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0 Comments | Jun 21, 2017

The Fletcher Legacy

ParkSt_ca1860_Boston_LOC210034vMonday, January 12, 1903, 8:45 p.m.

Conrad Fletcher lay dead, or seemingly so, on the floor of his capacious upstairs library. A crystal highball glass lay unbroken beside him, its contents spilt out and soaked into the carpet on which Fletcher lay. Oddly, none of the assembled guests leapt to the aid of the stricken man. Instead they simply stood about the library, a few looking at Fletcher, but most making a point of not looking at him, as though either seeking some measure of plausible deniability or perhaps expecting others to do whatever was appropriate to the situation. At last, however, Giles Prescott knelt beside Fletcher’s prostrate form and leaned in closely, his hand, then his ear to the fallen man’s mouth. After a moment so posed, he rose, shaking his head ruefully. While there was considerable murmuring amongst the assembled, there continued to be no rush to administer to Fletcher’s aid beyond the perfunctory assessment rendered by Prescott. Considering the circumstances, it was more than a little striking the insouciance with which the group stood looking on, only speaking quietly amongst themselves, as though a prone unmoving body on the floor in the middle of a formal South Boston gathering was the most natural of occurrences.

Fletcher was a man universally loathed, not only by those who knew him, but also by the population at large, who frequently had occasion to learn of his odious actions and opinions through the media, for whom he had no more regard than they for him. He was an inarguably successful businessman, primarily, it must be said, as a consequence of his utter ruthlessness and disregard for those in his employ, men he would sack at the first provocation and from whom he demanded a crushing work schedule without the slightest concern for their health, their family, or their friends. His most recent observation, quoted in the previous Sunday’s early edition of the Boston Herald, had surprised no one. “If you’re expecting to have a personal life, do not expect to work for me.” And yet, as heinous as was his view of professional life, the real source of the public’s hatred for the man stemmed from his unrepentant and brutal bigotry.

Conrad Fletcher was a member of the Boston Fletchers, whose original progenitor, Moses Fletcher, was documented as having arrived on the Mayflower herself in 1620. Fletcher made damned sure that everyone he encountered was aware of this fact, taking care, as well, to ensure that anyone with a lesser provenance than his own was made to feel as far beneath him as could possibly be achieved. There was a distinct pecking order that governed his interactions with the rest of humanity, beginning with other New Englanders of Western European extraction, whom he suffered to work for his company and be in his presence, so long as they acknowledged from time to time his superior breeding. A notch beneath this small but fortunate collection of Brahmins resided the rest of Caucasian America, with the general rule being that the farther south and west one resided from New England, the further down the cultural and socioeconomic scale one resided as well. But even this unfortunate rabble (the worst, in Fletcher’s view, being Californians) he regarded as tolerable members of the human race, if grudgingly accepted members of the nation in which he lived. His especial contempt was reserved for the rapidly growing class of Americans who had had the temerity to be born with other than white skin.

So total was his hatred of non-whites that it nearly counts as a virtue to say that at least he regarded all members of these races—whether African, South American, Asian, or otherwise—as being equally repugnant and deserving of nothing but vitriol and abuse. Whether you were black, brown, yellow, or red (for he regarded native Americans with no higher esteem than other non-whites, their original ownership of the country notwithstanding) mattered not a whit to Fletcher, and he took inordinate pride in the consistency with which he denounced all such peoples, both collectively and, when opportunity presented itself, directly and personally. He was fluent in every derogatory and defamatory term that could be employed to deride a human being, and he used them all with such proficiency that he seemed to positively delight in it.

With the dawn of the twentieth century only a couple of years in the rear view mirror, attitudes toward members of differing cultures were, to put it kindly, still evolving. There were yet many alive who had spent their youths as slaves on southern plantations, and one could even encounter the occasional southwesterner who had fought either against or along side of Santa Anna around the middle of the preceding century. This first decade of the new century was a time when even the whitest of European immigrants was regarded with a mix of scorn and suspicion. Those whose skin was of darker hue were routinely made to feel beneath inferior, and by and large counted themselves fortunate to hold down a regular job and to know whence their next meal was coming. Still, despite (or perhaps because of) conditions of the time being already routinely miserable for such people, Conrad Fletcher felt it his duty, as well as his pleasure, to make their lot in life even worse by chastising and berating them at every conceivable opportunity.

“It is a genuine pity,” he had opined to a newspaper editor just two years previous, “that that blasted liberal Lincoln felt the need to free these heathen darkies. Slavery was a perfectly generous and humane system for them, one befitting their limited mental abilities, and one which, by the by, also had the salutary effect of keeping low the price of textiles in this country. And besides, it’s not as though the miserable wretches have the wits to know what to do with their freedom anyway. The only sensible recourse at this point is to ship every last one of them back to that broiling cesspool whence they were snatched in the first place.”

Fletcher would not suffer a black or brown man to so much as enter his field of vision, and when the occasional one broached this solemn rule, he could expect to receive a prompt and cruel barrage of epitaphs in response. Fletcher was immensely wealthy and had a houseful of servants, all of them white. When he ate at restaurants, he demanded before ordering to personally inspect the kitchen and the individuals who would be in any way involved in the preparation of his food. It was all he could do to take a trip by train and not first inspect the locomotive cab for signs of darkness amongst the crew. Fletcher was, in short, a miserable, mean, bigoted bastard who also happened to be the seventeenth wealthiest man in the state of Massachusetts. And he now lay dead on the floor of his own library.

Why, one might reasonably ask, given the foregoing account, would nine of Boston’s most highly regarded politicians and businessmen choose to congregate with Fletcher in his library on this bitter winter’s evening? The reason was as simple and ancient as civilization itself. Given a choice between money and morality, money will win the day more often than not. And since Fletcher had more of it than everyone else in the room combined, they were prepared to overlook any and all personal foibles if doing so might increase their odds of successfully partaking at the trough of Conrad Fletcher. Indeed, one of the more incongruous things about the man was that, despite his reputation for meanness and bigotry, he was not at all shy about spreading his money around for civic and political causes. His supporters (who were few) pointed to his many donations as proof that despite all the slanderous publicity, his was in truth a good and generous soul. His detractors (who were legion) simply regarded his apparent generosity as a sham, the actions of a man attempting to buy his way into the city’s (and quite possibly eternity’s) good graces. On this particular evening, the cause in question was a new wing for Boston General Hospital, and the discussion over drinks was two-fold: how much the wing was likely to cost, and what portion of that total Fletcher’s contribution would need to comprise in order to secure perpetual naming rights. The mix of men in the room comprised either civic leaders who might benefit politically from shepherding the project along or contractors who stood to earn revenue from the project once construction commenced in earnest.

Every man in the room was already long-since in Fletcher’s debt for past projects, favors, or emoluments of one sort or another, none more so than Giles Prescott, three-term City Councilman for Boston’s Sixth District. No fewer than five buildings in Prescott’s district had Fletcher’s fingerprints on them, either financially or politically. Nevertheless, despite the many preceding years of close business and political ties between the two men, for most of the half hour preceding the evening’s grim denouement, Prescott had stood in a far corner of the library, almost seeming to avoid Fetcher, conversing instead in hushed tones with Willis Brentwood, head of Boston’s most prestigious architectural firm, one of two competing for the privilege of designing the new wing.


Same night, 8:15 p.m. (thirty minutes earlier)

Clay Fletcher had finished putting away the day’s work, closed up his Bleeker Street office, and was preparing to make his way home by the same route he employed every night. It was only seven blocks to his row house on Belvue Avenue, and even though it was the dead of a Boston winter and each breath created gossamer vapor clouds in the night air, Clay found the night air bracing, a perfect antidote to a long day spent writing and editing legal documents. His plan for the evening was relaxing if unexciting. He would enjoy dinner with his wife Martha, and then settle in for a few chapters of the newest Henry James novel, which she had only just purchased for him the day previous.

Clay was invariably the last to leave the office each night, as befits the founding partner of a nascent law firm, and it was precisely a quarter past eight when he stepped through the office door, checked the lock one final time, and carefully descended the five snow-covered steps to the sidewalk. Despite the cold and the advancing hour, a few other pedestrians made their way along the walk as well, so that when one man in particular, distinctive in a dark cape and top hat approached, Clay thought little of it.

“Mister Fletcher, isn’t it?” the man said.

“Yes, that’s right,” Clay replied, accepting the man’s proffered hand. “Clay Fletcher.

“Mister Fletcher, a good evening to you, and may I say that it’s a genuine pleasure to make your acquaintance. I wonder if you might be so good as to share with me the time.”

“Seems the least I can do,” Clay said, glancing at the watch that hung from his waist chain. “It is precisely eight fifteen, my good man.”

“Why,” said the stranger, “that’s absolutely perfect. Right on schedule.”

“Perfect for wha—”

In slid the knife, so skillfully wielded in the right hand of the caped man, so surgically well directed between Clay’s ribs as to have penetrated his heart before he had a chance to utter even the faintest cry. Before the stricken man had even dropped to the sidewalk, before the first passer-by had even noticed the poor man’s plight, the caped man was gone, vanished into the night like a phantom.


Friday, December 19, 1902, 2:15 p.m. (twenty-four days earlier)

“Gentlemen, there is but a single item on our agenda for this meeting, and so I trust we can make short work of it and proceed then to the more entertaining aspects of our evening,” by which Conrad Fletcher was doubtless referring to the sumptuous French restaurant a few short blocks away which he had taken the liberty of reserving in its entirety for the ten men now gathered in the boardroom of his corporate office on Bentley Street. The group had been assembled some weeks earlier to serve as the board of directors for a new charitable organization conceived and created by Fletcher for the purpose of distributing the majority of his copious assets in the few remaining years that he realistically felt himself to have remaining on this earth. Fletcher had but a single heir, a son now in full adulthood and doing perfectly fine in his own right, with no need of his father’s fortune. Besides which, the father and son weren’t exactly on the best of terms, if not outright estranged, and Conrad Fletcher felt no need to bequeath countless millions to his son, Clay, who had, for reasons unclear, opted to have no affiliation whatever with any of his father’s business concerns and who had instead attended Harvard Law School and was now a practicing attorney in another part of Boston. Their strained relationship notwithstanding, the son had been offered one of the ten board positions on the trust, but had declined this opportunity as well without expounding on his reasons. In truth, the nuances of the relationship were known only to the two, the boy’s mother having passed on several years previous. And so, it was (and would remain) unclear whether the old man was proposing to now give away his vast estate out of a genuine sense of community, out of spite for the boy, or simply to do what he could to spread his name far and wide in the interest of posterity in the short time he had remaining. To the members of the board now assembled, it was felt to be some combination of the three, with the balance leaning principally toward the latter. The meeting now in session was for the purpose of putting the final touches on the bylaws that would govern the newly formed charitable trust, named—predictably and uncreatively—the Conrad Fletcher Memorial Trust.

“Giles,” Fletcher said, “I wonder if you would you be so good as to read the draft bylaw language that is up for final adoption.”

Prescott lifted the single page that lay before him on the long conference room table and began to read for the assembled members.

“It is the express purpose of the Conrad Fletcher Memorial Trust to promote the greater Boston community by identifying worthy charitable causes throughout the greater metropolitan area and supporting these causes through the judicious distribution of funds in an amount of at least twenty million dollars per annum. Further, it is the goal of this trust to increase this minimum outlay in each succeeding year by an additional ten percent until such time as all Fletcher estate assets shall have been exhausted, save for ten million dollars. In the event of the untimely demise of the trust’s principal benefactor, Conrad Fletcher, prior to exhaustion of all estate assets as described, any and all remaining assets shall revert immediately and in their entirety to Clay Fletcher, being the sole heir of Conrad Fletcher. Further, in the event that Clay Fletcher shall pre-decease his father, and that Conrad Fletcher should thus expire having no direct heir, all remaining estate assets shall revert immediately and completely to control of the board of this trust to be disbursed in a continuing manner consistent with the trust’s initial charter.”

Prescott laid the page back down upon the table.

“Comments?” Fletcher asked following a moment of trenchant silence in the room.

“It will be a tremendous legacy, Conrad,” said Dillon Pelletier, CEO of Clarion Construction, the largest construction firm in the city.

“Yes … yes, I suppose it will,” agreed Fletcher, doing his best to stifle a grin that might have been either embarrassment or self-righteousness. “A wise man once said to me that dying penniless is not nearly the tragedy many make it out to be. Rather, if handled properly, it is simply good budgeting. It has been my express goal throughout my life to spend my last dime on the day on which I draw my final breath.”

Fletcher had no direct living relatives save for his sole son, whose situation has been previously described, and to whom Fletcher senior had indicated some years earlier that he would leave only a nominal ten million dollars, reward for nothing in particular save for having had the good fortune to be born with the Fletcher name. As far as anyone knew, the son had no issue with this arrangement, and, indeed, had made no effort to contest or in any way modify the arrangement. Whether he was aware of either the new trust’s financial disbursal plans or even his father’s true net worth was anyone’s guess.

Aside from the evening’s motion for consideration, only just read aloud for the group by Prescott, all other components of the Board’s bylaws had earlier been agreed upon, including the technical mechanisms by which each year’s planned disbursal funds would be transferred from Fletcher’s accounts into the bank account that had been established for the use of the trust board. It was a more-or-less automatic arrangement that required only the signature of Fletcher and two other Board members on the first day of each fiscal year.


Monday, December 15, 1902 (four days earlier)

Two men occupied a booth in a darkened corner at the rear of Kelsey’s Irish Pub in Boston’s South Bay neighborhood. The older man was Boston City Councilman Giles Prescott, the younger, Clay Fletcher, son and sole heir of local businessman Conrad Fletcher. A glass of beer stood on the table before each man, but these were, in the moment, still untouched and little regarded.

“Councilman, if I didn’t know better, I’d almost think you’re proposing that I kill my father.”

“Clay … Clay, let me be extremely clear,” Prescott said, leaning in toward the younger man and managing to simultaneously lower the level of his voice while raising its intensity. “The only thing I am doing here this evening is making you aware of a state of affairs that is potentially of immense important to your long-term future. I offer you this information merely as a courtesy and I expect nothing at all in return.”

“A courtesy my father likely would neither appreciate nor condone were he aware of it.”

“That’s entirely possible, Clay. Only here’s the thing. I don’t know anything about the terms of inheritance you’ve worked out with him, nor do I care. But it’s important that you understand that he means to eviscerate his entire net worth in something like the next twelve years. And he’s still in reasonably good health, so there’s every likelihood he’ll survive to see that mission through to its conclusion. The bylaw clause that his new charitable trust will adopt in a few days’ time speaks only of stopping the financial distributions when there are but ten million left. Whether he intends that as your bequest or for him to live out his days on, I don’t know. Nor is it any of my business. What I’m saying to you is that today your father is worth something in the range of three hundred twenty million dollars. In a decade, he’ll have less than five percent of that.”

“And lots of buildings and charitable organizations around the city with his name on them,” Clay responded.

“Yes indeed, that is his apparent objective.”

“It’s a noble objective, is it not, giving away all your money to benefit others?” Clay said.

“It is,” Prescott agreed. “There’s no denying it.”

The two men sat for a moment letting the sounds of the bar waft around them.

“When exactly do these terms go into effect?” Clay asked.

“In four days time. Our next board meeting is this Friday evening. We will finalize the trust bylaws at that meeting, and the first twenty-million-dollar transfer will take place in the second week of the new year.”

More silence, save for the quiet background noise of conversation, clinking glasses, and the occasional clicking billiard balls.

“Councilman, questions of morality aside, it’s a patently ridiculous proposition! Even if something were to happen to my father, who do you imagine would be the obvious suspect? Surely not the sole heir who stood to inherit three hundred million dollars?!”

“Which is why you, of course, would have nothing at all to do with any such matters.”


“On the other hand, who among our distinguished citizenry would possibly suspect the beloved three-term Boston city councilman, the very councilman who enjoys the endorsement of the Police Department, and who, indeed, was instrumental in negotiating their latest very generous union contract?”

“Why, Councilman Prescott, it almost sounds as though you are suggesting—”

Prescott raised a peremptory hand. “I am suggesting nothing at all, young man. I am simply pointing out that you in this moment are faced with two possibilities, the choice between which will determine in large part the course of the remainder of your still young life. You are perfectly free to continue on with your life as a successful attorney, comfortable in the knowledge that there is a modest nest egg awaiting you at some indeterminate time in your future. Or you can, in relatively short order and with no effort whatsoever on your part aside from a suitable period of public grieving, stake your claim as heir to the seventeenth largest fortune in the city of Boston.”

“By taking it from a man whose only sin is his desire to give it all away to good and noble causes.”

“Rest assured, Clay, that is not remotely your father’s only sin in life,” Prescott said. “Look, Clay, I am here neither to judge you nor to influence your decision making in any way. I mean only to equip you with the information you need to do whatever you decide is best.”

“And this … offer. You make this out of some sense of, what? Generosity? Benevolence? Councilman, I’m no politician, but I feel fairly certain you didn’t attain your position through any misplaced sense of benevolence.”

“Truer words, my friend. Truer words. Now you understand why I agreed to take a seat on the board of your father’s trust in the first place. Twenty million dollars a year is a great deal of money to throw around this city. Easy to imagine a goodly percentage of it wasted on greasing palms and buying influence. It takes more than bricks and mortar to get things built in this city, as you are doubtless aware. I hate the thought of so much of your father’s legacy going into the pockets of such people.”

“People such as yourself, you mean.”

“Touché, my boy.”

“Listen, Councilman, despite all your equivocation and beating about the bush, I do think I have the gist of what it is you’re proposing. Suppose, though, that you complete the puzzle for me by describing—purely hypothetically, you understand—what it is you expect to take place and what it is that you would get out of it.”

“Straight to the point. I like that. Just like your old man. In short, my son, you need only do nothing, for now anyway. Your father succumbs to a tragic and untimely illness at some unexpected point in the coming days. You comport yourself precisely as would be expected of anyone whose beloved father has passed away unexpectedly, particularly one in such apparently robust health. Then later, once the particulars of the estate have been settled, let’s say in a few months’ time, you simply step in and take his place as chairman of the board of the trust that your progenitor so magnanimously established.”

“And how exactly does that help you? You’re already on the board and influential in the disbursement of his estate now.”

“Quite so. But as you are no doubt well aware, your father is a tad on the controlling side and more than a little opinionated concerning how his monies are distributed. When your turn comes, in return for our … services in expediting the current situation, you will simply agree to, how shall we say, a more equitable distribution of control in both the amounts to be disbursed by the trust and the causes to which these amounts will be so generously endowed.”

“And when all is said and done…”

“You receive your just inheritance, the city gets its charitable contributions—”

“And you and the rest of your board colleagues gain control of the lot.”

“Everyone emerges a winner.”

“Excepting, of course, my father.”

“Quite the contrary,” Prescott raised his palms and smiled broadly. “He’s the biggest winner of all—an eternal legacy of success and beneficence, and the gratitude of the city that he so loved. I’ll personally see to the commissioning of the statue.”

Both men sat silently for a long moment. Prescott at last lifted his beer and took a long draught.

“You know, Councilman, a question occurs to me,” Clay said. “Why go to the trouble of telling me any of this? It seems to me quite clear what you are proposing. What I don’t understand is why you couldn’t proceed along your chosen course without involving me in any way.”

“Quite simple really, Clay. Two reasons in fact. The first I’ve provided already. It’s important that when the time comes, we have a mutually agreed understanding for how the business of the trust will continue moving forward to the benefit of all concerned. Even more importantly for you, it is critically important that on the day in question, yet to be determined of course, you make a point of going about your normal routine, preferably witnessed in the course of so doing by as many people as possible, and that you be nowhere near your father. As you astutely observed earlier, you would be a logical first suspect in the event of any unforeseen tragedies, and the more you can remove yourself, the better it will be for all concerned. If I may say it in a different manner, all that we require of you at this juncture is that you do absolutely nothing, and that you be observed doing so.”

“So I go about my normal business and simply allow the situation to play itself out.”

“I couldn’t have summarized it more clearly myself.”

Prescott reached again for his glass and took another hearty draught before setting it heavily back onto the table. Clay did not reciprocate with his glass nor respond immediately to Prescott’s peremptory comment, for fear that doing so might signal the consummation of some unholy agreement. At last he spoke once more, managing a wan smile as he did so.

“Have you considered for even a moment, Councilman, the very real possibility that presented with this proposition—your proposition—I would without hesitation regard it is an immoral affront to human decency and that I would report your proposal to my father, the authorities, or both?”

“And yet here you sit,” Prescott replied.

“And yet here I sit,” Clay echoed, leaning back in his seat, his face suddenly void of all expression.

“Listen, Clay, you observed earlier that I did not attain my position through any misplaced sense of benevolence. While true enough, it’s true, as well, that I did not attain it by being an idiot either. Of course it was always a possibility—a damned good one—that you would regard my proposal as a horrific sin against your father, perhaps against humanity itself. If that is to be the case, then so be it. There is no one here tonight except for you and I. If you try to share such a ridiculous tale with your father or anyone else, it would sound like the ravings of a madman, would it not? As I said at the outset, I’m simply here to present you with the facts, so that you can decide the matter for yourself. You will either get up from your seat and walk out of this bar now without ever speaking to me again, or you will shake my hand and then walk out.”

Prescott leaned back in his seat once more, raising his glass a final time and finishing off the remaining contents. Clay leaned back as well, his beer still untouched, and listened to the low hum of the conversations, the clink of the glasses, and the occasional clack of the billiard balls.

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