Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The answer to today's bad economy? Bring back BOSS TWEED !!

Thomas Nast's lasting image of Boss Tweed as the classic American pol,
from Harper's Weekly, October 21, 1871.

Please don't misunderstand.  Stealing is wrong.  Graft is bad.

Still, watching today's politicians in Washington tripping over themselves trying to figure out ways to stimulate the economy -- or trying to fix it by cutting back -- I get nostalgic for the master. Bring back Boss Tweed.

William Magear Tweed, Boss of New York's Tammany Hall machine in the 1860s and 70s, controlled mayors, governors, newspapers, and companies.  He used his power to steal from the city and county -- for an astounding estimated $100 million (billions of dollars in modern money) during his relatively brief time at the pinnacle.

But Tweed kept his power not just by stealing elections (which he did often).  He also used his power to build.  Talk about infrastructure?  Tweed and his Tammany crowd did more to modernize New York City than anyone else in their generation.  Tweed didn't need a "Stimulus Package" to grease the economy.  He used the direct method -- graft.

Tweed spent the city into a $100 million deficit, mostly with money borrowed from investors in Europe who had no idea he was cheating them.  Most of the cash went to pay politicians and hire legions of laborers.  Was some of it stolen?  Of course!  But along the way, it helped spark an economic boom.

Boss Tweed knew how to spread the wealth around. The rich, the poor, all prospered. Stock prices and property values both soared under Tweed.  Taxes stayed low.  His system collapsed only when the New York Times got its hands on a purloined copy of the Tweed Ring's secret account books and printed it on its front page -- the journalistic coup of the Nineteenth Century.  By then, Tweed had been humiliated by the cartoons of Thomas Nast of Harper's Weekly (see above), making him an easy mark.

A year after Tweed fell from power, in 1873, a financial panic hit New York and threw the city and country into the worst economic depression of the Nineteenth Century.

Graft aside, Tweed's regime left the city and country wonderfully enriched: Their fingerprints are on every major NY creation of the Gilded Age: Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Tweed Courthouse, new widened streets and sidewalks, the New York Stock Exchange, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mount Sinai Hospital, and dozens of charities. The list is almost endless. And they left a tradition of political inclusion, a "wide tent" approach that modern politicians could only envy.

Except for all the stealing, the frauds and deceit, and the years in prison -- of which there were plenty and which, to be clearwere very very wrong -- he was a great man.

Tweed would know how to get the country moving again in today's financial mess.  But don't watch too closely.  Tweed's methods were not for the squeamish, and "transparency" was not part of his approach. 

For more, see the new Viral History Press edition of Boss Tweed, the Corrupt who Conveived the Soul of Modorn New York.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Welcome Back BOSS TWEED

Do modern politicians give you the creeps, migranes, stomach cramps, and worse?

Are you sick to death of Romney, Perry, Newt, Ron Paul, even Obama -- with almost a full year left till Election Day?

Don't fret. TWEED IS BACK !!

Today, we proudly announce the new Viral History Press LLC edition of BOSS TWEED: the Corrupt Pol who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York.

Tweed counting the votes, according to Thomas Nast, 1871.
Tweed was the baddest, most crooked politician ever to breathe oxygen on American soil.  No contest.  No excuses.  He stole more money, fixed more elections, and paid more bribes than anyone else.  A New York jury convicted him on 204 counts of fraud -- and the city still honors him today by putting his name on, of all things, the County Courthouse in lower Manhattan. 

It took Thomas Nast's brilliant cartoons and a city-wide revolt to drag him from power.  Still, Tweed escaped from prison, fled to Spain, was recaptured and brought back, publicly confessed, died behind bars, and people loved him even more.

Read his incredible story -- a New York Times notable book.  (Click here for all the great reviews.) Share it with your political friends.

This year, skip the mealy-mouthed modern mediocrities and give BOSS TWEED for the holidays.

Can't decide? Read the first chapter right now for free.

Buy it before January 1 and enjoy our big holiday savings.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

HOOVER: A journalist's view -- Charles Elliott on searching J. Edgar's trash.

Another great comment I received on my recent Washington Post article "Five Myths about J. Edgar Hoover," came from Charles Elliott, a journalist at the time who participated in a key investigation of Hoover.  Here's his full description of the episode from his blog Clarity Research: Ruminations of a researcher/writer.  He's given us permission to reprint it here:  

Columnist Jack Andrerson, circa 1970.  Anderson
reached an average 40 million readers through his
"Washington Merry-Go Round" column, and had
a proud spot on President Nixon's "Enemies List."
 When I saw it recently, Clint Eastwood’s interesting new film, “J. Edgar,” stirred old memories for me. I know firsthand that he got at least one thing wrong, and missed another major opportunity to accurately portray long-time FBI director Hoover in his last days. 

In 1971, I was a young reporter in Washington, D.C. Eager to prove my investigative reporting chops in the big leagues, I had just transitioned to a position as a leg man for columnist and ABC TV personality Jack Anderson. Anderson had heard that President Richard Nixon wanted to replace the top G-man. So Anderson decided to put Hoover under surveillance using the same techniques that the FBI was then known to be using against Jane Fonda and others accused of no crimes but being harassed by the government for opposing its policies, especially the Vietnam War. 
I was sent out to interview Hoover’s neighbors in his upscale Northwest Washington neighborhood, stake out his house, follow his chauffeured limo, watch him and his number two man, Clyde Tolson, as they ate lunch every day at that same corner table in the Rib Room at the Mayflower Hotel up on Connecticut, and pick up Hoover’s trash.
There is a reference in the film to the possibility of going to Tolson’s “house” for dinner. But I know firsthand that Tolson actually had a highrise apartment in 1971, not a house. I know because Anderson had heard that Tolson owned a collection of antique vehicles formerly belonging to major crime figures arrested by the FBI. So he sent me out to look. Tolson’s building had a parking structure underneath, I found, and there were, indeed, several antique black vehicles from the 1930s parked there.
The Eastwood film does not include any reference to Anderson or my work for him. But at least two major biographies of Hoover included an account of my escapades picking up Hoover’s trash. I did so on several occasions, the most notable being one morning with a reporter from Washingtonian Magazine riding along with me.
The L-shaped alley adjacent to Hoover’s two-story brick house ran behind to the west and then on the north to the street east of the house. When we pulled up to the trash cans in the alley beside the house, we noticed that Hoover’s limo was still at the curb out front, engine running, and a film crew from ABC was across the street. Apparently the film crew wanted to grab a quick interview with Hoover on the way to work, but Hoover was refusing to come out of the house until they left.

Hoover's official car in 1971, a Cadillac Fleetwood,
recently sold on eBay for $6,677.77.
Click here for that story.

Nonetheless, I opened the trunk of a large car I had borrowed for the occasion, and began loading Hoover’s trash into the car. Suddenly the film crew noticed me and began filming. That alerted the people in the house to my presence. Within a minute or two, Hoover’s chauffeur — a tall black man who seemed to be nearly seven feet tall — came to the side gate and loomed over me.

“What do you think you are doing?” he demanded.
I knew the applicable law at the time in Washington was English common law, which held anything put out as trash to have been abandoned by the former owner. Anyone could legally pick it up.
“He put it out to be picked up and I am picking it up,” I said simply, continuing to load the car. Fortunately the film crew continued to film. My chances of being assaulted or at least physically restrained seemed diminished by their presence. I flashed them a “V” for victory.
Meanwhile, my companion from Washingtonian remained in the front passenger seat in the car, but he was now shaking like a leaf.
“Don’t you think you’ve got enough?!?” he kept asking piteously. “Don’t you think you’ve got enough?”

Charles Elliot in 1971 standing by Hoover's trash can, in 
alley on north side of Hoover's Washington, D.C. home. 
Photo by ABC News.

When I finished my work to my satisfaction, I closed the trunk and we drove away.

Anderson reported on the basis of these forays into Hoover’s wasteland that the top G-man meticulously wrote menus for his housekeeper to prepare on small stationery emblazoned, “From the Desk of the Director.” While he and Clyde generally had a light lunch at the Rib Room, evening meals were heavy with beef and rich desserts. Although Hoover had railed against the evils of drink in WTCU publications, the trash included miniature Jack Daniels Black Label Whiskey bottles. The public and private man seemed greatly at variance. And there were Gelusil packages, too. Anderson suggested tongue-in-cheek that it was possible Hoover no longer had the stomach for his job.
Hoover responded dourly, “The only time I have indigestion is when I read a certain man’s column!”  
From my perspective, the major thing the Eastwood film missed, though, was Hoover’s severe paranoia in his last years. Hoover’s neighbors told me that he would not enter or leave his waiting car at the curb any time a long-haired youthful neighbor was anywhere within sight. And they pointed out that he placed a hat on the rear shelf of the limo, then sat on the other side and hunkered down. At the Rib Room, I also observed, Hoover and Tolson sat side-by-side with their backs to a wall, and vigilantly faced the entry way. The last time Hoover saw me there, he scowled at me.
He must have been particularly shocked when he began trying to find out who I was, and learned that my roommate was the son of an FBI Special Agent stationed in Oregon, and that the large apartment we shared with two other young men had been rented in the agent’s name. I do know that the agent was soon on the phone to his son, and the son made certain that I moved out. But not before a couple of men — one older, one younger — showed up with a large old Graphflex camera outside the building as I arrived home from the office. Since Anderson by then had written about my work regarding Hoover, I considered the possibility that they were with a wire service or some other news organization newly interested in my story.
“Who are you guys with?” I asked as they blinded me with the flash, taking pictures.
“Oh,” said the older fellow in ominous tones, “we’re just neighbors!” 
While taking the last of my things out of that apartment one day when my roommate was absent, I found a letter from Hoover to my former pal. “Thank you for your actions in regard to this Charles Elliott matter,” Hoover wrote, adding to my astonishment that he especially appreciated my roommate’s “concern for my personal safety.” 
I also know Eastwood’s film got the entry hall of Hoover’s house all wrong, since I went to the door one morning and looked in through the screen while Hoover was away at work and a cleaning crew was in there with everything wide open. That entry way was sparse in the film, but the real one would have provided a telling indication of his character, since immediately to the right inside was a pedestal with an imposing, life-sized bust of J. Edgar Hoover. And the wall behind it was covered with such things as framed letters of commendation, plaques awarded for achievement and photos of Himself posing with presidents including Harding, Coolidge, Roosevelt, and Truman.
After his death, Hoover’s closed coffin was placed in the Rotunda of the Capitol,  and more than 25,000 visitors passed by to pay their final respects. The coffin was kept closed. A camera was set up at the bier, and everyone who passed by was filmed. Someone was making a movie, checking to see who showed up. As I recall, I smiled into the camera. That time, too.  

Chuck Elliott is a retired journalist who served as a featured daily columnist, investigative reporter and editor in local news and was managing editor of the nation's leading trade magazine for the propane industry. He has three published books on Southern California history, is a nationally published poet with more than 280 poems online at The Beautyseer Channel on YouTube, an award-winning fine art photographer, and freelances as a writer and marketing consultant. Visit him at Linked (, read his Clarity Research blog,  and check out his poetry on YouTube.  

Happy Thanksgiving !!!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

HOOVER: Andrew Simpson on J. Edgar as a student at George Washington University

Hoover at the time he attended
George Washington University Law School
Another great comment we received was from Andrew Simpson, who wrote this piece originally in 2009 for Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies, "Schooling J. Edgar: The Shaping of Hoover's Legal Philiosophy at The George Washington University."  He gives us permission to print this condensed version here.  For the full article, contact Andrew below.

        From 1913 to 1917, the man who would become one of the most powerful and controversial figures in American history was a mere law student, wrestling with the same kind of work that hundreds of thousands of students have done since. This was not J. Edgar Hoover, fighter of subversives and criminals, but John Edgar Hoover, a young man in his late teens and early twenties trying to pass Contracts, Torts, and the assortment of other classes he needed to get his law degree.

       Hoover attended The George Washington University Law School starting in the fall of 1913, immediately after graduating from Central High School in Washington, D.C.  He chose GW because he could help support his family by working as a clerk in the Library of Congress by day and taking his classes in the early evening.  So when Hoover sat down at the New Masonic Temple at the intersection of 13th Street, New York Avenue, and H Street (the home of GW’s law school from 1910 to 1920) in September 1913 for his first class, he was just a boy of 18.

       When J. Edgar Hoover entered law school, the legal education system was in a state of transformation.The George Washington University adopted the case method of instruction around 1905-1906, when professors visited other schools and witnessed how effective it was when combined with the Socratic method of questioning students.
A meticulous student 
      The methodical and meticulous Hoover who reveled in organizing and cataloguing information as a
career bureaucrat probably enjoyed the formalized structure of the case method as a student. His law
school notebooks contain thousands of pages of notes, one page per case (sometimes with glued-additions). He followed the same process for each case: write out the plaintiff’s and defendant’s claims, summarize the details of the case, indicate the relevant point of law under consideration, and indicate the court’s ruling on the matter. Under this section, he always included a “notes” section in which he would draw out the lesson, rule, or legal principle to be derived from the case. Sometimes he would even include an opinion on the ruling, although it is not clear whether the occasional “this decision is not good” or “the opinion in this case is very good and of great use” came from his textbook, his professor, or Hoover himself.

      According to his transcript held at The George Washington University registrar’s office, Hoover’s academic performance during his first year was mediocre at best: four B’s, four C’s, and one D.  Over the years his grades steadily improved as he buried himself in his work. In a 1953 profile of Hoover,
a former law school classmate described him as “slim, dark, and intense. He sat off by himself against the wall and always had the answers. None of us got to know him very well.”  By the time he graduated with his L.L.B. in 1916, he was tied for 15th place in class ranking out of a group of 67. In his final year at GW,during which he worked to receive his L.L.M., his marks were all A’s and B’s.

       Hoover’s highest marks came during his final semester at GW from Bankruptcy. He scored a 98%.

Impact of Professor Gregory
       The professor whose legal philosophy might have had the most impact on shaping Hoover’s views was Charles Noble Gregory, dean of the law school from 1911-1914 and Hoover’s contracts professor.h  Gregory was not only a founding member of the American Society of International Law and former president of the American Association of Law Schools, but also was consulted about various international and domestic situations as they arose. For example, he weighed in on the liability of the White Star Company for the Titanic tragedy in 1912. The White House even solicited Gregory’s opinion on the constitutionality of the national budget proposal that same year.

       During the lead-up to World War I, Gregory was an outspoken critic of German submarine warfare on neutral U.S. ships, arguing that Americans had the right to trade with whoever they wanted.  Gregory’s legal ideas intersect with Hoover’s philosophy on the subjects of alien immigrants and radicalism.

       Charles Noble Gregory had demonstrated in the past that deportation of anarchists based on their political beliefs was entirely legal -- a key foundation to Hover's later role in the Justice Departm,ent's 1919-1920 Palmer Raids.

       Although we may not know how much he discussed his views on alien radicals in class, Gregory
illuminated his interpretation of the law clearly in an article he wrote for the Juridical Review entitled, “A Question of International Law in the Deportation of Aliens.” Before moving on to the trickier international issues with deportations, he examined the settled case law in the United States. He unequivocally determined that the Supreme Court has “upheld the validity of a statute for the deportation of alien anarchists” and quotes from a case that decrees “The constitutionality of the legislation in question in its general aspect is no longer open to discussion in this Court.” Going further, he pointed out that cases involving aliens “of the excludable class could not be reviewed by the Courts on habeus corpus…” Summing up this argument, Gregory writes, “It seems that the lawfulness of exclusion or deportation of aliens…must be taken as quite fully settled.” 

     A few years after writing the Juridical Review article, Gregory presented a paper at the meeting
of the American Society of International Law entitled “The Expulsion of Aliens,” in which he stated that “the maintenance of a rigorous surveillance of anarchists” and the statute “for deporting them [was] held lawful and constitutional.” 

       If the case method is about extracting legal principles from settled case law, then the young Hoover, sitting in a classroom during his first year, would no doubt have absorbed the principle that the United States had every right to deport alien radicals.

Many influences
       We will never know precisely how significantly these men contributed to Hoover’s view of the law.  No doubt there were many sources and experiences that shaped this complex man – his parents, his religion, his jobs, his bosses and mentors. The Bureau celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2008, and upon that occasion it is worth considering those who schooled the young man who, one day, would lead it for almost half the period of its existence.

Andrew Simpson is a historical consultant at History Associates, Inc.    For the full article or any questions or comments, please contact him at or else post a comment here.

Friday, November 18, 2011

HOOVER: Lane Bonner with the view of an FBI veteran

One of the more detailed, thoughtful comments I received on my recent Washington Post article "Five Myths about J. Edgar Hoover," came from Lane Bonner, a long-time FBI agent, clerk, and spokesman, now living in Florida.  Mr. Bonner has graciously given me permission to publish it here: 

J. Edgar Hoover (right) with President Lyndon B. Johnson.
I worked for Mr. Hoover and the FBI in Washington, D.C. as a clerk from 1957-1962; Miami Field Office, 1962 - 1968 (Technical Surveillance Clerk in the Organized Crime Program); as a Special Agent, Oklahoma City Field Office 1968-1969, Baltimore Field Office 1969-1981 (also as a Supervisory Special Agent on the criminal side of the house, and the division Media Rep (PIO); at FBI Headquarters (HQ) as a national spokesman; and as Chief of the FBI-HQ Press Office 1986-1988 when I retired. Since 1990, I have been a Special Investigator under contract to the FBI (background investigations).

During my HQ days as a clerk and as an agent, I met many of Mr. Hoover's early officials. I also did considerable research on Mr. Hoover's stewardship of the FBI. As a senior tour leader at FBI-HQ and because I had prior military experience, I was assigned by Mr. DeLoach to assist (driving, etc) various journalists covering the FBI.

My exceptions/additions to your article ("5 Myth about J Edgar Hoover") are these:

Intimidating Officials
1. There is absolutely no evidence that Mr. Hoover blackmailed or attempted to intimidate any officials. Conversely, Mr. Hoover had an excellent relationship with most of the congressional committee chairmen.  He knew how to keep Congress happy, which was essential to getting his budgets approved. These chairmen knew exactly what the FBI was doing in those days. Unfortunately, much of their dialogue is not in the public domain,

Civil Rights
2. Having been the clerical complaint clerk (first point of contact with FBI for citizens referring non-emergency matters) in the Miami Field Office 1966-1968 (when President Johnson shut down our wiretap/eavesdropping program which was administered according to existing law at that time), I was well briefed on the FBI's response to civil rights matters.  These were given the highest priority of the time (2 weeks for a full-field investigation). At that time, the FBI was making great headway in discreetly and overtly investigating and neutralizing the KKK and other radical groups according to the law at that time.

Much of the criticism toward Mr. Hoover's civil rights policy stemmed from a response memo from Mr. Hoover to a member of Congress inquiring about Mr. Hoover's views on expanding the jurisdiction of the FBI.  (This memo, as I recall, was written in the late 40's). Mr. Hoover honestly responded that by increasing the FBI's jurisdiction in the area of civil rights, the ability of the FBI to investigate other priorities ESTABLISHED BY CONGRESS, including the investigation/recovery of stolen motor vehicles, a very important matter to representatives from auto manufacturing states, would be greatly diminished. That memo has been held against Mr. Hoover by certain journalists since the 70's.

It was alleged that Mr. Hoover was dragged kicking and screaming into the CR arena. Mr. Hoover, I'm told, was generally against the expansion of Federal powers/jurisdiction. Don't forget, too, it was the FBI under Mr. Hoover that solved the murders of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi, etc., etc,

Dr. King
3. Mr. Hoover was not investigating the civil rights movement or its leaders in the 1960s.  There was a legitimate investigation of the CPUSA (Communist Party USA) that led us to Dr. King. The CPUSA was allegedly attempting to exploit the civil rights movement. It was Robert Kennedy who authorized the wiretaps of MLK,

Public Relations

Dr. Martin Luther King speaking in the mid-1960s.

4. Mr. Hoover knew the value of and had an effective public affairs apparatus. It was not designed to enhance his reputation, it was intended to engender public respect for and encourage public cooperation with the FBI - period. Mr. Hoover knew that public cooperation was essential to getting the FBI mission accomplished.

I am not saying Mr. Hoover was perfect, who is? But, as a loyal and patriotic American who turned a corrupt and inefficient  agency into the premier law agency in the world - he deserves an honorable place in history.  I am also amused that Mr. Hoover's detractors came out of the woodwork only after his death when he was unable to defend himself, following a distinguished career of doing exactly what Congress and the various administrations hired him to do.

Again, thanks for a very good article. Respectfully, Lane Bonner, Jr., Plant City, Florida.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Still more J. Edgar snapshots, including in the White House, 1930s-1970s.

Posing at New York City dog show with contestant.  (No, it's not his own, though he had dogs most of his life.)

Showing Shirley Temple a comparison microscope in the FBI lab.

A few White House photos:

Standing with John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy.

Confiding with Richard M. Nixon.

Standing behind Franklin Delano Roosevelt (at desk).

Standing behind John F. Kennedy (at desk) and Bobby Kennedy (standing).

Receiving an award from Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Notice Richard Nixon, as VP, standing behind Ike's shoulder.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

More photos of J. Edgar Hoover in the 1930s

Here are a few more photos of Hoover, mostly from the 1930s (from the National Archives):

Clowning around with two show girls.

At the Stork Club in New York City.

With actor Edward G. Robinson.

Explaining an operation with his office map.

Wearing reading glasses.

At his office desk.

Monday, November 14, 2011

J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson -- the actual photos

The new film J. Edgar takes the well-known relationship between long-time FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo diCaprio) and his long-time FBI number-two Clyde Tolson  (Armie Hammer) and develops it into a major theme.   What do we actually know about it?  Hoover and Tolson worked together more than 40 years.  They traveled together on vacation and official business, rode to work together, shared lunch nearly every day at Washington’s Mayflower hotel and sometimes even wore matching suits. 

Hoover, at his death, left Tolson most of his estate. Their relationship, by all appearances, was stable, discreet and long-lasting. But what they did physically behind closed doors, if anything, they kept between them.

Photos like these from the 1930s of Hoover and Tolson together, however, tell a story:

Hoover and Tolson are in the middle, wearing matching suits.

Hoover and Tolson attending a prize fight in New York City. 

Again, Hoover and Tolson stand in the middle, with matching suits and spats.

Hoover sits at his desk, and Tolson stands directly behind him, hand on Hoover's chair.
Hoover and Tolson on vacation.

Tolson and Hoover, as played by Leonardo DiCaprio (on right) and Armie Hammer (on left).

Friday, November 11, 2011

GUEST BLOGGER: Tom Copeland on Remembering the Centralia Tragedy of November 11, 1919

A rare photo from 1919 of Centralia, Washington, showing the American Legion's memorial service held a few days after the Armistice Day violence.

As we remember and celebrate the veterans of all America's wars this Armistice Day 2011, our Guest Blogger Tom Copeland reminds us of heroes on the home front who also took couragous stands to protect our freedoms.

On November 11, 1919, during an Armistice Day parade in the central Washington State town of Centralia, a crowd of World War I veterans stormed the local branch building of the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.).  This sparked a violent confrontation in which four veterans were shot dead and one I.W.W. member was lynched.

The Centralia Tragedy – portrayed briefly in the new film J. Edgar starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the 48-year director of the FBI -- represented the high-water mark of the suppression of domestic labor radicalism after the Great War.  (Click here for (a) more detail on the violence itself and (b) some rare video of the aftermath.) 

During the 1920s, the Centralia case became a national cause célèbre.  Juries found four Wobblies guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced them to over a decade in jail. No one was ever charged with the mob lynching of "Wobbly" (as I.W.W. members were called) Wesley Everest.

I became interested in this case in the early 1970s, while attending Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. I discovered that a 1910 graduate, Elmer Smith, had advised the I.W.W. that they had a right to defend their hall that day in 1919 from the anticipated attack by the American Legion.

I spent the next 20 years tracking down Smith’s life by interviewing surviving relatives (Smith died in 1932), uncovering his partly censored FBI files, and piecing together records from historical archives across the country.  In 1993, the University of Washington published my biography of Smith: The Centralia Tragedy of 1919: Elmer Smith and the Wobblies.

Smith’s life as a lawyer fascinated me, particularly his tireless dedication to the rights of working people through his defense of the I.W.W. prisoners.  Smith was arrested numerous times for speaking out on behalf if the I.W.W., kidnapped briefly by the American Legion in California after quoting Abraham Lincoln, disbarred from practicing law (partly for telling a joke!), and later reinstated. The Centralia case became the driving force in his career, and his work kept alive the cause of the I.W.W. prisoners and eventually led to their freedom.

Smith, a nonviolent man, knew that his 1919 advice to the I.W.W. helped precipitate violence.  His lifelong efforts to free the imprisoned men ignited anti-radical passions wherever he went.  Roger Baldwin, founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, called him “a determined advocate and an admirer of the men he defended.”
 Smith's personal life mirrored the optimism and crushing reality of I.W.W. fortunes in the Pacific Northwest after World War I.  He was a man of many weaknesses.  He had a rigid morality caused and was sometimes naïve, judgmental, and driven by guilt for his role in the Centralia case.  Although  outwardly confident, he took on more responsibility that he could handle, and constant pressure from his work created stress that eventually ruined his health.

Poster to honor I.W.W. victim of
the 1919 Centralia lynching.
 Despite these flaws, he was admired by workers and displayed extraordinary fearlessness in standing up to intimidation and personal threats of violence, and he never responded in anger. “It was hard for Elmer to believe that a person could be a no-good-son-of-a-bitch,” one of his friends remembered. “The weakness with Elmer is that he trusted too easy. His strength was also his weakness. He had an overwhelming faith in the goodness of his fellow man.”

The Centralia Tragedy has been largely forgotten outside the Pacific Northwest. On this 92nd anniversary, let us remember those workers (and lawyers!) who fought for their rights to organize against great obstacles. As Smith once said:

“How they say to me ‘Elmer, you are fanning the fire of discontent with your speeches!’ Of course I am! Did ever anything worthwhile ever come to pass in the history of the world without fanning the fire of discontent? No! … By the Almighty I will fan the fire of discontent till I draw my last breath.”

By fanning the fire of discontent during his lifetime, Elmer Smith helped keep the flame of justice alive for later generations.

Tom Copeland is the author of The Centralia Tragedy of 1919: Elmer Smith and the Wobblies.  He is also an independent consultant:

Monday, November 7, 2011

Special Holiday Sale on all books from Viral History Press

Order between now and January 1, 2012 and save:

      --eBooks: all for $2.99 -- whether Kindle, Nook, or iTunes. 

      --Paperbacks: Order direct and save 25%. Here's how:

For YOUNG J. EDGAR, click here and use discount code   LXKAAXDG

For BOSS TWEED, click here and use discount code   Y8CTBF8Z

For DARK HORSE, click here are use discount code   97WX8YHY

Boss Tweed: Read the opening chapter

Today, we give you a free peek at the opening chapter of Boss Tweed, in its entirely. We hope you enjoy it.  If so, please consider buying the full book.  Just click here.

Special for Viral History friends -- Save $5.00 on the new edition !!
      Click here and use discount code   9XHL34ZL

The Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York

• 1 • ALONE

April 12, 1878:
TWEED WAS DYING that morning, locked inside New York City’s Ludlow Street Jail at Grand Street on the lower East Side. At about 11:40 am, he began to whisper; his lawyer William Edelstein had to lean close and place his ear by Tweed’s lips to hear over the noise of horses and people on the street, women haggling at the nearby Essex Street Market. “Well, Tilden and Fairchild have killed me,” he said.  Tweed had saved his last words for his tormentors: Charles Fairchild, the New York State Attorney General who had cheated him, broken his pledge to free him in exchange for a full confession, and Samuel Tilden, the New York Governor who’d built a national political career on Tweed’s downfall and now demanded he die behind bars.

         “I hope they are satisfied now.”  He smiled faintly. A few minutes later, he lost consciousness.

         For two weeks, Tweed had borne a cascade of ailments: fever, bronchitis, pneumonia. Months earlier, he’d suffered a heart attack, aggravated by kidney failure brought on by Bright’s disease. His huge, 300-pound body, once known for its swagger, now sagged on the narrow bed, struggling to breathe; his sporadic coughs hung in the cool, dank air. Hollowed cheeks and a thin ghost-white beard dominated his long face. Blue eyes that once twinkled for friends and glared at enemies seemed vacant, haunted by depression.  At noon, just as mid-day bells sounded from the Essex Street Market tower, Tweed died, prematurely old at 55 years, surrounded by strangers.

         It had been almost five years since Tweed had walked the streets of New York City, his life-long home, as a free man. A year before that, Tweed had stood at the height of power and could laugh at bureaucrats like Fairchild and Tilden who’d begged him for favors like everyone else. He, William M. Tweed, had been the single most influential man in New York City and a rising force on the national stage. Physically imposing and mentally sharp, Tweed reigned supreme. He was more than simply boss of Tammany Hall, commissioner of PublicWorks, and state senator. He controlled judges, mayors, governors, and newspapers. He flaunted his wealth, conspicuous and garish beyond anything supportable by his government salaries or even traditional “honest graft”* as practiced by generations of politicians before and since.
* “Honest graft” was defined by Tammany chief George Washington Plunkitt in 1905 as “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em”—basically exploiting insider influence as opposed to direct stealing from the city treasury. In practice, it amounted to both, but with discretion and moderation.
         Tweed was the third-largest landowner in the city, director of the Erie
Railroad, the Tenth National Bank, and the New-York Printing Company, proprietor of  the Metropolitan Hotel, and president of the Americus Club. He owned two steam-powered yachts, a Fifth Avenue mansion, an estate in Greenwich, Connecticut, and a shirtfront diamond pin valued at over $15,000. Still, he gloried as friend to the poor, champion of immigrants, builder of a greater New York, and arbiter of influence and patronage. And he stole … on a massive scale.

         Once the proof of Tweed’s thefts from the city exploded in newspaper banner headlines, his house of cards collapsed. City investigators ultimately figured that Tweed and his city “ring,” during a three-year period, had made off with a staggering $60 million from the local treasury—an amount larger than the entire annual U.S. federal budget up until the CivilWar. Even then, political enemies and lawmen couldn’t touch him; it would take a popular uprising to topple Tweed, led by a newspaper, the New-York Times, and a magazine, HarpersWeekly. Only after newspapers had produced the evidence did prosecutors like Tilden and Fairchild dare put Tweed behind bars.

         In December 1873, a jury had convicted Tweed on 204 counts of criminal misdemeanor fraud growing from the famous “Tweed Ring” scandals and Judge Noah Davis had sentenced him to twelve years’ imprisonment on Blackwell’s Island.* Judge Davis had overstepped; the charges each actually
carried a jail term of just a few months and an appeals court had freed Tweed a year later over the discrepancy, but Tilden had intervened again and or-dered Tweed immediately rearrested and Judge Davis had set bail at an impossibly high $3 million.**
*    Located in the middle of the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn, it is now called Roosevelt Island.
** About $60 million in modern dollars. Generally, to compare modern dollars with dollars in the 1860s or 1870s, multiply by twenty.      

       Now, six years later, Tweed alone remained in jail. All his friends and fellow thieves, the other Ring fugitives, had fled the country or settled their charges with the government. Tweed alone had become the scapegoat, the face of corruption. Increasingly, reformers criticized the prosecutors themselves for their clumsy handling of the case, running up huge legal costs while failing to recover more than a pittance of stolen city funds.

         Tweed hated prison; it defied him—despite the fact that jailors gave him every comfort money could buy: a private room, hot meals, a bathtub, a window to the street, and friends to visit. He grew impatient at the lawyers’ wrangling. In December 1875, he’d escaped and fled. One night that month, he snuck away from his jail guards and secretly crossed the Hudson River to New Jersey. He later admitted paying $60,000 in bribes to finance the dramatic breakout. Once loose, he traveled in disguise, wearing a wig, clean-shaven face, and workman’s clothes, and using a false name. He reached Cuba and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Spain, but only to face arrest. Spanish authorities had seized him on his arrival at Vigo and handed him back to a United States Navy frigate that returned him to New York City.

         Then, back behind bars, exhausted, destitute, and sick, Tweed tried to surrender: “I am an old man, greatly broken in health, cast down in spirit, and can no longer bear my burden,” he’d written from jail, agreeing with Fairchild and Tilden to throw himself on their mercy. After years of denials,
he now offered them a full confession of his crimes, including names of accomplices, surrender of all his property, and help in any legal steps to recover stolen city funds—all in exchange for his freedom. He wanted to be with his wife and children, he said, to live out his last years.

         He delivered his confession both in writing and through eleven days of riveting public testimony before a committee of city aldermen investigating his crimes.  Newspapers carried full transcripts of the startling disclosures as Tweed appeared day after day in a packed City Hall chamber and unflinchingly poured out his secrets, explaining how he’d bribed the state legislature, fixed elections, skimmed money from city contractors, and systematically diverted public funds. Parts of his story had little or no corroboration, raising suspi-cions he’d exaggerated his own guilt simply to flatter his jailers and help win his release.  He made no excuses, no alibis, and no complaints; sitting in the stuffy room he answered every question, rarely showing temper or impatience.

         New Yorkers who earlier had despised Tweed for his arrogance and greed now grudgingly grew to respect “the old man”—for his terrible mistakes, his punishment, and his apparent atonement. The aldermen who took his testimony supported Tweed’s plea for release from jail, as did old political rivals like “Honest John” Kelly, Tweed’s replacement as leader of Tammany Hall.

         But Tilden and Fairchild, sitting at the state capitol in Albany, were deaf to his pleas. Samuel Tilden had already run for president of the United States in 1876; he’d received more popular votes than Rutherford B. Hayes and lost the presidency by a single electoral vote in a contested outcome. He was considering a second try in 1880. Fairchild too saw higher political office in his future, including a possible run for the New York governor’s mansion. Why should either risk his reputation now over Tweed?

         His last appearance outside Ludlow Street Jail came on March 26, 1878, two weeks before his death. Sheriffs had taken Tweed to the state Supreme Court to testify in one of the many lawsuits resulting from his scandals. As guards led him through the marble courthouse corridors, he eagerly greeted the two or three old-timers who weren’t ashamed to shake his hand, even though he was now the city’s most notorious villain. Newsmen noticed how Tweed now walked with a limp and spoke in a rasping voice. When Tweed took the witness stand, he delivered a prepared statement: “Under promises made to me by the officials of the State and the city, I was induced to give evidence before the Common Council of this city…as to what are called ‘Ring Frauds,’” he read. “I am advised by my counsel not to answer a single question put to me on this case… until the promises made to me… are fulfilled and I am liberated.”

         The judge accepted Tweed’s response at face value and allowed him to leave the court without being cross-examined by any of the lawyers.

         Six days later, Tweed got his answer. Attorney General Fairchild issued a public letter denying he’d made any deals with Tweed—despite contrary statements he’d given earlier to Tweed’s own lawyer and to John Kelly.  Fairchild declared the whole incident a sham and a trick; he never bothered
even to send Tweed a copy of the letter. Tweed read it in the newspapers. When he saw Fairchild’s denial, he knew his game was up. A few days later came the fever, then the cough, then pneumonia.
         John Murray Carnochan, Tweed’s physician at Ludlow Street Jail, didn’t hesitate to pinpoint the cause of death. “Behind all these phases of disease,” he told newspaper writers after the autopsy, “was [Tweed’s] great nervous prostration, brought about by his prolonged confinement in an unhealthful locality”— the moldy jailhouse on Ludlow Street—“and by the unfavorable result of the efforts recently made to effect his release.”

         Tweed’s family had largely abandoned him by the time he died. Public shame had driven them away. Mary Jane, his wife of thirty-three years, had gone to Paris with their grown son William Jr.; she traveled under the false name “Weed” to avoid any connection with her disgraced husband. “My
wife!…She is God’s own workmanship,” he confided to an interviewer. “The only thing against her is that she had such a worthless husband.” Tweed’s two youngest sons, 10-year-old George and 14-year-old Charles, had been kept in a New England boarding school for the past five years and forbidden
to see their father. Tweed’s two oldest daughters, Mary Amelia and Lizzie, both lived with husbands in New Orleans, a thousand miles away, both taking the same married name, Maginnis.

         Of all Tweed’s children, only his daughter Josephine, 24 years old, still lived in New York City. She came frequently to the Ludlow Street Jail to visit her father and always tried to act cheerful around him. She’d come quickly this morning on hearing from the doctors, but had stepped away from her father’s bedside to fetch him his favorite treat of tea and ice cream. She hadn’t come back yet when he died at noon.

         News of Tweed’s death spread quickly through the busy metropolis of 900,000 souls. New Yorkers had known him for twenty-five years as hero, villain, and criminal. Tweed once had counted his friends and colleagues in the thousands. “Nine men out of ten either know me or I know them,” he’d bragged back in the 1860s, when he still commanded the city’s respect, “women and children you may include.”  Now, crowds gathered at newspaper offices and government buildings with public bulletin boards—over a hundred people at City Hall alone. Boys selling extra editions of the New

York Sun, the World, and the Herald made a fast business. The Boss dead? It couldn’t be true! One rumor had it that Tweed had faked his own demise as just another gimmick to win release from jail.

         Most New Yorkers sympathized at the news. “Poor old man, poor man, but perhaps it was best for him,” Judge Van Vorst of the Court of Common Pleas told a reporter.  “Tweed had a great many friends among the poor andfriendless,” added Bernard Reilly, sheriff of New York County. “Other people will regret his death because they think he has been rather harshly dealt with… he cannot be considered wholly as a bad man. He erred deplorably. And he has paid for his errors by dying in prison.”

         But self-styled reformers rejected any pity for Tweed. They’d won a great victory by overthrowing Tweed’s corrupt machine and refused to compromise now over misplaced sentiment for a sick old man. The New-York Times had dramatically unearthed and disclosed the Tweed Ring’s secret accounts—the greatest journalistic scoop to that time, directly leading to Tweed’s demise.
Now it led the assault: “Such talents as [Tweed] had were devoted to cheating the people and robbing the public Treasury,” insisted its lead editorial the next day, adding “his tastes were gross, his life impure, and his influence, both political and personal, more pernicious than that of any other public man of his generation.”

Nast's final drawing of Tweed before the Boss's death, Harper's Weekly, January 26, 1878.
          Thomas Nast, the brilliant young illustrator whose cartoons in Harper’s Weekly had made Tweed a laughingstock to New York’s illiterate masses, still featured the ex-Boss in his weekly drawings. These days he portrayed Tweed as a tiny parakeet—no longer the fierce Tammany Tiger but instead a pathetic “jailbird” with prison stripes on his feathers and a ball and chain locked to his ankle. 

         Nast’s final drawing of Tweed, published in January 1878, had mocked the appeals for Tweed’s release by showing miniature jailbird Tweed gripped in a giant hand called “Prison,” ready to crush him at a whim. “[I]f it be right that men should be punished for great offenses, there was nothing unkind,
unjust, or unreasonable in the punishment of Tweed,” echoed a Harper’sWeekly editorial that week. It was right that Tweed should die in jail a broken man, others said. “Without his boldness and skill the gigantic Ring robberies would not have been committed,” concluded James Gordon Bennett, Jr.’s New York Herald. The “finger of scorn,” as Tom Nast had drawn it, must follow him to the grave.

         William Magear Tweed had left enormous footprints on his city; he had built as grandly as he’d stolen. His monuments dotted every corner of Manhattan— the new Brooklyn Bridge rising across the East River, the opulent new County Courthouse by City Hall, the widened, paved streets up Broadway
and around Central Park. Just as striking were shadows of his crimes — the huge debt and ruined credit that would haunt city finances for a generation, the broken lives and shattered trust of former friends. Tweed had defined a grimy reality of American politics, perfecting forms of graft and voting-box abuse mimicked by political bosses for the next century, but never on so grand a scale. His fall had created a new role for a free press in the public arena, and his legal persecution had set a tone for political scandals lasting generations.

         Fittingly, his most famous quotation is something he never said, at least publicly—“As long as I count the ballots, what are you going to do about it.”  Thomas Nast had put the words in his mouth in a Harper’sWeekly cartoon in 1871.

         The morning after Tweed died in jail, newspapers crammed their front pages with stories of his life and times. Politicians rushed to claim credit for having a hand in his downfall; only a rare friend dared to wax nostalgic for old Tammany Hall. People bought extra copies of the newspapers to save for children and grandchildren; they sensed the passing of a monumental figure. Tweed’s story would dominate church sermons and saloon arguments for weeks. “The career of Tweed was in many respects one of the most remark-able known to our peculiar land of peculiar institutions,”  the Washington Post noted.18 How could one raised so high fall so low?

         History would blacken Tweed’s name, portraying him as the worst municipal thief, the most corrupt politician, the craftiest ballot-box fixer—a stereotype used to tarnish entire generations of American political professionals. Already, he’d become a caricature: More people knew Tweed as the
comical thug in Nast’s Harper’sWeekly cartoons, the shameless villain in the New-York Times exposes, or the legendary wire-puller of Tammany Hall than as the vital flesh and blood person who’d walked the streets of Gotham for fifty-five years. He left a strange puzzle. Except for his stealing, Tweed would have been a great man; but had he been honest, he wouldn’t have been Tweed and would not have left nearly so great a mark.

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