The Ice King of Bath
Bath native C.W. Morse, was a ruthless businessman who built empires based on bribes, lies and fraud
The Eastern Steamship Company, the company that owned the ill-fated City of Rockland from the tale on this site, was owned by Charles Wyman (C.W.) Morse of Bath. If you have spent any time in Bath, the last name “Morse” is probably familiar. The family has deep connections with Bath going back many generations and the Bath High School (Morse High) bears his name.
His story is an interesting one and just might remind the reader of the tale of America’s 45th President.
Early Signs of Opportunism
Charlie Morse was born Oct 1, 1856 in Bath to Benjamin Wyman and Anna Eliza Jane (Rodbird) Morse. He suffered through infantile paralysis which left him with a permanent limp. In later years, he used a cane and wore a top hat which was quite the look – and some say it inspired the look of the “Monopoly Man” in the game. His father Benjamin had a successful marine towing business on the Kennebec river which Charles joined as a young lad.
In Philip Wood’s biography Bath, Maine’s Charlie Morse: Ice King and Wall Street Scoundrel, he wrote that Charlie’s father offered to pay his son $1,500 a year to keep the books for the company. Instead, Charlie outsourced the job to a local man for $500 and pocketed the difference. Work smarter, not harder.
He used the proceeds to put himself through Bowdoin College (Class of 1877) where he was not a particularly special student. He struggled next to his classmates which included the future arctic explorer Admiral Robert Pearly and inventor Freelan O. Stanley (who, besides starting the Stanley Steamer auto company, opened the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park Colorado – which was Maine’s own Stephen King’s inspiration for The Shining). There is another Stephen King connection in this tale and in this place.
Kennebec River Ice = Frozen Gold
While still a student at Bowdoin, Charlie somehow negotiated deals in New York City to ship some of the famous Kennebec River ice to the thirsty city dwellers and return to Maine with southern lumber and coal in the same ships. Supposedly, he earned $100,000 before he graduated from these early business dealings. He then established Charles W. Morse & Co. Shipping and Ship Brokering in New York and was off running.
By the late 1800’s, before refrigeration, Maine was exporting about 1 million tons of ice yearly to southern cities. In 1891 there were 42 ice houses operating on the Kennebec River, employing 25,000 men who worked the Kennebec ice fields each winter to cut and store ice. The crystal blue ice produced in Maine was desired the world over and the revenues from ice export outpaced the gold revenue of California.
Young Charles wanted a bigger piece of the ice action.
The Ice King Cometh
Because ice production was so reliable in colder Maine, Charles was able to consistently supply NYC with ice. And boy did they need it. New York City accounted for 25% of all ice consumption in the country.
Charles started buying up the competition on the Kennebec under the Morse Ice Co. name. When his competitors on the Hudson River struggled to supply ice during warmer winters, Charles began selling to them, eventually loaning them money in exchange for company stock – which allowed him to take over those companies when they eventually couldn’t pay their debts.
By the turn of the century, Charles had consolidated all of the ice companies on the Eastern seaboard and created the American Ice Company which was worth $60 million. The newspapers rightfully referred to him as the “Ice King.” But his aggressive tactics were starting to draw attention, and the press began highlighting the profit over people motives.
The poor paid considerably more per pound for ice than the wealthy, but Morse responded by saying that the market for ice was shrinking and that the pricing was simply a matter of supply and demand.
The city of New York was using millions of tons of ice per year and it was all supplied by Charles Morse.
The ice workers of NYC were also not happy with Morse, claiming that during the summer they worked between 14 and 20 hours per day for low wages and that their employers refused to account for melting ice in the summer as they delivered the ice.
Morse decided that he needed even more leverage, so he worked with political powerhouse Tammany Hall and its lackey, the Mayor of NYC, Robert Van Wyck, to manipulate the market even more. Tammany Hall had a stranglehold on Democratic politics and exerted wide-reaching influence throughout NYC. Morse sold or gave shares of the “Ice Trust” at substantial discount to both the Mayor and to Richard Croker, the head of Tammany Hall. Tammany Hall controlled the docks and its workers (as well as their votes) and as a result of this bribery, the only ice that could be unloaded on the NYC wharves was Morse ice brought in on Morse ships.
In April 1900, Mayor Van Wyck was a guest of Charles Morse in Bath. They toured the Kennebec together, refusing to talk to the local press. The Mayor was clearly in Morse’s pocket. It is not known exactly what they discussed, but when they returned to NYC, they went into action.
The Hot Summer of 1900
The summer of 1900 was quite a hot one in New York City and ice was very much in demand. Morse attempted to use his ice trust to double, then triple the price of ice, claiming ice shortages (not at all true).
This price gouging was especially abhorrent because this was happening in the time before refrigeration and his river ice was the only preservative available to keep food, milk, and medicines fresh. The poor were again most affected by the skyrocketing prices.
This backfired on him when the newspapers, with the help of political opposition, uncovered the backroom dealings that Morse had with the Mayor and Tammany Hall.
Tammany Hall allowed Mayor Van Wyck to take the fall and there were many investigations and hearings. Morse was forced to drop the price of ice. Shortly after, he broke up the ice trust before he could be prosecuted and pocketed a cool $12 million.
Morse walked away from the ice business right as it was heading downhill. The ice monopoly was facing stiff competition from clean, electric-made ice. There were also rumors that the recent typhoid epidemic was caused by dirty ice. And the very public exposure of the illegal ice trust didn’t help.
Van Wyck was voted out of office, got married, and moved permanently to Paris with a $5 million bank account from his ice trust proceeds – as well as from kickbacks from other sweetheart deals he made as Mayor.
Charlie married his first wife, Hattie Bishop Hussey from Brooklyn in 1884 and they had 3 sons and a daughter together before she died in 1889. Then in 1901, he married his 2nd wife, Clemence Dodge, who was a divorcee from Atlanta. The best man was none other than New York Mayor Van Wyck. The couple moved into 724 Fifth Avenue, which these days sits directly across the street from Trump Tower. At the time, his neighbors included Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, Arabella Huntington and John D. Rockefeller Sr.
A few years into his 2nd marriage, Charlie was head over heels for the widow of a business associate. Charlie decided to try to get his marriage annulled. So he hired a lawyer to locate his wife’s ex-husband in Texas and bribe him to say he was never served divorce papers and was therefore still married to Clemence. This backfired when it became public, so Charlie convinced his Uncle James Morse in Bath to claim he had paid the lawyer $60K to get the marriage annulled because Charlie’s children didn’t like Clemence. As usual, Charlie got away with it while the lawyer was disbarred and Clemence’s ex-husband was convicted of perjury – although the widow did lose interest in Charlie. Charlie responded by taking Clemence to Paris for a 2nd honeymoon. I guess she got over it.
Ice wasn’t the only industry that Charles Morse had an interest in. He had been involved in shipping from an early age, and while dominating the ice industry, he built up a large fleet of ships to transport the ice. Then, starting in 1901, he began buying up and consolidating steamship companies up and down the East Coast, starting with the formation of the Eastern Steamship Company – which owned the City of Rockland from this tale.
Over the next 10 years, he managed to gobble up enough steamship companies to control travel and shipping from Canada to Cuba.
His steamships carried passengers and freight not only along the coast but up the Hudson River in New York, and the Kennebec and Penobscot Rivers in Maine, along with any river big enough to warrant regular steamship traffic. More than one steamship bore his name. His title of “Ice king” was exchanged for “Admiral of the Atlantic Coast.”
The largest purchase may have been the $10 million acquisition of JP Morgan’s New England Navigation Company made the front page of the Times. It was not the last time Morse and JP Morgan were mentioned together.
During this meteoric rise, Charles announced that he was going to provide the funding for a new high school in Bath to be named after his mother. By the time it opened in 1904, it was his name that was associated with the school, not his mother’s. The school burned and was rebuilt on the same site and then a new school, still bearing his name, was opened in 2021 in Bath.
Charles Morse, now one of the wealthiest men in New York City, set his site on the banking industry. He ended up controlling the National Bank of North America, the New Amsterdam National Bank, and was a large owner of the Mercantile National Bank.
Morse had a fairly straightforward way of gobbling up banks and steamship companies at the same time. He would first buy a controlling interest in a bank and promptly borrow money from it. With the borrowed money, he would then buy stock in a steamship company. The bank, which he controlled, would hold the steamship stock as collateral for the loan. Morse then controlled the steamship company.
The Panic of 1907
Morse was very close to F. Augustus Heinze who had made a fortune in copper mining in Montana while controlling politicians to help him in his efforts. Heinze was forced to cash out of those mining interests, moved to NYC, and took an interest in finance and banking. With Morse, he served at least six national banks, ten state banks, five trust companies and four insurance companies. He also formed the United Copper Company in 1902 to compete in the copper mining industry again.
F. Augustus’ brothers started a brokerage firm across the hall from his office, and his brother Otto hatched a scheme to corner the market in United Copper.
The Heinze brothers believed that there was a large number of investors who were shorting United Copper stock. So they devised a plan to aggressively buy United Copper stock to drive the price up, forcing a “short squeeze” where the short sellers would be forced to buy United Copper at the higher price to cover their shorts (not unlike the Reddit-fueled Gamestop adventure of 2021).
Somehow, the Heinze brothers had grossly underestimated how much stock they didn’t control so the short sellers were able to buy the stock from other sources. On October 15, 1907, their attempt to corner the market was exposed and United Copper’s stock price plummeted. Investors rushed to pull their money out of all banks associated with Heinze and Morse and move their money to more trustworthy banks.
The Knickerbocker Trust Company, the 3rd largest in NYC, collapsed – causing regional banks to withdraw funds from NYC banks. Then all over the country, people withdrew funds from regional banks, worried about the safety of their savings. This panic caused the stock market to drop almost 50% from its peak. It would have been worse, but J.P. Morgan, with the aid of his deep-pocketed friends, pledged money to prop up the banking system.
As a result, both Heinz and Morse were forced to resign from their banking interests. Morse’s steamship lines went into receivership and he was humiliated. Prosecutors went after Charles Morse, ultimately convicting him of violations of federal banking laws. He fled to Europe (for the first time) while indictments were being handed down. He was deemed to be the chief architect of the Panic. He was found guilty and in November 1908 was sentenced to 15 years in the Atlanta federal penitentiary. Heinze died in 1914 having destroyed his liver with booze.
First Taste of Prison
While temporarily filling a cell in “The Tombs,” which was a city prison in lower Manhattan, Charles and his team of lawyers fought a very public battle which included keeping his name in the newspapers to try to convince the public of his innocence while also claiming that he would not physically survive in prison due to various maladies. When William Howard Taft entered office as the 27th President, Morse and his media blitz team started working on the President, asking multiple times for a pardon.
His wife worked social circles and got prominent people to send letters of support and petitions to the government for his release. Back in Bath, where they maintained a home, she and their team had the entire City of Bath thoroughly convinced that Bath’s most famous citizen was innocent. In December 1909, the City collectively sent a telegram to President Taft asking for his release, which was signed by the Mayor of Bath, 6 ex-mayors, and a number of Maine legislators.
Morse and his people dragged it out as long as they could, but finally in January 1910, Morse reluctantly left for the Atlanta penitentiary. Before boarding the 10:43 train, he convinced the Marshall to bring him to the doors of the Tombs to meet with the assembled press who hung on his every word. He proclaimed, with tears in his eyes, that this was “the most brutal sentence ever pronounced against a citizen in a civilized country” and he was “an example of a government gone wild for a victim.” He said that he was a scapegoat for the Panic and that he was being blamed for morely doing what businessmen did regularly (and without penalty). He denounced the jury verdict and claimed that some on the jury were drunk on rum through the trial. He passed out printed copies of his statement to the press, kissed his wife and children, and headed for Atlanta.
Upon arrival, the newspapers reported that Morse tottered and “nearly collapsed at the gates”, and had to be helped in by the guard. He was laying it on thick.
Charles Morse meets Charles Ponzi
While in prison in Atlanta, Morse umpired a prison baseball game that featured Sicilian “Black Hand” leader Ignazio Lupo at first base. Lupo worked for a NYC mob family and was suspected of committing 60 murders. Charles Morse became friends with Lupo’s cellmate, one Carlo (who later went by Charles) Ponzi who was serving time for smuggling Italian immigrants into the country. Morse took Ponzi under his wing and by all accounts, became Ponzi’s mentor. What specific pearls of wisdom Morse dropped on Ponzi will never be known, but Morse may or may not have inspired Ponzi to then go on and create the pyramid scheme that will forever bear his name. When this first “Ponzi Scheme” eventually crashed, Ponzi pleaded guilty and was back in prison by 1920.
Still Running the Business
While serving his time in Atlanta, Morse continued to run his various businesses. He persuaded the Warden to allow him to send a coded message to some business associates in New York. His instructed them to short a gas company’s stock which he profited nicely off. He offered to split the proceeds with the warden but he declined. The story leaked to a newspaper editor (who happened to be a friend of Morse), who accused the warden of depriving Charlie of a bed to sleep on and of adequate food as punishment.
How to Fool a President
While in prison, Morse’s campaign for a pardon intensified. His wife and team reportedly paid off the press and politicians to lobby on his behalf – including petitioning President Taft. Morse hired political operative Harry Daugherty who had connections in high places which he used to pressure Taft. Forced to respond, Taft refused to release Morse on multiple occasions. Morse then began professing that he was too ill to serve time and should be released to die. The steady requests for leniency continued to hammer the President in the newspapers and through petitions. Morse’s physical condition worsened and they moved him to an army hospital. Taft reluctantly consulted with the Surgeon Generals of both the Army and Navy. His symptoms were consistent with Bright’s Disease, a disease of the kidneys, but Taft again denied the request to release him, feeling that he was not in immediate danger. Morse, who had already told his legal team that there was a big payday awaiting them if they got him freed, upped the payout to $100,00 upon his release. His team was motivated.
Mrs. Morse continued her personal campaign, using her considerable wealth to get help. During one session of Congress, she “invaded” the lobby of the Capitol and beseeched various Congressmen and Senators to sign her petitions to get her husband out of jail. Hundreds of thousands of signatures were gathered on his behalf. It was impressive. Taft’s team of doctors were monitoring his health on a daily basis.
Eventually, President Taft relented, and commuted Morse’s sentence in January 1912, allowing him to be freed. Morse was transferred to a hotel to recover some strength, then took a train to NYC. A few weeks later, he boarded a ship bound for Germany to try to recover in the healing spa waters. A few months later, a spry, healthy Morse returned to the U.S. and travelled to Bath to a hero’s welcome.
Taft was furious, referring to Morse as “the liveliest corpse I ever saw.” Something was amiss.
As it turns out, Morse had been fooling the super team of doctors by ingesting a cocktail of soap chips and chemicals that presented symptoms consistent with kidney failure. As soon as he stopped taking his cocktail, the symptoms went away.
The NY Times headline of November 11, 1913 read “TAFT IS CHAGRINED OVER MORSE PARDON; Recovery of “Dying” Man “Shakes One’s Faith in Expert Examinations.”
Rebirth as a War Profiteer
After a refreshed, and very much alive, Charlie Morse returned from Europe (thumbing his nose at President Taft), he immediately got back to work. He managed to buy a steamship company and some shipbuilding facilities in Connecticut and Virginia, and brought his sons into the business. When World War I broke out, he quickly threw his hand out and received “emergency fleet” funds to build 36 freighters for the war, along with leasing steamships to transport troops. By the time the war was over, he had delivered only 2 wooden ships and no steel ships. In the end, he delivered only 22 ships (the remaining contracts were then cancelled), and he used a good portion of the funds to build capacity at his shipyards. His cheating once again caught up with him and Morse was indicted for war profiteering and defrauding the United States (for the construction and sale of the freighters and using federal money to improve his shipyards). He was also charged with mail fraud for solicitations to buy stock related to his shipbuilding efforts.
He responded like any shady gangster and filed a series of lawsuits. But in an ironic twist, President Harding’s new attorney general was the same Harry Daugherty that Morse had bribed to help get him out of prison. It turns out that Morse had never delivered the promised “big payout” if Daugherty got him out of prison. Sensing another prison stint, Charlie once again fled for Europe. While there, he of course claimed innocence, and then when Daugherty’s role in the fake illness and subsequent Presidential pardon became known, the case against Charlie and sons lost steam. The Justice Department tried to press on with mail fraud charges, but charges of corruption within the Harding administration coupled with Morse’s complicated maze of loans, corporations, and business transactions delayed legal proceedings for years. The government did manage to win a substantial civil suit against Morse for his war profiteering.
The Last Years
Clemence Morse had a stroke and died in August of 1926 and Charlie had his own stroke soon after. His condition worsened to the point where doctors and the court determined he was no longer mentally competent: all remaining charges related to mail fraud were then dropped. Charlie lived a few more years and died January 12, 1933 in Bath and was buried at Oak Grove Cemetery.