August 13, 2010

Friday the 13th: A dose of its own poison

First and foremost, Thomas William Lawson was a businessman (as depicted in the cartoon at left) though he also published a handful of books. Born in 1857, he was 50 years old when he published his novel Friday the Thirteenth in 1907.

Lawson earned his first million by the age of 30 through investments in the stock market. His first writing for the public was a humorous glossary of baseball terms published in 1888. He also patented a baseball card game. In 1899, he partnered with William Rockefeller in copper mining. By the turn of the century, he built a massive estate outside of Boston named "Dreamworld" (a tower still stands); it was there that he wrote his novel.

Lawson, though accused of dubious practices himself, was interested in reforming Wall Street. Friday the Thirteenth features a broker who chooses that day to destroy the market. As one of the characters announces:

"I have been giving Wall Street and its hell 'System' a dose of its own poison, a good full-measure dose. They planned by harvesting a fresh crop of human hearts and souls on the bull side to give Friday the 13th a new meaning. Tradition says Friday the 13th is bear Saints' day. I believe in maintaining old traditions, so I harvested their hearts instead."

The book is surprisingly well written, as evidenced in this beautiful description of the fateful day:

Friday, the 13th... drifted over Manhattan Island in a drear drizzle of marrow-chilling haze, which just missed being rain—one of those New York days that give a hesitating suicide renewed courage to cut the mortal coil.

The end of Lawson's career was as meteoric a failure as his early success. He wrote a series of columns for a newspaper called "Frenzied Finance" (later collected as a book under the same title), he attacked the so-called "money kings" of finance (despite being one himself) and revealed unscrupulous deal-making behind closed doors. The articles alienated him from potential business partners and clients. Another copper mining company was less successful and he lost much of his own fortune. He died in dire financial circumstances in 1925. Talk about bad luck...

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