The Alchemist Of Wall Street
( Originally Published 1930's )
WHEN Wall Street was still young enough to contain the Tontine Coffee House, the Pitt statue, and the Verplanck mansion, and yet old enough to have lost its palisades, sheep, and sugar refinery, a man with a past bought a house on that thoroughfare for 350 New York pounds. The sum might be somewhere in the neighborhood of $825, as New York pounds sold at a discount in terms of sterling. As for dollars, Federal money, they were not yet current, and for many years to come schoolboys would be figuring sums in two currencies—Federal money and pounds, shillings, and pence.
The lot was only 27 feet in front by 87 feet in depth, and the house was humble, too, being described by one of the neighboring Verplancks as a "modest tenement." But it sufficed for the owner's needs and also for his adventures in alchemy, for the new owner, Jan Max Lichenstein, was an addict to the art—then considered the black art but now almost innocent enough to deserve N.R.A. backing—of making gold from baser metals. The dwelling was at least sufficient to house the alchemist and accommodate "a furnace with a triple chimney," where his steadfast search for the "arcanum magnum" could go forward in his spare hours.
Never had an alchemist a better opportunity than this one. He was employed for two hours a day translating foreign correspondence for a mercantile house well downtown, since the city had not crept northward as yet and Wall Street itself still lacked the dignity and value of a business street. Mr. Lichenstein became one of the memorable figures of Broadway through forty years, an aura of mystery surrounding him as he made his daily pilgrimages between his furnace-shrine and his translator's desk. One who saw him thus, Gulian C. Verplanck, leaves this description of the alchemist in his Recollections, published in 1828:
Everybody who has been a frequent walker of Broadway, many or all of the forty years preceding the last five, must recollect often meeting a man whom at first he might not have particularly noticed, but whose constant appearance in the same part of the street at the same hour of the day and the peculiarities of whose dress and person must at length have compelled attention. He was a plump looking man, somewhat under the middle size, with well spread shoulders, a large chest, a fair, fresh complexion, a clear but dreamy eye, and a short, quick stride, and had altogether the signs of that fulness of habit which arises from regular exercise and good appetite, while a certain ascetic _expression of countenance at once for-bade the idea that it owed anything to festivity or good cheer. His age, which never appeared to vary, might from his looks, be estimated at five years on the one side or the other of fifty. His dress was that of an old fashioned respectable citizen, educated before the age of suspenders, pantaloons and boots and who had never been persuaded to countenance those innovations of modern effeminancy. Notwithstanding its obsolete cut, it showed no signs of poverty except perhaps to those . . . who occasionally met him sweltering with a laud-able contempt for the weather in a full suit of thick Prussian blue or Dutch black broadcloth in a hot August day; or striding through a snow storm, in nankeen breeches and white cotton stockings in December.
The alchemist's past was known to but few who saw him in the flesh, yet it was one which would have made the staid citizens of the little city stare if they had been aware of it. Born in Pomerania, then under Swedish influence, Jan Max Lichenstein sought fortune in Amsterdam, where he had been employed as clerk in a Dutch banking and commercial house, "where he proved himself a good accountant and rendered himself useful in their German and Swedish correspondence." So he might have gone on the rest of his life, except for a wandering foot which took him on adventure into Russia—the Russia of Catherine the Great and her big, bluff, and beloved statesman, Prince Potemkin.
By what means Lichenstein of many languages came into the employ of Prince Potemkin is not known, but at any rate his discretion and abilities were such that he soon came into the management of the Prince's finances. The Prince's revenues were large but fluctuated some-what at the whim of the Empress, while his expenditures were extravagant, colossal entertainments being required of him. When he had nothing left but millions of acres and thousands of serfs, as Verplanck puts it, "he turned furiously to gambling and alchemy." He perceived that if he could make gold he could preserve his power and the affections of his imperial mistress. Under his coaching, his finance manager became initiated into the best current practices in alchemy. Night after night, while the Prince made merry, his assistant hovered over the retorts, hoping for the bright flash of gold that never came.
Potemkin lives in history as a man of high temper. After a run of bad luck at cards, too much champagne, a sleepless night and a breakfast which Verplanck solemnly says, with what warrant I know not, consisted of raw turnips and kvass, he demanded that his agent provide a huge sum to pay his gambling debts on pain of dismissal. As the Prince paid no other than gambling debts, Lichenstein knew he could not collect his arrears of pay and walked into the streets without a ruble. He applied to the American envoy, Francis Dana, later Chief Justice of Massachusetts, for aid in reaching America, the new republic whose fame had gone abroad in the world. Mr. Dana, perceiving that a man of so many talents would get on in the New World, brought Lichenstein with him on his return from the Russian post in 1783.
Once here, this man of the world and commander of many languages lived quietly on the returns of his small but leisurely employment, disdaining the activities of common business in which so many were growing rich all around him. Why should he, who had known the splendid intrigues of courts, haggle over goods and pennies? Presently he would discover the sovereign good and cure-all—gold! So he walked while others rode in carriages, saved his money and bought the small house on Wall Street where his chemical experiments would be safe from prying eyes.
As he passed along Broadway year after year, the aging alchemist may have noted, but probably gave little heed to, the march of progress, either on Broadway where business was reaching northward, or on his street of residence where banks and insurance companies were beginning to find the climate healthful. There the Bank of New York, founded by Alexander Hamilton, took root on the corner of William and Wall in 1791. There the Bank of the Manhattan Company, organized by Hamilton's enemy Aaron Burr, and masquerading at first as a water company, located in 1799 at 23 Wall. The Merchants Bank, incorporated in 1803, another Hamilton bank and the last Mr. Hamilton would have time, before Burr's bullet would cut him down in 1804, to found a home at 25 Wall. By 1815 there were thirteen insurance companies in Wall Street, but Mr. Lichenstein, thinking of his future command of all lesser things through his control of gold supply, would scarcely note their arrival.
So he let his languages work for him, while his real work was that of following the "mysteries of imbibition, solution, ablution, cohabation, calcination, ceration and fixation, and all the martyrization of metals, with the sublime influence of the Trine Circle of the Seven Spheres."
Thus passed the plodding years of one who grew old in body yet remained young in mind, buoyed up by expecting each day that tomorrow would bring his long search to an end. In the early 1820's, after he had been nearly forty years in America and perhaps thirty years a resident of Wall Street, the researches of the old al-chemist, who was busy at his furnace that day pouring rectified water on a salt of mercury, were interrupted by a caller. Testily he put aside his experiment, in which he had hoped "by reverberating the ingredients in Athanor to set the liquor in Mars in circulation," but after all he was of courtly manners and dissembled his impatience under the mask of courtesy. His aplomb even withstood the shock of being asked, by the president of a newly chartered banking company, if he would take $25,000 for his lot.
"Had he been offered $5,000," says his neighbor, Verplanck, "he would have accepted it immediately but $25,000! the amount startled him. He took time to consider of the proposition, and the next morning was offered $30,000 by a rival company. He must think of this also—and before night sold to the first company for $33,000."
At last he had found gold in Wall Street!
For traders intent on dollars the story of the alchemist of Wall Street ends here, but for the alchemist himself this would be merely luck, not science. Well financed now for a drive on other raw materials, he went West to the coal fields to test new filchings from the earth. And died there, I trust, still sure that on some fair tomorrow gross metals would glow into gold over an alchemist's torch.