Black Fridays of Yesteryear

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 26, 2005

Yesterday, bargain hunters were out earlier than the deer hunters, lining up outside Wal-Mart in the predawn hours, shivering in conversation with those ahead and behind, waiting for the rush through those glass doors.

Black Friday gets its name from the black ink, meaning profits, that enters the retailer’s books on this traditional kickoff of the holiday shopping season.

The honor

of being the biggest shopping day usually goes to the last Saturday before Christmas, with Black Friday being fourth or fifth.

There have been other Black Fridays, most notably the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

The Roaring 20’s were coming to a close, when Prohibition had turned off inhibition, when women wore skimpy dresses and kicked up their legs while dancing, when men would drink bathtub gin and bet with bookies.

In this crucible, most stock market investors bought on margin, which means buying stock with a down payment, signing an IOU for the unpaid balance.

This unconstrained buying sent prices higher and higher, until traders panicked, starting a selling frenzy, leaving stock prices far below what investors owed on them,

bankrupting millions and triggering the Great Depression, which held the nation viselike until World War II.

Almost 10 years later, on Friday the 13th of January, 1939, Australia suffered a catastrophe so immense the name Black Friday was inevitable.

A firestorm swept across Victoria, burning millions of acres and killing 71 people.

Murray Thompson, 90, was a 24-year-old who fought the fire.

He recalls:

“Now a firestorm, as I understand it, and as I’ve seen it, is when a fire is burning so furiously with this awful wind behind it, that all the eucalyptus gas in the leaves of the gum trees is burning, which creates these big balls of flammable gas coming in front of the fire.

And there isn’t enough oxygen in the air to burn it.

“But when you get to an open paddock, and the fire and the wind behind it eases a bit, this big gas ball gets enough oxygen from the air in the clearing.

A spark then gets in it, and it just blows up like an atomic bomb.

“This is what happened in the nice clean place of Herman’s Mill, that I thought was going to be safe.

Every small gum tree had completely disappeared and the stumps – instead of being four foot in diameter and three foot high – they were about one foot in diameter and about two foot high.

“Now, you could just imagine the violence and the ferocity of the fire that hit those stumps, that burned four or five feet of solid green wood off a stump with no logs, no nothing, no kindling or anything – they just disappeared.”

If Ulysses S. Grant were alive today, he’d be talking about the Black Friday of his presidency, September 24, 1869, when Grant snookered two of the era’s most notorious financiers, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, who thought they’d be the snookerers.

In trying to improve the post-Civil War economy, Grant had continued his predecessor’s policy of using gold to buy paper money at a discount, then issuing new paper currency backed by gold.

Fisk and Gould had been hoarding gold, trying to force the price up, so they could sell at a big profit.

Grant was a problem for them, because his pushing of gold onto the economy was driving the price down.

Their response was an intense campaign to personally influence Grant, working through the president’s brother-in-law, Abel Rathbone Corbin, also a financier married to Julia Grant’s sister, Virginia.

Every possible social event was manipulated to provide Fisk and Gould opportunities to meet with Grant, to make their argument against the government’s gold plan.

Part of the con involved the appointment of General Daniel Butterfield, better known as the writer of the soulful bugle call “Taps,” as assistant treasurer of the United States.

Butterfield’s job was to handle the gold sales on Wall Street; but, in return for a cut of the profits, he became an informant for Corbin, Fisk and Gould.

For a while, the plan was working.

Grant was losing interest.

Butterfield proved a master at foot dragging.

The con men were buying gold at a furious pace and the price was skyrocketing.

By September 20th, it had jumped more than $30 an ounce since Grant’s inauguration, but that’s when the wheels started coming off the wagon.

Grant got wind of the financiers’ activity, which heightened his suspicions.

Simultaneously, he read a letter to his wife from Virginia Corbin, in which she wrote of the scheme.

Grant immediately ordered the dumping of $4,000,000 in government gold, causing a panic and a price plunge.

Corbin lost big money, but survived.

Gould somehow sensed what was coming and sold just in time.

He went on to control the Union Pacific Railroad and Western Union.

Fisk absorbed the loss, but three years later was shot to death in an argument over a Broadway showgirl.

Some retailers, among them Toys R Us, Target and Best Buy, are calling the day Green Friday, a more accurate description of the billions of sales that day, and certainly not a reminder of the more notorious Black Fridays of previous centuries.