March 12, 2013
The plot they hatched was as audacious as it was impossible—a 19th-century raid as elaborate and preposterous as any Ocean’s Eleven script. It was driven by two men—a guilt-ridden Irish Catholic nationalist, who’d been convicted and jailed for treason in England before being exiled to America, and a Yankee whaling captain—a Protestant from New Bedford, Massachusetts—with no attachment to the former’s cause, but a firm belief that it was “the right thing to do.” Along with a third man—an Irish secret agent posing as an American millionaire—they devised a plan to sail halfway around the world to Fremantle, Australia, with a heavily armed crew to rescue a half-dozen condemned Irishmen from one of the most remote and impregnable prison fortresses ever built.
To succeed, the plan required precision timing, a months-long con and more than a little luck of the Irish. The slightest slip-up, they knew, could be catastrophic for all involved. By the time the Fremantle Six sailed into New York Harbor in August, 1876, more than a year had passed since the plot had been put into action. Their mythic escape resonated around the world and emboldened the Irish Republican Brotherhood for decades in its struggle for independence from the British Empire.
The tale began with a letter sent in 1874 to John Devoy, a former senior leader with the Irish Republican Brotherhood, known as the Fenians. Devoy, who was born in County Kildare in 1842, had been recruiting thousands of Irish-born soldiers who were serving in British regiments in Ireland, where the Fenians hoped to turn the British army against itself. By 1866, estimates put the number of Fenian recruits at 80,000—but informers alerted the British to an impending rebellion, and Devoy was exposed, convicted of treason and sentenced to 15 years’ labor on the Isle of Portland in England.
After serving nearly five years in prison, Devoy was exiled to America, became a journalist for the New York Herald and soon became active with clan na gael, the secret society of Fenians in the United States.
Devoy was in New York City in 1874 when he received a letter from an inmate named James Wilson. “Remember this is a voice from the tomb,” Wilson wrote, reminding Devoy that his old Irish recruits had been rotting away in prison for the past eight years, and were now at Fremantle, facing “the death of a felon in a British dungeon.”
Among the hundreds of Irish republican prisoners in Australia, Wilson was one of seven high-profile Fenians who had been convicted of treason and sentenced to death by hanging until Queen Victoria commuted their sentences to a life of hard labor. After being branded with the letter “D” for “deserter” on their chests, the Fenians were assigned backbreaking work building roads and quarrying limestone beneath an unforgiving sun. “Most of us are beginning to show symptom of disease,” Wilson wrote. “In fact, we can’t expect to hold out much longer.”
Devoy was also feeling pressure from another Fenian—John Boyle O’Reilly, who had arrived at Fremantle with Wilson and the others, only to be transferred to Bunbury, another prison in Western Australia. O’Reilly grew despondent there and attempted suicide by slitting his wrists, but another convict saved him. A few months later, with help from a local Catholic priest, O’Reilly escaped from Bunbury by rowing out to sea and persuading an American whaling ship to take him on. He sailed to the United States and eventually became a poet, journalist and editor of the Catholic newspaper the Boston Pilot.
But it wasn’t long before O’Reilly began to feel pangs of guilt over his fellow Fenians’ continued imprisonment in Fremantle. He implored his fellow exile John Devoy to rally the clan na gael and mount a rescue attempt.
It was all Devoy needed to hear. Escape was entirely possible, as O’Reilly had proved. And he couldn’t ignore Wilson’s letter, imploring him not to forget the other Fenians that he had recruited. “Most of the evidence on which the men were convicted related to meetings with me,” Devoy later wrote. “I felt that I, more than any other man then living, ought to do my utmost for these Fenian soldiers.”
At a clan na gael meeting in New York, Devoy read Wilson’s “voice from the tomb” letter aloud, with its conclusion, “We think if you forsake us, then we are friendless indeed.”
Devoy put the letter down and in his most persuasive voice, shouted, “These men are our brothers!” Thousands of dollars were quickly raised to mount a rescue. The original plan was to charter a boat and sail for Australia, where more than a dozen armed men would spring the Fenians out of prison. But as the planning progressed, Devoy decided their odds would be better using stealth rather than force.
He convinced George Smith Anthony, a Protestant sea captain with whaling experience, that the rescue mission was one of universal freedom and liberty. Before long, Anthony concluded that the imprisoned Fenians were “not criminals,” and when Devoy offered the captain a “hefty cut” of any whaling profits they would make, Anthony signed on. He was told to set out to sea on the whaler Catalpa as if on a routine whaling voyage, keeping the rescue plans a secret from his crew; Devoy had decided that it was the only way to keep the British from discovering the mission. Besides, they were going to need to return with a full load of whale oil to recoup expenses. The cost of the mission was approaching $20,000 (it would later reach $30,000), and one clan na gael member had already mortgaged his house to finance the rescue.
Devoy also knew he needed help on the ground in Australia, so he arranged for John James Breslin—a bushy-bearded Fenian secret agent—to arrive in Fremantle in advance of the Catalpa and pose as an American millionaire named James Collins, and learn what he could about the place they called the “Convict Establishment.”
What Breslin soon saw with his own eyes was that the medieval-looking Establishment was surrounded by unforgiving terrain. To the east there was desert and bare stone as far as the eye could see. To the west, were shark-infested waters. But Breslin also saw that security around the Establishment was fairly lax, no doubt due to the daunting environment. Pretending to be looking for investment opportunities, Breslin arranged several visits to the Establishment, where he asked questions about hiring cheap prison labor. On one such visit, he managed to convey a message to the Fenians: a rescue was in the works; avoid trouble and the possibility of solitary confinement so you don’t miss the opportunity; there would be only one.
Nine months passed before the Catalpa made it to Bunbury. Captain Anthony had run into all sorts of problems, from bad weather to faulty navigational devices. A restocking trip to the Azores saw six crew members desert, and Anthony had to replace them before continuing on. He found the waters mostly fished out, so the whaling season was a disaster. Very little money would be recouped on this trip, but financial losses were the least of their worries.
Once Breslin met up with Captain Anthony, they made a plan. The Fenians they had come for had been continually shifted in their assignments, and for Breslin’s plan to work, all six needed to be outside the walls of the Establishment. Anyone stuck inside at the planned time of escape would be left behind. There was no way around it.
To complicate matters, two Irishmen turned up in Fremantle. Breslin immediately suspected that they were British spies, but he recruited them after learning that they had come in response to a letter the Fenians had written home, asking for help. On the day of the escape, they would cut the telegraph from Fremantle to Perth.
On Sunday, April 15, 1876, Breslin got a message to the Fenians: They would make for the Catalpa the next morning. “We have money, arms, and clothes,” he wrote. “Let no man’s heart fail him.”
Anthony ordered his ship to wait miles out at sea—outside Australian waters. He would have a rowboat waiting 20 miles up the coast from the prison. Breslin was to deliver the Fenians there, and the crew would row them to the ship.
On Monday morning, April 16, the newly arrived Irishmen did their part by severing the telegraph wire. Breslin got horses, wagons and guns to a rendezvous point near the prison—and waited. He had no idea which prisoners, if any, would make their way outside the walls that day.
But in the first stroke of good luck that morning, Breslin soon had his answer.
Thomas Darragh was out digging potatoes, unsupervised.
Thomas Hassett and Robert Cranston talked their way outside the walls.
Martin Hogan was painting a superintendent’s house.
And Michael Harrington and James Wilson concocted a tale about being needed for a job at the warden’s house.
Moments later, Breslin saw the six Fenians heading toward him. (It might have been seven, but James Jeffrey Roche “was purposely left behind because of an act of treachery which he had attempted against his fellows ten long years before,” when he sought a lighter sentence in exchange for cooperating with the British, Anthony later wrote. The deal was ultimately rejected, but the Fenians held a grudge.) Once on the carriages, the escapees made a frantic 20-mile horse-drawn dash for the rowboat.
They hadn’t been gone for an hour before the guards became aware that the Irishmen had escaped. Breslin and the Fenians made it to the shore where Anthony was waiting with his crew and the boat. The Catalpa was waiting far out at sea. They’d need to row for hours to reach it. They were about half a mile from shore when Breslin spotted mounted police arriving with a number of trackers. Not long after that, he saw a coast guard cutter and a steamer that had been commandeered by the Royal Navy to intercept the rowboat.
The race was on. The men rowed desperately, with the authorities and the British, armed with carbines, in hot pursuit. To spur on the men, Breslin pulled from his pocket a copy of a letter he had just mailed to the British Governor of Western Australia:
This is to certify that I have this day released
from the clemency of Her Most Gracious Majesty
Victoria, Queen of Great Britain, etc., etc., six Irishmen,
condemned to imprisonment for life by the
enlightened and magnanimous government of Great
Britain for having been guilty of the atrocious and
unpardonable crimes known to the unenlightened
portion of mankind as “love of country” and
“hatred of tyranny;” for this act of “Irish assur-
ance” my birth and blood being my full and
sufficient warrant. Allow me to add that in taking
my leave now, I’ve only to say a few cells I’ve emptied;
I’ve the honor and pleasure to bid yon good-day,
from all future acquaintance, excuse me, I pray.
In the service of my country,
John J. Breslin.
The Fenians let out a cry and the crew kept rowing for the Catalpa, which they could now see looming in the distance. But the steamer Georgette was bearing down, and the wind was rising—the beginnings of a gale. Darkness fell and waves came crashing down on the overloaded boat as it was blown out to sea. Captain Anthony was the picture of confidence, giving orders to bail, but even he doubted they’d make it through the night.
By morning, the Georgette reappeared and went straight for the Catalpa. The Georgette‘s captain asked if he could come aboard the whaler.
Sam Smith, minding the Catalpa, replied: “Not by a damned sight.”
The Georgette, running low on fuel, then had to return to shore. Anthony saw his chance, and the Fenians made a dash for the whaler, this time with a cutter joining the race. They barely made it to Catalpa before the British, and the ship got under way. Anthony quickly turned it away from Australia, but the luck of the Irish seemed to run out. The wind went dead, the Catalpa was becalmed, and by morning, the Georgette, armed with a 12-pound cannon, pulled alongside. The Fenians, seeing the armed militia aboard the British ship, grabbed rifles and revolvers and prepared for battle.
Captain Anthony told the Fenians the choice was theirs—they could die on his ship or back at Fremantle. Though they were outmanned and outgunned, even the Catalpa’s crew stood with the Fenians and their captain, grabbing harpoons for the fight.
The Georgette then fired across Catalpa’s bow. “Heave to,” came the command from the British ship.
“What for?” Anthony shouted back.
“You have escaped prisoners aboard that ship.”
“You’re mistaken,” Anthony snapped. “There are no prisoners aboard this ship. They’re all free men.”
The British gave Anthony 15 minutes to come to rest before they’d “blow your masts out.”
The Catalpa was also perilously close to being nudged back into Australian waters, with no wind to prevent that from happening. It was then that Anthony gave his reply, pointing at the Stars and Stripes. “This ship is sailing under the American flag and she is on the high seas. If you fire on me, I warn you that you are firing on the American flag.”
Suddenly, the wind kicked up. Anthony ordered up the mainsail and swung the ship straight for the Georgette. The Catalpa’s “flying jibboom just cleared the steamer’s rigging” as the ship with the Fenians aboard headed out to sea. The Georgette followed for another hour or so, but it was clear the British were reluctant to fire on an American ship sailing in international waters.
Finally, the British commander peeled the steamer back toward the coast. The Fenians were free.
The Catalpa arrived in New York four months later, as a cheering crowd of thousands met the ship for a Fenian procession up Broadway. John Devoy, John Breslin and George Anthony were hailed as heroes, and news of the Fremantle Six prison break quickly spread around the world.
The British press, however, accused the United States government of “fermenting terrorism,” citing Anthony’s refusing to turn over the Fenians, and noted that the captain and his crew were only “laughing at our scrupulous obedience to international law.” But eventually, the British would say that Anthony had “done us a good turn; he has rid us of an expensive nuisance. The United States are welcome to any number of disloyal, turbulent, plotting conspirators, to all their silly machinations.”
The Fremantle Six still carried the torment from their ordeals at the Convict Establishment, and despite their escape, the men remained broken, Devoy noted. He’d known them as soldiers, and he was not prepared for the changes that ten years under the “iron discipline of England’s prison system had wrought in some of them.”
Still, the Fenians had reinvigorated the spirits of their fellow Irish nationalists at home and abroad, and the tale of their escape inspired generations to come through both song and story.
So come you screw warders and jailers
Remember Perth regatta day
Take care of the rest of your Fenians
Or the Yankees will steal them away.
* The Real McKenzies “The Catalpa,” 10,000 Shots, 2005, Fat Wreck Chords
Books: Zephaniah Walter Pease, Capt. George S. Anthony, Commander of the Catalpa: The Catalpa Expedition, New Bedford, Mass, G. S. Anthony Publication, 1897. Peter F. Stevens, The Voyage of the Catalpa: A Perilous Journey and Six Irish Rebels’ Escape to Freedom, Carrol & Graf Publishers, 2002. John DeVoy, Edited by Philip Fennell and Marie King, John Devoy’s Catalpa Expedition, New York University Press, 2006. Joseph Cummins, History’s Great Untold Stories: Larger Than Life Characters & Dramatic Events that Changed the World, National Geographic Society, 2006.
Articles: “The Escaped Fenians,” New York Times, June 11, 1876. “The Rescued Irishmen,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 27, 1876. “The Fenian Escape,” by J. O’Reilly, Chicago Daily Tribune, June 23, 1876. “The Arrival,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 20, 1876. “Irish Escape,” Secrets of the Dead, PBS.org, Thirteen/WNET New York, 2007, http://video.pbs.org/video/1282032064/ “Devoy: Recollections of an Irish Rebel,” Ask About Ireland, (John Devoy: Recollections of an Irish Rebel: A Personal Narrative by John Devoy, Chase D. Young Company, 1929.) http://www.askaboutireland.ie/aai-files/assets/ebooks/ebooks-2011/Recollections-of-an-Irish-rebel/DEVOY_RECOLLECTIONS%20OF%20AN%20IRISH%20REBEL.pdf ”Over the Sea and Far Away: The Catalpa and Fenians,” by J.G. Burdette, September 13, 2012, http://jgburdette.wordpress.com/2012/09/13/over-the-sea-and-far-away-the-catalpa-and-fenians/ “Catalpa (The Rescue) A Brief Compilation of the Major Points of the Catalpa Rescue Story,” by Paul T. Meagher, Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick, http://friendlysonsofsaintpatrick.com/2010/09/catalpa-the-rescue/.
March 1, 2013
In July of 1852, a 32-year-old novelist named Herman Melville had high hopes for his new novel, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, despite the book’s mixed reviews and tepid sales. That month he took a steamer to Nantucket for his first visit to the Massachusetts island, home port of his novel’s mythic protagonist, Captain Ahab, and his ship, the Pequod. Like a tourist, Melville met local dignitaries, dined out and took in the sights of the village he had previously only imagined.
And on his last day on Nantucket he met the broken-down 60-year-old man who had captained the Essex, the ship that had been attacked and sunk by a sperm whale in an 1820 incident that had inspired Melville’s novel. Captain George Pollard Jr. was just 29 years old when the Essex went down, and he survived and returned to Nantucket to captain a second whaling ship, Two Brothers. But when that ship wrecked on a coral reef two years later, the captain was marked as unlucky at sea—a “Jonah”—and no owner would trust a ship to him again. Pollard lived out his remaining years on land, as the village night watchman.
Melville had written about Pollard briefly in Moby-Dick, and only with regard to the whale sinking his ship. During his visit, Melville later wrote, the two merely “exchanged some words.” But Melville knew Pollard’s ordeal at sea did not end with the sinking of the Essex, and he was not about to evoke the horrific memories that the captain surely carried with him. “To the islanders he was a nobody,” Melville wrote, “to me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered.”
Pollard had told the full story to fellow captains over a dinner shortly after his rescue from the Essex ordeal, and to a missionary named George Bennet. To Bennet, the tale was like a confession. Certainly, it was grim: 92 days and sleepless nights at sea in a leaking boat with no food, his surviving crew going mad beneath the unforgiving sun, eventual cannibalism and the harrowing fate of two teenage boys, including Pollard’s first cousin, Owen Coffin. “But I can tell you no more—my head is on fire at the recollection,” Pollard told the missionary. “I hardly know what I say.”
The trouble for Essex began, as Melville knew, on August 14, 1819, just two days after it left Nantucket on a whaling voyage that was supposed to last two and a half years. The 87-foot-long ship was hit by a squall that destroyed its topgallant sail and nearly sank it. Still, Pollard continued, making it to Cape Horn five weeks later. But the 20-man crew found the waters off South America nearly fished out, so they decided to sail for distant whaling grounds in the South Pacific, far from any shores.
To restock, the Essex anchored at Charles Island in the Galapagos, where the crew collected sixty 100-pound tortoises. As a prank, one of the crew set a fire, which, in the dry season, quickly spread. Pollard’s men barely escaped, having to run through flames, and a day after they set sail, they could still see smoke from the burning island. Pollard was furious, and swore vengeance on whoever set the fire. Many years later Charles Island was still a blackened wasteland, and the fire was believed to have caused the extinction of both the Floreana Tortoise and the Floreana Mockingbird.
By November of 1820, after months of a prosperous voyage and a thousand miles from the nearest land, whaleboats from the Essex had harpooned whales that dragged them out toward the horizon in what the crew called “Nantucket sleigh rides.” Owen Chase, the 23-year-old first mate, had stayed aboard the Essex to make repairs while Pollard went whaling. It was Chase who spotted a very big whale—85 feet in length, he estimated—lying quietly in the distance, its head facing the ship. Then, after two or three spouts, the giant made straight for the Essex, “coming down for us at great celerity,” Chase would recall—at about three knots. The whale smashed head-on into the ship with “such an appalling and tremendous jar, as nearly threw us all on our faces.”
The whale passed underneath the ship and began thrashing in the water. “I could distinctly see him smite his jaws together, as if distracted with rage and fury,” Chase recalled. Then the whale disappeared. The crew was addressing the hole in the ship and getting the pumps working when one man cried out, “Here he is—he is making for us again.” Chase spotted the whale, his head half out of water, bearing down at great speed—this time at six knots, Chase thought. This time it hit the bow directly under the cathead and disappeared for good.
The water rushed into the ship so fast, the only thing the crew could do was lower the boats and try fill them with navigational instruments, bread, water and supplies before the Essex turned over on its side.
Pollard saw his ship in distress from a distance, then returned to see the Essex in ruin. Dumbfounded, he asked, “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?”
“We have been stove by a whale,” his first mate answered.
Another boat returned, and the men sat in silence, their captain still pale and speechless. Some, Chase observed, “had no idea of the extent of their deplorable situation.”
The men were unwilling to leave the doomed Essex as it slowly foundered, and Pollard tried to come up with a plan. In all, there were three boats and 20 men. They calculated that the closest land was the Marquesas Islands and the Society Islands, and Pollard wanted to set off for them—but in one of the most ironic decisions in nautical history, Chase and the crew convinced him that those islands were peopled with cannibals and that the crew’s best chance for survival would be to sail south. The distance to land would be far greater, but they might catch the trade winds or be spotted by another whaling ship. Only Pollard seemed to understand the implications of steering clear of the islands. (According to Nathaniel Philbrick, in his book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, although rumors of cannibalism persisted, traders had been visiting the islands without incident.)
Thus they left the Essex aboard their 20-foot boats. They were challenged almost from the start. Saltwater saturated the bread, and the men began to dehydrate as they ate their daily rations. The sun was ravaging. Pollard’s boat was attacked by a killer whale. They spotted land—Henderson Island—two weeks later, but it was barren. After another week the men began to run out of supplies. Still, three of them decided they’d rather take their chances on land than climb back into a boat. No one could blame them. And besides, it would stretch the provisions for the men in the boats.
By mid-December, after weeks at sea, the boats began to take on water, more whales menaced the men at night, and by January, the paltry rations began to take their toll. On Chase’s boat, one man went mad, stood up and demanded a dinner napkin and water, then fell into “most horrid and frightful convulsions” before perishing the next morning. “Humanity must shudder at the dreadful recital” of what came next, Chase wrote. The crew “separated limbs from his body, and cut all the flesh from the bones; after which, we opened the body, took out the heart, and then closed it again—sewed it up as decently as we could, and committed it to the sea.” They then roasted the man’s organs on a flat stone and ate them.
Over the coming week, three more sailors died, and their bodies were cooked and eaten. One boat disappeared, and then Chase’s and Pollard’s boats lost sight of each other. The rations of human flesh did not last long, and the more the survivors ate, the hungrier they felt. On both boats the men became too weak to talk. The four men on Pollard’s boat reasoned that without more food, they would die. On February 6, 1821—nine weeks after they’d bidden farewell to the Essex—Charles Ramsdell, a teenager, proposed they draw lots to determine who would be eaten next. It was the custom of the sea, dating back, at least in recorded instance, to the first half of the 17th century. The men in Pollard’s boat accepted Ramsdell’s suggestion, and the lot fell to young Owen Coffin, the captain’s first cousin.
Pollard had promised the boy’s mother he’d look out for him. “My lad, my lad!” the captain now shouted, “if you don’t like your lot, I’ll shoot the first man that touches you.” Pollard even offered to step in for the boy, but Coffin would have none of it. “I like it as well as any other,” he said.
Ramsdell drew the lot that required him to shoot his friend. He paused a long time. But then Coffin rested his head on the boat’s gunwale and Ramsdell pulled the trigger.
“He was soon dispatched,” Pollard would say, “and nothing of him left.”
By February 18, after 89 days at sea, the last three men on Chase’s boat spotted a sail in the distance. After a frantic chase, they managed to catch the English ship Indian and were rescued.
Three hundred miles away, Pollard’s boat carried only its captain and Charles Ramsdell. They had only the bones of the last crewmen to perish, which they smashed on the bottom of the boat so that they could eat the marrow. As the days passed the two men obsessed over the bones scattered on the boat’s floor. Almost a week after Chase and his men had been rescued, a crewman aboard the American ship Dauphin spotted Pollard’s boat. Wretched and confused, Pollard and Ramsdell did not rejoice at their rescue, but simply turned to the bottom of their boat and stuffed bones into their pockets. Safely aboard the Dauphin, the two delirious men were seen “sucking the bones of their dead mess mates, which they were loath to part with.”
The five Essex survivors were reunited in Valparaiso, where they recuperated before sailing back for Nantucket. As Philbrick writes, Pollard had recovered enough to join several captains for dinner, and he told them the entire story of the Essex wreck and his three harrowing months at sea. One of the captains present returned to his room and wrote everything down, calling Pollard’s account “the most distressing narrative that ever came to my knowledge.”
Years later, the third boat was discovered on Ducie Island; three skeletons were aboard. Miraculously, the three men who chose to stay on Henderson Island survived for nearly four months, mostly on shellfish and bird eggs, until an Australian ship rescued them.
Once they arrived in Nantucket, the surviving crewmen of the Essex were welcomed, largely without judgment. Cannibalism in the most dire of circumstances, it was reasoned, was a custom of the sea. (In similar incidents, survivors declined to eat the flesh of the dead but used it as bait for fish. But Philbrick notes that the men of the Essex were in waters largely devoid of marine life at the surface.)
Captain Pollard, however, was not as easily forgiven, because he had eaten his cousin. (One scholar later referred to the act as “gastronomic incest.”) Owen Coffin’s mother could not abide being in the captain’s presence. Once his days at sea were over, Pollard spent the rest of his life in Nantucket. Once a year, on the anniversary of the wreck of the Essex, he was said to have locked himself in his room and fasted in honor of his lost crewmen.
By 1852, Melville and Moby-Dick had begun their own slide into obscurity. Despite the author’s hopes, his book sold but a few thousand copies in his lifetime, and Melville, after a few more failed attempts at novels, settled into a reclusive life and spent 19 years as a customs inspector in New York City. He drank and suffered the death of his two sons. Depressed, he abandoned novels for poetry. But George Pollard’s fate was never far from his mind. In his poem Clarel he writes of
A night patrolman on the quay
Watching the bales till morning hour
Through fair and foul. Never he smiled;
Call him, and he would come; not sour
In spirit, but meek and reconciled:
Patient he was, he none withstood;
Oft on some secret thing would brood.
Sign up for our free newsletter to receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.
Books: Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; Or, The Whale, 1851, Harper & Brothers Publishers. Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, 2000, Penguin Books. Thomas Nickerson, The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale, 2000, Penguin Classics. Owen Chase, Narrative of the Whale-Ship Essex of Nantucket, 2006, A RIA Press Edition. Alex MacCormick, The Mammoth Book of Maneaters, 2003, Carroll & Graf Publishers. Joseph S. Cummins, Cannibals: Shocking True Tales of the Last Taboo on Land and at Sea, 2001, The Lyons Press. Evan L. Balkan, Shipwrecked: Deadly Adventures and Disasters at Sea, 2008, Menasha Ridge Press.
Articles: “The Whale and the Horror,” by Nathaniel Philbrick, Vanity Fair, May, 2000. “Herman Melville: Nantucket’s First Tourist?” by Susan Beegel, The Nantucket Historical Association, http://www.nha.org/history/hn/HN-fall1991-beegel.html. ”Herman Melville and Nantucket,” The Nantucket Historical Association, http://www.nha.org/history/faq/melville.html. Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World, “Biography: Herman Melville,” American Experience, PBS.org, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/biography/whaling-melville/. “No Moby-Dick: A Real Captain, Twice Doomed,” by Jesse McKinley, New York Times, February 11, 2011. “The Essex Disaster,” by Walter Karp, American Heritage, April/May, 1983, Volume 34, Issue 3. “Essex (whaleship),” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essex_(whaleship). ”Account of the Ship Essex Sinking, 1819-1821., Thomas Nickerson, http://www.galapagos.to/TEXTS/NICKERSON.HTM
February 21, 2013
Lyudmila Pavlichenko arrived in Washington, D.C., in late 1942 as little more than a curiosity to the press, standing awkwardly beside her translator in her Soviet Army uniform. She spoke no English, but her mission was obvious. As a battle-tested and highly decorated lieutenant in the Red Army’s 25th Rifle Division, Pavlichenko had come on behalf of the Soviet High Command to drum up American support for a “second front” in Europe. Joseph Stalin desperately wanted the Western Allies to invade the continent, forcing the Germans to divide their forces and relieve some of the pressure on Soviet troops.
She visited with President Franklin Roosevelt, becoming the first Soviet citizen to be welcomed at the White House. Afterward, Eleanor Roosevelt asked the Ukranian-born officer to accompany her on a tour of the country and tell Americans of her experiences as a woman in combat. Pavlichenko was only 25, but she had been wounded four times in battle. She also happened to be the most successful and feared female sniper in history, with 309 confirmed kills to her credit—the majority German soldiers. She readily accepted the first lady’s offer.
She graciously fielded questions from reporters. One wanted to know if Russian women could wear makeup at the front. Pavlichenko paused; just months before, she’d survived fighting on the front line during the Siege of Sevastopol, where Soviet forces suffered considerable casualties and were forced to surrender after eight months of fighting. “There is no rule against it,” Pavlichenko said, “but who has time to think of her shiny nose when a battle is going on?”
The New York Times dubbed her the “Girl Sniper,” and other newspapers observed that she “wore no lip rouge, or makeup of any kind,” and that “there isn’t much style to her olive-green uniform.”
In New York, she was greeted by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and a representative of the International Fur and Leather Workers Union, C.I.O., who presented her with, as one paper reported, a “full-length raccoon coat of beautifully blended skins, which would be resplendent in an opera setting.” The paper lamented that such a garment would likely “go to the wars on Russia’s bloody steppes when Lyudmila Pavlichenko returns to her homeland.”
But as the tour progressed, Pavlichenko began to bristle at the questions, and her clear, dark eyes found focus. One reporter seemed to criticize the long length of her uniform skirt, implying that it made her look fat. In Boston, another reporter observed that Pavlichenko “attacked her five-course New England breakfast yesterday. American food, she thinks, is O.K.”
Soon, the Soviet sniper had had enough of the press’s sniping. “I wear my uniform with honor,” she told Time magazine. “It has the Order of Lenin on it. It has been covered with blood in battle. It is plain to see that with American women what is important is whether they wear silk underwear under their uniforms. What the uniform stands for, they have yet to learn.”
Still, Malvina Lindsey, “The Gentler Sex” columnist for the Washington Post, wondered why Pavlichenko couldn’t make more of an effort with regard to her style. “Isn’t it a part of military philosophy that an efficient warrior takes pride in his appearance?” Lindsey wrote. “Isn’t Joan of Arc always pictured in beautiful and shining armor?”
Slowly, Pavlichenko began to find her voice, holding people spellbound with stories of her youth, the devastating effect of the German invasion on her homeland, and her career in combat. In speeches across America and often before thousands, the woman sniper made the case for a U.S. commitment to fighting the Nazis in Europe. And in doing so, she drove home the point that women were not only capable, but essential to the fight.
Lyudmila Mykhailvna Pavlichenko was born in 1916 in Balaya Tserkov, a Ukranian town just outside of Kiev. Her father was a St. Petersburg factory worker father, and her mother was a teacher. Pavlichenko described herself as a tomboy who was “unruly in the class room” but athletically competitive, and who would not allow herself to be outdone by boys “in anything.”
“When a neighbor’s boy boasted of his exploits at a shooting range,” she told the crowds, “I set out to show that a girl could do as well. So I practiced a lot.” After taking a job in an arms plant, she continued to practice her marksmanship, then enrolled at Kiev University in 1937, intent on becoming a scholar and teacher. There, she competed on the track team as a sprinter and pole vaulter, and, she said, “to perfect myself in shooting, I took courses at a sniper’s school.”
She was in Odessa when the war broke out and Romanians and Germans invaded. “They wouldn’t take girls in the army, so I had to resort to all kinds of tricks to get in,” Pavlichenko recalled, noting that officials tried to steer her toward becoming a nurse. To prove that she was as skilled with a rifle as she claimed, a Red Army unit held an impromptu audition at a hill they were defending, handing her a rifle and pointing her toward a pair of Romanians who were working with the Germans. “When I picked off the two, I was accepted,” Pavlichenko said, noting that she did not count the Romanians in her tally of kills “because they were test shots.”
The young private was immediately enlisted in the Red Army’s 25th Chapayev Rifle Division, named for Vasily Chapayev, the celebrated Russian soldier and Red Army Commander during the Russian Civil War. Pavlichenko wanted to proceed immediately to the front. “I knew that my task was to shoot human beings,” she said. “In theory that was fine, but I knew that the real thing would be completely different.”
On her first day on the battlefield, she found herself close to the enemy—and paralyzed by fear, unable to raise her weapon, a Mosin-Nagant 7.62 mm rifle with a PE 4x telescope. A young Russian soldier set up his position beside her. But before they had a chance to settle in, a shot rang out and a German bullet took out her comrade. Pavlichenko was shocked into action. “He was such a nice, happy boy,” she recalled. “And he was killed just next to me. After that, nothing could stop me.”
She got the first of her 309 official kills later that day when she picked off two German scouts trying to reconnoiter the area. Pavlichenko fought in both Odessa and Moldavia and racked up the majority of her kills, which included 100 officers, until German advances forced her unit to withdraw, landing them in Sevastopol in the Crimean Peninsula. As her kill count rose, she was given more and more dangerous assignments, including the riskiest of all—countersniping, where she engaged in duels with enemy snipers. Pavlichenko never lost a single duel, notching 36 enemy sniper kills in hunts that could last all day and night (and, in one case, three days). “That was one of the tensest experiences of my life,” she said, noting the endurance and willpower it took to maintain positions for 15 or 20 hours at a stretch. “Finally,” she said of her Nazi stalker, “he made one move too many.”
In Sevastopol, German forces badly outnumbered the Russians, and Pavlichenko spent eight months in heavy fighting. “We mowed down Hitlerites like ripe grain,” she said. In May 1942, she was cited in Sevastopol by the War Council of the Southern Red Army for killing 257 of the enemy. Upon receipt of the citation, Pavlichenko, now a sergeant, promised, “I’ll get more.”
She was wounded on four separate occasions, suffered from shell shock, but remained in action until her position was bombed and she took shrapnel in her face. From that point on, the Soviets decided they’d use Pavlichenko to train new snipers. “By that time even the Germans knew of me,” she said. They attempted to bribe her, blaring messages over their radio loudspeakers.“Lyudmila Pavlichenko, come over to us. We will give you plenty of chocolate and make you a German officer.”
When the bribes did not work the Germans resorted to threats, vowing to tear her into 309 pieces—a phrase that delighted the young sniper. “They even knew my score!”
Promoted to lieutenant, Pavlichenko was pulled from combat. Just two months after leaving Sevastopol, the young officer found herself in the United States for the first time in 1942, reading press accounts of her sturdy black boots that “have known the grime and blood of battle,” and giving blunt descriptions of her day-to-day life as a sniper. Killing Nazis, she said, aroused no “complicated emotions” in her. “The only feeling I have is the great satisfaction a hunter feels who has killed a beast of prey.”
To another reporter she reiterated what she had seen in battle, and how it affected her on the front line. “Every German who remains alive will kill women, children and old folks,” she said.“Dead Germans are harmless. Therefore, if I kill a German, I am saving lives.”
Her time with Eleanor Roosevelt clearly emboldened her, and by the time they reached Chicago on their way to the West Coast, Pavlichenko had been able to brush aside the “silly questions” from the women press correspondents about “nail polish and do I curl my hair.” By Chicago, she stood before large crowds, chiding the men to support the second front. “Gentlemen,” she said, “I am 25 years old and I have killed 309 fascist occupants by now. Don’t you think, gentlemen, that you have been hiding behind my back for too long?” Her words settled on the crowd, then caused a surging roar of support.
Pavlichenko received gifts from dignitaries and admirers wherever she went—mostly rifles and pistols. The American folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote a song, “Miss Pavlichenko,” about her in 1942. She continued to speak out about the lack of a color line or segregation in the Red Army, and of gender equality, which she aimed at the American women in the crowds. “Now I am looked upon a little as a curiosity,” she said, “a subject for newspaper headlines, for anecdotes. In the Soviet Union I am looked upon as a citizen, as a fighter, as a soldier for my country.”
While women did not regularly serve in the Soviet military, Pavlichenko reminded Americans that “our women were on a basis of complete equality long before the war. From the first day of the Revolution full rights were granted the women of Soviet Russia. One of the most important things is that every woman has her own specialty. That is what actually makes them as independent as men. Soviet women have complete self-respect, because their dignity as human beings is fully recognized. Whatever we do, we are honored not just as women, but as individual personalities, as human beings. That is a very big word. Because we can be fully that, we feel no limitations because of our sex. That is why women have so naturally taken their places beside men in this war.”
On her way back to Russia, Pavlichenko stopped for a brief tour in Great Britain, where she continued to press for a second front. Back home, she was promoted to major, awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union, her country’s highest distinction, and commemorated on a Soviet postage stamp. Despite her calls for a second European front, she and Stalin would have to wait nearly two years. By then, the Soviets had finally gained the upper hand against the Germans, and Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy in June 1944.
Eventually, Pavlichenko finished her education at Kiev University and became a historian. In 1957, 15 years after Eleanor Roosevelt accompanied the young Russian sniper around America, the former first lady was touring Moscow. Because of the Cold War, a Soviet minder restricted Roosevelt’s agenda and watched her every move. Roosevelt persisted until she was granted her wish—a visit with her old friend Lyudmila Pavlichenko. Roosevelt found her living in a two-room apartment in the city, and the two chatted amiably and “with cool formality” for a moment before Pavlichenko made an excuse to pull her guest into the bedroom and shut the door. Out of the minder’s sight, Pavlichenko threw her arms around her visitor, “half-laughing, half-crying, telling her how happy she was to see her.” In whispers, the two old friends recounted their travels together, and the many friends they had met in that unlikeliest of summer tours across America 15 years before.
Articles: “Girl Sniper Calm Over Killing Nazis,” New York Times, August 29., 1942. “Girl Sniper Gets 3 Gifts in Britain,” New York Times, November 23, 1942. “Russian Students Roosevelt Guests,” New York Times, August 28, 1942. “Soviet Girl Sniper Cited For Killing 257 of Foe,” New York Times, June 1, 1942. “Guerilla Heroes Arrive for Rally,” Washington Post, August 28, 1942. Untitled Story by Scott Hart, Washington Post, August 29, 1942. “’We Must Not Cry But Fight,’ Soviet Woman Sniper Says,” Christian Science Monitor, October 21, 1942. “Step-Ins for Amazons,” The Gentler Sex by Malvina Lindsay, Washington Post, September 19, 1942. “No Color Bar in Red Army—Girl Sniper,” Chicago Defender, December 5, 1942. “Only Dead Germans Harmless, Soviet Woman Sniper Declares,” Atlanta Constitution, August 29, 1942. “Russian Heroine Gets a Fur Coat,” New York Times, September 17, 1942. “Mrs. Roosevelt, The Russian Sniper, And Me,” by E.M. Tenney, American Heritage, April 1992, Volume 43, Issue 2. “During WWII, Lyudmila Pavlichenko Sniped a Confirmed 309 Axis Soldiers, Including 36 German Snipers,” By Daven Hiskey, Today I Found Out, June 2, 2012, http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2012/06/during-wwii-lyudmila-pavlichenko-sniped-a-confirmed-309-axis-soldiers-including-36-german-snipers/ “Lieutenant Liudmila Pavlichenko to the American People,” Soviet Russia Today; volume 11, number 6, October 1942. Marxists Internet Archive, http://www.marxists.org/archive/pavlichenko/1942/10/x01.htm
Books: Henry Sakaida, Heroines of the Soviet Union, 1941-45, Osprey Publishing, Ltd., 2003. Andy Gougan, Through the Crosshairs: A History of Snipers, Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004.
February 4, 2013
By the end of his brilliant and tortured life, the Serbian physicist, engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla was penniless and living in a small New York City hotel room. He spent days in a park surrounded by the creatures that mattered most to him—pigeons—and his sleepless nights working over mathematical equations and scientific problems in his head. That habit would confound scientists and scholars for decades after he died, in 1943. His inventions were designed and perfected in his imagination.
Tesla believed his mind to be without equal, and he wasn’t above chiding his contemporaries, such as Thomas Edison, who once hired him. “If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack,” Tesla once wrote, “he would proceed at once with the diligence of the bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. I was a sorry witness of such doing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety percent of his labor.”
But what his contemporaries may have been lacking in scientific talent (by Tesla’s estimation), men like Edison and George Westinghouse clearly possessed the one trait that Tesla did not—a mind for business. And in the last days of America’s Gilded Age, Nikola Tesla made a dramatic attempt to change the future of communications and power transmission around the world. He managed to convince J.P. Morgan that he was on the verge of a breakthrough, and the financier gave Tesla more than $150,000 to fund what would become a gigantic, futuristic and startling tower in the middle of Long Island, New York. In 1898, as Tesla’s plans to create a worldwide wireless transmission system became known, Wardenclyffe Tower would be Tesla’s last chance to claim the recognition and wealth that had always escaped him.
Nikola Tesla was born in modern-day Croatia in 1856; his father, Milutin, was a priest of the Serbian Orthodox Church. From an early age, he demonstrated the obsessiveness that would puzzle and amuse those around him. He could memorize entire books and store logarithmic tables in his brain. He picked up languages easily, and he could work through days and nights on only a few hours sleep.
At the age of 19, he was studying electrical engineering at the Polytechnic Institute at Graz in Austria, where he quickly established himself as a star student. He found himself in an ongoing debate with a professor over perceived design flaws in the direct-current (DC) motors that were being demonstrated in class. “In attacking the problem again I almost regretted that the struggle was soon to end,” Tesla later wrote. “I had so much energy to spare. When I undertook the task it was not with a resolve such as men often make. With me it was a sacred vow, a question of life and death. I knew that I would perish if I failed. Now I felt that the battle was won. Back in the deep recesses of the brain was the solution, but I could not yet give it outward expression.”
He would spend the next six years of his life “thinking” about electromagnetic fields and a hypothetical motor powered by alternate-current that would and should work. The thoughts obsessed him, and he was unable to focus on his schoolwork. Professors at the university warned Tesla’s father that the young scholar’s working and sleeping habits were killing him. But rather than finish his studies, Tesla became a gambling addict, lost all his tuition money, dropped out of school and suffered a nervous breakdown. It would not be his last.
In 1881, Tesla moved to Budapest, after recovering from his breakdown, and he was walking through a park with a friend, reciting poetry, when a vision came to him. There in the park, with a stick, Tesla drew a crude diagram in the dirt—a motor using the principle of rotating magnetic fields created by two or more alternating currents. While AC electrification had been employed before, there would never be a practical, working motor run on alternating current until he invented his induction motor several years later.
In June 1884, Tesla sailed for New York City and arrived with four cents in his pocket and a letter of recommendation from Charles Batchelor—a former employer—to Thomas Edison, which was purported to say, “My Dear Edison: I know two great men and you are one of them. The other is this young man!”
A meeting was arranged, and once Tesla described the engineering work he was doing, Edison, though skeptical, hired him. According to Tesla, Edison offered him $50,000 if he could improve upon the DC generation plants Edison favored. Within a few months, Tesla informed the American inventor that he had indeed improved upon Edison’s motors. Edison, Tesla noted, refused to pay up. “When you become a full-fledged American, you will appreciate an American joke,” Edison told him.
Tesla promptly quit and took a job digging ditches. But it wasn’t long before word got out that Tesla’s AC motor was worth investing in, and the Western Union Company put Tesla to work in a lab not far from Edison’s office, where he designed AC power systems that are still used around the world. “The motors I built there,” Tesla said, “were exactly as I imagined them. I made no attempt to improve the design, but merely reproduced the pictures as they appeared to my vision, and the operation was always as I expected.”
Tesla patented his AC motors and power systems, which were said to be the most valuable inventions since the telephone. Soon, George Westinghouse, recognizing that Tesla’s designs might be just what he needed in his efforts to unseat Edison’s DC current, licensed his patents for $60,000 in stocks and cash and royalties based on how much electricity Westinghouse could sell. Ultimately, he won the “War of the Currents,” but at a steep cost in litigation and competition for both Westinghouse and Edison’s General Electric Company.
Fearing ruin, Westinghouse begged Tesla for relief from the royalties Westinghouse agreed to. “Your decision determines the fate of the Westinghouse Company,” he said. Tesla, grateful to the man who had never tried to swindle him, tore up the royalty contract, walking away from millions in royalties that he was already owed and billions that would have accrued in the future. He would have been one of the wealthiest men in the world—a titan of the Gilded Age.
His work with electricity reflected just one facet of his fertile mind. Before the turn of the 20th century, Tesla had invented a powerful coil that was capable of generating high voltages and frequencies, leading to new forms of light, such as neon and fluorescent, as well as X-rays. Tesla also discovered that these coils, soon to be called “Tesla Coils,” made it possible to send and receive radio signals. He quickly filed for American patents in 1897, beating the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi to the punch.
Tesla continued to work on his ideas for wireless transmissions when he proposed to J.P. Morgan his idea of a wireless globe. After Morgan put up the $150,000 to build the giant transmission tower, Tesla promptly hired the noted architect Stanford White of McKim, Mead, and White in New York. White, too, was smitten with Tesla’s idea. After all, Tesla was the highly acclaimed man behind Westinghouse’s success with alternating current, and when Tesla talked, he was persuasive.
“As soon as completed, it will be possible for a business man in New York to dictate instructions, and have them instantly appear in type at his office in London or elsewhere,” Tesla said at the time. “He will be able to call up, from his desk, and talk to any telephone subscriber on the globe, without any change whatever in the existing equipment. An inexpensive instrument, not bigger than a watch, will enable its bearer to hear anywhere, on sea or land, music or song, the speech of a political leader, the address of an eminent man of science, or the sermon of an eloquent clergyman, delivered in some other place, however distant. In the same manner any picture, character, drawing or print can be transferred from one to another place. Millions of such instruments can be operated from but one plant of this kind.”
White quickly got to work designing Wardenclyffe Tower in 1901, but soon after construction began it became apparent that Tesla was going to run out of money before it was finished. An appeal to Morgan for more money proved fruitless, and in the meantime investors were rushing to throw their money behind Marconi. In December 1901, Marconi successfully sent a signal from England to Newfoundland. Tesla grumbled that the Italian was using 17 of his patents, but litigation eventually favored Marconi and the commercial damage was done. (The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately upheld Tesla’s claims, clarifying Tesla’s role in the invention of the radio—but not until 1943, after he died.) Thus the Italian inventor was credited as the inventor of radio and became rich. Wardenclyffe Tower became a 186-foot-tall relic (it would be razed in 1917), and the defeat—Tesla’s worst—led to another of his breakdowns. ”It is not a dream,” Tesla said, “it is a simple feat of scientific electrical engineering, only expensive—blind, faint-hearted, doubting world!”
By 1912, Tesla began to withdraw from that doubting world. He was clearly showing signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and was potentially a high-functioning autistic. He became obsessed with cleanliness and fixated on the number three; he began shaking hands with people and washing his hands—all done in sets of three. He had to have 18 napkins on his table during meals, and would count his steps whenever he walked anywhere. He claimed to have an abnormal sensitivity to sounds, as well as an acute sense of sight, and he later wrote that he had “a violent aversion against the earrings of women,” and “the sight of a pearl would almost give me a fit.”
Near the end of his life, Tesla became fixated on pigeons, especially a specific white female, which he claimed to love almost as one would love a human being. One night, Tesla claimed the white pigeon visited him through an open window at his hotel, and he believed the bird had come to tell him she was dying. He saw “two powerful beans of light” in the bird’s eyes, he later said. “Yes, it was a real light, a powerful, dazzling, blinding light, a light more intense than I had ever produced by the most powerful lamps in my laboratory.” The pigeon died in his arms, and the inventor claimed that in that moment, he knew that he had finished his life’s work.
Nikola Tesla would go on to make news from time to time while living on the 33rd floor of the New Yorker Hotel. In 1931 he made the cover of Time magazine, which featured his inventions on his 75th birthday. And in 1934, the New York Times reported that Tesla was working on a “Death Beam” capable of knocking 10,000 enemy airplanes out of the sky. He hoped to fund a prototypical defensive weapon in the interest of world peace, but his appeals to J.P. Morgan Jr. and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain went nowhere. Tesla did, however, receive a $25,000 check from the Soviet Union, but the project languished. He died in 1943, in debt, although Westinghouse had been paying his room and board at the hotel for years.
Books: Nikola Tesla, My Inventions: The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla, Hart Brothers, Pub., 1982. Margaret Cheney, Tesla: Man Out of Time, Touchstone, 1981.
Articles: “The Problem of Increasing Human Energy With Special References to the Harnessing of the Sun’s Energy,” by Nikola Tesla, Century Magazine, June, 1900. “Reflections on the Mind of Nikola Tesla,” by R. (Chandra) Chandrasekhar, Centre for Intelligent Information Processing Systems, School of Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering, Augst 27, 2006, http://www.ee.uwa.edu.au/~chandra/Downloads/Tesla/MindOfTesla.html”Tesla: Live and Legacy, Tower of Dreams,” PBS.org, http://www.pbs.org/tesla/ll/ll_todre.html. ”The Cult of Nikola Tesla,” by Brian Dunning, Skeptoid #345, January 15, 2003. http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4345. “Nikola Tesla, History of Technology, The Famous Inventors Worldwide,” by David S. Zondy, Worldwide Independent Inventors Association, http://www.worldwideinvention.com/articles/details/474/Nikola-Tesla-History-of-Technology-The-famous-Inventors-Worldwide.html. “The Future of Wireless Art by Nikola Tesla,” Wireless Telegraphy & Telephony, by Walter W. Massid & Charles R. Underhill, 1908. http://www.tfcbooks.com/tesla/1908-00-00.htm
January 16, 2013
After serving two terms as president, Ulysses S. Grant settled in New York, where the most famous man in America was determined to make a fortune in investment banking. Wealthy admirers like J. P. Morgan raised money to help Grant and his wife, Julia, make a home on East 66th Street in Manhattan, and after two decades at war and in politics, the Ohio-born son of a tanner approached his 60s aspiring to join the circles of the elite industrialists and financiers of America’s Gilded Age.
But the Union’s preeminent Civil War hero had never been good at financial matters. Before the Civil War he’d failed at both farming and the leather business, and on the two-year, round-the-world tour he and Julia took after his presidency, they ran out of money when Grant miscalculated their needs. Their son Buck had to send them $60,000 so they could continue on with their travels. In New York, in the spring of 1884, things were about to get worse.
After putting up $100,000 in securities, Grant became a new partner, along with Buck, in the investment firm of Grant and Ward. In truth, Grant had little understanding of finance, and by May 1884, he had seen yet another failure, this one spectacular and publicized in newspapers across the country. Ferdinand Ward, his dashing and smooth-talking partner—he was only 33 but known as the “Young Napoleon of Wall Street”—had been running a Ponzi scheme, soliciting investments from Grant’s wealthy friends, speculating with the funds, and then cooking the books to cover his losses.
On May 4, Ward told Grant that the Marine National Bank was on the verge of collapse, and unless it received a one-day cash infusion of $150,000, Grant and Ward would be wiped out, as most of their investments were tied up with the bank. A panic, Ward told him, would most likely follow. Grant listened intently, then paid a visit to another friend—William H. Vanderbilt, richest man in the world, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
“What I’ve heard about that firm wouldn’t justify me in lending it a dime,” Vanderbilt told him. The tycoon then made it clear that it was his relationship with Grant that mattered to him most, and he made a personal loan of $150,000, which Grant promptly turned over to Ward, confident the crisis would be averted. The next morning, Grant arrived at his office only to learn from his son that both Marine National and Grant and Ward were bankrupt. “Ward has fled,” Buck told him. “We cannot find our securities.”
Grant spoke glumly to the firm’s bookkeeper. “I have made it a rule of life to trust a man long after other people gave up on him,” he said. “I don’t see how I can trust any human being ever again.”
As news of the swindle and Grant’s financial demise spread, he received a great deal of public sympathy, as well as cash donations from citizens who empathized and were grateful for his service to the nation. “There is no doubt,” one man told a reporter at the time, “that Gen. Grant became a partner to give his son a good start in life. He gave him the benefit of his moderate fortune and the prestige of his name, and this is his reward.”
Ward didn’t get very far. He served a six-year sentence for fraud at Sing Sing Prison, but he left Grant in ruin. After all was said and done, the investment firm had assets of just over $67,000 and liabilities approaching $17 million. Yet Grant would not accept any more help from his friends—especially Vanderbilt, who offered to forgive the loan. With no pension, Grant sold his home and insisted that Vanderbilt take possession of his Civil War mementos—medals, uniforms and other objects from Grant’s famous past. Vanderbilt reluctantly accepted them and considered the debt settled. (With Julia Grant’s consent, Vanderbilt later donated the hundreds of historical items to the Smithsonian Institution, where they remain today.)
Bankrupt and depressed, Ulysses S. Grant soon received more bad news. Pain at the base of his tongue had made it difficult for the 62 year-old to eat, and he visited a throat specialist in October of that year. “Is it cancer?” Grant asked. The physician, observing carcinoma, remained silent. Grant didn’t need to know more. The physician immediately began treating him with cocaine and a derivative of chloroform. Aware that his condition was terminal, and that he had no other way of providing for his family, Grant determined there was no better time to write his memoirs. He left the doctor’s office to meet with a publisher at the Century Co., who immediately offered a deal. As a contract was being drawn up, Grant determined to get to work on his writing and to cut back on cigars. Just three a day, his doctors told him. But shortly after his diagnosis, Grant received a visit from his old friend Mark Twain. The visit just happened to occur on the November day that Grant was sitting with his eldest son, Fred, about to sign the Century contract.
Twain had made a considerable amount of money from his writing and lecturing but, was, once again, in the midst of his own financial troubles. He’d suffered a string of failed investments, such as the Paige Compositor—a sophisticated typesetting machine that was, after Twain had put more than $300,000 in it, rendered obsolete by the Linotype machine. And he had a manuscript that he’d been laboring over for almost a decade in fits and starts. Twain had been after Grant to write his memoirs for years, and he knew a publishing deal was in the works. Grant told Twain to “sit down and keep quiet” while he signed his contract, and Twain obliged—until he saw Grant reach for his pen. “Don’t sign it,” Twain said. “Let Fred read it to me first.”
When Twain heard the terms, he was appalled: The royalty rate was only 10 percent, too low for even an unknown author, let alone someone of Grant’s stature. He said he could see to it that Grant would get 20 percent if he would hold off on signing the Century contract. Grant replied that Century had come to him first and he felt “honor-bound” to keep to the deal. Then Twain reminded his host that he had offered to publish Grant’s memoirs years before. Grant acknowledged that that was true, and ultimately allowed Twain to persuade him to sign with what would become Charles L. Webster & Co., the publisher Twain formed with his niece’s husband. Out of pride, Grant refused a $10,000 advance from his friend, fearing his book might lose money. He agreed, however, to accept $1,000 for living expenses while he wrote. Twain could only shake his head. “It was a shameful thing,” the author later recounted, “that a man who had saved his country and its government from destruction should still be in a position where so small a sum—$1,000—could be looked upon as a godsend.”
Even as he sickened over the next year, Grant wrote and, when too tired for that, dictated at a furious pace each day. On the advice of doctors, he moved into a cottage in the fresh Adirondack air at Mount McGregor in upstate New York. As word of his condition spread, Civil War veterans made pilgrimages to the cottage to pay their respects.
Twain, who was closely supervising Grant’s writing, also finally finished his own manuscript. He published it under the title The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the United States in February 1885. It was a huge and immediate success for Charles L. Webster and Co., and it has done rather nicely ever since.
On July 20, 1885, Grant—his neck swollen, his voice reduced to a pained whisper—deemed his manuscript complete. Unable to eat, he was slowly starving to death. Grant’s doctors, certain that his will to finish his memoir was the only thing keeping him alive, prepared for the end. It came on the morning of July 23, with Julia and his family beside him. Among the last words in his memoirs were the words that would eventually be engraved on his tomb: “Let us have peace.”
Twenty years before, Grant had stood at Abraham Lincoln’s funeral and wept openly. Grant’s Funeral March, through New York City on August 8, 1885, was the longest procession in American history to the time, with more than 60,000 members of the United States military marching behind a funeral car bearing Grant’s casket and drawn by 25 black stallions. Pallbearers included generals from both the Union and Confederate armies.
Earlier that year, Webster & Co. had begun taking advance orders on what was to be a two-volume set of Grant’s memoirs. Published that December, the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant was an immediate success; it ultimately earned Julia Grant royalties of about $450,000 (or more than $10 million today), and today some scholars consider it one of the greatest military memoirs ever written. Between that and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Charles L. Webster & Co. had quite a year.
Books: Charles Bracelen Flood, Grant’s Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year, De Capo Press, 2012. Mark Perry, Grant and Twain: The Story of a Friendship that Changed America, Random House, 2004. Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, Charles L.Webster & Company, 1885-86.
Articles: “Pyramid Schemes Are as American as Apple Pie,” by John Steele Gordon, The Wall Street Journal, December 17, 2008. “A Great Failure,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 7, 1884. “Grant’s Funeral March,” American Experience, PBS.org. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/grant-funeral/ ”The Selling of U.S. Grant,” by Bill Long, http://www.drbilllong.com/CurrentEventsVI/GrantII.html “Read All About Geneseo’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrel,” by Howard W. Appell, Livingston County News, May 16, 2012. “Museum to help spotlight Grant’s life, legacy,” by Dennis Yusko, Albany Times Union, November 23, 2012.