Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Uncompromising Parker Sercombe

Advertisement for a book by Parker Sercombe, 
evidently never published 

He was a newsboy, editor, capitalist, anarchist, and lecturer. And it looks like he led a colony that verged on being a cult.  

His education stopped at high school yet he engaged the interest of professors, including Oscar Lovell Triggs of the University of Chicago.  He mastered the works of Herbert Spencer, edited To-Morrow, a magazine advertised as "a hand-book of the changing order," and received Jack London, H.G. Wells, and other authors at his office.

Born in Milwaukee in 1860, Parker Holmes Sercombe wended his way through Chicago, Detroit, Mexico City, Austin, and other places that remain unknown before dying in obscurity in Alhambra, California, in 1944. 

By the time Parker turned five years old, his mother was gone, probably in childbirth, leaving six children with his father, a farmer born in England. 

Two of the daughters went to college; one to the Women’s Medical College of Northwestern University which was no mean feat in 1881. She returned to practice in Milwaukee where Parker still hung around, figuring things out. 

He worked as a teacher and postal clerk, married, and finally found some success selling bicycles, typewriters, and the occasional cash register.

“He sprang to prominence in 1894,” noted the Milwaukee Journal. Powerfully athletic, he loved bicycle races and built a plant that manufactured the “Parker Sercombe racing bicycle.”

Parker H. Sercombe was lauded as an up-and-coming
bicycle entrepreneur in The Bearings, the Cycling Authority
of America

As bicycling became a nationwide craze, Parker made a lot of money but annoyed competitors with schemes to get free advertising. They called him a “plunging faker” and “snooky.” Then, at the top of his bicycle game, his wife died and in 1896 he suddenly took off for Mexico.

In Mexico City, Sercombe became friends with President Porfirio Diaz, who ruled Mexico from 1876 until the first stirrings of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. An autocrat who favored economic development through capitalism, Diaz encouraged foreign investment. 

Between 1897 and 1903, Sercombe promoted commercial banking in Mexico with support from Chicago and New York financiers. He established the American Surety Bank in Mexico City and traveled between Mexico and the U.S. numerous times. According to two books that describe Sercombe’s work, he conducted several unsavory business transactions.  

It sounds like Sercombe’s yanqui colleagues eventually drove him out. Bear in mind, however, that the trusts established by Morgan, Schiff, Baruch, Rockefeller, and others carried on and came to dominate the Mexican economy.     


Back in Chicago, Sercombe struck up with Professor Triggs. They collaborated on several ventures including the Spencer-Whitman Center at 2238 Calumet Avenue – named for Herbert Spencer and Walt Whitman – which became notorious as a free love colony. It also housed the offices of To-Morrow Magazine.

To-Morrow published the poems of young Carl Sandburg, who accepted Sercombe’s offer of room and board in exchange for some writing and copy editing. “A foggy philosophical anarchist,” as Sandburg described him:

. . . he was at any time ready to show his various wrestling holds though never throwing a guest to the floor. He welcomed radicals and revolutionaries but he preferred the gentle philosophical anarchists of the Kropotkin variety to the direct actionists who believed in bombs and ‘the propaganda of the deed.’

Parker Sercombe inscribed an issue of To-Morrow to Otto Lippert,
who was either a Cincinnati pharmacist or a news photographer.

Then there was the People’s Industrial College, to be “funded by the intellectual elect,” per Triggs and Sercombe. They would offer free tuition to students of all ages who would perform “at least four hours of useful work with their hands each day.” 

The plan for the college grew out of the men’s interest in industrial arts education. The sole evidence of its existence is advertisements.

In 1906 the Chicago police broke up the Spencer-Whitman Center, citing immoral activities and ramshackle living conditions. Referring to himself as a prophet, Sercombe told a Chicago Tribune reporter that the colony would move to an 800-acre farm on the Kankakee River. That never happened.

In 1907, Triggs went down in a scandalous divorce trial and soon disappeared from the scene.

But Parker Sercombe carried on.

He lectured widely, presenting himself as an expert in politics, religion, philosophy, economics, crime, and sociology. 

He claimed to be organizing a National Bureau of Longevity for the Federal Government. He claimed to be a retired Baptist minister. 

He claimed that his collection of 7,000 rare books would be housed in a marble hall of fame which Andrew Carnegie had agreed to build at a cost of $200,000.

In 1909, he promoted his book Correct Thinking, The First Gun in a Revolt against Leisure-Class Ideals of Education. In 1910, he spoke about “Education in a Democracy” at the University of Wisconsin. In 1915, he was fired from his job as a supervising statistician for the Cook County coroner’s office after he told a welfare bureau official that “350 high school girls are ruined yearly in Chicago.” (Perhaps he was right about that.)

While he denounced marriage as a social evil, Sercombe married a woman named Leontine with whom he had three children: Syndex, Rommanie, and Herbert Spencer.

In 1918 the police sought him for embezzling $875. In 1927, he ran over a child with his car. During the Depression, he moved his family to Mexico where he owned a gas station. Eventually the Sercombe family ended up in California where he came full circle working as a salesman. His ashes are in the Chapel of the Pines crematory in Los Angeles.

What’s compelling about his life? Everything! It’s remarkable that he dissembled so often; people and newspapers took note, but he rolled along. He embraced established institutions – universities, government, banks – yet he attacked the conventions that they represented. He sat on top of the heap at several points in his life, then almost perversely made his own trouble. 

But you have to hand it to him: unabashed, unapologetic, he always acted out of self-interest.

See also March 2 + 10, 2016 posts.

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