Melville in Wisconsin

Yes, the author of Moby Dick, who sailed to London, Rome and Constantinople, rounded Cape Horn, and stopped at Hawaii, Tahiti and the Galapagos, also visited Milwaukee. After the last of his novels published during his life failed to elicit little but scorn from critics and indifference from readers, Herman Melville took to the lecture circuit.  From late 1857 to early 1860, he attempted to support his family by recounting his travels. The ruins of Rome were a favored topic, for the speaker, if not his audiences. By all accounts, Melville the orator was even less successful than Melville the author, as the nodding heads of his dozing listeners in a half-dozen Midwestern states confirmed.

Melville had already made a metaphoric tour of the heartland in the pages of the novel whose dismal sales drove him to the speaker’s podium. Published appropriately on April 1, 1857, The Confidence Man: His Masquerade, is set on the riverboat Fidele as it steams down the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans. Melville introduces a cast of travelers who tell their stories to the chameleon-like confidence man who shape-shifts into the character best suited to procure their trust. As Melville asked in an earlier work and,  as we who entrusted our savings to the confidence men of today,  can repeat:

“Who can forever resist the very Devil himself, when he comes in the guise of a gentleman, free, fine, and frank?”

During his brief stay in Milwaukee, Melville might have crossed paths with Wisconsin’s own confidence man, Byron Kilbourn. Founder of Milwaukee, land speculator, canal builder, railroad financier and procurer of political power–“the very Devil himself”–Kilbourn had recently completed the wholesale purchase of a substantial portion of Wisconsin’s elected government.

That is, he bribed the governor and a majority of legislators to bestow on his company a huge grant of federal land in this state. Kilbourn planned to use the proceeds from the sale of the land to build a railroad from Milwaukee to La Crosse while rewarding himself and his cronies with generous salaries, secure railroad bonds and hefty bonuses.

Deeming the multi-million dollar land grant insufficient to both lay the track and bulge out their pockets, Kilbourn and company plunged into the farm mortgage scheme. They dispatched teams of confidence men–“free, fine and frank”–to the country precincts to persuade farmers to mortgage their farms and purchase railroad stock. Cash from the sales would build the railroad. The railroad would prosper, its stock would soar and enrich shareholders who would also receive dividends they could use to pay down their mortgages.

It was a win-win deal, especially for the railroad financiers and complicit bankers who bundled the mortgages into notes–mortgage backed securities–and sold them to investers in eastern states. The largest in Wisconsin, Kilbourn’s La Crosse and Milwaukee Railroad sold $1.1 million in farm mortgages worth hundreds of millions  in today’s dollar.

The railroad/real estate boom inflated an economic bubble that inevitably burst and, in 1857, help tip the country into a harsh recession. Factories, banks and railroads went bankrupt, including every railroad in Wisconsin.  Stock sold by Kilbourn’s confidence men became utterly worthless.  The mortgage-backed securities did not.

About 6,000 farmers in Wisconsin were obliged to repay their debts without the promised income from the railroads. They yelled foul, sued in the courts, petitioned the legislature for a bailout, all to no avail. The railroad mortgages weighed on farmers in our state well into the 1880s.

Byron Kilbourn lost his railroad but was not held accountable for the losses he inflicted on his investors or the gains he put into his own pocket. He bounced back to end his days as a real estate speculator in–where else?–Florida.

Herman Melville abandoned the lecture circuit and resumed writing for an ever dwindling audience. In 1866, he took a day job as a customs inspector on the New York docks.  He kept writing, night after long night. When he died in 1891, he left behind a box of manuscripts, including the script of Billy Budd. Melville’s other great American novel, it was not published until 1924.

The Confidence Man languished unread and unappreciated until a few decades ago when critics heralded it as a precursor of postmodern fiction. Like the rest of Herman Melville’s work, it is recognized and read worldwide.

By comparision, how many of us have ever heard of Byron Kilbourn?

(For an “inviting overview” see Melville His World and Work by Andrew Delbanco.)

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