AUGUST 2017

AUGUST  2017
FACING DOWN THE RULERS OF WALL STREET A HUNDRED YEARS AGO. THEY ARE BACK.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

THE GIANT KILLER Part One

I find it odd that such a minor player as the Methodist minister, the Reverend Henry Benjamin Turk is always the villein of the Cardiff Giant story. His pompous ignorance is what motivates and justifies the heroic sins of George Hull. But in Christian theology, ignorance is not one of the seven deadly sins. Greed, yes, lies, yes, lust and envy, surely, gluttony, and wrath: these are all the forgiven the sins of George Hull. Meanwhile, a fervent evangelical blind faith in a dyslexic translation was the Reverend Turk's chosen path to divinity And for obtusely following that path ad nauseam, the Reverend generally gets all the blame. Now, why do you suppose that is?
George Hull came close to being a giant himself. At six feet three inches tall, he towered half a foot above the average man of his day, and intimidated them with his broad muscular shoulders, and round face behind a slick black mustache and beneath his black, slicked back hair. But other than his size and villainous appearance, what most people remembered were George's small sharp intelligent blue eyes always darting about. His chief delight, recalled the post master in the Wisconsin Dells town of Baraboo, was expounding on the advantages of infidelity and betting on everything from pool games to local elections. In August of 1867 the tobacco warehouse George had opened four months earlier, and which he had insured to the amount of $12,000, burned to the ground, under circumstances which the insurance company thought highly suspicious. Despite George's declarations of innocence and threats of legal action, he accepted a $1,000 settlement and moved on.
According to George, he moved on to the tiny hamlet of Ackley, Iowa, because his brother-in-law who lived there had taken a consignment of 10,000 cigars, and was having trouble moving them. This could not have been surprising since Ackley had barely 300 residents. Even if every man woman and child smoked a dozen cheap cigars a day, it is difficult to envision how they could ever smoke 10,000 cigars before hacking up a lung and dropping dead.
George Hull had gotten into the business through his uncle, the front half of the Hull and Grummand Company, which had recently opened a cigar factory at Water and Henry streets in Bimginham, New York, on the Pennsylvania border.  The young George needed work after a short stint in jail for selling marked cards, and the cut throat cigar business seemed a natural for him.
The 8,000 citizens of Bimingham had strict anti-union laws, encouraging  local sweat shops to employ unskilled workers at starvation wages - 40 cents for a day spent rolling stale tobacco scraps and assorted agricultural detritus, dust and rodent droppings into 100 cigars that sold from three to fives cents each. It inspired a business model long on salesmanship, and short on morality.
But it was while residing with his sister and brother-in-law that George Hull briefly crossed paths with the fulcrum of his giant morality tale. According to George, “At that time a Methodist revivalist was in Ackley, and prayed all over the settlement....One night he was at my sister’s house, and after supper we had a long discussion and a hot one.” Specifically, according to George, the hot discussion centered around a quote from the King James Biblical book of Genesis, chapter six, verse four, “There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.”.
Besides sounding like a “Christianized” version of ancient Greek theology, the King James edition of the bible which the Reverend Turk quoted, was an English translation of a compilation written in Latin, of stories originally composed in Aramaic and Greek And as any skilled translator will tell you, and any reader of a Google translation will confirm, conveying the meaning from one language to another is as much social art as lexicography. Translating a translation only increases the inevitable misunderstandings. And in this particular text, the scholars compromised on the word “giants”, when a more precise word was “Nephilim”. But that word requires an uncomfortable explanation.
The mysterious Nephilim are mentioned only twice in the bible, this once in Genesis, and once in Numbers, chapter 13, verses 32 and 33 . “And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.'” But they also appear in the Book of Enoch, which is not part of the conical bible, but a conservative Judaic variation. The Nephilim were the products of male angles mating with human woman. This was far too close to the pagan religions Yawah was so critical of. Later Christian scholars chose to mention them only twice, hoping to avoid the theological torture required to explain them, by using the word “giants” instead. And it was on the foundation of this compromised pebble that the Reverend Turk built his temple of biblical literalism.
But to return to the theology of George Hull, “At midnight we went to bed, and I lay wide awake wondering why people would believe those remarkable stories in the Bible about giants, when suddenly I thought of making a stone giant and passing it off as a petrified man.” But, of course, there is nothing in George Hull's past which would have give any reason to believe that is what George thought. As one recent biographer put it, “ "Once Hull had an idea, he had no qualms about breaking partnerships, or laws, to get what he wanted.” And George Hull's obsession was not logic, or heaven, but money.
Five years earlier, Mark Twain had written his first humorous article for the Virginia City, Nevada “Territorial Enterprise”, which began, “A petrified man was found some time ago in the mountains south of Gravelly Ford. Every limb and feature of the stony mummy was perfect, not even excepting the left leg, which has evidently been a wooden one during the lifetime of the owner...”  In Twain's story the locals want to bury the defunct stone man, but cannot separate him from the rock which has engulfed him. So, “Everybody goes to see the stone man, as many as three hundred having visited the hardened creature during the past five or six weeks.”
Twain (above) later explained his inspiration. “One could scarcely pick up a paper without finding...one or two glorified discoveries of this kind....and I felt called upon to destroy this growing...petrifaction mania with a delicate, a very delicate satire.” Except the joke did not kill the idea of a petrified man. Twain was “stunned to see the creature I had begotten to pull down the wonder-business with, and bring derision upon it, calmly exalted to the grand chief place in the list of the genuine marvels our Nevada had produced.” Over the next year, Twain's joke was reprinted as fact in newspapers across America, and even England, where it was published in “The Lancet”, the premiere scientific medical journal of the day.
It seems unlikely that George Hull realized that Twain's story, if he ever read it, was intended as a joke. In the history we have of him, George Hull does not display a sense of humor about anything that does not entail some degree of humiliation for somebody other than George Hull.  In fact, a witness said George had considered “salting” an “Indian burial mound” outside of Barboo, Wisconsin, in the summer of 1867, before he ever met the Reverend Turk. 
 It did not even matter to Hull that there were no dead Indians in most of  the Wisconsin mounds. They were drummlins,  formed by moving rivers of ice more than 10,000 years earlier, proving again that the truth is more complex and fascinating than the theology of angels dancing on the head of a pin, or mating with human women.
I don't know if the native peoples got the idea for their burial mounds from the moraines, but I do know that George Hull did not get the idea for the Cardiff Giant from the maligned Reverend Turk. And we should stop blaming him for it
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Sunday, February 15, 2015

A WOMAN SCORNED


I don’t know if Solomon Porcius Sharp (above) could have been President. But a man who had the job, John Quincy Adams, described the Kentucky lawyer as, “The brainiest man that ever came over the Allegheny Mountains.” The 38 year old Sharp had already served two terms as a Congressman, four years as Attorney General for Kentucky, and was now starting his second term as a state legislator – so the boy was not lacking for ambition, brains or talent. He spent his last day on earth, Sunday, 5 November, 1825, conferring with political allies as he prepared for his election as Speaker of the Kentucky House. Every indication was that come Monday morning, he would easily be elected. It seemed possible his next stop would be the United States Senate, and then, possibly, the White House; except, an ex-girlfriend of his, had other plans. 
Her name was Anna Cook, and in her youth she had been a real Southern Belle from Bowling Green, the same region and culture that would produce Mary Todd, Abraham Lincoln's wife. Anna was educated, witty,  flirtatious, with a passion for men and for gambling and for gambling on men. But she was never described as a great beauty. And like all gamblers, the more Anna gambled the more she lost. Few men of "good families" (i.e. wealthy) wanted to be responsible for her gambling debts.  By 1825 she was a spinster approaching forty, and her rose had withered a bit.  A critic described her as short, with dark hair and eyes, a few missing teeth, stoop shouldered and  “in no way a handsome or desirable woman.” And yet inside Anna there still burned a passion, which had metamorphosed into a burning fierce hatred of her old boyfriend.  It is impossible to say with certainty why Anna Cook became obsessed on Solomon Sharp. the up and coming politician. But when Anna’s young suitor,  Jereboam Beauchamp, proposed to her, Anna had said yes on the single condition that Jereboam first promise to kill Solomon Sharp.
Some five years earlier  Anna had attempted to derail Sharp’s political career by publicly charging he had fathered her stillborn child.  But Sharp’s allies had responded quickly by claiming the dead child had been born with black skin, and thus could not be the child of a white politician.  In a slave state like Kentucky, in a bigoted nation such as America in 1820,  it was a truly vicious attack. And with no living male relatives to defend her honor and challenge Sharp to a duel,  Anna had no way to respond.  In fact, her reputation was left in tatters no matter which side was believed. Had Sharp fathered the child?  Yes, he could have. And then this becomes a tale of misogyny.  But was there ever a child? If not, this becomes a  very different story, of obsession and growing insanity.  And two hundred years later it is impossible to choose between the two with certainty.  But we are certain about what happened next. 
With the failure of her original revenge, Ann had withdrawn into isolation to her widowed mother’s plantation, where Mr. Beauchamp had sought her out, for reasons left unexplained. He had been a neighbor to her father's Bowling Green plantation, and had been a law student in Sharp’s office. And to hear him tell it, the hypocrisy of the vicious attack against Anna had awakened an almost religious hunger for justice in the twenty-two year old...or so he said.  To call their marriage an affair of the heart seems somehow to have missed the point.  And after their 1824 wedding, as soon as it was convenient, like a misshapen Romeo, Jereboam traveled to Frankfort, looking to fulfill his promise to his new bride.
Of course there might have been another explanation for the timing of Jereboam’s (above) expedition to Frankfort, besides convenience. The week before, on 25 October, 1825,  a warrant for Jereboam’s arrest had been issued by the sheriff in Bowling Green.  It seems a single young woman named Ruth Reed was suing Jereboam for child support.  So the gallant defender of Anna's chaste womanhood might well have been the dead-beat dad of an illegitimate child himself.  Do you get the feeling that the public morality of neither the times nor Mr. Beauchamp nor Ms. Cook, were quite what they claimed to be?  Sort of just like today, yes?
Frankfort was a wooden town of just 1,500 souls when Jereboam arrived in November of 1825. It had been established at a ford across the Kentucky River, and was named for Stephen Frank, an early settler. The village became the state capital because local boosters contributed $3,000 in gold to the state treasury, and property for public buildings. It was not a generous act, as the boosters got rich selling house lots in the new burg. But thanks to their investment, Frankfurt was, in 1825, and remains to this day, one of the smallest state capitals in the Union. There were in 1825, a few brick structures in town, but fire was constantly updating the architecture of all the wooden buildings. Earlier in 1825 Frankfort had burned down its sixth state capital building, and was currently renting a Methodist Church for that purpose. 
Directly across the street from this temporary cathedral of democracy was the rented abode of Solomon Sharp and his wife and children (above).
Jereboam waited in the shadows of the church until Sharp returned to his Madison street home, sometime after midnight on 6 November, 1825. Then, as the clock approached two in the morning, he knocked on a side door. When Sharp responded, Jereboam identified himself as “Covington.”  Having opened the door, Solomon said he did not know any one by that name. Jereboam then cut the conversation short by thrusting a dagger into Solomon’s neck, severing his aorta. Solomon Sharp was dead shortly after he hit the floor. Jereboam then fled into the night. The first political assignation in American had just been committed.
 There were, of course, elaborate conspiracy theories which sprang up around the assignation of Solomon Sharp, spurred on by the victim’s politics and the $4,000 reward offered.  But the police stuck to what they could prove, and four nights after the murder Jereboam was arrested.  They never even found the murder weapon. And although Sharp’s widow eventually identified Jereboam’s voice as the one she heard call out “Covington”,  she had initially identified it as the voice of another one of her husband’s many political opponents. But several witnesses testified that Jereboam had repeatedly threatened to kill Solomon, and after a 13 day long trial, the jury had no doubts. On 19 May, 1826, after just one hour of deliberations, they returned with a verdict of guilty.
In his jail cell Jereboam dropped all pretense of innocence and wrote out a lengthy confession (above), filled with all the drama and heroics he clearly wanted to believe. According to his diatribe, Solomon had repeatedly admitted his crime against Anna, and in the final moments of his life had begged for mercy.  Even if true (and considering his injuries, such a speech was physically not possible), how that justified the cold blooded murder of a father of small children (On his gravestone the word "father" had even been carved in stone),  Jereboam did not attempt to explain.  And in the end it did not matter, because, as one commentator has pointed out,  it was at this point that the entire affair “went from tragedy to romantic melodrama.”
While awaiting the execution, Anna was being allowed to share her husband’s cell each night, coming and going during the day.  Into this place of confinement she slipped in a bottle of laudanum, a potent mixture of 89% grain ethanol, 10% opium and 1% morphine. The lovers intended a joint suicide, but instead produced only a double regurgitation marathon.  The absurdity of that sickening episode was matched only by the ineptitude of the jailers, because, just two days later these pin-headed penitenciariests allowed Anna to carry a knife into the cell for another unregulated visit.  Jereboam stabbed himself in the abdomen. Anna then grabbed the knife and stabbed herself in the stomach. If it was a race, she won. She died an hour later. Jereboam lived long enough that the jailers had to manhandle the wounded thespian up the thirteen steps of the scaffold, where he died, two hours after his wife.
They were buried together in the same grave, under a lengthy poem, composed by Jereboam, filled with noble words and maudlin sentiment. So the real cost of Anna Cook’s revenge was three lives; her own and the lives of two men she professed, at various times, to have loved. And I suspect she thought that was a fair trade. And that is the real tragedy in this so called "Kentucky  Tragedy".
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