JUNE 2020

JUNE   2020
He Has Dragged Us Back Forty Years.


Saturday, July 14, 2018

A MOB HIT Part Two

I can sum up Joseph Stalin (above) in a single sentence. He rose to leadership in the International Communist Party as a bank robber, financing Lenin's political activities. His intended Pièce de résistance sent twenty bomb throwing Communists into a crowded Yerevan Square in the center of the Ukrainian capital of Tilfis, in broad daylight, to hijack a cash shipment. The resulting carnage killed forty people and wounded another fifty. The condemnation over the blood bath was unanimous, even from within the communist ranks. Worse, it netted just 340,000 rubles, but most of it was new 500 ruble notes, which could not be spent. An embarrassed Lenin  had then distanced himself from Stalin, and the Czars secret police arrested and banished Stalin to Siberia, where he was cut off from advancement in Communist Party politics.
The young Stalin (above) had been born Georgian, and spoke Russian with an accent, marking him as a “country bumpkin” to the party intellectuals, like Trotsky and Lenin.  He had two webbed toes on his left foot.  He was raised by an alcoholic father who regularly beat his mother. At seven he caught smallpox, which left his face scared.  Shortly thereafter, he was struck by a carriage which broke his left arm.  It was set badly, and healed permanently shorter than the right. Everything set him off as an outsider.  He fell in with street gangs, until his desperate mother secured him a scholarship to a Georgian Orthodox seminary.  But his father refused to pay a tuition hike, and abandoned his wife and son.  But Stalin persevered, and rose to replace Lenin himself in the later 1920's. But he never forgot how Trotsky had belittle him.
In the winter of 1938, Stalin personally ordered that Trotsky “...should be eliminated within a year.” The assignment, given the code name “Pato”, in English, “Duck”,  eventually fell to NKVD agent Leonid Eitingon, (above),  who was living in Spain with his Cuban mistress, Caridad Mercader. Eitingon's  budget for the murder of this one man was $300,000.  First, Leonid needed a trusted agent in Mexico, where Trotsky now lived. He recruited a Mexican veteran of the Spanish Civil War, painter David Alfaro Siqueiros.  Leonid then moved to New York City with Caridad, They were followed soon afterward by her adult son Ramon. 
 Ramnon Mercader had also fought in Spain on the Republican side,  trained as a spy in Russia and already had two NKVD developed identities.  One was a stolen Canadian passport in the name of Frank Jackson, who had died in Spain.  This easily pierced identity was used to make Ramon/Jackson  more believable when he claimed to actually be Jacques Mornard,  the Communist son of a Belgium diplomat.  Ramon had used both identities before,  in Paris,  to seduce a young American communist, whose sister was a typist for Trotsky.  The seduction had led nowhere operationally,  but illustrated Stalin's determination to infiltrate Trotsky's inner circle 
After the 1917 revolution, Lenin rewarded Stalin with the job of editor of the party newspaper “Pravda” - Truth. The Georgian used that as a base to win election to the parties' powerful Central Committee. Then, after the Red Army, which Trotsky (above) had founded and led, had defeated the last of the Czarist holdouts in 1919, Lenin saw an opportunity in the power vacuum in Poland.  In 1920 he dispatched the Red Army to spread the revolution beyond Russia's borders. Operations aimed at Warsaw were, of course,  commanded by Trotsky, while Stalin commanded troops in southern Poland. The Poles managed to defeat the Soviets, in part because Stalin refused to cooperate with Trotsky's forces. At the next party conference, Trotsky criticized Stalin in a public speech.
Once in America, Leonid  set up "Amtorg Corporation",  a Brooklyn based import-export business, which allowed him to transfer funds to Mexico City for Trotksy's assassination. Shortly after he arrived, Ramon (above)  re- reignited his affair with the young American typist.  It was a short interlude. Three months after Ramon arrived in New York,  in September of 1939,  Leonid traveled to Mexico City,  to check on Siqueiros' preparations for the assassination.  He was followed a month later by Ramon, using his old Frank/Jacques cover.
During 1921 Stalin (above, left) managed to re-ingratiate himself with the boss, always siding with Lenin (above, right)  in petty squabbles with Trotsky and other party leaders. In response, in 1922, Lenin named Stalin General Secretary of the party. Shortly thereafter Lenin suffered the first of several strokes, and began to withdraw from leadership. When Lenin finally died in January of 1923, control of the Communist Party and national leadership quickly fell under Stalin's control. 
Siqueiros reported that he already had an agent inside Trotsky's villa (above) -  the cook Carman Palma. She  had supplied detailed floor plans, daily schedules and personal habits of the residents – “The Old Man”, his wife Natalia and grandson Seva, a servant girl, Trotsky's three male assistants and his two American bodyguards, as well as the newest bodyguard, Robert Harte.  But Harte was also an NKVD operative, code named “Amur”.   Leonid was impressed, but did not share with Siqueiros any information about Ramon, nor that the operation was receiving  funds and technical support from Adolf Hitler's anticommunist Nazi Germany.
It took three years for Stalin to isolate and then have Trotsky expelled from the Communist Party, and another year to have him exiled from the Soviet Union.  Over the next six years Trotsky was forced to move to first Turkey, then to France, and then Norway, always writing criticisms of Stalin, always the inspiration for the hated "fellow travelers" to the International Communist Party.   At the same time, in a series of “show trials”, Stalin eliminated all domestic opposition to his rule. Best estimates are that during the decade Stalin ordered the murder or imprisonment in Siberian “Gulags” of over 2 million Russians, and starved to death another 4 million through his collective farm programs. By the time the 57 year old Trotsky arrived in Mexico, in February of 1937,   his was the only Communist voice still critical of the paranoid 5 foot, five inch tall Stalin.  But in their article noting his arrival, Time Magazine wrote, “Today Trotsky is in Mexico — the ideal country for an assassination”.
In Mexico Leonid Etington avoided all contact with the Russian embassy. All his communications with Moscow were made through Berlin. Nazi agents kept watch on Trotsky's movements outside the villa, while two agents, Julia Barrados and Anita Lopez,  took an apartment three blocks from 19 Avenida Viena, and befriended the police officers guarding the place, often hosting parties for them. On Thursday afternoon, 23 May, 1940, a few hours before the actual assault, they even stopped by to confirm everything was as usual and no alarm had been given inside the villa.
Once in Mexico, Trotsky began writing what was to be his ultimate anti-Stalinist work, a biography of the Georgian himself.  Prophetically, Trotsky observed “Stalin...seeks to strike not at the ideas of the opponent, but at his skull.”  And in detailing Stalin's command of the Tilfis massacre, Trotsky wrote that ““Others did the fighting; Stalin supervised them from afar”.  It was this biography that finally convinced Stalin to murder Trotsky as soon as possible.
At four the next morning, 24 May, Sequeiros, code named “Horse”, and dressed in an over sized coat, and a over sized fake mustache, got the drop on the two police guards. He led the first team into the foray to capture the three sleeping guards, gag and tie up all five of them. The second team, lead by Russian, Iosif Grubgykevich, code named “Felipe”, knocked on the inner door. Hart opened the door because he recognized “Felipe's” voice.  Hart had been compromised.
Once the guards in the guest house had been pinned down, the operation turned artistic. 
It was Spanish painter Antonio Pujol who burst into the study, and fired into Trotsky's bedroom from the left side.
And Mexican painter Luis Arenal who burst into Seva's room and fired into Trotsky's bedroom from the right. 
But it was Siqueiros, the most famous painter and biggest ego of the trio, who at the end burst through the french doors and emptied his pistol directly into Trotsky's bed. Then Pujol set off a grenade in the study, intending on destroying Trotsky's biography of Stalin. But it was Arenal who drew the only actual blood, a ricochet from the bedroom wall, which struck 14 year old Seva in the toe.
And then there was the problem of Robert Harte. It appears that he, like many of those who helped the conspirators, had been told the object was only to destroy Trotsky's work, not the man himself.  During the escape Harte became “agitated and upset” with his handler “Felipe” because of the murder attempt.  The Russian realized he could no longer trust Harte, and so after they arrived at the farm rented by Siqueiros' sister, Grubgykevich shot the American once at the base of the skull and once into the temple, the standard NKVD execution method.  The next night his body was dumped into a grave dug along the main road.  It seems certain it was the Mexican communists did the heavy work, because Harte was covered in quick lime, under the mistaken belief it would hasten the decay. In fact quick lime preserves flesh. Any trained NKVD agent would know that. Stalin certainly did.
- 30 - 

Friday, July 13, 2018

A MOB HIT Part One

I am certain Robert Harte died knowing he had made a terrible mistake. But by then it was too late to fix.  He should have acted before the man came around the corner from Morelos Street, and approached the two Mexico Police officers guarding the single story hacienda at 19 Avenida Viena (below). It was just after four on Friday morning, 24 May, 1940, in the quiet farming suburb of Carranza, at the edge of the arroyo of the Churubusco River.  The man raised an arm in greeting. The officers were deceived for a moment by his large military looking overcoat.  And then, as he came closer, his huge, almost comical mustache.  But before they could say anything, the man suddenly shouted “Viva Almazan!”, and pulled his pistol.  The right wing revolutionary Juan Almazan was one of the richest and most famous men in Mexico, and currently an unpopular candidate for the Presidency.  The use of his name kept the two officers bewildered just long enough to be disarmed.
A half dozen men appeared out of the darkness and shoved the officers through the front door of the villa (above).  In the reception hall were three more police officers, sleeping.  At the same time the telephone lines into the villa were cut. All five prisoners were quickly gagged and tied up, and left on the floor, under guard, while another score of armed men filed silently into the dimly lit foray. The mustached man knocked heavily on the left hand inside door.  After a moment, a voice was heard from inside the villa, asking “Qué es ?” The mustached man demanded, “Abra la puerta! La policía de la ciudad de México.” There was a hesitation, and then the voice said, “Un momento”, followed by the sound of a bolt being lifted, and a lock being turned.
The second it began to move the door was violently shoved fully open, bowling over the young man with his hand on the inside door knob.  Instantly, eager hands lifted him up and spun him around. Without pause he was hustled across the Villa's 100 yard long garden (above) There was a seven foot wall to the left (above, left), topped by barbed wire, and a series of doors to the villa's separate rooms to the right (above, right).  At the end of the garden stood a small, two story red brick guest house, painted white (below). 
With military precision the men divided. Several spread out in front of the guest house (above), while others filtered to the gate beyond, which opened on Churubusco street. Still  more men ran to a Ford pickup and a Dodge passenger car, parked against the back gate.  At that moment, the electrical power to the villa was cut off.  At the same time  a new handful of armed men men raced through the front door, turned left in the hall and out into the garden, where they split up, one man stopping in front of each of the villa's doors.  Just as they did so, a voice called out from the guest house, “Es que usted , Roberto?. Lo que está mal?” A loud blasts of automatic gunfire ripped the suburban night apart.  Over the next two minutes, the only exit from the guest house was blocked by a continuous hail of lead.
As soon as they heard the gunfire, the figure outside the farthest door bent down and crashed through the five foot high door and into the study beyond (above). As he did so the man in front of the middle room, stood and pulled the bolt of his MP 35 German made machine gun, and the third man bent over and crashed through the remaining door into a bedroom. (below) 
 Immediately all three men opened fire, blasting the adobe and plaster walls separating them, filling the bedroom sandwiched between with 200 deadly 9mm lead missiles. The firing went on for less than fifteen seconds, while over 70 bullets thudding into the wall and the bed's headboard. Then the middle gunman dropped his weapon, pulled a pistol and burst through the french doors, emptying a clip directly into the lumps on the bed (below).
As he did so the men in the foray silently filtered toward the back gate, followed in their turn by the kill squad, who dropped incendiary grenades behind them, and then the squad assigned to suppress the guards in the guest house. The raiding party then piled into the two stolen vehicles and disappeared into the night. Within five minutes of the two police officers being surprised at the front door, the raid was over.  It would be some hours before the raiders realized they had failed.
The target had survived. His wife Natalia had been awakened by the crash of the inner door. She shook her husband and then pulled him onto the floor beside her. The hail of bullets, when it came, passed over their heads, and the pistol fire punctured the mattress they had been sleeping on, but the two elderly intended victims were safe, unseen, on the floor of their dark bedroom.
As soon as he was certain the raiders had left, the intended target, the old man man (above, center), asked Natalia (above left) to check on their 14 year old grandson Seva (above, right) , who was sleeping in the bedroom next to theirs. Even after pushing aside a burning chest of drawers, Natalia could not find her grandson. Her first panic was that he had been kidnapped. But then she heard his voice from the library at the end of the house, beyond, calling out in Russian, “Ded?” - grandfather? She found Seva clutching his bleeding foot. He had been awakened when the gunfire at the guest house erupted, and had hidden under his bed.  A ricochet had clipped his toe. And that was the only blood spilled that night at 19 Avenida Viena.
Meanwhile, the bearded old man retrieved his wire rimmed glasses, and then ran into his study, next to the bedroom. Inside he found two small fires, which he quickly extinguished. That saved the secondary target of the would-be assassins – the biography he was writing of his old rival. Then he joined his wife and grandson in the library. He warmly hugged them both, and told his wife, “Natalia, they have given us one more day of life.” It was a phrase the old man, Lev Davidovich Bronshtein, more popularly known as Leon Trotsky, would repeat every morning for the rest of his life.
There was one resident of the villa missing after the raid,  25 year old New Yorker, Robert Harte (above).  But had he left with his fellow conspirators , or was he the victim of a kidnapping?   The day after the raid the Communist newspaper in Mexico City reported the shooting had been staged to garner public sympathy for Trotsky.  The next day the police brought in   “The Old Man's” bodyguards for two grueling days of questioning.  But at the same time they began taking a hard look at the communist members of the International Brigade,  veterans of the Spanish Civil War.  First step in this line was to interview the chauffeurs for the Mexican Communist Party. And the name that kept popping up here was the then famous Mexican painter, David Alfaro Siqueiros. 
Siqueiros had recently been paying visits to an isolated farm a few miles south of Carranza, rented by Siqueiros' sister. And the morning after the attack, not far from the farm, the stolen pickup truck had been found abandoned and burned. A week after the assault, the farm house and property were searched by the Mexican government. On the property, beside the road from Carranza, recently disturbed earth was spotted. A month after the attack, in a shallow grave, the police found the disfigured corpse of Robert Harte (above).  He had been shot twice, and then quick lime had been poured over the body.  It burned some his features, but it also preserved most of the flesh and bones.
A warrant for Siqueiros' arrest was issued. But rather than surrender, Siqueiros (above) began issuing written statements to the communist newspaper, at first protesting his innocence, and condemning police incompetence. But as member after communist member of the International Brigade was arrested, until the number reached 27, and their confessions and connections to Siqueiros appeared in the general press,  Siqueiros' statements to the Communist press began to shift to defiant and arrogant,  justifying the attempted murder of Leon Trotsky. And then, finally, when Sisqueiros turned himself in.  He was immediately released without bail. And then promptly disappeared.
Trotsky was not surprised by the ease with which his attempted assassin escaped justice. Nor was he in any doubt that Sisqueiros was the actor but not the author of the murderous attack on his home and family. As “Bugs” Moran had insisted after the Chicago St. Valentines Day Massacre that “Only Al Capone kills like that”,  four years before the May 1940 attack on his own life,  Leon Trotsky had prophetically written, "(Joseph) Stalin...seeks to strike not at the ideas of the opponent,  but at his skull.”
- 30 -    

Thursday, July 12, 2018


I think to truly understand the programmer's axiom, “garbage in, garbage out”, you have to go back before computers, back to 1933, when two British chemists, Reginald Gibson and Eric Fawcett, were trying to do two things at the same time - get rich inventing a substitute for rubber, and avoid blowing up their lab. See, natural rubber comes from Pará rubber trees grown in hot , humid places like Malaysia, Vietnam and Burma, which are also places that grow malaria infested mosquitoes, and which tended to be politically unstable because the British kept mucking up the local politics.  Lots of chemists were looking to make a molecule that would act like rubber but avoid the bugs and the angry locals. But it was dangerous and expensive work
Dangerous because Gibson and Fawcett were working with a hydrocarbon, meaning it contained combinations of carbon and hydrogen atoms. The hydrogen makes all hydrocarbons flammable, and this particular one, ethylene, or C2H4, because it is made from either alcohol or petroleum, is more flammable than most. But Gibson and Fawcett figured if they heated the ethylene in a pressure cooker, that would break the bonds binding the ethylene atoms together, and when they cooled they would recombine in a way that would imitate rubber. Most of the time, the experiments ended with an explosion, which is why it was expensive. But in 1933, somehow they avoided the boom and got, instead, what looked like a lump of coffee colored sugar. So they tried it again, and this time got nothing – no explosion and no “lump”. Now they were confused.. They wanted to try it a third time, but the Imperial Chemical Company, which employed them, decided it was too expensive, and even if it did work, it would never show a profit until long after the current executives had retired. So they told Gibson and Fawcett to move on.
Well, Fawcett figured he was being cheated out of a Nobel Prize, and in 1935, this ambitious, bitter chemist started telling anybody who would listen what he and Gibson had done. Two other ICC chemists, Michael Perrin and John Paton, decided to duplicate the experiment, and got the same lump. But in checking their data, Perin and Paton discovered their pressure cooker had leaked, which is what must have happened to Fawcett and Gibson. When they fixed the leak, Perrin and Paton got no “lump”. So, figuring the missing element was the oxygen in the air that had leaked in, they added a drop of almond oil, or benzaldehyde, which has seven carbon atoms, six hydrogen atoms and a single oxygen atom. They heated up the ethylene and benzalheyde in the pressure cooker with a tight seal, they got the “lump”.  They could now make artificial rubber anytime they wanted. They called their artificial rubber polyethylene, or PE for short.
Now, PE is better than rubber because it is a thermoplastic polymer, meaning it is a chain of chemically stable molecules, each exactly like the others, like rubber, but when PE is re-heated under normal air pressure, it can be easily injected or extruded into molds. The first idea ICC had was to use PE to insulate underwater telegraph cables. They had been using the sap drained from Gutta-percha trees, native to northern Australia and many of the same unpleasant places (for Englishmen) that rubber came from. Now they had a way to avoid those places. So they built a plant on Wallerscote Island in the middle of the Weaver River, just upstream from the Liverpool docks. They planned to produce 100 tons of PE a year. But on the day the Wallerstcote plant opened,  Nazi Germany invaded Poland, setting off World War Two.  And nobody could think of anything to do with PE that would aide the war effort, so they did nothing with it.  Flash forward five years.
Britain won the Second World War, but they went $50 billion in debt doing it – the equivalent of $500 billion today. To repay that debt British corporations held industrial yard sales, including selling the formula for polyethylene (above) to the American company Dow Chemical. And this is where Harry Wasylyk comes into our story.  Harry was born on the Canadian prairies of Manitoba to Ukrainian immigrants, and was just as ambitious as Eric Fawcettt.  After the war Harry was living in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and he knew the Winnipeg General Hospital was facing a big problem. Their admissions had increased by 50% in the previous ten years, and the post war baby boom was promising even bigger growth in the near future. What were they going to do with their swelling medical wastes?. It was an increasingly important question, and an old one.
It is an evolutionary artifact that before humans came down from the trees, our thinking was strictly “out of sight out of mind”. Thanks to gravity, anything we dropped, from our hands or our butts, magically disappeared. And we have often suffered from this elevated view. In 1887, when the Prefect of Paris tried to require all citizens to use “sanitary” metal garbage cans, libertarian landlords justified blocking the measure not because of the expense, but - so they said - because their “right” to throw garbage in the street was being infringed. The argument that living surrounded by garbage was unhealthy did not impress this early Tea Party logic. As John Ralston Saul pointed out in his 1993 book “Voltair's Bastards”, “The free market opposed sanitation. The rich opposed it...That is why it took a century to finish what could have been done in ten years” In short, public hygiene remained stubbornly “out of sight”.
Six years after Parisians had rejected metal garbage cans, the Boston Sanitary Commission reported, “The means resorted to by a large number of citizens to get rid of their garbage and avoid paying for its collection would be very amusing were it not such a menace to public health. Some burn it, while others wrap it up in paper and carry it on their way to work and drop it when unobserved, or throw it into vacant lots or into the river.” About the same time a visitor described New York City as a “nasal disaster, where some streets smell like bad eggs dissolved in ammonia.” City dumps were established to allow rag and bone men to simplify their jobs, and usually next to pig farms (below), as 75 pigs were able to dispose of a ton of garbage a day. None of this, of course, solved the problem of disease spreading flies, cockroaches, and mammals, all drawn to the aroma of rotting garbage produced by an average human household.
Only because of high insurance rates were the thousands of small smokey fires in the ubiquitous backyard trash incinerators, finally extinguished And as living space in cites shrank, so did room for compost kitchen waste. By the middle of the twentieth century, in most of the first world, trash and garbage were now lumped together and left at the curb to be removed by the modern day rag and bone men - now called garbage men. Anyone who thought about public health, like the directors of the Winnipeg General Hospital, expected the post World War II population boom would lead to an explosion of plagues, brought on by garbage spilling out on the streets.
And that was where Harry Wasylyk came in. In 1949, in his Winnipeg kitchen, Harry melted pellets of polyethylene. He chose PE because it was cheap, available in large quantities, easy to work with, water proof and air tight. He squeezed it between rollers into thin twin sheets, cut and sealed it into bags, and in a stroke produced the world's first plastic garbage bag. The directors of Winnipeg General saw it as the hygienic solution to their growing waste problem, and made garbage easy and safer to handle. The hospital eagerly signed a contract. By 1951 Henry Wasylyk had leased a warehouse, installed equipment, and was mass producing garbage bags for Winnipeg General, and a few other local industrial customers.
At about the same time, the Union Carbide PE plant in Montreal, Quebec, had a back log of pellets.
Larry Hanson, at the UC facility in Lindsay, Ontario, about 60 northwest of Toronto, was assigned to find something profitable to do with them. He quickly hit upon the same idea of making garbage bags, and they proved so popular with the janitorial staff, that management adopted the idea. Doing patent research Dow found out about Harry a thousand miles to the west, in far off Manitoba, and decided to buy his factory and his process. In the end, the patent for the plastic garbage bag is held jointly by two Canadians, Harry and Larry.
Every year humans produce 4 to 5 trillion polyethylene bags, mostly the flimsy supermarket shopping bags. And every year those discarded bags kill a billion seabirds, reptiles and sea mammals, making them one of the most deadly materials in the 4 billion year history of our planet. Less than 1% of 380 billion PE bags discarded each year in the United States are properly recycled. The obvious answer would be to ban the production of all PE bags. But, of course no problem is that simple
According to a 2011 study by the British Environmental Protection agency, the average cotton tote bag has a life span of 52 trips to and from the supermarket, and replaces less than 2% of the “fresh water aquatic ecotoxicity” of 350 PE bags. And PE bags themselves make up less than 1% of American landfills. What fills the landfills, is what's in the bags. Concern about the environmental impact of plastic garbage bags is a case of not being able to see the garbage for the garbage bags. They solved a problem, but not THE problem. As Beth Terry writes in her “My Plastic Free Life” web page ““The fact is, there is no magically perfect way to dispose of garbage since the whole concept of garbage itself is not Eco-friendly. The best option is to try and reduce the amount of waste we generate in the first place.”
Less garbage, fewer garbage bags. But the constant remains – garbage
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Wednesday, July 11, 2018


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 very bad 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".  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 somehow 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  8 May, 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 crinoline 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 appeared 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 of the very bad idea.
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 at once 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 heavy 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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