The New Colossus

I was fascinated by the 1880’s: the concentration of wealth in very few hands. New technology forcing much of the country out of work. Congressmen bought and sold. A Supreme Court indifferent to individual rights. Something about it seemed vaguely familiar.

For some time I also wanted to write about two people from that period:  Jay Gould and Emma Lazarus. Jay Gould was considered the vilest man in the history of Wall Street. That may sound like hyperbole, but during his lifetime the press referred to him as “Mephistopheles.” He thrived during a time when insider trading was permitted on Wall Street and no laws existed against giving misinformation to investors. Gould controlled judges, Tammany Hall, and most of the nation’s railroads. When his railroad workers threatened to go on strike, he responded: “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.” To give but one of an entire career of notorious acts: Gould cornered the gold market in 1872 by convincing President Grant (through bribing Grant’s advisers) to “let the market work its will” and not release the government’s supply of gold as the price of gold rose to five times its normal price and caused a financial panic. Finally, with the price approaching $300 an ounce and the economy in shambles, Grant ordered the Treasury to release the government’s gold to the market. Grant’s brother-in-law, whom Gould had paid handsomely, tipped off Gould, who immediately sold his entire holdings at top price, generating an enormous profit and causing terrible ruin on Wall Street.

Emma Lazarus, my other object of curiosity, was as noble as Gould was loathsome.  As a poet she was a prodigy: Ralph Waldo Emerson discovered her as a young teenager and insisted on mentoring her. She became the toast of European literary circles and good friends with Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett, and Henry James. Her family had been among the early Jews to settle in America and founded the first synagogue, the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1763. In her early twenties Emma became a political activist and organized a boycott against the largest department store in the country, A.T. Stewart in Manhattan, for the hateful discrimination of its owner, and drove the store into bankruptcy. Her family found her activism embarrassing and distasteful, and threatened to disown her when, but she ignored them and she greeted immigrants as they came off the boats and found them work and housing. She wrote the poem (“Give me your tired, your poor. . .”) that adorns the Statue of Liberty and that future schoolchildren would memorize. Emma was brilliant and caring and, sadly, died at age 38 of unknown causes.

I wanted to put the two of them, Jay Gould and Emma Lazarus, together in a story, but that was a challenge. I wanted the tale to ring true, and that meant romance was out of the question: Gould was twenty years older and by all accounts happily married with six children. Emma ran in high literary and social circles and may well have been a lesbian. You see the problem.

Then I came across the incredible life force known of Nellie Bly, the first great woman reporter and first great investigative reporter. Imagine arriving in New York City in the 1880’s, with no connections, no money, and an infirm mother to take care of, and within ten months landing two front-page stories in the biggest paper in the country, The New York World. That was Nellie Bly. I had to write about her too, especially when I learned she grew up near Pittsburgh, as did I. She would be my way into the story.

Luck was smiling on me. The publisher of the World was Joseph Pulitzer, who was almost single-handedly responsible for getting the Statue of Liberty to America, and a great admirer of Emma Lazarus. And there was my story: Emma had died of mysterious causes at age 38, shortly before Nellie arrived in New York.  The police and doctors had determined it was cancer, but Pulitzer was having none of it. He suspected something more sinister, and wanted a skilled and determined reporter to get to the bottom of Emma’s death.

In the end I had more sources of inspiration than I knew what to do with.

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Justice, USA

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Coming March 2024