The Financier

by Theodore Dreiser

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter XIV

The development of Cowperwood as Cowperwood & Co. following his arresting bond venture, finally brought him into relationship with one man who was to play an important part in his life, morally, financially, and in other ways. This was George W. Stener, the new city treasurer-elect, who, to begin with, was a puppet in the hands of other men, but who, also in spite of this fact, became a personage of considerable importance, for the simple reason that he was weak. Stener had been engaged in the real estate and insurance business in a small way before he was made city treasurer. He was one of those men, of whom there are so many thousands in every large community, with no breadth of vision, no real subtlety, no craft, no great skill in anything. You would never hear a new idea emanating from Stener. He never had one in his life. On the other hand, he was not a bad fellow. He had a stodgy, dusty, commonplace look to him which was more a matter of mind than of body. His eye was of vague gray-blue; his hair a dusty light-brown and thin. His mouth—there was nothing impressive there. He was quite tall, nearly six feet, with moderately broad shoulders, but his figure was anything but shapely. He seemed to stoop a little, his stomach was the least bit protuberant, and he talked commonplaces—the small change of newspaper and street and business gossip. People liked him in his own neighborhood. He was thought to be honest and kindly; and he was, as far as he knew. His wife and four children were as average and insignificant as the wives and children of such men usually are.

Just the same, and in spite of, or perhaps, politically speaking, because of all this, George W. Stener was brought into temporary public notice by certain political methods which had existed in Philadelphia practically unmodified for the previous half hundred years. First, because he was of the same political faith as the dominant local political party, he had become known to the local councilman and ward-leader of his ward as a faithful soul—one useful in the matter of drumming up votes. And next—although absolutely without value as a speaker, for he had no ideas—you could send him from door to door, asking the grocer and the blacksmith and the butcher how he felt about things and he would make friends, and in the long run predict fairly accurately the probable vote. Furthermore, you could dole him out a few platitudes and he would repeat them. The Republican party, which was the new-born party then, but dominant in Philadelphia, needed your vote; it was necessary to keep the rascally Democrats out—he could scarcely have said why. They had been for slavery. They were for free trade. It never once occurred to him that these things had nothing to do with the local executive and financial administration of Philadelphia. Supposing they didn’t? What of it?

In Philadelphia at this time a certain United States Senator, one Mark Simpson, together with Edward Malia Butler and Henry A. Mollenhauer, a rich coal dealer and investor, were supposed to, and did, control jointly the political destiny of the city. They had representatives, benchmen, spies, tools—a great company. Among them was this same Stener—a minute cog in the silent machinery of their affairs.

In scarcely any other city save this, where the inhabitants were of a deadly average in so far as being commonplace was concerned, could such a man as Stener have been elected city treasurer. The rank and file did not, except in rare instances, make up their political program. An inside ring had this matter in charge. Certain positions were allotted to such and such men or to such and such factions of the party for such and such services rendered—but who does not know politics?

In due course of time, therefore, George W. Stener had become persona grata to Edward Strobik, a quondam councilman who afterward became ward leader and still later president of council, and who, in private life was a stone-dealer and owner of a brickyard. Strobik was a benchman of Henry A. Mollenhauer, the hardest and coldest of all three of the political leaders. The latter had things to get from council, and Strobik was his tool. He had Stener elected; and because he was faithful in voting as he was told the latter was later made an assistant superintendent of the highways department.

Here he came under the eyes of Edward Malia Butler, and was slightly useful to him. Then the central political committee, with Butler in charge, decided that some nice, docile man who would at the same time be absolutely faithful was needed for city treasurer, and Stener was put on the ticket. He knew little of finance, but was an excellent bookkeeper; and, anyhow, was not corporation counsel Regan, another political tool of this great triumvirate, there to advise him at all times? He was. It was a very simple matter. Being put on the ticket was equivalent to being elected, and so, after a few weeks of exceedingly trying platform experiences, in which he had stammered through platitudinous declarations that the city needed to be honestly administered, he was inducted into office; and there you were.

Now it wouldn’t have made so much difference what George W. Stener’s executive and financial qualifications for the position were, but at this time the city of Philadelphia was still hobbling along under perhaps as evil a financial system, or lack of it, as any city ever endured—the assessor and the treasurer being allowed to collect and hold moneys belonging to the city, outside of the city’s private vaults, and that without any demand on the part of anybody that the same be invested by them at interest for the city’s benefit. Rather, all they were expected to do, apparently, was to restore the principal and that which was with them when they entered or left office. It was not understood or publicly demanded that the moneys so collected, or drawn from any source, be maintained intact in the vaults of the city treasury. They could be loaned out, deposited in banks or used to further private interests of any one, so long as the principal was returned, and no one was the wiser. Of course, this theory of finance was not publicly sanctioned, but it was known politically and journalistically, and in high finance. How were you to stop it?

Cowperwood, in approaching Edward Malia Butler, had been unconsciously let in on this atmosphere of erratic and unsatisfactory speculation without really knowing it. When he had left the office of Tighe & Co., seven years before, it was with the idea that henceforth and forever he would have nothing to do with the stock-brokerage proposition; but now behold him back in it again, with more vim than he had ever displayed, for now he was working for himself, the firm of Cowperwood & Co., and he was eager to satisfy the world of new and powerful individuals who by degrees were drifting to him. All had a little money. All had tips, and they wanted him to carry certain lines of stock on margin for them, because he was known to other political men, and because he was safe. And this was true. He was not, or at least up to this time had not been, a speculator or a gambler on his own account. In fact he often soothed himself with the thought that in all these years he had never gambled for himself, but had always acted strictly for others instead. But now here was George W. Stener with a proposition which was not quite the same thing as stock-gambling, and yet it was.

During a long period of years preceding the Civil War, and through it, let it here be explained and remembered, the city of Philadelphia had been in the habit, as a corporation, when there were no available funds in the treasury, of issuing what were known as city warrants, which were nothing more than notes or I.O.U.‘s bearing six per cent. interest, and payable sometimes in thirty days, sometimes in three, sometimes in six months—all depending on the amount and how soon the city treasurer thought there would be sufficient money in the treasury to take them up and cancel them. Small tradesmen and large contractors were frequently paid in this way; the small tradesman who sold supplies to the city institutions, for instance, being compelled to discount his notes at the bank, if he needed ready money, usually for ninety cents on the dollar, while the large contractor could afford to hold his and wait. It can readily be seen that this might well work to the disadvantage of the small dealer and merchant, and yet prove quite a fine thing for a large contractor or note-broker, for the city was sure to pay the warrants at some time, and six per cent. interest was a fat rate, considering the absolute security. A banker or broker who gathered up these things from small tradesmen at ninety cents on the dollar made a fine thing of it all around if he could wait.

Originally, in all probability, there was no intention on the part of the city treasurer to do any one an injustice, and it is likely that there really were no funds to pay with at the time. However that may have been, there was later no excuse for issuing the warrants, seeing that the city might easily have been managed much more economically. But these warrants, as can readily be imagined, had come to be a fine source of profit for note-brokers, bankers, political financiers, and inside political manipulators generally and so they remained a part of the city’s fiscal policy.

There was just one drawback to all this. In order to get the full advantage of this condition the large banker holding them must be an “inside banker,” one close to the political forces of the city, for if he was not and needed money and he carried his warrants to the city treasurer, he would find that he could not get cash for them. But if he transferred them to some banker or note-broker who was close to the political force of the city, it was quite another matter. The treasury would find means to pay. Or, if so desired by the note-broker or banker—the right one—notes which were intended to be met in three months, and should have been settled at that time, were extended to run on years and years, drawing interest at six per cent. even when the city had ample funds to meet them. Yet this meant, of course, an illegal interest drain on the city, but that was all right also. “No funds” could cover that. The general public did not know. It could not find out. The newspapers were not at all vigilant, being pro-political. There were no persistent, enthusiastic reformers who obtained any political credence. During the war, warrants outstanding in this manner arose in amount to much over two million dollars, all drawing six per cent. interest, but then, of course, it began to get a little scandalous. Besides, at least some of the investors began to want their money back.

In order, therefore, to clear up this outstanding indebtedness and make everything shipshape again, it was decided that the city must issue a loan, say for two million dollars—no need to be exact about the amount. And this loan must take the shape of interest-bearing certificates of a par value of one hundred dollars, redeemable in six, twelve, or eighteen months, as the case may be. These certificates of loan were then ostensibly to be sold in the open market, a sinking-fund set aside for their redemption, and the money so obtained used to take up the long-outstanding warrants which were now such a subject of public comment.

It is obvious that this was merely a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. There was no real clearing up of the outstanding debt. It was the intention of the schemers to make it possible for the financial politicians on the inside to reap the same old harvest by allowing the certificates to be sold to the right parties for ninety or less, setting up the claim that there was no market for them, the credit of the city being bad. To a certain extent this was true. The war was just over. Money was high. Investors could get more than six per cent. elsewhere unless the loan was sold at ninety. But there were a few watchful politicians not in the administration, and some newspapers and non-political financiers who, because of the high strain of patriotism existing at the time, insisted that the loan should be sold at par. Therefore a clause to that effect had to be inserted in the enabling ordinance.

This, as one might readily see, destroyed the politicians’ little scheme to get this loan at ninety. Nevertheless since they desired that the money tied up in the old warrants and now not redeemable because of lack of funds should be paid them, the only way this could be done would be to have some broker who knew the subtleties of the stock market handle this new city loan on ‘change in such a way that it would be made to seem worth one hundred and to be sold to outsiders at that figure. Afterward, if, as it was certain to do, it fell below that, the politicians could buy as much of it as they pleased, and eventually have the city redeem it at par.

George W. Stener, entering as city treasurer at this time, and bringing no special financial intelligence to the proposition, was really troubled. Henry A. Mollenhauer, one of the men who had gathered up a large amount of the old city warrants, and who now wanted his money, in order to invest it in bonanza offers in the West, called on Stener, and also on the mayor. He with Simpson and Butler made up the Big Three.

“I think something ought to be done about these warrants that are outstanding,” he explained. “I am carrying a large amount of them, and there are others. We have helped the city a long time by saying nothing; but now I think that something ought to be done. Mr. Butler and Mr. Simpson feel the same way. Couldn’t these new loan certificates be listed on the stock exchange and the money raised that way? Some clever broker could bring them to par.”

Stener was greatly flattered by the visit from Mollenhauer. Rarely did he trouble to put in a personal appearance, and then only for the weight and effect his presence would have. He called on the mayor and the president of council, much as he called on Stener, with a lofty, distant, inscrutable air. They were as office-boys to him.

In order to understand exactly the motive for Mollenhauer’s interest in Stener, and the significance of this visit and Stener’s subsequent action in regard to it, it will be necessary to scan the political horizon for some little distance back. Although George W. Stener was in a way a political henchman and appointee of Mollenhauer’s, the latter was only vaguely acquainted with him. He had seen him before; knew of him; had agreed that his name should be put on the local slate largely because he had been assured by those who were closest to him and who did his bidding that Stener was “all right,” that he would do as he was told, that he would cause no one any trouble, etc. In fact, during several previous administrations, Mollenhauer had maintained a subsurface connection with the treasury, but never so close a one as could easily be traced. He was too conspicuous a man politically and financially for that. But he was not above a plan, in which Simpson if not Butler shared, of using political and commercial stool-pigeons to bleed the city treasury as much as possible without creating a scandal. In fact, for some years previous to this, various agents had already been employed—Edward Strobik, president of council, Asa Conklin, the then incumbent of the mayor’s chair, Thomas Wycroft, alderman, Jacob Harmon, alderman, and others—to organize dummy companies under various names, whose business it was to deal in those things which the city needed—lumber, stone, steel, iron, cement—a long list—and of course, always at a fat profit to those ultimately behind the dummy companies, so organized. It saved the city the trouble of looking far and wide for honest and reasonable dealers.

Since the action of at least three of these dummies will have something to do with the development of Cowperwood’s story, they may be briefly described. Edward Strobik, the chief of them, and the one most useful to Mollenhauer, in a minor way, was a very spry person of about thirty-five at this time—lean and somewhat forceful, with black hair, black eyes, and an inordinately large black mustache. He was dapper, inclined to noticeable clothing—a pair of striped trousers, a white vest, a black cutaway coat and a high silk hat. His markedly ornamental shoes were always polished to perfection, and his immaculate appearance gave him the nickname of “The Dude” among some. Nevertheless he was quite able on a small scale, and was well liked by many.

His two closest associates, Messrs. Thomas Wycroft and Jacob Harmon, were rather less attractive and less brilliant. Jacob Harmon was a thick wit socially, but no fool financially. He was big and rather doleful to look upon, with sandy brown hair and brown eyes, but fairly intelligent, and absolutely willing to approve anything which was not too broad in its crookedness and which would afford him sufficient protection to keep him out of the clutches of the law. He was really not so cunning as dull and anxious to get along.

Thomas Wycroft, the last of this useful but minor triumvirate, was a tall, lean man, candle-waxy, hollow-eyed, gaunt of face, pathetic to look at physically, but shrewd. He was an iron-molder by trade and had gotten into politics much as Stener had—because he was useful; and he had managed to make some money—via this triumvirate of which Strobik was the ringleader, and which was engaged in various peculiar businesses which will now be indicated.

The companies which these several henchmen had organized under previous administrations, and for Mollenhauer, dealt in meat, building material, lamp-posts, highway supplies, anything you will, which the city departments or its institutions needed. A city contract once awarded was irrevocable, but certain councilmen had to be fixed in advance and it took money to do that. The company so organized need not actually slaughter any cattle or mold lamp-posts. All it had to do was to organize to do that, obtain a charter, secure a contract for supplying such material to the city from the city council (which Strobik, Harmon, and Wycroft would attend to), and then sublet this to some actual beef-slaughterer or iron-founder, who would supply the material and allow them to pocket their profit which in turn was divided or paid for to Mollenhauer and Simpson in the form of political donations to clubs or organizations. It was so easy and in a way so legitimate. The particular beef-slaughterer or iron-founder thus favored could not hope of his own ability thus to obtain a contract. Stener, or whoever was in charge of the city treasury at the time, for his services in loaning money at a low rate of interest to be used as surety for the proper performance of contract, and to aid in some instances the beef-killer or iron-founder to carry out his end, was to be allowed not only the one or two per cent. which he might pocket (other treasurers had), but a fair proportion of the profits. A complacent, confidential chief clerk who was all right would be recommended to him. It did not concern Stener that Strobik, Harmon, and Wycroft, acting for Mollenhauer, were incidentally planning to use a little of the money loaned for purposes quite outside those indicated. It was his business to loan it.

However, to be going on. Some time before he was even nominated, Stener had learned from Strobik, who, by the way, was one of his sureties as treasurer (which suretyship was against the law, as were those of Councilmen Wycroft and Harmon, the law of Pennsylvania stipulating that one political servant might not become surety for another), that those who had brought about this nomination and election would by no means ask him to do anything which was not perfectly legal, but that he must be complacent and not stand in the way of big municipal perquisites nor bite the hands that fed him. It was also made perfectly plain to him, that once he was well in office a little money for himself was to be made. As has been indicated, he had always been a poor man. He had seen all those who had dabbled in politics to any extent about him heretofore do very well financially indeed, while he pegged along as an insurance and real-estate agent. He had worked hard as a small political henchman. Other politicians were building themselves nice homes in newer portions of the city. They were going off to New York or Harrisburg or Washington on jaunting parties. They were seen in happy converse at road-houses or country hotels in season with their wives or their women favorites, and he was not, as yet, of this happy throng. Naturally now that he was promised something, he was interested and compliant. What might he not get?

When it came to this visit from Mollenhauer, with its suggestion in regard to bringing city loan to par, although it bore no obvious relation to Mollenhauer’s subsurface connection with Stener, through Strobik and the others, Stener did definitely recognize his own political subservience—his master’s stentorian voice—and immediately thereafter hurried to Strobik for information.

“Just what would you do about this?” he asked of Strobik, who knew of Mollenhauer’s visit before Stener told him, and was waiting for Stener to speak to him. “Mr. Mollenhauer talks about having this new loan listed on ‘change and brought to par so that it will sell for one hundred.”

Neither Strobik, Harmon, nor Wycroft knew how the certificates of city loan, which were worth only ninety on the open market, were to be made to sell for one hundred on ‘change, but Mollenhauer’s secretary, one Abner Sengstack, had suggested to Strobik that, since Butler was dealing with young Cowperwood and Mollenhauer did not care particularly for his private broker in this instance, it might be as well to try Cowperwood.

So it was that Cowperwood was called to Stener’s office. And once there, and not as yet recognizing either the hand of Mollenhauer or Simpson in this, merely looked at the peculiarly shambling, heavy-cheeked, middle-class man before him without either interest or sympathy, realizing at once that he had a financial baby to deal with. If he could act as adviser to this man—be his sole counsel for four years!

“How do you do, Mr. Stener?” he said in his soft, ingratiating voice, as the latter held out his hand. “I am glad to meet you. I have heard of you before, of course.”

Stener was long in explaining to Cowperwood just what his difficulty was. He went at it in a clumsy fashion, stumbling through the difficulties of the situation he was suffered to meet.

“The main thing, as I see it, is to make these certificates sell at par. I can issue them in any sized lots you like, and as often as you like. I want to get enough now to clear away two hundred thousand dollars’ worth of the outstanding warrants, and as much more as I can get later.”

Cowperwood felt like a physician feeling a patient’s pulse—a patient who is really not sick at all but the reassurance of whom means a fat fee. The abstrusities of the stock exchange were as his A B C’s to him. He knew if he could have this loan put in his hands—all of it, if he could have the fact kept dark that he was acting for the city, and that if Stener would allow him to buy as a “bull” for the sinking-fund while selling judiciously for a rise, he could do wonders even with a big issue. He had to have all of it, though, in order that he might have agents under him. Looming up in his mind was a scheme whereby he could make a lot of the unwary speculators about ‘change go short of this stock or loan under the impression, of course, that it was scattered freely in various persons’ hands, and that they could buy as much of it as they wanted. Then they would wake to find that they could not get it; that he had it all. Only he would not risk his secret that far. Not he, oh, no. But he would drive the city loan to par and then sell. And what a fat thing for himself among others in so doing. Wisely enough he sensed that there was politics in all this—shrewder and bigger men above and behind Stener. But what of that? And how slyly and shrewdly they were sending Stener to him. It might be that his name was becoming very potent in their political world here. And what might that not mean!

“I tell you what I’d like to do, Mr. Stener,” he said, after he had listened to his explanation and asked how much of the city loan he would like to sell during the coming year. “I’ll be glad to undertake it. But I’d like to have a day or two in which to think it over.”

“Why, certainly, certainly, Mr. Cowperwood,” replied Stener, genially. “That’s all right. Take your time. If you know how it can be done, just show me when you’re ready. By the way, what do you charge?”

“Well, the stock exchange has a regular scale of charges which we brokers are compelled to observe. It’s one-fourth of one per cent. on the par value of bonds and loans. Of course, I may hav to add a lot of fictitious selling—I’ll explain that to you later—but I won’t charge you anything for that so long as it is a secret between us. I’ll give you the best service I can, Mr. Stener. You can depend on that. Let me have a day or two to think it over, though.”

He shook hands with Stener, and they parted. Cowperwood was satisfied that he was on the verge of a significant combination, and Stener that he had found someone on whom he could lean.


Return to the The Financier Summary Return to the Theodore Dreiser Library

© 2022