Everything Librarian

Monday, April 25, 2022

The Rolling Stones Were Right to Drop Brown Sugar

Growing up in rural Maryland I had to ride a schoolbus to school and it took one hour each way. During this daily 2-hour bus ride, I had to listen to the Top 40 hits of the day on the bus driver's radio. I heard a lot of what today is called "Classic Rock" from Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, and, of course, The Rolling Stones. The repetition of many of these songs was almost torture for me and I eschewed the Rolling Stones as a young adult due to over-saturation. I had just heard so many of those songs too many times. Among them was Brown Sugar by the Rolling Stones.

Recently, The Rolling Stones stopped including Brown Sugar on their tours. When asked about it, Keith Richards replied

    "I’m trying to figure out with the sisters quite where the beef is. Didn’t they understand this was a song about the horrors of slavery? But they’re trying to bury it. At the moment I don’t want to get into conflicts with all of this shit,” the guitarist remarked. "But I’m hoping that we’ll be able to resurrect the babe in her glory somewhere along the track.”

Sold Down the River

So, is the famous Rolling Stones song Brown Sugar really about the horrors of slavery? Brown Sugar is also a heroin reference as well, something that many of the Rolling Stones used back in the day. Let's dive a little deeper on the lyrics, written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and released in 1971, the first cut on the album Sticky Fingers. The first verse says,

    Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields
    Sold in the market down in New Orleans
    Skydog slaver know he's doin' all right
    Hear him whip the women, just around midnight

The first verse helps to show what Keith was talking about. The Gold Coast was a former British colony in Western Africa where most slaves were captured, kidnapped, and sold to areas of the Caribbean. In Brown Sugar, the ship is heading from New Orleans, Louisiana, to cotton fields somewhere on the east coast of the US. In this article from The Smithsonian, they state that New Orleans was the largest slave trade area in America prior to the Civil War. Interestingly enough, the phrase "sold down the river" is a leftover expression from slave times in the United States. The expression signifies a huge betrayal. For slaves, the river was the Ohio or Mississippi Rivers both of which end in New Orleans on the Gulf of Mexico. There is no doubt that this expression was used by slaveholders to threaten slaves. To be sold down the river meant that you would have to survive a voyage to the largest slave market in the Western World in New Orleans. Slave owners would sell slaves if they were sickly, disobedient, or unable to reproduce. Slave owners would also separate families by selling slaves down the river. Slavery was not just about free labor it was also about reproducing more slaves as property that could be liquidated through sales at any time.

Skydog Slaver

So what is a skydog slaver? There is no historical reference for this word in relation to slavery and many versions of the Black Sugar lyrics say "scarred old slaver." Apparently, Keith Richards' excellent autobiography sheds further light on this reference:

    "In Keith Richards' Life, Dickinson clears up an often-misheard line. "If you listen to the lyrics, he says, 'Skydog slaver' (though it's always written 'scarred old slaver'). What does that mean? Skydog is what they called Duane Allman in Muscle Shoals because he was high all the time. And Jagger heard somebody say it and he thought it was a cool word so he used it." 

OK, so the slaver knows he is doing all right shows the hypocrisy of a slaver living in a world where slavery is not only acceptable but earns you money. The singer (or narrator) of the song invites us to "Hear him whip the women just around midnight." This is most certainly the most slavery-is-evil lyric-- a man in power who routinely whips women slaves in the middle of the night. Presumably, this sound would be horribly filled with screams, moans, and the crack of the whip meeting flesh. This lyric implies daily and systemic abuse of the female slaves at the hands of men, something that absolutely happened in the United States for hundreds of years. If Brown Sugar was just this first verse I would totally agree with Keith Richards that this song is a "babe" worth placing back into the Rolling Stone's performance repertoire. Sadly, Brown Sugar doesn't end here.

Chorus and Second Verse

The words of the chorus say:
    Brown Sugar, how come you taste so good?
    Brown Sugar, just like a young girl should, oh no

By referring to female slaves as brown sugar, Mick Jagger is comparing women of color to another hot commodity during the slave era and that is sugar. In the Caribbean, sugar was one of the most lucrative crops that was mostly farmed by slave labor. It is a clever comparison but it is not a condemnation of the horrors of slavery by any means. This jubilant chorus enforces that black and brown slave women are a delicious commodity and manages to promote the admiration of young girls. It's just a creepy lyric especially given that women and girls are still oftentimes reduced to objects even in the 21st century.

The second verse gets more nebulous here:

    Drums beatin' cold, English blood runs hot
    Lady of the house wonderin' when it's gonna stop
    House boy knows that he's doin' all right
    You should have heard him, just around midnight

We are not sure who is beating the cold drums or if it is another whipping reference. The hot English blood is an obvious reference to the white men in power who were sexually excited by black female slaves. Who is the lady of the house? What is the house boy doing just around midnight? We are not sure. Mick Jagger adds a second piece to the Brown Sugar chorus:

The Chorus Says It All

    Brown Sugar, how come you dance so good?
    Oh, got me quittin'
    Brown Sugar, just like a black girl should, yeah

The choruses of Brown Sugar contradict the alleged horrors of slavery foundation of the song. The chorus talks about the powerful sexual attraction of the black female slave and says they are delicious and dance well. In the chorus of Brown Sugar, the slave women in the song are reduced to the same objects they would have been viewed as in slave-era United States. It is about female slaves being admired, taken, and owned by men in power. Reduced to its essence this is a song that reinforces the exoticization of the other and exhibits women and girls as objects and possessions. It is about power over women 'like a young girl Should.' Yuck. Especially given the context that this song was written by two young white British males, The Rolling Stones were 100% correct to remove this song from their concerts in 2021.

To put the song Brown Sugar into perspective, I can see how Mick Jagger might have thought this song was progressive in the late 1960s because it is the voice of a white man who speaks admiringly of the beauty of the female brown body. In the current century, we see this in perspective for what it is-- sexist, racist, and with great guitar hooks from Keith Richards. The song Brown Sugar was allegedly written for Mick Jagger's then-girlfriend Marsha Hunt who is African American. Brown Sugar was a single from the Rolling Stone's album Sticky Fingers (1971) which features the outline of someone's man parts in tight pants. It was designed by Andy Warhol and featured the novelty of a real zipper. The album title and art convey to the viewer that this could contain a few sexually-charged songs.

The final verse of Brown Sugar is also derogatory as the song narrator attempts to seduce an unknown black girl,
    Now, I bet your mama was a tent show queen
    And all her boyfriends were sweet 16
    I'm no schoolboy but I know what I like
    You should have heard them, just around midnight

The song narrator is flattering a beautiful prospect by telling her that he bets her mother was a beauty queen, or in this case, a tent show queen. Again, it is about a beautiful female on display. The narrator tells his subject that he imagines that her mother had many young and virile suitors. We learn that the narrator is an adult man and that he knows what he likes. This final verse clinches it. 

This is not a song about the horrors of slavery it is about the domination of men over women who exist to be beautiful and to please men. This white sister totally understands why this song was dropped from The Rolling Stone's setlist. Sorry, Keith, sorry Mick. If you are serious about bringing Brown Sugar back, you will need to re-write the entire song. I suggest you write it from the female perspective. Good luck.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Pete Seeger: Ivy League Rebel Folk Singer

I have been thinking a lot about Pete Seeger (1919-2014) lately.

Sometimes I reminisce about the happy times I spent listening to American folk singers Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie in concert as a young person. By the time I saw Pete & Arlo in the early 1980’s Pete was an old man. I saw them perform in Baltimore at Pier 6 as well as in Colombia at Merriweather Post Pavillion in Maryland. I was aligned politically with them as well as a fan of Woody Guthrie and Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Pete & Arlo were the logical descendants of these working-class heroes. But it was really the music, warmth, and camaraderie that was generated by Pete Seeger at these concert experiences that was remarkable, memorable, and truly legendary.

House Un-American Activities Committee

I also love Pete Seeger because he respectfully declined to respond to the bureaucratic steamrolling of all things Communist during the Red Scare. Pete Seeger stood up not only to a public institution, the House Unamerican Activities Committee, but also to the US House of Representatives who oversaw HUAC. He refused to name the names of others suspected to be associated with Communism. He very purposefully did not plead the 5th Amendment to protect himself and he answered truthfully if not a little bit mischievously. Pete was smart as a tack and he didn’t hold back-- I miss the candor and warmth that Seeger always seemed to convey simultaneously. In truth, Pete Seeger was at one point a member of the Communist Party. Seeger has also said that he regrets not quitting the party sooner over revelations of the evilness of Joseph Stalin.

Seeger instead refused to answer questions saying,

"I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this." You can read the full trascripts of Seeger's questioning here, beginning on page 2,447.

In March 1957, Pete Seeger was found guilty of contempt and sentenced to 10 one year sentences in prison to be served consecutively. This is, in essence, a ten-year sentence.

Pete's Letter to John F. Kennedy, Jr.

In a recent research dig at the National Archives online I decided to see what information is stored about Pete Seeger. It was there that I found this gem, a letter from Pete Seeger to President John F. Kennedy, written on March 3, 1961.

I love that we can see the original document itself, humbly typewritten on scarred paper. Pete writes a formal letter and immediately identifies himself as a fellow Harvard graduate-- both Kennedy & Seeger graduated in 1940.

The letter cuts to the chase, describing Seeger’s indictment for contempt which he received in part for not saying whether he had sung a particular song for a group of Communists. Seeger includes a few sentences of court transcription to prove the absurdity of the intense questioning.

At one point, Chairman Walter asks, “Did you sing that song?” Mr. Seeger responds, “I can sing it; I don’t how well I can do it without my banjo…” Pete, cheeky as always.

Before closing his letter to JFK, Pete apologies to the US President,

“I would not take up your valuable time with my personal problem, except that I feel it is a very fundamental one which concerns all America these days. Do I, or does any citizen, have the right to hold unorthodox opinions, whether they be purely right or horribly wrong, and do I have the right to join with others who think similarly? Without being blacklisted or persecuted as a ‘subversive’?"

Pete closes the letter the US President with a poem by an uncle (who was also a Harvard grad class of 1910) the second American to die in WWI, which is a very odd and seemingly mixed-bag claim to fame. By the end of the letter, I am much more aware of the privileged life Pete Seeger lived to come from an Ivy-league-educated family. By the end of Pete’s life in 2014, his net worth was approximately $5 million mostly gained from record sales.

The poem reads:

“You have the grit and guts, I know

You are ready to answer blow for blow

You are virile, combative, stubborn, hard

But your honor ends with your own backyard;

Each man intent on his private goal,

You have no feelings for the whole;

What singly none would tolerate

You let unpunished hit the state,

Unmindful that each man must share

The stain he lets his country wear,

And (what no traveler ignores)

That her good name is often yours.”

I also noticed that the letter is signed "Peter Seeger" as a sign of formality.

I thought this was, perhaps, a timely poem and one that I have thought about quite a bit in the past few weeks. The poem makes me think of the events of the failed insurrection of January 6, 2021-- the myopic view of those rioters who left a stain on our country that will last for a very long time. I am aware that this poem could be interpreted in the opposite-- a call to arms for a greater good, an incitement of radicals. But contextually, this is not what Pete Seeger would have meant by placing this poem in his plea for freedom. It is a call for personal responsibility and accountability.

It was not until May 1962 that Seeger’s conviction was overturned in an appeals court. Seeger never served a day in jail but to have such a severe sentence hanging over his head for five years must have been stressful and a constant source of worry. I am not aware of any response from President Kennedy to Pete Seeger.

Wherever you are Pete Seeger, thank you for picking up the torch of Tom Joad and Woody Guthrie and for bringing that light to subsequent generations. I miss you and your lovely folksy reedy voice that had the power to carry across large venues and united us in song. I hope you are in heaven leading a rousing round of Wimoweh as your perfect falsetto rises to serenade us all in peace and love.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Looking For a Job in Baltimore, Maryland 2022

You know what's ironic? Looking for a job is hard work.

But for those who are new to the Baltimore, Maryland area or to those who are newly unemployed, where do you begin? Why, at the beginning, of course. So where is the best place to look for a job in Maryland?

There are many web sites with available job databases. These are the Help Wanted pages of the 21st century. Some of these sites are well-organized and can suggest jobs to you based on the skills you have listed in your resume. Other sites are more bot-generated and the job-matching accuracy diminishes significantly. Let me explain.

Indeed.com is probably the best of these databases for any region where you may live around the United States. I have my resume posted here, it makes it easier when I apply for jobs straight from Indeed. When you apply for a job on Indeed, you can not only link in your resume, but you also have the option to create a customized cover letter to attach to each application. This saves on paper, postage, time, trips to USPS, and trees. We like this.

Monster.com is another nationwide database of available jobs. They are not as thorough or as accurate as Indeed.com in job selection or recommendation but it can also be a good site to search. Leave no monsters unturned in your search for a job near Baltimore.

I Need a Library Job is a great job hunting resource for everyone, not just librarians. This site indexes all of the colleges and universities that all have individual sites for searching for jobs. If you want to work at an institution of higher learning, this is a great collection of sites.

Baltimore City is hiring. From Animal Enforcement Officer to Canoe and Kayak Program Assistant, there is a wide variety of jobs available in Baltimore, Maryland.

Maryland State Job Openings is also a large collection of available jobs working for the state of Maryland. Working for the state has its perks and privileges but also its downsides. Every state agency is different and has a different energy and culture so pick and choose carefully here. Recently, the state of Maryland announced that it would make hundreds more jobs available without requiring a college degree.

Maryland Department of Transportation is listed separately from the Maryland State Job site. Why? We don't know. We found this out from a kind MDOT employee. (Thanks, Pam!) This Maryland government agency has a fairly decent reputation. Maybe there is a job at the Maryland Department of Transportation for you?

Federal Jobs in Maryland is a great place to find federal jobs just in the state of Maryland. It is hard to snag a federal job but the salary and benefits may be among the best of the government-based jobs.

USAJobs.gov is the place to go when you want to work for the Federal government. There is a large presence of federal employees in Maryland and, of course, Washington D.C, as well as northern Virginia. Aside from the occasional government shut-down federal jobs are considered to be great jobs to have.

McCormick Corporation in Hunt Valley, Maryland is a large spice corporation that has the reputation for treating its employees well. This is not really located in Baltimore, it is really the northern suburbs of Baltimore County.

Under Armour is another large corporation headquartered in the Baltimore and Washington D.C. region-- maybe there is a job here that fits your skill set? Also, they have job opportunities all over the country. 

Stanley Black & Decker is headquartered in Towson, Maryland, and they always have a list of available jobs in the region and beyond. Also, Black and Decker products are among the best.

Snag a Job is a great job hunting resource for finding jobs in specific neighborhoods in the Baltimore region. I will say that many of the jobs I looked at here seem to be more service industry jobs, but hey, that's all good, right? From Abell to Wye Mills and everywhere in between, this place has available jobs indexed by locale in Baltimore, Maryland.

Glassdoor is a great place to evaluate employers but not a great place to have jobs recommended to you. The Glassdoor bot recommended that I apply for a physician job-- it made me chuckle because my skills are not even close to that. BUT, if you want to see what current and former employees of a company rate a particular company this is a great resource. I also recommend that if your employer is here consider leaving an honest review of their work culture.

Craigslist, yeah, even though it can be sketchy, you never know. In the past, I have found work here as a freelancer working remotely, mostly for design jobs. Maybe you can find something that suits you in Baltimore on Craigslist?

Did I miss a great resource for job hunting in Baltimore, Maryland? Drop me a line or leave a comment here. Let's help folks looking to find a new career in Charm City, USA.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Who Was Inmate Jack Johnson?

Jack Johnson (1878-1946) is an African American boxer with a colorful history including one stay in Federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas in 1920. While in prison, Johnson made good use of his time by penning an autobiography on post office stationery.

Birth of a Fighter

John Arthur Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas on March 31, 1878. And, according to his autobiography, nothing eventful happened to him until he was twelve. During an encounter with a neighborhood bully, Johnson's Grandmother Gilmore encouraged him to fight back by telling him that if he didn't whip his bully, the grandmother would whip Jack. In the words of Grandmother Gilmore, “Arthur, if you do not whip him I shall whip you.” This one event helped Johnson overcome his flight or fight mechanism and set it permanently on Fight. From Johnson's point of view, it was this turning point that made him realize he had a talent for fighting.

Jack Johnson in Leavenworth Prison

The autobiographical document of Jack Johnson is handwritten mostly on the stationery of Leavenworth post office. So what was the crime that caused Jack Johnson to serve time in a Federal prison? He was charged with a violation of the Mann Act and ordered to serve a year and a day. The Mann Act is a piece of legislation that makes it illegal to transport women across state lines for immoral purposes-- in this case the crime was a black man who traveled with a white woman. The woman was Lucille Cameron a prostitute from Milwaukee who was the companion of Johnson just a month after his wife Etta Duryea killed herself in 1912. He was convicted in 1913 and Johnson fled the country for about 7 years to avoid going to prison but eventually turned himself in in 1920.

In Federal Leavenworth Prison in Kansas, Johnson was a celebrity. On the outside, Johnson was also a celebrity. As a powerful black man who chose to have white women as companions he was intensely investigated by the Department of Justice, the predecessor of the FBI. You can read the government reports of Johnson's comings and goings here.

Names, Dates, Rounds, and the Purse

So what can we learn about the first African American heavyweight champion of the world from his prison autobiography? First of all, Johnson has a detailed memory of his fights, especially the Tommy Burns fight that took place in Australia in 1908. Jack Johnson has a great memory for numbers -- especially in recalling his fights he specifically remembers how many rounds the fight went, how much his opponent weighed, and how much money he wins as the purse. Regarding a fight with Klondike in Memphis, Tennessee, Jackson recalls,

'I was 22 years of age then and I received a thousand bucks for that fight, some dough for a youngster, eh? Well I knocked Klondike out in the 12th round, and believe me Klondike will never forget that fight for I sure gave him a lacing.'

Johnson Effected By Racism

We also know that racism effected Johnson very strongly and very personally. Johnson describes a fight in Philadelphia with Jack O'Brien,

"As soon as I entered the ring I was greeted with a tremendous groan of hisses and cat calls intermingled with but a few cheers of my admirers. I was there to fight as best I could and although I was credited with being crooked in my dealings, my opponent O’Brien was equally guilty by his own confession. The sole reason therefore to account for the hisses and catcalls hurled at me was my racial difference. Why should a man who is trying to do what his audience expects him to do and pays for, be the target of vile abuse, all on account of his color of skin?"

Johnson and Women

While Johnson had many white women in his life, his prison-penned autobiography only makes mention of his mother (Tiny Johnson), his grandmother (Grandmother Gilmore) and he refers to bringing his wife (unnamed) along to Australia when he fought Tommy Burns. Other than that there are no mentions of the many women in Johnson's life. By most accounts his relationships with women were tumultuous and contained violence. According to American documentary filmmaker Ken Burns at least four of his female companions, Clara Kerr, Hattie McClay, Belle Schreiber, and Lucille Cameron (wife number two), were prostitutes. Johnson's first wife, Etta Duryea, was a well-educated woman who was allegedly prone to depression. When Johnson suspected his wife of having an affair he beat her so badly she had to be hospitalized. Duryea shot and killed herself, unable to handle Johnson's infidelity and abuse. In his autobiography, Johnson ironically goes out of his way to talk about his graciousness,

"I had already determined to become a great fighter, and I realized that to whip a boy smaller than myself was no credit to me, so for that reason I never forget a boy smaller than myself, as a rule I choose those who were larger than myself."
Sadly, Jack did not apply this rule to the women in his life.

Johnson's Work History

The handwritten autobiography of Jack Johnson describes most employment situations as brief. Johnson is often hired as a trainer for other fighters but soon loses his job, he says because he was too good of a fighter, but perhaps Johnson also had trouble getting along with others. Many of his stories are very similar to this one,

"...I set out to find another job and was successful in securing the same in Frank Child’s training camp. I only worked for Frank for about 20 days when we had an argument which caused me to lose my job but at that I didn’t lose much."
At the very least, I think we can all agree that Jack Johnson had a very strong personality to match his fighting spirit. It has to hurt to be the heavyweight champion of the world but still treated like a "colored person" in his home country. This social inequity would definitely make someone prone to have a chip on their shoulder.

A Life on the Road

Jack Kerouac would have enjoyed reading the escapades of this iconic American prize fighter. Jack Johnson begins his life in Galveston, Texas but ends up traveling to Minnesota, Illinois, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York, California, and Tennessee. Jack Johnson travels all over the USA to fight, but these are the states he specifically mentions in his prison autobiography. Jack Johnson also travels all over the world to England, Canada, Australia, France, Spain, and Mexico. Johnson definitely spent a lifetime traveling for his work. In one particularly colorful episode, Jack talks about traveling by freight train:

It was early in the morning and I had been sleeping soundly when I was awakened by a tattoo in the soles of my shoes. Upon waking up, I gazed into the face of a big brakeman. He held a lantern in one hand, and in the other he held a club in a most threatening way. He addressed me in a tough manner and said “Well boy if you haven’t any money you will have to jump off.” This remark and the slap he had given me on my feet angered me and I raised to my feet and replied that I didn’t have any money and I didn’t feel like committing suicide. I would not jump off. The train which I was riding was what is known as a high call (?) and at that particular time it was traveling at a very dangerous rate of speed and no doubt I would have been severely injured or perhaps killed had I been foolish enough as to jump off. Well when I made this remark the brakeman made a pass at me with his club, but I side stepped it and hit him in the jaw and followed that with an uppercut to his nose which knocked him into the land of nod. He was just coming to when I noticed that the train had slowed down a great deal and looking out the door I saw many lights so judging that we were in K.C. I jumped off. I hustled something to eat in K.C. and after waiting all day I boarded another freight for Chi.

2018: Jack Johnson is Pardoned

I found this prison autobiography online a few months ago and thought that the handwriting quality and length made it a liability to transcribe, but when Jack Johnson received a Presidential pardon in May 2018, I had to return to these documents. Ironically, it is Sylvester Stallone the movie star whom we have to thank for this pardon. Stallone is perhaps best known for his portrayal of Rocky Balboa in the American films that began with Rocky (1976). So, a fake white fighter championed for a real African American fighter to be pardoned for his racially motivated conviction from almost 100 years ago. In signing the pardon, President Trump criticized President Obama for not signing the pardon. It is interesting to note however that the Justice Department advised against the pardon.

"In a television interview, Mr. Obama’s attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., had also raised the fact there was a history of domestic violence accusations against Johnson."
So Johnson may have been wrongfully imprisoned but his track record with women was really abyssmal.

A note about my transcriptions which are quite sloppy. A few pages of the first chunk of document that I found are a contract about a fight and that's as far as I got with that. The last pages of the second document linked above are repeating events already written about in previous pages. They seem like a rough draft but in different handwriting. I have only made a cursory read and analysis of these documents-- a closer read by someone more archaeological in their thinking might be able to build something bigger out of this. But I am also presuming that Jack Johnson's autobiography, Life in the Ring and Out, has these stories within. I think for Jack Johnson, writing his autobiography was an important way to remind himself, and others, that he was an important person, that he would have good times ahead, that he didn't belong in prison.

Appendix: National Archives Documents

For no apparent reason, this handwritten piece of history is contained in two separate digital files on the National Archives site that contains historic Federal prison records. There are two distinctly different sets of handwriting on these documents. One set of documents, sometimes marked as 'Old' may have been written by Johnson himself and seem to use courser language with more colloquialisms and grammatical errors. The other document seems to be a refined version of the older one. Both documents share similar stories of Johnson's career and tell us a lot about this famous black pugilist who obviously loved his job. This first part I transcribed may be found here, the second part may be found here.

Also, if you love to research and transcribe from original documents the National Archives has plenty of digitized items in their online collection that need to be transcribed. I spent about 16 hours transcribing these documents and then copied and pasted onto each record. That took about 45 minutes, no time at all. So if you have some free time and want to contribute to this cool collective, check out the National Archives.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Who Was Inmate Lester Ohmart and What Was the Drake Estate Conspiracy?

In my examination of the federal inmate files of Leavenworth, Kansas, I stumbled on the inmate record of Lester Ohmart (1888-?). He was received at Leavenworth prison on February 22, 1936 on the charge of "using mails to defraud" in Chicago, Illinois. In further digging through the records I found a small sentence that points to the context behind the mail fraud conviction-- Lester Ohmart was involved in a fraud, scheme, or con known as the Drake Estate. Never heard of it? Me neither. I had to keep reading and researching until I figured out and unraveled this interesting tale. Who was Lester Ohmart? What was the Drake Estate conspiracy?

Some Background on Ohmart

You can find Lester Ohmart in the 1900 US Census. He is living in South Otter Township Nilwood Village in Illinois with his mother and father and his four other siblings. (Bertha, August, Lovey, Ressie) It is fun to look at the original census document to see that there is an Everett Neff living just up the street-- I have to assume this is Lydia Neff Ohmart's father and the namesake of Lester's middle name.

Lester Everett Ohmart was born on October 2, 1888 in Girard, Illinois, the son of Lydia Neff and Marion Ohmart. At age 28, Ohmart is living in Hope, Kansas and fills out the obligatory World War I registration card below. (The card spells his middle name Evertt.)

What Was the Drake Estate Scheme?

By all records and accounts, in his outside personal life Lester Ohmart was a clerk and accountant. There is one summary document within his Leavenworth prison file that tells the story like it is:

"Indictment for the use of the mails to defraud was returned against forty-two persons who were principals and co-workers in the collection of donations to a fund for the settlement of the mythical estate of Sir Francis Drake, the navigator."

So there it is. A charlatan named Oscar Hartzell (see photo above) came up with the idea of the Drake Estate-- an unsettled pot of gold just waiting to be distributed to hundreds of heirs. If you think about it long enough, it's kind of brilliant. The Drake Estate con men preyed upon people with the common last name of Drake and took their money for their own profit. It is also conceivable that Lester Ohmart was just a low level clerk who truly believed in the mythical estate that never delivered the large and promised payout. There is a great article by Rupert Taylor that goes into more detail about the Drake Estate Fraud here.

Legal Summary of the Drake Estate Crimes of Ohmart

Another document within Lester Ohmart's Leavenworth inmate file provides a fascinating summary of the Drake Estate fraud that seems similar to a pyramid scheme or Ponzi scam. It's kind of long but it's worth a read for some context into this fascinating piece of American and British history.

Collections for the settlement of this estate have been made since about 1920. Oscar M. Hartzell, who resided in London, England, for about ten years, but who is a native of Illinois, and was an American citizen alleged that he had discovered the living heir of a son of Sir Francis Drake, and that this living heir had assigned to him title to the estate. Hartzell represented that he was dealing through the Ecclesiastical Courts and the Secret Courts of England, and that the British government had accepted his right to the estate. He further represented, through these defendants and other agents, that settlement would be made within a few months, but this continued throughout the years, and each postponement was explained as being due to the fact that additional funds were necessary to pay the expenses of settlement.

Lester Ohmart was an agent for the Drake Estate a number of years ago in Texas and testified that for the operation of this so-called estate he was arrested twice by the state authorities and once by the United States. A fraud order was issued against him in 1933, after which, the case for which he was arrested by the Government was dismissed. He operated the offices of the Drake Estate swindle in Boone, Iowa, and later in Chicago, Illinois, and for his work received, according to the records of the concern, a small salary.

Psychological Evaluation

It is interesting to note that in the year of Ohmart's incarceration there is a psychological evaluation of every inmate. On the psychological report of Lester Ohmart the psychiatrist has this to say:

This was an office man in the Drake Estate scheme, who says he was employed there for a few years, and was receiving a salary for his work and had no other participation in this enterprise. He is a pleasant frank sincere appearing person, who apparently belives [sic] that the Drake Estate is not a myth.

For his crimes (inadvertent or not) Ohmart is sentenced to one year and a day in the Federal Leavenworth prison in Kansas. At age 46 and a first time offender, Ohmert must have been a somewhat unusual inmate in this environment. Someone at the prison writes to Mrs. Ida Ohmert in Spencer, Iowa, to ask very personal questions about the background of Lester. In answer there is a three-page handwritten letter that speaks well of her husband.

"My husband's attitude to me was always kind and loving and always provided well for his family. Yes he was always a compatible marital companion. No I have never had any cause to suspect him of being unfaithful. He is very reliable. We were acquainted four years before our marriage. We were married 25 years last Thanksgiving Day at hope, Kansas. No, neither of us was previously married. No he has never engaged in any illegal activity before I married him. Yes we have 3 children. His attentions toward his family responsibilities were good, he always supported us well. I have no income now. I am at the mercy of friends. I and the children are living alone. As to plans for our future I cannot say as it was such a shock and so unexpected. I feel the cause of our present difficulty was a victim of circumstance. He was employed as an auditor and book keeper. No I do not feel like anything in his previous life had a bearing in connection with his trouble.

This is an unusual look at the life of those left behind by the incarcerated. Sadly, the story of Ida Ohmart is all too common-- when a provider is locked up many families find themselves in financial dire straits. It would have been especially hard for Ida Ohmart to find a job as someone with no degree or employment experience, especially as a woman in a male-dominated world in 1930's America.

Lester Ohmart: Post Prison

The good news is that Lester Ohmart repays his debt to society by serving his prison sentence and returns to his wife and children. I found him in the 1940 census living in San Antonio, Texas with his wife Ida, his two daughters, and a granddaughter. It is interesting to note that Lester is now employed as a traveling salesman for a candy distributor. And that is where our story ends for Lester Ohmart and his family. As an afterthought: it is weird that I can find the story of Lester Ohmart and his mugshot but I am unable to find the mugshot and prison record for the true mastermind of the Drake Conspiracy, Oscar Hartzell. He certainly would have done time in a Federal prison-- I have to assume his record has not yet been digitized.


"United States Census, 1940," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:K4WD-GB7 : accessed 18 May 2018), Lester Ohmart, Area D, San Antonio, Justice Precinct 1, Bexar, Texas, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) 259-150, sheet 11A, line 9, family 400, Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940, NARA digital publication T627. Records of the Bureau of the Census, 1790 - 2007, RG 29. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2012, roll 4206.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Who Was Inmate John Barney Prine?

In researching historic prisoner records, one of the factors I look for as a researcher is a meaty inmate record file and John Barney Prine (b. abt. 1911-?) of Florida has a very lengthy file of about 200 pages of material. In reading each and every document it became immediately apparent why this inmate file was so big-- John B. Prine was a high maintenance inmate and most of his file was made up of disciplinary records. John Prine was a bad boy, locked up at age 16 for a Violation of Postal Laws in Leavenworth Kansas in 1927.

Prine Prison Violations

With 44 disciplinary violations, John Barney Prine shows a clear disregard for the rules of prison. Now, to be fair, prison has a lot of rules and complete obedience is expected. Also, Prine is a teenager. Most 16 year old children are professional boundary pushers. The disciplinary violations of Prine include:

Went to a ball game while he was supposed to be in school
Talked in main hall while marching
Built fire in his cell
Left his place of work without permission
Disobeyed orders of guard
Failed to line up for count
Made music after hours and insolence
Loafed on gallery

These are all low-level violations of prison rules but John B. Prine spent a lot of time in isolation and on a restricted diet due to his poor behavior. Prine also loses a lot of 'Good Time'-- these are days that are credited to prisoners who are well behaved. Because of Prine's numerous prison violations he spends his full three years in prison rather than getting out early for good behavior.

The Doctor's Report

By the 1920's Leavenworth has a physician examine each inmate upon arrival to determine their physical and mental fitness for their stay in prison. From this doctor's report we gain a little backstory from Prine himself.

"This 'kid' is only 16 years of age, and claims that he was arrested previous to his now incarceration at the age of fourteen (14) years for drunkenness and fighting. He states that his father was killed by lightning, and that he left school while in the (4th) grade at the age of ten (10) years because he had to go to work....Upon examination of this youngster, I find nothing wrong with him mentally with the exception that his mentality is of a low grade and type." Ouch, that last sentence is totally judgmental.

Letter to Mother

I am not sure why there is a letter written to his mother in John Prine's prison record but it is such a sweet little time capsule. Written in elementary cursive and in stilted language, the letter shows the personal side of this rebellious teenager. One wonders if a copy ever reached the Prine household, or has it languished in his prison file for 100 years?

"I am studying poultry from books here. I am also studying penmanship. I have been going for 10-1/2 days, 1-1/2 ours [sic] a day can you see any improvement in this and the last one. I wish you wood [sic] keep these letters from now one [sic] so I can see them when I come home and it won't be long now."

There are many misspellings and grammatical errors in this letter from John Prine to his mother but this is still pretty competent writing for a teenage plumber's helper with a fourth grade education.

Post Prison in 1930 Census in Florida

So what happens to John Barney Prine after he is released from prison? I found him living with his mother and his step family in Wauchula City, Florida in Hardy County. His occupation is listed as laborer and that he performs 'odd jobs.' We know that this is the correct John Prine because he gave his mother's name as Bessie McGahgan when he was admitted to prison. The fact that the census taker records the family name as 'McGahagin' shows the fluidity of spelling in the early 20th century. This is also the final historical record that I can find of young John Barney Prine, who had an unusually long prison file and the same name of a famous American singer-writer.


1930 Census

"United States Census, 1930," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:SRT3-KPZ : accessed 9 May 2018), John B Prine in household of James Z Mcgahagin, Wauchula, Hardee, Florida, United States; citing enumeration district (ED) ED 3, sheet 7B, line 73, family 180, NARA microfilm publication T626 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2002), roll 317; FHL microfilm 2,340,052.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Who Was Inmate Floyd Clymer?

It's not often that I run to an inmate who has their own Wikipedia page. Such is the case with Floyd Clymer (1895-1970), inventor, businessman, automobile innovator, and professional racer. I found Clymer's Federal Leavenworth, Kansas, prison record while perusing historic prison records available at the US National Archives. And I have never seen a mugshot with such a happy face! Clymer was convicted of Mail Fraud, no doubt an early conviction of using the mail in a nefarious manner. I was unable to find out the real issue here-- what lead to the arrest-- until I found a small ad in the back of the American Motorcycle Association Magazine:

I have to assume that this small magazine ad is what sent Clymer to prison: perhaps he had nothing to send the patent seeker or perhaps he provided false information. Either way, this successful businessman, inventor, and professional driver ended up at the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas for about a year.

Harley Davidson & Meryle Clymer

Another thing that drew me to the inmate file of Floyd Clymer was the length of his file. There are almost 200 pages of documents and for a prisoner serving only a year that is a lot of paperwork. I concluded that there had to be an interesting story here. Most of the documents in Clymer's file represent telegrams to and from his wife and business partner Meryle Clymer. At the time of his arrest and incarceration, Floyd Clymer owned and ran a successful Harley Davidson shop in Colorado. Even though Meryle lives in Colorado, she travels to Leavenworth, Kansas about twice a month to visit her husband and to consult him about the business. And you can tell Floyd is a proactive businessman when he writes to the Warden of Leavenworth to ask questions about his impending incarceration-- Floyd is a planner and a bit of a name dropper. I think this is also Floyd's way of showing the Warden that he is not your run-of-the-mill criminal-- Floyd is an important businessman with his own letterhead, secretary, and important friends.

Another unique aspect of Floyd Clymer's inmate record is the love and affection expressed in the exchange of telegrams between Floyd and Meryle. Floyd usually signs each telegram with a very sweet and sincere, 'Worlds of Love.' The below telegram from Meryle to Floyd from January 1, 1931, reads in part: "This new year will bring us many good things. Thinking of you all day and loving you with all my heart." Clearly this is a couple that was not destroyed by a prison sentence. The back and forth of telegrams shows a couple united in their business and personal partnership.

Letters of Support

Floyd has a lot of important friends who write letters to the Warden on his behalf. One letter reads in part: "You recently acquired a new addition to your big house in the person of Floyd Clymer. He does not belong in your institution, and would not be there, in my opinion, except for technicalities of law." That fact that the letter is signed by lawyer Kenaz Huffman of the Colorado law firm of Yeaman, Gove and Huffman makes this particularly funny and ironic-- all people have been sent to prison on 'technicalities of law.' Perhaps what Huffman meant to say is that while Clymer broke the law he had no previous record and was not criminally minded.

Other letters in Clymer's file indicate that at one point the Warden of Leavenworth is seeking a personal driver. Clymer is keen to get the job and has several very important people send letters to the Warden on his behalf. One letter from Don Hogan of Fokker Aircraft of Chicago reads:

"Floyd Clymer is the man and I doubt if there is anyone in the United States of his age that has attained more worthy note when it comes to professional racing and supervision of such events, than this fellow. For seventeen years he has raced motorcycles and automobiles and successfully and for many years past has been the one person to make the final choice of the best lady driver in the Rocky Mountain region in contests that are sponsored by the Rocky Mountain News of Denver."

Floyd Clymer is definitely part Paul Newman. Sadly, regulations prohibit inmates from being personal drivers so Clymer is denied the position.

Special Privileges Denied

While Floyd definitely has some things going for him that separate him from other inmates the Warden of Leavenworth at one point grew weary of Meryle Clymer often asking for special visiting privileges to be able to visit her husband and to consult him regarding the business. In February 1931 the Warden hand writes on a request letter from Meryle, "Advise her to handle by letter. No visit permitted." Even special guests in the Big House have their limitations.

Additionally, on August 28, 1930, N. R. Timmons of the Warden's office sends letter to Floyd saying,

"I am approving requests for three special letters received from you today with the understanding that they are not to be used in carrying on outside business from this institution, as it appears that you are trying to do. It is permissible for you to write such letters in closing up your business or to have the same carried on by others through power of attorney, but no requests of this kind will be granted in the future if it appears in any way that you are carrying on a business by this method."

It is common practice even today to deny inmates the right to "do business" from prison. In researching Clymer's records, he was certainly afforded privileges in this area that others might not have been permitted.

Upon his release on parole on June 15, 1931, Floyd Clymer goes on to continue his work in the field of motorcycles, automobiles, and racing. Clymer designs and patents motorcycle helmets. Floyd Clymer was honored as an inductee in the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1998. It's nice to know that Clymer survives his incarceration and picks up where he left off. As a former felon, Clymer seemed to face few obstacles in achieving success however, it should be noted that Clymer had the infrastructure of his success already built before his stay in prison. Many prisoners are not so lucky nor successful post release.


The Clymer Manuals are still in use today. Floyd Clymer also authored many books about automobiles including this one on the Porsche 912:

And finally, I have to include the only photo I could find of Meryle Clymer, faithful wife and partner of Floyd Clymer.

And just for the record, there is no proof in Leavenworth prison records that Clymer was granted leave to ride motorcycle in races. You can view Floyd Clymer's complete prison records at the National Archives here.