Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Uncovering Joseph G. Robin (part 2)


Joseph G. Robin on the way to jail

In January 1913, fallen far from grace, Joseph G. Robin was sentenced to one year at the New York City Penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island, a narrow island in the middle of the East River, which is now called Roosevelt Island.

How much had Joseph embezzled? Reports ranged from $10,000 to millions. The amount mattered, of course, but it was the light sentence that drew the public’s outrage.

The Queensboro Bridge crosses Blackwell's Island,
renamed Welfare Island in 1921 and Roosevelt Island
in 1973.  

Hoping for leniency, Joseph had dropped his initial plea of insanity and cooperated with the D.A. He implicated a former city official and two Carnegie Trust bankers in bribery schemes involving the investment of city funds.

Joseph entered the penitentiary on a mild spring day. Once on the inside, overcome with a desire to clear his name, he requested and received a pardon from New York Governor Sulzer. But the pardon would be ruled invalid because Sulzer was in the midst of an impeachment trial.

New York State Governor William Sulzer, 
who cultivated a resemblance to Henry Clay.

After his release, Joseph received a pardon from the new governor and testified further about bribery in the railway business. Then, it seemed, he disappeared from the record.  

But the internet agreed to be prodded and finally gave Joseph up. His name appeared on a list of deaths that occurred during April 1929, information that unlocked what may be the most interesting part of the story of Joseph G. Robin.

It turns out that the American novelist Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) met Joseph in 1908 when the banker was nearing the peak of his wealth and influence. By that time, Dreiser, a native of St. Louis, had published at least a dozen short stories as well as Sister Carrie, one of several novels he would write about strivers who rise high and fall hard.   

Newspaper illustration of Theodore Dreiser,
around 1908

Dreiser, like Joseph, was sitting on top of the world. As editor-in-chief of Butterick Publications, which owned three women’s magazines—The Delineator, Designer, and the interestingly named New Idea Women’s Magazine—Dreiser mingled with the likes of President Theodore Roosevelt and H.L. Mencken. He and Joseph took to galivanting around town. They hit it off because, scholars have written, both men were the children of immigrants, had bouts with mental illness, and overcame adversity to achieve success.

Joseph G. Robin's estate, Driftwood Manor, once
located in Wildwood State Park on the north shore
of Long Island.

Dreiser found inspiration in Joseph’s life. When he sat down to write Twelve Men (1919), a collection of largely biographical stories about men he had known, he based “’Vanity, Vanity, Saith the Preacher” on the life of Joseph G. Robin, referring to him as “X.” Here, Dreiser recalls a visit to Joseph’s Long Island mansion:


He was always so grave, serene, watchful yet pleasant and decidedly agreeable, gay even, without seeming so to be. There was something so amazingly warm and exotic about him and his, and yet at the same time something so cold and calculated, as if after all he were saying to himself, “I am the master of all this, am stage-managing it for my own pleasure.”

At the end of “Vanity, Vanity,” Dreiser defends Joseph:


. . . the man had been a victim of a cold-blooded conspiracy, the object of which was to oust him from opportunities and to forestall him in methods which would certainly have led to enormous wealth.  

The men stayed in touch after Joseph’s release from prison. Dreiser encouraged Joseph to write, and during the 1920s the former banker published two plays under a pseudonym. But it appears that his real talent was double-dealing.

Joseph G. Robin easily made it into
Volume II of Henry Ford's 1921 compilation,
The International Jew.

*Dreiser also drew on Joseph G. Robin’s personality for the character of Frank Cowperwood in The Financier (1912).

Friday, June 3, 2022

Discovering Joseph G. Robin

Joseph G. Robin, early twentieth century,
newspaper illustration

Joseph G. Robin was a New York banker who became very wealthy during the Gilded Age. He amassed and developed real estate, built a web of railways, and made a few shady deals with power companies that sprang up in the spray of Niagara Falls.

But it was Joseph’s consolidation of banks, from which he had embezzled mightily, that finally caught up with him. Everything fell apart on December 28, 1910, in the midst of a state investigation of insurance companies. Joseph was arrested and put in the Tombs, a damp crowded prison designed to look like an Egyptian mausoleum, located in lower Manhattan.

Evidently Joseph anticipated the arrest, because he tried to commit suicide by jumping from a window in the Beaux-Arts Building, where he lived several floors above the Café des Beaux-Arts. Further, his friends told reporters, he flaunted a packet of cyanide.

Joseph’s older sister, Louise, was a physician dedicated to improving the medical treatment of inmates in prisons and asylums. She managed to whisk her brother out of the Tombs and hired three alienists to examine Joseph and commit him to a sanitarium. Within a day or two, however, a judge declared Joseph sane, impaneled a grand jury, and sent him back to prison. 

Facts and rumors tumbled forth. Joseph and Louise had emigrated from Russia to the U.S. in the 1880s, the children of Herman and Rebecca Rabinovitch. Joseph changed his  surname to Robin when he was quite young although Louise remained “Rabinovitch.” Joseph earned his first dollars selling a story to the newspapers. It concerned the scandalous conditions that his sister uncovered in the course of her medical investigations.

Newspaper sketch of Louise Rabinovitch

Joseph insinuated himself into Wall Street, investing in various schemes. By the mid-1890s, now a popular financier who pranced around town, Joseph courted wealthy widows and touted his French blood. He pronounced his name “Ro-ban” and thought he had left the past well behind.

Then detectives turned up an elderly Jewish couple who claimed to be the parents of Joseph and Louise. They were brought to the courtroom to see their son, but he and his sister insisted that these people were not their parents. Speaking in broken English, weeping and wailing, the mother gave the District Attorney letters that Joseph and Louise had written to her and her husband. One was dated August 31, 1892.

My Dear Parents: Please answer me at once if I can have anything of you, or something of you, or nothing. . . I need $10 for a ticket and $15 for two or three weeks’ board and lodging. Please answer at once: don’t wait for a minute and send me the money or write me one word, “not.” Remember this only that if you refuse me I will have nothing in common with you! Your son, Joseph

Joseph and Louise were adamant that they did not know Herman and Rebecca and refused to speak with them. Perhaps the couple were opportunists but I doubt it. They died a few years after their son was sentenced to one year in prison.

According to reports, Joseph spent his time at the Tombs in an office—not a cell—equipped with a telephone and typewriter. There he carried on, working with his brokers, trading stocks and bonds; mixing despondency and defiance.


Postcard of the Tombs, early 1900s

To be continued.

Thursday, April 7, 2022



Newspaper sketch, 1880s

Attempts by state legislatures to prevent women from procuring Misoprostol and Mifepristone through the mail recall old times in a deeply concerning way.

Those were the days of Comstockery.

Anthony Comstock (1844-1915), who spent more than forty years persecuting Americans for engaging in activities that he deemed obscene, started his career in 1873 when he suppressed an “objectionable” book in the store where he worked as a clerk.

That year he established the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and became the unpaid enforcer of the Comstock Laws, which he had persuaded members of Congress to pass with alacrity.

The Comstock Laws criminalized the possession and conveyance of lewd, lascivious, filthy, indecent and disgusting material and objects. Those words actually appeared in the Federal Criminal Code, Section 211, from which all Comstock Laws descended.

Thus the United States Post Office was among the private and public institutions, organizations, and businesses—including an old bookstore which stocked antique porn—that fell under the control of Anthony Comstock, special agent for the postal service.

Comstock was not without his detractors.

Right up until 1914, the year before he died, Comstock initiated 3,697 state and federal arraignments of Americans whose behavior and/or possessions he found obscene. Of these, 2,740 pleaded guilty or were convicted. 

Information about birth control—“prevention of conception”—fell into that category, as discovered by Margaret Sanger, an advocate for reproductive rights who published and distributed a newspaper, The Woman Rebel. Sanger, a nurse and social worker who lived in New York City, was especially concerned about the plight of working-class women who lacked information about how to prevent pregnancy and any way to get safe, effective contraception. Meanwhile, she argued, wealthy women had access to whatever they needed.

Masthead of The Woman Rebel

After Sanger mailed out three issues of The Woman Rebel, Comstock became enraged. In August 1914, he had her indicted for violating the law but she was released without bail and fled to England. In Sanger’s absence, her friends distributed 100,000 copies of Family Limitations, a brochure about contraception.

Newspaper story, April 1914;
"Make P. O. Officials Blush"

Subsequently, one of Comstock’s agents tricked Sanger’s husband, William, into handing over several brochures upon request. William Sanger was indicted and convicted and sentenced to thirty days in prison.

“The sooner society gets rid of you the better!” one of the judges proclaimed from the bench.

When Margaret Sanger returned to the United States in 1915, she, too, stood trial. After her five-year old daughter died of pneumonia, the charges were dismissed. She went on to found the nation’s first birth control clinic and crusaded for reproductive rights until her death in 1966. Five years later, the Comstock Laws were abolished.

It is time for the people of this country to find out if the United States mails are to be available for their use, as they in their adult intelligence desire, or if it is possible for the United States Post Office to constitute itself as an institution for the promulgation of stupidity and ignorance, instead of a mechanical convenience.


                                                                                  --Margaret Sanger

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Bad Guy Vignettes


"Manhattan: Central Park - The Majestic Apartments"
(New York Public Library Digital Collections)

When my mother was a student at Hunter College during the late 1940s, she routinely traveled south on the A train from her family’s apartment in Inwood, a neighborhood at the tip of northern Manhattan.

She’d get on at 207th Street and ride until 72nd Street. Then she would transfer to a crosstown bus to the East Side, where Hunter is located.

Walking by the luxurious Majestic, one of several Art Deco apartment buildings that had been built along Central Park West around 1930, my mother often spied a violet-colored Cadillac waiting at the curb. One day she asked the doorman to whom it belonged and he told her “Mr. Costello.” That was Frank Costello, the mobster who lived upstairs.

Ten years later, in May 1957, Costello would survive an assassination attempt in the Majestic’s lobby. A few months went by before the FBI and the New York City police homed in on the shooter: an “ex-pug”—pugilist—known as “the Chin.” He was Vincent Gigante, acting on behalf of the Genovese family.

The 25-year old Gigante wore a size 50 suit and waddled when he walked. Some newspaper accounts referred to him as “the Waddler” rather than “the Chin.”

Gigante, his wife, and four children lived downtown on Bleecker Street. The detectives staked out his house around the clock. Yet Gigante eluded them until one August afternoon when he showed up at the West 54th Street police station (accompanied by his lawyer). “Do you want me in the Costello case?” he asked.

“We sure do,” said Deputy Inspector Fred Lussen. But Gigante would not cooperate, refusing to answer questions.

I explained this to my mother and she smiled and nodded. She wouldn’t have been paying attention in the spring of 1957 because she had a brand-new bouncing baby boy, my older brother.

1931 Dyckman Street shooting

Then I told her that she’d had a closer brush with gangsters up there in Inwood in 1931 when she was three years old. It turns out that another three-year old girl, also named Gloria, was shot to death at the end of a 90-minute gun battle between the police and two robbers.

Advertisement for Mendoza
Fur Trade Review, 1931

Just before 5 o’clock on a warm Friday afternoon, a policeman escorted the paymaster of the Mendoza Fur Dyeing Company, who carried a payroll of $4,619 from a bank, through the plant’s parking lot. Two robbers approached the car and shot the policeman and threw the paymaster on the ground.

Then they led a chase that ranged along twelve miles of streets in upper Manhattan and The Bronx. Six people would die, both patrolmen and bystanders who were starting the weekend a few minutes early as the season wound down toward Labor Day. The youngest victim was little Gloria Lopez, whose mother Matilda told reporters that she and her husband, a fireman, had tried for a decade to have a baby.

The story made it into the Great Falls, Montana newspaper.

The chase finally ended near the corner of Dyckman Street and Broadway in Inwood, an intersection that remains a touchstone of my mother’s childhood memories.

She was too young to remember playboy Mayor Jimmy Walker, who presided over the city. At the time of the shootings, Walker was traveling in Europe because New York State Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt had appointed a commission which threatened to investigate the Tammany Hall corruption that Walker enabled.

Meantime, Mayor Jimmy Walker was in
Germany "for his health."

In this way Walker resembled previous mayors beholden to Tammany. But his indifference to the robbery and deaths—which inspired the American Legion to offer to mobilize 30,000 members to patrol the city with bayonetted rifles—was exceptionally offensive.    

“Being 3,000 miles from New York,” Walker told reporters, “I am ignorant of the circumstances of the shooting. I cannot give any opinion.” Then he was off to a brewery in Pilsen, whose mayor announced that Pilsen beer was not only an excellent but sanitary drink.

Jimmy Walker quaffed a stein and commented that none of the cathedrals or museums he had visited in Europe gave him greater pleasure than the beer. He hoped that the Pilsener sign would soon return to New York, he said.

My mother, Gloria (left), with an Inwood playmate, 1931

It would be two more years before the repeal of Prohibition. In the meantime, Governor Roosevelt forced Walker to resign and my mother continued to toddle around up and down Dyckman Street, holding her mother’s hand. It could have been her caught in the crosshairs, but then I wouldn’t be telling this story.

*In 1933, Mr. and Mrs. Lopez became the parents of John. Jr.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

August Lake