Category Archives: True Crime

Review: Wall Street Under Oath

book cover "Wall Street Under Oath"

Wall Street Under Oath

Years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 banking disaster, I first heard of Ferdinand Pecora, the lawyer that led the Senate investigations into the shady dealings that brought on the 1929 crash and the Great Depression, and the book he wrote about that experience, “Wall Street Under Oath: the story of our modern money changers”. Pecora’s name popped up in another book I read recently, “Striptease: the untold history of the girlie show”, he was the New York prosecutor sent after the Minsky brothers. I tried to find a copy of this book when I first heard of it, I like to own the books I read, but I only found two copies and they were offered at $500 each. Even though it was reissued in 1973 no other copies turned up. With the “Great Recession” stirring interest in the banking wrongdoings I would have expected that every dusty copy sitting on a shelf somewhere would come on the market. It did not happen so when I was reminded of Pecora and went looking again I compromised and, with a friend in a university and interlibrary loans I managed to get a copy.

Trial lawyers seem to be good writers. Pecora is no exception. The introduction is a little stuffy but it still floored me. Here are the first three short paragraphs.

“Under the surface of the governmental regulation of the securities market, the same forces that produce the riotous speculative excesses of the “wild bull market” of 1929 still give evidences of their existence and influence. Though repressed for the present, it cannot be doubted that given a suitable opportunity they would spring back into pernicious activity.

Frequently we are told that this regulation has been throttling the country’s prosperity. Bitterly hostile was Wall Street to the enactment of the regulatory legislation. it now looks forward to the day when it shall, as it hopes, resume the reins of its former power.

That its leaders are imminently fitted to guide our nation, and that they would make a much better job of it than any other body of men, Wall Street does not for a moment doubt. Indeed, if you now hearken to the oracles of The Street, you will hear now and then that the money-changers have been much maligned. You will be told that the whole group of high-minded men, innocent of social or economic wrongdoing, were expelled from the temple because of the excesses of a few. You will be assured that they had nothing to do with the misfortunes that overtook the country in 1929-1933; that they were simply scapegoats, sacrificed on the altar of unreasonable public opinion to satisfy the wrath of a howling mob blindly seeking victims.”

Pecora organizes the book according to the nature of the “crimes”. I use the quotes because although some of the practices were not technically illegal they are definitely a violation of any fiduciary responsibility the bank officers had to their customers and stockholders. Almost ninety years later the amount of money they mercilessly extracted from the trusting public is still staggering. Even more impressive than the amount of money is the arrogance of the bankes. Pecora illustrates this with a nice selection of transcripts from the testimony bankers gave under oath. If we are to believe that they were as ignorant of basic banking practices and of what was going on around them then we have to believe it was God’s work that they made so much money when the nation went broke.

The only thing that bothered me about the book had to do with the passage of time since it was written. When Pecora wrote that it was unnecessary to detail a person’s story because it was in the headlines for the last few years I wanted pull him out of his grave and tell him that I never heard of the guy. I needed to know details of the story. Since I could never get it from Pecora now I have another bit of research to distract myself with.

The official report from the investigations are online at

http://www.scribd.com/doc/73235213/Pecora-Commission-Report-Stock-Exchange-Practices-Report-1934

It is much dryer than Pecora’s book but so much easier to find.

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Review: The Treatment

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Martha Stephens’ “The Treatment”

This is a difficult book for me to review for many reasons. I grew up in and around Cincinnati. Cincinnati history was the topic of my capstone paper for my BA in history a few years ago. A class on medical history by a great professor at Miami University hooked me on the topic. After graduation I took to researching Cincinnati’s Dr. Daniel Drake, 1785-1852. I read everything I could to learn about the state of medicine and how it advanced during his life of practicing and teaching medicine. There were a few histories I only read the parts that covered up to the end of his life but there were some that really grabbed my interest that I read cover to cover. Harriet Washington’s “Medical Apartheid” was one of those. That is where I first heard about the Department of Defense funded radiation experiments performed in Cincinnati University Hospital from 1960 until 1972 and where I first heard of Martha Stephen’s book “The Treatment: the story of those who died in the Cincinnati radiation experiments”. It took many months for me to put my hands on a copy and I grew more eager to read it as more time passed.

I was only a few dozen pages into the book before I turned to the appendix listing all the research subjects, my grandmother had died quickly of cancer in 1973. I was happy to see that her name was not among the human guinea pigs selected for “treatment”. The author, Martha Stephens, was involved in much of the fight to expose the radiation program to the public, first as a member of the Junior Faculty Association that brought the program to the attention of the entire University of Cincinnati, not simply a few members of the medical school. (By the way, I have to point out that both the university and the medical school were founded by Dr. Daniel Drake.) Later she worked with the families of the research subjects, helping find them and helping them publicize their lawsuit. Because she was involved in the events some of the book reads like a memoir and the more she talked about herself the more I began to understand that she had been my English professor at UC’s Evening College back in the late 1970s. That, I think, is a full disclosure of my biases over this book. I feel very connected to the story, in some small way I am. I was over eager to read the book. I feel a little protective of Dr. Drake’s school and hospital and, although my degree is from Miami University nearly half my credits were from UC.

I really expected to like this book. That could play into my disappointment with it. Professor Stephens teaches English, not history. The book is disorganized and at times is more of a memoir, covering events unconnected to the subject of the work, than anything else. One of the most blatant offenses to what historical training I have was when she put words into the victims attorney at the start of the hearings. Yes, she pointed out that the speech was what she wanted him to say but I was expecting a work of history, not a fantasy on what should have happened in the eyes of the, non-lawyer, author.

Stephens also falls into the trap that makes so much scholarly writing unintelligible, writing to prove possession of a PhD rather than to clearly and precisely pass on information. I am a college graduate who has been an avid reader for over half a century, why should I need to pull out a dictionary to unravel a sentence that simply says “the apartment was small and neat?” Occasionally a literary reference can be the best way to bring out shared experiences between the author and the readers but multiple references to multiple works on one page is simply egotism.

The last third of the book did start to put the story together in a historically valid way. Sort of anyway. There was still massive gaps in the information that seemed to be equal parts inability to do historical research and editorial blind spots. This is an important story. It concerns Cold War fears, the arrogance of medical researchers brought on by big grants and a God complex. Simply told the story is this, post Hiroshima and Nagasaki it was obvious that radiation was an invisible and mysterious factor soldiers in a nuclear war would have to contend with. After an exposure how could doctors triage their patients, which ones were walking dead men due to the radiation and which should the military spend valuable resources to treat? That is the question that the Department of Defense wanted answered when they funded the University of Cincinnati Medical School’s radiation experiments.

To answer that question the radiation lab selected cancer patients to be given massive doses of radiation in single exposure over their whole body. Exactly like a soldier near an atomic explosion would suffer. Then the doctors would collect and examine blood and urine samples looking for a tell tale marker they could use to determine exposure when the dosage was unknown, as on a battlefield. Other tests were often performed, after all how often do you get a patient exposed to a near lethal dose of radiation to study? Over the twelve years of the study 115 people were irradiated. They ranged in ages from 80 years old to only 9 years old. All were said to have terminal cancer but among the many types of cancer the patients were diagnosed with there were many of the solid tumor variety that it was well understood that whole body radiation was not effective against. The patients were not told this. They were simply told that they were being taken for a “treatment”. They were not told that it could be deadly. They were not told that it was a Department of Defense study. They were not told that the doctors did not expect the patients to get any benefit from the “treatment”. To be fair they were not told that there might be a benefit. Approximately 1 in 4 patients would die within 60 days of the treatment, some that were living normal, active lives up to the day of the treatment.

Over the years various members of the university’s research board would question the program, what was its goal? Was it ethical? The objections would abruptly end for reasons unknown to Stephens until the Junior Faculty Association, which Stephens was a member of, got wind of the “treatments” and investigated. Their objections were handled quietly within the university and the program was stopped and buried.

Nearly twenty years later a woman working at the hospital, transcribing records of an old research project, came across her aunts name. She was listed as a subject, something the family never knew about. Her curiosity led to a multi-year legal action against the university, the city, the doctors, and the federal government that included a historic decision that repeatedly referenced the Nuremberg Code, a code of behavior developed by the Allies after the war crimes trials of World War Two that were to offer guidance on performing medical research without committing war crimes, sometimes referred to as crimes against humanity. According the the doctors of the UC Hospital radiation experiments the only ethical standards in existence when the study began, in 1960, were written for the ethical treatment of animals.

There is a story here that needs a good historian to bring it out. Unfortunately Stephens “The Treatment” only scratches the surface.

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Review: Empire of Sin, a story of sex, jazz, murder, and the battle of modern New Orleans

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Gary Krist’s Empire of Sin

One of the classes I took on my way to earning a BA in history was on the history of jazz music. I think that Dr. Berkaw would love to read Gary Krist’s “Empire of Sin: a story of sex, jazz, murder, and the battle of modern New Orleans”. The decades of New Orleans history covered by Krist, from 1890 into the 1920’s, saw the birth of all modern music, right there in New Orleans’ Storyville district. But the book covers much more than that. Racism and lynchings that went beyond the expected American story of white on black violence.

Storyville was a social experiment, “reformers” wanted to confine activities they looked down on into one area in the city, they said this would leave the rest of the city free from “filth and degradation”. As a social experiment it worked very well. Too well for the “reformers”. Saloon keepers and madams were making enough money to take on “respectable” roles in the city. Roles that it becomes apparent the “reformers” felt should be reserved for themselves. Tom Anderson entered state politics, Josie Arlington established a family home in a “respectable” upper class neighborhood. Even worse, whites and blacks mingled together. It was not just the multi-racial houses of prostitution, that served only white customers, but the new music brought black musicians into nearly every venue. This could not be allowed in the post-Reconstruction south.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, in particular the coverage of Carry Nation’s visit to Storyville. Speaking to a crowd at the St. Charles Hotel she said “Roosevelt, Busch, Schlitz, and Muerlein are the quintet which is doing America much harm” Being familiar with Cincinnati’s brewing history I was pleased to see her reference the Christian Moerlein Brewing Company even if the newspaper misspelled it. During her conversations with working girls at Emma Johnson’s House of all Nations she was told that it it was not coercion or entrapment, the “white slavery” explanation for prostitution that was popular at the time, it was simple economics. “Respectable” jobs for single woman paid pennies a day, not close to what it cost to stay alive. Of course, as is always the case with “reformers”, Miss Nation was deaf to the facts that did not support her dogma.

Krist does not rub reformers nose in their failings but he is willing to point them out. He points out that one reform politician was a ringleader in the mass lynching covered early in the book. He credits reform politicians ineptitude with their failure to get re-elected and their character assassination of “Ring” politicians as a factor allowing Huey Long to gain the governor’s office. I have to give Krist credit for sticking with the facts, even when the facts don’t follow the standard script of WASP exceptionalism. I thoroughly enjoyed reading his book and look forward to finding another one of his works. Learning a little about the bartender that created the Ramos Gin Fizz was an added bonus.

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Review: Shadows in the Vineyard

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Shadows in the Vineyard

“Shadows in the vineyard : the true story of a plot to poison the world’s greatest wine” is an interesting mix of history, biography, and true crime. In spite of the subtitle’s hype true crime takes a backseat here. There is just not enough mystery in the story to fill a book. Maximillian Potter took an intriguing mixture of genres and produced an enjoyable and informative book.

With looks at how religious orders established winemaking in France, the establishment of fine California wines, and how, after World War II French wine became rooted on American vines*, and the biography of the head of Burgundy’s most prestigious winery Potter has managed to fill out the tale of poisoned vines to a book length tale. And, somehow he managed to keep it all interesting. I do have to say that at some points I found the book a little disjointed, for instance I spent way too much time wondering what Madame de Pompadour had to do with the narrative. In time I learned but, for me, the delay was distracting as was some of the bouncing back and forth between current events and generations of family history.

Still I enjoyed the book. My limited knowledge of the wine world was not a hindrance. My wife is a big fan of wine and thanks to her I have picked up a little information. She encouraged me to watch the movie “Somm”, a 2012 documentary, that gave me background to understand how impressive a feat it was for someone to simply show up at the test site, talk his way in, and receive a perfect score. Still other events mentioned in the book are the basis for, “Bottle Shock” an enjoyable comedy / drama from 2008.  Potter’s book is fun, informative, and, overall, an easy read. I finally have something wine related to show my wife.

I received this book from special offer from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program offering books by the publisher Hachette in an attempt to get information about their books out to the public in spite of Amazon blacklisting Hachette works over pricing issues. In order to further that goal if you think this review is worth it, spread it around.

* Yes, literally rooted on American vines, this is one topic covered that I would like to learn more about.

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