Wednesday, March 20, 2013

War Is Big Business

Deep Politics of Freeport Sulphur

In the Vol. 3, No. 3, March-April, 1996 edition of Probe, noted JFK assassination researcher Lisa Pease wrote in her article entitled "David Atlee Phillips, Clay Shaw and Freeport Sulphur":
Freeport Sulphur was born in Texas in 1912. The company later moved the headquarters office to New York. Originally, the principal business was mining sulphur. By 1962, Freeport Sulphur was the nation's oldest and largest producer of sulphur. In 1962, the fertilizer industry used 40% of the sulphur produced in the world. Other business segments that use sulphur in the production process are chemical, papermaking, pigment, pharmaceutical, mining, oil-refining and fiber manufacturing industries. For most of this period, Freeport was headed by John Hay Whitney.

Jock makes the Time cover
In 1927, Payne Whitney, one of America's richest multimillionaires, died, leaving his only son and future Freeport president an estate valued at over $179 million. At the young age of 22, John Hay Whitney became one of the country's richest men. Nonetheless, "Jock," as the press later called him, took a job at Lee Higginson and Co. on a salary of $65 a month. There, he made a fateful friendship with another onetime Lee Higginson employee named Langbourne Williams. Langbourne's father had originally founded Freeport Texas, then lost control of the business. Langbourne enlisted Jock's boss at Lee Higginson--J. T. Claiborne--to help in a proxy fight for control of Freeport. Claiborne urged the young Jock to join their efforts. Jock did--to the tune of a half a million dollars. By 1930, the Claiborne-Williams-Whitney team had won control of Freeport.

Freeport, Texas, was actually a town--not a business. It became a deep-water port when a Swedish Texan named Swenson, coincidentally the widowed brother-in-law of fertilizer magnates from Maryland named Tilghman, decided to use the expiring Herman Frasch patent to develop a sulphur resource. Located within a salt dome located on a part of the historic Austin's Colony granted to Stephen F. Austin, the land was owned by the heirs of Austin's sister, Mrs. James F. Perry, whose Peach Point Plantation in Brazoria County--variously called Bryanmound (Bryan Mound) or Bryan Heights Salt Dome -- was first suspected to contain sulphur by stock speculator Bernard Baruch a few years prior to its actual development in 1912.

When Baruch was unable to obtain financing from J.P. Morgan for sulphur production at the Bryan/Perry property, he instead moved to adjacent Wharton County's Boling salt dome, which he (along with the Morgan bank and W. Boyce Thompson) purchased in 1914 from  the Gulf Sulphur Company. In 1918 the name changed to Texas Gulf Sulphur. Austin's original land grant included land all the way to Bastrop, but it is not known whether the mineral estate of Boling Dome was still by that time owned by the Perrys and Bryans.

Freeport Sulphur, early days

Sulphur, however, was in great demand during World War I, and Bernard Baruch of the War Industries Board in Woodrow Wilson's administration was sniffing it out. It should not be overlooked that Woodrow Wilson was a wholly owned subsidiary throughout his administration by the little man from Texas named "Colonel" Edward M. House, originally from Houston. 

House's father, Thomas W. House, had run the blockade during the war years and had been in Matamoros and Monterey with Charles Stillman, William Marsh Rice and other merchants from Texas. They knew how to profit from trading in war materiel. 

The New Regime at National City Bank

By 1915 sulphur output would double:

By this time, Erice Swenson was 65 years old, no doubt ready to retire. But, as an officer in the National City Bank in new York, and as head of Freeport Sulphur in the middle of the great war, that was not about to happen. James Jewett Stillman, who died in 1918, was for four years replaced by his son, James Alexander Stillman. 

An 1896 Harvard graduate, young James in 1901 married Anne Urquhart, the daughter of actress Cora Urquhart and James Brown Potter. As founder of high society's Tuxedo Set, Potter was the son of banker Howard Potter, who married Mary Louisa Brown, whose father, James Brown, was the senior partner of  Brown Brothers & Co, an investment bank founded by sons of Alexander Brown of Baltimore.

When Mrs. Stillman followed her mother onto the stage as "Fifi" Stillman in 1921, a long battle played out in news headlines across the nation, and when James' embarrassing personal life hit the front pages of all the newspapers, it was the elderly Eric Swenson who rose to the chairmanship of the National City Bank.

Swenson must have known where lots of bodies were buried over the years, even having been one of the chief witnesses in the case prosecuted by the grandfather of James A. Baker III against the alleged murderer of William M. Rice, whose death opened up the huge endowment for Rice University.

By now most of the men who participated in setting up the sulphur facility at the new city of Freeport, Texas and the port that allowed for its distribution, were beginning to recede from the active management. These investors were named as the original underwriters of the stock at page 105 of a book by Gerald Kutney, Sulfur: History, Technology, Applications & Industry, as well as in a magazine article in The Chemical Engineer.

Original underwriters of $700,000 worth of stock in the company included the following:
  • Frank A. Vanderlip, James Stillman, Samuel McRoberts--all officers of National City Bank, along with Eric P. Swenson, whose family bank, S. M. Swenson & Sons, also subscribed, as did Maud Tilghman Swenson's brothers, Frederick B. & Sidell Tilghman. Maud died in 1892, only three years after her marriage to Eric Swenson.
  • John Langbourne Williams & Sons and Franklin Quimby Brown of Redmond bank (also involved in Knickerbocker Trust), who also subscribed as underwriters, were members of a fertilizer syndicate called Interstate Chemical Corporation with the Tilghmans. Their syndicate of investors in railroad securities often included C. Sidney Shepard (Yale, 1878) of New Haven, CT.
  • Smaller investors: Edwin Hawley (tycoon in Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad), Williams & Peters (coal merchants), E. K. Knapp, E. M. Carter, Benjamin Andrews (a mining engineer who held several patents in connection with Union Sulphur Co.), James M. Edwards, Orne Wilson, W. B. Chisolm (part of a fertilizer syndicate), W. O. Wetherbee (a bank clerk who testified with Swenson in the Rice murder trial), John N. Steel, John Hays Hammond (associate of William Boyce Thompson), A. Chester Beatty, A. C. Swenson, F. A. Fearing, George C. Reiter, and S. M. Betts.
Many of those named above were also directors of the Interstate Chemical Corporation.
It was because of the initial investment by the J.L. Williams & Sons banking enterprise that Langbourne Meade Williams, Jr. ascended to a management position in 1930. His father (L.M. Sr.), died in 1931, and the Freeport Sulphur stock the family held gave him an opportunity to make a financial play, but it was another connection which gave him the power to do it. That came from the Rockefellers.

To be continued in a future post.

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