Thursday, July 13, 2017
King News by Moses Koenigsberg: Chapter 6 Part 1
King News by Moses KoenigsbergPublished by F.A. Stokes Company, 1941
From the Chaparral to the Tenderloin (part 1)link to previous installment link to next installment
A period of self-discipline was undertaken to prepare for my invasion of the North. Complete detachment from newspaper activity was desirable for this cycle of introspection. It could be found in the lonely stretches of the Panhandle of Texas. Work on one of the great cattle ranges would also provide a stake for my journalistic travels. Two weeks after my departure from San Antonio, I was “riding the line” on the Capitol Syndicate Ranch. The tract covered three million acres. It blanketed ten counties. Starting in the northwest corner of Texas, its western limits followed the state line southward for more than two hundred miles. The area was great enough to inclose the states of Delaware and Rhode Island, with a thousand square miles to spare. An historic transaction accounted for the assembling of this tremendous range under one ownership. The land was deeded to a group headed by J. V. Farwell, Sr., of Chicago, in payment for the building at Austin of the largest state capitol in the United States. Line riding was a unique occupation. It disappeared with the squatter, the nester and the cattle rustler. It was a phenomenon of the times when water holes were priceless jewels of the plain. In droughty seasons, each wet patch was carefully husbanded. As one after another became exhausted, those remaining grew more vitally important. The loss of a single drinking pool, or “tank,” might mean the wiping out of all the livestock on the range. The desperate owner of a herd dying of thirst ignored markers and imaginary boundary lines. He drove his stock wherever they could lap up enough moisture to keep alive. To protect against these depredations and against more vicious forms of marauding, came the line rider—the prairie vedette.
Fences were built at enormous expense. They were cut. The legislature of Texas defined fence-cutting as a felony. Enforcement of the statute was left to sheriffs and the local constabulary. The line rider, paid by the landowner, supplemented this official force. Often, he was formally deputized by a sheriff or a constable. Usually he was a veteran cow-hand. A sudden dearth of expert help had withdrawn seasoned branders and ropers from this patrol work. A gap in the line was assigned to me. The work was ideally suited for my program. Frequently twenty-four hours passed without the sound of a human voice. Here there was utter detachment for unaffected meditation. The completeness of that detachment left its mark not only in insistent memories, but also in habits of thought. It deserves description. For me it was never better pictured than by Arthur Baer in a whimsical bit many years later. “No man can understand Texas and Texans,” Baer wrote, “until he has walked in the invisible bluebonnets on a night blacker than a mule’s bedroom. You cannot see an inch, but you can think to eternity. If you talk, it is in whispers, under a sounding-board of stars, which start where the earth stops and never stop themselves. There are no shadows; there is no horizon in a Texas night, but you can sense something that you cannot see in the cactus, the sword-edged grass and the dwarf oak. It is the chaparral, mysterious and unanswerable.”
Three months on the Staked Plains completed my course of inner questioning. All the answers pointed in the same direction. The code evolved from my experiences and observations must be the constant guide for my career in journalism. It would provide an unfailing shield against the recurrence of past errors. As for success—under these rules, it was certain. The renascence of an unquenchable optimism!
Wes Humphries rode with me to Fort Worth. We had met at a chuck wagon on the Capitol Syndicate Ranch a dozen times. His conversation was a model of terseness. On the range, he had repelled all friendly overtures. Now, on the train, a quality of aggressiveness entered into his reticence. Apparently, he reserved the right to propound questions to others while ignoring those addressed to himself. A nose twisted by at least two breaks, a narrow slit that served as a mouth and a corrugated chin definitely excluded Wes from the ranks of the handsome. A coal black mop tumbled over his forehead and ears. It curtained a pair of glowing orbs the color of which remained undistinguishable through the tangled fringes. While Humphries’ countenance did not compel admiration, it did excite curiosity. We parted at the Katy railroad station. No appointment was made, but Wes left me in no doubt that we would meet again. He had already made it clear that he never met anyone except at the time and place of his own choosing. All of which should have afforded me ample warning of what was to follow.
Forth Worth was to be the springboard for my plunge into Northern journalism. The Mail was without a city editor. The title attracted me. The label would be helpful in recapitulating to Northern editors the breadth of my experience. Moreover, this would be my first position with the rank of an executive on a daily newspaper outside San Antonio. And three months would be adequate for this round of duty.
Industrial unrest was gaining momentum throughout the country. The business depression of 1893 was nearing its second year. The American Railway Union, fresh from a victory on the Great Northern System, was organizing the employees of the Pullman Company. A demand had been submitted for the restoration of wage cuts and the correction of employment abuses. Mr. Pullman had answered that he was operating his car shops at a loss and that he was keeping his plant open only to assure work for his employees. In proof, he offered to exhibit the books of his company.
Living in obscurity in Fort Worth at the time was Martin Irons, leader of the great railroad strike on the Gould Southwestern System eight years before. The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor of America was at the zenith of its power when Irons, as chairman of the Executive Committee of District Assembly No. 101, ordered the walkout on March 1, 1886. In May, the strike collapsed. Martin Irons was ruined, but hundreds of thousands of union men looked upon his personal disaster as a brave sacrifice for their cause. He had led the greatest railroad strike thus far attempted in America. Few men were better fitted to comment authoritatively on the course of trade-union disputes. Now an exclusive interview with him in analysis of the pending Pullman conflict would be a notable scoop. Irons agreed to give me a comprehensive statement. But he wanted a week in which to await certain developments and to prepare his notes.
The delay was onerous. It might force a choice between the Irons interview and an opportunity for a superlatively spectacular news coup. Preparations for the latter undertaking had been in progress for weeks. They grew out of a series of meetings with Wes Humphries. Wes had been slow to show his hand. He played me like an angler reeling in a trout. It had required little imagination to classify him as a rascal. But he was an extremely interesting type, and observation of his personality was intriguing. At first our contacts supplied an amusing game. Matching wits with a master of knavery was an engaging pastime. At last, Humphries turned the comedy into a roaring melodrama. His ultimate proposal was reached by stages so gradual that its startling nature did not lift it out of the sequence of conversation. Wes Humphries offered me a share in a projected train robbery.
The looting of express cars was still a favorite occupation among bandits of the Southwest. Every detail of this job had been worked out with such thoroughness, Humphries explained, that failure was impossible. And this was no piker pick-up. The main haul would be $225,000 in gold. Every sixty days a consignment of that amount of cash in a specially constructed safe was made from St. Louis via Kansas City to San Antonio. It was planned to “grab the next load.”
From the beginning of my acquaintance with Humphries he had loomed as a prospective subject of newspaper copy. Now, he exceeded my most sanguine expectations. But the very magnitude of the story occasioned pause. Why had Humphries picked me for membership in his select company? In the argot of his kind, he had “ribbed me up” to the role with flattering allusions to nerve, muscle and speed. That, in the same slang, was “just a build-up for a fall”—a tickling of vanity to hasten compliance. Much more important than physical fitness was mental attitude. How had Humphries assured himself on that score? Detailed review of our conversations offered a clue. Wes believed nothing that he couldn’t understand. He couldn’t comprehend ethical restraints. Therefore, there were none. Every man had his price. This he knew. And what he knew was not debatable. He had satisfied himself that my besetting sin was avarice and that $25,000 would lure me to the gates of perdition.
Humphries pointed out that there would be practically no risk in my part of the job. He had chosen me for “the feeler and front.” My task would be to receive from a confederate working in a St. Louis bank and to transmit to Wes, with the dispatch and accuracy necessary for success, certain details including the precise time and manner of shipment of the money. After that, nothing would be expected of me except to serve as lookout when the “heist” was made. Wes had organized a pleasant party of four. The other two members would be presented in due course. At present they were arranging for our quartet to accompany a cattle train to Kansas City. It was my hope that these negotiations would not be completed before Martin Irons delivered his promised statement.
Wes Humphries was throwing into my lap an opportunity such as seldom if ever fell to a journalist. The capture of a trio of train robbers would be both a newspaper epic and a signal public service. Fortune was surely in a gracious mood. James B. Roberts, editor of the Mail, did not agree with me. “I’ve never heard of so foolhardy an undertaking,” he said in high anger. “You can’t put it over. I’ll have nothing to do with so harebrained a stunt.” Nevertheless, he was helpful. First, he agreed to forward to me for my own exclusive benefit any writing that Martin Irons might send in. Next, he worked out an open letter of identification, which he signed. It read, in effect, as follows: “To Whom It May Concern: The bearer, M. Koenigsberg, is a newspaperman. He is leaving the city editorship of the Fort Worth Mail for an enterprise on his own account. He believes he has a workable plan to perform an important public service. I have urged him against the undertaking. This note is written reluctantly, not in approval of his venture, but as such safeguard as my recommendation may afford.”
This document, intended as insurance against an unpredictable adversity, became the source of a violently contrary effect. It was written in duplicate on the India tissue paper of which stereotype flongs were made. One copy Roberts retained. The other, the original, was inserted by a seamstress between the lining and the outer fabric in the back of my coat.
A formal exposition of Martin Irons’ views was in my hands when Humphries presented me to Louis and The Kid. It was an unceremonious meeting. We had made our ways separately to the caboose of a cattle train in the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific freight yards. It was a made-over sleeping car. Introductions were achieved with three-word sentences. Taciturnity was the tacit rule. Later in the evening a semblance of social amenity, warmed by a tin bucket of hot coffee, brought the crowd a bit closer together. The full monikers of my two new companions were revealed.
The Kid was really “The Iron-Gall Kid.” His looks fully confirmed the cognomen. Six feet of a cadaverous frame was topped by a sallow visage totally bereft of any shadow of sentiment. No alchemy was needed to convert The Kid’s facial tegument into brass. Louis, pronounced “Looey,” was formally known as “Lefty Louis.” Fifteen years later, a central figure in a New York gang murder boasted the same name. But the New Yorker was only a hired assassin. Humphries’ protégé claimed a wide proficiency. He was equally familiar with safe-cracking and pocket-picking. Usually one who pursued either calling professed a violent contempt for the other. It was Louis’ versatility that earned his high rank in Humphries’ esteem.
Lefty’s proximity gave me a sense of discomfort. He owed his nickname to the excessive intrusiveness of his “southpaw.” It was never idle. The fingers were constantly in play. Whether they were toying with the loose property of a neighbor—a watch, a pencil or a knife—or whether they were tentatively hefting an accessible item of decoration, Louis always wore an abstracted smile as if he were unaware of what his digits were doing. It was a pose that often proved profitable. The seeming aberrances of this left-handed diligence were not the only source of my uneasiness over Louis. He had a disquieting manner that intimated joint possession of a secret. He would lower an eyelid and then abruptly turn away as if to hide the gesture from our companions. Louis was giving my nerves a ride.
The Iron-Gall Kid remained markedly aloof. One sweeping glance at our first meeting seemed to glut his interest in me. Our eyes never met again. Clearly, my vigilance must center on Louis. Chunky, but as hard as nails and as light as a cat on his feet, he would be an ugly customer in a mix-up. And he continued to wink at me.
Transportation to Kansas City had been arranged in accordance with a common practice. A berth in a caboose and grub en route were supplied in exchange for attendance on live stock in transit. Our quartet were engaged to tend four carloads. The animals were fed and watered at scheduled stops. It was a simple routine. With goads and poles, the cattle were driven off each car down a portable runway, through narrow chutes, to feeding bins and drinking troughs and then back onto the train. An additional duty required inspection of the cars from time to time to prevent the trampling of steers downed by bunching or jolting.
Humphries found pride in his craftiness. This trip was a species of generalship. “It’s what I call a double play,” he announced. First, it supplied transport for his forces at the enemy’s expense. Second, but more important, it furnished facilities for a reconnaissance from the most desirable angles of observation. Wes had already studied the scene chosen for “the blow-off.” But views from horseback or passenger-train windows did not afford the comprehensiveness of vision obtainable from the top of a freight car.
Ministering to the creature comforts and toilets of Texas shorthorns had never excited my enthusiasms. The Iron-Gall Kid made this job especially irksome. He was shirking his stint. Yet this shortcoming might be turned to advantage. An expression of my dissatisfaction ought to evoke some sort of telltale rejoinder. Any trick seemed worthwhile to prod these fellows into unguarded talk. An annoyance more pretended than real was given vocal outlet. It turned into an unfortunate blunder.
Scarcely had the complaint left my lips before Louis’ ubiquitous left hand was stroking my back in a mocking simulation of sympathy. His fingers traveled with incredible celerity from shoulder to flank. They lingered for an instant just below the waistband. There was no audible sound. Yet a noise like the crackling of sheets of foolscap assailed my inner ears as a hand paused over the tissue paper sewn into the lining of my coat. Louis gave no sign that he had discovered anything. He began rolling a cigarette. My fears receded. Then Louis winked at me again. It seemed less an ocular antic than a flicker of fate. If Lefty had started out to fray my nerves, he was close to success.
It had been my idea to defer until after our arrival in Kansas City the formulation of a definite plan for the capture of my unamiable trio. Facts usable as legal evidence must first be obtained. At the moment, there was no basis on which to press a formal accusation. No overt act had been committed. An allegation of conspiracy was not yet provable. Wes might even poke fun at my charges. Thus far there was not even any testimony to convict our two companions of guilty knowledge. It was enlightening to observe how thoroughly they guarded against incriminating admissions. But all this would be changed when Humphries began to drill the members of his gang in their respective and collective duties. That, he had whispered to me, would be the day after our arrival in Kansas City. Now, within twenty-four hours, would come the circumstances from which my program must be evolved—unless Lefty Louis meanwhile put a spoke in the wheel.
That night my outer garments were carefully folded at the head of my berth. On top lay my only article of baggage—a small satchel. A shoelace was looped over my right forefinger, through a buttonhole of my coat and around the handle of the bag, What more could be done to assure my arousal if any attempt were made to get at the hidden letter? When morning came, none of my traveling companions was in sight. A hasty search had shown the shoelace to be intact. That was reassuring. But why, for the first time on the trip, had my droughtful and attentive fellow travelers left me alone? A brakeman, donning his trousers across the aisle, offered a suggestion. “We hooked on a couple of empties at Topeka,” he said. “Your friends may be shooting craps in one of them.” A dice game would be unimportant. A meeting from which I had been pointedly omitted would be altogether a different matter.
Still, there was no occasion for alarm if Roberts’ letter remained untouched in its hiding-place. And how could it be otherwise? Had not my fingers reassured me at the moment of waking? Ever since the suspicion arose that Lefty Louis had detected its presence, the hidden sheet of paper had obtruded itself on my every thought. It had become an incubus. Perhaps the wisest course would be to destroy it. My fingers, groping for the basted strip, felt a fold of paper. It was easily extracted. It was not the India tissue from the stereotyping plant of the Forth Worth Mail. It was much coarser. It was of the same texture as the roll in the washroom of the caboose. And it bore no writing. Roberts’ letter had disappeared. What he had warned me against was coming to pass. The trapper was being snared in his own trap.
Obviously, Roberts’ writing had been replaced with the blank sheet to delay my discovery of its absence. By restoring the substitute, it would be possible to feign ignorance of what had happened. Such a pretense might prove a critical measure of safety. The strip of lavatory paper was tucked back into the recess where Roberts’ script belonged.
Fright came with the realization that it was with Wes Humphries rather than Louis that my thoughts should be engaged. What would Humphries do? In all likelihood, his decision was already made. The plans for its execution were the subject of the discussion for which the trio had absented themselves. No other conclusion was tenable. Humphries would not let me balk the project on which he had worked so long. Neither would he trust me to remain silent. Roberts’ letter disposed of any such possibility. One could sense Humphries’ judgment as clearly as if he had pronounced it. The pernicious interloper must be put out of the way. The underworld conceives no trespass more malignant than the acceptance of companionship as cover for a campaign of exposure. It is an inexpiable offense.
A sense of frustration confounded my dilemma. It would be foolish to turn to the train crew for assistance. On what could a request for protection be based? No threat had been offered. There was bitter irony in the prospect that none would be offered. Humphries and his ilk took neither the chance nor the time to make such gestures. Safe arrival in Kansas City might be only an emergence from the smoke into the flame. No more help could be expected from the police than from the railroad staff. In fact, it might be Humphries’ design to postpone action until we reached the screen of the city’s shadows. This was the worst mess into which my quest for a scoop had yet entangled me.
There was only one avenue to deliverance. That lay in putting myself beyond the reach of Humphries and his two cronies before they suspected my purpose. Where were they? Kansas City would be the next stop. We were traveling at high speed. Evidently, the engineer was making up time. A leap for escape here would be suicidal. But at any moment there would be a slowdown for the switchyard. Then must come my break for safety. The side door of the caboose was movable along grooves with adjustable ratchets. It was easily set midway. The train wheels began to grind on a curve. The speed slackened. My chance was at hand. Braced in the open door, I searched for a favorable landing spot.
There had been a heavy downpour of rain. Puddles of water hid the railroad ties. On the right, on the parallel track skirting a sod embankment, a string of freights was slowly forging ahead of us. The rear cars were lurching crazily around the bend. They were canted sharply to the left. Their tops were hanging perilously close to the cattle train alongside. Either the inner rails of the outer track had sunk or one of the axles was broken. A sideswiping collision was due at any instant. Would there be a choice between Wes Humphries and a railroad wreck?
At that moment, Wes spoke for himself. He had just made his way through the front entrance. Beside him were Louis and The Kid. All of them eyed the satchel hanging from my left wrist. “Listen, pal,” said Humphries, in the longest single speech he ever made in my hearing, “you’re not breaking away—yet. We have to have a nice talk together. Not now, but when we’re ready. You’ll come right along with us like a good boy. Or there’ll be a very sad accident. And it won’t be any trouble for me and my friends to tell the coroner exactly what happened. There won’t be anybody to tell it different.”
A few minutes earlier Humphries’ words would probably have stirred me to the marrow. But now a more immediate danger overshadowed his threat. The caboose was careening. Intent on their purpose with me and obviously unaware of what was happening outside, Humphries and his companions had not sensed the impending smash. A glance forward through the half-open door confirmed my fears. Several of the cattle cars ahead were toppling over. The back end of the freight had passed beyond our caboose. Now there was open space to the terraced turf on the right. It lay less than three yards away on a level fully six feet below. No part of this fleeting scene was visible to the trio facing me. But the expression on my face must have warned them. They darted forward.
“It’s a wreck!” I yelled, jumping for the brown sward across the track.
No twinge of conscience followed my failure to ascertain what happened to Wes Humphries and his worthy mates. It seemed at least pardonable to leave without a show of solicitude on their account. If items of justification for this neglect were lacking, the condition of my satchel would supply one. It was ruined. A puncture on one side and a gaping hole on the other made it useless. It did not require an expert to trace the action of a bullet. As a parting souvenir, it was much more acceptable 'than the donor intended. The overturning of the caboose had interfered with his aim.
Another memento remained with me permanently. It was produced by the impact against the railroad embankment. Lesser hurts, including two dislocated finger joints, were soon forgotten. An umbilical rupture commanded more serious attention. The Kansas City doctor advised an immediate operation. Three weeks in a hospital would be required. That involved a longer period of idleness than was wrested from my program for more than a quarter of a century. Then surgery became imperative. Thus, thirty-three years after the incident, the scalpel carved a record of my worst fiasco in news adventures.
There was some salvage from the rout. Most important was my deliverance from any further concern over the projected train robbery. Newspaper reports of the wreck showed that Wes Humphries must succumb to his injuries. Tragic as was this source of relief, it also assured me of a personal safety that Humphries’ survival might have imperiled. Without his leadership, neither Lefty Louis nor The Iron-Gall Kid would be likely to molest me. At all events, I never saw them again.
The statement by Martin Irons had been kept in my satchel. Though perforated by the pistol shot, it was still legible. Transcribed in the form of an interview, it made a timely story. Edwin H. Craig, managing editor of the Kansas City Journal, was pleased to get it. Irons had set out to write a dispassionate review of the American Railway Union’s claims against the Pullman Company. It was not wholly passionless. He urged the union not to be tricked into consideration of Mr. Pullman’s books as the basis for negotiation of a settlement. He argued that a big corporation could secrete a million dollars in profits more easily than a laborer could hide a patch in the seat of his trousers. No Argus-eyed income tax department existed then to dispute this argument. Irons was pessimistic over the threatened strike. He predicted its failure unless union labor meanwhile achieved a greater solidarity. Of course, he had a plan. It was for an affiliation between the American Railway Union and the Knights of Labor.
It is noteworthy that such an alliance was formed. The Kansas City Journal published the Irons interview in February. Three weeks later, on March 11, 1894, the historic strike began. In June, under the direction of Eugene V. Debs, the American Railway Union, at a meeting in Chicago, effected a coalition with the Knights of Labor. The combination was defeated by an unforeseen factor. President Cleveland ordered that there be no interference with the transportation of United States mail. The strike was crushed by the calling out of troops on July 4th.
Compensation for the Irons interview introduced me to a curious offshoot of newspaper operation. Craig paid me in hotel scrip. It was an order on the Midland Hotel for a first-class room and three meals daily for a week. The Midland then was one of the two leading hostelries of Kansas City. The accommodations supplied to me represented two columns of advertising in the Journal. For years such trade deals tainted the legitimacy of newspaper business standards. The practice was part of the slipshod methods of those publishers who considered advertising more of a graft than a science. Proprietors of that stripe eagerly sold in bulk their prospective linage for the year for cash in advance. The rates left wide margins of profit. Fortunes were made by outside operators. Usually these were the shrewd managers of advertising agencies.
Chapter 6 Part 2 Next Week
link to previous installment link to next installment
Labels: King News