Friday, February 26, 2016

Sawdust Men

Page 47 from 'Professional Criminals of America' describing Sawdust Men's strategyWe have all been recipients of a certain type of e-mail, usually from someone claiming to be the heir to a sizable fortune or the representative of a financial institution based in Nigeria. Predictably, they all need help to transfer a significant amount of money in a covert and speedy fashion and promise a tempting percentage for whomever assists them. Although the technology is relatively new, this sort of swindle is at least over a hundred years old. Back in the late nineteenth century, con artists called "sawdust men" cast a similar net for unsuspecting victims by mailing out flyers, or circulars, to individuals they had identified as being particularly susceptible to these kinds of offers. The circulars offered to sell the recipient a large amount of counterfeit money in exchange for a smaller amount of actual cash. Once the sucker had been shown the funny money and had paid for it, the sawdust men would distract him or her while exchanging the bag full of counterfeit currency for one filled with nothing but sawdust. Much later, after the trick was discovered, the victim was usually left without recourse; to incriminate the sawdust men would be to reveal that they themselves had also planned to conduct illegal activity.

Mug shot of Charles 'Doc' Smyth and other criminals
The details of this scam, along with many others, is described in Professional Criminals of America, a 1886 publication written by Thomas Byrnes.  Byrnes, the NYPD Detective Bureau chief from 1880 until 1895, ostensibly published his book "pro bono publico" in order to keep members of the public from falling prey to less scrupulous members of society. His tome is filled with all manner of interesting facts about the criminal underground, including the habits and strategies of bank robbers, pickpockets and even fradulent horse salesmen. In addition to criminal methodology, Byrnes includes many photographs and biographies of notorious criminals who have apparently been in the business for quite some time. For example, he warns us about Charles Smyth, alias Doctor Smyth, alias Harrison, who is considered a "clever hand" at the "confidence and sawdust game," despite having been arrested and imprisoned for twelve months earlier that year.

Description of Charles 'Doc' Smyth from 'Professional Criminals of America'
It is fascinating to think that the pool of usual suspects in the New York City area would have been so small as to be able to fit them all into a single volume. The power of the photograph was such that the appearance of these ne'er-do-wells' pictures in a popular book apparently was considered sufficient remedy against future deception. What is more likely is that Byrnes was attempting to leverage his national renown into a profitable publishing venture. He had garnered national recognition in 1878 after solving a challenging bank heist, and he continued to grow in fame throughout his fifteen-year stint as the head of the city's detective unit.

However, despite his popularity, Byrnes also had a shady reputation himself; his interrogation rooms
photograph entitled 'The Inspector's Model' from 'Professional Criminals of America' showing police officers torturing a suspect
were more like torture chambers, and Byrnes is claimed to have coined the term "third degree" in reference to his information-extracting behavior. Ultimately, in 1895, he was firmly encouraged to retire as a move to rid the police force of corruption by none other than Theodore Roosevelt, who at the time was the president of the NYC Police Commission.

To learn more about how to protect yourself from the trickery of nineteenth-century scam artists, come to Rauner and ask to see Rare HV6785 .B9.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Antarctica in My Mind

Photo of Ike Taylor
Ike Taylor
In 1955, Dr. Isaac “Ike” Taylor, a then professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, husband and father of five, left his civilian life behind and volunteered for “Operation Deep Freeze” a mission dedicated to exploration and scientific research in Antarctica

Taylor assumed active duty as lieutenant commander in the U.S Naval Reserve Medical Corps and served as Chief Medical Officer at McMurdo Sound, Antarctica from 1955-1957. The airbase established at McMurdo Sound was constructed as part of the International Geophysical Year.

The Durham Morning Herald reported in 1957, “The year has been set up in order that simultaneous observations may be made over the entire world in such sciences as astronomy, meteorology, oceanography, geology, glaciology and others. Scientists from 55 nations are taking part in the program.”
Image of one of the first planes to be flown in 1955
"One of the first planes to be flown in ('55) with Erubus in background steaming 12/55"

Taylor’s previous research on the physiological effects of low temperature on tissue and his interest in Antarctic explorations led him to volunteer for the mission. For close to two years he studied hypothermia, the effects of cold weather on personnel, performed research and tended to the medical needs of the 60 men stationed at McMurdo Sound.

Almost half of his papers (Isaac Taylor papers Mss-219) are comprised of family correspondence. Throughout the entirety of his service in Antarctica Taylor exchanged hundreds of letters with his wife Trudy and their five children: Alec, James, Kate, Livingston, and Hugh. Taylor’s letters home include descriptions of his work, the landscape, newly constructed buildings and Naval equipment and vessels. From a letter dated January 10, 1956 Taylor writes to his two eldest sons:

Letter from Ike Talyor to his children
Dear Alec and James: Can you imagine what I am doing now? You would love it if you were here…We are camped on a small beach of black gravel and sand formed from the lava of the volcano, Mt. Erebus, which lies 14 miles away. No lava has come from the volcano in many years though we can see smoke and steam coming from the top.

It is evident that Taylor’s descriptions of his adventures in Antarctica and the general mystery surrounding such a far off place sparked the artistic minds of his children. You can see the product of their young imaginations and artistry in the drawings and paintings of Antarctica that accompany their letters back to Taylor.

Painting by James Taylor

This painting by his son James, shares a close resemblance to the volcano that Taylor described in his letter from January.

Painting by Alex Taylor
The painting by his son, Alec seems to depict “Operation Deep Freeze” and the men at McMurdo Sound, including Admiral Richard Byrd.

Letter from Kate Taylor
Despite being thousands of miles away or as Taylor wrote: “The Antarctic is about as far away from Chapel Hill as it is possible to go.” The family maintained a connection through words and images.  As Taylor would describe his life and work in Antarctica, his wife and children would share descriptions of their everyday lives in North Carolina including: travel, weather, illnesses, holidays, homework assignments, and Christmas lists.

Personally, the letters and artwork so obviously represent the unwavering love between father and his children and the influence of his narrative and on their imaginations.

Photo of the Eastwind, 1956
“East Wind USCGC at ice ridge, McMurdo Sound, Summer 1956”
Initially my interest in Taylor’s papers was piqued due to the extensive amount of family correspondence, especially the paintings by his children. In digging a little deeper into the collection, an exciting discovery was unearthed. James, Taylor’s second eldest son is in fact famed singer-songwriter James Taylor. Up until a few weeks ago the familial connection between Isaac and James Taylor was unbeknownst to Rauner Library staff members. It goes to show that the opportunity for discovery is ever present here at Rauner Library and continuously adds to the excitement of our day!

The Isaac Taylor papers (Mss- 219) are a part of Rauner Library’s Stefansson Collection on Polar Exploration, which features the papers of many polar explorers in addition to published materials, photographs, and vertical files. If you would like to learn more about “Operation Deep Freeze” and the Taylor family you can request Mss-219 at the reference desk.