Explorers Traded Insults, Verbal Attacks in Quest to be First

Robert E. Peary was included in a 1910 tobacco card set of the “World’s Greatest Explorers.”

By Jim O’Neal

In September 1909, two men, both Americans, emerged from the frozen tundra of the Arctic, each claiming they had accomplished something no other explorers had in recorded history. They had reached the North Pole!

The North Pole is a rather strange place. A point with no dimensions, no thickness or breadth, where every direction is south and a year is divided into one day and one night. At the time, it was 400 miles from any solid ground, across an ocean more than 5 miles deep, covered by a jumble of enormous blocks of ice drifting with the wind and the gravitational pull of the moon.

Of the two men, Frederick Cook’s claim had priority – he said he had been at the Pole in April 1908, but had been forced to winter in the Arctic another season because of bad weather. However, his veracity was strongly contested by rival explorer Robert E. Peary. Peary disputed Cook’s claim and proceeded to assert that he’d reached the North Pole on April 6, 1909. His message to The New York Times stated, “I have the pole, April sixth. Expect arrive Chateau Bay, September seventh. Secure control wire for me there and arrange expedite transmission big story. PEARY”

Thus began a series of insults and verbal attacks that the newspapers reveled in. A classic example comes from The Philadelphia Record in 1909: “Dr. Cook is either the greatest and at the same time the stupidest charlatan who ever attempted to impose upon a skeptical world, or he is the victim of the most malignant and devilishly ingenious persecution that hatred and envy could devise.”

The controversy widened after Cook’s ascent of Mount McKinley (Denali) was also questioned. Perhaps inevitably, it devolved into a litany of charges that included bribes, death threats and even sexual improprieties. Cook’s claims gradually came to be regarded as elaborate hoaxes. Attempts to ascertain the truth through impartial commissions and Congressional hearings all ended inconclusively.

However, what was proved (without any doubt) was that Frederick Cook – physician, explorer, author and lecturer – was also a crook who sold fraudulent stock in oil companies. A Fort Worth, Texas, judge sent him to jail for almost 15 years. President Franklin Roosevelt pardoned him in 1940, 10 years after he had been released from prison. He died shortly after that on Aug. 5 the same year.

Meanwhile, despite having been certified by the National Geographic Society, Peary’s claim about the North Pole was never secured. Even modern scholars have pointed out major discrepancies in his assertions and it seems unlikely he actually made it. He died embittered and exhausted by the long struggle despite receiving numerous medals, honorary degrees and international recognition.

Today, the only fact we know for certain is that in 1985, Sir Edmund Hillary (first to summit Mount Everest) and astronaut Neil Armstrong (first man to stand on the moon) actually landed at the North Pole in a small twin-engine plane. This allowed Sir Hillary to claim to be the first to stand on both the South and North Poles and on the summit of Everest.

It’s not clear to me why some ambitious reporter like Anderson Cooper didn’t simply ask some of the local residents about Cook and Peary … Santa and his elves are generally hanging around assembling the toys and stuff. That old North Pole is still a very strange place.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Empire State Building Remains One of World’s Great Wonders

Guy Carleton Wiggins’ oil on canvas board The Empire State Building, Winter sold for $44,812 at a May 2011 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

“From the ruins, lonely and inexplicable as the Sphinx,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “rose the Empire State Building.”

The “ruins” was an oblique reference to the stock market crash in 1929. Completed on May 1, 1931, on the site where the Waldorf Astoria had stood, no building ever reached so high, so fast; 102 stories tall and with a 200-foot mast to hitch your dirigible. It was built in just over a year, during what would become the nation’s worst depression.

Just a short two years earlier on May 1, 1929, architect William Van Alen had broken ground on the Chrysler Building. He had been commissioned by Chrysler to design and construct the tallest building in the world. When the Chrysler Building opened in April 1930, it was indeed the tallest at a magnificent 925 feet – a world record that would only stand for a fleeting 28 days! Then the Manhattan Bank Tower completed its construction and opened at a height of 927 feet, which allowed it to lay claim to the World’s Tallest title by a measly 2 feet.

Hang on. The race wasn’t over. In the history of high wire, where one-upmanship is the oxygen that fuels architectural competition, the Chrysler Building’s William Van Alen had kept a surprise hidden up his sleeve that would allow him to reclaim this prestigious crown.

Van Alen had designed a stainless spire of five sections, which was lowered through the top of the building. At a fixed time, before a highly appreciative audience, Van Alen delivered his coup de grâce to the Manhattan Bank. A huge derrick, its gears slowly turning, raised the spire from the innards of the Chrysler Building. “It gradually emerged,” Van Alen wrote, “from the top of the dome like a butterfly from its cocoon.” At 1,046 feet, the Chrysler Building was suddenly, once again, the World’s Tallest Building.

Alas, it only remained so for less than a year, when the Empire State Building – topping out at 1,250 feet – grabbed the title for itself. It would retain the crown until 1971 when the World Trade Center towers opened. Fittingly, the group behind the Empire State Building included the Happy Warrior himself, Al Smith, former governor of New York (four times) and the Democratic candidate for president in the 1928 election (won by Herbert Hoover). Smith’s grandchildren cut the ribbon when the world’s (newest) tallest skyscraper opened May 1, 1931, and President Hoover turned on the building’s lights using a remote push button in Washington, D.C.

Subsequently, the building has become a worldwide icon and in 1994 it was named one of the “Seven Wonders of the Modern World” by the American Society of Civil Engineers … joining the Golden Gate Bridge and the Panama Canal, all American architectural marvels. Plus, who can forget Fay Wray as Ann Darrow in the 1933 classic King Kong, when the beast from Skull Island plucks her from the building?

The Empire State Building took only 410 days to build since the architectural firm used design plans for the (similar but smaller) Reynolds Building in Winston-Salem, N.C., a project they had worked on earlier. The staff at the Empire State Building sends a Father’s Day card to the Reynolds Building each year to honor the contribution it made to their existence.

Although long since surrendering its crown for height, the Empire State Building is a “must see” for all tourists to New York and, amazingly, revenue from ticket sales for admission to the observation decks exceeds office space rental income.

Its place in history seems quite secure.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

America Driven by Courage and the Nerve to Do Whatever It Takes

The Empire State Building, an oil on canvas by Glenn O. Coleman (1887-1932) sold for $40,000 at a March 2017 Heritage auction. Mohawk riveting gangs worked on the skyscraper, and other monumental New York buildings.

By Jim O’Neal

The American Revolutionary War effectively ended on Oct. 19, 1781, at Yorktown, Va. That was the day British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered his army to General George Washington. However, it took two more years until the Treaty of Paris was signed on Sept. 3, 1783, to formalize the negotiated peace terms.

The peace negotiations were led by Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Henry Laurens and John Adams, who were very clever to exclude American allies France and Spain and strike a deal directly with Great Britain to achieve better terms. Despite this ploy, there were still several areas still in contention. In 1794, now Chief Justice John Jay was finally forced to negotiate an additional agreement (Jay’s Treaty) to resolve a number of lingering issues.

Flash forward to 1926 and we find a Mohawk ironworker from Quebec, Canada, Paul Diabo, facing deportation in Philadelphia after being charged as an illegal alien in violation of the Immigration Act of 1924. The court ruled he had every right to enter the United States (at will) by virtue of the Jay Treaty with the Iroquois Confederacy.

By then, the Kahnawake-Mohawk Indians had gained a well-known reputation as world-class high-steel workers. Ironworking requires a rare combination of strength, intelligence and courage. It involves laying the foundations and building the metal skeletons to support skyscrapers. Workers handle the lifting, fixing and welding of heavy steel beams, often while hundreds of feet up in the air. The Mohawks had demonstrated an exceptional skill that was unmatched.

It all started in 1886 when the fledgling Canadian Pacific Railway needed to span the St. Lawrence River and hired the Dominion Bridge Company to build a cantilevered bridge over the water. One significant issue was it would have to be set on land belonging to the Mohawks, who were willing to give their approval, but only with the proviso that they could work on the project. The company quickly agreed, assuming the Mohawks would be able to do all the menial tasks associated with such a big project. They were subsequently astonished when, instead, they showed great agility and a desire to become higher-paid riveters.

Initially, Dominion trained a dozen volunteers in this difficult, dangerous skill that entailed heating red-hot rivets, tossing them 30 to 40 feet where other co-workers caught them and forced them through steel beams with a hammer or pneumatic drill … while high off the ground up in the infrastructure. Soon, there was a cadre of over 70 highly trained iron and steel riveters and they started working on projects throughout Canada.

The Mohawk riveting gangs continued to proliferate and spread out, by the 1910s arriving in New York. As their numbers and reputations continued to grow, they inevitably worked on all the monumental structures in greater New York: the Empire State Building, George Washington Bridge, Chrysler Building, United Nations Assembly, and Triborough Bridge … among many other less well-known skyscrapers.

By the 1930s, a community of 700 Mohawks were living in a Brooklyn suburb and drinking Canadian beer at the Wigwam bar, with its picture of Jim Thorpe on the wall and the sign “The Greatest Iron Workers in the World Pass Through These Doors.” In addition to frequent trips back and forth to Canada, they traveled all over the United States, even arriving in time to help rivet the majestic Golden Gate Bridge.

Today, the demand for “High Steel” riveting has declined, but as a Dominion Bridge official once observed, “Men who want to do it are rare. And men who can do it are even rarer!”

I suppose the same could be said of the Colonial soldiers who followed General Washington in a seemingly impossible task to win our independence. Courage and the nerve to do whatever it takes.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

For Anthony and Women’s Rights, Failure was Impossible

An 1873 letter by Susan B. Anthony, written one month after her trial for voting illegally, realized $9,375 at a November 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On Nov. 5, 1872, Susan B. Anthony wrote to Elizabeth Cady Stanton: “Well, I have been & gone & done it!! – positively voted the Republican ticket – strait [sic] – this a.m. at 7 o’clock.”

Anthony had cast her ballot at a barbershop in Rochester, N.Y. She was one of 6,431,149 citizens who voted in the election between Ulysses S. Grant and Horace Greeley, an election Grant won decisively by more than 760,000 votes. Three weeks later, on Thanksgiving Day, Anthony and a handful of other women who voted with her were arrested and indicted for having “knowingly voted without having a lawful right to vote.”

The verdict at her trial was a forgone conclusion. The judge refused to let her take the witness stand and then instructed the all-male jury to find her guilty without any deliberation. Anthony succeeded in being heard, however, when the judge asked if she “had anything to say why sentence shall not be pronounced?” She quickly replied,

“Yes, your honor, I have many things to say, for in your ordered verdict of guilty, you have trampled underfoot every vital principle of our government. My natural rights, my civil rights, my political rights are all alike ignored. Robbed of the fundamental privilege of citizenship, I am degraded from the status of a citizen to that of a subject … doomed to political subjection.”

Susan B. Anthony

She then refused to pay the $100 fine the judge ordered, but he refused to imprison her, thereby preventing her from appealing to a higher court. Undeterred, Anthony took her case to the public and had thousands of copies of the trial proceedings printed and widely distributed.

Susan B. Anthony would find other ways to relentlessly press the cause of women’s suffrage. Brought up as a Quaker and active as an early supporter of temperance, she soon realized that until women could vote, politicians would not pay any attention to them. For more than 50 years, she urged lawmakers to enfranchise the other half of America’s citizens. She attended her first women’s rights convention in Syracuse, in 1852, and with Elizabeth Cady Stanton founded the American Equal Rights Association in 1866. The two women published a feisty newspaper, The Revolution, whose masthead proclaimed “Men their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less.”

She appeared before every U.S. Congress between 1869 and 1906 to ask them to pass a Suffrage amendment. She was prepared as any modern-day lobbyist – her copy of the seating chart for all members of Congress has survived. Her speech to a Senate Committee in 1904 reflected her frustration: “I never come here, and this is the seventeenth Congress I have attended, but with the feeling of injustice which ought not to be borne, because the women, one-half the people, are not able to get a hearing from the Representatives and Senators of the United States.”

Her combative tone did not mellow with age. When President Theodore Roosevelt sent congratulations in 1906 for her 86th birthday celebration, her response was indignant: “I wish the men would do something besides extend congratulations … I would rather have him say a word to Congress for the cause than to praise me endlessly.”

She ended that evening’s gathering, her final public appearance, with a ringing prophecy: “There have been others also just as true and devoted to the cause … but with such women consecrating their lives, failure is impossible!”

Less than a month later, on March 13, 1906, she died at her home in Rochester, N.Y. The rights for which she had worked so tirelessly were finally won when the Nineteenth Amendment, the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment,” passed on June 4, 1919, as women stood on the steps of the Capitol to cheer. The vote was close, only one more than the required two-thirds. To enable the passage, two Congressmen had come from hospitals to vote aye; a third left his suffragist wife’s deathbed to cast a vote, then returned for her funeral. When the State of Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify, the amendment was officially adopted on Aug. 18, 1920 – nearly half a century after Susan B. Anthony had illegally voted for Ulysses S. Grant.

A life. A cause. Finally accomplished.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Robert Morris Deserves His Place on This $1,000 Bill

The rare 1863 $1000 legal tender note featuring Robert Morris could be the most attractive bill ever printed.

By Jim O’Neal

Imagine a situation where you write a terrific biography that is nominated for prestigious awards and stays on The New York Times best-seller list for three months. Not bad. But then, imagine the elation when 10 years later, it is turned into a Tony Award-winning musical and you are part of the team that created it. That actually happened to author Ron Chernow with his book about Alexander Hamilton.

Even more remarkable is that Hamilton is still the hottest ticket in town three years later, and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda has racked up a Pulitzer Prize, three Tony Awards, two Grammys, an Emmy, and will be honored on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2018. The only thing left would be a film and, not surprisingly, Hamilton the movie is already in development.

Many people now know that Alexander Hamilton was the first Secretary of Treasury for the United States. However, he was not the first choice of George Washington when the president was forming his Cabinet. That distinction goes to another of the true Founding Fathers: Robert Morris Jr. (1734-1806), whose name has gradually faded from view. That was certainly not the case in 1775 when he was believed to be the richest man in America.

President Washington offered him the position primarily since he had been the First Superintendent of Finance for the United States (1781-84), but Morris recommended Hamilton since they shared similar views, including the idea of creating a national bank. Besides, next to George Washington, Morris was already considered the most powerful man in America.

After migrating to America from England as a teenager, he became a partner (at age 24) of Thomas Willing when they formed a banking-shipping firm, Willing, Morris & Co. This dual charter allowed them to self-finance their trading activities, which included slaves. However, disputes over tariffs and taxes like the Stamp Act inevitably drew Morris into politics and eventually the war for independence from England. Robert Morris and Roger Sherman of Connecticut are the only two people to sign the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution.

Robert Morris is also credited with being one of the founders of the financial system for the United States, along with Hamilton and Albert Gallatin, who was Treasury Secretary for Jefferson and Madison from 1801 to 1814, the longest tenure in this office in history. Morris used his great wealth and financial acumen to support Continental troops under Washington when the country was broke. The dome in the U.S. Capitol Building has a fresco painting (The Apotheosis of Washington) that includes a scene with Mercury, the Roman god of commerce, handing Morris a bag of gold to commemorate his service as “the Financier of the American Revolution.”

Twenty years ago, I had the pleasure of viewing Robert Morris on a $1,000 bill when Frank Levitan sold his wonderful collection of United States paper currency. It’s my personal choice for the most attractive bill ever printed and is ultra-rare (only two are known to exist). Lot #104 sold for $451,000 – a staggering amount at the time, but a fraction of the price it would bring today.

Thank you, Mr. Morris. I won’t forget.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

What Nature Separated, Explorers Brought Together

A letter Albert Einstein sent to Charles Hapgood in November 1954 sold for $3,125 at an April 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

To my knowledge, the only trained geologist I have met is Simon Winchester. He is now a successful journalist and author. Most of the people I know tend to look up or back (in history) as opposed to downward. I assume most geologists are average, normal people, except when I read about 20th century geology and the difficulties they had in reaching anything close to a consensus about Earth.

As early as 1912, a German – Alfred Wegener – developed the theory that the continents had come together in a single landmass before it drifted apart (he called it Pangaea). However, virtually everyone else argued that continents moved up and down, but definitely not “sideways.” They developed elaborate theories to explain all the evidence.

Just before he died in 1955, Albert Einstein enthusiastically endorsed a theory by geologist Charles Hapgood, who wrote the book “Earth’s Shifting Crust: A Key to Some Basic Problems of Earth Science.” Hapgood systematically debunked the theory of continental drift and dismissed anyone who believed it as “gullible.” When it was finally realized that the whole crust of the Earth was in motion – and not just the continents – it took a while to settle on a new name.

It wasn’t until 1968, when the Journal of Geophysical Research published an article by three American seismologists, that the new science was dubbed plate tectonics. Still, as late as 1980, one in eight geologists didn’t believe in plate-tectonic theory. It is not clear if there are any continental drift-deniers left, but we know for sure that the pre-1492 American and Eurasian ecosystems existed in complete isolation for thousands of years. The arrival of the first Europeans in North and Central America reconnected them and started what was to become known as the great Columbian Exchange.

Lives and economies that had evolved gradually over centuries were suddenly transformed by the influx of new crops, animals, technology and pathogens. Many of the effects were unforeseen and generally misunderstood by both American Indians and Europeans; but once the first landing occurred, massive changes were inexorably under way. One small example is that 60 percent of all crops grown in the world today originated in the Americas. A more immediate and devastating impact was the introduction of new diseases into the Americas that wiped out hundreds of thousands of Indians who had no biological defenses against small pox, measles, malaria, chickenpox and yellow fever.

The dramatic and irrevocable changes brought about on both sides of the Atlantic by the Columbian Exchange continued to shape lives for centuries, just as the movement of the Earth’s crust shapes our lives today by earthquakes, ocean movements and other ecological events.

We live in and on things that will continue to change as our televisions remind us every day. The longer-term changes are still being debated and are now politicized to the point where prudent policies are paralyzed. It must be something in our DNA.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].