What the Heck was Teapot Dome, Anyway?

Anne Louise Bannon author photoRelevant History welcomes back Anne Louise Bannon, a historical mystery author and journalist whose journalistic work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Wines and Vines, and in newspapers across the country. She created the Oddball Grape wine blog with her husband, Michael Holland. She also writes the romantic fiction serial White House Rhapsody, book one of which is out now. Her novels include the Freddie and Kathy mystery series, set in the 1920s, the Operation Quickline series, and Tyger, Tyger. She and her husband live in Southern California with an assortment of critters. The Last Witnesses officially launches on 28 April, with pre-orders available now. For more information about her and her books, visit her web site, subscribe to her newsletter, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Goodreads.

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One of the fun things about writing a mystery set in the 1920s is that there was so much going on, including a raft of scandalous behavior within the administration of President Warren G. Harding. But while we may have heard of Teapot Dome, how many of us actually remember what it was?

Yet, in my most recent novel, The Last Witnesses, which is set in October 1925, much of this was headline news. And since some of the action is tangentially connected to the scandal, my characters do spend some time talking about it. The story still makes sense even if you don’t know about Teapot Dome, but just to bring folks up to date, here it is.

Harding’s administration was possibly the most corrupt of any in American history. His pick to head the Veteran’s Bureau got caught selling medical supplies intended for the military to outside vendors. Harding’s attorney general spent most of the ‘20s under investigation. And that was far from all.

However, the big one, the one everyone associates the most with Harding and the 1920s was Teapot Dome, an oil field in eastern Wyoming, almost directly north of Casper. Back in the early part of the Twentieth Century, the U.S. Navy got the bright idea that it might be a good thing to not drill on certain oil fields on federal land and keep that oil in reserve in case of an emergency. The problem was a whole bunch of oil magnates at the time were salivating all over the place to go drill on the Naval Reserves.

Even then, you couldn’t just go drilling without paying the owners for the oil. So, the oil magnates would pay for leases that would allow them the mineral rights on a given land and then drill. In the case of Teapot Dome, the U.S. Government owned the land, with the Navy in control, and the Navy was not going to let it happen.

But in 1921, Warren Harding gets sworn in as president and appoints his poker buddy Albert Fall as Secretary of the Interior. Shortly after that, Fall talks the Navy into giving the Department of the Interior control over the Reserves at Teapot Dome and by spring of 1922, neighbors are noticing that drilling is going on where it’s not supposed to be. The local senator, John B. Kendrick, initiates an investigation, and over the course of several years, it comes out that oilmen Harry Sinclair and Edward Doheny had bribed Fall with massive amounts of money, including a $100,000 “loan” from Doheny, well over $1 million in today’s dollars.

Fall might have gotten away with his little scheme—after all, he did have the legal right to lease the land to Doheny and Sinclair, even if he wasn’t supposed to. What did him in was that folks noticed he was living more than a little above his pay grade. He was eventually convicted of taking bribes, but Doheny got off pretty much scot-free and Sinclair served six months for jury tampering.

Harding had the good luck to die in August, 1923, just as this was all starting to go public, and may not have known what Fall was up to, or some of the other nefarious goings on in his administration. Some of those ended up in the book. Like I noted, it’s one of the reasons I find the 1920s such a fun one for murder mysteries.

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The Last Witnesses book coverA big thanks to Anne Louise Bannon. She’ll give away a paperback or ebook copy (winner’s choice) of The Last Witnesses to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery for the paperback is available after 28 April and in the U.S. only.

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The Winner of Fascinating Rhythm

Warren Bull has won a copy of Fascinating Rhythm by Anne Louise Bannon. Congrats to Warren Bull!

Thanks to Anne Louise Bannon for the discussion on what started the Great Depression for American farmers. Thanks, also, to everyone who visited and commented on Relevant History this week. Watch for another Relevant History post, coming soon.

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Farming in Kansas in the 1920s

Anne Louise Bannon author photoRelevant History welcomes Anne Louise Bannon, an author and journalist who wrote her first novel at age fifteen. Her journalistic work has appeared in magazines and newspapers across the country. She was a TV critic for over ten years, and created the Odd Ball Grape wine education blog with her husband, Michael Holland. She also writes the romantic fiction serial White House Rhapsody. She is the co-author of Howdunit: Book of Poisons with Serita Stevens, as well as mysteries Fascinating Rhythm, Bring Into Bondage, and Tyger, Tyger. She and her husband live in Southern California with an assortment of critters. To learn more about her and her books, visit her web site, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Pinterest.

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It’s hard to tell the behind-the-scenes story of my latest novel Bring Into Bondage without mentioning the book that came before it, Fascinating Rhythm. The books are set in the 1920s and feature editor Kathy Briscow and her socialite author boyfriend Freddie Little. In Fascinating Rhythm, we find out that Kathy comes from Hays, Kansas, a small farming town pretty much dead center in the country, which in turn becomes the setting for Bring Into Bondage.

I purposely chose a rural town for Kathy’s original home. Right after World War I, the country started urbanizing, and as of the 1920 census, just over half the U.S. population lived in cities for the first time ever. Barely fifty years before, only five percent of the population had. One of the hot tunes from that post-Great War era was “How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?)” It was not only happening, it was on people’s minds. So it made sense that my feisty office worker came from a rural background.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a far richer background than I thought. Okay, I did know, in a vague, “they said so in history class” kind of way that what we know as The Great Depression actually started for American farmers shortly after the end of World War I. But what caused the farming depression, namely debt, became one of the underlying themes in Bring Into Bondage, which is set on the farm belonging to Kathy’s parents.

There were a lot of different causes, but basically, farmers were caught in a spiral of producing too much, which caused crop prices to fall, then having to produce more to make up for it, causing crop prices to fall still lower. Frederick Lewis Allen, in his short history of the decade, Only Yesterday, partially laid the blame on mechanization. But other sources have also pointed out that the farmers had seen a boom in crop prices during the Great War, when not only did they feed the U.S., they exported crops to war-torn Europe. Once the war was over, so was the need for imported food. Which meant an even larger supply in the U.S. In any case, what caused the larger part of farmers’ problems was that they took out mortgages to either buy more land or to buy the new mechanical equipment.

Farming has never been easy. But in the 1920s, there were no subsidies and no other social safety nets. You relied on your neighbors, as Kathy’s family does, even though the family farm is under attack by mysterious vandals. Freddie mentally refers to Kathy’s family as being dirt poor. There’s a sense of frugality in this family that we don’t recognize today in our abundant, throw-away culture. When Ma Briscow sends the five-word telegram to summon Kathy home, Kathy is upset because Ma uses two words she didn’t need. Telegrams cost five cents per word, and to carelessly spend ten cents when every penny counts means Ma is very upset indeed.

The title of the book comes from the biblical book Nehemiah (5:5), in which some of the Israelites are complaining that they can’t get justice for their children, who have been sold into bondage, because other men have their lands. In short, they have been mortgaged out to the hilt and are now in bondage, themselves. Kind of like farmers in Kansas were in the 1920s.

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Fascinating Rhythm book coverA big thanks to Anne Louise Bannon. She’ll give away a copy of Fascinating Rhythm to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available worldwide for an ebook and in the U.S. only for a trade paperback.

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