Whispering Pines: Charlie Morse’s Second Act and Denouement

Whispering Pines

We last left Charles W. Morse of the Class of 1877 at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in January of 1910, where he was to serve a fifteen-year sentence for misapplication of bank funds. Charlie’s statement to the press expressed his belief that he was the victim of “…a government gone mad” in its search for a scapegoat following the economic Panic of 1907: “I am going to Atlanta to begin penal servitude under the most brutal sentence ever pronounced against a citizen in a civilized country.”

Morse headline

Headlines following Morse’s release from prison.

Back at Bowdoin, President William DeWitt Hyde expressed a different perspective in a 1910 Chapel talk, in which he compared Charles W. Morse to retiring Harvard President Charles W. Eliot. “You could not find a greater contrast than the lives of these two men, one built on the sands of selfishness, the other built on the rock of faithful service…Fifteen years in prison is the logical and fit conclusion of a career of getting as much as possible, regardless of how one gets it or who he gets it out of.” Hyde had tried for several years to get Morse to make a gift to the College, but he had been rebuffed each time. One year it was because Charlie had committed to build a new high school for his hometown of Bath. In subsequent years, Morse cited the expenses of educating each of his children: Ben (Bowdoin 1908, but stayed only a year before transferring to Harvard); Harry (Princeton 1911); Erwin (Yale 1912); and Anna (the Finch School in New York).

Incarceration in Atlanta did little to diminish Charlie Morse’s audacity. He persuaded Warden William Moyer to allow him to send a coded message to business associates in New York. His instructions to “go short” on gas company stock netted Charlie a $2,000 profit, which he offered to split with the warden (who declined). The story leaked to a newspaper editor (and Morse friend), who accused the warden of depriving Charlie of a bed to sleep on and of adequate food as punishment.

Charlie umpired a prison baseball game that featured Sicilian “Black Hand” leader Ignazio Lupo at first base. Lupo was born in Coreleone, Sicily, and worked for the Morello crime family in New York in extortion rackets. Nominally an importer of olive oil and other Italian foods, he was suspected of committing sixty murders. Lupo’s story is a fascinating – but distracting – rabbit hole which fans of “The Godfather” book and movies may want to explore. Charlie became a good friend and mentor to Lupo’s cellmate, a petty criminal named Carlo Ponzi, whose name is now synonymous with the fraudulent pyramid schemes he ran after his discharge from Atlanta.

From the moment he arrived at the penitentiary, Charlie worked hard on reversing his sentence. His family and business associates obtained hundreds of thousands of names on petitions calling for a pardon, on the grounds that Morse was being punished for doing what business leaders did routinely and without penalty. Clemence Morse sought out politicians to apply leverage wherever they could on President William Howard Taft and Attorney General George Wickersham. City officials in Bath passed resolutions calling for a pardon. Henry Stimson, the attorney who had prosecuted Morse in 1908 and Taft’s Secretary of War, suggested that the original sentence had been too harsh. Taft was unmoved. In 1911 Charlie hired Georgia lawyer Thomas B. Felder Jr. to obtain his release. Felder brought Ohio political operative Harry Daugherty into the picture, hoping to take advantage of Daugherty’s connections to Taft. Morse signed a contract that gave complete control of his appeals to the two attorneys, with a $5,000 retainer and a promise to pay them $25,000 for a commutation of his sentence or a pardon.

I was not traveling under an assumed name, the clerk just mis-spelled it.

Daugherty worked every imaginable angle. His letters to Taft and Wickersham focused increasingly on Morse’s declining health (kidney failure and heart difficulties). Prison doctors confirmed a diagnosis of Bright’s Disease. The Morse family and Daugherty voiced increasing concerns that Charlie’s lifespan would be measured in months if he remained in prison. Charlie upped the legal fees that he was willing to pay Felder and Daugherty for a pardon to $100,000. Taft had a team of doctors monitoring Charlie daily at the prison and later in a military hospital. After the doctors indicated that Morse would die within a few weeks in prison or within six months if he were released, Taft signed the papers to commute Charlie’s sentence on January 18, 1912, citing his “incurable and progressive” illness.

A weakened Morse was whisked away on a train to New York, and a few weeks later he avoided reporters to board a ship bound for Germany to “take the waters” at a spa. Several months later, a hale and hearty Charles W. Morse returned to his hometown of Bath to a hero’s welcome. As it turned out, Charlie had been ingesting soap flakes while in Atlanta to mimic the symptoms of kidney failure. Taft was furious, referring to Morse as “the liveliest corpse I ever saw,” but there was nothing he could do about it.

Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation yard

Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation yard, 1919 (Library of Congress).

As a first step to rebuilding his fortune, Charlie returned to the steamship industry that he knew so well. He acquired the Hudson Navigation Company, with 20,000 shares of stock purchased on a note. With the outbreak of the first world war, Charlie seized the opportunity to get back into the shipbuilding business, issuing stock and acquiring facilities in Connecticut and Virginia to build wooden and steel ships for the U.S. Shipping Board and the Emergency Fleet Corporation. He also leased a number of his passenger steamships to the Navy as troop transports and training vessels during the war. His sons joined him as officers in the shipbuilding and steamship ventures. In all, Charlie’s shipbuilding enterprises secured $40 million in government contracts.

The end of the war in November of 1918 created all manner of problems for Charlie’s shipbuilding yards. Contracts were cancelled, the government was slow to make payments on the work that had been done and would not extend further loans, and private investors grew anxious. Charlie responded with a dizzying array of activity, filing lawsuits against the government and creating new stock-issuing corporations that consolidated or split existing Morse-owned companies. Far and away the most serious problem that Charlie faced were the accusations that federal money for ships had been spent on developing shipyards instead, and that the Morse-owned companies had engaged in war-profiteering activities.

I just needed to consult with my doctor in Italy.

The prosecution of Charlie, his sons, and other officers of his companies was led by President Warren Harding’s new attorney general, Harry Daugherty – the same Harry Daugherty who had been instrumental in securing Charlie’s release from prison eight years earlier. Charlie had used nearly worthless stock to pay most of his $25,000 legal fees, but he had never made good on the promise of $100,000 for his release from prison. Daugherty had complained bitterly to Felder about it, but the lawyers were too closely aligned with the faking of Charlie’s life-threatening kidney disease to press the matter further. The first indictment handed down was in May of 1920 for selling a Shipping Board vessel to a foreign country in wartime (Tunisia), but that charge was dismissed. Further charges followed over contract irregularities, such as dummy loans, misrepresentation of costs, etc. For a fourth time in his life, Charlie decided to go to Europe when faced with a grand jury indictment. Washington cabled the French government, calling for Morse’s immediate return. Charlie’s reply was an invariable protestation of innocence (“I was not traveling under an assumed name, the clerk just mis-spelled it”; “I just needed to consult with my doctor in Italy”; “I had no idea that my presence would be required in a civil proceeding.”)

Charles Morse and sons

Charles W. Morse and two of his sons, 1920 (Library of Congress).

The case against the Morses and the other officers of the shipbuilding and shipping concerns took another turn when Daugherty’s enemies in Congress learned that he had been employed to secure Charlie’s pardon. Daugherty initially denied knowing Morse, but was then confronted with the paper trail of Charlie’s release from Atlanta. From that point on, the government’s case lost momentum, especially when the Harding administration became embroiled in a series of corruption scandals. Charlie, his sons, and their co-defendents were found not guilty by a jury. They were almost immediately charged with mail fraud in April of 1922, although the case would remain dormant for four years.

At his 45th Bowdoin Reunion in 1922, Charlie distributed a seven page, typed, double-spaced explanation to his classmates about his conviction in 1908 and about his current legal entanglements. He asserted that the government had suppressed exculpatory evidence in the bank case, and that someone else had just put a number in the wrong column. He stated that Felder and Daugherty had been paid in full for their services, even though it was his health crisis (and not their legal skills) that had won him his freedom. As for Daugherty’s personal vendetta, Morse wrote “No Police Court methods towards assassins could excel [sic] that adopted by the Government in our case.”

By the time the mail fraud case was revived in March of 1926 there had been a turnover in personnel in the Justice Department, and with the passage of time Charlie’s complicated business transactions were even harder to decipher. In August of 1926 Clemence had a stroke and died, and shortly thereafter Charlie had a stroke himself. His sons found him confused and unable to speak clearly. Doctors and the probate court agreed that Charlie was indeed mentally incompetent. Eventually the charges against the Morses and their associates were dismissed. From 1926 until his death from pneumonia on January 12, 1933, at the age of 77, Charles W. Morse lived in the home on Washington Street in Bath. At the time of his death his estate was valued at $9,000.

“Get-out-of-jail-free” cards

“Get-out-of-jail-free” cards from Monopoly™ game.

Two years later, in February of 1935, Parker Brothers released the board game “Monopoly.” The “Chance” and “Community Chest” cards of the 1936 edition featured a character with a white moustache and a top hat. To my eyes, he bears a strong resemblance to Charlie Morse in the years after his release from Atlanta. I have no idea how Charlie would have re-written the rules of the board game if he had had the chance to play it, but I know that after learning about Charlie Morse I’ll never look at Monopoly™, monopolies, or American history in the decades on either side of 1900, in the same way again.

With best wishes,

John R. Cross

John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations

Comments

  1. James A Pierce says:

    A well written series. Kudos to John for pointing out that our school has a few scoundrels in its past as well.

  2. Barbara Kaster says:

    Fantastic!! This would make great movie or a TV series!! Jaw-dropping story!

  3. Barbara Kaster says:

    Fantastic! This would make a great movie or TV series!! Jaw-dropping story

  4. Noma Petroff says:

    This is simply an amazing story!

Leave a Comment

*