Cons, Curses, and the CBC

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December 24, 2020 by libroshombre

Once Marco Rubio said, “Donald Trump is a world-class con artist. He conned all these people that signed up for Trump University. Now he’s trying to do the same thing to Republican voters.”  Donald Trump responded, “The real con artist is Senator Marco Rubio who was elected in Florida and who has the worst voting record in the United States Senate.”   Fact is, the world has ever been a haven for con artists, which Oxford Dictionaries defines as, “A person who cheats or tricks others by persuading them to believe something that is not true.”

            That extends even to librarians, such as Edmund Pearson who graduated from Harvard in 1902 and the Columbia School of Library Service before working for the Washington, D.C. Public Library. Having written a weekly library-tinged newspaper column for 36 years, I noted that Pearson wrote columns for a Boston paper for 14 years.  Unlike yours truly, Pearson wasn’t above including fabrications.  In his second year of columnizing he printed a paragraph he claimed was from an 18th century American librarian.  Pearson said it was extracted from “The Old Librarian’s Almanack, a very rare pamphlet first published in New Haven Connecticut in 1773 and now reprinted for the first time,”  The New York Sun swallowed the hoax and reprinted it, as did The Nation, The New York Times, and others.

            Pearson also faked a medieval curse on book thieves that’s still often considered real.  It begins, “For him that stealeth a Book from this Library, let it change to a Serpent in his hand and rend him.  Let him be struck with Palsy, and all his members blasted,” and continues for another 56 foreboding words.  Eventually Pearson’s forgeries were considered harmless pranks, but anytime a librarian plays fast and loose with the truth, it hurts his and his profession’s standing.  It certainly flies in the face of several items in the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics (which wasn’t drafted until 1939, two years after Pearson’s demise), such as “providing equitable access and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.”  By the way, another ethical provision is to “not advance private interests at the expense of the library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions,” and all my columns have been written for free.

Another columnist, Ben Hecht, described one of the greatest con artists in his immensely readable and critically acclaimed “autobiography,” “Child of the Century.”  Hecht was known to enhance his tales to enhance their entertainment value, but he remained unknown to me until a mysterious library patron rushed into my office one day with Hecht’s book and said, “You’ve got to read this; I’m off to Southeast Asia,” and left.  Hecht’s also known for his plays (“The Front Page”) and script work for Hollywood (“Stagecoach,” “Gone with the Wind,” “My Man Godfrey,” and “Notorious”).  He also ghostwrote Marilyn Monroe’s autobiography and some unnoteworthy novels, but he began as a crime reporter for the Chicago Daily News, where he gained fame for his daily column, “One Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago.”  His autobiography is similarly written in short thousand word bursts.

Hecht personally knew every major Chicago criminal, including the con man, Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil, who claimed to have stolen $8 million during his long career.  Weil’s start in scamming came in the 1890s as shill for Doc Meriwether, a huckster who sold a cure for tapeworms.  “Tapeworm fever” was sweeping the country, and Meriwether’s wife whipped up a potion comprised of rainwater, alcohol, Epsom salts, and cascara (a laxative) that sold well.  He employed dancers, singers, and callers, and Weil, who testified to the crowds like a satisfied customer and bought several bottles.

Weil was being tutored by an established grifter named Hogan when he was noticed by a leading corrupt Chicago politician named “Bathhouse John” Coughlin, who dubbed the blonde Weil the “Yellow Kid” after the main character in the popular “Hogan’s Alley” newspaper cartoon.    “Bathhouse” got his own moniker from his early career as a masseur in a bathhouse.  He eventually owned it and other bathhouses, and, by controlling a vice-laden ward in Chicago, he became a historically corrupt American politician during his 46-year career as a city alderman.  Back then each Chicago ward had two aldermen, and the huge, burly Bathhouse’s co-alderman and “business” partner was the diminutive “Hinky Dink” Kenna.  Through protection and contracting bribes Bathhouse grew fabulously wealthy and satisfied his insatiable desires for flashy clothes (he hired vaudeville costumers), poetry (he wrote dreadful verse), and horseracing (which took care of his fortune) before dying penniless.

Bathhouse oversaw a group of similarly corrupt politicians who called their crooked activities “boodling” (which Webster’s defines as “graft and fraud especially in politics”) and called themselves “the Grey Wolves,” which smacks of the Alaska Legislature’s infamous Corrupt Bastards Club.  I can’t speak for our current state government but know for a fact that the vast majority of librarians here and elsewhere are scrupulous followers of their professional ethics.  They didn’t become librarians to chase riches and power, but to “Provide the highest level of service to all library users,” regardless of their status. 

That’s why a community’s library is, as Caitlin Moran phrased it, “a cross between an emergency exit, a life-raft, and a festival.  They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks for the imagination.”  In times of community crisis like this our library should be boosted rather than reduced.  For those who’d diminish our library, here’s a real and suitable medieval curse: “To steal this book, if you should try/ It’s by the throat that you’ll hang high./  And ravens then will gather ‘bout/ To find your eyes and pull them out/ And when you’re screaming ‘oh, oh, oh!’/ Remember, you deserved this woe.”

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