July 30, 1916 Sabotage

[B]etween 1915 and spring 1917, 43 American factories suffered explosions or fires of mysterious origin, in addition to the bombs set on some four dozen ships carrying war supplies to the Allies”

In the early months of the Great War, Britain’s Royal Navy swept the high seas of the Kaiser’s surface ships and blockaded ports in Germany. The United States was neutral at this time, when over a hundred German ships sought refuge in American harbors.

The blockade made it impossible for the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary to import war materiel from overseas while Great Britain, France, and Russia continued to buy products from US farms and factories. American businessmen were happy to sell to any foreign customer who had the cash but, for all intents and purposes, such trade was limited to the allies.

British-blockadeTo the Central Powers, such trade had the sole purpose of killing their boys, fighting for the Fatherland on the battlefields of Europe.

The first and most overt reaction from the Kaiser came in the form of unrestrained submarine warfare, when even vessels flying the flags of neutral nations came under attack. Less apparent at that time was the covert campaign of sabotage carried out by German, agents on US soil.

“Black Tom” was originally an island in New York Harbor, next to Liberty Island. So called after a former resident, by WWI, landfill had expanded the island to become part of Jersey City. The area contained a mile-long pier with warehouses and rail lines operated by the Lehigh Valley Railroad, and served as a major hub in the trade of war materiel to the allies.

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Black Tom Island, 1880

On July 30, 1916, the Black Tom terminal had over two million pounds of small arms and artillery ammunition in freight cars, and one hundred thousand pounds of TNT on a nearby Barge.

In the small hours of the morning, around 2:00am, guards discovered a series of small fires. Some tried to put them out while others fled, fearing an explosion. The first and loudest blast took place at 2:08am, a detonation so massive as to be estimated at 5.5, on the Richter scale. People were awakened from Maryland to Connecticut in what many thought was an earthquake. The Brooklyn Bridge shook. The walls of Jersey City’s municipal building were cracked as shrapnel flew through the air. Windows broke as far as 25 miles away, while fragments embedded themselves in the clock tower at the Jersey Journal building in Journal Square, over a mile away. The clock stopped at 2:12 am.

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Firefighters were unable to fight the fires until the bullets and shrapnel stopped flying. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Stained Glass windows were shattered at St. Patrick’s Church, and Ellis Island was evacuated to Manhattan. Damage to the skirt and torch carried by the Statue of Liberty alone, came to over $2¼ million in 2017 dollars. To this day the ladder to “Lady Liberty’s” torch remains off limits, to visitors.

The enormous vaulted ceiling of Ellis Island’s main hall, collapsed.  According to one Park officer, damage to the Ellis Island complex came to $500,000 “half the one million dollars it cost the government to build the facility.”

Wrecked_warehouses_and_scattered_debris_after_the_Black_Tom_Explosion,_1916Known fatalities in the explosion included a Jersey City police officer, a Lehigh Valley Railroad Chief of Police, a ten week old infant, and the barge captain.

The explosion at Black Tom nearly brought the US into the war against Germany, but that would wait for the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. That, and a telegram from German Secretary for Foreign Affairs Arthur Zimmermann, promising US territories to Mexico, in exchange for a declaration of war against the US.

Black Tom was the most spectacular, but by no means the only such act of sabotage. The archive at cia.gov states that “[B]etween 1915 and spring 1917, 43 American factories suffered explosions or fires of mysterious origin, in addition to the bombs set on some four dozen ships carrying war supplies to the Allies”.

Responsibility for the Black Tom explosion was never proven, conclusively. Early suspicions centered on accidental causes. Legal wrangling would climb the judicial ladder all the way to the United States Supreme Court and continue well into the second World War. Anna Rushnak, an elderly Czech immigrant who ran a four-bits-a-night boarding house in Bayonne was thrown from her bed by the explosion, to find then-23-year-old Michael Kristoff sitting on the edge of his bed, mumbling “What I do? What I do?”

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Lehigh Valley Railroad pier, after the explosion

Kristoff, a Slovakian subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany’s principle ally in World War 1, was arrested by Bayonne Police, interrogated, and judged to be “insane but harmless.”

In 1922, the Lehigh Valley Railroad was buried in lawsuits, and looking to fix blame on a German act of sabotage. Located in an Albany jail where he was serving time for theft Kristoff came to the judicial spotlight, once again. He admitted working for the Germans “for a few weeks” back in 1916, but was released before the claim could be investigated. Kristoff was finally traced to a pauper’s grave in 1928 and there ends his story, yet that ‘insane but harmless’ label remains open to question. Papers carried on the body exhumed from that potter’s field were indeed those of Michael Kristoff, but the dental records, didn’t match.

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“German Master Spy Franz Von Rintelen and his “pencil bomb” were responsible for acts of sabotage in the United States during World War I”. H/T Smithsonian

Meanwhile, suspicion fell on the German-born naturalized citizen Kurt Jahnke who ran sabotage operations for the German Admiralty out of bases in San Francisco and Mexico City with his assistant, Imperial German Navy Lieutenant Lothar Witzke. Witzke was arrested on February 1, 1918 in Nogales, Arizona and convicted by court martial. He was sentenced to death, though the war was over before sentence could be carried out. President Wilson later commuted the sentence, to life.

By 1923, most nations were releasing POWs from the “Great War”, including spies. A report from Leavenworth prison shows Witzke heroically risking his life, entering a boiler room after an explosion and probably averting disaster. It may be on that basis that he was finally released. Lieutenant Lothar Witzke was pardoned by President Calvin Coolidge on November 22, 1923 and deported to Berlin, where a grateful nation awarded him the Iron Cross, 1st and 2nd Class.

The U.S.–German Peace Treaty of 1921 established the German-American Mixed Claims Commission, which declared in 1939 that Imperial Germany had, in fact been responsible and awarded a judgement of $50 million.  The Nazi government refused to pay and the matter was finally settled in 1953, with a judgement of $95 million (including interest) against the Federal Republic of Germany. The final payment was made in 1979.

Shrapnel damage may be see to this day, on the statue of Liberty

The Black Tom explosion and related acts of pro-German espionage resulted in the Federal Espionage Act signed into law in June 1917, creating, among its other provisions, a “Bureau of Investigation” under the United States Department of Justice. 

Nothing remains today of the Black Tom terminal or the largest foreign terrorist attack on American soil until 9/11, save for a plaque, as seen in the photograph below.  That, and a new law enforcement bureaucracy, called the FBI.

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View of the Statue of Liberty from the site of the Black Tom explosion

June 4, 1629 The Secrets of Wallabi Island

Three months after the original shipwreck, rescuers would discover a horror for the ages.

During the colonial period, European powers formed joint-stock companies to carry out foreign trade and exploration, to colonize distant lands and conduct military operations against foreign adversaries.

Such organizations may be chartered for a single voyage or for an extended period of time, and were much more than what we associate with the modern “company”. These organizations could raise their own armies, enforce the law up to and including trial and execution of accused wrongdoers and largely functioned outside the control of the governments which formed them.

The Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), better known as the Dutch East India Company, founded in 1602, was the world’s first formally listed public company, an early multi-national corporation paving the way to the corporate-led globalization of the early modern period.

On October 27, 1628, a Dutch East India Co. merchant fleet departed the Dutch West Indies bound for the south Pacific Moluccan Islands to trade for spices. Among these vessels was the 650-ton ship Batavia, embarked on her maiden voyage.

On board were enormous stockpiles of gold and silver coinage and a complement of 341 passengers and crew, including men, women and children.

Among ship’s officers were the bankrupt pharmacist Onderkoopman (junior merchant) Jeronimus Cornelisz, in flight from the Netherlands due to his heretical religous beliefs, and skipper Ariaen Jacobsz. While underway, the two conceived a plan to mutiny, and start a new life somewhere else. All that specie in the hold would make for a very nice start.

A small group of men were recruited and a plot was hatched, to molest a ranking female member of the passenger list. The plotters hoped to provoke a harsh act of discipline against the crew, which could then be used to recruit more men to the mutineers. Lucretia Jans was assaulted as planned but, for whatever reason, Opperkoopman (senior merchant) Francisco Pelsaert never made any arrests.

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Perhaps the man was ill at the time but, be that as it may, the die was cast. The conspirators now needed only the right set of circumstances, to put their plans in motion.

Jacobsz deliberately steered the ship off course and away from the rest of the fleet. He got his ‘right set of circumstances’ on the morning of June 4, 1629, when Batavia struck a reef off the west coast of Australia.

Forty people drowned before the rest could be gotten safely to shore, swimming or transferred to nearby islands in the ship’s longboat and yawl.

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With no source of fresh drinking water, the situation was dire. A group comprising Captain Jacobsz, Francisco Pelsaert, several senior officers and crew members plus a few passengers set out in a 30-foot longboat.  The group performed one of the great feats of open boat navigation in all history, arriving after 33 days at the port of Batavia in modern-day Jakarta, Indonesia.

Boatswain Jan Evertsz was arrested and executed for negligence in the wreck of the Batavia, his role in the conspiracy never suspected.

Pelsaert was immediately given command of the Sardam by Batavia’s Governor General, Jan Coen.

Pelsaert’s rescue arrived three months after the original shipwreck, to discover a horror for the ages.

Left alone in charge of the survivors, Cornelisz and several co-conspirators took control of all the weapons and food supplies, then carried out plans to eliminate potential opposition.

A group of soldiers led by Wiebbe Hayes was tricked into being moved to West Wallabi Island, under the false pretense of looking for water. Convinced there was none, Cornelisz abandoned the group on the island to die.  The psychopath and his dedicated band of followers,  were now free to murder the rest at their leisure .

Author Mike Dash writes in Batavia’s Graveyard: The True Story of the Mad Heretic Who Led History’s Bloodiest Mutiny: “With a dedicated band of murderous young men, Cornelisz began to systematically kill anyone he believed would be a problem to his reign of terror, or a burden on their limited resources. The mutineers became intoxicated with killing, and no one could stop them. They needed only the smallest of excuses to drown, bash, strangle or stab to death any of their victims, including women and children”.

Like some neo-Mansonian psychopath, Cornelisz left the actual killing to others though he did attempt to poison one infant, who was later strangled.  No fewer than 110 men, women and children were murdered during this period.  Women left alive were confined to ‘rape tents’.

Meanwhile, Wiebbe Hayes and his soldiers found water and, unaware of the butchery taking place on Beacon island, began to send smoke signals, according to a prearranged plan.  The group would only learn of the ongoing massacre from survivors, who escaped to swim for their lives.

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Makeshift ‘fort’ built by Wiebbe Hayes and his soldiers, on West Wallabi Island

With their own supplies dwindling, Cornelisz & Co. assaulted the soldiers on West Wallabi Island, now in possession of crude handmade weapons and manning makeshift fortifications. Pitched battles ensued, pitting muskets against sticks and spears. The bad guys almost won too, but the better trained and (by this time) better fed soldiers, prevailed.

Pelsaert’s arrival triggered a furious race between Cornelisz’s men and the soldiers. Fortunately for all, Hayes won the race. A brief but furious battle ensued before Cornelisz and his company were captured. After a brief trial, Cornelisz and the worst of the conspirators were brought to Seal Island, their hands chopped off and the rest of them, hanged.

Two judged only to be minor players were brought to the Australian mainland and marooned, never to be seen again.

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The hangings on Long Island as illustrated in the Lucas de Vries 1649 edition of Ongeluckige Voyagie.

The remaining conspirators were brought back to Batavia and tried. Five were hanged. Jacop Pietersz, second-in-command, was broken on the wheel, a hideous remnant of medieval justice and the worst form of execution available, at that time. Captain Jacobsz resisted days of torture and never did confess. What became of him is unknown.

Francisco Pelsaert was judged partly responsible for the disaster, due to his failure to exercise command. Senior Merchant Pelsaert’s assets were confiscated.  He would die penniless in less than a year, a broken man.

The exact number of those buried in mass graves on Beacon Island, remains unknown.  Of the 341 who departed the West Indies that day in 1628, 68 lived to tell the tale.  Archaeologists labor an land and at sea but, three centuries later, the Wallabi Islands remain jealous of their secrets

http_o.aolcdn.comhssstoragemidas922be7ce080e004b9894e39c2f52e3db204025152batavia+3
“Archaeologists recovering Batavia timbers from the wreck site”.  H/T, HuffPo for this image

May 4, 1838 King of Cons

“I am sick and tired of this bluffer, or Quixote, or the devil knows what.
This man can hardly serve us in New Granada without heaping ten thousand embarrassments upon us”

In January 1848, a carpenter and sawmill operator named James Marshall discovered gold on the American River near Coloma, California.  Some 300,000 flocked to the “Golden State” over the next few years from the United States and abroad, in search of fortune. For most, the “California Gold Rush” was tedious, dirty and difficult work.  For Jefferson Randolph “Soapy“ Smith and his merry  band of grifters, it was easier simply to fleece the miners out of their hard won gains through rigged poker games, scam three-card Monty and a catalog of petty deceits. 

Between 1869 and 1872, the German actress and amateur “banker” Adele Spitzeder became the wealthiest woman in Germany, handsomely rewarding suckers…err…investors, with cash derived from new marks. Sarah Emily Howe ran the same con throughout the 1870s and ’80s through the “Ladies Deposit Company”, of Boston.

In the 1920s, Italian swindler Carlo Ponzi elevated this “rob Peter to pay Paul” scheme to such heights as to have the scam, named after himself. In the classic Ponzi scheme, early investors are paid above-average returns with the proceeds coming from new investors.

The wisely skeptical among us may question the legitimacy of consistently spectacular returns on investment but the money is real. Until it isn’t, and then heaven help the person left without a chair, when the music stops. For investors with Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities company, the music stopped in 2008 with early losses estimated at $18 billion dollars.

For New York’s Tammany Hall, the machinations of William Magear “Boss” Tweed elevated political corruption to such dizzying heights that the cost to taxpayers of building a single courthouse, nearly doubled that of the Alaska purchase.

Yet, in all the annals of humbuggery these are as nothing, a mere spark compared with the rising of a malign sun that was the “Cazique of Poyais”, Gregor MacGregor, the man who “sold” a continent. Or at least, part of one.

Between 1807 and 1814, a coalition of Spain, the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Portugal went to war with the French forces of Napoleon Bonaparte for control of the Iberian peninsula.

Gregor MacGregor of the clan Gregor was a Scottish soldier and adventurer, an officer of the Peninsular war at the ripe old age of 16, the youngest age it was permitted to do so.

Having little interest in working the seven years required to become Captain, MacGregor prevailed upon the substantial dowry of his wealthy wife Maria Bowater and purchased the rank of Ensign and finally, Captain.

In 1810, a running feud with a superior officer caused MacGregor to resign his commission and receive a refund of the £1,350 he’d paid to become an officer. In 1811, actions of 57th Foot soldiers at the Battle of Albuera earned considerable prestige for the regiment and the nickname, “Die-Hards”. MacGregor would make much of his association with his former unit even though the man had been gone by this time, for a year.

The now 23-year old MacGregor moved into a house rented by his mother in Edinburgh for a time where he adopted the title of “Colonel”, and took to referring to himself as “Sir Gregor MacGregor, Bart“.

The latter is a term of nobility equivalent to a Baronet, indicating chieftainship among the clan, Gregor.

Despite parading about in extravagant finery and a badge indicating membership in an elite order of Portuguese knights, Edinburgh society failed to take notice. So it was the MacGregors moved to London, where an entirely fanciful family tree filled with Dukes and Barons, had the desired affect.

Being the kept man of a wealthy wife has its advantages but disaster struck, in 1811.

Maria Bowater MacGregor died that December. With her went the income and the support of the influential Bowater family. Most especially Maria’s father the Admiral who wasted no time in punting his now-former son in law.

For Gregor MacGregor, options were limited. Too soon to announce an engagement with any sense of decency to another heiress, a return to soldiering made sense. But not with the home team. Not after that ignominious departure, back in 1809. So…what about South America?

Since Napoleon’s 1807 invasion, Spain was beset with problems, at home. Inspired by the United States’ recent independence from Great Britain, Spanish colonies from Peru to Mexico rose up.

Venezuela was embarked on a full scale revolution at this time when General Francisco de Miranda visited London. And didn’t the man cut a dashing figure through London society, with all that military finery.

It’s unclear whether the two met at this time but, for MacGregor, this was the answer. Gregor MacGregor arrived in Venezuela in April 1812 and headed directly for Caracas. There, Miranda was delighted to entertain such an accomplished British military officer…a member of the famous “Die hards”, no less.

With Maria dead a scant six months back at home, MacGregor married the heiress of a prominent Caracas family and a cousin of the revolutionary leader Simón Bolívar, Doña Josefa Antonia Andrea Aristeguieta y Lovera, that June.

Venezuelan independence was a forlorn hope. General Miranda was captured and carted off to Spain, destined to end his days in a prison cell, in Cádiz.

Now “Colonel” MacGregor skedaddled with Josefa to the Dutch island of Curacao and on to Jamaica before returning to South America and accepting the rank of Brigadier General in service to New Granada, Venezuela’s neighbor to the west.

MacGregor’s South American military career is best remembered for a 34-day nation-wide retreat pursued by two Royalist armies and a hare-brained invasion of Amelia Island in Florida, resulting in the short-lived “Republic of the Floridas”. Then there was that time under fire in Porto Bello Panama, when he paddled out to his ships on a log and sailed away, abandoning his men to a miserable life, in captivity.

“Part of the fort at Porto Bello, Panama, where MacGregor abandoned his troops led by Colonel William Rafter in April 1819” – H/T Wikipedia

Even then there were those who proclaimed the “New Xenophon”, a latter-day Hannibal come forth to liberate the new Carthage. One of the more perspicacious New Granadan officials took the opposite view: “I am sick and tired of this bluffer, or Quixote, or the devil knows what” he wrote in a letter to a friend. “This man can hardly serve us in New Granada without heaping ten thousand embarrassments upon us“.

In 1820, MacGregor happened upon the Mosquito Coast (aka “Miskito), a swampy and inhospitable wilderness spanning the coasts of modern day Nicaragua, and Honduras. There, MacGregor persuaded a leader of the indigenous tribes to grant him land, to found a colony.

Woodcut depicting the non-existent “Black River Port”, of Poyais

Besotted with dreams of empire, MacGregor told tales back on British soil, of the independent Kingdom of “Poyais”. A land of vast wealth and welcoming natives where a man might work for a day and provide for his family, for a week. A land where he himself was “Cazique” or Royal Prince, a prestigious honor bestowed by none other than King George Frederic Augustus himself, of the Mosquito Coast.

The Cazique of Poyais set about recruiting settlers and investors, raising a dizzying £200,000, a sum equivalent to nearly 12 million, today. Settlers were invited to exchange their pounds sterling for Poyais dollars, the notes conveniently printed by none other, than Gregor MacGregor.

Seventy settlers departed England in the Autumn of 1822 bound for the tropical paradise, of Poyais. Another 200 followed a few months later only to be met by desperately poor natives, the bedraggled survivors of the earlier expedition and two American hermits.

Some evacuated to Honduras while fifty returned to England arriving in October, 1823. Inexplicably, most refused to blame MacGregor for the disaster. Even so, with Poyais dominating the headlines, the Cazique wisely performed a disappearing act. Across the channel to France where he ran the very same scam, this time raising £300,000.

French authorities got wind of the racket, impounding the ship and trying MacGregor, for fraud. Still unrepentant, the man was acquitted while an “associate” was convicted, in his stead.

“La Force Prison in Paris, where MacGregor was detained from December 1825 to July 1826, before his trial and acquittal” H/T Wikipedia

Back in England, MacGregor was re-arrested but released in a week, without charges. He persuaded the firm of Thomas Jenkins & Company to issue a new bond in the amount of £300,000, many believing the earlier debacle to be the result of someone else’s embezzlement. There followed another bond issue, this time amounting to £800,000. It was generally regarded as a humbug by this time, not that anyone ever thought to doubt the existence of Poyais itself. It’s just that those previous bonds, had failed to generate a profit.

Gregor MacGregor continued to dine out on the same sting but, by this time, the Poyais fix had seen its best days. An attempted sale of a few land certificates in 1837 marks the final appearance of the Poyais con.

Left: Poyais stock certificate, part of an £800,000 loan package, 1827

Josefa died on this day in 1838 in Burghmuirhead near Edinburgh. MacGregor immediately departed for Venezuela where he applied for reinstatement of his former rank, complete with back pay and a pension, of course. With MacGregor’s contributions to the Venezuelan Republic having been “heroic with immense results”, the Scotsman’s petition was approved in March, 1839. He settled in Caracas and died peacefully at home in December, 1845. The Cazique of Poyais was buried with full military honors at Caracas Cathedral with Presidente Carlos Soublette leading the procession, marching behind MacGregor’s coffin followed by a phalanx of cabinet ministers and military chiefs.

Back in Scotland, the Glenorchy Kirkyard near Loch Katrine has served as the ancestral burial ground for the Gregor clan, since 1390. There you will find an “octagonal-shaped Gothic church with its square tower and pointed stained-glass windows [set] in a peaceful graveyard on top of a knoll” according to find-a-grave.com. There is no mention of Gregor MacGregor nor of the tropical paradise, of his invention.

April 26, 1859 Temporary Insanity

Think your “Representative” in Congress is a piece of work? I feel your pain. With apologies to Mr. A. Lincoln, “It is altogether fitting and proper” that the first use of the insanity defense in an American courtroom, just happened to be for the murder of a District Attorney, by a member of the United States Congress.

In case you think your own member of congress is a piece of work, he or she probably has nothing on Tammany Hall’s own, Daniel “Devil Dan” Edgar Sickles.  Sickles carried on an “indiscreet affair” for years, with well-known prostitute Fanny White.  No fan of Victorian era propriety, Sickles loved nothing more than to introduce Fanny to scandalized breakfast guests.  As a member of the New York assembly in 1847, Sickles earned a censure from the opposition Whig party, for bringing White into the assembly chamber.

He almost certainly arranged the mortgage on White’s brothel, using the name of his friend and future father-in-law Antonio Bagioli.  Sickles married Teresa Bagioli in 1852 when he was 33 and she 15 and pregnant, much to the chagrin of both families.  Fanny White was so angry she followed him to a hotel room and attacked him, with a riding whip.

dan-sickle-teresa-key

As personal secretary for the Ambassador to the Court of St. James and future US President James Buchanan, Sickles left his pregnant wife behind, bringing along Fanny White, instead.  Meeting Queen Victoria herself at Buckingham palace, Sickles introduced the prostitute as “Miss Bennett”, using the name of the hated editor of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett, Senior.  Queen Victoria never got wise to the ruse but Bennett was furious, at the use of his name.

Sickles_homicide

Carrying on with a known prostitute was one thing, but the Mrs. having an affair with a United States District Attorney, was quite another.

Following Teresa’s confession of her adultery with the US Attorney for the Washington District, Congressman Sickles shot and killed the man in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House.  The deceased was one Philip Barton Key, none other than the son of Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star-Spangled Banner”.

Sickles surrendered and went on trial for premeditated murder, obtaining the legal services of future Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.  By the time the defense rested, Washington newspapers were praising Sickles for “saving all the ladies of Washington from this rogue named Key”.

In the first use of the temporary insanity defense in US legal history, Dan Sickles was acquitted on April 26, 1859.  

I’ve long believed that social media has elevated us all to new heights of chicken excrement, but maybe not.  Sickles’ supporters and detractors alike worked themselves into a perfect snit, more exercised over the man’s public reconciliation with his wife than his murder charges.

As a “War Democrat”, a Democrat in favor of prosecuting the war with the Confederacy, Sickles became an important political ally to Republican President Lincoln, receiving a commission as Brigadier General despite having no previous combat experience.

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Sickles III Corp position, Gettysburg, day 2

On the first day of the Battle at Gettysburg, July 1, General Robert E. Lee came at the Union right. On day 2 he advanced against the union left, squarely aimed at General Sickles position, at the base of little Round top. Except, Devil Dan wasn’t there. In defiance of orders, Sickles abandoned a great gap in his lines and moved his 3rd corps a mile out front, taking a position in a peach orchard.

All but alone now, III Corps was hit from left, right and center and shattered, in the Confederate assault.  Sickles himself was hit by a cannon ball that mangled his right leg. With a saddle strap for a tourniquet he was toted off to III Corps hospital, grinning, propped up on an elbow and smoking a cigar.

Following Sickles’ bloodbath at the peach orchard, the frantic footrace to the undefended crest of Little Round Top and the savage hand to hand fighting that followed, was just about all that saved the Union army.

Following amputation, Sickles insisted on being transported to Washington DC where he arrived, on July 4. Gettysburg was by now a great Union victory, one for which Sickles set about immediately crafting the narrative of his own heroic contribution.

Sickles donated his leg to the newly founded Army Medical Museum in Washington, DC, along with a visiting card marked, “With the compliments of Major General D.E.S.” He visited his leg for several years thereafter, on the anniversary of the amputation.

Sickle, leg

Despite near-disastrous insubordination, Sickles was awarded the medal of honor and continued his service, through the end of the war. To his everlasting disgust he never did receive another battlefield command.

Sickles commanded several military districts during Reconstruction and served as U.S. Minister to Spain where he carried on with none other than the deposed Queen Isabella II. 

Eventually returning to the United States Congress, Sickles made important legislative contributions to the preservation of the Battlefield at Gettysburg.

Virtually every senior Union commander at Gettysburg is remembered, through his own monument. All except Dan Sickles. Once asked where his monument was, Congressman Sickles replied: “The whole park is my monument.”

May 4, 1838 King of Cons

“I am sick and tired of this bluffer, or Quixote, or the devil knows what.
This man can hardly serve us in New Granada without heaping ten thousand embarrassments upon us”

In January 1848, a carpenter and sawmill operator named James Marshall discovered gold on the American River near Coloma, California.  Some 300,000 flocked to the “Golden State” over the next few years from the United States and abroad, in search of fortune. For most, the “California Gold Rush” was tedious, dirty and difficult work.  For Jefferson Randolph “Soapy“ Smith and his merry  band of grifters, it was easier simply to fleece the miners out of their hard won gains through rigged poker games, scam three-card Monty and a catalog of petty deceits. 

Between 1869 and 1872, the German actress and amateur “banker” Adele Spitzeder became the wealthiest woman in Germany, handsomely rewarding suckers…err…investors, with cash derived from new marks. Sarah Emily Howe ran the same con throughout the 1870s and ’80s through the “Ladies Deposit Company”, of Boston.

In the 1920s, Italian swindler Carlo Ponzi elevated this “rob Peter to pay Paul” scheme to such heights as to have the scam, named after himself. In the classic Ponzi scheme, early investors are paid above-average returns with the proceeds coming from new investors.

The wisely skeptical among us may question the legitimacy of consistently spectacular returns on investment but the money is real. Until it isn’t, and then heaven help the person left without a chair, when the music stops. For investors with Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities company, the music stopped in 2008 with early losses estimated at $18 billion dollars.

For New York’s Tammany Hall, the machinations of William Magear “Boss” Tweed elevated political corruption to such dizzying heights that the cost to taxpayers of building a single courthouse, nearly doubled that of the Alaska purchase.

Yet in all the annals of humbuggery these are as nothing, a mere spark compared with the rising of a malign sun compared with the “Cazique of Poyais”, Gregor MacGregor, the man who “sold” a continent. Or at least, part of one.

Between 1807 and 1814, a coalition of Spain, the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Portugal went to war with the French forces of Napoleon Bonaparte for control of the Iberian peninsula.

Gregor MacGregor of the clan Gregor was a Scottish soldier and adventurer, an officer of the Peninsular war at the ripe old age of 16, the youngest age it was permitted to do so.

Having little interest in working the seven years required to become Captain, MacGregor prevailed upon the substantial dowry of his wealthy wife Maria Bowater and purchased the rank of Ensign and finally, Captain.

In 1810, a running feud with a superior officer caused MacGregor to resign his commission and receive a refund of the £1,350 he’d paid to become an officer. In 1811, actions of the 57th Foot Regiment at the Battle of Albuera earned considerable prestige for the regiment and the nickname, “Die-Hards”. MacGregor would make much of his association with his former unit even though the man had been gone by this time, for a year.

The now 23-year old MacGregor and Maria moved into a house rented by his mother in Edinburgh for a time where he adopted the title of “Colonel” and took to referring to himself as “Sir Gregor MacGregor, Bart“.

The latter is a term of nobility equivalent to a Baronet, indicating chieftainship among the clan, Gregor.

Despite parading about in extravagant finery and a badge indicating membership in an elite order of Portuguese knights, Edinburgh society failed to take notice. So it was the MacGregors moved to London, where an entirely fanciful family tree filled with Dukes and Barons, had the desired affect.

Being the kept man of a wealthy wife has its advantages but disaster struck, in 1811.

Maria Bowater MacGregor died that December. With her went the income and the support of the influential Bowater family. Most especially Maria’s father the Admiral who wasted no time in punting his now-former son in law.

For Gregor MacGregor, options were limited. Too soon to announce an engagement with any sense of decency to another heiress, a return to soldiering made sense. But not with the home team. Not after that ignominious departure, back in 1809. So…what about South America?

Since Napoleon’s 1807 invasion, Spain was beset with problems, at home. Inspired by the United States’ recent independence from Great Britain, Spanish colonies from Peru to Mexico rose up.

Venezuela was embarked on a full scale revolution at this time when General Francisco de Miranda visited London. And didn’t the man cut a dashing figure through London society, with all that military finery.

It’s unclear whether the two met at this time but, for MacGregor, this was the answer. Gregor MacGregor arrived in Venezuela in April 1812 and headed directly for Caracas. There, Miranda was delighted to entertain such an accomplished British military officer…a member of the famous “Die hards”, no less.

With Maria dead a scant six months back at home, MacGregor married the heiress of a prominent Caracas family and a cousin of the revolutionary leader Simón Bolívar, Doña Josefa Antonia Andrea Aristeguieta y Lovera, that June.

Venezuelan independence was a forlorn hope. General Miranda was captured and carted off to Spain, destined to end his days in a prison cell, in Cádiz.

Now “Colonel” MacGregor skedaddled with Josefa to the Dutch island of Curacao and on to Jamaica before returning to South America and accepting the rank of Brigadier General in service to New Granada, Venezuela’s neighbor to the west.

MacGregor’s South American military career is best remembered for a 34-day nation-wide retreat pursued by two Royalist armies and a hare-brained invasion of Amelia Island in Florida, resulting in the short-lived “Republic of the Floridas”. Then there was that time under fire in Porto Bello Panama, when he paddled out to his ships on a log and sailed away, abandoning his men to a miserable life, in captivity.

“Part of the fort at Porto Bello, Panama, where MacGregor abandoned his troops led by Colonel William Rafter in April 1819” – H/T Wikipedia

Even then there were those who proclaimed the “New Xenophon”, a latter-day Hannibal come forth to liberate the new Carthage. One of the more perspicacious New Granadan officials took the opposite view: “I am sick and tired of this bluffer, or Quixote, or the devil knows what” he wrote in a letter to a friend. “This man can hardly serve us in New Granada without heaping ten thousand embarrassments upon us“.

In 1820, MacGregor happened upon the Mosquito Coast (aka “Miskito), a swampy and inhospitable wilderness spanning the coasts of modern day Nicaragua, and Honduras. There, MacGregor persuaded a leader of the indigenous tribes to grant him land, to found a colony.

Woodcut depicting the non-existent “Black River Port”, of Poyais

Besotted with dreams of empire, MacGregor told tales back on British soil, of the independent Kingdom of “Poyais”. A land of vast wealth and welcoming natives where a man might work for a day and provide for his family, for a week. A land where he himself was “Cazique” or Royal Prince, a prestigious honor bestowed by none other than King George Frederic Augustus himself, of the Mosquito Coast.

The Cazique of Poyais set about recruiting settlers and investors, raising a dizzying £200,000, a sum equivalent to nearly 12 million, today. Settlers were invited to exchange their pounds sterling for Poyais dollars, the notes conveniently printed by none other, than Gregor MacGregor.

Seventy settlers departed England in the Autumn of 1822 bound for the tropical paradise, of Poyais. Another 200 followed a few months later only to be met by desperately poor natives, the bedraggled survivors of the earlier expedition and two American hermits.

Some evacuated to Honduras while fifty returned to England arriving in October, 1823. Inexplicably, most refused to blame MacGregor for the disaster. Even so, with Poyais dominating the headlines, the Cazique wisely performed a disappearing act. Across the channel to France where he ran the very same scam, this time raising £300,000.

French authorities got wind of the racket, impounding the ship and trying MacGregor, for fraud. Still unrepentant, the man was acquitted while an “associate” was convicted, in his stead.

“La Force Prison in Paris, where MacGregor was detained from December 1825 to July 1826, before his trial and acquittal” H/T Wikipedia

Back in England, MacGregor was re-arrested but released in a week, without charges. He persuaded the firm of Thomas Jenkins & Company to issue a new bond in the amount of £300,000, many believing the earlier debacle to be the result of someone else’s embezzlement. There followed another bond issue, this time amounting to £800,000. It was generally regarded as a humbug by this time, not that anyone ever thought to doubt the existence of Poyais itself. It’s just that those previous bonds, had failed to generate a profit.

Gregor MacGregor continued to dine out on the same sting but, by this time, the Poyais fix had seen its best days. An attempted sale of a few land certificates in 1837 marks the final appearance of the Poyais con.

Left: Poyais stock certificate, part of an £800,000 loan package, 1827

Josefa died on this day in 1838 in Burghmuirhead near Edinburgh. MacGregor immediately departed for Venezuela where he applied for reinstatement of his former rank, complete with back pay and a pension, of course. With MacGregor’s contributions to the Venezuelan Republic having been “heroic with immense results”, the Scotsman’s petition was approved in March, 1839. He settled in Caracas and died peacefully at home in December, 1845. The Cazique of Poyais was buried with full military honors at Caracas Cathedral with Presidente Carlos Soublette leading the procession, marching behind MacGregor’s coffin followed by a phalanx of cabinet ministers and military chiefs.

Back in Scotland, the Glenorchy Kirkyard near Loch Katrine has served as the ancestral burial ground for the Gregor clan, since 1390. There you will find an “octagonal-shaped Gothic church with its square tower and pointed stained-glass windows [set] in a peaceful graveyard on top of a knoll” according to find-a-grave.com. There is no mention of Gregor MacGregor nor the tropical paradise, he invented.

March 16, 1914 The Cailloux Affair

Most of France was riveted by the Caillaux affair in July 1914, ignorant of the European crisis barreling down on them like the four horsemen, of the apocalypse.


We heard a lot this past election, about “Left” and “Right”, “Liberal” and “Conservative”.

The terms have been with us a long time, originating in the early days of the French Revolution. In those days, National Assembly members supportive of the Monarchy sat on the President’s right.  Those favoring the Revolution, on the left. The right side of the seating arrangement began to thin out and disappeared altogether during the “Reign of Terror”, but re-formed with the restoration of the Monarchy, in 1814-1815. By this time, it wasn’t just the “Party of Order” on the right and the “Party of Movement” on the left. Now the terms began to describe nuances in political philosophy, as well.

100 years later, differences between the French left and right of the period, would be recognizable to American political observers of today.

Joseph Caillaux
Joseph Cailloux

Joseph Cailloux (rhymes with “bayou”) was a left wing politician, appointed prime minister of France in 1911. The man was indiscreet in his love life, even for a French politician. Back in 1907, Cailloux paraded about with a succession of mistresses, finally carrying on with one Henriette Raynouard, while both were married to someone else. They were both divorced by 1911 and that October, Henriette Raynouard became the second, Mrs Cailloux.

The right considered Cailloux to be far too accommodating with Germany, with whom many believed war to be all but inevitable. While serving under the administration of President Raymond Poincare in 1913, Cailloux became a vocal opponent of a bill to increase the length of mandatory military service from two years to three, intended to offset the French population disadvantage between France’s 40 million and Germany’s 70 million.

Gaston Calmette
Gaston Calmette

Gaston Calmette, editor of the leading Conservative newspaper Le Figaro, threatened to publicize love letters between the former Prime Minister and his second wife, written while both were still married for the first time.

Henriette Cailloux was not amused.

On March 16, 1914, Madame Cailloux took a taxi to the offices of Le Figaro. After being shown into Calmette’s office, the pair spoke only briefly, before Henriette withdrew the Browning .32 automatic, and fired six rounds at the editor. Two missed, but four were more than enough to do the job. Gaston Calmette was dead within six hours.

Henriette_Caillaux
Henriette Cailloux

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once said the next great European war would start with “some damn fool thing in the Balkans”. No one realized it at the time, but Bismarck got his damn fool thing on June 28, 1914, when a Serbian Nationalist assassinated the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne.

The July Crisis was a series of diplomatic mis-steps, culminating in the ultimatum from Austria-Hungary to the Kingdom of Serbia. Vienna, with tacit support from Berlin, made plans to punish Serbia for her role in the assassination, even as Russia mobilized armies in support of her Slavic ally.

Meanwhile, England and France looked the other way.  In Great Britain, officialdom was focused on yet another home rule crisis concerning Ireland, while all of France was distracted by the “Trial of the Century”.

affairecaillaux_thumb

Think of the OJ trial, only in this case the killer was a former First Lady. This one had everything: Left vs. Right, the fall of the powerful, and all the salacious details anyone could ask for. Most of France was riveted by the Caillaux affair in July 1914, ignorant of the European crisis barreling down on them like the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Madame Caillaux’s trial for the murder of Gaston Calmette began on July 20.

She was acquitted on July 28, the jury ruling the murder to be a “crime passionnel”.  A crime of passion. That same day, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

In the days that followed, the Czar would begin the mobilization of men and machines which would place Imperial Russia on a war footing. Imperial Germany invaded Belgium, in pursuit of the one-two punch strategy by which military planners sought first to defeat France, before turning to face the “Russian Steamroller”. England declared war in support of a 75-year old commitment to protect Belgian neutrality, a treaty obligation German diplomats dismissed as a “scrap of paper”.

Eleven million military service members and seven million civilians who were there in July 1914, wouldn’t be alive to see November 11, 1918.

January 22, 1957 The Mad Bomber

The American power grid operates 55,000 electrical substations, nationwide. 30 of them are critical to US infrastructure. Should terrorists or other mishap take out nine of them, the result would be nationwide blackout. For 18 months.

Seven years ago, a report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) described the possibility of terrorist attacks, against the American power grid. Excerpts leaked to the Wall Street Journal described some 55,000 electrical generating substations, nationwide. 30 of them are critical to US infrastructure. Should terrorists or other mishap take out nine of them, the result would be nationwide blackout. For 18 months.

With the exception of nuclear facilities, American power plants are neither hardened nor guarded against external attack, a fact borne out by a previously unreleased 2012 report, from the Department of Homeland Security.

The crippling affects of such a shutdown can only be imagined and I sincerely hope, someone in a position of authority is doing just that.

And yet, America’s first terror campaign aimed at the power grid came not from outside but from the industry, itself.

Ninety years ago, George Metesky lived with his two unmarried sisters in Waterbury, Connecticut. Every day this Lithuanian immigrant would drive to New York where he worked as a wiper, at the Consolidated Edison (ConEd) plant at Hell Gate. A wiper is the entry level employee at an electrical power plant, responsible for keeping equipment clean and in good working order.

In 1931, Metesky was knocked down by a boiler backfire and a rush of hot gases. Choking fumes had damaged his lungs he claimed, and he went out on sick leave. Benefits ran out after 26 weeks and Metesky was terminated. Applications for worker compensation were denied, because it had been too long.

Appeals were filed, each denied in a process that stretched out, until 1936. Metesky developed pneumonia and later tuberculosis, all the while nursing an incandescent hatred for ConEd, company attorneys and three former coworkers he believed had perjured themselves, during proceedings.

On November 16, 1940, a brass pipe packed with gunpowder was left in a wooden toolbox, on a window at the mid-town Manhattan ConEd plant. The bomb was found before it exploded, along with a note: CON EDISON CROOKS – THIS IS FOR YOU. F.P.

Police inquired about disgruntled employees or former customers of ConEd but the inquiry, led nowhere.

Modern pipe bomb mailed to former CIA director, John Brennan

Nearly a year came and went before another bomb was discovered at the ConEd headquarters at 4 Irving Place. This one was also found, before it exploded. There would be more bombs and others, weren’t so lucky.

Metesky, a former marine who served in the years following WW1, had worked as an electrical specialist and helped to wire the new Consulate, in Hong Kong.

Evidently, the man still still harbored patriotic feelings. Shortly after the outbreak of WW2, a note arrived at the New York Police Department: I WILL MAKE NO MORE BOMB UNITS FOR THE DURATION OF THE WAR – MY PATRIOTIC FEELINGS HAVE MADE ME DECIDE THIS – LATER I WILL BRING THE CON EDISON TO JUSTICE – THEY WILL PAY FOR THEIR DASTARDLY DEEDS . . .F.P.

True to his word, the bombing started once again, in 1951. Phone booths. Storage lockers. Public batrooms all over the city: Grand Central Terminal, Penn Station, Radio City Music Hall, the New York Public Library, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the RCA Building and the New York City Subway. Theater seats were slit open and bombs inserted, inside the upholstery. Metesky planted no fewer that 33 bombs of which 22, exploded. 15 people were injured.

Penn Station

With bombs no longer targeting ConEd itself, the letters continued: BOMBS WILL CONTINUE UNTIL THE CONSOLIDATED EDISON COMPANY IS BROUGHT TO JUSTICE FOR THEIR DASTARDLY ACTS AGAINST ME. I HAVE EXHAUSTED ALL OTHER MEANS. I INTEND WITH BOMBS TO CAUSE OTHERS TO CRY OUT FOR JUSTICE FOR ME.

Always in the same immaculately formed, capitalized block letters.

The NYPD formed a special task force to find the bomber, the New York Bomb Squad. The first of its kind. A reward of $26,000 was offered for information leading to arrest and conviction.

Phony bombs, fake leads and false bomb scares materialized by the hundreds making it near impossible to determine what information was real, and what was fake. A bomb went off on December 2, 1956 at the paramount movie Theater injuring six, one seriously. The next day police commissioner Stephen Kennedy announced “the greatest manhunt in the history of the police department”.

The largest city in the nation lived in terror.

HAVE YOU NOTICED THE BOMBS IN YOUR CITY – IF YOU ARE WORRIED, I AM SORRY – AND ALSO IF ANYONE IS INJURED. BUT IT CANNOT BE HELPED – FOR JUSTICE WILL BE SERVED. I AM NOT WELL, AND FOR THIS I WILL MAKE THE CON EDISON SORRY – YES, THEY WILL REGRET THEIR DASTARDLY DEEDS – I WILL BRING THEM BEFORE THE BAR OF JUSTICE – PUBLIC OPINION WILL CONDEMN THEM – FOR BEWARE, I WILL PLACE MORE UNITS UNDER THEATER SEATS IN THE NEAR FUTURE.

The notes were always signed, “F.P.”

In 1840, the writer Edgar Allen Poe introduced the super sleuth character C. Auguste Dupin in his novel, Murders in the Rue Morgue. Possessed of preternatural intelligence, Dupin seemed literally able to get into the mind, of the criminal subject. The character reappeared in The Mystery of Marie Rogêt and The Purloined Letter, laying the groundwork for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes character and a whole genre, of detective fiction.

Desperate, out of ideas, Captain John Cronin went to the office of a friend, psychiatrist and Assistant Commissioner at the New York Department of Mental Hygiene Dr. James Brussel. Brussel had worked with military intelligence during the war in Korea and now worked with the criminally insane. Inspired by Poe’s character Dupin and informed by real world experience, Brussel had a theory he called “reverse psychology”.

At first reluctant to test his theories in the real world, (people could DIE if he was wrong), Dr. Brussel at last consented to look into the case. Looking into patterns, letters and anything else he could glean about the mad bomber, Dr. Brussel came back in two hours with a surprisingly detailed profile.

Dr. Brussel believed the bomber to be a neat, proper man and exemplary employee. The suspect was punctual, methodical and sober. Reclusive, anti-social and never married, the suspect probably lived with an older female relative. When arrested he would likely be wearing a double-breasted suit. Last, Brussel believed the suspect to be an immigrant of eastern European ancestry and deduced that he lived in Connecticut, based on the state’s large Slavic population.

At first wanting to keep the profile confidential, police were persuaded by Dr. Brussel who insisted, the bomber couldn’t restrain himself from responding. Especially if the profile got anything wrong. The profile needed to be public.

On Christmas day 1956, every newspaper in New York published Dr. Brussel’s profile. New York Journal publisher Seymour Berkson took it further and appealed directly, to the bomber. Berkson promised a fair trial if the bomber would turn himself in. The tactic worked. The bomber responded. He would not turn himself in but he agreed to a “truce”, until march 1. Working with police and corresponding directly with the bomber, Berkson carefully crafted his language so as to draw out information while not provoking, the suspect. It worked.

The bomber revealed his hatred for ConEd. That he’d been injured in a workplace accident, and left permanently disabled. The man even specified the date of the accident. September 5, 1931.

Inexplicably, ConEd itself had been less than cooperative. First explaining that records were destroyed for employees terminated before 1940 the company hid for two years, behind “legal issues”. Now it was as if company executives, woke up.

ConEd clerk Alice Kelly pored through old paperwork until she found the words, in red: Injustice. Disability. Words regularly appearing in the notes of the mad bomber. Someone had written those words in red, on the file of George Metesky. Reading over the file Kelly found many words and phrases, echoed in the bomber’s letters.

On January 22, 1957, police appeared at the Waterbury home of George Metesky. He opened the door not in a double breasted suit but in his pajamas and a bathrobe: buttoned up, clean and neat, almost fussy. Just as the profile had predicted. The man lived with two older sisters.

On questioning, police were astonished at how much Metesky fit Brussel’s profile. They asked him what “F.P.” stood for. Fair play. Metesky readily admitted his guilt and led police to his garage. To his bomb-making materials.

A smiling George Metesky, the “Mad Bomber,” in 1957 in Waterbury, Connecticut.

The grand jury deliberated over 47 counts as Metesky himself was evaluated, for competence. He was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, later judged incompetent to stand trial and remanded to the custody of the Matteawan Asylum for the Criminally Insane.

The Mad bomber was declared harmless in 1973 and, having served 2/3rds of his sentence, was released to live out the rest of his life, in Connecticut. He died in 1994, at the age of 90.

Dr. Brussel became a much-sought after speaker and went on to write a book. Today the man’s work is considered seminal to modern techniques of criminal profiling. Brussel went to visit Metesky once in Matteawan and found the man calm, smiling and condescending. He explained that he never did want to kill anyone. Only to cause injury.

January 15, 1987 An Innocent Man

Wrongful convictions happen for many reasons. Prosecutors hide evidence. Incompetent defense counsel. Mistaken identity and ulterior motives, on the part of witnesses.

Were there a catalog of lies, there may be none more egregious than the false accusation.  No matter how he tries, the victim of such a falsehood will never prove a negative.

Wrongful convictions happen for many reasons. Prosecutors hide evidence. Incompetent defense counsel. Mistaken identity and ulterior motives, on the part of witnesses.

Interior views of traditional prison

Accurate numbers are all but impossible to determine, but we can make an educated guess. A study conducted by Ohio State University surveyed 188 judges, prosecutors, public defenders, sheriffs and police chiefs. The survey found that 75% of respondents believed that more than zero and less than 1 percent of convictions, were unjust. Taking the middle number of .5 percent and a rough estimate of 195,000 convictions per year works out to 9,750 wrongful convictions. Every year. (H/T Housley Law blog for these statistics, which states there have been 1,962 exonerations nationwide, since 1989).

Feel free to make any assumptions you like concerning these numbers but one thing is sure. To assume there are no wrongful convictions is to believe that government does everything right, all of the time.

Graduating from Allegheny College in 1961, Robert Budd Dwyer set his sights on elective office.  The future looked bright.

First elected State Rep in 1964, the Pennsylvania Republican ran successfully for state Senate in 1970 and then for state-wide office, elected Treasurer, in 1980.

In 1986, Pennsylvania officials discovered that state employees had overpaid millions in FICA taxes, due to errors in state withholding. Several accounting firms bid for the contract to determine, how much compensation was due each employee. The contract was awarded to California based Computer Technology Associates (CTA), owned by Harrisburg native, John Torquato Jr.

Governor Dick Thornburg received an anonymous memo a few weeks later, alleging bribery in the award of the CTA contract. R. Budd Dwyer was named as one of the people receiving kickbacks in the deal along with Republican committee member Bob Asher, and CTA attorney William ‘Bill’ Smith.

Anonymous accusations are such a cowardly tactic.

No money ever changed hands. The CTA contract was canceled two months after it was signed. Even so, prosecutors pushed the case for everything it was worth.

Most criminal cases end in plea deals, and not in trials. Smith pleaded guilty to offering Dwyer and Asher $300,000 in bribes and received a reduced sentence. Torquato also pleaded guilty and received a sentence, of 4 years. Adamantly proclaiming his innocence, Budd Dwyer refused a plea deal: a guilty plea on one count and a sentence, of five years. Dwyer was adamant, and demanded a trial. “I absolutely did nothing wrong”.

On December 18, 1986, Budd Dwyer was found guilty. Conspiracy, mail fraud, perjury and interstate transportation in aid of racketeering. Eleven counts.

Judge Malcolm Muir hinted at a sentence, of 55 years. Many believe the man wanted to make an example, of Budd Dwyer. Sentencing was scheduled for January 23, 1987.

On December 15, 1987, Dwyer held a meeting at his home with press secretary James Horshock, and Deputy Treasurer Don Johnson. With a week to go before sentencing, Dwyer wanted to make a statement, to the press.

Budd Dwyer addresses the press on January 22, 1987. It would be his last press conference.

The meeting was scheduled for January 22, the day before sentencing.

In a rambling speech before the press, R. Budd Dwyer proclaimed his innocence. He said how much he’d enjoyed his life with his wife Joanne and the couple’s kids, Rob and Dyan. He reflected on what a bright future it could have been.

“I am going to die in office” he said, “in an effort to ‘…see if the shame[-ful] facts, spread out in all their shame, will not burn through our civic shamelessness and set fire to American pride.’ Please tell my story on every radio and television station and in every newspaper and magazine in the U.S.

Please leave immediately if you have a weak stomach or mind since I don’t want to cause physical or mental distress.

Joanne, Rob, DeeDee [sic] – I love you! Thank you for making my life so happy. Goodbye to you all on the count of 3. Please make sure that the sacrifice of my life is not in vain.”

Pandemonium broke out as R. Budd Dwyer took out a briefcase, and a .357 magnum pistol. He put the gun in his mouth and blew his brains out.

You can find the video online if you want, it was all on camera. I’m not going to show it.

Joanne never for a moment doubted her husband’s innocence but she never forgave herself for failing to notice, how the man was struggling. She took heavily to drink, perhaps to self-medicate and died in 2009, an alcoholic.

Former chair of the Dauphin County Republican Committee Bill Smith has made contradictory statements under oath and expressed regret for lying, and the role it played in Dwyer’s death.

Subsequent court proceedings never did overturn Dwyer’s conviction, but the Treasurer was able to provide for his family. Having died in office, Dwyer’s widow Jo received full survivor’s benefits of $1.28 million.

Dyan “DeeDee”, now a married mother of two, has lived a private life. Rob, now a realtor in Arizona, has been quite public about his own difficulties, in dealing with his father’s suicide. ‘I’d tell anyone thinking about suicide’ he said, ‘that the scars and the emotional toll that it leaves on those left behind, is immense.

January 10, 1927 Poisoned Hooch

Not to be defied, federal officials poisoned industrial alcohol until the very last day, running up the tab to no fewer than 10,000 dead Americans. The government didn’t even pretend not to know, what was going on.


A French proverb comes down to us from 1742, attributed to one François de Charette: “On ne fait pas d’omelette sans casser des oeufs”. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw was a big fan of socialism in his day and an enthusiastic supporter of the gulags, of Josef Stalin.“[The] unfortunate Commissar” he wrote, must shoot his own workers “so that he might the more impressively ask the rest of the staff whether they yet grasped the fact that orders are meant to be executed.”. 

Yikes

Connoisseurs of the animated series South Park will remember the Prime Directive of Mr. Garrison’s favorite third grader, Eric Cartman.  “You will respect my authoritah

All well and good for a cartoon.  Few would have guessed the real-world Federal Government would poison its own citizens. To enforce its own authoritah.

The Eighteenth Amendment establishing national prohibition of intoxicating liquors was passed out of Congress on December 17, 1917 and sent to the states, for ratification. The  “Volstead” act, so named for Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Andrew Volstead, was enacted to carry out the will of congress.

At last ratified in January 1919, “Prohibition” went into effect at midnight, January 16, 1920. For thirteen years it was illegal to import, export, transport or sell intoxicating liquor, wine or beer in the United States.Prohibition-midnight-e1568752688531-1024x511 (1).jpg“Industrial alcohol” such as solvents, polishes and fuels were “denatured” and rendered distasteful by the addition of dyes and chemicals.  The problem was, it wasn’t long before bootleggers figured out how to “renature” the stuff.

The Treasury Department, in charge of enforcement at that time, estimated that over 60 million gallons of industrial alcohol were stolen during Prohibition.

war-propaganda

Not to be defied, the federal government upped the ante.  The Parasite Leviathan, was not to be defied.

By the end of 1926, denaturing processes were reformulated with the introduction of known poisons such as kerosene, gasoline, iodine, zinc, nicotine, formaldehyde, chloroform, camphor, quinine and acetone.

Treasury officials went so far as to impose a requirement of no less than 10% by volume of methanol, a virulent toxin used in anti-freeze.

You will respect my authoritah.

You can renature this stuff ’til the cows come home.  It will kill you.

Sixty people wound up at New York’s Bellevue Hospital on Christmas eve 1926, desperately ill from contaminated alcohol.  Eight of them died.  Within two days, the death toll stood at thirty-one.  The number soared to 400 by New Year’s Day , with no end in sight.

copper-still
A copper still and bucket, like those used in the creation and renaturing of alcohol at home. H’T allthatsinteresting.com, and Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

Many who didn’t die, probably wished they had. Holiday revelers experienced hallucinations, uncontrollable vomiting, even blindness.

TIME Magazine reported a doubling in toxicity levels in the January 10, 1927 issue, compared with the old method:  “The new formula included “4 parts methanol (wood alcohol), 2.25 parts pyridine bases, 0.5 parts benzene to 100 parts ethyl alcohol”. TIME noted, “Three ordinary drinks of this may cause blindness. (In case you didn’t guess, “blind drink” isn’t just a figure of speech).”

To paraphrase Wikipedia, Pyridine is a highly flammable chemical structurally related to benzene, with the unpleasant smell of dead fish.

New York medical examiner Charles Norris was quick to understand the problem and organized a press conference to warn of the danger. “The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol.  Yet it continues its poisoning processes, heedless of the fact that people determined to drink are daily absorbing that poison. Knowing this to be true, the United States government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes, although it cannot be held legally responsible.”

Norris pointed out that the poorest people of the city, were most likely to be victims: “Those who cannot afford expensive protection and deal in low-grade stuff”.

The towering sanctimony of the other side, is hard to believe.  Teetotalers argued the dead had “brought it on themselves”.  Long-time leader of the anti-saloon league Wayne Wheeler proclaimed “The Government is under no obligation to furnish the people with alcohol that is drinkable when the Constitution prohibits it. The person who drinks this industrial alcohol is a deliberate suicide.”

You will respect my Authoritah.

prohibition_2

In its thirteen years of existence, Prohibition was an unmitigated disaster.  Portable stills went on sale within a week of enactment and organized smuggling was quick to follow. California grape growers increased acreage by over 700% over the first five years, selling dry blocks of grapes as “bricks of Rhine” or “blocks of Port”. The mayor of New York City himself sent instructions to his constituents, on how to make wine.

Smuggling operations became widespread as cars were souped up to outrun “the law”. This lead in time to competitive car racing, beginning on the streets and back roads and later moving to dedicated race tracks. It’s why we have NASCAR, today.

alcohol_poison_passed

Organized crime muscled up to become vastly more powerful, due to the influx of enormous sums of cash. The corruption of public officials was a national scandal.

Gaining convictions for breaking a law everyone hated became increasingly difficult. The first 4,000 prohibition-related arrests resulted in only six convictions and not a single jail sentence.

It’s hard to compare alcohol consumption rates before and during prohibition but, if death by cirrhosis of the liver is any indication, alcohol consumption never went down by more than 10 to 20 per cent.

In the end, even John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a lifelong teetotaler who contributed $350,000 to the Anti-Saloon League, had to announce support for repeal.

On December 5, 1933, the state of Utah triggered the magic 2/3rds requirement to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment, repealing the Eighteenth and voiding the Volstead Act, returning control over alcohol policy to the states.

Not to be defied, federal officials poisoned industrial alcohol until the very last day, running up the tab to no fewer than 10,000 dead Americans.   The government didn’t even pretend not to know, what was going on.

You will respect my authoritah!

Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Seymour Lowman had the last word among those who would tell you, “I’m from the government.   I’m here to help”.  If deliberately poisoned alcohol resulted in a more sober nation Lowman opined, then “a good job will have been done”.

November 24, 1917 Anarchy

The 1917 incident accounted for the largest single-incident loss of life in the history of United States law enforcement, a record which would stand until September 11, 2001.


On the morning of November 24, 1917, 10-year-old Josie Spicciatti found a package in a narrow passage next to St. Anne’s Italian Evangelical Church in Milwaukee. She was the daughter of the cleaning lady, and apparently recognized it as a bomb.  She brought it into the church anyway, and went to work.

Only that afternoon did she go looking for Maude Richter, a social worker at the church. At about 4:00, Maude dragged the 20-pound bomb into the church basement, banging it on the steps all the way down. She later told a reporter, “I saw the vial, which contained a brown fluid” (it was sulfuric acid), “and took it out. In the hole, where it had been placed, was a yellow substance like powder.”

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She then decided that things should be left as they’d been found, so she carefully reassembled the device and called Sam Mazzone, the janitor, to take the bomb to the police station. Mazzone explained to Desk Sergeant Henry Deckert that the bomb may be linked to a near riot which had erupted several months earlier, killing two parishioners and wounding 5, including two police officers.

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Policemen on duty were told there was a bomb in the station, but it seems that few took it seriously. Captain of Detectives John Sullivan remarked “It looked like a big dinner pail and innocent enough.”

Sergeant Deckert took the bomb into the office of Lieutenant Robert Flood, saying, “Look at the new kind of bomb I’ve got.” “Get that thing out of here”, said Flood. “Don’t fool around with anything like that!” Deckert then brought the bomb into the squad assembly room, where a group of detectives gathered to examine the device.

That’s when the thing went off.

Eight officers were killed in a fraction of a second as was Catherine Walker, who had come to the station to file a complaint against her boyfriend. Operator Edward Spindler was working the switchboard on the second floor. Shrapnel blasted through the floor, entering his body at the waist and exiting through his head, killing him instantly.

One detective’s wedding band was blown from his finger. A shoe hung from the ceiling. A hat hung on a shard of glass.  One detective’s watch was found, face up on a windowsill, the hands had stopped at 7:33PM. Sergeant Deckert’s body was never found. He was identified only by the stripe of his uniform trousers leg.

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Luigi Galleani

A group led by Italian Anarcho-Communist Luigi Galleani was suspected of placing the bomb, though no one was ever charged with the crime.

Many years later, interviews with surviving members of the anarchist organization indicated that Mario Buda, chief bomb maker for the Galleanists, may have constructed the Milwaukee device. The bomb had been intended for the small Italian church and its outspoken and patriotic pastor, Reverend August Giuliani.

The Milwaukee police station bombing accounted for the largest single-incident loss of life in the history of United States law enforcement, a record which would stand until September 11, 2001.