Thursday, December 28, 2006

Does Mourning Become the Electric? 1: The Rise of the Electric Automobile


In the 1880s, the streets of America's cities were not only mean but also a menace to public health. Each day in New York City, for example, tens of thousands of horses labored to pull passenger omnibuses, streetcars, freight wagons and carriages. Each day these same horses deposited 60,000 gallons of urine and 2,500 tons of manure on its 250-plus miles of paved streets. It took a strong stomach and the skills of an acrobat to cross a street. On damp days, pedestrians contended with syrupy puddles of foul-smelling manure alive with flies. In dry weather, the germ-laden droppings were pulverized by the animals' hooves into a fine powder carried everywhere by the wind, even into homes.

For a two-horse team to pull a fully loaded omnibus or streetcar designed for 40 passengers was strenuous work, especially since these were often overcrowded. Cruelty to animals was regarded as a necessary evil. Many horses died in the streets and their carcasses had to be hauled away. No wonder city dwellers saw the smoke- and ash-belching steam locomotives of the newly built elevated railroads as an improvement.

Streetcars and subways eventually replaced horse cars and elevated steam railroads. Today, cars, buses and trucks, powered by internal combustion engines, serve in place of horse-drawn carriages and wagons. In their obscene proliferation, however, we have created a Frankenstein monster. Our cities are today choked by noxious gases from the exhausts of millions of vehicles slowed to a crawl. Billions of barrels of petroleum, a nonrenewable resource, are imported at enormous expense and consumed at an ever-increasing rate.

More than a century ago, electric car pioneer Pedro Salom, alarmed over gasoline's downside, raised the specter of a future dominated by internal combustion engines: "All the gasoline motors we have seen belch forth from their exhaust pipe a continuous stream of partially unconsumed hydrocarbons in the form of a thin smoke with a highly noxious odor. Imagine thousands of such vehicles on the streets, each offering up its column of smell as a sacrifice for having displaced the superannuated horse, and consider whether such a system has general utility or adaptability."

In the intervening years, we have not curbed our unseemly appetite for petroleum or recognized the threat posed by our selfish consumption of it. Environmentalists now suggest the clean-running electric car--or its cousin, the hybrid car--as a way out of our joint conservation and pollution predicament. Does a forgotten chapter in the history of technology suddenly have new relevance?

The First Electric Car
In the 19th century, the key to a practical electric vehicle was the storage battery, invented and perfected in France. The first such battery was devised by Gaston Planté in 1859. Improvements by Camille Faure in 1880 allowed sufficient current to be generated to power road vehicles. Experiments with battery-powered streetcars began in the early 1880's. An electric vehicle that did not need steel rails would usher in the next generation.

In automobile history books, the honor of constructing the first successful American electric motor car goes to William Morrison, of Des Moines, Iowa. The date is given as 1890. Morrison later claimed he had built and operated an electric carriage as early as 1888, insisting it had been run in the Seni Om Sed parade that year. Contemporary Des Moines newspapers show Morrison's memory to have been faulty. The Seni Om Sed parades (the name is Des Moines spelled backwards) did not begin until 1889. For the record, his electric carriage was not run publicly until September of 1890--in the second Seni Om Sed parade.

However, an electric vehicle was in operation in the East as early as 1888, the brainchild of an obscure yet prolific inventor, Philip W. Pratt. His patents included the rubber chair tip, the rubber crutch tip, rubber heel plugs, machines for making rubberized cloth, and several types of nonskid tires. Mr. Pratt may indeed deserve the title of "father of the American electric automobile." His invention might well have gone unnoticed but for the journalistic professionalism of the editor of a short-lived Boston magazine devoted to the wonders of electricity, Modern Light and Heat. Writing in the issue of August 2, 1888, the editor noted, "We received an invitation last Friday from a gentleman who is giving much attention to electric vehicles--Mr. P.W. Pratt of Boston--to take a ride on an electric tricycle that had just been completed for him by a well-know electrical manufacturing concern of this city."

Power was supplied by "six cells of the Electrical Accumulator Company's storage batteries, weighing all told, 90 pounds and a specially constructed tricycle motor connected to the driving apparatus by chain gearing." The date of this demonstration of Pratt's electric tricycle thus was July 27, 1888. Until an earlier claimant surfaces, that date and Mr. Pratt's name deserve to be added to the record books. Unfortunately, no additional information about this machine appeared in Modern Light and Heat. Nor have any images of this conveyance survived, other than a contemporary artist's sketch. The Pratt tricycle later was shown to the public in New York's Central Park and Atlantic City. Mr. Pratt was negotiating for the licensing of one of his patents when he died in Boston in 1915 at the age of 75. Found in his room at the Hoffman House with an illuminating gas jet half turned on, his death was ruled accidental.

Although Pratt's tricycle snatched a record from the Morrison carriage, William Morrison had much to be proud of in his invention. Compared to Pratt's comparatively simple tricycle, Morrison's carriage was a behemoth, capable of seating more than a half-dozen persons comfortably. But given the primitive storage batteries of the day, it is difficult to believe the claim it could operate for 13 consecutive hours at an average speed of 14 mph.

Neither Pratt nor Morrison, both professional inventors, ever bothered to patent their vehicles. Morrison was more interested in royalties from the storage batteries he had vented than in automobiles. A total of 88 patents, mostly for storage batteries and processes for their manufacture made him wealthy. He is reputed to have always carried large sums of money with him in a black leather satchel. In 1907 he told a reporter from the Des Moines Register contemptuously, "I wouldn't give you ten cents for an automobile for my own use."

The sale of his patent rights often took inventor Morrison to Chicago, where he became associated with Harold Sturges. More promoter than entrepreneur, Sturges took over Morrison's carriage and used it to promote the newly formed American Storage Battery Company's products. In 1893 he displayed Morrison's carriage in the company's battery exhibit at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This perhaps explains why it was shown in the exposition's Electricity Building and not in the Transportation Building.

Racing to Promote a Newspaper
Two years later, Sturges entered the Morrison electric carriage--now prominently bearing his name and not the inventor's--in America's first automobile race sponsored by the Chicago Times-Herald. Publisher Herman H. Kohlsaat envisioned the race as a gigantic publicity stunt and circulation booster for his newspaper. Originally scheduled to cover the 92 miles from Chicago and Waukegan and return, the course was reduced to the 54.36-mile round trip between Chicago and Evanston, as measured precisely by Lt. Samuel Rodman, an official umpire. The race was run Thanksgiving Day, November 28th.

Winner of the Times-Herald race was J. Frank Duryea, whose two-cylinder gasoline-driven vehicle finished in seven hours, beating three Benz machines imported from Germany. Duryea and his brother, bicycle mechanics in Springfield, Mass., capitalized on this victory. They made the first sale of an American automobile in February 1896 and produced a dozen more vehicles of the same design later that year. This was the first time more than one car of the same design was manufactured in the United States, and marked the beginning of the American automobile industry.

That any car finished at all was noteworthy. An early winter storm left roads treacherously covered with snow and ice on the area just before the race began. The performance of the two electric entries--the Morris and Salom Electrobat, which had been demonstrated on the streets of Philadelphia the year before, and the Sturges, née Morrison--did not bode well for electrics. The Sturges dropped out early, its motor overheating and its batteries nearly exhausted. After two short stops to replenish batteries with spares preplaced along the course, Morris and Salom were concerned about their vehicle's ability to complete the course after having covered only 11 miles. The judges awarded them a gold medal for excellence in design.

A race from New York City to Irvington, N.Y., sponsored by Cosmopolitan Magazine in the spring of 1896 confirmed the superiority of the Duryea car. Despite the $3,000 first prize, only five vehicles entered--four Duryeas and a lone German Benz. Three of the Duryeas managed to finish the race.

Messrs. Morris and Salom, builders of the Electrobat, returned to Philadelphia. Sensing that a market existed, they brought out a series of electric cars of increasing sophistication. Doubts arose, however, about the wisdom of entrusting operation of their experimental vehicles to untrained operators. Instead, they decided to offer taxi service in New York City using a fleet of electric Hansom cabs.

The cab service of Morris and Salom's Electric Carriage and Wagon Company, which was probably undercapitalized, soon attracted the attention of wealthy transportation magnate William C. Whitney and financier P.A.B. Widener. Whitney's Metropolitan Traction Company controlled nearly every streetcar line in Manhattan. Envisioning electric cab franchises in major American cities, he acquired the Electric Vehicle Company, successor to Morris and Salom's initial venture Seeking a large manufacturing source, Whitney arranged with Col. Albert A. Pope's Hartford carriage manufacturing company to build electric taxis, creating a massive holding company with an inflated capitalization of $3 million.

Newspapers called it the Lead Cab Trust. The magazine Horseless Age attacked the Whitney syndicate as "loud-lunged, brazen-throated hucksters" intent only on profiting from "stock-jobbing schemes." After EVC took over cab operation in New York City, Scientific American commented in its January 1899 issue: "The electric cabs of New York are standing the test of winter work and, during the recent snowstorms, they ran under conditions which discouraged even the horse cabs."

But proliferation of electric cabs in the city also brought problems. Arthur Smith, one of the drivers (they were actually called "motor men") of Electric Vehicle Company (EVC) cabs on New York streets, has his name forever inscribed in the record books. On September 13, 1899, the hansom cab driven by Mr. Smith knocked down and ran over 68-year-old real estate broker Henry H. Bliss as he alighted from a trolley car at 74th Street and Central Park West. Mr. Bliss was dead on arrival at Roosevelt Hospital. The public began to perceive that the automobile, widely advertised as a blessing, also could be a killer. Newspaper stories told of drivers on city streets being pelted with stones.

Five months earlier, Jacob German, 26, operator of EVC cab number 1565, was arrested for driving at the "breakneck" speed of 12 mph on Lexington Avenue. Regulations then limited the speed of motor vehicles to 8 mph on city streets and 4 mph around corners. Mr. German sent the night in the station house, the first person ever arrested for speeding.

The Lead Cab Trust's plans for a fleet of 12,000 vehicles and a $200-million capitalization were torpedoed by the poor performance of its electric cabs and by financial shenanigans. Too-frequent recycling of cab batteries shortened their lives. Revelations about fiscal manipulation and a $2-million loan to a clerk only added to its woes. Eventually, the EVC returned to electric car manufacturing. Overcapitalized at $20 million, it limped along, finally going into receivership in the financial crisis of 1907.

Land Speed Records
Auto racing became a crucible for better design and improved technology. In a tradition that would persist right up to the present, early racing car drivers became folk heroes. Two of the best known were the French Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat, who sported a long, thin, waxed moustache with turned-up ends, and red-bearded redheaded Belgian, Camille Jenatzy. Racing fans dubbed him the "Red Devil."

In 1898 a French automobile magazine organized a unique contest--a hill climb--designed to test the capabilities of gasoline, steam and electric vehicles. Although the roads were bad because of heavy rains, 57 competitors turned up at the little town of Chanteloup, near Paris, and a surprising 52 completed the climb.

The fastest time for the 1,800 meters (3 minutes 52 seconds) belonged to the only electric vehicle entered--a 3,960-pound "dog cart." Driving the heaviest vehicle in the race, Jenatzy made the climb at an average speed of 17 mph, easily beating a two-cylinder Bollee gasoline-powered tricycle, whose passenger perched precariously on the exposed front seat like a kind of human bumper. Yet when electric automobiles became popular, their poor hill-climbing ability was always the subject of jokes.

This event was followed by a hotly fought series of races pitting the two archrivals. The city fathers of Paris had lately become concerned over the growing number of contests on city streets between owners of automobiles. The site selected was the little town of Achères, located in a loop of the River Seine, northwest of Paris. Until then the town's only claim to fame had been as the place where the waters from the famous sewers of Paris were treated.

The count led off by winning the first speed trials on December 18, 1898, on a Jeantaud electric at an average speed of 39.245 mph. His record would stand for less than a month. On January 17, 1899, Jenatzy posted a speed of 41.425 mph, upping the count's earlier record by two miles per hour.

On his next run, Chasseloup-Laubat recorded 43.69 mph--a speed that would have been better had his car's motor not burned out 200 yards from the finish line. A rematch was put off until March 4th. This time the Count pushed his speed to 57.65 mph. By then all of France was following the contest in the newspapers with as much interest as bicycling's Tour de France.

Jenatzy determined to beat the Count's performance. He constructed an unusual vehicle--the first true racing car ever built--incorporating new and unusual features, including a separate motor on each of the two rear driving wheels. Streamlined and cigar-shaped, the body was so crammed with batteries only the driver's feet would fit in the cockpit. The frame was covered with sheets of partinium, a lightweight alloy of aluminum and tungsten, and painted blue.

Steering was by a hand-cranked wheel. To epitomize his determination to beat his titled rival, Jenatzy dubbed his racer La Jamais Contente ("Never Satisfied"). He made his run for the record on April 29th. The sleek blue racer hurtled through the measured kilometer at the then astonishing speed of 65.792 mph--the first vehicle and the first human to go faster than a mile a minute. To celebrate the win, his fans covered his car with garlands of flowers.

The Count wisely abandoned the contest. His Jeantaud racer was nothing more than a standard coffin-shaped electric touring model with pointed ends to cut the wind and with beefed-up batteries and electric motor. Jenatzy's record would stand for almost three years.

On April 13, 1902, Léon Serpollet, holder of French driving license No. 1, took the record. Using the oil-fired flash boiler he had perfected, Serpollet guided his steam racer (called "The Easter Egg" because of its rounded shape) over the course at a speed of 75.065 mph. Less than four months later, wealthy American W.K. Vanderbilt Jr., in a four-cylinder, gasoline-powered French-built 60 hp Mors, was clocked at 76.086 mph. Electrics would never hold the land speed record again.

Meanwhile, Back in America
In the meantime, interest in electrics--and in racing--had been growing in the United States. In 1896, Narragansett Park in Cranston, R.I., became the site of the first closed-circuit dirt track races to be held anywhere, a feature of the 76th annual Rhode Island State Fair. Eight vehicles were entered. After three of five scheduled five-mile heats, the electrics of A.L. Riker and Morris and Salom had finished first and second. Bad weather forced cancellation of the remaining heats.

Andrew Lawrence Riker, who had originally founded the Riker Electric Company to build electric fans and industrial motors, also won the first race staged by the newly formed Automobile Club of America. Held on April 14, 1900, the 50-mile, point-to-point contest covered a course from Springfield to Babylon and return over Long Island's Merrick Road, then considered the finest highway in the East.
Riker, the lone electric entrant, won the race in 2 hours, 3 minutes and 30 seconds, with steam and gasoline cars following in that order. One winning time in this race--not carried on the record books, however--was the showing made by C.H. Tangeman on his gasoline-powered De Dion French tricycle. Although not officially entered, Mr. Tangeman wheeled his vehicle into line with the starters and was off with the starter's gun. He "beat" Riker, the official winner, by five minutes on the home stretch back to Springfield. Along a two-mile stretch of Coney Island Boulevard in Brooklyn on November 16, 1901, in a race against the clock the same A.L. Riker, set an American mile record for electrics of 63 seconds (57.1 mph).

To reduce weight, Riker had stripped his car ruthlessly. Only the frame, running gear, motor and batteries remained. He later told a reporter confidently that with other changes he was sure he could clip another eight seconds off his time.

Walter Baker's Torpedo
A beautiful Memorial Day weekend in 1902 was the coup de grâce for racing on public roads. Walter C. Baker, 34-year-old engineering graduate of the Case School of Applied Science in Cleveland, had been building electric vehicles for several years. He unveiled an electric racer of unusual design dubbed the "Road Torpedo."

Baker mounted a torpedo-shaped frame of wood and angle iron on 36-inch wire wheels with wooden rims and three-inch pneumatic tires. The body was covered with oilcloth, painted black, as were the wheel disks. One magazine described it as resembling "a yacht hull upside down." Two seats were provided, and the occupants peered out through a tiny isinglass window.

Two chains to spring-mounted sprockets on the rear wheels linked a single motor behind the driver and his riding mechanic. Forty cells of lightweight lead-acid batteries, positioned front and rear, furnished power. The vehicle was steered by a small (seven-inch) wheel connected to a primitive cable and drum system that turned the front wheels.

The occasion was the Automobile Club of America's speed trials along South Shore Boulevard in Staten Island, the bucolic borough merged into New York City only four years before. The afternoon started auspiciously. The crowd gawked at the two gasoline vehicles on exhibit. One was Henri Fournier's racer, which had won the 744-mile Paris to Berlin Race. The second was the 35-hp Daimler of Mrs. Howard Gould, Jay Gould's daughter-in-law. After her liveried chauffeur took the car over the course, he haughtily announced that the time of 57.6 seconds for the kilometer was "not typical of the machine's performance."

Two records were set before Baker's electric racer made its appearance: for motorcycles (one mile in 70.4 seconds) and steam automobiles (one mile in 72 seconds). After the gasoline and steam trials, the ominous-looking black torpedo was trundled out. Baker and his mechanic, who would call out the tachometer readings, strapped themselves into the cockpit. They were confident they would cover a mile in 40 seconds and shatter both the mile record set by Fournier the year before at Coney Island and Serpollet's kilometer record made at Nice little more than a month earlier.

Baker guided the car carefully up to the starting line. A gay holiday crowd edged forward to get a better view of the curious vehicle, forming a veritable human funnel into the mouth of which Baker pointed the vehicle. The black racer accelerated rapidly down South Shore Boulevard. As the vehicle negotiated a gentle curve in the road it swerved toward the inside of the curve. Baker overcorrected and the car now crossed the road again, this time heading for the hospital tent.

Swaying and rocking, the big machine headed toward an intersection known as Red Lane, where trolley tracks marked the three-quarter point of the measured mile, almost to the inch. When it struck the tracks, the car's wheels leaped into the air--"revolving so rapidly they fairly sang," was the way one observer put it later. The thumping crash as the wheels returned to the road was too much for the rim of the right rear wheel. It buckled and collapsed.

The racer wobbled crazily, veering to the right toward the crowd lining the road. The mechanic immediately cut the power, and Baker threw on the brakes on the left side, while continuing to fight the steering wheel. He then set the brakes on the opposite side, but the car--now virtually unmanageable--began to spin around. With a sickening crunch of metal and wood on flesh and bone, the black racer hurtled into the paralyzed spectators.

Miraculously, Baker and his mechanic were uninjured, probably because of their primitive seat belts. They suffered their worst injuries at the hands of spectators who beat on the wreckage with rocks--not out of rage, but in an unnecessarily hurried attempt to free the racer's occupants.

A hospital tent had been set up along the course--almost at the very scene of the accident, as it turned out. Victims among the spectators were quickly brought there. Dead was Andrew Featherston, 63, a Civil War veteran who had survived the infamous Andersonville prison and later escaped from Libby Prison to rejoin his regiment and fight at Antietam. Upwards of ten people were injured.

Newspaper editorial writers had a field day. Hearst's New York American & Journal described the Baker racer as "a submarine destroyer." The New York Herald called it "an automobile freak," and The New York Tribune, "a freak racer."

Police arrested the racer's two occupants, who were held in $15,00 bail. On the following day, another victim, John T. Bogart, 68, died of his injuries. The Herald pointed out ominously that the Automobile Club of America had arranged for ambulances to be present at the speed trials, "as if they expected accidents to occur." Other newspapers suggested that the smallness of the steering wheel on the Baker racer was a factor. When a grand jury did not return an indictment, the furor gradually died down. The Automobile Club of America prohibited speed contests on public highways.

Baker's Torpedo racer was salvaged and rebuilt. By September of 1902 it participated in exhibition races at the Glenville track in Cleveland. That winter he completed a smaller version he called "The Torpedo Kid." Both the Torpedo (said to be able to reach 132 mph) and the Torpedo Kid were sent on a world tour. Their fate remains unknown.

The electric vehicle held much promise at the turn of the last century. It was the automobile of choice of many. Women passengers and the occasional woman driver preferred it to the gasoline vehicle's bone-shaking vibrations, noxious fumes and frequent leakage of oil and fuel.

Col. Albert A. Pope, who had made a fortune manufacturing bicycles in Hartford, Ct., before turning to electric vehicles, scoffed at gasoline automobiles. "You'll never get people to sit over an explosion," he predicted. Within a decade, the overwhelming popularity of gasoline vehicles caused the good Colonel to regret his words--and to begin manufacturing gas-powered cars.

Editor's Note: Look for the second and final part of this two-part series, "The Fall and Resurrection of the Electric Automobile," to appear next week.

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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Who Wrote "The Night Before Christmas"? Part Two


Four copies of the most famous Christmas poem ever written are extant today. Three are held by scholarly institutions: the New-York Historical Society, the Huntington Library in Los Angeles and the Strong Museum in Rochester, N.Y. A fourth copy, the only one in private hands, is owned by historical manuscript dealer Seth Kaller, director of Kaller Americana, headquartered in Marlboro, New Jersey. All are in the handwriting of Clement Clarke Moore.

The Kaller firm bought the manuscript for $211,000 at Christie's in 1997 and has a price tag of $795,000 on its copy of the 56-line poem titled "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas." It is more commonly known as "The Night Before Christmas," and is attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. There's no question that Moore penned each of those four manuscripts later in his life. What is in doubt, however, is whether Moore, a professor at the General Theological Seminary in New York City and a member of the prominent family that once owned large portions of the section of New York City called Chelsea, was the one who originally penned the famous verse years before Moore claimed authorship.

For years, the descendants of Hudson Valley gentleman poet Henry Livingston Jr. of Poughkeepsie have argued that Livingston was the Christmas poem's true author. Also in Poughkeepsie, Vassar College English literature professor Don Foster, who exposed Joe Klein as the author of the book Primary Colors, sides with the Livingston family. Four years ago, Foster's book, Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous (New York: Henry Holt & Co. 2000) presented a strong case arguing for Livingston provenance.

We know that "A Visit from St. Nicholas" was first published anonymously in a newspaper, the Troy, N.Y., Sentinel, on Dec. 23, 1823. Moore's name was not attached to it publicly until fourteen years later in a poetry anthology published nine years after Livingston's death. In 1844 Moore "admitted" authorship, claiming that he was embarrassed that his little poetic trifle intended only for his children had reached the eyes of the public. Prodded by Livingston's descendants, Foster examined the poem and became convinced that the poem closely matched Livingston's literary style and point of view. He argued that the curmudgeonly Moore's writing was full of doleful words like "dread" and "strife," In contrast, Livingston was a jolly country gentleman whose light verse much more resembled the famous poem.

Unhappy with the charges leveled by Professor Foster, Mr. Kaller hired investigator Joe Nickell, senior research fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Claims of the Paranormal ,who writes regularly for the thirty-year-old journal titled Skeptical Inquirer. Nickell's report on the Moore-Livingston controversy included biographical sketches of both men. These sketches are reproduced here:

Clement C. Moore
Son of an Episcopal Bishop, Clement Clarke Moore was born July 15, 1779, in New York City. He graduated from Columbia College in 1798 and prepared for the ministry. However, he instead became a professor of biblical studies at the General Theological Seminary, of which he was both a founder and a benefactor. Later he served as professor of Oriental and Greek literature. His two-volume A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language (1809) established him as a pioneer lexicographer in America.

Although his detractors portray him as a humorless curmudgeon (hoping to convince others he would never have written light-hearted verse), a biographical reference work characterized him as "a man of rare beauty and simplicity of character, kindly disposed and generous to a fault." His book of Poems (1844) was compiled at the request of his children and contained not only the St. Nicholas poem-the authorship of which he then publicly acknowledged-but also the comparable children's verse, "The Pig and the Rooster." These were included in part because he believed in the healthful effects of "a good honest hearty laugh." Moore died July 10, 1863, just five days short of his eighty-fourth birthday. His wife (whom he married in 1813), Catharine Elizabeth Taylor, had preceded him in death; indeed he included a poem "by my late wife" in his little family-oriented volume.

Henry Livingston Jr.
Unlike Clement Moore, whose accomplishments led to his inclusion in such reference works as The National Cyclopedia of American Biography and The Dictionary of American Biography, Henry Livingston Jr. is a relatively obscure figure. His life and works are now largely promoted by his descendants who are eager to prove his authorship of the famous poem.

However, Livingston's life was fruitful in its own right. Born October 13, 1748, into a prominent colonial American family at Poughkeepsie, New York, he became a farmer, lumberman, surveyor, and occasional contributor of light verse and prose satires to local newspapers. In 1774 he married Sarah ("Sally") Welles and the following year, the day after his first child was born, he became a soldier in the American Revolution. After his wife died in 1783, Major Livingston raised their four children; then-on the tenth anniversary of her death-remarried. With his second wife Jane Patterson he had eight more children. On February 29, 1828, at the age of eighty and still in Poughkeepsie, Major Henry Livingston died. In death he has become a figure in a controversy he probably never could have imagined.

After studying all available documents and records, Nickell concluded that without a doubt Moore was the author of the poem Nickell published his findings in an article in Manuscript magazine, widely read by dealers and collectors of historical documents in manuscript form.

Nickell's strongest argument revolved around the image of Santa Claus in the poem. The Nickell report claims that the popular American image of a merry Santa portrayed in the poem ("he was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf") is consistent with later authorship. Reindeer, as well, were a new motif introduced in America in 1821, but accepting this ignores the fact that reindeer had been pulling sleds in Scandinavia for centuries. The Livingston family and their supporters date the poem between 1780 and 1808. The Moore camp claims authorship occurred at a later date. Major Henry Livingston died in 1828 at the age of 80, and so had a foot in both periods. One of the claims made for Livingston as author is that, according to family lore, the names of the reindeer were the names of some of the many horses Major Livingston had owned. Nowhere does the Nickell repot acknowledge the persistence of information passed down orally as part of every family's oral tradition.

For whatever reason, Moore had conveniently waited until Livingston had died before he allowed his name to be connected in print to the poem. It was anthologized in The New-York Book of Poetry, edited by Charles Feno Hoffman (New York: G. Dearborn, 1837). Later, it was included in Moore's Poems, a collection of his verse (New York: Bartlett & Welford, 1844) privately printed for distribution to friends and family.

Nickell also read through works by Moore, published and unpublished, to discover what he claimed were examples of similar word usage. Undeterred, Foster called the Kaller and Nickell attempt to discredit him "a very tendentious argument in order to sell a manuscript." And what are the opinions of manuscript experts? "We won't ever know for sure who wrote it," said Sue Hudson, whose title is Curator of Literary Manuscripts at the Huntington Library. "But in a sense, the authorship doesn't matter. It's a beloved poem, with warm, resonating touches for all of us."

Manuscript dealer Kaller obviously has more at stake in the outcome of the debate than the identification of the poet, although he feels that his copy of the poem would retain value even if Moore were exposed as a plagiarist. "Then it would be one of the greatest pieces of fraud in American history, "Mr. Kaller suggests, "and who knows whether it would be worth more or less."

Although the question of the authorship of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" has not been resolved, the mystery has been complicated by an Associated Press news story dated Tuesday, December 19, 2006. According to Greg Rohan, president of Houston-based Heritage Auction Galleries, the only copy of "A Visit to St. Nicholas" in private hands and written in 1860 was not sold at auction but was recently purchased directly by a New York chief executive of a media company for $280,000. What relationship this copy bears to the manuscript copy in the hands of the Kaller Americana of New York has not become clear nor what effect the sale may have had on the value of other copies of the poem written and signed by Clement Clarke Moore. Whoever negotiated the deal must have been a hard bargainer. If the copy that changed hands is indeed the copy priced at $795,000, the $280,000 price still represents a gross profit of $69,000 on an item held for nine years--a simple interest gain of 25 percent. The manuscript of the poem does not now appear on Kaller's on-line catalog. They are offering a copy of a first edition of Moore's 1844 volume of his collected poems inscribed in 1846 to "The Rev. C.S. Henry" at $8,500. It contains the famous poem.

To return to the question of the disputed authorship of the famous poem, here are two samples of poetic works by the respective poets:

Sample A

Old Santeclaus

Santeclaus with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night,
O'er chimney-tops, and tracks of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you.
The steady friend of virtuous youth,
The friend of duty, and of truth,
Each Christmas eve he joys to come
Where love and peace have made their home.
Through many houses he has been,
And various beds and stockings seen;
Some, white as snow, and neatly mended,
Others, that seemed for pigs intended.
Where e'er I found good girls or boys,
That hated quarrels, strife and noise,
I left an apple, or a tart,
Or wooden gun, or painted cart.
To some I gave a pretty doll,
To some a peg-top, or a ball;
No crackers, cannons, squibs, or rockets,
To blow their eyes up, or their pockets.
No drums to stun their Mother's ear,
Nor swords to make their sisters fear;
But pretty books to store their mind
With knowledge of each various kind.
But where I found the children naughty,
In manners rude, in temper haughty,
Thankless to parents, liars, swearers,
Boxers, or cheats, or base tale-bearers,
I left a long, black, birchen rod,
Such as the dread command of God
Directs a Parent's hand to use
When virtue's path his sons refuse.

Sample B

Such gadding--such ambling--such jaunting about!
To tea with Miss Nancy--to sweet Willy's rout,
New parties at coffee--then parties at wine,
Next day all the world with the Major must dine!
Then bounce all hands to Fishkill must go in a clutter
To guzzle bohea [tea], and destroy bread and butter.

Sample A is a Christmas poem attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. Its last eight lines represents the attitudes of an autocratic authoritarian punishment freak. The rollicking rhythms of Sample B are by Major Henry Livingston Jr. In this contest, our money's on the Major's entry.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (12/21/06)


Two recent events are worth noting as the impending debacle in Iraq worsens. First, Gen. John P. Abizaid, top U.S. commander in the Middle East, testified before the Senate Armed Services committee and acknowledged that Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki was right when in 2003 he suggested that "something on the order of several hundred thousand troops would be needed to occupy Iraq after victory." Military experts have long contended that American efforts in Iraq have been severely undermined by the Bush administration's decision not to deploy a larger force to pacify the country.

Second, after eight months of labor, on Dec. 7 the bipartisan Iraq Study Group made up of ten political has-beens came up with its long-awaited report. An old joke has it that the camel is a horse designed by a committee. In its report, the Iraq Study Group created not another camel but a veritable smorgasbord of 79 sometimes conflicting recommendations. The report also contained some startling revelations: Of the 1,000-person staff employed at the American Embassy in Baghdad, only six speak Arabic well enough to be called fluent in the language. And a roadside bomb or rocket or mortar attack on U.S. troops is only recorded as an attack if someone gets hurt. On a July day this year, 1,007 such attacks went unreported by the Pentagon.

The doleful ISG report begins with the sentence, "The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating." It is all downhill from there, culminating in the blunt statement, "Current U.S. policy is not working." No wonder its release was conveniently postponed until after the mid-term elections. So much mismanagement, graft, venality and outright criminality is acknowledged, the report seems like an effort of a drowning establishment to grasp at 79 straws to keep itself afloat. Does any rational person believe that in any foreseeable time period, an undependable Iraqi army of questionable loyalty and dedication will be able to bring order to a country in which our own army, the best-trained and technologically the best-equipped army in the world, has not been able to prevail?

General Abizaid claimed that the U.S. must maintain or even increase current troop levels in Iraq because we have only "four to six months" left to keep sectarian violence from spiraling out of control. The next six months in Iraq always seem to be crucial, a siren song we have heard many times before. Early in 2004, British Prime Minister Tony Blair told reporters after his visit to the British-held city of Basra, "The important thing is to realize we are about to enter into a very critical six months." Since then, U.S. Senators have been frequent predictors of the importance of "the next six months." Among those who have invoked this period have been Chuck Hagel, Joe Biden, John Warner, John McCain and Carl Levin.

Infatuation with the next six months not only affects politicians; journalists are also enamored of the magical time period. New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman has touted its importance so often that in the blogosphere a six-month period is called "a Friedman unit." Anyone with a smattering of knowledge about guerrilla warfare knows that insurgencies are never suppressed in a matter of months. Israel has been battling the Palestinian insurgency for almost six decades.

One of the ISG Report's proposals is downright dangerous, probably the result of the committee's failure to consult anyone in the military below the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Recommendation 39 would increase the present 3,000 soldiers embedded with the Iraqi military by adding up to 20,000 additional trainers, at the same time reducing the number of U.S. battle-hardened combat brigades. Any seasoned non-commissioned officer could have seen this as a recipe for disaster if U.S. trainers must depend upon "incompetent and corrupt Iraqi troops" (the Iraq President's own words) for their protection and defense. The ISG Report also supports "a short-term redeployment, or 'surge,' of American forces to stabilize Baghdad"--but retried Gen. Colin Powell, no slouch at running a war, doubts the wisdom of this.

Such an increase could be achieved in part by further extending the tours of duty of war-weary units already in Iraq or accelerating the arrival of others. Increasing the total numbers of troops, as was done in Vietnam, is simply the reaction of the losing side desperate for a miracle strategy as certainty of defeat looms, a sort of deus ex machina, the unexpected or improbable incident that made everything turn out right in ancient Greek drama. Cavalry charges, Zeppelins, V-2 rockets, kamikaze attacks--history is replete with similar examples. But more troops in the suggested low numbers--even if they could be scrounged from somewhere--will make little difference over a brief period. U.S. forces in Iraq are in an increasingly untenable position, operating now with a siege mentality reminiscent of John Ford movies.

Our troops in Iraq occupy recently constructed Forward Operating Bases, heavily fortified strong points from which patrolling forays are launched into towns and cities. These FOBs are supplied by truck convoys--but patrols and convoys do little more than provide tempting sitting-duck targets for insurgents with an almost limitless supply of bomb-making materials and electronic detonators. The ferocity of the attacks have left U.S. commanders stymied and searching for countermeasures, while the steadily rising toll of dead and wounded U.S. troops attests to the insurgents' skill at this newest variant of guerrilla warfare, called by military experts "fourth generation warfare." Our troops also conduct occasional counterproductive raids on the hideouts of suspected insurgents that turn ordinary citizens against us. More troops cannot now do what more troops could have done in 2003 to keep the insurgency from ever getting started. More troops doing more of the same things we have been doing can only provide more targets for the insurgents and more flag-draped coffins.

At Donald Rumsfeld's farewell ceremony, President Bush, praised him for meeting "the challenges of a new and unfamiliar war"--another of his distortions of history. The U.S. has had plenty of experience with guerrilla wars, including three Seminole Wars, Indian Wars in the West, the Philippine Insurrection, Pershing's punitive expedition into Mexico, and occupations of Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic for extended periods by U.S. Marines. And, of course, the supreme example of how draining guerrilla warfare can be, the Vietnam War.

The time is fast coming for us to admit that the bungled Iraq War has been irretrievably lost and anything resembling victory is out of our hands. There is nothing dishonorable in admitting to a blunder. Despite the fig leaf that the ISG report offered, the Bush administration continues to seek an elusive "victory" in Iraq. Breaking with President George W. Bush, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) expressed the feelings of many when he said, "I for one am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way, being blown up by the same bombs day after day. That is absurd; it may even be criminal. I cannot support that any more."

And so, as we head into this sacred but festive holiday period, brave young men and women are still slogging on and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan while back home the craven old men in Washington who hunger for conquest enjoy their complacent lives, oblivious to the increasing carnage in which our young people are being sacrificed.


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Who Wrote "The Night Before Christmas"? Part One


No name is more closely associated with Christmas than Santa Claus and the description of him in the poem popularly called "The Night Before Christmas." The name Santa Claus, of course, is an alteration of St. Nicholas, and the poem's original title was "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas." Other spellings of this name have included Sancte Klaas or St. Aclaus. We associate St. Nicholas with the Christmas season because his "feast day" is December 6.

The original St. Nicholas was born in Patara, near Myra, in present-day Turkey. The exact date of his birth is unknown but is sometimes given as A.D. 280. He died in the middle of the fourth century, supposedly on December 6. Stories about Nicholas's good deeds multiplied. He became famous as a rescuer and protector of children and, later, of parents, sailors and others. According to Martin Ebon, his biographer, he was the "favorite saint" of nearly everyone: "yearning virgins, barren wives, helpless infants, thieves and financiers, traveling students and pirating Vandals." St. Nicholas, whose bones are now reputed to be in Bari, Italy, is the patron saint of both Greece and Russia.

St. Nicholas in America
In New York City, after the Revolution the city's boosters rediscovered the city's rich Dutch history. John Pintard, a founder of the New-York Historical Society, set the Society's annual meeting on December 6, the saint's feast day. Just as Pintard had promoted St. Nicholas locally, upriver in Westchester, Washington Irving introduced Santa to a national readership in his bestselling satirical Knickerbocker's History of New York. In it, Irving mentions St. Nicholas 25 times, including references to his horse and wagon, his pipe and his habit of "laying his finger aside of his nose."

Irving's History supplied the first description of St. Nicholas (or Santa Claus). In it, he claimed that the figurehead on the first Dutch ship to enter New York Harbor was carved in the saint's image: a figure with "a low, broad-brimmed hat, a huge pair of Flemish trunk hose and a pipe that reached to the end of the bowsprit." Surprisingly, there is no evidence that the cult of St. Nicholas existed in New Amsterdam or for more than a century after the British occupation in 1664.

Before 1820, St. Nicholas was pictured as a tall, skinny, stern bishop in clerical vestments who visited children and dispensed discipline as often as gifts. Our image of Santa Claus in a fur-trimmed red outfit, with a sack of toys, sleigh and reindeer owes much to an unattributed poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," that first appeared in the Troy (N.Y.) Sentinel on December 23, 1823.

The Poem
According to the legend that sprang up years afterward, Miss Sarah Harriet Butler of Troy was visiting the home of Clement Clarke Moore in New York City. She saw a written version of the poem, copied it without the permission of the author and submitted it anonymously to Orville Holley, the editor of the Sentinel. After its original publication, the poem--still unattributed--appeared occasionally and seasonally in newspapers and almanacs. Newspaper carriers also distributed it as a holiday gift to their customers. Not until 1844, did an "author" take credit for the poem. Clement Clarke Moore, a part-time professor at the Episcopal General Theological Seminary in New York City, published it in a book of 37 poems, some of which were by other authors, including one by friend William Bard, one by diarist Philip Hone, and two by Moore's late wife.

Interestingly, before publishing this volume, Moore wrote to the former owner of the Troy Sentinel asking him how and from whom "A Visit from St. Nicholas" had reached the newspaper. A prompt response said that the text had been received from the wife of Daniel Sackett, a Troy merchant--an explanation that gave the lie to the Butler story. Before publishing the poem as his own, Clement Moore apparently had made sure that his claim to the poem as his own would not be challenged.

In the meantime, still farther up river friends and relatives of the late Maj. Henry Livingston, Jr. had been making claims that the now-famous anonymous poem had been written by him, a Revolutionary War veteran who had lived in Poughkeepsie. Major Livingston died in 1828, long before Clement Clarke Moore claimed to be its author. What was going on? Was Clement Clarke Moore, one of the wealthiest men in New York and a respected citizen, a plagiarist appropriating the work of another? Let's look at the record.

More about Clement Clarke Moore
After returning from the French and Indian War, Captain Thomas Clarke, an officer in the Colonial provincials, bought a farm in Manhattan from Jacob and Tunis Somerindyck. He named it Chelsea, after an institution for retired soldiers in London. The farm lay roughly between the present-day 19th and 24th streets and between 8th Avenue and the Hudson River. After the deaths of Capt. Clarke and Mrs. Clarke, the farm passed in 1802 to their daughter Charity and son-in-law, Benjamin Moore, Episcopal Bishop of New York. Bishop Moore and his wife conveyed the property to their son, Clement Clarke Moore. A 1798 graduate of Columbia College, in 1809 he published A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language.

As the finishing touches were being put on the facade of New York's City Hall in 1811, the Streets Commission issued a grid plan for streets to be laid out north of the city's existing jumble of streets in lower Manhattan. Twelve avenues, each 100 feet wide, would strike north from about Houston Street. Every 200 feet, narrower streets 50-60 feet wide would cut across the avenues at right angles. Every half mile or so, streets would be 100 feet wide (14th, 23rd, 34th, 42nd, 57th). Thus did today's street pattern come into being on Manhattan Island.

When the city cut Ninth Avenue through his estate, Clement Clarke Moore wrote an angry pamphlet addressed to his fellow real estate owners. In it, he described the new grid plan as a destructive conspiracy by patronage-hungry and well-connected "cartmen, carpenters, masons, pavers and all their host of attendant laborers." Moore really had little to complain about. The Streets Commission had made him a wealthy man. An epidemic of yellow fever drove thousands north out of the city. and Clement Moore carved out lots on Ninth Avenue for sale to genteel purchasers. He donated an apple orchard west of Ninth Avenue between 20th and 21st streets for the site of the General Theological Seminary in return for a professorship in Greek and Oriental literature at that institution. He would remain there until 1850.

Enter Don Foster
Don Foster is a professor of English at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie and a literary sleuth. Using a technique he pioneered, he first came to the reading public's attentionin 1995 when he claimed that William Shakespeare was the author of a poem whose authorship had stumped experts. Seven years later, a French Shakespearean scholar, Gilles Monsarrat, offered convincing proof that the poem's true author was John Ford, a contemporary playright. Foster graciously acknowledged his error, saying, "No one who cannot rejoice in the discovery of his own mistakes deserves to be called a scholar." He also showed that Joe Klein was the anonymous author of the bestselling novel Primary Colors after Klein publicly denied authorship. In the face of Foster's evidence, Klein sheepishly acknowledged authorship.

Foster's method involves intensive study of a text's wording and syntax to establish authorship. At the behest of descendants of Henry Livingston, Foster embarked on a literary archaeological expedition to try to unravel the mystery of the authorship of "A Visit from St. Nicholas," also known as "The Night before Christmas." The story of that search is told in the final chapter of Foster's book, Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2000). Foster compares Moore and Livingston, their poetic styles, personalities, vocabularies, their writings and habits. His carefully documented case, even though based on circumstantial evidence, appears to leave little room for doubt.

Foster found that Moore, as a young bachelor, had written many poems signed with the initial "L." When Moore's volume of collected poems was published, it was reviewed bitingly. But one reviewer, writing for The Churchman, published by the Protestant Episcopal Church, gave the book a rave review. The anonymous reviewer signed the piece "L." Moore and Livingston were as opposite as day and night. The Taliban would have loved Clement Moore. He opposed democratic reforms, such as free public schools; Livingston argued for equal opportunity, regardless of gender, color or heritage. Moore protected his daughters from the harmful effects of book learning; Livingston praised women's zeal for education. Moore expressed disdain for American "Savages"; Livingston was a friend of the Indians. Moore defended slavery as ordained by God--he owned slaves himself; as early as 1788, Livingston called for emancipation. Moore was the son of a Loyalist during the Revolution; Livingston fought in the Continental Army.

Livingston wrote many of his poems in anapestic meter (with the accent on every third syllable--the same meter as "The Night Before Christmas"). Moore wrote only one undisputed poem, "The Pig and the Rooster" in anapestic meter--but this was after he had been credited with the Christmas poem. You be the judge. Compare these poems with the famous poem that begins, "'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house":

Sample A
To me 'tis giv'n your virtue to secure
From custom's force and pleasure's dangerous lure....
For if, regardless of my friendly voice,
In Fashion's gaudy scenes your heart rejoice
Dire punishments shall fall upon your head;
Disgust, and fretfulness, and secret dread.

Sample B
Such gadding--such ambling--such jaunting about!
To tea with Miss Nancy--to sweet Willy's rout,
New parties at coffee--then parties at wine,
Next day all the world with the Major must dine!
Then bounce all hands to Fishkill must go in a clutter
To guzzle bohea [tea], and destroy bread and butter.

Clement Moore wrote Sample A; Henry Livingston wrote Sample B.

And here's the poem in question. You be the judge:

An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro' the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danc'd in their heads,
And Mama in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter'snap --
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters, and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow,
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below;
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and call'd them by name:
"Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer, and Vixen,
"On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Dunder and Blixem;
"To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
"Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"
As dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
And then in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound:
He was dress'd all in fur, from his head to his boot
And his clothes were all tarnish'd with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys was flung on his back;
And he look'd like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes--how they twinkled! his dimples how merry,
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow.
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh'd, like a bowl full of jelly:
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laugh'd when I saw him in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And fill'd all the stockings; then turn'd with a jerk
And laying his finger aside of his nose
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
He sprung to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle:
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight--
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

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Friday, December 08, 2006

The Preston Tucker Story, 2: Triumph and Tragedy


In the first part of this two-part series, we met Preston Tucker, who dreamed of building a new and safer automobile but was stymied at every turn by sinister forces in the government and the auto industry. Accused of fraud, violation of SEC regulations and conspiracy, Tucker faced a jail term of 155 years and sizable fines. His first trial ended in a mistrial. We now pick up the threads of the story. A jury of six men and six women has been chosen for a new trial.

The government resumed with U.S. Attorney Otto Kerner's repetition of the history of the Tucker Corporation. He told the jury he would prove the defendants used it as a device "to prey upon the public, the dealers and distributors, and the stockholders." The parade of government witnesses began again--all familiar faces from the first trial. Ex-Tucker employees followed, many venting their grievances under questioning by the three government attorneys. Their doleful testimony gave an insight into the birth pangs and growing pains of an industrial enterprise attempting to manufacture a complicated product in a highly competitive marketplace.

Alex S. Tremulis, designer of the body of the car, admitted under prosecution questioning that the first Tucker was made of reformed parts of a 1942 Oldsmobile. Defense attorneys quickly brought out that it was a common industry practice to use existing body parts and hardware to create mock-ups of a new model.

Witness Lee Treese, vice-president in charge of manufacturing for Tucker, was cross-examined skillfully by defense attorney Floyd Thompson. He confirmed that many of that year's 1950 cars made in Detroit incorporated features first introduced earlier in the 1948 Tucker. Treese, an expert on mass production methods, testified that the Tucker die-stamping program was more than 90 percent complete in June of 1948. He insisted the company would have succeeded in producing a good car except for outside interference.

Treese was eminently qualified to speak to the subject of interference; in July of 1948 he had been literally dispossessed from his own office in the Tucker plant by SEC investigators going through the company's records. The personal animosity of some witnesses toward Preston Tucker showed clearly in their testimony. William Stampfli, Tucker Corporation master mechanic, testified that the individual wheel suspensions had to be installed three times on the eve of the car's initial showing because of persistent breakdowns. Defense attorney William T. Kirby got the witness to admit that instead of the steel suspension arms that were specified, aluminum castings had been used.

Stampfli showed frequent flashes of annoyance. Asked by Kirby if he had access to Tucker's research department, the witness snapped, "I didn't even know they had one." The one-note quality of such recitals, often tinged with personal rancor, eventually proved too much for patient Judge LaBuy. On November 8, he gave government attorneys a stern admonition to "get down to the meat of the case and start proving the conspiracy charge."

Defense attorney Kirby knew that shipbuilder Henry J. Kaiser was a friend of Senator Ferguson and the SEC's Harry McDonald. Cross-examining Carl H. Scheurman, a member of Tucker's engineering staff and a government witness, Kirby managed to insert several references to rival carmaker Kaiser's automobile venture. He asked Scheurman if he knew that the first Kaiser-Frazer model was partly made of wood and that Kaiser-Frazer had promised a front-wheel drive car they never produced.

"Kaiser-Frazer didn't get indicted," Kirby added, "and they got 44 million dollars in loans from the government, didn't they?" The barrage of objections from government attorneys drowned out the witness’s response.

An Alias Is the Issue
When defense attorney Daniel O. Glasser heard the testimony of prosecution witness Robert B. Walder, he picked up his ears. Walder, an engineering consultant to Tucker, had a decided German accent. Glasser decided to play a hunch. "What was your father's name?" he asked the witness.
"Braunwalder," was the reply.
"And what was your name when you went to school?"
Glasser asked the witness whether he had received a subpoena to testify in the Tucker trial.
Walder answered "Yes," displaying the subpoena almost proudly.
The attorney then asked if the government had referred to him in the subpoena as "Robert B. Walder, alias Robert Braunwalder."
The prosecution objected to the question as irrelevant.
"I think it is important, Your Honor," Glasser insisted. The subpoena handed to his client had read, "Harold A. Karsten, alias Abe Karatz." "They did exactly that in this case to my client. They did it as deliberately as they could. There is no reason I cannot develop the same information here."
Judge LaBuy agreed.
Attorney Glasser repeated his question: "Did they refer to you as 'alias Robert Braunwalder' when they subpoenaed you?"
Walder's answer was "No."
"That is all," said Glasser. He had scored a point. A couple of jurors exchanged knowing glances.

The government next tried to cast doubt on Tucker's claims about his association with the late Harry Miller, legendary racing car builder. Fred Offenhauser, veteran builder of racing cars and engines, testified that Tucker did no engineering work on cars built by Miller. Miller's son Ted and his widow, Edna, were also put on the stand. Under prosecution questioning they testified that Tucker had merely been a contact man for the late racing car builder and the companies for whom Miller & Tucker, Inc., had built cars. But the government attorneys' strategy exploded in their faces. In cross-examination by the defense, Mrs. Miller's quiet admission that her late husband's funeral and burial expenses in 1943 had been paid by Preston Tucker left a hush over the courtroom. It also left little doubt in the minds of jurors about the man Preston Tucker or about his relationship with Miller.

Government witness Emery Hughett was a drawling Tennessean and a former bookkeeper at the Ypsilanti Machine and Tool Works, Tucker's engine-building subsidiary. Hughett could have been a model for Forrest Gump. He testified that an IRS agent, identified only as "Mr. House," came to the Ypsilanti Company's offices and began to grab records from file drawers. The witness said he retrieved the papers, slammed the drawers shut and told the agent he was exceeding his legal rights.

The Villain Identified
"Homer Ferguson [Michigan Republican senator] is hell-bent on putting Tucker in jail," Hughett quoted House as saying. "Joseph Struett in Chicago told me to get evidence in any way possible." Hughett also testified that he saw two men in an Ypsilanti restaurant with what he recognized as company records. He identified the men as James Goode and Frank Corbin, SEC representatives. Hughett testified that when he returned to the company's offices later he found other company records hidden in a desk about to be junked at the rear of the building.

The laconic witness added little to the government's case. On direct examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Downing, Hughett vaguely identified records of the Ypsilanti company. His stock answers to specific questions exasperated the government attorney: "I just don't know," "I can't exactly remember," or "I just couldn't exactly tell whether that's Preston Tucker's signature or not."

Under cross-examination by defense attorney Kirby, Hughett startled the court. He claimed government attorneys threatened him with indictment if he told the grand jury that Federal attorneys had raided Tucker's Ypsilanti plant in search of records. He said the threat came from James Goode, an attorney for the SEC. Goode was one of the two men Hughett had already charged with taking records from the company's files without authority and without even leaving a receipt. "If you tell about the raid on the Ypsilanti Company's office, you'll be indicted," Hughett quoted Goode as saying. "There doesn't have to be a charge. One can always be drummed up."

The next day, Goode and Everett House, an agent for the Treasury Department, stood on the courthouse steps and denied they had stolen records for evidence or threatened witness Hughett with indictment. Government attorneys asked permission to have Hughett declared "the court's witness," thus relieving them of responsibility for his testimony. Judge LaBuy denied the request, ruling that the government would be impeaching its own witness, Hughett, if Goode and House were allowed to dispute Hughett's story for the record. On the witness stand, the two were only permitted to identify the Ypsilanti Company's books--and nothing more. They had to be content with making their denials to reporters outside the courtroom.

By the first of December, only about a third of the government's 75 witnesses had been heard. The tiring pace of the government's case was beginning to be felt. With the prospect of a long recess spanning the Christmas and New Year's holidays, defense attorneys tried to convince Judge LaBuy to make it a short recess. Tucker's counsel declared that Tucker and his other clients (Dulian and Radford) were penniless and in serious financial straits. Facing the problem of being able "to put food on the table," Dulian was selling cars at night, and Radford had taken a part-time job to keep his family going.

Sharp Exchanges
Tensions heightened between prosecution and defense, with several sharp clashes between Floyd E. Thompson and Otto Kerner. In point of age and experience, the 63-year-old Thompson was the senior lawyer in that courtroom. He had been Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, then returned to a trial practice famous for many stirring defenses, including the successful acquittal of utilities tycoon Samuel Insull.

At one point, Kerner objected to Thompson's repeated use of the word "prosecutor." Kerner pointed out that it was not his title, and he wished Thompson would stop using it. "Judge" Thompson responded that he had been a prosecutor for six years and had never been ashamed of it. If his aim was to needle the federal attorney, he certainly succeeded. "Who said I was ashamed of it?" snapped Kerner.

At the same time Otto Kerner was displaying his discomfiture in the courtroom, the government was formally taking possession of the huge Dodge-Chicago plant. With that action, any hope of sustained car production collapsed. On December 17 Judge LaBuy recessed the trial for two weeks. It would be anything but a merry Christmas or a happy New Year for the defendants or their families.

A Star Witness
When the trial resumed in January, one of the first witnesses was Daniel J. Ehlenz of St. Paul, Minn. Ehlenz was expected to be a star government witness. He had paid $28,000 for a distributorship and owned a Tucker automobile. The defense learned that Ehlenz disliked Tucker but still believed in Tucker's car. They decided to turn the witness's testimony to their advantage. In cross-examination, Ehlenz's animosity toward Tucker was skillfully brought out. Then he was made to admit that he still drove his Tucker, that it had 35,000 miles on it, that he cruised it at 90 miles an hour, and that it was "the finest car I have ever driven." These were telling points in Tucker's favor from a prosecution witness. The smiles in the jury box told attorney Kirby that his gamble had paid off.

The tangled accounts of the Tucker Corporation next went into the record. Sidney Ohrbach, witness No. 71, the SEC statistician in charge of the small army of accountants and auditors who pored over the company's books, took the stand. In the 26-month period ended March 3, 1949, when all operations ceased, the corporation had taken in $28,491,652 and spent $28,309,280.

Prosecution attorney Downing asked what percentage of the development spending had gone toward developing items other than automobiles. He dropped that line of questioning when told that $158,734 went to the so-called Campini Project.

Tucker had learned of the work of Secundo Campini, whose 1931 Italian patents on jet propulsive devices made him a pioneer of jet aviation. Tucker had arranged for Campini to be flown from Italy and had put him on the payroll to work on the problem of a turbine automobile. Understandably, testimony about forward-looking research projects would not fit the picture of Tucker as a swindler of widows and orphans the government was trying to paint.

According to witness Ohrbach, the Tucker Corporation had $36,820 in cash on hand and in banks on December 31, 1946. A year later, that figure was a little more than $12 million. It then dwindled month by month to a low of $10,151 in November 1948 and stood at $219,193 on March 3, 1949. The chief items of income included $15 million from the sale of Class A stock; $7.2 million from the sale of dealer and distributor franchises; $3 million from dealers for accessories; and $237,469 from customers as deposits for accessories.

Debits on the Tucker books included $4.5 million for engineering and development; pre-production expenditures of $3.8 million; administrative charges of $3.6 million; $1.3 million for promotion; and selling expenses of $639,907. Newspapers ran these figures under scare headlines that read, "Little Found Spent on Tucker's Design" and "SEC Statistician Says Only Seventh of Income Went for Engineering, Development."

The defense moved swiftly to counter any impression of penny-pinching. Under cross-examination by attorney Kirby, Ohrbach admitted that salaries and wages for employees other than the eight defendants made up the largest single expense item. Almost $3 million had been paid to federal, state and local governments for rental of the vast Dodge-Chicago war plant occupied by the company, and for taxes and fees. Attorney Kirby pointed out that of the $28 million described as receipts, only $25 million was actually available to be spent on the production of the automobile. The difference included discounts to securities dealers who sold the stock, and money held in escrow from the sales of accessories.

The government had saved what it believed to be the most damaging testimony for the last. It summoned to the stand its 73rd and last witness, SEC accountant Joseph Turnbull. Mr. Turnbull testified that Preston Tucker alone had netted more than half a million dollars from his operation of the ill-fated automobile enterprise. Payments of various kinds to the other defendants totaled almost one million dollars. The witness had a list of "questioned transactions" totaling $527,000. These included items the SEC had first leaked to the Detroit News. Under cross-examination by attorney Kirby, Turnbull admitted he could not define any of the payments he had testified as being fraudulent or dishonest. He insisted he had based his testimony on the company's books--but had not investigated the individual items.

Kirby patiently took the witness through his list, item by item, skillfully demolishing his testimony. Summarizing the amounts Turnbull had described as "questionable," he asked him, "You are not here suggesting these figures are figures of monies taken fraudulently, are you?" His answer was, "Not exactly, no." Another star government witness had fizzled out. After Judge LaBuy denied defense motions for directed verdicts of acquittal, jurors and spectators looked forward to the defense presentation, scheduled to begin on January 16.

A Surprise Announcement
That morning, the defense dropped a bombshell, surprising spectators, and judge and prosecution attorneys alike. One by one, defense attorneys announced that they would not call a single witness. It had been expected that the defense's portion of the trial would produce another long procession of witnesses, climaxed by the testimony of Preston Tucker and his seven co-defendants. Government attorneys were salivating at the prospect of cross-examining them.

"It is impossible to present a defense when there has been no offense," attorney Daniel Glasser told the court. The other defense attorneys made longer statements, all to the same effect--namely, that the government had proved no offense; therefore there could be no defense. The last was William Kirby, who closed his statement with two words: "Tucker rests."

Caught flat-footed by the defense's decision to rest, the prosecution was unable to proceed immediately to its summation. Two days later, Robert J. Downing argued for five hours before the jury. He asked for a verdict of guilty as charged, claiming that Tucker and the other defendants "knowingly committed one of the largest frauds that has ever been perpetrated upon the public of these United States."

Summing up the prosecution's case, Otto Kerner asked, "Did these defendants tell the truth or did they lie to the public? I trust you will find all are guilty." In his masterful summation, defense attorney Kirby portrayed Tucker as "a man of honesty and vision whose automobile enterprise was crushed by the weight of malicious government investigations." He branded frictions between Tucker and his executives merely as "the obsequies of a failing corporation and not evidence of a conspiracy to defraud."

Kirby spoke all day in an emotional defense of Tucker, urging the jury to "stop picking at the turkey." At one point he paused in mid-sentence, obviously overcome with emotion. "I'm sorry," he apologized, wiping his eyes. Referring to the defendants, he added, "You get fond of these people." Kirby told the jury the defendants "either intended to cheat and that's all they intended to do or they tried in good faith to produce a car. The two are irreconcilable." He even invited the jurors for a ride in one of the Tucker cars parked outside the courthouse.

Attorney Dilling, representing Robert Pierce, declared, "private enterprise itself is on trial." And "Judge" Thompson pointed out that his client, Floyd D. Cerf, had stood to lose a million dollars if the sale of Tucker stock had not been successful, adding that "people who are going to defraud don't take chances like that--they let the other fellow take the chances."

Judge LaBuy's 45-minute charge to the jury was a masterpiece of juridical step-by-step interpretation and instruction. "The fact that the defendants and those associated with them failed to mass-produce an automobile and accomplish what they undertook is not of itself proof of fraud," the judge opined. "Erroneous judgment may be as consistent with good intentions as with bad intentions.

"You are dealing here," he told the jury, "with offenses that require specific intent. Unless there is proof that the particular defendant whose case is being considered was acting in bad faith and with an intent to do wrong, he must be found not guilty." The court declared, "Good faith is a complete defense," echoing the sentiment expressed by Justus Chancellor, attorney for Fred Rockelman and Cliff Knoble.

The Verdict
Jury foreman Joseph Kouba, an employee of the Western Electric Company, received the case Saturday morning, January 21, 1949, at 11 a.m. Twenty-eight hours later the jury signaled it had reached a verdict. Everyone scurried back to their places in the courtroom and stood up as Judge LaBuy entered from his chambers. "Have you arrived at a verdict?" the judge asked. "We have, Your Honor." The foreman handed a sealed envelope to the court clerk.

After reading each count, the clerk spoke the words "not guilty." Jubilant cheers from the 75 relatives and friends of the defendants shattered the decorum of the courtroom. Recognizing the futility of trying to restore order, the judge walked into his chambers without saying a word. Four ballots had been taken. Two jurors were for conviction on the first two ballots, one for conviction on the third ballot, and all twelve for acquittal on the fourth ballot. Tucker had won, but at great cost. In the process, his corporation and his automobile were gone. His dream was smashed by naked abuse of governmental power. Ever an optimist, he shrugged. "Even Henry Ford failed the first time out."

Dramatists classify as a tragedy any story that captures the tragic sense of life--that some of us are inevitably doomed through fate, destiny or the human condition to suffer, fail and die. In a tragedy, the measure of a life is taken by how a person confronts inexorable failure. Preston Tucker's story is a classic tragedy in every sense of the word, celebrating his courage and dignity in the face of disappointment and defeat. Some of his innovative design changes that would promote automobile safety have yet to be adopted by the industry.

Fifty-eight years have passed since the Tucker trial ended and the defendants emerged into the cold, clear air of Chicago's South Dearborn Street to pick up the pieces of their lives. Soon after the trial, defense attorney Kirby received an agitated phone call from one of the jurors, who said that U.S. Attorney Otto Kerner, Jr., had called the jury into his office and asked them to explain the verdict. Kirby told the juror that Kerner's action was unethical, uncalled for and almost without precedent. The juror wanted Kirby's advice."I told him," Kirby said, "you don't have to explain your decision to anyone until the Last Judgment." Kirby summed up his feelings with this comment: "It was my honor to defend Preston Tucker, and I have always been proud of our courts that he was acquitted."

William T. Kirby died in 1990 at the age of 79 after a long and distinguished career as a trial attorney. Chicago attorneys who were associated with him early in their careers still proudly list that fact in their biographies. He became the first counsel and later chairman of the MacArthur Foundation, the philanthropy that makes awards to artists, writers and scientists who show originality and promise in their fields.

Otto Kerner, Jr., continued to serve as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois until 1954, when he became county judge of Cook County. He held that office until 1960, when he was elected governor of Illinois, easily beating incumbent William G. Stratton, and served from 1961 to 1968.

Worried that agitators had fomented inner city riots, in August of 1967 President Lyndon B. Johnson named Governor Kerner to head a presidential commission to investigate the nation's ethnic tensions. The commission's report issued in March of 1968 concluded that racism and economic inequality had sparked the riots.

After his second term as governor ended in 1968, Otto Kerner was named a judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals. In 1973, in an ironic reversal of fortune, he was charged with crimes committed while governor. After being convicted of 17 counts of bribery, conspiracy, perjury and income tax evasion in a racetrack stock deal, Otto Kerner resigned from the bench. Disgraced and sentenced to three years in prison, he died of cancer in 1976 at the age of 75. "Judge" Floyd E. Thompson died in 1960 at 73, having spent a lifetime in the service of the blindfolded goddess. Abe Karatz went to Texas and is believed to have died there.

For Preston Tucker a desire for vindication, not vengeance, burned strongly within him. He instituted a series of libel suits against those persons, newspapers and magazines that had pilloried him so unmercifully. By September of 1950, outstanding Tucker damage suits totaled more than $19 million. Depositions taken in the suits were revealing. Before the trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lawrence Miller had referred to the confidential report of the SEC and assured the court, "As for Collier's and the Detroit News is concerned, we don't know anything about those newspapers or where they got their information, if they got it." Yet Detroit News writer Martin S. Hayden admitted that Harry A. McDonald, a commissioner of the SEC, had given him a copy of the SEC report to read in a room at Washington's Statler Hotel. He confirmed that much of the information in his Detroit News article had come from this report.

SEC Commissioner McDonald acknowledged that he gave the report to Hayden and later told a Senate investigating committee, "My purpose was to protect the Commission against unjustified criticism and to maintain public confidence in the Commission. I would unhesitatingly do the same thing today under similar circumstances." Similarly, Lester Velie, writer of the damaging Collier's article, admitted that he had been given a copy of the SEC report to read in Otto Kerner's offices in Chicago's Federal Building and in the Chicago office of SEC Commissioner Thomas B. Hart, who furnished him with office space and a desk.

Tucker's libel suits dragged on. He went to Brazil in the mid-1950s, hoping to stage a comeback there by building a popularly priced car designed by Alexis de Sakhnofsky and to be called the Tucker Carioca. Debilitating fatigue plagued him in Brazil. Aware that time might be short, Tucker made a last desperate attempt to reach his homeland by air. The rigors of the trip worsened his condition. Once home, his illness was diagnosed as lung cancer .

Preston Tucker died in Ypsilanti, Michigan, the day after Christmas in 1956 and is buried in Michigan Memorial Park in Flat Rock, Michigan. The death certificate gave the cause of death as pneumonia, a complication of his lung cancer. Still, there are some who say that this office boy on roller skates, this sentimental chump, this believer in luck, this dreamer of the American dream, this optimistic supersalesman sure that tomorrow will be better, this strange melding of charismatic visionary and practical realist, this Preston Tucker really died of a broken heart. And who is there among us that can deny this?

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (12/07/06)


Last week's column began an examination of the Balkanization of Westchester County. Thanks to the county's fragmentation into a multitude of jurisdictions, we now have a crazy quilt of ambiguous codes that reveal bizarre anomalies. Nevertheless, when it comes to zoning, Westchester communities all seem to go their separate ways. Where you live can actually determine what you may or may not be allowed to do at home by your community's zoning laws.
In six communities in this part of Westchester--the villages of Briarcliff Manor, Croton, and Ossining, the towns of Cortlandt and Ossining, and a city, Peekskill--"customary home occupations" (a term with great potential for conflicting interpretations) are permitted in varying degrees as incidental to residential use of the premises. Sale of goods and display of merchandise are banned everywhere to prevent conspicuous commercial usage and to keep neighborhood values from being affected. All six communities also define permitted and prohibited occupations.
Cortlandt's zoning ordinance is the only law in touch with the times, pointing out that home occupations are increasingly appropriate in the light of new communication technologies. It is also the only law that specifically permits a homeowner to work at home "with connection to office or other persons by computer, telephone or other communications mode," and notes that "such occupations can be environmentally beneficial by reducing commuter trips." Who can argue that computers, monitors, laser printers, scanners, power backup systems, voltage regulators and other electronic equipment now so common in homes everywhere have not quietly become "customary household appliances," a common defining stipulation for home occupations?

Cortlandt allows the following 11 home occupations: "fine arts studio, dressmaking and millinery, mail-order business, preparation of food for sale off-site, office for resident professional, such as physician, dentist, architect, broker or attorney, telephone answering service." By contrast, Briarcliff Manor lists only five "learned professions" as permitted home occupations: architect, dentist, engineer, lawyer and physician. To these, the Village and Town of Ossining both add four: artist, clergyman, musician and teacher, making a total of nine permitted professions.

Croton generously itemizes 16 permitted home occupations, adding eight others to eight of the nine allowed in Ossining: "chiropractor, city planner, insurance broker, optometrist, osteopath, public accountant, real estate broker or ladies hairdressers, but not including veterinarians." Croton's failure to include clergymen and its inclusion of usually excluded ladies' hairdressers seems odd. Exclusion of veterinarians is not unusual; dogs tend to bark. This restriction, of course, does not prevent the use of commercial space by Croton veterinarians.

Peekskill allows 11 professionals to have home offices: "architect, artist, chiropractor, city planner, engineer, insurance broker, lawyer, musician, public accountant, real estate broker or teacher." But the city, which once had a booster group called the Friendly Town Association, is decidedly unfriendly to certain professionals working at home. Its zoning ordinance says bluntly that "a doctor, dentist, optometrist or similar medical practitioner" is excluded from setting up an office at home in Peekskill.

Croton and both Ossining Village and Town prohibit studios in which dancing or music instruction is offered to more than four pupils, and also prohibit concerts or recitals. On the other hand, while it is silent about dance instruction, concerts or recitals, Cortlandt's ordinance permits music instruction, and adds academic teaching and tutoring, also with the same limit on the number of pupils. Weighing in with its own array of prohibitions, Briarcliff Manor's ordinance says, "a clinic, hospital, barber shop, beauty parlor, tea room, tourist home or animal hospital are not deemed to be home occupations." Broad classifications inevitably risk vagueness; thus, in Briarcliff Manor how does a specifically prohibited animal hospital differ from, say, a veterinarian's office?

With specifically prohibited and permitted occupations, the rub comes with a category unanticipated by the framers of a zoning ordinance. Book authorship is nowhere identified as permitted--but why shouldn't the unobtrusive writing of books be considered a "customary home occupation"? What about photography? Or the preparation of tax returns? Home decoration consultants? Can someone offering "phone sex" claim to be operating a telephone answering service?

All six communities control the size of signs, limiting them to an area of one or two square feet. Space for a home-based business in Briarcliff Manor is limited to 25 percent of one floor in the dwelling unit. Croton sees it differently, liberally sanctioning the use of 30 percent of the total floor space of the entire building. Ossining Village increases the allowed 30% of one floor of a building when used by dentists and physicians to a sizable 50 percent. All six communities also set limitations on the number of nonresident workers who may be employed. Briarcliff Manor allows no nonresident employees, which surely works a hardship on professionals with offices in their homes.

Croton allows only one nonresident employee, as do the Village and Town of Ossining--but doctors and dentists in Ossining Village are allowed two. Peekskill and Cortlandt generously permit two nonresident employees. The paradox, of course, is that in any of these communities a homeowner can employ two, or six, or even a dozen servants. Yet a professional author in Briarcliff Manor who hires someone to type a book manuscript in the home is a lawbreaker. Similarly, engaging two such typists in Ossining or Croton also is a no-no.

Zoning ordinances are usually long on definitions and short on enforcement, as witness the widespread failure to control illegal accessory apartments. Today, the trend is toward placing less emphasis on defining acceptable and unacceptable home occupations. Instead, planners prefer to set the conditions under which a homeowner may operate a business or pursue a profession at home. The community sets up a permit process with a clear-cut list of performance standards and a case-by-case evaluation of each application, giving it complete control over the home-based enterprise.

Increasingly invasive regulation of how we may use our homes is a far cry from the time-honored principle affirmed in 1605 by English jurist Sir Edward Coke, usually paraphrased as "a man's house is his castle." The American Planning Association supports a policy of allowing home occupations by special permit as preferable to defining permitted occupations and letting people do whatever they want until someone complains. Admittedly, this imposes another layer of bureaucracy on already overloaded local administrators at a time when the thrust should be toward smaller government. Proponents claim the permit process has the advantage that potential problems are uncovered and solved before the home-based business begins to operate. Complaints by neighbors and the inevitable frictions they engender usually do not arise.

Westchester's regulations on home occupations are wildly inconsistent. Its creaky zoning laws hardly reflect the lifestyles, the needs or even the desires of the respective communities. A logical solution would be modernization and standardization to match the realities of today's economic scene and the swift advances of technology. Now is the time to begin reversing the costly Balkanization of Westchester County. The conflicting, outdated and inconsistent zoning laws of its communities would be a good place to start.


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Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Preston Tucker Story, 1: Ordeal by Trial


Once there was a man who dreamed of building an automobile bearing his name: An affordable car of radically new design, with revolutionary engineering and safety features. A six-passenger, four-door sedan, longer, lower and more powerful than any standard American automobile on the road at the time. The dashboard would be round-edged and padded. Mounted in sponge rubber, the laminated safety-glass windshield was designed to pop out in an accident. A center-mounted third headlight at the front would turn with the wheels, giving better illumination on turns. Its rear-mounted engine was designed to cruise at up to 100 mph. An automatic transmission did away with the clutch pedal on the floor. All four wheels were independently sprung.

It was dubbed "the Car of Tomorrow." Compared to Detroit's offerings at the same time, it was that and more. Some of its features have yet to be adopted by American carmakers. Launching the Tucker car would not be easy. The last successful startup of a car company was Walter P. Chrysler's in 1925. In fact, the history of technology is dotted with names of those who tried to introduce a new American automobile and failed: Powel Crosley, Jr., Earl "Madman" Muntz, Macolm Bricklin, John DeLorean, to name a few.

Add to this list the name of Preston Tucker. One difference is that Tucker was defeated by the interference of sinister forces in government and an industry that did not welcome competition. The story of his shabby treatment is one of the darker chapters in the history of technology. Surmounting roadblocks and interference that would have discouraged lesser men, he managed to build 51 of his innovative cars, 47 of which have survived. The Smithsonian's Museum of American History has Tucker car No. 39. Others are scattered across the country in private hands and in museums.

A Trial in Chicago
Our story opens in the brick canyons of Chicago on the fourth Sunday in January of 1950. A wintry wind is blowing off Lake Michigan cold and raw. Pedestrians passing the U.S. Courthouse on South Dearborn Street bundle themselves tighter against the gusts. A close observer might have noticed the line of different-looking automobiles parked in nearly deserted Adams Street alongside the venerable old building. A car buff would have recognized them as Tucker automobiles. They are an important defense exhibit in a trial, although their presence is unrecorded by any court clerk.

Upstairs in the grimly splendid 45-year-old Courthouse, a few lights burn, attesting to the unceasing grinding of the judicial mills. In a sixth-floor courtroom, adorned by artist William B. Van Ingen's heroic murals depicting the development of the law, there is an air of suppressed excitement and anticipation. The jury in the trial of Preston Tucker and seven other defendants has been out since 11 a.m. of the previous day. A brief flurry of activity was sparked that night. An empty Thermos jug was thrust from the jury room with the request that it be filled with hot coffee and that some aspirin and a dozen bottles of Coca-Cola be brought. U.S. District Judge Walter J. LaBuy is in his chambers awaiting the jury's verdict. In the courtroom, bailiffs and attendants are arranged around the room in relaxed and disinterested attitudes. Members of the press lounge on benches outside, bored with it all--or at least pretending to be. The consensus is that the longer the jury remains out, the blacker it will look for Preston Tucker.

Attorneys for both sides reflect supreme confidence. The relatives of the defendants appear anxious, while the defendants themselves--many of whom have long since ceased being friends--smile nervously and watch the door to the jury room for signs of activity. That is, all except one. A handsome man has separated himself from the glad-handers, the inquiring and persistent reporters, and the morbidly curious. His face and its ready smile have graced the front pages of newspapers across the country for many months. Preston Tucker now sits alone, lost in thought.

What does someone reflect on when facing a prison sentence of 155 years and hefty fines? Does he reflect that history was made in this very building, where gangster Al Capone was sentenced for income tax evasion and the Standard Oil Company was fined a cool $29 million? Do the events of a lifetime pass in review? How does a poor boy from a small town in Michigan find himself in a courtroom in the Windy City, hearing his name reviled, hearing himself disparaged as a thief and a cheat?

Small town is right. The only remarkable quality about his birthplace was its name: For some unexplained reason, it was called Capac after Manco Capac, traditional founder of the Peruvian Inca dynasty. On September 21, 1903, Preston Thomas Tucker was born in the unprepossessing little town in the flat peat bog country between Port Huron and Flint. Those who knew Preston Tucker as a young man would have said that he would be the last person to be haled into court on charges of theft and fraud. In his teens, Tucker's parents moved to Lincoln Park, a suburb of Detroit. His first job was as an office boy in the Cadillac Motor Car Company. Here he introduced a revolutionary scheme for delivering the mail. He made his rounds in the corporate halls on roller skates--until the day he ran into his boss, literally.

Years later, when his star flashed briefly across the national horizon, he was asked to contribute biographical data to Who's Who in America. Unashamed of his lowly beginnings, he listed his employment history, starting with his first job as "office boy, Cadillac Motor Company." Not "sales manager," which he wasn't. Not "in charge of document distribution," which would have been an oblique and crafty way of describing his duties. Nor did he leave a gap in the record, with his lowly job conveniently forgotten. And this was when it could have been useful to him to make his record more impressive.

He went from GM's Cadillac division to the Lincoln Park police force. Floyd M. Crichton, a rookie cop with Tucker and later Lincoln Park's chief of police, recalled Tucker as a brash and nervy young motorcycle cop. Tucker's service record included arrests of armed criminals at gunpoint. The time was the Roaring Twenties. Bootlegging was widespread. Lincoln Park was not far from the Canadian border, and Tucker was up against toughs, not young punks.

The needs and urgings of a growing family made young Tucker quit the police force. He took a better-paying job as a salesman for car dealer Mitchell W. Dulian in Memphis, Tennessee. When Tucker needed a sales manager for his own corporation, he would tap Dulian for the post. And, inadvertently, bring him into the courtroom. One of Tucker's co-defendants sweating out the jury's deliberations in Chicago was this same Mitchell W. Dulian.

In 1931, Tucker became a regional manager for the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company in Buffalo; two years later he was in Detroit selling Dodge automobiles. Indianapolis was a powerful magnet for Preston Tucker. The city's 500-mile races fascinated him. When the Packard agency in the Indiana capital was offered to him, he jumped at the chance. That way he could be close to the 2.5-mile track known to auto-racing fans as "the Brickyard." In 1935, he teamed up with Harry A. Miller, legendary builder of racing cars. Miller & Tucker, Inc., contracted to build ten V-8-engined racing cars for Henry Ford. By 1940, he had set up his first Tucker company. The Tucker Aviation Corporation, of Ypsilanti, Michigan, began work on combat cars and aerial gun turrets of his own design.

Gearing up for Defense
America's entry into the war brought defense contracts, and he found himself suddenly projected into the national spotlight. His working partner was none other than fiery, redheaded Andrew Jackson Higgins, New Orleans boat builder extraordinary and bon vivant. Their plan was to equip Higgins's speedboats with Tucker's innovative turret. The idea was sound, but a clash of two strong personalities was inevitable. Something had to give. Tucker took his staff and his ideas back to Ypsilanti in 1944 and began dreaming about a postwar car.

In spite of their differences, Higgins always regarded Tucker as "the world's greatest salesman." Speaking in his soft southern drawl, Higgins once warned an associate about Tucker, "When he turns those big brown eyes on you, boy, you'd better watch out." Another early Tucker associate was Abe Karatz--promoter, fast man with a buck, and wheeler-dealer. With Dave ("Long Count") Barry, a former boxing referee, Karatz had been convicted in June of 1935 of conspiring to embezzle funds of the Amalgamated Trust and Savings Bank. He served three years of a one- to five-year sentence in the state prison at Joliet.

When friends called Tucker's attention to Karatz's criminal record, the ex-cop shrugged. Hadn't Karatz paid his debt to society? Besides, Tucker liked the expansive, outgoing Abe. Later, hardheaded realists convinced him that Karatz could be a liability to the corporation. Tucker encouraged Abe to take a new name and a Tucker distributorship, and make a fresh start in Southern California.

After the Tucker car idea was launched in the hectic months following the end of World War II, many people hastened to take credit for the car and its innovations. Most of those who worked closely with Tucker later scattered throughout the automobile industry. Yet it is difficult to find a mention of their association with him in their biographical material.

To Make a Car
Tucker formed the Tucker Corporation in 1946 and set about to make a car. Several experienced executives were associated with him at the start: Robert Pierce, a canny Scot and former secretary-treasurer of Detroit's Briggs Manufacturing Company, the world's largest independent auto body builder; Fred Rockelman, ex-Ford Motor Company sales manager; and Ray Rausch, also a former Ford executive.

Tucker's group had its eyes on the sprawling 475-acre Dodge-Chicago plant in Cicero, Illinois, where B-29 airplane engines had been built during the war. It was now in the hands of the War Assets Administration (WAA) and up for disposal. By the Fourth of July in 1946, a lease was worked out with the WAA contingent upon the Tucker Corporation having at least $15 million in capital by the following March 1st. It called for a minimum rental of half a million per year for the first two years. Thereafter, the rent jumped to $2.4 million a year or 3 percent of the company's gross sales, whichever was larger. To close up the deal, all Tucker had to do was to find $15 million in cash in a hurry.

Tucker worked out a dealer-franchise program to provide quickly available capital. Plans also were set in motion for a $20 million stock issue handled by the Chicago brokerage firm of Floyd D. Cerf. It looked like smooth sailing ahead, but the picture's rosy hues quickly faded. Despite Tucker's contract with the WAA, Wilson Wyatt, quick-rising young politician and former mayor of Louisville, threw a monkey wrench into the deal. Wyatt, who wore the two hats of Housing Expediter and head of the National Housing Agency, directed the WAA to allocate the Dodge-Chicago plant to the Lustron Corporation. Lustron was a company planning to construct prefabricated homes using porcelain-enameled cold-rolled steel panels.

The dispute quickly involved the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, going all the way to the White House before being resolved. And the March 1st deadline--not to mention the entire summer--came and went before the issue was settled in Tucker's favor on September 12 of 1947. Lustron eventually leased an almost new aircraft plant in Columbus, Ohio. Its overpriced homes did not sell well, and the company went bankrupt in 1950. Getting caught between two government agency buzz saws set the Tucker program back by months. It also made powerful enemies in high places.

No sooner were the Tucker Corporation's stock plans announced than another government agency started poking around in its affairs. This was the Securities and Exchange Commission. In the postwar years, the SEC did not confine its activities to regularizing a corporation's stock registration and similar administrative matters. It also aggressively investigated corporations.

Paradoxically, in June of 1947, at the same time the SEC was giving a green light for Tucker stock sales, its press handouts were publicly questioning Preston Tucker's stewardship of his company. The SEC office in Chicago, headed by Thomas B. Hart, scrutinized Tucker's franchise agreements with dealers, claiming the agreements were "a security within the meaning of the Securities and Exchange Act."

Obstruction of Tucker's plans was widespread. To achieve self-sufficiency in automobile production, he decided to buy one of the remaining surplus steel plants being sold by the government. The blast furnace at Granite City, Illinois, operated by the Koppers Company under lease, had a fair value set by the WAA of $2.5 million. Tucker offered $2.75 million for it and was the high bidder. The other bidders were the Fulton Iron Company and a brand new company half-owned by Koppers, Missouri-Illinois Furnaces, organized a week before the bidding was opened.

Another Disappointment
All bids, however, were rejected; the WAA announced that it had boosted the fair value of the plant to $3.35 million without telling either the Fulton Iron Company or Preston Tucker, and had sold the plant to the Koppers interests for a mere $5,000 more than the newly set "fair value." Justice Bennett Champ Clark of the U.S. Court of Appeals later described these transactions as "surrounded by a pervasive and most offensive odor of skullduggery." Nevertheless, the Court dismissed Tucker's petition for an injunction to stop the sale to Koppers because the WAA had not consented to be sued.

When the last government-owned steel plant, this one in Cleveland, was put on the block, Tucker again was high-bidder. This time the WAA rejected the two bids--Tucker's and the Republic Steel Corporation's--insisting that the bidders first demonstrate their ability to operate the plant and keep it supplied with raw materials. Tucker scoured the markets, buying up materials and making commitments to buy. After months of negotiations with the WAA, the outcome for Tucker was another bitter disappointment. The agency leased the plant to Kaiser Steel with an option to buy--for less than either Tucker or Republic Steel had bid. The only bright spot in the picture was Tucker's acquisition of Air-Cooled Motors, Inc., a Syracuse helicopter engine manufacturer in March of 1948 for $1.8 million. This deal was easily arranged. The sale went smoothly, probably because no government agencies were involved and the sale was entirely in the private sector.

Harassment of Preston Tucker by government agencies, which had been sporadic in 1946 and 1947, reached a fever pitch in 1948. Tucker corporate counsel James D. Coolidge was summoned to the Chicago offices of the SEC, where he was informed that an investigation of the company had been ordered. Secrecy in the investigation was promised--if the company would voluntarily turn over its books and records to the SEC.

A Dire Prediction
Any hope of the promised secrecy was dashed when news of the investigation was leaked to Drew Pearson, a popular newspaper columnist and radio commentator. Pearson publicly predicted that the SEC investigation as well as a projected Justice Department investigation would "blow the Tucker firm higher than a kite." After Pearson's nationwide broadcast, Tucker stock, then selling for five dollars a share, abruptly lost more than 50 percent of its value.

Seeing the hopes and dreams of a lifetime suddenly threatened by cabalistic forces, Tucker decided to fight. He refused to surrender the company's records to the SEC, contending that it would then be impossible to operate. The SEC retaliated by getting a court order requiring the company to open its records. Tucker complied, but closed down the plant to conserve the firm's dwindling funds. Examination of the books, which the company had assailed as a fishing expedition, began. By a curious coincidence, the WAA had rejected Tucker's bid for the Cleveland steel plant on May 29, the very same day the SEC had opened its investigation of the Tucker company.

"One Influential Individual"
Tucker struck back with full-page advertisements in major newspapers. Titled "An Open Letter to the Automobile Industry," he charged that "most of the political pressure and investigations we have had to face these last two years can be traced back to one influential individual who is out to get Tucker." The "influential individual" was unnamed. Identifying him, however, was easy. Most readers knew Tucker was pointing a finger at 60-year-old Senator Homer Ferguson, Michigan Republican, sometimes called "the one-man grand jury" for his holier-than-thou crime-busting activities. Ferguson was also known in some circles as "the senator from Detroit" for his fierce protectiveness of that city's established automakers.

Ferguson and his Senate War Surplus investigating committee had been a prime mover in probing Tucker's failed attempt to lease the Dodge-Chicago plant, and a gadfly in other investigations. Tucker's advertisement also charged that the unnamed individual's wife owned a controlling interest in an automobile company subsidiary. Even more damaging, the tab for an elaborate party for the unnamed individual at a Washington hotel was paid by a Detroit automaker. The ad did little to stem the tide of bothersome investigations, but it undoubtedly made Tucker feel good to hit back at his tormentors.

By the late summer of 1948, stockholder groups were filing suits asking receivership for the immobilized company and alleging the danger of financial collapse. These suits continued throughout the fall and winter of 1948, punctuated by the resignations of corporate officers and directors. No one ever left with a whimper, always with a bang. Perhaps the reason was Tucker's own colorful and aggressive personality. Copies of resignations were invariably hand-delivered to newspaper offices and wire services. The departing executive would call a press conference, where he would announce to the world what was wrong with the ailing Tucker Corporation: The problem always was none other than Preston Tucker.

American corporations have had their share of growing pains and organizational headaches, but it is doubtful that any company had the sorehead quotient of the Tucker Corporation. Among other low blows the corporation suffered in 1949 at the hands of the government, the first was U.S. Attorney Otto Kerner's. announcement that the February Grand Jury would investigate Preston Tucker and Tucker Corporation activities.

Otto Kerner, Jr., was married to the daughter of Chicago Mayor Anton J. Cermak, killed in Florida by an assassin's bullet intended for President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933. Tucker hailed the action as "an opportunity to explain our side of the story." Subpoenas were issued, and a parade of witnesses began before the 23 jurors making up the panel.

March 3, 1949, marked another disaster. Tucker lost control of the corporation bearing his name. On that date, Judge Michael L. Igoe named two trustees, Aaron J. Colnon and John H. Schatz, to operate the company. Tucker called them, "Igoe's pet trustees." They soon became another rich news source, providing journalists with information about the company's tangled affairs.

Leaked Stories
Ten days later, readers of the Detroit News opened their Sunday paper and were confronted with the headline, "Gigantic Tucker Fraud Charged in SEC Report." The explosive front-page story was by Martin S. Hayden, the paper's Washington correspondent. U.S. Attorney Kerner said he would demand an immediate Justice Department investigation into the apparent leaking of a confidential SEC report. Edmond M. Hanrahan, chairman of the SEC, rushed from his Long Island home to the SEC's Philadelphia headquarters, and then to Washington to trace the leak. If these investigations turned up any evidence, it was never made public. Instead, Tucker, already reeling from these blows in the government's vendetta, was hit again on June 10. U.S. Attorney Kerner announced the indictment of Tucker and seven associates or former associates on 31 counts--25 of mail fraud, five of violations of SEC regulations and one of conspiracy to defraud.

Listed on the indictment with the 46-year-old Tucker were Harold A. Karsten, 58, (additionally identified as "alias Abe Karatz" in his subpoena); Floyd D. Cerf, 61, whose firm had handled the stock offering; Robert Pierce, 63; Fred Rockelman, 64; and Mitchell W. Dulian, 50. Also named were Otis Radford, 42, formerly Tucker Corporation comptroller, and Cliff Knoble, 42, former advertising manager, who only recently had sued the corporation in a dispute over back pay. Tucker called the charges silly and ridiculous, pointing out that a so-called "secret investigation" like the SEC's could upset any company, strong or weak. Bail was set at $25,000 for Tucker, Karsten, Cerf and Pierce and at $10,000 for the other four defendants.

Despite the government's offensive against Preston Tucker, the country was behind him. This support was epitomized in a letter to him from someone in Sydney, Ohio. Signed Dated June 11, 1949, it said: "I was just getting ready to buy one of your cars when the big boys squeezed you out. I wouldn't give up so easy. Why not ask everyone in the country to send you a buck. With approximately 160 million in the country, you should be able to get $50 million. Here's the first one. Good luck." A single dollar bill was attached.

In its issue of June 25, 1949, Collier's magazine, featured a damaging article by writer Lester Velie. Entitled "The Fantastic Story of the Tucker Car," it contained much the same information as the Detroit News account, but in greater detail. Clearly, persons had written both stories after having access to the confidential SEC report. Adding fuel to the fire, the widely read Reader's Digest picked up the Velie article and ran a condensed version in its September 1949 issue.

A Trial Begins
The Tucker trial got underway October 5, 1949, in this poisoned atmosphere. Newspapers carried the story of jury selection under the same headline that announced "Tucker Loses Dodge-Chicago Plant." Federal Judge Michael L. Igoe approved the return of the $172 million plant to the WAA, but gave the court-appointed trustees 60 days to sell Tucker's lease or reorganize the company. Any chance of producing Tucker automobiles was rapidly evaporating. Preston Tucker was now fighting for his life. It would take a miracle to save him.

Assisting Otto Kerner in prosecuting the case were Robert J. Downing and Lawrence I. Miller. Handling the Tucker defense were William T. Kirby, 38, and Frank J. ("Spike") McAdams, 38. During the war, Kirby, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and its law school, had served in the Army's Corps of Engineers. McAdams, a feisty New Yorker and Navy veteran, had lost his right arm in the invasion of Leyte.

At every stage of the trial, defense requests to see copies of the SEC report were denied. The prosecution insisted it was classified "secret." The defense argued that this was clearly not the case since the report had already been shown to publications unfriendly to Tucker. Even Judge LaBuy remarked, "To permit the SEC to expose the report to the public press and have the District Attorney deny the same right to the defendant shocks the Court's sense of justice, fairness and right." Nevertheless, the defense was never shown the report.

The government began the procession of witnesses whose testimony was expected to weave a web of guilt around Tucker and the other defendants. Five days later the trial came to an abrupt end. Mark Mourne, former secretary of the Tucker Corporation, was on the stand. Assistant U.S. Attorney Miller asked the witness whether he recalled having a conversation with Preston Tucker about Karsten.

Floyd R. Thompson, representing stockbroker Floyd D. Cerf, objected to the line of questioning. Out of hearing of the jury, he argued that the question was designed to elicit disclosure about Karsten's past. The government attorneys denied this. Questioning of Mourne was permitted to continue. Miller asked, "What was the substance of your conversation with Mr. Tucker?"

The witness, who was Tucker's cousin, responded, "I told him that Mr. Karsten had a criminal record and that...." The rest of Mourne's statement was drowned out by the vociferous objections of the defense attorneys who jumped to their feet and protested. Judge LaBuy granted the defense's motion for a mistrial and ordered a new trial to start in one week. This meant a new jury would have to be selected. Ground that had already been covered by previous witnesses would have to be gone over again.

Jury selection was completed October 18. Evenly divided, with six men (a carpenter, a painter, a bookkeeper, a salesman and two machine operators) and six women (a telephone operator, four housewives and a widowed apartment building owner), it was as representative an American jury as could be wished. The stage was now set for a replay of the punitive trial that would determine Preston Tucker's fate.

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