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The Lawyers Carve Up the Golden Goose


Friday, February 22, 2013


I have a mystery story for you, and it begins one October morning in 1954, when the agricultural reporter for the Cuero Record, Ken Roland Towery, was making his morning rounds of the DeWitt County Courthouse (above).  Each day Ken stopped in the offices of county officials, to see if anything newsworthy might be going on.  Poking his head into the district clerk's office, he asked the secretary if anything was up. She replied no, but then she asked him a question. “Ken, what was going on out at the Country Club last night?” When Ken said he hadn't heard anything, she explained, “Oh, they had a big meeting out there, I understand.” And thus began a scandal that would bring down a three term Texas Governor.
Ken Towery had already led an unusual life. After joining the army in 1940 (above), he arrived in the Philippines just in time to be first wounded, and then in March of 1942, made a Japanese prisoner. He spent the rest of the war in a POW camp in Korea, and did not get back to Texas until 1946. Under the G.I. bill he studied chemistry, but he had contracted tuberculous in Korea he had to drop out. He took a job working for his hometown newspaper, the Cuero Record. The sleepy south Texas county seat (pronounced Quair-oh, Spanish for “rawhide”) stood at the junction of three highways, and along the “Gulf, Western Texas and Pacific Railway”. The major business in the rolling countryside was raising cows, chickens and turkeys. And the major business in town was slaughtering them or shipping them elsewhere for slaughter – that and county government. So usually, nothing much happened in Cuero.
But when the secretary described the Country Club meeting to Ken that October morning, she used a few racial epithets, because in Texas in 1954, African Americans and Mexican Americans were usually allowed in the Country Club (above) only as servants. Ken returned to the paper and asked Elvin Wright, an African American press operator, if he could check with his neighbors about the meeting. A week later Wright told him, “All I know is they had a meeting out there and they talked land, they talked about a lot of land.”
That rang a bell with Ken. A few months earlier a local farmer named Webber had approached Ken with a letter on blue paper one his hired hands had received from the Veterans Land Board. The man wanted to know what the letter meant. Webber explained, “It looks like you bought some land somewhere”.  But the man insisted, “I ain't bought no land.” Those two curious events, an illiterate man who had not bought land, and a racially mixed meeting in an area where, in Ken's words, “White people just don't set up big parties for colored field hands”, was enough to send the reporter looking for Shorty Robinson, the black custodian for the brand new Country Club. Shorty explained that two club members, T. J. McLarty and a Notary Republic named Ledbetter, had paid him ten dollars for every black veteran he had rounded up for the meeting.
The Veteran's Land Board was the brainchild of “General” Bascom Giles (above), eight term elected commissioner of the General Land Office in Austin, Texas. The land board had been approved by the voters in November of 1946. Under Giles' plan, the state issued $75 million in bonds. That money was then used to offer 40 year, 3% interest rate loans of up to $7,500 for each veteran applicant. With just 5% down, they could now purchase up to 20 acres of land. Running the program was Giles, with oversight supposedly provided by three term Governor Alan Shivers and Attorney General John Ben Shepperd.  In 1951, because of rising land prices, an amendment allowed two or more veterans to jointly purchase a tract, which they were allowed to later subdivide and resell.  Ken Towery now headed off to Austin, to speak to Bascom Giles.
At first Ken was told “The General” might not even be in that afternoon. So Ken told the secretary that he was from Cuero, and wanted to talk about the blue letter received by Farmer William's employee. Within 20 minutes Bascom Giles (above) was warmly welcoming the reporter into his office. Giles began by insisting no irregularities had occurred in the program in DeWitt county, and yet blamed any mistakes on an appraiser who had already been fired. But, insisted Giles, he had checked the application in question, it had been signed by the farmhand, and any accusation of fraud was just “politics”.  Ken left after the ten minute meeting,  wondering why Giles was defending himself against accusations which Ken had not made.
Back in Ceuro, Ken confided his concerns to DeWitt County Attorney Wiley Cheatham. Wiley revealed he been investigating the Land Board since the previous August, when “ veterans started trickling in, complaining that they hadn't bought any land, wanting to know what the blue slips were, were there payments to be made. Some of them had pink slips...delinquent notices.” Wiley added he had heard of similar problems in at least six other counties.
Wiley asked Ken to hold the story for a few days, while he drove the 94 miles up highway 183 to Austin. On Friday, 5 November, 1954,  Cheatham informed Ken he had received no cooperation from the Land Board, and to go ahead with the story.  Two weeks later, in the Sunday, 14 November, 1954 edition of the Cuero Record,  Ken Towery broke the story of the Veteran's Land Board fraud.
The scam he laid out worked as follows: speculators like T. J. McLarty first obtained options on tracts of land at standard market prices.  Then, at events like the sales pitch at the Cuero Country Club, they fooled minority veterans into signing authorizations to act as their agents.  The speculators then bribed employees of the Land Board (including Giles) to provide highly inflated appraisals on the properties they held options on. Finally, in the veterans' names, the speculators obtained the 3% loans from the Veterans Land Board to purchase the property at the inflated price. They made only the 5% down payment at the option price, and pocketed the rest, leaving the veterans with the payments and ruined credit.
Two years later a Texas state Senate report would say, “The plan . . . constituted a highly reprehensible practice, especially in view of the 'spread' between the original purchase price paid by the 'promoters' and the appraised price paid by the Veterans Land Board, resulting in unconscionable and shocking profits . . . without risk and with only token expense to them and the 'rooking' of the veteran-purchaser.”  The scam proved so profitable the speculators could even afford to pay many barely literate veterans up to a hundred dollars for their signatures. One veteran admitted, “They said they'd give me a new set of tires for my car and so I signed up.”
The scandal did not explode instantly. In fact, Bascom Giles had just been elected to his ninth term as Land Office Commissioner.  But thanks to Ken Towerly's (above) work, investigations which had already begun in seven counties began producing headlines of their own. The State Attorney General, John Ben Shepperd, who had rarely attended meetings of the Veterans Land Board, quickly opened his own investigation, as did that other absentee board member, Governor Alan Shivers. Twenty-one people were indicted by grand juries.  Early the following March  Bascom Giles was indicted for conspiracy to steal $83,000 (nearly $600,000 in present day). He was the first Texas state officer convicted for crimes committed while in office. He was sentenced to six years. Fines and civil suits by the state collected all but $3,000 of the money he stole.
When it was all over the State Auditor reported that over $3.5 million ($25 million today) had been stolen, defrauding 591 veterans and 39 land owners. Threatened with jail time, most of those indicted had cut deals, buying back the land from the veterans at the inflated price the crooks had been paid, and re-embursing the land board. So the state of Texas got most of their money back, and only two of the crooks did any substantial time behind bars. But one of those two was T.J.McLarty, of tiny Cuero.
Governor Shivers (above) was never directly implicated in any involvement in the Veterans' Land Board scandal, but his reputation was so damaged that he did not run for re-election, and left politics. His greatest political claim to fame was that in 1952, as a conservative Democrat, he had delivered Texas to Republican Presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower. After politics, he served as a regent for the University of Texas, and died of a heart attack in January of 1985.
In 1955 Ken Towerly (above) won the Pulitzer Prize,  and the Associated Press sent him a check for $4.00, for reprinting his story nationwide.  He later interviewed Bascom Giles in the state penitentiary at Huntsville.  In an interview 60 years later, Ken recalled, “He had long stories, of course, like all crooks do...everybody out there is doing it, I don’t know why they picked on me....And I told Bascom...“If you know of anything,  well just name them”...And he said, “Oh, no, it wouldn’t do any good.,,They're all doing it”  After his release in 1958, Bascom Giles moved to Venice Florida, where he died in a car accident, in 1993.
And Ken went into politics. He never ran for public office, but he did work on the staff of Texas Republican Senator John Towers. As of May, 2016, he was still enjoying an unusual life
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I believe he started to fall in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. A spinning mill was opened there in 1789, powered by the 50 foot falls of the Blackstone River. But it was a financial failure until Samuel Slatter arrived from England a year later.  His head was filled with the patents and hi-tech systems England was trying to keep secret, and he assured the mill owners that if they made him a partner, “If I do not make as good yarn as they do in England, I will...throw the whole of what I have attempted over the bridge” But if  Samuel Slatter was offering his actual suicide or merely an alliterative death, it is clear there something about that bridge 50 feet above the falls, which inspired men of vision to a leap of faith. Sam Slatter did make good yarn and his mill became ground zero of the American Industrial revolution.
“Oh that I were seated as high as my ambition, I'd place my naked foot on the necks of monarchs”.
Horace Walpole, 17th century art historian
At six years of age Sam Patch was abandoned by his alcoholic father, Greenleaf Patch. At seven he joined his siblings tending to the spinning mules in Mr. Slatter's mill. The boy's position as a “doffer” required him to scuttle between the working looms, replacing bobbins and redirecting errant shuttles. Work began at five in
the morning,  and did not end until half past seven, six days a week. The usually exhausted Sam was lucky not to be disabled by the unshielded whirling belts and flying equipment inches from his head and hands, and eventually he was promoted to weaver and a weekly salary of $2.50. Summers, during his half hour lunch breaks, Sam often threw himself off the bridge into the cool water of the tidal pool at the foot of the falls. Each plunge was a brief moment of weightless freedom, an escape from his pitiless existence.
Ambition may be defined as the willingness to receive any number of hits on the nose.”
Wilfred Owen, 20
th century poet
In 1824, in a unified action, the mill owners in Pawtucket demanded that workers accept a simultaneous 25% cut in wages and loss of half their 1/2  lunch break. In response Sam Patch, who had fourteen years experience in the mill, helped to organize the first workers strike in America. The owners were forced to back down, but they then systematically removed as many of the “trouble makers” as they could. Sam was forced to leave Pawtucket. Twice Sam tried to run a mill of his own, and twice his addiction to whiskey, possibly a self medication for injuries suffered on at his job. spoiled his chances. By 1826 he had found work as a loom supervisor at the Hamilton cotton mill in Patterson, New Jersey, powered by the 70 foot high falls of the Passaic River. He was now an abusive alcoholic himself, “an angry and not particularly admirable” man, known to box the ears of the young duffers working under him.
Ambition is pitiless. Any merit that it cannot use it finds despicable.”
Eleanor Roosevelt
On the Western shore of the Passaic falls there was an island of escape, called the Forest Garden. It was wild terrain used as a picnic ground by the mill workers, until August 14th of 1827 when it was purchased by Timothy Crane, owner of a grist and saw mill on Van Houten Street in Paterson. Crane then transformed the idyllic spot into a private park, complete with an upscale tavern/restaurant, “The Cottage on the Cliff” and scenic walks, beer gardens and well manicured versions of nature. He even planned a bridge across the falls, to restrict access to only those who could afford the two penny toll. The bridge was assembled on shore and on Sunday, September 30, 1827, Crane staged a grand celebration as the bridge was pushed out across the falls. A small crowd gathered to cheer the endeavor, but more disenfranchised mill workers stood about watching their picnic grounds claimed by a wealthy overlord. And then who should step out on a rock outcrop above the falls but a weaver, proudly dressed in his white linen uniform; Sam Patch.
Somebody ought to tell him his ambition is showing.”
Harry Essex  20th Century American Screenwriter
The police, who were patrolling the crowd, were horrified. The drunken Sam had been locked up in a basement all morning, to keep him away from the ceremony. Somehow he had escaped and they were worried that he might start a riot. Sam indeed shouted out to the crowd, but he did not call for violence. He announced that Timothy Crane had indeed done great things, but now Sam Patch would do great things as well. William Brown, a wittiness, remembered, “He walked back a few yards, turned, and took little run to the brink of the cliff, and jumped off, clearing the rocks (by) about ten feet.”
“Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself And falls on the other side”
William Shakespeare, 17th century playwright
He hit the water feet first, as was his style, and for several seconds the crowd was convinced he had died on impact.. He did not. He bobbed to the surface, and was greeted by almost universal cheers. Afterward he told the newspapers, “I am perfectly sober and in possession of my proper faculaities”. The citizens of Paterson were impressed - – except of course for Timothy Crane, who had the feeling his thunder had just been stolen by a drunken lout. And it had.
“The universe is not required to be in perfect harmony with human ambition.”
Dr. Carl Sagan, 20
th century American scientist
Crane tried to get it back. On Wednesday July 4th, 1828, he announced a fireworks display to be held above his exclusive Forest Garden. But that afternoon Sam Patch did it again, leaping off the same rock and plunging 77 feet into the water. The newspapers reported the words of wisdom from the “Yankee Jumper”; "Some things can be done as well as others." People could not stop talking about his amazing, death defying leaps, which had yet again upstaged Mr. Crane's ostentation. And Sam Patch did it a third time, on Thursday, July 19th. Then on August 11th 1828, in Hoboken, he lept 100 feet from the mast of a sloop, and splashed down into the Hudson River. The paying crowd was only 500 in Hoboken, but the New York newspapers had begun to take notice of “Patch, the New Jersey jumper”, the working stiff risking his life to make a living.
“Ambition if it feeds at all, does so on the ambition of others.”
Susan Sontag
By 1830 there were four million factory workers in America, and their lives were genuinely miserable. Barely ten miles from Paterson, amongst the 150,000 citizens of New York City, 10,000 were in debtors prison – half because they owed less than $25. One in five of the metropolis's citizens were receiving “public assistance” either from a church or the government. Clearly the industrial revolution was not benefiting very many in America. Food prices were rising, and if you fell ill you could not earn the $500 a year required for a minimal diet. The average life span was barely 33 years, because so many got sick. Every day workers risked their lives to earn a living, toiling in unsafe factories, working past exhaustion day in and day out. They were the fodder for the Industrial Revolution.. And now they had a hero of their own, a man who knew from experience the quiet desperation of their lives, the risks they took every day to feed themselves and their families.
“Ambition is like love, impatient both of delays and rivals.”
Sam Patch's next opportunity arrived in the form of an invitation from businessmen in the city of Niagara Falls, New York. They had recently discovered a cave which protruded from beneath an outcrop beneath Goat Island, which divided the American Falls. Seizing upon the cave's official opening for tourists on October 5th,  for promotion they had scheduled a series of black powder blasting around the gorge and a kamikaze voyage of a two masted schooner over the falls. A dive by the Yankee Leaper off a 125 foot ladder against the backdrop of the falls at the exit of the “Cave of the Winds” seemed the perfect fit. And they only had to pay him $75 for the stunt.
“I hope the ambitious realize that they are more likely to succeed with success as opposed to failure.”
George W. Bush. American President
The only problem was Sam was now suffering from bouts of delirium tremens, and he missed his jump-off date. He apologized in a one sheet broadside to those who had not yet left town, and assured them “...on Wednesday, I thought I would venture a small Leap...of Eighty Feet, merely to convince those that remained to see me...I was the TRUE SAM PATCH, and to show that Some Things could be Done as well as Others...” . Ten thousand showed up to see if he would make the leap. He did, coming down feet first into the whirling white eddies below the falls, and then did it again on Saturday, October 17th , this time in a pouring rain storm. As he climbed out of the river after the last jump, Sam greeted the adoring crowds with the words “There’s no mistake in Sam Patch!”
The psychoanalysis of neurotics has taught us to recognize the intimate connection between wetting the bed and the character trait of ambition.”
Sigmund Freud
Sam was a hit. The businessmen in Rochester, New York, immediately booked him to leap from atop the 99 foot high falls of the Genesee River, in their town. And on Friday, November 6, 1829 Sam fell to fame. The response was so positive, that Sam scheduled another leap on the following week, Friday, November 13th.  During the week a 25 foot high platform was constructed atop the falls, making this drop his  highest yet, 125 feet in total. It was publicised as “Higher Yet! Sam's Last Drop”.
Hasty climbers have sudden falls
Italian Proverb
There were 8,000 witnesses along the banks of the Geneseese River, just about everybody in town. .
As he climbed the ladder, some would later say Sam Patch staggered a bit. He had taken at least a single glass of brandy before climbing that ladder. And once atop the tower, Sam shouted down to the crowd. “Napoleon was a great man and a great general. He conquered armies and he conquered nations, but he couldn't jump the Genesee Falls. Wellington was a great man and a great soldier. He conquered armies and he conquered nations, but he couldn't jump the Genesee Falls. That was left for me to do, and I can do it, and will.”
“Ambition is a drug that makes its addicts potential madmen.”
Emile M. Cioran 20th century Romanian philosopher and Nazi apologist.
He began his plunge as usual, straight as an arrow. But then his arms drifted up, away from his sides, he began to lean, and he entered the water at an angle. There was a huge splash. And when the water calmed, there was nothing. Sam Patch was no more, dead before the age of 30.
"Ambition never comes to an end."
Yoshida Kenko 14th century Japanese Buddhist Monk and poet.
They dragged the river, but did not find his remains until March 17th, 1830,  when farmer Silas Hudson.
broke the ice of the Genesee River five miles downstream, near the river's joining with Lake Ontario. As the Silas' horses drank the cold water, the farmer was started to see a body under the ice, jammed against the shore. They identified the corpse by the black scarf around the neck and the frozen features. They buried him near where they found the body, in the Charlotte Cemetery, on River Street. His original marker read simply, “Sam Patch – Such is Fame” A later marker, paid by donations in the late 1940's, got his birth date wrong. It said he had “leaped to his death over the upper falls”, as if he had committed suicide. But then “suicide” implies Sam had a choice.
“Ambition has but one reward for all: A little power, a little transient fame; A grave to rest in, and a fading name!”
Walter Savage Landor 19th century English Poet.
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