Geoff Cobb’s latest book, “The Rise and Fall of the Sugar Trade,” is a poignant account of one man’s successful monopoly on the sugar production and distribution of the day, more accurately, between the years 1844 and 1909. The events described in the book took place in Williamsburg, now a trendy section of Brooklyn, New York, where multi million dollar commercial and housing developments are slowly erasing the neighborhood’s industrial and grimy past.
Mr. Cobb’s latest book, tells the tale of one man, Henry Havemeyer, whose unmitigated greed and penchant for corruption created one of the largest sugar conglomerates in the United States. Mr. Havemeyer’s success, of course, rode on the backs of an untold number of grossly underpaid, blatantly exploited sugar workers, who toiled day in day out, under horrific working conditions in his sugar refineries. Let’s also take into account the sad fact that the prospects of a better job for these workers, many of them poorly educated immigrants, were nil.
Mr. Cobb’s narrative is written with eloquence, great historical insight, and a deep understanding of the socio-economic forces that shaped the political and social landscape of North Brooklyn, and beyond.
I greatly recommend “The Rise and Fall of the Sugar King.”
For years his wanted poster had hung in the Meserole Avenue Police station, but there was not a trace of Charles Bergstrom to be found. Bergstrom was wanted for being an accomplice in the worst prison break in Sing-Sing history. He had become a wanted man for helping three of his buddies to break out of the maximum-security prison, and four people had lost their lives as a result of the breakout.
Bergstrom who had been a longshoreman on the Greenpoint waterfront had also spent a lot of time in prison. He had been arrested eleven times and served five prison sentences. His crimes, stretching back twenty years, included rape, robbery and carrying concealed weapons. In 1930, he was sentenced to Sing Sing where he befriended Joseph Riordan, Charles McHale and John Walters. When he left prison, he stayed in contact with the escapees who had formulated a plan to bust out of prison. There were two other accomplices who had also participated in the nine-month plan. The prisoners had over months loosened gratings in tunnels, fabricated keys and assembled guns, thanks to Bergstrom and the other accomplices who had smuggled the necessary material in a milk truck that visited the prison.
On April 14th 1941 Bergstrom headed from Greenpoint to the prison in Ossining in a stolen car with a machine gun in the back seat. The prisoners had faked illness so that they could gain entrance to the prison hospital. Inside the hospital they shot and killed a prison guard and then escaped. The prison break was detected and the fugitives ended up in a gun battle with the Ossining Police that killed one of the police officers. The escapees were apprehended and two of them died in the electric chair. Bergstrom escaped, but his role in the escape was discovered
The police searched for years Bergstrom, but he eluded them by joining the air force and serving four years in Europe. He should have known better than return to Greenpoint, but he wanted to visit his ex-wife who lived in their apartment at 151 Green Street. She was clearly frightened by Bergstrom’s return on July 30, 1945. Patrolmen driving down Green Street heard her screams from the fire escape. She told them that Bergstrom had returned and had broken a window to gain entrance to the apartment.
The police arrested Bergstrom who denied his true identity, claiming that he was private James Ryan of the Air Force. Ryan had served heroically in the ninth air force, fighting in six major battles. After eight hours of interrogation, Bergstrom broke down and admitted his true identity. He pled guilty to aiding the escapees and was sentenced to seven years in prison.
In my book ” The Rise and Fall of the Sugar King” one of the characters is the great Irish church architect Patrick Keely whose first church was Sts. Peter and Paul on South Second Street in Williamsburg.
This is from Amazon by a reader: Well written and lively, Cobb has succeeded in bringing to life an underappreciated slice of New York history. Focused on the story of Henry Havemeyer, Cobb’s history weaves a tableau that includes the stories of the varied residents of the fast-evolving Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg at the height of its industrialization. A great read, and a great addition to Cobb’s other North Brooklyn histories. I highly recommend!
Come to Word Bookstore January 18th for an evening of local history.