Monday, April 26, 2010

April 26: Esek Hopkins, First Commander of the Fleet

He came from a strong Puritan line, raised on the concept of duty and the benefits of hard work. He would become the first commander of the American Navy, and another of his family - his brother - was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Esek Hopkins was born on April 26, 1718, in the territory claimed by Providence, Rhode Island – which is today the town of Scituate. His parents were William and Ruth Hopkins, and he was the sixth of nine children.

He grew up on the Hopkins farm, which was named Chopomisk. The countryside in the early 18th century was wild and sparsely settled, and working on the farm and hunting provided the rawboned strength that would characterize Hopkins.

When his father died in 1738, Hopkins, a tall and handsome twenty-year-old, went to Providence where he signed on to work on a vessel that was preparing to sail to Surinam. With this event, Hopkins began a lifetime on the sea. Four of the brothers would become capable captains who made their livings on the sea.

Hopkins proved to be a quick study and an able seaman, soon rising to the command of a vessel in his own right. By the time he was twenty-three he felt secure enough in his trade to marry – and on November 28, 1741 he married Desire Burroughs, the daughter of a Newport, Rhode Island merchant and shipmaster. The marriage would yield six children. He would make Newport his homeport until 1748 when he relocated back to Providence.

The years of the French and Indian Wars provided colonial sailors with the opportunity to become privateers – private vessels sailing with permission of a government and being granted the right to seize enemy ships, and to share in the profit of the sail of that ship and its cargo. Hopkins apparently did very well as a privateer, seizing French (and occasionally Spanish) merchant ships.

Moses Brown, a Providence merchant, wrote on February 23, 1757:
"Capt. Esek Hopkins has Taken and sent in here a snow of about 150 tons, Laden with wine, oil, Dry goods &c to ye amount of about L6000 ye greater part of which will be Exposed to publick Vendue ye Tuesday next.”
During this time he bought a farm that he would add more property to over time until it eventually consisted of over two hundred acres. It was located just north of Providence. Between voyages he would supervise the tending of the farm and engage in local politics. His efforts largely contributed to the election of his brother Stephen Hopkins as the governor of Rhode Island in 1763. Hopkins himself was elected as a Deputy to the Rhode Island General Assembly.

At the outbreak of the American War for Independence, Hopkins was appointed a brigadier general and given command of the Rhode Island military forces. Later, on December 22, 1775, he was given the designation of Commander-In-Chief of the Continental Navy by the Continental Congress. One major factor in his achieving this position was the fact that during the French and Indian war he had commanded a veritable fleet of ten privateers in the war against the French, and hence had experience in commanding a number of ships.

In January 1776 he took command of the eight converted merchant ships that constituted the bulk of the Continental Navy. The flag he hoisted on the flagship of his small fleet, the Alfred (30-guns), was the Gadsden Flag - which had been designed by Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina. The Alfred would later be captained by young officer named Lieutenant John Paul Jones. The other ships in this first American fleet were the Columbus (28 guns); the brig Andrea Doria (14 guns); the brig Cabot (14 guns); the sloop Providence (12 guns); the sloop Hornet (10 guns); the schooner Wasp (8 guns); and the schooner Fly (6 guns).

Hopkins sailed from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on February 18, 1776, with orders to scout and if possible to attack British maritime forces in Chesapeake Bay, Charleston harbor (South Carolina), and those near Rhode Island. He believed he was given the option of forming plans of his own if he felt that the orders sent by the Maritime Committee of the Continental Congress proved to be unfeasible.

He quickly realized that the enemy naval strength was superior to his in the Chesapeake Bay area, so he exercised his command prerogative and led his squadron southward, to New Providence Island in the Bahamas. He landed there on March 3, 1776, and seized a large stock of supplies and equipment that were badly needed for the fledgling American army.

A month later, on route back to the colonies, the American fleet encountered and captured two small British warships – and two days later had an inconclusive engagement with the 20-gun HMS Glasgow. The Glasgow, heavily outnumbered, skillfully evaded the Americans and was able to escape. Also during this time he captured two British merchant vessels.

The American squadron would arrive back at New London, Connecticut, on April 8, 1776, and were at first welcomed as heroes. The President of the Continental Congress, John Hancock, wrote Hopkins:
"Your letter of the 9th of March, with the enclosure, was duly received and laid before Congress; in whose Name I beg leave to congratulate you on the Success of your Expedition. Your Account of the Spirit and Bravery shown by the men affords them [Congress] the greatest satisfaction; and encourages them to expect similar Exertions and Courage on every future Occasion. Though it is to be regretted, that the ‘Glascow’ Man of War made her Escape, yet as it was not thro any Misconduct, the Praise due to you and the other officers is undoubtedly the same."
However, soon Hopkins’ decision to change his orders was surrounded by controversy. Many of the officers who sailed with him had disagreed with his policies and decisions. On top of that, the small American fleet stayed at New London, not being used aggressively against the English. The reasons for this were twofold. One was a lack of men and supplies – with many of the qualified sailors and most of the supplies being used by American privateers, who paid better than the Navy did. The other was a loose British blockade of the American port.

The Continental Congress would censure him and two of his captains for breach of orders and, in 1777 – because of continuing complaints from his officers - he would lose his command. A year later – on January 2, 1778, he would be dismissed from his position as commander-in-chief of the Navy.

Hopkins maintained his popularity in Rhode Island. He was elected to the state legislature during the 1780s, and was involved in state politics until his death in 1802.


1911 Encyclopedia
Cruise of Commodore Esak Hopkins
Esak Hopkins, Google books
Gadsden Flag
Naval Historical Center
Novel Guide
Quarterman Family


Ezek Hopkins, Commander in Chief of the Fleet: Wikipedia
A French Engraving of Hopkins: Navy History
The flagship of Esek Hopkins, the Alfred: Aeragon
The Gadsden Flag: Wikipedia
A 19th Century engraving of Commodore Hopkins: Navy History


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

April 22: Lewis Thornton Powell, Angry Attempted Assassin

He was young, strong, handsome, and the son of a preacher. Yet – hardened by four years of civil war, he would attempt to assassinate the U.S. Secretary of State in a plot hatched by John Wilkes Booth.

Lewis Thornton Powell was born on April 22, 1844, in Randolph County, Alabama. His parents were George Cader, a farmer, tax assessor, and later a Baptist minister, and Patience Caroline Powell.

Powell would be the sixth surviving child of the first eight children born to the Powells, who eventually had ten children. In 1847 his father was ordained into the ministry and moved the Powell family to Steward County, Georgia. All of the children were educated by their father, who served as the teacher at the local school.

As a child, Powell was quiet and introverted, a young boy who loved to read and study. He earned the nickname “Doc’ because he cared for sick animals. A change occurred, however when he was twelve. He was kicked in the face by the family’s mule. His jaw was broken, and when it healed, his jaw was more prominent on the left side of his face.

Around the age of fourteen, young Powell was heavily involved in Sunday School, prayer meetings, and other religious activities. He would conduct prayer meetings, was popular, liked to sing, and was a favorite of the ladies in the community.

In 1860 the Powell family moved to the outskirts of Live Oak, Florida. The sixteen-year-old Lewis worked supervising his father’s farm there, cognizant of the increasing tensions between the North and the South that would ultimately lead to the Civil War. On January 10, 1861, Florida seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy, and on May 30th the seventeen-year-old Powell enlisted in the Jasper Blues (Hamilton County), which later became Company I of the Second Florida Infantry.

Powell would see action in several major battles during the war. He served in the Army of Northern Virginia and was at the battles of Seven Pines, Second Manassas, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Fredericksburg. On July 2, 1863, he was wounded in the right wrist at Gettysburg, and captured by the Union forces. At the Gettysburg hospital, Powell would become a male nurse, aiding the doctors in treating the wounded of both sides, and becoming so involved in his work that he began calling himself ‘Doctor Powell’. He was reported to be good at his work, and kind to the sick and wounded.

In September 1863 the prisoner-orderly was transferred to the West Buildings Hospital in Baltimore. At this hospital, aided by a female nurse he had met at Gettysburg who now worked at the hospital in Baltimore, Powell escaped, walking out of the hospital in a Union uniform provided by his female friend.

Making his way back to Virginia, Powell gave up trying to find his old unit, and joined with Colonel John Mosby’s Rangers, a partisan guerrilla organization. While with the Rangers, Powell began spying operations for the Confederate Secret Service. It was during one of these missions that he met John Surratt – who would be one of the conspirators in the Lincoln assassination.

By 1865, the war was obviously moving toward a conclusion, with victory in sight for the North.
Powell was brought into a plan by John Wilkes Booth to kidnap President Lincoln while the President was attending a play at the Seventh Street Hospital on the outskirts of Washington. The kidnapped President was to be spirited to Richmond, and used as a bargaining chip in an exchange plan for Confederate soldiers. The planned kidnapping was called off when Lincoln cancelled his visit to the play.

After the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on April 9, 1865 – and the revealing of plans by President Lincoln to let former slaves have the right to vote – a more deadly plan was hatched – this time to assassinate several top officials of the Union – Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William Seward. Powell was again brought into the plan by Booth, and on April 13, 1865, Powell, John Wilkes Booth, George Atzerodt, and David Herold met in Powell’s room in a boarding house in Washington. It was there that almost 21-year-old Powell was given the assignment to assassinate Seward.

Seward had been injured in a carriage accident in early April, and was still recuperating at his home in Washington. During the evening of April 14th, Powell broke into Seward’s bedroom, stabbing at him repeatedly. The bandages on Seward’s injuries – a broken jaw and broken arm – saved his life by deflecting several knife blows. Powell also attacked those trying to rescue Seward – two of Seward’s children and Seward’s nurse, Sergeant George F. Robinson. Powell – outnumbered and in an alerted household, escaped, wounding a messenger who had arrived while Powell was escaping. After the trial, Sergeant Robinson, credited with actually forcing Powell to flee, asked for and was given the knife used by Powell in the attack.

Fleeing the city, Powell was thrown from his horse near a cemetery. He hid in the cemetery for three days, and then went to Mary Surratt’s boarding house - arriving just as she was arrested. Even though she denied knowing him, Powell found himself in chains and taken aboard a Navy monitor, the USS Saugus.

A military commission was formed to try Powell – foregoing the civilian trial by jury. Powell was tried under the name of “Payne” – a name he had used months earlier when he was arrested for spying by the Union and signed a loyalty oath to get released. He was defended by William E. Doster. Thirty two witnesses testified against Powell, and the evidence against him was overwhelming. Doster tried to claim that Powell was insane – which was rejected on the stand by Government witnesses. He then tried to claim that Powell was a soldier acting under orders – an argument that was rejected out of hand by the court.

Powell was found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder and treason.

Powell was executed on July 7, 1865, along with three other convicted conspirators – Mary Surratt, David Herold, and George Atzerodt. His body was buried in the penitentiary courtyard near the gallows where he was hanged. His body was re-interred several times over the years, and its present location is unknown. However, in January 1992 his skull discovered and identified in the Smithsonian Anthropology Department where it lay among mostly Indian remains that were being identified for return to their appropriate tribes. The skull, which had been tagged at some point in the past, was claimed by the nearest living Powell relative, and on November 12, 1994, was buried next to his mothers grave in Geneva, Florida.

Abraham Lincoln Research Site
Alias Payne
Geneva History
Spartacus Educational
University of Missouri – Kansas City


Picture of Powell, Indiana History Digital Image Library
The assassination attempt on Seward, Wikipedia
Powell under Guard, Harpers Weekly, May 27, 1865: Son of the South
Booth and his Associates, Indiana Digital Image Library
Alexander Gardner’s picture of conspirators arriving at the gallows – Powell is second from the right, next to Mary Surratt, Indiana Digital Image Library
Powell’s gravesite, Waymarking

Monday, April 19, 2010

Blog Entry: April 19: Eliot Ness and the Untouchables

Over the years he has become a name recognized by the group of incorruptible Federal agents he managed during a time of intense political corruption – the Untouchables. A book, television series, and – more recently a movie - have all documented the courageous acts of this group of men against one of the most renown of all gangsters during an era of gangsters: Al Capone. Yet, he also was a businessman, and an (unsuccessful) candidate for mayor of a major city.

Eliot Ness was the youngest of five children born to Norwegian immigrants Peter and Emma King Ness. Born on April 19, 1903, in Chicago, Illinois, Ness would attend public school - graduating from Christian Fenger High School. He would show an early dedication to the work ethic – maintaining his grades at school, a paper route, and working at his father’s bakery. He then attended the University of Chicago, graduating in 1925 with a degree in business and political science.

After a brief career as an investigator of the Retail Credit Company of Atlanta, Georgia – where he was assigned to work in Chicago conducting background investigations gathering credit information – Ness returned to the University of Chicago, earning a Master’s Degree in criminology.

In 1927 Ness joined the U.S. Treasury Department as a member of the Bureau of Prohibition. The Bureau had been created as an enforcement arm for the 18th Amendment – which prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcohol, and ushered in an era known as Prohibition. Ness was encouraged to enter Federal law enforcement by his brother-in-law, Alexander Jamie – who was a Federal agent himself.

Prohibition encouraged the rise of organizations to illegally produce and sell the illicit alcohol. Because of the profit involved, this became the era of gangsters – who made big money in booze, illegal gambling, and more. At the top of the criminal food chain in Chicago was Al Capone.

Starting in 1929, the Federal government decided to make a concerted effort to bring down Capone – whose tentacles of influence included ‘bought’ politicians, police, and civic leaders. Ness was chosen to head the operations that targeted the illegal breweries and the supply routes of Capone’s business empire. Ness’s goal was to reduced Capone’s ability to pay bribe money to public officials by eliminating his main source of income – bootlegged alcohol.

Chicago’s law-enforcement agencies – city, state, and federal representatives – were rife with corruption, and Ness searched through the records of hundreds of Prohibition agents to create a reliable team of eleven men that could not be bought or bribed – the famous “Untouchables”.

"When they were settled, and while the newsreels were setting up their cameras, I told them of the attempted briberies. I related in detail how an emissary of Capone'shad tried to buy me off for two thousand dollars a week and how Marty and Sam had thrown back their flying bribe. [...] It was a long, wearisome process but well worth the effort. Possibly it wasn't too important for the world to know that we couldn't be bought, but I did want Al Capone and every gangster in the city to realize there were still a few law enforcement agents who couldn't be swerved from their duty." --from The Untouchables by Eliot Ness
Within six months Ness had seized breweries worth over a million dollars, which put a crimp in Capone’s operations. After bribery attempts failed, several assassination attempts were made by the Capone organization against Ness – all of which failed.

While Ness was keeping Capone’s attention focused on the loss of income through raids on the breweries, other Treasury Department agents were focusing on Capone’s tax evasion. In 1931, Capone was charged with 22 counts of income tax evasion and 5,000 violations of the Volstead Act. As a result of this, Capone was sentenced to 11 years in prison, winding up at Alcatraz.

Soon after the end of Capone came the end of Prohibition. The 1933 passage of the 21st Amendment provided an end of a great social experiment – and a revamping of Ness’s career.

After Prohibition, Ness was reassigned to the “Moonshine Mountains” in Kentucky, Tennessee, and southern Ohio. A year later he was transferred to Cleveland, Ohio, and in 1935 – at the age of 32 - was hired by the mayor Cleveland, Harold Burton, as Cleveland’s Safety Director. Ness campaigned to clean out corruption in the police department and to modernize the fire department. He formed a new “Untouchable” unit of six men, who took on gambling, racketeers, and organized crime in Cleveland in an attempt to clean up the city. Two hundred Cleveland officers were forced to resign from the force, and over a dozen police officials went on trial for various criminal acts. His concentration on his work was one of the reasons he was divorced by his first wife, Edna Staley Ness, in 1938. He would marry Evaline Michelow, and illustrator of children’s books, in 1939.

Ness showed his far-reaching vision while in Cleveland. He created the Emergency Patrol, which was a special unit of vehicles manned by police officers with first aid training. He also established a central communications center to take and dispatch all emergency calls. Ness also established a juvenile crime unit, and obtained city funds for gyms, bowling alleys, and playgrounds in areas where gangs were prevalent. He also worked with the Works Program Administration to provide employment for the youths of Cleveland’s inner city. Juvenile crime dropped 80% while Ness was Safety Director in Cleveland.

Ness had a number of accomplishments as the Safety Director of Cleveland, but he had one significant failure that would give his critics ammunition against him. Ness was unsuccessful in solving a series of twelve murders were known as the “Torso Murders”, and occurred between 1935 and 1938. These serial murders, committed by the “Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run” were never solved. This - combined with his extensive ‘social’ drinking and a scandal involved when he drove away after car accident in 1942 - would create the conditions for Ness to leave Cleveland in 1942.

America entered World War II in December 1941. In 1942 Ness left Cleveland and moved to Washington, D.C., again in the employ of the Federal government to control prostitution and the spread of venereal disease at the military bases in the area.

In 1944 he left his job and moved back to Ohio to become the chairman of the Diebold Corporation, a security safe company. A year later he would be divorced by his second wife, Evaline, and in 1946 he married artist Elisabeth Anderson Seaver. It was in this third and final marriage that Ness adopted his only child, Robert.

In 1947 he would campaign unsuccessfully for the position of mayor of Cleveland – losing by what one source called an ‘embarrassingly large margin’. He was also removed as the CEO of Diebold after the election. Ness would become involved with several other businesses, but had difficulty providing for his family – until he met Oscar Fraley, an author who worked with Ness and ultimately published a book chronicling Ness’s Chicago years. The “Untouchables” would be published in 1957, just six months after Ness’s May 16th death from a heart attack.

Ness’s remains were cremated and kept by family members until 1997. Then his ashes – along with those of his last wife and his son - were scattered on the waters of Wade Lake in the Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland. A marker was erected to honor the man who revolutionized and revitalized Cleveland’s police force, and had captured America's imagination with his honesty and his war against crime.


About Cleveland
Crime Library
FBI Files
FBI Freedom of Information Act Records
Find A Grave
Finding Dulcinea
Google Books: Eliot Ness and the Untouchables
Historical Biographies
Ness Returns to Cleveland
Ohio History Central


Portrait of Eliot Ness, Wikipedia
Ness as a Child, Cleveland Memory
Cleveland Safety Director, Cleveland Memory
Campaign poster for Mayor of Cleveland, Photo collection (Cleveland years)
Elisabeth and Bobby Ness, Cleveland Memory
Ness’s burial marker, Find-a-Grave

Thursday, April 1, 2010

April 3: David Kenney, "Father of the Vacuum Cleaner Industry"

Note: Great Lives is honored to present our first guest blogger, Mary Robinson Sive, who contributed this life story to the Great Lives blog. Mary is the author of Lost villages: historic driving tours in the Catskills as well as other works.

An almost forgotten New Jersey inventor was a pioneer in the vacuum cleaner industry long before this appliance became a standard piece of equipment in most households. Historical accounts often do not give this self-taught and self-made man credit, some dismissing him as a “New Jersey plumber;” others not mentioning him at all. Yet the patents he received between 1903 and 1913 placed him at the center of the American vacuum cleaner industry in the first two decades of the 20th century. In 1910 the New York Times called him the “father of the vacuum cleaner industry.”

The son of Irish immigrants, Kenney at age 15 was apprenticed to a plumber and soon had his own business with offices in New Jersey and New York City. In the 1890s he received patents for a “Flushometer” (to flush toilets) and other plumbing devices that proved quite profitable. Soon he joined the many other inventors who sought to improve housecleaning by mechanical means. By 1902 he installed a steam engine in Pittsburgh that could suck dust out of all parts of a large building.

(Frick Building 1902 installation)
An English engineer, H. Cecil Booth, coined the term “vacuum cleaner” for his truck-mounted invention. He applied for a US patent during the time that Kenney also had several patent applications pending. Kenney received his most significant patent in 1907 after a six-year wait. The Englishman’s application for a US patent was now moot.

According to a 1906 ad Kenney's firm counted the White House and the New York Times building among its customers for stationary central vacuum systems. Two years later it was chosen to install such a system in New York's Singer Building, at the time the world’s tallest office structure, and later provided such service in the US Treasury building.

In a highly competitive environment Kenney was aggressive in pursuing his business interests. He was successful in several lawsuits alleging patent infringement and eventually gave up manufacturing in favor of licensing other companies.

Portable vacuum cleaners came into their own after James Spangler received a patent in 1909 for one powered by electricity and sold it to William Henry Hoover, a name still recognized. But electric power was far from universally available, and a market existed for hand-operated cleaners. Sears Roebuck began offering three versions of such machines the same year.

Anyone living on a farm or in a small town who hoped to clean floors in a modern manner had to use a vacuum cleaner operated by hand. And that vacuum most likely used the nozzle patented by Kenney.

Most of the manual vacuums that survive are of a plunger type (shown in the middle above) that functioned somewhat like a bicycle pump in reverse, with the operator pushing the handle down a tube, then pulling it back up and depositing dust in a container. Other models required operation by two individuals. Sears offered a money-back guarantee on the three models advertised, but within eight years the manually operated cleaners were gone from the catalog and only electric ones were shown. Perhaps word got around that they weren’t really “labor-saving devices.” Women who grew up in farm homes in the 1920s and 1930s remember seeing manual cleaners, but they don’t actually remember their mothers ever using them much.
Manual vacuum cleaners are described in few books dealing with home life or homemaking during the pre-World War I period. Women’s history institutions have no photographs. More examples are found in small local history collections than in major museums. The Hoover Company’s Historical Center in Canton, OH has a number of these appliances, but the largest number is held by a private collector (

In 1920 1,024,167 vacuum cleaners were sold for a total of $35 million, most undoubtedly electric. The industry for whose growth he was given so much credit by his contemporaries was well-established. Kenney now turned his inventive skills to yet another field and received his last patent in 1920, this for a heating system designed to improve the distribution of heat from a wood-burning fireplace.

The income from his various patents enabled Kenney to pursue other business interests, including real estate transactions beginning early in his career. During the long wait for the 1907 patent Kenney asked the Sisters of Mercy, an order of Catholic nuns who were his daughter’s teachers, to pray for him. His donations beginning in 1905 and continuing to the end of his life totaled over 70 acres and enabled Mt. St. Mary’s College, founded by the order in 1873, to move to a site near his manufacturing operations. He took an active part in the planning of the buildings for the school, which opened in 1908 with elementary and secondary classes and included seven girls in a college department. The school continues as a girls’ prep school with several hundred students. Kenney’s generosity resulted in his being made a Papal Chamberlain by Pope Pius X in 1906. Other civic activities included service on the board of a hospital and of a reform school.

Booth’s name appears in the British Dictionary of National Biography and in biographical reference works dealing with technology. The vacuum cleaners he invented and manufactured are held in London’s Science Museum. Kenney’s name cannot be found in corresponding American reference books, the Library of Congress’ “American Memory” or its Prints and Photographs Collection, nor in the Smithsonian Institution. While the courts uniformly held his patents applicable to portable household cleaners as well as to central installations, the industry largely shifted away from the systems serving entire buildings that he had pioneered in this country. His vacuum cleaner patents survived David Kenney by a few years. He committed suicide in May 1922. His body was found near Beacon, NY, after he had been missing about ten days. He had been in ill health for some years and had recently lost his wife and a sister. He was long forgotten by the 1980s, when the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame was inaugurated with names like Edison and Einstein.