A Burning Cold Morning (Part 31)

Stanley Bittenhopper was born September 19th, 1890 in Bristol, Connecticut.  He had an average childhood in an average household of the day, growing up as the youngest of four children in a middle-class family.  His father was a goldsmith who also worked as a jack-of-all-trades repairman and his mother ran the household while taking in neighbor’s laundry for extra money.  When Stanley graduated from high school in 1907 he was five feet eleven and weighed about one hundred ninety pounds, a lanky young man with dirty blonde hair and green eyes. 

Sessions company clock

Sessions company clock

Through connections that his father Ben had in town, he picked up an apprenticeship at the Sessions Clock Company, something considered to be a valuable way into an established line of work.   He stayed there long enough to gain an interest in clockmaking that would stay with him throughout the rest of his life, and picked up enough skills to make money doing so even after he left Sessions in 1911.   In October of that year his mother passed away and his father, with an empty house he did not want to live in and a life-long yearning for the west coast, sold everything and headed out to California.  He offered to take his youngest son along and teach him to be a goldsmith, an offer that Stanley accepted as he figured he could make more money in that line of work.  When the two of them arrived in Bakersfield on October 27, 1911 Stanley had to wonder what his father had been thinking.

When the two Bittenhopper men departed Bristol they had left an established, growing and robust city of around thirteen thousand people.  Getting off the train in Bakersfield they entered a place with a similar population but a totally different culture and atmosphere.  Their hometown on the east coast had been part of the original settling of the United States and was steeped in the history and traditions of its people dating back to the late 1700’s.  It had a settled economy, a population of established  families and the general air of the place was reflected in houses like that occupied by Stanley’s former employer at the Sessions Clock Company. 

Sessions Home

Sessions Home

Bakersfield was much younger, less refined and had an air of wild uncertainty about it.  Much of the community had been developed as a result of gold and oil being found in the area, bringing with it the unattached men and women from all over the place that usually flock to those kinds of locations.  It was a rough place and not one where either of the Bittenhopper’s initially felt very comfortable.  

Union Oil Company at Bakersfield 1910

Union Oil Company at Bakersfield 1910

They decided to stick it out though and eventually, over the course of a few years, they became well established in the area.  One benefit of a constantly evolving and changing place such as Bakersfield was that if you stuck around for a few years you became an old-timer in the area, “respected and connected” as Stanley’s father would say.  They also both welcomed the warmer weather, and eventually grew to appreciate the tone of the area’s interesting, constantly changing population.  By fall of 1913 they had a successful company established making, selling and repairing gold and silver jewelry and doing other kinds of metalwork.  Stanley also ran a side business repairing clocks, a venture that his father would not allow in their joint business due to the fire-gilding involved.

This was a skill that his son had picked up while working for Sessions, although it was certainly something that Ben Bittenhopper also knew how to do.  He had stopping doing it; however, many years prior believing that the rumored side-effects were true, if not actually worse than already realized.  He used electroplating in his metalworking and had taught Stanley the skills for that much safer practice.  He had trouble understanding why his son insisted on using fire-gliding when working on clocks.   They argued about it often, with Stanley repeating a version of the same reason every time; “Bob Miller at Sessions taught me that this was the best way, the only way to do it, and the results look better than your way, it’s easy to see.”  Ben disagreed of course and so, to keep things sailing along smoothly, they both agreed to stop talking about it as long as Stanley kept it out of the shop.  This he was happy to do, renting a small shack about a mile away from their house for his side work in the clock repair business.  

Most of his work there did not involve fire-gilding at all, as it was usually just internal repair work or the replacement of gears and broken clock faces.  As stubborn as he was with his father, Stanley was aware of the suspected problems with the practice and only used it when necessary, or occasionally to impress an especially pretty female customer by turning an ordinary looking clock into a eye-catching piece of workmanship.   He did love the way the pieces would turn out and he always felt that the risk was worth the result.

Fire-gliding has been practiced for centuries and can most easily, without getting into arcane details, be described this way:  When gold or silver is added to room temperature mercury, these metals dissolve and form an amalgam, which is a spreadable liquid metal thicker than just the mercury would be by itself.  Once you have coated an item (ideally some kind of copper-based material such as brass or bronze as these allow for better adhesion), you then need to boil away the mercury.  That process, where the mercury is heated to six hundred and seventy five degrees, is where the dangerous part of the operation occurs.  Although this process does leave behind the gold or silver (although in a rough form that often needs to be burnished) it also releases elemental mercury into the air, and that is definitely not something you want to be breathing.  Prolonged and repeated exposure to this kind of mercury vapor leads to neurotoxin poisoning with symptoms such as high levels of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.  This has often, especially in the past, been referred to as Mad Hatter’s Disease, as that occupation as involves repeated exposure to mercury.  The symptoms can linger for quite a long time, especially if the periods of exposure are not too frequent or intense.  It would take quite awhile to become evident but Stanley Bittenhopper, known around Bakersfield simply as The Clockmaker, definitely was being poisoned.  

…to be continued

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s