Readers will have an exhilarating time with M. B. B. Biskupski’s vivid biography of Louis N. Hammerling (1870–1935), an enigma to many as “a pathological liar, crook, swindler, ruthless entrepreneur, and a patriot—of which nation he could never decide” (p. 3). In this short volume, Biskupski has done what many social historians dream of writing—reconstructing the life of someone who left a small paper trail. A leading expert of Polish and Polish-American history, Biskupski located shreds of evidence in seventy-four archival collections in America, Great Britain, Poland, Canada, and Austria to painstakingly tell the story of the most significant Polish-immigrant voice at the turn of the twentieth century.
Biskupski’s work serves three major functions. First, he tells an amazing yarn about an infamous but, at times, sad historical character. Hammerling emerges as a person able to work in the shadows of political, labor, and business deals. He was the confidant of many important people, but as Biskupski notes, “Memory loss of awkward or potentially incriminating events seems to have plagued poor Hammerling” [End Page 268] (p. 27). He was involved in many nefarious business schemes such as incorporating a business in New Jersey at $200,000 to exhibit coal at the St. Louis Exposition, smuggling diamonds from Austria, and smuggling money into Poland. But he was also a champion of immigrants, speaking out often against immigration-restriction policies and using his newspapers to criticize the notorious Dillingham Commission of 1911. Second, the author fills a gap in the literature on immigrant assimilation and the role of middle- and upper-class immigrant brokers in assisting new arrivals in their host countries. Finally, Biskupski produces a truly transnational history through one man’s complex life. His thorough research abroad highlights the many transnational connections in World War I counterintelligence and immigrant politics between the host and former countries.
The book is divided into eight chapters highlighting key roles Hammerling played in his convoluted career. A Polish-Jewish immigrant who converted to Catholicism, Hammerling hailed from Drohojów, a Galician village of mixed Polish, Ukrainian, and Jewish populations. In the late nineteenth century, Hammerling wandered across Europe, to Pennsylvania anthracite country, and even to Hawaii’s sugar fields. The entrepreneurial Hammerling served as a key broker for John Mitchell during the 1902 coal strike, helped Republicans as their agent in “actively buying immigrant votes” (p. 31), was friends with Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and was the “advertising broker to the immigrant press” (p. 11). His control of the American Association of Foreign Language Newspapers (AAFLN) made him a wealthy man by his thirties. Biskupski’s coverage of the AAFLN is fascinating and sheds new light on the role of pro-business immigrant propaganda that discouraged socialism and “suggested” at which “established American business firms” to seek employment (p. 31).
His successes were also his undoing. He engaged in several “get-rich-quick” schemes, and his AAFLN business engaged in sketchy business practices. There were no directors, no meetings, and no meeting minutes kept; Hammerling paid dividends only to those [End Page 269] who expected them, fixed the books giving himself an extra cut of profits, and had several employees every year take company records to the boiler room and burn them. His AAFLN office in Manhattan’s Woolworth Building was a center of duplicitous financial dealings, hair-brained schemes, and political espionage. Bribes were exchanged, like Hammerling’s role with Percy Andrea, the brewing industry’s agent. Hammerling made $83,000 from 1913 to 1915, carrying liquor advertising in his newspaper without registering it as such, a violation of an act of Congress. This came while hiding that the brewers paid him to publish their articles under his name and give paid speeches nationwide against prohibition. His Manhattan office was even the site of a supposed fight with Leon Trotsky!
Hammerling’s life was forever tainted by his pro-German associations during World War I...