For many years before his retirement from business Mr. Skipwith was closely associated with the firm of Henry Hentz & Co., 22 William Street, New York, one of the largest cotton brokers in the country. He was a member of the Cotton Exchange and he spent much of his time on the Floor.
When I visited him in 1900 he frequently took me with him on the Floor. I was much interested in the proceedings there and I asked him many questions.
I recall one story that he told me and which, for want of a better name, I shall call
AN UNFORTUNATE BREAK
This story is concerned with a man from St. Louis, whose name, having been long forgotten by me, I shall, as a matter of convenience, assume to have been Henry White.
Henry was a handsome, slightly graying, man in his early forties, a prominent broker in the city and the head of his own firm, which he had, in some years time, built up to be an important and successful one. He was married, had several children, all in school, lived in an expensive house, and his style of living reflected his business prosperity.
However, during the six or eight months preceding the date with which this account may be said to begin -- and to end, he had been continuously on the wrong side of the market. In vain efforts to recoup his finances, he had, in gradually increasing speculations, practically exhausted his financial resources.
His family was quite ignorant of this situation and, in the hope that his luck would soon change, he was determined that they should not be subjected to the uncertainty and distress of learning of the actual state of affairs.
He was one of the keenest analysts in the cotton business, and he made up his mind that as soon as he felt entirely confident in his judgement that conditions at the time rendered a rise in the price of cotton a practical certainty, he would mortgage his home and raise all the cash he could in every other way possible, and would buy, on margin, all the cotton he could.
With this in mind he went to New York to be on the ground. He was a member of the Cotton Exchange and he spent a day or two on the Floor, noting the fluctuations in the market. At that time (and, so far as I know, now) the market in the New York Cotton Exchange opened each morning at the opening figure on the Liverpool Exchange, as received by cable, and thereafter followed the Liverpool market.
The behavior of the market being such as to strengthen his opinion one day that the market next morning, on opening, would rise, he prepared to buy, on the opening of the market next morning, on margin, all the cotton he could.
During the night he paced back and forth in his room, being unable to sleep. Next morning he shaved and was dressed early and was on the Floor nearly half an hour before the market opened. Again he paced back and forth, keeping out of the way of all his friends and nervously awaiting the opening. When the first quotation was received, in accordance with his plan he bought in.
To his consternation, the following quotations received indicated that the market had gone down instead of up, and it appeared in a few minutes that he was hopelessly bankrupt.
Great excitement prevailed on the Floor and it was not noticed that he soon walked rapidly to the exit and left the Exchange. Inquiry later showed that he had gone back to his room at the hotel and, after writing a note to his wife, had put a bullet through his head.
In about five minutes after he had left the Exchange, the cable quotations stopped. After a few minutes they were resumed, but, to the amazement of the crowd on the Floor, they were considerably higher than the ones previously received and they were still rising.
What had happened was that, for the first (and, I believe, the only) time in the history of the Cotton Exchange, the cable had been tampered with. It eventually developed that a cable operator at the station where the cable landed had been bribed to break the cable circuit at the time the market opened, send in quotations showing a decline in the market for five minutes, then to restore the circuit so that the correct quotations were received in New York.
As things worked out Henry White's family were left very well off, and, presumably, after a reasonable period of time lived as happily as could be expected.
The moral of this tale, if any, is that in ending one's life the timing is sometimes a very important consideration. If it is done too soon, the whole thing may prove to have been just a waste of time.