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Leland Stanford bribed, stole, and murdered his way to fame and acclaim



American Disruptor: The Scandalous Life of Leland Stanford
By Roland De Wolk
University of California, 2019; $34.95

In American Disruptor, journalist Roland De Wolk describes his subject as “blessed and damned,” A label justified by the author’s deep dig into Stanford’s uproarious life and variegated career.

Descended from early New Englanders, Stanford was the eighth of eight sons in a farm family. Born in a backwoods bar in Watervliet, New York, he grew up near enough the Erie Canal and the country’s first chartered railroad, the Mohawk and Hudson, to gain a taste for movement and autonomy. “If one person can personify the epic historic evolution of agrarian, adolescent America into industrial world power, there is no better avatar than Leland Stanford,” De Wolk writes.

Young Stanford flopped at nearly everything—quitting high school, claiming without basis to have passed the bar, by age 28 broke. His brothers, who had gone west chasing gold, had succeeded at retail. In 1854 Leland went to California, too. He got rich enough and well-known enough selling mining gear that fellow entrepreneurs Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker, eyeing bigger things, recruited him as a partner. The quartet achieved robber baron status by bribing congressmen to give them the contract to build the western length of the Central Pacific Railroad. the “Big Four” collected $62.6 million on that work plus $55.5 million from other railroads they controlled. The real labor fell to Chinese immigrants working under inhumane conditions at skinflint wages. The real cost of running the rails was the near eradication of many western Indian tribes. 

The iron horse and attendant wealth carried Stanford into politics. Elected California’s governor in 1861, he remained so entwined in railroad affairs that in May 1869 it was he who drove in the ceremonial spike at Promontory Summit connecting the Eastern Seaboard with the Pacific Coast. In 1884, bereft over son Leland’s death at 15 from typhoid, he and his wife, Jane, memorialized founded Leland Stanford Jr. University, a font of innovation that has inspired disruptive types in a nearby swathe of Santa Clara County. “Stanford is probably the reason Silicon Valley is here,” said James Clark of Netscape, one of the tech stronghold’s first multibillionaires. —Liesl Bradner is a writer in Los Angeles, California. She contributed “Women With Wings” (December 2019). An earlier version of this post erroneously cited a phantom version of this book promoted online by another publisher but never published.[hr]

Brooklyn: The Once and Future City
By Thomas J. Campanella
Princeton, 2019; $35

Thomas J. Campanella opens his systematic, nuanced, and contradictorily satisfying chronicle with a flourish that demonstrates at once how familiar readers think they are with the place and how so much Brooklyn history has been forgotten. “Williamsburg” is synonymous with gentrified bohemian urbanity, he notes, yet “the story of Brooklyn’s urban landscape remains largely untold.” Expanding on this split narrative, Marine Park homeboy Campanella lists 57 borough-bred luminaries, declaring, “There is no quarter of modern life in America that Brooklyn’s gifted offspring have not touched or transformed.” Consider Henry Miller, whose house still stands, adjacent to today’s Williamsburg Cinemas. Myrtle Avenue, Miller wrote, is “a street not of sorrow, for sorrow would be human and recognizable, but of sheer emptiness: it is emptier than the most extinct volcano.”

Brooklyn’s most astonishing moments may be the litany of “dashed dreams” that philanthropists, developers, and shysters have pursued across the city. The dustjacket features the Friede Globe Tower, an audacious attraction planned for Coney Island, Brooklyn’s pleasure ground. Like many such undertakings, some of which would have made world history, the Globe Tower flopped. “The Globe Tower was no crime against New Yorkers,” Campanella writes. “It was the undiluted essence of [Coney Island].” Readers will encounter polarizing master builder Robert Moses, of course, but also the prophets, lesser in reputation  and achievement but not in ambition, who dreamed up the Fort Greene Projects, Jamaica Bay Harbor—which would have been the world’s largest—Brooklyn Navy Yard, The Linear City, and the Barren Island sanitation plant.

An impressive researcher and stylist, Campanella misses no opportunity to turn a city detail into an engagingly teachable moment. In his conclusion, explaining a personal experiment, he conveys the counterintuitive nature of color temperature: “The lower the temperature, the ‘warmer’ a light appears, and vice versa.” This nugget came up when the author informally tracked gentrification by walking Flatbush Avenue from Fulton Street to Marine Park and noting where the presence of cozily retro Edison bulbs gave way to colder, bolder LEDs. This charming quiz-boy approach is endearing, and Campanella’s enthusiasm for his topic reverberates through his lyrical account of his contradictory, historic, and ever-changing city. —Paul Lauber is a writer who lives in Brooklyn


The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret: George Washington, Slavery, & the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon
By Mary V. Thompson
University of Virginia, 2019; $29.95

The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret—a quote from Washington himself—drills into the first president’s rationale for owning and managing approximately 700 slaves over several decades. Thompson, a research historian at Mount Vernon, focuses her well-written, thoroughly sourced account on Washington’s eventual regret at having been a slaveowner and portraying his experience overseeing an enterprise powered by bondage. She explains slavery as a necessity of the times but also shows how Washington, a creature of those times, was moved toward manumission.

Unavoidable dives into Washington’s personality, his quirks and mannerisms, his unyielding discipline of self and others, and how he creepily kept track of everything at Mount Vernon even while overseeing the Revolution. Strict with the help, paid and enslaved, he was also benevolently paternal. Full chapters explicate the lay of the land at Mount Vernon, the people there and their diet, sleeping arrangements, and recreation, the growth of the plantation’s enslaved population, and bondsmen’s and -women’s feelings about the Washingtons.

Thompson reminds readers how a career in the military forged the general’s civilian life; namely, how he managed an enslaved workforce. By the time of his death, Washington had embraced the need to free his human chattel. Many in his circle realized his reputation as the patriarch of liberty “was compromised or at least threatened by his position” on slavery, the author writes. Thompson shows friends and acquaintances lobbying him to manumit. She does not absolve Washington of the sins for which we judge him but clarifies his evolution, illuminating an innovative, compromising, determined, frugal, demanding, and disciplined but flawed man. This is no hagiography. Washington, like most historical figures, thought hard about legacy and in the end acted to consolidate that legacy, a process tinged with regret. Thompson’s book allows one to see how Washington lived, the context for that life, and as part of that context the way he looked to those who knew him best, particularly from the point of view of living in proximity to greatness while being enslaved. —Historian Walter S. Montaño is an administrator and faculty member at Boston University’s program in Washington, DC.


The Spy Who Changed History: The Untold Story of How the Soviet Union Won the Race for America’s Top Secrets
By Svetlana Lokhova
Pegasus, 219; $29.95

In 1931 25 Russians enrolled at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Another 50 did likewise at American universities nationwide, and through the decade more Russian students arrived. These were not adolescents but men in their late twenties and thirties from the military and technical professions, chosen for loyalty and intelligence. These scholars’ professed goal was to advance their skills or obtain a degree in science or engineering for the benefit of the rapidly industrializing Soviet state. This was not a lie, nor was it entirely true.

Depression-depleted institutions enthusiastically welcomed the first wave of Russians, who paid tuition and registered using their actual names, including their leader and author Svetlana Lokhova’s protagonist, Stanislav Shumovsky (1902-84). However, latter-day Russian arrivals were NKVD agents sent by dictator Joseph Stalin to spy, steal secrets, and recruit American operatives, undertakings accomplished with no attention whatsoever from the FBI of the 1930s. Post-World War II episodes of atomic chicanery and political espionage produced fireworks, but the earlier and massive technical theft got little ink until Russian-British historian Lokhova nailed the story with research that included details from Soviet archives.

Credit Lokhova for chronicling an obscure but squirm-inducing operation that vacuumed up scads of American scientific and engineering knowledge, much but not all it obtained illegally. In that naive era, engineers and company officials happily schmoozed Soviet guests, answering questions, showing off facilities, and selling patents and even equipment reverse-engineered once back in the USSR. Lokhova maintains that the fruits of this spying enabled the Soviets to modernize their industry, defeat Hitler, and become a superpower, but that’s an exaggeration. The Soviet economy remained a mess to the end. Stolen secrets contributed little to the Red Army’s defeat of the Wehrmacht. Infiltrating the Manhattan Project was a coup but given time the USSR would have developed its own H-bomb.

Readers clued in to the news will note an oddity about Spy. Nowadays no one gets access to Soviet archives without Russian president Putin’s say-so. Lokhova got in; her access may have been coincidental, but the result would suit Putin. He doesn’t care for communism, but he does admire Stalin, and Lokhova’s Stalin is a fine fellow—a bit hardnosed but a statesman and a patriot. One could say—and it’s been said—that Putin is campaigning to sway American opinion in Russia’s favor. If so, this book does him credit. —Mike Oppenheim writes in Lexington, Kentucky.



Charles I’s Killers in America: The Lives and Afterlives of Edward Whalley and William Goffe
By Matthew Jenkinson
Oxford, 2019; $27.95


Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660 ended two decades of civil war and experiments in republic government. Legend holds that King Charles II then set about hunting down and executing men who had ordered the beheading of his father, Charles I. Two regicides, Edward Whalley and William Goffe, are said to have fled to New England, where brave colonists protected them from the king’s manhunters.

Reality, as author Matthew Jenkinson shows, disagrees. Little contemporaneous evidence suggests that serious efforts to collar Whalley and Goffe outlived Restoration England’s first years. Once the restored monarchy was reasonably secure, with few of its most dangerous opponents living, calls to apprehend the fugitives faded. Outstanding warrants forced the regicidal transplants to lay low at the margins of the colonies. Issuing pro forma requests for their capture allowed the Crown to preserve appearances. But as long as colonial governments showed sufficient deference and the regicides remained sufficiently isolated Whitehall let the sleeping dog lie.

In a particularly telling example of both Crown attitude and Jenkinson’s exhaustive research and penetrating analysis, Killers shows that the closest thing to intense post-1665 “pursuit” of the fugitives hardly merits the label. Edward Randolph, of England’s Lords of Trade, did harp on the issue throughout the 1670s. However, in an unbiased look at the original evidence, Jenkinson shows Randolph to have been concerned more with colonial authorities’ recalcitrance rather than with actually catching the king-killers. Randolph’s superiors thought even that exertion excessive.

The hazy myth of Goffe and Whalley ceaselessly on the run was political propaganda gusting from the nimbus of internecine conflict surrounding the American Revolution. At either end of—and throughout—the insurrection, loyalists straining to paint their ilk as staunch Kings’ men concocted an intense 17th century dragnet. Counterparts did likewise trying to certify revolutionary defiance. Neither side benefited from official declarations of half-hearted and strategic demands that colonial officialdom, correctly perceiving no penalties for inaction, parried by simultaneously acquiescing to and fending off royal rule. Busting the runaway regicide myth might seem to make for a paltry story, but that is another error to which Jenkinson puts the lie. —James Baresel is a freelance writer in Front Royal, Virginia.