Part 2 out of 4
no Strad. had ever been made of baked wood, and showed the jury certain
pegs used by no other maker than Nicholas, and certain marks worn upon
the instrument by his, the witness', own playing. He also exhibited the
check with which he had paid for it.
In support of this evidence Charles Palm himself was called by the
defense and identified the violin as one which he had bought some twelve
years before for fifteen or twenty dollars and later sold to Eller. Upon
the question of the identity of the instrument then lying before the
jury this evidence was conclusive, but, of course, it did not satisfy
the jury as to whether Flechter had tried to sell the Palm violin or
Bott's violin to Durden. Unfortunately Eller's evidence threw a side
light on the defence without which the trial might well have resulted in
Eller had sworn that he was still vigorously endeavoring to get the Palm
violin back from Flechter. As contradicting him in this respect, and as
tending to show that the suit had not only been compromised but that he
and Flechter were engaged in trying to put off the Palm violin as a
genuine Stradivarius and share the profit of the fraud, the prosecution
introduced the following letter from the witness to his lawyer:
CLIFTON HOUSE, CHICAGO, ILLINOIS.
_March 23, 1896._
_Dear Counsellor_: Received your letter just now. I have been
expecting Mr. Flechter's lawyer would settle with you; he got nine
hundred dollars for the violin and Mr. Meyer arranged with myself
for the half, four hundred and fifty dollars, which he proposed
himself and have been expecting a settlement on their part long ago.
I have assisted Mr. Palmer, his able lawyer, with the best of my
ability, _and have covered Mr. Flechter's shortcomings of faking the
violin to a Strad_.
Yours most sincerely,
Metropolitan Opera Co., Chicago, Ill.
From this letter it was fairly inferable that although the defendant
might be innocent of the precise crime with which he was charged, he
was, nevertheless, upon his own evidence, guilty of having "faked" a
cheap Nicholas violin into a Strad., and of having offered it for sale
for the exorbitant price of five thousand dollars. This luckless piece
of evidence undoubtedly influenced the jury to convict him.
It will be recalled that ten witnesses for the prosecution had sworn
that the violin offered in evidence at the trial was _not_ the one
produced in the police court, as against the defendant's five who
asserted that it _was_.
The testimony was all highly technical and confusing, and the jury
probably relied more upon their general impressions of the credibility
of the witnesses than upon anything else. It is likely that most of the
testimony, on both sides, in regard to the identity of the violin was
honestly given, for the question was one upon which a genuine divergence
of opinion was easily possible.
Eller's letter from Chicago so affected the jury that they disregarded
his testimony and reverted to that of August Gemunder, to whose evidence
attention has already been called, and who swore that it was "The Duke
of Cambridge" which Flechter had tried to sell to Durden. Alas for the
fallibility of even the most honest of witnesses!
The case was ably argued by both sides, and every phase of this curious
tangle of evidence given its due consideration. The defense very
properly laid stress upon the fact that it would have been a ridiculous
performance for Flechter to write the "Cave Dweller" letter and state
therein that he was "a violin dealer or maker," thus pointing,
unmistakably, to himself, and to further state that for one in his
position to dispose of it would be difficult and dangerous. The only
explanation for the "Cave Dweller" letter which they could offer,
however, was that some one interested in procuring Flechter's downfall
had caused it to be sent for that purpose. This might either be a
business rival or some one connected with the prosecution.
While Palmer was summing up for the defense he noticed Assistant
District Attorney Allen smiling and dramatically turning upon him, he
shouted: "This is no laughing matter, Colonel Allen. It is a very
serious matter whether this man is to be allowed to-night to go home and
kiss his little ones, or whether he is to be cast into jail because you
used your brains to concoct a theory against him."
Another consideration, which seemed deserving of weight, was that if
Flechter did steal "The Duke of Cambridge" it would have been a piece of
incredible folly and carelessness upon his part to leave it in such an
exposed place as the safe of his store, where it could be found by the
police or shown by the office-boy to any one who called.
Yet the positive identification of August Gemunder and the fatal
disclosures of Eller, coupled with the vehement insistence of the
prosecution, led the jury to resolve what doubt they had in the case
against the prisoner, and, after deliberating eight or ten hours and
being out all night, they returned a verdict of guilty. Flechter broke
down and declared bitterly that he was the victim of a conspiracy upon
the part of his enemies, assisted by a too credulous prosecuting
attorney. Everybody admitted that it was an extraordinary case, but the
press was consistent in its clamor against Flechter, and opinion
generally was that he had been rightly convicted. On May 22nd he was
sentenced to the penitentiary for twelve months, but, after being
incarcerated in the Tombs for three weeks, he secured a certificate of
reasonable doubt and a stay until his conviction could be reviewed on
appeal. Then he gave bail and was released. But he had been in jail!
Flechter will never forget that! And, for the time being at least, his
reputation was gone, his family disgraced, and his business ruined.
A calm reading of the record of the trial suggests that the case
abounded in doubts more or less reasonable, and that the Court might
well have taken it from the jury on that account. But a printed page of
questions and answers carries with it no more than a suggestion of the
value of testimony the real significance of which lies in the manner in
which it is given, the tone of the voice and the flash of the eye.
Once again Flechter sat at his desk in the window behind the great
gilded fiddle. To him, as to its owner, the great Stradivarius had
brought only sorrow. But for him the world had no pity. Surely the
strains of this wonderful instrument must have had a "dying fall" even
when played by the loving hand of old Jean Bott.
At last, after several years, in 1899, the case came up in the Appellate
Division of the Supreme Court. Flechter had been led to believe that his
conviction would undoubtedly be reversed and a new trial ordered, which
would be tantamount to an acquittal, for it was hardly likely in such an
event that a second trial would be considered advisable upon the same
evidence. But to his great disappointment his conviction was sustained
by a divided court, in which only two of the five justices voted for a
new trial. Again Fortune had averted her face. If only one more judge
had thought the evidence insufficient! The great gilded fiddle seemed to
Flechter an omen of misfortune. Once more he gave bail, this time in
five thousand dollars, and was set at liberty pending his appeal to the
highest court in the State. Once more he took his seat in his office and
tried to carry on his business.
But time had dragged on. People had forgotten all about Flechter and the
lost Stradivarius, and when his conviction was affirmed little notice
was taken of the fact. It was generally assumed that having been
sentenced he was in jail.
Then something happened which once more dragged Flechter into the
limelight. Editors rushed to their files and dusted the cobwebs off the
issues containing the accounts of the trial. The sign of the gilded
fiddle became the daily centre of a throng of excited musicians, lawyers
and reporters. The lost Stradivarius--the great "Duke of Cambridge"--the
nemesis of Bott and of Flechter--was found--by Flechter himself, as he
claimed, on August 17, 1900. According to the dealer and his witnesses
the amazing discovery occurred in this wise. A violin maker named Joseph
Farr, who at one time had worked for Flechter and had testified in his
behalf at the trial (to the effect that the instrument produced in the
police court was _not_ Bott's Stradivarius) saw by chance a very fine
violin in the possession of a family named Springer in Brooklyn, and
notified Flechter of the fact. The latter, who was always ready to
purchase choice violins, after vainly trying for a long time to induce
the Springers to bring it to New York, called with Farr upon Mrs.
Springer and asked to examine it. To his utter astonishment she produced
for his inspection Bott's long-lost Stradivarius. Hardly able to control
his excitement Flechter immediately returned to New York and reported
the discovery to the police, who instantly began a thorough examination
of the circumstances surrounding its discovery.
The District Attorney's office and the Detective Bureau were at first
highly suspicious of this opportune discovery on the part of a convicted
felon of the precise evidence necessary to clear him, but it was soon
demonstrated to their pretty general satisfaction that the famous
Stradivarius had in fact been pawned in the shop of one Benjamin Fox on
the very day and within an hour of the theft, together with its case and
two bows, for the insignificant sum of four dollars. After the legal
period of redemption had expired it had been put up at auction and bid
in by the pawnbroker for a small advance over the sum for which it had
been pawned. It lay exposed for purchase on Fox's shelf for some months,
until, in December, 1895, a tailor named James Dooly visited the shop to
redeem a silver watch. Being, at the same time, in funds, and able to
satisfy his taste as a virtuoso, he felt the need of and bought a violin
for ten dollars, but, Fox urging upon him the desirability of getting a
good one while he was about it, was finally persuaded to purchase the
Bott violin for twenty dollars in its stead. Dooly took it home, played
upon it as the spirit moved, and whenever in need of ready money brought
it back to Fox as security, always redeeming it in time to prevent its
sale. One day, being at Mrs. Springer's, where he was accustomed to
purchase tailor trimmings, he offered it to her for sale, and, as her
son was taking violin lessons, induced her to buy it for thirty dollars.
And in the house of the Springers it had quietly remained ever since,
while lawyers and prosecutors wrangled and thundered and witnesses swore
positively to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, to
prove that Flechter stole the violin and tried to sell it to Durden.
On these facts, which did not seem to admit of contradiction, Recorder
Goff ordered an oral examination of all the witnesses, the hearing of
which, sandwiched in between the current trials in his court, dragged
along for months, but which finally resulted in establishing to the
Court's satisfaction that the violin discovered in the possession of the
Springers was the genuine "Duke of Cambridge," and that it could not
have been in Flechter's possession at the time he was arrested.
On July 7, 1902, eight years after Bott's death and the arrest and
indictment of Flechter for the theft of the violin, a picturesque group
assembled in the General Sessions. There was Flechter and his lawyer,
Mrs. Springer and her son, the attorneys for the prosecution, and lastly
old Mrs. Bott. The seals of the case were broken and the violin
identified by the widow as that of her husband. The Springers waived all
claim to the violin, and the Court dismissed the indictment against the
defendant and ordered the Stradivarius to be delivered to Mrs. Bott,
with these words:
"Mrs. Bott, it affords very great pleasure to the Court to give the
violin to you. You have suffered many years of sorrow and trouble in
regard to it."
"Eight years," sighed the old lady, clasping the violin in her arms.
"I wish you a great deal of pleasure in its possession," continued the
Thus ended, as a matter of record, the case of The People against
Flechter. For eight years the violin dealer and his family had endured
the agony of disgrace, he had spent a fortune in his defense, and had
nevertheless been convicted of a crime of which he was at last proved
Yet, there are those who, when the case is mentioned, shake their heads
wisely, as if to say that the whole story of the lost Stradivarius has
never been told.
The Last of the Wire-Tappers
"Sir," replied the knave unabashed, "I am one of those who do make a
living by their wits."
John Felix, a dealer in automatic musical instruments in New York City,
was swindled out of $50,000 on February 2d, 1905, by what is commonly
known as the "wire-tapping" game. During the previous August a man
calling himself by the name of Nelson had hired Room 46, in a building
at 27 East Twenty-second Street, as a school for "wireless telegraphy."
Later on he had installed over a dozen deal tables, each fitted with a
complete set of ordinary telegraph instruments and connected with wires
which, while apparently passing out of the windows, in reality plunged
behind a desk into a small "dry" battery. Each table was fitted with a
shaded electric drop-light, and the room was furnished with the ordinary
paraphernalia of a telegraph office. The janitor never observed any
activity in the "school." There seemed to be no pupils, and no one
haunted the place except a short, ill-favored person who appeared
monthly and paid the rent.
On the afternoon of February 1st, 1905, Mr. Felix was called to the
telephone of his store and asked to make an appointment later in the
afternoon, with a gentleman named Nelson who desired to submit to him a
business proposition. Fifteen minutes afterward Mr. Nelson arrived in
person and introduced himself as having met Felix at "Lou" Ludlam's
gambling house. He then produced a copy of the _Evening Telegram_ which
contained an article to the effect that the Western Union Telegraph
Company was about to resume its "pool-room service,"--that is to say, to
supply the pool rooms with the telegraphic returns of the various
horse-races being run in different parts of the United States. The paper
also contained, in connection with this item of news, a photograph which
might, by a stretch of the imagination, have been taken to resemble
Mr. Felix, who was a German gentleman of French sympathies, married to
an American lady, had recently returned to America after a ten years'
sojourn in Europe. He had had an extensive commercial career, was
possessed of a considerable fortune, and had at length determined to
settle in New York, where he could invest his money to advantage and at
the same time conduct a conservative and harmonious business in musical
instruments. Like the Teutons of old, dwelling among the forests of the
Elbe, Mr. Felix knew the fascination of games of chance and he had heard
the merry song of the wheel at both Hambourg and Monte Carlo. In Europe
the pleasures of the gaming table had been comparatively inexpensive,
but in New York for some unknown reason the fickle goddess had not
favored him and he had lost upward of $51,000. "Zu viel!" as he himself
expressed it. Being of a philosophic disposition, however, he had
pocketed his losses and contented himself with the consoling thought
that, whereas he might have lost all, he had in fact lost only a part.
It might well have been that had not The Tempter appeared in the person
of his afternoon visitor, he would have remained _in status quo_ for the
rest of his natural life. In the sunny window of his musical store,
surrounded by zitherns, auto-harps, dulcimers, psalteries, sackbuts, and
other instrument's of melody, the advent of Nelson produced the effect
of a sudden and unexpected discord. Felix distrusted him from the very
The "proposition" was simplicity itself. It appeared that Mr. Nelson was
in the employ of the Western Union Telegraph Company, which had just
opened a branch office for racing news at 27 East Twenty-second Street.
This branch was under the superintendence of an old associate and
intimate friend of Nelson's by the name of McPherson. Assuming that they
could find some one with the requisite amount of cash, they could all
make their everlasting fortunes by simply having McPherson withhold the
news of some race from the pool rooms long enough to allow one of the
others to place a large bet upon some horse which had in fact already
won and was resting comfortably in the stable. Felix grasped the idea
instantly. At the same time he had his suspicions of his visitor. It
seemed peculiar that he, an inconspicuous citizen who had already lost
$50,000 in gambling houses, should be selected as the recipient of such
a momentous opportunity. Moreover, he knew very well that gentlemen in
gambling houses were never introduced at all. He thought he detected the
odor of a rodent. He naively inquired why, if all these things were so,
Nelson and his friend were not already yet millionaires two or three
times? The answer was at once forthcoming that they _had_ been, but also
had been robbed--unmercifully robbed, by one in whom they had had
confidence and to whom they had entrusted their money.
"And now we are poor, penniless clerks!" sighed Nelson, "and if we
should offer to make a big bet ourselves, the gamblers would be
suspicious and probably refuse to place it."
"I think this looks like a schvindling game," said Felix shrewdly. So it
did; so it was.
By and by Felix put on his hat and, escorted by Nelson, paid a visit to
the "branch office" at 27 East Twenty-second Street. Where once solitude
had reigned supreme and the spider had spun his web amid the
fast-gathering dust, all was now tumultuous activity. Fifteen busy
operators in eye shades and shirt sleeves took the news hot from the
humming wires and clicked it off to the waiting pool rooms.
"Scarecrow wins by a neck!" cried one, "Blackbird second!"
"Make the odds 5 to 3," shouted a short, ill-favored man, who sat at a
desk puffing a large black cigar. The place buzzed like a beehive and
ticked like a clockmaker's. It had an atmosphere of breathless
excitement all its own. Felix watched and marvelled, wondering if dreams
The short, ill-favored man strolled over and condescended to make Mr.
Felix's acquaintance. An hour later the three of them were closeted
among the zitherns. At the same moment the fifteen operators were ranged
in a line in front, of a neighboring bar, their elbows simultaneously
elevated at an angle of forty-five degrees.
Felix still had lingering doubts. Hadn't Mr. McPherson some little
paper--a letter, a bill, a receipt or a check, to show that he was
really in the employ of the Western Union? No, said "Mac," but he had
something better--the badge which he had received as the fastest
operator among the company's employees. Felix wanted to see it, but
"Mac" explained that it was locked up in the vault at the Farmers' Loan
and Trust Co. To Felix this had a safe sound--"Farmers' Trust Co." Then
matters began to move rapidly. It was arranged that Felix should go down
in the morning and get $50,000 from his bankers, Seligman and Meyer.
After that he was to meet Nelson at the store and go with him to the
pool room where the big financiers played their money. McPherson was to
remain at the "office" and telephone them the results of the races in
advance. By nightfall they would be worth half a million.
"I hope you have a good large safe," remarked Nelson, tentatively. The
three conspirators parted with mutual expressions of confidence and
Next morning Mr. Felix went to his bankers and procured $50,000 in five
ten-thousand-dollar bills. The day passed very slowly. There was not
even a flurry in zitherns. He waited impatiently for Nelson who was to
come at five o'clock. At last Nelson arrived and they hurried to the
Fifth Avenue Hotel where the _coup_ was to take place.
And now another marvel. Wassermann Brothers' stock-brokering office,
which closes at three hummed just as the "office" had done the evening
before--and with the very same bees, although Felix did not recognize
them. It was crowded with men who struggled violently with one another
in their eagerness to force their bets into the hands of a
benevolent-looking person, who, Felix was informed, was the "trusted
cashier" of the establishment. And the sums were so large that even
"Make that $40,000 on Coco!" cried a bald-headed "capper."
"Mr. Gates wants to double his bet on Jackstone,--make it $80,000!"
"Gentlemen! Gentlemen!" begged the "trusted cashier," "not quite so
fast, if you please. One at a time."
"Sixty thousand on Hesper--for a place!" bawled one addressed as "Mr.
Keene," while Messrs. "Ryan," "Whitney," "Belmont," "Sullivan,"
"McCarren," and "Murphy" all made handsome wagers.
From time to time a sporty-looking man standing beside a ticker, shouted
the odds and read off the returns. Felix heard with straining ears:
"Baby leads at the quarter."
"Susan is gaining!"
"They're on the stretch!"
"Satan wins by a nose--Peter second."
There was a deafening uproar, hats were tossed ceilingward, and great
wads of money were passed out by the "trusted cashier" to indifferent
millionaires. Felix wanted to rush in and bet at once on something--if
he waited it might be too late. Was it necessary to be introduced to the
cashier? No? Would he take the bet? All right, but--
At that moment a page elbowed his way among the money calling
plaintively for "Felix! Mr. Felix." Shrinking at the thought of such
publicity in such distinguished company, Felix caught the boy's arm and
learned that he was wanted at the telephone booth in the hotel.
"It must be 'Mac,'" said Nelson. "Now don't make any mistake!" Felix
promised to use the utmost care.
It was "Mac."
"Is this Mr. Felix?--Yes? Well, be very careful now. I am going to give
you the result of the third race which has already been run. I will hold
back the news three minutes. This is merely to see if everything is
working right. Don't make any bet. If I give you the winners correctly,
you can put your money on the fourth race. The horse that won the last
is Col. Starbottle--Don Juan is second. Now just step back and see if I
Felix rushed back to the pool room. As he entered the man at the tape
was calling out that "they" were off. In due course "they" reached the
quarter and then the half. A terrific struggle was in progress between
Col. Starbottle and Don Juan. First one was ahead and then the other.
Finally they came thundering down to the stretch, Col. Starbottle
winning by a neck. "Gates" won $90,000, and several others pocketed wads
running anywhere from $20,000 to $60,000.
Felix hurried back to the telephone. "Mac" was at the other end.
"Now write this down," admonished McPherson; "we can't afford to have
any mistake. Old Stone has just won the fourth race, with Calvert
second. Play Old Stone to win at 5 to 1. We shall make $250,000--and Old
Stone is safe in the stable all the time and his jockey is smoking a
cigarette on the club house veranda. Good luck, old man."
Felix had some difficulty in getting near the "trusted cashier" so many
financiers were betting on Calvert. Felix smiled to himself. He'd show
them a thing or two.
Finally he managed to push his envelope containing the five
ten-thousand-dollar bills into the "trusted cashier's" hand. The latter
marked it "Old Stone, 5 to 1 to win!" and thrust it into his pocket.
Then "Whitney" or somebody bet $70,000 on Calvert.
"They're off!" shouted the man at the tape.
How he lived while they tore around the course Felix never knew. Neck
and neck Old Stone and Calvert passed the quarter, the half, and the
three-quarter post, and with the crowd yelling like demons came hurtling
down the stretch.
"Old Stone wins!" cried the "booster" at the tape in a voice husky with
excitement. "Calvert a close second!" Felix nearly fainted. His head
swam. He had won a quarter of a million. Then the voice of the "booster"
made itself audible above the confusion.
"What! A mistake? Not possible!--Yes. Owing to some confusion at the
finish, both jockies wearing the same colors, the official returns now
read Calvert first; Old Stone second."
Among the zitherns Felix sat and wondered if he had been schvindled. He
had not returned to Wassermann Brothers. Had he done so he would have
found it empty five minutes after he had lost his money. The
millionaires were already streaming hilariously into Sharkey's. "Gates"
pledged "Belmont" and "Keene" pledged "Whitney." Each had earned five
dollars by the sweat of his brow. The glorious army of wire-tappers had
won another victory and their generals had consummated a campaign of
months. Expenses (roughly), $600. Receipts, $50,000. Net profits,
$48,400. Share of each, $16,133.
A day or two later Felix wandered down to Police Headquarters, and in
the Rogue's Gallery identified the photograph of Nelson, whom he then
discovered to be none other than William Crane, alias John Lawson, alias
John Larsen, a well-known "wire-tapper," arrested some dozen times
within a year or two for similar offences. McPherson turned out to be
Christopher Tracy, alias Charles J. Tracy, alias Charles Tompkins, alias
Topping, alias Toppin, etc., etc., arrested some eight or ten times for
"wire-tapping." The "trusted cashier" materialized in the form of one
Wyatt, alias, Fred Williams, etc., a "wire-tapper" and pal of "Chappie"
Moran and "Larry" Summerfield. Detective Sergeants Fogarty and Mundy
were at once detailed upon the case and arrested within a short time
both Nelson and McPherson. The "trusted cashier" who had pocketed
Felix's $50,000 has never been caught. It is said that he is running a
first-class hostelry in a Western city. But that is another story.
When acting Inspector O'Brien ordered McPherson brought into his private
room, the latter unhesitatingly admitted that the three of them had
"trimmed" Felix of his $50,000, exactly as the latter had alleged. He
stated that Wyatt (alias Williams) was the one who had taken in the
money, that it was still in his possession, and still intact in its
original form. He denied, however, any knowledge of Wyatt's whereabouts.
The reason for this indifference became apparent when the two prisoners
were arraigned in the magistrate's court, and their counsel demanded
their instant discharge on the ground that they had committed no crime
for which they could be prosecuted. He cited an old New York case,
McCord _vs._ The People, which seemed in a general way to sustain his
contention, and which had been followed by another and much more recent
decision. The People _vs._ Livingston. The first of these cases had
gone to the Court of Appeals, and the general doctrine had been
annunciated that where a person parts with his money for an unlawful or
dishonest purpose, even though he is tricked into so doing by false
pretences, a prosecution for the crime of larceny cannot be maintained.
[Footnote 2: 46 New York 470.]
[Footnote 3: 47 App. Div. 283.]
In the McCord case, the defendant had falsely pretended to the
complainant, a man named Miller, that he was a police officer and held a
warrant for his arrest. By these means he had induced Miller to give him
a gold watch and a diamond ring as the price of his liberty. The
conviction in this case was reversed on the ground that Miller parted
with his property for an unlawful purpose; but there was a very strong
dissenting opinion from Mr. Justice Peckham, now a member of the bench
of the Supreme Court of the United States.
In the second case, that of Livingston, the complainant had been
defrauded out of $500 by means of the "green goods" game; but this
conviction was reversed by the Appellate Division of the Second
Department on the authority of the McCord case. The opinion in this case
was written by Mr. justice Cullen, now Chief Judge of the New York Court
of Appeals, who says in conclusion:
"We very much regret being compelled to reverse this conviction. Even if
the prosecutor intended to deal in counterfeit money, that is no reason
why the appellant should go unwhipped of justice. We venture to suggest
that it might be Well for the Legislature to alter the rule laid down in
McCord _vs._ People."
Well might the judges regret being compelled to set a rogue at liberty
simply because he had been ingenious enough to invent a fraud (very
likely with the assistance of a shyster lawyer) which involved the
additional turpitude of seducing another into a criminal conspiracy.
Livingston was turned loose upon the community in spite of the fact that
he had swindled a man out of $500 because he had incidentally led the
latter to believe that in return he was to receive counterfeit money or
"green goods," which might be put into circulation. Yet, because some
years before, the Judges of the Court of Appeals had, in the McCord
matter, adopted the rule followed in civil cases, to wit that as the
complaining witness was himself in fault and did not come into court
with clean hands he could have no standing before them, the Appellate
Division in the next case felt obliged to follow them and to rule
tantamount to saying that two wrongs could make a right and two knaves
one honest man. It may seem a trifle unfair to put it in just this way,
but when one realizes the iniquity of such a doctrine as applied to
criminal cases, it is hard to speak softly. Thus the broad and general
doctrine seemed to be established that so long as a thief could induce
his victim to believe that it was to his advantage to enter into a
dishonest transaction, he might defraud him to any extent in his power.
Immediately there sprang into being hordes of swindlers, who, aided by
adroit shyster lawyers, invented all sorts of schemes which involved
some sort of dishonesty upon the part of the person to be defrauded. The
"wire-tappers," of whom "Larry" Summerfield was the Napoleon, the
"gold-brick" and "green-goods" men, and the "sick engineers" flocked to
New York, which, under the unwitting protection of the Court of Appeals,
became a veritable Mecca for persons of their ilk.
To readers unfamiliar with the cast of mind of professional criminals it
will be almost impossible to appreciate with what bold insouciance these
vultures now hovered over the metropolitan barnyard. Had not the Court
of Appeals itself recognized their profession? They had nothing to fear.
The law was on their side. They walked the streets flaunting their
immunity in the very face of the police. "Wire-tapping" became an
industry, a legalized industry with which the authorities might
interfere at their peril. Indeed, there is one instance in which a
"wire-tapper" successfully prosecuted his victim (after he had trimmed
him) upon a charge of grand larceny arising out of the same transaction.
One crook bred another every time he made a victim, and the disease of
crime, the most infectious of all distempers, ate its way unchecked into
the body politic. Broadway was thronged by a prosperous gentry, the
aristocracy and elite of knavery, who dressed resplendently, flourished
like the green bay-tree, and spent their (or rather their victims')
money with the lavish hand of one of Dumas's gentlemen.
But the evil did not stop there. Seeing that their brothers prospered in
New York, and neither being learned in the law nor gifted with the power
of nice discrimination between rogueries, all the other knaves in the
country took it for granted that they had at last found the Elysian
fields and came trooping here by hundreds to ply their various trades.
The McCord case stood out like a cabalistic sign upon a gate-post
telling all the rascals who passed that way that the city was full of
honest folk waiting to be turned into rogues and "trimmed."
"And presently we did pass a narrow lane, and at the mouth espied a
written stone, telling beggars by a word like a wee pitchfork to go
The tip went abroad that the city was "good graft" for everybody, and in
the train of the "wire-tappers" thronged the "flimflammer," "confidence
man," "booster," "capper" and every sort of affiliated crook, recalling
Charles Reade's account in "The Cloister and the Hearth" of Gerard in
Lorraine among their kin of another period:
With them and all they had, 'twas lightly come and lightly go; and
when we left them my master said to me, "This is thy first lesson,
but to-night we shall be at Hansburgh. Come with me to the 'rotboss'
there, and I'll show thee all our folk and their lays, and
especially 'the lossners,' 'the dutzers,' 'the schleppers,' 'the
gickisses,' 'the schwanfelders,' whom in England we call 'shivering
Jemmies,' 'the suentregers,' 'the schwiegers,' 'the joners,' 'the
sessel-degers,' 'the gennscherers,' in France 'marcandiers a
rifodes,' 'the veranerins,' 'the stabulers,' with a few foreigners
like ourselves, such as 'pietres,' 'francmitoux,' 'polissons,'
'malingreux,' 'traters,' 'rufflers,' 'whipjacks,' 'dommerars,'
'glymmerars,' 'jarkmen,' 'patricos,' 'swadders,' 'autem morts,'
'walking morts,'--" "Enow!" cried I, stopping him, "art as gleesome
as the evil one a counting of his imps. I'll jot down in my tablet
all these caitiffs and their accursed names: for knowledge is
knowledge. But go among them alive or dead, that will I not with my
And a large part of it was due simply to the fact that seven learned men
upon seven comfortable chairs in the city of Albany had said, many years
ago, that "neither the law or public policy designs the protection of
rogues in their dealings with each other, or to insure fair dealing and
truthfulness as between each other, in their dishonest practices."
The reason that the "wire-tapping" game was supposed to come within the
scope of the McCord case was this: it deluded the victim into the
belief that he was going to cheat the pool room by placing a bet upon a
"sure thing." Secondarily it involved, as the dupe supposed, the theft
or disclosure of messages which were being transmitted over the lines of
a telegraph company--a misdemeanor. Hence, it was argued, the victim was
as much a thief as the proposer of the scheme, had parted with his money
for a dishonest purpose, did not come into court with "clean hands," and
no prosecution could be sustained, no matter whether he had been led to
give up his money by means of false pretences or not.
While "wire-tapping" differed technically from the precise frauds
committed by McCord and Livingston, it nevertheless closely resembled
those swindlers in general character and came clearly within the
doctrine that the law was not designed to protect "rogues in their
dealings with each other."
No genuine attempt had ever been made to prosecute one of these gentry
until the catastrophe which deprived Felix of his $50,000. The
"wire-tappers" rolled in money. Indeed, the fraternity were so liberal
with their "rolls" that they became friendly with certain police
officials and intimately affiliated with various politicians of
influence, a friend of one of whom went on Summerfield's bond, when the
latter was being prosecuted for the "sick-engineer" frauds to the extent
of $30,000. They regularly went to Europe in the summer season and could
be seen at all the race-courses and gambling resorts of the Continent.
It is amusing to chronicle in this connection that just prior to
McPherson's arrest--that is to say during the summer vacation of
1904--he crossed the Atlantic on the same steamer with an assistant
district attorney of New York county, who failed to recognize his ship
companion and found him an entertaining and agreeable comrade.
The trial came on before Judge Warren W. Foster in Part 3 of the General
Sessions on February 27th, 1906. A special panel quickly supplied a
jury, which, after hearing the evidence, returned in short order a
verdict of guilty. As Judge Foster believed the McCord case to be still
the law of the State, he, of his own motion, and with commendable
independence, immediately arrested judgment. The People thereupon
appealed, the Court of Appeals sustained Judge Foster, and the defendant
was discharged. It is, however, satisfactory to record that the
Legislature at its next session amended the penal code in such a way as
to entirely deprive the wire-tappers and their kind of the erstwhile
protection which they had enjoyed under the law.
The Franklin Syndicate
When Robert A. Ammon, a member of the New York bar, was convicted, after
a long trial, on the 17th of June, 1903, of receiving stolen goods, he
had, in the parlance of his class, been "due" for a long time. The
stolen property in question was the sum of thirty thousand five hundred
dollars in greenbacks, part of the loot of the notorious "Franklin
Syndicate," devised and engineered by William F. Miller, who later
became the catspaw of his legal adviser, the subject of this history.
Ammon stood at the bar and listened complacently to his sentence of not
less than four years at hard labor in Sing Sing. A sneer curved his lips
as, after nodding curtly to his lawyer, he turned to be led away by the
court attendant. The fortune snatched from his client had procured for
him the most adroit of counsel, the most exhaustive of trials. He knew
that nothing had been left undone to enable him to evade the
consequences of his crime, and he was cynically content.
For years "Bob" Ammon had been a familiar figure in the Wall Street
district of New York. Although the legal adviser of swindlers and
confidence men, he was a type of American whose energies, if turned in a
less dubious direction, might well have brought him honorable
distinction. Tall, strong as a bull, bluff, good-natured, reckless and
of iron nerve, he would have given good account of himself as an Indian
fighter or frontiersman. His fine presence, his great vitality, his
coarse humor, his confidence and bravado, had won for him many friends
of a certain kind and engendered a feeling among the public that
somehow, although the associate and adviser of criminals, he was outside
the law, to the circumventing of which his energies were directed.
Unfortunately his experiences with the law had bred in him a contempt
for it which ultimately caused his downfall.
"The reporters arc bothering you, are they?" he had said to Miller in
his office. "Hang them! Send them to me. I'll talk to them!"
And talk to them he did. He could talk a police inspector or a city
magistrate into a state of vacuous credulity, and needless to say he was
to his clients as a god knowing both good and evil, as well as how to
eschew the one and avoid the other. Miller hated, loathed and feared
him, yet freely entrusted his liberty, and all he had risked his liberty
to gain, to this strange and powerful personality which held him
enthralled by the mere exercise of a physical superiority.
The "Franklin Syndicate" had collapsed amid the astonished outcries of
its thousands of victims, on November 24th, 1899, when, under the advice
and with the assistance of Ammon, its organizer, "520 per cent. Miller,"
had fled to Canada. It was nearly four years later, in June, 1903, that
Ammon, arraigned at the bar of justice as a criminal, heard Assistant
District Attorney Nott call William F. Miller, convict, to the stand to
testify against him. A curious contrast they presented as they faced one
another; the emaciated youth of twenty-five, the hand of Death already
tightly fastened upon his meagre frame, coughing, hollow-cheeked,
insignificant, flat-nosed, almost repulsive, who dragged himself to the
witness chair, and the swaggering athlete who glared at him from the bar
surrounded by his cordon of able counsel. As Ammon fixed his penetrating
gaze upon his former client, Miller turned pale and dropped his eyes.
Then the prosecutor, realizing the danger of letting the old hypnotic
power return, even for an instant, quickly stepped between them. Miller
raised his eyes and smiled, and those who heard knew that this miserable
creature had been through the fire and come forth to speak true things.
The trial of Ammon involved practically the reproving of the case
against Miller, for which the latter had been convicted and sentenced to
ten years in State's prison, whence he now issued like one from the tomb
to point the skeleton, incriminating finger at his betrayer. But the
case began by the convict-witness testifying that the whole business was
a miserable fraud from start to finish, carried on and guided by the
advice of the defendant. He told how he, a mere boy of twenty-one,
burdened with a sick wife and baby, unfitted by training or ability for
any sort of lucrative employment, a hanger-on of bucket shops and, in
his palmiest days, a speculator in tiny lots of feebly margined stocks,
finding himself without means of support, conceived the alluring idea of
soliciting funds for investment, promising enormous interest, and paying
this interest out of the principal intrusted to him. For a time he
preyed only upon his friends, claiming "inside information" of large
"deals" and paying ten per cent. per week on the money received out of
his latest deposits.
Surely the history of civilization is a history of credulity. Miller
prospered. His earlier friend-customers who had hesitatingly taken his
receipt for ten dollars, and thereafter had received one dollar every
Monday morning, repeated the operation and returned in ever-increasing
numbers. From having his office "in his hat," he took an upper room in a
small two-story house at 144 Floyd Street, Brooklyn--an humble tenement,
destined to be the scene of one of the most extraordinary exhibitions of
man's cupidity and foolishness in modern times. At first he had tramped
round, like a pedler, delivering the dividends himself and soliciting
more, but soon he hired a boy. This was in February, 1899. Business
increased. The golden flood began to appear in an attenuated but
constant rivulet. He hired four more employees and the whole top floor
of the house. The golden rivulet became a steady stream. From a
"panhandler" he rolled in ready thousands. The future opened into
magnificent auriferous distances. He began to call himself "The Franklin
Syndicate," and to advertise that "the way to wealth is as plain as the
road to the market." He copied the real brokers and scattered circulars
and "weekly letters" over the country, exciting the rural mind in
distant Manitoba and Louisiana.
There was an instantaneous response. His mail required the exclusive
attention of several clerks. The stream of gold became a rushing
torrent. Every Monday morning the Floyd Street house was crowded with
depositors who drew their interest, added to it, deposited it again, and
went upon their way rejoicing. Nobody was going to have to work any
more. The out-of-town customers received checks for their interest drawn
upon "The Franklin Syndicate," together with printed receipts for their
deposits, all signed "William F. Miller," by means of a rubber stamp. No
human hand could have signed them all without writer's cramp. The
rubber stamp was Miller's official signature. Then with a mighty roar
the torrent burst into a deluge. The Floyd Street quarters were besieged
by a clamoring multitude fighting to see which of them could give up his
money first, and there had to be a special delivery for Miller's mail.
He rented the whole house and hired fifty clerks. You could deposit your
money almost anywhere, from the parlor to the pantry, the clothes closet
or the bath-room. Fridays the public stormed the house _en masse_, since
the money must be deposited _on that day_ to draw interest for the
following week. The crush was so enormous that the stoop broke down.
Imagine it! In quiet Brooklyn! People struggling to get up the steps to
cram their money into Miller's pockets! There he sat, behind a desk, at
the top of the stoop, solemnly taking the money thrown down before him
and handing out little pink and green stamped receipts in exchange.
There was no place to put the money, so it was shoved on to the floor
behind him. Friday afternoons Miller and his clerks waded through it,
knee high. There was no pretense of bookkeeping. Simply in self-defense
Miller issued in October a pronunciamento that he could not in justice
to his business, consent to receive less than fifty dollars at one time.
Theoretically, there was no reason why the thing should not have gone
on practically forever, Miller and everybody else becoming richer and
richer. So long as the golden stream swelled five times each year
everybody would be happy. How could anybody fail to be happy who saw so
much money lying around loose everywhere?
[Illustration: One of Miller's Franklin Syndicate Receipts.]
But the business had increased to such an extent that Miller began to
distrust his own capacity to handle it. He therefore secured a partner
in the person of one Edward Schlessinger, and with him went to
Charlestown, Mass., for the purpose of opening another office, in charge
of which they placed a man named Louis Powers. History repeated itself.
Powers shipped the deposits to Miller every day or two by express. Was
there ever such a plethora of easy money?
But Schlessinger was no Miller. He decided that he must have a third of
the profits (Heaven knows how they computed them!) and have them,
moreover, each day _in cash_. Hence there was a daily accounting, part
of the receipts being laid aside to pay off interest checks and
interest, and the balance divided. Schlessinger carried his off in a
bag; Miller took the rest, cash, money orders and checks, and deposited
it in a real bank. How the money poured in may be realized from the fact
that the excess of receipts over disbursements for the month ending
November 16th was four hundred and thirty thousand dollars.
Hitherto Miller had been the central figure. Col. Robert A. Ammon now
became the _deus ex machina_. Miller's advertising had become so
extensive that he had been forced to retain a professional agent, one
Rudolph Guenther, to supervise it, and when the newspapers began to make
unpleasant comments, Guenther took Miller to Ammon's office in the
Bennett Building in Nassau Street. Ammon accepted a hundred dollars from
Miller, listened to his account of the business and examined copies of
the circulars. When he was handed one of the printed receipts he said
they were "incriminating." Miller must try to get them back. He advised
(as many another learned counsellor has done) incorporating the
business, since by this means stock could be sold and exchanged for the
incriminating receipts. He explained the mistakes of the "_Dean_ crowd,"
but showed how he had been able to safeguard them in spite of the fact
that they had foolishly insisted on holding the stock in their company
themselves instead of making their customers the stockholders.
Nevertheless "you do not see any of the Dean people in jail," boasted
Ammon. From now on Miller and he were in frequent consultation, and
Ammon took steps to incorporate, procuring for that purpose from Wells,
Fargo & Co. a certificate of deposit for one hundred thousand dollars.
Occasionally he would visit Floyd Street to see how things were going.
Miller became a mere puppet; Ammon twitched the wire.
It was now well on in November, and the press of both Boston and New
York was filled with scathing attacks upon the Syndicate. The reporters
became so inquisitive as to be annoying to the peaceful Miller. "Send
the reporters over to me!" directed Ammon.
The _Post_ (of Boston) said the whole thing was a miserable swindle.
Ammon, accompanied by Miller, carrying a satchel which contained fifty
thousand dollars in greenbacks, went to Boston, visited the offices of
the _Post_, and pitched into the editor.
"The business is all right; you must give us a fair deal!"
The pair also visited Watts, the chief of police.
"You keep your mouth shut," said Ammon to Miller. "I'll do all the
talking." He showed Watts the bag of money, and demanded what he had
meant by calling the enterprise a "green goods business." If the thing
wasn't all right, did Watts suppose that he, Col. Robert A. Ammon, would
be connected with it? The chief backed down, and explained that he had
jokingly referred to the color of one of the receipts--which happened
to be green.
In spite of Ammon's confidence, however, there was an uneasy feeling in
the air, and it was decided to put an advertisement in the _Post_
offering to allow any customer who so desired to withdraw his deposit,
_without notice_, upon the following Saturday. This announcement did not
have precisely the anticipated effect, and Saturday saw a large crowd of
victims eager to withdraw their money from the Boston office of the
Franklin Syndicate. Powers paid the "_Pauls_," of Boston, out of the bag
brought on by Miller containing the deposits of the "_Peters_," of
Brooklyn. Meantime, Ammon addressed the throng, incidentally
blackguarding a _Post_ reporter before the crowd, telling them that his
paper was a "yellow paper, had never amounted to anything, and never
would." Some timid souls took courage and redeposited their money. The
run continued one day and cost Ammon and Miller about twenty-eight
thousand dollars. Ammon took five thousand dollars cash as a fee out of
the bag, and the pair returned to New York. But confidence had been
The beginning of the end, however, was now in sight--at least for the
keen vision of Bob Ammon. He advised stimulating deposits and laying
hands on all the money possible before the crash came. Accordingly
Miller sent a telegram (collect) to all depositors:
We have inside information of a big transaction, to begin Saturday
or Monday morning. Big profits. Remit at once so as to receive the
WILLIAM F. MILLER,
A thousand or so were returned, the depositors having refused to pay the
charges. The rest of the customers in large measure responded. But the
game was nearly up. There were scare-heads in the papers. Miller saw
detectives on every corner, and, like a rat leaving a sinking ship,
Schlessinger scuttled away for the last time with a bag of money on the
evening of Tuesday, November 21st, 1899. The rest of the deposits were
crammed into Miller's desk and left there over night.
The next morning Miller returned to Floyd Street and spent that day in
the usual routine, and also on Thursday remained until about twelve
o'clock noon, when he placed thirty thousand five hundred dollars in
bills in a satchel and started for Ammon's office, where he found
Schlessinger--likewise with a satchel.
"The jig's up," announced Schlessinger.
"Billy, I think you'll have to make a run for it," said Ammon. "The
best thing for you is to go to Canada."
It still remained to secure the money, which Miller had deposited in the
banks, in such a way that the customers could not get hold of it. Ammon
explained how that could easily be done. The money should be all turned
over to him, and none of the creditors would ever see it again. He did
not deem it necessary to suggest that neither would Miller. Accordingly
the two, the lawyer and the client, went to the office of Wells, Fargo &
Co., Ammon obligingly carrying the satchel containing the thirty
thousand five hundred dollars. Here Ammon deposited the contents to his
own account, as well as the certificate of deposit for one hundred
thousand dollars previously mentioned, and a check for ten thousand
dollars, representing the balance of Miller's loot. In addition to this
he received an order for forty thousand dollars United States Government
bonds, which were on deposit with Wells, Fargo & Co., and later, through
Miller's father, sixty-five thousand dollars in bonds of the New York
Central Railroad and the United States Government. Thus Ammon secured
from his dupe the sum of two hundred and forty-five thousand five
hundred dollars, the actual market value of the securities bringing the
amount up to two hundred and fifty thousand five hundred dollars,
besides whatever sums he had been paid by Miller for legal services,
which could not have been less than ten or fifteen thousand dollars. The
character of the gentleman is well illustrated by the fact that later
when paying Mrs. Miller her miserable pittance of five dollars per week,
he explained to her that "he was giving her that out of his own money,
and that her husband _owed him_."
[Illustration: Ammon's deposit slips and a receipt signed by Mrs.
There still remained, however, the chance of getting a few dollars more
and Ammon advised Miller "to try to get Friday's receipts, which were
the heaviest day's business." Acting on this suggestion, Miller
returned to Floyd Street the next morning at about half past nine,
finding a great crowd of people waiting outside. About one o'clock he
started to go home, but discovering that he was being followed by a man
whom he took to be a detective, he boarded a street car, dodged through
a drug store and a Chinese laundry, finally made the elevated railroad,
with his pursuer at his heels, and eventually reached the lawyer's
office about two o'clock in the afternoon. Word was received almost
immediately over the telephone that Miller had been indicted in Kings
County for conspiracy to defraud, and Ammon stated that the one thing
for Miller to do was to go away. Miller replied that he did not want to
go unless he could take his wife and baby with him, but Ammon assured
him that he would send them to Canada later in charge of his own wife.
Under this promise Miller agreed to go, and Ammon procured a man named
Enright to take Miller to Canada, saying that "he was an ex-detective
and could get him out of the way." Ammon further promised to forward to
Miller whatever money he might need to retain lawyers for him in
Montreal. Thereupon Miller exchanged hats with some one in Ammon's
office and started for Canada in the custody of the lawyer's
How the wily colonel must have chuckled as poor Miller trotted down the
stairs like a sheep leaving his fleece behind him. A golden fleece
indeed! Did ever a lawyer have such a piece of luck? Here was a little
fellow who had invented a brilliant scheme to get away with other
people's money and had carried it through successfully--more than
successfully, beyond the dreams of even the most avaricious criminal,
and then, richer than Midas, had handed over the whole jolly fortune to
another for the other's asking, without even taking a scrap of paper to
show for it. More than that, he had then voluntarily extinguished
himself. Had Ammon not chuckled he would not have been Bob Ammon. The
money was stolen, to be sure, but Ammon's skirts were clear. There was
nothing to show that the two hundred and forty-five thousand dollars he
had received was stolen money. There was only one man--a discredited
felon, who could hint that the money was even "tainted," and _he_ was
safely over the border, in a foreign jurisdiction, not in the custody of
the police, but of Ammon himself, to be kept there (as Mr. Robert C.
Taylor so aptly phrased it in arguing Ammon's case on appeal) "on
waiting orders. Ammon had Miller on a string, and as soon as Ammon (for
his own sake) was compelled either to produce Miller or to run the risk
of indictment, he pulled the string and brought Miller back into the
Needless to say great was the ado made over the disappearance of the
promoter of the Franklin Syndicate, and the authorities of King's County
speedily let it become known that justice required that some one should
be punished for the colossal fraud which had been perpetrated. The grand
jury of the county started a general investigation. Public indignation
was stirred to the point of ebullition. In the midst of the rumpus,
there came a knock on the office door of the Hon. John F. Clark,
District Attorney of King's County, and Col. Robert A. Ammon announced
himself. The two men were entire strangers to each other but this did
not prevent Ammon, with his inimitable assurance, from addressing the
District Attorney by his first name.
"How are you, John?" he inquired nonchalantly, "what can I do for you?"
Mr. Clark repressed his natural inclination to kick the insolent fellow
forcibly out of his office, invited him to be seated and rang for a
stenographer. Ammon asserted his anxiety to assist the District Attorney
by every means in his power, but denied knowing the whereabouts of
Miller, alleging that he was simply acting as his counsel. Mr. Clark
replied that in Miller's absence the grand jury might take the view
that Ammon himself was the principal. At this Ammon calmly assured his
host that as far as he was concerned he was ready to go before the grand
jury at any time.
"That is just what I want," returned Mr. Clark, "the grand jury is in
session. Come over."
Ammon arose with a smile and accompanied the District Attorney towards
the door of the grand jury room. Just outside he suddenly placed his
hand to his head as if recollecting something.
"One moment," he exclaimed. "I forgot that I have an engagement. I will
come over to-morrow."
"Ah!" retorted Mr. Clark, "I do not think you will be here to-morrow."
Two weeks later Miller was safely ensconced without bail in Raymond
Schlessinger, who got away with one hundred and seventy-five thousand
dollars in cash, fled to Europe where he lived high, frequenting the
race tracks and gaming tables until he was called to his final account a
year or two ago. The money which he took has never been traced. Miller
was tried, convicted and sent to Sing Sing. The Appellate Division of
the Supreme Court then reversed his conviction, but later, on appeal to
the Court of Appeals, it was sustained.
Of the enormous sums turned over to Ammon Miller received nothing save
the money necessary for his support in Montreal, for the lawyers who
defended him, and five dollars per week for his wife and child up to the
time he turned State's evidence. It is interesting to note that among
the counsel representing Miller upon his trial was Ammon himself.
Miller's wife and child were not sent to Montreal by Ammon, nor did the
latter secure bail for his client at any time during his different
periods of incarceration. The colonel knew very well that it was a
choice between himself and Miller and took no steps which might
necessitate the election falling upon himself.
The conviction of Miller, with his sentence to ten years in State's
prison did not, however, prevent the indictment of Ammon for receiving
stolen money in New York County, although the chance that he would ever
have to suffer for his crime seemed small indeed. The reader must bear
in mind that up to the time of Ammon's trial Miller had never admitted
his guilt; that he was still absolutely, and apparently irrevocably,
under Ammon's sinister influence, keeping in constant communication with
him and implicitly obeying his instructions while in prison; and that
Miller's wife and child were dependent upon Ammon for their daily bread.
No wonder Ammon strode the streets confident that his creature would
never betray him.
"Now, Billy, you don't want to be shooting off your mouth up here," was
his parting injunction to his dupe on his final visit to Sing Sing
before he became a guest there himself at the expense of the People.
Miller followed his orders to the letter, and the stipend was increased
to the munificent sum of forty dollars per month.
Meantime the case against Ammon languished and the District Attorney of
New York County was at his wits' end to devise a means to procure the
evidence to convict him. To do this it would be necessary to establish
affirmatively that the thirty thousand five hundred dollars received by
Ammon from Miller and deposited with Wells, Fargo & Co. was the
_identical_ money stolen by Miller from the victims of the Franklin
Syndicate. It was easy enough to prove that Miller stole hundreds of
thousands of dollars, that Ammon received hundreds of thousands, but you
had to prove that the same money stolen by Miller passed to the hands of
Ammon. Only one man in the world, as Ammon had foreseen, could supply
this last necessary link in the chain of evidence and he was a
It now became the task of the District Attorney to induce Miller to
confess the truth and take the stand against Ammon. He had been in
prison a considerable time and his health was such as to necessitate his
being transferred to the hospital ward. Several of the District
Attorney's assistants visited him at various times at Sing Sing in the
hope of being able to persuade him to turn State's evidence, but all
their efforts were in vain. Miller refused absolutely to say anything
that would tend to implicate Ammon.
At last the District Attorney himself, accompanied by Mr. Nott, who
later prosecuted Ammon, made a special trip to Sing Sing to see what
could be done. They found Miller lying upon his prison pallet, his harsh
cough and blazing eyes speaking only too patently of his condition. At
first Mr. Nott tried to engage him in conversation while the District
Attorney occupied himself with other business in another part of the
ward, but it was easily apparent that Miller would say nothing. The
District Attorney then approached the bed where Miller was lying and
inquired if it were true that he declined to say anything which might
tend to incriminate Ammon. After some hesitation Miller replied that,
even if he should testify against his old accomplice, there was nothing
to show that he would be pardoned, and that he would not talk unless he
had actually in his hands some paper or writing which would guarantee
that if he did so he would be set free.
The spectacle of a convicted felon haggling with an officer of the law
over the terms upon which he would consent to avail himself of an
opportunity to make the only reparation still possible angered the
District Attorney, and, turning fiercely upon the prisoner, he arraigned
him in scathing terms, stating that he was a miserable swindler and
thief, who had robbed thousands of poor people of all the money they had
in the world, that he showed himself devoid of every spark of decency or
repentance by refusing to assist the law in punishing his confederate
and assisting his victims in getting back what was left of the money,
and that he, the District Attorney, felt himself humiliated in having
consented to come there to visit and talk with such a heartless and
depraved specimen of humanity. The District Attorney then turned his
back upon Miller, whose eyes filled with tears, but who made no
A few moments later the convict asked permission to speak to the
District Attorney alone. With some reluctance the latter granted the
request and the others drew away.
"Mr. District Attorney," said the wretched man in a trembling voice,
with the tears still suffusing his eyes, "I _am_ a thief; I did rob all
those poor people, and I am heartily sorry for it. I would gladly die,
if by doing so I could pay them back. But I haven't a single cent of all
the money that I stole and the only thing that stands between my wife
and baby and starvation is my keeping silence. If I did what you ask,
the only money they have to live on would be stopped. I can't see them
starve, glad as I would be to do what I can now to make up for the wrong
I have done."
The District Attorney's own eyes were not entirely dry as he held out
his hand to Miller.
"Miller," he replied, "I have done you a great injustice. I honor you
for the position you have taken. Were I in your place I should probably
act exactly as you are doing. I cannot promise you a pardon if you
testify against Ammon. I cannot even promise that your wife will receive
forty dollars a month, for the money in my charge cannot be used for
such a purpose; all I can assure you of is that, should you decide to
help me, a full and fair statement of all you may have done will be sent
to the Governor with a request that he act favorably upon any
application for a pardon which you may make. The choice must be your
own. Whatever you decide to do, you have my respect and sympathy. Think
well over the matter. Do not decide at once; wait for a day or two, and
I will return to New York and you can send me word."
The next day Miller sent word that he had determined to tell the truth
and take the stand, whatever the consequences to himself and his family
might be. He was immediately transferred to the Tombs Prison in New York
City, where he made a complete and full confession, not only assisting
in every way in securing evidence for the prosecution of Ammon, but
aiding his trustee in bankruptcy to determine the whereabouts of some
sixty thousand dollars of the stolen money, which but for him would
never have been recovered. At the same time Ammon was re-arrested upon a
bench warrant, and his bail sufficiently increased to render his
appearance for trial probable. As Miller had foreseen, the monthly
payment to his wife instantly stopped.
The usual effect produced upon a jury by the testimony of a convict
accomplice is one of distrust or open incredulity. Every word of
Miller's story, however, carried with it the impression of absolute
truth. As he proceeded, in spite of the sneers of the defence, an
extraordinary wave of sympathy for the man swept over the court-room,
and the jury listened with close attention to his graphic account of the
rise and fall of the outrageous conspiracy which had attempted to shield
its alluring offer of instant wealth behind the name of America's most
practical philosopher, whose only receipt for the same end had been
frugality and industry. Supported as Miller was by the corroborative
testimony of other witnesses and by the certificates of deposit which
Ammon had, with his customary bravado, made out in his own handwriting,
no room was left for even the slightest doubt, not only that the money
had been stolen but that Ammon had received it. Indeed so plain was the
proposition that the defence never for an instant contemplated the
possibility of putting Ammon upon the stand in his own behalf. It was in
truth an extraordinary case, for the principal element in the proof was
made out by the evidence of the thief himself that he was a thief.
Miller had been tried and convicted of the very larceny to which he now
testified, and, although in the eyes of the law no principle of _res
adjudicata_ could apply in Ammon's case, it was a logical conclusion
that if the evidence upon the first trial was repeated, the necessary
element of larceny would be effectually established. Hence, in point of
fact, Miller's testimony upon the question of whether the money had been
_stolen_ was entirely unnecessary, and the efforts of the defence were
directed simply to making out Miller such a miscreant upon his own
testimony that perforce the jury could not accept his evidence when it
reached the point of implicating Ammon. All their attempts in this
direction, however, only roused increased sympathy for the witness and
hostility toward their own client, and made the jury the more ready to
believe that Ammon had been the only one in the end to profit by the
Briefly, the two points urged by the defence were:
(1) That Ammon was acting only as Miller's counsel, and hence was
(2) That there was no adequate legal evidence that the thirty thousand
five hundred dollars which Ammon had deposited, as shown by the deposit
slip, was the identical money stolen from the victims of the Franklin
syndicate. As bearing upon this they urged that the stolen money had in
fact been deposited by Miller himself, and so had lost the character of
stolen money before it was turned over to the defendant, and that
Miller's story being that of an accomplice required absolute
corroboration in every detail.
The point that Ammon was acting only as a lawyer was quickly disposed of
by Judge Newburger.
"Something has been said by counsel," he remarked in his charge to the
jury, "to the effect that the defendant, as a lawyer, had a perfect
right to advise Miller, but I know of no rule of law that will permit
counsel to advise how a crime can be committed."
As to the identity of the money, the Court charged that it made no
difference which person performed the physical act of placing the cash
in the hands of the receiving teller of the bank, so long as it was
deposited to Ammon's credit.
On the question of what corroboration of Miller's story was necessary,
Judge Ingraham, in the Appellate Division, expressed great doubt as to
whether in the eyes of the law Miller, the thief, could be regarded as
an accomplice of Ammon in receiving the stolen money at all, and stated
that even if he could be so regarded, there was more than abundant
corroboration of his testimony.
Ammon's conviction was affirmed throughout the courts, including the
Court of Appeals, and the defendant himself is now engaged in serving
out his necessarily inadequate sentence--necessarily inadequate, since
under the laws of the State of New York, the receiver of stolen goods,
however great his moral obliquity may be, and however great the amount
stolen, can only receive half the punishment which may be meted out to
the thief himself, "receiving" being punishable by only five years or
less in State's prison, while grand larceny is punishable by ten years.
Yet who was the greater criminal--the weak, ignorant, poverty-stricken
clerk, or the shrewd, experienced lawyer who preyed upon his client and
through him upon the community at large?
The confession of Miller, in the face of what the consequences of his
course might mean to his wife and child, was an act of moral courage.
The price he had to pay is known to himself alone. But the horrors of
life in prison for the "squealer" were thoroughly familiar to him when
he elected to do what he could to atone for his crime. In fact Ammon had
not neglected to picture them vividly to him and to stigmatize an
erstwhile client of his.
"Everything looks good," he wrote to Miller in Sing Sing, in reporting
the affirmance of Goslin's conviction, "especially since the _squealer_
is getting his just _deserts_."
With no certain knowledge of a future pardon Miller went back to prison
cheerfully to face all the nameless tortures inflicted upon those who
help the State--the absolute black silence of convict excommunication,
the blows and kicks inflicted without opportunity for retaliation or
complaint, the hostility of guards and keepers, the suffering of abject
poverty, keener in a prison house than on any other foot of earth.
It is interesting to observe that Miller's original purpose had been to
secure money to speculate with--for he had been bitten deep by the
tarantula of Wall Street, and his early experiences had led him to
believe that he could beat the market if only he had sufficient margin.
This margin he set out to secure. Then when he saw how easy it was to
get money for the asking, he dropped the idea of speculation and simply
became a banker. He did make one bona-fide attempt, but the stock went
down, he sold out and netted a small loss. Had Miller actually
_continued to speculate_ it is doubtful whether he could have been
convicted for any crime, since it was for that purpose that the money
was entrusted to him. He might have lost it all in the Street and gone
scot free. As it was, in failing to gamble with it, he became guilty of
Ammon arrived in Sing Sing with a degree of eclat. He found numerous old
friends and clients among the inmates. He brought a social position
which had its value. Money, too, is no less desirable there than
elsewhere, and Ammon had plenty of it.
In due course, but not until he had served more than half his sentence
(less commutation), Miller a broken man, received his pardon, and went
back to his wife and child. When Governor Higgins performed this act of
executive clemency, many honest folk in Brooklyn and elsewhere loudly
expressed their indignation. District Attorney Jerome did not escape
their blame. Was this contemptible thief, this meanest of all mean
swindlers, who had stolen hundreds of thousands to be turned loose on
the community before he had served half his sentence? It was an outrage!
A disgrace to civilization! Reader, how say you?
A Study in Finance
"He that maketh haste to be rich shall not be innocent."
The victim of moral overstrain is the central figure in many novels and
countless magazine stories. In most of them he finally repents him fully
of his sins past and returns to his former or to some equally desirable
position, to lead a new and better life. The dangers and temptations of
the "Street" are, however, too real and terrible to be studied other
than in actuality, and the fall of hundreds of previously honest young
men owing to easily remedied conditions should teach its lesson, not
only to their comrades, but to their employers as well. The ball and
chain, quite as often as repentance and forgiveness, ends their
No young man takes a position in a banking-house with the deliberate
intention of becoming an embezzler. He knows precisely, as well as does
the reader, that if he listens to the whisper of temptation he is
lost--and so does his employer. Yet the employer, who would hold himself
remiss if he allowed his little boy to have the run of the jam-closet
and then discovered that the latter's lips bore evidence of petty
larceny, or would regard himself as almost criminally negligent if he
placed a priceless pearl necklace where an ignorant chimney-sweep might
fall under the hypnotism of its shimmer, will calmly allow a condition
of things in his own brokerage or banking office where a
fifteen-dollars-a-week clerk may have free access to a million dollars'
worth of negotiable securities, and even encourage the latter by
occasional "sure" tips to take a flyer in the market.
It is a deplorable fact that the officers of certain companies
occasionally "unload" undesirable securities upon their employees, and,
in order to boom or create a "movement" in a certain stock, will induce
the persons under their control to purchase it. It would be a rare case
in which a clerk who valued his situation would refuse to take a few
shares in an enterprise which the head of the firm was fathering. Of
course, such occurrences are the exceptions, but there are plenty of
houses not far from Wall Street where the partners know that their
clerks and messengers are "playing the market," and exert not the
slightest influence to stop them. When these men find that they and
their customers, and not the clerks and messengers, are paying the loss
accounts of the latter, they are very much distressed, and tell the
District Attorney, with regret, that only by sending such wicked and
treacherous persons to State's prison can similar dishonesty be
Not long ago the writer became acquainted with a young man who, as loan
clerk in a trust company, had misappropriated a large amount of
securities and had pleaded guilty to the crime of grand larceny in the
first degree. He was awaiting sentence, and in connection therewith it
became necessary to examine into the conditions prevailing generally in
the financial district. His story is already public property, for the
case attracted wide attention in the daily press; but, inasmuch as the
writer's object is to point a moral rather than adorn a tale, the
culprit's name and the name of the company with which he was connected
need not be given.
He is now serving a term in State's prison and is, the writer believes,
sincerely repentant and determined to make a man of himself upon his
release. For present purposes let him be called John Smith. He was born
in New York City, in surroundings rather better than the average. His
family were persons of good education and his home was a comfortable and
happy one. From childhood he received thorough religious instruction
and was always a straightforward, honest and obedient boy. His father,
having concluded from observation that the shortest route to success lay
in financial enterprise, secured a place in a broker's office for his
son after the latter's graduation from the high school. John began at
the bottom and gradually worked up to the position of assistant loan
clerk in a big trust company. This took fifteen years of hard work.
From the day that he started in filling inkwells and cleaning out ticker
baskets, he saw fortunes made and lost in a twinkling. He learned that
the chief business of a broker is acting as go-between for persons who
are trying to sell what they do not own to others who have not the money
to pay for what they buy. And he saw hundreds of such persons grow rich
on these fictitious transactions. He also saw others "wiped out," but
they cheerfully went through bankruptcy and began again, many of them
achieving wealth on their second or third attempt. He was earning five
dollars a week and getting his lunch at a "vegetarian health restaurant"
for fifteen cents. The broker, for whom he ran errands, gave away
thirty-five-cent cigars to his customers and had an elaborate luncheon
served in the office daily to a dozen or more of the elect. John knew
one boy of about his own age, who, having made a successful turn, began
as a trader and cleaned up a hundred thousand dollars in a rising market
the first year. That was better than the cleaning up John was used to.
But he was a sensible boy and had made up his mind to succeed in a
legitimate fashion. Gradually he saved a few hundred dollars and, acting
on the knowledge he had gained in his business, bought two or three
shares in a security which quickly advanced in value and almost doubled
his money. The next time as well fortune favored him, and he soon had a
comfortable nest-egg--enough to warrant his feeling reasonably secure in
the event of accident or sickness.
He had worked faithfully, had given great satisfaction to his employers,
and presently had a clerical position in a prominent trust company
offered to him. It seemed an advance. The salary was larger, even if
absurdly small, and he gladly accepted the place.
Shortly after this he had his first experience in real finance. The
president of the company sent for him--the reader will remember that
this is a true story--and the boy entered his private office and came
into the august presence of the magnate. This man is to-day what is
commonly known as a "power" in Wall Street.
"My boy," said the president, "you have been doing very well. I have
noticed the excellence of your work. I want to commend you."
"Thank you, sir," said John modestly, expecting to hear that his salary
was to be raised.
"Yes," continued the great man. "And I want you to have an interest in
The blood rushed to John's head and face. "Thank you very much," he
"I have allotted you five shares in the trust company," said the
president. "If you take them up and carry them you will feel that you
have a real connection with the house and it will net you a handsome
return. Have you any money?"
It so happened that at this time John's savings were invested in a few
bonds of an old and conservatively managed railroad. His heart fell. He
didn't want to buy any bank stock.
"No," he answered. "My salary is small enough and I need it all. I don't
save any money."
"Oh, well," said the magnate, "I will try and fix it up for you. I will
arrange for a loan with the ---- Bank on the stock. Remember, I'm doing
this to help you. That is all. You may go back to your books."
Next day John was informed that he had bought five shares of ---- Trust
Company stock in the neighborhood of three hundred, and he signed a note
for one thousand four hundred and twenty-five dollars, and indorsed the
stock over to the bank from which the money had been borrowed for him.
The stock almost immediately dropped over fifty points. John paid the
interest on the note out of his salary, and the dividends, as fast as
they were declared, went to extinguish the body of the loan. Some time
afterward he learned that he had bought the stock from the magnate
himself. He never received any benefit from it, for the stock was sold
to cover the note, and John was obliged to make up the difference. He
also discovered that ten or fifteen other employees had been given a
similar opportunity by their generous employer at about the same time.
John, in prison, says it was a scheme to keep fifty or a hundred shares
where it could easily be controlled by the president, without risk to
himself, in case of need. Of course, he may be wrong. At any rate, he
feels bitterly now toward the big men who are at large while he is in
John continued to keep up with the acquaintances formed during his years
in the broker's office, many of whom had started little businesses of
their own and had done well. Part of their stock-in-trade was to appear
prosperous and they took John out to lunch, and told him what a fine
fellow he was, and gave him sure tips. But John had grown "wise." He had
had all the chances of that sort he wanted, and from a bigger man than
any of them. He ate their lunches and invited them in return. Then he
economized for a day or two to even up. He was not prosperous himself,
but he did not accept favors without repaying them.
One thing he observed and noted carefully--every man he knew who had
begun a brokerage business and kept sober, who attended to business and
did not speculate, made money and plenty of it. He knew one young firm
which cleared up fifteen thousand in commissions at the end of the
second year. That looked good to him, and he knew, besides, that _he_
was sober and attended to business. He made inquiries and learned that
one could start in, if one were modest in one's pretensions, for two
thousand five hundred dollars. That would pay office rent and keep
things going until the commissions began to come in. He started to look
around for some other young man who could put up the money in
consideration of John's contributing the experience. But all the men he
knew had experience without money.
Then by chance he met a young fellow of bright and agreeable personality
whom we shall call Prescott. The latter was five or six years older than
John, had had a large experience in brokerage houses in another city,
and had come to New York to promote the interests of a certain copper
company. John had progressed and was now assistant loan clerk of one of
the biggest trust companies in the city, which also happened to be
transfer agent for the copper company. Thus John had constantly to
handle its certificates. Prescott said it was a wonderful thing--that
some of the keenest men in the Street were in it, and, although it was a
curb stock, strongly advised his new friend to buy all he could of it.
He assured John that, although he was admittedly interested in booming
the stock, he was confident that before long it would sell at four times
its present quotation.
Meantime the stock, which had been listed at 2-1/4, began to go rapidly
up. Word went around the trust company that it was a great purchase
anywhere below 10, and John, as well as the other boys employed in the
company, got together what money he could and began to buy it. It
continued to go up--they had unconsciously assisted it in its
ascent--and they bought more. John purchased seventy-five shares--all
the way up to 8 and 9. One of his friends took eight hundred. Then it
dropped out of sight. They hadn't time to get out, and John, in prison,
has his yet. But he still had faith in Prescott, for he liked him and
believed in his business capacity.
The stock "operation" over, Prescott began to prospect for something
new, and suggested to John that they form a brokerage house under the
latter's name. John was to be president at "a fixed salary." It sounded
very grand. His duties at the trust company began to seem picayune.
Moreover, his loss in copper had depressed him and he wanted to recoup,
if he could. But how to get the two thousand five hundred dollars
necessary to start in business? Prescott pleaded poverty, yet talked
constantly of the ease with which a fortune might be made if they could
only once "get in right." It was a period of increased dividends, of
stock-jobbing operations of enormous magnitude, of "fifty-point
movements," when the lucky purchaser of only a hundred shares of some
inconspicuous railroad sometimes found that he could sell out next week
with five thousand dollars' profit. The air seemed full of money. It
appeared to rain banknotes and stock certificates.
In the "loan cage" at the trust company John handled daily millions in
securities, a great part of which were negotiable. When almost everybody
was so rich he wondered why any one remained poor. Two or three men of
his own age gave up their jobs in other concerns and became traders,
while another opened an office of his own. John was told that they had
acted on "good information," had bought a few hundred shares of Union
Pacific, and were now comfortably fixed. He would have been glad to
buy, but copper had left him without anything to buy with.
One day Prescott took him out to lunch and confided to him that one of
the big speculators had tipped him off to buy cotton, since there was
going to be a failure in the crop. It was practically a sure thing. Two
thousand dollars' margin would buy enough cotton to start them in
business, even if the rise was only a very small one.
"Why don't you borrow a couple of bonds?" asked Prescott.
"Borrow from whom?" inquired John.
"Why, from some customer of the trust company."
"No one would lend them to me," answered John.
"Well, borrow them, anyhow. They would never know about it, and you
could put them back as soon as we closed the account," suggested
John was shocked, and said so.
"You are easy," said his comrade. "Don't you know that the trust
companies do it themselves all the time? The presidents of the railroads
use the holdings of their companies as collateral. Even the banks use
their deposits for trading. Didn't old ---- dump a lot of rotten stuff
on you? Why don't you get even? Let me tell you something. Fully
one-half of the men who are now successful financiers got their start by
putting up as margin securities deposited with them. No one ever knew
the difference, and now they are on their feet. If you took two bonds
overnight you might put them back in the morning. Every one does it.
It's part of the game."
"But suppose we lost?" asked John.
"You can't," said Prescott. "Cotton is sure to go up. It's throwing away
the chance of your life."
John said he couldn't do such a thing, but when he returned to the
office the cashier told him that a merger had been planned between their
company and another--a larger one. John knew what that meant well
enough--half the clerks would lose their positions. He was getting
thirty-five dollars a week, had married a young wife, and, as he had
told the magnate, he "needed it all." That night as he put the
securities from the "loan cage" back in the vault the bonds burned his
fingers. They were lying around loose, no good to anybody, and only two
of them, overnight maybe, would make him independent of salaries and
mergers--a free man and his own master.
The vault was in the basement just below the loan cage. It was some
twenty feet long and ten wide. There were three tiers of boxes with
double combination doors. In the extreme left-hand corner was the "loan
box." Near it were two other boxes in which the securities of certain
customers on deposit were kept. John had individual access to the loan
box and the two others--one of which contained the collateral which
secured loans that were practically permanent. He thus had within his
control negotiable bonds of over a million dollars in value. The
securities were in piles, strapped with rubber bands, and bore slips on
which were written the names of the owners. Every morning John carried
up all these piles to the loan cage--except the securities on deposit.
At the end of the day he carried all back himself and tossed them into
the boxes. When the interest coupons on the deposited bonds had to be
cut he carried these, also, upstairs. At night the vault was secured by
two doors, one with a combination lock and the other with a time lock.
It was as safe as human ingenuity could make it. By day it had only a
steel-wire gate which could be opened with a key. No attendant was
stationed at the door. If John wanted to get in, all he had to do was to
ask the person who had the key to open it. The reason John had the
combination to these different boxes was in order to save the loan clerk
the trouble of going downstairs to get the collateral himself.
Next day when John went out to lunch he put two bonds belonging to a
customer in his pocket. He did not intend to steal them or even to
borrow them. It was done almost automatically. His will seemed
subjugated to the idea that they were to all intents and purposes _his_
bonds to do as he liked with. He wanted the feeling of
bonds-in-his-pocket. As he walked along the street to the restaurant, it
seemed quite natural that they should be there. They were nearly as safe
with him as lying around loose in the cage or chucked into a box in the
vault. Prescott joined him, full of his new idea that cotton was going
to jump overnight.
"If you only had a couple of bonds," he sighed.
Then somehow John's legs and arms grew weak. He seemed to disintegrate
internally. He tried to pull himself together, but he had lost control
of his muscles. He became a dual personality. His own John heard
Prescott's John say quite naturally:
"I can let you have two bonds, but mind we get them back to-morrow, or
anyhow the day after."
John's John felt the other John slip the two American Navigation 4s
under the table and Prescott's fingers close upon them. Then came a
period of hypnotic paralysis. The flywheel of his will-power hung on a
dead centre. Almost instantly he became himself again.
"Give 'em back," he whispered hoarsely. "I didn't mean you should keep
them," and he reached anxiously across the table. But Prescott was on
his feet, half-way toward the door.
"Don't be a fool, Smith," he laughed. "What's the matter with you? It's
a cinch. Go back and forget it." He shot out of the door and down the
John followed, dazed and trembling with horror at what he had done. He
went back to the cage and remained the rest of the day in terror lest
the broker who owned the two bonds should pay off his loan. But at the
same time he had quickly made up his mind what he should do in that
event. There was more than one loan secured by American Navigation 4s.
He loosened a couple in one of the other piles. If the first broker came
in he would take two bonds from one of these. But the broker did not
That night John wandered the streets till nearly daylight. He saw
himself arrested, ruined, in prison. Utterly fagged next morning, he
called up Prescott on the telephone and begged him to return the bonds.
Prescott laughed at his fears and assured him that everything was all
right. Cotton was sure to go up. An hour later the broker who owned the
bonds came in and took up his loan, and John removed two American
Navigation 4s from another bundle and handed them to the loan clerk. Of
course, the numbers on the bonds were not the same, but few persons
would notice a little thing like that, even if they kept a record of it.
They had the bonds--that was the main thing.
Once more John rushed to the 'phone, told Prescott what had occurred and
besought him for the bonds.
"It's too late now," growled Prescott. "Cotton has gone down. I could
only get one back at the most. We had better stand pat and get out on
the next bulge."
John was by this time almost hysterical. The perspiration broke out on
his forehead every now and then, and he shuddered as he counted his
securities and entered up his figures. If cotton should go down some
more! That was the hideous possibility. They would have to put up more
margin, and then--!
Down in the vault where the depositors' bonds were kept were two piles
of Overland 4s. One contained about two hundred and the other nearly six
hundred bonds. The par value of these negotiable securities alone was
nearly eight hundred thousand dollars. Twice a year John cut the coupons
off of them. Each pile was marked with the owner's name. They were never
called for, and it appeared that these customers intended to keep them
there permanently. John, realizing that the chances of detection were
smaller, removed two bonds from the pile of two hundred Overlands and
substituted them with Prescott for the two Navigation 4s.
Then cotton went down with a slump. Prescott did not wait even to
telephone. He came himself to the trust company and told John that they
needed two more bonds for additional margin to protect their loan. But
he said it was merely temporary, and that they had better even up by
buying some more cotton. John went down into the vault and came back
with four more Overland 4s bonds under his coat. He was in for it now
and might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb. He was beginning to
get used to the idea of being a thief. He was, to be sure, wretchedly
unhappy, but he was experiencing the excitement of trying to dodge Fate
until Fortune looked his way. Cotton still went down. It never occurred
to him that Prescott perhaps had not bought all the cotton. Now that he
is in prison he thinks maybe Prescott didn't. But he kept going down
into the vault and bringing up more bonds, and, getting reckless, bought
more cotton--quantities of it. In a month sixty bonds were gone from the
pile of two hundred. John, a nervous wreck, almost laughed, grimly, at
the joke of _his_ being short sixty bonds!
At home they thought he was getting run down. His wife--! He was so
kind and thoughtful that she had never been so happy. It made her
fearful that he had some fatal disease and knew he was going to die. Up
at the bank John made a separate bundle of sixty bonds out of the pile
of six hundred so that he could substitute them for those first taken if
the owner called for them. It was not likely that both owners would call
for their bonds on the same day, so that he was practically safe until
one or the other had withdrawn his deposit.
About this time the special accountants came around to make their annual
investigation. It was apparently done in the regular and usual way. One
examiner stood inside the vault and another outside, surrounded by four
or five assistants. They "investigated" the loans. John brought them out
in armfuls and the accountants checked them off and sent them back. When
John brought out the one hundred and forty bonds left in the bundle of
two hundred Overland 4s he placed on top of them the pile of sixty bonds
taken from the other bundle of six hundred. Then he took them back,
shifted over the sixty and brought out the bundle of six hundred
Overland 4s made up in part of the same bonds. It was the easiest thing
going. The experts simply counted the sixty bonds twice--and John had
the sixty bonds (or Prescott had them) down the street. Later the same
firm of "experts" certified to the presence of three hundred thousand
dollars of missing bonds, counting the _same_ bundle, not only twice,
but five and six times! You see, Prescott's John had grown wise in his
After that he felt reasonably secure. It did seem almost unbelievable
that such a situation could exist, but it was, nevertheless, a fact that
it did. He expected momentarily that his theft would be detected and
that he would be thrown into prison, and the fear of the actual arrest,
the moment of public ignominy, the shock and agony of his wife and
family, were what drove him sleepless into the streets, and every
evening to the theatres to try to forget what must inevitably come; but
the fact that he had "gone wrong," that he was a thief, that he had
betrayed his trust, had lost its edge. He now thought no more of shoving
a package of bonds into his overcoat pocket than he did of taking that
garment down from its peg behind the door. He knew from inquiry that men
who stole a few hundred dollars, and were caught, usually got as long a
term as those who stole thousands. If he stole one bond he was just as
likely to get ten years in State's prison as if he stole fifty--so he
stole fifty, and when they were wiped out he stole fifty more--and,
well, if the reader is interested he will learn before the end of the
story just what John _did_ steal.
Somehow, Prescott's speculations never succeeded. Occasionally they
would make a good turn and get a few bonds back, but the next week there
would be a new fiasco, and John would have to visit the Overland 4s
again. That performance of the accountants had given him a huge contempt
for bankers and banking. He knew that if he wanted to he could grab up a
million any day and walk off with it, but he didn't want to. All he
desired now was to get back to where he was before. All the speculation
was in the hands of Prescott, and Prescott never seemed worried in the
least. He called on John almost daily for what extra bonds were needed
as additional collateral, and John took his word absolutely as to the
result of the transactions. He could not do otherwise, for one word from
Prescott would have ruined him.
Before long the pile of two hundred Overland 4s was gone. So was a large
quantity of other securities, for John and Prescott had dropped cotton
and gone plunging into the stock market. Here, however, they had no
better success than before. Of course, a difficulty arose when the
interest on the Overland 4s came due. The coupons had to be cut by some
one in the bank, and although John usually cut them he did not always
do so. Sometimes the loan clerk himself would take a hand, and call for
a particular lot of bonds. John, however, was now fertile in devices.
The owner of the larger pile of six hundred bonds usually wrote to have
his coupons cut about the twenty-seventh of April. John would make up a
collection of six hundred bonds of the same sort, carry them up and cut
the coupons in the loan cage. The other man generally sent in a draft
for his interest on the second or third of May. But now the bonds were
away, scattered all over the Street. So John started a new operation to
get the bonds back and straighten out the coupon tangle. He substituted
with the brokers an equal number of bonds of other companies, the
interest upon which was not yet due. There was a large block of Electric
5s and Cumberland 4s which served his purpose admirably, and thus he
kept up with the game. When the coupons became due on the latter he
carried back the first. It kept him and Prescott busy most of the time
juggling securities--at least John knew _he_ was kept busy, and Prescott
claimed to be equally so.
There were many loans of brokers and others all secured by the same sort
of collateral. Most of these John appropriated. When it was necessary to
check off the loans, John, having retained enough of the same kind of
bonds to cover the largest loan, would bring up the same bundle time
after time with a different name upon it. If one of the customers wanted
to pay off a loan and his bonds were gone he would be given some one
else's collateral. Apparently the only thing that was necessary was to
have enough of each kind of security on hand to cover the largest loan
on the books at any given time.
Once, when the examiners were at work on the vault, John had to make up
one hundred thousand dollars in Overland 4s or 5s from the different
small loans in the loan vault and put them in a package in the deposit
vault in order to make it appear that certain depositors' bonds were all
The most extraordinary performance of all was when, upon one of the
annual examinations, John covered the absence of over fifty bonds in the
collateral covering a certain loan by merely shoving the balance of the
securities into the back of the vault, so that it was not examined at
all. He had taken these bonds to substitute for others in different
brokers' offices, and it so happened that there were no similar
securities in the building; thus the deficiency could not be covered up
even by John's expert sleight of hand. Of course, if there had been
other bonds of the same kind in another vault it would have been a
simple matter to substitute them. But there were not. So John pushed
the remaining one hundred and fifty bonds into a dark corner of the
vault and awaited the discovery with throbbing pulses. Yet, strange to
relate, these watchdogs of finance, did not see the bonds which John had
hidden, and did not discover that anything was wrong, since, for
purposes of its own, the bank had neglected to make any record of the
loan in question. It would really have been safer for John if he had
taken the whole pile, but then he did not know that the accountants were
going to do their business in any such crazy fashion. The whole thing
came to seem a sort of joke to John. He never took any bonds for his own
personal use. He gave everything to Prescott, and he rarely, if ever,
saw Prescott except to hand him securities.
One day Prescott walked right into the bank itself and John gave him one
hundred and sixty-five bonds, which he stuffed under his overcoat and
carried away. Remember that this is a _fact_.
The thing, which began in August, 1905, dragged over through the
following year and on into 1907. John weathered two examinations by the
accountants, the last being in October, 1906, when they certified that
the company was absolutely "O.K." and everything intact. On that
particular day John had over three hundred thousand dollars in Overland
4s and 5s scattered over the Street.
In the first six months they lost one hundred thousand dollars in
cotton. Then they played both sides of the market in stocks and got
badly bitten as bears in the temporary bull market in the autumn of
1906, selling Union Pacific at 165, which afterward went to 190,
Northern Pacific at 185, which went to 200, etc., etc. Then they shifted
their position, became bulls and went long of stock just at the
beginning of the present slump. They bought Reading at 118, American
Smelters at 126, Pennsylvania at 130, Union at 145, and Northern Pacific
at 180. At one time John had five hundred and fifty thousand dollars in
bonds out of the vaults.
The thing might have been going on still had it not been for the fact
that the anticipated merger between John's company and another was put
through and a new vault in a new building prepared to receive the
securities. Of course, on such an occasion a complete examination would
be made of all the securities and there would be practically no chance
to deceive the accountants. Moreover, a part of the securities had
actually been moved when the worst slump came and they needed more. It
was obvious that the jig was up. A few more days and John knew that the
gyves would be upon his wrists. Prescott and he took an account of the
stock they had lost and went into committee on ways and means. Neither
had any desire to run away. Wall Street was the breath of life to them.
Prescott said that the best thing to do was to take enough more to
"stand off" the company. He cited a case in Boston, where a clerk who
was badly "in" was advised by his lawyer to take a hundred and
twenty-five thousand dollars more. Then the lawyer dickered with the
bank and brought it to terms. The lawyer got twenty-five thousand
dollars, the bank got the rest, and the thief was let go. Prescott said
they ought to get away with enough more to make the bank's loss a
million. He thought _that_ would make them see what was the wise thing
to do. Prescott also said he would try to get a lawyer who could bring
some pressure to bear on the officials of the company. It would be a
rather unpleasant situation to have brought to the attention of the
State Superintendent of Banking. John agreed to get the additional
securities and turn them over to Prescott. Unfortunately, almost
everything had by this time been moved into the new vault, and all John
could get was a stock certificate for fifteen hundred railroad shares,
standing in his own name, and seventy-five thousand dollars in notes.
These he gave to Prescott, thus increasing the amount stolen from the
bank without discovery to between six and seven hundred thousand
dollars. This was on the day before the actuaries were to make their
investigation. Knowing that his arrest was now only a question of time,
John, about eleven o'clock on the following morning, left the trust
company for the last time. He was in telephonic communication with
Prescott, who, in turn, was in touch with their lawyer. Unfortunately,
the president of the company had gone out of town over Sunday, so that
again their plans went awry.
For nearly two years John had not known an hour devoid of haunting fear.
From a cheerful and contented youth he had become despondent, taciturn
and nervous. He was the same affectionate husband and attentive son as
before, and his general characteristics remained precisely the same. He
was scrupulous to a penny in every other department of his life, and
undoubtedly would have felt the same pricks of conscience had he been
guilty of any other act of dishonesty. The affair at the bank was a
thing apart. The embezzler of six hundred thousand dollars was not John
at all, but a separate personality wearing John's clothes and bearing
his name. He perceived clearly the enormity of his offense, but, because
he was the same John in every other respect, he had a feeling that
somehow the fact that _he_ had done the thing was purely fortuitous--in
other words, that the bonds had to be taken, were going to be taken
anyway, and that Fate had simply elected him to take them. Surely he had
not wanted the bonds--had had no intention of stealing half a million
dollars, and, in short, was not the kind of a man who would steal half a
million dollars. Each night he tossed, sleepless, till the light stole
in through the shutters. At every corner on his way uptown he glanced
over his shoulder behind him. The front doorbell never rang that his
muscles did not become rigid and his heart almost stop beating. If he
went to a theatre or upon an excursion he passed the time wondering if
the next day he would still be a free man. In short, he paid in full in
physical misery and mental anxiety and wretchedness for the real moral
obliquity of his crime. The knowledge of this maddened him for what was
coming. Yet he realized that he had stolen half a million dollars, and
that justice demanded that he should be punished for it.
After leaving the bank John called up Prescott and learned that the plan
to adjust matters with the president had miscarried by reason of the
latter's absence. The two then met in a saloon, and here it was arranged
that John should call up the loan clerk and tell him that something
would be found to be wrong at the bank, but that nothing had better be
said about it until the following Monday morning, when the president
would return. The loan clerk, however, refused to talk with him and hung
up the receiver. John had nowhere to go, for he dared not return home,
and spent the afternoon until six o'clock riding in street cars and
sitting in saloons. At that hour he again communicated with Prescott,
who said that he had secured rooms for him and his wife at a certain
hotel, where they might stay until matters could be fixed up. John
arranged to meet his wife at Forty-second Street with Prescott and
conduct her to the hotel. As Fate decreed, the loan clerk came out of
the subway at precisely the same time, saw them together and followed
them. Meantime a hurry call had been sent for the president, who had
returned to the city. John, fully aware that the end had come, went to
bed at the hotel, and, for the first time since the day he had taken the
bonds two years before, slept soundly. At three the next morning there
came a knock at the door. His wife awakened him and John opened it. As
he did so a policeman forced his way in, and the loan clerk, who stood
in the corridor just behind him, exclaimed theatrically, "Officer, there
is your man!"
John is now in prison, serving out the sentence which the court believed
it necessary to inflict upon him as a warning to others. Prescott is
also serving a term at hard labor--a sentence somewhat longer than
John's. The trust company took up their accounts, paid the losses of the
luckless pair, and, owing to a rise in prices which came too late to
benefit the latter, escaped with the comparatively trifling loss of a
little over one hundred thousand dollars. At once every banking house
and trust company upon the Street looked to its system of checks upon
the honesty of its employees, and took precautions which should have
been taken long before. The story was a nine days' wonder. Then Union
Pacific dropped twenty points more, the tide of finance closed over the
heads of John and Prescott, and they were forgotten.
Had the company, instead of putting itself at the mercy of a
thirty-five-dollar-a-week clerk, placed double combinations on the loan
and deposit vaults, and employed two men, one to act as a check upon the
other, to handle its securities, or had it merely adopted the even
simpler expedient of requiring an officer of the company to be present
when any securities were to be removed from the vaults, John would
probably not now be in jail. It would seem that it would not be a
difficult or complicated matter to employ a doorkeeper, who did not have
access himself, to stand at the door of the vault and check off all
securities removed therefrom or returned thereto. An officer of the bank
should personally see that the loans earned up to the cage in the
morning were properly returned to the vaults at night and secured with a
time lock. Such a precaution would not cost the Stockholders a tenth of
one per cent. in dividends.
It is a trite saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of
cure. But this is as true, in the case of financial institutions at
least, from the point of view of the employe as of the company. It is an
ingenious expedient to insure one's self with a "fidelity corporation"
against the possible defalcations of one's servants, and doubtless
certain risks can only be covered in some such fashion. These methods
are eminently proper so far as they go, but they, unfortunately, do not
serve the public purpose of protecting the weak from undue and
unnecessary temptation. Banks and trust companies are prone to rely on
the fact that most peculations are easily detected and severely
punished, but the public interest demands that all business, State,
municipal and private, should be so conducted that dishonesty may not
only be punished, but prevented.
A builder who "took a chance" on the strength of a girder would have
small credit in his profession. A good bridge is one which will bear the
strain--not only of the pedestrian, but of the elephant. A deluge or an
earthquake may occur and the bridge may tumble, but next time it is
built stronger and better. Thus science progresses and the public
interest is subserved. A driver who overloads his beast is regarded as a
fool or a brute. Perhaps such names are too harsh for those who overload
the moral backbone of an inexperienced subordinate. Surely the fault is
not all on one side. While there are no formulas to calculate the
resiliency of human character, we may demand the same prudence on the
part of the officers of financial institutions as we do from nursemaids,
lumbermen and manufacturers of explosives. Though we may have confidence
in the rectitude of our fellows, we have no right to ignore the
limitations and weaknesses of mankind. It would not outrage the
principles of justice if one who placed needless and disproportionate
strain upon the morals of another were himself regarded as an accessory
to the crime.
The "Duc de Nevers"
"And God gives to every man
The virtue, temper, understanding, taste,
That lifts him into life, and lets him fall
Just in the niche he was ordained to fill."
One morning there lay on my desk a note finely written in pencil and
Will you be so gracious as to extend to the undersigned the courtesy
of a private interview in your office? I have a communication of the
highest importance to make to you.
CHARLES JULIUS FRANCIS DE NEVERS.
Across the street in the courtyard the prisoners were taking their daily
exercise. Two by two they marched slowly around the enclosure in the
centre of which a small bed of geraniums struggled bravely in mortal
combat with the dust and grime of Centre Street. Some of the prisoners
walked with heads erect and shoulders thrown back, others slouched along
with their arms dangling and their chins resting upon their chests. When
one of them failed to keep up with the rest, a keeper, who stood in the
shade by a bit of ivy in a corner of the wall, got after him. Somehow
the note on the desk did not seem to fit any one of the gentry whom I