Saturday, August 21, 2010

Explorer. Oil Man. Liar. Pardoned!

On September 1, 1909, Dr. Frederick A. Cook sent a cable to the New York Herald which read:

REACHED NORTH POLE APRIL 21, 1908

The news of Dr. Cook’s achievement spread throughout the United States, and made headlines in Paris and Berlin. It looked like the story of the century was about to unfold in the pages of a struggling newspaper. But, consistent with a theme in Cook’s life, newspapers in London were somewhat skeptical of his claim.

Five days later, Navy civil engineer Robert Peary pulled into Indian Harbor, Labrador, on a little ship named Roosevelt. After seven attempts and losing all of his toes to frostbite, Peary announced that he and five others finally reached the North Pole on April 6-7, 1909. Peary then sent his own newsworthy cable to the New York Herald:

… FOR YOUR INFORMATION COOK HAS SIMPLY HANDED THE PUBLIC A GOLD BRICK. HE’S NOT BEEN AT THE POLE APRIL 21, OR ANY OTHER TIME.

Dr. Cook’s response to the news that Peary had reached the Pole was generous, “If Peary says he reached the Pole, I believe him.” His response to Peary’s attack on his own credibility was likewise affable; “There is enough glory for all.” President Taft sent a congratulatory telegram to Peary, but Cook had clearly won the initial contest in the battle of public relations. Author Jo Chamberlain notes, Peary was successfully classified as “a sore loser and also ran.”

Cook sold his story to the New York Herald for a whopping twenty eight thousand dollars. Peary continued to call him a fake and sold his own story to the New York Times for a mere four thousand dollars. More than one hundred thousand people turned out in Brooklyn for a parade welcoming Cook home and he started a banquet / lecture tour with nightly fees as high as ten thousand dollars. Peary spent more time addressing scientific societies and accepted no pay.

A poll taken by a Pittsburgh newspaper revealed the public supported Cook by a margin of ten to one, but the University of Copenhagen rejected the data submitted by Cook as proof that he reached the pole. By then, the King had already received Cook as a hero, placed a wreath of roses on his head and thrown a magnificent banquet. As Cook refused to produce other data and evidence and contradictions appeared in his newspaper narratives, his Eskimo companions began to claim that he stopped hundreds of miles short of the pole and that his collection of dramatic photographs were taken elsewhere. Peary, meanwhile, submitted his data to the National Geographic Society for certification and was promoted to Rear Admiral.

Congressional hearings (1910-11) did not offer an official resolution. Soon afterward, however, critics were re-examining Cook’s 1906 claim of ascending Alaska’s Mt. McKinley. As public opinion slowly seemed to drift toward Peary, Cook left the country. Today, Robert E. Peary is now generally credited with having reached the North Pole in 1909, or gotten the closest to it!

At the end of 1913, Cook invested in the establishment of Cook Oil Company in Wyoming and began to think of himself as a “petroleum technologist.” He also worked as a field geologist for the Empire State Oil Company before moving to Texas and establishing the Texas Eagle Oil Company (Ft. Worth). Texas Eagle advertisements emphasized “insured profits,” “open books,” the “confidence” of a bank and, of course, its association with “Dr. Cook, The Explorer.” In 1919, a subsidiary company, Texas Eagle Producing and Refining Company was created, but the purchases, ventures and reorganizations were concealing extraordinary complications beneath. Cook was losing money. The costs of advertising, operations, acquisitions and production were outrunning profits in sales. In some instances, Cook was scammed and found himself looking at expensive land that produced no oil.

As Cook’s situation grew more and more gloomy, his advertisements got more and more cheery. He began to express his belief that his company had a ninety-nine percent chance of success. He also placed more specific emphasis on his adventures and hardships while exploring the Artic (the underlying premise being, of course, that anyone who had the ability to almost freeze to death could probably be trusted to manage oil investments). Wells were said to be “running wild” with “the rush and roar of a raging river” and “spouting heavenward.” A new ad campaign rolled in almost a million dollars, but it was too little, too late. One “unusual rainy season” later, Texas Eagle Oil and Refining Company was out of business.

In 1921, Cook became the sole-trustee in a common law trust entitled: Petroleum Producers Association. Given his previous experiences, Cook’s plan for PPA was quite remarkable. PPA would take over and salvage other companies. By December of 1922, PPA had merged over three hundred companies and netted almost one hundred million dollars in the exchange of stocks. Cook could have put his life’s controversies behind him and quietly rolled into oblivion on the wave of financial success. But, instead, he became an outspoken and obnoxiously self-righteous critic of promotion practices in the oil business.

Cook’s promotional letters took “fake promoters” to task for being the “meanest men in the world” (as well as “the most contemptible human rodents”). For flavor, Cook pondered the nature of special assignments “his Satanic Majesty” would have for such shameless types in “hell-fire.” By contrast, his was a “fair, clean-cut company,” organized by an individual who was “well known” as an “explorer and scientist” and “a geologist and finder of oil.” Every “proven” acre of the company was said to have been “personally examined and appointed” by Mr. North Pole himself. He would have done just as well to paint a big red bull’s eye in the middle of his forehead.

Post Office Inspectors began an investigation in the Fort Worth area. Soon, the Federal Trade Commission was hanging around the neighborhood. A prominent consumer ‘watchdog’ organization started to hone in on the practices of Cook and the PPA. Then, the Fort Worth news media started chipping away. On January 30, 1923, a policeman and a private detective entered Cook’s hotel room and claimed to have discovered Cook and a young lady (not his wife) clothed only with a bottle of gin. After a night in jail, Cook plead “not guilty” to possession of the bottle and denied that there was a woman in the room.

On February 16, a PPA stockholder filed a suit claiming the company was guilty of massive fraud. On March 12, a federal grand jury was empanelled and, on April 3, a warrant for Cook’s arrest was issued. Eventually, the grand jury handed down eighteen separate indictments against Cook and twenty other employees of PPA. The District Attorney estimated one to two hundred million shares and two million customers may have been affected by PPA’s fraudulent schemes. On July 10, Cook was indicted in Cleveland as well.

It was standing room only in the Federal Court for the Northern District of Texas on October 15, 1923. Government prosecutors worked on a theme: “fraud.” The defense (conducted by a team of eight lawyers) humbly responded with the suggestion that PPA was an “honest failure.” Throughout the proceedings, Cook was joined by his ex-wife (who had filed for the divorce and accepted a fifteen thousand dollar settlement after the bottle of gin thing).

On November 9, Dr. Cook, Explorer and Petroleum Technologist, took the stand. Cook seemed to remember little about his company. He knew little about its inner workings. He also distanced himself from all correspondence and advertising. The cynics may have begun to doubt that he really “examined” all of those “proven” acres. Cook characterized the grandiose claims of his promotional schemes as mere optimism (contra methods of deception). That made for good material in the prosecutor’s three and a half hour closing statement to the jury. Cook’s lawyers gave the jury three more hours of material and the judge instructed the jury for (that’s right) three more hours.

The jury took twenty hours to deliberate and returned a verdict of “guilty.”

Cook stood before Judge John M. Killits for sentencing. But the Judge first delivered a speech styled in a manner that would have pleased most professional wrestling promoters. Killits compared Cook to Ananias and Machiavelli and suggested that his attorneys had to cover their noses during their defense because their client’s actions “smelled to high heaven” and were “so damnably crooked.” More seriously, the Judge accused Cook of taking the money of “orphans and widows” and “credulous old people.” Judge Killits even speculated on the possibility that Cook could be hauled around the nation as a kind of definitive “exhibit” of a “crook.” Along the way, the Judge launched subtle rhetorical questions like:

Cook, what have you to say?
This is one of those times when your peculiar and persuasive hypnotic personality, fails you, isn’t it?
Haven’t you any honor at all?
Oh, God, Cook, haven’t you any sense of decency at all?
Aren’t you haunted at night?
Can you sleep?

Cook must have sensed that the actual sentence was not going to be pleasant either. Indeed, Killits sentenced Cook to fourteen years and nine months in prison and added a fine of fourteen thousand dollars. Cook was also assessed over twelve thousand dollars for the costs of the trial. To top it all off, the appeal bond was set at seventy five thousand dollars. That was a new state record. Author William R. Hunt suggests the conviction “was applauded by the local, national and industrial press.”

On April 6, 1925, Dr. Cook became federal prisoner number 23118. But Calvin Coolidge commuted the sentences of four of Cook’s co-defendants less than a year later. Leslie A. McKercher, Fred K. Smith, Arthur R. Ekman and W.L. Bradish were sentenced to a combined total of twenty-two and a half years in prison and thirteen thousand dollars in fines. But Coolidge’s commutations ensured that none would serve more than a two-year stint. The President also remitted all of the fines that were imposed. The Attorney General recommended clemency in each case and based his decision, in part, on the recommendation of Judge Killits.

Coolidge seemed to find it significant, however, that Judge Killits was not inclined to recommend clemency for Cook. In his 1997 work, Cook and Peary, Robert M. Bryce also notes that, even though it was years later, “outside antagonism” against Cook was “still too great.” So a new appeal for clemency was delayed until March 22, 1929. A new president, Herbert Hoover, would review the second request. The new petition argued for clemency on the grounds that Cook was innocent. It was denied on April 2.

With parole less than a year away, Cook decided it would be better not to make a third request for clemency. Such a request might draw attention to his case and prompt critics to attempt to campaign against parole. On February 5, 1930, it appeared his thinking was correct. Despite the fact that supporters of Peary organized a formal protest, the Board of Paroles released Cook. Newsweek magazine would mistake the granting of parole for a presidential pardon.

In early 1939, the seventy-four year old Cook was still mulling over his conviction and thinking about what arguments might make his next clemency application more convincing. He had even considered taking a trip back to Texas in order to reinvestigate the facts of his case. But Cook suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and fell into a coma. The news of his sickness spread quickly. A third petition for clemency was made, this time to Franklin D. Roosevelt, for a pardon of all offenses. The request was supported by Ralph Shainwald von Ahlefeldt (a wealthy manufacturer and member of the first Mount McKinley expedition), O.W. Wells (a member of the Explorer’s Club), Sir. Hubert Wilkins, Dr. Ben L. Reitman (Emma Goldman's lover), and Austin H. MacCormick (former Commissioner of Corrections). The New York Times reported that Cook responded to news of his pardon with a “feeble” voice saying, “Thanks. Happy.” To be certain that he understood the message, his nurse asked him if he had heard the news. Cook responded, “Yes - pardon.”

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