a blanket.
In fact Howe had been a mechanic repairing looms in a textile mill, before he started living off his wife's sewing abilities, and that is where he learned all about shuttles and bobbins, and probably saw a version of Hunts sewing machine needle. Like a loom, Howe’s sewing machine, patient #4750 granted in 1846, fed the cloth in vertically and the needle and bobbin worked horizontally. Howe’s sewing machine worked , sort of, but it was so clumsy that Howe couldn’t find anybody to buy it. He never made a dime selling the actual invention.Then in 1850 Howe saw a demonstration of a machine which did work, built by a mechanic and an actor and one of the most foul-tempered bigamists in antebellum America, Mr. Isaac Singer. Singer’s sewing machine put the needle vertical and fed the cloth in horizontally, which made the whole thing functional. But Howe noticed that Singer had 'borrowed' his lockstitch, which you may remember Hunt had actually invented Anyway,  when Howe demanded $25,000 in “royalties” (i.e. blackmail), one of Singer’s long suffering business partners observed that, “Howe is a perfect humbug. He knows quite well he never invented anything of value.” Singer was typically more direct, offering to “kick (Howe) down the steps of the machine shop.” What eventually made Howe a wealthy humbug was the patent for his lockstitch. As a magazine at the time noted, Howe had “litigated himself into fortune and fame.” But then this story is not about the sewing machine.This story is about another patent Elias Howe trolled for, this one granted him in 1851. And just like his sewing machine, Howe’s patent for an “Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure” did not work. He just filed it away and waited to see if anybody else ever fixed it. But, since nobody else made his ugly and clumsy device work during his lifetime, Howe had nobody to sue and the device remained an obscure little footnote. And people continued to live with the original “Clothing Closure” device, the button.Originally Whitcomb Judson was not interested in replacing the button. This rather odd man liked to eat bananas and mushrooms because he thought the mushrooms gave him psychic powers. Judson’s “mushroom visions” told him was going to get rich designing pneumatic street cars, (he was granted 14 patents for them), a mode of transport described rather unhelpfully in his advertising as “…a screw, but without a thread; and this screw though always revolving in one direction, will send the (trolley) cars in either direction, and do this by a pure and simple rolling and not a sliding friction..” It sounded mysterious and magical, and was actually used briefly in England in 1864 to transport tourists 600 yards between Waterloo and Whitehall stations. But Judson’s railway went nowhere in America. So, in 1893, as a back up invention, he marketed his patent #’s 504038 and 504037 as a “claps lock” for ladies high button shoes, and “…wherever it is desired to detachable-ly connect a pair of adjacent flexible parts.”Mr. Judson explained that “...each link of each chain (4 links per inch) is provided both with a male and a female coupling part…”. But sadly this coupling had a tendency to pop open, leaving the lady in question barefoot on the public way. So, in 1896, Judson added “….a cam-action slider…” to his invention, now calling it his “C-curity Fastener”. The company he formed to exploit the C-curity (The Universal Fastener Company) did well, and the gilled fungi lover was making money, but he never got as rich as he had expected. It was a shame the mushrooms never warned Judson about the dangers of eating too many mushrooms because Judson died of liver disease in 1909.And that brings us to the dull Mr. Otto Frederick Gideon Sundback, a Swiss emigrant to Canada, working as an electrical engineer for Universal Fastener and married to the plant manager’s daughter, Elvira. In 1911 Elvira died, and to distract himself from his grief Gideon started fiddling with Judson's “C-curity Fastener”. He added more teeth (the male coupler), ten to an inch, and widened the slider, and then he realized he could do away with the couplers entirely. All he needed was the teeth and the slider. Gideon called his invention the “'Separable Fastener”, Patent # 1219881, granted in 1917. Gideon even designed a machine to mass produce his fastener.In 1923, when Mr. B.F. Goodrich saw the new fasteners used on a pair of rubber galoshes his company was trying to sell the U.S. Army, he was delighted, telling an employee to “Zip ‘er up.” And thus was born the onomatopoeia of the new invention, the name that sounds like the sound the Separable Fastener makes when it is used; the zipper. And the world has been a better place ever since.
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