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An American Heiress in the Nazi Resistance
By Sheila Isenberg
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2010 Sheila Isenberg
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CHICAGO: SWIFTS AND MORRISES
Separated by an ocean, a religion, and a heritage, Muriel's grandfathers, one a Yankee and the other a boy from a German shtetl, were born only months apart. On her mother's side, Gustavus Swift, a canny New Englander, arrived on June 24, 1839, one of a dozen children in the William Swift family of West Sandwich, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. Earlier that year, across the sea, Muriel's paternal grandfather, Moritz Beisinger, was born to a poor Jewish family in Hechingen, a village in the Black Forest. Though at first glance there were few similarities between them, both boys were shaped by powerful fathers. Determined that his son should take a more lucrative path than he had raising cattle in the Black Forest, Moritz's father sent his 12-year-old child to America to apprentice to an uncle, a peddler living in New England. Immediately changing his nephew's name to Nelson Morris, the well-meaning relative willingly taught him the business. But Nels, as he was now called, did not take to such a demeaning job and disliked this radically different environment, so he ran away. As he worked his way from town to town doing a variety of jobs, his experience echoed the words made famous by newspaperman Horace Greeley, "Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country." Like others before and after him, with many stops on the way, Nels headed ever westward and, in 1853, after an exhausting sequence of boats and trains, landed in Chicago. He was fifteen.
There, he soon got a job working for John B. Sherman, who would later found the Union Stock Yards. Immediately at home in the familiar environment of livestock and butchering, Nels called on his background and was soon buying and selling, not cattle, but dead hogs and hogs considered unusable. He sold them to renderers, companies that produced by-products from slaughtering factories, and thrived as his income increased.
Back on Cape Cod, Gus Swift, too, had his eye on Chicago. As a boy, he had quit school to work for a local butcher in West Sandwich. Realizing there was no future in such a small community—at least not the one the ambitious boy envisioned for himself—Gus told his father he wanted to move to Boston. In an effort to get him to stay at the family's farm, Gus's father gave him $25 to remain on the Cape. But, clever and even a bit disingenuous, Gus instead used the money to purchase a cow from a nearby farmer and quickly relocated, taking his livestock with him.
He slaughtered the cow and sold cuts of beef door to door. With the profits, he soon had enough cash to open his own butcher shop in Brighton, outside Boston city proper. Within a short time, he had opened a chain of butcher shops on the Cape, having learned early that if you sold people what they needed rather than what they wanted, presented it attractively, and priced it low, you could earn more than a living wage. At this point, though, New England was not lucrative enough, and the recently married young man expanded his business to other cities, all the while fixed on Chicago, the nation's leading meatpacking hub. Meatpacking, a powerful economic force in Chicago since the days of fur traders and trappers, cowboys and ranchers, was now totally centered in that northwestern hub.
Because of its central location Chicago became the focal point of the nation's trains by the late 1860s; the great storied railroads of American history roared through the city, belching black smoke and cinders with a reverberating thunder. The stockyards flourished. Success came with a price, however, and the egregious overflow of wastes from the yards into the Chicago River polluted the drinking water and caused Chicago to ban slaughterhouses in the city. Officials allocated what would eventually be a tract of 475 acres south of the city for the construction of a huge new stockyard. Realizing that it would benefit their bottom line, the railroads absorbed the cost of creating the Union Stock Yards in December 1865, thus ensuring their own and the meatpacking industry's financial success.
Meanwhile, Nels Morris had already helped supply meat to the hungry Union Army during the Civil War, an enterprise leading to such financial gain that he had been able to found his own business, Morris and Company. With innate shrewdness and an obsessive drive for wealth, Nels had quickly become a success, with a vast business and personal fortune.
A decade later, in 1875, Gus Swift finally arrived in the windy city. Lured by the Union Stock Yards, Gus knew well Chicago's reputation as a gritty town where a man could make his fortune with sweat and hard work. With the money he had saved from his businesses on the East Coast, the 36-year-old founded Swift and Company, an enterprise that would become an American institution, built on the blood and muscle of slaughtered livestock and an underpaid immigrant labor force.
By the year of Gus's arrival, telegraph lines, telephone lines, and transatlantic cable, which had been laid in 1860, had enabled meatpacking to become the world's first global business. Even so, the city seemed to be waiting for Gus: only six years after he set foot in the stockyards, he altered the meatpacking industry forever by overseeing the creation of the first long-distance refrigerated railroad car.
A man who didn't like being controlled by anything, including Mother Nature, Gus balked at seasonal limitations on fresh meat shipments. He hired an engineer to develop a refrigerated car, thus enabling him to ship his meat in all weather and make a fortune. Gus's other methods were also innovative, so much so that Henry Ford copied the leading meatpackers' efficient disassembly lines for his own assembly lines. Gus changed the way pigs were slaughtered by perfecting a more efficient killing machine, the Hereford Wheel. As Rudyard Kipling would write after seeing it in action, "They were so excessively alive, these pigs. And then they were so excessively dead." In 1885, Gus incorporated Swift and Company with capital of $300,000. A year later, his company was valued at $3 million. It kept growing, until, by 1902, it was worth more than $25 million.
Outside of business, where they were ruthless capitalists, both of Muriel's grandfathers were devoted family men, inspiring most of their offspring to enter the family business. Nels, a non-observant Jew, nevertheless married within his faith, in 1863 taking Sarah, "one of the five beautiful Vogel sisters," as his bride. They had three sons, including Muriel's father, Edward, and two daughters, both of whom would marry well: Augusta became Mrs. M. L. Rothschild, and Maude, Mrs. M. C. Schwab.
"My dear beloved wife and children have been my all," Nels wrote to his son Ira. "You know my views of organized religion. I have no use for darkness, no fears of the hereafter." It would be two generations before a bravely defiant Muriel would provocatively and briefly adopt the religion of her Jewish forbears.
Gus Swift, too, had a large family, with ten children, including Muriel's mother, Helen. Helen had been born to Gus and his wife, Annie Mae Higgins, in 1869. After a sister died of tuberculosis, Helen remained one of two girls among seven brothers, most of whom would join their father's business. Like Nels, Gus considered family to be the center of his life, along with his business: by 1892, the Swift patriarch employed thousands to slaughter and ship more than half a million cattle a year. Both Nels Morris and Gus Swift had similar business methods. Gus, known as the Yankee of the yards, was a meticulous, perfectionist empire builder. Yet, as his personal wealth increased, he continued living simply, never moving from his original home at 4548 Ellis Avenue. In true Yankee fashion, Gus made many charitable contributions, but always privately. His family, especially his granddaughter Muriel, would follow this example of giving generously without asking for recognition.
Like his fellow meatpacker Gus Swift, Nels Morris, rumored to be illiterate all his life, also remained an uncomplicated cattle broker whose routine included riding horseback into his stockyards daily to inspect the slaughtering. And also like Swift, despite his focus on the dollar, Nels saw himself as a visionary: "I have opened the wild western prairies and made them useful ..."
Dubbed "Foxy Grandpa" by his grandsons after a character in the Sunday comics, Nels was indeed clever. By 1880, he, along with his equally avaricious long-term rivals, Gus Swift and Philip Armour, formed a beef monopoly called the "greatest trust in the world." These "overlords of beef" controlled the economics of all businesses they dealt with, from railroads to farms, holding prices down on goods and services received, and raising prices on items sold.
By the first year of the twentieth century, both of Muriel's grandfathers' personal wealth had increased vastly, their multimillion-dollar Chicago meatpacking empires yielding enormous returns. As was common in this era, these tycoons identified money with positive qualities and good character. But because they focused only on acquiring riches, they appeared to lack and had little time for intellectual pursuits and showed little contemplation of life. Gus Swift and Nels Morris reflected an unbridled American aptitude for capitalism and urban values such as hard work, creative business methods, and resourcefulness.
But even meatpacking wasn't enough for these men. In an eerily farsighted move, the beef barons created a futures market in hogs that would lead to today's jumbled web of commodity markets. One could buy or sell, gamble and speculate, on the future price of hogs—a market for "men who don't own something, selling that something to men who don't really want it." In the waning years of the nineteenth century, the beef barons also helped make Chicago a major financial center as they became major stockholders and owners of important Chicago banks.
Because of their wealth and the enormity of their businesses, Gus and Nels had admirers, but it often seemed as if their detractors outnumbered their fans. Investigated and eventually charged by the government for their monopoly of the meatpacking industry, the men were also despised for their heartless business methods and single-minded pursuit of wealth at the cost of human lives. Yet they somehow managed to continue their activities and avoid prosecution, raking in more money than ever. As Upton Sinclair wrote in The Jungle, a book partly about Muriel's family, "One could not stand and watch very long without becoming philosophical, without beginning ... to hear the hog-squeal of the universe." Because of their concrete belief in capitalism, neither Nels nor Gus were moved by the radical movements of the late 1800s and early 1900s, the rise of labor unions, the struggles of workers. Nels wrote, late in life, that "it was the duty of capitalists to keep labor employed." He believed that capital would "win every conflict," but his son Ira would not be so certain.
In 1890 it might have appeared to the outside world that two of the three leading Chicago meat barons had forced a marriage upon their children in order to ensure the continuing existence of their empire. Instead, and however unlikely, this was a real romance. Gus Swift's daughter Helen, a tall, proud beauty with black hair, blue eyes, and fair skin, and Edward, Nels Morris's oldest son and second-in-command, had fallen deeply in love. The union between Helen and Edward had nothing to do with dynasty building: the two patriarchs remained so competitive that soon after the marriage, Gus Swift set up a trust fund for his daughter because "he was planning to put his son-in-law out of business," as a relative would recall.
Muriel would always be impressed with her parents' loving relationship. "From everything I observed in my childhood, as well as what my mother later told me," Muriel wrote in notes for a memoir, "I believe this was a love match on both sides." Having heard the still-bandied-about speculation that the marriage had been a mere business arrangement, she once asked her mother, "Did you think you loved him?" Helen was completely taken aback. "I did love him," she replied. "We were both very much in love. I always loved him."
From childhood, Muriel's father was passionate about the stockyards and the meatpacking business. Like his own father, Edward was "devoted to the task of making ... [and] conserving" money, as his brother Ira would write, and was destined to inherit the family empire. Muriel's mother, Helen, was a millionaire in her own right. Helen and Edward's wedding ceremony, on October 2, 1890, was simple but unusual; the couple had no attendants but arranged for dual clergymen, a rabbi and a Unitarian minister. Neither family objected to the marriage on religious grounds because the Morrises were non-observant Jews, the Swifts non-observant Protestants, and Edward himself had become a Freethinker, defined as one who rejects authority in religious belief.
At her parents' home, within a few blocks of the stockyards, Helen wore a white silk gown adorned with feathers and lace, and was joined in marriage by rabbi and minister to Edward, her father's competitor. After this rather forward-thinking ceremony, guests ate supper in a large tent and danced to a mandolin orchestra. Valuable gifts were displayed in three rooms of the Swift house, none more impressive than a $5,000 check (about $122,000 today) from Gus Swift, along with a hefty pile of "gold coin to act as a weight for the paper," according to newspaper coverage of the society nuptials.
Helen and Edward left immediately for a European tour that would last several months. Upon their return, they lived with Helen's parents while their own house was being built. Soon, settled in their new home on South Michigan Avenue, Edward once again took up the reins of Morris and Company where he would work six and a half days a week for the rest of his life. The couple would move twice more, but they always remained on the South Side of Chicago. Edward chose to live on the South Side, as had his father and father-in-law before him, because of its proximity to the stockyards. Helen did not necessarily agree with this decision. With its vast yards, factories, and other industries, the South Side also had a few stately and elegant areas with enormous homes as befitted such wealthy business owners as the Morrises and Swifts, but it was also the site of the unfortunate slum known as "Back of the Yards."
Helen's role as a society matron was to tend home, "a small castle," as Muriel described it, and a growing family, consisting of two boys, Nelson and Edward Jr., and two girls, Ruth and Muriel. Nelson, the oldest, was born in 1891, and a decade later, on November 23, 1901, Muriel arrived.
Edward Sr. gradually took over more and more responsibility in Nels's business, increasing the family fortune enormously. "I like to turn bristles, blood, and the inside and outside of pigs and bullocks into revenue," Philip D. Armour once remarked, likely speaking for his friendly rivals Gus Swift and Nels Morris. Now the second generation—Muriel's father, Edward Morris Sr., and her uncle, Louis F. Swift, maintained the successful monopoly by working closely with the Armour family in an intricate web of secret deals and negotiations. Their death grip on American meat prices resulted from blacklisting that was carried out without waver or ambivalence. "This aroused the admiration of captains of industry in all other fields and gave Chicago long ago its atmosphere of violence," as one author would write. If Muriel as a young child did not know the ugly side of her father's trade, she surely would come to understand it as she grew up and heard the stories.
Despite Edward Sr.'s hard work and dedication, his generation could never live up to the energy and innovation of his father's contemporaries: there was "a great difference between the types of men required to build a great business and to carry it on," according to Louis Swift. Helen Swift Morris pointed out that her father, Gus, who had created his company, seemed always carefree and relaxed despite business problems. On the other hand, her husband Edward would often return home, as she described it, "worn out, unable to eat, unable to sleep." It was as if the brutality the first generation had to condone to make the stockyards yield their fortunes was perceived by the second and third generations as dirty work for which they did not have the same passion.
Nevertheless, meatpacking was in the progeny's bones and controlled every Swift and Morris life, even those who shunned the smelly, bloody stockyards. Edward's younger brother, Ira, wanted no part of what was to him a disgusting business. His revulsion at the slaughtering process was incomprehensible to his father, Nels. After all, in the late nineteenth century, "every young man wanted to work in the yards; it was the Chicago thing to do," Muriel would recall. No match for his father, Ira was finally forced to join the family business, but his brother Edward better understood his sibling's horror and would later help him to escape the slaughterhouse.
Muriel's brothers Nelson and Edward, trained to work at Morris and Company, were told weekly by their father that they would one day take over the business. While the girls were spared, they would be trained for another type of duty, that of society debutante, followed by society matron. When Muriel was born, her older brothers and sister, engaged in various activities in their large home, barely noticed the howling baby. But the cry was certainly heard by her mother, Helen. Reclining on a couch in her boudoir a short time after giving birth, Helen said she was "inclined to agree" with her own mother, who was visiting, when the older woman said Helen had a lovely family now, and that four children were enough. Whether Edward felt the same is unknown.
Excerpted from Muriel's War by Sheila Isenberg. Copyright © 2010 Sheila Isenberg. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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