Simson finds way to eliminate government debt. Is jailed.

I bet you have Googled your own name. Perhaps it is to see if your seventh runner-up fourth-grade high-jump performance is memorialized. Maybe you want to see if you have outstanding parking tickets, or maybe a long lost relative is seeking your address so that you can come into your fortune.

However, Google searches on “first name, last name” usually end up with a million hits of gibberish. Except, as far as I know, in the case of my great-grandfather Max. I recently Googled him, and Max came up in placement one and two with real news reports from a world-renowned newspaper.

Max was newsworthy.

Max was interesting.

Max was a jailbird.

Mind you, my great-grandfather was a distinguished and cultivated man. He was, as far as the family legend went, a successful immigrant entrepreneur and insurance luminary who was asked by then-Sen. Robert Wagner (like Max, also born in Germany) to consult on New Deal issues such as workers’ compensation. He was concerned – obsessed, really – about the state of the U.S. government’s finances, and as he neared the end of his life in the 1930s, he sent my father a note saying he had no inheritance to give him, “except perhaps the gift of long life.” He died in 1935 at the age of 88. There was no taint of scandal on him, as far as any of us knew.

The facts are slightly different. They paint him as a cultivated man who made big money by selling illegal lottery tickets. He was the U.S. representative of the Havana National lottery, the Royal Hungarian lottery, and the lottery of something called the Ducal Brunswick Companies. At the time of his arrest, according to the New York Times of April 19, 1909, he had $200 worth of lottery tickets in his suitcase, and apparently knowing that he was under suspicion, had arranged to get his correspondence delivered from his New York office to a hotel in Philadelphia. His investors were from Baltimore, of all places.

One thread that is found in both the family and the journalistic accounts is the obsession with the national debt. Under the headline “Max Simson Goes to Jail,” the subhead in the Times account reads: “Says He Could Pay the Government’s Debt with a Lottery.” As a matter of fact, it is this characteristic obsession that identifies the Max Simson in jail as my great-grandfather. There were two Max Simsons in New York at the time, and I think it unlikely that they both had such a singular budgetary frame of mind. We know that our Max did because I brought this Google find to the attention of my dad, who at age 93 well remembers his grandfather’s interest in sovereign debt. He just did not know exactly how deeply felt it was.


Max was quite a negotiator. When he was arrested, he fessed up immediately, said he had been in the lottery business for over 30 years, and indicated he had been arrested before. He also begged to have access to the tickets in his “grip,” as he called his suitcase, because he had paid $200 for the tickets it contained and their sale would permit him to raise the $2,000 bail. Apparently old Max did not fully understand the dividing line between the need to make bail and the imperative to do so without returning to the illegal activity that brought him to the hoosegow in the first place.

I guess the profit margins were healthy enough to permit such a flight of fancy. They also permitted political influence. The newspapers mentioned substantial correspondence in the same suitcase with a prominent member of Congress, but they declined to name names.

As our country seems, over 100 years later, to have belatedly realized the need to pay attention to the national debt, old Max comes to mind. His entrepreneurial zeal. His political wiles. His having to go away for a little while.

Today we have different political mores, but similar story lines. A gambling magnate has a congressman in his pocket? Once upon a time, it was a matter of shame, so much so that a respectable newspaper would not mention it. Now we have freedom of speech decisions that let the gambling guys proclaim their interest. Gambling an illegal activity? It still is, unless the states need the revenue, in which case every corner store becomes a Powerball outlet.

I can’t help but feel that the ethics of gambling and politics should remain separated, even if in these freedom-loving, homogenized times we have decided that there’s no harm in a little self interest in the town square.

The politics of the so-called fiscal cliff, which is a mechanism designed to force unreasoning austerity if a political compromise is not reached, is a gamble in every sense of the word. Gamblers our political leaders may be, but they pale in personality, and in the authentic desire to pay down debt, when compared to the storied members of our familiar past.

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