A Secret Gift
Christmas 1933 promised to be bleak in Depression-scarred Canton, Ohio. Businesses had shut down, crime was running rampant and once-affluent businessmen couldn't even afford shoes for their children.
Then an ad from a benefactor known only as Mr. B. Virdot appeared in the local newspaper, offering cash gifts to 75 families in need. Letters describing the incredible personal sagas that characterized the desperation of the times poured in to the man revealed 75 years later to be Sam Stone.
In A Secret Gift, award-winning journalist Ted Gup, JD, a 1978 alumnus of Case Western Reserve University's School of Law and grandson of the evasive Stone, shares how he came across this trove of letters to discover the secret life of his grandfather and the hidden history of the Great Depression.
It is difficult for Americans today to grasp the stigma that attached to government "handouts" in 1933. By February 2010, thirty-eight million Americans—one in eight—were on food stamps. But in those early years of the Depression, the people of Canton, and those of the nation, would have recoiled at the idea of such a program. The seismic shift in public attitudes toward welfare and public relief programs, indeed toward government as a whole, that followed the Hard Times was as fundamental and far-reaching as any in our history. But in 1933, antagonism to public aid was still deeply ingrained. That fierce individualism can be heard in many of the letters to B. Virdot. Among these was the one written by Joseph P. Rogers, a once successful insurance agent who for six months of the previous year could not say whether he would be able to feed himself, his wife, and his daughters, Carolyn and Eleanor. "I cannot go to the Welfare for help," he wrote. "I can't even express myself in writing this letter. It hurts. Something within me rebels."
Merely being identified as one in want was more than many could bear. In one case in particular, the writer's anguish in reaching out to B. Virdot was so intense and her fear of being identified so deep that even three-quarters of a century later I cannot bring myself to identify her by anything more than her first name—Mrs. Bessie A. She wrote:
"I am a poor woman with a sick girl trying to work and help keep home for a crippled sister and myself. We are one of the thousands of unfortunate familys who had seen better days, now to Proud to ask charity...This is one of the poorest xmases I ever had. If I thought this would be printed in the papers I would rather die of hunger first as I haven't been a begger all ways. Hope for better days for my family and the others like us..."
The woman who wrote those words was a fifty-five-year-old mother and former phone operator for Western Union. She had emigrated from Ireland in 1880 hoping for "better days," words that surely would have resonated with the immigrant in Sam Stone. But instead, she found only more of the same. Bessie A.'s words to B. Virdot, particularly her revulsion to accepting charity, are repeated almost verbatim in other letters. Both those born into poverty and those born into privilege viewed the dole with equal distaste. "I believe Mr. Zerby would starve before he would ask for help," wrote Catherine Zerby of her husband, George. The daughter of esteemed photographer Jacob S. Wissler, she was not accustomed to such hardship. "We cannot afford the newspaper," her letter began, written on personal stationery with a gold embossed letter Z.
For many today it is difficult to understand the stigma attached to going on the dole or accepting charity. For men like my grandfather, who took such pride in escaping poverty and in providing for himself and his family, charity represented the final act of capitulation. It was not seen as a stop-gap measure to tide one over, but the repudiation of a lifetime rooted in selfreliance. The shame of poverty was tolerable—so many were in distress that Christmas of 1933—but the loss of face that came of publicly applying for relief, of claiming that one's needs were equal to or superior to another's, or enduring the gauntlet of probing questions, of surrendering one's dignity and privacy, for many was too much to ask. They had already been stripped of so much. Self-respect was all they had left.
In her letter to Mr. B. Virdot, Stella Waidman wrote that her husband, Albert, an out-of-work toolmaker, had had surgery and that to pay for the doctors, nurses, and hospital bills, they had sold their home, which was almost paid for. "We could have kept that home if we would have accepted charity," she wrote, "but we thought it best for Mr. Waidman's name and for the childrens sake to pay off our bills and sacrifice our home, and build up again." Her aversion to charity surfaced again near the end of her letter when she wrote, "Please do not send us anything out of pity..." The B. Virdot check arrived one day later.
American notions of accepting charity were riddled with contradictions. Giving was the Christian thing to do, contributing alms in church and recognizing that we are our brother's keeper. To give to charity was ennobling, but to accept it was degrading. That was, at least why in part, Sam Stone insisted on his own anonymity and pledged confidentiality to those who wrote to him. They were the only terms under which people, as proud as they were destitute, would come forward.
Many resisted the dole with a mix of defiance and faith. Among those who wrote to Mr. B. Virdot was Roy Rhoads. His December 18, 1933, letter begins:
"I saw your kind letter and offer to help the poor and unfortunate to at least one day of happiness. I am like many others. You will not find my name on the Family Services I have been fighting it out and trusting in the Lord and believe me Brother he helps. My name is Roy Rhoads-1124 Clev. Ave. N.W. am 58 years old, wife and our Boy. He has been out of work over 2 years and I worked at Hoover Co. 11 years was laid off 3 years ago and have Battled ever since. I get out and sell razor blades and my wife cares for tourists and people looking for a room and does washing for others. We are back with our rent 4 or 5 months. I hate to admit all this as I worked all my life and would work at any honest work if I could get it. I worked a few days for the city and cleaned snow from people's sidewalks. That is all the work I have found. I signed up at Y.M.C.A. last Aug. but have never been called. Not for my sake but for the wife and brighten one home, if you could help it would be appreciated."
Roy Rhoads and his wife, Margaret, did indeed survive the Depression. In the years after, as the economy improved, Rhoads found work at the Hoover Company and later Timken Roller Bearing. The years of trauma and desperation behind him, he again learned to enjoy life and gained a reputation for master of the French horn, an instrument he played in several area groups, including the 135th Field Artillery Band. Hard work and frugality eventually allowed him to retire. His granddaughter Kathleen remembers him as a quiet man with wire-rimmed glasses, sitting in a rocking chair, smoking his pipe. He died in 1950 at age seventy-three.
Excerpt from A SECRET GIFT by Ted Gup. Published by arrangement with the Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright (c) Ted Gup, 2010.