The Financier

by Theodore Dreiser

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Chapter XXXIII

In the meantime Cowperwood, from what he could see and hear, was becoming more and more certain that the politicians would try to make a scapegoat of him, and that shortly. For one thing, Stires had called only a few days after he closed his doors and imparted a significant bit of information. Albert was still connected with the city treasury, as was Stener, and engaged with Sengstack and another personal appointee of Mollenhauer’s in going over the treasurer’s books and explaining their financial significance. Stires had come to Cowperwood primarily to get additional advice in regard to the sixty-thousand-dollar check and his personal connection with it. Stener, it seemed, was now threatening to have his chief clerk prosecuted, saying that he was responsible for the loss of the money and that his bondsmen could be held responsible. Cowperwood had merely laughed and assured Stires that there was nothing to this.

“Albert,” he had said, smilingly, “I tell you positively, there’s nothing in it. You’re not responsible for delivering that check to me. I’ll tell you what you do, now. Go and consult my lawyer—Steger. It won’t cost you a cent, and he’ll tell you exactly what to do. Now go on back and don’t worry any more about it. I am sorry this move of mine has caused you so much trouble, but it’s a hundred to one you couldn’t have kept your place with a new city treasurer, anyhow, and if I see any place where you can possibly fit in later, I’ll let you know.”

Another thing that made Cowperwood pause and consider at this time was a letter from Aileen, detailing a conversation which had taken place at the Butler dinner table one evening when Butler, the elder, was not at home. She related how her brother Owen in effect had stated that they—the politicians—her father, Mollenhauer, and Simpson, were going to “get him yet” (meaning Cowperwood), for some criminal financial manipulation of something—she could not explain what—a check or something. Aileen was frantic with worry. Could they mean the penitentiary, she asked in her letter? Her dear lover! Her beloved Frank! Could anything like this really happen to him?

His brow clouded, and he set his teeth with rage when he read her letter. He would have to do something about this—see Mollenhauer or Simpson, or both, and make some offer to the city. He could not promise them money for the present—only notes—but they might take them. Surely they could not be intending to make a scapegoat of him over such a trivial and uncertain matter as this check transaction! When there was the five hundred thousand advanced by Stener, to say nothing of all the past shady transactions of former city treasurers! How rotten! How political, but how real and dangerous.

But Simpson was out of the city for a period of ten days, and Mollenhauer, having in mind the suggestion made by Butler in regard to utilizing Cowperwood’s misdeed for the benefit of the party, had already moved as they had planned. The letters were ready and waiting. Indeed, since the conference, the smaller politicians, taking their cue from the overlords, had been industriously spreading the story of the sixty-thousand-dollar check, and insisting that the burden of guilt for the treasury defalcation, if any, lay on the banker. The moment Mollenhauer laid eyes on Cowperwood he realized, however, that he had a powerful personality to deal with. Cowperwood gave no evidence of fright. He merely stated, in his bland way, that he had been in the habit of borrowing money from the city treasury at a low rate of interest, and that this panic had involved him so that he could not possibly return it at present.

“I have heard rumors, Mr. Mollenhauer,” he said, “to the effect that some charge is to be brought against me as a partner with Mr. Stener in this matter; but I am hoping that the city will not do that, and I thought I might enlist your influence to prevent it. My affairs are not in a bad way at all, if I had a little time to arrange matters. I am making all of my creditors an offer of fifty cents on the dollar now, and giving notes at one, two, and three years; but in this matter of the city treasury loans, if I could come to terms, I would be glad to make it a hundred cents—only I would want a little more time. Stocks are bound to recover, as you know, and, barring my losses at this time, I will be all right. I realize that the matter has gone pretty far already. The newspapers are likely to start talking at any time, unless they are stopped by those who can control them.” (He looked at Mollenhauer in a complimentary way.) “But if I could be kept out of the general proceedings as much as possible, my standing would not be injured, and I would have a better chance of getting on my feet. It would be better for the city, for then I could certainly pay it what I owe it.” He smiled his most winsome and engaging smile. And Mollenhauer seeing him for the first time, was not unimpressed. Indeed he looked at this young financial David with an interested eye. If he could have seen a way to accept this proposition of Cowperwood’s, so that the money offered would have been eventually payable to him, and if Cowperwood had had any reasonable prospect of getting on his feet soon, he would have considered carefully what he had to say. For then Cowperwood could have assigned his recovered property to him. As it was, there was small likelihood of this situation ever being straightened out. The Citizens’ Municipal Reform Association, from all he could hear, was already on the move—investigating, or about to, and once they had set their hands to this, would unquestionably follow it closely to the end.

“The trouble with this situation, Mr. Cowperwood,” he said, affably, “is that it has gone so far that it is practically out of my hands. I really have very little to do with it. I don’t suppose, though, really, it is this matter of the five-hundred-thousand-dollar loan that is worrying you so much, as it is this other matter of the sixty-thousand-dollar check you received the other day. Mr. Stener insists that you secured that illegally, and he is very much wrought up about it. The mayor and the other city officials know of it now, and they may force some action. I don’t know.”

Mollenhauer was obviously not frank in his attitude—a little bit evasive in his sly reference to his official tool, the mayor; and Cowperwood saw it. It irritated him greatly, but he was tactful enough to be quite suave and respectful.

“I did get a check for sixty thousand dollars, that’s true,” he replied, with apparent frankness, “the day before I assigned. It was for certificates I had purchased, however, on Mr. Stener’s order, and was due me. I needed the money, and asked for it. I don’t see that there is anything illegal in that.”

“Not if the transaction was completed in all its details,” replied Mollenhauer, blandly. “As I understand it, the certificates were bought for the sinking-fund, and they are not there. How do you explain that?”

“An oversight, merely,” replied Cowperwood, innocently, and quite as blandly as Mollenhauer. “They would have been there if I had not been compelled to assign so unexpectedly. It was not possible for me to attend to everything in person. It has not been our custom to deposit them at once. Mr. Stener will tell you that, if you ask him.”

“You don’t say,” replied Mollenhauer. “He did not give me that impression. However, they are not there, and I believe that that makes some difference legally. I have no interest in the matter one way or the other, more than that of any other good Republican. I don’t see exactly what I can do for you. What did you think I could do?”

“I don’t believe you can do anything for me, Mr. Mollenhauer,” replied Cowperwood, a little tartly, “unless you are willing to deal quite frankly with me. I am not a beginner in politics in Philadelphia. I know something about the powers in command. I thought that you could stop any plan to prosecute me in this matter, and give me time to get on my feet again. I am not any more criminally responsible for that sixty thousand dollars than I am for the five hundred thousand dollars that I had as loan before it—not as much so. I did not create this panic. I did not set Chicago on fire. Mr. Stener and his friends have been reaping some profit out of dealing with me. I certainly was entitled to make some effort to save myself after all these years of service, and I can’t understand why I should not receive some courtesy at the hands of the present city administration, after I have been so useful to it. I certainly have kept city loan at par; and as for Mr. Stener’s money, he has never wanted for his interest on that, and more than his interest.”

“Quite so,” replied Mollenhauer, looking Cowperwood in the eye steadily and estimating the force and accuracy of the man at their real value. “I understand exactly how it has all come about, Mr. Cowperwood. No doubt Mr. Stener owes you a debt of gratitude, as does the remainder of the city administration. I’m not saying what the city administration ought or ought not do. All I know is that you find yourself wittingly or unwittingly in a dangerous situation, and that public sentiment in some quarters is already very strong against you. I personally have no feeling one way or the other, and if it were not for the situation itself, which looks to be out of hand, would not be opposed to assisting you in any reasonable way. But how? The Republican party is in a very bad position, so far as this election is concerned. In a way, however innocently, you have helped to put it there, Mr. Cowperwood. Mr. Butler, for some reason to which I am not a party, seems deeply and personally incensed. And Mr. Butler is a great power here—” (Cowperwood began to wonder whether by any chance Butler had indicated the nature of his social offense against himself, but he could not bring himself to believe that. It was not probable.) “I sympathize with you greatly, Mr. Cowperwood, but what I suggest is that you first See Mr. Butler and Mr. Simpson. If they agree to any program of aid, I will not be opposed to joining. But apart from that I do not know exactly what I can do. I am only one of those who have a slight say in the affairs of Philadelphia.”

At this point, Mollenhauer rather expected Cowperwood to make an offer of his own holdings, but he did not. Instead he said, “I’m very much obliged to you, Mr. Mollenhauer, for the courtesy of this interview. I believe you would help me if you could. I shall just have to fight it out the best way I can. Good day.”

And he bowed himself out. He saw clearly how hopeless was his quest.

In the meanwhile, finding that the rumors were growing in volume and that no one appeared to be willing to take steps to straighten the matter out, Mr. Skelton C. Wheat, President of the Citizens’ Municipal Reform Association, was, at last and that by no means against his will, compelled to call together the committee of ten estimable Philadelphians of which he was chairman, in a local committee-hall on Market Street, and lay the matter of the Cowperwood failure before it.

“It strikes me, gentlemen,” he announced, “that this is an occasion when this organization can render a signal service to the city and the people of Philadelphia, and prove the significance and the merit of the title originally selected for it, by making such a thoroughgoing investigation as will bring to light all the facts in this case, and then by standing vigorously behind them insist that such nefarious practices as we are informed were indulged in in this case shall cease. I know it may prove to be a difficult task. The Republican party and its local and State interests are certain to be against us. Its leaders are unquestionably most anxious to avoid comment and to have their ticket go through undisturbed, and they will not contemplate with any equanimity our opening activity in this matter; but if we persevere, great good will surely come of it. There is too much dishonesty in public life as it is. There is a standard of right in these matters which cannot permanently be ignored, and which must eventually be fulfilled. I leave this matter to your courteous consideration.”

Mr. Wheat sat down, and the body before him immediately took the matter which he proposed under advisement. It was decided to appoint a subcommittee “to investigate” (to quote the statement eventually given to the public) “the peculiar rumors now affecting one of the most important and distinguished offices of our municipal government,” and to report at the next meeting, which was set for the following evening at nine o’clock. The meeting adjourned, and the following night at nine reassembled, four individuals of very shrewd financial judgment having meantime been about the task assigned them. They drew up a very elaborate statement, not wholly in accordance with the facts, but as nearly so as could be ascertained in so short a space of time.

“It appears [read the report, after a preamble which explained why the committee had been appointed] that it has been the custom of city treasurers for years, when loans have been authorized by councils, to place them in the hands of some favorite broker for sale, the broker accounting to the treasurer for the moneys received by such sales at short periods, generally the first of each month. In the present case Frank A. Cowperwood has been acting as such broker for the city treasurer. But even this vicious and unbusiness-like system appears not to have been adhered to in the case of Mr. Cowperwood. The accident of the Chicago fire, the consequent depression of stock values, and the subsequent failure of Mr. Frank A. Cowperwood have so involved matters temporarily that the committee has not been able to ascertain with accuracy that regular accounts have been rendered; but from the manner in which Mr. Cowperwood has had possession of bonds (city loan) for hypothecation, etc., it would appear that he has been held to no responsibility in these matters, and that there have always been under his control several hundred thousand dollars of cash or securities belonging to the city, which he has manipulated for various purposes; but the details of the results of these transactions are not easily available.

“Some of the operations consisted of hypothecation of large amounts of these loans before the certificates were issued, the lender seeing that the order for the hypothecated securities was duly made to him on the books of the treasurer. Such methods appear to have been occurring for a long time, and it being incredible that the city treasurer could be unaware of the nature of the business, there is indication of a complicity between him and Mr. Cowperwood to benefit by the use of the city credit, in violation of the law.

“Furthermore, at the very time these hypothecations were being made, and the city paying interest upon such loans, the money representing them was in the hands of the treasurer’s broker and bearing no interest to the city. The payment of municipal warrants was postponed, and they were being purchased at a discount in large amounts by Mr. Cowperwood with the very money that should have been in the city treasury. The bona fide holders of the orders for certificates of loans are now unable to obtain them, and thus the city’s credit is injured to a greater extent than the present defalcation, which amounts to over five hundred thousand dollars. An accountant is now at work on the treasurer’s books, and a few days should make clear the whole modus operandi. It is hoped that the publicity thus obtained will break up such vicious practices.”

There was appended to this report a quotation from the law governing the abuse of a public trust; and the committee went on to say that, unless some taxpayer chose to initiate proceedings for the prosecution of those concerned, the committee itself would be called upon to do so, although such action hardly came within the object for which it was formed.

This report was immediately given to the papers. Though some sort of a public announcement had been anticipated by Cowperwood and the politicians, this was, nevertheless, a severe blow. Stener was beside himself with fear. He broke into a cold sweat when he saw the announcement which was conservatively headed, “Meeting of the Municipal Reform Association.” All of the papers were so closely identified with the political and financial powers of the city that they did not dare to come out openly and say what they thought. The chief facts had already been in the hands of the various editors and publishers for a week and more, but word had gone around from Mollenhauer, Simpson, and Butler to use the soft pedal for the present. It was not good for Philadelphia, for local commerce, etc., to make a row. The fair name of the city would be smirched. It was the old story.

At once the question was raised as to who was really guilty, the city treasurer or the broker, or both. How much money had actually been lost? Where had it gone? Who was Frank Algernon Cowperwood, anyway? Why was he not arrested? How did he come to be identified so closely with the financial administration of the city? And though the day of what later was termed “yellow journalism” had not arrived, and the local papers were not given to such vital personal comment as followed later, it was not possible, even bound as they were, hand and foot, by the local political and social magnates, to avoid comment of some sort. Editorials had to be written. Some solemn, conservative references to the shame and disgrace which one single individual could bring to a great city and a noble political party had to be ventured upon.

That desperate scheme to cast the blame on Cowperwood temporarily, which had been concocted by Mollenhauer, Butler, and Simpson, to get the odium of the crime outside the party lines for the time being, was now lugged forth and put in operation. It was interesting and strange to note how quickly the newspapers, and even the Citizens’ Municipal Reform Association, adopted the argument that Cowperwood was largely, if not solely, to blame. Stener had loaned him the money, it is true—had put bond issues in his hands for sale, it is true, but somehow every one seemed to gain the impression that Cowperwood had desperately misused the treasurer. The fact that he had taken a sixty-thousand-dollar check for certificates which were not in the sinking-fund was hinted at, though until they could actually confirm this for themselves both the newspapers and the committee were too fearful of the State libel laws to say so.

In due time there were brought forth several noble municipal letters, purporting to be a stern call on the part of the mayor, Mr. Jacob Borchardt, on Mr. George W. Stener for an immediate explanation of his conduct, and the latter’s reply, which were at once given to the newspapers and the Citizens’ Municipal Reform Association. These letters were enough to show, so the politicians figured, that the Republican party was anxious to purge itself of any miscreant within its ranks, and they also helped to pass the time until after election.


     GEORGE W. STENER, ESQ.,                      October 18,
     1871. City Treasurer.

     DEAR SIR,—Information has been given
     me that certificates of city loan to a large amount, issued
     by you for sale on account of the city, and, I presume,
     after the usual requisition from the mayor of the city, have
     passed out of your custody, and that the proceeds of the
     sale of said certificates have not been paid into the city

     I have also been informed that a large amount of the city’s
     money has been permitted to pass into the hands of some one
     or more brokers or bankers doing business on Third Street,
     and that said brokers or bankers have since met with
     financial difficulties, whereby, and by reason of the above
     generally, the interests of the city are likely to be very
     seriously affected.

     I have therefore to request that you will promptly advise me
     of the truth or falsity of these statements, so that such
     duties as devolve upon me as the chief magistrate of the
     city, in view of such facts, if they exist, may be
     intelligently discharged. Yours respectfully,

     JACOB BORCHARDT, Mayor of Philadelphia.

     HON. JACOB BORCHARDT.                 October 19, 1871.

     DEAR SIR,—I have to acknowledge the receipt of your
     communication of the 21st instant, and to express my regret
     that I cannot at this time give you the information you ask.
     There is undoubtedly an embarrassment in the city treasury,
     owing to the delinquency of the broker who for several years
     past has negotiated the city loans, and I have been, since
     the discovery of this fact, and still am occupied in
     endeavoring to avert or lessen the loss with which the city
     is threatened. I am, very respectfully, GEORGE W. STENER.

     GEORGE W. STENER, ESQ.,                 October 21, 1871.
     City Treasurer.

     DEAR SIR—Under the existing
     circumstances you will consider this as a notice of
     withdrawal and revocation of any requisition or authority by
     me for the sale of loan, so far as the same has not been
     fulfilled.  Applications for loans may for the present be
     made at this office. Very respectfully,

     JACOB BORCHARDT, Mayor of Philadelphia.

And did Mr. Jacob Borchardt write the letters to which his name was attached? He did not. Mr. Abner Sengstack wrote them in Mr. Mollenhauer’s office, and Mr. Mollenhauer’s comment when he saw them was that he thought they would do—that they were very good, in fact. And did Mr. George W. Stener, city treasurer of Philadelphia, write that very politic reply? He did not. Mr. Stener was in a state of complete collapse, even crying at one time at home in his bathtub. Mr. Abner Sengstack wrote that also, and had Mr. Stener sign it. And Mr. Mollenhauer’s comment on that, before it was sent, was that he thought it was “all right.” It was a time when all the little rats and mice were scurrying to cover because of the presence of a great, fiery-eyed public cat somewhere in the dark, and only the older and wiser rats were able to act.

Indeed, at this very time and for some days past now, Messrs. Mollenhauer, Butler, and Simpson were, and had been, considering with Mr. Pettie, the district attorney, just what could be done about Cowperwood, if anything, and in order to further emphasize the blame in that direction, and just what defense, if any, could be made for Stener. Butler, of course, was strong for Cowperwood’s prosecution. Pettie did not see that any defense could be made for Stener, since various records of street-car stocks purchased for him were spread upon Cowperwood’s books; but for Cowperwood—“Let me see,” he said. They were speculating, first of all, as to whether it might not be good policy to arrest Cowperwood, and if necessary try him, since his mere arrest would seem to the general public, at least, positive proof of his greater guilt, to say nothing of the virtuous indignation of the administration, and in consequence might tend to divert attention from the evil nature of the party until after election.

So finally, on the afternoon of October 26, 1871, Edward Strobik, president of the common council of Philadelphia, appeared before the mayor, as finally ordered by Mollenhauer, and charged by affidavit that Frank A. Cowperwood, as broker, employed by the treasurer to sell the bonds of the city, had committed embezzlement and larceny as bailee. It did not matter that he charged George W. Stener with embezzlement at the same time. Cowperwood was the scapegoat they were after.


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