February 22, 1943 The Mighty Atom

With eighteen in the plaintiffs dock and one small defendant.  The judge asked Greenstein about the fight.  “It wasn’t a fight” he said, “It was a  pleasure”.  The case was dismissed.

Yosselle “Joseph” Greenstein was born on January 2, 1893, the son of the poorest family in Suvalk, Poland. A small, sickly child with chronic asthma, doctors believed he suffered from the same tuberculosis, which had killed his father.

“Joe” tried sneaking into the Issakoff Brother’s Circus at fourteen, receiving a savage beating for his trouble, left bleeding and barely conscious in a muddy alley.

The circus’ strongman “Champion Volanko” saw the poor, scrawny kid trying to crawl home, and took pity.  Volanko brought the boy into his trailer and, as the two talked, became impressed with his determination. This was an old-school strength athlete, capable of performing a military press with baskets full of women, in each hand. He offered to teach the boy his techniques.  So it was that Joe Greenstein ran away with a traveling circus.

Eighteen months later, he was a changed man.  Greenstein took up wrestling and married, while still a teenager.

Maimon_Home
“Home at last by Moshe Maimon. The house’s occupants return when it is safe, to find the house thoroughly looted. A rabbi is saying Kaddish for a member of the household who was killed”. H/T Wikipedia

In those days, Poland was a nation in name only, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Russian Empire.  Tsarist Russia was engulfed in a paroxysm of anti-Jewish violence in the pre-war years, riots resulting in death and injury, by the tens of thousands.  The New York Times reported on one such “pogrom”, in 1903:

The anti-Jewish riots in Kishinev, Bessarabia [modern Moldova], are worse than the censor will permit to publish…The cry “Kill the Jews”, was taken up all over the city…Babies were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob. The local police made no attempt to check the reign of terror. At sunset the streets were piled with corpses and wounded. Those who could make their escape fled in terror, and the city is now practically deserted of Jews.

This place had nothing for a young Jewish family.  Joseph and Leah Greenstein emigrated to the United States and made a home in Galveston Texas.

jackjohnson
Jack Johnson

Joe worked on the docks and oil fields of Galveston, or  laying railroad tracks and pounding spikes, by hand.  He was wrestling professionally by this time under the name “Kid Greenstein”, and good at it, too.  He met Jack Johnson who taught him some fighting techniques, the first black athlete to break the color barrier to become the heavyweight champion of the world, in 1908.

A local Texas man became obsessed with Leah Greenstein in 1914 and shot her husband, between the eyes.  The bullet struck with enough force to flatten against his forehead, but did not penetrate.  Joe left the hospital that same day, convinced his physical conditioning and mental discipline, had saved his life.

mightyatom2
Joseph Greenstein, the Mighty Atom

Thus began the career of one of the greatest strongmen, in history.  He was “The Mighty Atom”, able to break up to three chains, by expanding his chest.  Only 5’4″-inches tall, he could bend horseshoes and drive nails with his bare hands.  He could pull a fire truck with his hair, and change a tire with no tools. Not even a jack.

On September 29, 1928 the headlines read “The Mighty Atom – Super Strong Man Pits Brawn Against Plane, Wins!” He had held an aircraft on the ground with his hair – the feat was documented by Ripley’s “Believe it or Not”.

In 1936, a dispute with six dock workers, led to a brawl.  The story ran in all the New York papers – “Little Giant Knocks Out Six’

Following the rise of Adolf Hitler’s “National Socialist” party in 1933, some German Americans formed groups, patterned after the Nazi Party in Germany.  These people had few connections to the “Thousand-Year Reich” and received little support from the broader German American community, yet they wore uniforms and toted swastikas and preached the same hate for the Jews, as the “National Socialist German Workers’ Party”.  The most notorious of these, was the “German American Bund”.

American_Nazis (2)
“German American Bund Camp youth salute Hindenburg in Griggstown, New Jersey”. H/T rarehistoricphotos.com

Though the claim was believed to be exaggerated, Congressman Martin Dies, Jr. of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) estimated German-American Bund membership, at 430,000, in 1938.

The Mighty Atom was in New York that year when he passed a building, about to host a Nazi rally.  One sign high on the wall read “No Jews or Dogs Allowed”.  Yosselle Greenstein had left that garbage behind in the old country.  He wasn’t about to tolerate it here.

He bought a ladder, and climbed up and tore the thing down.  Twenty streamed out of the building, bent on beating the man into giblets.  When it was over, eighteen had been sent to the hospital.

the_mighty_atom_pulls_firetruck_with_hair
Pulling a fire truck, Mighty Atom style

A few weeks later, the combatants were in court.  Eighteen in the plaintiffs dock, and one small defendant.  The judge asked Greenstein about the fight.  “It wasn’t a fight” he said, “It was a  pleasure”.  The case was dismissed.

War descended over Europe and with it the systematic extermination of the infirm.  The Jew.  The Roma.  The “Untermenschen“.

The grotesque sham trials conducted by Judge-President Roland Feisler made short work of any who would oppose “Der Fuhrer”.  Today, the “People’s Court” of Nazi Germany is best remembered in the wake of the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler.  In reality, this mockery of justice had been around for ten years, handing out death sentences, by the hundreds.

There were Germans throughout the war who objected to the murder of millions, but theirs was a forlorn hope.  Clergymen Dietrich Bonhoeffer would state “the ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.” For his opposition to the Reich, Bonhoeffer would pay with his life.

This video give a good idea about “justice” in Roland Feisler’s court.

Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, great grand-nephew of the famous Helmut von Moltke would lead 28 dissidents of the “Kreisau Circle”, against this “outrage of the Christian conscience.” These too would pay with their lives.

The most successful opposition came from the universities of Munich, with connections in Berlin, Hamburg, Stuttgart and Vienna. These were a surprise to Nazi leaders, as Universities had been stalwart supporters of Nazi ideology. The “White Rose” would rise in the wake of the disastrous Battle of Stalingrad, producing leaflets, handbills and anti-Nazi graffiti from the earliest days of 1943.

These too were found out, Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl, and Christoph Probst made to stand trial before judge Feisler’s Court on February 22, 1943. All were sentenced to death and guillotined the same day. The last member to be executed was Hans Conrad Leipelt on January 29, 1945.

31SPOTLI-superJumbo

Back at home, Joseph Greenstein performed for war bond drives, always without compensation.  The Mighty Atom continued to perform feats of strength well into his eighties, and taught fighting techniques to the New York Police department, Israeli Defence Force and others.

The Mighty Atom portraitDuring his last public performance given before a sell-out crowd at Madison Square Garden on May 11, 1977, the Mighty Atom wore a leather vest, emblazoned with a golden star of David.

When he was through, Greenstein took a moment to wish his great-grandchild a happy first birthday.

The man could still bend horseshoes and drive nails with his hands.

The mighty Atom succumbed to cancer on October 8, 1977.

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.  In 2014, Joe’s son Mike appeared on America’s Got Talent. pulling a 3500-pound car with his teeth and wearing a T-shirt promoting “Mighty Atom & Sons (1940).  He was 93.

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.
Advertisements

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.”

Treaty_of_Penn_with_Indians_by_Benjamin_West
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.

Boss_Tweed
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.

Nast-Tammany_crop
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.

Tammany_Hall_Union_Square
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!

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.

June 15 1904 A Community, no More

The General Slocum disaster killed fewer than one per cent of the overall population of Little Germany, yet these were the women and children of some of the community’s most established families.  

In the first full century of American independence, three great waves of European and later Asian immigrants left their homes in the ‘old country’, headed for a life in the new world.

The-Scotch-Irish-the-Eighteenth-Century-Irish-Diaspora-1Starvation, shipwreck and disease killed no fewer than 1 in 10 during the period 1790 – 1820, without any so much as setting foot in the new world. And still they came.

The largest non-English speaking minority were the ethnic Germans, escaping economic hardship and in search of political freedom.  At the time of the Civil War, nearly one-quarter of all Union troops were German Americans, some 45% of whom were born in Europe.

German migration rose faster than any other immigrant group through the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th, many in pursuit of agricultural opportunity while others settled in major cities such as New York and Philadelphia.

Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany”, occupied some 400 blocks on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in what is now the East Village. “Dutchtown”, as contemporary non-Germans called the area, was home to New York’s German immigrant community since the 1840s, when they first began to arrive in significant numbers. By 1855, New York had the largest ethnically German community in the world, save for Berlin and Vienna.

Little Germany

June 15, 1904 dawned bright and beautiful on Little Germany, a beautiful late spring morning when the sidewheel Passenger Steamboat General Slocum left the dock and steamed into the East River.

PS General Slocum was on a charter this day, carrying German-American families on an outing from St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on a harbor cruise and picnic. Over a thousand tickets were sold, not counting 300+ children who were sailing for free.

general_slocum_1

There were 1,342 people on board, mostly women and children, including band, crew and catering staff.

The fire probably started when someone tossed a cigarette or match into the forward section lamp room. The flames spread quickly, fueled by lamp oil and oily rags.  A 12-year old boy first reported the fire, but the Captain didn’t believe him.  The fire was first noticed at around 10:00am.

The ships’ operators had been woefully lax in maintaining safety equipment. Now it began to show. Fire hoses stored in the sun for years were uncoiled, only to break into rotten bits in the hands of the crew. Life preservers manufactured in 1891 had hung unprotected in the sun for 13 years, their canvas covers splitting apart pouring useless cork powder onto the floor. Survivors reported inaccessible life boats, wired and painted into place.

slo-345x180

Crew members reported to Captain William van Schaick that the blaze “could not be conquered.” It was “like trying to put out hell itself.” The captain ran full steam into the wind trying to make it to the 134th Street Pier, but a tug boat waved them off, fearing the flames would spread to nearby buildings.

The wind and the speed of the ship itself whipped the flames into an inferno as Captain van Schaick changed course for North Brother Island, just off the Bronx’ shore.
Many jumped overboard to escape the inferno, but the heavy women’s clothing of the era quickly pulled them under.

Slocum 1

Desperate mothers put useless life jackets on children and threw them overboard, only to watch in horror as they sank. One man, fully engulfed in flames, jumped screaming over the side, only to be swallowed whole by the massive paddle wheel.

One woman gave birth in the confusion, and then jumped overboard with her newborn to escape the flames. They both drowned.

A few small boats were successful in pulling alongside in the Hell’s Gate part of the harbor, but navigation was difficult due to the number of corpses already bobbing in the waves.

general-slocum-disaster

Holding his station despite the inferno, Captain van Schaick permanently lost sight in one eye and his feet were badly burned by the time he ran the Slocum aground at Brother Island.

Patients and staff at the local hospital formed a human chain to pull survivors to shore as they jumped into shallow water.

1,021 passengers and crew either burned to death, or drowned. It was the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster, in American history.

220px-Wotherspoon_01
Adella Liebenow

There were only 321 survivors.

The youngest survivor of the disaster was six-month-old Adella Liebenow. The following year at the age of one, Liebenow unveiled a memorial statue to the disaster which had killed her two sisters and permanently disfigured her mother.

The New York Times reported “Ten thousand persons saw through their tears a baby with a doll tucked under her arm unveil the monument to the unidentified dead of the Slocum disaster yesterday afternoon in the Lutheran Cemetery, Middle Village, L.I.”

Both of Liebenow’s sisters were among the unidentified dead.

The General Slocum disaster killed fewer than one per cent of the overall population of Little Germany, yet these were the women and children of some of the community’s most established families.

There were more than a few suicides.  Mutual recriminations devoured much of a once-clannish community, as the men began to move away.  2600326453_0eae4732c8

There was no longer anything for them, in that place.

Anti-German sentiment engendered by WW1 finished what the General Slocum disaster, had begun. Soon, New York’s German-immigrant community, was no more.

Deep inside the East Village, amidst the hipsters and the poets’ cafes of “Alphabet City”, stands a forgotten memorial.  A 9′ stele erected in Tompkins Square Park, sculpted from pink Tennessee Marble. The relief sculpture shows two children, beside them are inscribed these words: “They were Earth’s purest children, young and fair.

Once the youngest survivor of the disaster, Adella (Liebenow) Wotherspoon passed away in 2004, at the age of 100, the oldest survivor of the deadliest disaster in New York history.  Until September 11, 2001.

 

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.