If only we could send messages to the past: Skip the play, Mr. Lincoln; double-check your navigation, Amelia Earhart; Elvis, dump the pills; Luther Burbank, beware the men running operations in your name because they are about to destroy your reputation.
Burbank drifted through the years 1913-1915 unaware, for the most part, the people he trusted were undoing everything he had struggled to build for over thirty years. The root of the problem was the same weakness Burbank had shown before; he wasn’t paying attention because he just wanted to work with his plants (his similar tribulations with the Carnegie Institution and the years 1905-1910 are covered in the four part “BURBANK FOLLIES” series). “I have no time to make money,” he told the Press Democrat in 1912. “I’ve more important work to do.” Add in his complete lack of any executive management skills and it’s no great surprise that things went so wrong.
(RIGHT: Color photograph of Luther Burbank, 1913. Frontpiece for volume 1, “Luther Burbank: His Methods and Discoveries”)
This article covers just 1913, the year Burbank turned 64, and the issues with the Luther Burbank Society and Burbank Press. The problems of the Burbank Company – which sold seeds and live plants – first became apparent in 1914 and will be covered in a following essay. The 1915-1916 crash of the entire empire will be the final part of this series.
First, a note on sources: The most common reference about Burbank is Peter Dreyer’s 1985 biography, “A Gardener Touched With Genius” (sold at the Luther Burbank Home & Gardens). Dreyer drew upon unpublished correspondence, the manuscript of a critical biography which never made it to print and Walter L. Howard’s book-length 1945 monograph, “Luther Burbank A Victim of Hero Worship.” A professor of botany at UC/Davis, Dr. Howard knew Burbank (who respected him as a colleague) and also interviewed many in Burbank’s sphere. After reading “Victim” front-to-back this week, I came to realize Howard’s research – and often his exact words – can probably be found on every page of Dreyer’s book.
I am not starting a bonfire and calling out Dreyer for plagiarism, but he should have identified Howard as a primary source in the text and footnotes to a far greater degree. This is not simply a matter of academic etiquette; Dreyer’s work also mirrors those parts of Howard’s book which were weak. For example, both authors dismissively called Oscar Binner a “professional promoter,” unaware he had a storied career as a top Madison Avenue ad man. It was Binner who transformed “Luther Burbank” into a nationally-known brand name, an important part of the Burbank story glossed over in Howard’s work and an omission inherited by Dreyer. (For more on Binner and Burbank, read “SELLING LUTHER BURBANK.”)
Binner and Burbank had a fractious relationship stretching back to 1908. Burbank loathed the grubby chore of making money; a profile in “The County Gentleman” magazine said his friends agreed he was “simple as a child” when it came to business affairs and was resigned to depending on others to market his name and works for him.1 Binner believed Burbank was a genius in need of the kind of handling he could uniquely provide. In a private letter to Nellie Comstock, he wrote: “I do not misunderstand L. B. not a bit of it. L. B. misunderstands himself. When he finds himself, then he will see what is best for him and best for all time and all the world.”2
Binner abruptly disappeared from the picture in the spring of 1912. An item in the Republican newspaper reported he became an invalid because of an enlarged heart; he returned East and a couple of years later resumed his ad agency on Madison Avenue, dying in 1917. But before leaving Santa Rosa he undoubtedly played a role in setting up the Burbank Society, which was formed the month after he left, and the Burbank Press which was created shortly thereafter. The money to buy him out and fund the new startups came from an investment group formed by William M. Abbott, a Solano county land developer and litigation attorney for a San Francisco railway. (Among the more interesting investors were C.W. Post of breakfast cereal fame and beer baron Gustave Pabst.)
“From the beginning everything was planned on a grand scale,” Walter Howard wrote. “The essential advertising of Burbank had already been done, for he had been publicized as few men have been during their lifetime. He had a legion of followers whose admiration was based on sentiment, and his name already was becoming a legend. The time seemed to be ripe for cashing-in on his popularity.”3
The Burbank Society was the non-profit parent of Burbank Press, both aimed at promoting the encyclopedic work about his plant-breeding methods. Of course, that multi-volume set did not yet exist in 1912, despite five years of writing by a string of editors hired by Binner and an earlier publisher. Even though there was no foreseeable completion date, they began selling subscriptions for the books immediately.
“Advertise before you start to manufacture your article,” Robert John, one of the three directors of the Society told the San Francisco Advertising Association that August. “I am of the opinion that goods may be sold much easier before manufacture than after.”
In a few short months, the Society/Press ramped up a massive direct mail marketing campaign sending out 170,000 advertisements, making it the largest operation of its kind on the West Coast. Taking over the old Odd Fellows’ building on Courthouse Square, they had 75 employees, mainly young women, typing and filing and mailing correspondence and the Santa Rosa post office had to be upgraded to handle the volume. For more, see the Press Democrat articles transcribed below and read “LET’S ALL WORK FOR LUTHER BURBANK.”
While the PD was thrilled about all those envelopes being mailed, some recipients were less than happy about the junk mail. A magazine for southwestern ranchers commented, “The Luther Burbank Society has been conducting a campaign for funds and membership throughout the United States for a number of months in a manner which has placed Mr. Burbank in a very equivocal position and has as a matter of act made his name largely a joke throughout the country.”4
“One End of the Correspondence Room” Press Democrat, November 2, 1913
One pitch was an invitation to be a charter member of the Luther Burbank Society which supposedly would be limited to a roster of 500. Members would receive proofs of book chapters as they became available and invited to help edit and comment (none of that would happen). In gratitude this elite corps would be allowed to purchase the books as they became available for the low, low price of $15 per volume. Walter Howard told the story that he was a junior instructor in the botany department in the University of Missouri at the time. “My own invitation stressed the importance of quick acceptance as it was pointed out that only a few of the most important people of the United States were being invited and that I had the honor of being one of the number. To empahasize this point the invitations bore serial numbers. Mine was somewhere in the seventies,” he wrote. Howard threw it out, believing it had been sent to him by mistake. Then a few weeks later the same offer appeared again, and with an even lower serial number. So this was what kept their large office pool so busy.
There was still the matter of finishing and publishing the Burbank books – which were, of course, supposedly the main reason for the Society/Press to exist. When Binner abruptly exited, Prof. Edward Wickson, the esteemed head of the U/C Agricultural College was plowing away on the task; one of the few in the scientific community who had always championed Burbank, he was at least the fifth editor to work on the project.
The Burbank Press dismissed him, refusing to pay or even acknowledge his contributions – while still using his name in advertising literature. Wickson begged Burbank for help in resolve these affronts but Burbank demurred, telling his old friend he didn’t want to get involved. This incident did much to sour Burbank’s relationship with any remaining sympathetic academics. When Howard stopped by to Santa Rosa in 1915, Burbank seemed puzzled by his isolation. “Why is it you people don’t vist me oftener? Professor Wickson used to come to see me and now even he doesn’t come any more. What have I done[?]”5
In Prof. Wickson’s place they hired Dr. Henry Smith Williams, a prolific author of popular science magazine articles and books. His most prominent work to that date was a five-volume series, “A History of Science” which reviewers found heavy on imaginative writing concerning the discovery of fire and smelting but quickly skating past events like Lavoisier’s development of modern chemistry.
On the Burbank project Williams continued to embellish and play fast and loose with facts. “Even though Burbank furnished him with tens of thousands of words – in answer to questions – the insatiable editor did not find this enough for his purposes. In discussing the scientific aspects of plant breeding he interpolated paragraphs and sometimes whole pages of his own ideas, palpably not Burbank’s,” Howard remarked, adding Williams would also fluff up descriptions so “the most commonplace incidents in a gardener’s life, such as budding and grafting, were made to appear marvelous.” And here’s the worst of it: Since the entire set was supposedly written by Luther Burbank in first person, the result was that Burbank came off as an idiot to educated readers. But hey, at least Dr. Williams worked fast and the first volume was ready for the printers before the end of 1913.
Until those books started selling – and in great quantity – Burbank Press needed income; its payroll was $6,000 per month (about $150k today) and Luther had been promised an advance of $30,000 plus royalties on every book.
To raise money, Burbank Press announced an unusual $300,000 bond issue in late 1912, only a few months after the company was formed. Full page ads appeared in both Santa Rosa newspapers that November offering a five year $500 coupon note, with $125 of Burbank Press stock thrown in to sweeten the deal. The bond promised a seven percent return at a time when blue chip bonds had returns in the 3-5 percent range. It was, in short, a high-risk junk bond.
The bond advertisement mentioned Burbank as often as possible, trying to make appealing the sizzle of his name instead of the financially risky steak. To Burbank followers this pitch was familiar; almost exactly a year before, the Oscar E. Binner Co. had tried to sell stock in exactly the same way, right down to the 7% return. (Copies of both ads are shown below.) Binner’s stock offer has a strong whiff of fraud; we now know even the writing was far from finished at the time, but his ad promised the books would be available for sale by May 1912. There’s even correspondence between himself and editor Wickson from that January showing the work was mired in delays because Burbank was “in conflict with himself.”6
It would take a Wall street historian to say whether all of this was legal at the time (today there are consumer protection laws to prevent the sort of bond-stock deal offered by Burbank Press from being sold directly to the general public). But another player in our story had already made a fortune through promoting junk stock: John Whitson, the vice-president of Burbank Press. He was also a fugitive, but nobody in Santa Rosa apparently knew that.
The Luther Burbank biographers are almost completely silent on the managers of the Burbank Press. President Robert John – the sell’em before you make’em speech guy – was mentioned elsewhere as a former New York reporter. He was working with Binner in 1912 and was apparently the creator of the impressive color photographs which appeared in the complete “Methods & Discoveries” set (an article about that work is still being researched). After Burbank Press crashed he became involved with motion pictures.
It’s very doubtful anyone involved with Burbank – with the possible exception of Oscar Binner or Robert John – knew much of John Whitson’s past. He was a Russian originally named Mark David Kopeliovich who went by the aliases of Whitson and Edmund Kopple. Starting in 1905, ads began appearing in New York City newspapers advertising shares in the “Whitson Autopress Company,” which supposedly had developed a revolutionary new kind of printing press capable of printing up to 5,000 sheets an hour with no human operator. It looked like a Sure Thing and stock was being sold direct to the public with a promised return of – wait for it – seven percent.
From sources currently available online we only know that in 1906 investors lost their money and Kopeliovich-Whitson walked away with an estimated $200,000. The company may have failed because he couldn’t deliver real, working machines – or maybe it fell apart because he went on the lam with his girlfriend, having abandoned his wife and two children.
In January 1906, Dr. Dicran Dadirrian, an Armenian-born pharmacist, sued John Whitson AKA “Edward R. Copple” for alienation of his wife’s affections, asking the court for $50,000 in damages. The chemist said that a “stout dark man” started popping up every time he and his wife were in public. Sometimes she and the man would steal away for hours in his automobile. Meanwhile, Mrs. Copple finds a note in her husband’s pocket from Mrs. Dadirrian and discovers the pair were about to flee to Europe.
A few weeks later, a Reno, NV paper reported Mr. Kopeliovich showed up and asked to change his name to John G. Whitson. He told the court he had been using that name since 1900 and had also used “Kopple” as a shortened form of his Russian original. But now he had decided Kopeliovich was just too lengthy and there was “a notorious or reputed crook” using the name “E. A. Kopple” (without mentioning it was himself). The name change to Whitson was granted because, you know, Reno.
After the pair spent most of the rest of 1906 in California, Whitson returned to Reno just before Christmas to seek a divorce from the wife he abandoned. He claimed she had deserted him and her whereabouts were unknown; their children were not mentioned. A notice of divorce was published in a Nevada weekly paper. Whitson and his fiancee – who may or may not still have been married to Dr. Dadirrian – were off to London for their nuptials. Not to get too far ahead of the story, but it turned out the Reno divorce wasn’t valid and Whitson was finally arrested shortly after Burbank Press collapsed.
And so Burbank’s year of 1913 ended with the celebrated horticulturist unaware the VP of Burbank Press was a bigamist who had no apparent background in publishing but experience selling chancy stock. The books he hoped would establish his legacy as a great scientist were being ghost-written by a hack. And on the edge of Courthouse Square, a platoon of young women were churning out an ocean of envelopes sent on his behalf, almost all destined to be soon crumpled in the wastebaskets of distant gardeners.
November 9, 1911 Chicago Tribune – November 2, 1912 Santa Rosa Republican
1 “Luther Burbank–Limited” by Barton Currie in “The County Gentleman”, reprinted in the Press Democrat, July 26, 1913
2 Oscar Binner letter to Nellie Comstock, February 25, 1910; Luther Burbank Home and Gardens archives
3pg 388, “Luther Burbank A Victim of Hero Worship” by Walter L. Howard, Chronica Botanica ,1945-6
4pg 390, ibid
5pg 316, ibid
6pg 185, “A Gardener Touched With Genius” by Peter Dreyer, 1985
The Luther Burbank Press delivered the first 20,000 letters to the Santa Rosa Postoffice on Wednesday Night of a 300,000 consignment which will go through the mails within the next fifteen days.
This means that 20,000 letters per day for fifteen days will have to be handled by the postoffice employees. A force of seven men was put at work at 7 o’clock Wednesday night and with the assistance of Postmaster H. L. Tripp and Assistant John Pursell, themselves, the entire batch will be worked up and sent off in the Thursday morning main at 5:50 over the Southern Pacific.
This consignment of mail alone means $6,000 receipts for two-cent stamps sold by the Santa Rosa office. The letters are all being routed by States and tied up in packages for each town by the clerks before they are placed in the mail sacks and will not be touched again until they reach the State to which they are directed.
In addition to this batch of 300,000 letters the Luther Burbank Press has notified the office that it wants 25,000 ten-cent stamps of the Panama-Pacific Exposition issue for immediate use as well as about the same quantity of postcards in sheets of forty eight cards each. These cards will be printed and enclosed with other matter in envelopes which will require between 10 and 12 cents postage each. All this is to be furnished the office within a very short time, a portion of it while the present big order is running.
In line with its policy of building a large and permanent organization in Santa Rosa, the Luther Burbank Press now announces the arrival of Dr. Henry Smith Williams of New York, who is to assume the position of Chief of Editorial Staff.
Dr. Williams, perhaps better than any other living author, is known as foremost in the field of popular science writing. Almost every issue of such magazines as Cosmopolitan, Everybody’s and the other standard high class periodicals contains something from his pen, as well as the scientific journals which are eager for his lucid and interesting presentations of scientific and technical subjects.
Dr. Williams enjoys the distinction of having first placed himself at the head of his particular division in the medical profession, after which, at an age at which most men are content with their laurels, he entered a new field and became the greatest living popularizer of natural science and history in America.
In addition to his voluminous current writing, he numbers among his books such works as “The Historian’s History of the World”, in 25 volumes, of which he was the author, “The Story of the Nineteenth Century Science”, “The History of the Art of Writing”, “The Effects of Alcohol”, “A History of Science”, “The Science of Happiness”, “Race Conquest”, “Every Day Science”, and many other single volumes and sets of which he has been the author, which give him unmistakable range among the great educators of the generation.
The Luther Burbank Press, in its quest for a head for its Editorial Department, found that eleven out of twelve of the foremost editors consulted referred instantly to Dr. Williams as the best obtainable man for the place, and the twelfth editor said afterward that he had suggested another only because he believed Dr. Williams could not be persuaded to give up his work in New York.
Dr. Williams brings to his present task in Santa Rosa the fullest equipment as scientist, as historical investigator and as a popular writer. He has the rare faculty of being able to write entertainingly on scientific subjects, and has done more, perhaps, than any other living writer to popularize the many branches of science.
Mr. Burbank after more than ten years of labor is now finishing his manuscript, and Dr. Williams first work will be to assist Mr. Burbank in the final arrangement of these writings. Dr. Williams will live at the Overton Hotel for the present.
“Here,” said the General Manager of the Luther Burbank Press, to a Press Democrat writer, as he picked up a letter which had just been opened, “is an order for a set of the Burbank Books in the $81.00 edition.
“It comes, as you see, from a small town in Iowa, and is but one of something over one hundred orders in this day’s mail, the average volume of the present business being about $5,000 per day.
“This order, like the others, was received in response to the advertising sent out by the company, and I should like to show you how quickly we can find for you its whole history.
“In the next room,” he continued, handing the order to a young woman, “we have more than a million separate cards, filed alphabetically by state, each card bearing the name, address and correspondence record of some inquirer after the Burbank Books–more than a million names of interested prospective purchasers who have been attracted by the advertising which the Burbank Press has sent out from Santa Rosa.”
Almost as the manager had finished speaking, the young woman returned with the original inquiry card of the purchaser, together with all of the correspondence in the case–giving not only the full name and address, but the occupation of the inquirer and the source through which the inquiry was received, and a complete record of all letters and printed matter which had been sent.
[…description of the bookkeeping and inventory systems…]
By a simple method the work of each employee is tabulated in such a way that, whether the duty be typewriting, hand addressing, carding, listing, checking, filing, or what not, the whole record of the employee, day by day, is evident at a glance.
While no piece-work is done, yet the salaries paid are based upon these actual day-by-day counts of the quantity and correctness of the work done.
Quantity, in fact, is secondary to correctness in advancement, a complete system of demerits, penalizing each mistake having been adopted. The employees thus vie with each other not only in seeing who can accomplish the most work, but also in seeing who can make the fewest mistakes. Both the quantity of work done and the mistakes charged against each operator are charted on blackboards prominently displayed in the large work room, and the daily task is thus given the added zest of competition.
In order that no overstrain may result from this competition, the working day is broken up into four periods instead of two, the first period being from eight until ten minutes of ten, the second from ten until noon, the third from one till twenty minutes of three, and the fourth from three to five. During the recesses, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, the employees are urged to dismiss work from their minds, and, in fair weather, to leave the building…