More proof that life is even harder when you’re stupid

penny-ante

One occasionally hears of criminals who pull off deeds so brilliant that it leaves one wondering why they simply didn’t pursue a more honest line of work. These sorts obviously possess the vision, ingenuity and resourcefulness always in demand in the business world.

Then you have individuals such as Robert Napolitan of Scott Township, Pa.

Police in nearby Taylor, just outside Scranton, have accused the 34-year-old with taking a steel drum filled with 300,000 pennies from a trucking company.

A criminal complaint says he loaded the drum, which weighed 1,600 pounds, onto a hand truck at the company last week and rolled it to his Jeep.

Robert Napolitan of Scott Township, Pa. Not exactly Ronnie Biggs.

Robert Napolitan of Scott Township, Pa. Not exactly Ronnie Biggs.

“Mr. Napolitan had a key to the building’s back door and informed a company dispatcher he would be there late at night during the Labor Day holiday weekend to remove parts from a disabled Dodge Durango,” according to the Scranton Times-Tribune. “Security camera footage captured his white Jeep Cherokee pulling in at 2:30 a.m. Monday but did not show he worked on the Dodge.”

Tracks through the dust and a trail of pennies marked Napolitan’s path, according to a police affidavit.

Police searched his Jeep and found 89 pennies underneath the seats and floor mats.

Police say Napolitan admitted to taking the drum and its $3,000 in contents.

One supposes that rather than spend the next 225 years rolling the pennies into paper sleeves, Napolitan would likely have taken the coins to a smelter and tried to cash them in for their metallic value. However, when it comes to “less-gifted” lawbreakers, one never knows.

For his trouble, Napolitan was jailed in Lackawanna County in lieu of $50,000 bail.

The sordid reason Rhode Island abolished the death penalty

old rhode island statehouse

Spend any time in Rhode Island and you quickly learn a few things: It’s not an island; it would appear to have the most corruption per capita outside of Sicily; and for such a small entity the Ocean State has more than its fair share of interesting stories.

Consider that Rhode Island hasn’t executed anyone in more than 170 years. Part of the reason is that the last man to die at the hands of the state was almost certainly railroaded, a victim of anti-Irish, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant bigotry that was prevalent in many areas of the United States into the 20th century.

This particular story begins on Dec. 31, 1843, when textile magnate Amasa Sprague finished supper at his Cranston, RI, mansion and went for a walk. Sprague was powerful both in physique and prominence.

He was a New England Brahmin, and together with his brother William owned a textile business started by his father William Sprague Sr. The Spragues owned several cotton mills in Rhode Island, but their most profitable factory was the print works in nearby Spragueville, which printed calico patterns on cloth.

The A & W Sprague Co. employed most residents of Spragueville, owned the tenements they rented and the company store where they shopped. He was a man to be feared.

During Sprague’s after-dinner walk, he was accosted by at least two individuals. He was shot in the right wrist and struck with a blunt instrument in the left side of his head, then his right. Despite desperate attempts to fight back, Sprague was overcome and killed.

There was no shortage of potential suspects, according to the New England Historical Society.

Logo of A & W Sprague Co., showing Cranston, RI, textile plant.

Logo of A & W Sprague Co., showing Cranston, RI, textile plant.

There was talk that the murder was politically motivated. The previous year, an individual named Thomas Dorr had been arrested for a failed attempt to force broader democracy in Rhode Island by setting up a rival government that would expand the vote to all adult white males.

Still governed by the state’s 1663 colonial charter with its relatively high property requirement for suffrage, Rhode Island allowed only white, propertied men – about a third of adult male population – to vote. The Irish, who were nearly all disfranchised under the colonial charter, strongly supported the Dorr Rebellion.

Sprague, like many wealthy white males, benefited from the system in place and, along with his brother William and brother-in-law Emanuel Rice, helped orchestrate Dorr’s downfall. Some speculated that supporters of Thomas Dorr, who would later be found guilty of treason against the state, assassinated Amasa Sprague, according to the New England Historical Society.

Others looked closer to home. William and Amasa Sprague apparently disagreed about what direction the family business should take. William wanted to expand the company beyond Rhode Island, while Amasa was content to continue the business at its current size and profitability. Neither man had a reputation for backing down when they didn’t get their way.

Suspicion also fell upon Nicholas Gordon, a tavern owner whose establishment was frequented by Sprague’s millworkers, much to Amasa Sprague’s displeasure.

Gordon’s tavern was attached to his home and was located in a section of Cranston, which, in the decidedly indelicate sensitivities that were prevalent in 19th century America, was nicknamed “Monkeytown” because of its Irish population.

“Amasa Sprague had successfully fought against renewing Gordon’s liquor license because, he said, his Irish millworkers were getting drunk during work hours and neglecting their jobs,” according to the New England Historical Society. “Gordon and Sprague had fought publicly. Sprague and Gordon had once met on a path and neither refused to give way. Finally Sprague grabbed Gordon by the collar and shouted, ‘Get out of the way, you damned Irishman!’”

The entire case was a fiasco from beginning to end. William Sprague resigned his senate seat to supervise the murder investigation, an apparent conflict of interest.

Not only was Nicholas Gordon quickly arrested, along with his younger brothers, John and William, the Gordon’s mother and a friend of Nicholas’ named Michael O’Brien – because everyone knew the Irish always stuck together – but the Gordon’s dog was apprehended, as well. (The dog was later described by a defense attorney as toothless and old.)

William and John were tried first, with the Irish community rallying behind them and raising funds for their defense.

Ultimately, it was 29-year-old John Gordon, recently arrived from Ireland to join his brothers Nicholas and William, who took the fall for the crime. William was found not guilty, but John was found guilty despite a conviction based on contradictory circumstantial evidence.

How badly were the cards stacked against John Gordon?

In trials held at the then-Rhode Island Statehouse, Presiding judge Job Durfee told jurors to give greater weight to Yankee witnesses than Irish witnesses. He added that they did not have to believe anything that the Irish witnesses for the defense said because they were by their nature unable to tell the truth, according to a 2013 report on the sordid affair by the Cranston Herald.

In addition, Henry Bowen Anthony, the editor of the Providence Journal, the leading news source for Rhode Island at the time, provided the public with plenty of “facts” about Gordon’s guilt, even though many were asserted without a shred of truth to them, the Herald added.

One of the pieces of evidence that convicted John was a broken gun found near the body of Amasa Sprague. Nicholas was known to own a gun, but it couldn’t be found in his house, so it was assumed the broken gun was his. After the trial it was discovered that William had hidden Nicholas’ gun under the attic floorboards, according to the New England Historical Society.

Nicholas was tried later, but he had an alibi and the witnesses who convicted his brother were suddenly unsure of their memories. His trial ended in a hung jury. His gun turned up just before his second trial, which also ended in a hung jury.

John Gordon was hanged on Feb. 14, 1845, in Providence. His last words were, “I hope all good Christians will pray for me.”

Many believed he was innocent and the victim of a legal lynching. Some 1,400 Irish came from Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts for his funeral. The procession took a detour to pass the Statehouse and the homes of the Yankee elite.

Seven years later, the Rhode Island legislature banned capital punishment, in part because of the travesty of John Gordon’s trial.

In 2011, 166 years after John Gordon was hanged by the state of Rhode Island, Gov. Lincoln Chafee pardoned him.

“John Gordon was put to death after a highly questionable judicial process and based on no concrete evidence,” Chafee said in 2011. “There is no question he was not given a fair trial.”

(Old Rhode Island Statehouse, Providence, where John Gordon and his brothers were tried for the murder of Amasa Sprague.)

California, there I go; enough of your dog-and-pony show

california traffic

Here’s a head-scratcher: California, beset by ridiculously high real estate prices, onerous taxation, draconian regulation and, in the metro areas, extreme congestion, is losing tens of thousands of residents to other states.

During the 12 months ending June 30, 2015, 61,000 more people left California than moved to the state from elsewhere in the US, according to information generated by California officials.

The so-called “net outward migration” was the largest since 2011, when 63,300 more people fled California than entered it. Over the past quarter century, the state has experienced negative outward migration in 22 of the past 25 years, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

It’s been 20 years since I bid adieu to the Golden State, where I was born and where my parents still reside. I’d lived in many different parts of the US and had seen a great deal of the country, so leaving for the last time in 1996 wasn’t difficult.

At that time, it was all but impossible to find a decent home for under $350,000, even two hours or more from the state’s large metro areas.

The final straw came when, tired of commuting 2-1/2 hours each way to San Francisco from near where my folks lived along the Monterey Bay, I looked for a home closer to the Bay Area. The best deal available was one half of a small, rundown duplex in the concrete jungle of a San Jose suburb that looked to have had its fair share of gang problems. The price was $267,500.

A couple of months later I changed jobs and moved to the Florida Panhandle, where housing costs were one-quarter of California’s.

When you add in the bureaucracy the state appears to revel in, the restrictions on everyday life – don’t dare ask for a plastic bag when checking out at a supermarket, for example – the rampant hyper-environmentalism, the steady drumbeat of property crime such as cars being broken into, burglaries and vandalism, and the swarms of people who seemingly inhabit every square inch of the state from the coast 25 miles inland from Marin County north of San Francisco all the way down to the border with Mexico, it’s no wonder that many are choosing to leave.

Yes, the job market in the tech sector is currently booming, but when it costs so much to buy or rent a place to live, and taxes eat up so much of what remains, it’s tough to get ahead. I could never understand how one could have peace of mind with a $3,000 mortgage payment looming each month. That’s a sword of Damocles I didn’t need hanging over my head.

The impact of California’s outward flow is felt throughout the west, as well.

Twenty years ago, people not only in neighboring states of Arizona, Nevada and Oregon complained that California “refugees” were driving up real estate prices, but also in Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Idaho.

During a housing boom, a California resident can make a profit of $100,000 or more on their home in a relatively short time. The windfall can be applied to a princely palace in other areas. But that means real estate prices rise for everyone in those other areas.

Of course, during the housing bust that occurred last decade tens of thousands of Californians walked away from their homes, abandoning abodes rather than making payments on properties that had suddenly declined in value precipitously.

For now, California officials don’t seem all that concerned.

The state has never been shy about taxing its residents to make up for revenue shortfalls, and while there is a sizeable percentage of individuals who classify themselves as political conservatives, they are outnumbered by political liberals who, while perhaps well intentioned, have run the state aground through decades of social, fiscal and political experimentation based on theory but with little foundation in practicality.

But, as with any polity, the absence of legitimate two-party or multiple-party systems has enabled those who run California to treat it as their own private political Petri dish, passing laws, ordinances and regulations to fit their needs, rather than what works best for those they’re supposed to be serving. It’s no different from, say, a Southern state completely dominated by conservatives. Once the checks and balances are removed, it’s the citizens who pay the price.

California’s future is impossible to predict, of course. But until those that run the state decide to do something dramatically different, it’s almost a certainty that the ongoing mini-exodus will continue.

As crisis worsens, Venezuela becoming more isolated

simon bolivar airport

Venezuela’s implosion continues.

Amid hyperinflation, massive unemployment, social unrest, political oppression and shortages of food and medicine, the South American nation is on the verge of general anarchy, a legacy of Hugo Chávez’s years of mismanagement, along with that of successor Nicolás Maduro.

So it’s hardly surprising that airlines such as Lufthansa and LATAM Airlines are crossing the country off their schedules.

The pair joins Air Canada, American Airlines and Alitalia which in recent years have scaled back or suspended Venezuelan operations, according to The Economist.

But it isn’t just unrest or political chaos that’s driving airlines to divert flights elsewhere.

Venezuela, seeking to avoid yet another devaluation of its currency or outright repudiation of debt, which would cut off credit to the ailing oil industry, has tightened currency controls introduced by Chávez in 2003.

The restrictions make it almost impossible for companies such as international airlines to convert the Venezuelan currency, bolívares, into dollars.

This has made it difficult for international airlines, who typically charge customers in local currencies, to repatriate their profits.

That isn’t surprising given that Chávez initially implemented currency controls after capital flight led to a devaluation of the currency.

“Lufthansa has written off the more than $100 million it says it is owed; LATAM says it is due $3 million,” according to The Economist. “The International Air Transport Association, the airlines’ trade body, estimates that Venezuela’s government is withholding $3.8 billion of airline revenues.”

A Lufthansa spokesman told Agence France-Presse that the country’s difficult economic situation and “the fact that is it is not possible to transfer foreign currency out of the country,” is behind the company’s decision.

Lufthansa is scheduled to quit service to the country this week; LATAM, Latin America’s largest airline group, has said it will stop flights to Venezuela by Aug. 1.

Contrast the current situation with that of 40 years ago, when Venezuela’s oil wealth attracted business travelers – and airlines – from all over the world.

At present, just a handful of foreign airlines continue to serve the troubled nation, including Air France and United Airlines.

But both are public companies and it seems unlikely either can or will stand for having their revenues tied up by a banana republic.

(Top: Air France plane show in foreground at Simon Bolivar Airport, near Caracas, Venezuela.)

Turning the tables on the Internet’s blackguards

snow

Over the past couple of weeks no fewer than half a dozen spam faxes have come into my office pushing everything from Caribbean vacations to timeshare rentals. My first reaction: Do spammers use fax machines anymore?; followed by, how can spamming people by fax possibly be worth the effort?

Not all spammers are retrograde. Anyone who writes or reads a blog is familiar with insidious spammers attempting to post all sorts of unrelated links in comments sections for such items as Chinese manufactured goods, search-engine optimization services, the ubiquitous “male-enhancement” products and scams that purport to enable individuals to earn $87 an hour working part-time from home.

Of course, a good spam filter keeps many of these from seeing the light of day, but some spammers are particularly persistent, especially on blogs that see heavy traffic.

Google uses a complex algorithm to rank the relevancy of websites and blogs, and has worked to make sure that the actions of third-party sites – read spammers – don’t negatively affect websites.

Google has even gone so far as to devise a “disavow” tool which allows websites and blogs to basically ask Google not to take certain links into account when assessing their sites.

It would appear that these spammers are also being penalized by Google for their past actions.

The Coyote Blog noted recently that it has been receiving link-removal requests from companies that spammed its comment section in the past.

“Most of them threaten that somehow their past spamming might threaten my Google rating, when in fact they are actually worried about their own Google search ranking,” The Coyote Blog writes.

Coyote, unsurprisingly, is less than sympathetic to these online vermin. He responds to such requests thusly:

I might or might not get to it, depending on how I feel and how hard it turns out to be. I only have limited sympathy as your company placed those spam links on my site against my wishes and against the usage guidelines for the site and on posts that largely were irrelevant to your product. I had to go to considerable expense to move my server and add new software specifically to fight spam of the sort you were dumping on me. All I can say is that you reap what you sow. And as to your threats that my Google ranking is somehow in jeopardy due to your past behavior, I believe Google is fully aware of whether your site or my site should be penalized for such spam, and it is not going to be my site.

Should The Coyote Blog get around to addressing the spammer’s request, it usually adds an update to the post itself saying that “[company with link] has confessed to being unapologetic spammers in the past and a link to their site [and I include the link] has been moved from the comments section at their request and moved to the main post to give their bad past behavior more visibility.”

Hear! Hear! Way to stick it to the Man Mouse!

Long-missing ‘Inverted Jenny’ returns after 61 years

inverted jenny

Among America’s most famous stamps is the 1918 “Inverted Jenny,” featuring a misprint of a Curtiss Jenny JN-4HM biplane which is shown upside down, or “inverted,” and is valued at more than $1 million.

Just a single sheet of 100 of the misprinted stamps was accidentally released to the public in spring 1918, where a single individual snapped them up for $24. Until recently, 98 of the famous stamps were accounted for.

Now only a single Inverted Jenny remains missing after officials confirmed a stamp purported to have been purchased at a garage sale in Ireland sometime before late 2013 is one of the missing Inverted Jennys, one of four stolen in 1955.

The US Post Office created the stamp to coincide with the launch of the first regular airmail routes in May 1918, in Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia. A fleet of six modified Curtis Jenny biplanes was to be used to transport mail.

Given that flying was hardly an inexpensive proposition, the post office recognized that new stamps were needed and designed the 24-cent Flying Jenny, which were eight times more costly than standard first-class stamps.

Given the short lead time – engraving began on May 4, 1918, printing May 10 and the first sales to the public May 14 – it’s not surprising that mistakes were made. At least three sheets with upside-down biplanes were spotted by inspectors and destroyed, but a single sheet of 100 stamps managed to slip past, according to The History Blog.

Collector William T. Robey of Washington, DC, was the lucky philatelist, purchasing the sheet on May 14, 1918. He eventually sold the Inverted Jenny sheet for $15,000 to Philadelphia dealer Eugene Klein, who later sold it for $20,000 to collector H.R. Green.

Green would later break up the sheet and sell many of the individual stamps to other collectors. Prior to breaking up the Inverted Jenny sheet, Klein and Green lightly penciled a number on the back of each stamp so that each stamp’s original position on the sheet could later be identified, according to The History Blog.

The recently returned stamp is position 76 from the Inverted Jenny sheet.

That stamp was part of a block of four that belonged to Ethel B. Stewart McCoy, a philatelist and daughter of Charles Bergstresser, one of the founders of Dow Jones & Co.

McCoy had purchased the block from New York City stamp dealer Spencer Anderson in 1936 for $16,000. In September 1955, during an exhibition at a convention of the American Philatelic Society in Norfolk, Va., the McCoy Block was stolen by an unknown thief or thieves.

“It’s one of the most notorious crimes in philatelic history, and there’s a piece of the puzzle now that’s in place,” said Scott English, the administrator of the American Philatelic Research Library.

Inverted Jenny No. 76 turned up in April of this year when it was consigned for auction to Spink USA Inc. by Keelin O’Neill.

Spink sent the stamp to the Philatelic Foundation in New York to be authenticated, and personnel of the foundation identified it as having belonged to the McCoy block.

After Spink identified the stamp as one from the infamous block it alerted the FBI and the American Philatelic Research Library. The FBI approached O’Neill, who stated that he had received the stamp in or about October 2013 from his grandfather, now deceased.

Before her death in 1980, McCoy assigned all of her rights, title and interest in the stolen McCoy Block to the American Philatelic Research Library.

The FBI recovered one of the four missing stamps in 1977 and another in 1982, and both were returned to the APRL, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.

O’Neill voluntarily agreed to relinquish it to the American Philatelic Research Library once he was told the stamp was stolen. He received a $10,000 reward from the American Philatelic Research Library and also got a $50,000 reward from Donald Sundman of Mystic Stamp.

“More than 60 years ago, a block of four of the most famous error stamps in philatelic history – the Inverted Jenny – was stolen from an exhibition. There were no witnesses, no suspects and little evidence to pursue,” said Assistant Director-in-Charge Diego Rodriguez of the FBI. “Today, the FBI is proud to assist in the return of the third Inverted Jenny stamp to the American Philatelic Research Library. This is just one example of the FBI’s commitment to restore significant arts and antiques to their rightful owners.”

The fourth and final Inverted Jenny from the McCoy block remains missing.

Spectacular violet diamond to go on tour this week

argyle violet diamond

An “impossibly rare” violet diamond, plucked deep from a remote mine in the north of Western Australia, will go on tour later this week, with an estimated value of nearly $4 million.

The gemstone, originally 9.17 carats, was the largest jewel of its kind ever discovered when found last summer at Rio Tinto’s Argyle mine. It has since been polished down to a 2.83 carat oval-shaped beauty.

“Rio Tinto said that the jewel had been assessed by the Gemological Institute of America, and while they said it would be the centerpiece of their upcoming show, they would not disclose its estimated value,” according to the website Red Orbit. “However, the firm noted that they expected to receive a significant amount of interest from potential buyers, and some figures suggest it could bring in $3.96 million.”

The diamond has been assessed by the Gemological Institute of America as a “notable diamond with the color grade of Fancy Deep Greyish Bluish Violet.”

Site of Argyle Diamond Mine, in the East Kimberley region in north of Western Australia.

Site of Argyle Diamond Mine, in the East Kimberley region in north of Western Australia.

“It is not known how diamonds acquire their colored tinge but it is thought to come from a molecular structure distortion as the jewel forms in the earth’s crust or makes its way to the surface,” according to Agence France-Presse.

The Argyle Violet is the largest such diamond Rio Tinto had ever recovered from the mine.

London-based Rio Tinto said that violet diamonds are extremely rare, and that only 12 carats of such polished stone have been produced during the 32 years the Argyle mine has been in operation.

Other unusually colored diamonds, including those that are pink or red, are typically worth 50 times more than regular white diamonds, the firm told the Daily Mail. Some of them have even sold for as much as $1.95 million per carat, it said.

The Argyle Violet gem was polished in Western Australia by one of Argyle’s master polishers, according to a Rio Tinto press release. The diamond’s tour will take it to Copenhagen, Hong Kong and New York, the company added.

(Top: The Argyle Violet diamond – the big, purty one – next to smaller diamonds.)