A Closer Look at J S Stembridge #1939TheMiracleYear

A Closer Look at J S Stembridge

In my last post for – 1939 The Miracle Year, I mentioned J. S. Stembridge who rented out  weapons for use in movies. It didn’t seem on point to write more about him at that time for it would have been a huge rabbit trail. So I thought – why not give him his own post.

James Sidney Stembridge was born in Milledgeville, Georgia in 1869. The town had been the capital of Georgia until displaced by Atlanta just the year before. Though it was a great place in which to grow up, its struggle to keep financially solvent, may have been the reason James wound up in Baltimore as a clerk by the 1890s. It was from that metropolis in 1893 that he landed in his calling as a soldier, the experiences from which formed the basis for his future success in his rather unique business.

By the time of the Spanish American War he was a sergeant in the US 18th Infantry and was dispatched to the Philippines where the US Army’s mission was the pacification of that new territory. He reupped in Manila in August 1898 – a “Most excellent sgt.,” finishing out his term a year later at the Presidio in San Francisco.

From this first encounter with the Golden State, he felt the need to return to family on the east coast after his discharge. Both parents were gone by this time, but his eldest sister and her family in Sanford FL gladly took in the ailing veteran. He had contracted malaria in the Orient and such were his doubts about his longevity that he decided to forswear ever marrying. This notion may have been reinforced when his sister’s husband Herbert Munson died in 1905 from tuberculosis and as a result she descended into madness and was incarcerated in an insane hospital. (Their two daughters, his nieces, later worked for Stembridge).

By 1906, James wound up on his own in Jacksonville FL working as a salesman for a shoe retailer. The pull of family had him back in Georgia by 1910, near Waynesboro, working as a salesman in a drugstore – most likely for his younger brother Henry, who was a pharmacist there. (Henry’s son James Edward, born in 1913, would later join his uncle in his gun rental business in 1933, taking over from him upon his death in 1942).

In investigating Stembridge’s move back to CA from GA, the timing has proven problematic. Most credit his connection early on to Cecil B DeMille when the director was creating ‘The Squaw Man’ in 1914. The story goes that DeMille was exasperated over some extras playing soldiers who acted anything but soldierly. Stembridge, being a former drill sergeant, volunteered his services – to the grateful satisfaction of the director. But the LA city directory for 1914 does not list Stembridge. Neither does the one for 1915.  He does show up finally as a shoe salesman in 1916 which seems appropriate, given his work history. And he did not appear in any of the LA directories with a film industry occupation until 1920. (Stembridge did have a few acting parts in the early 1920s and for such he was listed).

    Loose threads sprouted as I passed down this particular rabbit trail. Just when I thought I was set to close this post, I could not, not so long as questions dangled without answers.

What I uncovered in pursuit of those answers has given me a negative proof of sorts that Stembridge was not in California in 1914 and probably not involved with film in 1915.

In looking through DeMille films that would have utilized extras as soldiers, besides The Squaw Man of 1914, I discovered two that were made back to back in 1915 – The Unafraid and The Captive. Both are stories with the Balkan War of 1912-13 as a backdrop, and called for extras to portray Montenegrin and Turkish troops.

     During the filming of the second a serious tragedy occurred. An extra was accidentally shot and killed. According to DeMille’s own account, he had called for live ammunition to be fired outside a house at its door before they were to rush it. In preparation for the follow up scene DeMille had ordered blanks to be loaded instead. One rifle, sadly, did not have its live round replaced.

     No mention was made of a firearms expert on set. If there had been, the fault would have rested squarely with him. DeMille carried the guilt and arranged for a pension for the victim’s widow.

If Stembridge had been present it is easy to imagine that the tragedy would not have occurred. (And the converse, if it had happened despite his presence, he would no longer have been employed as such).

     So, to my mind, it seems all the more likely that Stembridge was not involved in the industry until late in 1916 or in 1917. DeMille remade The Squaw Man in 1918, just four years after the first version. This may align the timing better to another statement that claimed Stembridge was called on to drill studio employees facing a call up with the US entry into the World War (April 1917).

It would seem that the circumstances in the studio at this later time were more conducive to bringing the ex-soldier on board. War movies, at least patriotic ones, were being pushed into production.

What at first was a maintenance position at the studio, blossomed into a unique relationship. By 1919 it seems Stembridge convinced DeMille and Jesse Lasky (the principals of Paramount Studios)  to advance the capital to set him up as a supplier for gun rentals, both for the studio itself and to rent out to other productions at other lots. They set aside space at the studio to warehouse the weapons and in which he could repair and service them and to manufacture the crucial blank ammunition.

His stock of guns was limited at first, so part of his job was to hunt down the requisite arms as needed. In 1924, he had a particularly hard time putting together enough period correct weapons for The Devil’s Cargo, an adventure set in gold rush California. It seems gun collectors, then on the rise, had snapped up the readily available supply.

A big break for his firm came in 1925 when director King Vidor came to him to solve some tricky problems with the automatic weapons needed for his film – The Big Parade – set against the background of the recent World War. Vidor’s home studio (MGM) had given up on firing blanks from machine guns, declaring it impossible.  The recoil was not strong enough with the lesser force from the smaller charges in the blanks to eject the shell casing and chamber the next round.  Stembridge, with the help of his assistant Fritz Dickie solved the problem. Their success brought more work when Howard Hughes tapped them to supply weapons (a record 1200) for his war film – Hell’s Angels (in production between April 1927 and July 1928; released in 1930).

By 1930, Stembridge had 6,000 weapons in his collection and he reported that the only gun he did not possess was a Chinese matchlock, an antique flintlock dating from the 1600s.

This decade saw the rise of the gangster film, which meant even more business for the Thompson sub machine guns in his collection. Warners came calling with its Public Enemy for 1931, and Hughes brought him back for Scarface, released in 1932. And RKO had him train his guns on King Kong.

Besides all the 1939 film titles listed in the prior post, the Miracle year also saw the re-release in September of ‘All Quiet on the Western Front,’ an anti-war film, based on the Erich Maria Remarque bestseller, which gave the flip side of the World War from the perspective of German soldiers in the trenches. Back in 1929, Universal had hired Stembridge and 800 of his guns to bring it to life.

Aside: I recently watched All Quiet on DVD. It is a stunning achievement of cinematic art. The art direction behind the staging of the scenes is particularly striking, giving the whole a reality that is palpable. The German machine guns [supplied by Stembridge] sweep the field from their positions in the trenches and add greatly to that authenticity. They are only details, passing minutia, but underpin the actions and emotions of the cast, as they “live” out before us their hopes and fears.

Stembridge Gun Rentals continued on through the 1940s under his nephew, James Edward “Ed” Stembridge. Their services rose in demand throughout the 1950s what with all those Westerns populating the TV networks. This slowed down as the 1960’s advanced. Yet the Westerns were replaced by the rise of spy themed and sci-fi based TV shows and movies, calling for more exotic and at times fantastic weaponry, and Stembridge was at the forefront (e.g. Han Solo’s blaster fashioned from a Mauser machine pistol).

“Ed”’s son Sydney R Stembridge took over in 1978, and the following year their stay at Paramount ended, (two years after my wife and I saw them on the lot, completely unaware of all this history- see old post).

They were “back” with more exotic weaponry for Schwarzenegger in the 80s and 90s. But by 1999, things wound down and the firm was dissolved, as the family members sought to cash in on the most valuable pieces in the collection. A private investor took over the firm with Syd managing and in this downsized form they have hung on.

Surprisingly in researching this post I glimpsed Stembridge Gun Rentals in the credits for early video games- listed under the sound credits:

EA’s Agent Under Fire (James Bond) which I have enjoyed playing, and

Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon.

The Illusive Midshipman Charles Polhemus

The Illusive Midshipman Charles Polhemus

Probably the most difficult midshipman to get a bead on was Charles Polhemus. I first looked him up back in 2009, with nothing but the slimmest of clues. I had no indication, where he had been born or from what state he had been appointed.

I concentrated on the censuses for 1850 and 1860 and got a hit on a Charles G. Polhemus of NY. Though each census showed a different NY county, I knew him to be the same individual in both because the other family members’ given names were the same in each instance, with a corresponding increase in ages. And the ages listed for Charles was on track to be my midshipman, but there was nothing else that confirmed that he was the actual person for whom I was looking. I noted down the details from the two censuses, hoping to track down some links that could corroborate his identity.

Many people with the name Polhemus popped up for the state of New Jersey, and in particular Burlington County, but no one there matched my midshipman. So, Charles G of NY was looking more and more plausible. Besides I learned that “Polhemus” was of Dutch origin which again can fit nicely with the Knickerbocker state. Further research revealed that this Charles Polhemus served in the Civil War in a New York Regiment, the 13th Heavy Artillery – a fact that would not be unusual, as other midshipmen had switched from webfeet to landlubbers, especially those middies who had resigned from the Academy.

But it was all a false trail.

When I found the list of the candidates for examination for the Naval Academy, I filled in some important details for my illusive Charles Polhemus. He held an appointment from the 2nd Congressional District of New Jersey (which includes Burlington County) and  passed his examinations on 9/26/1857. The possibility that the Charles G from NY was my midshipman began to dim. (Not totally, as I had come across appointments that originated from one state even though the candidate lived in another – especially when the appointing Congressman was a relative).

And so things sat for several years.

With the inclusion recently of the naval hospital records on Ancestry.com, I was able to zero in on the right Charles Polhemus.  For three days in November 1857, Charles was admitted to the naval academy hospital for bronchitis.  As with all the Acting Midshipman admitted, their place of birth was recorded. C. Polhemus was born in Chile. This “rare” tidbit combined with the other data that has accumulated on the internet in the intervening years gave me the breakthrough I needed.

This Charles Polhemus was related to the New Jersey family that I had run across earlier. His father was John Hart Polhemus sr., who was a grandson (and namesake) of John Hart, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. John moved down to South America sometime in the late 1820s and entered into business.  In Lima Peru he met and married an English woman Marianna Dean on August 28, 1836. My Charles was born to the couple in Valparaiso, Chile on December 27, 1841. Some sources state that President Andrew Jackson had named John, the American consul in Valparaiso.

As you can guess, there was a very good reason then for the family of my midshipman not to show up in my earlier searches of the US census for 1850.  They were out of the country. The future midshipman returned to the US from Valparaiso on February 8, 1851 entering through Baltimore, with two of his brothers (their mother had died in Peru in 1849).

And there is another good reason why my midshipman is missing in the 1860 census.

Charles’ naval career was very brief. Having entered the Naval Academy in the fall of 1857, he resigned six months later – though  not through overindulgence in demerit worthy activity. His demerit total stood at 108 for that time period, half of what would have called for dismissal. (He did have a notable doozy, receiving 6 demerits for throwing a fellow midshipman down the stairs. And he evidently had a problem keeping his room clean, being cited a total of ten times for a dirty room – I have a suspicion he relied on servants at home for that chore). As the saying goes, he bilged (i.e. failed) in the February academic exams. The family genealogy shows that Charles died at sea on December 2, 1858, nine months after leaving the Academy.

I am in the dark about the circumstances behind his death. Had he gone to sea in the merchant marine? Was he out on a pleasure craft, or merely taking passage on a commercial carrier? Was he lost overboard or did he go down with his ship? I can only speculate.

For now, this final detail about Midshipman Charles Polhemus remains illusive.

Rebel Treasure sixteenth post

EXT. MAIL STEAMER, OFF GULF COAST OF PANAMA – DAY
Title: April 1861
Early morning haze rises from the water along the shore, giving the appearance that the land is floating on a low cloud.
Lon paces the foredeck in his U. S. uniform, deep in thought. At Romeo’s approach, he stops his pacing and goes to meet him.

ROMEO
The captain’s steward told me that the mail steamer that passed us yesterday is the one that’ll be taking the gold North.

LON
Good. We’re in time.

INT. SHIPPING OFFICE – CRISTOBAL, PANAMA – DAY
A more than puzzled look greets Lon in the face of the balding, fortyish MR. HARVEY, seated behind a desk piled high with shipping manifests. He looks away from Lon to his SECRETARY who had ushered him in.

MR. HARVEY
(to the Secretary)
What’s the meaning of this interruption? Can’t you see I am busy?

SECRETARY
I believe, your standing order requires me to present immediately anyone sent by Mr. Clay.

MR. HARVEY
(flustered but unrepentent)
Quite right! So you have, now begone!

As the secretary retreats behind the door, Harvey thrusts an open palm out to Lon.

MR. HARVEY (CONT’D)
Your bona fides?

Lon removes a strip of paper from his wallet and passes it to him. Mr. Harvey holds it up to the lamp on his desk, the heat of which causes a message to appear. He grunts in satisfaction.

MR. HARVEY (CONT’D)
And what can I do for you, Mr. Turner?

LON
Some information. Mr. Clay informed me that you would be able to put a ship at my disposal.

MR. HARVEY
You’ll have to make other arrangements, I am afraid.

LON
Sir?

MR. HARVEY
Haven’t you heard the news?
(Lon shakes his head)
Here!

He shoves a newspaper headline at him, it reads:
“The War Begun”

LON
It finally happened! When?

MR. HARVEY
Two weeks ago. Baltimore is in flames. Norfolk is ours. Old Abe is quaking in his boots.

Mr. Harvey’s jubilation sobers as he notices Lon’s downcast demeanor.

MR. HARVEY (CONT’D)
That upsets your plans?

LON
Mine. And those of our fellow Knights. I was charged with scouting out the possibility of seizing a certain shipment before it was delivered to New York.

Mr. Harvey’s gaze wanders to his window and the ship moored to the dock.

MR. HARVEY
Ah! But she is not going to New York! Washington has ordered that the gold be taken to the capital via Annapolis.

LON
Interesting!
(he walks to the window)
I think I’ll ask her captain the favor of transporting me and my servant back to the Academy.
Can you get a message right away to Mr. Clay for me?

Rebel Treasure sixteenth post

[next pt 17]

ET and Old Ironsides

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When E T and the other soldiers awoke in the morning, most were unaware of what had transpired in the wee hours.  General Butler and his officers had been on the alert the whole time.  They had walked a tight rope. They didn’t know what to expect from the authorities ashore, both at the Naval Academy, nor of the civilian ones in Annapolis itself. It was a slave state after all, and hence held strong political and emotional ties to the seceded states.  And as the state’s major city Baltimore, had proved willing to resist the decisions of the Federal government, they were not sure which way this cat was going to jump.

On the other side of the coin, Captain George S. Blake, the Superintendent of the Naval Academy was himself convinced that the vessel off his station, having been observed descending from the direction of Baltimore, was filled with hostile elements bent on seizing the installation, its stores and weapons. Also at risk was the United States Frigate Constitution, posted here since September of the preceding year as a school-ship. Blake had orders from the Secretary of the Navy to defend her, or failing that, destroy her. To that end a sailor was kept in the hold of Old Ironsides, prepared to set a match to the 60,000 pounds of gunpowder stowed below.

In truth, both were men on the same side, yet neither knew. Both sides sent out feelers, that passed each other in the murk, and more misunderstandings ensued. By the first light of day, the two parties finally cleared things up. Both sides were going to get what they wanted. General Butler had a place to land his troops, the necessary next step on his march to Washington, and Captain Blake would get men to help defend the grounds, and most important of all, personnel to help man the Constitution.

Most of the Marines assigned to the Academy had been ordered to other stations prior to this.  Blake asked Butler if he could assign some men as a marine guard for the Constitution. Butler chose the Salem Zouaves and ordered them to transfer to the ship. He also put a call out for men who knew their way around a sailing vessel, a request easily fielded by companies recruited from the seacoast of Massachusetts.

So the soldiers made their preparations and breakfasted on whatever rations were left. And the Maryland came alongside the man of war.  And so E T stepped from one deck to another and became a marine for a time, serving on the historic and oldest vessel in the US Navy.

 

ET waits on his Leaders

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The 8th had learned that their sister regiment, the Sixth, had been bloodied in the streets of Baltimore.  It was April the 19th 1861. The fact of this historic date was not lost upon these soldiers from Massachusetts. It was the 86th anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord and was usually celebrated in remembrance as the “shot heard around the world.” Just as their forefathers had faced a dire situation, so too were they now. ET and his fellow soldiers were waiting in the Girard House (a hotel) for the decision of their leaders.  Many spent their time writing home, telling their folks about where they were and what they’d seen.

That evening, General Butler gathered his staff at the Continental Hotel to discuss their next movement.  The only one of the company captains to attend was Devereux of the Zouaves.  Were they going to fight their way through Baltimore or was there another way?

Many claim to have come up with the winning solution (an interesting history can be written about these claims).  But the only one who truly matters is Samuel Morse Felton, the president of the PWB Railroad (Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore). He offered to Butler the ferry boat owned by his railroad that operated between Perryville and Havre de Grace, MD. Instead of traversing to the latter city, they could travel down the Chesapeake to Annapolis and from there march to Washington, bypassing Baltimore altogether.

So this plan was settled upon and other decisions flowed from that. The Zouaves were to lead the assault into Perryville; backed up by Company K; and a special unit, called Miners and Sappers, was formed from volunteers from the other companies, and issued axes, crowbars, and picks. Their task was to remove any obstacles thrown up in front of them.  Butler sent a telegram to Governor Andrew informing him of their plans and to request that Cook’s flying artillery be sent on immediately, for he judged that they would be needing more firepower.

Devereux and the captain of the Allen Guard took their companies to the Broad Street station (for the PWB RR), arriving there at 2 am, the morning of April 20. There they found the 7th NYNG regiment already aboard the cars. And waited.

Butler met with Colonel Lefferts of the 7th NY and tried all morning long to convince him to accompany his regiment, even to the extent of pulling rank. But Lefferts ultimately refused, and removed his men from the cars for he had decided to take ship from Philadelphia to go around by water to Washington.  There was an unspoken rivalry between the two as to who would reach Washington first.

The rest of the 8th regiment finally joined the Zouaves and Company K at the station around 11 am.  And together they set off into the unknown future.

ET in the City of Brotherly Love

ET in the City of Brotherly Love

From Jersey City, the 8th MVM boarded the cars of the Camden and Amboy railroad. The officers passed through the cars, inspecting the men and their weapons. And admonished them to be prepared.  Along the route, people took impromptu holidays from their work to throng the stations to greet them and see them on their way.
At 5 pm they arrived in Camden and there boarded the ferry to Philadelphia.
When the ferry docked the crowd was so heavy that even the police could not clear a path for the regiment.  The crowd overflowed onto the tops of the buildings lining the streets. The soldiers could only make their way single file through the welcoming crush.
The people of Philadelphia were particularly glad to see the boys from Massachusetts because the news out of Baltimore was very scary. The Sixth regiment MVM had passed through Philadelphia the day before (one day in advance of the 8th).  So at the time that the 8th was in New York and New Jersey, the Sixth was attempting to pass through Baltimore from one station on the east side to the B & O RR on the west.  In the midst of their advance some street toughs with Southern sympathies assaulted them with rocks  and brickbats. When the dust cleared four soldiers of the Sixth lay dead.
And the mayor of Baltimore consequently ordered that the city be closed to the further passage of troops.  Zealots from Baltimore taking that cue went out and burned the railroad bridges leading to the city.
What was General Butler and the 8th going to do?