October 31, 1883 The Dress in the Closet

Major Rathbone would heal, in time, but he never came to terms with his failure to protect the President.  He was tormented, distraught with guilt, unable to understand what he could have done differently.  Surely there must have been…Something.

An historical ghost story, for your Halloween enjoyment.   But there are no such things as ghosts…Right?

Albany, New York businessman Jared Rathbone passed away in 1845, leaving a considerable fortune to his widow Pauline, and their four children.

New York Supreme Court Justice Ira Harris, himself a widower, joined his household with hers when the couple married, in 1848.  There were now eight kids.  A regular 19th-century “Brady Bunch.”

Pauline’s son Henry and Ira’s daughter Clara became close friends and later, more.  Much more.  They were step-siblings, yes, but there was no “blood” between them.  Such a relationship seems not to have been so ‘odd’ then, as it may seem, today.

With the incoming Lincoln administration, Ira Harris was elected to the United States Senate, replacing Senator William H. Seward who’d been picked to serve in the new administration.

By the time of the War between the States, Clara Harris and Henry Rathbone were engaged to be married.

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Rathbone served the Union army for the duration of the war, becoming Captain in the 12th Infantry Regiment and participating in the battles at Antietam and Fredericksburg.  By the end of the war, Rathbone had attained the rank of Major.

Meanwhile, Senator Harris’ daughter Clara had conceived a friendship with the First Lady of the United States, Mary Todd Lincoln.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, before and after photographs tell of the burdens, born by the chief executive of a nation at war with itself.  Making matters worse, the Lincolns had lost two of their four boys in childhood, by war’s end.  In April 1865, a night out must have seemed like a welcome break.  An evening at the theater.  The play, a three-act farce by English playwright Tom Taylor.  “Our American Cousin”.197030-Abraham-Lincoln-Before-And-After-Civil-War

The Lincoln’s companions for the evening were to be General Grant and his wife, Julia, but the General had other plans.  It was probably convenient, because the ladies didn’t get along.  Mary suggested her neighbor Clara Harris, of whom she was quite fond.  And besides, didn’t her fiancée cut a dashing figure, in his blue uniform.

The story of that night is familiar, the assassin creeping up from behind.  The mark of the coward.

John Wilkes Booth was himself one of the great actors of his day, and chose his moment, carefully.  Raucous laughter and applause could be expected to follow the line “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdolagizing old man-trap!

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John Wilkes Booth dagger, used to attack Rathbone

The bullet was fired at point-blank range, entering the President’s skull behind the left ear and coming to rest, behind the right eye.  Rathbone sprang to the attack but the assassin was ready, the dagger slashing the major nearly bone-deep, from shoulder to elbow.  Rathbone made one last lunge, knocking Booth off balance as he leapt to the stage, below.  Witnesses remembered that he cried out “Sic Semper Tyrannis”.  Thus always, to tyrants.  And then, he was gone.

In the President’s box, all was chaos.  The first lady was inconsolable, sobbing and shrieking, like a wildcat.  Rathbone was losing blood at a prodigious rate, a major artery slashed in the scuffle.

Clara’s new dress was soaked with the blood of her fiancee, her face splashed and clothing drenched through the layers of petticoats to the skin, beneath.  The small group was taken across the street to the Peterson house, the President laid out on a bed.  Henry Rathbone faded in and out of consciousness due to blood loss, raving in his delirium how he should have caught the assassin, his head on Clara’s lap, her handkerchief stuffed into the void where the bicep used to be.

There wasn’t even time to clean off her face.  Mary Lincoln would just begin to calm down when she’d see Clara and fall apart, wailing “My husband’s blood!”.  It wasn’t, but, no matter.  Perception is reality.  The death vigil lasted this way, for nine hours.  The 16th President of the United States passed away at 7:22 the following morning, April 15, 1865.

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Major Rathbone would heal, in time, but he never came to terms with his failure to protect the President.  He was tormented, distraught with guilt, unable to understand what he could have done differently, but, What!? Surely there must have been…Something.

Clara Harris couldn’t bring herself to wash that dress, nor to burn it.  She hung it in a guest room closet, blood and all, in the family’s vacation home in New York.

What demons afflicted the mind of Henry Rathbone can only be guessed at, as a mental illness which had no name, crept into his soul.  He was possessed with that night.  Was I not quick enough?  Or brave enough?  Or Strong enough?  It was MY fault.  A Better Man would have taken that bullet.  Or Stopped that man.  No he wouldn’t…yes he would…but…I…what, the, hell, is WRONG WITH YOU???!!!

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The dress

Washington DC was saturated with All Things Lincoln in April 1866, and Clara fled to the family home in Albany, to get away.  There in that closet hung the bloody dress.  On the anniversary of the assassination, she heard laughter, she knew she did, coming down the hall.  Lincoln’s laughter.

Others reported the same thing in the following years.  The sound of laughter.  A single gun shot.  But there are no such things as ghosts…Right?

Major Rathbone and Clara Harris were married in July 1867 and the couple had three children, Henry rising to the rank of brevet Colonel, in 1870.  That was the year he resigned from the army, but work was hard to come by, due to increasing mental instability.

Rathbone convinced himself that Clara was unfaithful, and that she planned to take the kids away.   He would fly into rages and she considered divorce, but couldn’t bear the thought, nor the stigma.

Clara went so far as to have the closet bricked up with that dress inside, like Montresor bricked up Fortunato.  It changed, nothing.  The family traveled to Europe and back in search of a cure, but Rathbone’s condition only worsened.

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US Capitol as it looked, in 1872

Despite all this or possibly because of it, President Chester A. Arthur appointed Rathbone US Consul to the Province of Hannover in Germany, in 1882.

“Trick or Treating” had yet to take hold by this time, back in the United States.  For most, October 31, 1883 passed pleasantly enough:  Fall festivals, children bobbing for apples, young women consulting mirrors or tossing nuts into fires, to see whom they would marry.  Not so, Henry Rathbone.  He had Monsters in his head.

Two months later, December 23, Henry Rathbone shot his wife, and stabbed himself, in the chest.  Six times.  He lived.  She died.

He claimed he was defending her, against an attacker.

The three children, Henry Riggs, Gerald Lawrence and Clara Pauline, went to live with relatives. Henry Reed Rathbone was convicted of their mother’s murder and committed to an asylum for the criminally insane in Hildesheim, Germany, there to spend the next twenty-eight years.

Henry Reed Rathbone died on August 14, 1911 and was buried, next to his wife.

In 1922, Henry Riggs Rathbone would be elected to the United States House of Representatives.  Twelve years earlier he unbricked that closet and burned the hated dress, the dress which had stolen his childhood, and murdered his mother, and cursed his father.  But there are no such things as ghosts…Right?

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“The modern day home where Union Army Officer Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris resided”. Hat tip, HISTORIAN’S OFFICE, TOWN OF COLONIE.

Afterward

Burial customs are different in Germany, than in the United States.  Grave plots are generally leased for a period of 20 – 30 years, with an option to renew.  In 1952, officials with the city cemetery at Hanover/Engesohde looked over visitation records, and determined that there was no further interest, in Clara Harris or Henry Rathbone.  The couple was exhumed and their remains burned, and disposed of.  Like they were never even there.

But there are no such things as ghosts.

Right?

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.
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October 30, 1938 War of the Worlds 

Despite repeated notices that the broadcast was fictional, it’s been estimated that as many as 1.2 million thought the news, was real. According to Grover’s Mill folklore, a local named William Dock shot a water tower, mistaking it for a Martian in the moonlight. Traffic was jammed in both directions in the little town, as locals tried to get out, and curiosity seekers came to see what Martians looked like. 

34.6 million miles distant, the Red Planet is our nearest neighbor in the solar system.  To the Babylonians of 3000B.C. Mars was the God of Death, lending its name to the war gods of Greek and Roman antiquity, alike.

In the 19th century, amateur astronomer Percival Lowell was convinced that he saw canals on Mars, evidence of some great civilization. In 1898, H.G. Wells published a book about a Martian invasion of earth, beginning with a landing in England.  On this day in 1938, the Mercury Theater of the Air brought the story to life.

yphlejvzd8_w1024The radio drama began with a statement that, what followed, was fictional.  The warning was repeated at the 40 and 55-minute mark, and again at the end of the broadcast. It began with a weather report, and then went to a dance band remote, featuring “Ramon Raquello and his orchestra”. The music was periodically interrupted by live “news” flashes, beginning with strange explosions on Mars. Producer Orson Welles made his first radio appearance as the “famous” (but non-existent) Princeton Professor Dr. Richard Pierson, who dismissed speculation about life on Mars.

The-War-of-the-Worlds-Radio-BroadcastA short time later, another “news flash” reported a fiery crash in Grovers Mill, NJ. What was originally thought to be a meteorite was revealed to be a rocket machine as a tentacled, pulsating Martian unscrewed the hatch and incinerated the crowd with a death ray.

The dramatic technique was brilliant. Welles had his cast listen to the Hindenburg tape, explaining that was the “feel” that he wanted in his broadcast. Fictional on-the-spot reporter Carl Phillips describes the death ray in the same rising crescendo, only to be cut off in mid-sentence as it was turned on him.

The 60-minute play unfolds with Martians wiping out a militia unit sent against them, and finally attacking New York City with poison gas.

Ufo in the night sky
Alien spacecraft, hovering over the trees

Despite repeated notices that the broadcast was fictional, it’s been estimated that as many as 1.2 million thought the news, was real. According to Grover’s Mill folklore, a local named William Dock shot a water tower, mistaking it for a Martian in the moonlight. Traffic was jammed in both directions in the little town, as locals tried to get out, and curiosity seekers came to see what Martians looked like.

The USA Today Newspaper reporting on the 75th anniversary of the broadcast, that “The broadcast … disrupted households, interrupted religious services, created traffic jams and clogged communications systems. “The New York Times reported on Oct. 31, 1938: “In Newark, in a single block at Heddon Terrace and Hawthorne Avenue, more than 20 families rushed out of their houses with wet handkerchiefs and towels over their faces to flee from what they believed was to be a gas raid. Some began moving household furniture”.

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Then as today, supposed “victims” of the broadcast and their lawyers lined up to get paid for “mental anguish” and “personal injury”. All suits were dismissed, except for a claim for a pair of black men’s shoes, size 9B, by a Massachusetts man who had spent his shoe money to escape the Martians. Welles thought the man should be paid.

In the end, the War of the Worlds was just what the broadcast described itself to be. A Halloween concoction. The equivalent of dressing up in a sheet, and jumping out of a bush, and saying, ‘Boo!’.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

October 29, 1963 Rocky

With hands tied behind his back and a rope around his neck, even then this man still spoke in three languages, of God, and Freedom, and American democracy. The effect was entirely unacceptable to his Communist tormentors. To the people of these villages, this man made sense.

originalHumbert Roque Versace was born in Honolulu on July 2, 1937, the oldest of five sons born to Colonel Humbert Joseph Versace.  Writer Marie Teresa “Tere” Rios was his mother, author of the Fifteenth Pelican.  If you don’t recall the book, perhaps you remember the 1960s TV series, based on the story.  It was called The Flying Nun.

Like his father before him, Humbert, (“Rocky” to his friends), joined the armed services out of high school, graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point, in 1959.

Rocky earned his Ranger tab and parachutist badge the same year, later serving as tank commander with the 1st Cavalry in South Korea, then with the 3rd US Infantry – the “Old Guard”.

Rocky attended the Military Assistance Institute, the Intelligence course at Fort Holabird Maryland, and the USACS Vietnamese language Course at the Presidio of Monterey, beginning his first tour of duty in Vietnam on May 12, 1962.

versace1He did his tour, and voluntarily signed up for another six months.  By the end of October 1963, Rocky had fewer than two weeks to the end of his service.  He had served a year and one-half in the Republic of Vietnam.  Now he planned to go to seminary school.  He had already received his acceptance letter, from the Maryknoll order.

Rocky planned to become a Priest of the Roman Catholic faith, and return to the country to help the orphaned children of Vietnam.

It was a bright and shining future, one which was never meant to be.

Rocky was assisting a Civilian Irregular Defense (CIDG) force of South Vietnamese troops remove a Viet Cong (VC) command post in the Mekong Delta.  It was unusual that anyone would volunteer for such a mission, particularly one with his “short-timer’s stick”.  This was a daring mission in a very dangerous place.

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In happier times, Colonel Humbert Joseph Versace pins insignia on the uniform of his son, Captain Humbert Roque “Rocky” Versace

On October 29, an overwhelming force of Viet Cong ambushed and overran Rocky’s unit.  Under siege and suffering multiple bullet and shrapnel wounds, Versace put down suppressing fire, permitting his unit to withdraw from the kill zone.

Another force of some 200 South Vietnamese arrived, too late to alter the outcome.  Communist radio frequency jamming had knocked out both main and backup radio channels.

Their position overrun, Captain Versace, Lieutenant Nick Rowe and Sergeant Dan Pitzer were captured and taken to a North Vietnamese prison, deep in the jungle.

For most of the following two years, a 2’x3’x6’ bamboo cage would be their home.  On nights when their netting was taken away, the mosquitoes were so thick on their shackled feet, it looked like they were wearing socks.

Years later, President George W. Bush would tell a story, about how Steve Versace described his brother.   “If he thought he was right”,  Steve said to audience laughter, “he was a pain in the neck.  If he knew he was right, he was absolutely atrocious.

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In 1964, Vietnamese interrogators were learning what Steve Versace could have told them, if only they’d asked.  His brother could not be broken.  Rocky attempted to escape four times, despite leg wounds which left him no option but to crawl on his belly.   Each such attempt earned him savage beatings, but that only made him try harder.

Fluent in French, Vietnamese and English, Rocky could quote chapter and verse from the Geneva Convention and never quit doing so.  He would insult and ridicule his captors in three languages, even as they beat him to within an inch of his life.

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Incessant torture and repeated isolation in solitary confinement did nothing to shut him up.  Communist indoctrination sessions had to be brought to a halt in French and Vietnamese, because none of his interrogators could effectively argue with this guy.  They certainly didn’t want villagers to hear him blow up their Communist propaganda in their own language.

For five months in 1964, reports came back through intelligence circles, of one particular prisoner. Paraded in chains before local villagers, with hair turned snow white and face swollen and yellowed with jaundice. With hands tied behind his back and a rope around his neck, even then this man still spoke in three languages, of God, and Freedom, and American democracy.

pg1verThe effect was entirely unacceptable to his Communist tormentors. To the people of these villages, this man made sense.

In the end, Versace was isolated from the rest of the prison population, as a dangerous influence.  He responded by singing at the top of his lungs, the lyrics of popular songs of the day replaced by messages of inspiration to his fellow POWs.  Rocky was last heard belting out “God Bless America”, at the top of his lungs.

Humbert Roque Versace was murdered by his North Vietnamese captors, his “execution” announced on North Vietnamese “Liberation Radio” on September 26, 1965.  He was twenty-eight.

Rocky’s remains were never recovered.  The headstone bearing his name in the Memorial section MG-108 at Arlington National Cemetery, stands over an empty grave.  The memory of his name is inscribed on the Courts of the Missing in the Honolulu Memorial at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, and on Panel 1E, line 33, of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

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This American hero of Italian and Puerto Rican heritage was nominated for the medal of honor in 1969, an effort culminating in a posthumous Silver Star.  In 2002, the Defense Authorization Act approved by the United States Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush, awarded Versace the Medal of Honor.

In a July 8, 2002 ceremony in the East Room of the White House, the President of the United States awarded the Medal of Honor to United States Army Captain Humbert Roque “Rocky” Versace.  Dr. Stephen Versace stood in to receive the award, on behalf of his brother.  It was the first time the nation’s highest honor for military valor was bestowed on a POW, for courage in the face of captivity.

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This statue of Medal of Honor recipient and Ranger Hall of Fame inductee Captain “Rocky” Versace stands in a plaza bearing his name in Alexandria, Virginia. With him are the likenesses of two Vietnamese children, along with sixty-seven gold stars, each representing one of the 67 soldiers, sailors and airmen from Alexandria who were KIA or MIA, in the war in Vietnam.
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October 28, 1945  Town Line, NY – Last Stronghold of the Confederacy

By October 1945 there legally remained only one part of the former Confederate States of America. The little hamlet of Town Line, New York.

By the early 1830s, cotton exceeded the value of all other American exports, combined. As secession loomed over the nation, a Chicago Daily Times editorial warned that if the South left “in one single blow, our foreign commerce must be reduced to less than one half of what it is now”.

fernando_wood_(1812-1881)South Carolina seceded in December 1860, and the world waited to see who’d follow.  New York City became the next to call for secession on January 6, when Mayor Fernando Wood addressed the city’s governing body.  “When Disunion has become a fixed and certain fact”, he said, “why may not New York disrupt the bands which bind her to a venal and corrupt master…and destroyed the Confederacy of which she was the proud Empire City?”

In New York city and state alike, economic ties with the south ran deep.  40¢ of every dollar paid for southern cotton stayed in New York, in the form of insurance, shipping, warehouse fees and profits.

30 minutes’ east of Buffalo, the village of Lancaster contemplated staying with the Union.  500 miles from the nearest Confederate state, George Huber remembered the time.  “When war was declared, Lancaster seethed with the news, and many were the nights we stayed up as late as 12 o’clock to talk things out.  I was twelve years old at the time, but I remember the stern faces of the elders and the storm of passionate and angry discussion. Soon the town split into two factions, it was a very tense situation…Often the excitement ran so high that if a man in either group had made the slightest sign, neighbors would have been at each other’s throats and fists would have taken the place of words.”

town line courthouse
The old blacksmith shop

“Town Line”, a hamlet on the village’s eastern boundary, put it to a vote.  In the fall of 1861, residents gathered in the old schoolhouse-turned blacksmith’s shop.  By a margin of 85 to 40, Town Line voted to secede from the Union.

There was angry talk of arresting “Copperheads” for sedition, as casualty reports came back from the front.  “Seceders” became quiet, afraid to meet in public amidst angry talk of lynching.  A half-dozen or so more ardent secessionists went south to fight for the Confederacy.  Others quietly moved north, to Canada.   Outside of Lancaster, no one seemed to notice.  Taxes continued to be paid. No federal force ever arrived to enforce the loyalty of the small village.

A rumor went around in 1864, that a large Confederate army was building in Canada, poised to invade from the north.  Town Line became a dangerous place for the few southern sympathizers left.  Most of those remaining moved to Canada and, once again, Lancaster became the quiet little village in upstate New York, that nobody ever heard of.

Impatient to get on with it, Dade County “symbolically” seceded both from Georgia as well as the Union, back in 1860.  Officially, Dade County seceded with Georgia in 1861, and rejoined with the rest of the state in 1870, but the deal was sealed on July 4, 1945, when a telegram from President Harry S. Truman was read at a celebration marking Dade County’s “rejoining” the Union.

The “Confederate Gibraltar”, Vicksburg Mississippi, fell on July 4, 1863.  The city wouldn’t celebrate another Independence Day for 80 years.

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In 2011, the residents of Town Line, New York dressed up to mark the town’s sesquicentennial of secession from the Union

By October 1945 there legally remained only one part of the former Confederate States of America. The little hamlet of Town Line, New York.

Even Georgians couldn’t help themselves, from commenting. 97-year-old Confederate General T.W. Dowling said: “We been rather pleased with the results since we rejoined the Union. Town Line ought to give the United States another try“. Judge A.L. Townsend of Trenton Georgia commented “Town Line ought to give the United States a good second chance“.

Townline-the_last_conferderacy A courier express note arrived on October 7, 1945.  “There are few controversies that are not susceptible to a peace time resolution” read the note, “if examined in an atmosphere of tranquility and calm rather than strife and turmoil. I would suggest the possibility of roast veal as a vehicle of peace.  Why don’t you run down the fattest calf in Erie County, barbecue it and serve it with fixin’s in the old blacksmith shop where the ruckus started? Who can tell? The dissidents might decide to resume citizenship.”  The note was signed “Very Sincerely Yours, Harry Truman”.

Fireman’s Hall was the site of the barbecue, “The old blacksmith shop where the ruckus started” being too small for the assembled crowd.  On October 28, 1945 residents adopted a resolution suspending the 1861 ordinance of secession, by a vote of 90-23. The Stars and Bars of the Confederate States of America was lowered for the last time, outside the old blacksmith shop.

Alabama member of the United States House of Representatives John Jackson Sparkman, may have had the last word:  “As one reconstructed rebel to another, let me say that I find much comfort in the fact that you good people so far up in Yankee land have held out during the years. However, I suppose we grow soft as we grow older.”

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

October 27, 1871 Tammany Hall

The Tweed ring at its height was an engineering marvel, strong and solid, strategically deployed to control key power points: the courts, the legislature, the treasury and the ballot box. Its frauds had a grandeur of scale and an elegance of structure: money-laundering, profit sharing and organization

Before the first Europeans arrived in the “new world”, descendants of the Nanticoke inhabited a region from Delaware north through New Jersey and southern New York, and eastern Pennsylvania. The Europeans called them “Delaware”.  These indigenous Americans called themselves “Lenni-Lenape” which literally means “Men of Men”, but is translated to mean “Original People.” (Hat tip, http://www.nanticoke-lenape.info).

In the early 1680s, Chief Tammamend (“The Affable”) of the Lenni-Lenape nation took part in a meeting with the English colonists, where he is supposed to have said that his people and the newcomers would “live in peace as long as the waters run in the rivers and creeks and as long as the stars and moon endure.”

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Treaty of Penn with Indians, by Benjamin West

“Tammany” to the settlers, Chief Tammamend became a living symbol of peace and friendship, between the two peoples. He died in 1701, but his legend lived on. In the next one-hundred years Tammany societies were established from Georgia to Rhode Island.

8-22-TamanendTammany Societies adopted a number of native terms, with leaders calling themselves Grand Sachem, and meeting in halls called “Wigwams”. The most famous of these was incorporated in New York on May 12, 1789.

Within ten years, what had begun as a social club had morphed into a political machine. Tammany helped Aaron Burr counter Alexander Hamilton’s Society of the Cincinnati, and Burr went on to win New York’s two electoral votes in 1800. Without help from “Tammany Hall”, many historians believe that John Adams would have been re-elected to a second term.

Tammany Hall expanded its connections within New York Democrat party politics. After Andrew Jackson’s victory in 1828, the Tammany machine all but owned the government in New York city and state, alike.

Fun fact: On December 20, 1860, the Secession convention of South Carolina unanimously asserted an end to Union, proclaiming that “We…have solemnly declared that the union heretofore existing between this State and the other States of North America, is dissolved, and that the State of South Carolina has resumed her position among the nations of the world, as a separate and independent State…” In the following days, the world waited to see who would follow. The next governing entity to actually do so was the state of Mississippi, but the first to discuss the idea (after South Carolina) was New York, in the person of Tammany Hall’s own mayor, Fernando Wood.

The 19th century was a time of massive immigration, providing an ever-expanding base of political and financial support for urban politicians. Political machines helped new arrivals with jobs, housing and citizenship, providing a patina of “constituent service” and hiding a dark under-belly of graft and corruption.

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Boss Tweed

In the 1860s, Tammany Hall politician William Magear Tweed established a new standard in public self-dealing. Biographer Kenneth Ackerman wrote: “The Tweed ring at its height was an engineering marvel, strong and solid, strategically deployed to control key power points: the courts, the legislature, the treasury and the ballot box. Its frauds had a grandeur of scale and an elegance of structure: money-laundering, profit sharing and organization“.

New York contractors were instructed to multiply invoices. Checks were cashed through a go-between, settling with the contractor and dividing the rest between “Boss” Tweed and his cronies. This system of corruption inflated the cost of the New York County Courthouse to nearly $13 million, more than the Alaska purchase. One carpenter billed $360,751 (equivalent to $4.9 million today), for one month’s work. A plasterer got $133,187 for two days.

New York Corruption - New York Under Tweed's ThumbSome among the self-styled “Uppertens”, the top 10,000 amid New York’s socioeconomic strata, fell in with the self-dealing and corruption of the Tammany Hall machine. Others counted on an endless supply of cheap immigrant labor.

The system worked while Tweed’s Machine kept “his people” in line, until the “Orange Riots” of 1870-71 broke out between Irish Catholics and Protestants, killing 70.

Harper’s Weekly editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast, creator of the modern American Santa Claus and the Republican Elephant, was the scourge of Tammany Hall. Following the Orange riots, the New York Times added its voice to that of the cartoonist.

Boss Tweed, the third-largest landowner in New York City, Director of the Erie Railroad, the Tenth National Bank, and the New York Printing Company, Proprietor of the Metropolitan Hotel, former State Senator and former Member of the United States Congress, was arrested on October 27, 1871, and tried on charges of public corruption. An 1877 aldermen’s committee estimated that Boss Tweed’s graft cost New York taxpayers between $25 and $45 million. Later estimates ranged as high as $200 million, equivalent to an astonishing $2.8 Billion, today.

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Cartoonist Thomas Nast denounced the Tammany machine as a ferocious tiger, devouring democracy.

The Tammany Hall political machine, moved on. By the end of the 19th century, ward Boss Richard Croker ran a system of graft and corruption the likes of which Boss Tweed could have only dreamed.

In the end, three things killed the Tammany Hall system. Early Irish arrivals had been primary beneficiaries and major supporters of Tammany’s patronage system, but there are only so many favors to go around. Continued immigration diluted Tammany’s base, and later arriving Irish, Italian and eastern European immigrants found themselves frozen out.

y9AfutFuWoQMH-GAzYj6wjl72eJkfbmt4t8yenImKBVvK0kTmF0xjctABnaLJIm9Next is the spoils system, itself. To this day, too many think it’s government’s job to “Bring home the Bacon”, not seeming to realize that they are themselves, the hogs. The Roosevelt administrations’ efforts to fix the Great Depression resulted in a blizzard of bacon from an increasingly Nationalized federal government, separating the local machines from their proximate base of support.

Last came “reformers” such as New York governor and future President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who occasionally built enough steam to hurt the Tammany machine. Manhattan District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey, he of the famous “Dewey Wins!” photograph, managed to put several Tammany Hall leaders in jail, along with such unsavory supporters as “Lucky Luciano”.

Republican Fiorello La Guardia served three terms as New York mayor between 1934-’45, the first anti-Tammany mayor ever, to be re-elected. A brief resurgence of Tammany power in the 1950s met with Democratic party resistance led by the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, and party politician Herbert Lehrman. By the mid-1960s, the Tammany Hall system, was dead.

Tammany Hall was a local manifestation of a disease afflicting the entire country. Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, Philadelphia, St. Louis and others:  all suffered their own local outbreak.

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Tammany Hall, Union_Square

The Ward Boss still lives in places like Chicago but, like the Jeffersons, the corruption has “moved on up”. Today, rent seekers and foreign powers pay tens of millions in “speaking fees” and other “pay-for-play” schemes.

A hundred years ago, Ambrose Bierce (my favorite curmudgeon) described politics as “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage“.  Boss Tweed could tell you.   It’s as true now, as it was in his time.

Featured image, top of page:  Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast’s depiction of the Tammany ring:  Who stole the people’s money? T’was him!

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October 26, 1918 Talking in Code

In 1917, Colonel Bloor heard two of his Choctaw soldiers talking to each other, and realized he didn’t have the foggiest notion of what they were saying. If he didn’t understand their conversation, the Germans wouldn’t have a clue.

During the twentieth century, the United States and others specially recruited bilingual speakers of obscure languages, then applying those skills in secret communications based on those languages.  Among these, the story of the Navajo “Code Talkers” are probably best known.   Theirs was a language with no alphabet or symbols, a language with such complex syntax and tonal qualities as to be unintelligible to the non-speaker. The military code based on such a language proved unbreakable in WWII. Japanese code breakers never got close.

The United States Marine Corps recruited some 4-500 Navajo speakers, who served in all six Marine divisions in the Pacific theater.  Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima:  Navajo code talkers took part in every assault conducted by the United States Marine Corps, from 1942 to ‘45.

160907143620-navajo-code-talkers-3-exlarge-169.jpgThe history of the Navajo code talkers of WWII is relatively well known, but by no means, unique.  Indigenous Americans of other nations served as code talkers in WW2, including Assiniboine, Lakota and Meskwaki soldiers, who did service in the Pacific, North African, and European theaters of the war.

Fourteen Comanche soldiers took part in the Normandy landings.  As with the Navajo, these substituted phrases when their own language lacked a proper term.  Thus, “tank” became “turtle”.  “Bombers” became “pregnant airplanes”.  Adolf Hitler was “Crazy White Man”.

The information is contradictory, but Basque may also have been put to use, in areas where no native speakers were believed to be present.  Native Cree speakers served with Canadian Armed Services, though oaths of secrecy have all but blotted their contributions, from the pages of history.

The first documented use of military codes based on native American languages took place during the Second Battle of the Somme in September of 1918, employing on the language skills of a number of Cherokee troops.

The government of Choctaw nation will tell you otherwise, contending that Theirs was the first native language, used in this way.  Late in 1917, Colonel Alfred Wainwright Bloor was serving in France with the 142nd Infantry Regiment. They were a Texas outfit, constituted in May of that year and including a number of Oklahoma Choctaws.

The Allies had already learned the hard way that their German adversaries spoke excellent English, and had already intercepted and broken several English-based codes. Colonel Bloor heard two of his Choctaw soldiers talking to each other, and realized he didn’t have the foggiest notion of what they were saying. If he didn’t understand their conversation, the Germans wouldn’t have a clue.

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Choctaw soldiers in training in World War I for coded radio and telephone transmissions

The first test under combat conditions took place on October 26, 1918, as two companies of the 2nd Battalion performed a “delicate” withdrawal from Chufilly to Chardeny, in the Champagne sector. A captured German officer later confirmed the Choctaw code to have been a complete success. We were “completely confused by the Indian language”, he said, “and gained no benefit whatsoever” from wiretaps.

Choctaw soldiers were placed in multiple companies of infantry. Messages were transmitted via telephone, radio and by runner, many of whom were themselves native Americans.

As in the next war, Choctaw would improvise when their language lacked the proper word or phrase. When describing artillery, they used the words for “big gun”. Machine guns were “little gun shoot fast”.

Choctaw code talkersThe Choctaw themselves didn’t use the term “Code Talker”, that wouldn’t come along until WWII. At least one member of the group, Tobias W. Frazier, simply described what they did as, “talking on the radio”.  Of the 19 who served in WWI, 18 were native Choctaw from southeast Oklahoma. The last was a native Chickasaw. The youngest was Benjamin Franklin Colbert, Jr., the son of Benjamin Colbert Sr., one of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” of the Spanish American War. Born September 15, 1900 in the Durant Indian Territory, he was all of sixteen, the day he enlisted.

Another was Choctaw Joseph Oklahombi, whose name means “man killer” in the Choctaw language. Six days before Sergeant York’s famous capture of 132 Germans in the Argonne Forest, Joseph Oklahombi charged a strongly held German position, single-handed. Oklahombi‘s Croix de Guerre citation, personally awarded him by Marshall Petain, tells the story:

“Under a violent barrage, [Pvt. Oklahombi] dashed to the attack of an enemy position, covering about 210 yards through barbed-wire entanglements. He rushed on machine-gun nests, capturing 171 prisoners. He stormed a strongly held position containing more than 50 machine guns, and a number of trench mortars. Turned the captured guns on the enemy, and held the position for four days, in spite of a constant barrage of large projectiles and of gas shells. Crossed no man’s land many times to get information concerning the enemy, and to assist his wounded comrades”.

Unconfirmed eyewitness accounts report that 250 Germans occupied the position, and that Oklahombi killed 79 of them before their comrades decided it was wiser to surrender. Some guys are not to be trifled with.

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