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.The Eternal American Battle - Humans V Money

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Saturday, April 12, 2014

TRUE BELIVER

I will tell you, Neal Dow was the worst type of politician - a true believer. If you travel long enough down any philosophical path you always reach the land of ad nauseum. But the true believer will never admit that such a place exists in their philosophy. So having reached ad nauseum this spiritual Puritan in Quaker garb, this five foot two inch tall Napoleon of Temperance, this two term Mayor of Portland, Maine, Neal S. Dow, could never find his way back to sanity. Even the Rum Riot of 1855 failed to convince Mayor Dow that his own blindness had set the cause of sobriety in America back by a generation..
The first time Neal Dow (above) was elected Mayor was in April of 1851. He had been carried into office on his support of the new “Maine Law”, which made the sale of alcohol in the state illegal, except for medicinal and industrial uses. Wrote Neal, “Portland wharves groaned beneath the burden of West India rum.” Eighteen other states quickly followed Maine's moralistic lead. But as in all the other states, the new law was popular in Calvinist Maine only so long as it was easily avoided.
The most famous bootlegger became “Handsome Jim” James McGlinchy, who along with his three brothers, operated the Casco Brewery, after the original name for Portland. It and a few distilleries survived the Maine Law because, officially, they exported all of their product. But a good part of all that rum seeped back into Maine. Such leaks in his prohibition boat infuriated Mayor Dow, who was also president of the Temperance League. And after raiding every Irish “grog shop” in Portland failed to plug the local traffic in the demon rum, the Mayor insisted on searching all trains, boats and wagons entering the city. Since Portland was the primary rail and sea connection with Canada, the delays this created infuriated merchants up and down the eastern seaboard. Dow was even burned in effigy on Boston Common. And in April of 1852, when Mayor Dow came up for re-election, merchants from all over New England funded his opponent, Albion K. Parris. Mayor Dow lost re-election by 542 votes out of 3,300 cast.
Being a true believer (his maternal great-grandfather had the given name of “Hate-Evil”), the diminutive Mr. Dow could not believe the fault was his or his cause's . He was convinced he had been victimized by a conspiracy of merchants who provided fake I. D.s for the 2,200 Irish immigrants in Portland who had brought to America their strange religion and their vulgar sinful ways. Even worse, they almost all voted Democratic. Still at least the new Mayor Parris was also a temperance man, if not quite as enthusiastic an enforcer of the law. So“The Grand Pooh-bah of temperance” as the Irish nick-named him, retreated to his house at 714 Congress Street, to lick his wounds, and plan his comeback.
Under the theory that the only problem with his temperance law was that it was too weak, in 1853 Dow lobbied the state legislature in Augusta to doubled down. The new sterner temperance law they passed allowed a search warrant to be issued if three private citizens claimed liquor was present in an establishment. It also made the mere possession of alcohol proof of intention to sell. Thus ever user was now a dealer. By now Dow was convinced the temperance movement was so strong...“The voters...will turn upon that point.” The little dictator even saw the growth of the Republican Party across the northern states not as primarily a condemnation of slavery, but as a rejection of alcohol.
In March of 1855 Maine passed two other pieces of legislation which Dow had come to see as essential for the eradication of liquor. First all immigrants must register and show their naturalization papers three months prior to election day. This disenfranchised hundreds of qualified voters for the approaching April elections, under the theory that what a local newspaper described as “Irish cattle” were also  “illegals” with false papers. The second law took care of most of the rest of Irish voter-wanna-be Americans. From now on, any voter rejected at the polls for whatever reason in Republican Maine, must appeal in Federal court. Cases here could take weeks just to get on the docket. The Democratic paper, the Eastern Argus put it best. “Dow...and company...have made up their minds to rule the state at all hazards.”
And they did. Dow was re-elected Mayor in April of 1855. But out of the 3,742 votes cast, Neal Dow's margin of victory was a mere 46 votes. Ignoring that slim margin his close friend and political ally, Elder Peck, said it was “...a victory over Rum…Catholicism, and Corruption.” In his inaugural address, the zealot Mayor Dow warned, “I shall not fail... to employ all the power which the law has put into my hands.” He even suggested that his administration would “restrain the right of suffrage, now exercised by our foreign population...to prevent their overawing and controlling our elections, as they have done.” Mayor Dow had thrown down the gauntlet. And it would slap him right across the mouth.
As part of his new duties, Mayor Dow and the city council were supposed to jointly appoint a committee to pick a new liquor agent, whose job it would be to purchase liquor which would then be legally sold to the apothecaries and industries of the city. However Mayor Dow was so certain of his own nobility, he appointed himself to the selection committee, and to save even more time appointed himself the temporary liquor agent. As such he purchased $1,500 of booze (in his own name) and had it shipped to City Hall. Only after it arrived did he notify the city council. After all, who could question the morals of Mayor Dow?
The answer was the city council could. Their council members got into a shouting match with the Mayor over his actions. And one of them leaked details of the shipment to the Eastern Argus. On Saturday June 2, 1855 the paper printed up and posted handbills all over Portland, which laid out the facts, in particular that the liquor had been bought under the name of Neal Dow. The handbills then asked, “Where are our vigilant police... who think it their duty to...often push their search (of the poor man's cider) into private houses, contrary to every principle of just law? We call upon them by virtue of Neal Dow’s law to seize Neal Dow’s liquors and pour them into the street....Let the lash which Neal Dow has prepared for other backs be applied to his own when he deserves it.”
The timing could not have been worse for Mayor Dow. This was the four year anniversary of the original Maine Law. Three men found a judge who witnessed their testimony that there was illegal alcohol in City Hall, and he was thus required to issue a search warrant. A small crowd gathered at City Hall, mostly to see if the police were going to arrest Mayor Dow. They were not. But still the crowd stayed. And as the day wore on, and the shifts at the locomotive plant and other factories let out, the crowd began to grow. By seven that evening there were 2,500 people milling around City Hall, their anger fueled by what they saw as the hypocrisy of the biggest temperance man in the state having his own $1,500 stash of booze protected by the police. To avoid antagonizing the crowd the ten police officers locked themselves in the Liquor Room in City Hall, with the booze. Mayor Dow sent word to two “private” militia companies to come quick.
At least one member of the militia sensed the approaching disaster. But when Sargent William Winslip suggested the militia should load blanks, Mayor Dow responded, “We know what we are about sir. We’ve consulted the law, sir.” At that point Sargent Winslip dropped out of the militia. At ten that night one company of about twenty men, formed up in front of City Hall. Backed by armed troops, Mayor Dow ordered the crowd to disperse. The crowd responded with a hail of trash and garbage. Dow now ordered the troops to fire over the heads of the crowd. But their commander, Captain Green, said he needed more men. And for the only time that day Mayor Dow let a cooler head over-rule him.
It was a mistake. The sight of the twenty militia men retreating encouraged the crowd to surge forward. Rocks and bricks now replaced the garbage. One energetic fellow, a 22 year old sailor from Deer Isle named John Robbins, crawled through a broken window into the liquor room, unlocked the door, and the crowd stormed in.  At this moment the reinforced militia returned, and under Dow's command, opened fire. The uneven battle continued for twenty minutes. Only the fact the militia were armed with flintlock muskets prevented the death toll from being higher. Robbins was killed, and seven others wounded. Eventually the crowd dispersed. To Republicans it was the Rum Riot. To Democrats it was the Portland Massacre.
Dow was charged with breaking the law he had helped pass, but he was acquitted after a one day trial for two reasons – first it was obvious the liquor was not really his, and second because the judge, Henry Carter, was a strong temperance man and a Dow supporter. Still, Mayor Dow learned nothing from the debacle. He immediately issued a “...Message on the Riot” which he blamed on un-named anti-temperance men, and claimed John Robbins was an Irish immigrant who was wanted by the law. But that charge fell apart when several witnesses under oath testified that John was a native American (i.e. born in America),  had never been arrested, was a mate on the barque Louisa Eaton and was a “steady, honest man, remarkable for his good nature and peaceable disposition.”  But whatever Robbins' disposition had been, it was suddenly clear the mob had been outraged at Mayor Dow's behavior and had not even been mostly Irish.
That fall the voters drove that point home by electing Democratic majorities to both houses of the state legislature, and the Governor's office, too. And quickly the Maine Law was overturned, ending Maine's five year experiment with prohibition. John Robbins was buried in the old Eastern Cemetery, with honors. Mayor Dow did not bother to even run for re-election. And even though prohibition was re-instated two years later, Neal Dow stayed out of that fight.
The new prohibition law was again rarely enforced. Thus it stayed on the books until the Federal government passed its own “noble experiment” in 1920. But long before then, in 1880, the bootlegger James McGlinchy had died, leaving behind an estate worth $200,000, marking him as one of the richest men in Portland. As for the true believer Neal Dow, he was lucky not to live long enough to see his dream produce what he feared most, the funding of organized crime, largely made up of foreign born and first generation immigrants, who fed an increase in public drunkenness and alcohol addiction. The Napoleon of Temperance died still blind to the truth of his follow in 1897 at the age of 93.
And if there is a lesson from the life of Neal Dow, it is that ad nausium is the land where all ideas end up. Or, to put it another way, life is not about perfection, its about balance - it's about leaning into the wind, and staying upright as long as you can. Everybody falls off at least once, in the end. And the lucky ones do it a couple of times. Because they learn from every failure, and they keep getting back on the wire.
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Wednesday, April 09, 2014

GOD, GOLD AND ROPE

I came across a great story about an enterprising San Francisco merchant who scattered $20 worth of gold dust on the cobblestones of a public street, and was sweeping it up and panning it out in a horse trough just as a boatload of eager new 49ers arrived from “The States”. To them it seemed the streets of San Francisco really were paved with gold. The shop keeper even helpfully directed the newcomers to a nearby store where they could begin getting rich by obtaining their own twenty cent prospecting pan - for a mere $15.00 each. The new arrivals bought every pan in the store, and the merchant got rich. It's a myth of course, but not by much. The Frisco store was owned by Sam Brannan (above). And in nine short weeks in 1848 this alcoholic womanizer sold enough mining pans and picks and shovels out of his Frisco and Sacramento stores to profit the modern equivalent of $9 million. And he used that fortune, and four lengths of rope, to grab as much power as quickly as he could..
Samuel Brannan got his grub stake as the first President of the Mormon mission to California, when he traveled to Sacramento to collect tithes from the 100 Mormon workmen, contracted to build Mr. Sutter's mill (above) on the American River. His timing was fortunate because he saw the gold nuggets the Mormons had just discovered. Now, Sam should have turned that tithe money over to the Church of Latter Day Saints, which had dispatched him to California in 1846. But in 1847, after he had crossed the high Sierras, and met with the church's new leader, Brigham Young, Sam had urged Young bring his followers on to paradise in California. However the Mormon Moses was inspired instead to remain in the Utah wilderness. Returning alone to California, this disillusioned saint saw the “first world-class gold rush” as his own message from God. He became a prophet of capitalism. And when the church asked for the tithes he had collected, Sam told them, “When Brigham Young shows me a purchase order signed by God, I'll show him the money.” Or so the story goes.
As one of Frisco's first millionaires, Sam was a natural for the town council. But it was not an easy job. In the first 24 months after Sutter's mill, San Francisco went from 1,000 to 25,000 residents. Then, in 1850, the new California legislature slapped on a $20 monthly “foreign miners tax”, which drove most non-American prospectors out of the gold fields. Frisco soaked them up. Twenty percent of the town were now Chinese, and another twenty percent spoke Spanish, and a surprisingly large percentage were Australians, transported from England, usually for the crimes of being poor or a thief. Men outnumbered women in Frisco by a hundred to one, and 2/3rds of those few women were prostitutes. Half the population was sleeping in tents, the other half in ramshackle shanties or aboard the hundreds of ships, abandoned by their gold hungry crews, and left floating in the bay. And to make matters worse, the darn place kept burning down.
On Christmas eve 1849 a fire broke out that overwhelmed the towns 90 volunteer firefighters and devoured fifty buildings. During the inferno, capitalist were selling a bucket of water for a dollar each. On May 4, 1850, 300 houses and three lives were destroyed by another fire. This time entrepreneurs insisted on contracts paying $3 an hour to help the firemen. And when city council hesitated to pay their bills, some frustrated contractors threatened to start new fires. At about eight on the morning of June 14th, it happened again, consuming another 300 buildings. And on September 17th, the fourth fire in nine months swept up Jackson Street and burned out 125 buildings and eight city blocks. Then on May 4, 1851, a heavy wind drove yet another inferno that devoured yet another 18 city blocks, centered around the neighborhood called “The Barbary Coast”, or “Sydney Cove” - for the large percentage of Australians living there.
The entire city was made of wood and canvas, and the only source of heat and light were thousands of open flames, and the only potable fluid safe to drink was alcohol laced, so in retrospect conflagrations were inevitable. But rumors, and newspapers such as the California Star, owned by Sam Brannan, insisted that Frisco's 57 police officers and overworked judges were too corrupt to catch and punish the extortion- arsonists nicknamed “The Lightkeeper”.
At least a suspect was caught in the May 1851 fire, an Australian named Benjamin Lewis. He was even rumored to be a member of the gang, “The Sydney Ducks”. His trial on Tuesday, June 3, 1851 was interrupted by shouts of “Lynch the villian”. Court officials hoped Sam Brannan could calm the angry crowd, but instead he suggested that Lewis be handed over to “volunteer policemen” for trial and punishment. The crowd agreed, but the real cops managed to slip the defendant safely out of the court house. Within a few days, the evidence against Lewis collapsed, and all charges were dropped. But this only outraged the citizens of San Francisco even more. On Monday, June 9, 1851, a meeting was called at the California Engine Company by fireman George Oakes and merchant James Neall to organize a public response. They asked yet another volunteer fireman to head a vigilante committee – Samuel Brannan, of course.
The very next day a drunken John Jenkins (alleged to be another Sydney Duck) boldly strode into a shipping office on the Long Wharf, grabbed a small safe with $50 in gold coins inside, and walked out. As pursuers drew close he tossed the safe into the bay, then allowed himself to be taken into custody. Jenkins was certain his fellow Ducks would rescue him. But he had not been taken by police. Instead he was lead to the headquarters of the Vigilante Committee, a warehouse owned by Sam Brannan, directly behind the offices of  his “California Star” newspaper.  In less than an hour a rump court was convened, and two hours later Jenkins was convicted. At two in the morning, Wednesday June 12th , John Jenkins was jerked aloft from a gallows leaning against the Old Mexican customs house on Portsmouth Square, right in front of Brannan's newspaper. The Australian hung there for two hours.
The next day, Thursday the 13th, the goals of the Committee were published in the pages of Brannan's "Star" and other papers. “The citizens of San Francisco,” it announced, “do bind ourselves, each unto the other...determined that no thief, burglar, incendiary or assassin, shall escape punishment, either by the quibbles of the law, the insecurity of prisons, the carelessness or corruption of the police, or a laxity of those who pretend to administer justice.” It had been written by Sam Brannan. Within days 700 citizens had joined the vigilante committee. 
Over the summer Brannan's vigilantes' were busy, dragging people into their headquarters,  interrogating them, and doling out punishments as deemed necessary. One man was whipped in Portsmouth Square, 14 were forcefully deported back to Australia, another 14 were ordered to leave California, 15 more were handed over to the real police, and 41 were allowed to go free, but with a warning.  It is not known how many other Australians were refused entry at the port, or the number who “self deported” out of fear. Then on July 11th, the committee detained and hanged accused murderer “English” Jim Stuart from the yard arm of a ship docked at the end of the Market Street wharf (below)
It should be pointed out, that the committee also organized nightly fire patrols, and offered a $5,000 reward for any information concerning the identify of “The Lightkeeper”.  Fires diminished, in number and severity, but this success must have at least partly been due to the use of brick and mortar in new construction. But the $5,000 reward was never claimed, although at last, two Australians, Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie were arrested and convicted in the Vigilante court of arson as well as burglary and robbery Their execution was set for August 21st. 
The day before, the Governor, John MacDougal, issued a public proclamation, denouncing the “despotic control of a self-constituted association unknown to and acting in defiance of the laws in the place of the regularly organized government of the country.” He went further, and obtained a writ of habeas corpus (“prodcuce the body”) from a state Supreme Court Justice, and then served it himself on the sheriff, Jack Hays. That night the Governor, the mayor and the sheriff , along with three deputies, marched into the committee's headquarters and demanded Whittaker and McKenzie be handed over. The sleepy guards acquiesced, and by 3 AM the two Australians were heavily guarded in the city jail.
It was a clear and direct challenge to Brennan. But Sam waited until Sunday, the 24th, until he responded. That morning Sheriff Hays was lured out of town by an invitation to a bull fight. And at about 2 PM, as the prisoners were being allowed out of their cells to receive mass, 36 heavily armed vigilantes rushed the jail, grabbed McKenzie and Whittaker, and marched them back to Committee headquarters. In 17 minutes the men had been tried and convicted again, and hanged from the beams used for loading goods into a  warehouse's second floor windows. Sam Brannan even addressed the crowd of 5,000 who come to cheer and to stare in shock at his audacity.
But Sam Brannan (above) had finally gone too far. The Democratic Governor had an ally, in the local United States Military Commander, William Tecumseh Sherman, who noted in his autobiography decades later, “As (the Committee) controlled the press, they wrote their own history, and the world generally gives them the credit of having purged San Francisco of rowdies and roughs; but.... the same set of..rowdies that had infested the City Hall were found in the employment of the "Vigilantes”.”
How the message was delivered  is not known, but clearly a message was delivered. Quietly, the Committee did not meet again for five years, and never again under the leadership of Sam Brannan. That September, the sheriff was reelected. And Sam sailed for Hawaii, where he bought more land. He did not return to San Francisco for the better part of a year. After he did, in 1853 he was elected to the state Senate. But by then his Mormon Church had excommunicated, or "disfellowshipped", him, because of his vigilantism. Any dreams he had harbored about higher office would always break on that same rock.
Sam continued to build his fortune until until 1872, when his wife Anna could take his endless infidelities no more. So numerous were Sam's marital transgressions that the judge in their divorce awarded Anna half of all of Sam's wealth, in cash. Selling his properties left him almost bankrupt. With what he had left,  Sam bought a small ranch outside of San Diego, remarried and made enough speculating in Mexican lands to pay his debts. But Sam left his new wife with nothing when he died in 1889.
The Democratic machine Sam had put in control of San Fransisco continued even in his absence, its power maintained in part by another outburst of vigilantism in 1856. More miscreants and arsonists and murderers were hanged, and more were chased out of town, but this time they were usually Chinese. But the Barbary Coast remained the same sinful place, and 'Frisco politics remained dirty. In the meantime, about 14 billion in early 21st century dollars were dug out of the California gold fields, and almost all of it had passed through San Francisco. In retrospect it seems that by building his political power on fear, Sam Brannan had tried to grab too much too fast. And he didn't get to keep any of it. But those who followed him, did.
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