21 July 2014

Upton Sinclair: The Moneychangers - An Historical Novel of the Financial Crisis of 1907

"It had all worked out beautifully, according to the schedule. The stock market was falling to pieces—some of the leading stocks were falling several points between transactions, and Wyman and Hegan and the Oil and Steel people were hammering the market and getting ready for the killing. And at the same time, representatives of Waterman in Washington were interviewing the President, and setting before him the desperate plight of the Mississippi Steel Company.

Already the structure of the country's finances was tottering; and here was one more big failure threatening. Realising the desperate situation, the Steel Trust was willing to do its part to save the country—it would take over the Mississippi Steel Company, provided only that the Government would not interfere. The desired promise was given; and so that last of Waterman's purposes was accomplished.

But there was one factor in the problem upon which few had reckoned, and that was the vast public which furnished all the money for the game—the people to whom dollars were not simply gamblers' chips, but to whom they stood for the necessities of life; business men who must have them to pay their clerks on Saturday afternoon; working-men who needed them for rent and food; helpless widows and orphans to whom they meant safety from starvation.

These unhappy people had no means of knowing that financial institutions, which were perfectly sound and able to pay their depositors, might be wrecked deliberately in a gamblers' game. When they heard that banks were tottering, and were being besieged for money, they concluded that there must be real danger—that the long-predicted crash must be at hand. They descended upon Wall Street in hordes—the whole financial district was packed with terrified crowds, and squads of policemen rode through upon horseback in order to keep open the streets.

"Somebody asked for a dollar," was the way one banker phrased it. Wall Street had been doing business with pieces of paper; and now someone asked for a dollar, and it was discovered that the dollar had been mislaid.

It was an experience for which the captains of finance were not entirely prepared; they had forgotten the public. It was like some great convulsion of nature, which made mockery of all the powers of men, and left the beholder dazed and terrified. In Wall Street men stood as if in a valley, and saw far up above them the starting of an avalanche; they stood fascinated with horror, and watched it gathering headway; saw the clouds of dust rising up, and heard the roar of it swelling, and realised that it was a matter of only a second or two before it would be upon them and sweep them to destruction.

The lines of people before the Gotham Trust and the Trust Company of the Republic were now blocks in length; and every hour one heard of runs upon new institutions. There were women wringing their hands and crying in nervous excitement; there were old people, scarcely able to totter; there were people who had risen from sick-beds, and who stood all through the day and night, shivering in the keen October winds.

Runs had begun on the savings banks also; over on the East Side the alarm had reached the ignorant foreign population. It had spread with the speed of lightning all over the country; already there were reports of runs in other cities, and from thousands and tens of thousands of banks in East and South and West came demands upon the Metropolis for money. And there was no money anywhere.

And so the masters of the Banking Trust realised to their annoyance that the monster which they had turned loose might get beyond their control. Runs were beginning upon institutions in which they themselves were concerned. In the face of madness such as this, even the twenty-five per cent reserves of the national banks would not be sufficient.

The moving of the cotton and grain crops had taken hundreds of millions from New York; and there was no money to be got by any chance from abroad. Everywhere they turned, they faced this appalling scarcity of money; nothing could be sold, no money could be borrowed. The few who had succeeded in getting their cash were renting safe-deposit boxes and hiding the actual coin."

Upton Sinclair, The Moneychangers, 1908