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

Thursday, January 27, 2022

The Mysterious Carlisle Kawbawgam

Business card of Carlisle Kawbawgam


In 1912 the Red Caruso burst on the scene, drawing admiration and sneers from both sides of the Atlantic.

Six feet tall, the papers reported, and a magnificent tenor, twenty-six year old Carlisle Kawbawgam told the world that he was the son of the last chief of the Chippewa tribe of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  

“The copper-colored Indian is a magnificent specimen of young manhood,” declared the New York Dramatic Mirror. Audiences and critics predicted that Kawbawgam would soar. He had a brilliant future in opera, they said.

At least one editor spewed venom:


The spectacle of Poor Lo singing high “C” should be sufficient to give one pause. Incidentally, if there is any foundation in fact for the story, we would advise “Jim” Thorpe to get out of his present popularity all that he can.

“Poor Lo,” a derogatory name for Native Americans, became popular in the U.S. during the nineteenth century. It derives from “An Essay on Man” by the English poet Alexander Pope, who wrote:

Lo, the poor Indian! whose untutored mind

Sees God in clouds, or hears Him in the wind . . .

(Library of Congress)

The Upper Peninsula is perched above the mitten of Michigan, surrounded by the lakes Huron, Michigan, and Superior. There, Carlisle Kawbawgam was born in 1882. However, the chief whom he claimed as his father had no children. More than a few puzzling facts or fibs would follow.

During adolescence, Kawbawgam said, he left the Chippewa village and traveled to Pennsylvania to enroll at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. If he actually attended Carlisle, he may have entered willingly or forcibly. The government-run boarding school had one goal: total assimilation and acculturation in white society. Students were brutally subjected to reprogramming.   

Later, when he became a singer, Kawbawgam announced that he chose the name “Carlisle” as a tribute to his alma mater. Immediately, numerous journalists and the Commissioner of Indian Affairs wrote to Moses Friedman, superintendent of the school, inquiring about the former student. Friedman replied that he had no record of this famous alumnus.


Carlisle School Superintendent Moses Friedman
informs the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs that
Carlisle Kawbawgam never attended the boarding school.

Now the young man, it would be reported, went off to the Yale School of Medicine—except Yale has no record of his enrollment. The first Native American graduate of Yale, Henry Roe Cloud, received a B.A. in 1910.  

Kawbawgam may have attended Yale under a different name. But in the age of Jim Crow, it is unlikely that a Native American—even "unblanketed and unmoccasined," as one observer noted—could have passed.  

Onward to Washington, D.C., where Theodore Roosevelt inhabited the presidency and smart society had sprung back to life after years of late Victorian stuffiness.

There, Kawbawgam practiced medicine and sang at private events to earn extra money. During a performance for a Latin American legation, he met and fell in love with Alma Lopez, a Chilean woman of Aztec descent. They married and sailed to Europe. Kawbawgam planned to tour, then settle in Berlin to study with an American expat, Frank King Clark, a well-known voice and elocution teacher.


Advertisement for one of Kawbawgam's
performances in Berlin. 

In December 1912, rave reviews started flying across the ocean. 


Graduate of Carlisle School

Hailed in Berlin and Vienna

As Coming Opera Star



But Kawbawgam did not give up vaudeville. He continued to perform in music halls, never opera houses. Perhaps he studied with Clark until war broke out in 1914; then he and his wife moved to London. There he appeared regularly, always with second billing, at the Trocadero Restaurant and the Alhambra.

Often appearing alongside him were an Australian swimmer and diver, Annette Kellermann; a Parisian torch singer, Mlle. Damia; and a Japanese family of ventriloquists and pantomimists, the Hammamuras.

Of Kawbawgam, English critics “declared unreservedly that an undeniably wonderful talent lies hidden in his bronze throat,” according to a report in the New York Times.


He lately inherited the chieftaincy of the Chippewa through the death of his father, is erect as a sycamore and Indian in every line of his gaunt frame and physiognomy. He is really a “medicine man” by profession. . .  

While Kawbawgam performed as a singer in the London variety shows, he probably also had parts in minstrel-type skits like “The Indian Mail Carrier” and “Queen of the Redskins.”

He and Alma stayed in England through World War I. Carlisle Jr. was born in 1916 and little Alma came along in 1919. A few years later, the family sailed to New York on the Red Star Line. Whether they stayed in the U.S. or returned to England is a mystery.

Carlisle Kawbawgam is a mystery, too. A Native American of ambiguous ancestry, he may have been a poser (as the British say) or a faker (as the Americans say). Perhaps he fabricated his education at Carlisle and Yale. Perhaps he practiced medicine under false pretenses. We don’t know.

One thing is certain: he dreamed of being an opera star.  

Soon after Kawbawgam’s name began to appear in newspapers, a chronicler of Ohio who authored interminable books about the glory days of the frontier, wrote:*


Certainly the Indians did not indulge in any kind of music to the extent that did other races. They had few songs or refrains, and no musical instruments worthy of the name. In fact, they were a silent, sullen people, and did not even indulge in laughter to the extent that other people have. So if we are to have an Indian singer who is to startle the world with his music, it only shows what mighty transformation has been wrought in the Indian since he first met the white man.

*Abraham J. Baughman, Past and Present of Wyandot County, Ohio (1913).

 Thank you for the subject, Mark!

Saturday, January 1, 2022

New Year's Fog

On the shore of the lake, this boathouse emerged from the fog.



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 Gi...