Showing posts with label New York. Show all posts
Showing posts with label New York. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Herman Methfessel: the racketeer housewives of Staten Island

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For most of his career, Herman Methfessel stayed out of the news. In the midst of his career as a New York City prosecutor, he made the syndicated column "Dizzy Doings in the News" in a 1942 account of fishing tales. Without noting Methfessel's profession, it took his claim that he caught two 14-inch bass on the same plug and cast with a grain of salt. Nine years later, Methfessel's own handling of questionable tales would end his career in the Empire State.

Born somewhere in the vicinity of 1901, Methfessel worked as a newspaper reporter before becoming an attorney. He was elected to the New York state assembly as a Democrat and served there between 1935 and 1938. From there, he went on to become the second assistant district attorney of Richmond County, and was promoted to the first assistant district attorney at the end of 1944. Three years later, he was elected to be district attorney of the county with backing from the Republican Party. In April of 1949, he witnessed the shooting of former Republican representative Ellsworth B. Buck outside his office by, Charles van Newkirk, 57-year-old former marine engineer who confessed that it was retaliation for Buck heading a congressional committee returning decision against him; Buck survived his injuries.

Methfessel's time in office ended ignominiously in September of 1951. As the New York State Crime Commission investigated rackets in Staten Island, 36-year-old housewife Anna Wentworth testified that she had seen Methfessel in a gambling den run by the D'Alessio brothers, known to be key players in gambling and racketeering operations in Richmond County. Wentworth served as their maid, and said the district attorney was at a roulette party there; the implication was that Methfessel was protecting vice. Methfessel responded by having her arrested for perjury.

The action appalled other members of the commission and New York government. Wentworth said she was terrified that the officers might not be legit, and said they refused to allow any of her six children to call a lawyer. Methfessel, along with commission chairman Joseph M. Proskauer, asked that a special prosecutor be used for testimony related to Wenworth. At the request of the Crime Commission, however, Governor Thomas E. Dewey ordered that a special prosecutor would supersede Methfessel in all matters related to the investigation. Dewey added that the officers admitted they didn't have a warrant for Wentworth's arrest and left her with black and blue marks after dragging her from her home. "On the basis of the facts before me, it is clear that the district attorney in using the power of his office to direct the arrest and questioning of a person who testified against him personally was a gross abuse of power," said Dewey. "The use of a district attorney for personal or political purposes is intolerable." Dewey appointed William B. Herlands, a former New York City commissioner of education, to replace Methfessel.

Methfessel was unapologetic when speaking before the commission on the incident. Wentworth, he said, had been an "unqualified liar" in her testimony; he also contended that she was seeking publicity and wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. He didn't meet with much sympathy. When he said the officers had followed a regular routine in the arrest, Proskauer replied, "Well, if this happens in every police station it's time we found out. This is America, not Russia." John M. Harlan, chief counsel for the commission, said Wentworth's arrest amounted to intimidation. In September of 1951, gambler Michael D'Alessio admitted that he made thousands of untaxed dollars, and contributed to the GOP but also was on friendly terms with Methfessel. The scandal resulted in an easy defeat in the 1951 election, as voters chose Republican-Liberal candidate Sidney O. Simonson to replace him.

Methfessel's ouster didn't quite close the book on the matter. He was charged, along with an assistant named Irving Rivkin, with official misconduct. The case went before a disciplinary trial in June of 1952, but both were acquitted at the recommendation of Supreme Court referee Peter P. Smith on the basis of insufficient evidence. Herlands tried to get the case reopened, but was denied by an appellate court. Wentworth, meanwhile, sued the city for $100,500 in December of 1951 after charging false arrest. A magistrate dismissed the perjury charge against her in February of 1952. The civil charge didn't come to trial until 1958, by which point the damages had ballooned to $1,175,000 sought from Methfessel and the two detectives involved in her arrest; it ultimately settled for a mere $3,500.

Methfessel moved to Miami, Florida to become a private attorney. He resurfaced briefly when John M. Harlan, who acted as counsel for the crime commission, was considered to be a Supreme Court justice. Before Congress, Methfessel accused Harlan of springing Wentworth as a surprise witness during the crime commission investigation and never allowed him to cross-examine her or introduce witnesses to dispute her testimony. Methfessel claimed that the debacle led to his re-election defeat despite the fact that he was never formally implicated. He told the congressmen that Harlan's "attitude toward cross-examination and toward a right of a person to defend himself is not the attitude that I feel should be carried into the Supreme Court." Nevertheless, Harlan was confirmed and served on the high bench until 1971.

Methfessel continued working as a lawyer until July of 1963, when he suffered a fatal heart attack while driving along the North-South Expressway.

Sources: The Political Graveyard, "Dizzy Doings in the News" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Jul. 16 1942, "Named Assistant Prosecutor" in the New York Times on Dec. 31 1944, "Says Shooting 'Spite Job'" in the Ottawa Evening Citizen on Apr. 6 1949, "DA Faces Quiz on 'Intimidation'" in the Pittsburgh Press on Sep. 21 1951, "District Attorney Barred by Governor in N.Y. Crime Case" in the Wilmington Morning Star on Sep. 22 1951, "Gambler Admits Making Untaxed Fortune" in the Milwaukee Sentinel on Sep. 25 1951, "William B. Herlands" in the Wilmington News on Sep. 27 1951, "Corruption, Racketeering Issues in Several Elections Today" in the Reading Eagle on Nov. 6 1951, "City Sued for $100,500" in the New York Times on Dec. 23 1951, "Mrs. Wentworth Cleared" in the New York Times on Feb. 29 1952, "Methfessel Case Goes to Referee" in the New York Times on Jun. 6 1952, "Hear Methfessel Motion" in the New York Times on Nov. 15 1952, "Methfessel Is Cleared" in the New York Times on Dec. 9 1952, "Herland Reopens Methfessel Case" in the New York Times on Jan. 18 1953, "State Loses Appeal in Methfessel Case" in the New York Times on Mar. 6 1953, "Oppenheimer Pal Wins Solons' Approval" in the Spokesman-Review on Feb. 25 1955, "False Suit Settled for $3,500" in the New York Times on Jun. 13 1958, "Motorist Died of Heart Attack" in the Miami News on Jul. 12 1963, John Marshall Harlan: Great Dissenter of the Warren Court by Tinsley Y. Yarbrough

Monday, October 25, 2010

Daniel E. Sickles: through the perilous fights

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Congressmen with murderous tempers were not new to Philip Barton Key, but his prior experience had not exactly prepared him for the events of February 27, 1859. Key was used to handling such matters from behind a prosecutor's table. A few years before, his duties as the U.S. district attorney for Washington, D.C. compelled him to try Democratic Representative Philemon T. Herbert for a bizarre murder. Herbert's argument with a waiter at Willard's Hotel grew physical, and it culminated in the congressman taking out a pistol and shooting the waiter dead. Two trials later, Herbert was acquitted under arguments that included intimidation by other waiters during the scuffle.

The incident may have taught Key not to cross a congressman at breakfast, but it did nothing to suggest that sleeping with a representative's wife was a bad idea. Not long after the unsuccessful trial, Key had befriended incoming representative Daniel Edgar Sickles and his wife, Teresa. Sickles was more than twice Teresa's age, having married her in 1852 when she was 15 years old. He was also not the most dedicated family man, and his work in Congress in the tumultuous period leading up to the Civil War did nothing to improve matters. During his frequent absences, Teresa wound up spending more and more time with Key. Their relationship did not go unnoticed in the higher ranks of Washington society, but Sickles remained oblivious. That precarious balance continued for several months, until an anonymous tipster inadvertently caused one of the most talked about events in the nation's capital.

Sickles had left a wake of minor scandals through his career, but nothing to derail it. Born in New York City in October of 1819, he attended New York University for a time and apprenticed as a printer. He later changed his focus to law, was admitted to the bar in 1843, and started practicing in the city. Though he was charged with grand larceny three years later in the theft of an $800 deed, he was acquitted on technical grounds. Sickles' frequent dalliances with a prostitute named Fanny White also failed to throw him off the political track. Aided by the Tammany Hall machine, he became a member of the state assembly in 1847 and the corporation attorney for New York City in 1853. Sickles supported the idea of a central park in Manhattan, an idea which eventually came to fruition during his lifetime.

In 1853, Sickles was tapped to be secretary of the legation at London by Democratic President Franklin Pierce. The key goal of this body was to promote the freedom of the seas and convince the British government not to interfere in the American aspiration to acquire Cuba from Spain. Sickles spent two years in this position, but caused a few embarrassments along the way. In 1854, he refused to toast the health of Queen Victoria on the Fourth of July. He likely had a role in the Ostend Manifesto, a document boldly proclaiming that the United States would take Cuba by force if Spain did not part with the island peacefully. The ultimatum was not well-received in both Europe and the U.S., and Pierce was forced to distance himself from the manifesto. When Sickles returned from England, he soon wound up in the state senate. His time here was cut short when he was elected as a Democrat to the House of Representatives in 1856.

Sickles allied himself with the Southern, "Hardshell" wing of the Democratic Party. As crises related to slavery and the balance of power in Congress mounted, the Hardshells sought to preserve the union of states even if it meant the practice of slavery were to stay in place. To that end, Sickles supported the proposal by Democratic President James Buchanan to admit Kansas as a slave state. The measure passed the Senate, but ran into defeat in the House.

It was not long after he was returned for a second term in the House that Sickles was confronted with a bitter piece of news about his marital relations. On February 24, 1859, he received a letter signed only by someone identifying themselves as "R.P.G." This tipster, whom the New York Times later melodramatically dubbed an "enemy of mankind," suggested that Sickles' friend Key rented a house on 15th Street for no other reason than to meet clandestinely Teresa. "He hangs a string out of the window as a signal to her that he is in and leaves the door unfastened and she walks in and sir I do assure you he has as much the use of your wife as you have," R.P.G. hinted. "With these few hints I leave the rest of you to imagine."

Sickles decided to embark on an investigation. Visiting the address, he questioned a few neighbors and found to his dismay that they readily recalled that a man and woman matching the description of Key and Teresa had regularly convened at the house. Sickles confided in a few friends, one of whom surveyed the house from a rented apartment across the street and turned up nothing. Sickles even had a brief glimmer of hope, when a witness recalled seeing Teresa on a date he knew her to be in another location; this quickly faded when it turned out that the witness had simply gotten the date wrong. Finally, Sickles confronted Teresa and forced her to write a lengthy and detailed confession when she admitted to the affair. "I did what is usual for a wicked woman to do," she concluded.

Key remained aloof of this development. So it was that three days after Sickles received the letter from R.P.G., several witnesses say Key loitering around the congressman's residence. At one point, he even made a clumsy attempt to signal Teresa, waving a handkerchief while petting the Sickles family dog after it ran out to see him. When Sickles finally saw Key outside, he was enraged. Though one of his friends, Samuel Butterworth, urged him to go the gentleman's route by challenging Key to a duel, Sickles would have none of it. He strode out to confront the district attorney, shouting that he was a scoundrel who had dishonored his house and threatening his life. He then took out a derringer and fired.

The first shot only grazed Key's hand. Key managed to grab hold of Sickles' coat collar, which was enough to prevent Sickles from firing again. Instead, he dropped his weapon and pulled free, only to take out a second gun and shoot again. This time, Key was struck in the leg near the groin. At some point during the struggle, Key took a pair of opera glasses he happened to have on him and threw them at Sickles, an attack which obviously didn't do much harm. With a serious wound, Key now begged Sickles not to kill him. Sickles ignored him, firing again. The gun misfired. He shot again, this time hitting Key in the chest. Even at this point, Sickles wasn't satisfied and tried to shoot Key in the head, only to have the fickle weapon misfire a second time. The incident took place in Lafayette Square, directly across the street from the White House.

Finally, the witnesses in the square interceded and Sickles surrendered his weapon. A surgeon had heard the shots and run to the scene, and Key was taken to a nearby house soon after. It was too late to do anything for the man, however, and he died before any medical treatment could be given. A White House page reported the matter to President Buchanan, a friend of Sickles. Whether he was ignorant of the judicial process or simply lying, Buchanan told the page that he could be detained indefinitely as a witness to the murder. He urged the page to flee the city, and he did. Teresa wasn't far behind. Her lover dead and her husband in jail, she returned to New York a disgraced woman.

Sickles was indicted for murder in March. His trial began the next month, after a lengthy jury selection in which numerous people admitted bias one way or another. The prosecution's case included evidence from the autopsy, which showed that Key had not been struck in the heart but rather died after his chest filled with blood from the wound. The one bullet retrieved from the body did not match the gun Sickles surrendered to authorities, so the prosecutor suggested that the congressman may even have had a third weapon. Their main argument was that Sickles had acted with malice aforethought, going so far as to deck himself out with multiple firearms before confronting Key.

In reply, Sickles' defense team tried out a rather risky argument: temporary insanity. The shock of learning about Teresa's affair, they argued, had driven him briefly out of his mind and caused him to gun down his friend and rival. It was the first time the argument was used in a court of law. The defense was easily able to dodge the testimony of numerous witnesses that Sickles didn't seem like a raving lunatic at the time of the shooting by simply pointing out that the witnesses had never been to an asylum, where plenty of committed people seemed perfectly normal on the surface.

Perhaps the most anticipated part of the trial never came about. After some debate, the judge opted not to admit Teresa's confession into the record. It leaked to the press soon after at any rate. As a result of this ruling, the judge also declined to admit similarly enticing evidence suggesting that Sickles himself had committed adultery with another woman in a Baltimore hotel. During the closing arguments, the defense reiterated their temporary insanity argument and suggested that one of the weapons dropped during the confrontation may have belonged to Key. The prosecution responded that Sickles had seemed normal before the shooting, attending his duties in Congress with no sign of mental disturbance and even making sure his remarks on a minor issue were recorded correctly.

After only 70 minutes, the jury returned a not guilty verdict. It may have been in error, since Sickles allegedly walked by the site with two friends not long after his acquittal and commented that he had meant to kill Key all along. Nevertheless, sympathy with Sickles was high since his action was seen in many quarters as a reasonable defense of his honor. One of the jurors told the press, "I would not have been satisfied with a derringer or a revolver, but would have brought a howitzer to bear on the seducer." So rather than the killing itself, Sickles got more flak when he and Teresa kept in contact with one another, fueling rumors that they were reuniting. They did keep in touch, but remained somewhat estranged.

Sickles was not very active in Congress following the trial, though after Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860 he blamed the increased threat of secession on abolitionists. Sickles even went so far as to say that if the North and South separated, New York City would break itself away from the country as well. "I tell you, that imperial city will throw off the odious government to which she now yields a reluctant allegiance; she will repel the hateful cabal at Albany, which has so long abused its power over her; and with her own flag, sustained by the courage and devotion of her own gallant sons, she will, as a free city, open wide her gates to the civilization and commerce of the world," he proclaimed. Once the Southern states actually did secede, however, Sickles pretty much flipped this opinion on its head and became a staunch supporter of Lincoln. "In all the partisan issues between the South and the Republican Party, the people of the city of New York are with the South, but when the South makes an untenable issue with our country, when the flag of the Union is insulted, when the fortified places provided for the common defense are assaulted and seized, when the South abandons its Northern friends for English and French alliances, then the loyal and patriotic population of that imperial city are unanimous with the Union," he said.

In this way, Sickles became a friend of Lincoln and was frequently able to meet with the President. He urged Lincoln to keep troops garrisoned at Fort Sumter, perhaps indirectly contributing to the attack there that would launch the Civil War. Sickles was not a candidate for renomination by the Democrats in 1860, likely due to his murder trial, but found himself with plenty to do when the war broke out. He committed himself to raising volunteers in New York, and within a month he helped to raise 40 companies totaling 3,000 men. Dubbed the Excelsior Brigade, the units were briefly threatened when Republican Governor Edwin Morgan asked him to disband all but eight of the companies since Sickles' top-notch recruiting was making it harder for the state to meet its own recruitment quota. Sickles thought it amounted to little more than political maneuvering, and won relief when he appealed directly to Lincoln.

Sickles now turned his focus entirely to the war. The Senate declined his nomination to brigadier general in March of 1862, but the appointment was confirmed by one vote in May. He saw action during the Peninsular Campaign, the aborted attack on Richmond from eastern Virginia, as well as Chancellorsville. He performed reserve duties during the battles at Fredericksburg and Antietam. He was promoted to a major general in 1863. Ultimately, Sickles would become best-known for his role in the Battle of Gettysburg, which caused even more controversy than his shooting of Key.

During the preparations for this battle in July of 1863, Sickles and his Third Corps were ordered to hold a portion of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. Sickles noted that his ordered position left the high ground in front of him unoccupied, and thought leaving it to the Confederate Army would result in slaughter. He had already seen how the enemy's use of high ground in Chancellorsville had contributed to the Union defeat. He asked to advance, but never got an answer from General George Meade. Sickles took this as a license to move, and advanced the corps to the peach orchard atop the hill.

The move remains a disputed one. By advancing his troops, Sickles created a gap in the Union line and spread his troops more thinly than they would otherwise have been in their assigned position. Yet Sickles may well have been right in believing that the result of the battle would have been different if the Confederates had taken the orchard without any resistance. At any rate, Sickles' worst mistake may have been that he never passed on word of his new position, leaving nearby units to believe that he was still in his assigned location.

The Third Corps was subject to a major attack as the Confederates tried to break this weak point in the line. The soldiers held the line, but not without heavy losses. One of the casualties was Sickles, who was struck in the right leg by a cannonball while riding a horse on the second day of the battle. The impact was severe enough to shatter the leg into uselessness, but Sickles tried to keep up morale by looking nonchalant and clamping a cigar between his teeth as he was taken off to a field hospital. Surgeons amputated the leg partway up the thigh.

Lincoln visited him during his recovery, and soon after the draft riots in New York City the city council there ordered a gold medal struck for him. In October of 1897, Sickles would be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Gettysburg, namely "most conspicuous gallantry on the field, vigorously contesting the advance of the enemy and continuing to encourage his troops after being himself severely wounded." Not everyone was so satisfied with his performance. Meade complained that the three-quarters of a mile advance "nearly proved fatal in battle." Sickles fired back during testimony before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of War, saying Meade was slow to act and missed the opportunity to destroy the Confederate army after the Union victory at Gettysburg.

Sickles was anxious to return to service, but Lincoln was understandably reluctant to do so given his injury. Instead, he gave him emissary duty in January of 1865. This meant Sickles spent several months in Greater Colombia (then comprising Colombia, Costa Rica, and Panama) to convince the government to reopen the territory for Union troop crossings and to consider the possibility of taking in freed slaves after the war. At the same time, Sickles used his position to secure exotic animals for the Central Park Zoo.

Following the war, Sickles became the military governor of South Carolina and later North Carolina. One of his more notable actions came on the first day of 1866, when he overturned South Carolina's Black Code to give equal judicial rights to freed slaves. He also exempted freed slaves from special taxes and allowed them freedom of movement. President Andrew Johnson, who rose to power following Lincoln's assassination, was not as big a fan of Sickles' work as his predecessor and the two frequently clashed. Sickles thought Reconstruction should be managed by Congress rather than the White House. Johnson finally removed him from office when Sickles overextended his authority, using a military commission to try a local crook after the federal authorities declined to take the case.

Sickles returned to diplomatic work. After turning down an offer by Johnson to become Minister to the Netherlands and an offer by Republican President Ulysses S. Grant to become Minister to Mexico, he accepted an appointment as Minister to Spain. This once again put him in a position to discuss Cuban issues. Teresa died of consumption in January of 1867, and four years later Sickles remarried, this time to a woman named Caroline de Creagh whom he met at a diplomatic party in Paris. Sickles didn't see much of his new family either; he last saw a daughter de Creagh bore him when she was five years old, and then not again until 17 years later. Sickles' commission in Spain ended when he prematurely closed the American embassy in response to the execution in Havana of 53 Americans on board the ship Virginius, suspected of smuggling arms and revolutionaries into Cuba. The issue was resolved instead by direct communication between the Spanish government and the Secretary of State, leaving Sickles out altogether. He retired from the military in April of 1869 with the rank of major general.

Sickles returned the New York City and became involved in a numerous local offices, serving on the New York State Civil Service Commission and New York Monuments Commission and becoming sheriff of New York City in 1890. Two years later, he was returned to the House for a single term. Among his friends he counted James Longstreet, the Confederate general at Gettysburg, who said the position Sickles took in that conflict "saved that battlefield to the Union cause."

Accusations of fiscal mismanagement dogged Sickles from the larceny accusation on, and a few final instances of this occurred near the end of his life. Despite his father leaving him a $5 million estate upon his death in 1887, Sickles continued to run up debts. At one point, his wife had to sell her jewels to pay them off. Then in 1912, the state controller discovered a $28,476 disparity in the records of the New York Monuments Commission. The entire commission, including now 93-year-old Sickles, was suspect. He was arrested in January of 1913 by a reluctant and apologetic sheriff, but immediately bailed and allowed to remain at home. In April, the state decided not to press the case against him. Several people had made offers of financial support , but none materialized and the state was convinced he did not have the assets to make up the disparity.

In May of 1914, Sickles died of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was the last surviving corps commander from Gettysburg, and the third last surviving corps commander of the entire Union army. A piece of Sickles is still visible in the nation's capital today. The surgeon who amputated his leg knew the Army Medical Museum in Washington, D.C. was looking for samples and sent the severed limb there. Today, Sickles' broken femur is still on display at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Sources: The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, "Dreadful Tragedy" in the New York Times on Feb. 28 1859, "Sickles Indicted For Murder" in the Chicago Tribune on Mar. 17 1859, "Sickles In Custody For A Minute Only" in the New York Times on Jan. 28 1913, "General Sickles To Go Free" in the Gazette Times on Apr. 25 1913, "Gen. Sickles Dead" in the Star and Sentinel on May 6 1914, The Outlook Vol. 107, American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles by Thomas Keneally, Generals in Blue and Gray: Lincoln's Generals by Wilmer Jones, Wicked Washington: Mysteries, Murder, and Mayhem in America's Capital by Troy Taylor, The Second Day at Gettysburg: Essays on Confederate and Union Leadership edited by Gary Gallagher, Brigades of Gettysburg: The Union and Confederate Brigades at the Battle of Gettysburg by Bradley M. Gottfried

Sunday, April 25, 2010

John W. Hunter: giving the lie

Image from National Magazine

The first scandal to put John Ward Hunter's name down in newsprint involved a much more serious charge than the blemish his brief congressional career would later receive. In 1864, he was charged with forging checks during his duties at the United States Custom House in New York City, where he had been employed for over 30 years. Upon looking through a bundle of checks received by the Custom House, an assistant auditor had caught a couple of suspicious ones, one for $4,200 and another for $5,600. Both checks had been presented to assistant treasurer John J. Cisco but not paid over; the checks also bore the signature of Hunter, then serving as assistant auditor.

The case went to trial in April. Cisco was the star witness for the prosecution, saying the handwriting on the checks was a perfect match for Hunter; he testified that the assistant auditor wrote with certain peculiarities that he had not seen replicated anywhere else. Hunter's bank accounts had also shown a recent increase through large cash deposits. "The defense might bring all the world here with speaking trumpets to swear that Hunter was an angel, but it would all turn finally upon the question of his signature," the New York Times summarized in an account of a cross-examination where Cisco was essentially asked if Hunter was a decent person. "It was agreed that the prosecution should concede that Mr. Hunter had always borne a good character."

The defense lawyer proved masterful enough that Hunter's character was not his primary argument in the case. Instead, he focused on Cisco's steadfast testimony that the signatures on the checks belonged to Hunter. A stockbroker and photography analyst both testified that the signatures themselves were forged. The latter witness was especially compelling, as he compared prints of a genuine signature and the ones on the checks. Under magnification, the characteristics on the check suggested that the signature had been constructed from multiple pen strokes rather than a natural flow. A bookkeeper in the Custom House was also able to forge an impressive copy of Cisco's signature; the imitation put the assistant treasurer's recognition skills into question, as he was forced to admit that the forgery looked identical to his own.

The prosecution's case crumbled under further arguments by the defense. The defense explained the cash deposits as a result of many years of savings on his wife's part, combined with Hunter's duties as the executor of an estate. They also questioned why investigators had not taken a serious look at other men in the Customs House who would have had access to Hunter's signature. Cisco was accused of putting pressure on District Attorney E.D. Smith to issue a warrant of arrest for Hunter, and Smith took the stand himself to confirm that he acted on urgent requests from Cisco. Hunter himself testified very briefly. When asked if he wrote the two signatures, he replied, "I never did, nor did I ever see them before the day of the discovery." He answered only one other question, saying he did not know who wrote the signatures.

Immediately after Hunter's testimony, Smith asked for Hunter to be found innocent. He asked for reparations to be paid to him "for the wrong that has been done to him." Cisco also softened in his opinion on the matter. Three months after the trial, he wrote an apology to Hunter and included a check covering the assistant auditor's legal expenses. "Not a doubt rests on my mind of your entire innocence, and I deeply regret the erroneous theory on which I acted," said Cisco. "It was a serious mistake, which I regret should have been made."

Hunter was born in Bedford (now part of Brooklyn) in New York in October of 1807. After his school days, he began working as a clerk in a wholesale grocery store in 1824. From there, he made the switch to banking work and his long career with the U.S. Custom House. He started out as a clerk in 1831, and five years later he was appointed assistant auditor. He only stayed on for about a year after his success in the trial, then resigned to take a position as treasurer of the Dime Savings Bank in Brooklyn.

By some accounts, Hunter first entered the House of Representatives in 1864. However, these seem to be mistaken, as contemporary newspapers fail to mention such an election result. More likely, he first came to Congress following the death of Republican Representative James Humphrey in June of 1866. Successfully running as a Democrat to fill the vacancy, Hunter did not try to keep the seat in that year's regular election. He only served for a matter of months, from December of 1866 to March of 1867.

Hunter did not make much of a lasting impression during this service, but he did manage to earn a rebuke during a heated debate. On January 26 of 1867, Republican Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania said that he intended to press his Reconstruction bill to a vote on the 28th. By the New York Times account, Stevens didn't sound so enthusiastic about it, since he didn't think the proposition was ready and didn't expect to get much done; he also said only five minutes would be allowed for each congressman to speak on the matter. Other Republican congressmen also suggested that the bill was somewhat unsound, but that they would get behind it. Roscoe Conkling of New York criticized Stevens, claiming he was responsible for delays on the vote because the committee on Reconstruction that Stevens chaired had failed to assemble in time to be productive. James Mitchell Ashley of Ohio supported a final vote on the measure, but admitted that the GOP had not arrived at a conclusive policy. Ashley chaired the Committee on the Territories, and had previously backed a substitute plan they were working on as advocated by the Southern Republican Association; however, he said he figured recommitting the bill to committee would kill it. Stevens added that his measure had passed muster with his committee on Reconstruction, and that the House could vote it down if they so desired.

The discussion on the issue ended up devolving into a racially-charged war of words over the Civil War and the proposed reform measures for the South. Elijah Hise, a Kentucky Democrat, suggested that the Republican Party was in favor of disenfranchising the majority and only favored suffrage for those they deemed loyal, including "Negros and interlopers in the Southern states." John Winthrop Chanler, a Democrat from New York, asked Ashley whether he would recognize a state government if it were based solely on the black vote. After a back-and-forth exchange, in which Chanler suggested that Ashley was reluctant to answer, the Ohio congressman finally proclaimed, "If there is a single state of the American Union in which there is not a loyal man except black men, I would clothe them with the right of franchise and every other right under this government."

Under these provocations, Ashley launched an attack on the more conservative elements of the Republican Party as well as the Democrats in general. He raised the question of whether deposed Confederate president Jefferson Davis and other such rebels would be worthy of sitting in Congress, and accused Republican President Andrew Johnson of being a leader of a negative campaign that was just as injurious as the war. "The assumption, the brazen-faced assumption, of men here, who, during the entire war, were in secret alliance with the rebels, coming here now and joining hands with the apostate at the other end of the avenue [Johnson], who is their leader, the recognized leader of a counter-revolution or negative rebellion, as I said awhile ago, passes comprehension."

Charles Winfield, an outgoing Democratic representative from New York, demanded an explanation for the remark. Ashley clarified that it was something of a blanket denunciation, encompassing draft dodgers, conspirators against the North, and people who had been opposed to further funding or manpower for the war. When further pressed by Winfield, Ashley admitted that he could not indict specific members of the House with these accusations, but supposed by their votes that such people might be sitting in the chamber. "I do not propose to be tried on general reputation," Winfield shot back. "I desire to say for myself, and so far as I know for my associates on this floor of my own school of politics, that the insinuation that we are or ever have been in alliance with the rebels is utterly untrue, and if intended to apply to us it is a base and unfounded slander."

At that point, Hunter chimed in, "And I say that, so far as I am concerned, it is a base lie."

Schuyler Colfax, an Indiana Republican and Speaker of the House, chided Hunter for speaking out of order. Hunter was backed up by Samuel Jackson Randall, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, who also spoke out of turn to say that Hunter's statement was truthful even if it didn't abide by the House rules. Ralph Hill, an outgoing Indiana Republican, took a different opinion. He immediately made a motion to censure Hunter because he "transgressed the order of this body."

Most of the representatives didn't care about the squabble. A vote to table Hill's resolution failed with 75 opposed and 32 in favor, but 84 congressmen didn't even participate. The discussion on the censure resolution dissolved into another scene of bedlam. Francis Celeste Le Blond, an Ohio Democrat, suggested that Ashley's statements were far worse than Hunter's passing remark. "When you come down to the debate today in which my colleague participated, using the language which has been just read from the Speaker's desk, I ask the gentlemen what more offensive language could be used to any man who was an American citizen and willing to abide by the laws and the Constitution of his government," Le Blond concluded. The argument brought applause from the galleries, and Schuyler promptly scolded the spectators. When William Elias Niblack, an Indiana Democrat, muttered that the applause was on the Democratic side, Schuyler took offense. Apparently thinking that Niblack was hinting that he only tried to quell the applause supporting the Democrats, Schuyler said he had always asked the galleries to be decorous and threatened to have the spectators removed if they did not quiet down. Niblack apologized, saying the remark was meant to be private and that he did not mean to offend.

In response to Le Blond's suggestion, Hill said the House had allowed similar language to slide in recent debates and that he was getting tired of it. "I thought they had gone far enough; that when we had reached such a point that every day or two we must hear the epithets 'lie' and 'liar' bandied in this House it was time someone should interpose," he said. When Niblack asked if being labeled a traitor was also an example of offensive language, Hill replied that the term could be seen as a compliment depending on the circumstances. Being called a liar, by contrast, was offensive under any circumstances and he wanted the House to make an example to prevent further incidents.

The censure carried 84-34, with 81 congressmen not voting. The tally took place after one representative tried unsuccessfully to be excused, reasoning that he could support neither Hunter's outburst nor Ashley's insinuations. Schuyler delivered the brief punishment: "No deliberative body can preserve its self-respect, or command the respect of its constituents, which tolerates the use of offensive language, condemned by gentlemen everywhere, as well as by parliamentary law. For having transgressed the rules of the House it is resolved that you shall be censured by the Speaker. Having thus declared the censure of the House, you will resume your seat."

Hunter gave a similarly brief address, explaining that he meant no disrespect to the House and spoke in a "moment of irritation at a false charge." Hill was satisfied enough with his contrition that he asked for the censure proceedings to be stricken from the record, but other representatives objected. One was Ashley, who got in the last word by essentially reiterating his earlier argument and delivering his own rebuke to Hunter. He said that men often speak on the spur of the moment in a heated debate, but that he had not been called to order himself during any of his eight years in the House; Ashley added that he had not meant any offense either, but in clarifying his list of Union enemies he gave the same categories, complete with the Congress-encompassing qualifier "here or elsewhere."

The New York Times reported that Republicans "generally voted for the resolution, yet Hunter had the sympathy of many of them who considered the language of Mr. Ashley totally uncalled for, and though, according to the ruling of the chair heretofore, not strictly out of order, yet as great a violation of the dignity and the decency of the debate as was Mr. Hunter's impulsive remark." The newspaper added that the debate "furnished an unusual amount of interest to the galleries, which were well filled in anticipation of a debate on the Reconstruction question."

After leaving Congress, Hunter made an unsuccessful bid for state assembly and served on the Board of Education. He was nominated for the postmaster's position in Brooklyn, but not confirmed by the Senate. Then in 1873, Hunter won the race for Brooklyn mayor, serving from 1874 to 1875. He apparently lost this job after crossing Democratic party boss Hugh McLaughlin by refusing to appoint a certain water commissioner. The Bankers' Magazine reported that he was instrumental in supporting the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge while in office, and he became a stockholder in the endeavor. In 1886, former commissioner of the Brooklyn public works Thomas W. Adams sued Hunter for $10,000, saying Hunter had publicly accused him while mayor of allowing fraud and corrupt contracts; the outcome of the suit was not reported.

Hunter left politics in favor of a return to his work as treasurer of the Dime Savings Bank. National Magazine claimed that it is "to his financial skill and his reputation for unswerving integrity, much of the success of that bank is due." He became the bank's director as well as the director of a trust company and two insurance firms. In his spare time, Hunter was active in the Old Brooklynites and the Tree Planting and Fountain Society. He suffered a series of personal tragedies in 1881. Three of his children died over the course of a four-month period, including a naval lieutenant who died of poor health and a commission merchant who killed himself in a park in Fall River, Massachusetts. When Hunter died in Brooklyn in April of 1900, he was survived by only one child (a daughter) as well as five granddaughters.

Sources: The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, "The Custom-House Forgeries Cross-Examination of John J. Cisco" in the New York Times on Apr. 12 1864, "The Custom-House Forgeries" in the New York Times on Apr. 14 1864, "The Sub-Treasury Forgeries" in the New York Times on Apr. 21 1864, "Conclusion Of The Hunter Case" in the New York Times on Apr. 24 1864, "Close Of The Hunter Case" in the New York Times on Apr. 25 1864, "Vindication Of Assistant Auditor J.W. Hunter" in the New York Times on Sep. 24 1864, "Excitement In The House" in the New York Times on Jan. 27 1867, "Thirty-Ninth Congress, Second Session" in the New York Times on Jan. 27 1867, "Review Of The Week" in the Lewiston Evening Journal on Jan. 30 1867, "Brooklyn City Government For 1874" in the New York Timeson Jan. 1 1874, "Suicide Of Mr. W.A. Hunter" in the New York Times on Mar. 25 1881, "Death Of Lieut. Hunter, U.S.N." in the New York Times on Jul. 19 1881, "Thinks His Character Defamed" in the New York Times on Mar. 4 1886, "John W. Hunter Dead" in the New York Times on Apr. 18 1900, National Magazine: A Monthly Journal of American History Volume 19, Bankers' Magazine Volume 60, The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge by David G. McCullough, Record of an Examination Under a Warrant by Kenneth G. White, Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States Being the Session of the Thirty-Ninth Congress, Record of an Examination Under a Warrant by Kenneth G. White, The Congressional Globe Volume 58 Part 2

Saturday, January 9, 2010

James Brooks: out of stock

Image from

With the half of the country still missing at the time of the 1864 elections, the question of how to proceed with the ongoing Civil War raised the passions of the candidates and voters. The Democratic Party had split between "Peace" faction, which favored a truce with the Confederacy, and the "War" faction, who supported the effort to reunify the nation. James Brooks, a New York City candidate for re-election to the House of Representatives, fell into the former camp. During his time in Congress, he had become a proponent of peace negotiations with the seceded states. This position did not necessarily translate into support of slavery. Brooks had asked his wife to emancipate her slaves before their marriage, and he later publicly declared slavery a dead or dying institution that could not be defended.

Old-fashioned politicking played a role in the New York election as well. Tammany Hall, the Democratic machine, had nominated former congressman Thomas J. Barr to contest Brooks in the general election. The Brooks campaign offered him $5,000 if he would withdraw from the race. Barr, a War Democrat, in turn sought to get the Republican candidate, William E. Dodge, to drop out. When he was not successful, he asked for $5,000 from the Dodge campaign to stay in the race and split the Democratic vote and received $2,000. It almost worked. When the ballots were counted, Barr came in a distant third with 4,544 votes; Dodge earned 8,435, and Brooks squeaked past with 8,583. One month after his election, Brooks and his brother, Erastus, were arrested after Peter Sweeney of Tammany Hall accused them of libel in printing accusations of about Tammany interference in the election through payouts and having inspectors ignore Brooks' votes.

Brooks' new term began in March of 1865, but the election was close enough that Dodge contested it to the House Committee on Elections. His appeal charged widespread ineptitude or corruption on the part of the election inspectors. Dodge said thousands of votes from people who weren't residents of the district had been counted, soldiers' votes had been forged, Dodge's votes had been improperly rejected, public notice had not been given of registration areas or voting places, and bribery and coercion had been used throughout. Brooks said Dodge was simply using his personal wealth to try to sway the election and the district to his side. The question dragged on into 1866, when the majority report of the committee declared that Brooks was not entitled to his seat and Dodge was. In April, the matter went to the House. After unsuccessful attempts to declare the seat vacant and refer the issue back to the people or send the question back to committee, the members agreed that Brooks should no longer be seated in an 84-45 vote, with 54 abstaining; soon after, they voted 72-52, with 59 abstaining, to put Dodge in his place. Brooks' absence was short-lived, however. Dodge, a reluctant nominee, did not seek re-election after his truncated term and Brooks won the seat back in the November election.

The hiccup in his political career and almost immediate recovery give an example of the relative success Brooks enjoyed in his life. Born in Portland, Maine in November of 1810, he earned money to attend college by working as a store clerk in Lewiston. After graduating from Waterville College in 1831, he briefly studied law and taught school while frequently writing letters to the Portland Advertiser. This last activity led to his career in editing the newspaper and serving as a political correspondent in Washington, D.C. Brooks served one term in the Maine house of representatives in 1835, and, after an unsuccessful attempt at re-election, traveled through Europe and the South, continually writing back to the Advertiser to document his adventures.

Upon his return to the United States, Brooks moved to New York City and established the New York Daily Express. He served in the New York state assembly in 1847, and in the next year was elected as a Whig to the House of Representatives, winning one more term there before he was turned out in the 1852 election. During the gaps in his political career, Brooks continued with his editorial duties, and continued working on the Express for the rest of his life.

When the war was concluded, one of the most important projects in the United States was the construction of a transcontinental railroad. Unfortunately, this undertaking was fraught with corruption and greed. The Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads, swollen with land grants, federal bonds, and state and local purchases of their stock, soon became the largest corporations in the country. In part, the project got off the ground because Thomas Durant and seven other directors of the Union Pacific bought up a defunct Philadelphia holding company and dubbed it Credit Mobilier after a prestigious French credit company. By having Credit Mobilier buy Union Pacific stock and sell it below face value, the railroad raised enough money to begin construction.

Of course, this meant Credit Mobilier was essentially a dummy organization through which Union Pacific could pay itself to collect rich dividends. The directors were well aware of this fact, and eagerly sought to increase their profits in any way possible. By being both part of the railroad and Credit Mobilier, they could not only overcharge for services but approve the faulty figure as well. The railroad further cut corners by using shoddy building materials, not paying subcontractors for work, and, most notoriously, paying laborers paltry wages for the often dangerous work. Credit Mobilier held the valuable bonds resulting from the project, while the Union Pacific's debt increased. When the two spurs linked up in Promontory Point in Utah in 1869, the railroad was $74 million in the hole while Credit Mobilier had produced some $16 million to $23 million for stockholders. The impressive accomplishment of the transcontinental route was undermined by the sub-par quality of the railroad and the unjust enrichment of Credit Mobilier. Mired in debt, Union Pacific went bankrupt in 1893.

Congress, overseeing several of the financial and other issues required to move the construction forward, was not immune from the corrupt practices. Several members had been appointed government directors of the Union Pacific, including Brooks in October of 1867. Though they were forbidden from holding the lucrative stock in companies related to the project, the temptation was overwhelming. "The members of it are in Congress; they are trustees for the bondholder, they are directors, they are stockholders, they are contractors; in Washington, they vote the subsidies, in New York they receive them, upon the Plains they expend them, and in the Credit Mobilier they divide them," journalist Charles Francis Adams wrote of Credit Mobilier in 1869. "As stockholders they own the road, as mortgagees they they have a lien upon it, as directors they contract for its construction, and as members of the Credit Mobilier they build it."

Though Adams' charge essentially outlined the Credit Mobilier problem, the issue did not explode into a full scandal until September of 1872. The New York Sun, a prominent enemy of Republican President Ulysses S. Grant's administration, published an article charging that Credit Mobilier had given 2,000 to 3,000 shares of stock to the chairmen of congressional committees related to the transcontinental railroad. The scandal broke in part because of bad blood among the Credit Mobilier group, with trustee and stockholder Henry S. McComb suing the corporation and its officers, including Republican Representative Oakes Ames of Massachusetts and former Republican congressman John B. Alley of Massachusetts, in an attempt to retrieve a signficant amount of stock he felt he had earned. The article concluded that Ames had written McComb three letters in late 1867 and early 1868, revealing that Credit Mobilier stock had been sold at a steep discount to congressmen and mostly kept in trust to hide their names. The letters also hinted that the sales aimed to influence legislation and that the stock should be put "where it will produce most good for us." The Sun implicated 12 Republican officials in the affair, including former Vice President Schuyler Colfax; Henry Wilson, a Massachusetts Senator chosen to replace him on the 1872 ticket for Grant's re-election; and Representatives James G. Blaine of Maine and James Garfield of Ohio. Brooks, who had won re-election in 1868 and 1870, was not among the names.

Coming as it did on the eve of the major election year of 1872, pro-Grant newspapers such as the New York Times accused the Sun's account of amounting to mudslinging. The Sun had indeed been highly critical of corruption during the Grant administration, and expressed its support for newspaper editor and renowned antebellum abolitionist Horace Greeley as the Presidential candidate of the Democrats and a splinter group of liberal Republicans. Though Brooks' involvement in the Credit Mobilier affair was still unknown, the Times nevertheless had harsh words for him and urged support of Republican candidate Adolphe G. Dunn. The newspaper said Brooks had been disloyal during the Civil War, shown more loyalty to Tammany Hall than the district, and that his career was "chiefly distinguished by the accumulation of a large fortune for himself." Within the year, it would be determined that this last charge had hit the nail on the head.

The Sun's accusations had little effect on the elections, which saw the re-election of Grant as well as Brooks. In December, Blaine called for an investigation into the Credit Mobilier affair, saying he wanted the "slanders" to be addressed. The House approved the formation of a committee of five attorneys led by Judge Luke Poland of Vermont. The committee called on the targeted politicians as well as representatives from Credit Mobilier, the Union Pacific, and the Central Pacific. The initial hearings were conducted behind closed doors, but certain tidbits leaked out. One involved McComb saying that Brooks had received 50 shares of Credit Mobilier stock to influence his own decisions and those of the Democrats regarding legislation about the Union Pacific railroad. Permitted to speak to the charge on the floor of the House, Brooks angrily denied the accusation. "If this charge is true, I am unfit to be a member of the House and ought to be expelled--and not only from the House, but from all association with decent men," he said. Brooks explained that his son-in-law, Charles Neilson, was the person who owned the shares and that he could produce the receipt to prove it; moreover, he said, McComb had become complicit in the crimes he was accusing Brooks of by bribing members of the Louisiana legislature to support railroad interests McComb had a stake in. "Mr. Brooks weakened the force of his explanation greatly by bringing in a great deal that seemed unnecessary, and by his bitterness toward McComb," the New York Times judged, "but his denial was very broad and very emphatic, and he left McComb a very badly impeached witness."

After the closed hearings were criticized, the proceedings were made public in January of 1873, along with transcripts from the private activities of the Poland Committee. In the same month, the House formed a second select committee to conduct their own investigation.

When the Poland Committee completed their work, they determined that Brooks had only been telling half the story in his assertion that the Credit Mobilier stock belonged to Neilson. The committee said that Brooks had spoken with Durant about acquiring $15,000 to $20,000 in stock, but no formal agreement was made. When the value of the stock increased substantially in December of 1867, Brooks again wanted a piece of the profits and sought a transfer of 200 shares. He had been made a government director of the Union Pacific railroad two months before, however, and such ownership was forbidden. To circumvent this prohibition, Brooks arranged for 100 shares of Credit Mobilier stock, $5,000 in Union Pacific bonds, and $20,000 in Union Pacific stock to be transferred to Neilson. The committee found that Neilson was not complicit in the activity, since Brooks had purchased the shares for him and Neilson immediately turned over the dividends to his father-in-law. When the Credit Mobilier stock increased by 50 percent, Brooks made the dodgy claim that it entitled him to an additional 50 shares via the agreement he had made. Even the Credit Mobilier parties were skeptical of the assertion, but Brooks ended up receiving the bonus.

Neilson admitted receiving an additional 50 shares, but denied that Brooks had ever received dividends on the stock. The committee did not believe there was sufficient evidence showing that Brooks was merely a third party, however. It discovered that Neilson had given Brooks $9,000 in dividends in June of 1868, ostensibly to repay Brooks for $10,000 that had been advanced for the purchase of the 100 shares of Credit Mobilier stock. This left only $1,000 left on the loan, yet Brooks continued to hold $16,000 worth of Union Pacific bonds given to him by Neilson as a security. The committee concluded that Brooks had been the proprietor of his son-in-law's funds, and had received the 50 shares of Credit Mobilier stock worth $15,000 to $20,000 worth of Credit Mobilier at a price of only $5,000.

While the Poland Committee determined that most of the people accused in the scandal had merely been indiscreet, it had different conclusions for Brooks and Ames. Brooks, they said, had knowingly defrauded the government and rather foolishly tried to hide the benefits of the stock while still managing the investment and dividends. They confirmed that Ames had used discounted Credit Mobilier stock to try to bribe congressmen. In February, the committee recommended that both congressmen be expelled. Two days later, the congressional committee led by Republican Representative Jeremiah Wilson of Indiana concluded that Credit Mobilier had bilked the U.S. taxpayers and Union Pacific out of millions of dollars to enrich their directors. It recommended suing to recover the lost funds.

The matter went before the House later in the month. The congressmen proved reluctant to go forward with the Poland Committee's recommendation. The chamber voted 164 to 59 against tabling the whole matter, and agreed in a 115-110 vote to accept Republican Representative Aaron Sargent's suggestion that Brooks and Ames be censured instead. The House voted 174 to 32 to censure Brooks, and 181 to 36 to censure Ames. Some Republican members immediately apologized to Ames, saying they had voted for his censure only because they felt it was what their constituents would approve. The votes also set off a barrage of abortive resolutions to retain the Poland Committee to further investigate other members charged in the scandal, since there was some grumbling that Ames and Brooks had simply been chosen to mete out symbolic punishment to both parties. These efforts eventually burned out, and the Poland Committee was discharged.

Brooks had continued to travel throughout his life, and at the time of his censure he was extremely ill after picking up a fever in Asia. The proceedings may well have further drained the vitality from him, but he retained a bit of kick in the final months of his life. He thanked the black members of the House who had voted against his punishment, and issued a statement in March reiterating his innocence. He said the Poland Committee had ignored other testimony and exploited his illness, and once again claimed that Neilson had owned the 150 shares of Credit Mobilier stock rather than him. He died in April, and Ames followed him to the grave eight days later.

Sources: The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, "Criminal Prosecution Of The Editors Of The Express For Libel" in the New York Times on Dec. 13 1864, "Arrest Of Hon. James Brooks" in the New York Times on Dec. 28 1864, "Washington News" in the New York Times on Mar. 27 1866, "Washington News" in the New York Times on Apr. 7 1866, "New-York Contested Election" in the New York Times on Apr. 11 1866, "James Brooks" in the Lewiston Evening Journal on Apr. 17 1872, "Dunn vs. Brooks" in the New York Times on Nov. 1 1872, "The National Capital" in the New York Times on Dec. 18 1872, "Credit Mobililer" in the New York Times on Jan. 14 1873, "Telegrams Condensed" in the Reading Eagle on Feb. 27 1873, "Ames And Brooks" in the New York Times on Feb. 28 1873, "Credit Mobilier: Mr. James Brooks Again Explains His Connection With It And Loses His Temper" in the New York Times on Mar. 8 1873, "Obituary: Hon. James Brooks" in the New York Times on May 1 1873, Nothing Like it in the World: the Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad by Stephen E. Ambrose, Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad by David Haward Bain, The Reconstruction Era: Primary Documents on Events from 1865 to 1877 by Donna Lee Dickerson, Final Freedom: the Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment by Michael Vorenberg, William E. Dodge: the Christian Merchant by William Carlos Martyn, The American Ballot Box in the Mid-Nineteenth Century by Richard Franklin Bensel, The Election Frauds of New York City and Their Prevention by John I. Davenport, The Credit Mobilier of America by J.B. Crawford, Campaign of '84 by Thomas V. Cooper, The House: The History of the House of Representatives by Robert Vincent Remini

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

James J. Walker: will they still love him?

Walker on the cover of Time. Image from

Despite being targeted by an investigative commission that had been uncovering corruption in New York City for years, mayor James J. Walker was nonplussed when he was finally called to court to give some answers in 1932. There were even flowers spread on his path into the courthouse, certainly an unusual display for a public official accused of graft. A roaring '20s dandy, Walker is a prime example of personality trumping political competence.

James John Joseph Walker was born in Greenwich Village, New York in 1881. He entered the New York Law School in 1902, but left three years later. Walker aspired to be a songwriter, and met with some success. In 1908, he wrote the lyrics for the hit song "Will You Love Me in December As You Do In May." When he failed to produce additional hits, Walker returned to law and was admitted to the bar in 1912.

Prior to that, in 1910, Walker was elected as a Democrat to the New York state assembly, with backing from the Democratic Party machine Tammany Hall. He served until 1914, and the next year he was elected to the state senate. He became the minority leader in 1921. As a state politician, Walker certainly solidified his popularity with the electorate by supporting measures to ease restrictions on sports and entertainment, including allowing movies and baseball games to take place on Sundays.

Most notably, he fathered a bill in 1920 to legalize professional boxing in New York. The legislation called for the major players in the sports, such as the fighters and referees, to be licensed. A state board of commissioners would have the power to revoke licenses if necessary. The sportswriter W.O. McGeehan encouraged passage of the bill, using something of an unfortunate example when he told Governor Al Smith that the sport was "conducted as honestly as American politics and I venture to say more honestly than the stock market." The bill was signed into law in May of 1920.

In 1925, Tammany and Smith backed Walker as their candidate for the mayor of New York City. The only catch was that a Democrat, John F. Hylan, had already been in office for two four-year terms. Not willing to go quietly, the introduction of Walker led to what Smith referred to as "a little family quarrel" but what was in fact quite a nasty bout of mudslinging. Smith said Hylan had a "blind subservience to a super-boss" and also accused him of secretly meeting with members of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1924 Democratic National Convention. Hylan shot back that Walker would allow thieves and prostitutes to run rampant in the Big Apple; he also described the party as a family, if something of a dysfunctional one. "The Governor has walked deliberately into our city and made trouble in a happy family," he declared. "A few grafting politicians, Wall Street, and the traction gang have tried to get your mayor by the throat, but I have stood like the Rock of Gibraltar running the city for the interests of all the people."

Hylan dropped out of the race in September, leaving Walker to face off against Republican candidate and fountain pen manufacturer Frank D. Waterman. Walker's platform included the advocacy of new highways, expansion of subway system, and maintenance of the subway's five-cent fare; Smith also stumped for him, touting Walker's work for housing, child welfare, soldier bonuses, and other issues. Perhaps more influential, Walker's support of entertainment initiatives earned him plaudits from movie stars, musicians, and sports fans. Irving Berlin wrote him a campaign song which featured the lyric "Win with Walker, he's a corker."

The campaign was also not without its dirty tricks, including one that left Waterman fending off accusations of anti-Semitism. Staffers sought to make a reservation at a hotel Waterman owned in Florida using the false name of Robinowitz. The hotel sent a written reply explaining, "Our clientele is such that the patronage of persons of Hebrew persuasion is not solicited." Walker easily won the general election.

Walker's inauguration in 1926 was notable for a few reasons. In the first of several incidents of tardiness that would earn him the nickname "The Late Mayor," Walker was one and a half hours late for the event. He was also the first mayor to have his inauguration speech broadcast by radio. When he abandoned the microphone to help a woman who had fainted in the crowd, many New Yorkers worried that the dead air signified that he had been assassinated.

Walker's tenure in office was marked by a lackadaisical attitude toward schedules and duties, and historians have offered the opinion that his legislative experience did not adequately prepare him for the administrative tasks of the mayor's office. He also earned the nickname "The Night Mayor" for his propensity to hit the night life, including a well-known but generally ignored affair with a showgirl named Betty Compton. In one incident, Walker is said to have been with Compton in a Montauk casino when the joint was raided by police, and managed to escape by running into the kitchen and disguising himself with a cook's outfit.

The two nicknames directly corresponded with one another. Time reported that Walker "seldom appears before noon, if at all." Sometimes he arrived hung over, and, suddenly a stickler for punctuality, would be short with visitors if they spent more than their allotted five minutes proposing a measure for the city. Needing a break from whatever work he did manage to do, Walker took seven vacations totaling 143 days during his first two years in office. In 1927, he traveled to Italy and personally met the country's dictator, Benito Mussolini.

Walker had made no promises to end the graft and proliferation of speakeasies that were thriving in Prohibition-era New York, the latter thanks in part to police officers willing to take payoffs to turn a blind eye to the establishments. The citizens of New York, if not the nation, seemed to take a similar attitude toward Walker's laziness and affair with Compton. When he went to Philadelphia in November of 1926 as part of a New York City delegation to the Sesquicentennial Exposition, crowds there declared him "our next President."

Walker was known for having an easygoing charm that was able to boost the adulations. His sayings included, "A reformer is a guy who rides through a sewer in a glass-bottomed boat" and "I'd rather be a lamppost in New York than mayor of Chicago." When the Republican candidate Fiorello La Guardia challenged him in 1929, he made the accusation that the city's judges were corrupt and the District Attorney, Thomas Crain, was a dolt. He also criticized the mayor's decision earlier that same year to boost his salary from $25,000 to $40,000. "That's cheap!" Walker responded. "Think what it would cost if I worked full time!" Walker won re-election.

Walker's turn in court was still several years away, but the events that would lead to that event began a month after the election. Then, magistrate Albert Vitale was honored at a dinner attended by judges, city officials, and mobsters. The event did nothing to help Vitale, as he had already admitted to taking a $19,500 loan from mobster Arnold Rothstein, who was murdered in November of 1928. It helped spur the formation of an investigative committee, headed by Samuel Seabury, an anti-Tammany Democrat and unsuccessful candidate for the 1916 gubernatorial election.

The investigation focused on the legitimacy of 50 magistrates in Manhattan and the Bronx under the committee's jurisdiction. Seabury assembled a team of young lawyers who he felt would not be corrupted by Tammany Hall, and the commission heard from over 1,000 witnesses in 1930. Magistrates were questioned in private, and many resigned when asked if they would repeat their testimony publicly. One, George Ewald, paid Tammany $10,000 to get his seat. Others had been appointed in exchange for favors. "This evidence presents a situation which is a scandal and a disgrace, as well as a menace, to the City of New York," said Seabury. The investigation also targeted Crain for his practice of letting people charged with serious crimes plead to misdemeanors. The commission determined that Crain was merely incompetent, not corrupt.

Reverend John Haynes Holmes and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, acting on behalf of the City Affairs Committee, charged Walker with ignoring corruption, appointing incompetent officials, and poor administration of the city government. Walker's own response to the assessment was that the City Affairs Committee was subject to Socialist influences. Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, hoping to secure Tammany backing for his own political ambitions, was at first reluctant to take on corruption in the city and declared that there wasn't enough evidence to remove Walker. However, when the Republican-controlled legislature called for an investigation into the city administration in March of 1931, Roosevelt approved $250,000 for a committee. Seabury joined the effort again as counsel.

The most disturbing aspect of the city government uncovered by the investigation was the outright framing of innocent people by the police department's vice squad. Most of the victims were women accused of prostitution. It was made clear to them that their options were to go to jail or fork over enough cash for their freedom. Other officials were found to have amassed much more money than they should have. Sheriff Tom Farley resigned after it was found that he had accumulated $400,000 after six years in an $8,000-a-year job. Russell T. Sherwood, a financial agent who shared a lockbox with the mayor, fled the city after he was subpoenaed to explain how he had made $700,000 after serving five years with a $10,000 annual salary.

When Seabury looked into the mayors financial records, he declared Walker's letters of credit "the fatal blow to Tammany Hall." He discovered that politicians and businessmen in the city had maintained a slush fund for Walker in exchange for favors, and that the club kept Walker's name off the record by referring to him as the "boyfriend." On one occasion, publisher Paul Block opened a Wall Street brokerage account with Walker, earning the mayor $246,692.72 even though the mayor never invested any money in it. On another, he received $26,535 in bonds from a stock broker interested in taxicab securities. John A. Hastings, a Democratic state senator and one organizer of the Equitable Coach Company, paid for one of Walker's vacations while aiming to gain control of the city's bus routes. Walker was also found to have accepted other gifts, such as the renovation of his childhood home on St. Luke's Place and a railroad car.

When Walker was summoned to court to answer questions about the finances, his popularity was still going strong. Time opined that his admirers "really would not care if it were proved that 'Jimmy' had stolen the Brooklyn Bridge." Walker's charm might have kept the galleries wooed, but it didn't work on Seabury; in fact, he had been warned against looking directly into Walker's eyes to help escape whatever wiles the mayor would employ. Seabury resolutely kept up the questions about the shady financial dealings in the city, and Walker's confidence slipped. Not long after the proceedings, he was booed at a baseball game at Yankee Stadium.

Seabury recommended to Roosevelt, by now the Democratic nominee for the 1932 Presidential election, that Walker was unfit for office. Walker sent his own defense to Roosevelt in the form of a 27,000 word letter in which he said the prosecution was politically motivated. "I have lived my life in the open. Whatever shortcomings I have are known to everyone--but disloyalty to my native city, official dishonesty or corruption, form no part of these short-comings," he said. It was also reported that Walker would seek the Democratic nomination for Governor if he were to be ousted. Ultimately, Walker unsuccessfully tried to get a court injunction in his favor and resigned from office on September 1, 1932, with a single sentence: "I hereby resign as Mayor of the City of New York, said resignation to take effect immediately."

Not long after his resignation, Walker took off for Europe with Betty Compton, whom he would later marry. Another Tammany man, John P. O'Brien, took his place, but the Seabury commission essentially marked the death blow for the political machine. In 1934, La Guardia was elected mayor with backing from Roosevelt, and the city slipped from Tammany's grasp. Roosevelt's New Deal program further weakened the institution, making people less dependent on Tammany for jobs. The machine had something of a recovery in the 1950s, but ultimately faded out of existence in the 1960s.

Walker's flight was a handy way of taking another European expedition while letting the controversy and his own tax status return to manageable levels. He returned to New York in 1935, doing law work and hosting a short-lived radio program. In 1937, he got a job as an attorney with the city's Transit Commission to prosecute grade crossing infractions. Seabury also happened to be on the commission as a judge, and suggested that Walker be on the payroll for 60 days before claiming a pension, saying it was not to be used as a "refuge from disgrace."

The next year, Walker visited FDR in the White House. In 1940, La Guardia named him labor arbitrator of the Manhattan garment industry. He continued his devotion to boxing by regularly speaking at the annual dinners of the Boxing Writers Association; he received the Edward J. Neil Memorial Award for Outstanding Contributions to Boxing, and in 1940 received another award for his years of service to the sport. Following his death, the award would be named after him.

Walker also briefly returned to the musical world, becoming president of Majestic Records in 1945. The next year, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Ultimately, he remained a popular figure. A movie about his life starring Bob Hope was produced, and in 1992 he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Sources: The New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division, The National Parks Service, The Political Graveyard, "Paints Hylan Klan Servant" in the Evening Independent on Aug. 28 1925, "Word Battle Grows Hotter" in the Evening Independent on Aug. 31 1925, "Hylan May Run On Independent Ticket" in the Evening Independent on Sept. 16 1925, "Hylan Won't Run" in the New York Times on Sept. 30 1925, "Hail Mayor Walker As 'Next President'" in the New York Times on Nov. 13 1926, "Again, Walker" in Time on Mar. 5 1928, "Subway Jam" in Time on May 14 1928, "His Honor's Honor" in Time on Jun. 6 1932, "New York's Mayor Assails Accusers" in the Evening Independent on Jul. 29 1932, "Walker, If Removed, To Run For Governor" in the New York Times on Aug. 1 1932, "Walker Again" in Time on Aug. 30 1937, "Jimmy Walker, Tsar" in Time on Sept. 16 1940, "Former Mayor To Head Majestic Records" in the Christian Science Monitor on Feb. 16 1945, "The Late Mayor" in Time on Nov. 25 1946, A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring '20s by Roger Kahn, The Boxing Register: International Boxing Hall of Fame Official Record Book by James B. Roberts and Alexander G. Skutt, New World Coming: the 1920s and the Making of Modern America by Nathan Miller, Big Town, Big Time: A New York Epic edited by Jay Maeder, The Epic of New York City: A Narrative History by Edward Robb Ellis, Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom by Conrad Black, Mackerals in the Moonlight: Four Corrupt American Mayors by Gerald Leinwand

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Caleb Lyon: the great train robbery

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Proving a capable politician on both sides of the country, Caleb Lyon was condemned to besmirched obscurity after an unsuccessful junket on the frontier.

Born in Lyonsdale, New York in 1822, Lyon graduated from Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont in 1841. Six years later, he was appointed as the U.S. consul to Shanghai, before traveling to South America and thence to California. There, he became a member of the California constitutional convention and designed a state seal.

Lyon went against the gold rush tide, returning in 1849 to New York. He was elected to the state assembly in 1850, but resigned after encountering opposition to enlarging the Erie Canal, a project he supported. In 1851, he served in the state senate, and was elected to the U.S. Congress as an independent for one term in 1852. His Lyonsdale home was destroyed by fire in 1860, and he moved to Staten Island.

By 1864, Lyon had become a Republican supporter and was appointed by Abraham Lincoln to be the second Governor of the Idaho Territory. The first Governor, William H. Wallace, had to leave after he was elected to Congress. Lyon held the office from March 1864 to June 1866, but by no means was he a consistent presence.

The Governor was also Indian superintendent of the territory, delegated to tour the land, make treaties where necessary, locate possible reservation sites, and send all pertinent information to the federal Indian commissioner. In October 1864, Lyon negotiated a treaty with a Shoshone Indian group where 23 Indian leaders consented to cede land for 30 miles along the Boise River along with all lands drained by tributaries of the river; the agreement also called for the Indians to turn over criminals they captured to U.S. authorities. In return, a reservation was to be set up along the river and the Indians were to have the same fishing rights as settlers. Criticized by the federal commissioner as not properly put together, the treaty was never ratified by the Senate.

Lyon was not a popular governor. Noted as a lecturer, poet, author, and foreign traveler, he was rather conspicuous in a roughshod Wild West territory populated mostly by miners. He referred to himself as "Lyon of Lyonsdale," a habit that led some critics to nickname him "Cale of the Dale." Another stance that did nothing to endear Lyon to at least some of the population was his support of moving the territory's capital from Lewiston in the north to Boise in the south. The matter proved important enough that some settlers persuaded a local judge to get an injunction against the move and keep Lyon under observation. Under the guise of a duck hunt, Lyon escaped the territory in a canoe on the Snake River. The territory's seal and archives were later moved under armed guard.

After his disappearance, Lyon returned to the East Coast. Back in Idaho, treasurer Clinton Dewitt Smith, also a native New Yorker, served for seven months before dying. The treasurer under Smith stole $4,000 in territory funds; Smith's replacement, Horace Gilson, looted some $33,000 (later sources say $41,000) from the treasury and fled the country.

It was in this atmosphere of embezzlement that Lyon was re-appointed as Governor in the fall of 1865, having been absent from the territory for 11 months. Admirably, he encouraged a peaceful relationship between the Indians and settlers and denounced those were were calling for attacks on Indian settlements. However, this stance did nothing to improve his popularity; the Idaho Statesman said only a "military escort could prevent him from violence or death." Further exacerbating matters was Lyon's support of a diamond mining venture which, a historian wrote in 1890, "ruined many a better man."

In April of 1866, Lyon negotiated a treaty with another band of Shoshone Indians. This agreement ceded lands south of the Snake River while leaving a 14-mile swath of the Bruneau Valley as a reservation. The treaty was also never ratified, as the reservation was deemed to be infeasible in an area of heavy settlement.

When he left the post again, this time for good, Lyon returned to Staten Island. Somewhere along the way, $41,148.40 that he was to give to the federal commissioner of Indian affairs went missing. Of that amount, $18,631 was to go to the Nez Perce Indians as compensation for their relinquishment of land. Lyon said that a thief had stolen the money while he was sleeping on the train during the trip from Idaho to Washington, D.C. The government sought to recover the money through Lyon's bondsman, but it wasn't until 1874 that a jury demanded that he repay the $50,000 bond he had given Lyon.

An official investigation against Lyon was evidently in the works around that time, but Lyon died in 1875 before any sort of prosecution. His tale of the theft was accepted enough that the New York Times reported it in his obituary with no hint of suspicion; however, secondary sources now generally dismiss the story as a fabrication.

Sources: Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, Idaho Historical Society, "Heavy Judgment Against a Bondsman" in the New York Times on Nov. 21 1874, "Obituary; Caleb Lyon" in the New York Times on Sept. 9 1875, The Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive History by Carlos A. Schwantes, History of Washington, Idaho, and Montana by Hubert Howe Bancroft and Francis Fuller Victor, Official Opinions of the Attorneys General of the United States edited by J. Hubley Ashton, The Rockies by David Sievert Alexander and Duane A. Smith, History of Idaho: A Narrative Account of Its Historical Progress, Its People and Its Principal Interests by Hiram T. French, The Northern Shoshoni by Brigham D. Madsden, Index to the Executive Documents of the Senate of the United States Second Session Fortieth Congress 1867-68, Lyons Memorial - Massachusetts Families edited by Albert Brown Lyons and George William Amos Lyon and Eugene Fairfield McPike

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.: bag women and the Bahamas

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Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., was born in 1908 in Connecticut, the son of the pastor at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. After serving as the pastor at the church for a time, he became the first black man to be elected to the New York City Council in 1941 and was elected as a Democrat to the House of Representatives in 1945. By this time Powell had already established himself as a voice in the civil rights movement, urging grassroots action to have businesses start hiring blacks. In Congress, Powell's efforts included antipoverty and minimum wage acts, but also focused on desegregation and anti-discrimination. He repeatedly introduced the "Powell Amendment," seeking to bar federal funding to any project supporting segregation. In 1960, he became the chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor.

It was that same year that Powell's troubles began. In a televised interview, he accused Harlem widow Esther James of being a "bag woman," someone who collects police graft money. James sued for libel, and in 1963 a jury awarded her $211,500. Powell refused to pay the damages or appear in court, and began returning to his district only on Sundays so he could not be served by court officers. When he was cited for contempt of court in November 1966, the House began investigating the issue and allegations that Powell was misusing federal funds for travel, particularly to his vacation home in Bimini in the Bahamas.

In January of 1967, Powell was removed as chairman from the Education and Labor Committee pending the results of a special committee investigation. In his autobiography, Powell charges other members with hypocrisy over the travel issue, saying the head of the investigation, Democratic congressman Wayne Hays of Ohio, once "took a House dining-room waiter on a junket to Paris." The committee recommended that Powell be seated, but pay a $40,000 fine and be stripped of his chairmanship. The House rejected the recommendation 220-202, then voted 307-116 in March that Powell should not be seated in Congress.

Powell immediately sued to keep his seat. He remained popular in his district, and was re-elected by a nearly 7-to-1 margin over two opponents at a special election in April to fill his own vacancy. However, Powell did not show up to be sworn in, and spent much of the year in self-imposed exile in Bimini due to the contempt of court issue. Eventually, an agreement was worked out that removed the threat of jail over the contempt issue and a fundraising effort produced the funds for James' reward.

In 1968, Powell was re-elected by an 80.6 percent majority. Upon his return to Congress in 1969, he had to pay a $25,000 fine and step down as chairman. That year, the Supreme Court ruled in a 7-1 vote that the removal of Powell from his seat had been unconstitutional. The whole affair appears to have taken the wind out of Powell's sails, however; he was frequently absent from the House, and narrowly lost the 1970 Democratic primary to Charles B. Rangel, who still serves the district to this day.

Powell died two years later. A boulevard and state office building in Harlem are named in his honor.

Sources: Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, Oxford African-American Studies Center, Encyclopaedia Britannica, "Powell Loses Defamation Case" in the New York Times on April 5 1963, "Powell Elected to House Again by Almost 7 to 1" in the New York Times on April 12 1967, The House: The History of the House of Representatives by Robert Vincent Remini, The American Congress by Julian E. Zelizer, Adam by Adam by Adam Clayton Powell Jr.,