Saturday, June 03, 2017


I think, maybe, if Wallace Wilkerson (above)  had known a little of the history of the game of cribbage, then William Baxter might have died of old age, instead of in his forties when two metal balls were forcibly inserted into his brain. Honestly, the scoring in cribbage is so complicated, it seems to have been invented by a card shark. Which it was. So a little information, and a little self awareness, might have saved Wallace himself from a very painful, and slow death. Maybe. But then, people are not their intellect, but their personalities. And Wallace's personality was that of a foul mouthed, short tempered alcoholic.  Not that dissimilar from the inventor of cribbage.
The charming and witty Sir John Suckling (above), who invented cribbage, quickly dissipated his substantial inheritance on gambling, wine, woman and poems.  He rebuilt it by investing in elaborate decks of marked playing cards.  Suckling sent these Trojan gifts to several of his wealthier landed gentry "friends".  Then, when he later dropped by for a visit, his hosts invariably brought out his gifts for a friendly game of cribbage, with a friendly wager, of course.  And that was how John Suckling amassed his new fortune of twenty thousand pounds, even tho “no shopkeeper would trust him for sixpence.”
On 11 June, 1877 the 100 odd denizens of Homansville, Utah were living at 6,000 feet, up a canyon two miles north east of Eureka. That Monday afternoon there were nine or ten men talking, smoking and drinking in James Hightower's general store and saloon, mostly teamsters who carted potable water to the 120 mines in the surrounding Tintic Mountains. As the temperature struggled to take the chill off the air, and the water tanks at the wells were slowly re-filled, the primary entertainment was two men seated at a small table, playing cribbage.
Cribbage is usually played by just two players, each dealt six cards. They retain four, their joint discard forming the “Crib”. The top card in the remaining deck is turned over, becoming the starter. . All face cards are worth ten points, the ace just one. The non-dealer begins by laying one of his cards atop the starter, while announcing the cumulative value of those two cards. Players alternate, adding the numerical value of the cards, up to thirty-one. Why thirty-one? Why not? 
The popular William Baxter, who normally tended bar in Eureka, was seated on an upturned beer barrel, his cheek resting in his right palm as he was recovering from a previous night of drinking. He was a “pleasant and peaceable man” - when he was sober. Drunk,. he was  a violent bully, according to Wallace, and prone to pulling a gun to get his way, although he does not seem to have ever shot anyone. One of William's best customers in Eureka had been the tall, thin 43 year old Wallace Wilkerson, who now sat across the small table from him in Hightower's store . But William had previously pulled a gun on Wallace, and even insulted him by calling him a “California Mormon”. Or so said Wallace. And yet, here they were, playing  a game of cribbage. And Wallace was losing.
When a player cannot lay down a card without going over “31”, the opponent scores “1” point, called a go. Once all eight cards have been played, the dealer picks up the “crib”, and adds those points to his or her total.  After the score is recorded by moving pegs in a cribbage board, the deal then passes to the second player.
It is unclear why Baxter was in Homansville. Wallace was there to visit his brothers, who worked at the wells in the four year old town. None of Wilkerson's or Baxter's relatives were in James Hightower's establishment that Monday, and I don't think the witnesses had any influence upon the the events, which began when Baxter observed that Wallace had moved his peg in the cribbage board too many spaces.
Beyond the single point awarded for coming closest to reaching “31”, an additional point is awarded for hitting “31” exactly, and “2” for hitting “15” exactly. If a player lays down a card matching the suit of the previous card, they call out, “That's “1” for the go, and “2” for a double.” If the next card by either player also follows suit, that player says, “That's “2” for a double and “3” for a triple.” A fourth matching suit card, even if played in the next “31” is called as a quad and counts for a total of “10” points. All of these are cumulative, as in “1” for the go, “2” for fifteen, “1” for the “31” and “2” for the double, etc.  Adding in the many sometimes obscure additional points that can be called out in the flush of the contest, almost always without a pencil and paper tally, makes the game quick, meteoric, exuberant, confusing and tension filled. In other words,  the scoring seems to have been designed by a card shark. The first player to reach 121 points is declared the winner. Why 121, I have no idea.  I do know that the first player to be shot and killed is the loser.
Hearing William's accusation about his misplaced peg, Wallace pushed his chair back from the table, stood up and claimed he was being cheated.  As Wallace started to take off his jacket, preparing for a fight, the unimpressed William Baxter merely said “Sit down, Wilkerson, and don't make a fool out of yourself.”  At that, Wallace drew a small pistol from his jacket and shot William in the face. The victim fell backward, against the flour bags.  Wallace strode through the black powder smoke and grabbed a hand full of William's hair,  lifting his head. Wallace pressed the gun's muzzle against William's right temple, and fired again, literally blowing William Baxter's brains out. Then Wallace ran out of the store.
The inventor of cribbage, Sir John Suckling, should have died like a character from a Felding novel, an ancient retired reprobate, safely ensconced in his estates, surrounded by dutiful if not respectful servants. Instead, his mercenary morality finally drove him to plot too obvious a crime. Escaping just ahead of the authorities, Sir Suckling fled so quickly he had to leave his fortune behind. Within a few weeks he realized that life without his 'raison d art', his one true love, his money, was not worth living, and he self administered poison. He died alone in May of 1641 at 32 years of age, flat broke, vomiting away his life in a dingy Paris apartment. But, unfortunately for Wallace Wilkerson, before Suckling died, he invented cribbage.
Wallace Wilkerson was arrested and taken north to the village of Goshen, to avoid a lynching party. His defense was that William Baxter could have been carrying a gun. The only problem was, he wasn't. The only weapon found on the victim was a small pocket knife. Wallace seemed indifferent to the outcome of his November trial, but after his conviction he told Judge P. H. Emerson, “When I did the shooting I supposed my life was in danger.” He also claimed the witnesses had lied. Judge Emerson was no more impressed by the theatrics than Baxter had been, and ordered that Wallace was to be executed in December. At the time, the Territory of Utah had a choice in killing Wallace: he could be hung, shot or beheaded. Unfortunately for Wallace, the court chose the firing squad.
The results were delayed for over a year when Wallace's lawyers appealed his sentence to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying execution by firing squad was a cruel and unusual punishment, denied by the U.S. Constitution.. During his time in jail in Salt Lake City, Wallace was deemed to be “the most foul mouthed and profane man” in the prison.  In March of 1878 the Supreme Court held, by an unanimous vote, that death by a firing squad was  not a cruel or unusual punishment.  So, at about noon on 16 May, 1879, Wallace was led into the yard behind the Provo, Utah county courthouse and jail (above).  Wallace was wearing a black suit, topped with his habitual white ten gallon hat, and smoking a cigar, donated by a sympathetic family member.  And he was swaggering, because he had been drinking since his long suffering wife Amilia had left him an hour earlier.
The sheriff led Wallace to a chair, set out away from the courthouse wall. Wallace insisted he not be tied to it, and he refused a blindfold, saying “I give you my word, I intend to die like a man, looking my executioners right in the eye.” Except he could not do that. Thirty feet away a barricade had been constructed, pierced by four rectangles, just large enough to accommodate the protruding rifle barrels. The gunmen were hidden from Wallace's drunken challenging stare.  But they had a clear view of him. Or thought  they did.
After the sentence was read, Wallace was asked if he had anything to say.  In a slurred speech, he assured the 20 men present within the yard that he bore them no ill will,  but insisted again that the witnesses at his trial had lied.  The sheriff pinned a three inch square piece of white paper above Wallace's heart, as a target, and then stepped aside.  Wallace called out, “Aim for my heart, Marshal!" The four riflemen aimed at the white target, and their commander quietly gave the order. Four men pulled the triggers, and four bullets raced toward Wallace Wilkerson's chest.
At the impact of the lead, Wallace jumped “five or six feet” from the chair, screaming in pain.  After staggering a step, Wallace shouted, "Oh, my God! My God! They've missed it!", as he pitched over, face first into the dirt.  Four doctors rushed to the condemned man's side.  Wallace was moaning in agony.  On examination the doctors found that one round had shattered Wallace's left arm, and the other three had pounded into Wallace's chest, all missing his heart. They now faced a quandary. What do you do if the condemned man survives the execution?  Do you minister his wounds? Do you shoot him again? While these discussions continued, Wallace lay in the dirt, moaning and writhing for almost 30 minutes.  Some timed his death throes at 27 minutes, others at twenty. Finally, Wallace did the right thing.  He died.
At last Wallace Wilkerson was as dead as William Baxter.  The only difference was that while the reprobate Wallace was solely and fully responsible for the death of William Baxter, the entire territory of Utah and its taxpayers, and the nine judges on the U.S. Supreme Court, were all responsible for the botched execution and slow painful death of Wallace Wilkerson.  The process of state sponsored death seems, at least in this case,  to have been designed by a drunken sadist.
- 30 -

Friday, June 02, 2017


As I walk along the Bois Boolong with an independant air
You can hear the girls declare, "He must be a Millionaire."
You can hear them sigh and wish to die, You can see them wink the other eye
At the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo.
I hasten to point out that nobody has ever actually broken the bank in Monte Carlo. Should you be lucky enough to clean out a croupier, his table is covered in mourning cloth until a new employee arrives with more chips. This is referred to as "Faire sauter le banque", or blowing up the bank. Listen, if any casino in Monte Carlo should actually go broke, the residents would have to start paying taxes again, which they haven't done since 1869. I point this out so you can put Charles Schwab's behavior in context.
Thomas Edison (above, left) called his friend Charlie M. Schwab (center) a "Master Hustler". One of Charlie's public school teachers in the working class town of Loretto, Pennsylvania described him as "...a boy who...went on the principle of pretend that you know and...find out mighty quick.” Later in his life Charlie attempted to explain himself this way; "Here I am, a not over-good businessman, a second rate engineer. I can make poor mechanical drawings. I can play the piano after a fashion. In fact I am one of those proverbial-jack-of-all-trades, who are usually failures. Why I am not, I can't tell you."
It was Charlie's (above) boundless self-confidence which quickly brought him to the attention of his prudish boss, Andrew Carnegie (below). Carnegie became so fond of Charlie that when he sold out his steel  mills to J.P. Morgan for $480 million in cash and stock, Carnegie made sure that Charlie got $25 million.
In February of 1901, Morgan combined Carnegie's steel mills with those of nine other companies and formed U.S. Steel. This gave him a near complete monopoly - 231 steel mills, 78 blast furnaces, some 60 iron and coal mines, a fleet of ore barges, 1,000 miles of railroad track and 79% of all American steel sales. There was only one problem. Carnegie had agreed to the sale only if the 39 year old Charlie Schwab was made President of U.S. Steel. And even if Charlie was well qualified for the job, (and he was) Morgan did not like hiring anyone whose first loyalty was not to him. But Morgan was not worried.
An intuitive judge of men, Morgan (above) knew who Charlie Schwab really was; a gambler. Charlie was happily married to his home town sweetheart, Eurania Dinkey. But in all other regards Charlies' life had been built on calculated risks. He enjoyed fast cars, fast women and roulette. While J.P.Morgan knew that Charlie had never lied to Carnegie, he also knew that Carnegie assumed that every person he liked was a Puritan, just like himself. And just a year after Charlie had overseen the formation of U.S. Steel, Morgan used Carnegie's myopia to get rid of Charlie.
I, to Monte Carlo went, just to raise my winter's rent.
Dame Fortune smiled upon me as she'd never done before,
And I've now such lots of money, I'm a gent. Yes, I've now such lots of money, I'm a gent.
I'm the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo
Charlie arrived in France in January of 1902, for a "working vacation".  He was accompanied by Eurania, his doctor, and a fellow steel magnet. Stopping in Paris, he bought a roadster, and then drove the 430 miles south to Nice (in just 18 hours), where he met up with (among others) Henri Rothschild.  According to Charlie, they "made a jolly party … racing all over the Riviera”. Their diversions included, said Charlie, four visits to the casino 10 miles up the coast Azure at Monte Carlo.  In fact Charlie was having such a good time that he failed to notice the presence in the Hôtel de Paris of several American newspaper reporters.
The story of his visits to the casino appeared in half a dozen newspapers on Monday, 13 January, 1902.   The New York Sun trumpeted from Monte Carlo, "Charles M. Schwab is here and the lion of the day.  (He) has been playing roulette...broke the bank this afternoon.  He has had an extraordinary luck and repeatedly staked the maximum. ...the coupler pushed over to him $200,000, his winnings for the day....Mr. Schwab sauntered from table to table playing the maximums...." The New York Times editorialized, "A man who is at the head of a corporation with more than a billion dollars of capital stock...is under obligation to take some thought of his responsibilities...(and yet Charlie had joined) the intellectual and social dregs of Europe around the gaming tables of Monte Carlo, and there (made)..a prolonged effort to ‘beat’ a game which to a mathematical certainty cannot be beaten”  But he did!
Reading all of this in his West Fifty-first Street mansion, Andrew Carnegie immediately cabled Charlie in Nice, "Public sentiment shocked...Probably have to resign. Serves you right." Then he sent a letter to JP Morgan, " I feel...as if a son had disgraced the family...He is unfit to be the head of the United States Steel Company—brilliant as his talents are...Never did he show any tendency to gambling when under me, or I should not have recommended him...He shows a sad lack of...good sense...I have had nothing wound me so deeply for many a long day, if ever. Sincerely Yours, Andrew Carnegie."
I patronised the tables at the Monte Carlo, Till they hadn't got a sou for a Christian or a Jew;
So I quickly went to Paris for the charms of mad'moiselle,
Who's the loadstone of my heart - what can I do, When with twenty tongues that she swears that she'll be true.
I'm the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo"
Charlie issued the obligatory press statement. “I have been on an automobile trip through the south of France with a party of friends. ..I did visit the Casino at Monte Carlo, but the statements of sensational gambling are false.”   He insisted he had won no more than $36 on any occasion.  But it did not matter whether he had won at the tables or not. Charlie returned home on 16 February, 1902 (that's him, smiling), and now refused to even comment on the affair.  That did not matter, either. Carnegie would never support him again.  Morgan never said a word in public about the affair. He did not have to.  Now that Charlie was isolated from his mentor, he was easy prey for Morgan.
The next year, 1903, Charlie was forced to resign from U.S. Steel.  And without his dynamic leadership, Morgan's monopoly lost half of its market share by 1911. So much for J.P. Morgan's financial genius. Charlie went on to buy Bethlehem Steel (above), which he ran until shortly before his death, in 1939.  But like all gamblers, he died broke.  As Charlie himself said, "I have probably purchased fifty 'hot tips' in my career, maybe even more. When I put them all together, I know I am a net loser."
But what Charlie never did, as least publicly,  was to  ask what all those New York reporters were doing at the Casino in Monte Carlo, on that particular winter weekend in 1902.   If he had asked the answer might have been that the man who actually broke the bank in Monte Carlo, and his own US Steel company,  had been John Pierppoint Morgan (above and below),  And he wasn't even there.
I stay indoors till after lunch, and then my daily walk
To the great Triumphal Arch is one grand triumphal march,
Observed by each observer with the keenness of a hawk,
I'm a mass of money, linen, silk and starch - I'm a mass of money, linen, silk and starch.
I'm the man who broke the bank of Monte Carlo

- 30 -

Thursday, June 01, 2017


I find it short sided that Joseph and Jaques Montegolfier’s saw their invention merely as an extension of the family paper business. Thus it was that at two o’clock in the afternoon of 21 November, 1783, the first humans - neither of whom was a Montegolfier - made humanities’ first free flight. The brother’s built an open fire on a barbeque in a wooden basket suspended beneath their colorfully painted paper balloon. Then, surrounded by stacks of kindling, in a vessel that was built of kindling, the two volunteer aeronauts, Pilatre de Rozier and the marquis d’Arlenes, rose 500 feet above the Jardin du Chateau de la Muette outside of the palace of Vincennes. While the Montegolfiers were solidly grounded and accepting royal congratulations for their ingenuity, their two employees floated gently off toward Paris. The airborne pair had traversed some 5 miles before noticing their envelope was beginning to smolder and come apart at the seams. Desperately, Pilatre sacrificed his coat to smother the flames, and the cooling paper bag settled gently back to earth.
Meanwhile, back at the Chateau, a skeptical audience member asked, “What does Doctor Franklin conceive to be the use of this new invention?” And Benjamin Franklin famously replied, “What is the use of a new-born child?” He never explained his response. So I shall.  Not much, by itself.
When he was fourteen John Wise built a working model of a Montegolfier hot air balloon in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. When it landed on a neighbor’s roof, the open flame in the basket almost burned down his neighbor’s house. John’s father insisted that henceforth the boy limit himself to non-flammable kites and parachutes. In the long run this turned out to be an advantage.
John took a scientific approach to ballooning, so much so that he was generally refereed to as “The Professor”. He studied mathematics and parachutes. And it was not until May of 1835 that John became airborne himself for the first time when he undulated across nine miles of Pennsylvania farmland between Philadelphia and Hanover. He was so inflated by this success that he abandoned his career as a piano maker, and became a full time aerialist. And on 24 July, 1837, when Robert Cocking became the first parachute fatality,  John Wise was wise enough to realize that the problem was not the shape of Cocking’s parachute, but his 250 pound weight. The following year John invented a successful “rip panel” which, if pulled, would collapse a balloon’s envelope into a practical parachute, allowing a desperate aeronaut to float safely to ground.
On each flight, John made barometric readings, gauged wind speeds, and went high enough, often enough, that he was the first to suggest that there were great rivers of wind in the upper atmosphere, which would one day be called the Jet Stream. And being a dedicated balloonist, John also became expert in the manufacture of coal gas.
The process began by “cooking” coal in an airless oven, so it could not ignite. When the rock reached 2,000 degrees Celsius, all the water and aromatic hydrocarbons, the largest percentage of which was hydrogen, were released as an aromatic, to be captured. Actually it smelled a great deal like a huge fart, so clearly the nomenclature was not intended to imply the stench of a hydrocarbon was “aromatic”.
Now, the original goal of this process was the transformation of coal into coke, which was used to melt iron and steel without imparting any contaminates into them. But after this nifty bit of chemistry was completed the coke manufacturers were left with buckets of a stinking flammable semi-liquid substance called coal tar, and a stinking vaporous lighter than air substance called “coal gas”. Disposing of these vile and grotesque materials was both dangerous and expensive, so there was considerable motivation to find some profit in them.
In fact the search for profit from these waste products led directly to the entire field of organic chemistry, including the development of color dyes, explosives, fertilizers, even the creation of artificial rubber (plastics). Even today, most of what we call "organic chemistry" is really petrochemicals. As part of that new science,  the noxious coal gas would eventually be renamed “Town Gas” because of its popularity as an economical source of street lighting. Even Ben Franklin in 1783 had no idea the paper balloon he saw rising over Vincennes would led to all of that chemistry -  any more than a 1960’s taxpayer could know that the Apollo Moon program would lead to the 21st century micro-chip computer that regulated the stove it was used on.  How could they? In the Lafayette, Indiana of 1960, for instance,  there was only one computer, and it occupied an entire floor in a building at Purdue University especially constructed to house it.  
A century earlier, Lafayette, Indiana was in many ways an average American town. It had a two story courthouse, a half dozen churches, a synagogue, two banks, three newspapers, several hotels, two breweries producing 4,000 bottle of beer a year, a bathhouse, a steam locomotive maintenance shop and businesses manufacturing everything from wagons, and farm machinery to bicycles, electric meters, steering gears, safes, and a meat packing plant. What made the town special was the Lafayette Gas Light Company, where coal was converted into town gas.
And it was because of the Lafayette Gas Works, and because the nationally respected chemist Charles Wetherill was in town to meet his new in-laws and to encourage the Hoosier wine industry, that history, and John Wise, paused in the village of 10,000 souls for a single momentous moment. For “Professor "Wise was convinced, “…our children will travel to any part of the globe without the inconvenience of smoke, sparks, and sea-sickness, and at the rate of one hundred miles per hour.”  Okay, he was off by 400 miles an hour, but it is still a pretty impressive prediction.
On Tuesday, 16 August, 1859, next to the gas works at Forth and Union Streets in Lafayette, the fifty-one year old “Professor” John Wise began inflating his balloon with town gas.  Despite the large crowd gathered, estimated at 20,000, to witness the launch, a leaky value caused a 24 hour postponement. (an event which should be familiar to any who have watched a launch at Cape Kennedy during the 1960's.) So it was “precisely two o'clock the next afternoon (Wednesday, 17 August, 1859) in the presence of a large number of citizens” that John’s gas bag finally rose into the sky.
John carried with him a number of scientific instruments, in order to conduct airborne experiments of the “ozone” for Mr. Wetherill. He also carried copies of the local newspapers, as well 123 letters consigned to him by the local postmaster, making this fight the first official “air mail” delivery attempt in the United States. All the mail was addressed to people in “New York City”. The likelihood of success was doubted by the Daily Courier; “The fact is, that the aerial ship "Jupiter" is about as well adapted to the navigation of the "upper current" as Mr. Wise is adapted to preach the gospel.”
The temperature was 94 degrees when the restraining ropes were released, and “The Jupiter” rushed straight upward, to an altitude of perhaps 12,000 feet. And there the gas bag hung in mid-air, fully visible to the townsfolk, suspended in a breathless sky. “Professor” Wise noted in his diary, “My friends below wonder why I was not going on my voyage east. I thought so myself, but what can I do? Jupiter was full as a drum—no wind—not a breath!” After an hour of motionless hovering, John released 55 pounds of ballast, and the balloon rose to 15,000 feet, until the Wabash River was little more than “a crooked thread of water”. Still there was no discernable movement toward New York City or even New York state. That balloon envelope, John reported, was, “now quite flaccid in her lower hemisphere.” Finally, at 3:55 p.m., the barest breath of air began to move the Jupiter – south.
Forlorn and still sailing south, 25 miles later, “Professor” Wise floated over Crawfordsville, Indiana. With the sun setting, and not enough ballast left to compensate for the cooling of the gas with nightfall, Wise set the Jupiter down on the road, six miles south of Crawfordsville. As the Lafayette Courier explained, “So endeth the "trans-continental" voyage. That it was only trans-county-nental is no fault of the great Aeronaut.” The air mail was delivered to New York via the railroad. The deflation of spirits in Lafayette was attended to by Herbert’s brewery, and the town became, according to a local reporter, the scene of “a colossal drunk”. “Ever light pole had a lein on it”, wrote another newspaper humorist. Surely Doctor Franklin would have never foreseen that such a mass intoxication would be the result of his newborn child’s hesitant first steps.
The final act in this drama was perhaps easier to predict. John Wise was last seen alive on this earth suspended beneath yet another gas bag, at 11:14 p.m., on 28 September, 1879, about 20 miles to the west of La Port, Indiana, headed north, out over lake Michigan.  John had been accompanied on his last flight by a paying customer, Mr. George Burr, who was a cashier at the Bank of St. Louis, Missouri. Their flight had only been intended as a test, to last only a few moments. But the wires holding the balloon down were weak, the wind was strong,  and without adequate warning, the bag was pulled into the air, then blown across Illinois and Indiana, and then North over the chilly waters of the lake, giving passenger Burr much more flight time than he had paid for. A body assumed to his was washed ashore in Indiana several days later.  But “Professor” John Wise was never seen again, and was presumed dead.
But I am certain that old Ben Franklin could have predicted that tragedy, because he never risked his life in a balloon. He just sold them. Still, it was clear, that old Ben could recognize a revolution when he saw one, even if he could not imagine the details.
- 30 -

Blog Archive