Sunday, April 28, 2013

Everybody Get The Hell Outta Building 30!!!

When you think of Lyndhurst, New Jersey (if you ever do) you think of good schools, quiet neighborhoods and high taxes. Two things you wouldn't think of is that Lyndhurst was once the town of Kingsland, and second,  Lyndhurst is home to a World War I era mystery. On January 11th, 1917, a fire broke out and spread through the Canadian Car and Foundry Company's factory. The housed almost 500,000 pieces of 75mm, all of which exploded and leveled the factory. Ok, I'll admit, that doesn't sound that much like a mystery. But trust me there were some unknowns about the fire than and even 'til this day.

January 11th, 1917 started out like every other cold winter day in New Jersey, however, it didn't end like a typical day. Now just some quick background stuff. WWI started in March of 1916 and the U.S. tried to keep Americans out of the war for as long as they could. However, American industry was not prohibited from supplying America's European allies. That being said, the Canadian Car and Foundry Company was one of those companies looking to make a buck or two off the war. At their Lyndhurst location, the factory's main objective was to assemble munitions for the Russians and British; 75mm ammunition to be exact. The factory produced about three million shells a month, so needless to say the Germans could have painted a metaphorical big red bulls eye right on the building.

The fire started in Building 30. The main job of those working in Building 30 was finishing of the munitions, cleaning them up before shipping them out, and being a general quality control department. It was in Building 30, amongst 48 work benches, and all the supplies to build munitions & run a war factory that a fire was somehow sparked and would ultimately lead to the factory being blown to smithereens. Surprisingly, not one person died in the explosion and that is all thanks to Tessie McNamara. As the fire spread she stayed posted at her switchboard and warned every building "Get out or Go up!" Thanks to her warning the 1,400 employees at the factory all safely left the complex. But lets get back to this explosion and who and how it started.

Today, it is pretty well accepted that the Kingsland Explosion was purely an accident. The reason is because the main suspect disappeared. Here is how the Germans "supposedly" sabotaged the factory. A German operative by the name of Frederick Hinsch was the brains behind the operation. Hinsch recruited German immigrant Carl Thummel (Thorne was the Americanized last name he went by). Thorne would get a job at the factory as assistant employment manager, simply the guy who hired everyone. He would work and wait for instructions from Hinsch on who to hire so an attack on the factory could take place. Hinsch would send Austrian immigrant Theodore Wozniak to Thorne and the plan was underway. Wozniak himself was former Austrian military, and would be more sympathetic to the German cause than the American and her allies'. It is believed that the fire was started by Wozniak as there are several reports from eyewitnesses about his work station on the day and his behavior leading up to the explosion. To point the finger even more at Wozniak, during the investigation he disappeared and was never head from again.

So what happened? Well, nothing really. The explosion was soon overshadowed by the attack on Black Tom Island and the sinking of the Lusitania. Today, Tessie McNamara is a local legend/heroine. Theodore Wozniak is a long forgotten name. The Germans would eventually pay reparations for the explosion in the 1950s to the tune of about fifty million dollars, even though they never claimed responsibility for it. And only a smokestack and a small plaque are left as reminders of what could have been the first attack on American soil by the Germans during WWI. The WWI era is an often overlooked time in American History, and because of that we miss out on great pieces of history like the Kingsland Explosion. So if you ever happen to be in Lyndhurst, NJ stop by the small park on Clay Street and visit the site memorializing the explosion and heroism of the day. Or if WWI ever comes up in conversation feel free to bring up this piece of history.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

I Kid You Not, This May Be The Greatest Holiday Ever!

Now it is no secret the American Revolution is my favorite part of history. From the exploits of George Washington & the Continental Army, the work of the Founding Fathers in Philadelphia, the writings of Thomas Paine, the celebration of Evacuation Day and so on. I always thought I knew everything one could know about the Revolution, especially when it comes to the events and role of my home state, New Jersey. But a few days ago I found out a little known holiday that used to, and still kind of is, celebrated right here in New Jersey and even better, it commemorates the American victory at the Battle of Princeton. It is here I feel obligated to warn you, the name of this holiday is a bit vulgar, and it may be forgotten, but with something this eye catching, it may be just the holiday needed to draw some attention to and re-interest Americans in the American Revolution, ladies and gentlemen, mark your calendars and get ready to party for, Peeing Day.
Ok, this picture says a lot. First, it sucks to be General Mercer (He is the guy about to get bayoneted on the left side of the painting), Second, George Washington is a bad ass for riding straight into the middle of a battle. Third, the Battle of Princeton was pretty brutal. And finally, Peeing Day totally makes sense now...ok it doesn't now but i promise it will. So lets piece together how, the Battle of Princeton, the Continental Army, some loser Redcoats and public urination all fit together to give us America's favorite forgotten holiday, Peeing Day.
The Battle of Princeton took place on January 3, 1777. It was part of Washington's "retreat to victory" campaign, or as I like to call it, "his New Jersey Redcoat stomping tour." After he retook Trenton, Washington knew he had to press on. The British had regrouped at Princeton, effectively painting a huge bulls eye on the city. Washington called together a council of war to see how possible it would be to attack Princeton. Luckily, the Continental Army had Arthur St. Clair & John Cadwalader who had already came up with a sneak attack plan to surprise the British. At dawn, the Americans attacked and of course, everything feel apart. Washington was late, the surprise attack wound up not being that much of a surprise and the British were already pushing the Americans back. However, things were about to change.
The British Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mahwood was easily handling, and out numbering, the American forces lead by Hugh Mercer, you remember that guy getting bayoneted in the first picture. Mahwood had Mercer surrounded and some reports say he shouted, "Surrender you damn rebels!" But in true American fashion, Mercer respectfully declined and continued to fight on and eventually died in the heat of battle. Then fellow American Brigadier General John Cadwalader arrives and see the chaos in the wake of Mercer's death. He then tried attacked Mahwood but the result was the same, pushed to retreat. It was then that George Washington stormed onto the scene and changed the course of the battle. The presence of Washington rallied the troops and the inspired Continental troops began to route the British. It was so bad Washington even had time to glot, shouting, "It's a fine fox chase my boys!,". which was Washington's way of thumbing his nose at the British for the fox hunt comment at the Battle of Harlem Heights. The Redcoats retreated into the town of Princeton and into Nassau Hall, the oldest building at Princeton University. Needless to say the Americans charged into the town, ransacked the British supplies and forced the surrender of the remaining British troops. It was then news came in that Lord Cornwallis was on his way and the Americans hightailed it outta there, live to fight another day tactics.
So I am sure you are wondering, how does Peeing Day fit into this. Well here is how. As the British were talking their walk of shame out of Princeton, the Americans decided to give them a bit of a going away present. Now, it is not clear which regiment did this, or if this was planned or even what George Washington's reaction was, but as Mahwood and his men left Princeton, members of the Continental Army, joyful whipped out their Johnsons and began to urinate on those retreating limey Brits. Now, I know what you are thinking, and yes this is awesome. But why did we forget such an amazing piece of history? Well, I am not sure, but I have a few theories. The holiday wasn't first celebrated until 1877, the centennial of the battle. Another reason is the holiday is only celebrated in Princeton, as it stems from the Battle of Princeton. Thirdly, due to WWI & WWII, the holiday was deemed too anti-British so the holiday was scraped. And finally, how do you even start to explain this to a classroom full of students without them bursting into laughter. But fear not lovers of the Revolution, Princeton and public urination. The holiday is still celebrated in Princeton, New Jersey. Moved from its original day of January 3rd, the holiday is now celebrated on the second Saturday of March. Nassau St. is typically closed as re-enactors  partake in reenactment of the Battle of Princeton which the culminates with 1 Redcoat running from 2 American soliders to a crowd of about 50 to 200 plus people, who, you guessed it, are peeing in the street. Today, the anti-British sentiment is overlooked for the days historical significance. So if anyone is interested, the next second Saturday in March, I will be in Princeton doing my civic duty and patriotic duty,celebrating the birth of our peeing in the street. 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

And If You Believe That, I Have A Bridge To Sell You

The Brooklyn Bridge can be described in many words: Iconic, Awe Inspiring, Timeless, Engineering Genius, For Sale...Wait, For Sale? Yes, the Brooklyn Bridge has been sold many times over throughout it's history. But no one sold it as often as George C. Parker, perhaps the greatest con man in New York City History. Parker was not the first person to try and sell the bridge but he went the extra mile to really sell his con. So lets examine the art of the con which Parker perfected and the landmarks he sold to the gullible.

George C. Parker was no dummy and his con was not just some "fly-by-night" operation. This man had a calculated scam which could rouse almost anyone in New York City, then and perhaps even today as well. So how did he do it? He targeted the immigrants coming to New York through Ellis Island. Parker would bribe men working the boats that would ferry the newly arrived immigrants from Ellis Island to New York. On the boats they would target immigrants who seemed to be "with a crowded oakus" or in 21st century terms, carrying a lot of cash on them. The men on the boats would then befriend the new arrived immigrant and share with them the opportunity of "purchasing" the Brooklyn Bridge or Grant's Tomb or Madison Square Garden and so on. It was from that moment that they would be sent to Mr. Parker, the proud yet desperate to sell owner of any and all the major landmarks of New York City. Aside from immigrants focused mainly on tourist visiting the city, talk about a souvenir that could last a lifetime. Both groups were the easiest targets and most gullible. But just how successful was Parker?

Parker claimed to have sold the Brooklyn Bridge twice a week for several years. The price? Well sometimes $5,000 dollars, other times $75 dollars but most of the time it was whatever Parker could talk you into spending, which was pretty much every penny you had. How did he make such a sale? Well he played the role of an over stressed bridge owner who just could handle it anymore. He then went on to explain to his marks how they could make millions by setting up tolls on the bridge. It was at that point that the NYPD would step in and break the bad news that they've been had. The police would have to remove gates, tollbooths and other home made structures all implaced by the bridges new "owners." However, Parker's scam wasn't perfect. He was arrested three different times for fraud and that third and final time landed him in Sing Sing. He was sentenced to life in prison in 1928. In Sing Sing, Parker was perhaps the most popular man in the joint. Prisoners and even the guards and warden loved hearing Parker retell the stories of the times he sold New York City's most famous landmarks.

 George C. Parker would die in 1936. His legacy though is as timeless as the Brooklyn Bridge. He is one of the most successful and notorious con men in American History. Today millions of people visit and travel across the Brooklyn Bridge everyday. Many of its frequent visitors have no clue about Parker and his exploits. The same can be said for the other great landmarks that dot New York City. Parker could have been a ruthless business man, but instead found a market that was untapped. Sure, it was illegal and immoral, but still very impressive. Aside from his selling of the Brooklyn Bridge there is one other story about Parker that may be my favorite story about Parker. Once, when selling Grant's Tomb, Parker played not the role of a salesman but of President Ulysses S. Grant's own grandson. Sure enough after enough of the ol' Parker charm, he sold Grant's Tomb.

Is George C. Parker the greatest con artist in History? Perhaps, he did what Ponzi and Madoff could have only dreamt about. Sure he did not make the money those two did, but still was more successful. So next time you're in New York City and walk past the Brooklyn Bridge or Grant's Tomb or the Statue of Liberty, just take a second and think, how many times did George C. Parker sell that?