Monday, July 25, 2011

One Mean Frick

When I think about the robber barons, I usually imagine them as Mr. Burns-esque coffin-dodgers, hunched over desks and wheezing out commands to their subordinates. But that’s not necessarily the case. These men had to have some life in them in order to rule their respective corners of the world, and one in particular who strenuously fights my preconceptions of his ilk is Henry Clay Frick. Aside from a vague awareness of his status as an industrialist, I only really knew Frick as the man whose paintings are on view today at the Frick Collection in New York. But in addition to being a lover of art, Frick was also an unequivocally mean son of a bitch.

i mean, right?

Friday’s episode of Daily Show had on the author Scott Miller, whose new book The President and the Assassin details William McKinley, Leon Czolgosz and the general state of the nation around the time the former was killed by the latter. As Miller explained it, the turn of the century was a time when many Americans fears the machinations of anarchists.


Miller brings up one anarchist strike in particular: the attempted assassination of Frick by one of Emma Goldman’s acolytes, Alexander Berkman. Now, accounts seem to differ slightly regarding exactly how Berkman made his way into Frick’s office. On The Daily Show, it’s explained that he simply made an appointment. An except from Goldman’s autobiography, however, states that Berkman forced his way in “on the heels of a Negro porter who had taken his card.” I’m not sure whether Goldman or Miller would be more reliable, but I have found that most sources online seem to omit the details that make this such an amazing story. So from here on out, I’m just going to take Miller’s word for it, per The Daily Show.

At point-blank range, Berkman shot Frick twice, once in the neck, but the steel industrialist nonetheless managed to tackle Berkman. Struggling on the ground, Berkman stabbed Frick several times before he was finally overpowered. (According to Wikipedia’s account, when the police arrived, Frick commanded, “Don’t shoot! Leave him to the law, but raise his head and let me see his face.” And that’s pretty badass.) When doctors came in to remove the bullet from Frick’s neck, he refused any anesthesia. Once he was stitched up, he sat back down at his desk, completed a bank loan, and then wrote a letter to his mother in which he mentioned that he had been shot.

And that’s the story.

Lessons learned:
  • Do not underestimate the robber barons, for they are wilier and spryer than you may imagine.
  • They may also be immortal. (I personally can’t verify that Frick died of a heart attack twenty-seven years later. Can someone look into it?)
  • Frick had it coming. (Didn’t technically learn that during the Daily Show segment, but subsequent reading indicates that just about everyone believes this to be the case.)
  • I actually want to learn history when the person teaches me chooses not to skimp on the details.
  • I may have to purchase Miller’s book.
(Also: previous posts tagged with “Now That’s Interesting!”)

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