Tag: AmericanHistory

Courthouse Shootout — 57 Shots in 90 Seconds

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.

Conspiracy Theories – Drug of Choice for the Masses

Interesting theory about the nature of conspiracy theories from Thomas Klikhauer and Meg Young : A Theory About Conspiracy Theories.

Thanks, lobotero, for bringing this to my attention.

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Reflections of a Man of Mystery

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.

More skulls

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Does History Repeat Itself?

Warren G. Harding
Warren G. Harding, 29th President of the United States

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]

Warren Harding campaign poster
Warren G. Harding Campaign Poster by Howard Chandl

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.

Dean continues:

“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.


Spies Pier, NJ
On July 30, 1916, German saboteurs targeted the ammunition depot on New Jersey’s Black Tom Island, shipping point for three-quarters of U.S. ammunition bound for Allied Europe. The resulting explosion was heard as far away as Philadelphia. (Library of Congress)

Read Part 1

All the episodes were part of a German Imperial scheme dating back to 1889, the infamous Abteilung [Department] IIIb. Originally a counter-intelligence unit, it developed into a long-form destabilization campaign directed mainly at the United States, but including France and England. By the time it disbanded in 1918, it had become principally a secret police force and an international propaganda unit that was largely ineffective.

Within a ring of Keystone Kop-style operators, who experimented with cigar bombs for terrorist attacks, tunnel explosions between Canada and the United States to tie up traffic, and fomenting demonstrations by anti-British East Indian students at UC Berkeley, there were a few dangerous characters, who were involved in disasters such as the Black Tom Island explosion and the munitions depot explosion at Mare Island, San Francisco Bay in March 1917.

Eric Muenter

There were also rogue operators like the clearly deranged Eric Muenter, who went by the pseudonym Frank Holt to find employment teaching German at Harvard and Cornell and other prominent universities. Muenter, who had ties to Ambassador von Bernstorff, attempted to place time bombs on merchant ships, planted a bomb that blew up a closet in the United States Senate building and in 1915 attempted to assassinate Jack Morgan, whose father J. P. Morgan was helping to finance the British in the First World War. He was subdued in the attempt and committed suicide while in custody.

The conflict between Germany and the United States hardened in January 1917 with the disclosure of the infamous Zimmerman Telegram. (Until this moment, the United States had been neutral and engaged in selling supplies and munitions to all comers. After roughly the middle of 1915, the Germans had not been able to buy any supplies from the Americans, because of the British Navy’s German Blockade, which prevented goods from entering German ports. This was the reason behind the American munitions depot sabotages, to prevent the British re-supplying from the same American sources.)

German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmerman sent a telegram in January 1917 to German Ambassador to Mexico Heinrich von Eckhardt to offer Mexico a military alliance with Germany in case the United States gave up its neutral status and entered the war as a combatant with the Allies. The alliance proposed an invasion of the United States to restore territories lost by Mexico in the 19th century. (This was another comic-opera aspect of the destabilization campaign against the United States. A section of the plan envisioned mobilizing black citizens of the southern states to rise up and join the Mexican invasion force.) The telegram was intercepted and decoded by British intelligence services, whereupon its authenticity was challenged, but in March Zimmerman announced that it was genuine.

In April the United States declared war against Germany and the Central Powers. The international machinations of the Germans, the ruinous sabotage of the munitions depots, and the submarine war against merchant shipping had become intolerable.

The same month, the Espionage Act was signed into law, and the following year, the Sedition Act. Two hundred and fifty thousand Germans and descendants of Germans were required to register at post offices across the United States. Thousands were detained and interrogated. More than six thousand were arrested and interned, along with a thousand merchant sailors, and two thousand German sailors captured in port were held as prisoners of war. The last of them were released in 1920.

The destabilization campaign against the United States lasted from 1889 to 1918, nearly thirty years, and was counter-productive in the end. It had assured that the United States would enter the war against Germany, and it harmed the stability and welfare of millions of German emigrants and German-Americans. American entry into the war ensured an Allied victory against the Central Powers, not so much because the Americans were great warriors, but because the giant industrial establishment and fuel supplies of the American economy could be brought to bear directly on the conflict, as well as thousands of fresh troops eager to make their mark on the world. The isolationist strain of American foreign policy was set aside. It weakened year by year afterward. The necessity of maintaining a standing army and a large modern navy had been made plain. The world stage was now the American stage too, and it would never leave the theater.

This is something that Vladimir Putin and the Russians might keep in their kit bag when they contemplate a thoroughgoing destabilization campaign against the United States.

One of the articles of American exceptionalism, one which has been demonstrated time and again, is the willingness when pushed to commit force to bear on external conflicts. While this tendency has been a mistake at times, it has always been a bad thing for the people who are the target population. It is never a good idea to wake the sleeping giant and make him mad.

uniquerman, aka Jim Ackerman, was born in the high plateau country of Eastern Oregon to pioneer folk. He grew up in Lake County, which still has more square miles than people. He went to New College in Sarasota Florida, and has spent a lifetime studying and writing. He has done everything from leather craft to construction.  He has several books pending publication.


At 1:08 in the morning of July 30th 1916, the ground shook in New Jersey. It shook so hard that it woke people up from northern Maryland to Rhode Island. A wall of the City Hall building in Jersey City cracked. The Brooklyn Bridge swayed. The stained glass of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan shattered. On the Richter seismic scale, the temblor would have measured between 5.0 and 5.5, but it was not an earthquake.

Black Tom explosion
“The explosion on Black Tom Island, in New York Harbor at Jersey City, was unsolved for years” – New York Daily News

The munitions and gunpowder storage depot of the National Dock and Storage Company on Black Tom Island in New York Harbor had blown up. Fragments of shrapnel lodged in the Statue of Liberty, and one mile away in Jersey City, struck buildings in the city center. The shock wave broke windows all over Brooklyn and Manhattan. Immigrants waiting on Ellis Island were evacuated immediately to New York City. Seven people were killed, including one ten-month old infant, and hundreds were injured. The damage was estimated at twenty million dollars, nearly half a billion in modern currency.

First considered an accident, it quickly became apparent that it was sabotage, and that the evidence pointed to the German Imperial government. No perpetrator was ever charged but a German agent named Michael Kristoff, a Slovak immigrant who had been in the American military, was implicated years later. Subsequently Kristoff claimed that two guards at the depot had also been German agents.

von Bernstorff
German Ambassador, Count Johann von Bernstorff

This was not all. The German Ambassador to the United States, Johann H. von Bernstorff, had planned the operation, as well as an aborted scheme to sabotage the Welland Canal connecting Ontario to New York State through Lakes Ontario and Erie. A network of agents headquartered from the Canadian border north of Seattle to Mexico City had also been involved. The same group of agents worked on numerous adventures on the West Coast, directed by Franz von Bopp, the German Consul General in San Francisco.

There was yet more to it. All the episodes were part of a German Imperial scheme dating back to 1889, the infamous Abteilung [Department] IIIb. Originally a counter-intelligence unit, it developed into a long-form destabilization campaign directed mainly at the United States, but including France and England. By the time it disbanded in 1918, it had become principally a secret police force and an international propaganda unit that was largely ineffective.

Germany, not having been unified until 1871, came late to what is sometimes called the “empire race,” the drive by the industrial nations to control undeveloped regions and their natural resources and to make them captive markets for finished consumer goods.

Under the Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany shifted its focus on national strategy from Realpolitik, the art of the possible in Europe, to Weltpolitik, the aggressive competition for control of the globe. Wary of the large modern navies of Great Britain and France and their colonial outposts, Germany concentrated on the United States, which not only had a relatively small navy but also practiced economic colonialism rather than direct political control of overseas colonies. Amid some skirmishing with the Americans in East Asia, the South Pacific and the Caribbean, the Imperial Government hatched three plans to invade the United States between 1897 and 1906.

It is difficult to envision what the German leadership hoped to accomplish. Parts of the plans had a comic opera element to them, as if they had been dreamed up by Gilbert and Sullivan without the music.

One of the plans proposed an invasion of New York, yet the Germans lacked the transport capacity for the requisite number of troops. Two of the plans had objectives in the Caribbean, mainly Cuba and Puerto Rico, giving the American invasions a hint of black comedy about them: blow up the farmer’s house to steal his neighbor’s chickens. After construction of the Panama Canal commenced, the Germans hoped to force the United States into negotiations over control of the Caribbean and to settle conflicts over trade in South America, where German commercial and shipping interests were strong. By 1906, however, the American navy was stronger than the German, and in any case, President Roosevelt had already backed the Germans down with naval power in 1902 over an international dispute in Venezuela.

Between 1906 and the breakout of the First World War, Germany abandoned any hope of establishing an island staging base and controlling the Caribbean region by sea-power. It concentrated on an alliance with Mexico and a propaganda campaign in Latin America to stir up the anti-American sentiment that already existed there.

At the same time it conducted an anti-British propaganda campaign in the United States. For the extensive German immigrant and German heritage population in America, disaster was looming. Already identified with the progressive labor movement that inspired suspicions of international socialism, their anti-British sentiment led some to believe that they did not support the United States either. At the same time the British were spreading propaganda in the United States against isolationism and its pro-German implications.

Meanwhile, the Imperial German government had been taking advantage of the Mexican Revolution and the anti-American stance of the Mexican revolutionaries to whip up sentiment against the United States and use the political firestorm to cover the development of a gang of spies and saboteurs directed by the German Ambassador to Mexico, Heinrich von Eckhardt.

to be continued….


uniquerman, aka Jim Ackerman, was born in the high plateau country of Eastern Oregon to pioneer folk. He grew up in Lake County, which still has more square miles than people. He went to New College in Sarasota Florida, and has spent a lifetime studying and writing. He has done everything from leather craft to construction.  He has several books pending publication.

The Ring of Truth, Chapter 1

“Gaston B. Means. I think he was the worst crook I ever knew….He was a complete scoundrel.  But he was the type some people liked — a sort of lovable scoundrel.”

So said J. Edgar Hoover in one of his last interviews as quoted by Curt Gentry in J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets.  Gaston’s roller coaster career as America’s most likable scoundrel was fueled by his tall tales told with absolute conviction and a cherubic smile.   But much of Means’ story remains a puzzle to those who know him from Boardwalk Empire or who speculate about the truth on conspiracy web sites.

Gaston was my grandfather, and now, 100 years after his first trial, I’ve come to believe that Gaston cannot be understood except in relation to his beloved wife, my own grandmother and namesake.

What follows is a portion of his story as told in my work in progress, The Ring of Truth: The Private History of Gaston B. Means.

On November 14, 1897, when Gaston Means was confirmed in the new All Saints Episcopal Church, Concord was a bustling town in the red clay hills of piedmont North Carolina.  Cotton was the staple crop, the railroad was running again, and J.W. Cannon’s new mill was up and producing the housewife’s favorite Cannon cloth.  After the disruptions of Reconstruction, this was a good time to be a young man in the South.

After the service, the family assembled in their North Union Street dining room for Sunday dinner.  When the table had been cleared, Gaston called to his brothers, “Let’s head downtown to see what’s doing, boys.”

Concord, NC, NC in 1900
Concord, NC, NC in 1900

Brandon Means and Gaston walked together down Union Street toward the businesses south of Cabarrus Avenue.  Large young men, they walked as thought they owned the sidewalk, and as sons of the mayor, perhaps they did.  Afton, the youngest and always called Tony, stuck close to Gaston, and Frank as usual brought up the rear.

The boys stopped in front of the Cannon & Fitzer windows, and the older boys gazed at the display of hats and shoes while Tony kicked a stone into the street.  Gaston jingled the change in his pocket and frowned.

“What’s eating you, Bud?  You sure don’t have much to say today.”

“Just thinking about the bishop, Brandon.  By rights, he should have had dinner with us today.”

“Aw, you know the Gibson’s dining room is bigger, and they can afford to make a fuss over him, I guess.”

“But with all the time Mother has put into that damned church, and Pop being the mayor, it should have been our place, I’m thinking.   That’s all.”  He glanced around. “Things are pretty quiet today.  No chance of a ball game on a Sunday, I suppose.”

“Bud, you’ll be out of here before any of us,” said Frank.  “Wish I was going along to Chapel Hill with you,” he added softly.

“Wait your turn, Frank.  Meanwhile, I could use some amusement!”  His eyes swept the all but empty streets and closed storefronts.  “I’m going home.  How about some horseshoes?”

Brandon spat.  “Might as well,” and he headed back up the street.

“Will I be able to visit you at college, Bud?”

Gaston looked down at his youngest brother and smiled.  “Sure, Tony, and I’ll be home in summer and for the holidays.  Meanwhile, you’ll have to keep these two out of trouble.”

“Aw, Bud, you know Frank never gets up to anything, and Brandon’s bad as you.”  Tony grinned and ran ahead up the walk.


The Means boys were known around town as great fun but mean as snakes when crossed.  Word was, they got that from their grandfather, “General” William Cresswell Means, now buried beside his wife, Catherine Barringer, in Oakwood Cemetery.  The General had been the largest landowner in Cabarrus County before the War, an innovative farmer and instrumental in bringing the railroad to Concord.  He had married well and was prosperous enough to provide his six sons with university educations.

Emancipation and then the death of his wife had been his downfall.  He took to squabbling with his neighbors, and finally his son William Gaston Means was called home to manage his affairs.  W. G., “the Colonel,” had been practicing law in Memphis when he brought his wife, Corallie née Bullock, and their three daughters back to the home place at Blackwelder’s Spring.  Gaston was born there in 1879.

When W. C. died in 1880, there was little left of his estate but land.  The farms were divided among his children, some were sold to pay expenses, and the Colonel moved his family into a three-story house on the east side of North Union Street.

Gaston was a bright boy with charming manners and deep dimples.  His father was pleased to take him along to the office and often used him to run notes to clients in town and to the courthouse one block away.  The boy soon found that the best entertainment to be had was listening to the grown men around him chewing over their neighbors’ affairs, both business and personal.  If there was something puzzling to his young mind, he took the story to his father for explication, and the Colonel often found these tidbits helpful in court.  When Gaston’s Uncle George Washington Means went to work for the Secret Service in Washington, D.C., the boy made up his mind to pursue a career as an investigator and began the habit of carrying a small notebook in which he recorded the habits of those around him.

In the fall of 1898, he left Concord for the University of North Carolina.  By all accounts, Gaston was a middling student and, although suited to the football field at six feet and two hundred pounds, a lackadaisical athlete.  His sharp wit and dimpled smile, along with his willingness to laugh at his own failings, made him a star of the Chapel Hill social scene, however, and in his sophomore year, he was elected to the Dialectical Society, Theta Nu Epsilon, and Zeta Psi.

From the 1905 University of North Carolina Yearbook

By his third year, Gaston was tiring of his pre-law classes, and with Brandon at the Bingham School in Mebane, North Carolina, money for tuition was tight in the Means family.  Word that the new Albemarle Graded School was looking for a superintendent brought him home, and a whisper in the right ear from his father secured him the position.  He took up residence at the Hearn Hotel and worked hard, even returning to Chapel Hill for summer courses.  He was well respected, but by 1902, Gaston was restless.  The town of Albemarle was too small and his position too prominent to allow much personal scope.  The trip back and forth to Concord was tedious over the unimproved dirt road, and his social life had been reduced to an occasional Sunday dinner with the family.  When his father’s new client James Cannon mentioned his plans to expand his sales efforts into the northeast, Gaston was ready to assist.


The Cannon Manufacturing Company was a powerhouse in the South, and James Cannon was its driving force.  His vision and skill had given the housewife Cannon Cloth, sturdy enough for sacking and fine enough for fashion, and had opened the Chinese market to American cotton fabric.  Through these innovations, Concord had weathered the economic depression of the 1890s with barely a hiccough.  An early proponent of vertical integration, in 1903 Cannon created his own selling agency, Cannon Mills, Inc., and sent John C. Leslie from Concord to open an office in New York City.  Gaston accompanied him as a traveling man.

The new sales office was a grand success, and by 1905, Gaston was wearing custom-made suits and silk bow ties and contributing articles on the cotton business to industry publications.  He stayed in touch with a cadre of Tarheels now living in New York, including Phillips Russell and the brothers Ralph and Louis Graves who had moved their entire family north while they pursued careers in journalism.

Fifth at 51st new-york-1908.jpg
Fifth Avenue in 1908

On a warm September evening in 1908, Gaston returned to his rooms on West 16th Street from a successful trip through the Midwest.  As he stood in the foyer thumbing through his mail, he was greeted by his fellow lodger Milano Tilden.  “Bud, you’re home!  Were the Detroit shopkeepers in a mood to buy?”

“They were when I got though with them,” Gaston laughed.  “Where are you headed all buffed up like that, Miles?”

“A few of us are taking in that revue at the Casino Theatre, The Mimic World.  A chum of mine is in the production and says it’s closing soon.  Say, why not join us and we can get some supper after?”

“I need to get out of these duds and send off a note or two first.  I’ll meet you in the lobby at eight.”

“Fine!  We’ll see you there.  I hear there are some remarkable young women on show,” he added.

Gaston grinned and waved him out the door.

Edith Poole in 1915


After the show, Gaston accompanied Tilden and his friends to Café Martin and ordered drinks while they waited for Tilden’s acquaintance from the revue to join them.  When he arrived, he had two choristers in tow.  They were introduced to the party as Frank Thomas,  Miss Mavis Johnson, a pretty blond with a rouged and pouty mouth, and Miss Edith Poole, a slender, Juno-eyed young woman who looked all the better for her seeming lack of make-up.

The conversation was general as they ate, but when the table was cleared, the coffee poured, and the brandies ordered, Gaston leaned back from the table, looked around at the little party, and smiled.

Leaning to his left, Tilden whispered, “Prepare yourself, Miss Johnson, to be entertained.  Mr. Means tell the best tales you are likely to hear.”

“You all will have heard of the 1799 North Carolina gold rush? As you will recall, a boy called Conrad Reed found a seventeen pound nugget of solid gold in a creek bed in Cabarrus County, just down the road a piece from my granddaddy’s plantation.  Well, that big old hunk of gold sat right there on the floor in that boy’s home for three years, holding open the kitchen door, before his papa took it off to Fayetteville to find out what it was.  And that’s how it all began.

“Well then, you can imagine how I felt some eighty-eight years later when I heard that story.  A boy of nine, I was just all fired up.  Every day after school, me and my brother Brandon headed down to Three Mile Branch and marched up and down its banks, searching for a gleam of yellow.  This went on for three or four weeks, and you can believe we wore ourselves out with looking.

“This one afternoon, we had about decided to give it up, when I threw myself down onto a grassy spot on the bank and set to shying stones into the water.  Well, what do you know!  The very first stone I threw turned over a few pebbles in that stream, and that’s when I saw it.  Gold!  It was just a glimmer, but I waded in and got to digging around, and before I knew it, I had unearthed a nugget almost too big to lift out of the water.

“Brandon!”  I called.  “You come over here and help me lift this gold.”

We pulled and tugged, but that piece of gold was just too big and too slippery for two young boys to shift.  Before long, we decided to give it up and head home for a shovel and tote sack.  We kicked the mud and stones back over the gold in that creek bed, and I broke off two willow switches and stuck them into the bank to mark the spot.  Then we set off for the house.

“But while we were running through the woods, the wind picked up and we heard the thunder of a coming storm.  The sky behind us was black as night, and the rain kept getting closer.  We just made it home before all hell broke loose – a real frog-strangler.  There was no way our mother was letting us out of the house.  The gold would just have to wait.

“Well, the next morning was a Saturday, and after our chores were done, Brandon and I grabbed that shovel and tote sack and headed back to the creek.  First thing I noticed was the bare branches and all the leaves torn off by the wind.  And then I began to look for our mark, the two switches stuck in the bank.  We must have searched for a quarter hour before I figured out the problem.

“Brandon,” I said.  “Look here.  That damned storm has washed the bank clear away and our marker with it.”

“Well, we looked and we looked for some sign of the right spot.  And we took off our shoes and used our toes to dig around in the mud of that creek all up and down.  But we never did hit on that big old nugget.  For all I know, it’s still in there yet.

“And that, my friends, is how I almost started the Second Great North Carolina Gold Rush.”

Gaston downed his brandy to the approbation of the men in the party while Miss Johnson pursed her lips and exclaimed, “Oh, what a shame! Why, Mr. Means, you would have been as rich as Vanderbilt, and you lost it all while just a little boy.

“Hush, Mavis,” Miss Poole said softly.  She smiled at Gaston.  “We’ll just have to make a trip down South, Mr. Means, to find that nugget.  I met a few prospectors in Denver while I was at school, and I might know a few tricks.”

“Well then, Miss Poole, you and I will just have to explore the possibilities.”  Gaston’s dimples deepened.

As the party broke up, Miss Poole shook Gaston’s hand and slipped something into his jacket pocket, then walked off arm-in-arm with Miss Johnson and shepherded by Mr. Thomas.  Gaston and Tilden turned south and headed down Broadway toward their lodgings.  As they passed under a street lamp, Gaston felt in his pocket and pulled out a small white card.  “Miss Edith C. Poole,” he read, “151 East 32nd Street, New York, New York.”

“Aah,” he said, throwing a arm around his friend’s shoulder and beginning to whistle.


“A Historical Perspective Of Cabarrus County” by Clarence E. Horton Jr.

Gaston Bullock Means brief biography by Wikipedia

Gaston Means as a character on Boardwalk Empire