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JUNE  2017
J.P. Morgan as a young man in his own words - "The Public Be Damned."

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Friday, October 04, 2013

PAYBACK

I should point out that when Martin Van Buren (above) was humiliatingly dumped into an Indiana hog wallow, ruining a very expensive pair of pearl gray trousers and coating his elegant frock coat with everything a happy swine leaves behind in a porcine sauna, it wasn't entirely fair. Of course “The Red Fox of Kinderhook” was far too crafty a politician to admit he had been humiliated. That would just draw more attention to his humiliation. As the venomous Virginia politician John Randolph observed, Martin Van Buren always “rowed with muffled oars.” But everybody knew this traffic accident had been staged as payback for Van Buren having insulted Hoosiers. What goes around comes around. And it was useless to point out that the insult had mostly come from Van Buren's predecessor, the still popular Andrew Jackson.
Even the frail shadow of federal authority which existed in 1828 was too much for incoming President Andrew Jackson. Over his two terms, he did his very best to weaken the Federal government, in all its endeavors except the ones he approved of. The ideology that argues against "big government" is still powerful in American politics today. Jackson vetoed a new charter for the National Bank - precursor of the Federal Reserve - which left the entire banking system unregulated. He streamlined the sale of public lands, which energized the speculators and overcharge yeoman farmers. He cut entire programs out of the Federal budget, and insisted the states take over many others. And at the same time he backed the Seminole Indian nation into a war.
But it was not until three months after Van Buren's inauguration in March of 1837 that these pigeons came home to roost. The massive real estate bubble suddenly popped. Over half of the nation's unregulated banks suddenly failed. And by January of 1838 half a million Americans were unemployed. Or to put it more simply, suddenly it was prom night and Martin Van Buren was Carrie. And like Carrie, Van Buren then made things worse by slashing out at everything in sight. Oh, he continued the unending expensive Seminole war. But he insisted on killing Federal funding for the National Road, which had reduced mail time between Washington and Indianapolis from several months to less than a week. Van Buren was so doctrinaire he even sold off the construction workers' picks and shovels. And for frontier farmers trying to get their produce to market, that made any economic recovery that much harder.
See, once across the Ohio border, the $7,000 a mile construction costs for the National Road was supposed to be supplied by land sales. But when the real estate bubble popped in 1837, that funding evaporated. Maintenance for the 600 mile road was paid for by the tolls of four to twelve cents (the equivalent of $2.50 today) for each ten mile long section, paid by the 200 wagons, horseback riders, farmers and herds of livestock that used each section of the road every day. But after 1837 that $36,000 a year (almost a million dollars today) had to do double duty, finishing the road and providing maintenance for the road  And it was not enough.
Particularly in Indiana, there were long sections beyond the two urban centers, ((Indianapolis and Richmond) where farmers using the road to drive their livestock to market faced forests of 14 inch high tree stumps. These provided clearance for the farmers' and emigrants' high riding Conestoga wagons, but between the stumps, the road bed was in such bad shape that constant repairs to their equipment bankrupted many of the 200 stagecoach lines trying to survive in Indiana. And every frontier farmer and businessman knew exactly who was to blame for all of this –“President Martin Van Ruin”.  As a result, in the election of 1840, in Hendricks County, (just southwest of Indianapolis), and along the National Road, Van Buren received 651 votes, while Whig candidate William Henry Harrison received 1,189 votes. Nationwide, Van Buren carried just 7 of the 26 states.
Normally this Hoosier hostility would not have mattered much, but just six months after taking office, the new President Harrison died of a pneumonia, and all previous assumptions had to be rethought . The Whigs had picked John Tyler as Vice President, mostly to get rid of him. Now, disastrously, he was the head of their party. The overjoyed Democrats began referring to Tyler as “His Accidency.” The adroit and dapper Martin Van Buren began thinking he could avenge his defeat and take the road back to the White House in 1844. All he needed was a cunning plan, which he just happened to have. 
In February of 1842, Van Buren (above) journeyed to Nashville, Tennessee, for an extended visit with his mentor Andrew Jackson, hoping some of Old Hickory’s popularity would rub off on him. It did not. Heading north, Van Buren then set off for a tour of the frontier states. He was well received in Kentucky, and the pro-slavery areas around Cincinnati, Ohio, but the closer he got to Indiana the more reserved the crowds became.
In early June he was met at the Indiana border by 200 loyal Democrats, and gave them a speech at Sloan's Brick Stage House on Main Street (the National Road) in Richmond, Indiana. But the vast majority of the local Quakers remained skeptical. And while Van Buren was speaking, noted the Richmond Palladium newspaper, “...a mysterious chap partially sawed the underside of the double tree crossbar of the stage...so that it would snap on the first hard pull…”
The next morning the stagecoach and its distinguished passenger headed for Indianapolis, the “Capital in the Woods”. But just two miles outside of Richmond, while bouncing over ruts and stumps, the carriage splashed into a great deep mud hole. And when the horses were whipped to yank the carriage out, the weakened cross brace snapped. Dressed in his silk finery, Martin Van Burn was forced to disembark into the foul waters and wade to shore.
There was no indication of any further sabotage on Van Buren's 74 mile ride across the mostly open prairie, which took the better part of three days. And the ex-President and candidate made it to the Hoosier capital in time to keep his appointments and make his speeches over the weekend of June 9-10. He took two more days to make political contacts, shaking hands and trading confidences, before, on Wednesday, June 13, he boarded yet another mail coach for the 75 mile journey to Illinois. But just six miles down the road, Van Buren had to pass through the Quaker bastion of Plainfield, Indiana.
The town earned its name from the “plain folk” who had laid out the town ten years earlier on the east bank of White Lick Creek. This Henricks county town was straddled by the National Road, which provided Plainfield's livelihood. Less than a quarter mile up Main Street from the  ford over the "crick", amidst a stand of Elms, the Quakers had built a camp ground and a meeting house. And here, that Wednesday morning, were gathered several hundred Wigs and Quakers, in their “Sunday, go to meeting clothes”, to see the once and maybe future President ride past. The crowd may have even been increased because the driver of this particular leg of the President's journey was a local boy, twenty-something Mason Wright. Soon, the crowd heard the blast of the horn from Mason's lips, warning of the VIP's bouncing approach down the gentle half mile slope toward White Lick Creek.
The disaster occurred abruptly. The coach rushed into view, with Van Buren's arm waving out of the coach's open window, while Teamster Wright whipped the horses to move faster. Faster? Shouldn't he be slowing down to let people get a view of the President?  And then, just as carriage came abreast of the center of the campground, the coach was forced to veer to the right to avoid a large "hog waller" mud hole in the very center of the dilapidated National Road. And as if  it had been planned, the right front wheel bounced over the hard knuckle of an exposed bare Elm root. The carriage teetered for an instant until the rear wheel clipped the same root. The teetering coach then careened past the point of no return.  Mason Wright leaped free while the coach crashed heavily onto its side into the very center of the smelly, sticky, hot black hog waller. Martin Van Buren had been dumped again.
A Springfield Illinois newspaper would note a few days later, “He was always opposed to that road, but we were not aware that the road held a grudge against him!” Wrote a more bitter Wig newspaper, “the only free soil of which Van Buren had knowledge (of) was the dirt he scraped from his person at Plainfield.”  The driver and witnesses blamed the Elm (above), which could not defend itself. Van Buren was uninjured, but once again had to extricate himself from his injured coach. After pouring the mud and other unidentified muck from his boots, Van Buren made his way on foot further west along the National Road to Fisher’s Tavern, at what is now 106 E. Main Street. There, Mrs. Fisher helped the President clean up his pants and coat, and wash the mud from his wide brimmed hat.
Back at the campground. the honest Quakers helped to right the stage, re-attach the horses, and carefully and respectfully deliver the coach to Fishers to collect the President. But it is hard to believe that, as Mr. Van Buren splashed across White Lick "crick" many of those Quakers were not smiling with the sly satisfaction of a job well done. 
A few days later Teamster Mason Wright was awarded a $5 silk hat, although it was never explicitly stated it was for his skill in staging a stage crash - call it political slapstick. But the tree who's root had provided the fulcrum for the prank would forever more be known as the Van Buren Elm.  In 1916 (above) the Daughters of the American Revolution even gave the tree a wooden plaque of its own.
But the hard winter of 1926 brought the Van Buren Elm down, and a local doctor lamented, “The many friends of the old historic tree are loath to have it removed from their midst.”
Van Buren (above) made it safely to Illinois without further accidents. He was  met a few miles outside of Springfield by a small delegation of legislators, including the young Abraham Lincoln. But Mr. Van Buren was never elected to public office again. The judgement of Hoosiers stood firm.
The Quakers' Meeting House still stands among the stand of Elms at 256 East Main Street (corner of Vine) in Plainfield.  After the original Buchan Elm fell, a replacement was planted, and it received a bronze plaque (above).  This inspired a local grade school to be named for the dapper Democrat who stumbled in their town, and a street was named after him as well. But in Plainfield the National Road (now U.S. Route 40), is still called Main Street. That is true of many Midwestern towns bisected by the National Road. It truly was America's Main Street. And Martin Van Buren had been wrong about that.
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Wednesday, October 02, 2013

HANGER ON

I find it fascinating how we can suddenly lose sight of things that are vital to us and surround us. Consider this fable; in the final hours of Saturday, May 20, 1995, Mrs. Paula Dixon leaped on the back seat of a motorbike, rushing to make a plane – British Airways flight 32, bound for London. Trying to stretch out her ten day vacation in Honk Kong, the 38 year old divorcee had left herself precious little time to make her 11:45 pm flight out of Kai Tak airport. During her dash to make that plane, Paula fell off the moving bike, hitting the pavement and bruising and cutting her arm. After scrapping her self off, and finishing the trip, Paula made it to the departure gate with just moments to spare. But while the 747 was waiting on the tarmac Paula's arm began to hurt and swell. So she called a flight attendant, who luckily was a trained nurse. And thus began a swirl of currents in which the fate of this mother of two would be swept between an obsessed turn-of-the-century factory worker, and a Dadaist acolyte born in South Philadelphia in the summer of 1890. 
As the eldest of four children, Emmanuel grew up surrounded by threads and swaths and shreds of things. He was the first child of Russian immigrants, a garment factory worker who earned extra money by doing a little tailoring and a mother with an artistic flair who assembled collages out of errant scraps of clothing. When he was seven the family moved to the slums of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York City. And at about the same time, suffering from the anti-antisemitism common in America of that age, the family shortened their name from Radnitzky to Ray. Emmanuel would soon shorten his first name to simply Man.
The flight attendant called for a doctor, and two responded. They decided Paula had broken her arm, and at her urging, fashioned a quick fix, a splint out of a Hong Kong newspaper, and rubber bands. She was given morphine from the aircraft's first aid kit, and tried to relax while the plane took off, bound for Heathrow airport, 14 hours away. But just an hour later, at 33,000 feet above the Bay of Bengal, Paula bent over to take off her shoes and felt a stabbing pain in her left side. Suddenly she couldn't catch her breath. One look convinced both doctors Paula had not only broken her arm, but a rib as well. When she bent over, it had punctured the tissue surrounding her left lung, inflating it like a child's balloon and preventing her lung inside     that tissue from expanding. Without immediate surgery, Paula Dixon was going to strangle to death..
Seventy miles east of Detroit, the town of Jackson, Michigan grew because people who thought they were going somewhere else, paused here for whatever reason, and stayed for whatever reason. The railroads came because the soil was good for farming, and since it was a convenient place to change crews, they built shops here, which attracted other industry. By 1900 the town of 25,000 included a mechanically inclined Canadian tinkerer named Albert J. Parkerhouse. He found work at the Timberlake Wire and Novelty Company, pulling cold steel, brass and copper through dies to form lampshade frames, bed springs, paper clips, wheel spokes and wire fences, anything that could be sold for a profit. He stayed because the work was steady and because if any of the workers stumbled upon an idea, the owner, John B. Timberlake, encouraged them to follow it. And one cold morning in 1903, Albert Parkerhouse was irritated because when he got to work there were no empty hooks to hang his heavy jacket from.
With Paula stretched out across an entire row of seats, and the improvised instruments sterilized with five star Courvoisier. brandy, an incision was made just below her collar bone. Then while one doctor held the cut open with a knife and fork, the other took a catheter from the first aid kit. One end, with a flap in it, was slipped into a bottle of seltzer water - the flap keeping the fluid from rising into the tube. And then the open end of the catheter, stiffened at the suggestion of a flight attendant with a straightened wire coat hanger, was slowly forced through the muscle tissue and into Paula's chest cavity. The patient, who had no more anesthetic, said she felt like beef on butcher's hook.
In 1913 the young Man Ray was exposed to the electrifying Armory Show. Teddy Roosevelt walked out, declaring “This is not art!” But Man Ray was elevated. At the show he met the cubist painter of “Nude Descending a Stair”, Marcel Duchamp. The two became fast friends, and enthusiasts of the heady freedom of Dada. The word meant various things in various languages, but to German writer Hugo Ball who adopted it, it meant nonsense, the rejection of art as only things worthy of inclusion in a museum. In 1915 Man Ray had his first one man show in New York and bought a camera to document his art. Eventually he became best known for his surrealistic and absurdest photographs. But he never let go of the wonder and whimsy he had experienced from his mother, and what he now called his “readymades”.
Once the catheter had penetrated the tissue surrounding Paula's left lung, the coat hanger was removed, and the air pressing around Paula's lung could now escape into the catheter. Each time she expanded her lung, a little more of the air strangling her was expelled. The flap in the catheter and the seltzer water kept what was expelled from slipping back, and each breath got easier, Within ten minutes Paula Dixon was breathing normally. With a doctor at her side, the exhausted patient fell asleep. The exhausted doctors drank the remaining Courvoisier.
On and off for weeks, Albert Parkerhouse twisted and bent lengths and thicknesses of wire from the factory floor. Finally he hit upon what he thought was the best design to support his jacket without wrinkling it. Timberlake filed for a patent in January of 1904 (Number 822,981) (above) and made profits for the next 77 years pulling wire coat hangers. Albert was not bitter he had received no share of his invention, but he was annoyed that on the patient application he was not listed as the inventor. A few years later he moved to Los Angeles where he started his own wire company. He died in 1927 of a ruptured ulcer at the age of 48.
The big white British Airways 747 landed at London's Heathrow airport at 5:00 in the morning of Sunday May 21, 1995. Paula, who felt good enough that she had eaten breakfast, was immediately transported to Hillington hospital, just north of airport . Here her make-shift surgery was closed and she slowly recovered from the ordeal, One year later she returned to Hong Kong to be married to her motor bike driver, German banker Thomas Galster. She told reporters, “If it wasn’t for my doctors I wouldn't be here today”. And, she might have added, she also owed her life to a wire coat hanger. If one had not been invented by an irritated Albert Parkerhouse in 1903, Paula Dixon would have died on that plane in 1995. That is what you call an unintended consequence.
Man Ray was finding it difficult to make a living as an artist in New York City. He wrote, “All New York is dada, and will not tolerate a rival.” So he burned many of his older unsold works, borrowed $500, and set off for Paris, where he would live the rest of his life. One of his last works created in New York City was “Obstruction”, a three dimensional collage, described by the N.Y. Museum of Modern Art as a “pyramid of coat-hangers, each with two more hangers suspended from its ends...in arithmetic progression until almost an entire room was obstructed. This pyramid had an even, but changeable equilibrium; if only one hanger was set in motion, the entire pyramid oscillated with it.”
It must have reminded Emmanuel of his childhood, surrounded by a forest of hangers, all suspended just out of reach, hangers hanging from the ceiling, representing at the same time a whimsical playground for the child and a crushing existence of endless work for his parents, the pattern of their collective individual lives, connected yet separate, each suspended from the others. Life, Emmanuel seemed to be saying, is mostly just hanging around.
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Sunday, September 29, 2013

WHAT HAPPENED TO JUDGE CRATER...MAYBE


I can not prove what happened to the smirking, insufferable Judge Joe Crater on the night of August 6, 1930. I know he had enjoyed a dinner at The Chop House with a chorus girl mistress and a male friend as cover. Afterward he climbed into a taxi and seems to have simply disappeared from the face of the earth. But I have a theory about what became of him.  It is only a theory. But it's a good one. I think.
This story comes together from three separate sources; first from Stephen Ellis, the son of Emil Ellis, one of the lawyers who represented Mrs. Stella Crater in her lawsuits against the insurance companies. The second source is from a letter marked “Not to be opened until after my death”,  left behind in the first decade of the 21st century by a 91 year old widow. And the third source(s) are news stories published in the 1950’s. Each source is independent of the others, and although they would not pass muster in a court of law, in history research they are about as close as we are ever going to get to the truth. And at the center of all three is the infamous prohibition gangster, Legs Diamond.
The original Jack “Legs” Diamond was a thug, a sociopath and a killer and almost as famous for how many times he got shot, as the crimes he committed. He got into big time crime working as a body guard for “the Brain”, Arnold Rothstein, the man who fixed the 1919 World Series. By 1930, the year that Judge Crater disappeared,  Jack’s web of speakeasies in lower Manhattan was under siege from the rapacious Dutch Schultz mob, based in Harlem.
There had already been three attempts the press knew about on Diamond’s life by the Schultz mob, and it seemed he was always getting shot by somebody.  In fact he earned his nickname "Legs" by walking away from all this assassination attempts. Jack needed to reestablish control, and that included his control of the courts. And the usual method of controlling judges was to use women, in this case a showgirl named Connie Markus.
Connie Markus was one of a "chorus" of girls who worked for Jack Diamond (above). And she was also an occasional mistress of “Good Time Joe Crater”. Under instructions from Jack Diamond, it is alleged, Connie asked Judge Crater to reverse on appeal some lower court decisions which had hurt Jack's businesses.
According to the account by Stephen Ellis, it was papers related to those cases the smug Judge Crater (above) went over in his office on August 6, 1930. Those papers had gone into the two locked brief cases he had left the office with that afternoon. And the $5,100 in cash he left with was meant, in part, as a payoff to Diamond. With the feds and reformers sniffing around, Judge Crater felt he could not decide the cases the way Diamond wanted them decided, not without drawing attention and raising suspicions.
That evening, Connie told Diamond (above) of Judge Crater’s offer of a payoff. But Jack could not afford to let the cases drop, not with the Schultz mob sniffing at his heels. And he was enraged at the offer. At some point in the conversation Connie must have told Diamond about Crater’s plans to have dinner at the Chop House that night. And Jack decided to increase the pressure on the judge.
According to the letter and other documents left behind after her death, by Stella Ferrucci-Good of Queens, New York, when Judge Crater stepped into the cab (above)  on West forty-fifth street that night, the driver was a Murder Incorporated "button man" employed by Jack Diamond named Frank Burn.
Just up the street the cab unexpectedly pulled over and two more men quickly climbed in. One was Charles Burn, a police officer and Frank’s brother. The other was Robert Good, Stella Ferrucci’s husband. Their intent was to scare the judge, maybe even rough him up a little and let him know what would happen to him if he did not play ball with Diamond. But things did not work out that way. The arrogant Crater thought it was a mugging and he fought to get out of the cab.
The two mobsters fought back, trying to keep Crater in the cab, and at some point in the struggle, Judge Joe Crater was killed. I like to think he died of a heart attack, but he was probably shot. It is after Joe Crater died that the stories separate again. Stephen Ellis, relating the story he heard from his father, claims that the thugs drove Crater’s body to a crematorium in New Jersey, where it was disposed of, and that may be the truth. But I tend to believe the more poetic version recounted in Stella Frrucci’s letter, which says that Crater’s body was buried that night at the end of West Eighth Street, under the Coney Island boardwalk.
I believe that version because in 1956, while digging the foundation for the new New York City Aquarium, several human remains where uncovered under the Boardwalk near eighth street. Without DNA technology the remains were unidentifiable.
Slipped into pine coffins the remains were buried by inmates from Riker’s Island, just a few more of the 2,000 dead buried each year in unmarked mass graves of Potters Field on Hart Island. They were stacked three high and then two across, in rows of 25. To find Judge Crater’s bones and identify them now, if they are there, would be effectively impossible.
Jack “Legs” Diamond would die just a year later, on December 18, 1931. And this time the assassins were taking no chances Jack would leg out an escape. They shot Jack three times, just behind his left ear. The gun barrel was pressed so close the blasts scorched his scalp. And Connie Markus, the connection between Diamond and Judge Crater, would end her days in the mental ward of Bellvue Hospital, catatonic from a drug overdose.
That same year, 1931, the homocidal cop, Charles Burn, found a new job, as the body guard for a rising thug nicknamed “Kid Twist”. His real name was Abe Reles (above).
Ten years later, in 1941, Reles would become famous as “The canary who could sing but could not fly.” After testifying against another member of "Murder Incorporated",  Kid Twist took a flyer out of a sixth floor window of the "Half Moon Hotel" on Coney Island, where police were supposedly guarding him. And one of the cops on duty at the Half Moon that night was Officer Charles Burn.
In 1939 Stella Crater remarried, to Mr.Karl Kunz. They took their honeymoon cruise on the French cruiser “Normandie”. Just two years later the ship burned at the New York docks as it was being refitted for war duty. And Stella’s marriage did not last much longer than the ship. In 1961 the now single again Stella Crater finally wrote a book about Joe’s disappearance, and about the man she now realized she had never really known. She called it “The Empty Robe”.
Was this what happened to "the Missing-est Man in New York"?  We will probably never know, just as we will probably know what happened to Jimmy Hoffa. But its as likely as any over possibility. There seems little doubt that he died within hours of disappearing. There seems little doubt at least some of the people who killed him, also died quickly. The thing about killing on orders, is that you now become a witness as dangerous as the original target was. And in the case of  Judge Joe Crater,  I think the closest thing to a victim, was the poor deluded Stella.      

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