GUEST BLOGGER: Diana Parsell on Eliza Scidmore, the woman behind the planting of Washington’s cherry trees in 1912.

Japanese girls in a tea ceremony, a hand-colored photo by Eliza Scidmore from early 1900s, 
included in an exhibit of her work on display at the National Geographic Society in Washington through Labor Day.

This year’s Cherry Blossom Festival is underway in Washington, D.C., and it’s a special one because March 27 marks 100 years since the first trees from Japan were planted in Potomac Park. The anniversary has brought attention to a long-overlooked woman who played a key role in that historic event: Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore.

It was Eliza’s suggestion to First Lady Helen Taft in 1909 that set the events in motion. Several times over many years Eliza had approached federal park officials to propose a park of cherry trees along the Potomac, much like those she saw during her travels in Japan. She envisioned people in Washington coming together in the springtime in a spirit of goodwill, as the Japanese did at their hanami, or blossom-viewing parties. Mrs. Taft took up the idea because she too had seen cherry trees flowering in Japan and understood what a lovely sight they were.

If Google had existed a century ago, a search for the name “Eliza Scidmore” would have brought hundreds of hits. A prolific journalist, the author of eight books, a popular lecturer and a world traveler, she was so well known that newspapers regularly noted the comings and goings of “Miss Scidmore.”

I stumbled upon her several years ago through a reprint of her 1899 travelogue on Java. Surprised to learn the author (“E.R. Scidmore”) was a woman, I headed to the Library of Congress to find out more. Her remarkable list of achievements astonished me.

Flowering cherries along the Sumida River in Tokyo, known as Mukojima, circa 1897. 
Eliza Scidmore wanted to create a “Mukojima on the Potomac.”

She broke the “glass ceiling” long before the term was invented, when elected the first female board member of the National Geographic Society. For nearly two decades she contributed to National Geographic as editor, writer and photographer. The Society is now displaying two dozen of her hand-colored photos as part of an exhibit running to September.

Eliza Scidmore was one of the growing number of women in the late 19th century who followed their own course, fashioning an independent life outside the normal Victorian template of marriage and motherhood.

Eliza Scidmore, probably in her late 30s or early 40s.


She was born in 1856 in Clinton, Iowa, but spent part of her early childhood in Madison, Wisc., among her mother’s progressive-minded family. Life changed dramatically when her parents split after the outbreak of the Civil War. Her father went West to join a cavalry unit; her mother took young “Lillie,” as she was called, and her older brother George to live in Washington, D.C.

Elizabeth Catherine Scidmore ran a boarding house and sent her children to private schools. Eliza attended Oberlin College for two years. George became a lawyer and U.S. consular official. Eliza and Mrs. Scidmore, a socially ambitious woman, became regulars at official teas and receptions around town.

Eliza’s knowledge of Washington society opened doors to journalism. She started as a society reporter and became a correspondent for many newspapers and magazines. Much of her writing shows a fluidity of style, strong powers of description and very thorough research, characteristics that earned her wide respect for her work.

In the mid-1880s, while still in her 20s, she went to frontier Alaska on a mail steamer. (See video about the trip, below.) A book about that experience launched her 40-year career as a travel writer. She developed in particular a love of Japan, where her brother served most of his diplomatic career. Eliza, her brother and her mother are all interred at a cemetery in Yokohama.

She remains an intriguing figure to me in part because she achieved all she did largely through the force of her own talent and determination, without great wealth ― or a husband or father ― to back her up. She straddled different worlds with ease and self-assurance: moving in the worlds of eminent people such as John Muir, the Tafts and Alexander Graham Bell, but also living out of hotel rooms and modest apartments, packing and unpacking steamer trunks for her constant life on the road.

A woman of strong convictions, she spoke out passionately against anti-Japanese sentiment in Congress and on the West Coast. Her fierce loyalty to Japan led the Japanese government to award her several honors. Late in life she became a champion of the International Red Cross and the League of Nations. In 1919, a year before women got the vote, the precursor of George Washington University awarded Eliza Scidmore an honorary doctorate.

She was, I believe, a woman guided heavily by inner-directed values, someone who found an affinity with Japanese culture for its emphasis on simple living, artistic achievement and spiritual connection with nature. Though not an artist herself in the traditional sense, I think she achieved the ultimate creative act: self-invention.

Diana Parsell, an independent writer in Washington, D.C., is working on a biography of Eliza Scidmore. Visit her website on the project at

GUEST BLOGGER: Phil Olsson on attacking Iran. Is the USA Being Played the Fool?

Iran’s President Ahmadinejad visits the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility south of Tehran. AP

 In their recent Opinion piece in the February 27, 2012 Wall Street Journal, Frederick Kagan and Maseh Zariif postulate that “Americans are being played for fools by Iran-and fooling themselves,” asserting “There is no case to be made that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapons capability.” While expressly not recommending a military strike on the Iranian nuclear program, the authors challenge “those who oppose military action against Iran under any circumstances [to] say so, and [to] accept the consequences of that statement.”  (See Israel’s attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor, Osirak 1981. A model for Iran 2012?  February 9, 2012.)

Whether or not Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, there is a strong case that Iran is pursuing Osama bin Laden’s game of solidifying political support by provoking US military threats, economic sanctions and bluster.  Where Americans are actually being played the fool is by not realizing that this kind of provoked polarization creates much larger risks than an Iranian nuclear weapon.  The difficult challenge is to reorient American foreign policy to address this polarization trap

There are a number of reasons not to take military action against Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons capability.

First, nuclear weapons are relatively useless to Iran except to the extent they provoke an American reaction which enhances Iran’s prestige.

Second, Islamic nuclear weapons from Iran (or Pakistan) are highly unlikely to be targeted against the holy places of Jerusalem or the parts of Israel with significant Arab and Palestinian populations.

Third, an American strike against Iran’s nuclear capabilities is likely to further the alienation of Pakistan and make Pakistan’s weapons available to Iran.

Huge crowd in Teheran protests allleged election fraud in August 2009.

Fourth, Iran is unlikely to achieve a first strike capability which would provide the confidence to attack another nuclear power .

Fifth, during the past half-century American military action, military threats and economic sanctions have only increased the power and prestige of incumbents in targeted nations such as Cuba, Iraq and North Korea.

Sixth, during the past five years, support among the Iranian people for development of a nuclear weapon has increased at the same time that the United States has increased military and economic pressure against that development. (Click here for the actual poll numbers.)   There are serious domestic political issues within Iran, but support for development of a nuclear weapon does not appear to be one of them.  A strike against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is likely to increase President Ahmadinejad’s support.

In order to oppose military action, there must be some constructive alternative.  That alternative should address the pattern of provocation and polarization which have made the United States more rather than less vulnerable to terrorism.  Provocateurs, such as Osama bin Laden on September 11,2001 and now President Ahmadinejad, seek to elicit hostile American military and economic actions in order to provoke political hostility against the United States.  These provocateurs take advantage of the Information Age, where power is dependent upon broadly dispersed public opinion in a sort of rolling, global daily plebiscite.  Just as mainframe computers have given way to the dispersed computing power of the Internet, so the mainframe foreign policies of sovereign states are diluted by the People Nets of CNN, Al Jazeera, Facebook and twitter.  National power and prestige is increasingly driven by the respect a nation enjoys in this people-wired world.  The United States needs foreign policies which will “friend” these People Nets.

Key American foreign policy successes during the late 20th century were based on people-to-people, civilian engagement.  China and Russia are examples.

In 1972 at the conclusion of President Nixon’s visit to China the two nations signed the “Shanghai Communiqué,” and agreed to immediately facilitate a wide variety of “people to people” business and cultural contacts.    It said: 

“The two sides agreed that it is desirable to broaden the understanding between the two peoples. To this end, they discussed specific areas in such fields as science, technology, culture, sports and journalism, in which people to people contacts and exchanges would be mutually beneficial. Each side undertakes to facilitate the further development of such contacts and exchanges.
 Both sides view bilateral trade as another area from which mutual benefit can be derived, and agreed that economic relations based on equality and mutual benefit are in the interest of the peoples of the two countries. They agreed to facilitate the progressive development of trade between the two countries.[1]

President Richard M. Nixon with China’s Zhow Enlai in Peking, 1972.

The agreements reached in the Shanghai Communiqué have provided the basis for four decades of peace and economic growth in both China and the United States.

Trade, cultural exchanges, and educational exchanges flourished between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s.  In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, not because East Germans were intimidated by NATO weaponry, but because they could see and respect a lifestyle which they wished to share.

Proponents of military intervention and economic sanctions will argue that only “strong” government actions can minimize the risk of terrorism.  Absent the threat and use of military and economic force, America will be seen as weak.  But the use of interventions and sanctions during the past decade has only increased the risk of terrorism. In countries where United States and foreign citizens enjoy open relationships of mutual respect, the risk of terrorism has been much better controlled.

A military strike against Iranian nuclear capability would provoke and polarize civilians in Iran and elsewhere against the United States and eliminate the opportunity for the kind of civilian, people-to-people relationships which six decades of U.S. diplomatic history have shown will deter terrorism and protect the United States.

The United States will continue to need military capability to contain military threats. But this containment should be consistent with Theodore Roosevelt’s advice to “walk softly, but carry a big stick.”  We live in a PeopleNet world and we should not allow Iran or any other nation to provoke us into playing the fool.

[1] Joint Communiqué of the United States Of America and the People’s Republic of China, February 28, 1972, 5/8/04
Phil Olsson is a founding principal of the Washington law firm Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Bode Matz PC.  Visit him at the firm website,

“Wings” (1927), the last silent film to win the Oscar for Best Picture

In honor of The Artist last night being the first silent film in 84 years to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, this seemed a good day to peek back at the last silent winner: Wings, best picture for 1927.

Starring Clara Bow,Charles “Buddy” Rogers, and Richard Arlen, Wings is a fantantic epic of two ace fighter pilots from World War I, both in love with the same small-town girl.    It is stunning at every level — the dogfight and other flight scenes are amazing in themselves — and loses none of its punch for lack of a soundtrack.  

Check out this short clip from early in the story (and please excuse the annoying modern soundtrack somebody recorded onto this clip — just put it on mute).  One of the dogfight scenes is below.  The technology may be ancient and the story full of cliches, but the energy just jumps off the screen.    Enjoy…..


Presidents Day conclusion: Lessons for Barack Obama, 2012.

[Note: I originally posted this brief prediction a year ago, for Presidents Day 2011.  It holds up pretty well, don’t you think?] 

I hope you have enjoyed our extended Presidents Day walk down memory lane with the eleven one-term presidents who failed to win re-election, from John Adams through George H.W. Bush.  

Click here to see the entire series:
               (b) part II, the ninth, Herbert Hoover
               (c) part III, the tenth, Jimmy Carter, and

So what was the pattern?  How can Barack Obama avoid their mistakes?   

History never repeats itself.  Each situation, generation, and person is unique.  But history does give clues to who we are and how we act.   Barack Obama has shown himself a masterful politician with a strong organization.  Facing 2012, for my own two cents, I see two key strengths and two key weaknesses:

First, Obama’s strengths:

  • Weak rival:  A Republcan Party still in disarray (despite its 2010 gains) burdened with (a) an over-abundance with weak national candidates apparently too ego-driven to get out of the way (Palin, Gingrich, Romney, and the rest) and (b) a majority in the House of Representatives too ideological to keep itself out of trouble (government shutdowns, overreaching on  social issues, so on);

  • Strong personal good will:  A lingering base of good will in the country among people who still see Obama as reasonable, helpful, centrist, and calm and who consider his 2008 election a historic achievement worth protecting.

Now the weaknesses:
  • Some failures:  Some serious leadership mistakes in the first two years, including (a) ceding too much initial control to Capitol Hill Democrats, letting Health Care eclipse economic policy, failing to take control on the budget deficit and (b) too often being dismissive of — sometimes even hostile to — his base, his friends, and his core supporters.  Remember Plunket’s credo from 1905 Tammany Hall:  “The politicians who make a lastin’ success in politics are the men who are always loyal to their friends, even up to the gate of State prison, if necessary….”
  • The economy: An economy still broken from 2008 (despite fortunes spent trying to fix it), leaving millions still unemployed and under-employed and the country drowning in red ink, and still fragile enough to rise up and give us all another painful bite at some unexpected point.  (Don’t let the stock market fool you on this.  That budget-busting tax-cut deal from last November 2010 can still come back to haunt.)    

Best of luck to all the contestants.  Happy Presidents Day.  

Israel’s attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor, Osirak 1981. A model for Iran 2012?

Path of the Israeli jets on route to destroy the Osirak nuclear reactor on June 7, 1981.

Late on the Sunday afternoon of June 7, 1981, sixteen Israeli F16 and F15 fighter jets took off from Etzion Air Force base in the Negev Dessert, flew two hours over Jordanian and Saudi airspace (confusing local air controllers by speaking Arabic in various dialects), reached Iraq, then flew another hour at tree-top altitude (to avoid radar detection) to a spot just 18 miles south of Baghdad.  Here, they dropped sixteen 2,000-pound bombs.  At least eight of those bombs squarely hit the containment dome and largely destroyed the nuclear reactor called Orisak, a 70-megawatt, uranium-powered facility purchased by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from France and built largely by French and Italian technicians.  It was within a month of completion. 

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin — who in 1979 had signed the Camp David peace accord with Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat — explained his decision to order the attack:  “The atomic bombs which that reactor was capable of producing whether from enriched uranium or from plutonium, would be of the Hiroshima size. Thus a mortal danger to the people of Israel progressively arose.”

Saddam Hussein, circa 1981.

Militarily, the Osirak mission was a complete success.   All Israeli pilots and planes returned safely, loss of life at Osirak was limited to ten Iraqi soldiers and one French technician (Israel claimed it launched the attack on a Sunday to minimize civilians on site), and Orisak was all but destroyed.  

Diplomatically, it was a disaster.  The raid came as a total shock and surprise, and world governments almost universally condemned it, painting Israel — not Iraq — the rogue nation.  The United Nations passed two unanimous resolutions calling it illegal and aggressive, a “clear violation of the Charter of the United Nations and the norms of international conduct” according to Security Council Resolution 487, which also cited Iraq’s right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to “establish programmes of technological and nuclear development.” 

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

Even the United States joined in condemning the raid, voted for the UN resolutions, and temporarily blocked US-Israeli military aid.  Israel had given the US no warning, leaving even Defense Secretary Cap Weinberger “stunned” on hearing the news, according to British records.  France, Britain, and the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) all disputed Israel’s claim that Iraq could produce a nuclear weapon from Osirak. 

Since 1981, debate has raged over the legacy of Israel’s Orisak raid.  Many — both in Israel and globally– credit it for fatally de-railing Iraq’s nuclear weapons program, crippling it for at least ten years until the 1991 Gulf War.  Later intelligence confirmed that Saddam Hussein in those years was actively trying to build a bomb and Israel was among his top targets.  As a result, many analysts today see Israel’s 1981 attack as a textbook model of effective, responsible pre-emptive action to avoid war

Ironically, even Iran — today’s rival — attacked Orisak with two Phantom jets in September 1980 early in the Iran-Iraq War, an episode that reportedly included rare secret coordination between Iran’s radical Islamic Khomeini regime and Israel.

On the other side, critics still doubt Iraq’s capacity in 1981 to build a nuclear weapon and point to the steep price Israel paid in terms of diplomacy and world standing.  If anything, they argue, the raid better prepared Israel’s enemies, teaching countries like Iraq (and later Iran) the urgency of obtaining nuclear weapons sooner while hiding them better from the eyes of global inspectors.  

Iran 2012

Today, 31 years later, Israel again faces a large, hostile neighbor — Iran — evidently reaching  a critical stage in developing a nuclear bomb.  Iran today gives every sign it intends to use it against Israel.  Unlike 1981, the world community seems committed this time to stopping Iran getting the bomb, relying on sanctions, negotiations, and political pressure — but so far to little or no effect. 

Iranian president Madmoud Ahmadinejad

In recent weeks, Israel has signaled growing alarm and raised the specter of an Orisak-like raid.  Iran, in turn, has promised harsh retaliation and launched its own military exercises in the Gulf of Hormuz, threatening world oil supplies.

Will cooler heads prevail?  Is war inevitable?  This time, if anything, the stakes are higher.  Iran in 2012 is a stronger country than Iraq back then.  Saddam Hussein in 1981 was distracted by his recently-launched bloody eight-year war against Iran.  By contrast, Iran today has allies like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and agents around the world, making it far more able (and willing) to retaliate violently against Israel, America, or Europe.

Also, an Israeli raid against Iran today would be far more complex that Orisak in 1981.  It would have no element of surprise, Iran’s nuclear facilities are widely dispersed, many are underground, and intelligence is uncertain.   If could easily fail to do much damage at all.  Diplomatic dangers are bigger too.  An Israeli strike (or if coordinated with the US or NATO) easily could backfire and strengthen the radical Islamist Iranian regime, making it more unified and hostile and giving leaders like president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad every excuse to crush dissenters.

Finally, the world — the US, Europe, the UN and IAEA — still hopes to avoid confrontation with diplomacy.  Should Israel jump the gun, it could once again find itself isolated at a crucial time.

On the other side is the danger that could be posed by a nuclear-armed Iraq and the chance that a well-conceived, well-executed operation could work militarily, be quietly supported in much of the world, and could set back Iran’s nuclear program for years or decades.  

There is a clear allure to trying to address a complex problem like Iran’s nuclear program with a simple, bold solution like an Osirak-style military strike.  It is easy to admire the Israeli pilots of 1981 for their skill and courage.  If only courage and boldness were all it took…. 

We who are not privy to the latest intelligence cannot second guess this decision.  But times change, and simple pragmatic facts may make what worked so well in 1981 not work at all in 2012.  Let’s hope that the leaders in Washington, Jerusalem, Europe, and, yes, Tehran, fully weigh the complexities and risks before jumping into some very deep water with both feet and starting something they cannot stop.  

GUEST BLOGGER: John McArthur on researching Abraham Lincoln’s forgotten good friend Ned Baker

Colonel Edward D. Baker (R-Oregon), the only sitting United States Senator ever to be killed in battle, being shot at Balls Bluff, Virginia, October 1861.   Illustration by Currier and Ives. 

            Nobody who knew them was surprised to see Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln personally lead the mourners at the funeral for Colonel Edward D. Baker in Washington, D.C, on October 24, 1861.  Baker, the first and only United States Senator ever killed in battle — shot down at Balls Bluff in nearby Virginia in one of the Civil War’s first bloody encounters – had been so dear a friend that in 1846 the Lincoln’s had named their second son after him.  A few years later, Lincoln would tell a reporter he found Baker’s death the harshest blow he suffered in the whole war.
Senator Edward Baker, circa 1860.
            Who was this “Ned” Baker who played so large a role in the life of Abraham Lincoln?  His name has fallen into utter obscurity, but I have been working over the past three years to find out.  The story is tantalizing.
             Ned Baker was a teacher, lawyer, soldier, politician, pioneer, and preacher.  Today, we see his name everywhere: Baker City, Oregon; Baker County, Oregon; even Baker Street in San Francisco.  His face is carved in plaster inside the Illinois State Capitol and a full size marble statue of him stands inside the Capitol in Washington, D.C.   They named Fort Baker, Nevada for him, renamed the Lime Point Military Reservation in California for him in 1897, and even located a Fort Baker in the District of Columbia – all for this man who is relatively unknown to us today.
            Edward Baker was born in London, England, on February 24, 1811. The Baker family moved to Philadelphia in 1815 and then to New Harmony, Indiana in 1824.  The next year, young Ned moved to Belleville, Illinois to seek his fortune. A couple of years later he moved to Carrolton, Illinois to read law.
            While studying for the bar, he met Mrs. Mary Ann Lee, a widow with two small children. Mary Ann introduced him to a new and rapidly expanding group known variously as “Disciples” or “Campbellites.”  Led by Alexander Campbell, this movement (known by its adherents as The Restoration Movement because it desired to restore New Testament Christianity) spread rapidly in the early 19th century, especially in the west: Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.  Their plea for simple New Testament Christianity and their simplistic church polities struck a chord with settlers in these new lands. 
Ned Baker joined the church at about the same time that he married Mary Ann.  A good speaker, he quickly became one of the movement’s pioneer preachers. For a time, he even considered making preaching his vocation.  Unfortunately, though, Ned had a weakness for gambling that Disciples found offensive.  Over time, he continued to attend, support and occasionally preach, but his contribution to the Disciples has been largely ignored or downplayed.
            Baker served in the 1832 Black Hawk War and then settled in Springfield, Illinois, where he ultimately practiced law, enter politics, and became friends with his neighbor, the future President Abe Lincoln.  In my research, however, I found that the real reason he went to Springfield had to do with his continuing ties to the Disciples of Christ.  Baker’s law partner in Springfield, Josephus Hewitt, besides being an attorney, also happened to be a traveling evangelist with the Disciples and was trying to start a church in this rapidly growing community.   While Hewitt did the preaching, Baker ran the law practice that paid their bills and encouraged the work.  Within a few months they had purchased land.  The church they started in 1833 still meets today.
            Although Edward Baker went on to make his name in the Illinois and U.S. legislatures and in his service during the Mexican War, this friend of Lincoln started out on that road by being a missionary bringing the Gospel to Springfield.

John McArthur is a preacher and writer from Ohio living in Illinois.  His first book, James A. Garfield: Letting his Light Shine, was published in 2009.

THE GOLD RING: Read the opening chapter.

Today, just in time to make money in the new year, we give you the opening chapter of THE GOLD RING — the classic story of speculators Jay Gould and Jim Fisk and their daring plot to corner the US gold market, culminating in the disaster of Black Friday, 1989.  We hope you enjoy it.   nsider buying the full book.  . 

Jim Fisk, Jay Gould, and Black Friday, 1869

Part I:  The Ring

                        Chapter I:  WAR

     On MONDAY MORNING, March 2, 1868, The New York Times carried a dispatch from Galveston, Texas, on the western frontier. A desper- ado named D. McKinney had shot a man named Clay Sharcy in nearby Navasota. McKinney had been drinking that morning and had drawn his pistol on saloonkeepers who refused to serve him free liquor. The sheriff arrested McKinney and set out, along with deputies on horseback, to deliver the prisoner to nearby Anderson to stand trial.

     But the people of Navasota took unkindly to outlaws in their town. That night along the road, the posse carrying McKinney was stopped by sixty armed men, “disguised and blackened.” The vigilantes disarmed the sheriff and deputies and then took McKinney and tied him securely, and hung him by the neck to a tree limb. The rope broke, so they hung the outlaw again to a sturdier branch that was more than ten feet from the ground. This time the rope held. The armed men dispersed, leaving McKinney’s body dangling in the wind.
     No further arrests were reported in the case.
     On that same morning in New York City, Cornelius Vanderbilt, the seventy-four-year-old “Commodore” and master of the New York Central Railroad, sent shudders through Wall Street by declaring war on his chief competitor, the Erie Railway Company. After months of legal sniping and maneuvering, Vanderbilt now threatened to gobble up Erie just as he had al- ready gobbled up the New York Central, the Hudson, and the Harlem River railroads in stock “corners” that had made heads spin. Backed by a personal fortune estimated at $30 to $60 million, Vanderbilt ordered his brokers on the Stock Exchange to buy Erie shares by the fistful. At the same time, his lawyers obtained decrees from friendly New York judges that prohibited Erie from is- suing any additional stock or convertible bonds.

     Then as now, stock-takeover wars gave smart operators an opportunity to get rich. Vanderbilt’s reputation for ruthless competition over the course of sixty years fueled their anticipation. His name had long been a household word. Vanderbilt—tall, physically tough, and handsome—had made his orig- inal fortune in steamships, running passengers first from Staten Island up the Hudson River and later to Europe. In 1856 the Commodore almost single- handedly organized the overthrow of the government of Nicaragua to preserve his exclusive right of transit across the isthmus to the Pacific. Years earlier, he had committed his own wife to an asylum until she agreed to live in a new mansion on Manhattan Island.

     Long before government securities regulations, antitrust laws, the Fed- eral Reserve, or any effective controls in the United States, big-money stock operations were bare-knuckle affairs. Wall Street after the Civil War was an untamed frontier, like Texas and the Wild West.

     Organized finance in New York dated back at least to 1792, when brokers had gathered under a buttonwood tree to trade real estate and old U.S. Con- tinental money. But the Stock Exchange remained small potatoes. Then the Civil War and the rise of the railroads launched a speculative fever in America. In December 1865 the Exchange moved from a small room on “Change Alley”—off Broad Street, near Wall—to a grand, hundred-foot tall marble palace on Wall Street.

     The men who now gambled their fortunes on the Exchange moved with swagger and bravado. “[S]tockbrokers are a jolly, good-hearted, free-and-easy class of men,” wrote observer Kinehan Cornwallis, “who spend their money fast when they are making it fast, and sometimes even when they are not doing so.”

     But Vanderbilt’s assault on the Erie Railway surpassed anything yet seen.
Vanderbilt was the biggest shark in this sea; the smaller carnivores smacked their lips at the coming feeding frenzy.

     Opposing the Commodore was an old rival, Daniel Drew, the Erie Rail- way Company’s seventy-one-year-old chairman and treasurer. A notorious stock manipulator, Drew veiled his shrewdness behind a country-bumpkin Bible-quoting front. Years before, when he was a cattle drover, Drew had fed his cows salt and let them drink gallons of water before weighing them for sale—the original “watered stock.” A trustee of the Methodist Episcopal Church and semiliterate, like Vanderbilt, Drew became Erie’s treasurer in 1853 and thereafter bilked the line mercilessly. As treasurer, Drew knew company secrets and could control or foresee every jiggle or waggle in Erie stock prices. Unhindered by today’s legal bars on insider trading, he made money every time.

     “I got to be a millionaire before I hardly know’d it, hardly,” “Uncle Dan’l” said. He had no intention of letting Vanderbilt walk away with his cash cow now.

     When it was first built twenty years earlier, designers had considered the Erie Railway a technological marvel. Stretching from Jersey City westward across New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Southern New York to Buffalo, it was the first rail link to the Great Lakes. There it connected to points west. But by the late 1860s, although still one of the United States’ corporate goliaths, the Erie had deteriorated from years of neglect. Engineers jokingly called the aging rails and roadbed “two thin streaks of rust.” Drew’s corrupt management of the company had earned Erie a reputation as “the scarlet woman of Wall Street.”

     Vanderbilt saw the Erie Railway as competition. By the early 1860s the Commodore had changed his business vision. He had sold his steamship em- pire and cast his lot with the United States’ newest transportation medium, railroads. Starting from scratch, Vanderbilt had built an empire of steel rails that would ultimately increase his fortune from $10 million to an unheard of $100 million during his last fifteen years of life. By 1867 the Commodore had dazzled the financial world by capturing and consolidating three moribund lines into the New York Central system, which now stretched from New York, north to Albany, then across to Buffalo, where it connected, like the Erie Railway, to points west.

     With Erie in his pocket, Vanderbilt could control all rail traffic between New York and the western frontier. No federal bans against regional monop- olies would be imposed for decades. So the Commodore, the self-proclaimed “friend of the iron road,” began buying up Erie shares and soon he controlled several seats on the board of directors.

     Confident and vain, Vanderbilt forced the issue in November 1867. He proposed a merger under which Erie and his own New York Central would set joint freight rates and pool their profits. To Vanderbilt’s surprise, the Erie board rejected the plan. Daniel Drew had corralled enough allies to outvote Vanderbilt’s directors. In February 1868 the board added injury to insult by agreeing with the Michigan Southern Railroad, the primary link from Buffalo to Chicago, to build a special narrow-gauge line from Chicago that would connect with Erie in the east, diverting traffic away from the New York Central.

     The Commodore steamed. The Erie Railway Company had deceived him.

     Throwing a tantrum, Vanderbilt announced that he would simply buy Erie and set policy as he pleased: no bother with tender offers, waiting periods, disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission, or other legal mumbo jumbo.

     It seemed the fight would be over before it began. Who could resist an on- slaught of Vanderbilt money and clout? Keen observers, however, knew that Vanderbilt and Drew had been banging heads for forty years in business wars over steamboats and railroads. And this time, Uncle Dan’l seemed oddly serene. Old Cornele could bluster all day long, but Brother Drew had two aces up his sleeve. In anticipation of the fight, Drew had elevated onto the Erie board two obscure young protégés cut from his own mold of fiscal connivance. They were quick, arrogant, and unscrupulous; to Drew’s mind, the smartest young men on Wall Street.

     So it happened that Jay Gould, thirty-one years old, and James Fisk, Jr., thirty-two, entered the annals of Americana.

Jay Gould

     At first, Gould and Fisk were nonentities in the conflict—”Mr. Fish” or “Fiske” or “J. Gould” to the newspapers. Jay Gould, quiet and fidgety, with in- tense eyes and a brilliant mind for numbers and detail, already had a purple reputation on Wall Street. In 1858 the twenty-two-year-old Gould had convinced an elderly New York millionaire named Charles Leupp to invest $60,000 in a tannery business that Gould managed. After a falling out, Leupp shot himself in the head with a revolver. Gossip, true or not, had it that Jay had cheated the old man and driven him to suicide.

     Psychoanalysts would have marveled at Jay’s upbringing. Born in 1836 to dirt-poor dairy farmers in rural Roxbury, New York, his mother had died when he was five years old. His father, John Burr Gould, outwardly ridiculed the boy, telling him he was “not worth much” around the farm. When Jay complained about going to school, his father locked him in the cellar for days until Jay’s five sisters raised a ruckus. A frail youngster, Jay had learned to survive by bending rules. He sometimes cheated at wrestling with his boyhood friend John Burroughs.

     When Burroughs complained, Jay had said, “But I’m on top, ain’t I?” One night when Jay was eight years old, a gang of fifteen gun-toting men dressed as Indians broke into the family farmhouse and dragged his father from bed. The men, part of a terrorist wave during the so-called “Rent Wars” in upstate New York, threatened to tar and feather John Burr Gould unless he joined their anti-landlord movement. He refused. His little son, watching from behind a door, admired how his father stood his ground. “Conscious of right, he shrank from no sense of fear,” Jay wrote.

     Jay went on to invent a mousetrap; he wrote and self-published a 450- page History of Delaware County and ran the ill-fated tannery with Leupp. Then he came to New York in 1858 to make his fortune. There he joined two other brokers in 1862 to form Smith, Gould, Martin &Company and started buying railroad stocks. Like other young men of destiny—J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie, among others—Jay avoided military service by purchasing a $300 replacement under the eminently unfair Civil War conscription acts.

     By 1867 he had accumulated a stake in the Erie Railway big enough to be courted by the embattled company treasurer.

Jim Fisk, dressed as “Admiral” of his
Narragansett Steamship Company.

     James Fisk, Jr., by contrast, was a chubby, outgoing showman who spent his money on women, diamond stickpins, and good times. A year older than Gould, Fisk first learned his business smarts as a teenager, when he worked as a barker with Van Amburgh’s traveling circus. Later he peddled housewares with his father through small towns in Vermont’s Green Mountains. When business was slow, James Junior persuaded his father to decorate his mer- chandise carts like circus wagons with bright colors and glittering harnesses and ride into town at a full gallop, handing out pennies and candies to children. The customers loved the spectacle. The business became so successful that Boston’s Jordan Marsh retail firm hired Jim as its Washington sales agent early in the Civil War.

     During the war, Jim distinguished himself in the cloak-and-dagger cotton smuggling trade. He bought cheap contraband cotton from Confederate ware- houses, sneaked it past Union lines, and shipped it north for Jordan Marsh to weave into uniforms for Lincoln’s army.

     Jim’s mother died when he was an infant, but his father and stepmother doted on him. When a schoolteacher whipped Jim for pulling a prank, his father was so indignant that he kept the boy home for months.

     Jim told a story about a woman who came to him one day when he was peddling with his father. She complained that Fisk Senior had cheated her on a handkerchief. The handkerchief had cost nine pence—a few pennies in the then-local New England currency.

     Jim thought a moment, then stuck up for Dad. “No! The old man would- n’t have told a lie for nine pence,” said he, “though he would have told eight of them for a dollar!”

     Jim Fisk migrated to New York in 1864 and proceeded to lose all his money in the stock market. Before he left town broke, he gave fair warning of his return. “Wall Street has ruined me, and Wall Street shall pay for it,” Jim said. He refueled his bank account in Boston and returned to New York the next year. He soon charmed his way into the good graces of Daniel Drew by doing favors for the Erie treasurer and acting as the old man’s agent on secret stock trades. By the time he needed to plant an ally on the Erie board, Uncle Dan’l had been much impressed by young Jim Fisk’s peculiar talents and his loyalty to him.

     Jay probably considered Jim Fisk a loud-mouthed buffoon when they first met on the Erie board in late 1867. Fisk likely shared the general view of Gould as a sinister manipulator. On the surface, they differed as night from day. But underneath, powerful forces bonded them. Both had experienced grinding rural poverty in the uncaring society of the mid-1800s; both had clawed their way up to affluence by their wits. Fisk and Gould shared a self- confidence that bordered on arrogance, a disdain for public opinion, and mountains of ambition.

     Prudent young men would have avoided a blood battle with the likes of Cornelius Vanderbilt. But Gould and Fisk had watched Uncle Dan’l Drew enrich himself from Erie. Now, given the chance of a lifetime, the two pro- tégés wanted their own turn at the trough.

     First, Drew’s lawyers found a friendly judge who issued decrees to nullify Vanderbilt’s decrees. Vanderbilt’s judges responded by decreeing the new de- crees null and void. As the legal eagles sparred with injunctions and counter injunctions, Fisk and Gould discovered a more potent weapon in the base- ment of Erie’s Wall Street offices—a printing press.

     Wasting no time and ignoring Vanderbilt’s court decrees, Gould, Fisk, and Drew got secret approval from their friendly board majority to issue $10 million in bonds convertible into shares of Erie stock, supposedly to purchase new steel rails and equipment for the Erie line. Saturday night and Sunday, March 8 and 9, the printing press cranked out page after page of fresh Erie stock certificates. On Sunday they issued 50,000 shares and parceled them out in two 25,000-share blocks to Fisk’s and Gould’s personal brokerages: Fisk and Belden, and Smith, Gould, Martin & Company.

     Jim Fisk explained the strategy: “If this damned printing press doesn’t break down, we’ll give the old hog [Vanderbilt] all he wants of Erie.”

     As the Stock Exchange prepared to open on Monday morning, March 10, the Erie directors lay in ambush. In these stressful moments, Jay Gould steadied himself by tearing corners of newspaper pages into confetti.

     Trading in railroad stocks on the New York Stock Exchange took place in the Long Room, a large, high-ceilinged chamber with tall windows that looked out onto New Street; it was unfurnished except for an elevated dais at the Wall Street end, and it had an upper gallery for spectators. It also had a separate gallery for telegraph operators, who flashed the latest prices almost instantaneously to brokers’ offices miles away. At ten o’clock every morning (including Saturdays), the chairman, standing on the dais, banged his gavel and called the first stock to trade for ten minutes, then the next, and so on down the list.

     When he reached Erie that morning, Vanderbilt’s agents grabbed the stock as fast as it was offered. The roomful of brokers raised a clamor. After the allotted ten minutes, the speculators rushed outside into the street to con- tinue the frenzy, leaving the deserted Exchange floor behind, oblivious to the winter cold. Mobs formed around the Drew and Vanderbilt brokers on the sidewalk as the price ran from $78 to almost $83 per share.

     Shortly after noon, the tide turned. Brokers allied with Gould and Fisk suddenly offered Erie stock in blocks of a hundred or five hundred shares. The mob sensed danger. An apparently unlimited supply of Erie stock was flooding the street. In a “violent panic,” the price dropped from $83 to $71. Vanderbilt brokers learned that one brokerage was delivering crisp, new certificates signed only the day before. The “bull clique” was “demoralized,” wrote a Herald reporter.

     Vanderbilt’s agents ran to the Commodore’s office with news of the watered stock and asked what to do. “Do?” Cornele roared. “Buy all the stock the sons-of-bitches offer to sell! They think they can pick my pocket, do they? Well, by God, I’ll show ‘em that there’s such a thing as law in this State!”

     Vanderbilt kept buying, but theatrics aside, his raid was dead. After spending $8 to $10 million on Erie stock, he was still no closer to controlling the company, and the value of his newly acquired shares was falling fast.

     Fisk, Gould, and Drew were elated. Flushed with victory, they met the next morning in their West and Duane Street offices. Stock Exchange messengers carried in bags of money—the proceeds from Vanderbilt’s purchases of funny stock. Like a medieval warlock and his two sorcerer’s assistants, the three men amused themselves by sorting the money and tying it into bundles.

     But Vanderbilt found no humor in the situation. Not only was the Erie raid a public embarrassment, it had become expensive. Even his own deep pockets felt the pinch.

     Vanderbilt wielded power beyond the sheer weight of money, though, particularly through his relationship with William Magear Tweed, the reign- ing boss of New York’s Tammany Hall, who in 1868 controlled the New York judicial system.

     Vanderbilt turned to George Barnard, a justice of the New York Supreme Court. Barnard had been handpicked, nominated, and sustained by Tweed and was widely known as a “slave of the [Tammany] ring.” Barnard was very helpful.

     New York State had only one level of courts at that time. New York Supreme Court judges held trials and issued orders with no appeal short of the United States Supreme Court. After a hastily called hearing, Judge Barnard found that Drew, Fisk, and Gould had violated the earlier injunctions by issuing the Erie convertible bonds. He declared them in contempt. Even as the trio then celebrated their victory over Vanderbilt’s stock raid, news arrived in their suite that New York police were en route to arrest them.

     Erie’s top directors had to choose between spending time in the Ludlow Street Jail, New York’s pen for civil cases, or getting out of town.

     By nightfall, Drew and a dozen other Erie officials had packed their money, stocks, bonds, and records—including the $8 million in cash fleeced from Vanderbilt—and were heading across the Hudson River. They would set up Erie-in-exile at Taylor’s Hotel in Jersey City, New Jersey—beyond the reach of New York justice.

     Fisk and Gould only narrowly escaped the law. They left Drew, and before leaving New York, they stopped at Delmonico’s restaurant at Broadway and Chambers Street to further celebrate their victory with steak and cham- pagne. A messenger interrupted their meal with news that the police were heading over to their table at that instant. Leaving dinner half finished, Fisk and Gould raced outside into a waiting carriage that took them down to the foot of Canal Street. There they hired a small lifeboat with two deckhands to attempt to cross the river.

     The fog that night was so dense that they almost collided with a steam powered ferryboat. After rowing in circles for hours in the cold, they landed in Jersey thoroughly drenched.

     Two other Erie directors who dawdled in New York were arrested by Barnard’s police and spent the night behind bars.

If you enjoyed the excerpt, click here to check out the book.  

POLITICS: Why Newt Gingrich won South Carolina and may become President!

I think I have figured out the message that worked among Republicans in South Carolina, has been driving the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street-ers, and could work nationwide in 2012.  It comes straight out of the 1976 movie Network.  

Click on top to see the original.  (Ignore the French subtitles.  This was the best clip I could find of the full scene.) Doesn’t he look more than vaguely like Newt?

Better yet, rent the movie from Netflix and see it in full context.  But before getting carried away, remember, in the film, Howard Beale (the ranting, mentally unstable newsman played brilliantly by Peter Finch) is totally exploited by the TV network executives (Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall) , and ultimately assassinated on air when his ratings go down.   

The public hot button, then as now, is the same: rage.  Rage from the left, rage from the right, no matter.  We live in hard times: depression, recession, fear, unfairness, broken dreams, empty promises, corruption, shrill politics, arrogant finance, social gridlock, and the rest.  How can there not be outrage?   

The one who can figure out how best to tap it — be it Gingrich through his rants, Obama though his intellect, or someone else — will be hard to stop. 

Special Feature: Primary Schedule Map

After Mitt Romney’s big win yesterday in New Hampshire, it remains to be seen if the Republican presidential nomination race now will quickly finish, or whether the anti-Romneys —  Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Santorum, Perry and the rest — can drag it out.  Either way, to help follow the action, here (below) is a special treat courtesy of our techno-wizard friends at ESRI in Redlands, California, the country’s leading  experts in cutting-edge Geospatial technology.

It is an interactive “smart map” of this year’s presidential primary contest.  Click on the different buttons (the map, the dates, the state names) and see what happens.

Smart maps like this (or “Geospatial Information Systems”) are one of the great innovation of our time, from the navigation systems in our cars to Google Earth to the data-rich displays on CNN and other TV networks to the GIS grids used by governments for complex infrastructure planning. This relatively simple one just scratches the surface.  Click here to see a few more.

Presidential Primary Election Calendar Map
Use this timeline map to see the sequence of US primaries and caucuses in 2012. Clicking on a state will show you the number of registered voters and their political attitudes.