***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Lawrence H. Levy
On December 4, 1891, Russell Sage had a hunch. That was nothing new. Hunches were a big part of his business life. What usually followed was exhaustive research, then weeks of stock manipulations until he had seized control of a targeted company. There were few regulations on the stock market, but even so, his methods were considered to be at the very least unethical and most probably illegal. And the result was almost always the same: he would invariably make a lot of money while others took financial baths. But this hunch was different. It bore no fruit for him: no money, no prized company. The result of this hunch was that he was hiding in his office.
The Wall Street magnate and railroad titan rarely shied away from anyone. Even at the ripe old age of seventy-five, he was a tireless worker and a fearless risk-taker who had no qualms about making suspect stock transactions and buying politicians to ensure his success. The “almighty dollar” was his religion, and God have mercy on anyone who tried to separate him from it. His devotion had paid off, and he was currently one of the richest men in the United States.
Sage and his partner, Jay Gould, had been cohorts of Boss Tweed, the infamous head of New York’s Tammany Hall, and Sage had no qualms about showing his support when Tweed was arrested. When cartoonist Bernhard Gillam depicted him along with Gould and Cornelius Vanderbilt in a scathing rendering where they comfortably rested on millions of dollars as many poor workers carried them, he wasn’t concerned. Sage didn’t care what people thought. He considered himself untouchable.
Yet on that day, something had changed. This man with his closely cropped hair, conservative suit, and signature bow tie was experiencing a new emotion. He was scared.
This is insane, Sage thought, watching his hand shake as if it weren’t part of his body. He didn’t recognize the name of the man who was in his outer office demanding to see him, and if Sage didn’t know who he was, he was not worth knowing.
“I’m sorry, Mr. . . . ,” said Peter Ramsey, Sage’s secretary, who had already forgotten this innocuous man’s name and had hoped he would repeat it.
“Norcross. Henry L. Norcross,” he responded, exasperated at Ramsey’s lack of attentiveness. “Please write it down, so I don’t have to keep repeating myself.”
“Not necessary. It is now indelibly implanted on my brain. But no matter how disappointing the news might be, it’s not going to change. Mr. Sage is presently out of town.”
“Stop lying to me!” Norcross shouted as he rearranged the strap of a bulky satchel he was carrying on his shoulder.
“Mr. Norcross, could you please lower your voice?”
“Mr. Sage has a board of directors meeting for Western Union this afternoon and a stockholders meeting for his railroad properties tomorrow. Don’t try to tell me that he’d miss those. He never misses them.”
“You seem to know so much about his activities. You tell me where Mr. Sage is.” Ramsey raised his voice almost to Norcross’s level. It was a signal to Sage. Essentially, Ramsey was telling Sage that if he had any desire at all to see this man, now was the time to show himself or he would dismiss him posthaste.
Sage didn’t know what to do. Like the man had said, he did have a board of directors meeting later that day. Even if he slipped out the back door, where was he to go? Trekking all the way home and returning in a few hours seemed like a waste of time. He was a man who firmly believed in rational thought, and he could not find any justification for his completely irrational desire to flee. Suddenly, he got angry. If this fellow thought he could come into his office and intimidate him, he was dead wrong. I don’t get intimidated. I’m the one who does the intimidating.
Sage straightened up and marched into his outer office. “What’s all the commotion about out here?” he asked, sporting his best stern Russell Sage visage.
Upon seeing him, Ramsey felt the need to cover and acted surprised. “Oh, Mr. Sage, you’ve returned. I didn’t see you come in, sir.”
“How unexpected, and from out of town, too,” Norcross said facetiously. “I wonder if he still has his luggage in his office.”
Sage would have none of this and responded sternly. “Look here, Mr.—”
“Norcross,” Ramsey offered, trying to be helpful.
“I’m a busy man, and you’re disrupting my office. Quickly state your business and then leave.”
“I appreciate your directness, Mr. Sage,” said Norcross, then he reached into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and handed Sage a piece of paper. “This is my letter of introduction from John D. Rockefeller.”
“Oh,” said Sage, softening a bit, “from John.” He quickly glanced at the letter, then exclaimed, “What kind of charlatan are you? This isn’t from John!”
“True, but it got you to take the letter, and I strongly advise you to read it. It’s in your best interests.”
As Sage read the letter his face became tense and somewhat contorted. “One million two hundred thousand dollars! This is preposterous!”
The other employees in the room looked up. It was a tremendous amount of money, but they had heard Sage negotiate sums of that nature before, or had at least seen it in the paperwork.
“I know you have significantly more than that,” said a calm Norcross, completely undaunted by Sage’s outrage. “It’s a mere drop in the bucket to you.”
“In cash? You’re crazy if you think I have that kind of money lying around my office!” After looking into Norcross’s eyes, Sage immediately regretted his outburst. He concluded that this man not worth knowing, this nobody, just might be crazy. He tried to rid his voice of any hint of anger, attempting to sound reasonable until he could come up with some solution, one that would not involve costing him one million two hundred thousand dollars. “You understand, of course, that it is a large amount of money and even for a man of my means, it will take a while to accumulate?”
“Well, I don’t really have a while, so, in that case—” Norcross slid the satchel he was carrying into his left hand as if he was about to throw it to the floor.
Sage instantly reacted, waving his hands wildly. “No, no, no, no! Put the dynamite back. We’ll figure something out. I promise.”
The mention of dynamite caused all eyes in the room to click toward Norcross. Up until this point they’d had no idea their lives were in danger. The question was, should they run for the door or would that just cause him to set off his bomb? At the moment, no one was moving.
The door to the office opened and in stepped a thirty-five-year-old man dressed in business attire. Sage had never seen him before, but he welcomed any diversion that might distract Norcross until they could find a solution.
“Hello, sir. May I help you?”
“I come from John Bloodworth and Company, Mr. Sage. I have some papers for you to sign.”
“Ah, perfect!” Sage said, then turned toward Norcross.
“My banker. I couldn’t ask for better timing.” He motioned for the man to approach.
Jay Gould was annoyed. He was sitting in the coffee shop across from the Arcade Building at 71 Broadway, where Sage’s office was located. Gould and Sage had regular strategy meetings the day the Western Union board of directors met. Gould had misread his pocket watch and had arrived twenty minutes early. There wasn’t enough time to return to his office and get anything accomplished. He could have gone straight to Sage’s office, sure Sage would drop anything he was doing for him. Instead, something unusual happened. He decided to stop, have a cup of coffee, and relax. A driven man, if Gould wasn’t the king of the robber barons he was at the very least a prince. Relaxing wasn’t part of his nature, but this day his inner voice told him it was a good idea, and for some reason, inexplicable to him, he listened.
As he sipped his hot brew, he felt the tension slowly drain from his body. It felt odd but also good, and he decided that maybe he’d do this more often, fully knowing that he probably wouldn’t. Gould checked his pocket watch. He had been there eighteen minutes, and it was time to stroll across the street for his meeting.
That was when he heard it: a loud explosion that rocked the ground under him and rattled the entire establishment. Paintings fell off the wall, a mirror shattered, and a tray of dishes crashed to the floor. Gould quickly jumped back in his chair as his coffee cup tipped over onto the table, spilling its contents. Loud screams permeated the air, shortly followed by people rushing out of buildings onto the street with an odd mix of panic and a desire to see what had happened.
Staying curiously detached, Gould slowly rose and made his way outside. It wasn’t exactly what he had expected pandemonium to be. Some people were running wildly with no direction in mind, fueled only by a desire to escape, but the majority had stayed put and gathered in large groups, primarily out of a morbid curiosity to view whatever disaster had taken place. Scared whispers ran through the crowd, occasionally punctuated by ear-piercing shrieks.
Gould’s view was blocked, and he bulled his way through to the front, where he saw a man sprawled out on his back in the middle of the street. A typewriter had landed on his face, the impact of which made him unrecognizable. Gould couldn’t help noting the irony of a businessman and his typewriter being merged in death. Then he glanced upward and saw smoke billowing from the blasted-out windows on the second floor of the Arcade Building, the obvious origin of the unfortunate man and the typewriter before a bomb blew them out of their office. Gould’s indifference vanished, and a cold chill shot through his body. He recognized the offices immediately as those of his friend Russell Sage.
A profound numbness soon replaced the chill. Gould wasn’t used to strong emotions, and it was as if his nervous system had decided that he wouldn’t be able to withstand feeling that much. And it wasn’t because he was paralyzed with concern that the man under the typewriter might be his friend Russell Sage, or because Sage was even on his mind.
It was because he knew, at that exact moment, that his life would never be the same.
Inspector Thomas F. Byrnes was only five feet eight inches tall, yet he was hailed as a “giant in his time.” His meteoric rise to the head of the Detective Bureau of the New York City Police Department was filled with acts from which legends were made. In his rookie year, he saved a superior police officer’s life during the Draft Riots of 1863 and received a promotion. By 1870 he was already a captain, and sensational cases seemed to find him. He was the first to use photographs of criminals for identification purposes, thus popularizing the term “rogues’ gallery.” He also invented an interrogation process that he labeled “the third degree,” a phrase that had become part of the country’s vocabulary. While still on the police force, Byrnes published a book in 1886 about crime fighting entitled Professional Criminals of America. Policemen looked up to him, criminals feared him, and many tried to curry his favor.
On this particular night of December 4, 1891, Byrnes, now forty-nine, held a wooden box under his left arm as he knocked on the door of Russell Sage’s Fifth Avenue mansion. Byrnes had known Sage for years, as he had most of New York’s elite. Being the darling of New York law enforcement came with certain benefits but also involved extra duties. The power brokers liked to keep the police close in case they needed them, and that night Byrnes was needed.
The butler answered the door.
“Please inform Mrs. Sage that Inspector Byrnes is here,” Byrnes instructed the butler, his Irish origin evident as he spoke. The butler momentarily stared inadvertently at Byrnes’s extremely bushy mustache, which seemed to engulf his mouth, and before he could respond, a distraught Olivia Slocum Sage was at the door. Byrnes had telephoned to inform her of his impending arrival, and considering the events of the day, she was naturally anxious.
“Thomas, so good of you to come.”
“It woulda been sooner, but it took a while ’til Jay Gould left my office.”
“He’s very much shaken by what happened. Arrived dressed in a bizarre disguise, claimin’ he’s next on the list.”
“List, what list?”
“He’s convinced there’s a list of wealthy industrialists who have been marked for attack. I informed him I know of no such list, and he wouldn’t accept it.”
“That’s so unlike Jay. He’s always been so bold and unafraid.”
“No tellin’ how people’ll react when somethin’ like this happens. I’ve also gotten concerned calls from Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, and others.”
“I suppose it’s typical of our class. When tragedy occurs, it’s about them and not who it actually struck.” She sighed and shook her head. “So, what news do you have?”
“We’re well on our way to gettin’ to the bottom of this.”
“Thank the lord. What kind of sick mind would do such a thing?”
“It’s best ya don’t know about some of the animals I have ta face. How is he?” With that, Byrnes gestured with his head toward the stairs that led to the second floor.
“Some glass shards were embedded in his skin and had to be removed, but he’ll be up and around in no time. All in all, he’s a very lucky man.”
“I’ll say. May I see him?”
“Yes, of course. Go right up.” As Byrnes started to climb the stairs, Olivia called to him. “Don’t tell him I said that . . . about his luck. He’s in a foul mood.”
“I suppose I would be, too, if someone just tried to blow me ta kingdom come.”
Olivia nodded in agreement, then Byrnes continued his ascent. Though her first name was Margaret, she preferred being called Olivia, which was her middle name. She and Russell Sage were an odd match. After his first wife died, Sage married Olivia, who was forty-one and had never been married. Olivia was a champion of many charitable causes, and Sage was a renowned skinflint who refused to contribute. What made it an even more unusual pairing was that Sage had financially ruined Olivia’s father. Rumors abounded that it was a marriage of convenience that had never been consummated and thus left Sage free to participate in his many dalliances with younger females. Whatever their relationship was, it seemed to work for both of them. At this point, they had been married for twenty-two years without a hint of a weak link in their bond.
Wearing a long linen nightshirt with lace around the collar and propped up by numerous pillows, Sage was sitting in his large canopy bed, from which he had removed the curtains. No matter what the time of day, he preferred being able to see all around him. It was a habit he had acquired at an early age. He was the youngest of seven children and had to be on constant guard against a prank or a random swat. At the moment, he was trying to read but his wounds distracted him. He was a man who wasn’t used to any form of discomfort and didn’t wear it well.
He responded to a knock at his door with an annoyed, “Come in.”
Byrnes entered. “Is this a bad time?”
“How could it be? You’re a policeman, and I was attacked by a maniac. The only better time would have been if you had prevented it in the first place.”
“You surely don’t think I could have—”
“No, no, no. Please excuse me, Tom. I’ve never been face-to-face with a bomb before.”
“Havin’ faced a few bombs in my day, I know how they rattle yer nerves. Sent me runnin’ for a whiskey more than once.”
“Don’t tempt me. I might turn into a drunk.”
“Now, we both know that’s one thing Russell Sage will never be. Yer too fond of yer business ta disrespect it.”
Sage mulled over Byrnes’s words. They were hard to refute. “Speaking of my business, should I assume my office is a total loss?”
“It’ll take a good bit of rebuildin’ and then some.”
“Of course! What did I expect? A damn bomb exploded!”
“Do ya want ta hear about the others?”
Byrnes was referring to Sage’s employees, and Sage couldn’t have cared less. All of them were easily replaceable, but he knew society dictated that he be concerned.
“Yes, please. I hope they’re all right.”
“Most of them have minor wounds, like yours.”
Sage gave Byrnes an indignant look, suggesting that his discomfort could hardly be called minor. Byrnes soon corrected himself.
“Minor, that is, in comparison ta what happened to your stenographer, Mr. Norton.”
“What happened to Bentley?”
“Benjamin,” Byrnes corrected him. “He was blown out of the window, along with his typewriter, which landed on his face.”
“Oh, my lord!” he exclaimed, more appalled at the event than the state of poor Benjamin Norton.
“Needless ta say, he is no longer with us. Then there is William Laidlaw.”
“Laidlaw? I don’t know a man named Laidlaw.”
“Really? He was found on top of ya.”
“Oh, him. That was some bank clerk. Never met the man before.”
“I’m sure he wishes ya still hadn’t. He’ll be in the hospital for some time.”
“This whole thing is awful, incomprehensible! What about that demented anarchist who blew us all up? I suppose that lunatic got away scot-free!”
“I was just getting ta that.” Byrnes walked to a mahogany dressing table and set down the wooden box he had been carrying the whole time he had been at the Sage’s residence. He opened it and casually pulled out a severed head. “Is this the man who bombed yer office?”
Not the least bit fazed, Sage stared at the head, analyzing it, then responded in a completely calm, unemotional tone. “Yes, that’s him.”
“Are ya certain?”
Sage nodded. “Remarkable. He had his head blown clear off and not a mark on his face.”
“It’s the one bit of luck we’ve had in this case. Now we can find out who he is.”
“What difference does it make? You can’t put a head on trial.”
“No,” said Byrnes as he put the head back in the box and closed the top. “But we can find out if he has any friends with similar inclinations. Good night, Russell. Get some sleep. They say it’s the best cure.” And with that, Byrnes picked up his box and left.
It had never occurred to Sage that someone might come after him again and he’d be forced to relive the horror of that day with possibly less fortunate results. The calmness and indifference he’d exhibited when hearing about the demise of Norton and the crippling of Laidlaw suddenly disappeared. This was different. It was him, and he saw no good night’s sleep in his future until Byrnes got to the bottom of this.