My new short story “Killing Hogs,” set in Franklin County, North Carolina, was published today by Potato Soup Literary Journal! It’s another entry in the cycle I’ve been working on … Continue reading “Killing Hogs” published by Potato Soup Literary Journal
The press warned of a repeat of the “Hillsville incident of 1917.” That, of course, sent me back to my sources to discover what had happened in Hillsville, a little town in Carroll County, Virginia, not far from Mt. Airy, North Carolina. It was, I learned, a eruption of violence that ended in a cross-county investigation and two deaths in the new-fangled electric chair. It held the country’s attention until the sinking of the Titanic one month later.
It’s Día de Muertos, and I’ve been thinking about ways to honor my ancestors. For my grandfather Gaston Means, I offer this calavera literaria which, unfortunately, in not in verse.
As I am sure you are aware, greatness of mind comes from a knowledge of the facts, and that knowledge can only be gained through correct thought processes. That old faggot will never get what he wants because his thoughts are always mingled with his emotions. He’s a bureaucrat by nature and has to live his life in a filing cabinet because he fears a man who can transcend the rules with his knowledge.
The thing that gets under my skin, that really bothers me, is the small-mindedness of Mr. J. Edgar Fucking Hoover. Here I sit in a ten-foot-by-ten-foot cell in Leavenworth, Kansas, and I can’t even have a fountain pen. Or paper. Fortunately, I have an exceptional memory. I will list for you a few of the anecdotes I plan to publish as installments under the headline, “Man of Mystery Tells His Secrets.”
- How the Germans Almost Took Texas, because the US government wouldn’t listen to my warnings about General Huerta.
- C.B. Ambrose, Consummate Liar, about how he single-handedly created a case for murder against me, and how I triumphed.
- The Real Story of Harding’s White House – but maybe not; I’ve already published a book about this.
- Hunting Communists in the Rockies, and how I managed to stay one step behind them on another man’s nickel.
- How to Smuggle Gold from Mexico, and the story of it weighing down my pants in the Carlsbad Caverns. That time made my boy laugh!
- How J. Edgar Hoover took the world’s greatest detective agency and turned it into a damned bunch of rat catchers and filing clerks.
He’s coming here tomorrow. He won’t be happy after that letter I wrote to the wife about the place in Maryland where we used to picnic. I know he reads all my mail. I made it sound like that old farm was some kind of secret, and since he has no imagination, he thought I was telling her where the money is. His divers spent a week pawing through the mud at the bottom of the Potomac
But I want to discuss my boy. I told Mr. God-damned J. Edgar that I wanted to see a Catholic priest, and he sent in a special agent in a dog collar, but it didn’t fool me. If I ask to see Billy, he’s sure to bring him out here. He’ll think I’ll tell my son where the money is. You can see who really is in control here.
What I want you to know is that when a man has a superior education and a superior mind, his task is to gather all the facts and to arrange them properly to reveal the truth. There are two great advantages to a term in prison. First, only in a penitentiary can one come into intimate contact with men of all kinds and degrees – day laborers, steel workers, farmers, bridge builders, gamblers, gunmen, soldiers and sailors, tradesmen, bell hops, doctors, lawyers, preachers, politicians, and sexual perverts – with the leisure to learn their true philosophy of life. Secondly, the quiet of a penitentiary cell enables one to escape the distraction of petty conversations and pursue the truth. So, you see, I really have nothing to complain about. Except the God-damned fountain pen. And paper.
Like what you’ve read?
- Want to comment, share a thought or a critique? Please do! I value your input and promise to read and respond.
- Want to support my work? Here are a few ways to do that:
After my grandfather Gaston died in December of 1938, his wife and my father, then just 21 years old, were left penniless and sharing a rented room in Washington, DC. That was when she decided to tell the story of her life with America’s favorite scalawag.
The result was a five-part saga published in newspapers throughout America on consecutive Sundays from September 10 to October 8, 1939. From these episodes come some of the tall tales still in circulation about the adventures of this consummate teller of tales.
I’ve transcribed the original articles, keeping the spelling and punctuation of the day, I’ve added footnotes where needed to provide historical context, and I’ve inserted my own commentary based of family knowledge and recent research.
You can order a copy here at Amazon. I hope you enjoy the roller coaster ride!
Just found this little video about my grandfather Gaston. It tells the standard version of his story, including a few errors that crept in along the way. Enjoy! America’s Greatest … Continue reading No Redeeming Quality?
Carry Amelia Moore Gloyd Nation was six feet tall, with the biceps of a stevedore, the face of a prison warden, and the persistence of a toothache.
– Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Daniel Okrent, New York, Scribner, 2010.
“Germans denounced one another with such gusto that senior Nazi officials urged the populace to be more discriminating as to what circumstances might justify a report to the police. Hitler himself acknowledged, in a remark to his minister of justice, “we are living at present in a sea of denunciations and human meanness.” (Emphasis mine.) – In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson, New York, Crown Publishers, 2011.
This remarkable study of the sinking of the Lusitania effectively captures both the nervous gaiety of this massive ship’s last voyage and the cold despair of her passengers in the waters of the Irish coast where so many met their end. In a parallel thread, author Diana Preston takes us into the cramped and musty submarine, U20, to meet her captain, Walther Schwieger, who ordered the torpedo attack.
Perhaps even more interesting to the student of the history of the Great War is Preston’s analysis of reactions on the US, England and Germany. While there was blame all around – from the US’s unacknowledged bias toward Britain, to the Royal Navy’s fudging of records – newly available German records show the Imperial Navy’s commitment to unrestricted use of submarine warfare and their unwillingness to respect the international agreement to “stop and search” commercial liners.
This volume provides a riveting read as well as adding significantly to our understanding of this pivotal event the American path toward war.
I’ve just finished John Dean’s biography of Warren Gamaliel Harding, American president from 1921 to 1923[i], and I am struck by the parallels between that period almost exactly 100 years ago with the political drama playing out today.
(For those of you who haven’t read Dean’s book, I should say here that I am not making the obvious reference to the scandals that plagued Harding’s last year in office and the decade after his death. With the rediscovery of his presidential papers[ii], thought to have been destroyed by his widow, a new image of Harding and his presidency emerges in this biography.)
Warren Harding was, by all accounts, a handsome man who looked presidential — perhaps no parallel here — and who spoke in easy if not profound platitudes. (William McAdoo described his “bloviating” thus: “an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea. Sometimes these meandering words actually capture a straggling thought and bear it triumphantly, a prisoner in their midst, until it dies of servitude and over work.”[iii])
The intelligentsia were not impressed:
“The New Republic called Harding ‘…without strength of character, without administrative experience, without knowledge of international politics, without any of those moral or intellectual qualities which would qualify him even under ordinary conditions for statesmanlike leadership.’ ” [iv]
Harding was a businessman, having owned and run the Marion, Ohio, Star newspapers for some years, and he was exquisitely aware of the problems plaguing the American economy after the World War – hundreds of thousands of men returning all at once to the work force, threats to agriculture and other sectors from stabilizing European markets, labor unrest, and the burden of emergency war taxation. The League of Nations had been voted down in Congress, and Harding offered voters a chance to turn their focus inward. He said:
“[We must] make sure our own house is in perfect order before we attempt the miracle of Old World stabilization. Call it selfishness or nationality if you will, I think it an inspiration to patriotic devotion — to safeguard America first, to stabilize America first, to prosper America first, to live for and revere America first.”[v]
He might have added, let’s make America great again.
“Harding … talk[ed] about his new favorite subject — Americanism, which had become something of a Republican mantra in 1920. What was Americanism? When asked, Republican senator Boies Penrose of Pennsylvania said, ‘Damned if I know, but you will find it a damn good issue to get votes in an election.”[vi]
His focus on Americanism brought two corollaries with it. Dean describes the first:
“Nativism, that ugly sister of nationalism, had emerged in the aftermath of the war [World War I]. Foreigners were suspect and unwanted. The fact that they were taking jobs during a time of serious unemployment aggravated the nation’s nativistic mood and produced almost universal support … for restricting immigration.” [vii]
The result was Per Centum Law, signed on May 19, 1921, which limited the number of immigrants admitted from any country annually to 3% of the number of residents from that same country living in the United States as of the U.S. Census of 1910.
The second corollary was more complex and had consequences for every American. Harding began his term as a supporter of strong tariffs to protect the interests of American business. As he studied the problem with the help of economist William S. Culbertson, his views became more nuanced and he advocated a tariff policy with restrictions that could be adjusted to respond to changes in American and foreign markets. Dean again:
“By July 1921 the House passed a bill that increased tariffs across the board…. Harding soon found that the new law was not sufficiently flexible to prevent repercussions, and agriculture was first to suffer from the high tariffs, followed soon by other industries in later years…. While in office [Harding] remained favorable to protective tariffs. So too did his successors (Coolidge and Hover), until the American financial system collapsed in 1929, with tariffs playing their own role in the financial market’s crash.” [viii] (Emphasis mine.)
After his election, it was Harding’s desire to bring a business-like management to the federal government. To give credit where it’s due, he established the Office of the Budget and Management and combined three competitive organizations into the new Veteran’s Administration. Both of these actions resulted in savings and increased efficiency.
He was soon to learn, however, that running the government had little in common with running a family business, and the hands-on approach that had worked well in Marion, OH, was less effective in the Oval Office. His determination to master his ever-increasing workload most certainly hastened his death by heart failure three years into his term.
Can we say with Karl Marx,
“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”?
[i] John W. Dean, Warren G. Harding (The American President Series, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., General Editor), New York, Henry Holt & Company, 2004.
[ii] These papers are now held by the Ohio History Connection, https://www.ohiohistory.org/learn/archives-library.
[iii] Ibid, 79.
[iv] Ibid, 67.
[v] Warren G. Harding, Our Common Country, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1921, 64-65.
[vi] Dean, Warren G. Harding, 55.
[vii] Ibid., 101.
[viii] Ibid., 103-105.