Almanack Contributor Lawrence P. Gooley

Lawrence P. Gooley

Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 21 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, has been a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. They have published 75 titles and are now offering web design.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publisher’s Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.



Monday, January 23, 2012

Mary Hill Johnson: Civil War Combat Veteran?

In Lowell, Massachusetts in 1922, while working in a private home, Mrs. Mary Johnson was badly injured in a fall. At the age of 82, with few resources at her disposal, neither Mary nor her husband, Peter, could care for themselves. During the next two years, the couple was housed in three different poorhouses, living at Fitchburg and Tewksbury before moving to the Worcester City Farm. At Fitchburg, Mrs. Johnson had begun telling stories about her secret war past, and at Worcester, folks began to take her seriously.

According to Mary, she had served honorably in two branches of military service, most notably a stint during the Civil War. Combat was reserved for men only, but Mary openly shared the details, insisting her story was true.

Before I continue, understand that there is at present no clear, crisp ending to this story, at least not to my satisfaction, but it’s a remarkable story nonetheless. Mary’s tale has been noted in very few sources, including some books that butchered the facts while only citing snippets. But as I discovered, it’s a mystery well worth a look.

When an 85-year-old poorhouse inmate begins telling stories, it would be easy to shrug it off as the ramblings of early dementia, especially when a woman declares that she was a Union soldier in the Civil War.

But Mary Johnson’s stories had a ring of truth. Her caretakers realized that if she had in fact served, a pension might remove the Johnson’s from their position as wards of the state. When the Worcester Chapter of the American Red Cross was notified, they sent Eleanor Vashon, executive secretary, to interview Mary. That meeting temporarily conferred celebrity status on Mrs. Johnson when the media picked up the story.

As Mary told it, she was born Mary Murphy in Plattsburgh, New York in 1840. Having lost both parents by the time she was eight, Murphy was adopted by the Benjamin Hill family. During the next decade, they lived in more than a dozen places in New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts, where they finally settled.

She recalled living in Westminster in what Mary referred to as the General Mills Nelson house (actually the home of native General Nelson Miles). They also lived near the old stone mill in Fitchburg (to confirm, there was one), where she and stepbrother Thomas Hill worked, learning how to create chair seats.

The war soon changed everything, but having lost her original family, Mary clung to what had given her comfort and a sense of belonging: “Soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, Tom enlisted in the army. He went to Camp Groton, Ayer, which is now known as Camp Devens.

“My home life was unbearable and lonely with Tom gone, for I loved him devotedly, as though he were my own brother. I followed him to Camp Groton. I started my journey at midnight, and got as far as Whalom Marshes, now Whalom Park [an amusement park], where I was picked up by a group of men who were traveling in a barge to Camp Groton.

“The men rolled me in coats and blankets and got me into camp. I asked to see Col. Davis or Lieut. Pratt, but this was refused. I was then taken at my request to my brother, Tom. After a while, Tom and his companions agreed to enlist me as a man and keep the secret.

“… I was taken to New York, my hair was clipped, and I was given a uniform and enlisted as Saul Hill, 18 years old, of Co. B 53rd Massachusetts Regiment. I went to Missouri and served during the remainder of the war, about a year and a half. I was given $110 when I enlisted and $110 when I was discharged. I remember Capt. Corey well.” [Captain Jonas Corey.]

She also gave details on the Battle of Antietam and others she participated in, and showed powder marks and a scar on her fingers, courtesy of a bullet wound.

Through existing records, some of that information should have been verifiable. Mary also claimed to have enlisted in the navy at Key West (shortly after her army discharge) and served for nearly six more years.

At one point, she described landing at Montreal, and an encounter with a woman who said she was Queen Victoria. (Victoria never visited Canada, but her son, Prince Arthur, was there at the time.) Shortly thereafter, she left the navy and spent time at a convent in Quebec.

To research this story, I took the position of trying to disprove Mary’s claims. I knew she didn’t meet the queen, but I had to concede that the person she mentioned could have claimed to be the queen. From my perspective, though, that part of her story remained in the untrue category.

The same “prove or disprove” mission was undertaken by Eleanor Vashon after interviewing Mary in 1924. Several parties were involved: a pension attorney; the Massachusetts adjutant general; the Daughters of Veterans; the Convent of St. Rock, Quebec; the Canadian Red Cross; the Tewksbury Hospital; and acquaintances of Mary with whom she had shared the unusual story of her life.

The Red Cross managed to confirm that Thomas Hill indeed served in the Massachusetts 53rd, but found no record of a Saul Hill in the same outfit. They did find a Joseph Saul, and considering Mary’s age and her earlier jumbling of General Nelson Miles as Mills Nelson, the similarity was noted as a possible link.

In February 1925, an unusual signing ceremony was held at the Worcester City Farm. After being sworn in, Mary’s signature was applied to a letter describing her military service. It was sent to Washington, and a reply wasn’t long in coming. Federal researchers confirmed that several records of Joseph H. Saul supported Mary’s story.

An official pension application was the next step, after which the government would research her story fully and make a determination.

Existing records indicate that several applications were made (which is not unusual), but it appears that her request was ultimately denied. None of the applications contains a certificate number, which would normally appear if a pension was granted.

Those results confused me. Finding what you need in various archives is not always easy. I did manage to locate the names of Thomas Hill and Joseph H. Saul in the 53rd. Among the multiple enlistment dates are November 25, 1862 for Thomas and 9 December 1862 for Saul (Mary), which matches the story of Mary following Thomas when he joined the army. Both parties shared the same discharge information as well: “Mustered out on 2 Sep 1863 at Camp Stevens, Groton, MA.”

Census records were spotty, but the 1900 listing of Peter Johnson, Mary Johnson (his wife), and Benjamin Hill (noted as Peter’s father-in-law) in the same household confirmed her link to the Hill family and further supported her story. I was becoming a believer.

Among the pension applications was one with the heading, “Mary Hill Johnson, alias Joseph H. Saul,” and another with, “Joseph H. Saul, alias Mary Hill Johnson.” Neither contained a certificate number, which indicates no pension was granted.

Digging further produced another document, a full record of Joseph H. Saul’s service―including his death in 1912 at a veterans’ facility. The basis for Mary’s claim was that no records of Saul existed after his military service because he was, in fact, Mary Hill Johnson. So now, Joseph H. Saul’s detailed death record quashed every bit of that claim.

Or so I thought. Persistence left me stunned at the next discovery, days later: a second Joseph H. Saul had enlisted at the same place (Gardner, Massachusetts), and with the same birth entry (“abt 1844”). But this second Joseph H. Saul enlisted in November 1864, two years after the first Saul. Further jumbling the picture: it appears that the records for both Sauls are mixed on the official listing under “Military History” from the veterans’ home where he died.

All things considered, it looks like Mary was being truthful. It seems a bit much to believe that an 85-year-old woman, with no access to public records, could have concocted a story with such accuracy in the details and so much supporting evidence.

It is documented that others have pulled it off in the past, and it looks like Mary Hill Johnson of Plattsburgh is part of an exclusive club. But I’ll keep digging for more evidence.

Photos―Above, Mary Hill Johnson; Below, Civil War Pension card with entry “Joseph H. Saul, alias Mary Hill Johnson.”

Lawrence Gooley has authored ten books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 19 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, January 16, 2012

Pioneers of Flight: The Flying Dryer Family

In the weeks and months following the amazing story of survival in the Adirondacks in January 1935, when the four-man crew of a downed Curtis Condor plane were rescued from the clutches of death, further details surfaced in the media. The two uninjured passengers had considered striking off to the south in search of help. Said one of their rescuers, Leonard Partello: “They would never have come out alive. They would have had to go fifteen miles through heavy snow without food. It couldn’t be done.”

The ultimate blame for the incident was placed on the company. No qualified dispatcher was on hand in Syracuse to authorize the flight in terrible weather, which was allowed after a call to the Newark office. That near-fatal decision was countered by the great flying skills of Ernest Dryer. » Continue Reading.


Monday, January 9, 2012

A Local Search and Rescue Makes News Photo History

In modern times, photographs accompanying newspaper stories are sent around the world in digital format, utilizing the latest technology. But for half a century, from 1935 to 1989, the Wirephoto Service of the Associated Press was the industry standard. Prior to that time, the text of stories was sent by wire, but photographs for newsprint were shipped the same way mail and other urgent items were: by train or by plane.

Even by the speediest of methods, it could take more than three days for photographs to arrive. When the dramatic advancement came in 1935 to an instant process, the Adirondacks were linked forever with communications’ history. » Continue Reading.


Monday, January 2, 2012

A Dramatic Search and Rescue (Part Two)

Dean Smith 1928Concern mounted on Sunday among the Adirondack plane-crash victims after two nights in the wilderness. Clearing skies had brought the promise of rescue, but frustration set in as more than 20 times, planes approached the site but failed to detect the wreckage. Walking a mile or more from the crash led only to more cliffs, mountains, and deep snow. As the day wore on, darkness and cold changed their condition from miserable to dangerous. The temperature had dropped to well below zero, and the men were exhausted from struggling through the deep snow for bits of firewood.

As the situation deteriorated and death drew closer, action was needed. It was decided to drain some gasoline from a fuel tank and set a tree on fire. There seemed a good chance one of the few night fliers would see the signal. » Continue Reading.


Monday, December 26, 2011

The Greatest Adirondack Rescue Story Ever?

This week marks the seventy-seventh anniversary of perhaps the greatest Adirondack rescue story ever. With all the inherent dangers of hiking, rock climbing, and navigating treacherous river rapids by canoe or kayak, this incredible incident ironically was unrelated to the most popular mountain pursuits. But when accidents occur while enjoying those pastimes, one factor above all can turn any outing into a life-or-death drama: weather. » Continue Reading.


Monday, December 19, 2011

History: Dangerous Ideas from Christmas Past

Twenty years ago, Dana Carvey’s character, “Grumpy Old Man,” was a popular recurring feature of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update.

He’d offer an assessment of current times compared to the so-called “good old days,” highlighting some barbaric practices of the past (exaggerated to great comedic effect) with the closing line, “And we liked it!” » Continue Reading.


Monday, December 12, 2011

Franklin County Inventor Eliakim Briggs

In the 1830s, hundreds of inventors around the world focused on attempts at automating farm equipment. Reducing the drudgery, difficulty, and danger of farm jobs were the primary goals, accompanied by the potential of providing great wealth for the successful inventor. Among the North Country men tinkering with technology was Eliakim Briggs of Fort Covington in northern Franklin County.

Functional, power-driven machinery was the desired result of his work, and while some tried to harness steam, Briggs turned right to the source for providing horsepower: horses.

This particular branch of the Briggs family had many members across New England, descended from Irish ancestors who fought in America’s Revolutionary War. A number of them later moved to New York in southern Washington County, which is where Eliakim was born in 1795.

Dozens of Vermonters and eastern New York State residents were among the first to move farther north and settle along the border with Canada from Clinton County to western Franklin County. Several members of the Briggs clan, including Eliakim, made the journey around 1820.

With a background in foundry work, young Eli began experimenting with building a “traveling threshing machine.” Around this time, he married Chateaugay’s Russina Allen (a descendant of Vermont’s Ethan Allen), who had moved there from Ticonderoga. They settled in Fort Covington, and by 1827, Russina had given birth to five children. Only the fifth, Janette, survived infancy.

Eli’s inventive efforts proved successful, and he began patenting his creations. Unfortunately, a fire in December 1836 destroyed 80 percent of the Patent Office’s 10,000 records. Among the documents to survive were those covering Eliakim’s “Horse Power Machine” (patented July 12, 1834), and his machine for “mowing, thrashing, and cleaning grain,” patented February 5, 1836.

The 1834 machine was an improvement in design and function of the existing horse treadmill, which was subsequently used to power his threshing machine. Looking to the future, Briggs perceived all sorts of possibilities from harnessing the power of horse-driven treadmills.

In the following year, on the Saratoga and Schenectady Railroad (one of New York’s very first rail lines) was a most unusual sight. Instead of the customary single rail car being towed along by a horse, the car was moving silently forward with no visible means of propulsion.

Gawkers could hardly believe their eyes, but the secret lay within, where a horse on a treadmill propelled the car forward at the then blazing speed of 15 miles per hour, prompting one reporter to observe, “This is indeed an age of wonders.” He was witnessing the handiwork of Eliakim Briggs of Fort Covington, whose remarkable invention was being manufactured and sold in Ogdensburg at the time.

Briggs felt that the greatest potential for financial success was in agriculture, and after a trip to the West (which was Indiana, since there were only 26 states at that time), he was convinced. The family pulled up stakes and relocated to Dayton, Ohio.

In 1839, Thomas Clegg, one of Dayton’s pioneer industrialists, operated the Washington Cotton Factory, which had an extensive machine shop. Clegg partnered with Briggs in producing his automatic threshing machine, to the great financial benefit of both men.

Eliakim became one of the leading entrepreneurs of Dayton, but after three years he moved on to Richmond, Indiana for a year. In 1841, the family settled in South Bend, and it was there where Eliakim really made his mark. The fledgling settlement of perhaps 700 citizens soon experienced rapid growth, driven in part by Briggs’ threshing manufactory (powered by windmills), one of the first industries in the town’s history.

After three years of success, the company outgrew its quarters. Briggs built a large new factory, providing employment for many residents, some of whom later became leading businessmen themselves (the famed Studebakers are one example).

Briggs’ traveling threshing machine was a big success, and not only because of the inventor’s great abilities. Eliakim’s charisma was evident in his open, friendly treatment of customers who came from Indianapolis, Lafayette, Richmond, and other western locations. He opened his expansive home to visitors and customers alike, earning a reputation far and wide as the most hospitable and generous of businessmen.

He also remained a family man to a brood that had grown to nine by 1844, including sons John, George, and Charles, who eventually followed business pursuits as aggressively as their father had. John caught gold fever and ventured to California in 1849. As his brothers became old enough, they joined him in several business exploits, including mining. One part of their legacy, still producing gold today, is the Briggs Mine, about 20 miles north of Denver.

Successful in business, Eliakim combined his personal beliefs with financial profits in pursuit of a personal passion: the anti-slavery movement. He was a fervent abolitionist who sought freedom for all. Briggs abhorred slavery and was a longtime, ardent supporter of the Underground Railroad, despite the inherent dangers.

In early 1861, at the age of 66, Eli was still securing patents on new devices, while his horse-driven machines remained very popular. That same year, previous failures in the effort to process sugar cane in the West finally met with success when new equipment was introduced: “…a horizontal, three-roller, horse-power press for expressing the juice, manufactured by E. Briggs of South Bend, capable of pressing out sixty gallons per hour …”

Eventually, the development of steam and other power sources would replace Eliakim’s creation, but during his lifetime, it remained an important component of industry.

Briggs died in September 1861, still successful in industry, and still battling for the abolition of slavery. A year later, in September 1862, his wife, Russina, passed away as well. Much of the family fortune was placed in the hands of daughter Janette, a widow whose husband had also done quite well for himself.

Janette became very well known for philanthropy in South Bend. When she died in 1916, several bequests were included in her will, including $15,000 to an orphanage and $12,000 to the YWCA. Those two bequests alone were equal to approximately $500,000 in 2011, reminiscent of the generosity her father exhibited throughout his life.

Photo: Patent drawing of Eliakim Briggs’ horse treadmill (1834).

Lawrence Gooley has authored ten books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 19 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, December 5, 2011

Adirondack Canines: Doggone Good Friends

In an eight-month span in the 1930s, two Ticonderoga canines made headlines for something dogs are known for in general: loyalty. Few relationships are more rewarding in life than the human-canine experience, as anyone reading this who shares a dog’s life can attest. For those who have children as well … some might be loathe to admit it, but dogs provide many of the same positives without all the complicated baggage. » Continue Reading.


Monday, November 28, 2011

Noted Local Philanthropist Nettie McCormick

In 1835, in the small community of Brownville, a few miles west of Watertown, was born a young girl who would one day impact the lives of countless thousands. Nancy “Nettie” Fowler, the daughter of store owners Melzar and Clarissa (Spicer) Fowler, was the victim of tragic circumstances at an early age. In the year of Nettie’s birth, Melzar’s brother convinced him to move 13 miles northwest to Depauville, where trade was considerably more active at the time.

While on a business trip to Watertown, Melzar’s team of difficult horses caused problems for a hotel hostler, who found it too dangerous to enter the stall to feed them. When Fowler himself tried, one of the horses reared and struck him in the head with its hoof.

The family was summoned, and three days later, Melzar died from his injuries. Nettie was less than a year old (her brother, Eldridge, was two). Clarissa ran the family business while raising two small children, but seven years later, she died as well.

Nettie was raised in the home of her grandmother and uncle in Clayton, on the St. Lawrence River. The household’s strong Christian bent would have a lasting effect on her future.

Uncle Eldridge Merick’s lifestyle—daily toil, active community support, and deep involvement in (Methodist) church activities—influenced Nettie’s own life choices. In an era when women were generally expected to be homemakers, Merick’s prosperity provided other opportunities for his niece.

Following local schooling, and beginning in her teen years, Nettie attended Falley Seminary in Fulton, Emma Willard’s Troy Female Seminary, and the Genesee Wesleyan Seminary in Lima, New York. She was active in the missionary society and taught for a year at the little school she once attended in Clayton.

Hard work, luck, and serendipity guide most lives, and so it was with Nettie Fowler. The world of high finance seemed the unlikeliest of possible components of her humble life, but on a trip to Chicago, she made the acquaintance of a man by the name of McCormick.

He was a strong Presbyterian, while she was a Methodist, and at 49, he was more than twice her age (23). Despite those differences, the two hit it off. Within six months, she began attending his church, and in January 1858, a year after they met, Nettie Fowler married Cyrus McCormick.

Yes, THAT Cyrus McCormick. The one who, as we learned in grade school, was the inventor of a machine that changed the world (the mechanical reaper). His business had made him a very wealthy man.

Both were considered very strong-willed, but disagreements and difficulties aside, young Nettie became her husband’s silent business partner. Together, they forged forward in industry and shared many philanthropic efforts aimed at churches, schools, and youth.

In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed the McCormick Harvesting Machine plant. While Cyrus was discouraged, Nettie insisted they rebuild and took the lead in the resurgence of the company. Seven years later, Cyrus’ health issues left Nettie running the business, which she did for six years. He died in 1884, leaving a will that provided for division of the company at the end of five years, and specified various philanthropic work as well. The estate value was estimated at $5 million (equal to $118 million in 2011).

Eventually, Cyrus, Jr., officially took over the company, but Nettie remained deeply involved financially and in business decisions. She also expanded her own charitable work on behalf of the poor while providing financial support to several organizations with the same mission. Nettie’s childhood influences of “giving back” were coming to bear in a very positive way.

The McCormick business remained successful, but competition, particularly from Deering Harvester Company, began to make solid inroads. By the turn of the century, a merger between rivals was in the works.

One of Nettie’s sons, Harold, had (in 1895) married Edith Rockefeller, daughter of John D., the world’s richest man. When the decision was made to merge McCormick and Deering (and a few smaller companies) into a new entity called International Harvester, the family connection to the Rockefellers was used to ensure that the McCormicks remained in control.

On paper, they were the directors, but in reality, the entire business was owned and operated by J. P. Morgan, who had provided backing of $120 million ($3.1 billion in 2011) to finance the deal and direct the company’s future. That high dollar assessment seemed to vastly overvalue the new conglomerate, but Morgan knew well the path he intended to take.

The McCormicks were mere figureheads while J. P. ran the show. In no time at all, he managed to sully the McCormick name by incorporating the shady practices he and Rockefeller (and many others) had used to control most of the nation’s important industries.

The Morgan and Rockefeller banks, which provided monthly funding for payroll and other necessities to so many businesses, informed several farm implement companies that funding was no longer available. They faced sudden financial ruin—or they could sell to Morgan. They sold.

For those who resisted, the next step was denying the use of Morgan and Rockefeller-owned railroads for transporting the farmers’ products. The two men, of course, controlled most of the major transportation routes.

How successful were those tactics? They had already made J. D. Rockefeller the wealthiest man in American history, and had done much for Morgan as well. Two years after the harvester merger, with the competition removed, the prices of farm machinery more than doubled.

Such monopolistic practices (like the Rockefeller oil business) led to a stranglehold on commerce. Trustbusters battled against the financial titans for years, and the monopolies were finally forced by the government to dismantle.

After years of complaints from farming states, the feds finally took action in court against Morgan’s International Harvester Company. In 1912, control of business operations was returned to the board of directors (the McCormicks).

Eventually, the Supreme Court forced the breakup of the company due to Morgan’s monopolistic and illegal practices. In a remarkable turnaround, Cyrus McCormick’s business was restored, eventually regaining its good name and returning to the philanthropic efforts of the past.

By the time of his death in 1884, Cyrus had given away $550,000 ($10–15 million in 2011), a mere drop in the bucket compared to what wife Nettie donated as the company grew in value over the years. Her focus on philanthropy surged in 1890, and by the time of her death in 1923, Nettie McCormick had given away more than $8 million ($125–200 million in 2011). She supported private schools and institutions, plus missions and churches.

Beginning in 1887, McCormick donations had funded several buildings of Tusculum College in Tennessee, where Nettie was deeply involved in teacher selection, expansion of the curriculum, and many other aspects of college life. In her honor, every year since 1913, the school holds Nettie Fowler McCormick Service Day, during which faculty and students join in all sorts of charitable works and improvement of the school grounds.

She was fortunate to have married a very wealthy man, but in life, you play the hand you’re dealt. Many people in similar circumstances have done little to help others, and she could have settled comfortably into the ranks of the idle rich.

Yet, from the time she was in her early twenties, Nettie worked on behalf of the underprivileged, supported women’s rights, handled a major corporation, financed schools and theological institutes, and forged her own path.

On top of that, the great majority of her philanthropy was done anonymously, as evidenced by Nettie’s obituary, which cited donations to six institutions when, in fact, the record later revealed she had supported forty-six. Her estate was valued at $15 million ($192 million in 2011).

In her final will and testament, $1 million ($13 million in 2011) was designated for certain charities. The remainder was divided among the McCormick children with the understanding that they would be likewise generous in giving.

In 1954, when Nettie’s daughter, Anita, died, her holdings were value at $35 million ($284 million in 2011). Of that total, she donated $20 million ($162 million in 2011) to various charities. Mom would surely have been proud.

Photos: Above, Nancy Maria “Nettie” McCormick; Middle, McCormick Hall on the Tusculum College campus; Below, Nettie McCormick (Mathew Brady, 1862).

Lawrence Gooley has authored ten books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 19 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, November 21, 2011

Lawrence Gooley: Occupy Movement History Lessons

A major issue of the day is the concentration of great wealth in the hands of a few. By its very nature, great wealth confers great power, and we all know what absolute power does. Today’s media bombards us with the fact that the concentration of wealth has skyrocketed in recent years, which once again reminds us, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” We’ve been here many, many times before.

Why are the “experts” not looking to the past? This concentration of wealth in America is not a recent, nor even a 20th-century, phenomenon. The following citations would fit perfectly on any CNN, Fox, or other broadcast, but their dates of origin might surprise you. (The headline above is from 1891.)

This first commentary sounds like it was voiced by an Occupy Wall Street spokesperson: “We want more light on these great social and economic questions. The people must be made to understand that when the property and wealth of a country is controlled by a small fraction of the people, popular self-government is no longer possible in that country. … When the time arrives in this free land when great wealth will be regarded as a paramount qualification for office, the end of American liberty is not far distant. We will then have a government of classes and oligarchies, in which the struggle for official position will not be between the rich and the poor … but between the wealthy classes alone, and in that struggle, caucuses and elections will be a farce, for the man with the largest bank account will be a predestined winner from the start. Capitalists themselves should be taught that … the preservation of the government … and the perpetuation of their own exertions … depend upon a happy, contented people, and that people are most happy and contented where the results of labor (wealth) are as evenly distributed as the circumstances and conditions of men will permit.” (1882)

Here are several others from different eras, but with similar concerns:

“And the constant tendency of the rich to use their wealth for the acquisition of influence and political power … of all the modern schemes of employing wealth, that of banking possesses the most attraction. Wealth … is in itself an element of power, and consequently an unequal distribution of property has a constant tendency to disturb that equality in the social condition of the community, which is the basis and support of equality of rights. But to incorporate wealth is to impart to it many attributes of power not belonging to it when … in the hands of individuals. … The large amount of wealth possessed by corporations is controlled by a few persons.” (1835)

“That the sub-Treasury scheme, now under consideration in the senate of the US, is calculated to create an alarming moneyed aristocracy, consisting of men in power … is not only opposed to the principles of a republican government, but is hostile to the interests of the people.” (1838)

“Sir, the shocking abuse of the banking which pervades the land … it is only by radical change of their conduct that they can ever regain the public confidence. … The honorable senator from Virginia … asks us to [again] place the public funds in them, after their recent breach of faith, their violation of all law, their outrages upon the monies of the nation, as well as upon the deposits of individuals, committed to their safekeeping. … They now look to a single and splendid government, founded in banks and other monied institutions …” (1838)

“The alarming tendency in this country is to the accumulation of capital in a few hands. The increase of wealth in the country is not over 5 percent per annum, while the interest in capital is nearly 10 percent. Consequently, the rich are growing richer and the poor poorer. … class against class, poor against rich, labor against capital. The interests of the two seem to be diverging more and more from year to year.” (1872)

“… the concentration of wealth represented by the gigantic moneyed corporations of the country, which seemed to grasp without resistance all power … and which threatened the destruction of the liberties and institutions of this country. … It controlled the press; it swallowed up legislative assemblies; it dictated its will and its purpose in public assemblies; and wherever it appeared, it seemed to be and indeed was without a rival in power, and without a limit in its purpose.” (1873)

“The great financial institutions of the country have been … largely allowed to direct the financial policy of the government. The strong arm of Wall Street has reached to Washington, and its heavy hand has been felt in our national councils. … wealth incalculable and ever increasing … placed in the hands of very few men … is not something wrong in that state of things which produces such unhappy results? … No wonder the workingmen of our country are in a state of unrest, and are groping around to find out how it is that when the land is filled with wealth, their lot is so cheerless and hard, and that such vast disparities in fortune exist …” (1886)

“The swift growth of large fortunes is the … cause of the impoverishment and the degradation of the masses. A great fortune is like a great snowball which boys roll down a hill on a mild day in winter, and which grows bigger and leaves bare a wider swath at every turn.” (1887)

“… the times which try men’s souls are here once more. European and American capitalists have bound the country in chains. The declaration of independence from British arrogance needs to be supplemented by a declaration of independence from the powers of concentrated wealth.” (1891)

“No manipulation of money can cure the evil of the concentration of wealth in a few hands, as it is not the cause. …After the Civil War, there were two millionaires in the US, and now there are 7000 such men, and one-half of the wealth of the people is in possession of 30,000 men.” [4% of the population] (1891)

William J. Stone, ex-governor of Missouri, commenting on the idle rich who possess wealth, but do no work and create no product: “When those who produce least, acquire most; when mere absorbers become the rulers; there is something essentially wrong in social and economic conditions. The enormous concentration of wealth which has taken place during the last thirty years has raised up a moneyed class in this country. …This is not only a moneyed class, but to a large extent, it is also a nonproductive class, for its wealth is represented mainly by investments in public and corporate securities in mortgages on real estate and manufacturing plants and in the stocks of banks and similar institutions. This colossal accumulation of wealth in a few hands is of itself a startling thing to contemplate. Patrick Henry, the great orator of the Revolution, once said, ‘We can only judge the future by the past.’ Look at the past. When the great empires fell, ownership of wealth had consolidated to a tiny fraction of the population. When Egypt fell, 2 percent of the population owned 97 percent of the wealth … in Persia, 1 percent … in Babylon, 2 percent … in Rome, a fraction of a percent owned all the known world.” (1898)

From the book Who Owns the United States by Sereno S. Pratt: “One twelfth of the estimated wealth of the United States is represented at the meeting of the board of directors of the US Steel Corporation when they are all present. The 24 directors are: Rockefeller, Morgan … They represent as influential directors more than 200 other companies. These companies operate nearly one-half of the railroad mileage of the US … plus Standard Oil, International Harvester, GE, Pullman, International Mercantile Marine, US Realty and Construction, American Linseed … the leading telegraph systems … banks, insurance companies, express companies …” (1903)

From the Foreword in Dynastic America and Those Who Control It by Henry H. Klein: This book proves that wealth is concentrated. History records that the decline of civilization in a nation begins with wealth concentration. Dynastic Europe is dead, but the dynasties in America flourish. Theirs is the power of life and death over the whole human race.” (1921)

If things are ever going to change, those who mobilize need to know what has gone before. Those in power know that change has been attempted many times. When they recognize history repeating itself, they need only guide the movement in the same direction from years past in order to maintain the status quo.

Photo Top: Newspaper headline, 1891.

Lawrence Gooley has authored ten books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 19 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, November 14, 2011

Repeating Past History: The Occupy Movement

Despite the wisdom of elders and some noted quotations (“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it”), we are often caught up in another axiom that defines insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” When I was much younger, both of those ideas impressed me as I read books about French Indochina and France’s miserable, lengthy, disastrous attempt to rule, particularly in Vietnam.

It fueled my anti-war sentiment when the US decided to ignore the past and repeat the mistakes of the French. After another decade of slaughter, the results were the same. It struck me recently that “Occupy Wall Street” should read pertinent history to avoid the results of the past.

If you follow the media stories covering today’s movement (the 99 percent vs. 1 percent), you’ve heard about this new idea that the extreme wealth and corporate greed of the 1 percent should have limits. Likewise, you’ve heard claims from those favoring the 1 percent that by trying to raise taxes on the rich, the 99ers are waging class warfare against our wealthiest citizens.

Clearly, these are all new ideas resulting from a situation like no other. However …

If you enjoy history, you’ll probably enjoy this headline from 105 years ago, appearing in The New York Times of January 6, 1907: “The Country’s Wealth: Is 99 percent of it in the Hands of 1 percent of the People.” Similar stories appeared in many other publications.

What happened then is happening again today: supporters of the 99ers are speaking out on behalf of the unemployed, the underemployed, the underpaid, and the poor, while the other position is defended by those who feed off the 1 percent and must serve as their bullhorn. And, as usual, the 1 percent itself remains largely silent, content to have others speak out for them.

As for those siding with the 1 percent, who have declared the Occupy Wall Street movement as class warfare against the wealthy—it’s certainly a novel idea, right? These three quotations support that premise.

On the side of the 99: “The cry of class warfare was raised against us by the government and wealthy classes, as pure propaganda, in the hope of enlisting sympathy of the public against labor.”

On the side of the 1 percent, regarding tax loopholes for the wealthy: “… to collect the taxes, the administration now seeks to attack the rich and the thrifty … This becomes part and parcel of the class warfare which has been waged … to gain popular favor with the masses…”

And finally, against the 99, portrayed variously as troublemakers, lazy, shifty, drug abusing, etc.: “A peculiarity of all professional agitators of class warfare in the United States is their personal aversion to toil. Many of them never did a day’s work at manual labor. They know no more about the working people of America than a pig knows about Christmas, yet profess to be the tireless champions of the working class … and have hit upon a plan for feathering their nests without ever laying an egg. They just cackle and collect.”

Those who are involved in today’s issues would be well served by researching protests of years past, which might prepare them for arguments made against the movement. Read the three quotations again, and consider that they came from 1920, 1937, and 1949, respectively, but could just as well have been uttered by any number of talking heads who ramble on in today’s media, especially the day-long “news” shows.

Perhaps by knowing the questions that have been asked so many times in the past, and the answers that were given, there might be the possibility for change.

But for observers who look at history to see what has gone before us, it’s hard not to subscribe to another famous axiom: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” General translation: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Photo Top: NY Times headline, January 6, 1907.

Lawrence Gooley has authored ten books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 19 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, November 7, 2011

Lawrence Gooley: Long History of the ‘Rooftop Highway’

As has happened for so many, many years now, the Rooftop Highway is in the news again, with plenty of pros and cons presented and a whole lot hanging in the balance. While listening to some of the arguments, it struck me that the idea is perhaps a little older than some of us think. Paul Sands of WPTZ recently commented that the Rooftop Highway idea hasn’t moved for 20 years, but at the very least, I’m old enough to recall the intense discussions during the 1970s, and that takes us back 40 years.

Of course, the record shows that the concept was legitimized a half-century ago when, in early 1961, the New York State legislature passed a bill that included the proposed road as part of the federal interstate highway system.

In the 1960s, the idea was pushed by State Senator Robert McEwen (an Ogdensburg native) and Clinton County Assemblyman Robert Feinberg (Malone native and Plattsburgh resident). In fact, Feinberg said it would happen “sooner or later,” even if Governor Nelson Rockefeller vetoed the bill (which he did, after both houses passed it).

Perhaps not so coincidentally, Feinberg’s father, New York State Senator Benjamin Feinberg, was highly critical of the condition of the state’s highways in the late 1930s. At that time, he called for the construction of four-lane highways to help make travel safer. Decades later, Robert followed up on his father’s ideas.

Unnoticed in the mix was New York State Assemblyman Leslie G. Ryan (of Rouses Point), who presented serious arguments for the establishment of a main highway north to the Canadian border, and another running east from Clinton County to Watertown, the same concept known today as the Rooftop Highway.

Ryan’s ideas may well have been adopted by Congress when the interstate highway system later became reality. In 1940, when he proposed the idea of a multi-lane route across northern New York, his motivation came from several sources. Some of those same reasons were cited years later in the battle over the Rooftop Highway.

At the time, the United States was still fifteen months away from entering World War II. England and Canada, however, were at war with Germany. It occurred to Ryan and many others that a German victory could suddenly place the Nazis on our northern border, which was basically undefended.

(From the days of the Revolutionary War through the Civil War, the northern border had been a constant security concern. Since that time, the level of worry had waned, but it was still an issue.) By mid-1940, the Germans had won many victories, and Canada and Britain (among others) had already been at war with them for a year.

With German dominance a real possibility, Assemblyman Ryan addressed the problem eloquently in a letter to Congressman Clarence Kilburn, who in turn presented it at the federal level to the War Department. Ryan’s arguments were compelling.

“It seems to me that a weakness in our national defense, and one that would seriously hamper our cooperation with Canada, is our present system of main highways in northern New York. Over our narrow roads, it would be practically impossible to move large numbers of troops and military equipment, including heavy guns and tanks, with the speed necessary for effective operation in modern mechanized warfare.

“Because our Northern border is completely undefended, our inability to speedily concentrate forces in this section might well prove disastrous to our national defense, more particularly if Germany should defeat England and attempt an invasion of this country through Canada.

“It is my belief that the main highway from Glens Falls to the Canadian boundary at Rouses Point should be widened to provide three or four lanes, and the U. S. Highway No. 11 from Rouses Point through Champlain, Mooers, Ellenburg, Chateaugay, and Malone to Watertown and south to Syracuse, should likewise be widened, and much of it resurfaced with concrete.

“Such improvements would provide broad military highways from Albany, Syracuse, and then south to and along the Canadian boundary over which troops and military equipment could be moved speedily to the northern frontier if it should become necessary.

“They would also give direct connection between Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River, and the three United States Army posts at Plattsburgh, Madison Barracks [Sackets Harbor], and Fort Ethan Allen, the latter by way of the Rouses Point bridge.”

Looking to the future, Ryan added, “In ordinary times, these three or four lane highways would be no more than adequate to care for our constantly increasing local and tourist automobile traffic.” In other words, the changes wouldn’t be overkill, even in peacetime.

In the 1960s, twenty years later, McEwen’s plan cited a top priority that was remarkably similar to Ryan’s: “From a defense standpoint, this Rooftop Highway could be very important. Such installations as Rome Air Force Base, Camp Drum, Plattsburgh Air Force Base, Atlas missile sites in the Plattsburgh area, and the Burlington dispersal area would be served by this Rooftop Highway.”

Most, if not all, media refer to the “original” plan floated in the early 1960s for a Rooftop Highway, but the concept was promoted by Assemblyman Leslie Ryan of Rouses Point two decades earlier. Depending on which side of the argument you’re on, part of the blame or credit goes to Mr. Ryan.

Lawrence Gooley has authored ten books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 19 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, October 31, 2011

Wesport’s John Greeley Viall, Civil War Veteran

Judson Kilpatrick, a Union general during the Civil War, has been described as flamboyant, rash, and tempestuous. There’s no doubt that he was often a rogue officer, sometimes to disastrous effect. The South developed a deep hatred of him for the extreme methods he employed, but he was certainly part of the team effort that led to the North’s victory.

As every leader knew during the war, many levels of support were necessary in order to win. Despite being brash and confident in his abilities, Kilpatrick famously cited a North Country man, Captain John Viall, as critical to the general’s own success, and the Union’s as well.

John Greeley Viall, son of William and Mary Viall, was born November 1829 in Westport, New York, on the western shore of Lake Champlain. In January 1852, when he was 22 years old, John left New York and settled in Texas. Nine months later, he purchased the San Antonio Tin, Copper, and Sheet Iron Ware Manufactory, which sold and/or fabricated stoves, cookware, water pipes, and just about anything made of metal. » Continue Reading.


Monday, October 24, 2011

Rouses Point: History at the Canadian Border

Few villages in New York State can lay claim to as rich a heritage as Rouses Point, and like the oft-used real-estate axiom says, there are three primary reasons—location, location, location. As New York’s northernmost and easternmost village, Rouses Point can be found at the north end of Lake Champlain. Bordering on Canada to the north and Vermont to the east, for decades it was a shipping and transportation crossroads, serving both water and rail traffic.

Until Interstate 87 was completed in the late 1960s, adding a major customs facility at Champlain, Rouses Point was one of the busiest border crossings in the state. That made for an incredible mix of good, bad, famous, and dangerous folks passing through the village every day.

A book could be written on that subject alone, but in deference to space limitations, here’s a smattering of the interesting visitors to pass through a village whose population has stood at around 2,000 for more than a century.

In 1893, thirteen rail cars filled with British soldiers and their horses passed north into Canada, returning after appearing at the Chicago World’s Fair. It was the largest British presence in the village since thousands of defeated foot soldiers from the Battle of Plattsburgh (September 11, 1814) fled north in retreat.

In 1904, two circuses crossed at Rouses Point into Canada. For locals, this was a frequent and enjoyable event. Dealing with customs regulations was time-consuming, which meant the circus animals had to be walked, fed, and tended to, allowing curious visitors to view lions, tigers, elephants, and other critters … sort of a free show.

Besides Rouses Point’s proud legacy as a stop on the Underground Railroad, helping escaped slaves to freedom in Canada, there were also instances of white slavery in the opposite direction, bringing young girls into the states to work as prostitutes.

Noted financier J. P. Morgan, Jr., son of one of the wealthiest individuals in American history, reportedly traveled through the village in his plush, private rail car following the end of World War I. Destination: Ottawa, to pay Canada for armaments used by the US during the war. He was said to have been accompanied by $50 million in gold (worth $630 million in 2011). It was nothing unusual for Morgan, who handled hundreds of millions of dollars in such payments each year for the governments of France and England as well.

New York City’s legendary vanishing judge, Joseph Force Crater, was reportedly seen in Rouses Point in 1930. Though his acquaintances believed he had been murdered, authorities were dispatched to the border village to conduct a search (unsuccessful, of course).

At about the same time, recently retired World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Gene Tunney passed through Rouses Point after touring through southern Quebec.

Following a state visit to Washington, the King of Siam traveled north through the village in 1931. Five years later, Anna Hauptmann spent time in Rouses Point after being denied entry into Canada, even though she was accompanied by her lawyer. Anna was well known as the widow of Bruno Hauptmann, who was executed five months earlier after being found guilty of kidnapping and murdering the Lindbergh baby, a deed that became known as the “Crime of the Century.”

In 1940, prior to America’s entry into World War II, millions of dollars worth of armed and battle-ready planes, built on Long Island, streamed north through Rouses Point to assist Canada’s war effort.

Considering the level of traffic that once passed through the village on road and rail, the village is much quieter today. In the 1920s, for example, more than a million people crossed the Rouses Point border in a single year. On one busy weekend, 9,000 cars went through customs, and in 1925, officers reported that six and a half miles of boxcars passed south from Canada daily.

Of course, those statistics occurred during Prohibition, which saw increased traffic due to smuggling. The high number of border crossings reduced the chances of being caught. Since thousands were arrested, it’s certain that a much larger number of booze smugglers escaped detection. (Flo Ziegfeld was among those caught by local customs officials.)

Rouses Point has also been visited by several US Presidents, among them James Monroe, William McKinley, Harry Truman, Franklin Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower.

The most famous of foreign visitors to the village were British royalty. In 1919, the Prince of Wales toured Canada and accepted an invitation to visit President Woodrow Wilson at the White House. Wilson was bedridden with illness at the time, so a “bemedalled staff of admirals and generals” was dispatched to greet the Prince when he first stepped onto American soil at Rouses Point.

On November 10, 1919, Edward, Prince of Wales, arrived at the train station. Awaiting him were Secretary of State Lansing, Major General John Biddle of the US Army, Rear Admiral Albert T. Niblick of the US Navy, and Major General Charleston of the British army.

The band of Plattsburgh’s 63rd US Infantry was on hand to play the British and American national anthems. A group of young ladies held an unusual canopy (the flags of both countries sewn together) while Prince Edward strolled beneath it, shaking the hand of each girl.

Augmented by a contingent of several hundred from Plattsburgh, the throng, estimated at around 2,000, offered a gracious welcome to the future king, whose friendly, pleasant demeanor endeared him to the crowd.

(Years later, Edward made his lasting mark on royal history. After ruling as king for less than a year, he famously chose to abdicate the throne in order to marry a commoner, Wallis Simpson.)

Another royal visit to Rouses Point twenty years later lacked the details of Edward’s sojourn, though it was considered a great honor for the private rail car of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to pass through any village.

In 1939, Rouses Point was featured in articles from coast to coast as the place where “the first reigning monarchs ever to visit the United States and Canada” departed from American soil.

Security for the trip was at the highest level ever seen in the North Country. D&H Railroad Police, FBI agents, NYS Police Troop B officers, and the entire 26th Infantry from Plattsburgh handled an important assignment: “… practically every station, crossing, culvert, underpass, and overpass will be patrolled for hours before the royal train passes through this section.”

Separately, a massive crew was charged with ensuring against any equipment failures: “… every inch of the roadbed from Troy to the Canadian boundary at Rouses Point will be patrolled by section men and other railroad employees just ahead of the train to make certain there are no broken rails or obstructions on the track.”

The royal tour of Canada received worldwide media coverage, but the US excursion, described as “a private diplomatic mission” related to impending hostilities in Europe, was more low-key. Small crowds gathered at northern New York rail stations to watch the royal train pass by on the trip’s farewell leg.

Traveling north along Lake Champlain’s shores, the train bearing the King and Queen reached the Rouses Point station at 5 a.m. on Monday, June 12, their last stop in America. A number of Canadian Mounties, having stayed overnight at Rouses Point’s Holland Hotel, assumed security duties at the border crossing. Within about fifteen minutes, the royal couple was on their way to Halifax, where they would sail back to England.

Interesting visitors are just a small part of the village’s story, which spans many and diverse subjects: the discovery of the Lake by Samuel de Champlain; various conflicts, including the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Lower Canada Rebellion, and the Fenian struggle during the Civil War; the stories of Fort Blunder and Fort Montgomery; a lengthy border dispute with England; smuggling of just about every commodity imaginable; the wild times of rum-running during Prohibition; and more.

Rouses Point is one of New York State’s historical treasures.

Photo Top: Edward, Prince of Wales, 1919.

Photo Middle: Gene Tunney headline.

Photo Bottom: Headlines touted the royals’ departure point from the United States.

Lawrence Gooley has authored ten books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 19 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Monday, October 17, 2011

History’s Criminals: Ticonderoga’s Bernard Champagne

After impersonating Walter W. Baker, heir to the Baker chocolate fortune, and bilking his Richmond fiancée’s mother out of $15,000 in 1928 (equal to $190,000 in 2011), Ticonderoga’s Bernard Frederick Champagne was sentenced to ten years in a Virginia prison. He was paroled after serving more than six years, but the gates had hardly closed behind him when Champagne was at it again.

Shortly after his release, the US Department of Justice was tracking him across the North Country. As he had done for years in the past, Bernard managed to move quickly and stay a step ahead of his pursuers.

In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the best idea to leave prison after conviction on charges of impersonation and then return home to pass himself off as a federal officer, but that’s exactly what Champagne did. He also left Ticonderoga for several weeks with a vehicle that didn’t belong to him, prompting the town police force to join the feds in seeking his arrest.

Initially, their search efforts covered from the Albany area to southern Quebec. It was then expanded statewide, and finally extended across the Northeast. Two weeks later, Champagne was in Elizabethtown’s Essex County jail, facing local and federal charges.

What had he done? After arriving home from the prison in Virginia, Bernard needed transportation to execute his latest scam. At the automobile dealership of Charles Moore in Ticonderoga, he tried out a large Oldsmobile and expressed an interest in purchasing it. Moore accepted his promise to return with the car and pay for it when some expected funds arrived.

Champagne then visited stores, restaurants, and bars across the region, presenting himself as a representative from Washington. Presenting his official federal credentials, including a badge, Bernard saved them money by accepting a smaller direct payment of the liquor tax, which relieved them of paying the regular rate to county alcohol officials.

When local liquor authorities made their normal rounds, they viewed the receipts left by Champagne and knew immediately that something was amiss. By that time, he had scammed businesses across the region and then vanished.

An investigation failed to locate Bernard, but certain savings accounts were discovered. No one knew for certain where the money came from, but in banks located in Burlington and Saratoga, Champagne had $56,000 ($890,000 in 2011).

He was traced as far as Maryland, and then officially listed as “whereabouts unknown.” A week later, Champagne was arrested in Hyattsville, Maryland (still driving the Oldsmobile), and was brought north to face charges.

Five months later (in October), an Essex County jury found him not guilty of stealing the car. Their reasoning was simple: he had promised to return it, and with no firm timeframe in place, he hadn’t actually reneged on that promise.

As he had done earlier in the Richmond case, Bernard presented no defense on the federal charges. He pled guilty in Albany to three counts of impersonation and was sentenced to one year and one day in the US Penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

In December 1936, Champagne walked out of prison once again a free man, and immediately proved himself an incorrigible lawbreaker. Without hesitation, he returned to criminal activity, and for the next several years left few traces of his whereabouts. (It was very difficult tracking his story today through newspaper archives and public records. Gaps were unavoidable. After all, seven decades ago, the FBI chased him for seven years before achieving any success.)

Having already served two prison sentences, Champagne had proven catchable, but the third time wouldn’t be easy for his pursuers. He worked multiple scams at the same time in a particular city, but when the heat was on, he slipped away to a new location. And there’s no denying that Bernard Champagne was one slippery customer.

His exploits out West provide a fine example. After several impersonations in San Francisco, he was indicted there by a federal grand jury in May 1942. But Champagne was already long gone, posing as a secret service agent in Salt Lake City, where he found at least six more victims. He was particularly adept at securing small cash amounts, which tended to attract less attention.

To make the process profitable, he worked several targets simultaneously. They were nearly always women, and many of them were widows. In Salt Lake City, impersonating a secret service agent netted him $5,000 from six targets. As if to intentionally taunt his pursuers, in two of those cases Bernard also claimed to be a special agent with the FBI.

This especially annoyed Bureau Director J. Edgar Hoover, who was very protective of the agency’s image. He turned up the heat on Bernard, but despite the intensified effort, their quarry from the North Country remained elusive.

The charges at San Francisco were followed by several other federal indictments: in Salt Lake City, June and November 1942; Danville, Illinois, September 1942; New York City, January 1943; and Cleveland, April 1943. Complaints had also been filed against Bernard in Omaha, Nebraska; Kankakee, Illinois; Daytona Beach, Florida; and in Maine.

FBI agents described Champagne as “a prolific impersonator,” but the true extent of his success is unknown. Because so much of his fakery escaped detection, it’s unclear how many identities Bernard actually assumed. One agent said he had “at least 50 aliases,” and at one point, there were 34 names documented. It was the list of professions, however, that really impressed them.

Among his successful impersonations were: a graduate of Columbia University; a doctor employed by the US Public Health Service; a secret service agent; an FBI agent; a member of the US diplomatic corps; and the nephew of noted politician Hamilton Fish, a ruse that allowed him to pass $600 worth of bogus checks ($8,000 in 2011).

On a grander scale were his military personas: an army medical officer; aide to General Arnold, who was chief of the nation’s air forces; a member of military intelligence; a lieutenant colonel in the army (good for another $8,000 in 2011); a lieutenant commander in the US Navy; and a nephew of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was commanding the Allied forces in Europe.

At times he claimed to have lost three brothers in the Battle of the Coral Sea; that his brother-in-law was an admiral; and that his grandfather was a navy captain. Those lies, offered convincingly, gave him legitimacy in the eyes of an intended victim. It was an important factor leading up to the payoff scheme: ensuring that he could secure the release of relatives in Germany. By carefully selecting his marks (victims), Bernard achieved continued success.

An FBI memo from summer 1943 notes that Champagne’s proclivity for “victimizing women, especially widows” was featured in a radio broadcast by the legendary Walter Winchell. Hoover, passionate guardian of the FBI’s reputation, felt that publicly citing a longstanding, unsolved case made the Bureau look bad. It was his baby, and he felt the need to respond.

The same memo confirmed that increased attention was now focused on Bernard: “An identification order was issued on Champagne during the past week, and a very active fugitive investigation looking to his apprehension is in progress.”

Less than two months later, Hoover had his man. Bernard’s modus operandus was well known, and information detailing it was disseminated to scores of law enforcement agencies. Anything remotely resembling his style was looked at, and a case in Ohio proved his undoing.

In the small village of Dalton, Bernard had targeted a widow, Gladys Mohn, in a real estate scheme. Presenting himself as Allen Steven Klein, a navy surgeon, he convinced Mrs. Mohn to invest $4,312 ($55,000 in 2011) in some Florida property, land that he said the government was going to purchase for airport development. The return promised by Champagne on her investment was $22,000 ($277,000 in 2011).

A glitch developed when Mohn went to Florida with Champagne to look the site over. After several excuses “prevented” him from showing her the property, which of course didn’t exist, Bernard finally abandoned her and vanished.

Mohn’s subsequent complaint to authorities, with details on how her “partner” operated, suggested that Allen Steven Klein may well have been Bernard Frederick Champagne.

On April 10, a warrant was issued for his arrest, adding to the list of previous indictments, but also triggering an intensified FBI manhunt. And this time, Bernard’s luck finally ran out when several FBI agents from the Cleveland branch arrested him in Dalton. At his arraignment the next day in Canton, Ohio, Champagne did what he had always done in the past—pleaded guilty.

Hoover addressed the media, mentioning several of the personas Bernard had assumed, including that of FBI agent. The Director noted, “Champagne operated from coast to coast, leaving a trail of disillusioned women who gave him sums ranging up to $4000 [$50,000 in 2011].”

Though his documented crimes may have been the proverbial “tip of the iceberg,” an aura of mystery surrounded Champagne’s incarceration, much as it had his life of crime. After pleading guilty, he was held under $10,000 bond ($120,000 in 2011) at Cleveland for federal grand jury action. At that point, he seems to have vanished.

Perhaps the FBI avoided publicizing his story any further once he was captured. Champagne had defrauded hundreds of victims out of untold thousands of dollars—certainly the equivalent of millions of dollars today. To the embarrassment of lawmen, he had gotten away with most of it during the past seven years. Heavily redacted records limit our knowledge of his activities.

Despite the vast number of charges pending against Bernard in at least nine cities (for fraud and for impersonating federal officials), the Cleveland grand jury settled on a puzzling set of indictments: “Violation of the Mann Act, in transporting a waitress from Orrville [Ohio] to California via Winter Haven, Florida; violation of the Selective Service Act for not having his registration card with him; and posing as a lieutenant commander in the US Navy with intent to defraud.”

It appears that he served approximately 18 years in prison and was released in the early 1960s, returning to the North Country. Champagne passed away in 1977 at the age of 73.

Lawrence Gooley has authored ten books and dozens of articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. Expanding their services in 2008, they have produced 19 titles to date, and are now offering web design. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Page 21 of 26« First...10...1920212223...Last »