UNCLE SAM, IN THE PERSON OF AN IMMIGRATION INSPECTOR, PLAYS A DIRTY TRICK ON MR. PONZI
Back in Montreal the same evening, I stayed with friends. I couldn't go back to the Windsor Hotel on five dollars. Hardly anywhere, in fact, because the money had to last me until I landed a job. But I couldn't stay in the street either. So, I accepted the hospitality which was tendered to me by those kind hearts, figuring that in a couple of days or so I would be able to find work.
However, I soon discovered that I was entirely too optimistic. A few calls among people, who knew me and who, ordinarily, could have used my services, brought to me the realization that I was up against it. I had a prison record! I was a jail bird! They could not hire me. They would not have me around.
I explained my predicament to one of my old schoolmates, who was running a bank there, a combination of labor and steamship agency. He and I had worked together some years before. He suggested that I leave Montreal and return to the United States.
"They won't know of your record there," he said, "and you can find a job much more easily."
"I would like to go," I told him, "but I have not enough money for the fare."
"Where would you want to go?" he asked.
"New York, I guess, if I can," I replied. "But any other place will do. Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, anywhere."
"Why don't you try some smaller places instead?" he urged, "Nearer the border. You might get a job as a time-keeper and interpreter in some camp."'
A few days later, he told me that there were some such camps around Norwood and Ogdenburg, in New York State.
"The fare isn't much," he said. "How are you fixed for money?"
"I am not very flush," I answered. "But I have put in a day here and a day there at odd jobs."
"Then I would go, if I were you," he urged on. "You will probably strike somebody we know in those camps. We sent a lot of men down that way when we were with Zarossi."
That, decided me. Zarossi had placed thousands of laborers in that territory. Both with railroads and private contractors. Zarossi's men had built the Transcontinental. They were everywhere. With the C. P. R., with the Grand Trunk, with the B. & M. On both sides of the border. And I, as one of Zarossi's former clerks, was fairly well known among contractors and foremen.
In the morning of July 30, 1910, I left Montreal. My old schoolmate was at the depot when I bought my ticket. With him were five men. Apparently, there were going my way. They were Italians. Newly arrived immigrants, and he asked me to look after them.
"Give them a hand, Charlie," he said. "Tell them when to get off. They have to change trains at Norwood." I believe he mentioned Norwood, or some such place like that.
The train was one of those locals that stopped at every shed along the road, for ten and fifteen minutes at a stretch. It hobbled on most of the morning in the direction of the border and made it about noon. At the last station on the Canadian side, it settled down for what looked like a regular siesta.
A United States immigration inspector came on board and went through the coaches, pausing here and there to interview each passenger. Eventually, he got to where the five Italians and myself were. He spoke to them first. They did not understand a word. So, he turned to me.
"Are these men with you?" the inspector asked me.
"Not exactly," I said, but they are going my way and I have been asked to help them out."
"Where are they going?" he inquired.
"I don't know for sure," I stated. "Somewhere near Norwood. I think."
"What are they going there for?" he pressed on.
I had to ask the men before I could answer the question. They said they were going on some job. I believe they even exhibited some letter to show their destination.
"Where are they coming from?" the inspector wanted to know.
"From Montreal," I replied.
"All right," he said, and he walked along into the next coach.
Five minutes later, the train started off again. The next stop was Moers Junction, N. Y., on the United States side of the border. We were looking indifferently out of the window at the usual activity which follows the arrival of any train, when somebody yelled out:
"Hey, you men!"
We turned around and saw the immigration inspector on the doorway of the coach. He was addressing us. No doubt about that.
"You men get off this train and follow me," he directed. I conveyed his order to the five Italians and we did as we were told. He took us to a little shack. A sort of an office. There he informed us that we were under arrest. He said we had violated the immigration laws of the United States.
The same afternoon, we were transferred to Rouses Point. N. Y., and locked up. A couple of days later, we were brought to Plattsburg and put in jail there to await trial in the Fall. I was held for smuggling aliens into the United States. The five Italians were held as material witnesses.
The whole thing did not seem to make sense. I tried to figure it out. But gave it up as a bad job. Finally, I had a chance to see an assistant United States Attorney. I told him the facts. He listened.
"You brought those men into the United States in violation of immigration laws," he said.
"I did nothing of the kind," I retorted. "They came of their own accord. We were merely on the same train."
"But you've helped them. You have acted as interpreter for them," he insisted.
"Why shouldn't I have acted as interpreter?" I shot back at him. "It seems to me that I have helped both sides, in any case."
"At any rate," he continued, "you have all effected an illegal entry into the United States. None of you had a permit to enter."
"I, for one, did not know a permit was necessary." I explained. "Since I went to Canada three years ago, I have come in and out of the United States half a dozen times without a permit. I was never asked for one. I never met with an immigration inspector on the train. The only officials I ever ran across at the border were custom officers. They would come aboard and inspect the baggage."
"That does not alter the fact that this time you are all in the United States illegally," he went on.
"I won't concede even that," I told him. "We were interviewed on the Canadian side of the border. The train was not in motion. If we were not admissible for any reason, it seems to me that that was the time to exclude us. The inspector should have told us then.
"The inspector does not need to be told by you what he should or should not have done," the attorney interrupted.
"It seems to me that he does too," I poured back at him, losing my head. "It was his duty to warn us. To keep us from violating the law. Regardless of whether or not we were ignorant of the law. Instead, he actually coaxed us, led us, into a violation of the law in order to make a record for himself. I have no earthly use for that sort of public official. He, and not I, is the one who should be charged with smuggling those aliens."
"You will sing a different tune in a couple of months from now," he threatened with a leer.
"Maybe I will and, yet, maybe I won't," I snapped back. By then I was ready to relegate him to the seventh hell. If I didn't tell him so, he certainly read my mind because he brought the interview to a close.
All five of us languished in the Plattsburg jail until October. We could not raise bail. Fortunately, I had a cell all to myself, while other prisoners were required to bunk together. I managed to kill time sleeping and reading old magazines. But jail life, with its depressing idleness, began to get on my nerves. Two months of it had put me in a frame of mind where I no longer cared what happened to me, so long as I could have it over with.
Evidently, that assistant United States Attorney was a psychologist I will let it go at that. It is not exactly what I thought he was. But "psychologist" sounds better. He knew or sensed that I was ripe for any sort of an approach. Just think of it! What an uncanny intuition that man had! He was utterly wasted in a district attorney's office! He was a naturally born "con" man! One who could tell and play a sucker better than any professional.
He sent for me. Told me how sorry he was about the whole thing. How he hated to go through with it. But his duty was clear. He was under oath to uphold and preserve the Constitution â€¦ etc. It never occurred to me then to tell him that the Constitution had been preserved so long that it was actually pickled! Instead, I felt so blue over his predicament that it almost brought tears to my eyes! It certainly was a darned shame that any scalliwag like me should be permitted to put such a nice man in that kind of stew!
The situation was so tense, that I actually expected him any minute to fall all over me and weep! I was scared. The prison suit I had on was not pre-shrunk. A good cry and it would have been all over with it. It would have left me looking like a bell-boy in shorts!
"Charlie," he said (they always call me Charlie when they want to stick me). "I want to help you. You are a pretty good sort of a fellow. Will you take my advice?"
"Sure," I told him before I knew what the advice was. "I'll do anything you say, bud â€¦" I was about to say "buddy" but corrected myself and changed it to "sir".
"Then plead guilty," he urged with an entreating look on his face.
"I will, like hell!" I jumped up. I might have felt soft-hearted. But not that soft.
"Don't get excited, Charlie," he purred on, "I am your friend. I am advising you for your own good. If you go through with the trial, you will be convicted. The evidence is against you. The judge will believe the inspector. He won't believe you, because you have a prison record. You would be licked before you started."
In that, I agreed with him. I did not tell him so. But I knew even then how hopeless it was to buck the government without shekels or influential friends. However, I did not give in right away.
"If I am convicted, I won't be any worse off than if I plead guilty," I said.
"Oh, yes, you will," he rebutted. "The judge won't feel so inclined to be lenient. He might send you away for a long stretch. Make an example of you. The penalty is two years and $1,000 fine for each alien. In your case he would give you ten years and $5,000 fine."
"Not if I plead guilty, what will happen?" I asked.
"No much, I guess," he said shrugging his shoulders. "Perhaps a $50 fine."
"But I can't pay the fine," I told him. "I haven't $50."
"In that case, you will have to serve a month in jail for it," he explained.
"Are you sure?" I insisted.
"Practically," he confirmed. "It is up to me to recommend the penalty. Judges always take the district attorney's recommendations."
"And you promise to let me off with a $50 fine if I plead guilty?" I asked him again.
"Yes," he said, "I promise you that I will speak to the judge."
And he did! But God, the judge and himself only know what he told him! I kept my end of the bargain. I pleaded guilty. Then he walked up to the bench. He handed some papers to the judge. He whispered to him. The judge glanced through the papers and took a squint at me. Then he said:
"Oh, what's the use!â€¦ Two years and $500 fine!" and he passed the paper along to the clerk.
Somebody, a deputy-marshal, I guess, took me by the arm and led me out of the court-room before I had time to realize what had happened. If he hadn't done that, I might have had to face additional charges of assault and battery and contempt. I was so mad, I was fit to be tied!
A couple of days later, I and four more federal prisoners, with a couple of deputy-marshals, started on our way South to serve our respective sentences in the United States Penitentiary at Atlanta, Ga.
The five Italians were discharged from custody right after my trial. There were paid their two or more months allowances as government witnesses. They were legally permitted to remain in the United States! Can you, reader, figure that out? I can't. I have been trying to ever since, but without success.