Carnegie Coveted Crown of Richest Man in the World

This Andrew Carnegie photograph – inscribed, signed and dated Dec. 11, 1917 – realized $1,015 at a September 2011 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Jeff Bezos of Amazon is the world’s richest man, with an estimated net worth of more than $100 billion. A hundred years ago (1916), John D. Rockefeller became America’s first billionaire, which in today’s economy would be two to three times greater than Bezos’ fortune. In the late 19th century, Andrew Carnegie coveted this crown and saw steel as his road to stardom.

In the post-Civil War era, America grew rapidly as railroads crisscrossed the country and extended their reach to all four corners. Electricity arrived to light up buildings and homes, oil supplemented kerosene and coal, iron and steel production grew as demand soared to keep up with rapid economic expansion. Occasional booms/busts occurred since the markets were unregulated and coordination was difficult.

Carnegie had led the growth in the American steel industry and his ambition to snatch Rockefeller’s crown became more acute. One of the key industry developments involved the construction of a steel bridge to connect St. Louis and East St. Louis on opposite banks of the mighty Mississippi River. The Eads Bridge, named for its designer, engineer James B. Eads, relied heavily on steel for its revolutionary design. It was set to become the first significant bridge using steel girders and a cantilever form.

A young Carnegie supplied the financing and the steel, despite skepticism over the sturdiness of the structure after it was completed. A man named John Robinson came up with a clever way to dispel any doubts. Elephants were believed to have good instincts about where they stepped, so Robinson borrowed a fully grown one from a traveling circus. On June 14, 1874, he led the beast across the length of the bridge, with crowds on both ends going wild. Later, a convoy of locomotives were driven back and forth as a further (and final) test of soundness.

On July 4, 1874, the bridge officially opened with General William Tecumseh Sherman driving the last spike as 150,000 people looked on. Demand for steel exploded, forcing Carnegie to develop creative ways to boost production. One was a modified vertical production technique that maximized factory output. But that was still not enough. It became obvious that a 12-hour, six-day workweek was needed. The only problem was that workers’ health couldn’t keep up. Carnegie hired tough managers to impose the onerous schedule and he left for Scotland to escape the critics. Later, his guilty conscience led him to an unprecedented binge of philanthropy after he sold the Carnegie Steel Company to J.P. Morgan for $480 million. It became U.S. Steel, the first billion-dollar corporation in the world.

John D. Rockefeller took an even more devious strategy to his domination of the oil-refining industry. In 1872, he formed a shell corporation: the South Improvement Company (SIC). He then struck an agreement with large railroad companies whereby they sharply raised freight rates for all oil refineries, except those in the SIC (notably Standard Oil), which received substantial rebates – up to 50 percent off crude and refined oil shipments. Then came the most deadly innovation – SIC members also received “drawbacks” on shipments made by rival refineries. So when Standard Oil made shipments from Pennsylvania to Cleveland, they received a 40-cent rebate on every barrel, plus another 40 cents for every barrel of oil shipped by every competitor!

It has been called “an instrument of competitive cruelty unparalleled in industry.” In fact, it was collusion on a scale never equaled in American history. And it was only one of several techniques employed. But it did help Mr. Rockefeller and his investors achieve a 90 percent share of the entire U.S. oil business.

All Bezos has is the internet.

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].

Johnson’s Battles with Congress Strengthened Office of the President

This sepia-toned photograph of Andrew Johnson, signed as president, sold for $3,346 at a June 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On the night President Abraham Lincoln was shot, John Wilkes Booth and his little band of assassins had also planned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. Booth’s fantasy theory was that decapitating the North’s leadership would cause enough chaos to bring the Civil War to an end. Seward survived a brutal stabbing and Johnson’s assigned assassin, George Atzerodt, got cold feet at the last minute. Johnson had gone to bed at the Kirkwood hotel unharmed.

Awakened by a friend, Johnson rushed to Lincoln’s bedside until the president was declared dead. Johnson then returned to the hotel, where he was sworn in as the 17th president by Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase. The members of his Cabinet assembled in the hotel parlor, where he told them: “I feel incompetent to perform duties so important and responsible as those which have been so unexpectedly thrown upon me.”

Despite Johnson’s humble tone, he was actually a fearless, even reckless, fighter for what he believed in. As a result, he became embroiled in the bitterest intra-governmental conflict the nation had ever seen. Like Lincoln, he favored a “mild reconstruction,” in effect turning state governments over to white citizens, with only the main leaders of the Confederacy excluded. However, the Radical Republican leaders demanded “radical reconstruction,” enfranchising former slaves and barring most former Confederates from government.

Initially, Republicans were pleased with Johnson, mistaking him as weak and easier to control than Lincoln. They were confident he would support their plans for severe treatment of the defeated South. “By the Gods! There will be no trouble now in running the government,” declared Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio. Two years later, this same man, now president pro tempore of the Senate, was so confident the Senate had the votes to evict Johnson from the White House that he had already written an inaugural speech and chosen his Cabinet!

But now, by the time Congress finally met in December 1865, the former states of the Confederacy had elected governors and state legislators. And although they approved the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, they had also passed “Black Codes” binding ex-slaves to working the land. In his first annual message to Congress, Johnson railed against this situation, warning Congress of the dire consequences. But Northern Republicans had no intention of welcoming back Democrats from states that had seceded. Instead, they passed new legislation to reinstate military governments throughput the South. Then they established the Freedmen’s Bureau to assist the 4 million freed slaves.

Johnson promptly vetoed everything Congress had passed.

Republicans were not strong enough to override a presidential veto until early 1867, when they passed into law even more harsh Reconstruction Acts, with military governments replacing civil governments set up by Southern Democrats. Johnson warned they were fostering hatred and creating a state of permanent unrest. Radical Republicans answered by slashing back at Johnson and passing the Tenure of Office Act. This total rebuke now forbade the president of the United States from removing ANY federal official without the express consent of the U.S. Senate.

This was tantamount to a declaration of war and Johnson answered by firing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. The House quickly voted to impeach the president on 11 counts. The Senate trial lasted two months and the final tally was 35 guilty and 19 not guilty … one short of conviction. Johnson served out his term, but his political career was over. His fortitude in the face of overwhelming Congressional pressure strengthened the office of the president and helped preserve the separation of powers intended by the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

Not bad for a former illiterate tailor who never spent a single day in a formal schoolroom.

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].

Truman Well Aware that Presidency was a Most Terribly Responsible Job

A Harry Truman signed and inscribed photograph, dated Jan. 17, 1953, sold for nearly $3,885 at a February 2006 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The news broke shortly before 6 p.m. on April 12, 1945. President Franklin Roosevelt had died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs, Ga. Within minutes, the bulletin had reached every part of the country. It was almost midnight in London, but in Berlin, it was already the next day, where it was (ominously) Friday the 13th. However, Joseph Goebbels interpreted it as a lucky turning point when he telephoned Adolf Hitler. He was already devising ways to turn this to Germany’s advantage, even as enemy troops closed in on the Third Reich.

By 7 p.m., Harry Truman, his Cabinet and Bess and Margaret were assembled in the Cabinet Room along with Chief Justice Harlan Stone to administer the oath of office. Within hours of Roosevelt’s death, the country had a new president.

Then the family and the Cabinet were dismissed. Secretary of War Henry Stimson lingered to brief the new president on a matter of extreme urgency. He explained that a new weapon of almost inconceivable power had been developed, but offered no details. Truman had just learned about the existence of the atomic bomb. He canceled a date to play poker and went to bed. It had been a long day.

It was also a long day for America’s top generals: Dwight D. Eisenhower, George S. Patton and Omar Bradley. The shock of losing their trusted commander-in-chief was compounded by genuine concern over Truman’s lack of experience. To make matters worse, they had just seen their first Nazi death camp. All were depressed, but Patton was especially emphatic about his concerns for the future.

The next morning, President Truman arrived at the White House promptly at 9 a.m. It was now April 13, 1945 – 27 years to the day since he had landed at Brest, France (Brittany), as a lowly 1st Lieutenant in the Allied Expeditionary Forces in WWI. Now he was the United States’ commander in chief in the century’s second world war. Everything in the Oval Office was eerily just as FDR had left it. He sat in the chair behind the desk and quietly pondered the challenges he had inherited. Downstairs, the White House staff was frantically coping with the press, the jangle of telephones, and wondering what to do next.

After a routine update on the status of the war, Truman surprised everyone by announcing he was going to the Capitol to “have lunch with some of the boys” … 17 congressmen to be exact. After a few drinks and lunch, he told the group he felt overwhelmed and emphasized he would need their help. Then he stepped out to meet the assembled press and made his now famous remarks: “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.”

Less than four months later, in August 1945, the man from Independence, Mo., now confident and in control, dropped his own bombshell when he broadcast to the nation:

“Sixteen hours ago, an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima,” the president said, adding, “We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive and enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city. We shall destroy Japan’s power to make war. … If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”

The buck DID stop here, just as the little sign on his desk promised.

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].

Cuban Missile Crisis ‘News’ Gave Us a Preview of the Internet Age

An original October 1962 news photograph of President John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy taken as tensions grew during the Cuban Missile Crisis sold for $527 at an August 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

“I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over.”

An unusual statement, especially at an emergency session of the somber United States Security Council, and uncharacteristically bellicose for the speaker, U.N. Ambassador Adlai E. Stevenson. It simply was the most dangerous time in the history of the world … the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Stevenson

Ambassador Stevenson was interrogating Soviet U.N. representative Valerian Zorin while accusing them of having installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, a mere 90 miles from the U.S. coastline. Tensions were sky high. The Joint Chiefs had recommended to President John F. Kennedy an airstrike, followed by an immediate invasion of Cuba using U.S. military troops.

Then with the world’s two superpowers eyeball to eyeball, as Dean Rusk commented, the other guy blinked. Cuba-bound Soviet ships stopped, turned back, and the crisis swiftly eased.

Over much of the world, and especially in Washington and New York, there was relief and rejoicing. With crucial backing from the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS), nuclear war was averted. Success in avoiding a war of potential global devastation has gradually clouded the fact that the United States came perilously close to choosing the military option.

The arguments of those who fought for time and political negotiations have been blurred and gradually obscured by widespread euphoria. Even for Ambassador Stevenson, the sweet taste of success soon turned sour. First, there was the death of his dear friend Eleanor Roosevelt, quickly followed by a vicious personal attack on him that he never fully recovered from.

When Mrs. Roosevelt reluctantly entered the hospital, it was thought she was suffering from aplastic anemia. But on Oct. 25, 1962, her condition was diagnosed as rare and incurable bone-marrow tuberculosis. She was prepared and determined to die rather than end up a useless invalid. Her children reluctantly decided Stevenson should be allowed one last visit to his old friend, although daughter Anna warned she might not recognize him.

On Nov. 9, two days after her death, the U.N. General Assembly put aside other business and allowed delegate after delegate to express their personal grief and their country’s sorrow. It was the first time any private citizen had been so honored. Adlai told friends that his speech at the General Assembly and the one he gave at her memorial service were the most difficult and saddest times of his life.

Then a harbinger of a brewing storm started on Nov. 13 when Senator Barry Goldwater issued a sharp attack on Stevenson by implying he had been willing to take national security risks to avoid a showdown with the Soviets. The Saturday Evening Post followed with an article on Cuba that portrayed Stevenson as advocating a “Caribbean Munich.” The headlines at the New York Daily News screamed “ADLAI ON SKIDS OVER PACIFIST STAND ON CUBA.”

For months, Washington was abuzz with rumors that it was all a calculated effort by JFK and Bobby to force Stevenson to resign as U.N. ambassador. It was all innuendo, half-facts and untrue leaks, but it was still reverberating a quarter of a century later when the Sunday New York Times magazine, on Aug. 30, 1987, published a rehash of all the gossip.

In truth, all we were witnessing was a preview of things to come: the internet age of “Breaking News” (thinly veiled opinions parading as facts), 24/7 cable TV loaded with panels of “talking heads,” and a torrent of Twitter gibberish offering a full banquet of tasty goodies for any appetite.

Stevenson, born in Los Angeles in 1900 – the year his grandfather ran for vice president on a losing ticket with William Jennings Bryan – lost his own bid for the presidency twice (1952 and 1956). He died of a heart attack in 1965 in London while walking in Grosvenor Square – finally getting some peace.

The rest of us will have to wait.

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].

Henry Wirz Among Most Notorious Confederate Prison Officials

This Civil War-period unmounted albumen print of Andersonville Prison by A.J. Biddle went to auction in June 2012.

By Jim O’Neal

Henry Wirz (1823-65) was born in Zurich, Switzerland, the son of a tailor. He grew up with an abiding passion for medicine, however, his family had limited resources and his father insisted on a more pragmatic mercantile career. After migrating to America, he ultimately claimed to be a physician and successfully started assisting doctors, despite most certainly lacking any formal training or medical degrees.

At the start of the Civil War, he was living in Louisiana. He enlisted as a private in the Fourth Louisiana Infantry and became a sergeant. At the important Battle of Seven Pines in Virginia in 1862, Wirz was wounded above his right wrist, which incapacitated him for life. Seven Pines was strategically important since it led to the appointment of Robert E. Lee as Confederate Commander, which had a profound effect on the duration of the war.

In April 1864, (now) Captain Wirz was ordered to Camp Sumter near Anderson in Georgia, where he was given command of the prison that would become known as the infamous Andersonville Prison. It was already crammed with war prisoners and low on critical supplies that would only worsen as the war dragged on. Wirz made a feeble attempt to reorganize, but he lacked the necessary authority and all attempts to gain a promotion were denied. He had the support of superior officers, who called him “major,” but it is not clear if he attained that rank.

Henry Wirz

As the war continued, conditions at Andersonville deteriorated and many prisoners blamed Wirz, describing him as a brutal tyrant. Observers were critical of his accent, excessive use of profanity and outbreaks of rage. By the end of the war, he was among the most notorious Confederate prison officials.

Perhaps because of naïveté or unaware of the North’s anger over prison conditions, he made a tactical blunder and did not join the other prison officials who fled. Instead, he stayed at Andersonville, where he was arrested, taken to Washington and tried on charges of murder and mistreatment of prisoners. A hostile military commission limited his defense against conflicting testimony, found him guilty, and hanged him on Nov. 10, 1865, in the yard of the Old Capitol Prison (near the site where the U.S. Supreme Court stands today).

It was a messy hanging since his neck did not break and he was strangled to death. The trial is controversial yet today. In 1909, the Georgia Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a memorial to him at Andersonville. It may be a while before monument protestors figure out who he was.

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].

When Britain Needed Help to Fight the Nazis, FDR Came Through

A Franklin D. Roosevelt inscribed photograph signed, circa 1930s, sold for $1,625 at an October 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Franklin Delano Roosevelt introduced the idea at a press conference on Dec. 17, 1940, in typical homey, easily comprehended language:

“Suppose my neighbor’s home catches on fire and I have a length of garden hose 400 or 500 feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up to his hydrant, I may be able to help him put out the fire. Now what do I do? I don’t say to him, ‘Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15, you have to pay me $15 for it.’ No! What is the transition that goes on? I don’t want $15 – I want my garden hose back after the fire is out.”

The neighbor on fire was England, facing the full ferocity of the Nazi blitz. England was the only major European power still resisting (barely) the German juggernaut. The formal cry for help, a desperate letter from Winston Churchill to FDR, had been received eight days earlier on Dec. 9 when a navy seaplane had touched down next to the USS Tuscaloosa off of Florida’s southern coast. The president was on board the heavy cruiser recuperating from the rigors on his November reelection campaign when the seaplane crew delivered the letter.

The Prime Minister had written, “The moment approaches when we shall no longer be able to pay cash for shipping and other supplies” … pointing out that the Exchequer was down to its last $2 billion – with $5 billion in orders from American munitions factories outstanding. Roosevelt knew the answer was to find some way around the Neutrality Acts, an isolationist ploy that stipulated that any war belligerents had to pay cash for weapons – and loans were prohibited to any nation that had not repaid debts from WWI.

Harry Hopkins – FDR’s man for all seasons – wrote that his boss mulled it over for two days, then one evening came up with the whole program! The “whole program” quickly became House Resolution 1776, better known as “Lend-Lease.” It granted the president the authority to lend tanks, planes, ships and other aid not only to England but to “any country whose defense the president deems vital to the defense of the United States.” Leaders across the political spectrum rallied to support H.R. 1776.

One was Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate just defeated in the 1940 presidential election and a staunch opponent of the United States entering the war in Europe. When the Senate quizzed him about this obvious contradiction, he smiled broadly and said, “I struggled as hard as I could to beat Franklin Roosevelt and didn’t pull any punches. He was elected president. He is my president now … I say a world enslaved to Hitler is worse than war, and worse than death.”

The opposition was organized and very powerful. Colonel Charles Lindbergh had even assured the Senate that Britain was already doomed. Fortunately, Congress had more faith in FDR and passed H.R. 1776 by large margins on March 11, 1941. The bill provided Roosevelt with $7 billion in appropriations – the first of $50 billion to be used by the end of hostilities in 1945.

Churchill famously called Lend-Lease “the most unsordid act in the history of any nation.”

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].

Brooklyn Bridge a Testament to American Ingenuity, Spirit

Photographer Todd Webb’s signed gelatin silver Brooklyn Bridge, NY, 1946, went to auction in October 2014.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1966, the American Society of Civil Engineers started a new honor category, “Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks.” The Bollman Truss Railroad Bridge in Savage, Md., was the first to receive this distinction and it remains the only example of an all-metal bridge design used on a railroad. Eventually, they got around to the Brooklyn Bridge and it was added in 1972 as the 27th project recognized.

There is something appealing about bridges and the Brooklyn Bridge surpasses them all. It was the biggest, most famous in the world and is an enduring testament to American ingenuity and spirit. More than a mile long and connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn by spanning the East River, its enormous granite towers loomed higher than anything ever seen. Higher than any building in New York or any structure on the North American continent, it became “The Thing” every visitor to NYC craved to see and a spectacle that awed tens of millions of immigrants.

Its designer, the brilliant John Augustus Roebling, promised – with characteristic immodesty – a stunning example of great engineering combined with unique artistic visual effects. Roebling had perfected the suspension form, with bridges at Niagara, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, and the masterpiece over the East River was to be his crowning project. Tragically, he died in 1869 before the design was complete after a freak accident crushed his toes. The amputation that followed exposed him to tetanus; another vivid example of the hazards associated with non-sterile medical practices combined with the absence of anti-bacterial drugs.

Fortunately, his son, Washington Roebling, possibly the only other person qualified to take over, was available. A Civil War veteran, he was admired for his intelligence, decisiveness and courage … qualities essential to surmounting the many obstacles ahead. His fearless dedication exposed him to all the potential dangers involved, but he too fell victim to a physical ailment that curtailed his involvement. He spent the next 14 years in confinement, watching over the work with a telescope from a window in his house.

Again, fortune prevailed as his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, visited the site several times a day to appraise the progress firsthand. She also handled the press and the project trustees, gradually becoming familiar with every detail and a remarkable asset for her husband. But because he was never seen, rumors were rampant that Washington had lost his mind and that this daring, great project was actually being run by a woman! In fact, when the towers were complete and the long span was safe, the first horse and carriage to cross included Emily Roebling carrying a rooster as a symbol of triumph.

The bridge opened on May 24, 1883, and President Chester Arthur rode in one of the 1,800 vehicles that crossed it, along with 130,000 people. The fireworks celebration that night was the most spectacular ever seen. The only major incident came six days later when a woman fell down some wooden stairs, causing a stampede that resulted in at least 12 deaths. P.T. Barnum tried to get permission to restore confidence in the bridge’s safety, but it would take a year until May 17, 1884, before he led his famous Jumbo and 21 other elephants across the bridge in a grand show of stability.

Initially, the bridge was designed to provide more space for Manhattan by boosting access to nearby Brooklyn. No one had thought about growing cities up instead of expanding out. As the amazing NYC skyline reminds us today, that was soon to change.

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].

Coney Island Represents America’s Fascination with Outrageous Entertainment

A collection of about 45 historical photographs of Coney Island, from the American Heritage Publishing Archives, went to auction in January 2016.

By Jim O’Neal

Typical stories about Coney Island usually start with some version of huddled masses arriving on America’s Eastern shore at the turn of the century and, before seeing the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge or the newborn skyscrapers, encountering a welcome beacon of bright wonders spread along the sands of the southern tip of Brooklyn. It is a dramatic way to introduce that star of light called the “City of Fire” and some even take it to the next level by comparing it to the bush Moses encountered on Mount Horeb … which burned, but was not consumed.

That does put Coney Island in a revered historical context, but in reality, it is wrong.

From 1885 to 1896, the Elephantine Colossus, a seven-story building (that included a brothel) shaped like an elephant, was actually the first thing immigrants saw when arriving in New York. Designed by James Lafferty – who died broke in 1898 – the 31-room building served as a hotel, concert hall and amusement bazaar. It was built two years before the Statue of Liberty at an estimated cost of $250,000.

It was the second of three elephant buildings built by Lafferty, and on May 30, 1885, The New York Times reported on its opening: “C.A. Brandenburg, manager, hosted a dinner, followed by a tour to the top where he pointed out ‘the spray from Niagara Falls, the Mississippi River, a clump of trees in Yellowstone Park, Rio Janeiro [sic], the Bay of Biscay and even the steeples of London and Paris – remarkable, and all for 10 cents!”

This was Coney Island, three great amusement parks – Steeplechase, Luna Park and Dreamland – each outlined and adorned with yet another fresh and wondrous sight: the electric light bulb. When the sun went down, what appeared to those prospective new Americans was the whole island, strung with frozen pearls of fire, spinning and plunging and whirling. Coney Island, even in daylight, was a stunning experience.

By 1910, just inside Luna Park’s main gate were two crosses plunged into a red heart in some transported bit of Catholic iconography; pilgrims entered a fairy-tale ramble of minarets and onion domes, turrets and colonnades, lagoons and trellises. It was Frederick Thompson’s architectural jungle: grossly extravagant amusement created for the hell of it. The moody alcoholic designed many of Coney Island’s rides like the Steeplechase Ride – a relatively minor jaunt on mechanical horses, until suddenly challenged by an obstacle course that included a dwarf in a harlequin suit taking a swing at legs with a cattle prod. Crowds of New Yorkers in bleachers got a big laugh out of it.

Still other exhibitions reflected the era’s less politically correct sense of entertainment, like revelers watching actual premature babies struggling for life in a sideshow that featured the country’s first incubator. You could visit a year-round village filled with dwarfs and midgets, and view African tribesmen living in actual grass huts. Even the furies of the latest global disasters were introduced on huge stages – hurricanes, floods, volcanic eruptions and war. All products of a time when Americans liked their entertainment tinged with a taste of danger.

Coney was more than a Sunday outing. It was a place where immigrants were literally assimilated in the roiling holiday mobs, a place where they could watch the pageant of their lives displayed like a movie. A conductor-driven rollercoaster called the “Rough Rider” once went ripping through the retaining wall, killing three passengers. It was up and running again the same day. To its wide-eyed audiences, Coney Island was close to real life. Was it any wonder one of the most popular attractions was a fake tenement building that was set on fire and the fire put out by fake firemen – every day, day after day – for a viewing public that itself lived in fire-trap tenements and lived in constant fear?

Coney Island finally played with fire too long, with Dreamland burning in 1911 and Luna Park closing after a fire in 1946. Steeplechase closed in 1964. But the Coney spirit lived on, imitated by the World’s Fairs in Chicago (1933) and New York (1939-40 and 1964-65), and in names of deteriorating amusement parks on the outskirts of many cities. None, though, can hold a candle to that frozen fire that once burned so brightly along the sands of Long Island.

We are left with car chases, oil spills and hurricanes on CNN.

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].

Churchill’s Successor Left a Lasting Mark on Great Britain

A gelatin silver print of Winston Churchill, 1941, by photographer Yousuf Karsh sold for $11,352 at a May 2011 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

When Clement Attlee was asked if he wanted to comment on the campaign of 1945, his response was a simple “No.” During this election for Prime Minister of Great Britain, he and wife Violet traveled the countryside extensively in their modest (battered) family car, advocating for a totally new, post-war social policy. One of his more effective political slogans was “You Can Trust Mr. Attlee.” It worked surprisingly well as he led the Labour Party to an upset, landslide win over the venerable Winston Churchill.

Attlee became one of the most successful leaders in modern Britain, despite being habitually shy, laconic, self-deprecating and excessively modest. As Churchill once quipped, “Clement Attlee was a modest man who had much to be modest about.”

Churchill respected Attlee for his basic honesty and firm dedication to accountability. They had served together during World War I and Attlee was even part of the British Army during the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign, which Churchill had conceived while the First Lord of the Admiralty. The strategic premise was to knock Turkey out of the war by attacking the Dardanelles. The campaign went so badly that Churchill was demoted, resigned from the Conservative Cabinet, and ended up commanding an infantry battalion of the Royal Fusiliers.

Clement Attlee

Attlee naively believed that the plan had been sound strategically and had only failed due to poor military execution. In Attlee’s own words, “There was only one brilliant strategic idea in WWI and that was Winston’s ‘the Dardanelles.’” Historians still argue over this yet today, but it was enough to form a bond between the two future prime ministers … one a pure socialist and the other an imperialist of the first order.

During the Second World War (which was just a continuation of the first with a 20-year pause), Attlee served under Churchill in the coalition government of 1940-45 and was the first person to hold the office of Deputy Prime Minister. He somehow held the Labour Party together despite numerous divergent viewpoints and personal ambitions. The colossal egos of Herbert Morrison, Sir Stafford Cripps (reputed to have the finest mind in England), and union strongman Ernest Bevin (dedicated to absolute equality throughout the British Empire) required a rare blend of political leadership – perhaps unique to Attlee.

It is here (in my humble opinion) where we start to witness the real decline of the British Empire. Independence in India, the partition of Pakistan, independence in Burma (Myanmar), Sri Lanka, Palestine and Jordan and exiting Greece. This was followed by the inevitable nationalization of the Bank of England, along with the iron, coal and steel industries. Then, importantly, there was the creation of a comprehensive welfare state. To the United States, the phrase “British socialism” signified economic and political bankruptcy; one of the few things Democrats and Republicans could agree on.

In Attlee’s rationale, these Labour Party policies were merely measures to ensure full employment and welfare based on managed capitalism; “accomplishments” that remained in place until his death in 1962 and beyond. Fortunately, a research chemist-turned-barrister was elected to Parliament in 1959, and 20 years later became the first woman to hold the office of Prime Minister. She was the longest-serving British Prime Minister in the 20th century. Her name was Margaret “The Iron Lady” Thatcher.

The small island that had once ruled the seas and oceans of the world – along with much of its land – was about to enter an era known now as “Thatcherism.” Many, including me, appreciate strong, enlightened leadership grounded in economic and political freedom. She fit the model perfectly.

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].

Carnegie Had a Simple Philosophy on How to Spend Your Life

A photograph dated May 1918, signed by Andrew Carnegie, his wife and his daughter, sold for $1,075 at a September 2011 Heritage auction.

“I should consider it a disgrace to die a rich man.” – Andrew Carnegie (1887)

By Jim O’Neal

Andrew Carnegie was born in 1835 in a one-room house in Dunfermline, Scotland, near the northern shore of the Firth of Forth – which is the estuary (firth) of several Scottish rivers, including the River Forth. One should not be surprised to learn that a major employer in Dunfermline today is Amazon. (How else to provide two-hour deliveries to Prime customers everywhere?).

The Carnegie family made it to Allegheny, Pa., and that’s where the young (uneducated) Andrew began his remarkable career. He started as a telegraph messenger boy for the Ohio Telegraph Company and culminated his career with the formation of the Carnegie Steel Company. By 1889, the production of steel in the United States had surpassed that of the entire United Kingdom … a mild embarrassment since Sir Henry Bessemer had invented the first inexpensive process for the mass production of steel using molten pig iron.

When Carnegie sold his companies to J. Pierpont Morgan in 1901, Morgan proceeded to consolidate the entire steel industry in America to form the United States Steel Corporation. This was the first corporation in the world with a market capitalization of over $1 billion. Carnegie’s share was $480 million, which temporarily vaulted him into first place for the Richest Man (a situation John D. Rockefeller soon rectified).

But Carnegie was always more concerned about the best way of dealing with the new phenomenon of wealth inequality and wrote about it in 1899 in The Gospel of Wealth, an article that described the responsibility of philanthropy by the new upper-class, self-made rich. He proposed reducing the stratification between rich and poor by having the wealthy redistribute their surplus instead of passing it along to heirs.

Thus, Andrew Carnegie became the rarest of multimillionaires when the enormously wealthy Scottish immigrant gave the nation one of the most remarkable gifts in history … 1,689 public library buildings in 1,421 communities. The value of his gifts – made between 1886 and 1917 – comes close to $1 billion when adjusted for inflation.

Carnegie funded library buildings in many expected cities, including Pittsburg (his adopted hometown) and New York, but also in places like Jennings, La., and Dillon, Mont. Another added twist was that he only donated money for a building, and only if the local taxing authority agreed to provide the site, then furnish and maintain the library with an annual pledge of 10 percent of the gift. This cleverly motivated local citizens to stay involved, something an outright donation might not have accomplished.

Carnegie had a simple philosophy on how a person should spend their life – the first third getting a first-rate education, the next third making money, and the last third on philanthropy. Not a bad plan.  Carnegie focused his charity on promoting education, peace and equality. When he died, the remainder of his estate, some $30 million, was donated to his causes. The Carnegie name is on far too many buildings and foundations to list … you know many of them.

For some reason, it has always irked me to watch the ultra-rich of today shield their money from taxation by stuffing it in non-taxable, charitable foundations (run by their family), take their income in low-tax dividends, and then complain when their secretaries pay a higher income tax rate … then encourage the feds to raise the tax rate on my pension.

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].