Saturday, September 15, 2012

Making O. Henry Proud: A Classic Pardon Tale

Woodrow Wilson’s use of the pardon power attracted considerable public attention in March of 1915, and an investigation in the Department of Justice followed. It all started when the Times featured headlines suggesting that a judge, a lawyer and the President had yielded to the “potency” of a wife’s “plea” and “impressive” argument. The unnamed woman had actually written a series of letters to a judge, who passed them along to an unnamed lawyer, who then passed them along to the President. As a result (according to the headlines), Wilson had granted a respite of about one month for five men who were heading to prison. A Times editorial considered the President’s “last minute” action to be “remarkable.” Meanwhile, it was also reported that a full pardon was “under consideration.” It was just the sort of stuff the White House and the Department of Justice did not want to see in a newspaper headline for a variety of reasons.

Three years earlier, the government had arrested several individuals associated with the International Lumber and Development Company and accused them of a stock swindle which defrauded the public of somewhere between six and ten million dollars. Amazingly, when the seven-week trial and a series of appeals were finally over, the five principal defendants amassed only seven and a half years of prison sentences and a mere twenty-five thousand dollars in fines. Each applied for a presidential pardon (with the support of three members of the United States Senate) and, in March of 1915, Wilson granted a respite delaying the beginning of their prison sentences for about thirty days.

Two days after the respite (and the noisy headlines), it was revealed that A. Mitchell Palmer, a former member of the House of Representatives and a key Democrat in the previous presidential campaign, had “several conferences” with Wilson on behalf of the International Lumber defendants. Palmer thus found himself center stage, trying to convince reporters that there was no “occasion” or “earthly excuse” for “excitement” or anyone “attempting to make a sensation.” Palmer insisted that the President’s use of the clemency power was the result of a careful examination of “the record” and, most importantly, “regular and orderly procedure.” Indeed, he emphasized that Wilson had “consulted” with the Attorney General before taking action.

Evidently, no one was curious as to why there were no press conferences being held by the President himself, or some member of the cabinet. And where were the “official statements” from the Attorney General, or anyone else in the Department of Justice?

Nonetheless, Palmer’s “regular and orderly” line took quite an ugly beating shortly thereafter. First, the Washington Post reported that the International Lumber men had been represented at trial by former Congressman Martin J. Wade (D-Iowa), who was also an active participant in Wilson’s presidential campaign. Second, the Post provided the logical explanation for Palmer’s lone appearance before reporters. As it turned out, the President’s respite was “not recommended” by the Department of Justice and was, therefore, “an unusual proceeding.” An investigation of the petition for pardon was - supposedly - under way.

Then, on March 23, President Wilson granted a pardon to Elbert Hubbard (uncle, by adoption, to Scientology star L. Ron Hubbard) who, at the time, was one of the most popular writers and lecturers in America. Hubbard had made a small fortune in the soap manufacturing business before starting the Roycroft Press in East Aurora, New York. Soon, he was famous throughout the land as the average man’s philosopher and the “sage” of self-help, self-education, and positive thinking. When an affair with school teacher Alice Moore became more than Hubbard’s wife could stand, he also became an outspoken advocate of more liberal divorce laws.

The “Sage of East Aurora,” who had spent some time as a reporter in his younger years, served as editor of a magazine, The Philistine, and embarked on nationwide lecture tours. He also sold almost fifty million copies of a short work entitled A Message to Garcia. Tufts College was impressed enough to award him an honorary Master of Arts in 1899.

As the First World War loomed on the horizon, Hubbard published a great deal of related commentary in The Philistine and became anxious to cross the ocean, report on the War and land an interview with the Kaiser himself. However, there was one not-so-slight problem. U.S. District Court Judge John Hazel had found Hubbard guilty of violating Section 211 of the penal code back in January of 1913. Hubbard was convicted on one count of circulating “objectionable” (or “obscene”) matter in violation of the postal laws. Sentence was suspended on five additional counts during good behavior, but Hazel fined Hubbard $100, and the federal conviction resulted in a revocation of the publisher’s civil rights.

Ever the positive thinker, Hubbard waited just a couple of weeks and boldly requested a presidential pardon from William Howard Taft. Somehow, the administration found the audacity to discard the request as “premature.” When his application for a passport was denied in 1915, Hubbard, being who he was, decided to go directly to the White House to help himself out. There, he pled with Woodrow Wilson’s personal secretary, Joseph P. Tumulty. At the time, the President was in the middle of a cabinet meeting, but Tumulty interrupted and, as a result, the Secretary of State (William Jennings Bryan) and Attorney General Gregory were also able to hear of Hubbard’s situation and need.

Everyone instantly agreed that a pardon would be appropriate, and Elbert Hubbard’s clemency application process lasted exactly one day. Seventy-five percent of those petitioning for clemency in the fiscal year were not nearly so fortunate (or positive in their thinking). Their requests were denied, adversely reported, or no action whatsoever was taken. But Hubbard sailed through the process, and no one felt any need at all to defend the President’s decision in public statements. The Department of Justice conducted no investigation.

Hubbard accepted Wilson’s pardon, obtained a passport and, on May 1, 1915, joined his wife and 2,200 other passengers aboard a luxurious 785-foot British commercial steam ship. Despite the crowd, reporters and photographers had no problem spotting the long-haired Hubbard as he walked up and down the deck in his white suit and Stetson hat, devouring apples and chatting about international politics. The fifty-five year old “sage” (who had often held up the possibility that he would live to be one hundred) planned on sending a “diary” of his travels from London via cable.

But, while wealth, fame and influence may get one many things in this life, luck is not necessarily one of them. The Editor of The Philistine had easily bypassed the normal channels to a presidential pardon, but the resulting passport had the same effect as one smooth stone on the most famous Philistine of them all.

Hubbard and his wife left New York City aboard the Lusitania!

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