When I launched this journal in 2007, my ambitions were modest. Here would be articles that mentioned Comstock House, of course, and maybe a few items about the Oates and Comstock families. Three or four posts per year. A half dozen, tops.
But when I actually began wading through the old Santa Rosa newspapers, I found myself increasingly pressing the "print" button on the microfilm reader to capture articles that had nothing to do with the house or its families. These were stories begging to be told again, like the tale of the woman who turned up alive after her family had purchased a coffin, published an obituary, and planned a funeral service. Or the time when salmon were so plentiful in Santa Rosa Creek that a man caught one with his bare hands near downtown, then boarded a trolley car with the fish tucked under his arm. And then there was the holiday season of 1904, when not one, but two, men dressed as Santa Claus caught fire from candles on their Christmas trees.
This blog quickly morphed into a year-by-year history of Santa Rosa as seen from the slow lane - which isn't a bad way to gain a deeper understanding about American history, either. Writing about the local impact of the Bank Panic of 1907, for example, I strayed into research about the underlying causes, and the heated political battle of the following year to prevent it from happening again. Perhaps most important, I discovered that it was a more interesting topic than I'd ever expected, and found myself wanting to share the insights I had gained.
As I approached the end of writing about 1907, I found myself playing a familiar game: If I had a time machine and could only choose two events to visit from each of these years, which would they be?
Some picks are obvious. I'd have to visit April 18, 1906 to witness the horrors of the great earthquake, if only to seek answers for some of the many unresolved questions about what really happened on that day. Another must-see would be the Battle of Sebastopol Avenue on March 1, 1905; a steam locomotive retrofitted for "fighting purposes" and a human tug-of-war with the body of one of the wealthiest men in town - what's not to like?
After these no-brainers, the game becomes contemplative. Would I prefer to witness an epic occasion, such as the elite banquet at Bohemian Grove for Teddy Roosevelt's infamous daughter, or enjoy the personal satisfaction of dropping by a grand party at Comstock House when it was only two years old, and the Oates' had a string orchestra tucked behind potted ferns in the library? When it all sifts out, however, the events that I'd most like to have witnessed were all very public and rarely historically remarkable; these were simply very sweet moments in the life of a small community.
I'd like to have been in downtown Santa Rosa on a summer's Saturday night in 1905, when the stores stayed open late, everyone dressed up, and a brass band gave a free concert on the north balcony of the Court House; I'd have liked to be there on July 21, 1906, when the Pavilion Skating Rink opened three months after the earthquake, and Santa Rosans packed the place, eager to blow off their nervous tension; I wish I was around on May 18, 1907 for the special children's Rose Parade, which was a nice symbol of renewal after the disaster.
My second favorite moment for 1907 was an event so modest that I nearly overlooked it: The quiet evening of December 12, when members of the community came together to read and reminisce about Mark Twain. Selections from his works were read by five local men, all accomplished public speakers; it would have been pleasant listening. But even more interesting is what other treats some of them brought to this literary potluck. Dr. W. A. Finley (father of Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley), spoke about Mark Twain's youth in Missouri, where he also grew up at about the same time. The evening ended with Attorney Dougherty reading one of the best sections from Innocents Abroad, introducing it with the story of when he met the author. Any anecdote that might begin, "I remember when I once had dinner with Livy and Sam Clemens..." cannot possibly disappoint.
The short item in the Press Democrat the next morning was headlined, "Pleasant Evening With Mark Twain", but I believe I'd have gone farther, and written that it was the finest evening that Santa Rosans had shared in a very long time.
PLEASANT EVENING WITH MARK TWAIN
Presbyterian Brotherhood Have Literary Night With American Humorist for a Subject
The first in a series of literary evenings given by the Presbyterian Brotherhood of the Presbyterian Church took place Thursday evening in the church parlors and proved a great success from every point of view. Mark Twain, his life and writings, was the subject considered. There was a large and appreciative audience present and the readings and stories were all interesting and enjoyable...Arthur Hendrickson read extracts from the adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which has furnished amusement for thousands.
Dr. W. A. Finley prefaced his reading of the description of "The Coyote," with some incidents regarding the humorist's early life in Missouri, and the scenes of many of his stories. Judge Seawell followed with a number of enjoyable selections from the writings of the humorist. The Rev. W. Martin told a number of personal stories of the writer and read extracts from his "Any Old Thing" and was followed by Attorney S. K. Dougherty who told of his being at the same hotel and table with Mr. Clemens and his wife in the White Mountains. He read selections from "Innocence Abroad," [sic] including the story of how the party refused to enthuse at the many wonders shown them by the guide and the latter's dismay at their conduct.- Press Democrat, December 13, 1907
In a 1983 Press Democrat column, Gaye LeBaron compared him to a real-life Indiana Jones, "Scaling the cliffs of Indian dwellings preserved for centuries in the dry desert air...such is the stuff from which anthropological adventures are made." When I recently mentioned his name to archeologists, 2 out of 4 dismissed him using the same description: "Pothunter," which is an insult that ranks at the bottom near "grave robber" (it means an amateur who vandalizes prehistoric sites searching for interesting and/or valuable artifacts). The man was Jesse Peter. He wasn't Indy, and it isn't fair to call him a pothunter, either.
From his death in 1944 until recently, his name was on the Santa Rosa Junior College Museum in homage to his driving role in its creation. Jesse Peter was known in the 1930s for his donations of interesting rocks and Indian relics to the Junior College and for leading some field trips to the pueblos of the Southwest with JC students, documented in some very Indiana-Jonesish photos in the school's collection. His day job was far less glamorous; he taught shop class at Santa Rosa Junior High, where his challenge was guiding pimpled Santa Rosa boys to use hammers for hitting nails and not their thumbs.
Teaching "manual arts" was a midlife career change for him. Born in 1885, he studied at UC/Berkeley, but never graduated. His father - also named Jesse - had been a miner, and he likewise spent his early adult years knocking around mining camps, starting in the Mojave Desert tungsten mines during the boom period when that ore was considered as precious as gold (think: Filaments for those popular, new-fangled lightbulbs). After that came at least five years in the Alaskan gold fields near Juneau. "Jess" also spent some time as a construction worker and contractor. He was good at these jobs and earned a living, but it was a bit of a drifter's life.
At the same time, Jesse Peter had another identity as a well-known and respected figure in the world of archeology. In 1933 and 1934 he was among the 75 "experienced men" nationwide invited by the National Park Service to join the prestigious Rainbow Bridge/Monument Valley Expeditions. The group trekked into the vast, 3,000 square-mile "Four Corners" region of the Southwest - then accessible only by horseback and mule - to document Navajo culture in the remote area and begin archeological research into the little-known Anasazi people. (There are thousands of photos from the expeditions available here, but participants are rarely identified.)
Closer to home, he documented over 200 archeological sites in the North Bay, more than anyone else of that era. He had an uncommon eye for seeing what other's couldn't; his most significant discoveries locally were probably the locations of the enormous obsidian quarry at Annadel State Park and the large Pomo village now covered by Santa Rosa's City Hall.
That Peter spent his last decade associated with the Junior College and the creation of its museum gives a nice arc to his biography - he was just about the same age as a SRJC student when he made his astonishing debut as an archeologist. In 1907, when he was just 22 years old, he donated to UC/Berkeley a collection of over 600 artifacts that he had excavated near Santa Rosa, apparently on his family's farm. These "finished and half-completed mortars, spear points, knives, and ceremonial instruments," according to a university newsletter, included "several pieces of types that have not been discovered before and are therefore of particular importance." Over three decades later, it was still described as one of the most important private archeological donations ever made to Berkeley.
Given his lifelong interest in the field, it may seem strange that Jesse Peter didn't become a professional archeologist, but you have to consider his time; had he finished a degree at the university he would have been a member of the class of 1907, when there were few career opportunities in archeology aside from college teaching or working as a museum preparator. There was also less stigma to being an "avocational" scientist in those days; another example from Peter's generation was John A. Comstock (eldest brother of Judge Hilliard Comstock), who became the acknowledged expert on California butterflies despite having no former education whatsoever. The difference between Comstock and Peter, however, was that Comstock published his research (always the academic yardstick of accomplishment) while nothing by Peter appeared in print - even as his field notes, maps, and artifacts were recognized as important and were being collected by the University of California and other institutions.
Peter's reputation is further diminished by our modern revulsion over the destructive nature of archeological practices of a century ago. In the photo seen to the right (CLICK to enlarge), he is counting tree rings to calculate the age of a log shaped by Native Americans. While modern scientists have the technology to bore tiny core samples into wood, it appears here that the hewn tip of the log was sliced off with a saw, destroying much of the worth of this object - and possibly the entire site - to future researchers.
And finally there's the "pothunter" label, which likewise has to be understood in the context of the day, when the belief was that important objects had to be taken away and preserved before they were grabbed by treasure hunters, accidentally destroyed by development, or ended up on someone's knicknack shelf. "Everyone picked up objects back then," an SSU anthropologist told me, "including the most well-known names. You can't point fingers."
MAKES GIFT TO UNIVERSITY
Jesse Peter, a former well-known young man of this city and a graduate of the high school here, has presented the University of California at Berkeley a valuable collection of prehistoric implements obtained by him principally from the deposits around the warm spring two and a half miles east of Santa Rosa on the Peters place. The specimens were found at varying depths ranging down to more than twenty feet below the surface. The collection includes more than six hundred pieces, of which many are rare objects not commonly represented in museums. It is of special value because all of the material has been obtained from a limited area and the facts relating to the discovery are all available.- Press Democrat, August 24, 1907
JESSE PETER'S GIFT TO THE UNIVERSITY
Archeological Remains Found Near Santa Rosa Are Given to Museum at Berkeley
The University of California Weekly News Letter acknowledges a gift from Jesse Peter of this city of archaeological remains unearthed near Santa Rosa. The letter says:
"Jesse Peter, of Santa Rosa, California, has presented to the Museum of Anthropology of the University a collection of archaeological remains from the vicinity of Santa Rosa. This collection comprises several hundred pieces, including finished and half completed mortars, spear points, knives and ceremonial implements. There are several pieces of types that have not been discovered before and are therefore of particular importance. Of special interest is a large series of chipped obsidian implements and charm stones, all found in a large spring where they were evidently for a long period deposited as offerings by the Indians of prehistoric times."- Press Democrat, February 2, 1908
|(RIGHT: Fred J. Wiseman at the wheel of his Stoddard-Dayton race car, 1908 or 1909. The man next to him is probably a mechanic from the auto dealership that employed Wiseman. One mechanic who rode with Wiseman during cross-country races was J. W. Peters, who helped Wiseman build his first plane. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Museum)|
We first met Wiseman in 1905, when a Santa Rosa policeman caught him speeding down Fourth street (but Fred got revenge a few days later, forcing the same cop to arrest himself for spitting on the sidewalk). Later that year he appeared as a driver-for-hire, giving James Wyatt Oates and his Civil War-hero brother a drive around Sonoma county (on the final stretch, he opened up the throttle "in a manner which shook the party up"). In 1905 he also opened Santa Rosa's first gas station/garage, and seemed destined to stay here forever.
But the garage was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, and some time in the months that followed, Wiseman moved to San Francisco, where he began working for the J. W. Leavitt auto dealership. We next heard about him in the late summer of 1907, when he was taking a young woman on a spin through Golden Gate park one Sunday afternoon and the car tipped over (not his fault), pinning her beneath. She escaped without serious injury, and they married about a year later.
By the summer of 1908, Wiseman was racing Stoddard-Dayton automobiles sold by his boss. In a vehicle that looks today like a lawn tractor on steroids, he buzzed around a racetrack in Concord at almost sixty (60!) miles per hour; as the Press Democrat noted, "he is foolish to go fast for if something should go wrong it might mean a sacrifice of his life." A few weeks later, he competed for the "Santa Rosa Cup" in his hometown and won. (This was not the first auto race in Sonoma county, however.) And a few weeks after that, he won big at the Tanforan racetrack near San Francisco. All of these were primarily thoroughbred horse tracks, of course, unpaved and unbanked. The first auto racetrack was built the following year in Indianapolis, where a Stoddard-Dayton won the premiere race.
Wiseman was now an exhibition driver and "head automobile man for the company," showing off the Stoddard-Dayton throughout Northern California and Nevada. His first race competition in the new year of 1909 came from an open challenge by another dealership for a hill-climbing race on the terrifying peak of 19th avenue in San Francisco. Unfortunately, the newspapers of that day did not specify exactly what they meant by "Nineteenth avenue hill" where the race was held, but for readers outside of the Bay Area, 19th ave is a major north-south traffic artery for the city with fairly gentle hills (think of a roller coaster sanded down by millennia of erosion). Like most races of that day, there were starting trials according to the selling price of the automobiles, and Wiseman and the Stoddard-Dayton easily won the race for cars costing $1,200-1,800. In the climactic free-for-all race, however, Wiseman came in fourth - the winner of that March 28th competition was a Stanley Steamer.
A few weeks later, Fred was again in Santa Rosa to drive in the first California Grand Prize Race. This was no small affair; thousands came out that May 9 to cheer the dozen drivers as they started the cross-country race to Geyserville and back, some 50 miles. The route was grueling; only half of the cars crawled across the finish line a little over an hour later, one of them driving on a rim because his left front tire blew out somewhere near Windsor. It's a pip of a tale, but it's not a Fred Wiseman story - he came in third. Honors that day, as well as the breathtaking $500 prize, went instead to Ben Noonan, Wiseman's old friend and business partner.
Wiseman's losing streak didn't last long. On May 16 he set a new speed record for driving from Oakland to San Francisco (via San Jose). As he was going through Santa Clara, his car ran over a fallen telegraph pole that "gave the car such a bounce that it tore the seats off the body," according to the SF Call. The accident also ruptured a fuel line, and Wiseman had to frequently stop and manually prime the carburetor with gasoline. After it was over, they found he had only about a quart of gas left in the tank.
|(RIGHT: Newspaper ads in this period would often mention the type of auto that won a noteworthy race, but never was the driver's name mentioned, except for this advertisement that appeared in the SF Call, May, 1909)|
Attempting to beat his own record over the same course a week later, Fred had a far more serious accident. Wiseman lost control of the car when it encountered a remarkably bumpy stretch of North First street in San Jose. The racer went off the road and hit a tree, throwing Wiseman and his mechanic passenger ("J. M. Peters," probably the same as J. W. Peters) about 40 feet. Both men were taken to a hospital, but not seriously hurt - although a wire service story claimed both were "probably fatally injured." The Stoddard-Dayton was demolished by the accident.
Fred apparently did lots of racing in 1908-1909 that wasn't reported in the papers (or at least, can't be found in the newspapers that have been digitally indexed). There were grumblings by the American Automobile Association (AAA) that he had "driven in practically every contest of any importance held in California," including events not authorized by local AAA chapters. The Association, which was trying to cut down on street racing and legitimize auto track racing as a organized sport, had national clout; they could have blocked Wiseman from participating in an important track race in Indiana on June 18. Fred drove in that competition, but
As he was in the Midwest and not far from the Stoddard-Dayton company (also probably his sponsor in the Indiana race), the story goes that he visited their auto plant in Dayton, Ohio - a town that also happened to be the place where a couple of brothers named Wright were building airplanes. Whether he stopped by and met
25 MILES IN 28 MINUTES IN AUTO
Fred J. Wiseman, Formerly of Santa Rosa, Drives Lively Clip in Machine on Track at Concord
A San Francisco paper publishes a picture of Fred J. Wiseman, formerly of this city, driving a Stoddard-Dayton automobile on the Concord track. The picture was taken while Wiseman was driving the car at the rate of twenty-five miles in twenty-eight minutes on a mile track.
Wiseman is one of the most daring and clever riders and in his track racing has demonstrated a thorough control of the machinery. His friends, however, agree that he is foolish to go fast for if something should go wrong it might mean a sacrifice of his life.
- Press Democrat, July 10, 1908
FINE TROPHIES BROUGHT HERE
Won by Fred Wiseman at Concord in Great Race
Two fine trophies are being displayed in the window of the Santa Rosa Cyclery, which are attracting considerable attention, especially among the automobile enthusiasts of this vicinity. They are the silver cups won by Fred Wiseman in the great races at Concord a short time ago, and are among the finest loving cups ever brought to this city. One of the cups was the reward for driving the 25 mile auto race in 28 minutes, and the smaller for winning the ten mile race in 11¼ minutes. The trophies are suitably engraved.
Wiseman drove a Stoddard-Dayton machine in the races in which he won the trophies, and it is stated that he will be here with one of his fast machines for the races Saturday and Sunday of this week. The machine will be entered both days.
- Santa Rosa Republican, August 19, 1908
AUTOMOBILE RACES HERE WERE GRAND SUCCESS
Fred J. Wiseman Wins Santa Rosa Cup Sunday Afternoon
...In the race for cars listing over $2500 on Saturday, Wiseman won the event with the Stoddard-Dayton car. He took the lead from the start and never permitted himself to be passed...The last race of the day, the twenty-five mile free-for-all, was taken by Fred J. Wiseman in his Stoddard-Dayton. It was fitting that the Santa Rosa cup, offered by the Chamber of Commerce, and the handsomest cup of the entire lot was taken by a Santa Rosa boy. The only accident of the meet occurred in this race, and it was nothing to speak of. While the Stearns machine was in the lead, one of the hind tires blew out, causing the machine to skid close to the fence while coming around the three-quarter mile pole, and the machine hit the fence. The machine skidded across the track directly in front of Wiseman's machine, and in the clouds of dust it seemed that a collision had occurred. When Wiseman emerged from the dust everybody breathed easier, and then the Stearns could be seen coming to the judge's stand with a section of the fence hanging to the machine. No damage was done the machine, but the spectators in the grand stand were given a severe fright. The Stearns at the time was leading Wiseman by a slight margin. Wiseman took the race in 29:54. The little Comet met with an accident to one tire after winning the first mile of this event, and had to stop and put on a new tire. But for this there is no doubt it would have won the event also. As it was, the little machine went a single mile after it started the second time in fifty-eight seconds making a new Pacific coast record...
- Santa Rosa Republican, August 24, 1908
FRED J. WISEMAN NOW A BENEDICK
Well Known Santa Rosa Boy Married to Miss Alice Ferguson in San Rafael on July 2
The many friends of Fred J. Wiseman, son of Mr. and Mrs. A. W. Wiseman, of Melitta, will be interested to know that he is a benedick [married man], and has been one since July 2, when he and Miss Alice Ferguson, a charming and beautiful San Francisco girl, were quietly married in San Rafael.
On the occasion of his visit here last Saturday and Sunday to attend the automobile races just one or two most intimate friends were let into the secret. They lost no time in extending feliciations as many others do now that the announcement of the marriage is made.
The bride is a niece of Mr. and Mrs. W. E. Ferguson of San Francisco, who were present at the wedding. Mr. Ferguson is senior member of the Ferguson-Breuner Company, and is a wealthy and prominent man. For some time she had made her home with the Fergusons. Mrs. John Bruener, who was formerly Miss California Cluff, gave a reception recently in honor of the bride.
Mr. Wiseman is a Santa Rosa boy, and since going to San Francisco he has been with the J. W. Leavitt Company. He is now on the road for them and has steadily risen to a position of trust and importance in connection with their business. He is the head automobile man for the company and his territory extends from Fresno to Eureka and the State of Nevada...
- Press Democrat, August 30, 1908
FRED WISEMAN IN GREAT SPEED RACES
Won Three Great Events at the Tanforan Meet--Don't Forget the Good Roads Ball at Glen Ellen
Fred J. Wiseman, "the Santa Rosa Boy", as he is familiarly called when he drives in the great automobile races, certainly made good with his Stoddard-Dayton in the great auto races held on Sunday at Tanforan. Ten thousand people watched him win the three great events of the day, even beating the little lightning Comet, which won so many of the events here. The little Comet won the Novelty race in fast time.
When Wiseman drove here at the time of the auto races he predicted that he would annex more of the trophies when he participated in the Tanforan. He did so.
The members of the Sonoma County Automobile Association are reminded that they are invited to the good roads meeting and good roads ball to be held in Glen Ellen on Saturday night of this week. A number of them are planning to go to show that they are heartily in sympathy with the movement for good roads. By the by, "Good Roads" is the slogan of the Sonoma County Automobile Association.
A particular feature of Wiseman's triumphs in the races of Tanforan, was his beating Bert Dingley, who drove the specially constructed racing car, Chalmers-Detroit "Bluebird." He was given a big ovation.
- Press Democrat, September 23, 1908
WISEMAN TO DRIVE IN A GREAT RACE
Will Participate in 2,000 Mile Endurance Run in the East, Driving a Stoddard-Dayton
The many friends of Fred J. Wiseman, the expert auto driver for the J. W. Leavitt Company of San Francisco, will be glad to learn that the Stoddard-Dayton Company has asked him to come east next year and drive in the annual endurance Glidden run of 2,000 miles, The offer is a very flattering one and of course will be accepted by Mr. Wiseman. Wiseman with his Stoddard-Dayton has won all free for all races in the state this season. In addition to participating in the endurance run in the east next year, he will also join in other important racing events.
Mr. and Mrs. Wiseman have been spending a few days with Mr. Wiseman's folk at Melitta. They have now driven to Lake country for a few days on a vacation outing. They are using the racing car with the exception of course, that the "muffler" is on. Upon their return to San Francisco they will go to Los Angeles.
- Press Democrat, September 30, 1908
Few events in American history had such a direct and immediate impact on Sonoma County as the Bank Panic of 1907. Although Ground Zero was the New York City financial district, the tsunami that rippled west from Wall Street hit the Pacific coast two weeks later. Everyone who read the papers knew the general history of recent events, and anticipated the worst was coming; it was like California was the last child in a long line of children waiting for to receive a doctor's shot with a big, scary needle. People in Sonoma County began literally burying their gold and silver coins in their backyards rather than trust local banks.
The local papers were sketchy on the details of what was happening out east, but it was clearly bad. Stocks were crashing; a bank run on one of the country's largest trust companies forced it to close, with thousands of depositors losing their savings. "FINANCIAL SITUATION IS PANICKY ALL OVER COUNTRY," was the Press Democrat headline on Oct. 24. These were not problems that touched most Santa Rosans, who kept their money in local banks; few in this farm town would have played the stock market. But then came news that must have terrified them: The local banks would soon be paying withdrawls in something called, "clearing house certificates" instead of money.
Only those who lived in the eastern U.S. during the summer of 1893 had probably seen such a thing before. Certificates were intended to provide some traction for the financial system when it was skidding towards a cliff. During such a severe crisis, the clearing houses - which were normally obscure waystations in the banking world where checks were exchanged between big banks - would be allowed to print these certificates and use them as if they were U.S. currency. At the end of the crisis, everyone could exchange this quasi-legal tender for cold, hard, cash. It's understandable that many were uncomfortable about this funny money; these certificates weren't backed by a precious metal, or even in the name of the United States Treasury, but were issued by unofficial, unregulated consortiums of regional banks - which might also close if there were a total banking meltdown. Skeptics probably buried their remaining coin more often that we'd expect.
There was another unique problem with certificates in California and Nevada: People in 1907 were still accustomed to using gold and silver coins (minted in San Francisco) for regular business, not paper greenbacks (printed in Washington, D.C.) - in fact, a contemporary source pointed out that the public held different meanings for the words, "currency" and "money." It's understandable that some balked at being forced to accept nondescript slips of paper cranked out quickly at some local printing place. The enormous Goldfield mining camp shut down in November because workers refused to accept the clearing house scrip; troops were called to protect the scab miners who were sent in.
Criminals exploited the public's unfamiliarity with paper money; a farmer in Northern California was arrested after he tried to pay an immigrant worker with cigar coupons, telling him they were certificates. A certificate counterfeiting ring in Sacramento was busted, with one member confessing, "Why, it is the easiest graft I know. With $3.50 I can make $10,000 worth of those certificates and they will pass. All one has to do is get the paper, a little colored ink, make a stamp of the signatures and run off a batch as long as the paper and ink last." And in Arcadia, a crook robbed a victim of $3 in certificates, and when taken to court, used the defense that since the paper had no technical value, it couldn't be a felony to steal them.
Sonoma County bankers formed their own Clearing House Association with twenty member banks, printing their own certificates in $1, $10, $20, $500, and $1000 denominations (alas, I can find no images of any of these, and a collector's price guide suggests that they are quite rare). By mid-November, the county was using these certificates to pay its debts. But at the same time, the county was refusing to accept certificates in payment of taxes. If you didn't have the gold coin, you had to pay the taxman with a certified check from a bank. That's a vote of confidence in the clearing house, yessir.
In the end, the clearing house certificates probably saved the Sonoma County economy that year. The crisis hit just before the main local crops, hops and wine grapes, were to reach the market. If the banking system was still paralyzed, growers probably would have been forced to sell their crops at ruinous prices.
That wraps up the Sonoma County angle to the Bank Panic of 1907, but as I was researching the topic, I was dismayed that I couldn't find anything on the Internet with a clear explanation of why the crisis happened, although there are many disconcerting parallels to our recent financial firestorm. I also discovered there was an unsolved mystery concerning an apparent attempt to incapacitate (and potentially, murder) a senator in the United States Senate chamber. Lots more interesting stuff in part 2.
MOST SENSATIONAL DAY IN HISTORY OF STREET
- Press Democrat headline, October 23, 1907
FINANCIAL SITUATION IS PANICKY ALL OVER COUNTRY
- Press Democrat headline, October 24, 1907
FINANCIAL FLURRY HAS REACHED PACIFIC COAST
Governor Declares a Holiday for the Banks
- Press Democrat headline, October 31, 1907
GOVERNMENT FUND DEPOSITS
When money is "tight" on Wall street the United States government often relieves the tension by depositing government funds in the Wall street banks, so that these banks may in turn lend the money to their customers.
Congressman Burleson of Texas thinks that other parts of the country and other interests are as much entitled to this sort of assistance as Wall street and its money kings. He has begun a campaign to secure government deposits of ten million dollars of public funds in the banks of the west and south to be secured--not by stocks and bonds of finance, as is the case in New York--but by cotton, tobacco, and wheat to the value of forty millions--the goods to be stored in government warehouses as security before the money is loaned.
Such measures as this have often been proposed, but never before with such prospect of success as now. The turning of the light upon Wall street's dark places has had the effect of opening the eyes of the people to the fact that Wall street does not own the riches of the world or control the destinies of the nation. But Wall street has pulled the strings for a long, long while; and will not let go without making a fierce "roar."
There is a local application of all this, although it may not at first glance be apparent. Farmers here can find no present market for their hops and wool, because money is "tight." There is no particular reason why government money should be loaned to banks on paper security in order that the banks may loan it again on better security. The government can take that security as well as the banks can, and it will not be surprising if some such result as that now proposed by Congressman Burleson should in time work itself out.
- Press Democrat editorial, October 27, 1907
LOCAL BANKS TO STAND TOGETHER
Important Meeting Held Here Last Night to Consider Financial Situation
"All principal clearing house associations in the United States, including San Francisco, have gone on clearing house basis and will not ship money to correspondents. We suggest you organize locally for protection. Stamp your drafts on as payable only through San Francisco clearing house."
The above telegram ws received by all of the local banks yesterday from their respective San Francisco correspondents.
Last night a meeting of the banks of Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, and Guerneville was held to consider this telegram and what action was to be taken.
It was the sense of the meeting that local conditions are sound and satisfactory.
We are in the midst of marketing one of the most valuable crops in the history of the county, on which large advances have been made by the different banks, and on which returns cannot be immediately received owing to conditions existing as outlined in the above telegram.
Statements of the different banks show ample funds on hand to handle all necessary requirements, provided the money is not withdrawn from circulation or diverted to other localities.
All of the banks agreed to stand together for the protection of their depositors, and to care for local business.
Checks will be handled in the usual manner but cash will be paid only when actually necessary.
It is hoped that these conditions will not long be continued. Meanwhile, people should aim to handle their funds in a manner as nearly normal as possible, as this will hasten the resumption of the usual order of things.
- Press Democrat, October 31, 1907
NEW PAPER MONEY HAS APPEARED HERE
W. H. Grissim, of "The Swell" received a $10 Clearing House certificate, probably the first seen in Santa Rosa, over the bar Thursday evening in payment for a couple of drinks, It was tendered by a well known traveling man, who said he was given ten of the certificates when he left San Francisco for expenses as there was no cash available for the firm.
The certificates are printed in a neat manner on special paper carrying a certain water mark and are signed by the Secretary of the Clearing House Association in person while the President's signature is a facsimile printed on. The paper is worth face value through the clearing house and will be accepted by banks on deposits the same as a draft or check, but cannot be cashed in. They will be taken for collection.
People arriving from Sacramento on Thursday tell of the appearance there of a large quantity of paper money. The latter has never been acceptable in California, but it is said it has come to be so common in Sacramento as to pass without comment during the past week or ten days. It will probably become quite common all over the state as a result of the gold stringency.
- Press Democrat, November 8, 1907
CLEARING HOUSE FOR THIS COUNTY
Organization Effected at Meeting of Bankers Held in Santa Rosa Monday Night--Plans of Organization
Representatives from all of the twenty or more banks of Sonoma county were present here Monday evening at a meeting called for the purpose of completing organization which has been under formation for a week past.
As a result of the gathering the Sonoma County Clearing House Association was organized with President John P. Overton of the Savings Bank of Santa Rosa as president, and Cashier E. C. Merritt of the Union Trust-Savings Bank as secretary. All the cashiers of the various banks in the county were elected assistant secretaries, while the selection of a vice president was deferred until the next meeting.
Financial matters was discussed at some length and while everything was reported to be moving smoothly. It was decided that Clearing House certificates should be issued as occasion arises so as not to allow all the gold to work its way to San Francisco and other financial centers. This action is in accord with that of San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento and other cities of the state as well as of the cities of other states.
San Francisco Clearing House receipts are being accepted by all the county banks for credit and exchange is being issued on San Francisco and New York as usual. Business is reported good and the deposits are larger than the withdrawals.
- Press Democrat, November 11, 1907
CLEARING HOUSE ASSOCIATION
The banks of Sonoma county have organized what is to be know as the Sonoma County Clearing House Association, the purpose of which is to allow the banks to afford proper assistance to their respective business communities by issuing clearing house certificates and to facilitate inter-bank settlements.
Every city in the country is now temporarily on a clearing house basis. There is no better money than a clearing house certificate. The certificates not only have behind them the strength of all the banks, but every dollar they represent is secured by the pledge of high-class securities far above their face value. They are as well secured as national bank notes, of which not one dollar ever did or ever will fail of redemption.
Except in California and Nevada, and to a less extent in Oregon and Washington, gold does not circulate at all in this country, and where people are accustomed to paper money the new form is accepted without question. The notes are not legal tender, it is true, but neither are national bank notes legal tender, and yet nobody refuses them. As between national bank notes and the clearing house certificates, one is precisely as good as the other. Some of our people, accustomed as we are to use gold and silver exclusively, are inclined to sniff a little at any paper money because it is new to them. But they need not worry. The certificates are as safe as gold, and except on this coast, are preferred as more convenient. It is merely a question of habit. If we should use the certificates a few months we might dislike to return to metallic currency.
But we are not likely to do so. We shall be back on a gold basis as soon as the great streams of gold now entering the country reach San Francisco and allow things to resume their normal state. Our banks are not out of gold. Far from it. And what is more, they do not intend to get out. In any large city there are a great many people who, whenever there is any talk about scarcity of money, will rush to the bank, draw out their gold, and hoard it. This is something that they will not be allowed to do this time, because such tactics are not fair either to the other depositors or to the business community as a whole.
As a result of he experience had during the past few weeks, when, for no good reason, there has been an unprecedented demand for money and in order to properly protect the country's business interests all the banks of the country have been compelled to get together and devise ways and means for providing additional circulating media. It is very probable that some form of legislation will be evolved to meet such conditions in future. There certainly should be. New conditions demand new methods, and the business of the country has now grown to such enormous proportions that the methods for so long in vogue are no longer adequate. When Bryan said there was not enough money in the country to transact the business of the country he knew what he was talking about. There is plenty of wealth, but not enough exchange media. This fact has now been demonstrated to the satisfaction of everybody, and Congress at its next session will be very apt, as it should, to enact laws providing the country with a more elastic form of currency than we possess.
- Press Democrat editorial, November 11, 1907
PAID IN CERTIFICATES
County Treasurer Murdock Kept Busy Wednesday Paying Claims
County Treasurer Glen Murdock was a busy man Wednesday when he paid off many claims against the county in the new clearing house certificates, issued by the Clearing House Association of Sonoma County, representing twenty banks. In all but a few instances the paper money was accepted cheerfully. Once in a while, because the person receiving the same, did not understand the situation, there was some reluctance at taking the certificates. Treasurer Murdock did his best in such cases to explain the matter to the satisfaction of the doubting Thomas. But for the purpose of accommodating patrons County Treasurer Murdock need not have opened payment on Wednesday had he so desired, owing to the fact that the legal holidays still continue.
- Press Democrat, November 14, 1907
THE PAYMENT OF TAXES IN BANKING CERTIFICATES
Somebody signing his letter "A Subscriber" but neglecting to give his name, asks why the city and county tax collectors will not accept certificates in payment for taxes. The county tax collector is receiving the certificates of the Association of Sonoma County Banks in payment of all taxes collected at his office. Under the advice of the city attorney, the city tax collector is not receiving these certificates. At the same time any taxpayer having certificates can take them to any bank in the county and receive a certified check for the amount of his taxes and the city tax collector will receive the same and deliver the receipt for taxes paid. An ordinary check drawn on any bank in the city, or for that matter, the county, will be accepted by the city tax collector if he is satisfied that the money to pay the check is on deposit. It seems that the failure to receive the certificates directly when they will be accepted indirectly is a technicality to considerable extent. Anybody having certificates of the clearing house of this county can pay any kind of taxes with them in the manner stated above.
- Santa Rosa Republican editorial, November 16, 1907
TEMPORARY DEPRESSION IS DUE TO WILD SPECULATION
- Press Democrat headline, November 17, 1907
PAID IN CHECKS; NO CASH ABOARD
Arrival of the Southern Pacific Pay Car in Santa Rosa Yesterday Morning--First Time in Years
The Southern Pacific pay car arrived in this city yesterday morning and it brought in a large supply of checks. It is a long time since the pay car came to town, the plan of late having been to send checks to the agents and have them in turn distributed to the men at the different stations.
In view of the financial stringency the men here and along the line had hoped that the pay car would bring cash as was the rule in the days ago. There was consequently some disappointment when checks were handed out. Of course there was no difficulty in cashing the Southern Pacific checks, only that some of the men objected to taking clearing house certificates in part payment when they came to cash them.
They pay car was so badly wrecked at Sacramento Wednesday night by the switching crew in the yards that it had to be left there for repairs, and a tourist coach was used to complete the trip for paying off.
- Press Democrat, November 23, 1907
HOW TO DETECT BOGUS PAPER CERTIFICATES
Now that "paper certificates" are becoming very plentiful, it is very good idea to learn to know the good ones from the bogus.
The "lines" or "threads" or "fibers," as seen in the ordinary government issues of paper money are not seen in the clearing house certificates, nor are they seen in ordinary checks with stripes both visible and invisible are seen in the latest suits made by Hodgson-Henderson Co., 517 Fourth st.
- Press Democrat advertisement, December 18, 1907
BURIED TREASURE WAS FOUND IN HEN HOUSE
While searching in the ground in the floor of the chicken house Sunday for the money, a son of the late John Wesley Sparks found about $140 that his father had buried there a few weeks ago. It was known that when the banks opened after the special holidays Mr. Sparks withdrew life savings and buried them. The money will be quite a help to the widow at this time.
- Santa Rosa Republican, February 11, 1908
Before the crisis, they said safeguards were in place to prevent it. During the crisis, they said some banks were too big to fail and needed an immediate bailout, or the U.S. economy might collapse. After the crisis passed, they said it had been caused by a few bad eggs and not underlying flaws in the system. They said that all the average people who ended up losing everything were to blame for their own misfortune because they were reckless and probably just as dumb as bugs.
Welcome to 2008. Welcome to 1907.
(This is the second part of an essay about the 1907 Bank Panic. Part I described its impact on Sonoma County, and explained how clearing house certificates worked and their impact on local economies.)
The usual take on what happened recently was that lenders were too easy with credit for risky subprime home loans, but we've since learned that the 2008 meltdown wasn't all that simple; insiders had created a new financial underworld that few really understood. They invented a complex game of credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, and toxic securities, to name just a few of the new cards they slipped into the financial world's playing deck.
History books usually explain that the crash of 1907 was caused by lenders who were too easy with credit for risky stock market deals, and once it began, events happened with the inevitability of falling dominoes. But the backstory of that crisis is as deep as the events that recently led to the collapse of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns. Only problem is, you can't find good information about causes of the 1907 crash online. There are a few books and papers on the topic (particularly "The Panic of 1907"), but these are either off-limits or available only as excerpts. (A short bibliography is included at the end.) None present a concise description of the root causes, and none continue the discussion into 1908, when Congress attempted to fix the problems.
So in sum, here's my take on the Bank Panic of 1907 and events leading to it, followed by a bit of a mystery story: One senator stood in the way of passage of the bill that would give banks new powers regarding the printing of "emergency currency," and he fell ill on the floor of the Senate. The story emerged that something had been slipped into a drink that was intended to incapacitate (and potentially, murder) him. If the near-collapse of the U.S. economy holds no interest for you, jump ahead to the "whodunit."
Looking back on it, the first surprise of the Bank Panic is that it took so long to happen. Every contributing factor was in place for at least a year prior, and many went back to the end of the last century:
|MEET THE MEGABANKS In the dozen years before the panic, big businesses were on a merger frenzy, gobbling up other companies at an unprecedented rate, both up to that time or since; 93 corporations bought out 1,800 firms. While the smaller, pre-merged companies usually had relationships with local bankers, big conglomerates used big banks. As a result of this merger mania, banking became more centralized between a very few large institutions in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.|
|A BANKING SYSTEM BUILT ON SAND America's Gilded Age ended in a trio of depressions during the 1890s, when thousands of banks failed nationwide. The ad-hoc state rules and regs that emerged afterwards appeared to stabilize the banking system; the markets were booming by early 1906, and only 53 banks collapsed that year. But it was a fragile network based on personal relationships between bankers and their back-scratching investments and deposits. The result was a banking world that worked smoothly only when there were no clouds in the sky; its inflexibility was revealed when calamity struck, such as a massive crop failure or...|
|THE 1906 EARTHQUAKE San Francisco was nearly destroyed in the Great Earthquake and Fire, but the impact of the disaster was also strongly felt in New York and overseas. To rebuild the financial epicenter of the Western United States, $50 million in relief money poured in from England and Europe. Faced with enormous insurance claims, some firms closed or paid a fraction of what was due, and the overseas insurers that did pay claims sent over literally boatloads of gold - another $65 million in bullion between April and September 1906 was shipped to America as cargo aboard regular passenger ships. (Attention Hollywood: Let's have lunch to discuss a movie about what could have been the greatest heist in the history of mankind.) In the wake of this enormous transfer of gold, a credit crunch spread across the Atlantic to New York, and from there on to the rest of the U.S. By the end of 1906, banks were gripping tight credit and cash.|
|TRUSTS ARE LIKE BANKS, ONLY DANGEROUS Why put your life savings in a boring ol' bank when you could open an account with one of the new trust companies and get much higher interest? In some states, the trusts held greater assets than the banks by 1907. No one seemed concerned that the trusts were held to looser regulations, such as only requiring 5% of the deposits kept as cash reserve. One of the largest, the Knickerbocker Trust Company in New York, had such shoddy business practices that few within the company, even management, knew details of their holdings, and the Directors rarely met.|
|THE CLEARING HOUSE RULES The keystone of the financial world was the clearing house, where large regional banks exchanged checks and bank notes. But it was more than a big room filled with bean counters and cashiers pushing wheelbarrows of money between vaults; the directors (presidents of member banks) formed the ultimate inner circle of the financial world. Members pooled their risk, and cheap short-term loans were routinely provided when any of institution needed help. During the weeks of the Bank Panic, the Treasury Dept. authorized the the clearing houses to print certificates that could be used as U.S. currency; once they had the ability to literally print their own money, certificates could be used for membership loans, making clearing house associates completely invulnerable to financial turmoil. The trust companies and the smaller banks didn't have such advantages, of course, and were forced to appeal for a clearing house loan (which meant the bank's owners might be forced to cede control), liquidate assets, borrow at high interest rates, or declare bankruptcy.|
The basic timeline of the crisis is well documented on the Wikipedia page. In short: The panic began on October 16, 1907, as a banker's stock manipulation scheme disastrously backfired. The banker couldn't make good on his debts and his brokerage house collapsed. A run on his bank followed, and the clearing house backed it up. It soon became known that the banker and his Wall St. partner had created a shaky financial empire via "chain-banking," where they would use their controlling shares in one bank as collateral to buy shares in further banks and trusts. The panic spread to these other institutions. When it came out that the Knickerbocker Trust was mostly financing the pair of scoundrels, customers lined up at their doors to withdraw their deposits. Knickerbocker's associated clearing house refused to stand behind them. The next day, a representative from one of the big banks walked into the lobby and cashed a check for $1.5 million. After another bank presented a $1 million check, the Knickerbocker closed. That was all during the first six days. (A brief discussion about media coverage of this period can be found in the previous essay.)
In the week that followed, almost every day a new crisis emerged that could have crumbled the foundations of the U.S. economy. Brokers at the New York Stock Exchange found no one willing to loan "call money" to keep the trading floor open; over four hours on Oct. 24, the interest rate on such loans shot from 6 percent to 100 percent. New York City had four days to raise $20-30 million or declare bankruptcy. And in each case, it was J. P. Morgan who came to the rescue, purchasing city bonds and constantly twisting the arms of bank and trust company presidents to come to the aid of their ailing brethren instead of hoarding their cash. At one point, he locked them in a room together and pocketed the key in his vest, refusing to let them out until they signed an agreement to cooperate. It's a cracking good tale and if you'd like to learn more, I recommend the well-told narrative in "The Panic of 1907."
When the dust began to settle on November 4, congrats were due Morgan and Treasury Secretary Cortelyou; only six of the national banks failed, and stocks were just down 37% from the last market peak of Sept. 1906. But survival came at a cost. At least four dozen banks and trust companies were closed, with their depositors losing everything. Money remained tight and the sudden shutdown of foreign investment had consequences, including partial blame for the Mexican Revolution of 1910. The banks that belonged to clearing houses emerged stronger and more powerful than ever before.
Most importantly, the 1907 panic destroyed all faith that there were adequate safeguards in the banking system to prevent another disaster. The bankers didn't want to work together to stop the crisis; rather, they sought to exploit it for short-term gain, or tried to weather it out by doing nothing at all, or stood paralyzed watching the disaster unfold, like innocents about to be stomped to death during Godzilla's Tokyo rampage. If not for the not-so-invisible hand of J. P. Morgan, the U.S. quite possibly could have led the world into the Greatest Depression.
Congress saw that some kind of central bank was needed, and a few months later passed the Aldrich–Vreeland Act, which became the groundwork for creation of the Federal Reserve System in 1913. More important in the short term was a new federal policy in case of another full-tilt bank panic; the country would temporarily switch to a government printed scrip. A little noticed provision in the Act, however, had the potential to change the entire banking system for the worse. To be deemed solvent, a bank would not need to have its cash assets in precious metals or government bonds; they could use any securities on hand. Thus (in theory), an institution might not have a single penny in its vaults, but be able to keep the doors open because it had old railroad stock certificates with a face value of millions of dollars on its books, even though the stock was actually worthless. The implications of this were staggering: If a stock certificate had a par value of $100, then it was worth $100 in scrip, which was worth $104 (including the guaranteed interest for certificates) in gold. In short, the Wall Street bankers would be motivated to create another crisis because resurrecting old stocks from the dustbins would make them enormously rich.
As the Act approached final debate on Capitol Hill, the only politicians concerned about this unprecedented change to the banking system were members of the tiny Republican progressive caucus of the Senate, led by Robert M. ("Fighting Bob") La Follette of Wisconsin. After he discovered that a last-minute provision had been slipped into the bill that specifically gave the banks power to include their worthless railroad bonds and stocks among their securities, he launched a filibuster on May 29, 1908.
La Follette, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination later that year, believed that 97 wealthy men formed a "Money Trust" that secretly controlled the economy. Earlier that year he had read their names into the Congressional Record and spoke often about their cabal in speeches on the Senate floor and on the campaign trail. He argued that through their interconnected board of director memberships - primarily through Standard Oil and the Morgan banking houses - they conspired to manipulate markets, and even engineered the Bank Panic as a means to consolidate power. It's probably unnecessary to mention that La Follette has found a renewed following today on conspiracy web sites (example here). Although the interlocking directorships of the wealthiest companies was - and truly still is - an issue of great concern, the details of the 1907 panic prove the conspiracy-minded wrong; instead of acting in concert to manipulate the crisis, the elite bankers preyed upon each other with usurious interest rates, and ran to Morgan like frightened children begging daddy to fix.
La Follette personally filibustered for 17 hours, and another progressive senator followed for almost another two. While La Follette was taking a much-needed break, that senator flubbed his handoff to a third filibuster speaker. Senator Aldrich pounced on this parliamentary error, and the filibuster was over. The Aldrich–Vreeland Act quickly passed, but La Follette later claimed victory because he had exposed "another chapter to the record of the subserviency of Congress to special interests." Privately, President Teddy Roosevelt wrote that the filibuster was "pointless and stupid," and La Follette was "an entirely worthless Senator."
The Aldrich-Vreeland Act was repealed a couple of years after the Federal Reserve System came into effect, and was only invoked once, when over $300 million in emergency currency was circulated during the panic created by the start of WWI in 1914. Whether any banks took advantage of the stock par value loophole (or whether it even made it into the final law) is left for someone else to research. But there's an anecdote about La Follette's filibuster that's repeated by every biographer and often mentioned in books on the Senate's history:
During his marathon soliloquy, he maintained his strength via turkey sandwiches and numerous glasses of eggnog ordered from the Senate cafeteria. He tasted something foul in one glass. According to a recent book on the Senate, "He swallowed some and then screamed to his colleagues and the gallery, 'Take it away, it's drugged'...the moment made for great political theater." It is also sometimes mentioned that a subsequent chemical analysis discovered enough "ptomaine" (a general term at the time for a food contaminant) to have killed him if he had consumed the entire glass.
Did someone really poison La Follette on the floor of the Senate? Only a couple of general interest authors (and Senator Byrd in the definitive book on Senate history) go as far to speculate that it was done intentionally, and a few biographers propose that it was likely natural food poisoning, as it was over 90° in Washington DC and the drink consisted of milk and raw eggs, all handled and prepared before the age of modern refrigeration. Refreshing drink, thy name is salmonella.
But never is the basic story questioned, although there's not a single primary source from 1908 (that I can find) which mentioned anything concerning ptomaine tests, his flights to the bathroom, or remarks by La Follette, either quiet or screamed, about funky-tasting eggnog. Because the entire Washington press corps gave white-hot coverage to the filibuster - and hour by hour coverage at that, once it became clear that it could be a record-setting event - without mentioning any of those details, I was skeptical that it happened at all, and, frankly, have spent (too much) time working to debunk it. Here are the facts, you decide:
Reporters were united in praising La Follette's endurance. At the end of his 17 hour soliloquy, "his voice seemed to be almost as fresh as when he began," stated a wire story reprinted in the Wisconsin State Journal. "He was wonderfully fresh to the end," according to Walter Wellman, the Chicago Record-Herald correspondent who was apparently the best reporter on the scene. Other wire stories attest to his apparent unflagging energy during his marathon.
Not to say that he was robust health; he was bedridden for several weeks earlier in 1908 with the flu (which sounds more like pneumonia), and there were many mentions in the filibuster coverage that he was still recovering from an unnamed illness. "La Follette complained of his recent illness and during much of the day leaned strongly on the arm of a chair half sitting as he talked." (AP); "Senator La Follette, Weak From Long Illness, Keeps Senate In Session" (sub-headline on The Racine Daily Journal); "Mr. La Follette is not very well, and is, in fact, in poor physical condition for such a struggle." (Chicago Record-Herald). "He had come practically from a sick bed to make his fight" (Washington Herald).
The strongest case against the ptomaine ptale is that it's not mentioned in La Follette's 1913 autobiography, although he doesn't hesitate to belabor other illnesses that occurred at crucial junctures in his life. The story first appeared in a book published in 1912, written by a highly biased writer who viewed the political landscape as a starkly black-and-white battle between "reactionaries" against progressives, with La Follette as their great champion. After that, the story was forgotten for forty years, until his daughter and widow published a two-volume biography in 1953. This is the source cited by all modern authors, and worth quoting in full:
From time to time during the afternoon and evening Bob sent out messages to [his daughter] Fola, who was in the gallery, that he was "feeling tip top." Until late in the evening his strength was holding out far better than he had anticipated. At about 11:30, however, a discerning reporter noted that "it was apparent he was under a great strain. His words did not come anywhere near as easily as they had in the afternoon, and he embraced every opportunity for even a slight delay." Some time between ten and eleven o'clock, during the interval of a roll call, Bob had taken a large swallow from a glass of eggs and milk which had been brought to him on the floor. As it went down, he detected a vile, bitter taste. He handed the remaining three-fourths of liquid back to his clerk and said in a voice distinctly audible on that side of the floor, "Take it away," it's "drugged." Soon after that he had been stricken with a severe and painful dysentery unlike anything he had ever experienced before. Subsequently a chemical analysis of the remaining contents of the glass disclosed that it had contained enough ptomaine to have killed him had he taken all of it. At first the pain was so acute and he was in such distress that Bob thought "the jig was up" so far as continuing his speech was concerned. But by forcing several roll calls between 11:30 and 1:30 he managed to leave the floor for a few minutes and get back to his desk in time to resume speaking before each roll call was finished.
The "discerning reporter" was from the New York Times, who indeed reported that La Follette appeared in distress. The source for the rest of the account was a letter from La Follette to his wife written a couple of days later, and now among his papers in the Library of Congress, so it should be considered his own version.
The first question is whether it's even possible that the story is true. It's impossible to say for sure because the "chemical analysis" is ancedotal, and a couple of important words are inexact; "ptomaine" was a generic Victorian term for any kind of food poisoning. It's also almost certain that he really didn't have "dysentery," which is a very acute condition and includes fever and bloody diarrhea; the Senator (or his wife) surely used the word to simply mean an epic bout of diarrhea.
If it was "ptomaine," the likey suspect was salmonellosis (salmonella), as guessed by a few biographers. But he claimed to have been sickened almost immediately; can food poisoning incapacitate someone within 60-90 minutes? Definitely not salmonella, which takes at the very least 6-12 hours to have effect. If La Follette had food poisoning he had to have been exposed to the toxins before the filibuster, or shortly after it began.
So could the eggnog have been "drugged," as he believed? Without (reported) fever or vomiting, the symptoms come down to diarrhea lasting a couple of very stressful hours, which could be easily explained by a powerful laxative slipped into the drink. Laxatives were considered a cure-all (even for cancer!) in that era, and every pharmacy had shelves filled with the latest name-brand cures as well as old-timey formulas. But the sort of violent, painful effect suffered by La Follette was hardly a selling point for most of these concoctions (one exception was an old formula called "Warburg's tincture," which was described as an "anti-malarial 'shot-gun' prescription" that would put you to sleep after a near-death experience on a commode - ingredients included aloes now banned by the FDA, alcohol, chalk, black pepper, and opium). And if you want to wander into an Agatha Christie scenario, the powerful Southeast Asian herb senna, which was used in tiny amounts in some of the old nostrums, could have been the culprit if enough was used.
But if something was placed in La Follette's drink, the most likely candidate was something probably found in every office on Capitol Hill: Magnesium sulphate, better known as "epsom salts." Normally used to soak aching feet and wrists sore from election year handshaking, it can also be mixed in a drink to create a strong, fast-acting laxative, albeit one with a quite bitter taste. It matches all the criteria, including the risk of death via respiratory paralysis if the senator had consumed the entire glass.
If epsom salts was the means, there were loads of people in the building that had personal and/or political motive to somehow force La Follette to sit down and shut up. The filibuster started on the beginning of the Memorial Day recess, when senators and their staffs were eager to flee the stifling Washington heat; the marathon session also prevented the cafeteria workers and all other Senate employees from going home. And, of course, there were the railroad lobbyists and their friendly senators who had vast riches to gain if the bill was passed. Like "Murder on the Orient Express," it's not hard to imagine that nearly everyone had some reason to do him in. But if I were detective Hercule Poirot, my first stop would be the medicine cabinet of bill author Senator Aldrich, who had remained on the floor throughout the entire filibuster, his keen eyes always "scanning the situation like an eagle," as noted by a reporter.
The Panic of 1907
Banking panics of the Gilded Age
Financing banking crises: Lessons from the panic of 1907
The Great Merger Movement in American Business, 1895-1904
The San Francisco Clearing House Certificates of 1907-1908
The 1907 Crisis in Historical Perspective (Harvard Center for History and Economics)
Robert M. La Follette, June 14, 1855-June 18, 1925, Volume 1
Robert M. La Follette and the insurgent spirit
A gourmet savors the taste of a sauce; a lover of classical music and art sighs over symmetry of a sonata or sculpture. Me, I swoon over the frenzied chaos found in turn-of-the-century newspapers, with screamer headlines using enough black ink to gag a squid. "LOOK AT ME!" "BUYYY MEEEE!" headlines shouted in cacophony, each promising stories more sordid, more terrific than any of their competition on the sidewalk newsstand, often with eye-catching photographs exploding out of the frame. The wonderful artists who designed these pages had little idea what they were doing; they were unbound by established conventions or stylebooks, guided only by what they hoped might tease a curious citizen out of a nickel.
There is no good book on the evolution of newspaper graphic design (as far as I can tell), which is a shame - as the craft matured from the Civil War onwards, so was developed the art of persuasion, both for political and advertising ends. Much originated with the Victorian England tabloids and was imitated in late 19th century America, but a new pace was set by the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst, who clearly understood that visual style was integral to telling a compelling story (as well as using those stories to advance his political objectives). Nor did he hesitate to use graphics for just the sake of attention; my favorite Hearst design story is that one of his papers printed a full-sized picture of a revolver that took up far more space than the accompanying story, which simply mentioned that a gun had been used in a minor crime.
Besides paying tribute to Hearst's innovations, I hope that whomever writes this history will give salute to George French, who wrote prolifically in printing trade journals at the time about the importance of typography, then later specifically about graphic design (and psychology) in "The Art and Science of Advertising" and other works. If you have any interest at all in this topic, don't miss his 1919 masterwork, "How to Advertise" which could be a textbook for communication majors today (and probably should). French and others ushered in the golden age of newspaper design, magazine illustration, and print advertising, which all coincided c. 1910-1925. Stylish was the new style; it was as if every editor and artist decided it was time to doff the work clothes and slip into evening wear, a chilled martini in hand. But that's getting ahead of our story.
Below are partial front pages of four newspapers, all published on October 23, 1907 (click on any image to enlarge). This was an important news day; it was near the peak of the Bank Panic, and fears ran high that the U.S. financial system was about to collapse at any minute. The Santa Rosa Press Democrat is included not just because it's the hometown fishwrap, but because its coverage and layout was quite typical of smaller newspapers at this time. Stories were crowded together with little or no organization, making it difficult to read; the front page was an ugly slab of newsprint, little changed from how it had looked during the late 19th century. An academic paper comparing coverage by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal is also available.
| The Press Democrat was a morning paper, so to be fair, it must be noted that it was reporting on events from the previous day (although the following edition kept the same layout, with a 2-column story in the same place and the same font; the headline that day was, "FINANCIAL SITUATION IS PANICKY ALL OVER COUNTRY"). Not much detail on the crisis was ever provided in the PD; as Santa Rosa is on the rim of the San Francisco Bay Area, anyone seeking in-depth coverage could find it in papers from that city and Oakland, which arrived on the morning train. Typical of 19th century newspaper design, there are plentiful subheads and every story is presented in the same, basic typography. The single graphic is unrelated to any news in the paper - it's a portrait of an East Coast railroad company president. In this era the PD front page often splashed portraits of notables and pictures of buildings; did editor Ernest Finley hope any random photograph would boost readership?|
| Before the advent of Hearst, the New York World (top right) was certainly the best-looking paper in Victorian-era America. The front page was usually illustrated with original small engravings, and in 1898, their massive color printing press changed the Sunday Comics forever. But like the New York Times, the 20th Century began with World remained locked into the 19th century grid format of simple typography pouring down columns that were the length of the page. By 1907, however, the design was less rigid, and the World could (almost) pass for an outpost in the Hearst empire. In the example here, the World's front page tastefully mixed typography to differentiate and emphasize stories. The World also followed Hearst's style of placing the results of the most talked-about sporting event at the top of the front page, no matter what else the news.|
| The San Francisco Call presented the most beautiful layout of the day, with banner-width headlines and neatly organized articles. Alas, the progressive Call also followed Hearst's lead in twisting the news to further the paper's political objectives. President Teddy Roosevelt didn't "boldly defy" bankers as the headline claimed; he'd only made a short comment to the press blaming "stock speculators" for the crisis. The Call also featured a political cartoon on the front page, another hallmark of the Hearst style - and coincidentally, this cartoon actually jabbed at Hearst, himself. (The cartoonist's message refers to Hearst's backing Dan Ryan for San Francisco mayor; Leon Czolgosz assassinated President McKinley In 1901, and his supposedly "weak and excitable brain" was driven to murder because of Hearst's fear-baiting editorials. Ipso facto, Ryan was in league with a crazed assassin.)|
| The Oakland Tribune produced a front page with quite a nice layout, but the paper is also the hands-down winner of the Rosebud Award for Hearstian Sensationalism. The "rich man" who committed suicide had nothing to do with the financial crisis; he was a local businessman who killed himself for no known reason. And the "Stock Exchange" was really the Pittsburgh Clearing House, whose temporary closure was little noticed outside of Pennsylvania and, for some reason, Oakland California.|
I want to write more about this topic in the future, and had intended to share my appreciation of old newspaper design since this blog was launched in 2007, but never got around to it. What finally inspired me was the advertisement below, which is so godawfully bad that you must understand that really, really good design existed at the time in order to appreciate its brain-freezing idiocy.
The full page Press Democrat ad - which appeared SEVERAL TIMES in early 1908 - depicted a drawing of a house. Over the drawing were small business ads, sometimes shaped as if they were signs physically posted on the house, but also sometimes awkwardly floating in the air. These were supposedly "the leading business houses in Santa Rosa." Houses: Get it? Get it? (I swear, I have not seen an adult human bean produce anything this childlike since a dental hygienist once forced me to gaze upon an instructional poster she had created at dental hygienist school. Red heart-shaped sparkles were glued around the mouth of a patient to suggest a clean bill of health, but I recoiled because without my glasses, it looked like the person was spewing blood after a runaway drill mishap.)
Regrettable concept aside, someone at the PD probably deserved credit for creative salesmanship. These businesses were all steady advertisers who had 1-inch text ads appearing three or more times a week. Presumably the paper collected a premium for "featuring" them in this swell display.
And then there was the ad copy, which offered additional wonders. The slogan, "better smoke here than hereafter" was, more or less, the advertising message of the tobacco industry for the rest of the century, although it was usually expressed with more subtlety. It was nice to know that H. H. Moke was an EXPERIENCED mortician, and the Marlott Bros. conducted a first-class bicycle business, even though their address was secret. The White Star Laundry included the squib, "And this is the House of Clean Linen", which I always read as a question delivered in a Borscht Belt accent. And who could resist Little Pete, whose restaurant had the charming motto, "eat with me and you will love me always." Now, there was a guy who truly understood advertising.