Drum Roll Please

This summer on a warm Monday evening, don’t be surprised if you see an impromptu parade, complete with a big bass drum, spilling out of the Hancock Church and winding its way through the neighborhood around the Battle Green. It’s most likely the Junior Fife & Drum Corps practicing for their next big event. Made up of students from local schools, the William Diamond Junior Fife & Drum Corps is celebrating its 10th Anniversary this year at their annual Tattoo & Muster, May 5th and 6th, at Lexington’s Minuteman National Historical Park.

Right, William Diamond Junior Drum & Fife Corps march in New York City’s 250th St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

By Digney Fignus   |

Most school children in Lexington know the story of William Diamond. He was the little drummer boy at the first battle of Lexington. The actual drum he used is still on display at Lexington’s historic Hancock-Clarke House. I learned about it when I was a student at William Diamond Middle School: “In the clear chill of an early April morning in 1775… Captain John Parker, commanding the Lexington minutemen, directed his drummer boy to go across the road to the Common and beat the call to arms. And when William Diamond, bringing the enthusiasm of his sixteen years to the beating of his gayly emblazoned drum, rolled out the call to the village’s minutemen, the War of the American Revolution began.” – William Diamond’s Drum by Arthur Bemon Tourtellot

The fife is an ancient instrument that has been used by armies since the 16th century. The sound evokes a certain patriotic emotion without fail, and has evolved over time from a rich tradition. Originally called a ‘Schweizerpfeife” or Swiss flute, fifers provided the music the first modern armies marched too. Most often they played popular or traditional songs from the soldiers’ homeland. During the American Revolution, before bugles were used, fifes and drums were an important signaling device to soldiers in the field. In the din of battle, it was almost impossible to hear shouted orders over any distance. Commanders relied on the fifes and drums to beat out particular patterns to signal soldiers to either advance, regroup, or retreat. It had a tremendous advantage because drums and the piercing

Director, Carmin Calabrese at the USS Constitution.

sound of the fife could be heard over a large distance, even as the battle raged. It was from this military background that the original Fife & Drum Corps came into being. In early armies, each company of 100 or so men would be assigned two fifers and two drummers to “sound signals.” When these smaller companies were gathered together into a Regiment or Battalion, all the fifers and drummers would play together in a “band” that would march at the head of a column or parade. Modern Fife & Drum Corps are arranged in a very specific way. Traditionally they march four abreast.

The Corps Color Guard will lead the way, followed by the Drum Major, brandishing a large ceremonial mace. He directs up to 16 fifes (4 rows) followed by one or two rows of “side drums” (snare or field drums, and long drums also called tenor drums). Bringing up the back, are the big bass drums. It’s a heck of a sound when they all get going together, and a little overwhelming to listen in an enclosed space, but on the street out in the open, there is nothing like it. The formation snaps to attention as the Drum Major’s brass-topped mace comes down. The drums start their roll-off to cue the fifes, and all together the Corps takes off into one of about forty different songs that they might perform during a typical parade. Thankfully, there is a rich repository of military and traditional songs that can be drawn upon.

The William Diamond Junior Fife & Drum Corps is celebrating its 10th Anniversary

The Company of Fifers and Drummers, a non-profit in Norton, Connecticut, is the national Mecca for enthusiasts of this type of music. It also publishes “The Company Book” which Fife & Drums Corps everywhere use as a Bible when searching for marching music.

Vincent Canciello bearing the William Diamond Junior Drum & Fife Corps guidon.

Heading up this year’s parade is Drum Major Simon Rubenstein, 16, a sophomore at Lexington High School. He is like the conductor of an orchestra, holding the four-foot ceremonial mace high above his head or swinging it off to the side to signal the precision team’s next move. The mace was a gift to the Junior Drum & Fife Corps. It was presented to them several years ago at the annual Tattoo & Muster by the well-known and long-established Middlesex County Volunteers Fife & Drum Corps from Medford. The veteran group had been so impressed by the Junior Corps performance (who at the time did not have a proper mace) they gave the young band one of their own in a show of respect.

Fife Sergeant Shayna Rubenstein, a 17-year-old senior at Lexington High, leads the fifes. She sets the pace at the head of the fifers at the top right hand corner of the column. Drum Sergeant Joesan Blackington, another 17-year-old senior at Lexington High School, directs the drummers from the center of the drum line. These three important positions are earned through a lot of hard work, so Simon, Shayna, and Joesan naturally take their jobs very seriously.

Marching with the Fife & Drum Corps is a little like rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time. Senior Fife Instructor Mark Poirier agrees but adds, “while hopping backwards on one foot.” Not only are you required to have a certain level of proficiency on your instrument, the Senior Corps is also a well-rehearsed drill team (one of the only ones in the country) that incorporates complex marching maneuvers into their performances. Even for young folks, it takes tremendous concentration to play together and manage your instrument while weaving in and out of formation.

The William Diamond Junior Fife & Drum Corps is open to boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 18. You don’t have to live in Lexington or need any musical experience to join. Mark explains, “We are giving them a musical education as well. If a kid doesn’t know how to read music we’ll teach them.” When I was there, Kirea Snell, 10, a 4th Grade student from the Harrington school was taking her first lesson on fife. Her mom waited patiently in the hall as Shayna took Kirea aside and gave her one-on-one instruction on rudimentary fife technique. Within a few minutes you could hear the familiar trill burst forth as Kirea started to get her first sounds out of the ancient instrument. I can’t describe the satisfaction and big smiles on everyone’s faces as Kirea finished up her lesson to enthusiast praises. Getting started is easy, and just takes a small $10.00 investment in a practice fife to learn the basics. Once you are able to master a few simple songs you can graduate to a wooden parade fife and start to participate in some of the marching drills. Drummers can get started with a minimum investment in a pair of sticks, a drum pad, and stand.

The program has a dedicated support staff. I was met by the Corps Clerk and “master of details” Tanya Morrisett, who gave me a quick tour and introduced me around. The Monday rehearsals are a little chaotic, but Board member Susan Rubenstein is another dynamo on the scene keeping things on schedule and getting things done. Lee Caron, the Senior Drum Instructor is a well-known percussionist and a graduate of the Boston Conservatory. He has extensive experience and has been a member of and performed with prestigious groups like The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps 3rd US INF (Escort to the President), and The United States Army Band.

Mark Poirier is the Senior Fife Instructor. A founding member, he has been teaching fife to the Junior Corps since it started. He typically works with the youngest students. Tanya explains, “Mark has a special way of getting the kids to play. He’s extremely patient.” Mark has a simple approach to teaching fife, “I ask them all the same thing: ‘Can you count to seven? Do you know the first seven letters of the alphabet? Do you have ten fingers? Can you tap your foot?’” And in order to get an eight year old to visualize the proper aperture (the way you shape your lips when blowing across the fife; the hardest part about learning how to play), “I tell them to think about a food that they absolutely hate to eat, or a rotten piece of dog food on the tip of their tongue … it’s worked for ten years.”

For a modest $40.00/month, weekly music lessons, custom uniforms, and performance-grade instruments are provided to everyone enrolled in the program. The Junior Corps wears 1775 authentic yeoman fashions, hand sewn by Lexington seamstress Judy Crocker. The Senior Corps jackets, waistcoats, and breeches are the creations of Anita Bausk, another talented seamstress. The Corps even gets a fashion contribution from their Director, Carmin Calabrese, who besides directing rehearsals and contributing his wealth of expertise, has managed to master the art of making a tricorn hat, which makes him the go-to-guy for Revolutionary headgear.

While I was chatting with Tanya, I also got a chance to meet Bill Mix, current Captain Commanding of the Lexington Minutemen, and another one of the founders of the Junior Fife & Drum Corps. In the battle re-enactments Bill plays Captain John Parker, leader of the Lexington rebels. He gets to utter the famous line, “Don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here!” The Lexington Minutemen have been doing re-enactments and marching in the Lexington Patriot’s Day parade for as long as I can remember. A veteran of the group, Bill reminisces, “Back then (2002) we didn’t have a band, and for a parade, you have to have music to march to. There wasn’t any program in the schools, so we decided to create our own.” Bill put an ad in the paper and was initially able to recruit about fifteen students from the Lexington schools. He got a few of his fellow Minutemen involved, including Mark and current Director Carmin. Carmin had grown up in the Fife & Drum tradition and has been fifing for 60 years. Mark had also been playing fife for years in a number of area Fife & Drum Corps. Mark says besides having music to march to they wanted to “make fife and drum music the signature sound of Lexington.” They started out rehearsing at Buchman Tavern but Bill, a long-time member of the Hancock Church, persuaded the church to let them

William Diamond Junior Drum & Fife Corps at Colonial Williamsburg.

rehearse the newly formed group in the church’s back hall, where they still rehearse today. The program caught on and has been a terrific success ever since. What’s the attraction? Mark reflects, “It’s a simple thing, but a meaningful thing.” He smiles and adds, “and we get to dress in funny clothes, and go to really interesting places.”

This year, the Junior Fife & Drum Corps has also recorded their first CD, chock full of patriotic songs. The disk should be available by the 10th Anniversary Tattoo and Muster on May 5th and 6th, and it’s just part of the group’s very exciting schedule. The season is stacked with 22 events throughout Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, including Lexington’s 300th Anniversary Opening Ceremonies on September 26th. In addition, the Corps performs at community service events like the annual Opening of the Lexington Town Meeting, Discovery Day (May 26th), the Opening of the Farmer’s Market (May 29th) and the Flag Day Ceremony (June 16th). On top of all that, this summer, the whole group has been invited to represent Lexington and attend the Fife & Drum Corps International Muster, June 28th – July 1st, in Basel, Switzerland. Fife & Drum music originated in Switzerland, so it’s a huge honor to be asked to perform.

Wow, “Lexington Invades Switzerland.” That’s a headline I never expected to see. Best of luck to the William Diamond Junior Fife & Drum Corps, and congratulations on ten years of continuing the tradition!

For more info: www.williamdiamondjrs.org

Colonial Times contributor DIGNEY FIGNUS performs at Nourish Restaurant, 1727 Mass Ave, Lexington Center, Thursday, April 26, 2012, 8:00-10:00PM, NO COVER

 

Share this:

Fife and Drum Corps Hosts Annual Tattoo and Muster

April showers bring May flowers and the Revolutionary Revelry May Day celebration saw some of each. Rains delayed the event, but couldn’t dampen spirits. Revelers planted May Day baskets, made paper flowers and enjoyed a traditional May Pole.

En Pleine Aire enjoyed fine weather Saturday as artists and visitors met along the bike path. Artists drew inspiration from local architecture, nature and a few DPW surprises.

The Park Your Art Auction held at the Hadley DPW Building Saturday night highlighted pieces created that day. Eight works were auctioned to a lively crowd. Live jazz and refreshments rounded out the evening.

Proceeds will benefit the construction of Antony Park here in Lexington. The park will be a tribute to the two towns longtime friendship. Several years ago Antony created Place de le Lexington.

The William Diamond Junior Fife and Drum Corps celebrated its 11th Annual Tattoo and Muster on May 4 and 5. Thirty corps from all over the Northeast performed.

On Friday evening there was a short tattoo, followed by a jam session. A tattoo is a small concert featuring select fife and drum corps.

Saturday found the Corps stepping off for a parade from historic Lexington Battle Green to the muster field at Lower Hayden Fields. There visitors enjoyed a day full of music, history, and entertainment. Provincial and British re-enactors set up camp offering a view of 18th century life. Watch for the Corps first CD of traditional Fife and Drum music, 300 Years of Music from the Lexington Green.

For information about the corps and its activities, please visit their website at williamdiamondjrs.org.

 

Share this:

The 10th Regiment of Foot

Paul O’Shaughnessy (above right) leading his men.

By Heather Aveson  |

Getting ready for Battle – Behind the Scenes with the reenactors as they prepare for Patriot’s Day

Uniforms have always served two purposes. They identify an individual as part of a group, but their cut, style, color and ornamentation can also act like a peacock’s feathers to draw attention and intimidate an opponent. According to the National Park Service, the British soldiers wore red not only because of it looked good and ‘added a frightening appearance, ‘ but ‘Battlefields in the 1700’s were smoky, confusing places. Red uniforms made it easier for British officers to see their men through the smoke of battle. As a result, they were better able to control the action, and could avoid shooting their own troops!’That’s what happened the first time a young Paul O’Shaughnessy saw a “Red Coat”. In 1972 he was a student at Lexington High School serving as a guide on the Battle Green with some friends. He’d saved up a few hundred dollars and he was planning to use the money to join a local re-created militia with his friends. But one day, he saw THEM – The Red Coats of the 10th Regiment of Foot. The tailored jackets in reds and yellows, shiny buttons and glistening muskets, towering Grenadier hats of real bearskin were irresistible. Paul still remembers his feelings in the jargon of the day, “We took one look at them and thought, ‘That is so cool’”. But the feeling wasn’t immediately reciprocated. The Red Coats played hard to get and it was several months before the 15 year old was able to convince them to let him join. That young recruit is now Lieutenant Colonel Paul O’Shaughnessy, Commanding Officer.

And the authenticity of the Regiment’s splendor is the foundation on which the 10th is built.

AUTHENTICITY MAKES A RETURN

In the late 1960’s there was a resurgence of interest in the battles of Lexington and Concord. The Bicentennial was approaching and many local towns re-established militia and minute companies. They began staging mock battles with the “British Regulars”.

Vincent Kehoe, a Chelmsford photographer and historian, was assigned to cover one of these battles at the North Bridge in March of 1967. “When he got there he couldn’t bring himself to take the pictures because the British were outfitted in red paper hats and red waiters vests,” according to Paul O’Shaughnessy, “That inspired him to do some research into which regiments were actually at the battle and recreate one more authentically.”

Kehoe’s research led him to pursue the 10th Regiment of Foot; he knew they were one of about five regiments garrisoned in Boston during that time. Kehoe himself had served in the 10th Mountain Division during WWII and so “the 10th” held special meaning for him.

Imagine his surprise when Sir Christopher Welby-Everard, President of the 10th Foot Royal Lincolnshire Regimental Association in Britain heard from a New England photographer asking to establish an American contingent of the Regiment back in the States. The two began a correspondence and any initial skepticism gave way to mutual respect. It was clear that Kehoe was serious about building a regiment that would bring authenticity to the living depiction of British regiments. In July 1968 he received authorization to establish his American regiment. Sir Christopher and Kehoe continued working together for several years researching the history and uniforms of the 10th Regiment. By 1972 The American Contingent had grown to two companies, Light Infantry and Grenadiers. The same two companies remain today.

Gone were the paper hats and waiters’ vests. They were replaced by an ever evolving uniform of wool felt, leather strapping, bear skin hats and “Brown Bess” muskets; each new element reflecting an additional piece of research uncovering a greater level of detail.

EVERYONE DOES WHAT THEY CAN

It is this continued commitment to research and authenticity that sets the Tenth Regiment of Foot apart. A few years ago a button from an original uniform was found. The shape and design were slightly different from what the Regiment had been using. New buttons were cast and are being replaced on all the uniforms.

Even more recently the Regiment found that the belt buckles they had been carefully hand etching had the X, for tenth, going horizontally instead of vertically. So they will now buff off the existing X on each belt buckle and etch in a new one.

The attention to detail that sets the 10th Regiment of Foot apart also demands a greater level of commitment from its members. Each winter finds the group not only repairing and replacing existing uniforms and accoutrements but also replacing elements as new information comes along. And everyone helps out. For Grenadier Captain Michael Graves it’s become a family affair. You could say that for one weekend each winter the 10th Regiment becomes an occupying force in their home. Sheets of white leather and bearskins, heads and all, fill the living room as infantryman, and Grave’s son, Ian works with Kelsey Brennan of the light infantry and drummer Matt Lee building a new Grenadiers hat. In the kitchen, Captain Graves has traded his musket barrel for a curling rod and is coiffing wigs in the style of the day. Meanwhile, his wife Valerie is repairing small leather pieces nearby. “It all started with Ian when he was twelve. He joined as a musician and Mike would drive him to practice,” recalls Valerie, “After about a month Ian said, ‘you have to take me anyway so you may as well join too,’ so Mike joined. I help out where I can, so now the whole family is involved.”

In the basement, other members of the Regiment are rolling cartridge casings, repairing uniforms and cutting and sewing leather belts or shoe guards.

Taught by his mother, Ian Graves has become the Regiment’s tailor. Uniforms are created from patterns that have been researched back to the 1700s. Each uniform is individually made, from coat to waistcoats and britches. There’s no buying off the rack when you’re going for this kind of authenticity. “I’ve been doing this about eight months. It takes about 40 hours to make one coat,” Ian says, “No other regiment does what we do. They don’t have these kinds of workshops. People put themselves up against our standards because we set the bar. It’s just who we are.”

A few weeks later the company commandeers Commander O’Shaughnessy’s basement. Here the emphasis is on muskets and metalwork. Grenadier Private Eric Niehaus is doing maintenance on a Brown Bess musket. He’s much more comfortable here with bear grease and flintlocks, “I’m a lousy artist. I stay away from leather and costuming or we’d all be running around in loin cloths.”

The Brown Bess, or 2nd Model Land Pattern, is the standard musket for the Regiment. They can be bought new, but most members own a used model they have found or that has been handed down through the regiment. Light Infantry Private Marc McVicker is working on a musket that’s come down through his family, “This is my grandfather’s gun. He got it about fifty or sixty years ago.” It’s starting to show its age, the wood cracked during a drill, so while the gun is apart to be repaired, Marc is polishing and treating the barrel.

It’s not uncommon for the wood of these older guns to crack. The wood itself dries out and the percussion of the discharge takes it toll. Members painstakingly drill small holes into the wood and then pin the pieces back together.

Meanwhile, other members are polishing stocks and barrels while they compare the benefits of bear grease, orange oil and beeswax to preserve and maintain the wood and steel.

That’s not to say there isn’t any leatherwork going on here. Captain Graves is working with two of his men to make a bayonet belting for Grenadier David Parker. It’s a slow process for the first timers. I’m not sure if their banter makes the work go faster, but it certainly makes the time pass more quickly. That’s part of what makes the 10th Regiment special. These winter workshops not only enhance the group’s outfitting, they encourage camaraderie as well.

David Parker is new to the Grenadiers. “I started out as Light Infantry, but then I moved away. I’m coming back as a Grenadier. I’m very interested in the history of the revolution, not just re-enacting, so I wanted to experience it from both sides,” he says. Truth be told, David also feels more comfortable in the Grenadiers now that he’s not a kid anymore. The light infantry is for the young and agile. The Grenadiers are considered the elite, relying more on strength and size. Parker puts it more subtly, “Also, I tend to stand out in the Infantry. The average age of the Light Infantry is about 18. In the Grenadiers I’m about average in the age and size range.” But fellow Grenadier Gary Mezack isn’t buying that explanation either. “The real reason he joined us is that the Grenadiers get their picture taken with all the ladies. What attracts the ladies? It’s the bearskin.” Sounds like he’s speaking from first hand experience.

PUTTING YOUR BEST FOOT FORWARD

The bearskin apparently attracts the ladies, the uniform attracted a young Paul O’Shaughnessy; each recruit has their own reason for joining. Grenadier Gary Mezack remembers what brought him to the Regiment, “I’d been involved in re-enacting for many years. I always wanted to join the 10th because it does set the standard. But I was working, traveling and raising a family, so it seemed there wasn’t time. Then I realized this is never going to change. I may as well do it now. I miss a few things, but it works out. And I’m definitely glad I did it.”

The Regiment is always on the lookout for new recruits. This year the Regiment is putting six new members through their paces. On a recent Saturday the new recruits showed up for their third Recruit Training at the Depot. Sergeant Major Charlie Ziniti gives the orders, and Sgt. of the Grenadiers Ed Scull is another set of eyes critiquing and correcting along the way.

The recruits don’t drill alone; they are flanked by veteran members of the regiment. Captain Graves explains the training technique, “If the recruits trained alone, it would go a lot slower. They wouldn’t know what to do. This way they can follow a veteran’s lead. And the guys who come, improve their skills as well.” All the training techniques come straight from a British Army Drill Manual of the 1760’s. The exercises and maneuvers are practiced just as they were by British soldiers at the time of the American Revolution.

The muskets start to look pretty heavy as the recruits repeat maneuvers and work on new patterns. Captain Graves explains that the different musket positions are designed to make carrying the 12 lb. gun easier over long periods of time and through difficult terrain, “After a while you realize that the way the musket maneuvers happen is very logical. There will be a change in position for narrow paths, rough terrain, or up a hill.” For instance, when going through dense brush, the muskets are dropped low along the side of the body, in a ‘trail position.’ This keeps the guns from getting caught up in the brush.

The maneuvers are highly choreographed. The recruits first learn to change musket positions in proper sequence. Once the recruits are comfortable with that, footwork is added. All steps begin with the left foot on a count of two. Steps and musket changes coming together in perfect choreography. And then there’s what I refer to as “sticking the landing.” At the end of any drill the soldiers should finish in clean straight lines. It’s not easy. The Sergeant Major’s final order at the end of any maneuver is usually “Dress!” This allows the soldiers to adjust their positions and create clean lines.

So how does this new group look? Captain Graves looks them over, “These recruits look very well.”

THE BATTLE BEGINS

Patriot’s Day starts early for the 10th Regiment of Foot. Although they won’t be marching out to Lexington from Boston through out the night, they will gather as unobtrusively as possible in the darkness by 5am. Weapons and uniforms will be inspected. Black powder will be distributed. In a private ceremony new recruits will be sworn in. The recruits are read the Britain’s Articles of War from the 1770’s and swear their allegiance to the King.

Then at 5:45am the Light Infantry and the Grenadiers will organize themselves. The drums will begin to beat as they start down Massachusetts Ave. from the Police Station.

The Regiment will march onto Lexington Green in the cold dawn as men and women, as well as boys and girls admire the cut and detail of their handmade wool felt jackets, the grandeur of their bearskin hats, the polish of their muskets and the precision of their maneuvers. Those watching are captured by the moment without a thought to the hours of research and work that go into this display of pageantry. And that is the beauty of this form of theatre. It all looks so natural.

The teenage age Paul O’Shaughnessy who was first drawn to the Regiment by its regalia on this very spot, now leads his troops as Lieutenant Colonel, Paul O’Shaunnessy Commanding Officer onto the field of battle.

Through their research, attention to detail and commitment to the History they not only entertain and educate, but they pay tribute to those who over two hundred years ago used their skill and knowledge to present the 10th Regiment of Foot for service in Lexington and Concord.

Share this:

Notorious swindler Charles Ponzi once called Lexington his home

Charles Ponzi

By Jim Shaw  |  The ghost of Charles Ponzi is alive and well and thrives in the greed of modern day swindlers like Brad Bleidt and Bernard Madoff. And, for at least one Lexington resident who fell victim to Madoff’s $50 billion swindle, this is not an amusing story or a whimsical account of an interesting fellow who happened to live in Lexington. For this 85 year-old victim whom we have chosen not to identify, the pain is very real and his future is now uncertain.

With the recent arrests of Massachusetts money manager and radio mogul Brad Bleidt and Wall Street billionaire Bernie Madoff, the “Ponzi scheme” has become the focus of national and international news coverage. It has also surfaced as dinnertime banter in homes across the country. But just who is Charles Ponzi, and why are people so fascinated with his story?

Here in Lexington, the name Ponzi holds a different connotation — neighbor. You see, the world’s most notorious swindler – Charles Ponzi – lived right here in Lexington in a beautiful estate on Slocum Road. At the height of his most infamous criminal enterprise, Ponzi called Lexington his home town.

Ponzi first arrived in Boston by ship in 1903. He claimed to have only $2.50 when he first arrived. With no real luck securing gainful employment, Ponzi soon moved to Montreal, Quebec where he found work as an assistant teller at the newly opened Banco Zarossi. At the time, the bank was paying 6% interest on deposits, which was twice the average rate. This created a huge influx of new depositors. Soon, however, the bank’s real estate investments began to collapse causing economic chaos. In an effort to prevent a mass exodus of depositors, they began paying the interest with money from new deposits. Ponzi took notice of this and the seed was planted.

When the number new depositors drastically declined and they could no longer meet their obligations to existing depositors, the bank was shuttered and its owner fled to Mexico with much of the bank’s remaining cash.

Once again, penniless and unemployed, Ponzi went to visit one of the bank’s former clients. Finding no one there, Ponzi helped himself to the company’s checkbook and forged a check for over $400. He was caught and convicted and spent three years in a Quebec prison.

Ponzi returned to the US and quickly got caught up in an effort to bring illegal Italian immigrants into the country. He was convicted and spent two years in an Atlanta, Georgia prison.

After his release, Ponzi made his way back to Boston where he met and married Rose Gnecco. Ponzi made a lame attempt at honest employment, but his greed and the promise of great riches lured him towards what many consider to be the crime of the century.

One day while opening his mail, Ponzi happened across an International Reply Coupon (IRC). These coupons were intended to be sent overseas for the purpose of return postage. But Ponzi soon realized that there was a value differential. For instance, with the Italian post-war economy in a major decline, the cost of postage in Italy had decreased. So, theoretically, someone could buy IRC coupons in Italy and send them to the US where they could be sold for a higher value. Ponzi went to work and soon bragged that after all of his costs, he was realizing a profit of 400%.

Ponzi decided to bring in investors and promised them a 50% return within six months. His scheme immediately attracted hundreds of eager investors who blindly handed over tens of thousands of dollars. Overnight, Ponzi was a very wealthy man.

 

The Ponzi House

Ponzi was now part of high society and required all of the trappings of his great wealth. He lavished expensive gifts upon his wife and friends, and dined in the fanciest restaurants. The only thing left was a home appropriate to his stature. He settled on a beautiful estate on Slocum Road in Lexington.

I’m not certain if Ponzi had the home built or if it already existed, but the beautiful stucco mansion that was built in 1913 still stands today. For Ponzi, the home showcased his need to flaunt his new found success.

Now, there are several accounts of just how much money Ponzi had amassed and how many investors fell victim to his scheme. One account says that Ponzi duped over 10,000 individuals for $9.5 million. Another account places the number of victims at 40,000 with over $15 million invested with Ponzi. A quick calculation at www.measuringworth.com indicates that $9.5 million in 1920 dollars is worth over $1.5 billion in GDP value (yes, that’s billion with a “B”) in 2009.

Nearly as fast as his meteoric rise in wealth and influence, came his precipitous downfall. You see, like any pyramid scheme – the basis of Ponzi’s big idea – success only thrives as long as there are new investors to pay back original investors. When the pool of new investors dried up, the jig was up for Ponzi.

In a story printed in the Boston Post in July of 1920, Ponzi’s character, and business acumen was called into question. Most of Ponzi’s early investors stuck with him because they had experienced tremendous profits. Ponzi was forced to hire a publicity person who eventually turned on him as well. The PR guy, William McMasters, quickly determined that Ponzi was a fraud and later stated, “The man is a financial idiot. He can hardly add…He sits with his feet on the desk smoking expensive cigars in a diamond holder and talking complete gibberish about postal coupons.”

Postal regulators soon raided Ponzi’s Boston office and found to their amazement that Ponzi actually had very few of the postal coupons that had fueled the frenzy of his multi-million dollar empire. It was all a complete fraud. Because Ponzi had used the U.S. Postal Service to communicate with his investors, he faced serious mail fraud charges. In all, he was charged with 86 counts of federal mail fraud in two separate indictments. In return for a lighter sentence, Ponzi pled guilty to one of the charges and served five years in prison. After about 3 years, he was released to face state charges for swindling investors. While awaiting trial, Ponzi jumped bail and fled to Florida where he was eventually captured and went on to serve another nine years in prison.

After his release, Ponzi was deported to Italy and eventually traveled to Brazil where he died in 1949 penniless and alone.

Wikipedia refers to Ponzi as “one of the greatest swindlers in American history.” I have a little trouble with that because I associate the word great with people who have had a profoundly positive impact on society. I’m happy that Wikipedia allows people to edit it’s content because I think I’ll go back and correct it so it more accurately reflects who Ponzi was: “one of the most notorious swindlers in American history.”

That would be more appropriate. And, I think our 85-year-old neighbor who was victimized by Bernie Madoff would agree.

Share this:

Warning: Unknown: open(/home/content/76/3361076/tmp/sess_t30rc5p98a67kabsjh25db6na2, O_RDWR) failed: No such file or directory (2) in Unknown on line 0

Warning: Unknown: Failed to write session data (files). Please verify that the current setting of session.save_path is correct () in Unknown on line 0