Monday, April 26, 2010

the shame of Madame Thurn

In 1909 my great-aunt Carolyn Hague was arrested for defrauding the US government of customs revenues. I wrote yesterday about the business career of this woman who came to be "to the women's clothes business what Tiffany has been to the jewelry trade."* The smuggling racket in which she was a leading player was complex, but though it relied on the secrecy of quite a few individuals, it was successfully concealed from police and inspectors for some years. As a historian of the Port of New York later wrote, "It required nearly a year of constant effort and surveillance to break up the practice. The fraud was cleverly executed. It is an interesting speculation to imagine what might have been accomplished for the world's greater happiness if the study, inventiveness, persistency, thoroughness, foresight, and courage which were involved in this attempt to escape customs had only been spent legitimately."**

Along with other dressmakers and milliners, Hague arranged for goods that she had purchased to be smuggled. Like them, she would make regular trips to Paris and other European cities to examine the new styles and to place orders for model dresses, fabrics, and decorations. She would then arrange to have her purchases delivered to one of the conspirators who would pack them into large steamer trunks just like the ones used by well-to-do travelers. This man would label the trunks using the names of actual passengers from earlier trips. He would then have the trunks shipped from Paris to New York. Once on pier in New York, they would be marked as luggage mistakenly left behind by the passengers whose names they bore. This left-luggage would remain unclaimed, then surreptitiously moved to a concealed area, where, with connivance from bribed customs officers, it would be picked up, uninspected, for delivery to the dressmakers and milliners who had originally made the purchases. The government claimed it lost about $1,000,000 a year in this elaborate scheme. Duties on fabrics and women's clothing was so high at that time, that even with all the payoffs, the fashion shops benefited greatly from the fraud.

Leftover bags were known as "sleepers" on the docks of New York and so the smuggling operation came to be know as the "sleeper trunk" game. It became more elaborate when customs officials began to have suspicions about the operation. Sometimes shipboard baggage handlers would be bribed to keep the trunks off ship manifests. Sometimes the contraband would be moved from one trunk to another to avoid detection. Sometimes the trunks would be claimed by people using false names. Sometimes the "sleepers" would be marked for transhipment to fictitious dealers in the New York suburbs.

An article in the New York Times describes how the government first uncovered the crime: "The story behind these arrests goes back to the time, last March, when a seizure was made on the American Line pier of five trunks containing silks, laces, and other articles of large value, representing a total of approximately $52,000. The arrest of Swartz, head baggage man at the pier followed, and then the Government, through Mr. Wise, took up an investigation of the whole subject of the frauds involving the smuggling of millinery and dressmaking materials into this country, which eventually unraveled a remarkably story of an underground express route that had cost the Government a million dollars or more a year in duties."***

Because she was considered to be one of the principle offenders, Hague's bail was set at $5,000, twice the amount set of the dozen other modistes who were arrested with her. When the case came to court she pled guilty and paid a fine of $7,500. There was no jail sentence. You would think that her involvement in the conspiracy would damage her reputation and ruin her business. To the contrary, I've found no evidence that it had any bad effects. A few years later she changed her professional name from Thurn to Hague, but since she called her shop the House of Thurn, it's unlikely she was trying to conceal her prior operations.

This was not Hague's only recorded transgression. Yesterday's post tells of a deceptive practice in which she engaged: the re-labeling of American-made gowns to make it seem that they had come from Paris. This was said to be a widespread trick-of-the-trade in the New York dressmaking business of the early 20th century. Hague was also a bit cagy about her identity. In addition to using first Madame Thurn and then Madam Hague as business name, she let it be known that her dressmaking firm had been begun by her mother. She did this when she was in her 60s and 70s, presumably to make it seem that she was younger than she actually was. A source I quoted yesterday says "Madame Hague [is] daughter of the first Thurn. The present head of the house is a tall distinguished woman who does her own buying in Paris and inherits the taste and business sense of her clever mother." I can't find any evidence to support the assertion that Hague took over the business from her mother. In fact there's quite a bit that contradicts it. I'm sure that Madame Hague was the same person as "the first Thurn."

The first two of these transgressions do not speak well for my great-aunt and the third, if understandable, is hardly praiseworthy. It would surely be said on her behalf that what she did was no more, and no worse, than what others in her trade would do. It might be said she couldn't have survived in business without doing things of this nature. It might also be said that the tenor of the time was somewhat free and easy in its ethics. The adulteration and misbranding of food and drugs was known to be all too common. The heads of great business ventures — the Carnegies, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and their like — were called Robber Barons for a reason. City mayors were frequently elected by corrupt means by organizations like New York's Tammany Hall. The movement to rein in these wrongdoings was still gathering steam at the time the dressmakers were caught smuggling.

On top of that the fashion industry, then as later, wasn't much different from the entertainment industry and was associated with celebrity culture in general. In this environment it may not be too much of a generalization to claim that adherence to strict moral values was not a commonly shared value. Certainly, the use of stage names was and is so common as to be near ubiquitous and not thought to be deceptive. It's also not surprising to find that people were and are not careful to adhere to factual accuracy when giving biographic details about themselves. It's also likely that an in-group sense of solidarity did and does lead people to overlook one another's transgressions.

These considerations may help explain why Caroline Hague did as she did, but they do not excuse.

{Type of trunk shipped by steamship early in the 20th century; source: The port of New York}

{Customs officials at work; same source}

See also:

Indict 27 for Customs Fraud, Importers Involved in "Sleeper Trunk" Smuggling, Gettysburg Times, Dec. 22, 1909

Dressmakers Plead Guilty, Maybe They Will Tell All About the Sleeper Trunk Game, The Sun, Wed., Jan. 5, 1910

Federal courts and practice: all Sherman law trust prosecutions and syllabus of equity, jurisdiction, pleading and practice by John A. Shields (The Banks law publishing company, 1912)

The Ogden standard. (Ogden City, Utah) 1902-1910, July 02, 1910

New-York tribune. (New York [N.Y.]) 1866-1924, December 05, 1909



*Dobbs Ferry Woman Gets $85,000 Award, Stylist Who Fell From Train at Ardsley Wins Suit Against Railroad, Special to the Herald Statesman, White Plains, Dec. 4, 1936, Herald Statesman, Yonkers, N.Y.

**The port of New York by Thomas Edward Rush (Doubleday, Page, 1920)

***INDICT 27; ARREST 20 IN SMUGGLING CASE; Importers and Pier Employes Accused After Discovery of Big Frauds Here. LEADER OF THE GANG DEAD Innocent Voyagers' Names Used to Get Finery Through -- Government's Loss $1,000,000 a Year. New York Times, December 22, 1909, Wednesday, Page 1, 1086 words

1 comment:

Stacy said...

No shame in Madame Thurn, that woman accomplished more than most could ever even dream...oh to even be a "stitch" of the woman known as "La Doyen de la couture"

Stacy Lyn Hague, Carolyn Ottillie Albertine Thurn's Great Grandaughter