Wall Street 1869

 
 
Wall street is the banking-house of the continent. It is insignificant looking enough, with its crookedness and dinginess its half-dozen blocks of grim, gloomy buildings. Yet its power is felt from Bangor to San Francisco, from Oregon to Florida ; even across the sea, and round the sphere. Like the Hindoo deity, we see that it is homely, but we know that it is great. We cannot afford to despise Wall street, strong as our will may be ; for it holds the lever that moves the American world. We may despise its Mammon-worship ; we may censure its corruption ; we may decry its morals. But, unless fortune has filled our purse with ducats and often not then we are unable to escape its influence, or exorcise its spell. It is a great, established, far-reaching fact ; and in its keeping are the curses and blessings that make up the weal and woe of life.

Upon that financial quarter rest the pillars of the money market, that mysterious something which no one sees and every one feels strong as Alcides, and yet sensitive as the Mimosa.

All the cities, and towns, and villages of the country pay tribute to Wall street. All offer incense at its exact shrine. All seek to propitiate it, that it may make a golden return. It is keen-eyed, broad-breasted, strong-armed, with a mighty brain and no heart a Briareus without sympathy a Samson without sentiment.

A stately church at one end, and a deep, broad stream at the other, are not without significance ; for Wall street prays and looks devout on Sunday, and every other day of the week yields to its secular nature as the river to the ocean-tides.

All day and all night the stately spire of Trinity looks down upon the feverish, anxious street. All day and all night the East river floats softly to the sea. Humanity chafes, and frets, and suffers ; but the shadows come and go upon the lofty pile, and fall upon the deep-green waters, and leave them all unchanged.

How many a worn and haggard face has looked up from the troubled thoroughfare for hope, yet found it not, in the direction of the heaven-pointing steeple, and thought of rest, but sought it not, in the bosom of the river !

Look at Wall street now, while the stars are shining down into its silence. You would not suppose it was turbulent and tremulous a few hours ago. It is still and placid as the battle-field after the battle. The strong houses are barred and bolted, and slumbering deeply for the struggle of the morrow. The great banks, whose names are known over all the land, and whose credit is firmer than their vaults, look like tombs at this hour. Their buried wealth no one guesses. It is supposed to be enormous ; and yet it may have been long exhausted. The banks may be merely bubbles but they will float high and airily until panic pricks them, and they burst, spreading new panic in their breaking.

Oh, the mystery and uncertainty of Credit! Hard to create, the smallest circumstance destroys it. A moment of distrust shatters the work of years. An unfounded rumor unsettles what half a century was needed to establish. Breathe against it, and what seemed a monument of marble melts like a snow-wreath before the southern wind.

When the stars pale in the light of the morning, and the sun shimmers over the church and the river, Wall street still lies like a stolid sleeper stirs not, nor appears to breathe. Trinity's solemn clock tells the hours slowly and measurably, tells them remorsely, think they who have engagements to meet, and, lacking collaterals, are driven to financial desperation.

Nine strikes from the brown tower, and all along the streets the heavy doors open almost at once, and brawny porters look lazily out into the still, quiet quarter. The capitalists, and stock operators, and gold speculators have not yet come down town. They are probably lounging over their luxurious breakfasts somewhere above Fourteenth street, though cashiers, and tellers, and book-keepers are at their desks, prepared for the business of the day.

The steps on the narrow sidewalks begin to thicken. Carriages set down handsomely-dressed men, young and old, opposite the sign-crowded structures. The bulls and bears, fresh-looking and comely, with dainty-fitting gloves, artistic garments, and flowers in their button-holes, wheel into the street and hurriedly exchange greetings as they pass. The expression of their faces is changing. The regular fever of the time and place is rising. They are entering upon the financial arena, prepared to give and take every advantage that the Board of Brokers allows.

The tide of Wall street swells faster than the tide of the adjacent sea. The hum of voices grows into a war. Men hurry to and fro, and jostle, and drive, and rush in all directions, with eyes glittering and nerves a-strain, as if their soul were in pawn, and they had but forty seconds to redeem it. Doors slam and bang. Messengers, with piles of bank-notes and bags of coin, hasten up and down and across the thronged thoroughfares.

Short, quick, fragmentary phrases slip sharply out of compressed lips. You hear "Erie, Central, Gold, Forty, Three-quarters, Sell, Buy, Take it, Thirty days, Less dividend, All right, Done"; and these cabalistic words make a difference of tens of thousands of dollars to those who utter them.

Business is transacted largely and speedily, as though each day were the day before the final judgment and " margins" must be paid and " settlements" made before the next World opened a new stock exchange for the bulls that were blessed, or expelled
from the Board the bears that had failed of salvation.

Every operator endeavors to outstrip his fellow. Device and deception, rumor and innuendo, ingenious invention and base fabrication, are resorted to. The greatest gambling in the Republic is going on, and the deepest dishonesty is concealed by the garb of commercial honor. No one asks nor expects favors. All stratagems are deemed fair in Wall street. The only crime there is to be "short" or "crippled." "Here are my stakes," says Bull to Bear. "Shake the dice-box of your judgment, and throw for what you like. My luck against yours ; my power to misrepresent, and hide truth with cunning for the next thirty days."

"Dare you agree to deliver Reading, ten or a hundred thousand, on the first, at a hundred and three ? " challenges Jerome, or Vanderbilt, or Drew. " Have you the nerve to hold Hudson River next week at a hundred and twenty-five ? Agree to deliver
all you want." A nod, and a note as a memorandum, and the trade is made.

The elegantly-dressed gamblers play largely, and hundreds of thousands are staked upon chances that shift like the wind. They live upon the excitement, as worn-out debauchees upon the stimulants that have grown necessary. Wall street is food and drink to them. They cannot spend their princely incomes; but neither can they perish of the ennui of honesty, of the inanity of repose. They can operate to what extent they choose. Wall street neither buys nor sells, as we should suppose. It merely pays "differences" when the day /or delivery arrives. Two, ten, twenty thousand dollars make good the "differences," and the shares or gold are left untouched. "Corners" are the ambition and the dread of all. Originally designed for the uninitiated, the shrewder are often maneuvered into them ; and now and then the heaviest operators are obliged to disgorge a million of
their profits.

A "corner" is thus managed. A heavy capitalist or a number of capitalists conclude to operate for a rise in Erie or Pacific Mail. They go into the street, and wish to buy a large amount of the stock which may be then quoted, say at 85 cents on the dollar. They find persons who agree to deliver it in thirty days at 86. Then the capitalists begin to purchase through brokers at the ruling price, and soon get all there is in the market, though so secretly that no one suspects they are the buyers. When the thirty days have expired the stock they have purchased is to be delivered. The parties who have agreed to deliver it say they will pay the current rate ; but the capitalists declare they must have the stock, and that they won't be satisfied with anything else. Then the parties try to buy it, and the demand sends up the stock rapidly. They send brokers throughout the banking quarter, and the scarcity with the pressing demand causes the shares to advance 10 or 15, often 20 and 30 per cent, in a single day. When it is at such a figure as the capitalists wish, they put their stock in the market, and sell it at the great advance from the old rate; thus realizing 15 to 20 per cent, on $5,000,000 or $6,000,000, perhaps $10,000,000, which will be between $1,000,000 and $2,000,000 profit by a single transaction.

The shrewdest of operators, like Daniel Drew and Leonard W. Jerome are reputed to have been made the victims of "corners," and to have lost fortunes in a day. But such as they are not often caught; the " corners" being formed for the less crafty and experienced. Often the capitalists consent to receive the difference between the price the stock was to be delivered for and its advance, and then sell the stock at the advance to persons who believe it will go still higher ; thus making an enormous double profit. Another favorite operation in Wall street is for the bears (the bears are those who want to pull down prices, and the bulls those who wish to push them up,) to withdraw a large amount of legal-tenders from circulation by borrowing money from the banks on certain securities, either railway shares or government bonds. The legal-tenders are not wanted, of course, but the bears lock them up, and the money market growing tight, the banks call in their loans. Persons who have borrowed on the securities are obliged to sell them to pay what they have borrowed, and forcing the sale of the securities, causes them to decline.   That is what the bears seek ; for they have agreed to deliver certain securities at a certain price and time. Say they have agreed to deliver New- York Central Railway at 105. The scarcity of money and the panic created thereby send Central down to 90. The bear who is to deliver $1,000,000 of the shares, thus makes $150,000 clear by his unscrupulous management. Every few weeks this locking up of bonds is resorted to by a few rich men who cause immense loss to others for the sake of increasing their own gains.

Nothing could be more dishonest than this operation or getting up a "corner." It is as disreputable as picking a man's pocket ; yet Wall street not only allows, but admires and applauds it.

People who buy stocks or gold in the banking quarter usually put up "margins," that is one-tenth of the amount of stock bought. If a man wishes to purchase $10,000 worth of Hudson River or Harlem Railway shares he leaves $1,000 with his broker, who holds the stock, and charges his customer 7 per cent, per annum in ordinary times for the use of the money. If the shares fall 5 per cent, the broker notifies the buyer to make his margin good. If he don't do so, the broker sells the stock, takes out his interest and commissions, and returns the balance to the purchaser.

If the shares go up the buyer makes $100 every time they advance 1 per cent. The reason so many men lose money is, that they put up all the money they have as margins ; and if the stock they purchase declines, though confident it will advance again, they have no more means, and their broker sells them out, Every day the margin men are obliged to let their stocks go when, if they could hold, on they would be certain to make something. But they are little fish, and in Wall street the big fish swallow the small ones all the year round.

The Stock Exchange and Gold Room are the scenes of such tumult and confusion that only members can comprehend the mysterious transactions. Excited, anxious faces, nervous fingers writing hurriedly with pencils in little books, clamor of voices, lifting of hands, becks and nods, are all the spectator sees and hears. He cannot even learn the rate of shares or coin amid the flurry and the noise. It appears to him like the struggle of overgrown children for tempting fruit that one alone can have. He is amazed and dazed, and cannot guess who has been bold, and who has held aloof from the avaricious scramble.

Three times every day stocks are called at the Exchange and the members measure their brain and nerve, their capital and credit, one against the other. Shares are put up and put down, irrespective of values. Bulls and bears toss the prices as they would shuttlecocks upon the battle doors of their interest or caprice ; and it is not uncommon for a non-paying railway to be fifty or a hundred above par, when a highly remunerative road is in the eighties or nineties.

Stocks are what the brokers make them, and their varying rate is determined by a "ring." Wall street grows every day richer and more commanding, though fortunes are made and lost there every year that would buy the broadest dukedoms of Europe. Capital from abroad is constantly flowing to that great monetary centre ; while private means are swelling to a degree that is not wholesome, financially. Operators can draw their checks for millions, and can " carry" such an amount of stocks as astounds the weaker ones of the street, The rich wax richer and richer, albeit, ever and anon, a monetary Nemesis pursues them to ruin, and brands "bankrupt" upon the brow that has braved the severest financial fates.

What a long and painfully interesting history might be given of the fluctuations of fortune that have marked the strange history of the street! What gigantic operators 'have ruled the quarter for years, and gone down at last, gone down to poverty, to madness, to shattered health and self-inflicted death!

Pale ghosts, if Plato's theory be true, must stalk by night in the silent places of the banking bureaus, and long, with a longing that is their torment, for the pursuits they followed on this whirling planet. Over non-success the pall of oblivion is thrown; for Wall street is too busy to hate, and too anxious to despise.

Whatever of energy and enterprise, financial daring and reckless speculation, lust of commercial power and mania for money-getting there is in the land, seems compressed into Wall street for half-a-dozen hours of the twenty-four. Out of it all grow advantages beyond the thought of those who lay wagers against circumstance. Wall street capital develops the country bounteously. The north, the south, the east and west go there for aid to hew, and build, and mine. If the bloated toad look ugly, its invisible jewel is precious. If Wall street have faults, and they are many and grievous, it has virtues not a few, and, outside of business, permits its heart to beat, and its hands to give, and its sympathy to heal. Its great power is not always used unworthily ; and the spire looking down upon it, and the river flowing by it, all day and all night, must have recollections of its goodness that would show the preciousness and poetry which are hidden in the hard environment of money.

 
Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: Wall Street
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina

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BIBLIOGRAPHY: The Great Metropolis; A Mirror of New York by Junius Henri Browne; American Publishing Company 1869
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