Wednesday, February 22, 2017

More Thoughts on Ranking Presidents

The 91 historians who recently ranked the presidents for C-SPAN used ten criteria to evaluate 43 of our nation’s 44 chief executives. (They wisely left out Trump who only just got started.) The categories seem to range from necessary and reasonable to overly subjective and therefore problematic. 

One category is “Performance Within [the] Context of [his] Times.” I am not sure how to apply this as a criterion. Some things might be justified by the context of the times while others are always right or wrong no matter how the Zeitgeist regards it. Determining the difference is a moral choice that historians are not necessarily fit to make. T. Woodrow Wilson re-segregated the federal civil service and screened the racist movie “Birth of a Nation” in the White House, thereby reinvigorating the Ku Klux Klan, while Millard Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Act, which forbade individuals and especially state and local officials to help fugitive slaves, instead forcing them to help those returning slaves to their masters. 

Wilson was clearly enacting his own inner demons, but Fillmore, an anti-slavery moderate who had himself suffered indentured servitude as a child, appears to have been compelled by the outer political forces of his time. To the extent that Fillmore might have felt that he had to do what he did in spite of his conscience, does this mitigate what he did or not? Fillmore’s obituary in the New York Times in 1874 harshly declared that he was a politician when the country needed a statesman, but this has always seemed unfairly apodictic to me, since his refusal to sign the Act potentially could have sparked the Civil War ten years early, when the South might have been more able win than it was a decade later. Still, partial as I am to Fillmore—considering him to be one of the most underrated president—I regard his signing of that act to be his worst moment.

“Moral Authority” just happens to be another problematic category. I cannot consider “moral authority” to be a reasonably objective category. Most—if not all—of the presidents in my lifetime have divided the nation. For everyone who might have regarded any of them as a moral authority, there was another who did not. Some think their favorite president is “the greatest thing since sliced bread” bread, while they look at some other chief executive as the Antichrist. The C-SPAN historians recognize Abraham Lincoln as having great moral authority (ranking him number two after George Washington), but less than half of Lincoln’s contemporaries thought so in 1860. Most voters probably never gave moral authority a thought. Even today, there is an impassioned minority that dismisses Lincoln’s moral authority. It is no wonder that Lincoln does not come out ahead of George Washington on this score.

Does personal morality figure into this category? If so, how do we compare a John F. Kennedy’s moral authority against that of Bill Clinton? Both presidents were womanizers and yet the historians here gave Kennedy a rank of 15 for “Moral Authority” while Clinton was ranked 38. Is this because one’s moral recklessness came to light while the other one’s did not? I suppose that this category has to reflect public perception, but who gets to judge a given president’s moral authority, his contemporaries or posterity?


Other categories also seem doubtful. “Administrative Skills” seems like a straight forward category on the surface, but, surprisingly, such skills are not always obvious. George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower were long thought by historians to have been hands-off administrators—until it was discovered that they were the opposite: both were closet micromanagers. (One of the historians who participated in this survey, Paul Kengor—see below—still thinks that Eisenhower was hands-off!)

There is another category called “Crisis Leadership.” Perhaps only so many presidents have faced very serious crises during their terms in office. It is famously said of John Quincy Adams that his administration’s foreign policy was uneventful because Adams had resolved all foreign issues while he was the secretary of state under James Monroe. Abraham Lincoln faced the nation’s greatest crisis in the Civil War. Before him, James Madison faced an awful crisis in the War of 1812. Thomas Jefferson faced the Barbary Pirates and other threats from abroad that ultimately played a part in persuading him to aggressively acquire territory for the United States. James Monroe established his eponymous doctrine in the face of territorial threats from Europe. There were domestic disputes as well as foreign woes for several presidents. Dealing with the Native American tribes, especially amid westward expansion, was often a crisis.

Even the little known and less well understood administrations of Zachary Taylor and his successor, Millard Fillmore, faced international crises that are now completely forgotten by most students of history. When Taylor died in office, there were unresolved conflicts with Great Britain, France, Mexico and Peru, any one of which could have led to war, but because none did, history neither remembers these conflicts nor appreciates that it required real skill and effort from Fillmore and his cabinet to prevent these conflicts from escalating.

President Washington’s major crises were not as severe as his generalship of the Continental Army during the War for Independence, but everything that this president did was at least a small crisis because he always had to be conscious of the fact that, being the first president, everything he did was a first. Washington’s departmental secretaries were at each other’s throats during cabinet meetings, especially Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. This was a crisis in that it was a harbinger of the conflict between political parties, even though these did not yet exist. The president also led troops during the Whiskey Rebellion when Western Pennsylvania was in revolt over taxation and currency issues. (These rebels did not trust the new national currency and wanted, instead, to use whiskey as currency.)


Does managing a crisis count if the president creates it himself? James K. Polk was accused by then-Congressman Abraham Lincoln of manufacturing and provoking the Mexican War. There are still those among Lincoln’s detractors who think that he provoked the Civil War just by being elected, somewhat in the way that today’s narcissistic collectivists feel that President Donald Trump’s very existence provokes a crisis. (There is even a secessionist movement in California!) But the Civil War conflict between the slave and free states was, in my opinion, bound to occur, whether it happened in 1851, 1861 or 1871. That is, it happened on Lincoln’s watch but might just as well have happened on someone else’s.

Another category is “Pursued Equal Justice For All,” which might seem straight forward unless you reflect that there is a big difference between the goals of equality of outcome and equality of opportunity. The former is apt to run roughshod over private property rights while the latter is apt to consider them to be a necessary extension of civil rights. Different judges are going to rate the accomplishments of the same presidents quite differently if they each use these different definitions of justice.

Making my own list ranking the presidents is equally tempting and daunting. I suffer from both bias and ignorance. It is just that the scholars obviously do, too. I am convinced that they formed their judgments from biased assumptions and ignorance of the administrations they have not considered worthy of careful examination. Conservative historian Paul G.Kengor’s take on the C-SPAN survey serves as a valuable counter in this regard. I have also heard attorney and political writer Mark Levin’s comments on this topic. I cannot say that I would make the same picks as them, but I regard their choices as informative. (Levin is a big booster for James K. Polk, whose greatness I remain reluctant to admit.)

Kengor recommends an exercise. Just take the top ten or twelve from the C-SPAN rankings, and use the ten criteria to come up with your own scores. (He recommends a scale of 1 to 10, but I use 100 points because this appears to be what the C-SPAN has survey used.) I came up with the following.

President                     Score
1. George Washington            100
2. Abraham Lincoln                  96 (tied)
3. Thomas Jefferson                96 (tied)
4. Ronald Reagan                    92
5. Theodore Roosevelt             90 (tied)
6. Franklin D.  Roosevelt          90 (tied)
7. Dwight D. Eisenhower          90 (tied)
8. Harry S Truman                    89
9. T. Woodrow Wilson              78
10. John F. Kennedy                72
11. Lyndon Johnson                 66
12. Barack H. Obama              31

A. Johnson
Yikes! I could not grant Barack Obama any more points than C-SPAN’s bottom-most scorers, putting the recent president in the company of Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson. Thus I demoted him from number 12 to around number 40, at best. Kengor (see link above) puts it pithily: Obama drove up the debt monumentally and gave our economy lower growth than Jimmy Carter did; he missed most meetings with his administrative staff, had no legislative or diplomatic achievements other than Obamacare [which will either be repealed and replaced or will otherwise go ignominiously bankrupt]; his reelection campaign had little else to brag about but, “Osama is dead, GM is alive.” He did not even marginally improve relations with any other country except Cuba. His relations with Congress were only good as long as Congress was held by his own party. Once that changed, he refused to get along with Congress.
Clinton, ranked #15

“Based on the criteria we were given for ranking these presidents,” says Kengor, “I cannot conceive how Obama could possibly score well. I don’t see how Bill Clinton didn’t rate higher than Obama…. This shouldn’t be a liberal-conservative thing. That’s the point. Literally half of my top 10 or 12 were Democrats, and I’m no Democrat. Clearly, the liberal scholars were not able to separate their partisanship when it came to objectively judging Obama. There’s no way that Barack Obama should rate the 12th-best president in U.S. history. Not a chance.”
L.B. Johnson
Similarly, Lyndon Johnson (ranked 10 by C-SPAN but maybe 12 or 13 by me) was a great arm-twister when it came to persuading others—in and out of Congress—to do his will, but his foreign and domestic policies got mixed results. Everything he did cost a lot of money, leading to debt and inflation, and his foreign policy was at least half a disaster, especially his undeclared war in Vietnam, which possibly could have been kept going much longer if popular support hadn’t dwindled (Johnson could not persuade the public), but the war was unlikely to have been won without better leadership—starting at the top. Johnson was so beat up by the media and members of his own party that he finally decided not to run for a second term. (The term that he completed after the assassination of President Kennedy was so short that Johnson was constitutionally allowed to run for a second term of his own.)

Daniel Webster, twice
Sec'y of State, but
never President
I can see just from my attempt at ranking the top dozen on the C-SPAN list that trying to fairly rank the rest of the presidents would be intensive. If I did try it, though, I would be tempted to consolidate the leadership categories. (Kengor thinks they are fair enough, but I do not.) I would reduce them to “setting an agenda,” “public persuasion,” “economic management,” and “relations with Congress (or other branches of government).” The quality of presidential appointments does say something for or against a president. Both judicial appointments and cabinet appointments can make a great difference. For example, Fillmore got into trouble for firing his predecessor’s cabinet, but an objective observer ought to admit that Taylor’s cabinet was corrupt, and Fillmore’s action was necessary. He wisely chose his own cabinet, hiring Daniel Webster and Edward Everett, who serially served as Fillmore’s secretaries of state. (It was actually Everett who deserves much of the credit for settling conflicts with both Britain and France.) Fillmore’s sole Supreme Court appointment, Benjamin Robbins Curtis, was no slouch; he was the author of one of the two memorable dissenting opinions in the Dredd Scott case.

I would give all of those presidents who died after less than two years in office an incomplete. The low rankings for some of those who died in office strike me as very unfair reflections on them, belied by their accomplishments before their presidencies. For example, James Garfield is ranked 21 in public persuasion. Although he obviously had little opportunity to exercise this skill before being assassinated only three months into his term, he probably would have been pretty good at it. Garfield was a much sought after preacher, college lecturer and a lawyer who only ever practiced law once and that was before the United States Supreme Court. (He won!)

As I have indicated before, I would rank Millard Fillmore somewhat higher and Zachary Taylor somewhat lower (if I did not simply give Taylor an incomplete). The middling ranking of Calvin Coolidge overall (27) and in each of the ten categories is just plain wrong. His highest ranking by the C-SPAN survey is in his relations with Congress (18), but it makes no sense that the man who kept the economy out of depression and had a clear vision of what the United States is and ought to be is ranked so low in economic management (22), administrative skills (25), crisis leadership (29), and setting an agenda (29). I would always put Coolidge above Obama.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Presidential Rankings Unreliable For Many Reasons

C-SPAN’s new list of presidential rankings (along with the Sienna Research Institute's sporadic rankings) is part of what has become a new tradition of telling us what academics think the truth is about American history. C-SPAN polled more than 90 historians. (The Sienna survey throws more political scientists into the mix.) Among the problems with these polls is that they are skewed left because liberals outnumber conservatives, few historians have thoroughly studied the presidents they consider least effective or important, and the latest trend in scholarship has more influence than objective information. For an example of the last problem, President Dwight Eisenhower rose precipitously in these polls immediately after a respected historian wrote a new and flattering biography of the president. Before that Eisenhower could not break into the top ten.

The top ten, according to C-SPAN, are Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Harry S Truman [C-SPAN incorrectly puts a period after the “S”; Truman’s middle initial stood for nothing], Thomas Jefferson, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson. The bottom ten are Martin Van Buren, Chester A. Arthur, Herbert Hoover, Millard Fillmore, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Warren G. Harding, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan. It is difficult to see how a president who died in office can be fairly compared to one who served a full term. Kennedy (ranked eighth), for example, served nearly three years but Zachary Taylor (ranked 31) served just over one year and James A. Garfield (ranked 29) and William Harrison (ranked 38) both served considerably less than a year.

Part of the problem is that just because a historian has studied American history, this does not mean that he or she is well-versed in every era or the ins and outs of every presidential administration. Who for example has made an in-depth study of President Millard Fillmore? In the C-SPAN survey, Zachary Taylor is ranked 31 and Fillmore 37. (In the Sienna survey, Fillmore has usually been ranked below Taylor, his immediate predecessor, but in one edition of the Sienna rankings, Fillmore—no doubt due to a statistical fluke—was ranked just above Taylor.) I would argue that both surveys are wrong, and that there is always good reason to put Fillmore above Taylor.

Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor died after fifteen months in office. Before the presidency, he had been an army general and a successful one in the recent war with Mexico. It has been said that he was so apolitical, that he never voted before he ran for president. As president, he did have some strong views. (Although a slave holder, he was adamantly opposed to the idea of any state seceding from the Union.) Nevertheless, he was a relatively indecisive president, and when he died, his successor inherited a great many problems. A case might be made that Taylor left all of those problems because he died in office, but some issues had been on hold since Taylor’s administration began, and yet a surprising number of them were resolved within a year after Fillmore took over.

Millard Fillmore

Upon taking office, Fillmore found that the United States still had unsettled relations with Mexico. There were those who feared that there might be another Mexican war. There were others who would have welcomed such a war. Fillmore sent diplomats to settle the conflict with Mexico. There was also a conflict with Peru, and Fillmore settled that, too. Fillmore might be faulted for his reluctance to go to war with anybody, seemingly at all costs, although the United States usually kept its dignity (for the exception, see below) in the deals that Fillmore made with foreign countries. There was a particularly tricky dispute with both France and Great Britain. The United States could have wound up at war with either or both. The country, circa 1850 was not in a position to fight a war with any of the European powers, so the Fillmore administration defused that situation without losing face.

An instance where the administration lost some face was in a serious dispute with Spain over Cuba. It is hard to believe that just over 40 years later the United States would trounce Spain handily, but in 1850, the outcome of a war over Cuba was more likely to favor Spain. Recognizing this, Fillmore backed down from a situation that was not of his making. Some American adventurers had taken it upon themselves to invade Cuba, and when Spain captured them and put them in chains, the United States was forced to make concessions to get the prisoners back. It was, perhaps, Fillmore’s greatest humiliation. (This is, perhaps, reminiscent of President Kennedy’s humiliation over the Bay of Pigs invasion a little over a century later.)

In 1850, the United States was tearing itself apart over slavery. Congress voted on separate bills that aimed to settle the controversy by making some concessions to the slave states that allowed slavery to spread into the some of the western territories but limited it elsewhere. In general, the Compromise of 1850 led to an uneasy lull before the Civil War broke out a decade later, but it also created fertile ground for the conflicts that led up to the war. Not least of the problems was the Fugitive Slave Act, which Fillmore signed into law. It would have been a deal-breaker if it had not become law. The South very likely would have seceded then and there. Unfortunately, it also highlighted the hypocrisy of the slave states' claim to base their case on states rights, because the Fugitive Slave Act violated the right of the non-slave states to have nothing to do with slavery. The Act forced them to recognize and cooperate with the efforts of slave states to recover “property” that had fled to the free states. Many northern states were up in arms in protest against the law. Nullification and civil disobedience became commonplace from Massachusetts to Wisconsin.

Commodore Perry

The overall, short-term result of the Compromise of 1850 was relative calm before the storm. Fillmore left the White House with the nation nominally at peace at home and abroad. Other things that he achieved include the launch of Commodore Matthew Perry’s mission to open trade with Japan. Fillmore does not usually get credit for this because Perry did not arrive in Japan until after Fillmore’s successor, Franklin Pierce, became president. Although journalist H.L. Mencken famously claimed that Fillmore’s only achievement was to put a bathtub in the White House, it is more certainly attested that Mrs. Fillmore established the first permanent White House library. (Although Mencken was both a serious scholar and a humorist, historians too often have assumed that his remark about Fillmore’s tub was entirely serious.)

Abigail Powers Fillmore, First Lady,
former school teacher, responsible
for first White House library
Fillmore was called a dandy or clothes-horse by some. He was always well-dressed by his era’s standards, which became a common criticism leveled against him by his detractors. Fillmore had many of detractors. He had come up in New York State politics and had had to navigate his state’s famous political machines. When he got to national politics, he made the decision to cut loose from the parochial interests of his state, and the machines never forgave him. The earliest biographies of Fillmore were written by these enemies, and a lot of the personal hits against Fillmore’s historical reputation have their origins in his political enemies’ slights.

Another knock on Fillmore was that, after serving as the last Whig Party president, he ran on the American or Know-Nothing Party ticket for president in 1856. By this time, the Whig Party was virtually defunct and already being replaced by the Republican Party. Many Whigs joined the Republicans, but Fillmore joined some of his Whig comrades who had persuaded the American Party to stand for other issues besides nativism and anti-Catholicism. Little did the Know-Nothings know (appropriately enough), but while they were nominating Fillmore to be their presidential candidate, Fillmore, who had gone on a tour of Europe, was having an audience with Pope Pius IX in Rome. In the general election of 1856, Fillmore actually did very well for a third-party candidate, partly because he could trade on his name recognition, but also because of die-hard Whigs.

Fillmore is widely regarded as being at least better than President James Buchanan (ranked 43), who presided over the actual slide into the Civil War. When Buchanan took no action against Southern states that captured and raided federal armories in 1860, Fillmore came out of retirement long enough to publicly criticize Buchanan for his inaction.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A Different Century, A Different View of Party Politics

It seems as if a large part of the political class would not agree with this today.

"The sober American judgment must obtain in the South as elsewhere in the Republic, that the only distinctions upon which parties can be safely organized and in harmony with our institutions are differences of opinion relative to principles and policies of government, and that differences of religion, nationality, or race can neither with safety nor propriety be permitted for a moment to enter into the party contests of the day."* 
- Sen. Blanche K. Bruce, 1879

U.S. Senator Blanche Kelso Bruce

These are the words of Senator Blanche (a.k.a., Branch) Kelso Bruce, first African American to serve a full term in the United States Senate, representing Mississippi, 1875-1881. Bruce was also the first African American nominated by a major party for vice-president of the United States in Chicago during the summer of 1880. He was defeated in this contest by Chester Alan Arthur, who became president a year later when President James Garfield died in office. Before his death by assassination, Garfield had appointed Bruce as Register of the Treasury, an office in which he served under Garfield, Arthur, and, again, under William McKinley. He died in this office in 1898. Though he represented Mississippi, where he lived for many years, he was born in 1841 in Farmville, Virginia, which is just down the road, so to speak, from where I write this.

Senator Bruce was born a slave yet rose to one of the highest offices in the United States government and was once considered for its second-highest office.

*Quoted in "A Negro Senator," by G. David Houston,  The Journal of Negro History, vol. 7, No. 3 (July 1922), p. 250. (Congressional Record, Forty-sixth Congress, 1st Session, p. 2104.) 

Women Practice Before the Supreme Court Thanks to a 138-Year-Old Law

Today in history: In 1879, the Republican Congress passed a bill that finally let women practice before the Supreme Court. President Rutherford B. Hayes signed it into law exactly 138 years ago.
Congressional Record, Forty-fifth Congress, Session III, p. 292. 

Chapter 81 reads:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That any woman who shall have been a member of the bar of the highest court of any State or Territory or of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia for the space of three years, and shall have maintained a good standing before such court, and who shall be a person of good moral character, shall, on motion, and the production of such record, be admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States. Approved, February 15, 1879.

[Thanks to Julie M. Silverbrook (Twitter @JMSilverbrook) for this tidbit.]

Sunday, February 12, 2017

My (Almost) Fling with Private Investigation

I was standing in the stacks of the Sutro Library in San Francisco, following a lead on a case I was working. I was not a private detective, but I had aspirations to be one, and my sister-in-law wanted me to find a college classmate whom she had lost touch with, I guess, the minute they had graduated. And she was willing to pay me to find her friend. I offered to do it for free, but she knew that her sister and I were not doing that well, and, besides, my sister-in-law was a successful lawyer.

She had provided me with what she knew about the man she wanted to find. She had tried finding him herself without success. I did not know that I could do it for sure. I had his name and the fact that his father was in the U.S. Navy, although I had a few other details that turned out to be helpful. It was the late 1980s, and my sister-in-law and her long-lost friend were early boomers. They were approaching middle-age, and she wanted to reconnect with him. Maybe share the kind of war stories that ’60s radicals share.

I had no idea where in the United States (or overseas for that matter) to look for the old classmate, whom I will call Tom Phipps. Tom’s dad, however, was liable to be retired, and I knew that the family had lived in San Diego and liked it, so I started looking for Tom’s father there. The Boston private eye, Gil Lewis, was kind of a mentor to me, though not that he ever knew it, but I had read journalist John Sedgwick’s newspaper articles and book (Night Vision,” 1982) about Lewis, and I had picked up a few tips from Lewis. One of the best was, “If you can’t find the person you’re looking for, find someone who is close to them.” (Lewis once tracked down the elusive Howard Hughes by keeping an eye on the only people he apparently trusted, his Mormon companions.)

Tom's dad seemed likely to be easier to find than Tom himself. Sure enough, I found his address in San Diego. There he was in a city directory, but not in the phone book. He had been at that same address for a few years. He lived with his wife, but there was no one else listed in the household. The phone number was unlisted. What to do? Write him a letter? Too slow. (This was well before I or anybody that I knew had email.)

I applied Lewis’ rule again. “If you can’t find the person you’re looking for, find someone who is close to them.” Listed on either side of their street address, Tom’s parents had neighbors. One neighbor was a retired woman who had not been living on the street for very long. On the other side, there was a couple who had been there for years and seemed to be about the same age as Tom’s parents. Their phone number was listed.

I went into the lobby of the library where they had a bank of pay phones. (I won’t explain those to the younger generation, but these were what people had to use before there were cell phones, which just barely existed in 1987 and were over-sized and expensive.) There was an alert, gray-haired woman in her mid-sixties sitting on a bench in the lobby, but I paid little attention to her. I grabbed a phone and called the number I had just gotten for the neighbors of Tom’s parents. We'll say their name was Caine. Mr. Caine answered. I told him who I was and that I was trying to get in touch with his neighbor, Lloyd Phipps. Being of sound mind, Mr. Caine was suspicious and had a lot of questions. I answered them as honestly as I could.

“You’re lying,” Caine said in his most triumphant gotcha! voice. “The Phippses don’t have a son.”

This was news to me, and I had no comeback. I figured this line of inquiry was doomed.

“Hold on,” said Mr. Caine. “What? Oh. My wife says they do have a son.”

Not long afterward, Mr. Caine gave me his neighbors' phone number.

I have often mused about how it could be that Mrs. Caine knew that the Phippses had a son, but Mr. Caine did not. I imagine the couples getting together to share beers, and while Monsieurs Caine and Phipps watched football, their wives went into the kitchen and talked about their families.

When my phone call rang at the Phipps house, Mr. Phipps picked up. I gave him my spiel but he interrupted me. His neighbor had moved quickly to let him know that he had given me their number. So much the better if I didn’t need to explain everything, but I still had to convince him that I wasn’t up to no good. When I explained that my sister-in-law was looking for their son because they had been friends in school, he wondered out loud why, if they were such good friends, they had not remained in touch. I didn’t really know why not, and I told him so, but, apparently, his son had never mentioned my sister-in-law. 

“Does she know that he’s married?” said Mr. Phipps.

This was an issue that my sister-in-law had anticipated, so I assured him that my sister-in-law was married herself—leaving out the fact that her marriage was on the rocks at the time—and that she just wanted to renew a platonic friendship. “I don’t know where your son lives, but my sister-in-law lives in Texas, so I believe that she is anticipating a long-distance sort of get-reacquainted."

Finally convinced, Mr. Phipps got his wife to hand him Tom’s address and phone number, and he read them both to me. I was not expecting this good luck. I had been prepared to give Mr. Phipps my sister-in-law's contact information for him to pass on to his son. I already had my pen and notebook ready, though, and I took down the information. After thanking him, I hung up and turned to go. The gray-haired lady I had forgotten about approached me. I looked at her more carefully. At the time, I was in my thirties and generally not attracted to women over sixty, but I noticed that she was pleasant-looking, neatly coiffed and well-dressed in a light blue suit. (Getting ahead of the story, I have since seen a photo of her from when she was in her twenties, and she was a hottie.) 

“My name is Mary Limebrook,” she said. “I couldn’t help overhearing. Are you a private investigator?”

“No,” I admitted, “I’m an amateur.”

“Well, you seemed very professional,” she said. “I work for a private investigator. We’re located in southern California, and I come up here sometimes to do research. Do you live in the Bay Area?

“I live across the Bay in Berkeley,” I said.

“I’ve been thinking that it doesn’t make sense for me to come up here so often. I thought if we had someone who already lived here to help us out, it would be ideal. Would you be interested?”

I said that I would. She explained that she would have to bring it up with her boss, but she promised to do so, and then she gave me a slip of paper from her notebook.

No, this is not the story of how I became a P.I. It turned out that her boss was less interested in saving Mrs. Limebrook’s airfare to San Francisco than she was. I talked to him on the phone a couple of times before I got the distinct impression that he was avoiding me and any commitment. He did send me some brochures—or maybe that was Mrs. Limebrook’s idea. Anyway, after a while, I gave up on Worldwide Tracers and went on with my life, over time doing less and less straight-up people-finding, although I did become my family’s resident genealogist.

Recently, I found that piece of paper that Mary Limebrook gave me that day in 1987(?), and I looked her up on the internet. Not surprisingly, she is no longer with us, which is the reason I feel no reluctance to use her real name. I don't know about Pat Rutherford, but at least he seems to have long since turned over the day-to-day of Worldwide Tracers to his son. The firm was primarily if not exclusively concerned with finding people who have been separated by adoption, something I know about, having been adopted myself. That is how I got into genealogy and people-finding. Mrs. Limebrook turns out to have been an accomplished genealogist herself.

I passed along the information to my sister-in-law, and she sent me a check for a couple of hundred dollars. I later learned that she immediately called her old classmate, and they had a happy reunion, at least over the phone. BTW I never did meet my now ex-sister-in-law face-to-face. She was only ever a voice on the phone, calling California from Texas. 

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

Before I gave up on private investigation entirely, I discovered heir finding. Let me explain what this is. Each state collects a list of "unclaimed property owners," which usually consists of the owners of accounts held by financial institutions such as banks or unclaimed paychecks held by corporations or other entities. One of the oddest examples I ever came across was an unclaimed check held by NBC for Bill Cosby. Rather than go to the trouble of calling someone they knew who would surely know how to get in touch with Cosby, the corporation had simply let the unclaimed check sit in their accounts until the law required that this unclaimed property "escheat" to the state. I always thought this term's similarity to another word was more than just a little ironic since it seemed to me that the state essentially cheated somebody out of their money. Yet it turns out, according to, that the similarity  between “cheat” and “escheat” is not accidental but the result of the transformation of words by dropping sounds. Nevertheless, the relationship between the words goes back to French, and the legal distinction between the two words in English is maintained by the lawyers and the government.

I will let wikipedia do the dirty work of defining the old English legal term:

The term “escheat” derives ultimately from the Latin ex-cadere, to “fall-out” via mediaeval French “escheoir.” The sense is of a feudal estate in land falling-out of the possession by a family into possession by the overlord.

One of the ways that property has been lost to escheatment in the past as well as under present circumstances is that someone dies without an obvious heir, leaving a piece of land or a savings account. Hence the job of finding the owners of abandoned property has come to be called heir finding even though the owner in a given case might not actually be dead, although, I imagine that, in mediaeval times, if one's property escheated to the king when one was not dead, one might soon be.

Each state has its own laws governing escheatment. If you leave your money in a bank account and never touch it for three years (in California, that is; it is five years in some states) or if you were owed a tax refund but you did not claim it for three years, this property must be turned over to the state. In California, the entity that oversees this sort of thing is the Unclaimed Property Bureau in the state controller's office. Of course, the holder of your property must make a diligent effort to try to locate the account owner,according to one government site, but see the Cosby case above for evidence that this legal requirement is more honored in the breach. There is a subsequent five-year period during which your property can then be returned to you before it irrevocably goes to the state. (I will rely on the time limits for California, but they are not terribly different from state to state.)  

California, like most states, has a regular system of mediating between heir-finders and abandoned property owners. If done within the law, the heir finder contacts the owner, makes an often written agreement to represent the owner, and then contacts the state controller's office. The controller will give a fixed finder's fee of ten percent of the total amount of the account to the heir finder and distribute the rest to the legal owner. The ethical questions about who should be doing what here will perhaps suggest themselves. I remember receiving a callback from someone I had contacted about his unclaimed bank account. He complained that he had never lost track of that account, he had not moved, either, making it inexplicable that his bank had never made that diligent effort to contact him. His only sin was that he had not made a deposit or debit for three years, and his account had automatically been put into the escheatment process. I am too nice a guy for this business, so I gave him the information he needed to make the claim on his own. Whether he took action on his own behalf or not, I do not know.

Every year (or perhaps twice a year in some states?), each state publishes a list of unclaimed property owners. (This is when the clock starts ticking on the next five-year period during which the property can be claimed before it disappears into the coffers of the state.) A few months ago I saw one such list published by my local newspaper. That is usually the way it goes. If you have some unclaimed property, you probably don't know it, and there would otherwise be no motive for you to scan a massive list of names in fine print to see if you are there. Most escheated property thus ends up in the full possession of the government, which can always think of something to do with it.

There are people who see a gold mine in unclaimed property. They even have a way to get the list of unclaimed property owners before it is widely published. They must pay a fee for this advantage, though. (I vaguely recall that it was in the neighborhood of $200 in California in the 1980s.) They get a jump on everyone else. The advantage to them is that they get to cherry pick the largest accounts of unclaimed property, potentially worth millions. I never paid that fee, but as soon as the list was generally published, I would go to the public library and look at the microfiche copies of the list that the San Francisco Public Library would get from the state. (Don't make me explain microfiche, kids.)

The list was in alphabetical order (the list can also be by county first, then by property owners within that county), but each entry also told how much money was involved. This was the rub. Often, someone had abandoned a bank account of no more than $100, or even less. So after the investigators who paid for the list ahead of statewide publication had picked out all of the million dollar accounts, those of us who waited for the generally published list had to pick through it for the smaller accounts. Even for us, an account worth less than $1000 could hardly be worth our effort, which was why I merely chuckled over the Bill Cosby account with NBC and did nothing about it. NBC owed Cosby a couple of checks, each of which was worth less than fifty dollars. (The entries never tell specifically what such checks are payments for.)

I came up with a strategy of looking only for accounts larger than $1000 and preferably close to $2000. In one case, I found a savings account that had belonged to a woman who had died alone in California. A widow, she had had no relatives in California. I no longer remember my investigative process in this case in any detail, but I went to the library and found her obituary and then searched through city directories for the relatives mentioned in her death notice. I tracked down one of her relatives in Baltimore. The trouble was that most of this elderly woman's relatives were dead, but at least the last name was not Smith, so I was able to be fairly sure of it when I found the right people.

One living man in a Baltimore directory seemed to be related to one of her brothers. I phoned him and told him what I was doing and asked him whether he was related to the deceased property owner. “She was my aunt,” he declared without hesitation. Although a little suspicious of this little windfall, which might have seemed to good to believe, he went along, especially after I explained the process and how his check would be coming from the state of California. I sent him the paperwork, he filled it out and sent it back to me, and I sent it to the controller's office. I got paid my ten percent and, presumably, the state sent him his little inheritance.

That case raises some interesting side questions, evolving from the fact that I was literally an heir finder in this case. The man in Baltimore was probably, indeed, the rightful heir to his aunt's savings account. Obviously, if there had been multiple other relatives, then there would have been multiple claimants to her property, which would have been ridiculous considering that, although I don't recall the amount, I doubt that it was more than $2000. People being people about money, I am sure that some would fight even over their small share of such an inheritance. In this case, though, I had searched pretty thoroughly for heirs, and had come to some dead ends because the woman had several relatives who, like her, had themselves died without heirs. So, I could be pretty confident that the man in Baltimore was probably the only heir to her estate.

That was not the biggest payout I had in my brief career as an heir finder in the late 1980s. Another time, I noticed that five accounts belonged to people with the same last name. Again, it was not Smith, so I became reasonably confident that these accounts were connected. My guess turned out to be fruitful. All of these property owners were relatives of the same man. Individually, each account was more or less around $1000 dollars, but, added together, they came to just over $5000. I located the man, who was actually named as a co-owner of some of the accounts, so I found and contracted with him. He was not hard to find, but few other heir finders would have bothered to contact him because each of the five accounts was so small. As the heir finder for all of the accounts, I received five hundred dollars, most of which I spent on a London Fog raincoat, which I kept until it completely wore out just a few years ago.

The difficulty of making a living out of finder's fees of $200 here and, very occasionally, $500 there, made me realize that there was not much future in this line of work. I decided to get out of it and rely on work with a regular paycheck instead. About this time, I read an article in Reason magazine about various get-rich-quick schemes that were then popular, and heir finding was mentioned among them. I wrote a letter to the editor explaining the problems I had had with heir finding, mentioning the fact that the competition for the big accounts was what made successful heir finding difficult.

Appropriately enough, the copy editor headlined my letter Get Rich Slow.