By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
Conclusion: Tired Radicals
I. The Strange Case
of Reynolds Rogers
"The old reformer has become the Tired Radical and his sons and daughters drink at the fountain of the American Mercury. They have no illusions but one. And that is they can live like Babbitt and think like Mencken." -- Norman Thomas, 1926.2
"I have only lost my faith in man, not my pity for him. That is stronger than ever." -- Fremont Older, 19263
"I tell you, it's damned discouraging to be a reformer in the wealthiest land in the world." -- Fiorello La Guardia, 19284
Guns aren't lawful / Nooses give / Gas smells awful / You might as well live. -- Dorothy Parker, 19265
The Strange Case of Reynolds Rogers
On September 8th, 1932 -- nearly three years after the October 1929 crash of the stock market that seemingly inaugurated Hard Times, and with the election campaign between embattled President Herbert Hoover and Governor Franklin Roosevelt of New York in full swing -- the White House had some very strange news to report. Four days earlier, the President's close friend and confidant, Colonel Raymond Robins, was supposed to meet with Hoover to discuss the urgent need for stronger enforcement of Prohibition, a case Robins had been making over the past nine months on a 286-city tour. But Robins never showed up. On September 3rd, he met a friend for lunch at the City Club in New York, and was set to board the train to Washington DC. Robins had even left the forwarding address of his usual hotel, the Dodge, with the Club. But then, he had simply vanished.6
"Friends of ours in Washington and New York are helping us with the search for him," Margaret Dreier Robins, obviously beside herself, told the press, "but I feel sure that bootleggers have at last carried out their frequent threats." Mrs. Robins had seriously begun to worry when Raymond never contacted her on her birthday. In the meantime, federal agents began searching for leads. Robins' luggage was still sitting in his room at the City Club in New York. A few acquaintances of Robins said they were sure they had seen him on the street back home in Chicago after the date he went missing but before it went public. "I was walking north and he was going south in State Street," said one man who had known Robins for two decades. "I recognized him and said 'Hello, Mr. Robins.' He answered me and walked on." Dry advocate Daniel Poling, with whom Robins had lunched in New York, thought this was impossible. "Colonel Robins has received many threats, but I think it is more probable that he is suffering from a temporary illness -- amnesia." Another close friend, a Dr. Fred Smith of White Plains, thought he might be on a "secret mission" of some kind. "The Colonel is a lone wolf," Smith said. "He is accustomed to work alone when he wants some special bit of information."7
The Secret Service followed up on the Chicago leads, but the trail was cold. A month later, Margaret Dreier Robins briefed Hoover herself on the search for Raymond. She remained sure bootleggers were involved, and told the press of threats Robins had received near their winter home in Florida. "I have such faith in his resourcefulness and persuasiveness that unless they have killed him without giving him a chance I feel he will come out of this in some way," she said. "Since we were married, twenty-seven years ago, he has never left me for a day without letting me know where he was." By the end of October, Robins' friend from the Outlawry campaign, Salmon Levinson, said there was "little hope." "President Hoover and Senator Borah of Idaho, his good friends, are aghast that such a thing could happen to a man of his prominence," said Levinson, adding that Robins "had prepared a statement in favor of the re-election of President Hoover to be released within a few days after the date of his disappearance." Otherwise, the man had simply fallen off the face of the earth.8
Even as the election of 1932 wended its way to its inevitable conclusion -- Roosevelt demolished Hoover, winning 472 electoral votes, 42 states, and 58% of the vote -- Colonel Robins' bizarre disappearance remained a national news story. On November 11th, flipping through an issue of the rural newspaper Grit, thirteen-year-old Carl Byrd Fisher of Whittier, North Carolina showed the picture of the missing Robins to his father. "Dad, have you seen this man?," Carl asked. Carl's father, a local shopkeeper in that small mountain town, did a double-take. "I surely have. That's Mr. Rogers."9
J.O. Fisher contacted Levinson, who contacted the authorities. A week later, two local Prohibition agents confronted Reynolds H. Rogers, a Kentucky mining engineer who had come to town two months earlier and settled in at the boarding house. Rogers was well-liked in the small mountain community, despite seeming a bit of a strange bird. Other than giving speeches on behalf of world peace, Theodore Roosevelt's birthday, and the re-election of Herbert Hoover, the man spent most of his time hiking, prospecting, and sitting in a lookout he had constructed in an old oak tree. "How do you do, Colonel?" the federal agents asked Rogers, when they caught up with him. "Good morning," Rogers replied. "Why the Colonel?" The agents took a handwriting sample, which matched what they had from Robins. The next day, Robins' nephew, John Dreier, immediately identified his missing uncle, despite the two-month-old beard.10
Reynolds Rogers, nee Raymond Robins, was taken to a hospital in nearby Asheville, sixty miles east. In the pockets of his overalls were found several crumpled newspaper clippings about his disappearance. An overjoyed Margaret soon arrived with more Prohibition agents from Spartanburg, South Carolina, where she had been continuing the search. "I don't know this woman," said Raymond. "She must be mistaken." Robins was then transferred to a private mental hospital, where Margaret told the press she had "had a pleasant, friendly chat" with her husband, "but he did not recognize me as his wife." Otherwise, "he was well and healthy in every way." When the doctors asked Robins where his home was, he told them he had none. "I feel that I'm surrounded by four high walls," Robins said, "so impossibly high that I cannot get out." After two more days, with Mrs. Robins returning each day, Raymond at last had a breakthrough. "Margaret!" he cried, as she held his hand.11
"I have come through a terrible experience," Robins said in a statement from he and Margaret's Florida winter home a month later, his memory and sanity restored. "Those who are wise in matters of this sort assure me that the darkness that overtook me in the midst of my day's work was a provision of nature to save me from a serious collapse. Those who meet me in the future will be able to judge of my mental clarity. Those who have known my life in the past will not believe that I have been a quitter…In so far has there has been untrue and unfair comment, I forgive its authors and accept it as the cost of a life spent in battle for causes I hold dear."12
As far as anyone can tell, Robins' break with reality and amnesia were not faked. The Colonel's mother had suffered from schizophrenia, and he himself had epilepsy as a child, was prone to bouts of both mania and depression, and had suffered previous nervous breakdowns in 1914 and 1921. And along with Robins' rigorous schedule of trying to prop up the failing support for Prohibition, he was also serving as Chairman of the Board of the First National Bank of Brooksville, Florida, in which both his family assets and those of many close friends were invested. The Hoover years were not good years for banks, and Brooksville was no exception. In fact, Robins came very close to losing his and Margaret's home, Chinsegut Hill, until he worked with the Hoover administration to get it named a national sanctuary for wildlife study.13
And then there was the matter of Hoover. Within a year of the Great Engineer's election, Robins saw a devastating loss to come in 1932. "Hoover has lost more of dominion and prestige in one short year -- than I have before known to overtake any leader in American politics." As the Depression darkened, Robins was in a full rage about what he saw from the Great Engineer. "Hoover is a complete wash out as a political leader," he told a friend. "[H]e has failed utterly as the Big Wisdom in the worst economic crisis I think I have ever known this country to suffer, he has been a lap or six behind on all relief and done nothing vital or creative after his first efforts to prevent cuts in wages and unemployment…He has alienated Labor, the Negroes, Women, all the Social Justice folks, and the most effective hard-boiled organization leaders along with Borah…and many others of liberal minds." Quoting the words of a major Hoover fundraiser, Robins declared the president "a dead mackerel on the political shore shining and stinking in the pale moonlight that precedes his complete eclipse, leaving simply the memory of a bad smell." Nonetheless, Robins was committed to the president, and so, before his episode, pledged "to walk and speak and write and work for the election of Herbert Hoover -- to the hidden music of a dead march to an open political grave."14
Continue to Conclusion, Pt 2: The Progressive Revival.
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. Norman Thomas, "Where are the Pre-War Radicals?" The Survey, February 1, 1926, 563.
3. Fremont Older, "Where are the Pre-War Radicals?" The Survey, February 1st, 1926, 560-561.
4. Murray, The 103rd Ballot, 261. Leuchtenburg, The Perils of Prosperity,138. H. Paul Jeffers, The Napoleon of New York: Mayor Fiorello La Guardia (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2002), 128.
5. Dorothy Parker, Enough Rope (New York: Liveright, 1926), 61.
6. Salzman, 32. "White House Starts Hunt," The New York Times, September 9th, 1932. W. Clark Medford, Great Smoky Mountain Stories (USA: Overmountain Press, 1966), 49-51.
7. Ibid. "Mrs. Robins Tells of Threats," The New York Times, September 9th, 1932 . "Search for Robins Centres in Chicago," The New York Times, September 11th, 1932. "Poling Says Robins Was Not in Chicago," The New York Times, September 13th, 1932.
8. Ibid. "Mrs. Robins Tells of Threats," The New York Times, September 9th, 1932 . "Search for Robins Centres in Chicago," The New York Times, September 11th, 1932. "Poling Says Robins Was Not in Chicago," The New York Times, September 13th, 1932.
9. Salzman, 32. Medford, 49-50.
10. Ibid. "Col. Robins Fails to Recognize Wife," The New York Times, November 20th, 1932.
11. Ibid. "Col. Robins Placed in Private Asylum," The New York Times, November 21st, 1932.
12. "Col. Robins Says He Is No 'Quitter," The New York Times, December 12th, 1932. In the same statement, Robins said his "last clear memory" was "leaving the City Club of New York to get a ticket and berth for Washington City where I was to see President Hoover…From then on for what seems to be now a considerable period there is a jumbled sense of pain in the head, danger, darkness, pursuit, and escape." From New York, Robins/"Rogers" apparently had gone right to Asheville, where he had been in the past, then took a bus west for Whittier. Salzman, 333. Medford, 50.
13. Salzman, 333-346.
14. Salzman, 347-349.
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