You are doing a very good thing and I wish there were a lot more people like you. The people who are lucky enough to have no worry where the next meal is coming from don’t realize how it is to be like we are and a lot of others.
—LETTER FROM RUTH A MAN TO MR . B . VIRDOT
When Sam Stone first appeared in Canton in 1918, he was thirty and living in a single rented room. He held at least two jobs, one in a clothing shop, the other as a freelance ad man. A 1920 magazine, The Metro Annual, features an oval photo of a young Sam Stone in cravat and coat, and says of him, “Samuel: This young man eats advertising, sleeps with it and works with it. Short of Stature with a winning smile that covers his entire face, he is a new member and will undoubtedly . . .” But the page is torn and the rest of the sentence is lost. The magazine was right. Sam got little sleep. His feverish schedule left him exhausted. To stay awake driving between jobs he would suck on lemon drops.
Sam was a young man in a rush, anxious to shed his past, impatient to prove himself. He’d come to the right place. Canton in the 1920s was full of just such people. The town welcomed newcomers and immigrants, no questions asked—the kind of place where one might even reinvent oneself. Those with rough edges and a penchant for cutting corners would have felt right at home. Bootleggers, bookies, prostitutes, officials on the take, and schemers of every description mingled freely with miners and millworkers and shopkeepers.
“Little Chicago,” as Canton was then known, was on the Lincoln Highway, at the crossroads of corruption between New York and “Big Chicago.” The New York Times, in July of 1926, offered its readers a sampling of the lexicon of Canton’s underworld: a plainclothes policeman “is a ‘sport,’ a uniformed officer is a ‘harness bull.’ Dope peddlers are known variously as ‘shovels,’ ‘reindeers’ or ‘angels.’ Likewise a pistol is a ‘silencer’ or a ‘six best friends’ if it happens to hold six cartridges.’ ” The portion of town where crime was most concentrated was “The Jungle.” There were plenty of honest, hardworking men and women living in Canton, but even they had grown blasé about the rackets and the vice, as long as they knew their place. “Public indifference” was the phrase cited by the Times. Unlike some cities, business in Canton’s many brothels was all but dead on the weekends. That was the customers’ family time. And if a john died in flagrante delicto, the police could be counted on to arrange for the body to be found in a more proper setting—they could do no less for the family. For all its flaws, the town was tolerant, forgiving, and oblivious to pedigrees.
In such a place, it took Sam little time to establish himself, acquiring a men’s clothing shop on Tuscarawas, one of the city’s main commercial streets. It proudly bore his name, Stone’s Clothes. Beside him was Petropoulos & Xynos, the shoe-shine business of two Greek immigrants; a confectionary run by Italian immigrants, the Marsinos; and a barbershop belonging to native-born Lester Link. From Sam’s store could be seen the imposing Stark County Court House with its four gilded angels blowing trumpets from a soaring bell tower. By the 1920s he was one of Canton’s up-and-coming merchants.
Evidence of Sam’s success is to be found in the suitcase that holds the B. Virdot letters. There is a menu dated July 10, 1922, from aboard the RMS Majestic, at the time the world’s largest ocean liner. Once Germany’s prized SS Bismarck, it had passed to the Brits under the Treaty of Versailles and was now the flagship of the White Star Line. That evening, Sam had a choice of “Sea Bass, Petits Paysanne, Roisettes of Mutton, St. Germain, or Philadelphia Chicken, Chipolata.” It appears that Sam also had a traveling companion, doubtless a lady friend. The personalized menu notes that it is for “Mr. Stone and Party.”
From another such card in the suitcase it seems that he had become a man not only of means but of some leisure as well. He did not return from abroad for at least five weeks. On a card dated August 17, 1922, he waxed poetic: “Grotesque and massive . . . wind tossed and rugged; limitless distances, blue waters bulwarked against the most wonderful ship in the world—and wine . . . and more wine—and life full of the gladness of living. That’s the night before the last night on board the steamer ‘Paris.’ ” During the voyage he was served his first artichoke. He attacked it with knife and fork until someone suggested it be taken apart delicately, leaf by leaf. That was not how Sam approached life.
On his passport application dated May 2, 1921, he wrote “I solemnly swear that I was born at Pittsburgh, on or about the 1st day of March, 1889, that my father Jacob Stone was born in Russia, and is now deceased. That he emigrated to the United States from the port of [unknown], on or about [unknown], 1875 . . .” He said his father had been naturalized as a citizen of the United States on May 15, 1883, as shown by the accompanying Certificate of Naturalization.
But in a thorough search of the records, I could find no evidence of his naturalization. I scoured the U.S. Census but could turn up no reference to the family living in Pittsburgh in that period. In my sweep of all documents, I found nothing to support any of the claims made on his passport application. That’s because, as I would discover over the ensuing months, it was all pure fantasy. There was no such naturalization in 1883. And contrary to Sam’s sworn statement, his father, Jacob, was not born in Russia and was still very much alive at the time he applied for the passport. Almost everything Sam Stone wrote and swore to was fictitious. It pains me to admit it, even now, but in so doing, he had knowingly committed a federal crime. If found out, it would likely have led authorities to a host of other misrepresentations and ultimately put him and his hard-earned reputation in serious jeopardy.
Sam had written that the purpose of his trip to Switzerland, Romania, France, Italy, and Jugo-Slavia was to explore the export and import business. But the State Department and Canton’s local postmaster general had their doubts. Their suspicions were piqued by a confidential interview with W. G. Saxton, a cashier with Canton’s First National Bank, who informed investigators that he suspected Sam’s true purpose was to visit relatives. It mattered because at the time the country was traumatized by the influx of poor immigrants and demanded of passport applicants that they swear their purpose was not to aid in bringing more foreigners into the country.
As the investigators eyed Sam’s passport application, his May 18 departure drew closer. Given the wealth of supporting documentation, including a birth certificate, they were unable to challenge it. Despite their suspicions, he was granted a passport, which arrived by special delivery just days before his scheduled departure. But the contradictions and inconsistencies in his story would surface again and again, and the lies would grow ever more convoluted until even when he wanted to tell the truth he could not. In a town like Canton in the 1920s, where the underworld flourished and the authorities took little note, taking such liberties with the truth might have seemed petty enough, but the potential consequences would weigh upon him for decades to come, and the more he gained in wealth and stature, the more he had to fear from the truth.
I did not need to know the story of his life to know that Sam had suffered. His childish jokes were often the only glimpse we would get of his childhood. “I am on a seafood diet,” he used to say, then pause. “I eat all the food I see.” As he delivered the punch line, he would rub his ample belly. Sam was amused by the very notion of a diet and the idea that one might be in so privileged a position as to be able to choose what one eats. We, his family, understood without his ever having to say so that behind the joke was a memory of hunger. When, in his ad, he wrote the words “the bread of tomorrow,” he was not speaking metaphorically. In the world from which he came and the one to which his appeal was addressed, bread was the answer to many a prayer. In December 1933 there was real urgency in the words “Give us this day our daily bread . . .”
Many of the letters to B. Virdot refer to bread. For them, it was the focus of their days, upon which they and their loved ones depended. Sixteen-year-old Dorothy Clark, in her letter to B. Virdot, penned, “where you wrote in your column ‘The bread of today is the question of tomorrow’ was surely true of us this last couple weeks. Sometimes we just eat oats to save bread for the next day for our school lunches.” She was one of four children, her thirty-five-year-old father, Clyde, an out-of-work crane operator in a steel mill, so sick he could barely walk.
This was not a classical famine brought on by locusts or crop failure (though the Dust Bowl hardly helped) but an economic drought. The famine it produced was no less harsh—the slow and relentless drain on energy and will that comes from being underfed day in and day out, the stunted growth of the young, the sunken look of the old. It was a cruel form of starvation that lacked finality, withering the spirit as much as the body. In some, it bred resignation and paralysis. In others, it created resentment and even a willingness to break the law.
Those who endured the Depression and saw their children go to bed hungry night after night understood how desperate times could sometimes give rise to desperate actions. Prolonged hunger and want fed into Canton’s seamy underbelly of crime, pitting the haves against the have-nots, and fueling a growing perception that the laws were there to protect property not people. That December of 1933, the simple phrase “the bread of tomorrow” was enough to telegraph to one and all the depths to which so many had sunk.
Forty-year-old Paul Kendzora, a onetime coal miner and son of German immigrants, wrote, “There is seven in the family and one working part time so you can realize what our Christmas will be. I guess we will have to hunt rabbit for dinner . . . I worry until I have the headache all the time.”
Bread was also on the minds of Chester and Nancy Young when, on the evening of December 18, 1933, Nancy wrote to B. Virdot. Three years earlier, Chester Young had lost his job. He was also partially blind. They shared their cramped home with their son Robert, twenty-one; his sixteen-year-old wife, Dorothy; a son Chester Jr., age fourteen; a son Alvah, age six; and a daughter, Betty Jane, age four.
Their circumstances continued to spiral downward. Nancy Ellen Young took up a pencil and wrote to B. Virdot:
I was just sitting in my room this evening looking upon my family and knowing I did not have a cent to my name to even buy them bread, all though they were asking about Santa Claus. My husband is a Parscal Blind and has had no work for about three yers. A $1.00 now and then. There is a family of five. 3 children. And I have ask for help and Mr. Young has try to get work from the Government but can’t get it so far. But God only knows the best. We have allways try to be Honest in every way. And I was reading in the paper where you like to help a Poor and needed family out for Xmas. Well I can’t get much poor off than I am. Last week we did not have bread for two days. May god bless the giver to help my poor little children out. Now in the God do not think I am lying as you are welcome to come and see me Mr Chester A.Young 1111 3rd St SW Canton Ohio I sure will thank you very much for Help and to make my children a Merry Christmas. God bles you and family. And Merry Xmas & Happy new Year. Answer please thank.
Nancy Young had good reason to fret about her family. She knew the true depths of personal loss, though she made no mention of it in her letter. It was yet another example of the trauma of life in those years and the culture that kept its sorrows to itself. To have fully unburdened herself to Mr. B. Virdot, or to anyone, for that matter, would have been deemed unseemly. No one wanted another’s pity, and even in the poorest and hardest hit of families, notions of dignity and privacy were not compromised. As secretive as Sam was about his own past—especially viewed from the vantage point of today—he reflected a broader norm in which that generation seldom shared its woes with the next, perhaps hoping to escape their own grief or provide their offspring with a clean slate, unencumbered by such grimness. Today, in an age of celebrity, where anguish and loss are routinely the stuff of autobiography, we are mystified by that generation’s reticence to share its stories. They would have been no less taken aback by our lack of inhibition and disregard for privacy. And what I take to be Sam’s secrecy, he and his generation might have seen as their gift to us, fulfilling the dream that we, their descendants, might be liberated from such hardships as they endured.
But there was no such escape for Nancy Ellen Young. What she omitted from her letter was boundless grief. The twenties had brought one funeral after another. The death certificates record a succession of tragedies. On May 1, 1921, they lost their seventeen-day-old infant, Orville. He was born premature and died at home. A year later, on September 27, 1922, their two-month-old daughter, Margaret, died of what was called “inanition”—the fatal exhaustion that comes from lack of nourishment. On August 13, 1925, they lost their six-year-old son, Donald. The cause: acute gastroenteritis. On May 18, 1928, their eight-day-old son, Arnold, also premature, died at home. Four times in eight years, they made the trek to Westlawn Cemetery to bury their children.
Against such losses, the opening sentence of Nancy Young’s letter to B. Virdot takes on a more ominous tone: “I was just sitting in my room this evening looking upon my family and knowing I did not have a cent to my name to even buy them bread . . .” In the Young home, food was always an issue, except perhaps for those few days before Christmas when the check from B. Virdot arrived. Whatever transient relief it provided did not end the sorrows in the Young household. Seven years after writing to Mr. B. Virdot, Nancy Ellen Young was dead. She was fifty-one. The cause: pneumonia. In Westlawn Cemetery, she joined the children she had lost.
For the surviving members of the Young family, the prosperity that came to others in the forties and fifties passed them by. Charles Young, a grandson, recalls that as a seven-year-old he visited his grandfather, who was then living in a dingy apartment over a coal company. The man he called “Grandpa” was frail and thin and nearly blind. The poverty that Chester and his wife endured did not end with them. Decades later, their son Alvah was buried in one of Canton’s pauper graves. Five of Chester and Nancy Ellen’s grandchildren also endured turbulent and impoverished childhoods. Charles Young remembers that in 1956, following his parents’ divorce, he and his brothers and sisters were placed in the Fairmount Children’s home, an orphanage, for a year and eight days.
The saga of the Young family would have struck home with Sam Stone. Though he never spoke of it, he too had lost a sibling in infancy—perhaps more than one—and in later years, the grandchildren of his brother were found so malnourished and living in such squalor that they had to be rescued by city workers. But that too was a story I would discover only later.
The Youngs suffered in silence, praying for better times. But for others, want fueled resentment and desperation.
Many who had lived an exemplary life—hard work, family, and church—went hungry. Living by the rules offered few tangible rewards. Prohibition came to an end on December 5, 1933—two weeks before Sam Stone placed his ad in the paper. But long before that event and long after, many in Canton had surrendered themselves to corruption.
Neither the law nor city officials were held in high esteem in those days. Canton’s police crowed about their “Goon Car,” a four-ton bulletproof vehicle, more a tank than a car, with portholes for tommy guns. It was always ready to battle mobsters, though it was seen more as a departmental trophy than a vehicle of enforcement. Too many police were in the pocket of those they were supposed to be locking up. The city was rife with speakeasies, numbers rackets, loan sharks, and prostitution. It was impossible for a man to walk down some of Canton’s streets without being propositioned from entire rows of nearby windows. Public corruption was widespread. Many in the trough of the Depression secretly cheered on the likes of Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow, and John Dillinger. The banks, they reasoned, had it coming to them.
For the ordinary fellow, out of work and unable to put bread on the table for his wife and children, there was the ever-present lure of crime—not the great heist, but a petty score to see a family through the worst of it. These were not hardened criminals looking for an easy score, but men who had exhausted every legal way, who were willing to take any job, who had stood in endless lines, filled out countless applications, walked themselves out of their shoes, and still came up empty-handed. The crowded Mansfield Reformatory that served Canton was living proof that good men had their limits. The vice-ridden culture of Canton, the complicity of city officials and police, and the near total absence of either work or public relief collectively created an environment in which crime became, for some, the last and only option.
Sam was not a man to judge others. He had made his own mistakes, and understood that nothing was more precious than a second chance. As B. Virdot he was only too ready to help those who, like himself, had strayed. He might even have felt a tinge of envy for those who had “paid their debt to society.” At least now they could put it behind them. His actions were such that the most severe punishment that would be meted out was his own decades-long dread of being discovered.
Among the letters that came to him as B. Virdot was one from Alverna Wright. Today she is best remembered by her grandson, fifty-eight-year-old Joseph Watters. He had spent much of his early life with her and his grandfather, Noble Wright. They were loving people, doting grandparents, and generous to a fault. And though they didn’t talk about it, he knew they had endured much during the Depression. “I knew my grandfather very well,” Joseph Watters told me, speaking on a cell phone as he drove along a highway in Medina County, south of Cleveland. “My grandfather was a very decent, gentle person.” But before I read him the letter his grandmother Alverna had written to B. Virdot on December 18, 1933, I felt obliged to warn him that it might not be easy for him to hear its contents. It contained what I suspected would be a painful secret and he would do well to ready himself. This he did.
“Dear Sir,” the letter began,
Considering your spirit of giving I will not be afraid to write to you because I know you have real charity. I have felt like I would like to do just what you are doing but I have not been so favored.
The depression has affected me from the very beginning. Work not being steady, then no work at all. We were too proud to ask for help but went on from day to day saying tomorrow we will ask for help. My husband said he was able bodied and willing to work and didn’t want charity.
Becoming restless my husband went from place to place looking for work. Some times walking for miles always in hope of finding work. We were very unfortunate as none of our relation could help us at all.
Finally after every effort was exhausted he fell in with some bad company and finally landed in the Mansfield reformatory where is listed as a depression inmate.
This left me to look after my little girl alone. Where we were living and couldn’t pay the rent in furnished rooms, we had lost all our furniture because we couldn’t pay the storage bill. The water was shut off, the gas turned off, and then the city came to my rescue. I receive $6.00 every two months from the state out of which I buy some groceries & the rest shoes & necessaries.
My husband has been transferred to Applecreek with some of the trusted inmates but I do not know definitely when he will be home.
This letter finds me without any money at all to get anything for my little girl for Christmas. I am not asking for myself but I would appreciate it if I would have the pleasure of giving even $5.00 worth of useful things to my little girl and husband and mother & mother-in-law who have been unfortunate too. My mother-in-law lost her home & is seventy years old.
Even if you do not consider me worthy of your kindness I want to say that you will be rewarded at least three times for your charity in some way for as the saying is:
“He who gives himself with his alms feeds three,
Himself, his hungering
Neighbor and Me. (meaning God)”
MRS. A. WRIGHT
1527 FRAZER AVE.NW
Joseph Watters was at a loss for words. He had not known that his grandfather had done time in prison, nor the depths of his grandparents’ anguish. I understood well what he was feeling, having only recently discovered that my grandfather too had crossed the line. His grandmother, Alverna Coombs Wright, was thirty-one when she wrote the letter, the mother of a single child, Miriam, then seven. She lived with her seventy-two-year-old mother, Sarah, a widow; an older sister, Anna Belle; and a boarder named Frank Grissard.
A decade earlier, in June 1923, she had married Noble Ebenezer Wright, a man who could build anything with his hands. But even such talent as his was no shield from the Depression. All around him honest and industrious neighbors failed, engulfed in a misery seemingly oblivious to skills or virtue. Decent men and women not otherwise predisposed to a life of crime faced choices no one should have to make.
By all accounts Noble Wright was an honorable man, but driven by need, he broke the law. State archives record that on September 20, 1932, he stole a car from a garage, a Hudson Brougham valued at $250. Noble Wright didn’t make much of a criminal. He was arrested the next day and confessed to taking two other cars. He was thirty years old, stood five feet eight, weighed 152 pounds, had a sixth-grade education, and worked for a time at a dairy. All this is on his prison record, along with the fact that he had been married for nine years. His only vice—aside from stealing cars—was smoking an occasional cigar.
He was sentenced to 360 days in the Ohio State Reformatory, one mile from Mansfield, Ohio. With a prison population of some thirty-five hundred men ranging in age from sixteen to thirty, it was one of the nation’s largest such facilities, a step between reform school and the penitentiary. In the depths of the Depression it became a holding tank for the desperate.
Of the 1,245 prisoners received in 1933, nearly all were there for so-called “property crimes.” As the reformatory noted, “It is here that men hear the first clang of steel bars behind them; and here that they lose their identity as citizens. Here they cease to be names and become numbers.” Noble Wright became inmate number 29448. It was his first time behind bars and it did not suit him. In February 1933, Noble Wright escaped. He did not get far. He was captured the next day and brought back to the reformatory, where, for his escape attempt, another 130 days were tacked onto his sentence.
On May 1, 1934, four months after his wife had written to Mr. B. Virdot, Noble Wright was paroled. When he left the facility he entered an environment no less desperate, only now he had a record. Exactly how Alverna and Noble weathered the Depression is not known, but that they did is beyond doubt. Their only child, Miriam, would marry Joseph P. Watters and have fifteen children—including two pairs of twins who died in infancy.
The Wrights’ lives improved so much in the years after the Depression as to have been scarcely recognizable to them. Noble became an engineer with the Pennsylvania Railroad and crisscrossed the country delivering coal and iron ore and all manner of raw materials that helped fuel the recovery and gave rise to the great industrial boom that brought prosperity to Canton and the nation.
Of course, that’s not what his grandson Joseph recalls. He remembers Grandpa with his engineer’s cap taking him for rides in the yard engine, the great diesel barreling down the tracks on Canton’s south side. He remembers that his grandpa transformed a garage into a home with his own hands, added to it, and made it into a warm and welcoming place. They never went out to restaurants, and Grandfather Wright tended his modest garden producing tomatoes and corn and rhubarb, which he shared with the grandchildren. Joseph Watters remembers how, through that frugality that was the hallmark of Depression-era survivors, his grandparents saved enough to buy a vacation home in Melbourne, Florida, where they wintered.
Alverna, the writer of the letter, had been the first in her family to graduate from high school. As an adult, she proudly hung her diploma from McKinley High on her wall. (My grandmother Minna Adolph went to school with her.) She became president of Canton’s Poetry Society, and left to her grandson notebooks of poetry she had penned that he hopes to have published someday. And in her later years she was a part of the YMCA Kitchen Comedy Club, where she and others played kazoos and washboards and took their places alongside a float in the annual Football Hall of Fame Parade.
But neither Alverna nor her husband, Noble, ever forgot the hardships they endured. Like many of their faith, they sent envelopes with offerings to Catholic missions. But they did more. A grandson, Michael, recalled the time when Noble was walking down the street in Coshocton, Ohio, and came across a nun who had a hole in her shoe. Noble insisted she come with him to a shoe store, and there he bought her a new pair.
Though their marriage was tested by adversity, they saw it through and in June 1980 celebrated their fifty-seventh anniversary. Alverna died in Florida on February 11, 1981, at age seventy-nine. Noble died seven years later, in 1988, at age eighty-six. They are buried side by side in Calvary Cemetery, between Canton and Massillon, Ohio, their simple flat gravestones flush with the grass. They are interred in the section marked “Joyful Mysteries.”
Their grandchildren are a living postscript to what they endured. Daughter Miriam and her husband, Joseph Watters, inherited little but the lessons in frugality, but that was enough for them to provide a home for eleven children—four others died in infancy. They kept a journal of every expenditure right down to the penny. Not even the purchase of a three-cent stamp went unrecorded.
Miriam died on August 5, 1999, at age seventy-three, and is also buried in Calvary Cemetery.
Nearly all of Alverna and Noble’s eleven grandchildren chose to remain near Canton. Among them are a postal worker, three nurses, and a businessman. And if railroads provided Grandfather Noble Wright a way out of poverty, it also provided his family and descendants a ticket to a better life. His son-in-law, Joseph, started as a railroad brakeman and rose to superintendent. A granddaughter, Deborah, worked as a railroad stenographer; her brother Joseph helped pay for college with a railroad job; and two of Noble’s grandsons work for Norfolk Southern to this day. John Watters is a locomotive conductor who, like his father and grandfather, came under the spell of train and track.
As stunned as family members were to learn of Noble Wright’s criminal record, they are no less protective of his good name. Whatever Noble Wright did, they say, he did out of desperation and for those he loved. They understand that the times were punishing, and their admiration for him is undiminished. “It was probably just a survival-type mode that got him into trouble,” says grandson Joseph.
Today, the dark gothic Mansfield Reformatory where Noble Ebenezer Wright was held some seventy-five years ago is familiar to many. It was where the 1994 movie Shawshank Redemption was filmed, and each Halloween, fright seekers pay fifteen dollars per person for a “Haunted Prison Experience” billed as “Hell on Earth.”
As for the last lines of Alverna Wright’s letter to Mr. B. Virdot, they are the closing to the poem “The Vision of Sir Launfal” by James Russell Lowell. In the poem, a disillusioned knight of King Arthur’s Round Table searches for the Holy Grail but finds only a beggar with whom he shares his food and drink. The beggar, he discovers, is Jesus Christ.
I don’t know if Sam was a man of great faith in any traditional sense, but he believed deeply that everyone had a right to a second chance. He’d made his own mistakes and gone on to prove that he could make something better of himself. He was proud to have risen above others’ expectations of him, and his frequent references to having graduated from the “School of Hard Knocks” were a celebration of that institution, not an apology. He was eager to prove the distinction between the uneducated and the uneducable. He championed the underdog and forgave the fallen, having been both.
My mother has said he was a poor judge of character. It’s true. He looked beyond a person’s past to see their prospects, and in so doing ignored many a warning sign. He would never condone crime but he was slow to condemn the man, having witnessed in himself and others the lengths to which a person will go to survive. He understood that having a stain on one’s record sometimes said more about the times than the man. That was doubtless how he would have seen the blemish on Noble Wright’s record and how he would have viewed George Carlin, who also wrote to him. Carlin’s letter began:
Mr. B. Virdot
After reading your article in the Canton Repository I decided to write you.
Personally I’m very much adversed to charity in any form although I’m getting relief from the family Service since the first of this month.
Have tried every place to find employment but have not been successful, I would be very greatful if you could in some way find me a place to work.
I could use two dollars Xmas so that my wife & I could go to her home in Alliance, but as a loan.
Will add information concerning myself. Feb 23rd 1930, I was sentenced to the Reformatory at Mansfield, O. Have been home since Sept. 15, 1933 am on parole now & lots of places will not give a man a chance to work when they know it. There is just my wife & I and we will appreciate anything that you can do for us. Am 32 years old.
921 PROSPECT AVE. SW
That same evening, from the same address, perhaps unknown to George Carlin, someone else was writing to Mr. B. Virdot—his mother, Florence. Her letter read:
I saw your very nice offer to help 75 poor needy familys. We are sure in need of a little help. Just now my husband got injured 2 years ago and has been unable to work since he will never be able to work any more. He had been getting compensation up till the 21 of October but they have [not] sent it yet. But we are all sure will get it in the near future we would not ask you to give it to us but just loan it to us till we receive our from Columbus we have a little girl 9 years old. she won’t have any Xmas and I no you will for any one that would think of giving that much money away would be happy.
MR. MRS. L. H. CARLIN
921 PROSPECT AVE SW
That letter was from Lawrence Henry Carlin and Florence Maude Carlin, but most folks in Canton knew them as Henry and Maude. Today that nine-year-old daughter, Valerie—the baby in the family—is eighty-five, but she still remembers well what she got that Christmas of 1933: an orange and a little powder-blue change purse adorned with silver metallic beads that opened and closed with a drawstring. The orange was the first fresh fruit to touch her lips in memory. Both likely came from the five dollars Mr. B. Virdot sent her parents that week. But Valerie never knew of the B. Virdot letter. (Another five dollars arrived for George Carlin.)
Valerie’s mother and father tried to protect her from the stresses and strains of their circumstances. “You were kind of shut out of the room when the conversations were going on,” she recalls. But no amount of closed doors and whispers could conceal their dire situation. The career-ending injury to her father, Henry Carlin, was an accident in a brickyard in Bolivar, Ohio, that destroyed his back. Even years later, the only income the Carlin family could expect was the forty-nine dollars a month in workmen’s compensation.
The Carlins rented a house at 921 Prospect Avenue in 1933. It was the landlady’s responsibility to pay the utilities. She did not, and the power was cut off. After that, Valerie did her homework by candlelight. Some nights she went to bed both cold and hungry. Without power, the Carlins had to improvise. Emblazoned in Valerie’s childhood memory is a picture of her father and brother-in-law heating a pot of beans in the coal furnace. It seemed to take forever. Bean soup was a near constant, and she swore she would never eat it again, that is, until hunger gnawed at her. To keep the furnace going, her brother-in-law was dispatched to collect coal that had fallen off the coal cars along the railroad tracks. The apartment was sparsely furnished. At nine, Valerie still slept in her parents’ bedroom in her baby crib.
The Carlins were people of faith, but only Valerie went to Sunday services at the Methodist church on Dueber Avenue. “My parents never attended church,” she remembers, “but they made sure that I did. I think it was because they didn’t have the clothes to wear.”
The Carlins were often unable to make the rent and were forced to move from place to place in what for many children of the Depression era became a nomadic, rootless life. “I went to every grade school in Canton,” remembers Valerie. She attended McKinley High School and was in her second semester of her senior year when she dropped out to help support the family. She went to work at an ice cream parlor on East Tuscarawas, making sandwiches and scooping ice cream for twenty-four cents an hour. (At forty she earned her General Educational Development diploma.) The constant moving, the disruption of schooling, the early imperative to support family—all this described Sam Stone’s childhood as well.
But all was not bleak in the Carlin home. “There was always something to laugh about,” recalls Valerie. And her father, despite his injuries and his struggles, remained a jolly man who always believed that “there was a light at the end of the tunnel.” Some evenings, family and friends would gather to play cards by candlelight.
In the months and years thereafter, as the New Deal took shape, the Carlins, like thousands of others across the country, took advantage of the work it provided, reinvigorating the economy and transforming the nation as it slowly emerged from the Depression. One of Valerie’s brothers went into the Civilian Conservation Corps. Another, James, joined the WPA and helped build dams. The toughness, the self-sacrifice, the readiness to take collective action—all hallmarks of the Depression years—later found expression in World War II and the Greatest Generation. Valerie married Robert Naef, who joined the army, was awarded a Purple Heart, and came home with shrapnel in his right foot. He made the shell fragment into a key chain for his wife. It was friendly fire and not something he talked about. In his absence, in 1943, Valerie became a true Rosie the Riveter, shooting rivets into the stabilizers of countless B-24 Liberator bombers at the Berger Aircraft plant just outside of Canton. In her sewing box, she keeps a single rivet, a token of those times.
OTHER MEMORIES OF the Carlin home come from eighty-year-old Lheeta Carlin Talbott, the Carlins’ granddaughter, and one of eleven children. Her father was James, Valerie’s older brother. For a time Lheeta and her family lived at the Prospect Street apartment with her grandparents. She remembers that there were times she could not go to school because she didn’t have shoes. Even today that memory stings. She asks that I not mention it, then relents.
Her reluctance to speak of such remote events may be hard for some Americans today to understand. Clearly the memories remain sensitive, but the discomfort in speaking of such matters is also deeply rooted in the mores of those times. Poverty was widespread and afflicted even the most resourceful, but it was still a source of embarrassment. The closest word we have for it is shame but it was more than that, just as the pride ascribed to that generation was more nuanced. Both oversimplify the emotional landscape of those times. In their letter to B. Virdot, Donavon Brown, a mechanic, and his wife Mabel, wrote: “We cannot all have money, but to be honest and poor is not a disgrace, and cleanliness is something we can all have at little cost.”
It was a different world, one in which the disgrace came not so much from being poor as from the implicit suggestion that the burdens of others were less onerous than one’s own. To gain another’s pity at the expense of self-respect was a bad bargain. Poverty was viewed not as an individual burden but a societal scourge. In such times, it was often considered self-centered to call attention to one’s own predicament, as if one were oblivious to the circumstances of all those around them.
It was part of a wider communal code that applied to the individual, the family, and the community. To capitulate to self-pity or public plaints not only exposed weakness in one’s own character but threatened to unravel the composure of others. It was like a team that carried a terrible load evenly distributed across many shoulders. Each looked to the other for support. To break emotional rank only added to the burden of others. It was fine to vent in a political sense, to march on Washington or rail against the banks. But it was expected that one and all would maintain a certain grit and stoicism. “When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on,” Roosevelt is said to have counseled. For some, it may have been no more than keeping up a front, but the mere ability to do even that said something about their inner reserves. So deeply ingrained was that mind-set that even three-quarters of a century later, Lheeta Carlin Talbott can barely bring herself to speak of the hardships.
In such an environment the offer by Mr. B. Virdot presented the rarest of opportunities—someone to whom they could unburden themselves as individuals without violating the social compact. Anonymity insulated them and provided them with an emotional refuge that Sam Stone himself never had in such times. He was an intensely social being, but, out of pride or a desire not to dredge up a painful past, he compartmentalized his own years of suffering and shared them with no one. About those early years, he maintained a perfect silence. I call it secrecy, being the product of an age that promotes revelation and conflates privacy with repression. My grandfather never shared anything of his childhood. What I would come to know of it was passed on to me by others decades after he died. It is the same reluctance that Lheeta Carlin Talbott feels in revealing that there were times she could not go to school for lack of shoes.
And like Sam, Lheeta Carlin Talbott’s painful memories date back even before she was old enough to go to school—back to the period when her grandparents wrote to Mr. B. Virdot. Her mother and father had bought a bedroom suite of furniture—beds and a dresser and a mirror. They had it for a time but could not keep up with the payments. Lheeta remembers men coming upstairs into the bedroom and carrying the furniture off, repossessing it. But her mother held on to one object—the mirror, convinced that after so many payments she was entitled to keep it. “They are not getting the mirror,” she heard her say. Her mother apparently hid it from the men that day.
“My dad kept that mirror and it was always in our living room,” says Lheeta. When her father died and his possessions were divided among the children, the one thing Lheeta’s daughter, Kathryn, asked for was the mirror, knowing the story behind it. “And now,” says Lheeta, “that mirror is in our daughter’s house, and it makes me cry.” The mirror that held her mother’s image now holds for her all that she endured. Today Lheeta wonders what she and her family slept on after their beds were taken. Of this she has no recollection. For her grandparents, the Depression never really ended. Tough times dogged them to the end.
Lheeta’s memories of the Depression, like those of the rest of her family, are mired in contradiction. “It was a remarkable time,” she says, “but even though it wasn’t, it was a better time. It was better because people were more kind.”
BUT WHAT OF the Carlins’ son George, and the letter he wrote that same December night in 1933? Just behind the Carlins’ house, on the same lot, was a smaller cottage, and it was there that their son George Carlin lived with his wife, Irene. And it was there that he wrote his own appeal to Mr. B. Virdot.
George Carlin never did say in the letter what landed him behind bars. For that, one must look to the state’s archives of prison records. Those accounts show that George Carlin was born on August 31, 1901, in Bolivar, Ohio. One of at least six children, he had finished one year of high school, but since the age of fifteen had been largely on his own, working as a mechanic and a painter. Under “associations,” meaning who he hung out with, it says simply, “Good and bad.” The latter would cost him dearly.
On the evening of September 9, 1930, he and two friends drove the six miles from Canton to Louisville and held up Jonas Miller, a gas station attendant. They took the cash—about thirty-five dollars—as well as the register and divided up their take on the road. They then drove to Akron, where, that same evening, they were arrested by detectives and promptly pled guilty. George Carlin was then twenty-nine, stood five feet seven, and weighed 145 pounds.
On September 13, 1933, he was paroled into a world that was in its way as harsh and forbidding as the one he was leaving. The Depression had ravaged the economy, and not even the best of men with clean records could find work. His prospects were bleak. And yet, somehow he managed. On October 20, 1934—more than a year after being paroled—his probation officer wrote, “The man has been in no trouble since his return and is working hard every day.”
George Carlin and his wife, Irene, divorced. George later met Hazel Winterhalter, or “Tootie,” as he called her. Hazel, now ninety-seven, is quick-witted and protective of her late husband’s good name. Born on the evening of November 5, 1912, Hazel Carlin is the daughter of the stableman who tended the horses and carriages of one of Canton’s true millionaires, industrialist Frank E. Case, manufacturer of dental chairs. (Case was wiped out in the crash of 1929 and died four years later.) Hazel Carlin says her family was largely immune to the Depression, having an already modest lifestyle and but one child to feed.
George and Hazel were married on June 26, 1941, in the Zion Lutheran Church. With the coming of war, forty-year-old George Carlin was required to register for the draft. It was then that he told his new bride for the first time that he had a criminal record. “He offered to dissolve the marriage if I wasn’t satisfied,” she recalls. “But I loved him and it made no difference to me.” I imagine that my grandmother Minna responded similarly, as Sam came to trust her enough to confide in her and tell her some, if not all, of his secrets.
The subject of prison would never again come up between George and Hazel and never again would George Carlin cross the law. “He learned,” she said. The one good thing that came of his time in prison was that it was there that he learned to be a first-rate mechanic, a skill that would stand him in good stead for the rest of his life. He could repair anything.
In 1946, George and Hazel Carlin left Ohio and moved to Pima, Arizona. Lung problems eventually forced George to quit working as a mechanic, but his good nature and solid reputation in the Gila Valley of southeast Arizona led to his being offered a job managing first a movie theater and later the drive-in in Safford. Carlin was a fan of Johnny Cash, could not get enough of “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” and took endless photos and slides of the family. In 1960 he purchased a new Chrysler Valiant with a push-button transmission, mostly in an effort to conserve his energy as his lungs failed. But two weeks later, he died.
George and Hazel Carlin had three children: a daughter, Jean, a social worker; a son, George, an electrician who works for the Central Arizona Project, bringing water to area farmers; and another son, Donald, a technology teacher in Henderson, Nevada. None of the children knew of their father’s record, but son Donald, speaking for them all, took it in stride, his admiration for his father intact. He cannot bring himself to judge his father harshly.
For George Carlin’s daughter, Jean, the revelation of her father’s prison record even brought some clarity to her life. She remembered that her father was very demanding and offered morality lessons that sometimes went too far and frightened her. One of these was the story of the Haldeman brothers, who George Carlin said were hanged for rustling cattle. He suggested that the two were somehow related to the Carlin family. The story made Jean uneasy. She was nine or ten and never forgot it. It also confused her. She didn’t understand why her father had told the story and with such immediacy. “Now remembering back to that incident,” she says, “it makes it personal, which it wasn’t then. I was thinking ‘yadda, yadda, yadda . . .’
“I can only remember hearing the story once,” recalls Jean Carlin, “but it left such a powerful impression that I remembered it.” Years later, when she moved back to Tucson, she looked up the Haldeman hangings and discovered that they were indeed real. William and Thomas Haldeman were hanged on November 16, 1900, in Tombstone for killing a constable who tried to arrest them for shooting cattle. Perhaps the story was George Carlin’s way of scaring his children into staying on the straight and narrow. Perhaps it was an oblique attempt to pass on what he had learned the hard way. Either way, it was effective. As a social worker, Jean Carlin has spent years keeping young people out of trouble.
Legacy of Lies
Sam Stone would doubtless have understood what it was that drove men like Noble Wright and George Carlin to break the law in those terrible times. Each had a single costly flirtation with crime that left them both with a sense of remorse. But there was at least one other man who wrote to Mr. B. Virdot that Christmas of 1933 who had stepped outside the law and remained there, seemingly untouched by police and the courts. His name was Allen C. Bennafield. He was African American, and, like many of Canton’s blacks, had roots in the Deep South.
There are myriad conflicting versions of his early life. The one accepted by some of his descendants is this: his mother, Cora Ellington, was one of at least seven children. Born into slavery in 1863 in Georgetown, Georgia, her parents were farm laborers working the cotton fields. But her family celebrated the emancipation, naming her younger brothers who were born immediately after the Civil War Grant and Sherman in honor of those two formidable Union generals, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. Cora too worked the fields, and married William Bennafield. It appears that he may have fathered two large families, one with Cora, the other with her sister or cousin. The confusion and enmity that ensued caused friction that passed from one generation to the next. There is a sense among his descendants that the tangled story of his origins was purposeful, that it concealed the true narrative. If so, that is something he shared with Sam Stone.
Ben and Cora’s son, Allen Chester Bennafield, maintained that he was born in Jacksonville, Florida, in February 1897. In his early twenties he and a sister, Rosa Lee, migrated north to Canton, arriving about 1918, the same year Sam Stone arrived. There Bennafield ran a pool hall at 802 Cherry Avenue Southeast—one of Canton’s forty-six billiard parlors. Next door on one side was the Greek-American Agency run by the Hasapis Brothers. On the other side was Fried-man’s Drug Store. Greek/black/Jew, side by side yet worlds apart. In 1927 Bennafield lived at 414 Ninth Street Southeast. Across the street, he looked out on the Agudas Achem Congregation, the “Hebrew Church” for Canton’s Orthodox Jews.
In Canton, Bennafield met a younger woman, Emily June Johnson, and together they would have four sons, Allen Jr., Donald, David, and Paul; and a daughter, June. They apparently never married but lived as common-law husband and wife. But by 1933, the Depression weighed heavy on Bennafield and his family. On the evening of December 18, 1933, he took out a pencil and wrote to Mr. B. Virdot:
In this evening’s Repository I see that you want to put a little Christmas cheer in homes where it is needed, so I am daring to write to you in the hopes that I may be one of the fortunate ones.
My name is A. C. Bennafield and I have a small dry cleaning establishment in my home at 518-8th St. S.E., but business is very poor. Every cent I make has to be paid over for bills. People put their work in, asking for it right away. I pay what little money I have to have them cleaned and then they aren’t called for right away. Sometimes it’s 3 or 4 weeks before I can get rid of them. So you see, in this way I haven’t any chance to make anything. I have three children, the youngest 4 months old, and it is necessary that they be supplied with good wholesome food. It’s rather a pull to always have bread when the others, who are 3 and 2 years old, call for it. I have been in this business for about 2 years but times have not been good enough so that I can give the kids a Xmas. Of course one good thing about it is that they are too small to know what it’s all about. If business picks up I am hoping I’ll be able to give them one when they are old enough to understand. Because of this little business, which just manages to keep bread on our table, the Family Service will not even give me milk for the children. I can’t make them understand that business isn’t any good.
Before entering this business, I was in the pool room business and made a fairly good income. While I wasn’t rich, still I was comfortable and didn’t have to worry about where the next meal was coming from. Then the Depression hit me and in trying to save my business I used up every cent of the little nest egg I had saved up. When I began this business I had to borrow money in order to get started and I have just recently finished paying that debt off.
So Mr. Virdot, if you think that I am deserving of your help, I will be eternally grateful to you, and for myself and my family, I thank you.
Wishing you a merry Xmas and a Happy New Year.
A. C. BENNAFIELD
A few days later, B. Virdot’s check arrived in the mail. But it was not enough to hold the debtors at bay or keep bread on Bennafield’s table. And as his vulnerable little Monarch Tailors declined, Allen Bennafield came to realize that all his efforts would not be enough. And so he began to take in more than just dry cleaning. His son Donald says his father began to solicit bets and allowed himself to become a part of Canton’s thriving gambling and numbers racket.
In time, according to son Donald, he worked for the notorious John Nickles, a Greek immigrant from Constantinople known throughout Canton as “Nick the Greek.” Nick was part of the lore of Canton’s thriving underworld, living large and fast—too fast. On June 22, 1953, Nick was gunned down, his body discovered in a storage garage. The next day’s front-page headline declared, JOHN NICKLES, VICE LORD, SLAIN.
After that, Bennafield’s son Don said his father worked for Pat Ferruccio, a racketeer with reputed ties to organized crime. (In the 1940s, before Ferruccio went to prison, he regularly raced his speedboat against my grandfather, Sam Stone, on Turkey Foot Lake. Later, the Ferruccio family lived across the street from us.)
Bennafield was never arrested but continued his numbers racket long after the Depression passed. He was never wealthy but managed to acquire at least four modest parcels of land in Canton. But on April 2, 1948, at the age of fifty-one, he dropped dead of a heart attack. He died without a will and was buried in Forest Hill Cemetery.
Just days later, Bennafield’s widow and five children were hit with a second shock: Bennafield had concealed a secret marriage to a woman named Nettie Richardson. The family had known nothing of her. What they discovered in the ensuing probate struggle was that she and Allen Bennafield had married in Detroit, Michigan, on July 3, 1923—some twenty-five years before. On the marriage license, he had written that he was born in Cuba and that his mother’s maiden name was Martinez. The family, disoriented from the loss and confounded by the web of lies and secrets, did not know what to believe.
And, most devastating of all, Bennafield and Richardson had never divorced. Hearing of Bennafield’s death, Richardson wasted no time filing a claim against the estate. She walked away with it all, leaving Bennafield’s forty-one-year-old widow, Emily, emotionally and financially devastated. Humiliated by the scandal, she retreated from Canton and moved to Cleveland to live with her son David. Emily died in Cleveland in 1988. Surprisingly, she was buried next to the man who deceived her.
In the years that followed, the Bennafield family has been plagued by tragedy and crime. As a young man, Bennafield’s son Donald served time in prison. Donald’s wife, Martha, was found murdered in a field in 1991. It remains an unsolved homicide. One of Donald’s daughters was convicted of prostitution. Allen Bennafield’s daughter, June, served in the military and died of a heart attack at twenty-nine. His son Paul found work in a steel mill. Bennafield’s son David, born four months before his father wrote to Mr. B. Virdot, worked for thirty-eight years as a special delivery driver for the U.S. Postal Service in Cleveland. In March 2006, his stepson Shaun was sentenced to twelve years in federal prison for selling crack cocaine.
It is no wonder, then, that Allen C. Bennafield’s oldest son and namesake, Allen C. Bennafield Jr., now eighty, has no interest in speaking of his father. He refused to even listen to the words his father had written to Mr. B. Virdot. Perhaps it was because he chose such a different path from his father. Allen Bennafield Jr. left home early, and served in the army, then the air force. Later he retired as a captain in the Washington, D.C., police department. But despite his insistence on distancing himself from his father and his clouded past, his thirty-five-year-old daughter, Leta Bennafield, has doggedly sought answers about her family’s origins. She has spent years researching and trying to reconstruct the family tree, as twisted as it may be.
An information technology administrator, Leta has posted numerous entreaties on the Internet’s genealogy sites seeking to fill in the gaps left by a grandfather who did what he could to obscure his own roots. To this day she continues to ask questions, and to this day her father declines to answer them—either because they dredge up unpleasant memories or because he may not know the truth. His son Damon, a former advertising executive, now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, the state where, a century and a half earlier, the Bennafields worked the cotton fields as slaves.
Mr. B. Virdot’s Story: The Crossing
The more I dug into Sam’s past, the more I discovered that he had something in common with each of the people he helped, and that I shared something in common with their descendants. Like the grandchildren of Noble Wright and George Carlin, I was to discover that my grandfather, for all his goodheartedness, had broken the law. And like the descendants of A. C. Bennafield, I was to learn only after his death that the man I thought I knew had concealed an earlier life unknown to us all—though it hurt no one but himself.
There were early hints that Sam Stone’s life was more complex than he let on. As a young adult, my mother, Virginia, learned that Sam’s name had once been “Finkelstein,” meaning “shining stone.” She despised the name, in part because it sounded less American than “Stone,” and in part because it linked our family to what she regarded as Sam’s less reputable kin. Sam had taken it upon himself in his early twenties to change his name to “Samuel J. Stone.” He liked its lapidary quality and its strength. Out of that block of stone, Sam might have seen himself as a sculptor chiseling a new name and a new life for himself. “Samuel J. Stone” was a name befitting an executive, a self-made man, literally. Thereafter, the name Finkelstein was almost never uttered, and when it was, it was said in a hushed voice.
Over the next few years he persuaded his three brothers and three sisters to take the Stone name as well. Each of the brothers used the middle initial “J.” It was a sign of his growing influence over the family, both as the oldest son as well as the most successful member of the clan. In time, even his mother, Hinde, changed her name, but his father did not.
The siblings understood that it was taboo to utter the old name and conspired to wipe out their own pasts. Their children would be raised as my mother was—with little or no knowledge of their early circumstances or origins. At one time or another, Sam had claimed his parents were German, Russian, Bohemian, or Romanian. I remember that when he spoke there was the slightest trace of an accent. There were just a few words he said that reminded me of the actor Bela Lugosi and brought to mind Transylvania. But it was not enough to fix it to a certain place, or even to be sure that it was foreign. It was a mere residue that only a forensic linguist could perhaps track to a crossing in steerage or time in a ghetto.
I had a copy of Sam’s birth certificate from Pittsburgh but was unable to find any evidence of his birth in that city. I searched records in several surrounding cities and towns and found nothing. I began to have fundamental doubts about the veracity of Sam’s sketchy account of his own early life. At that point, I expanded my search to include ships’ passenger lists under the name “Finkelstein.” That too seemed fruitless. But just when I was about to give up, I found them: Janne (Jacob) Finkelstein, forty-three; his son Sam, fifteen; his eldest daughter, Hana Sure (later known as Sarah), seventeen; and his son Moses (later known as Mack), eleven. Sam and Hana Sure were listed as “laborers,” and Janne as a “private dealer.” They sailed from Le Havre in France aboard the La Champagne and arrived in New York on October 6, 1902. They listed their final destination as Pittsburgh. Their nationality was “Roumanian,” their home village, Dorohoi. It was the first I’d ever heard of Dorohoi. It meant nothing to me. It was also the first time I heard that my family’s roots went back to Romania.
But why all the secrecy, I wondered. There was no shame in being an immigrant. Why had Sam and his family taken such elaborate measures to conceal from their neighbors and even their own descendants the truth of their origins? He had sworn falsely under oath, violated federal laws, fabricated documents, and lied to his own children and grandchildren about his origin and their heritage. I needed to understand why. I suspected that in finding an answer I would also understand far better what it was that motivated him to take on the guise of B. Virdot.
But first, there was a more immediate mystery: how and when the rest of Sam’s family came to America. These too I eventually found in the passenger lists. Sam’s mother and four other siblings followed a year after Sam aboard the SS Ivernia. They sailed from Liverpool, England, and arrived in Boston in September 1903. Listed in steerage was Hinde Finkelstein, forty; an eleven-year-old daughter, Gusta (later known as Gussie); another daughter, Tina (later known as Esther), nine; a son David, four; and a son Isadore (later known as Al), nine. On the list, Hinde Finkelstein declared that she and the children were bound for Pittsburgh to join her husband, Jacob, and a brother-in-law, Hersh Eger, a dry-goods peddler already living in the Jewish ghetto of Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
On May 11, 1954, fifty-two years after boarding the La Champagne in Le Havre, France, for a crossing in steerage, Sam Stone returned to that port—this time with his wife, Minna, aboard the luxury liner Isle de France. But in all the intervening years, he did not speak to anyone of what it was that had driven his family from Romania or why it was he was so intent upon keeping it a secret.
IN YIDDISH, THE word for troubles is tsuris—the cumulative measure of a soul’s burdens; not the routine setbacks life deals out to one and all, but the true body blows to heart and will. Sam Stone knew the word though he would never say it. Yiddish was his native tongue, but it was a language he refused to speak almost from the moment he stepped off the gangplank in 1902.
On the passenger manifest Sam’s father, Jacob, and mother, Hinde, had both listed their home as Dorohoi. With some effort, I found it on a map. In my grandfather’s day, as today, it was a shtetl in northeast Romania that sat along the Jijia River. In 1899, some sixty-eight hundred Jews made their home there, a little more than half the town. Jews had lived there for centuries and in relative peace. By 1895, it had its own secular Jewish school.
All that changed during Sam Finkelstein’s boyhood. Increasingly Jews were singled out and marked by law as “foreigners” and “aliens,” targeted by the state, and ostracized by the community. Sam was born in 1888 in a country that year by year tightened an economic noose around its Jews. Laws barred them from working as peddlers or shop owners and made it illegal for them to sell sugar, flour, or other staples. In 1898, when Sam was eleven, new laws imposed a quota on the number of “aliens”—Jews—allowed to attend schools. (That word, alien, would haunt Sam throughout his life.)
Jews could neither vote nor obtain licenses. Crop failures and economic reversals turned their Gentile neighbors against them. They became targets for popular discontent and scapegoats of the state. In 1900, a new set of decrees was passed designed to starve the Jews or drive them into exile. They were forbidden from owning land or cultivating it, barred from living in rural areas, and even working as laborers, subject to a quota that required that two Romanians be hired for every “unprotected alien,” a thinly veiled reference to Jews. They faced homelessness, hunger, and depression. An influx of Jewish refugees from neighboring Russia and Galicia, nearly all of them destitute, triggered further repressive measures. The Romanian government declared the Jews “a nation apart,” separated by culture, faith, and dietary restrictions. As such, they were entitled to none of the civil rights accorded to those considered true Romanians.
Reading the grim history of Dorohoi, I caught my first glimpse of Sam’s early years and adolescence. The physical hardships that he and his family—and all of his faith—endured in those years could be read in the decrees of the state. But the psychological and emotional toll of such oppression on a childhood like Sam’s was only beginning to dawn on me. The notion that one’s homeland could turn on him, treat him and his family as trespassers, the subject of constant public suspicion, hostility, and harassment, made me see what Sam had been so eager to escape, why he had never spoken of it, and even why he had gone to such lengths to bury that past in the fabrication of a less nightmarish childhood.
As a child, he was pushed to the margins of his own society. The insecurities of a more ordinary adolescence pale beside what he faced. The tensions with which he grew up—the constant threat of violence and pogroms, the shame and degradation—were the defining features of his childhood, and they go a long way in explaining the man he was to become. The bleakness of Canton during the Great Depression, the specter of so many unable to scratch out a living, the sight of immigrant families pushed to the edge with no one to come to their rescue—all this must surely have triggered in Sam Stone recollections of his own bitter youth. The letters to B. Virdot from children and teenagers must have brought back to him memories of his own escape, the crossing, and the turbulent arrival. Turning his back on them, knowing what he had endured, would have been all but impossible. I do not have the benefit of Sam’s own story, but the historical record of what befell the Romanian Jews of his time fills much of the gap and explains why he was loath to speak of it.
For the Finkelstein family, remaining in Dorohoi was not an option. They faced what many Romanian Jews faced—extinction. U.S. Secretary of State John Hay described the plight of these Jews this way: “by the cumulative effect of successive restrictions, the Jews of Romania have become reduced to a state of wretched misery. Shut out from nearly every avenue of self-support which is open to the poor of other lands, and ground down by poverty as the natural result of their discriminatory treatment, they are rendered incapable of lifting themselves from the enforced degradation they endure.”
Those Romanian Jews who fled the country became known as the Fusgeyers, or “foot-walkers.” It was a mass exodus. By the thousands they walked across Europe, only to be rejected by one country after another. One account of the conditions they endured appears in the Jewish Criterionof Pittsburgh, published on August 30, 1900:
The Rumanian Jews possess, for the greater part, nothing but the few rags upon their bodies. The poorest among them do not travel in wagons or in ships, but drag themselves upon their wounded feet from one frontier to another. At home they leave nothing but the bones of their fathers in their graves, constituted the only ownership in the soil of their native land. They had to carry with them nothing else but the wanderer’s staff and the unendurable burden of their memories and their fears. . . .
The Rumanian Jews have no goals, they wander planless about like a horde of Northern water-rats endeavoring to elude the grasp of the birds of prey, and who, as they pass, pounce upon and devour their victim. No one desires them, everybody sends them farther on from their own district, and when they ask in despair, “Where are we to go, what is to become of us?” the only reply they receive is a shrug of the shoulder and a turn of the hand, mercilessly pointing to the distance further on into the unknown, unto the blue away, far away.
The suffering of Romania’s 400,000 Jews caught America’s attention. On September 17, 1902—nine days before Sam Finkelstein boarded the SS La Champagne—Secretary of State Hay protested Romania’s inhumane treatment of the Jews and pressured Romania to relent.
Nineteen years earlier, the poet Emma Lazarus had penned her poem “The New Colossus,” but it was not until 1903, the year Sam’s mother and four younger siblings arrived in America, that the now famous lines were added to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
In America, Sam Finkelstein and his family hoped to melt into the mass of ten million foreign-born in a country of seventy-six million. But thousands of Romanian Jews had preceded the Finkelsteins and found their welcome tentative at best. Americans made no secret of their displeasure at being a dumping ground for Romanian Jews. Secretary of State Hay said as much in his appeal to European heads of state. The New York Times article about his appeal was headlined, ASKS THAT ROUMANIA STOP OPPRESSING JEWS, and the subhead under it read, “Says Present Harsh Treatment Breeds Men Who Are Not Desirable Immigrants to This Country.”
His language reflected a deep antagonism toward these refugees. “The pauper, the criminal, the contagiously or incurably diseased are excluded from the benefits of immigration only when they are likely to become a source of danger or a burden upon the community,” declared Hay.
Immigrants like my grandfather and his family were seen as defective and future wards of the state. “Removal under such conditions,” warned Secretary Hay, “is not and cannot be the healthy intelligent emigration of a free and self-reliant being. It must be, in most cases, the mere transplantation of an artificially produced diseased growth to a new place.”
“Diseased growth” was a far cry from the “golden door” Emma Lazarus had envisioned. Even many American Jews looked down upon the Romanians. In the pecking order of new immigrants, they were considered, especially by some of German descent, an embarrassment, impoverished, uncultured, and barely literate. Fifteen-year-old Sam and his family were used to no better.
Though he carried almost nothing when he stepped off the La Champagne, Sam was determined to rid himself of all baggage and begin anew. Reviled in the Old World, a pariah in the New, he wasted no time reinventing himself. But escaping the past, its sorrows and shame, would prove more difficult than he imagined. He could leave his Yiddish on the boat and master English; he could cast off the Orthodox Jewish rituals and embrace a secular America; he could erase his childhood and fabricate an American birth. But whether he uttered the word or not, the tsuris would remain a part of him. And it was that which helped give birth to Mr. B. Virdot.
The Canton to which Sam Stone eventually found his way was a city of well-established pioneer stock that faced a swelling population of foreigners, each of whom, like Sam, wanted nothing more than to blend in and become whatever it meant to be an American. Germans, Greeks, Hungarians, Slavs, Spaniards, Italians, Syrians, Croats, Danes, and Jews had all found their way to this midwestern town, drawn by the promise of work and the vision of a life free of the Old World’s political and religious persecution, the endless wars, the decaying monarchies, and the grinding poverty. In those early years it made for an uneasy and watchful peace. The New York Times in July 1926 wrote: “Half of Canton’s population are either foreign born or negro. The other half accuses this foreign and negro group of being the source of all their troubles; but, when pressed, admit that most of the foreigners and negroes are honest and decent.”
Like Sam, many among this wave of newcomers to Canton had endured their own exoduses. And like him, they yearned for nothing more than the chance to fit in. That was all Sam really wanted—to be accepted, to find a home, to feel that he belonged. For Sam, and for many who reached out to B. Virdot, Canton was such a place, even in the most dire of times.
SO COMPLETE WAS Sam’s break from his youth in Dorohoi that it seemed no link remained. He virtually erased all traces of his first fifteen years, concealed the circumstances of his escape and arrival—perhaps the defining experience of his life—and then filled the void with a new story, supported by bogus documents, dates, signatures, and elliptical references to his childhood in Pittsburgh. He simply inserted himself into a seamless narrative of his own design, drawing together real people and places to lend credence to his fiction.
Having interviewed hundreds of former covert officers of the Central Intelligence Agency for my first book, I knew how exhausting it must have been for him to maintain that cover story for an entire lifetime. Like a spy, he could never risk letting his guard down or letting slip a word or reference that might betray him. Family, friends, and community had all come to know him by the fictitious life story he had woven. The threat of exposure and the temptation to come clean were all around him. In 1933, a neighbor who lived two doors away was a Romanian immigrant, and yet, it appears he never reached out to him as a fellow countryman. How many times, I wondered, did he yearn to confide in someone, to open up and reveal himself? And was he still emotionally attached to the land of his birth? Again and again, I sorted through his stories, the papers in the suitcase, and the meager possessions he left to us, hoping to stumble upon a clue some twenty-five years after his death.
Among the objects of my renewed attention was the bronze sculpture The Jumper, which had followed him from home to home. I examined it in greater detail and for the first time noticed the name of the sculptor inscribed on the base: “D. H. Chiparus.” The full name was “Demetre Haralamb Chiparus.” He was one of the foremost Art Deco sculptors. His studio was in Paris and his work is highly prized today. A sculpture expert at Sotheby’s auction house found the exact piece listed among the sculptor’s works. Some of Chiparus’s pieces, especially those of dancers with ivory inlays, fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction. Sam’s piece was an original. In all likelihood, he was the first and only owner, dating back to the 1920s. Perhaps he bought it in Paris during one of his trips abroad. But why had this piece meant so much to him?
Something about Sam’s attachment to the sculpture drew me to it. I began to research the sculptor. I discovered that, like Sam, Chiparus was Romanian by birth. Indeed, he and Chiparus were both born in the same tiny town of Dorohoi—Chiparus in 1886, Sam in 1888. It was entirely possible that the two boys might have known each other, even been childhood friends. At the very least, my grandfather felt an obvious kinship to him, one that he secretly could take pleasure in without compromising the American identity he had so carefully forged. Here, at last, I’d found a link to his past, perhaps the only one with which he had felt safe. How and when he acquired it I will likely never know, but why he so treasured it was no longer such a mystery.
IN DECEMBER 1933, less than two weeks after Sam Stone made his offer as B. Virdot, Ion Duca, the newly appointed prime minister of Romania and a liberal who opposed fascism and that country’s virulently anti-Semitic Iron Guard movement, was assassinated. For the Jews of Dorohoi and Romania at large it was but one more sign of trouble to come. Today Dorohoi no longer has a single functioning temple. The last Jews left a decade ago. Anti-Semitism, Nazism, communism, relentless poverty, and the allure of Israel all fed the Diaspora. Over the years, Sam Stone returned to Romania several times, always alone. On one such trip he took pictures. Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was still in power. When Sam returned to the United States he discovered that the film had been removed from his camera. He had nothing to document his visit—which, in its way, mirrored how he had lived.
For Sam, the escape from Dorohoi was never complete. The town would remain a part of him. It was that way too with those who endured the depths of the Depression, defining their needs and aspirations, even giving rise to its own brand of dark humor, as trauma often does. One of Sam’s favorite jokes was about two men traveling on a train across Europe. One was Russian, the other Jewish.
“We have no Jews in our village,” boasted the Russian.
“That’s why it’s just a village,” responded the Jew.
In the edgy way Sam said it, it was less a joke than a verdict of history. More than a century ago the Jews of Dorohoi shared with the other citizens of Dorohoi a modest but decent standard of living. Today the town of forty thousand—half the size of Canton—is one of the poorest in one of Europe’s poorest countries. Several charities that provide relief to Dorohoi report an unemployment rate in excess of 50 percent. It is a town in the depths of its own relentless Hard Times.