Family finds gold in piano; government looks to muscle in

The recent discovery of a UK gold cache raises the specter of every-hungry leviathan ruthlessly employing the law to gobble up assets for its own benefit.

Late last year a hoard of gold coins, English sovereigns minted between 1847 and 1915, was found in old upright piano in Shropshire, in the United Kingdom, after the piano’s new owners had it retuned and repaired.

Under the UK’s Treasure Act of 1996, such discoveries are legally obligated to be reported to the local coroner within 14 days, which was done.

The piano was made by a London firm and initially sold in Essex, near London, in 1906. But its ownership from then until 1983 – when it was purchased by a family in the area who later moved to Shropshire – is unknown, according to the BBC. The new owners were recently given the instrument.

The Shrewsbury Coroner’s Court is currently seeking information about the piano’s whereabouts between 1906 and 1983.

There is a great deal at stake as the objects will qualify as “treasure” and be the property of the Crown if the coroner finds they have been hidden with the intent of future recovery, according to the BBC.

However, if the original owner or their heirs can establish their title to the find, the Crown’s claim will be void.

Under the Treasure Act of 1996, ‘Treasure’ is defined as:

  • All coins from the same hoard, with a hoard is defined as two or more coins, as long as they are at least 300 years old when found;
  • Two or more prehistoric base metal objects in association with one another;
  • Any individual (non-coin) find that is at least 300 years old and contains at least 10% gold or silver;
  • Associated finds: any object of any material found in the same place as (or which had previously been together with) another object which is deemed treasure; and
  • Objects substantially made from gold or silver but are less than 300 years old, that have been deliberately hidden with the intention of recovery and whose owners or heirs are unknown.

The government has not detailed just how many coins were uncovered in the piano or their value, but Peter Reavill, Finds Liaison Officer for the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme at Shropshire Museums said, “It is a lifetime of savings and it’s beyond most people.”

I’d be curious to hear what British citizens think about this law. I understand the government’s interest in unique treasures such as the Irish Crown Jewels, spectacular Viking hoards or Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork, when and if they are uncovered.

But what we have here are simple gold coins – even if in a very substantial quantity.

It would be nice to find the individuals or their heirs who secreted the money away inside the piano; the government, meanwhile is threatening, per usual, to overstep its original purpose and strong-arm the family who, through a bit of blind luck, managed to come into possession of the coins.

Government, which already pockets a considerable sum of the average individual’s wages, has no business confiscating a collection of gold coins simply because it’s forever on the lookout for additional ways to line its coffers.

(Top: Some of the gold coins found inside an old upright piano in the United Kingdom late last year.)

First woman senator progressive and regressive, all in one

rebecca-ann-latimer-felton

When the 115th Congress is sworn into office next month, it will include 21 women senators, a record, and there will be three states where both senators are women.

Of the 46 women to have served in the US Senate since its inception, fully half have taken office during the past 20 years.

But one doesn’t hear a whole lot about the Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton, the first woman to serve in the US Senate. It may partly be because she served just a single day, but it’s also likely that she’s little recognized because she espoused views that today are decidedly out of tune with society as a whole.

Felton was born in 1835 in Decatur, Ga., the daughter of a prosperous planter and merchant. Unusual in the antebellum South, she was sent to Madison Female College, in Madison, Ga., which was essentially a finishing school, incorporating both the last years of secondary education and the first year or two of college. At Madison, she finished at the top of her class.

She married young, in 1853, to William H. Felton, and moved to the latter’s plantation just north of Cartersville, Ga. Like most plantations in the Deep South, the Feltons had slaves.

On the plus side, Rebecca Ann Felton was a prominent women’s rights advocate, pushing for women’s suffrage long before it was popular. In addition, she was a proponent of prison reform and educational modernization.

Also a lecturer, writer and reformer, Felton was considered the most prominent woman in Georgia in the Progressive Era.

Felton’s involvement in politics went beyond being an advocate. Her husband was a member of the US House of Representatives and Georgia House of Representatives, and she ran his campaigns.

In 1922, when Felton was 87, she was named to the US Senate through a bit a political maneuvering, though not all on her part.

Georgia Gov. Thomas W. Hardwick was a candidate for the next general election to the Senate when sitting Sen. Thomas E. Watson died prematurely. Seeking an appointee who would not be a competitor in the coming special election to fill the vacant seat and also looking for a way to secure the vote of the new women voters alienated by his earlier opposition to the Nineteenth Amendment (giving women the right to vote), Hardwick chose Felton to serve as senator in early October 1922.

Despite Hardwick’s tactics, Walter F. George won the seat. Rather than take his seat immediately when the Senate reconvened on Nov. 21, 1922, George allowed Felton to be sworn in. This was due in part to the efforts of Felton and a supportive campaign launched by the women of Georgia.

While Felton was a solon for but a single day, she became the first woman seated in the US Senate.

As such, she was oldest freshman senator to enter the legislative body, at 87 years, nine months and 22 days; was the last member of either house of Congress to have been a slave owner; and is also the only woman to have served as a senator from Georgia.

Unfortunately, Felton’s “progressivism” only went so far. Felton was, quite simply, a virulent white supremacist. She claimed, for instance, that the more money that Georgia spent on black education, the more crimes blacks committed, wrote Leon Litwack in the 1999 work Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow.

Felton considered “young blacks” who sought equal treatment “half-civilized gorillas,” and ascribed to them a “brutal lust” for white women, Litwack wrote, adding that while Felton sought suffrage for women, she decried voting rights for blacks, arguing that it led directly to the rape of white women.

Felton was among the few prominent women who spoke in favor of lynching and on at least one occasion stated that white Southerners should “lynch a thousand [black men] a week if it becomes necessary” to “protect woman’s dearest possession.”

“She’s a puzzle to us now because we would have expected a woman who was committed to expanding the opportunity for women to have been sensitive to the plight and oppression of African Americans,” Fitz Brundage, an expert on post-Civil War Southern history at the University of North Carolina, told The Wall Street Journal. “She never had a moment of introspection.”

(Top: Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton, in all her conflicted opaqueness.)

Zimbabwe could be retracing road to hyperinflation

zimbabwe-bond-notes

Zimbabwe introduced a new currency Monday, but citizens of the foundering African nation aren’t exactly embracing the so-called “bond note” money.

Zimbabwe has been operating to a large degree on US dollars since 2009, after the Zimbabwe dollar was abandoned following some of the worst inflation in world history – peaking at something akin to 500 billion percent – that left residents barely able to buy such items as a single egg with a 1 billion dollar banknote.

The government introduced the new currency in the form of 1 dollar bond coins and 2 dollar bond notes to address the shortage of US dollars and to boost exports. But many say they aren’t buying into the government’s plan.

“They are only giving us bond notes because they don’t have real dollars,” Lovemore Chitongo, 40, a shoe salesman in Harare, told Agence France-Presse. “There is no way the bond note will be equal to the US dollar. The market will determine the exchange rate.”

Proof that government dictates and reality often don’t match up could be seen in the fact that Chitongo was charging $20 in US dollars per pair of shoes but 25 dollars in bond notes.

He would use the difference to buy US dollars on the black market, he told AFP.

What will shortly begin happening in Zimbabwe if citizens lose confidence in the new currency is that bond notes will be refused, or, if citizens are legally required to accept them, they will keep the US dollars and pass the bond notes on to someone else as quickly as possible.

Following the collapse of the Zimbabwean dollar in 2009 the country switched to a multi-currency system, according to Newsweek. At least nine currencies are now legal tender in Zimbabwe: the US dollar, the South African rand, the euro, the British pound, the Australian dollar, the Botswana pula, the Japanese yen, the Indian rupee and the Chinese yuan.

Not all are accepted by Zimbabwean traders, however. The US dollar is the most widely-used currency.

Zimbabwe’s economy collapsed under President Robert Mugabe’s chronic mismanagement. The nation’s leader since 1980, Mugabe sped redistribution of Zimbabwe’s farms from white landowners to blacks through forced confiscation beginning early last decade. Coupled with corruption and misconduct, droughts and an AIDS crisis, the nation of 13 million collapsed economically in 2009.

In fact, inflation was so bad it’s not certain whether anyone knows the exact rate at its peak.

While Zimbabwe officials cited an official inflation rate of 11.2 million percent in August 2008, the International Monetary Fund stated the country was suffering from 500 billion annual inflation rate and Newsweek asserted that Zimbabwe’s inflation rate reportedly peaked at “around 90 sextillion percent – or nine followed by 22 zeros.”

In an effort to win citizens to the new currency, the central bank recently launched an advertising campaign trying to allay people’s fears, saying retailers and businesses had agreed to accept the new currency.

However, opposition to bond notes has sparked fierce anti-government protests which have resulted in brutal police crackdowns.

Police on Monday broke up a protest planned by the pressure group Tajamuka in Harare and arrested the group’s spokesman, according to Agence France-Presse.

“The government is only treating the symptoms without attending to the problems,” Antony Hawkins, an economist at the University of Zimbabwe’s Business School, told the wire service. “We are not earning enough foreign currency and bond notes are not going to solve that. It will make the situation worse.”

In past few weeks, many Zimbabweans slept in lines outside banks so that they would have a better chance to withdraw US dollars from their accounts. Many are concerned that their US dollars were going to be converted into bond notes.

Banks, however, put severe limits on daily withdrawals, just $50 a day, up to $150 a week.

“I will take payments in bond notes but the big question is what do I do with them since some shops are refusing to accept them?” Lewis Mapira, a taxi driver in Harare, told AFP.

(Top: A Zimbabwean holds up 2 dollar bond notes, which began circulating Monday.)

Some opt for ‘scorched earth’ policy in wake of defeat

twitter-2016

First, a couple of caveats: The above Twitter account and its owner are real, and my apologies for the language employed.

Obviously, we have someone whose parents failed to instruct their offspring on the virtues of handling defeat gracefully.

While Donald Trump is certainly not who I had envisioned as presidential material when this process started oh, so long ago, I respect our system of law, the peaceful transition of power from one party to another and the fact that while the Electoral College may seem antiquated to some – especially a good number of Hillary Clinton supporters – it has a purpose.

Ms. Green is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, but it would appear that her course load was light on history and political science.

If she believes that the United States is now a case of “textbook fascism” because we will shortly have a republican president and a republican congress she may want to investigate Mussolini’s Italy (1922-1943) or Hitler’s Germany (1933-1945).

Other despotic states such as Spain and Portugal from the 1930s to the mid-1970s, Vichy France during World War II and Croatia under Ante Pavelić also offer vivid examples of what real fascism looks like.

The problem with the overuse of hyperbole is that eventually you come to believe the foolishness you’re blathering on about.

Ms. Green followed up her obscenity-laden rant of early Wednesday morning with the below:

“To fellow ladies & LGBT folks, POC (people of color), immigrants, and muslims (sic) scared for their future: you are loved. you are not alone. we. will. fight this.”

As I noted in a comment on an earlier story, there are more than a few folks out there who seem to want to believe that Trump’s election is the second coming of Kristallnacht.

In fact, one newspaper today actually published a story with the headline “Has the world forgotten the terrible lesson of Kristallnacht?

Trump may be many things, but he’s not another Hitler. There was only one Hitler. Yes, there was also a Stalin and a Mao and a Pol Pot, among others, but each was unique to their time and place.

And while we live in a very imperfect world, and class and societal antagonisms certainly exist, to suggest that we’re on the brink of a Third Reich-style regime in the US is either a devious rhetorical flourish or simplistic thinking.

I know a good number of people who voted for Donald Trump. None, that I know of, have ever expressed a desire for the US to be rid of gays, people of color, Muslims or legal immigrants.

Some have stated they would like immigration laws enforced more stringently.

I have a soft spot for those who are willing to do just about anything to make their way to our country, particularly when trying to escape appalling conditions, but I understand the desire of others that laws be followed. It doesn’t make them fascists, racists or any other derogatory term that those who disagree with them want to spew forth.

I’ve always liked the phrase “agree to disagree.” It says that while you and I may not see eye to eye on an issue, we respect one another’s right to differing opinions.

Let’s face it: there are a whole lot of people in the world whose views are, essentially, half-baked. But in the US they’re free to embrace whatever ideas they want, as long as they’re not harming others. That’s part of what has made the country different from many other parts of the world.

I’m hopeful that all those who promising to “fight” Trump’s election and insist on maligning individuals who simply exercised their right to vote will realize that in the end we all have to live together. Hopeful, but not overly optimistic.

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.