A Burning Cold Morning (Part 32)

Lucky Strike

Lucky Strike

 

By the time that Leo and Stanley met, the Bittenhopper’s had been in Bakersfield for over a decade.  Ben was content in his surroundings and job, making enough money to get by and enjoy just a few select luxuries that he favored such as smoking Lucky Strike cigarettes and going to the movies.  He had in fact just returned from seeing The Flying Ace when he interrupted Leo and Stanley’s first meeting.  As he walked back from the theater he remembered that there was a piece of unfinished work that Stanley had promised to complete by the next day and he decided to stop by his son’s clock repair shed to remind him.  As much as he disliked going to the place, he just planned to duck his head in the door for a minute to speak to Stanley.  As he did so he observed Leo, a stranger to him of course, standing by the work bench although no one else was in sight.

The Flying Ace

The Flying Ace

“You here getting work done by my boy?” Ben asked.

“If you mean the clockmaker here, well, not exactly but I stopped by to talk to him.  You’re his Dad?”

“Where is he then?”

Leo motioned toward the darker area at the back of the shop.  Several seconds later Stanley emerged with a clock in his hands.

“Hey Dad, what are you doing here?”

“Just stopping for a second to remind you about that work for Jack Peters.  He’s coming for it tomorrow so you better get over to our place and get it done.  Who’s this fella?” 

“I’ll get it done, I said I would.  You better go before you get the vapors or something,” Stanley replied in a friendly but mocking tone, a small smirk on his face.

“Funny boy, very funny.  This fella?  Who is he?”

“What’s it to you?” Leo asked before Stanley could reply.

“I just ain’t seen you around before and I wondered.  Nothing wrong with being new, we all were at one point or another around here.  I just like knowin’ the people, that’s all.”

“Le, umm, yes,  Lee’s my name and I’m just here for a bit, shouldn’t be anyone you need to remember anyway.”  Internally, Leo scolded himself for almost blowing his alias which could have been an issue as he had introduced himself to Stanley very clearly as Lee O’Dare.  

Ben started closing the door and called back over his shoulder, “Don’t you forget that work Stanley.” 

Once he was gone Leo let out a low laugh.  “Kind of rough on you, huh?  Treats you like a kid.”

“It’s always that way, but he’s not a bad character.  Just sees me as a youngster still I guess.  We work together, me and him, gold and silver stuff mostly.  He’s right though about that other job, I really need to close up here.  This one will work for you, I think.”  He extended the small clock he had in his hands to Leo, who took it and gave it a quick glance before nodding.  “It’ll do.  How much?”

“I have to say that I don’t get many folks that come here just to buy a clock.  I’m not really a seller you know?  I just fix ‘em for people.”

“Yeah, well I like used things and I heard about you when I was asking around town about some other business ventures I’m looking into.  It peaked my interest.”

“What did?” Stanley replied, an openly quizzical look on his face.

“The work you do, I mean, mostly the stuff with your Dad I guess.  I heard you two were goldsmiths but I figured you might be more interested than he would be in a business proposition I might have for you.”

“Fixing clocks?”

“Not, not that at all.”

Stanley still looked puzzled and stayed that way as Leo paid him for the clock and then left after saying, “It’s just an idea for now but I will come around and we can get to know each other a little better.  Maybe then we can discuss business.”

Over the course of several more visits and some additional time the two of them spent hanging out together around Bakersfield Leo confirmed several key factors about Stanley.  One was that he did not have much of a conscience when it came to small crimes that did not seem to hurt anyone.  He even admitted that on occasion he had pulled a minor scam on customers that irritated him, were too demanding or whom he just did not like.  This usually involved substituting inferior material in some piece of metal work or inflating the price on a simple job.  He had to be careful of course as his father was a completely honest business man, so the opportunities had been few and far between up to this point.  It also became apparent that Stanley was not happy with his own lot in life, wanting to make more money and have better things.  He also very much wanted to woo one, or preferably some, of the pretty ladies he saw around town or who came to him with repair work.  He figured he needed money to do that properly.  And lastly, although older, Stanley was willing to have Leo, or Lee as he knew him, be the captain of their operation.  

That operation was one that Leo had developed as he sought out opportunities for a viable criminal enterprise in Bakersfield.   He was determined to find a way to run his own operation, to be his own man and not have to work for anyone else, preferably ever again.  He was tired of the demands, rules and betrayals he had experienced at the hands of those he had worked for previously and believed this move to the west coast was his chance to establish himself as a top operator.  Initially nothing had presented itself other than offers to work for other criminal operations, all of which he had turned down.  Then one day, while he was sitting outside of a bar and smoking a cigarette, he observed a local scam artist selling pyrite to an unsuspecting traveler who believed it to be gold.  Although he had no intention of getting into that swindle, a fortuitously overhead conversation the next day did give him another, similar idea.  That discussion happened to be between two men at the general store and it centered on the idea of electroplating.  Leo was unfamiliar with the term but he gathered enough to realize that it generally involved making things that were not gold or silver look like they were in fact those precious metals.  He probably would not have connected that idea with profit if he had not observed the pyrite scam the day before, but the beginning of an idea now formed in his head.  All he needed was a qualified and willing tradesman, one who needed money, had few scruples and was willing to work for Leo.  In Stanley, he had found such a man.  

…to be continued

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

A Burning Cold Morning (Part 30)

Leo flipped it around and saw the name R. Lester in the top left-hand corner, although no address was included underneath.  He thanked her for keeping it, tucked it into the pocket of his suit coat, and then spent the remainder of the day with his family, eating a delicious roast dinner and even helping with the dishes.  He was very interested in the contents of that letter, but also did not want to have to share it around if asked to, or answer any questions about it at all.  Olivia commented to him on his reluctance to open it, wondering in a quiet aside to him if this was more of his secrets, but he kept his cool and refrained from replying or opening the letter.  As he said good night to his mother that evening he felt strongly that he might never see her again and he hugged her closely,  longer than he might have otherwise.  He felt he had made amends and that this was his goodbye to her.  

Later, he slipped his finger under the edge of the envelope and pulled out two sheets of paper.  The letter was dated June 17, 1925.

Leo –

I had figured to forget you and be the better for it but sitting around that prison just made me think about you all the more.  I noticed that you never had the courage to contact me, not that this is surprising given what you obviously are.  I decided to not let you go without calling you out for that, calling you exactly what you are, and that’s a rat!  You sold me out in Hawaii and that put me away for four years that could’ve been many more if not for getting out on good behavior.  You should’ve kept your mouth shut because now I got you on my list and I’ll be taking care of you the first chance I get.  I didn’t learn much in prison but one thing I did learn is that rats need to be taken care of.  I’ll be in Bakersfield if you have the nerve to face me like a man.  Otherwise, look for me to be finding you anytime, 

RFL 

Leo slammed his fist hard into the wall and crumpled up the letter.  He had never said a word to anyone about Lester and he surely was not a rat.  He had stayed silent about everything and was not even sure what had ever happened to his partner after his own arrest in Hawaii.  Leo had actually hoped more than once that Lester had in fact gotten away clean from that scheme.  He had even told Lester in that letter he wrote from McNeil that he had kept the code of silence.  Leo was furious, and became even more so as he thought about it, thought about Lester telling others about what a rat he was, how he had betrayed his partner in crime.  That could threaten to undo all of the progress Leo had made in making sure he was seen as a stand-up member of the criminal community.  After about fifteen minutes of  fuming away about it Leo did manage to realize that it was possible Lester had never received his letter, although that did not make things any better.  He still had to straighten matters out and make sure his reputation was repaired.  He had to get to Bakersfield right away and get to work on finding the man, which he knew would be a challenge as he had no address and doubted Lester would be very conspicuous.  He could find him though, he had to.

The next morning Leo called Olivia and told her that he was leaving immediately to take care of some business that had come up.  She was not sympathetic and scolded him for running away so soon.  She did agree to sell what little of value there was among his items in the trunk and to forward the money to him, and Leo told her he would send back an address as quickly as he could.  He then left on April 9th, his route and actions again unknown, and something must have happened along the way because he does not arrive in Bakersfield until May 3rd.  On that morning he checked into the just completed El Tejon hotel under the name Lee O’Dare, sending a brief note back to Olivia with the address that same day.

el tejon courtesy kern county library

El Tejon Hotel courtesy kern county library

For the next month of so he did what he had learned to do in any new town, which was to start to make inroads into the criminal community.  He felt that he had a little more credibility now, more time and experience under his belt, and that brought him a little more confidence as he started to make connections.  Leo passed on a few early opportunities, considering them to be beneath his level of skill, and spent most of his time looking in phone books and other public documents for Robert Lester.  He also made very discreet inquires, not wanting to give his former partner any warning that he was in town and looking for him, as he preferred the coming confrontation to be a surprise.  He figured that would give him the upper hand.  Although none of these early efforts led to Lester, Leo did meet one interesting character who would play a large part in future events.  That man was known simply as the Clockmaker. 

…to be continued