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The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

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P.T. Barnum Was Right

By Milton Farber, '38

The Magpie, June 1938, v. 22, n. 2., p. 73.

New York City might be defined as a collection of 7,000,000 sheep ready to be led to the slaughter. It is always true that wherever more than ten people congregate, there is sure to be at least one sharper ready to relieve them of excess cash. Why don't we do something about it? For the simple reason that most of us supposedly hard-boiled metropolites are usually ashamed to admit that we have been swindled, and then too, the sums involved are usually small.

To glimpse the gullibility of New Yorkers, watch one of these master-tradesmen at work in the dimly-lighted underpass to the I.R.T. shuttle at the Grand Central Station. The throng of hurrying commuters hears his spiel start:

"Step a little closer, ladeez and gents! I have here in my hand the eighth wonder of the world, a marvelous little dancing doll! Just stretch it and it dances! It's perpetual motion, folks! All for five cents, one nickel! "

The sharper's methods are simple and daring. He "demonstrates" each doll before he sells it. Before the eyes of the on-lookers, he extracts it from its celluloid bag, stretches it, places it on the ground, and presto, it dances! If the prospect attempts, however, to make the doll dance after he has taken it home, he will be in for a rather rude surprise.

To make the dolls dance, the sharper is aided by two assistants both present for the purposes of persuasion. One persuades the dolls to dance, the other the fish to bite. Assistant No. 1 holds a thin black thread in his hand under his coat, one end of which is attached to the wall or railing. In the dim corridor, the thread is practically invisible. As the hawker takes each doll from its bag, he surreptitiously attaches a tiny hook to the back of its head and hangs it on the thread. The helper jiggles the thread up and down, with the result that the dolls do their version of the Big Apple. Assistant No. 2 now hurries up. His job is to start the ball rolling. "Gimme one of those wonderful dolls," he mutters, and hurries off with it clutched beneath his arm. This he repeats many times each day.

Occasionally, one of the onlookers voices his suspicions and challenges the vendor to make his dolls dance at a spot away from the railing. Again, his methods are simple and daring. "Like to put up some money on it, buddy?" he queries. He is throwing a bluff which, in the trade, is known as "doing a Mussolini." The righteously indignant sharper draws a handful of bills from his pocket and waves them in the face of the suspicious one. The other, naturally, is hesitant about risking his money, and withdraws, muttering "gyps" and "crooks" under his breath.

The vendor packs his goods and wipes the cold sweat from his brow. "Boy, that was close!" He wanders away, to wait for a new crowd of suckers to arrive . . .

Another organization reaches the gullible through the mail. It calls itself the Rosicrucian Brotherhood and specializes in high-class fortune-telling. Its name comes from the Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross which was founded in the Sixteenth Century. The Rosicrucians, as they came to be called, were a brotherhood of alchemists who professed to possess the secret of transmuting base metals into gold through the medium of dew. The claims of the present Rosicrucian Brotherhood probably do not contain much more truth than those of the original Rosicrucians.

The Rosicrucian Brotherhood makes its appeals through letters which ask: "Do you want to become master of your own destiny? Do you wish to hurdle the obstacles to human progress? Join the Rosicrucians! It is absolutely free!" (until after you have joined). They, however, do not limit themselves to New York City but send their publications all over the country, and no doubt derive a substantial return from Americans who bite.

This great organization numbers among its members many distinguished philosophers, including Joe Doaks and Mort Smith. It is non-religious, non-sectarian, non-commercial, non-political, and nonunion. It is anti-fascist, communist, socialist, and anti-toxin. The mysteries of the future are unfolded for the true-believer in the annual bulletin, which modestly lays claim to a circulation of "many thousands of faithful readers." Entitled "1938 And Fate," it declares that the United States will soon go to war with an Asiatic nation, and many conflicts will soon burst out in Europe. Optimistic chaps, aren't they?

Of course these prophecies are not based on such unstable sciences such as astrology or crystal-gazing. On the contrary, their bases are "wonderful charts of world conditions from which the trends and tendencies of human affairs can be predicted." These charts, it is supposed, are divinely inspired, and cannot be wrong! In many quarters, the comment would be, "Well, if that's true, then President Roosevelt could certainly use them!"

"1938 And Fate" is not 100 per cent right; it blushingly admits that it is correct only 90 per cent of the timer

Among its other revelations of the future are the assertions that during 1938, many peace treaties will be destroyed-Versailles was nothing! President Roosevelt will not become a dictator, as was predicted by the booklet a few years back, and the United States will this year witness a continued upturn in business conditions. It seems that the Rosicrucians feel that the present Recession does not mean anything!

Rumors have been circulated to the effect that the race-track bookies have offered to employ the master-minds of the Brotherhood during their spare time, but they have not revealed whether they will accept the offer. It is also reported that many Clinton students have decided to develop their talents in this direction . . . it must be they see the Regents Examinations coming!

These two rackets are but representative of the hundreds of economic vagabonds who prey on the unsuspecting citizen. Things have come to such a turn that nowadays, the soul of a dead person on its way to Heaven may encounter a glib-talking spirit on the road, who will sell him a map of a short-cut to the pearly gates which will probably land him in the other place!

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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