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The Lawyers Carve Up the Golden Goose

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Saturday, October 21, 2017

A VERY, VERY BAD IDEA


I don’t suppose there is any way of knowing exactly when the idea was born, but at some point in early 1881 it occurred to New York City actress Miss Jennie Rhett that she needed to stand out from the chorus. My guess is that she read a newspaper story about two young women who had recently fallen off an excursion barge into the East River. And from that chance news story, and from her own ambition, the actress hatched a very bad idea. Miss Rhett searched amongst the piers of the lower east side of Manhattan until she found the young swimmer who had saved the two women. He was handsome, smart and just as ambitious as she was, and Irish too. And that was when I suspect that this idea took its very first steps to reality.
Some time later Miss Rhett was discovered off Coney Island Beach near the new Iron Pier (above), floundering in the sea. Just in the nick of time a tough young Irishman pulled her to safety. Later, in front of a small crowd and a reporter, Miss Rhett presented the young man with a “gold locket” in gratitude for his bravery.  The reporter did not think to ask what a young Irishman from the Bowery was doing swimming at Coney Island.  In any case, it was a small news story. And sadly it does not seemed to have propelled Miss Jennie Rhett to the stardom she sought. After this publicity stunt she disappears from our story.  But the young Irishman had learned an important lesson, and we will hear from him again.
New York City in the 1880’s was the kind of place where any idea seemed possible, even fame and fortune for those surviving on their wits in the Bowery or "Hell’s Kitchen".  And even very bad ideas. The twin towers of the Brooklyn Bridge, begun in 1870 and nearing completion, were the highest structures in New York City.  But as tall as they were, they still seemed human in size.
Standing at the foot of the Brooklyn tower it is still possible to feel the audacity of a world, still powered largely by horses and humans, which had dared to make the 5,989 foot long unsupported throw across the open expanse of the East River. So it was not surprisingly that the next step in the evolution in this very, very bad idea should leap into some lunatic’s mind even before the great bridge had been completed.
One night in 1882 a young man was detained by bridge employees on the unfinished center span of the Brooklyn Bridge. He was in the process of undressing. Eager not to be seen as a common pervert, the young man identified himself as “Professor” Robert Emmet Odlum, from Washington, D.C.; a self described well known and well named swimming instructor and author of pamphlets on diving.
"Professor" Odlum told the police he had made a $200 bet that he could safely dive from the unfinished bridge. After explaining to Mr. Odlum that he could not hope to survive the 175 foot drop, the “Professor’s” mother was notified and he was put on a train back to Washington. The New York City police made a note to never admit Mr. Udlum onto the bridge again, even after it opened in May of 1883. It was at this point in the evolution of the very, very bad idea that chance intervened, in the form of a love-sick 22 year old woman in far off Bristol, England.
On May 8, 1885 Miss Sara Ann Henley received a note from her boyfriend breaking off their engagement. In a fit of pique Miss Henley walked half way across the Clifton Suspension Bridge (above), high above the Avon River Gorge, and threw herself off.  As she plummeted the 245 feet toward oblivion her crinolines petticoats caught the air like a parachute and slowed her descent. She was even more fortunate when she splashed down into shallow waters along the shore, where her landing was softened by thick forgiving mud. She was badly injured, but she lived. Her extraordinary survival made all of the English papers, and was picked up and republished extensively in America.
A week after Miss Henley’s great fall the New York police got word that ‘Professor’ Odlum had been inspired to give the Brooklyn bridge another “go”. They alerted the toll collectors, and on Sunday afternoon, 19 May, 1885 (ten days after Miss Henley’s plunge) a collector reported a suspicious cab lingering on the bridge. Police officers found it parked against the railing, half way across the span. But it was a decoy. While they were searching the cab, hidden within one of a pair of "vans" further back on the bridge, "Professor" Odlum clambered out from beneath the covered flatbed wearing a swimsuit emblazoned with his name. He clambered over the railing and before the cops could reach him, threw himself into space.
Imagine the "Professor's" surprise when he discovered that the cops had been right. He entered the water feet first (as was the accepted diving position at the time) and shattered every bone in his frame from heel to skull. He was pulled from the river unconscious and died a half hour later. His friends shipped his body home. Ten days later Robert’s sister came to town,  demanding that the coroner explain what had become of her brother’s liver and heart. She never got a satisfactory answer, but my guess is they had both been reduced to jelly by the impact. A little math shows that “Professor” Odlum hit the water going sixty-three and a half miles an hour. At that speed water is almost as fluid as cold concrete. But it was Robert Odlum’s tragic foolishness that was the catalyst for the return of the Irish hero to our story.
He was 23 years old by this time, making his living as a newsboy and a bookie amongst the denizens of the Bowery. Like a certain actress he had worked with, Steve Brodie now needed to escape the chorus; except in his case the chorus was a cacophony of poverty. The story that he later told police was that a friend, James Brennan, had dared him on a $100 bet that he would not jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. But I doubt that Mr. Brennan had ever seen $100 in his life.
Steve Brodie claimed to have made the leap on Friday morning, 23 July, 1886. Mr. Brennan claimed to have witnessed the jump. There was even a sworn affidavit from a barge captain who had pulled the daredevil from the river. Septics said Brennan had thrown a dummy off the bridge while Brodie had swum out from shore, but it didn't matter if the story was true or not. Overnight, daredevil or spinner of tall tales, everyone in New York City knew the name of Steve Brodie, the man who jumped from the Brooklyn Bridge.
Brodie parleyed his 15 minutes of fame into his own bar, with a little theatre in the rear where he re-enacted his alleged dramatic plunge into the East River several times a week for the tourists. In 1891 promoters built a Broadway melodrama (“Mad Money”) around his dive,  and another musical in 1894, (“On the Bowery”).
And on the wall next to a painting of his fabulous plunge, was displayed the following homely, “Cursing and swearing don’t make you any tougher in the eyes of people that hears you. Steve Brodie".  Of course, Steve's success at selling the idea, did not make it any better of an idea.
In 1895 Mrs. Clara McArthur, married to a disabled railroad worker and mother of a young daughter, jumped off the bridge at 3:30 in the morning. She was seeking a share of Steve Brodies’ pot of gold for her destitute family. The desperate Clara was wrapped in an American flag. She had water-wings strapped under her arms and a punching bag tied to her back to keep her afloat after landing. Her socks were filled with sand to keep her feet below her head (again, the accepted, best attitude to enter the water).
But Clara landed on her side, spreading the impact over the length of her entire body. That is what saved her life. The shock ripped the water wings under her arms to shreds. She struggled to the surface, but the punching bag kept flipping her over onto her face, and the socks kept pulling her down. After struggling for several long seconds, Clara finally passed out, face down in the water. Two men in a rowboat waiting under the bridge finally managed to pull her to safety. She never made a dime from the effort, even though she had several reliable witnesses that she had actually made the jump. The Victorian public simply didn't want to know the details of a woman forced to risk her life to provide for her family. Clara McArthur is one of only ten people (two of them women) known to have actually jumped off the bridge since the 1881, and who survived the plunge.
Steve Brodie is not counted as one of those ten. He was always an agreeable fellow. If he had money, his friends and family shared in it. He gave generously to charity his entire life. But it is extremely doubtful that he actually made the jump. He tried to extend his fame by claiming to have leaped off a railroad bridge in upstate New York, and later claiming to have gone over Niagara Falls wrapped in inner tubes and metal bumpers. The Niagara stunt, real or not, almost killed him. He settled in Buffalo, New York, and operated a bar there for a few years before his asthma forced him to move to San Antonio, Texas, where he died in 1901 of complications of diabetes. Steve Brodie was all of 38 years old. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery, in Woodside, Queens, New York. Thankfully the very, very bad idea of jumping from the bridge for fame and fortune died with him.
The longest living survivor of all these daredevils was the accidental one. Sara Ann Henley (below), the woman who tried to commit suicide in 1885 by jumping 240 feet off the Clifton Suspension bridge, finally earned her angel’s wings in 1948. She was 84 years old, married, but with no children, perhaps because of injuries sustained in her fall into the Avon River Gorge. Such silly feats, for fame or to protest fortune, are never good ideas. But jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge went further. It was a very, very bad idea.
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Friday, October 20, 2017

THE ROAD TO REVERE

I present to you a symbol of the Gilded Age, a captain of industry, a practitioner of power and a advocate of the morality of wealth; George Morgan Browne. I'll wager you've never heard of him. He was a lawyer and was responsible for one of the most infamous train wrecks in American history - and I'll bet you've never heard of that, either.  George Browne graduated from the New Haven law school (Yale) in 1836 and four years later, before he was thirty, he had opened his own practice in Boston . He never doubted the nobility of his beliefs - after all his second wife was a Cabot, and this was Boston “...The home of the bean and the cod, Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots, And the Cabots talk only to God.”. And what God told George Browne was that the rich in America did not have enough power. “They are in a small minority at the polls”, he wrote, and “their influence in....elections is notoriously less than that of an equal number of voters.” His villain would be familiar to a political observer today. “The spoilsmen avail themselves of whatever party is in power, and are equally at home in either.” The “spoilsmen” were, of course, fighting for a minimum wage, an eight hour work day and a five day work week, with overtime.
The same year that George Browne graduated law school, the Eastern Railroad was chartered in Massachusetts, capitalized with just $1,300.000. That was barely enough to lay a single line of tracks eight miles north from Boston to the beach hamlet of Revere, then 3 miles further to Lynn. In future years the company built their line on to Salem, then to Marblhead, Newburyport and finally all the way to Portland, Maine. The Eastern line carried 75, 000 weekly working class commuters at fifty cents for a ticket to Lynn, a dollar to Portland. But it was so underfunded that from the beginning it struggled with shortages of equipment. and personnel.
One of the conductors would later describe the job as “...down one day and up the next, and rest the third, and brake by hand the whole way as...(the) cars were not fitted with the air brake” The Westinghouse air brake was invented shortly after the Civil War, but the Eastern did not trust it anymore than they trusted the 30 year old telegraph. The management avoided these “unnecessary” expenses, and despite its reputation for shoddiness in service and equipment, the Eastern was always able pay annual dividends to its stockholders of between 6 and 8%. It was a business model that seemed to work, at least until July of 1855 when President and Treasurer, Mr. William Tuckerman, was forced to admit that he had lost $281,000 (equivalent to $64 million today) while literally gambling to make corporate ends meet. (Sound familiar?).
The hard nosed Mr. John Howe replaced Tukerman as President, and new blood was brought onto the board as well - including George Browne. Sixty-five of the firm's 354 employees were laid off, and the remaining workers scrambled to keep 26 trains running every day. For the time being, dividends were forgotten. In 1858 Mr. Howe stepped down and George Browne became President, at a salary of $5,000 a year (equivalent to over a $1 million today) .
After eight years of rigorous penny pinching President Browne had returned the yearly corporate dividends to 8%. According to an official company history, the Eastern's 29 locomotives, 48 yellow passenger cars (fewer than they had owned in 1858) and 13 baggage cars, were not considered “worn out until (they) had been rebuilt from one to three times” despite assurances in the annual reports that the equipment was “...equal of any first class railroad in New England”
George Browne, who signed those annual reports, even managed to pick up a cheap Confederate locomotive which had been captured by Union troops. The Eastern's maintenance chief complained this bargain was so prone to breakdowns, he refereed to it as “The Rebel”.  Even after the war the 28 trains scheduled to run on the Eastern line daily still did not have “air brakes”, nor did the company use the telegraph to communicate between stations. But the 55 tired locomotives, 98 worn out passenger cars and 27 baggage cars owned by the Eastern Railroad were simply not enough to keep the system running smoothly.  Delays and breakdowns were daily events, and passenger complaints fell on deaf ears because the company was listening to the stockholders, not the customers. The Eastern was the only line servicing the fishing villages along the coast, turning them into suburbs of Boston but also making them captive customers. The stock rose to $125 a share.
Finally, in the spring of 1871, in an attempt to deal with the constantly over-stretched company, President Browne authorized doubling the shares available – increasing the working capital for the road to eight million dollars. The goal was to buy more locomotives and cars, but no one was so impolite as to point out that this was just the sort of “gamble” which had gotten poor Mr. Tuckerman into such trouble. But it was already too late.
The problem came to a head on a sweltering Saturday, 26 August, 1871. Because of the summer weekend traffic, the single track line was again overloaded. The schedule called for 152 trains this day, but the passenger load forced the overworked staff at the Eastern's Boston terminal to send out 192. They spent the day desperately jamming passengers into hastily turned around cars and dispatching trains as quickly as they could. The schedule was in tatters, the customers were grumbling about the even worse than usual service, and express trains were slipped in between scheduled ones whenever possible. Just about 8:30, as the exhausting day was finally drawing to a close, a misty fog settled in off Revere Beach, the first truly public beach in America. A local from Everett pulled into the tiny station at Revere, running 20 minutes late. And while the passengers were still edging past each other through the open doors, the rear car was suddenly illuminated by the headlight of an oncoming express, bound for Sargus at thirty miles an hour. The Sargus engineer slammed on the locomotive’s brakes, but inertial drove the following cars onward.
The collision, it would be later judged, occurred at well under 20 miles an hour. A survivor in the fatal rear car told the New York Times, “Suddenly I...saw the crowd of passengers rushing over the seats and through the aisle, and the locomotive coming like fury after them.” The cowcatcher on the front of the engine split the wooden passenger car like a can opener. Yellow painted wood was instantly converted to kindling, which the kerosene lamps illuminating the car set aflame. The engine's smokestack snapped off, along with its steam valves. Victims, struggling to catch their breath, sucked scalding air into their lungs.
Reported the Newport, Rhode Island Daily News, “The shrieks and groans of the wounded and scalded, their frantic calls for help and their wild ejaculations caused by a frenzy of pain formed a continuation of sounds such as no mortal ear desired to hear a second time...Some were pinned with splinters, some had arms and legs broken, while other were mangled beyond recognition. Many, in fact the majority of the dead, were apparently free from bruises, but the peeling skin and deathly pallor which overspread the flesh told plainly that steam and scalding water had been frightful and effective agents of death.”
Of the 75 people jammed into the last passenger car, 29 died instantly or over the next several days. In both trains, 57 more were injured, and many more emotionally maimed for the rest of their lives. It was far from the worst rail accident in American history - 101 dead in Nashville, Tennessee in 1918 - but it was the seminal event in rail safety, thanks to Charles Frances Adams – grandson of John Quincy Adams – and director of the Massachusetts Board of Railroad Commissioners.
Adams' investigation discovered that the company had a regular policy of issuing schedule changes at the last minute, and verbally. It was a system which almost seemed designed to cause confusion, delays and accidents - and it had repeatedly caused all three. And the Commission's final report explained the failure in terms even a businessman like George Browne might understand; “A very large proportion of the rolling stock of the Eastern railroad was rendered unavailable...when it was the most needed, because trains were standing still at points of passing, waiting for other trains which were out of time...to the equal loss and inconvenience of the public and the corporation.”
Adam's report, and two coroners' juries, blamed the conductor and engineer of the express for the accident. That was as standard as citing “pilot error” in an airline crash. But Adam's report went further. It dwelt on the management of the Eastern, and it named in particular George Browne, who had directed the Eastern Railroad for fourteen years. The public agreed. Said a politician, “There is no accident in this case...only the greed of the Eastern Railroad Company”. Six months later, on 5 February 1872, George Browne resigned. His replacement invested in telegraph lines, and Westinghouse air brakes, and electric signals to warn engineers of trains ahead of them. All these improvements (and settling the civil lawsuits) cost the Eastern $510,600 (the equivalent to $90 million today). No dividends were paid in 1872, and the stock value dropped to $51 a share. In retrospect the cost of safety seemed cheap. To an ideologue, this was proof that unrestricted capitalism worked. But ideology failed to consider the moral cost of the the 29 dead and the many more scared survivors.
To escape the public outrage, George Browne left the country, living in Europe for a year. But he never altered in his views or his willingness to make them known. He even wrote letters to the London Times, correcting British politicians in their thinking. And when he came home to Boston he became a consultant for other corporations, always an advocate for the wealthy against what he termed “the vicious caprices of the populace”. In 1881 he moved to Washington, D.C., and lobbied for railroads and his vision of capitalism. He died there on 25 April, 1895, at the age of 73.
By then the Eastern Railroad had been gobbled up by its competitor, The Boston and Maine. That is the nature of capitalism - its strength and its sin – at its core, it is cannibalism, economic and flesh and blood.

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Thursday, October 19, 2017

THE ORIGINAL ROCKY

I would say the odds were that young “Rocky” Sabbatius was destined to die unknown, within 50 miles of his birth place, in the village of Tauresium on the banks of the Varda River, in what is today Macedonia. He was a very smart lad, and handsome, in a shy sort of way, a bit small by all accounts, but, his biggest failing was that Rocky was not overly ambitious. See, when Rocky was born the world still answered to bloodlines, brawn and ambition. But he was to be blessed by two strokes of luck in his life, which saved him from anonymity and failure. The first one was that he had an uncle who was very ambitious.
Flavis Iustinus arrived in Constantinople sometime around 470 A.D. barefoot and hungry, an ignorant adolescent. His only possession was his ambition. He joined the army because soldiers were fed, and he rose in the ranks because war favors competency over blood lines. Iustinus was eventually made commander of the palace guards. That made him wealthy, by normal standards, which enabled him to bring his sister’s boy to the capital of the Byzantine Empire, and adopt him under the name of Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinianus - Rocky. It turned out this may have been the smartest thing Iustinus ever did, because when the emperor, Anastasius I, died in 519 A.D, the precocious lad advised Iustinus to take on the purple himself. And he did, becoming the Emperor Justin I.
Now, palace politics being what they are, being the adopted son of the emperor made Rocky as likely to be poisoned as he was to be the next emperor. But this was when Rocky had his second stroke of luck.
One night at the theatre he met a lovely comedian, talented, gorgeous, and just about his size. Her name was Theo, and Rocky was smart enough to recognize that she was as smart as he was, and twice as ambitious.
Her father had been an animal keeper for the Greens. These were one of what were the strongest most influential social groups in the Eastern Roman Empire, sports fans. Although Christianity was the official religion of the Empire, and since politics was off limits for everybody except the upper classes, the real religion and the real politics in Constantinople had become the choice of supporting either the Venti – the Blue - or the Pasini – the Green, in the chariot races.
Each of these “clubs”, supported chariot races held in Constantinople’s Hippodrome, and were a sort of NASCAR, roller derby, ice hockey and Russian roulette all rolled into one, and with soccer hooligans thrown in for spice.
The drivers dressed in their club colors: leather helmets, knee and shin pads, and a leather corset. They were all young, and one of the most famous lived to the ripe old age of 27, before he died in a crackup. The horses had even shorter life spans.
Each of the 24 races held each day of the season (which lasted only 66 days) pitted up to six Greens and Blues against each other for five crash filled laps. The Christian emperors found this crash ‘em, smash ‘em preferable to old gladiatorial games because they were slightly less gory.
Everybody in town wore their team colors, usually a stripe along the legging or the hem of a dress or tunic. This started out as friendly rivalry, but the partisanship turned increasingly bitter until the fights between Venti and Pasini in the stands required that each group be given their own cheering sections. These fights were then morphed into gangs of Greens and Blues roaming the streets after dark, mugging and killing each other and random passerby. The politicians got involved for the votes, and used the thugs to intimidate their political opponents. Screaming at the opposing side, and even at the Emperor in the Hippodrome became the only chance the common folk had to make their voices heard.
The Greens were the largest and strongest club, and when Theo’s father died, her mother begged the Greens for a job or at lest a pension to support herself and her three daughters. The Greens turned her down. And that was why Theo had gone to work as an actress.
Rocky was smart enough to want to marry Theo, but he was prohibited by the law from marrying any woman below his social station. As an actress, Theo was a half step above being a prostitute, a recognized profession but you wouldn’t want your son to marry one. So, Rocky pushed his uncle to change the law. In 525 A.D. the happy couple became a happy couple, legally. This infuriated the nobility politicians, who spread false rumors about Theo’s shameless behavior, and noted that the Greens had tossed her out. Over night Rocky and Theo became rabid fans of the Blues. This may have been a mistake, because on August 1, 527 A.D., Rocky’s uncle died, and the shy kid from a backwater of the Empire, and an actress from nowhere, became joint rulers of a big chunk of the known world, the Emperor Justinian and the Empress Theodora..
Rocky had big plans to rebuild the empire, but to do that he had to increase taxes, and that again offended the nobility, who were the only ones who paid taxes. Things came to a head on Saturday, January 10, 532 A.D., when seven gang members, both Blues and Greens, were hanged for the murder of a minor city official. What brought things to a head was that only five of them died. Somehow two survived, one Green and one Blue. They took sanctuary in a monastery, which was quickly surrounded by soldiers, waiting to arrest them when they came out. Of course there was always the chance the entire thing was a set up, a little public play staged by the nobility to manipulate the masses. What we know for a fact is that the masses of people wanted those two men, one Green and one Blue, pardoned and freed.
All day long, on Tuesday, January 13th , the crowd at the Hippodrome glowered at Rocky, sitting up in the royal box. As the 22nd race of the day was run, the Blues and Greens began to chant in ominous unison, “Win! Win! Win!” ("Nika", in Latin). Rocky thought it was a good idea to remove himself as an irritant and sneaked back into the palace, which was adjacent to the stadium.
As soon as that happened the crowds exploded out of the stands and filled the nearby streets, in a full riot, burning, looting and killing. Almost half the city went up in flames. With nightfall, the gangs occupied the Hippodrome, which allowed them to keep an eye on the palace.
As if it had been planned in advance, bright and early Wednesday morning, Senators appeared at the palace to offer their advice. It seemed to them, said the politicians, that what would calm the crowds would be to pardon the two surviving thugs. Rocky agreed. Well, suggested the politicians, how about also dismissing the tax collector?  Rocky agreed, again. And that was clearly a mistake. The Senators now decided they were in control, and on Thursday the mob from the Hippodrome marched through the streets to the home of Hypatius, who was a nephew of old Anastasius, and proclaimed him Emperor.
In the palace, Rocky was contemplating a safe retreat by boat, urged on by some of his advisers. And then Theo stood to up. She may not have been much over five feet tall, but it was instantly clear she was the tallest person in that room.
Legend gives several versions of what Theo said, but in essence they all boil down to this, “Purple makes a fine burial shroud.” I guess you had to be there. But however she said it, Rocky and his advisers were embolden. Being powerful is a risky existence. And sometimes staying in power requires that you run a little more risk. Rocky and Theo decided to stay and fight it out with the nobility, and to fight smart.
On Friday morning, a royal advisor (a eunuch named Narses), slipped into the Hippodrome. Quietly he met with the leaders of the Blues, not their political masters, the nobility, but the gang leaders on the spot. He revealed his presence and displayed his badge of office, a ring with the royal seal. Then he reminded the Blue leaders that the Emperor had long supported them over the Greens. He reminded them that their “new” emperor, Hypatius, was a Green. And then he handed out the gold, and retreated. Within a few hours, after talking the situation over amongst themselves, the Blues, en mass, filed out of the Hippodrome. There was no confrontation, and no argument. The Greens were stunned.
And while they remained stunned, two masses of soldiers stormed into the Hippodrome from both ends and slaughtered the Greens, all of them. The soldiers then tracked down Hypatius and hacked him to death as well. Those helpful noble Senators who had offered their advice to the Emperor were arrested, their wealth was seized and they were exiled. And then, of course, the leading Blue leaders were slaughtered as well. In all some 30,000 people were butchered. No one dared to oppose Rocky again.
Rocky became known as “the Emperor who never sleeps.” He was constantly in motion, and seemed to  be everywhere, paying attention to everything. And he trusted Theo so much he officially made her his co-Emperor. He got his higher taxes. He rebuilt the city of Constantinople, building perhaps the most magnificent church in all of Christendom, the Haggai Sophia (Holy Wisdom), which still stands to this day. He rebuilt much of the Roman Empire as well, but the only parts of that which remain, are the ruins.
His lady love, Theo, died on June 28, 548 A.D., not yet 50 years old. She was made a saint in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Rocky lived for another 17 years, dieing on November 14, 565 A.D. So successful was his reign, that he was also made a saint. And in a very odd way, his greatness was established by the riot that almost dethroned him. And by the woman who loved him. A little ambition at the right moment, can be a very good thing.
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