AUGUST   2020


Friday, June 07, 2013


I can describe the exact moment of conception. On the evening of 22 September, 1880,  Father John O’Malley was sharing a meal with American journalist James Redpath. At some point in the meal the priest noticed that the American had stopped eating. When queried, Redpath explained, “I am bothered about a word. When a people ostracize a land grabber..." And Redpath struggled for a moment, before explaining, "But ostracism won't do" The priest, according to Redpath, "tapped his big forehead, and said, 'How would it do to call it "to boycott him?” Mr. Redpath wrote, “He was the first man who uttered the word, and I was the first who wrote it.” (Talks About Ireland, 1881) And thus was born another contribution to the English language. Of course the importance of this invention requires a little explanation.
Freed from its incubator in the central highlands of  Mexico, 'Phytophthora infestans' -  the Potato Bligh - arrived in Ireland in the 1830’s. By then the humble potato, which had preceded the blight,  had become the primary food for the 8 million people of Ireland. It could be grown almost year round. It produced so much protein per square foot that a family could be supported on a quarter of an acre of land. But because of this dependence, in the decades after 1845, the blight created "The Starving Time". Each year more and more of the crop was consumed by the moldy blight.  But because it did its work underground, unseen, its ravages could not be seen until the crop was harvested. By 1855 20% of the population of Ireland had starved to death, and another 20% had emigrated.
The British government struggled to respond to the disaster with church based relief, but politics then compounded the human misery. Potatoes were molding away in the fields. But wheat, which was growing healthy and abundant in Ireland, was too expensive for the starving Irish to buy,  thanks to the Corn Laws. These were duties (taxes) charged on imported grain. This was done to protect the Irish landowners from having to compete with cheap American wheat. But by 1880, of the four million souls still surviving on the emerald isle, fewer than 2,000 owned 70% of the land. The three million tenant farmers owned nothing, not even their own homes, and over the two previous years their rents had been increased by 30%, and many were being thrown out of the homes they lived in (above). . The very life was being squeezed out of the people of Ireland.
Meanwhile, most of the largest, wealthiest landowners, those benefiting from the Corn Laws, were absentee landlords, Englishmen and women who hired local farmers to manage their Irish estates. “Captain" Charles Cunningham Boycott was one of these local farm owners/managers. Those tenants who could not pay their rent were evicted by the managers. Those who were evicted usually died. To argue it was not intended as “genocide” misses the point. Intended or not, it was mass murder. Ireland was teetering on the edge of a revolution.
On Tuesday, 3 July, 1880, outside the quaint village of Ballinrobe, County Mayo, three men emptied their revolvers into the head and face of twenty-nine year old David Feerick,  an agent for a absentee landlord.  No one was ever charged with that murder.  In early September, outside of the same village, “Captain” Charles Boycott, called on the tenants to harvest the oat crop of absent landlord Lord Erne. 
“Captain” Boycott would be described by the New York Times (in 1881) as 49 years old; "a red faced fellow, five feet eight inches tall, the son of a Protestant minister who had served in the British Army." He earned his title of Captain not in the military but for his daring attitude in sport. He owned 4,000 acres of Irish farmland, and besides managing Lord Erne's property.  The day he called them back to work Boycott also informed the tenants that their wages were being cut by almost half.  The tenants simply refused to work at those wages.
The Boycott family and servants by themselves struggled for half a day to cut and harvest the oats before admitting defeat. Mrs. Boycott then appealed to the tenants personally. They responded to her by bringing in the oat crop before the winter rains ruined it.
On Sunday, 19 September 1880,  Irish politician Charles Stuart Parnell (above), addressed a mass meeting in the town of Ennis.  Parnell called on the crowd to shun any who took over the property of an evicted tenant. “When a man takes a farm from which another has been evicted, you must show him on the roadside when you meet him, you must show him in the streets of the town, you must show him at the shop counter, you must show him in the fair and the marketplace, and even in the place of worship, by leaving him severely alone — putting him into a kind of moral Coventry — isolating him from his kind like the leper of old.”  It was the birth of the modern non-violent protest. Unstated, was the reality that this was a religious war, the Catholic south of Ireland against the Protestant controlled north and England.
On Tuesday, 22 September, 1880, a local process server, under orders from "Captain Boycott",  and accompanied by police, issued eviction notices to eleven of Lord Erne's tenants.  The tenants were not surprised. Speaking of Boycott, one tenant told a local newspaper, “He treated his cattle better than he did us.”  The server would have issued even more eviction notices, but a crowd of women began to throw mud and manure and the agent and his police escort had to retreat into the Boycott home. That night, in the house of Father O'Mally, the word "Boycott", as a verb, was invented.  It was put to immediate use.
The next morning, Wednesday, 23 September, a large crowd from Ballinrobe (above) marched to the Boycott home and urged the servants to leave. By evening the Boycotts and a young niece living with them, were alone in the house.
A letter written by “Captain” Boycott was published in the London Times. It made no mention of the raising of rents, only of the refusal to pay those rents. It made no mention of the cutting of salary, only of the refusal to work. It did detail the travails of Captain Boycott and his family. His mail was not being delivered. He was followed and mocked whenever he left his farm. “The shopkeepers have been warned to stop all supplies to my house. I can get no workmen to do anything, and my ruin is openly avowed…”
 Harpers Weekly Illustrated News for 18 December, 1880,  reported what happened next. “A newspaper correspondent first started the idea of sending assistance to Captain Boycott…one person alone promised to get together 30,000 volunteers.  Mr Forester, Chief Secretary for Ireland, at once vetoed the project of an armed invasion…
"It was accordingly decided to pick out some fifty or sixty from the great number of Orange (Protestants) from northern Ireland who were anxious to volunteer. Under military protection (of 1,000 troops) these men harvested Captain Boycott’s crops… The cost of this singular expedition was about ten thousand pounds…” (over $20,000).
It took two weeks under military guard for the inexperienced Ulster men to bring in the crop of turnips, wheat and potatoes, valued by Boycott as worth about three hundred and fifty pounds ($800).  Mr. Parnell estimated the harvest had cost the English government “one shilling for every turnip.”
Boycott left Ireland with his family on Wednesday, the first of December, 1880,  shrouded in the back of a military ambulance and escorted by soldiers.  His exit had been achieved by nonviolence. He never returned. Some one described his exile as the “death of feudalism in Europe".  
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Wednesday, June 05, 2013


I bring to your attention one of the most successful criminal partnerships in American history, qualified to stand alongside Frank and Jesse James, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, and the three Hunt brothers, Nelson, Baker and Herbert. But would William Miller have achieved fame as a criminal mastermind if he had never fallen under the influence of Robert Ammon? I can assure you… You betcha!
William F. Miller was living proof of the ancient maxim that upon finding yourself in a hole, you should stop digging. In the late winter of 1898 he was a twenty-six year old, “small, pale young man” working out of space rented in a grocery on the corner of Marcy and Park Avenues in the wealthy Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn. Every night William took the elevated train north along Marcy Avenue and then walked to his apartment at 144 Floyd Street, a three story tenement house in the immigrant working class Williamsburg neighborhood. Around him, wedged between factories and breweries, lived some 200,000 second generation German-Americans, each of them, like William, sharing what Thoreau described as “lives of quiet desperation”.
William attended church regularly. He was the father of twin 14 year old boys, John and Louis. He was a dreamer. He was a failure. His wife was ill. And if she had known the truth she would have been sicker. William had already lost the family nest egg, buying and selling stocks in an illegal “bucket” shop, where the profits were made by separating the naive day traders” from their cash. To maintain the image he had of himself, William told his friends that he had recently made valuable business connections on Wall Street, and now had the inside “dope”, and would soon be rich. The owner of the grocery William rented space from must have felt sorry for the lad, because on Wednesday, April 20th, he gave him all of $10 to invest. William wrote him the following receipt; “Received from Mr. Gus. Brandt; the sum of ten dollars ($10.00) for a one share interest in the “Franklin Syndicate”. Principal guarantied against loss, and may be withdrawn at any time. Dividends to be paid weekly in sums of one dollar and upwards per share until principal is withdrawn. Signed, William F. Miller.”
On Friday Mr. Brandt handed him another “investment” of $10. And as Brandt must have expected, William only invested the money in food and rent for his family. But on Monday morning he was careful to pay Mr. Brandt $2, which he called a “dividend”. After this apparent success was made known to Brandt's employees, and William's acquaintances in the neighborhood, William found himself swamped by dozens of new  investors. And each Monday William would personally deliver the “dividends” to his “customers”. By June, even the practical, pragmatic Mr. Brandt was convinced. He invested  $100 in William’s “Franklin Syndicate”.  In Brooklyn the boy was earning a reputation as a financial wizard. . He was overheard on the grocery store’s "pay" telephone arguing with J.P. Morgan, and other Wall Street magicians. Of course, these were imaginary conversations -  play acting. But they hint that William was desperate to convince his peers of his success. And that seems to have been William's real goal.
With growing desperation, struggling to bring in enough money to meet his weekly dividend requirements, and feed his family,  William began to make the rounds of the brokerage houses on “The Street” trying to sell his new investment plan to professionals. He found no takers because he had no actual plan. And then he  entered the offices of Robert “Bob” Ammon, a Wall Street lawyer with a reputation as an adviser to swindlers and confidence men, of which there were on the Wall Street of 1898, no smaller a percentage than there are today.  Bob Ammon towered over the shallow youth, physically as well as intellectually. He perceived instantly what William was actually selling. He had sold it himself a number of times. But Williams’s “Franklin Syndicate” had one distinct advantage over all the others Bob had executed; it had the honest looking, dupe of William as front man.
Taking the boy in hand, Bob Ammon agreed to act as the lawyer and agent for his “Franklin Syndicate”. He began by making up a list of 1,488 of his previous, customers, and sent each one the following telegram - collect of course; "To my Depositors: Owing to the enormous success of the Franklin Syndicate, and to the urgent request of a large majority of my depositors, I have decided to incorporate the Franklin Syndicate on December 2nd next, with a capital of $1,000,000….As all depositors are entitled to stock certificates in the corporation, it will be necessary to compare the receipts you now hold with my books, and just as soon as I receive your receipts I will immediately send you your stock certificate to which you are entitled…It is my belief that the Franklin Syndicate shares will be selling at $400 to $500 a share before March 1st next. (But) after December 2nd…I shall open no new accounts for less than $50. All accounts which I now have of less than $50, will have to deposit sufficient to make their account $50…Yours very truly, William F. Miller.  P. S. …it is the intention of the Franklin Syndicate (Incorporated) to continue paying 10% a week.”
Now, none of those receiving this telegram had ever heard of the Franklin Syndicate before, nor of William Miller. The wise who read it laughed at the impertinence, crumpled the telegram and threw it away. But several hundred were intrigued enough to wonder who this man Miller was, who claimed to be able to pay 10% interest a week – 520% interest in just a year. And a few were so intrigued they immediately sent cash by return post to the offices of the Franklin Syndicate. Others felt the need to deliver their money directly to 144 Floyd Street, Brooklyn.
Under Bob Ammon’s guidance, William had taken over the entire third floor of the building he lived in, and hired a staff of twenty-two to open the cash bearing envelopes, and greet the mobs of optimistic investors eager to hand over their meager wealth. The staff spent their free time making bank deposits and writing dividend checks. Mr. Brandt was encouraged to write a letter detailing his previous profits from the Syndicate. An article, appearing in 700 newspapers nationwide, ran under the headline, “Wall Street Astonished. Franklin Syndicate a Big Winner.”  In the accompanying article William Miller was referred as “the Napoleon of Finance”. There was no mention of Bob Ammon. In a follow up letter to the investors, William explained, “"…you know there must be a way where one can double their money in a short time, or else there would be no Jay Gould, Vanderbllt…and other millionaires and syndicates who have made their fortune in Wall street starting with almost nothing….The equilibrium of Wall Street is maintained by the fluctuations between the vast army of losers and the privileged few who win…Our 'inside tips' are from the fountain head of speculative interests, and never fail us. This advantage we not only possess here, but over the Washington wire as well.” Of course William had merely signed the letter. It had been written by Bob Ammon.
By the end of October the Franklin Syndicate was taking in something between $80,000 and $160,000 (today’s equivalent would be $1.5 million to $3.7 million) each week. But the business practices of the Syndicate were unusual enough that two banks closed their accounts, and most others simply refused to do business with them. The press were beginning to get suspicious, as well, identifying the entire project as a pyramid scheme. And Bob Ammon could sense that after a brief few weeks the scam had just about run its course. So one more telegram was issued over William’s name; “We have inside information of a big transaction, to begin Saturday or Monday morning. Big profits. Remit at once so as to receive the profits.” All that week more cash poured in to the offices.
The machinations and sudden growth of the syndicate had reduced William to a nervous wreck. Racked by guilt, followed by private detectives (who may have been government men or in the employ of the lawyer Ammon), William was ready when, in late November, Bob suggested, “Billy, I think you'll have to make a run for it. The best thing for you is to go to Canada.” With William’s help, Bob saw that all the funds in the Syndicate’s accounts were now transferred to his own private bank account, "to protect them". The total amount was some $250,000 ($5 million today). William then boarded a train for Canada under an assumed name, and disappeared.
To the investors, and to those outside the scheme, the collapse of the Franklin Syndicate was sudden and precipitous. It resulted in injury to thousands of lives, Miller’s wife and children being just three more victims. William had left his family protected only by the promised kindness of Bob Ammon, and  Bob's kindness was worth only $5 a week for Miller's wife and her children. Bob also assured William’s wife that this pittance was all that he could afford. In fact the syndicate’s funds were safely hidden under Bob’s various nom-de-corporate disguises. And that is the way the story would have ended, except the Montreal police arrested William in December.
He was placed on trial in New York in the spring, and convicted of grand larceny. And on April 30, 1900 William was sentenced to ten years in Sing Sing. And still Miller refused to believe that Bob had betrayed him. To maintain the fraud, Ammon had paid for William’s lawyers, had acted as one himself, and during the trial had increased payments to William’s wife to all of $40 a month. But once the trial was completed and William safely locked behind the granite walls of Sing Sing, the money stopped and the veil began to slip from poor Miller’s eyes; tuberculosis helped puncture the fantasy.
In 1903 William Miller shuffled his way to the witness stand one more time. He was skeletal. He suffered from a hacking cough. He seemed to be dieing. And when he pointed a bony finger at Bob, the jury believed him. It helped that William willingly confessed some of his crimes, and had helped prosecutors locate $60,000 of the stolen cash which had somehow slipped through Bob's hands. And it helped that Bob was only charged with receiving $35,000, which was all that could be conclusively proven. Convicted, Ammon got five years in Sing Sing. In exchange for his testimony, William Miller had his sentence commuted to the three years he had already served.
William Miller did not die of tuberculosis. He never got rich, but he stopped trying deepening the hole he was now in. He got a regular job, as a store clerk. And then he dropped out of history. The Miller's became just another average American family, struggling to survive in a world that catered to millionaires. Bob Ammon served his five years in Sing Sing, and then he too dropped out of history. He became just another average millionaire, living in nation that considers it impolite to inquire how its citizens attained their wealth, but proper to celebrate how much wealth they have.
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Sunday, June 02, 2013


I hate to differ with professional historians on the History Channel, but 1828 was not even close to being the dirtiest political campaign in American history. It was filled with lies and insults and half truths and smears, and things which written or said in any other context would have produced a number of libel suits. But then politics has always served as a justification for despicable public behavior. The 1828 election was, however, significant for other reasons. It was the first presidential election when the majority of American voters actually had a voice in the outcome And it was the first time the Democrats boasted of having a jackass at the head of their party, the first "million dollar" campaign, the first time an American political party cut a deal to sell its soul for victory, the first time the voters had a choice between investing in themselves or protecting the wealthy, and last but not least, it was one of,  if not the,  longest campaign in American history, starting four years earlier with the infamous “Corrupt Bargain” which was, in fact, just politics as it was supposed to be practiced.
See, in 1824 Henry Clay (above) of Kentucky,  wanted to be President. He was already Speaker of the House, and he had considerable political support along the frontier, which then constituted the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys. But Henry knew that was not enough, for two reasons.
In the first place the Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams (above) of Massachusetts, also wanted to be President, and he had the support of the two previous Presidents, James Madison and James Monroe, both of whom had been Secretary of State like Adams, before becoming President themselves. That is what you call a Presidential precedent. And secondly, Clay shared his regional power base with Senator, war hero and political superstar Andrew Jackson, from Tennessee. Still, Clay wanted to be President.
Senator Andrew Jackson (above) did win the most popular votes - 151,000. Now, out of a population of about 10 million that should not have been enough to get elected dog catcher, but from an electorate limited to the 366,000 largest property owners in America, it gave Jackson almost half of all votes cast. Almost. However the hero of New Orleans won only 99 electoral votes, thirty-two short of the number required. Adams was next, with 88 electoral votes. Clay had won only 37 electors, putting him behind even Judge William H. Crawford of Georgia, who had suffered a debilitating stroke during the campaign, but who still won 41 electoral votes. For the second time in the nation's history, the election would be decided in the House of Representatives. And did I mention that Henry Clay was the Speaker of the House?
Now, the Constitution allowed the House to consider only the three candidates receiving the most votes - in the electoral college. You might think that rule left fourth place Henry Clay out of luck, but politics is not about the rules – its about making the rules work for you. And it was obvious to everybody that a political deal was going to be required to settle this. That was the point of having an inconclusive election decided by the professional politicians. Clay saw to it that in January the Kentucky legislature ordered their 12 congressmen, originally required to vote for him for President, (above, sewing Jackson's mouth shut), but for Adams for President. And once he became President in February of 1825, Adams named Henry Clay his Secretary of State - and thus presumably next in line to be President. That's not corrupt, children, that's politics.
On receiving the news however, Jackson bellowed, “Was there ever a witness of such a bare faced corruption in any country before?!” The logical answer was, yes, of course, millions of times. And I repeat, it was not corrupt – it was just politics. But Jackson was extraordinarily stubborn about thinking any endeavor which he did not win must be corrupt. He had been christened “Old Hickory” by the militia who served under him in 1812 because of his harsh discipline (above)  and because once he made a decision he stubbornly refused to reconsider it, even when he learned it had been a mistake. And he was now convinced he had been cheated. He was confirmed in this opinion by Martin Van Buren, leader of the “Albany Regency” - the elite who ran New York State politics.
“Old Kinderhook” (he was from that upstate village) had tried to deliver his state to Crawford in 1824. But Van Buren (above) failed for various reasons – his overconfidence being the biggest one, but there was also Crawford's stroke, and a political “paltroon” named Stephen van Rensslaer who switched his vote to Adams at the last second. But now Van Buren could blame the infamous “corrupt bargain”, which luckily would also justify Van Buren now switching his allegiance to Jackson. 
He was joined by the editor of the Frankfort, Kentucky newspaper “The Argus of Western America”, Amos Kendall (above). This scarecrow with a brain had been a long time supporter of Henry Clay. But in April of 1825 a barbecue was held to honor the four Kentucky congressmen who defied party orders and insisted on voting for Jackson. They had not stopped Adams from taking the oath, but the soiree to celebrate their defiance was so well attended and enthusiastic, it convinced Kendall that Jackson was going to be the next President. The editorial slant of the Argus switched sides to support Jackson, immediately.
That spring of 1826, Van Buren would make a tour through the Carolinas and Georgia to organize support for Jackson. Again, the response was so positive that even Judge Crawford, still recovering from his stroke, endorsed the hero of New Orleans for the election over three years away. At every stop, Van Buren created “Huzza Boys”, who would plant stands of Hickory trees, and hand out sticks of Hickory wood at pro-Jackson rallies. The trees did not grow well in New England's rocky soil, but its wood was popular for use as wheel spokes and ax handles, because it would break before it bent. As one biographer has noted, the public thought of Jackson as disciplined, brave, uneducated but clever, which closely matched the self image of most Americans living on the frontier.
But myth, public and personal,  was always part of Jackson's persona. In truth Jackson, although born in poverty,  had clawed his way to wealth. He was largely self educated, but was now the polished owner of a 1,000 acre plantation worked by 90 human slaves. He was a very rich man.  He built his political career attacking the Bank of the United States – forerunner to the Federal Reserve System – but he also owned stock in its Nashville branch. Still, the personality which drove him to attain his station in life, did not seem best suited for a successful career in politics. A longtime friend once warned the General's new personal secretary, “to make it a point not to mingle or associate with anyone who the General believed, was either personally or politically unfriendly to him, although he may have unfounded jealousies against individuals on that subject.”  In other words, never question Jackson's reason for hating anyone.. 
Still, despite the 13 duels he fought, Jackson engaged in none which did not benefit his reputation. The only man he is known to have actually killed in a duel, Charles Dickenson, had to call Jackson a coward, a poltroon and a worthless scoundrel in the pages of a New Orleans newspaper, before Jackson issued the challenge. In fairness, once the shooting started, Jackson's attitude was, “I should have hit him if he had shot me through the brain.” In fact Dickenson shot Jackson in the chest. Old Hickory would suffer from that bullet for the rest of his life, but at the time he ignored the wound, and a misfire, and methodically shot Dickenson dead.
And Jackson now had another unexpected ally, the political wild card John Caldwell Calhoun (above), who had plotted his own strange path to the White House. Once the rock jawed gambler realized his own state of South Carolina was not going to support his run for the top job, he became the only man in 1824 to have actively campaigned for the office of Vice President. It proved to be a smart move, for while the top job was mired in political machinations, Calhoun was easily elected. But his goal from the day he took the oath for that secondary office was to knock down Henry Clay, to make room for himself at the top. Calhoun called the “corrupt bargain” made by his one time friend Clay, “the most dangerous stab, which the liberty of this country has ever received.” It was an interesting observation, overlooking the Alien and Sedition Acts of a decade earlier, and signed by John Quincy’s father. But then most successful politicians have short memories.
To the supporters of John Quincy Adams this was all was outrageous. Their man had not even taken the oath of office yet, and already his enemies were moving to ensure he would be, as other politicians almost 200 years later would insist, “a one term President”. It was vulgar, unpatriotic, and beneath contempt. You can almost share their frustration though, even when they began to refer to Jackson as “Andrew Jackass”, and an Adams newspaper published the cartoon (above)  "The Modern Balaan and his Ass", showing Jackson on a stubborn donkey and Van Buren dutifully following behind. 
But the reality was that it wasn't personal, except to Old Hickory of course. A number of powerful politicians simply saw greater advantage in working against John Quincy, than in working with him. And if the bargain to assemble a governing coalition for Adams was not corrupt, neither was the rebellion raised to overthrow him. The founding fathers were no strangers to the murky, disgusting side to politics. And having experienced the evils of royalty and elitism, they were willing to embrace even the dark side of public elections.

Lucky us.
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