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An Excellent Way of Gaining a Rudder, by Victor Niederhoffer
It is always enjoyable and educational to turn back to the annals of Wall Street 100 years ago, and one of the best articles in this genre is Wall Street by Edward Riggs that appeared in Volume 1, Part 1 of the Quarterly Illustrator of April 1885. Because of its importance, and because it is not available on the internet I thought it might be well to review some of the highlights, with comments about their relevance today.
The article is a 42 page review of the old financial titles, the history of the exchange, its growth and methods, its dramatic scenes and peculiar jargon, and how speculators make and lose fortunes.
Here are the characteristics of wall street brokers in those days, who could often be found playing checkers and chess in the rooms provided for them in their new quarters at 30 Broad street.
Wall street brokers never grow old ... Their free and easy practices on the Exchange, their fondness for knocking each other's hats off and jostling each other, their Christmas and New Year's pranks are well know. However, in the old days the brokers frequently settled their differences by resorting to fisticuffs. Notably in one week of 1887 during the panic of that year, their was a rough and tumble every day.
Panics were a frequent occurrence in those days, and the pages of the article are filled with stories of brokers, ghosts, and old and lame ducks who made and lost fortunes, including our friend Henry Clews.
Clews at the age of 60 was one of the old timers of the street along with The Commodore Vanderbilt, Dan Drew, Jim Fiske, Jay Cooke and Jacob Little. He apparently never associated with Little, the chronic bear of wall street, who was always rushing around trying to take the short side before he went under.
Clews, as is well known, got his golden opportunity by selling U.S. bonds during the Civil War.
Many capitalists were induced to make investments in there securities contrary to their own judgment, by Mr. Clews
Clews also never liked the State of Georgia. He was their fiscal agent, bought the entire issue of their bonds, and when Georgia repudiated that debt, Clews was wiped out. He bounced back however, and he and James Keene are distinguished in Wall Street Annals as perhaps the only two men who ever rose above such great disaster and regained their fortunes. It is good to know that Clews was a also great society man, always at the balls of the Union League Club, and the treasurer of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Some other highlights of lions of the day. Frank Sturgis, President of the Exchange, was known in Delmonico's uptown as Hamlet's Ghost. He used to eat at a table alone and was never known to speak to anybody on his daily visits to their fifth avenue and 14th street location. There are many references to Delmonico's in the article, and the fortunes of the restaurant waxes and wanes with the frequent booms and panics that occurred, it seems, at least once or twice a year.
One of these panics hit, amongst others, Stephem 'Deacon' White (all the greats had nicknames). White was called a Deacon not for any religious reason but because of his learnedness. He was an orator, poet, philanthropist, classics scholar, translator, lawyer, accountant, editor, astronomer, schoolmaster, ex-plough-boy and trapper, congressman, and church trustee. Regretfully, these abilities did not keep him from being
... suspended four times, but happily no disaster can keep him under water in the state where he is tramping about in a baggy flannel suit without a scarf, and with the most rumpled of slouch hats.
Definitely not in a state of wealth to dine at one of the two Delmonicos' emporia.
One of the most interesting characters of the Exchange was Addison Commack, who had piratical tastes, having made his fortune by running the blockade and delivering arms to the South during the War of Secession. He became
... the great bear of Wall Street. He never owned slaves but ... as to the blockade, I did it, and am proud of it for I was highly successful. I went into it myself and backed up my opinion, not only by the risk of my life, but by my money too, and that is more than many a man can say.
Commack could have been a good model for Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, being the boldest of all the operators in the ring. Known as the Twenty Third Party, it was rumored that he was a broker for the Soros, Gates and Buffet of those days; the Commodore Vanderbilts, and the Goulds, who controlled the Missouri Pacific Railroad, and Western Union.
Finally I offer a fleeting tribute to Russell Sage, the old man of the street, about whom there is this quote.
Not one in a million that could had had the dynamite bomb flung at him, and escape instant death, with only the loss of his hearing.