A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from September 13, 2005
The public be damned! (William H. Vanderbilt)
"The public be damned" was the famous 1882 retort of railroad magnate William H. Vanderbilt. The writer Rufus Hatch popularized the phrase in this damning interview.

17 October 1882, Chicago Daily Tribune, pg. 12:
HATCH ON VANDERBILT.

The Cattle Rancher Goes for the
Scalp of the Great Monopolist.

The "Public Be D--d'nd," Says Bill - "You'll be
dam'd." Says Rufus - Other People's Money -
How Vanderbilt Accumulates "His'n."

New York Hour, Sept. 11.

The man of whom his own father, "the old Commodore," once said, "William always was a fool," has been interviewed in Chicago. We all knew that, as a rule, people speak lightly and distrustfully of newspaper interviews. They pretend to say that the Interviewer is untrustworthy and that he is overfond of sensation. But if the Chicago interview proves anything, it proves that Commodore Vanderbilt knew what he was talking about. The talk with "Sweet William" took place on Sunday. It was "the day of rest," and he took the opportunity to damn all the rest of the world, roundly and soundly. He was speeding away to the West on a pleasure trip, with some friends, and under the influence of "the sacred Sabbath calm" he decided, before he got beyond the range of the telegraph and the printing-press, to leave his benediction with the world. So he mildly turned, and looking over his shoulder said,

"THE PUBLIC BE DAMNED"

The reporter says William only used the phrase once. But it echoes with brutal insolence from behind every sentence he uttered. His opinion was asked about the new "Nickel-Plated " Railway. He laughed and pursed up his fat, sensual under lip, and said it was "no good," it was a badly built, break-neck road, and "The Nickel-Plate be damned."

Was the Nickel-Plated to have the right to enter the new Michigan Central and Illinois Central depot in CHicago? He bunched himself up indignantly, and said: "O no, not much; no rival of mine can come into any depot of mine; my depots are not built to oblige my competitors." "My rivals be damned!"

"But," the reporter asked, "when the new road gets to work do you think rates will be cut?" "O no, I think it will be taken into what they call the 'pool.' What percentages they will get I don't know, but it will be all they ought to get!"

"CUT-RATES BE DAMED!"

"Are railroad securities looked on with as much favor as ever by the public?" "They are - at least on railroads that are well managed. I make it a point to manage my roads for the best interests of the stockholders." "All other stockholders be damned."

"Does your limited express train pay?" "No, not a bit of it. I run it only because the Pennsylvania Railroad keeps its limited running; they compel me to do it in competition." "The Pennsylvania Railroad be damned!"

"But don't you run it in some measure to benefit the public?" "The public be damned!" "What does the public care for the railroads, only to get as much as possible out of them. I don't take any stock in this nonsense about working for anybody's good but our own - for we don't."

"What do you think of the anti-monopoly movement?" "It is inspired by a set of fools and blackmailers. When I want to buy up any politicians I always find anti-monopolists most purchasable. They don't come so high."

"ANTI-MONOPOLISTS AND ALL OTHER POLITICIANS BE DAMNED."

When asked if there was any ground for the complaints of some of his railraod employes, that they are not well paid, he answered, "There's always a lot of fellow who are spending their money in riotous living who are ready to complain about everything." "My employes be damned."

When the reporter asked his views on Railroad Commissioners, the despot answered, "THey usually hgave to be bought up, whenever legislation favorable to the road is needed; they are usually ignorant persons."

"The Railroad Commissioners be damned."

Now, the inquiry must arise in every man's mind, who is it that is to be damned? The answer is apparent; that everything is to be damned which opposes, or in fact, does not serve, this man's private interests. But who is this man who so defiantly hurls his anathema maranatha from his half-paisled tongue, as if to blight the land with his curse? His father said he "always was a fool." When that father was dying, death had a sharper pang to him because he was leaving his vast estate of $1000,000,000 to the control of a son who "always was a fool." After the old man died, the son, who, though "he always was a fool," now "damns the public,"

BROUGHT HIS FATHER'S BODY INTO COURT

every day for nearly a year in a contest for the money with his own sister. She only sought to gain for herself and a brother a small share of the vast mine of wealth that had fallen to William. Sooner than relinquish even a few millions of it he waged a fearful struggle. Every day his father was dissected by lawyers, doctors, quacks, soothsayers, detectives, blackmailers, and vengeful enemies. THe autopsy was a terrible one. The "experts" cut up and exposed the old man morally, physically, intellectually, and socially. THe showing was sickening; but "sweet William" never faltered. Day after day he sait in court, and heard with stolid face this ripping open of the secrets of his father's weakness, vices, and delusions. A man who would expose the deformities of a father who had so clothed him in a robe of ready-made riches would not squirm about "the public." So he "damns" them plainly.

I once asked a traveling companion on the Pennsylvania Railroad what he thought of William II, and whether he had any brains. "O yes; he has got brains," he answered, "his head is full of them, but they are soft; they slop around inside the shell; they are a sort of

BILGE-WATER BRAINS."

They must have been "slopping around" in Chicago, otherwise a man could never talk so recklessly as he does. He even admits crime in his reckless defiance when he says he "buys up" politicians and railroad commissioners. He talks everywhere of "my roads," "my depots," "my property," "my management," "my interests" - all of tehm "run on business principles, no nonsense about it." He seems to be a law and a government to himself. THe vast and valuable public rights given to him as a trust for the public use, though under private coporate control, he says are "mine." To make these roads the property of other men was invaded, and in many cases injured, under the law, of course. Was it only that the Vanderbilts might grow rich, opulent, and at last defiant?

Mr. Vanderbilt take the position that he has the same right to run his railways on selfish, exacting principles as the private merchant has. He forgets that his rights come from the people, when he says, "The public be damned!"

HE FORGETS THAT HE IS A PUBLIC SERVANT

- not the public's master! Six years ago the Nation stood in terror while the railway strikers ravaged Pittsburg and other cities. In New York the National Guard was put under arms, and hurried all over the State to guard the railraods. Was this done to protect what this man calls "my roads"? The State was saddled with a vast indebtedness to meet that expense. It was paid by the public that he "damns." Afterwards he gave to the20,000 or 30,000 employes of the New York Central Road $100,000. It was to be distributed among them as "a reward for their loyalty." A pittance of three or four dollars each! Even in his gifts he was a niggardly as he is in his pay. He paid the water-boy $10 per month to carry the water-filler, and act as brakeman on the Harlem train that filled the tunnel with death, anguish, and blood, a few days ago. Possibly that waterboy-brakeman, at $10 a month, spends a large part of his money in "riotous living."

Vanderbilt has

A WEAKNESS EVIDENTLY FOR CHEAP THINGS.

He likes to hire a telegraph operator, a signal-man, a switch-totaler, or a brakeman as cheaply as possible. To make them still cheaper, he doubles the work on them. He sets out to buy a politician, and he gets a cheap one. He has had so much experience in bribery that he pretends to know which faction is cheapest, and gives the anti-monopolists the palm.

In his Western journey he is attended by three of four friends and a secretary. This same secretary was once the private secretary and sycophant of William M. Tweed, "the boss," who, when the people discovered him neck-deep in crime, gave them the defiant query, "What are you going to do about it?" These eight words aroused public indignation against Tweed, and did much to hasten his downfall. "THe public be damned" are four fatal words - more defiant even than Tweed's eight. Tweed died in prison. Vanderbilt is not dead yet, but "Whom the gods seek to destroy they first make mad." They must surely be seeking the life of the omnient, defiant, demi-god, William H. Vanderbilt.

RUFUS HATCH.

Posted by Barry Popik
Names/Phrases • (0) Comments • Tuesday, September 13, 2005 • Permalink