New York in History and Anecdote

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Rebels on the Green

On the morning of Wednesday, October 19, 1864, the Civil War seemed far away from St. Albans, Vermont. The local newspaper, the Daily Messenger, wrote that Grant was fighting Lee at Petersburg, roughly 600 miles south. Later that day, the editor would have the scoop of his life when the Civil War’s northernmost battle broke out on Main Street, bullets smashing his windows and a dying man streaming blood on the office floor.

The Confederacy sent commissioners abroad to seek full diplomatic recognition and purchase arms and supplies. In Canada, Commissioner Cassius C. Clay worked with a network of sympathizers, escaped prisoners, and Copperheads—Northerner supporters of secession—to organize a campaign of terrorist sabotage, including the November 25, 1864 New York City fires that destroyed Barnum’s American Museum on Broadway at Ann Street, across from St. Paul’s Chapel.

The attack on St. Albans, Vermont was organized and led by Bennett Young, one of Morgan’s Raiders. Tall, slender and—to judge from his photograph in Stewart Holbrook’s Forgotten Men of American History—Byronically handsome, Young had been captured on a raid into Ohio in 1863 and imprisoned at Camp Douglas near Chicago. Behind the good looks were cold intelligence and iron nerve, and he had he had escaped to Canada within months.

At Clay’s suggestion, Young returned home by blockade runner. After conferring with Secretary of War James Seddon at Richmond, and with President Davis’s approval, Young returned to Canada with a lieutenant’s commission, a sealed letter for Clay, and special orders signed by Seddon, dated June 16, 1864, authorizing Young to “organize for special service a company not to exceed twenty in number from those who belong to the service and are at this time beyond the Confederate States.”

Clay sent Young to Chicago, where local Copperheads, the Sons of Liberty, plotted to seize the city during the 1864 Democratic National Convention while Young led a mass escape of prisoners from Camp Douglas. The conspiracy was betrayed and Young barely escaped. He then went to Columbus, Ohio, to organize an uprising of the six thousand prisoners of war at Camp Chase. Again, the conspiracy was betrayed and abandoned.

By now, Young had a cadre of some twenty reliable men, mostly ex-cavalrymen like himself. Disgusted by his failures, he met with Clay and then reconnoitered Vermont. He targeted St. Albans, a town about fifteen miles south of the Canadian border.

In 1864, St. Albans had 5,000 residents, three banks, hotels, boarding houses, and numerous stores and service businesses. Young arrived on October 10. Seven others arrived that day and the next, registering under assumed names at the American House or the Tremont House. Other young men, allegedly from Montreal and St. John’s, registered at local hotels and boarding houses. Circulating quietly, they observed the habits of the people and the location of the banks and stables. Wednesdays, the day after market day, were always quiet.

Wednesday, October 19, proved cloudy with a threat of rain. At three p.m., the twenty-two rebels struck. Each wore a pair of Navy sixes—Colt Model 1851 Navy .36 caliber six-shooters.

Cyrus N. Bishop, teller of the St. Albans Bank, was at the counter when two men entered, proceeded to his window, and drew revolvers. They seized him and, pointing two revolvers at his head, identified themselves as Confederate soldiers, advising him that if he attempted resistance they would blow his brains out. They forced Bishop to open the safe. At that moment, the bank’s front door opened and in walked Mr. Breck of Breck & Wetherbee with $400 in currency for deposit. “Right over here, mister,” commanded one of the raiders. “I am taking deposits today.” Working fast, the robbers stuffed $73,522 into bags. Then they herded the Vermonters into the directors’ room, locked the door, and departed.

At the Franklin County Bank, one raider drew his gun. The others followed suit. “We are Confederate soldiers,” announced the leader. “There are one hundred of us. We have come to rob your banks and burn your town.” Marcus Beardsley, the teller, froze. The other employee ran for the door but stopped at the threat of death. The raiders went through the drawers and the vault, gathering some $70,000 in greenbacks. The Confederates then locked the two employees in the vault.

At the First National Bank, the raiders found Albert Sowles, the cashier, and ninety-year-old General John Nason, who was deaf and reading the Springfield Republican. As the bank clock struck the hour, Sowles looked up to see three men in greatcoats entering the bank. They drew revolvers as they advanced. General Nason was absorbed in his paper.

The first Confederate to approach Sowles announced, “You are my prisoners. If you offer any resistance I will shoot you dead.” Meanwhile, two other Confederates tossed $58,000 in bonds and greenbacks into haversacks. General Nason looked up. “Who are these gentlemen?” he grumbled. “Seems to me they are rather rude in their behavior.”

Just as the raiders were about to leave, William H. Blaisdell, a local merchant, came into the bank. He took in the scene and tackled the nearest robber. They rolled over and Blaisdell looked up into the mouth of a Navy six. A second muzzle was pressed against Blaisdell’s head. At this point General Nason abandoned his newspaper, creaked forward, and suggested, “Two upon one was not fair play.”

Blaisdell capitulated. Then the cashier, the merchant, and the old soldier were marched across the street to the green, where other citizens were already under armed guard. General Nason, who could hear nothing and had seen little, having read his newspaper during the robbery, asked Sowles, “What gentlemen were those?”

Half a dozen armed strangers appeared at Fuller’s livery stable. They told the hostler to bring the horses out of the stalls, and be quick about it. E. D. Fuller was across the street when he heard commotion in his stable. He entered at a dead run, roaring, “Put back them horses.” A raider rode to meet Fuller, roaring back, “Get out of here, damn you, or I’ll blow me a hole through you.”

Fuller vanished out the door. He reappeared almost instantly across the street with a Colt dragoon revolver, took cover, aimed, and squeezed the trigger. It clicked. Nothing. He squeezed again and again. Still nothing. To his dying day, E. D. Fuller cursed his unloaded gun.

Captain George P. Conger, First Vermont Cavalry, home on leave, strode down Main Street in uniform. The rebels put him on the green with the other citizens.

The Confederates now were gathering and the guards were momentarily distracted. Then Captain Conger sprinted across the green toward the American House. He burst through its front door amidst a fusillade of rebel bullets, bursting glass, and chipped brickwork, ran through the lobby, out the back door, and down Lake Street, shouting the Rebels had come. He grabbed a rifle and shoved two boxes of cartridges into his pockets, took cover behind the American House, aimed at Bennett, and fired. Bennett returned fire with his revolver.

Now townsmen, hearing gunfire and rumors, pulled revolvers and shotguns from desk drawers and closets. Others took muskets from the War of 1812 or even the Revolution from over the mantel. Mrs. John Gregory Smith, the governor’s wife, picked up a horse pistol. Some townspeople began shooting from buildings around the square. Collins H. Huntington came toward the green, firing. A raider’s shot laid him in the street. Another shot knocked down Lorenzo Bingham. The bullets tore through the Daily Messenger’s front door. The windows of Miss Beattie’s Millinery Store and A. H. Munyon’s store tinkled and crashed as the black powder smoke drifted among the elms.

Elinus J. Morrison, a local contractor and apparently unarmed, turned the corner near the Dutcher & Sons pharmacy. A raider saw him and fired.  Morrison staggered, clutched his stomach, stumbled into the Daily Messenger streaming blood, and collapsed. He died the next day.

Now all Young’s men had reported. The mission accomplished, he gave the order to ride. With bullets flying and $208,000 in their saddlebags, the raiders galloped out of town.

Captain Conger stopped firing and took command. Gathering perhaps a dozen men with guns and horses, he swung into the saddle and pursued as other townsmen followed as quickly as they could secure horses or buggies.

On the road north, the Confederates met a farmer on horseback. Without explanation, they pulled him down. One mounted the fresh horse, leaving an old nag in its place, and they galloped off. The farmer stood examining the jaded plug he had suddenly acquired.

Then Captain Conger and his men, riding hell for leather, burst into view. They recognized the old horse, thought the farmer must be a Confederate, and started shooting. He fled across a field, the posse in chase, and escaped into a swamp. The Union horsemen took the nag and dashed off.

At Sheldon, hot on Young’s heels, the posse thundered across a burning covered bridge, just fired by the raiders.

The Confederates did not stop at customs. They tore into Canada. The customs officers stepped into the road, gazing north at their dust. Then Conger and his men charged through at a gallop.

Over the next two days, Conger captured ten raiders before Canadian authorities stopped him. Young learned next morning that several of his men had been arrested by Canadian authorities at Philipsburg. As he was their commander and held the authority for the raid, he chose “to give himself up to the authorities and make the cause of his men his own,” knowing Clay would arrange their release on bail.

On the way to Philipsburg, Young was trapped at a farm house where he had stopped for refreshment when some twenty-five Vermonters surprised and then pistol-whipped him. They dragged him to an open wagon, threatening to shoot him as “they denounced him in unmeasured terms.” When they reached the road to the border, Young suddenly knocked down his guards, seized the reins, and turned the horses toward Philipsburg.

He was recaptured within moments. As the posse worked him over again, a British officer trotted by, stopped, and asked for an explanation. Young said he was a Confederate officer on British soil, entitled to protection. As John W. Headley writes in Confederate Operations in Canada and New York, “The British officer reasoned with the Americans for a time, who were reluctant to listen to argument or to delay their return to St. Albans.” The Briton said other raiders had been arrested and all were being sent to St. Albans the next day. Young’s captors finally agreed the officer should take him under their escort to Philipsburg.

The Englishman had lied. The Confederates at Philipsburg, including Conger’s prisoners, were in Canadian protective custody. Young and his men were safe for the moment.

A crisis between Great Britain and the United States erupted overnight. The United States government demanded extradition, claiming the raiders were not soldiers and hence common criminals under the civil law. Amidst it all, Lieutenant Young wrote to the Daily Messenger, enclosing three dollars for a subscription, giving his address as “Montreal Jail.” Another raider wrote to the proprietor of the American House, enclosing “my check for five dollars in payment for my room, which I neglected to settle because of the bustle and excitement which accompanied my business in your fair city,” and asked the landlord to give his warmest regards to the fascinating “young lady who occupied the room adjacent to mine.”

When their case was called on December 7, 1864, Young introduced into evidence his commission and the orders from Richmond. He testified he was a citizen of the Confederate States, which was at war with the United States, and an officer in its army, and his actions at St. Albans were pursuant to orders. On December 13 or 14, 1864, Magistrate C. J. Coursol ruled he lacked jurisdiction over the prisoners and discharged them.

At the behest of the United States, the raiders were arrested and held for trial under a warrant issued by the Superior Court. The prosecution argued the absence of full documentation from Richmond vitiated the defense of authorization. On the last day of trial, literally at the last moment, the Reverend S. F. Cameron, a Confederate chaplain, ran into the courtroom. He had smuggled the official documents confirming Young’s orders from Richmond. Finding the prisoners were indeed soldiers under orders, duly authorized by their government to conduct expeditions against the United States, the Court released them.

At the war’s end, Young was among the handful of rebels excluded from President Johnson’s amnesty proclamation: a remarkable distinction for a lieutenant. He remained abroad for three years. On his return, he was admitted to the Kentucky bar and practiced law until his death in 1919. His 1906 photograph in Headley’s Confederate Operations shows a slender, handsome man with a full head of iron gray hair. He still looked very tough.

New York Press, August 18, 1999

December 25, 2015   No Comments

The Fallen Angel

Around twilight on June 7, 1812 the old soldier landed somewhere near today’s South Street Seaport. The colonel hastened to a friend’s house at 66 Water Street, only to find everyone away. Only around midnight did he find a room—already occupied by five other men—in “‘a plain house’ along a dark alley.” In the morning, he found his friend Samuel Swartwout at home, and after an affectionate welcome the Swartwout brothers lodged him.

The charm that had borne him up remained potent: a boyhood friend and long-time political opponent, Robert Troup, lent him ten dollars and a law library. He rented space at 9 Nassau Street. He took out some newspaper advertisements. He ordered a small tin sign, “brightly lacquered,” bearing his name, and tacked it to the outside wall.    When he arrived to open his office on the morning of July 5, 1812, a line of clients awaited him. Hundreds more would follow. Within twelve days, his receipts totaled a staggering $2,000.00. “However the inhabitants of New York viewed…the man,” Milton Lomask writes, “they had not forgotten the skills of…the advocate.”

Thus, at fifty-eight, Aaron Burr resumed the practice of law.

He had been born February 6, 1756 in Newark, New Jersey. He entered Princeton in the sophomore class at thirteen, took his degree with distinction at sixteen, and even spoke at commencement.

He was elegant from youth: small, slender, broad-shouldered, and handsome.  He had fine taste in clothes, as dozens of unpaid tailors on two continents would attest. His manners were exquisite, his conversation never palled, and whether in the courtroom or the United States Senate, he spoke quietly and conversationally, without bombast or literary allusion. He strove to see things as they are, not as they ought to be, and possessed a massive savoir faire: “… dexterity enough to conceal the truth, without telling a lie; sagacity enough to read other people’s countenances; and serenity enough not to let them discover anything by yours.”

He fought for American independence at the battles of Quebec, Brooklyn, and Morningside Heights. He was a lieutenant colonel at twenty-two, wintered at Valley Forge, and had a horse shot from under him at Monmouth on June 28, 1778. The man of pleasure once single-handedly suppressed a mutiny in his regiment.  A ringleader leveled his musket at Burr, shouting, “Now is the time, my brave boys.” The last syllable had barely left his lips when Burr’s saber severed his arm just above the elbow. There were no more mutinies.

During his service, he met Theodosia Prevost, the wife of a British officer serving in the West Indies who lived in Bergen County, New Jersey. Burr later wrote that Mrs. Prevost possessed “the truest heart, the ripest intellect, and the most winning manners of any woman” he had ever met. She spoke French fluently, frequently quoted the Latin poets, and read avidly. Burr admired her greatly. She responded with warmth and friendship.

Her husband died in 1781. She married Burr the following year. Nothing so testifies to Theodosia Prevost’s character, charm, and intelligence than that this sensual, cynical man was her faithful husband. More, though Burr was a feminist by instinct—he admired Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women—his marriage made his beliefs heartfelt. He was among the first practical politicians—and Burr was nothing if not practical—to work for women’s education on a par with men. “It was a knowledge of your mind,” he wrote to her, “which first inspired me…the ideas which you have often heard me express in favor of female intellectual powers are founded on what I have … seen…in you.” She died in 1794 after twelve years of marriage.

In 1782 he was admitted to the New York bar. He was elected to the Legislature in 1784, where he fought to abolish slavery, and appointed attorney general in 1789. Within two years, he was a United States Senator. Burr worked hard without taking politics seriously. For him it was the pursuit of “fun and honor & profit.”  This earned the antipathy of Thomas Jefferson, who took politics almost as seriously as he did himself.

Yet the Virginian and Burr needed one another. Burr controlled the country’s first mass party organization: the Society of St. Tammany. If Thomas Jefferson was the Democrats’ first ideologue, Burr was their first mechanic.

In 1800, the Jeffersonians nominated Burr for vice president and his troubles began. Presidential electors then voted for two candidates for president and vice president without specifying a preference either man’s holding either office. The candidate receiving the most votes became president; the runner-up became vice president. Jefferson and Burr tied with seventy-three votes each. The election went to the House of Representatives. The Federalists, who detested Jefferson, tried electing Burr instead. The House elected Jefferson President and Burr Vice President only after thirty-six ballots.

Jefferson froze Burr out and withheld patronage from his followers. In April 1804 Burr, knowing he would not be renominated for vice president, ran for governor of New York. Alexander Hamilton, former secretary of the Treasury, had come to hate Burr, and Hamilton’s rage was reflected in his intensely personal campaigning, which included indiscreet personal remarks reported in the newspapers. Burr was heavily defeated.

Burr seized upon correspondence published in the Albany Register. Dr. Charles Cooper wrote, “General Hamilton and Judge Kent have declared, in substance, that they looked upon Mr. Burr to be a dangerous man,” and “I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Burr.”

Burr requested an “acknowledgment or denial” of the “still more despicable opinion” of himself attributed to Hamilton. Two days later, Hamilton evasively replied with a dissertation on the meaning of “despicable.” Burr responded, “…the Common sense of mankind” affixed to the words “the idea of dishonor.” He then demanded that Hamilton generally disavow “any intention… to convey impressions derogatory to the honor of Mr. Burr.”

Hamilton was trapped. This meant denying most of his political conversations, speeches, and correspondence for nearly two decades. Hamilton now feebly offered that he could not recall using any term that would justify Dr. Cooper’s construction.

Burr again demanded a disclaimer. Hamilton refused. On June 27, 1804 Burr challenged and Hamilton accepted. On Wednesday, July 11, at 7 a.m., the two men stood ten paces apart on the Weehawken shore, pistols in hand. Hamilton missed. Burr did not.

Burr was indicted for murder in New York and in New Jersey. While his lawyers and friends worked to quash the indictments, he returned to Washington, where he resumed his duties as vice president. On March 2, 1805 his last day in public office, Burr rose from the chair. He stood before a hall of professional politicians familiar with every rhetorical device, many of whom despised him. Without changing his customary conversational tone, he spoke briefly of the United States and the Senate itself, “a sanctuary, a citadel of law, of order, and of liberty.” He implored Divine protection upon the Constitution and having spoken from the heart then stepped down, walked across the chamber, and went out the door.

Behind him, the Senate sat in absolute silence. Senator Samuel Mitchill of New York wrote, “My colleague, General Smith, stout and manly as he is, wept as profusely as I did. He…did not recover…for a quarter of an hour.”

Even before leaving office, Burr had begun a conspiracy. Precisely what Burr planned remains “a mystery, a puzzle, a lock without a key.” He told his first biographer, Matthew L. Davis, that the scheme he called “X” was intended to “revolutionize Mexico” and settle some lands he held in Texas. Perhaps it was.

But the legends remain and the papers tantalize: the maps of New Orleans, Veracruz, and the roads to Mexico City and the correspondence hinting he would not liberate but seize Mexico, draw the Western states from the Union, and, combining them into one nation, stand at the throne of the Aztecs and crown himself Emperor of the West.

“The gods invite us to glory and fortune,” Burr wrote to his co-conspirator, Gen. James Wilkinson. John Randolph of Roanoke, Virginia, most ferocious of politicians, called Wilkinson “the mammoth of iniquity… the only man I ever saw who was from the bark to the very core a villain.” Wilkinson, whose self-designed uniforms, encrusted with gold braid and frogging, failed to conceal his massive girth, was then general-in-chief of the U.S. Army. He was also a paid agent of Spain. At some point, Wilkinson told President Jefferson everything. On November 27, 1806 Jefferson issued a proclamation that led to the collapse of the plot and Burr’s arrest and indictment for treason by levying war against the United States.

Burr was tried in Richmond, Virginia before Chief Justice John Marshall, Jefferson’s third cousin (they detested each other). The United States attorney insinuated during the trial that Marshall would be impeached if he did not rule for the prosecution on the evidentiary motions. Marshall noted the threat in his decision. He also noted the Constitution required that treason be proven by the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act of treason. Of the dozens of witnesses presented by the government, not even one had testified to an overt act. Marshall then excluded all evidence presented by the government as “merely corroborative and incompetent.” Within twenty-five minutes, the jury found Burr not guilty.

He had beaten the treason rap and quashed the murder indictments.???you didn’t say above that his lawyers were successful. If so, why did he have to leave office??? Now, in a self-imposed exercise in discretion, Burr left for Europe, traveling to England, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and France, not to return for four years. At first, he sought financial support for “X” from the British and then the French. Nothing came of it. From the beginning of his exile[self-imposed?], Burr recorded his experiences in his private journal, in which he reveals himself as he does nowhere else. Perhaps its saddest revelations [fix repetition?] are that this vital, charming man was so easily bored. Yet, as Lomask writes, “There was a limit to how many parties he could attend, how many ceremonies he could watch, how many books he could read, how many bright and articulate people he could draw within the radiant circle of his charm.”

He devoted increasing energies to fornication, often with prostitutes and with other women whenever possible. Lomask notes he described his amatory encounters as muse, “a French hunting term meaning ‘the beginning of the rutting season in animals.'” Thus, in Copenhagen, after an unsatisfactory sexual encounter (bad muse), Burr returned to the hotel where the chambermaid occupied his time: “not bad; muse again.” During one busy morning in Stockholm, “ma bel Marie” came by after breakfast, a Hanoverian woman at nine, and “Carolin” at two p.m. The former vice president admitted he would have been happier if Carolin had deferred her visit to the next morning. Then he ordered a bath, noting “nothing restores me after too much muse like the hot bath.” In Paris, he noted muse was plentiful, but not always to his liking: he found the Parisiennes cold and calculating, with their passions in the head and not the heart. Yet some principles remained untainted despite boredom and lack of money. He never descended to drinking cheap wine.

After his return to the United States, he only dabbled in politics. In 1812, he was pulling strings for “an unknown man in the West, named Andrew Jackson, who will do credit to a commission in the army if conferred upon him.” When Jackson became President in 1829, Samuel Swartwout, whose hospitality Burr had enjoyed on his return from exile, was appointed Collector of the Port of New York with Burr’s help. As M. R. Werner relates, Swartwout later “hurried to Europe when his accounts showed that he had borrowed from the government’s funds… the sum of $1,225,705.69… The public, with that charming levity which has always characterized its attitude towards wholesale plunder, made the best of a bad situation by coining a new word… when a man put the government’s money into his own pocket, it was said… he had ‘Swartwouted.'”

In 1833, Burr married Eliza Jumel, probably the richest American woman of the time, for her money. Within the year, she began divorce proceedings upon the grounds of adultery, a remarkable, even heartening charge against a man of 78.

On September 14, 1836 the old man died in a second-floor room at Winant’s Inn, 2040 Richmond Terrace in Port Richmond, Staten Island. Two days later, he was buried by his father and grandfather in Princeton, New Jersey. Lomask writes, “For nearly twenty years the grave went unmarked. Then a relative arranged for the installation of a simple marble slab.”

December 24, 2015   No Comments

The Best Man

On November 7, 1876 Samuel Jones Tilden, Democrat, of New York, won the election to succeed Ulysses S. Grant as President of the United States. On March 5, 1877 a Republican from Ohio placed his hand on the Bible, looked the Chief Justice in the eye, and repeated, “I, Rutherford Birchard Hayes, do solemnly swear…” The elections of 1876 are unique: the only time when we know the result was fixed and the loser entered the White House.

Tilden was sixty-two when he began his great adventure. He was born in New Lebanon, New York. His father was a wheel-horse of the Albany Regency, the Democratic machine created by Martin Van Buren—“the Little Magician” —that dominated state politics from 1820 to 1840. Tilden grew up among the Regency’s leaders. Having inherited his father’s knack for analysis and deduction, Tilden simply listened to their conversations on great issues and low politics. By eighteen he was publishing political articles in the Albany Argus, by nineteen essays and pamphlets on taxes and banking. He often advanced his agenda with the pen: his research was thorough, his logic impeccable, and his prose cool, unemotional, logical, and persuasive.

The writing reflected the man. Tilden was cold and aloof. His only passions were politics and the law. He never married. He probably had no interest in sex at all. Harry Thurston Peck, a close observer, wrote, “He treated his friends as though at some time they might become his enemies.” Peck may be overstating it: Tilden had no friends.  He did not need them.

With a few scraps of formal education, including a term at Yale, he clerked in a law office while attending what is now New York University Law School. In 1841, he was admitted to the bar and two years later became New York City’s corporation counsel. Two years later, he was elected to the State Assembly, where his land reform legislation ended the Patroon Wars between the great upstate landlords and their tenant farmers and won him a reputation for statesmanship.

On returning to private life, he specialized in reorganizing railroads and over two decades made a fortune in salvaging, rearranging, and combining sickly corporations. He was loyal to Van Buren’s anti-slavery Democrats, the Barnburners. As the Little Magician moved left, Tilden went with him, even bolting the Democratic Party when Van Buren ran for President in 1848 on an anti-slavery third-party ticket.

Tilden’s public personality largely concealed a shy, cold hypochondriac behind a façade of worldliness and good manners. One had to know him well to dislike him. He could do nothing about his appearance: sallow, with a prominent nose and jutting chin, graying hair, and a pronounced stoop. His voice was hoarse, even unpleasant. Yet the voice carried, and the mind behind it manufactured a kind of stripped-down rhetoric, clear, logical, and persuasive, that struck sparks in the minds of Tilden’s listeners. Few so cold have ignited such passion in their followers.

Tilden cautiously supported the Civil War effort, though he considered the Republicans revolutionaries, trying to create an excessively powerful federal government to impose their social agenda without regard to its effect on individual freedom.

During the 1860s, as William M. Tweed dominated the New York City Democratic Party through Tammany Hall, Tilden quietly noted the organization’s growing corruption—he observed everything—until Tweed began raiding the City treasury beyond reason and good taste. When The New York Times, then a Republican partisan rag, broke the scandals in 1870, Tilden was initially cautious. Then he decided to help destroy Tweed to save the party. He personally financed much of the investigation that made Tweed’s prosecution inevitable and successful.

The Democratic Party needed a gubernatorial candidate who could distract voters from the scandal. Tilden, who now believed he was the only man who could clean up the state, was available. In 1874, Tilden was elected governor. He exposed and shattered the Canal Ring, a conspiracy of contractors and officeholders who had grafted millions from the state waterways. The local hero became the presidential contender.

As the Centennial opened, the Grant administration was exhausted by eight years of scandal. The President, a lion among jackals, was blind to his friends’ dishonesty and incompetence. Like most revolutionaries, the Republicans knew how to enjoy power once they’d seized it, and their corruption created a backlash for change.

Tilden won the Democratic nomination on the second ballot. The Republicans deadlocked for seven ballots before compromising on Rutherford B. Hayes. For once, compromise was a good thing. Educated at Kenyon College and Harvard Law School, Hayes was a successful lawyer-politician. In 1861, he marched off with the 23rd Ohio as a major (one of the privates was future President William McKinley). In 1865, he returned a major general. He led from the front because that was where a leader belonged (he was wounded five times, seeing more front line fighting than any other President). He was a competent, scrupulously fair administrator in later life because he had learned an officer’s first duty was his men’s welfare and so, throughout his political career, his most faithful supporters were the men he had led in battle.

Hayes was elected to Congress and then three terms as Governor of Ohio. Hayes, good-humored and kindly, was attractive, clear-eyed, eloquent, magnetic, and generous. Men admired Tilden. They loved Hayes.

An American presidential campaign is really a series of campaigns and much of it, like an iceberg, is invisible to a casual observer. In 1876, the Civil War had only been over for a decade. Much of the South was still ruled by Republican puppet governors upheld by the Army. As the Republicans were the party of abolition, Southern whites flocked to the Democracy.

Southern elections had become times of terror. Outside the state capitals and the lines of communication held by federal troops, as numerous government records, newspaper files, and collections of private correspondence make clear, white extremists conducted a secret war of fire and blood against Republicans. Unlike the lumpenproletariat comprising today’s Klan, these terrorists were often community leaders bitterly determined to destroy the Republicans, disenfranchise the blacks, and restore white rule.

They intimidated tens of thousands of former slaves from voting. Republican activists who didn’t get the message, whether former slaves or carpetbaggers, including the white women teachers who had come south to teach former slaves how to read and write, were burned out, murdered, lynched, or raped. The nightriders, believing they were entitled to rule, acted on their irrational resentment of anyone who even seemed to threaten their entitlement.

Above all this, the two major candidates fought it out on a high plane. Beneath them, the campaign sank lower and lower. The reports indicate that Tilden was accused of having been a miser, a tax dodger, a traitor, a secessionist, and a supporter of slavery. There were many suggestive references to his bachelorhood.

Nonetheless, on November 7, 1876 Tilden polled 4,300,590; Hayes, 4,036,298; Peter Cooper, the inventor, financier, and founder of Cooper Union on Astor Place, polled 81,737 on the Greenback ticket, and other candidates polled 12,158. Hayes went to bed believing he had lost. Zach Chandler, the Republican National Chairman, went to bed with a bottle of whiskey to console himself.

Hayes’s managers had a better idea. With the cooperation of The New York Times, they planted stories in the mass media casting doubt on Tilden’s election by claiming Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina for the Republicans. The Republican National Committee converted that doubt to reality by challenging and invalidating returns from Democratic counties. Tilden’s 7,000 vote majority in Louisiana vanished when the certifying board threw out 13,000 of his votes.

In Florida, the certifying board apparently determined Hayes’s electors had won despite Tilden’s majority. In South Carolina, where the governor regularly executed state papers between entertainments in one of Charleston’s finer whorehouses, anything was possible. The new results threw the electoral votes of those states to Hayes, giving him a margin of one vote: 185 to 184.

When the Electoral College voted in December 1876, the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives could not even agree on how the votes should be counted. Tilden fought with the weapons honed over a lifetime: precedent, analysis, and reasoned argument.

He wrote a brilliant series of articles and studies arguing that the votes should be counted before the House, so coolly logical, sensible, and persuasive as to prevent the Senate leadership from unilaterally accepting the contested results and proclaiming Hayes the President-elect. It is uncommon to find politicians shamed from doing what they want by mere writings, but there it is.

Meanwhile, the nation slid toward civil war. There were rumors of violence and military coups. Demonstrators chanted, “Tilden or Blood.” Democrats began drilling. Army officers began hinting that restive troops were ready to march on Washington, to win a second time at bayonet point the victory already won in the ballot box.

We do not know when the moment’s ripeness was made clear to Samuel J. Tilden. Nevertheless, for a few days in the winter of 1877, he held the power to ignite a second Civil War. No one could have blamed him. He had won the Presidency, only to have it taken from him by one vote in a shabby burglary. It would have required a single word, a nod, perhaps only a moment’s convenient silence.

It did not come. He publicly denounced even the suggestion of the use of force. He insisted that he would take power by law.

To end the deadlock, on January 29, 1877, Congress created by a bipartisan Electoral Commission to resolve the dispute. Oddly enough, both Hayes and Tilden denounced the Electoral Commission as unconstitutional. Both announced they would accept the result. The Electoral Commission began deliberating on February 2, 1877. Inauguration Day was on March 5.

At some point, the Commission chose not to go beyond the returns. This served both parties. The Republicans did not want the corruption of the official results investigated. The Democrats did not want an examination into their relationship with the nightriders. Perhaps, as some have suggested of more recent national elections, neither party wanted an honest exploration of the other party’s misconduct.  Such an investigation might have gone out of control and spoil the game for the players, if not the people.

On February 26, 1877, four Southern Democrats and five Ohio Republicans, including future President James A. Garfield, met at the Wormley House, a Washington hotel. Nothing was put on paper. They agreed that, if Hayes was inaugurated without disruption, Federal troops would be withdrawn from the South.  The Reconstruction state governments would collapse in favor of rule by the Southern white elite.

Then by party lines, eight to seven, the Commission voted for the Hayes electors, thus making Hayes the 19th President. The results were announced on March 2, 1877. Hayes was privately sworn in at the White House on March 3, 1877, just in case, and went through the public ceremony two days later.

On learning of the Commission’s decision, Tilden smiled, murmuring, “It is what I expected.” Later, he said, “I can retire to private life with the consciousness… of having been elected to the highest office in the gift of the people, without any of its cares and responsibilities.” Withdrawing into his Gothic Revival brownstone townhouse on Gramercy Park South, Tilden died in 1886, leaving most of his fortune to create what is now the New York Public Library.

Few men so unloving have done so much for their country. By breaking up the great Dutch land grants, his land reform laws created thousands of independent farmers. The Tweed Ring was smashed with his money and not one dime of his expenditures was ever repaid. At the great moment of his life, he refused to let his followers install him by force in the Presidency he had won by right. His posthumous gift that created the New York Public Library has enriched millions of lives, including mine.

Rutherford B. Hayes kept his part of the deal. On April 24, 1877, less than two months after taking office, Hayes ordered the Federal troops back to their barracks, ending Reconstruction. He retired after one term and died at his home in Spiegel Grove, Ohio on January 13, 1893, aged 70. Only a few still called him “His Fraudulency the President.”

Over fifty years ago, Irving Stone published They Also Ran, a collection of essays on losing major party presidential candidates that is something of a minor classic. He summed up the election of 1876 thus: “It had been a photo finish, with history serving as the infallible camera. By the time the film could be developed, the wrong people had collected their money and gone home, the stands were deserted, the track dark. Yet there remains the picture for all time, with Tilden out front by a nose.”

New York Press, November 28, 2000

November 28, 2015   No Comments

Charles F. Murphy, Kingmaker

Until 1961 Tammany Hall dominated the New York County Democratic Committee. Tammany was among the oddest, most enduring, and most effective political machines in American history: a fraternal and patriotic society, with arcane initiations and ceremonies drawn from white legends of Chief Tamanend, a Delaware Indian. Its members were braves, its officers the Wiskinkie and the Sagamore, and its elders the Sachems. At times, Tammany resembled nothing so much as a Raccoon Lodge of ballot box stuffers. As one parodist wrote:

Tammany Hall’s a patriotic outfit,
Tammany Hall’s an old society.
Fourth of July it always waves the flag, boys,
But never will it waive immunity.

On Independence Day 1905, the braves gathered as usual at the Wigwam—located then at Fourteenth Street near Irving Place—to hear the Long Talk and then partake of the Great Feast and drink of the Waters of Life. On the stage sat the Council of Sachems, including the boss, Charles F. Murphy. All wore ceremonial sashes, medals, frock coats, stiff collars, and silk hats despite a room temperature of 105 degrees. After the Long Talk, all rose to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Off to the side, William Riordan, the New York Sun’s political reporter, observed Murphy closely. As the meeting broke, Riordan caught up with the Secretary of the Democratic County Committee. “What’s with Murphy?” Riordan asked. “He didn’t sing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.'”

“Perhaps he didn’t want to commit himself,” the Secretary replied.

Charles Francis Murphy, Tammany’s chief from 1902 to 1924, was a legend, ominously shrouded in silence, mystery, and power. As a contemporary noted, only two local autocrats, New York Giants manager John McGraw and Charles F. Murphy, were universally addressed as “Mister.”

If silence can be flamboyant, then Mr. Murphy was an exhibitionist. Asked by a passerby for the time, Mr. Murphy would gaze back benignly, pull out his pocket watch, and hold it up to the questioner’s eyes, never opening his mouth. He left no records, formal speeches, or letters and granted no interviews of consequence. He once murmured, “Never write when you can speak; never speak when you can nod; never nod when you can blink.” Eighteen words was extravagance in Murphy’s taciturn world.

U30727INPHis motivations were inexplicable to his closest friends and one could only infer the obvious: politics was a road to success, honors, and wealth for an ambitious man who had been born poor.

The Murphys were so obscure that no one is sure of his father’s first name. The second of nine children, Charles F. Murphy was born in 1856. He became a manual laborer at the age of fourteen and then a horsecar driver. In 1876, he organized a baseball team. He was a good catcher and received several offers from professional clubs. But in 1880 he used his life savings of $500 to open a bar, Charlie’s Place, at 19th Street and Avenue A, where Stuyvesant Town now stands. He sold a beer and a cup of soup for five cents, frequently tended bar, and offered a sympathetic ear.

In 1892, he became district leader. He kept tabs on his voters, and if any Democrat in the district hadn’t voted by 3 PM, Mr. Murphy sent him a card by a messenger, respectfully inviting him to the polls. Mr. Murphy could be found standing under an old gas lamp every night outside his clubhouse, available to anyone who needed to see him. Hard work and accessibility piled up huge majorities for the Democratic ticket.

Then and later, conversations with Mr. Murphy were brief and one-sided. The supplicant spoke for a minute or two. Then Mr. Murphy nodded yes or no. His promises were carefully considered and conservatively granted.  Once made they were binding, no matter how circumstances might change.

Tammany was the intermediary between the poor—particularly the immigrant poor—and American society. The poor gave Tammany their votes. In return, Tammany provided jobs and handouts. The leadership used its power for profit. During the early nineteenth century, Tammanyites such as Samuel Swartout, U.S. Collector of Customs and embezzler, literally grabbed the money and ran. The Tweed Ring took kickbacks from contractors. Boss Croker extorted bribes from whorehouses, gambling halls, and illegal bars in exchange for protection from law enforcement.mr._murphy_at-tammany

The local reformers, then as now, were more interested in cutting expenses than in easing the lives of the common people. They often tried to enforce an arid Protestant morality requiring rigid observance of the Sunday closing laws (which, in the context of a six-day week, meant workers had no fun at all). By contrast, Tammany winked at Sunday openings, passed out free turkeys at Christmas, buckets of coal during the winter, and free ice during the summer, and maintained the personal contacts that gave and still give a sense of security to the poor. Reform offered justice. Tammany offered mercy. In a world of sinners, mercy wins every time.

In 1897, Charles F. Murphy was appointed a Dock Commissioner. Fiercely proud of the title, Mr. Murphy thereafter preferred to be addressed as “Commissioner.” The Commission offered opportunities for what Riordan—in his classic satire of machine politics, Plunkett of Tammany Hall—called “honest graft”: the then-legal use of inside information and influence to make money. One of Murphy’s brothers organized the New York Contracting and Trucking Corporation. The brother and two old friends each owned five shares. The remaining eighty-five shares were owned, according to M. A. Werner’s Tammany Hall, by “an unnamed person who was never identified.”

Whether the “unnamed person” was Charles F. Murphy was almost immaterial.  It was as if the city had given Murphy’s brother a four-color press with permission to print all the money he might need. New York Contracting suddenly gained wonderfully inexpensive leases for city-owned docks, which it then sublet to international shipping companies for enormous rents.  Later, when the Pennsylvania Railroad began building Penn Station and its tunnels beneath the Hudson and the East Rivers, the Board of Aldermen stopped blocking the building permits only after the Pennsy awarded New York Contracting a huge construction contract—despite a bid twenty-five percent above the lowest bid.

The Commissioner became friends with one of his colleagues, J. Sergeant Cram, a monocled aristocrat (Harvard Class of ’86) who served as Dock Commissioner and as Secretary of the Democratic County Committee, who was in politics for the fun of it.  Cram taught Murphy how to wear white tie and tails and eat peas with a fork. Their friendship gave Murphy insight into polite society, a side of life with which he had no previous contacts. It endured until Cram’s ambitions impaired his judgment. U.S. Senator is a reasonable ambition in a Harvard man, but delusional in a Dock Commissioner.

Richard Croker had been boss for nearly two decades when Tammany lost the 1901 Mayoral election. On May 14, 1902, power fell to a triumvirate: Daniel F. McMahon, a district leader/crooked contractor, Louis F. Haffen, the Bronx Borough President, and Charles F. Murphy. (“Abbe Sieyes, Roger Ducos, and Napoleon Bonaparte,” Cram murmured, alluding to the First Republic’s three-man Consulate.) Five months and five days later Murphy put the others aside and became the Chief.  He would wield power for a generation.

His leadership style was to keep abreast of developments throughout the city, consult with the lesser leaders, and test the views of others before advancing his own. His taciturnity led “the boys” to think, as Werner wrote, that “he [always] had something in reserve…It was the cards he was holding back that gave him command of the situation.” He had a facility for grasping even the most complicated political or legal issue. Every week, he met with his district leaders: they would talk about their problems. He listened, said a few words, and then acted. Politics was his vocation and avocation. He worked at it furiously and exclusively, and he invariably enjoyed the effort.

Mr. Murphy didn’t originate the machine as an informal welfare system, but he expanded the district clambakes, aid for widows, and food baskets for the poor. What made Mr. Murphy different was what former President George H.W. Bush once called the vision thing. He began developing a stable of great candidates.

In 1903, when Murphy defeated incumbent Mayor Seth Low, a reformer, with George McClellan Jr., a Congressman and the son of the Civil War general, the braves began referring to the Chief in their campaign songs:

Big Chief sits in his teepee
Cheering braves to victory
Tammany, Tammany,
Swamp ’em, swamp ’em,
Get the wampum,
Tammany!

Two years later, McClellan was opposed by William Randolph Hearst whose campaign for Mayor made Murphy the issue. Hearst’s campaigners sang:

Everybody woiks but Murphy;
He just rakes in the dough.

The braves sang back:

What’s the matter with Murphy?
He’s all right!

Mr. Murphy stopped all that: the last thing he wanted was to be conspicuous. He knew what needed to be done. Hearst won the 1905 election as the ballots went into the boxes, but McClellan won as they came out—by fewer than 3,500 votes, barely one-half of one percent. McClellan’s gratitude was short-lived.  He attempted to oust Mr. Murphy. McClellan failed.  He never held office again.

William Jay Gaynor, Murphy’s next choice, was unique among Mayors. He was scholarly, philosophical, witty, hot-tempered (his stunning second wife was rumored to have once ended an argument by firing a pistol at him)—and incorruptible. Gaynor provided no patronage to the organization. When a reporter asked, “What are you going to give Murphy?” Gaynor replied, “A few kind words.”

His official letters, which he dictated personally, are preserved in the Municipal Reference Library. Most read like this:

Dear Sir:
Thank you for your kind letter of the 24th instant. Very truly yours,

William J. Gaynor
MAYOR

But every once in a while, one will find something like:

Dear Sir:
I see by your letter that you are a scoundrel and a scamp. Nonetheless, I have often derived much profit from the writings of scoundrels and scamps. Very truly yours,

William J. Gaynor
MAYOR

Mr. Murphy elected his first governor, John A. Dix, in 1910. Werner notes that Dix won fame only “by designing for himself as chief of the National Guard a uniform of much gorgeousness which he wore on state occasions until laughed out of it by a disrespectful press.” His successor, William Sulzer, publicly broke with Murphy over patronage.  In a naked display of power, Murphy destroyed him: within eleven months of taking the oath Sulzer was impeached and removed from office on trumped-up charges involving campaign finance reports. The third time was a charm: he elected Alfred E. Smith, who went on to serve four terms.

Smith had gone from Speaker of the Assembly to New York County Sheriff to President of the Board of Aldermen. He initially turned down the shrievality. Sheriffs were then compensated by fees rather than a fixed salary, which meant that, in New York County, the incumbent could legitimately become a millionaire—without grafting or stealing—within a year.  Mr. Murphy finally had to call Smith in for a meeting at which he explained things: “Al, I’m making you sheriff so you can make some money.  Then you can afford to be an honest man.” When Smith became governor, Murphy said, “I shall be asking you for things, Al, but if I ever ask you for anything which you think would impair your record, just tell me so and that will be the end of it.” Richard Croker had never even elected a governor. Murphy hoped to make Smith President of the United States.  If he had lived, perhaps that might have happened.

In any event, Murphy elected three governors, three mayors, two United States Senators, and numerous proteges who bloomed after his death, including Mayor Jimmy Walker and U.S. Senator Robert F. Wagner Sr. By 1923, Tammany held the governorship, the mayoralty, and numerous other elected offices. No other Tammany leader ever had or would ever again enjoy such power.

On the morning of April 25, 1924, a doctor was summoned to Mr. Murphy’s house. The Chief was crumpled in pain on the sun-dappled floor of his bathroom. It was probably a heart attack. Three days later, he was buried out of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Members of the political aristocracy filled every pew and, as Milton Mackaye wrote, “crowds of lesser satraps, freshly scrubbed and fumigated, stood…in the aisles and passageways.” Murphy went to his tomb along streets lined with over sixty thousand people. It was, according to one observer, New York’s most impressive funeral since the death of General Grant.

New York Press, October 28, 1998

October 28, 2015   No Comments

I Fights Mit Sigel

Joseph Brodsky, in “Homage to Marcus Aurelius,” describes the “etiquette of equestrian statuary: “…when a horse, for instance, rears up under the rider, it means that the latter died in battle. If all of its four hooves rest on the pediment, that suggests he died in his four-poster.” Up at Riverside Drive and West 106th Street, Karl Bitter’s heroic bronze represents Major General Franz Sigel, U.S. Army, astride his stallion (it is, as the Spanish say, an entire horse), gazing toward the Palisades. The horse’s four feet are firmly planted in the ground. He is going nowhere, as if in protest to his rider’s latest imbecility.

“What was curious about him,” wrote Stephen Douglas Engle, Sigel’s sole biographer, “was not what he did, but his exalted status for what he failed to do.” He was born at Sinheim, in the Grand Duchy of Baden, on November 24, 1824. In 1843, Sigel graduated with honors from the Military School at Carlsruhe, received his lieutenant’s commission, and despite his liberal views served Grand Duke Leopold with distinction until 1847, when he was challenged to a duel over his politics. As an officer, he could not refuse. He fatally wounded his opponent, was placed under arrest, and resigned his commission.

The European rebellions of 1848 are comparable only to the 1968 student revolts throughout Europe and the United States. In Germany, the Forty-Eighters sought German unification under a liberal constitution. Sigel became the revolutionary government’s war minister. When the Prussians invaded to restore the old order, he took the field, lost all three of his battles, and skipped for Switzerland.

In exile, he revealed his true genius: public relations. Sigel’s skills as a self-publicizing journalist and orator transformed him from the man who had lost every battle he had fought into a legendary hero. Meanwhile, he made a living. He even played piano in a sideshow at London’s Crystal Palace. In 1852 he came to New York, where he taught, published a weekly newspaper, and joined the state militia. He also organized German athletic and cultural societies, thus creating and maintaining friendships among German immigrant leaders throughout the major eastern cities, and published articles in German-language newspapers across the country. In 1857, the German-American Institute of St. Louis, Missouri appointed him instructor in mathematics and history.

Throughout his adult life, Sigel was solidly built, weighing about 145 pounds, and roughly 5’7″ tall. In youth, his hair was coal black. He carried himself like a soldier; his gaze was piercing and his handshake firm. Despite an intelligent and sensitive mind, he was terse and humorless. Americans found him stiff, nervous, and unyielding. Yet the man whom West Pointers called “the block of ice” could move and inspire German-speaking audiences. He came to incarnate their hopes for winning honor and advancement in their new country.

On May 4, 1861, he was elected colonel of the Third Missouri; six days later, he helped suppress the attempted secession of Missouri. His first independent command, at the Battle of Carthage, was marked as usual by defeat, but somehow the press coverage presented him well, and he became famous. On August 10, 1861, as a newly minted brigadier general, he commanded a wing of the Federal forces at Wilson’s Creek, contributing to the Union defeat by his inept handling of troops.  Indeed, his command was routed by two companies of Louisiana volunteers. Yet again he was widely praised in the press.

Part of this stemmed from media manipulation. He was a master of the exclusive interview and the news leak. His aides hand-delivered his dispatches to reporters so that his version of events got out first. Thus bloomed his career.

When he was passed over for independent field command in December 1861, he offered his resignation in protest. Public support from thousands of immigrants convinced his superiors to decline a resignation they had received with joy. Thus he commanded two divisions at the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, perhaps his finest hour, where he did not foul up. Friendly newspapers consequently proclaimed him the true genius of the victory, rather than his commander, the quietly competent General Samuel Curtis, and Sigel received his second star on March 21, 1862.

Major General Sigel was transferred to Virginia. His adoring fans lionized him during the train journey from Missouri. One who believed Sigel’s press clippings might think Grant and Lincoln had little to do with the war’s conduct. There were even popular dialect songs:

I’ve come shust now to tells you how
I goes mit regimentals,
To SCHLAUCH dem foes of Liberty,
Like dem old Continentals
Vot fights mit England, long ago
To save de Yankee eagle;
Un now I gets mine sojer clothes,
I’m going to fight mit Sigel.

Chorus:
Yaw! daus is drue, I shpeaks mit you,
I’m going to fight mit Sigel.

Happily, Sigel’s modest performance as a corps commander under Major General John Pope was overlooked after Pope’s debacle at the Second Battle of Manassas in August 1862. His superiors quietly shunted him into insignificant posts where he could do no harm.

But, unsatisfied by mere prestige, Franz Sigel lusted for glory. As the 1864 presidential election approached, he lobbied for a major command. He got the Department of West Virginia, effective February 29, 1864. A staff officer wrote, “The [German] vote must be secured at all hazards. And the sacrifice of West Virginia is a small matter.” Grant soon ordered Sigel to advance upon Staunton, Virginia to cut the Virginia Central Railroad and threaten Lee’s left flank.

Major General John C. Breckinridge, C.S.A., the Confederate commander of the Western Department of Virginia and Sigel’s opposite number, had been appointed to his command only four days earlier. State legislator, Congressman, and United States Senator, Breckinridge had become the youngest Vice President of the United States at thirty-five. At thirty-nine, although a reluctant Presidential nominee, he had run second to Lincoln in the Electoral College. He had not left the Union: the Union had expelled him to the Confederacy by ordering his arrest for his principled opposition to the war. In a moment of anger and frustration, he accepted a general’s commission in the Confederate army. He later called this the greatest mistake of his life.

In the spring of 1864, he was only forty-three years old. He was tall, strikingly attractive, genial, good-humored, hard working, and almost effortlessly competent. Although Breckinridge was not a professional soldier, he learned from experience. He did not make the same mistake twice. Basil Duke, one of his subordinates, wrote that Breckinridge “had unquestionably a remarkable sagacity in all matters pertaining to actual warfare….”

His courage and resolution were superb…Along with his stronger and more virile qualities was an exceeding amiability of temper and an admirable self-control.”

Not the least among his lesser gifts was his magnificent horsemanship: his style was famously smooth and graceful: “General Breckinridge galloped past, riding like a Cid.” Years later, on being called the handsomest man on horseback, a particularly dashing Union cavalryman replied, “You never saw John Breckinridge.”

As Sigel was careless about security, General Robert E. Lee soon learned he would advance into the Shenandoah Valley with some 23,000 Union veterans: good troops, well rested, well supplied. They had served well under other commanders and would again. Against this, Breckinridge commanded some 5,500 Confederate regulars and militia.

Sigel began a leisurely advance on May 1, opposed only by skirmishing Rebel cavalrymen. Though effectively unimpeded, he advanced only sixty-five miles in two weeks. On May 5, he held maneuvers, sending forth a regiment as a skirmish line. Then he forgot about it. At the end of the day, the army counted its casualties: “Killed, none; wounded, none; missing, the 34th Massachusetts Infantry.”

Confederate raiders began plundering Sigel’s supply lines. He continued his advance while pulling his scouts from reconnaissance to escort the wagon trains, thus moving blindly into enemy country. He allowed his forces to be badly strung out over some nineteen miles of muddy road.  It is difficult to imagine a mistake that he did not make.

By contrast, Breckinridge’s scouts reported nearly every Union move, sometimes within minutes.  The former Vice President had united his forces, making clever use of the railroads to speed his advance.  General Lee even authorized him to accept the services of 257 cadets from the renowned Virginia Military Institute, the West Point of the South. The cadets marched 160 miles in four days to reach the front.

On May 14, Sigel’s forces encountered a Confederate cavalry screen—the human equivalent of radar—about eight miles north of New Market, Virginia. As Sigel pressed south into the town, the Rebel horsemen gave ground before him, remaining just out of reach while sending estimates of the Union forces to Breckinridge.

By 6:00 a.m., Breckinridge’s artillery was already on the high ground about a mile south of New Market. Breckinridge feinted with his cavalry against the Union forces, trying to spark a fight, even while marching and counter-marching several of his units just within sight of the enemy to create the illusion of greater numbers. It worked. Sigel disregarded his own intelligence reports, having concluded that Breckinridge must be commanding upwards of 9000 men. Some of Sigel’s subordinates believed there were 20,000 Confederates on the field.

Breckinridge stood atop Shirley’s hill, the high ground south of New Market. He opened his watch, turned to his commanders and said, “It is 11:00 o’clock. I have offered him battle and he declines to advance on us. I shall advance on him.”

Throughout the war, Breckinridge’s basic battle plan never varied, largely because it always worked and his opponents never bothered to study his successes. He used it again at New Market. His cavalry flanked Sigel’s front line, pushing it back, and his infantry pressed the Union troops back into the town. By 12:30 p.m., Breckinridge had taken New Market from Sigel.

At 2:00 p.m., Breckinridge rode forward with his field artillery. Instead of using his guns conventionally, merely to soften up the enemy before the attack, he used them as the most mobile part of his offense, often ahead of his infantry, advancing, firing, and advancing again. This was revolutionary: the infantry were supposed to protect the guns, not the other way around. This too worked. Sigel’s first line fell back in disorder, running through his second line and throwing it into confusion.

Breckinridge handled his outnumbered troops so well that when he began his general advance in mid-afternoon, he would have more troops in combat than Sigel. At this moment, a Union artillery battery blasted a hole in the left center of Breckinridge’s line with grapeshot and canister. His troops were now fully engaged. His only reserve was the cadets. Breckinridge turned to his aide de camp, Major Charles Semple, with tears in his eyes. “Put the boys in, and may God forgive me for the order.”

An aide galloped up to the commandant of cadets with the orders. The cadets cheered. Then, in perfect order, they advanced, closing their ranks under fire as their comrades began dropping. They plugged the gap, fired a volley, and then advanced with the rest of Breckinridge’s line through mud that sucked the shoes from their feet.

Sigel tried to organize a counterattack. In his excitement he began barking orders in German, making his commands incomprehensible. The cadets drove toward a battery. The Union artillerists fired to nearly the last moment, leaving one gun behind. Then the boys were among them, and it was over. Ten cadets died; forty-seven were wounded. Breckinridge rode up, encrusted with mud, and called out, “Well done, men!” One cadet replied, “That’s very nice, general, but where’s the commissary wagon?”

Undaunted, Sigel began yet another attempt to transform military debacle into personal advancement even as he left the field.  He began firing reports to the newspapers, describing his retreat as a “retrograde movement” and grossly inflating the size of Breckinridge’s forces. The New York Tribune for May 18, 1864 even printed “SIGEL WHIPS THE REBELS AT NEW MARKET.”

But the feline Union chief of staff, Henry Halleck, had already wired General Grant, “…Sigel is already in full retreat…If you expect anything from him you will be mistaken. He will do nothing but run. He never did anything else.” Halleck then inquired whether General Grant felt the Department of West Virginia needed a new commander. Grant shot back: “BY ALL MEANS…APPOINT…ANYONE ELSE TO THE COMMAND OF WEST VIRGINIA.”

On May 19, 1864, four days after New Market, the day after the New York Tribune had printed its headline, Sigel was relieved of command. He would never command troops again and resigned his commission in 1865.

For the rest of  his long life, he would edit and publish German weeklies in Baltimore and then New York. In 1869, the Republicans nominated him for Secretary of State of the State of New York. He campaigned against prohibition, arguing that lager was God-sent, and asked the immigrants to stand up and “fights mit Sigel again.” As usual, he lost.

He died August 22, 1902. Over 25,000 followed his coffin to Woodlawn Cemetery. Five years later, a magnificent parade marked his monument’s unveiling on Riverside Drive. Behind the mounted police, cavalry, infantry, and artillery marched the Grand Army of the Republic and dozens of the German societies he had so loved and who had so loved him, from the Deutsche Liederkranz to the Vereinigung Deutsche Demokraten des Bronx and the New Yorker Deutscher Apothker Verein.

Franz Sigel is an exemplar: how not to do it. Yet, his career was not without glory—for others. Every 15th of May, VMI’s Corps of Cadets march in review, bayonets fixed, to the roll of muffled drums. Before them float the school colors, bearing the same seal of Virginia (with its motto “Sic semper tyrannis”) that their predecessors followed to New Market. Then the adjutant, having roared attention to roll call, barks ten names: Cabell, Atwill, Crockett, Hartsfield, Haynes, Jefferson, Jones, McDowell, Stanard, and Wheelwright. After each name, the ranks before him shout back, “Dead upon the field of honor, sir!”

New York Press, June 21, 2000

June 21, 2015   1 Comment

Michael Rosano, City Hall Insider

The first month’s name honors the god Janus, whose two faces let him simultaneously contemplate past and future. I suspect most of us look backwards, contemplating time spent, which increasingly for me is marked by death.

In my college’s quarterly alumni newsletter, nearly 25 years after my graduation, an increasing number of familiar names appear among the obituaries. I was throwing out old papers in yet another failed attempt to clean my office when I noticed an obituary I had clipped from The New York Times. Michael Rosano, who was and still is my friend, died a little more than a year ago, on October 13, 2000. He was 42 years old. He was a rarity: a political animal who was also a human being.

I first met him 20 years ago this month. On January 1, 1982, I attended the inauguration of Andrew Stein as Manhattan borough president. I would work for Stein, on and off, for the next 11 years. (My rabbi, Walter McCaffrey, introduced me to the Stein staff. Walter is neither Jewish nor a religious sage, although one would always be better off for heeding his wise advice. According to Lardner and Reppetto’s NYPD, this use of the word “rabbi” is peculiar to New York, dating from the late 19th century when some Irish Catholic police officer first used the term to refer to the senior officer or politician, usually also Irish Catholic, who was his mentor, protector, and counselor.)

Anyway, I was by then a self-taught editor and speechwriter, so I ended up in the Borough President’s press office, where Michael’s desk was conveniently located in the far corner, out of the line of sight of anyone bursting in the door to see the press secretary. Michael and I both came from Albany County: he from the city of Albany and I from Latham, which is, as F. Lee Bailey once said in a courtroom speech, “an unincorporated hamlet.” Albany is the last fortress of upstate yellow-dog Democracy. Among the family legends is my grandfather’s explanation of an infected hand: he had brushed the GOP lever on a voting machine. Even Michael only once admitted to voting for a Republican, although he was excused his apostasy because she was a woman and an Italian, and she lost.

Michael was darkly handsome, gentle, and dryly humorous. He often claimed that, although born of Italian heritage and a gay man (someone once called him “the capo di tutti frutti”), his soul was that of an uppity Jewish woman from the Upper West Side. A few weeks ago, while watching Robin Bartlett’s wonderful performance in Richard Greenberg’s Everett Beekin, I found tears in my eyes because, somehow, her manner and intonation vividly reminded me of my friend’s manner of camping it up.

We both took politics seriously while taking politicians lightly, so we hit it off. He had studied English literature at New York University and written for the school’s daily paper. Occasionally, after the second or third drink, he murmured about interviewing Sid Vicious at the Chelsea Hotel. “Mr. Vicious,” as Michael insisted on calling him, had received Michael in the squalid room the singer then shared with Nancy Spungeon. Sid was nearly stupefied when he opened the door to the boy reporter, and his answers were increasingly tangential and then incoherent. Finally he fell asleep between one sentence and another. Michael called the musician’s name a couple of times. The only replies were snores. Michael picked up his notebook and stole silently away.

Michael entered politics in 1976, when he volunteered to work for the great Bella Abzug in her Democratic primary campaign for the U.S. Senate against Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Michael was unusual for an 18-year-old in politics: he was efficient, hardworking, and enduringly patient, and Mrs. Abzug’s managers took note of him. After his graduation from NYU, Michael briefly worked at Channel 13, where, as in most not-for-profit organizations, the infighting might have tested the political skills of the Borgias. Then he came to the Manhattan Borough President’s office.

Michael was the first openly gay man whom I knew well. He told me that he had known from childhood that he was gay (I found nothing odd in this: I knew I liked women at the age of six, although I could not have told you why). His family loved him; his colleagues trusted and respected him. Nonetheless, he felt alienated, with a mild sense of always being the Other nearly everywhere save among his friends or among gay people. Despite his gracious manners and self-control, he bitterly resented anyone who did not accept his right to live as he wished without criticism or discrimination. In particular, he developed an antipathy to organized Christianity in general and Roman Catholicism in particular, although his relationships with individual priests and ministers were often quite friendly.

We have lived with AIDS as both a disease and a political question for nearly a generation. It first became prominent during the initial year or two of our friendship. Back when a citizen could still stand on the front steps of City Hall without the mayor’s prior permission, ACT UP, the gay and lesbian activist group, chained shut the Hall’s doors as protest against some forgotten municipal failure. I was then inside the building, sitting at a desk. In common with most folks in City Hall back in those days, I felt inconvenienced but not terrorized.  Politicians then understood that being the target of the public’s wrath was part of the job description. Probably we understood too that, at best, most City Hall politicos are hacks with good intentions. We would have laughed to think ourselves as important as city politicians seem to think themselves now—so essential to public life that they must be protected by effectively barring the people from City Hall.

Anyway, there was not much else to do until the guys from the Department of General Services appeared with the bolt cutters. The telephone rang. It was Michael. From my point of view, he was safely across the street in the Municipal Bldg.

“What’s happening?”

“Well,” I replied, “we’re being held hostage in City Hall by gay terrorists.”

“In your case, they have a good reason,” he replied, and hung up.

His experience of seeing friends die radicalized and hardened him. He believed that the government was responsible for solving the problem, in part because the public sector can throw an infinity of tax dollars at a problem, which many believe will solve it sooner or later; in part because he did not believe the free market would devise an affordable cure for the disease in time to save his friends; and in part because his political ideas were expressed through the rhetoric and legal precedents of earlier civil rights movements, all of which had relied on state intervention to further their agendas. He thus focused his talents on furthering government intervention by learning how one quietly amended statutes or modified budgets, the kind of practical political work that few ideologues bother to master because it often requires years of heartbreaking work.

As Michael gradually became an insider, he never forgot being an outsider. This meant his more radical acquaintances hurt him more deeply than they could have known when they called him a sellout. The best proof of Michael’s humanity was that he could tell these idiots to go to hell, and mean it, and still take their calls the following day.

He never lost his humanity. A Democrat clubhouse lawyer told this Michael Rosano story over drinks at Dusk on 24th Street. This guy intends to marry his girlfriend at a big formal event on Cape Cod in June 1991. He decides to go through a civil ceremony in front of a judge in November 1990 so the girlfriend might share his health insurance benefits. They get the license from the city clerk. Then the lovebirds realize they need two witnesses to the ceremony. For that matter, they need a celebrant. On the morning of the blessed event, this guy pokes his head into the office of the judge for whom he then works and asks whether she would mind performing the ceremony that afternoon. The judge, whose infinite patience is much taxed by this guy, replies, “Yes, I’ll do it. You really believe in advance notice, don’t you?”

The would-be bride talks her cousin, the pastry chef, into being her witness. The guy has a busy day and understandably forgets about getting his witness until about an hour before the big event. At the 11th hour, he knows there is only one man he can rely on. Like several thousand people who have outrageously imposed on Michael in the past, this guy is right.

He sprints from the Tombs to the Municipal Building, takes the elevator up to the 15th floor (there were no metal detectors in the lobby then) and sticks his head into Rosano’s office. Rosano, as usual, is on the telephone. This guy asks Michael to stand witness at his wedding in 15 minutes. “Sure,” Rosano replies. “Thanks for all the notice.”

The judge is conducting a murder trial when Michael, the pastry chef, and the blushing bride, in Dior suit and big hat with bouquet in hand, sweep up to the courtroom door. A court officer asked, “Who’s getting married?” The bride, who then and throughout her marriage is never at a loss for words, seizes Rosano’s hand and replies, “Michael and I are tying the knot.” Michael and the court officer arch their eyebrows into their respective hairlines. As the bridal party enters the courtroom where the judge is conducting a murder trial, the Assistant District Attorney asks the witness, “Is this the knife that you saw in the hand of the defendant?” Michael turns to the bride and pats her on the arm, murmuring, “So auspicious for our wedding, dear.”

He moved from government to lobbying and back to government, ending his career as deputy communications director to state Sen. Martin Connor, then the minority leader of the state senate. He worked harder than ever, and as do most who remain young in spirit, neglected his health, certain that he would live forever. When he was finally diagnosed with cancer, his condition was nearly untreatable.

Michael was as principled in death as in life: his estrangement from the church in which he had been born and raised was so profound that he requested no religious service over his remains. Last spring, his friends celebrated his life at New York University. Every seat was taken and there was standing room only in the hall. There was some rhetoric, which he would have tolerated, having written a bit of it himself. However, those who knew him best spoke of his hard work, kindness, wit, and blithe courage in the face of his own death, which takes some doing. One speaker called Michael a foul-weather friend, and quoted Maurice Baring’s “In Memoriam, AH,” which seemed right:

No one shall take your place.
No other face

Can fill that empty frame.

— January 8, 2002, New York Press

May 24, 2015   No Comments

Island of Forgotten Dreams

co700_new_york_13bnew-york-around-staten-island-and-long-island-1700-postersFrom New York Press, March 24, 1998

St. George, a city set upon a hill, the seat of Richmond County, is my hometown. On clear days, I look from my table across the Upper Bay to the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, the Lower Bay, the sea, and the horizon, where the distant Atlantic Highlands sink into mellow blueness.

Merchantmen lie for hours or days at anchor, waiting for space in the Port of Newark or lightering cargo to a barge or coastal tanker. Other vessels pass, day and night: pleasure yachts, container ships, tug boats, auto transports, cruise liners, guided missile frigates. Fogs change this utterly. Here, the sea vanishes, then the bridge, the bay, the mansard-roofed 1881 brick mansion next door. Out of the swirling mist come the foghorns’ moans, punctuated by the deeper calls of the ships, feeling their way through the channels.

Despite radar and radio, the mists are still dangerous: in 1981, the Staten Island ferry American Legion was rammed amidships by a Norwegian merchantman during a heavy fog, seriously injuring several passengers and putting her out of service for months, her side smashed in the shape of the freighter’s bow.

Yet foggy or clear, twenty-four hours a day the ferries toot their diesel horns once as they depart the ferry slips at St. George on their five-mile voyage for Whitehall. The old names remain. Ferrymen are traditionalists. Sailing ferries were traveling the Upper Bay before the War of 1812, long before the five-borough City of New York was even a dream. Hence Whitehall and St. George, rather than Manhattan and Staten Island.

co700_new_york_13bnew-york-around-staten-island-and-long-island-1700-postersFrom St. George, the ferries bustle past the little pepperpot lighthouse on Robbins Reef. In the last century, when its  keeper died in the line of duty, his widow was given the job in lieu of a pension. It was round-the-clock work. She lived in the lighthouse with her children. Every morning and afternoon, in all weathers, she rowed them to and from St. George, where they attended the public schools. They are all long gone; the lighthouse is automated.

No trip is the same. Early morning skies can be delicate pink and silver, with the waves like mother of pearl. Or the horizon can be a thin line of fire, with a band of light sky beneath and rolling thunderheads above. The sunsets are often riotous with colors—outrageous scarlets, magentas, and purples, born of the pollutants emitted from the refineries along New Jersey’s Chemical Coast.

An incoherent would-be evangelist sometimes wanders the boat, his unmemorable ranting punctuated by “Praise God!” Cameras always click at the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island as the boat begins rounding Governor’s Island to head into the Whitehall slips. Some evenings, the ferry is full of raucous, obnoxious drunks. The Manhattan skyline often seems a beatific vision, and I can only imagine my peasant grandfather’s emotions when he first saw New York from the deck of an immigrant ship in 1905.

siferry-april-1959If you have a choice, take one of the old car-carrying ferries, the John F. Kennedy, the American Legion, or The Gov. Herbert H. Lehman. Like their steam-powered predecessors, their second decks have outdoor seating at the bow and stern, and the third decks have a roofed promenade. Both classes of newer passenger-only ferries—the enormous Samuel I. Newhouse and Andrew J. Barbieri, and the tiny Alice Austen and John A. Noble—lack outdoor seating. You might as well be on the subway.

Another ferryboat, the tiny Michael J. Cosgrove, sometimes moors at St. George for maintenance and repairs. She handles a .37 mile run up in The Bronx, from City Island to Hart Island. Although she is only sixty feet long, her passengers never complain of overcrowding. Most make only one trip, for her terminus is Potter’s Field.

Although the last steam ferries were built only fifteen years before the Kennedy class diesel boats, their melodious whistles sound no longer. The Cornelius G. Kolff and Private Joseph F. Merrill became prison hulks at Riker’s Island in  1987. After the Verrazzano was decommissioned in 1981, the City docked her at Pier 7, Staten Island. For the next two decades, people endlessly discussed converting her to a waterfront restaurant as a Connecticut businessman did  the 1938 steam ferry Miss New York. Using her for something was better than letting her rot in the mud, like the old ferries Dongan Hills and Astoria, now at their last moorings among a hundred hulks off Rossville in the Arthur Kill.

Then Pier 7 collapsed into the harbor. Years of neglect can do that to a dock. (Perversely, cleaning up the river helped, too, since marine borers, for which a neglected pier is bread and butter, can now live in the harbor’s oxygenated water.) So a tugboat took the Verrazzano to Brooklyn. At least the City’s planning and execution seem consistent: when the tugboat’s captain arrived at Erie Basin with a 269-foot ferryboat, no one had told the Basin’s management that he was coming.

How did St. George get its name? It has little to do with the warrior-hero and martyr, always shown astride his rearing  white horse, his lance impaling a dragon. Until 1886, the ferries landed at Clifton, further down the East Shore, the northern terminus of the Staten Island Railroad, an isolated short line controlled by the Vanderbilts (when it wasn’t in receivership). The future St. George was called Ducksberry Point, was undeveloped and even unpleasant waterfront real estate owned by one George Law, an entrepreneur regarded as something of a minor scoundrel but with a sense of humor.

There was also a man with a vision named Erastus Wiman, a bit of a hustler himself. (His first name is a Latinized version of the Greek erastos, meaning “beloved.” It was not a condition he would know throughout his life.) Born in 1834, Wiman came to Staten Island as an agent for R. G. Dun & Company of Toronto, which later evolved into Dun & Bradstreet. His manor house overlooking the Upper Bay was one of the finer residences on the island. If he had moved to Louisiana, he would have gone into oil. Having come to Staten Island, he went into real estate.

To enhance his investment’s value, he improved local transportation. In 1884, with the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad’s financial support, Wiman merged the ferries with the railroad to form one company, the Staten Island Rapid Transit. He wanted a new terminal for the Manhattan-bound ferries at the northernmost point on the island, where he had an option to buy George Law’s land.

The option was expiring and Wiman was short of cash to complete the deal. According to local historian William T. Davis, Wiman asked Law for an extension of time, promising only to name the new ferry terminal “in Law’s honor, but…with a title Law could hardly expect to earn either on his own or in his lifetime. Law thought it was all a fine idea [and] gave Wiman what he wanted.”

The B&O had an agenda: its own terminal facilities on New York Harbor. Wiman sold Robert Garrett, the B&O’s president, on building it at St. George. Wiman begged and borrowed every dollar he could and bought acre upon acre of Staten Island waterfront property, all of it mortgaged to the hilt as well. The B&O’s money financed the extension of the Staten Island Rapid Transit–from St. George along the island’s north shore over a huge railroad bridge to New Jersey. Once the connection was in place, Garrett and Wiman envisioned having the B&O’s passenger trains terminate at St. George, where passengers would take the ferries to Manhattan. They saw an enormous freight terminal, with barges carrying B&O freight cars throughout the harbor, and perhaps even a transatlantic shipping terminal, so passengers might pass from trains to liners. St. George would have become a great seaport. Erastus Wiman would have become filthy rich.

It never quite worked out. Garrett’s health failed and he lost control of the B&O, which went into receivership in 1891. The St. George project resulted in a big ferry terminal and freight yards, but no more. The B&O’s passenger trains never came to St. George. Two years later, R. G. Dun & Company accused Wiman of forgery. He was convicted in 1894, although the verdict was reversed on appeal. His empire of real estate, ferries, and railroads flew apart like autumn leaves in a high wind.

Ten years later, Wiman died. He kept his fine house to the end. But a week before his death every stick of furniture he had–save his actual deathbed–was auctioned off for the benefit of his creditors. After his conviction, even the Staten Island Rapid Transit changed the name of its ferryboat from Erastus Wiman to Castleton, after one of Staten Island’s towns.sirt-tank-14-stgeoterm-1921

The Staten Island Rapid Transit gradually dwindled to a passenger commuter line, losing its last freight customers in 1979. The great Arthur Kill railroad bridge, still the largest vertical lift span in the world, was embargoed from 1991 to 2007, when freight service was restored along part of the North Shore line, still Staten Island’s only link to America’s railroads.

Even the one mayor who had great dreams for Staten Island saw them fail. John F. “Red Mike” Hylan, Mayor from 1918 to 1925, was an old-fashioned Democrat from Brooklyn with a full head of red hair and an enormous mustache. With Thomas Jefferson, he would have “strangled in their cradles the moneyed corporations, lest their organized power oppress the people.” M.R. Werner, a New York World reporter, said wrote that he was “…possessed of…the loudest voice east of Omaha.”

When he spoke from the steps of City Hall, small children burst into tears at 23rd Street, and the echoes of his eloquence drowned out the low moaning of the tugboats as they skittered down the bay. His tonal quality is hard to describe; it was somewhere between the trumpeting of an enraged elephant and the rumble of underground blasting, and the miracle was that his passionate outcries did not split his throat from ear to ear.

Hylan apparently enjoyed fighting more than winning. His was the kind of open mind that sometimes, as Damon Runyon observed in another context, “should have been closed for repairs.” He dreamed of building a free port in Stapleton, a ten-minute walk from St. George, and spent millions of tax dollars on piers, warehouses, and rail connections.

staten_island_1937_wpa_poster

Unfortunately, first the Congress of the United States declined to cut tariffs or pass special legislation to exempt the Stapleton free port from them. Then, container ships replaced the old freighters. There was no incentive to rebuild the Stapleton facilities. The warehouses fell into ruin, the piers collapsed into weathered stumps, and the railroad tracks were paved over.

Hylan envisioned a railroad tunnel under the Narrows from Staten Island to Brooklyn, linking the SIRT with the subway of the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Company in Bay Ridge. His eloquence was so persuasive that the B&O lent $5 million to the SIRT for complete third-rail electrification comparable to that of the BMT. The City even began digging the tunnel.

Then Hylan was defeated by James J. Walker at the 1925 Democratic primary. After Walker took the oath, he canceled the project. (Some years later, asked why he had appointed Hylan a Judge of the Children’s Court, Walker replied, “So the kids could be judged by their peer.”) Hylan Boulevard, which bears his name, runs from Victorian photographer Alice Austen’s gingerbread cottage on Upper New York Bay at Clifton across the South Shore to Tottenville, on the Arthur Kill, across from Perth Amboy.

Even the Homeport, the naval base built a decade ago in the hope that some defense dollars might drop into the local economy, was scheduled for closing before it was finished. Most of the money and jobs went to out of state contractors. Stapleton’s streets are still lined with shuttered bars and night clubs.

Thus, Staten Island is the isle of forgotten dreams and St. George, the fruit of a real estate deal, its sleepy capital. St. George’s relative poverty has encouraged development elsewhere, so it has become a backwater with convenient transportation. Its ethnic and religious diversity are astonishing; its quiet streets are lined with buildings from the bombastic to the boarded-up: courthouses like classical temples; a Babylonian movie theater; a Carnegie library; a 1920s Georgian bank, and numerous Victorian gingerbread mansions, ranging from exquisite restorations to rundown boarding houses.

Above all, almost literally, is Borough Hall, a Beaux Arts French chateau with an Italian Renaissance tower (its narrow windows presumably ready for the Borough President’s use in pouring molten lead on his enemies), its illuminated clock guiding the ferries home, its bells gently striking every hour. Architecturally incoherent yet romantic, imposing, and homey, Borough Hall has dominated St. George without oppressing it for nearly a century.

Erastus Wiman no longer schemes in his manor house. The SIRT’s old camelback steam locomotives no longer wheeze about the St. George railroad yards. But the ferries still run, quiet largely reigns, and beyond my window the wooded hills roll down to the sea.

statenislandferry


March 24, 2015   No Comments

The Persistence of Memory

Salvador Dalí came to New York for the first time in 1934. In a symptom of the Civil War to come, the provincial government of Catalonia had unilaterally declared independence from Spain. The subsequent street fighting terrified him and he would not return to Spain for many years.

He was Catalonian himself. Catalonians consider themselves a people of seny, common sense or wisdom, and rauxa. Robert Hughes, in Barcelona, defines rauxa as “any kind of irrational or Dionysiac or (sometimes) just plain dumb activity—getting drunk, screwing around, burning churches, and disrupting the social consensus.” He suggests “the most pervasive form of rauxa is an abiding taste for…obscene humor.”

In this, as in many things, Dalí was truly Catalonian. Other surrealists had shocked the French bourgeoisie; Dalí had shocked the surrealists with his excremental and onanist obsessions. Hughes once asked Dalí who was the great unknown modernist artist (aside from Dalí, of course). “Joseph Pujol,” Dalí replied. Hughes had never heard of Pujol.

He was a turn-of-the-century Parisian music hall artist who performed under the stage name “Le Petomane” (frequently translated “Fartiste”). Hughes notes that “Pujol had a vast gas capacity and perfect control over his bowels and anal sphincter. Not only could he fart tunefully, but he could absorb a whole bowl of water on stage by sitting in it and drawing it up, like an India yogi.”

Dalí insisted these were not simply natural endowments, but achievements of incessant practice and relentless discipline. With them, Pujol would keep packed houses rolling in the aisles with renditions of popular airs, “La Marseillaise,’ even snatches of Verdi and Offenbach. He would also imitate the posterior sounds of animals—the deep bass elephant, the gibbon, the mouse—and do character sketches, such as the imperious fart of the President of the Republic or the nervous squeak of the “petite postulante de quatorze ans.”

So much for Picasso.

Dalí was not a feminist. He proclaimed, “Talent is in the balls…. Have you ever heard of a great female painter? One as great as Velasquez or Michelangelo? Only men. Talent, creative genius, is in the testicles. Without them, one can create nothing. For women, creation is procreation; they can bear children, but they will never decorate the Sistine Chapel.”

In youth he had been admired by Garcia Lorca. Dalí later said, “He was homosexual, as everyone knows, and madly in love with me. He tried to screw me twice…. I was extremely annoyed, because I wasn’t homosexual, and I wasn’t interested in giving in. Besides, it hurts. So nothing came of it…. Deep down, I felt that he was a great poet and that I did owe him a bit of the Divine Dalí’s asshole.”

Perhaps his perversion was most openly expressed through his aversion to physical contact, reflected in his novel Hidden Faces. Its protagonist tells his mistress that they must reach orgasm without ever touching. Thus it was, apparently, in his marriage. His wife, Gala, would he his business manager, his companion, and for most of their life together his best friend. But apparently ordinary sexual relations didn’t enter into it. Certainly he was impotent: he may have lacked the common courage to drop his mask and his guard, to be simply, nakedly himself.

But he did not lack the courage to conquer the world. In art school, he demanded that his teachers show him how to mix his oils, spread the colors, and blend the tones.  He wanted rigor, method, and objective training. To his disappointment and rage, his teachers espoused a slovenly post-impressionist anarchy: Their students should paint what they saw. In response, when assigned to paint a Gothic statue of the Virgin, he carefully produced a pair of scales. His teacher stopped in frozen silence. “Perhaps you see a Virgin like everyone else,” the professor finally said, “but I see a pair of scales.”

Eventually, like any artist, he trained himself, developing, as one critic observed in the mid-50s, “an absolute mastery of the craft that is equaled by no other artist alive today.”  His approach was strictly formal, as classical as the most hidebound Academician, and however bizarre the subject matter, his paintings always had geometric rigor and detachment. And he usually worked a fourteen-hour day.

He combined intellectual strength with a pose of utter helplessness. When first in Paris, he claimed inability to use the Métro until a friend took him there and then left him on the train, instructing him to get off at the next stop. “You’ll see ‘Exit’ in large letters. Then you go up a few steps and you go out.”

Dalí later wrote of this ordeal, “Reaching the surface, I stood haggard for a long time. I felt I had been spewed out of some monstrous anus… And, O miracle! My lucidity, my pride, my strength returned instantly…with increased power. I understood I had been through a great initiation.”

In 1931, Dalí created The Persistence of Memory, which remains his most famous painting. His biographer, Meryle Secrest, writes that he had eaten a strong Camembert that evening. He sat at the dinner table meditating on the notion of super-softness that the cheese seemed to exemplify. Then he went to his work-in-progress, a landscape, “deserted, forlorn, lit by a fading sun and with a leafless olive tree in the foreground. He knew it was the setting for an idea, but he didn’t know what, and besides, he had a headache. Suddenly, in a flash, he saw the solution. Two hours later he had added his famous soft watches.”

Times critic John Canaday later called The Persistence of Memory a jewel “in its brilliant colour, its small size, its immaculate precision. It is in the technical tradition of early Flemish and Venetian painting; also, it is parasitic in its forms. The deep distance with its sea and its rocky promontories picked out in golden light is all but a steal from the early Venetian Giovanni Bellini, whose allegories would be Surrealist if their symbolism were morbid instead of poetic.”

His first New York show in 1933 had been mildly successful. A year later, Dalí traveled to New York with Gala (as his business manager, she was described as having “a gaze that could penetrate bank vaults”) in a third-class cabin. He said, “I am next to the engine so that I’ll get there quicker.” During his rare walks on deck, he wore a life jacket.

Upon landing, during the inevitable press conference, he was asked which was his favorite picture. He responded, “The Portrait of My Wife,” which represented Gala with lamb chops on her shoulders. “I used to balance two broiled chops on my wife’s shoulders,” Dalí said, “and then by observing the movement of tiny shadows produced by the accident of the meat on the flesh of the woman I love while the sun was setting, I was finally able to attain images sufficiently lucid and appetizing for exhibition in New York.”

During this first visit, he uttered his immortal observation: “The only difference between a madman and myself is that I am not mad.” Most of the time, his English was nearly unintelligible. He used an exaggerated French accent, threw in a few extra Catalan vowels as he saw fit, and rolled his r’s as in Spanish. Thus, “butterfly” came out “bouterrrrflaaaaaeeee.” Usually, no American audience understood a word, but if they did the result was deafening applause.

The reporters loved him; so did Society; so did the collectors, who swarmed his new show at the gallery of Julian Levy. By the end of his 1934 visit, he would be far richer in several senses for his stay in New York.  On the night before his departure for Europe, he gave a Bal Onirique, inviting guests to come as their dream and be wined and dined from ten in the evening until ? for only $10 a couple. He dressed as a rotting corpse with a bandage around his head. He had cut a square hole in his white formal shirt, which framed, as Meryle Secrest wrote, “a shadow box for a pair of tiny breasts, decorously enclosed inside a bra.” The ball was a tremendous success: The New York Mirror blared “Mad Dream Betrayal of New York Society at the Astounding Party to its Newest Idol.”

He returned in 1939. He had been hired to design shop windows for Bonwit Teller. The central Feature of the window he called Day was a bathtub lined with black astrakhan and filled with water, beside which stood an old-fashioned mannequin, decorated only with red hair and green feathers. In Night, another mannequin appeared to be asleep on a black satin bed, the canopy of which was composed of a buffalo’s head with a bloody pigeon in its mouth. She lay on a pillow of apparently live coals.

Several complaints were received by the management that the windows were obscene. They changed the mannequins. Dalí was outraged. He protested, demanding that the store either take his name off the windows or restore the work. Bonwit Teller refused to do either. He stepped into the window and overturned the bathtub, which crashed through the plate glass.  He was booked on malicious mischief, later reduced to disorderly conduct with sentence suspended.

On August 16, 1940, Dalí returned for an exile that would last eight years. Unlike most exiles from World War II, he set himself up at the St. Regis, where he painted society portraits for fees reportedly running as high as $25,000.  He diversified into ballet, opera, the novel, and film. He also began to emphasize commercial art.

Dalí believed his serious painting was the standard by which he would be judged. Everything else was for sale. He would take on any kind of advertising project if it paid well enough. By 1947, he was being paid up to $2,500 for an ad and $5,000 for book illustrations. His dismembered arms, limp watches, ruined columns, pieces of driftwood, tables with women’s legs, crutches, and ants were advertising Gunther’s furs, Ford cars, Wrigley’s chewing gum, Schiaparelli perfume, and Gruen watches, as well as the products of Abbott Laboratories and the Container Corporation of America. His waxed mustaches, rolling eyes, and walking sticks became trademarks, thanks largely to photographer Philippe Halsman, who over thirty years contributed as much to the Dalinian image as anyone save Dalí himself.

Halsmann photographed Dalí in every conceivable position and juxtaposition: nude in the womb; his face melting like one of his watches; his mustache on the Mona Lisa, or its pointed ends piercing a newspaper that he was reading, eyes crossed. His “Dalí Atomicus”—with Dalí, cats, water, canvas, and chair suspended in midair—was only one of their many collaborations for Life magazine; they even created a book about Dalí’s mustache (one hair of which Dalí sold to the Beatles for $5,000).

He usually wintered in New York, believing it to be “the most stimulating town in all the world…It’s the only place where I can do my deals.” In 1970, one writer observed that “forty years after his soft watches dropping over a barren landscape made him famous, Dalí is still Everyman’s idea of the mad genius of modern art, and mad genius sells like nothing else.” He was earning half a million dollars a year after taxes, and was worth around $10 million. He was designing shirts, fabrics, ties, cognac bottles, calendars, ash trays for Air India, stamps for Guyana, bathing suits, and gilded oyster knives. The only proposition he was known to have refused was that of the American who proposed opening a chain of “Dalícatessens.”

Until the 1960s, Dalí had produced few prints. Now he made up for lost time. His prints became a happy hunting ground for fraud. There were reprints of supposedly limited editions; unlimited artist’s proofs; plain outright counterfeits. Worse, he began signing blank pages. Then, a forger might merely use sheets with authentic signatures to produce completely fraudulent prints—neither drawn nor overseen in any way by Dalí.

As Secrest wrote, “Why bother to create an image? All he had to do was sign a sheet of paper to receive $40. An eyewitness described the way it was done. One aide slid the paper under his pencil and another pulled it away, for the greatest possible efficiency, meaning that the artist could sign one every two seconds. Assuming he could keep it up for an hour, Dalí was $72,000 richer—the easiest way to make money.” It was very Catalonian: the transformation of merde into gold.

No one knows how many he signed. His American lawyer doubted it was more than 40,000. His former agent once claimed as many as 350,000. The market in Dalí prints has never recovered. New York’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s affected even Dalí, who complained that city life had become, “Total decadence!  Even the St. Regis is not what it used to be…they have cut out the cherry on the breakfast grapefruit!”

In 1980, he left New York never to return. After Gala’s death in 1982, Dalí was devastated.  He lived in solitude, increasingly aware of his own mortality. During one of his last trips outside, a friend pointed out an orange tree laden with fruit. Dalí shook his head. “Do not show me things that I have loved so much and that hurt me now because I know that I must leave them.”

He died on January 23, 1989, listening to his favorite scratched record of Tristan und Isolde, which reminded him of sardines frying in oil. The Marques de Dalí de Pubol (King Juan Carlos had ennobled him in 1982) now rests above the women’s room in the museum that he founded in his home town.

For many, Dalí remains a genius and prophet. I think of a friend’s father, a tough, cynical, and supremely unillusioned journalist. In 1955, he covered the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s opening of Dalí’s Corpus Hypercubus. He entered the gallery, gazed at the painting of Christ crucified, and wept.

The gaudy old fraud had shown him a truth, perhaps the Truth.

New York Press, March 21, 1999

March 21, 2015   No Comments

No Substitute for Experience

“Are you a politician, Roscoe?”
“I refuse to answer on grounds that it might degrade or incriminate me.”
~ From
Roscoe, by William Kennedy

In Roscoe, William Kennedy continues working the vein prospected by two minor classics, William Riordan’s Plunkett of Tammany Hall and Edwin O’Brien’s The Last Hurrah. The seventh Kennedy novel set in the author’s hometown of Albany, New York, is elegantly crafted, often uproariously funny, and betrays both a profound understanding of human frailty born of original sin and the sure knowledge that man born of woman is doomed to sorrow.

His characters, of course, enjoy themselves as best they can, usually at each other’s expense. Thus, one of Roscoe‘s numerous memorable minor characters, Mac, one of the cops who assassinated Legs Diamond when the racketeer failed to understand that the Albany County Democratic organization was far more powerful than the mob, reflects on the stabbing murder of an informer: “Robbed and stabbed, and he dies naked, broke, full of holes, and covered with blood. I like it.” Later, just before a fixed cockfight between birds owned by two brothers and party bosses, Patsy and Bindy McCall, Bindy introduces Roscoe to his cock.

“This is the Swiggler,” says Bindy. “You ever been swiggled?”

“Not by a chicken,” answers Roscoe.

“Blame Roscoe,” the novel’s closing sentence, is not an evasion of responsibility but an admission of artistry. Kennedy closes the book with his author’s note, expressing his gratitude to numerous persons, living and dead, whose stories and knowledge helped him to form his work. Kennedy may have begun with facts. His novel is full of historical figures, from FDR and Al Smith to Herbert H. Lehman to John McCooey and John Curry, the one-time Democratic bosses of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Of course, these are all invented characters, just like the other invented characters.

Yet having been born and raised within ten miles of the city of Albany, I know that many of his other invented characters are closely modeled on once-living persons. A knowing Albanian might read a William Kennedy novel merely to pick out the old pols, pimps, and hangers-on. This would be vulgar and more than a bit of a mistake. I admit indulging in it anyway. In reflecting on Kennedy’s fictional political boss, Patsy McCall, I think of the great Dan O’Connell, who ruled Albany’s Democratic party and thus Albany for over half a century. He had a certain knack for massaging election results. A story Mario Cuomo once told had Dan marooned on a desert island with another fellow, and only one coconut between them. They voted on who should eat it, and Dan won by 110 to 1.

Happily for the rest of us who may not know the “Improbable City of Political Wizards, Fearless Ethnics, Spectacular Aristocrats, Splendid Nobodies, and Underrated Scoundrels,” the book stands on its own. It has been five years since his last novel: Kennedy has used his time well. He is among the handful of important contemporary novelists trained in the old school of journalism: the discipline of publishing facts with an economy of words to a daily deadline. And it is honorable praise to note that even his lesser books are exquisitely finished and all have integrity, for they are the work of an honest man.

Roscoe is a novel set in the summer and fall of 1945, in which Roscoe Conway, lawyer, orator, and Democratic political operative, attempts to escape from the life he has made. This summary does not hint at the amazing tangle of subplots, from fixing elections to child custody suits, suicides, payoffs, assaults, brothel raids, cockfighting, murder, sibling rivalry, and gambling rings. Yet, the narrative is not confusing. Kennedy’s art captures the essence of life—just one damned thing after another, with nothing ever finally resolved but merely overcome for the moment.

In reflecting on the novel, I flipped back to his author’s note. I found it poignant for personal reasons. One of his sources was the first politician to give me an interview, when I was writing for the Shaker High School Bison in 1971. Erastus Corning 2d (he preferred the Arabic to the Roman numeral) was elected mayor of Albany eleven times before his death in May 1983. No American mayor has served longer.  As Kennedy notes in his offbeat history of the city, O Albany!, Corning held power “longer than Trujillo, Franco, Peron, Batista, Somoza, Napoleon, Hitler, Mao, Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, Henry VIII, Ferdinand and Isabella, Ethelred II, and…Augustus Caesar.” Even at sixteen, I found the urbane man across the table from me both a great gentleman and one of the toughest guys I would ever meet. Thirty years have passed, and I am still right—on both counts.

Corning’s unusual first name (after forty years in office, some believed his real first name was “Mayor”) is a Latinized version of the Greek erastos, meaning beloved. He was brilliant (Yale ’32, Phi Beta Kappa, with a dual major in history and English literature), precocious (Assemblyman at twenty-six, State Senator at twenty-seven, Mayor at thirty-two), and hardworking (he routinely worked a sixty-hour week). He inherited wealth and made more through his political connections (his insurance agency, Albany Associates, wrote ninety percent of Albany County’s insurance, meaning some $1.5 million in annual premiums; as he was a city official, not a county official, the law found no conflict of interest).

At the height of his power, his authority over the city and the county of Albany was absolute. A local newscaster once told him on camera, “…you hold such power that if you told the Common Council to meet in pink lingerie, they would.” Corning replied, “I think you go too far. Blue lingerie, perhaps. But pink is too much.”

Kennedy has written elsewhere that Corning was uninterested in the truth. I disagree: Corning’s capacity for deceit was merely another weapon in his intellectual arsenal. Like Talleyrand (who would have found him a kindred spirit), Corning believed language existed to conceal truth.

Most people who rely on lies to get through the day eventually lose touch with truth. Corning never did. After all, you do not have to believe your own lies. When lucidity was required, his gifts for written and oral expression made him utterly, often brilliantly, clear. The same gifts let him obscure, obfuscate, and evade. At the height of his power, he played the press and the people like grand pianos.

Even Kennedy was not exempt, apparently. The story goes that some forty years ago, as a working reporter for the Albany Times-Union, during a mayoral press conference, Kennedy told Corning that a recent visitor had said the abandoned buildings in Albany made it look like a ghost town or a demolition project, and how did he respond? The Mayor replied that a well-known television commentator had come to Albany and seen all the construction and said it was one of the most vital, growing cities in the Northeast. After the press conference, Kennedy asked the Mayor, “Who was the well-known television commentator?” And the Mayor asked, “Who was the recent visitor?”

I can still imagine the Mayor’s sparkling joy as he declaimed his most famous epigram, “Honesty is no substitute for experience.” How could any intelligent man with a sense of humor resist a politician so brazen, so magnificently audacious, so in command of his wit that when asked his favorite color he replied, “Plaid.”

Corning, who was elected Mayor in 1941, did not seek a draft deferment and served as a combat infantryman in Europe. In Roscoe, Kennedy creates a character, Alexander Fitzgibbon, whose personal and political careers are nearly identical with Corning’s. The resemblances are purely intentional. So are the resemblances between numerous persons and characters. Dan O’Connell seized power over the Democratic party and then over the city and the county of Albany with the help of his brothers between 1919 and 1921. So had Patsy McCall, the crude, violent, corrupt party boss in Kennedy’s novel, who has been “in politics since he was old enough to deface Republican ballots.” But to suggest that Kennedy has merely copied the facts and changed the names is wrongheaded. In fact, Fitzgibbon and McCall, despite Kennedy’s artistry, are simply not as tough or as coarse as their models. It would be difficult for them to be. No one would believe it.

At its heart, the novel lives in a corrupt world. Thus, Kennedy quotes Roscoe’s dead father, Felix Conway, a disgraced ex-mayor, in a passage, “Felix Declares His Principles to Roscoe”:

“Never buy anything that you can rent forever.”

Also:

“Give your friends jobs, but at a price and make new friends every day.”

And:

“People say voting the dead is immoral, but what the hell, if they were alive they’d all be Democrats. Just because they’re dead don’t mean they’re Republicans.”

Finally, Kennedy’s pols, though drawn with affection, are never twinkling benignities out of a Frank Capra movie. This is as it should be: machine politicians liked to think of themselves as means of rough justice, bringing coal and food to the poor. They never considered that the reforms they opposed might have obviated the handouts. Albany’s machine bosses were tough, ruthless men for whom democracy was always spelled with a capital D and politics merely another way of making a living.

Stendhal used the word crystallization to define the process by which the creative mind transforms mere fact to fiction. The analogy was drawn from certain German salt mines, where one might leave behind a tree branch and on returning some years later, find it encrusted with salt crystals. So Kennedy’s memories of a small American city have been transformed by time and imagination into enduring art.

March 5, 2015   No Comments

Mrs. Satan

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From New York Press, January 20, 1999

Some years ago, the Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating Belva A. Lockwood, Esq., whom the agency believed had been the first woman Presidential candidate. In 1884 and 1888, Mrs. Lockwood waged symbolic campaigns (she appeared on no ballots and received no votes) to publicize the cause of women’s suffrage. The first woman admitted to the Illinois bar, Mrs. Lockwood was apparently a paragon of respectability, as worthy of postal honors as, say, Richard Nixon, the unindicted co-conspirator.

The Postal Service got the essential thing wrong. The first woman Presidential candidate was the eloquent, beautiful Victoria Claflin Woodhull—adventuress, editor, actress, revolutionary, Spiritualist, fortuneteller, blackmailer, seductress, and prostitute. Caricatured by Thomas Nast as “Mrs. Satan,” Vickie was many things, but never respectable.

Born in 1838, she claimed—like Salvador Dalí—to recall the moment of her conception. Her father, Reuben Claflin, was a remarkably vile con artist and snake-oil salesman without a redeeming quality, who robbed his neighbors, defrauded insurers, stole from his children, and pimped his daughters. According to Barbara Goldsmith, her most recent biographer, Vickie’s illiterate fortune teller mother was never quite sure of her first child’s father. Another daughter, Utica, became an alcoholic who hustled johns outside her sisters’ offices.

Yet Vickie had striking good looks, quick intelligence, and heaven-storming eloquence. Her sister and partner, Tennessee, was less complicated, more loving and sensible, and utterly loyal. Tennie’s other personal qualities generally proved useful in negotiating with individual men when Vickie’s eloquence was not persuasive: luxuriant auburn hair, pretty features, a great body. Tennie was a babe. They were a good team.

From childhood, Vickie had seen visions and sincerely believed herself under the protection of Demosthenes. By the time she was eleven, she could declaim with ecstatic fervor, and her father hauled her around Ohio to preach. After Tennie developed second sight, Dad had her conduct seances, too. Dad always took up the collection.

At fifteen, Vickie eloped with Dr. Canning Woodhull, an alcoholic weakling whom she soon divorced. In 1858, she began appearing on the San Francisco stage in melodramas such as The Country Cousin and New York by Gaslight, where, as Goldsmith writes, “low décolletage and tightly laced bodices emphasized breasts that were semi-exposed, elevated, and served up like ripe melons.” After the performance ended, the revels began, and Vickie gave good value for money.

Two years of this were enough. Vickie went home to take up magnetic healing. her charisma, honed through years of preaching, acting, and whoring, let her cure the sick and foretell the future. Meanwhile, Tennessee was handling up to ten gentlemen callers a night.victoria-woodhull

In 1868, Vickie and Tennie went to New York. The sisters knew where their talents lay, and wangled an introduction to Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. The dashing old pirate had risen from running a ferry boat to directing the New York Central Railroad. Tennie’s charms worked their magic. Although her medical training was limited to pitching her father’s snake oil, she became the Commodore’s “therapist,” administering enemas, manipulating his prostate, and, according to Goldsmith, providing “…magnetic healing”:

With her left hand acting as a negative magnet, the right as a positive, she claimed to reverse the polarity of his body and to expel negative energy.

Who could doubt it.

The sisters provided Vanderbilt with stock market advice, courtesy of the spirits. His correspondence shows he paid them a two percent commission on his business transactions based upon their forecasts. In 1869, with Vanderbilt’s support, the sisters formed a brokerage house, Claflin & Woodhull. The amused press called them “the Fascinating Financiers.”

Vickie published Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly from April 1870. In its pages, she announced her 1872 Presidential candidacy. Her platform was revolutionary, as one would expect from the president of the American section of Karl Marx’s International Workingmen’s Association. She too received no votes. (Marx detested Vickie, considered her social platform irrelevant to the class struggle, and eventually purged her.)

In December 1870, the matriarchs of the suffrage movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, had been scolded by a member of Congress for even asking that a women’s suffrage amendment be passed from the Judiciary Committee. That evening, they learned to their resentment that the Committee had granted one Victoria Woodhull a hearing to present a memorial on woman suffrage. Vickie’s success won her the undying enmity of the feminist establishment.

Unlike most suffragists, Vickie favored equal rights for everybody. Some were surprised in the summer of 1998 when Hillary Rodham Clinton praised Mrs. Stanton in a speech at Seneca Falls, New York. Mrs. Stanton resented the enfranchisement of African-American men. Indeed, she seemed incapable of speaking about them without using the word “Sambo.” Also, she emphasized granting the vote to educated women. Universal education was then largely unknown. Mrs. Stanton did not want votes for the cleaning woman and the maid. She wanted suffrage extended only to the educated lady elite, such as herself.womensuffrage-copy

Vickie had pulled off her coup through her most able political ally. Benjamin F. Butler was a squat, wall-eyed, remarkably ugly Congressman. He was brilliant and audacious. Francis Russell notes that during his oral examination for admission to the Massachusetts bar, he disagreed with an opinion the examining judge had rendered earlier in the day. The judge reversed the opinion and made Butler a lawyer on the spot.

A perennial gubernatorial candidate, coarsened by a lifetime’s grabbing for the main chance, Butler was tough, crude, and vain, an opportunist and adventurer. Elected on his sixth try in 1882, Butler was denied the honorary doctorate Harvard traditionally awarded to the Governor of the Commonwealth. But he and Vickie struck it off well.

Yet Butler was radical as well as corrupt. The genius he usually directed at concealing evidence, eliciting perjury, and enacting special interest legislation was also employed in the cause of African-Americans and women. He was sincere when he said, “God made me only one way. I must always be with the underdog in the fight. I can’t help it; I can’t change it; and on the whole, I don’t want to.”

Confronted once with a rumor that he had offered to help Vickie in the cause of woman suffrage in exchange for a chance to “feast his eyes upon her naked person,” Butler replied, “Half truths kill.” Goldsmith notes that Vickie knew Butler well enough to remember his midnight snacks of doughnuts washed down with whiskey. But whether Vickie and Butler were lovers is as irrelevant as it is unclear. He proved a consistent, ruthless, and effective champion of human rights. Rarely has so blatant a cynic become so embattled a reformer.

On January 11, 1871, Woodhull addressed the committee. She argued Congress did not need to amend the Constitution; Article IV, Section 2 and the Fourteenth Amendment already provided the right to suffrage for all citizens. Congress only needed to pass a declaratory act to enable women to vote. Senator Charles Sumner later said no one could answer her legal arguments. In the end, the committee still defeated her proposal.

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She had always championed free love. Vickie believed the institution of marriage was tyranny; married men and women who no longer loved one another should be free to take up other relationships; and unloving marriages essentially constituted a form of sanctioned prostitution.

The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, pastor of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, preached a different sort of sexual emancipation. Driven by his need for adulation and crude physical lusts, Beecher blurred the identify between revealed Christianity and a vague adherence to the teaching and example of Christ in a self-indulgent, flabby theology he called the Gospel of Love.

Immensely popular among the elite, Beecher had a string of affairs with female parishioners and other women. On October 10, 1868, he seduced Elizabeth Tilton, the wife of Theodore Tilton, a journalist and one of his parishioners. Mrs. Tilton confessed to her husband. Tilton, who had been one of Beecher’s friends, threatened to expose Beecher.

Goldsmith confirms that there was a cover-up, largely because Plymouth Church had been financed by bonds depending on the collection plate for their repayment. Beecher was the box office draw. If he were driven from the pulpit, the men who had bought the bonds stood to lose their money. But the Beecher-Tilton affair, too, became an open secret. Many feminists who corresponded with Vickie wrote about it, often from personal knowledge of one or more of the participants.

beecher_hwBecause Beecher had practiced free love without admitting it, Vickie outed him as an adulterer and lecher, right on the front page of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly for November 12, 1872. She described what Beecher and Mrs. Tilton had done, reprinting letters from Mrs. Stanton and other feminists to support her claims. Beecher did not sue for defamation. But Anthony Comstock charged Vickie and Tennie with obscenity, namely, for using the phrase “red trophy of her virginity,” a quotation from the Book of Deuteronomy. The sisters would be repeatedly arrested and jailed for months.

According to Goldsmith, Comstock (the self-proclaimed “Roundsman for the Lord”) was an obsessive masturbator. His sexual guilt drove him to a lifelong pursuit of pornography, dirty playing cards, and the whole gamut of sexual devices, appliances, and toys. Amid the splendors of the Gilded Age, Comstock saw only dirty pictures. He was a little too enthusiastic about showing off his porn collection; a little too proud of the badge and gun a craven Congress permitted him to carry as a special postal agent.

Against so inexorable a force, what could Vickie do but to retain William F. Howe, the late nineteenth century’s sleazy lawyer par excellence. Howe usually represented murderers, thieves, fences, pimps, and whores. He could persuade juries that a defendant’s trigger finger had slipped not once, but six times. He found Anthony Comstock child’s play. On the day of his summation, Howe demanded to know if Deuteronomy and Fielding were obscene, asked why the court had not issued an order to seize the works of Smollet and Byron, and won over the jury with a fine, roaring speech: “O Liberty, where are thy defenders?…Must it be as the poet says: ‘Truth forever on the scaffold,/ Wrong forever on the throne?'”

In 1877, Vickie and Tennie went to London. After a friendly discussion about Cornelius Vanderbilt’s personal life with William Henry Vanderbilt, the late Commodore’s son, a small fortune had been placed at their disposal provided they left the country. Vickie married John Biddulph Martin, an English banker, and spent the rest of her life striving for a respectability she could not win.

But Tennie had a grand time. In 1884, she met a wealthy widower, Sir Francis Cook, told him the spirit of his dead wife had advised her to marry him, and did. Lady Cook (who, upon her husband’s ennoblement by the King of Portugal, also became known as the Vizcondesa da Montserrat) entertained lavishly throughout a loving, happy marriage. She remained beautiful, witty, charming, and open until her death in 1923.

Vickie joined her among the spirits in 1927. In a niche of her library, where she died, was a shrine to Nike. Being Vickie, she sometimes murmured that in another life she too had been the winged goddess of victory.

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March 1, 2015   No Comments