May 9, 2017 Elias Mortimer, a construction lobbyist, needed to land his firm a fat government contract to build veterans' hospitals. Luckily for him, the chief of the Veterans' Bureau had three great loves: getting bribed, misappropriating government funds, and intense 24/7 partying. They thought there was no way anything could go wrong. But what happened nearly destroyed them both.
Read a full transcript of this episode on the Something True website.
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Music on this week’s episode:
Jahzzar – Take Me Higher*
Latché Swing – Swing 39*
Alialujah Choir – Kings and Queens*
Latché Swing – Menilmontant*
Costa and Nero – Rast’e Tou Teke*
Podington Bear – Starling*
Nick Jaina – High Beams*
*modified for the podcast.
In one of Aesop’s classic fables, a farmer comes across a viper freezing in the snow. ‘Oh, no!’ he says. ‘Here, little viper, let me put you inside my coat for warmth.’ The snake immediately bites him. ‘Oh, no!’ he says again, ‘I am rightly served for pitying a scoundrel!’ and he dies.
‘That’s good,’ thought Aesop when he came up with it, ‘that’s a good fable.’ And he wrote another fifteen fables before he got up off the toilet.
You’re listening to Something True – stories from the footnotes of history. Written by Duncan Fyfe and read by Alex Ashby. This week’s episode: Charlie Joyride.
After the First World War, the United States of America made a promise that it would not forget the needs of its veterans. In 1920, the government set up a new agency, the Veterans’ Bureau, which had a budget of 18 million dollars to build specialised veterans' hospitals.
If you worked in the construction industry back then, you'd do anything to win the contracts to build those hospitals. And to get them, the man you needed to woo was Charles Forbes. He was the director of the bureau. He was a Mister Moneybags. A Corporal Contracts. A Dollar Daddy. And Elias Mortimer, a political lobbyist for the Thompson-Black construction company of St. Louis, was in the mood to woo a Dollar Daddy.
Elias and his wife Katherine lived in a D.C. hotel, which happened to be around the corner from Charles Forbes’s own house. Elias met with Charles and asked him if he’d come around for dinner. Charles did. He then showed up for dinner the next night, and then the next night, and every night for weeks.
Charles and the Mortimers became inseparable. Elias took Charles on all-expenses-paid trips to Philadelphia, Atlantic City, New York, putting him up in penthouse suites. And on each of those trips, Charles and Elias got absolutely trashed.
Charles was 44. He had a thin comb-over, spectacles, and a stern, pasty grammar school face—but don't let his appearance fool you, he loved to have fun. And when he was in the army in 1900, he found ways to have fun, like deserting. You'd think that might have precluded him from going on to head up a bureau for veterans, but it didn't. Life was simpler, then, in the Jazz Age.
After Elias Mortimer wined and dined Charles until alcohol and fine roast beef spurted from his pores, Elias brought up the business of the veterans’ hospitals. Charles said he had complete control over all of that. He’d been in construction himself at one time, and had always made sure that everyone made as much money as possible. At Charles’s Veterans Bureau, he employed thirty thousand friends, family, and fellow Republicans. Many of them actually doing no work, or justifying their jobs by simply refusing to discharge patients.
Charles offered Elias his pick of the planned hospitals. Elias conferred with his bosses, and they decided they wanted to build the one in Northampton, Massachusetts. Charles said that was fine, and they could ask for however much money they wanted. Thompson-Black would still have to submit a public bid along with all the other construction companies, but Charles would fix it. He’d come up with some reason to select their bid over all the others. You might wonder how Charles would pull that off. The answer is simple: He didn’t. He didn’t even try.
Of course, Charles didn’t tell Elias about this deception. Instead, he came to him with a proposition. ‘I’d love to go on a big joyride out west,’ he told Elias over dinner. ‘You and Katherine ought to come. We’re planning to build some hospitals out there, and you and your company would be able to get plenty of advance information. Can I have five thousand dollars?’
Elias was confused. ‘Do you mean, to pay for the trip, or in addition to that?’
‘In addition to that, please.’
Thompson-Black cut Elias a check for fifteen thousand: ten to pay for the trip, and five for Charles just to have. And so, in the age of prohibition, the Director of the United States Veterans’ Bureau and his lobbyist friend set off on a national pub-crawl funded by taxpayers and construction industry cash.
The first stop was Chicago. The day after a bender, Elias walked into his hotel room to find Charles and Katherine on his bed, passing a bottle of scotch back and forth. ‘It’s not what you think,’ Charles explained. He said that, actually, he and Katherine had been shooting craps, and as a matter of fact, he had won 220 dollars off her. But Katherine didn’t carry any money, ‘so Elias,’ said Charles, ‘you owe me 220 dollars.’ Charles put out his hand and waited patiently for Elias to count it out of his wallet.
The party continued on to San Francisco, where the Veterans’ Bureau had bought a plot of land off a vineyard owner, who paid Charles the standard government rate of one hundred cases of wine.
From San Francisco, the group sailed to Tacoma, Washington. It was the ship’s maiden voyage, and the owner was so honoured to have Charles Forbes as a guest, that he offered Charles his own private suite. Touched, Charles stood up at dinner that evening, before 500 people, and presented the owner with a presidential medal. ‘The President of the United States,’ announced Charles, ‘has asked me to bestow this medal upon you for your fantastic contribution to this country.’ The owner was impossibly moved. Elias, on the other hand, could not raise an eyebrow high enough.
‘Charles,’ he asked, ‘did the President really ask you to do that?’
‘Oh, no,’ said Charles, ‘I just wanted to make him feel good.’
‘Where did you get that medal, then?’
‘It's a replica, my boy! You could buy one if you like, they’re not even expensive.’
‘Charles, there were reporters there at that dinner. This could get back to the President!’ Elias took a deep breath. ‘You had better hope that you got away with that.’
‘I don’t know if you think this will be a problem,’ said Charles, ‘but I’ve been giving out medals like this the whole trip. All over the country. Constantly.’
It was almost too much for Elias. But in Washington, they made a deal that would make him a very rich man. Around Lake Spokane, Charles, Elias, and a friend of Charles’s who did construction in California, agreed to split the profits on all veterans’ hospitals three ways. ‘Yahoo!’ yelled Charles, and jumped fully clothed into the lake. He came out again, grabbed a woman, and jumped in again.
But once Charles towelled off, his mood had changed. ‘Hey!’ he said to Elias, ‘I just heard that your bosses gave you a check for fifteen thousand back in D.C. and you only gave me five!’
Elias reminded Charles he had only asked for five, but Charlie was having none of it. To him, Elias was being just like Judas, when Judas had stopped giving Jesus money. Elias’s bosses told him to break things off with Charles for good. At this point, that was A-OK with Elias.
The trip drew to a close, and Charles returned to his office at the Veterans’ Bureau, his joyride over. Only yesterday, he’d been pouring whiskey up his nose in the toilet of a steamship, and today he was signing off on inventory reports. Which caught his attention in a way they really shouldn’t have.
‘Good gravy! Look at how much money all of this is worth!’ Charles made a quick plan to sell off the Bureau’s seven million dollars in medical and office supplies, and fund another joyride around the country.
Charles pitched this idea to Elias. He asked if Elias wanted to handle the sale of five million dollars of medical drugs and sixty-seven thousand quarts of liquor. Elias passed. Charles asked if Elias might want to sell legal stuff instead, like mattresses and clipboards. Still the answer was no. Elias just didn’t trust Charles anymore. So, Charles crossed Elias’s name out of his black book and tried his next contact: a D.C. ice cream salesman he had once bought an ice cream from.
‘Hey, ice cream man! I bet the ice cream trade uses a lot of boxes. What do you say we use those empty boxes to ship massive amounts of liquor and narcotics? I might make it interesting for you!’ The ice cream man said no, and made some brief notes for when he would inevitably be called to testify to a grand jury about that particular conversation.
On Labour Day, 1922, Elias walked into his hotel room, and once again found his wife on the bed with Charles Forbes—having sex. ‘It’s not what you think,’ Charles said. And he was right. It wasn't just about the sex. Having lost faith in Elias, Charles had visited Katherine to ask her to destroy any evidence she or Elias had that might incriminate him, and conversely, to give him any evidence that might incriminate Elias.
In November, Charles began selling off everything the Veterans’ Bureau owned. He sold to the lowest bidder, took a cut for himself, and billed the government for more expensive replacements. Pretty quickly, other bidders and government agencies noticed something was up.
The Senate started to make noises about a complete investigation of the Veterans Bureau, and the President of the United States, Warren G. Harding, was petitioned to shut Charles Forbes down. The President invited Charles to the White House, and they agreed Charles would put the supply shipments on hold, and come back with a detailed cost analysis for his “sell everything” plan. Instead, Charles kept the shipments going, and when the President heard about it, he called him back.
‘I REALLY NEED YOU TO STOP THOSE SHIPMENTS.’
‘Oh, I will.’
Charles left, and continued the shipments. The President ordered Charles to return to the White House.
‘DID YOU STOP THOSE SHIPMENTS?’
Finally, like Elias Mortimer before him, President Harding was through with Charles Forbes. He asked for his resignation.
‘YOU HAVE TO RESIGN.’
‘No, I don’t really want to.’
So, Harding offered him a deal. Charles would flee to Europe, escaping the consequences of a Senate investigation and an increasingly likely criminal trial. But he would have to resign, and he could never come back to the United States. Charles agreed maybe that was best. So, he left in the night, with Katherine Mortimer, and a briefcase containing all of Elias Mortimer’s business papers.
The Senate investigation into Charles Forbes’s serial misconduct at the Veterans’ Bureau went ahead. But Charles was safe, as long as he stayed overseas, which he did, for about four months. One day, he just waltzed back into the Oval Office.
President Harding ran across the office, and started strangling Charles. ‘YOU STUPID SON OF A BITCH!’ he screamed as aides pried the President’s meaty hands off of Charles’s neck. ‘YOU DOUBLE-CROSSING RAT!’
Charles was charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States government. The prosecution asked Elias Mortimer to be the chief witness against him, but Elias had to think about it. If he took the stand against Charles, he’d be to admitting to his own part in the corruption. He was contacted by Katherine, back from Europe, who implored Elias not to testify against Charles, essentially, she said, because Charles was a kind man and a kinder lover. Elias decided then that Charles was going to prison in a big way.
Elias’s testimony was an essential part of the case against Charles, but cemented his own public reputation as a disgraced ex-lobbyist and bootlegger, who had bribed government officials. He was so disliked in general that even the prosecuting attorney referred to him on the stand as “a fixer and a crook,” which was as bad as the C-word in those days.
Charles was found guilty. He was fined ten thousand dollars and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. ‘I don’t suppose prison is a pleasant place to go,’ Charles told the press, ‘but I will try to make the best of it.’
His cellmate at Leavenworth, a medium security prison, was Frederick Cook, in for financial fraud charges of his own. He had been publicly embarrassed a few years ago, when he’d made a very high profile claim to have discovered the North Pole, which turned out to be a totally fictional account plagiarised from a Jules Verne novel.
Charles listened to Cook’s admission of guilt. ‘When we get out of here,’ Charles said, ‘we’re going to prove to this whole country that you discovered the North Pole.’ Because what was America about, after all, if not second chances?
That was Something True, a podcast on the Idle Thumbs network, written by Duncan Fyfe and read by Alex Ashby, with artwork by Ray Chen. Music credits can be found in the description and on our website at somethingtrue.net. Follow us on twitter @atruepodcast, and join us again next time for the final episode in this series: Babylon.