Charles Elmer Yetman:
His Real Fate, and it's
STRANGER THAN FICTION!
The Incredible, True Story of How His
Was Killed Off On Staten Island
By a Carpetbagger’s Bullet
Through the Solar Plexus
And Yet Rose to Live Again!
It’s with the relish of an old newspaper hack that I bring to light today the real story of Charles Elmer Yetman, inventor of the Yetman Transmitting Typewriter.
The fire in my reporter’s stomach has been stoked by many hours of pouring through the files of The New York Times of 1906, soaking up all the graphic, gory details, written in the vivid blood-and-guts prose, more corpuscle red than purple, that was the lurid tell-it-as-it-happened style of the day. It’s a story that appeals to me: bizarre and involved, entangling in its broad, sinister web the rich and the famous, the poor and the greedy - and yet, all these 106 years later, still not satisfactorily solved, still not fully explained.
The truth about Yetman has for far too long been shrouded in a cloak of innuendo and misconception, of misrepresentation and misinterpretation. But, then, this is a story of mystery and intrigue, of an unproven murder (was it suicide?), of Maddox-style crooked Wall Street dealings, of an innocent man whose life’s dream of building a telegraphic typewriter was shattered, albeit briefly, by a single bullet, aimed at the solar plexus and lodging in the heart of the matter.
One of two Yetmans in Richard Polt's collection. SeeRichard Polt, good old-fashioned mystery-loving sleuth that he is, touched on all this in the page he has devoted to the Yetman Transmitting Typewriter on his website, The Classic Typewriter Page. Richard, a devotee of the works of Harry Stephen Keeler, approached the Yetman story surely sensing that there was a touch of Keeler’s trademark "webwork plot" involved - several strings of outrageous coincidences and odd events [that] end in a surprising and utterly implausible denouement”. Thus Richard showed that he was disinclined to simply accept conventional typewriter history wisdom on Yetman, and take the easy way out by repeating the half-truths and mistruths that had been written. Richard says, “Previous literature has stated that Mr Yetman died under mysterious circumstances in 1909, but this is not the case. His grandson contacted me in 2011 and let me know that Charles E. Yetman lived on until 1949. [Yet] Several mysteries about the Yetman remain to be solved …”
How right Richard was. While it is a fact that Yetman did live on until the ripe old age of 85, the truth about the fate of Yetman’s transmitting typewriter had been thoroughly neglected.
The typewriter history misconceptions about the Yetman were born in The History of the Typewriter: Being an Illustrated Account of the Origin, Rise and Development of the Writing Machine, written by British shorthand inventor George Carl Mares and published by Guilbert Pitman in London in 1909 – just three years after the fatal incident on Staten Island that brought about the demise of the first Yetman typewriter. The problem was that by not spelling out the full details, Mares created a seriously false impression.
This is an Ilion-made Yetman, serial number 677Mares wrote that the end of the Yetman transmitting typewriter came about when “the president of the Company was found dead under the most singular circumstances – it being, to this day, unsettled whether he fell by his own hand, or by that of the assassin”.
Eighty-two years later, when Paul Lippman published American Typewriter: A Collector’s Encyclopedia, the author not alone confused the two Yetman typewriter ventures, but had arrived at the false conclusion that “the President of the Company” to whom Mares had referred was Yetman himself. Lippman wrote, “Shortly after  Charles E.Yetman died under mysterious circumstances - he was thought to have been murdered – and the company, already in trouble, went out of business in 1909.”
Yetman did not die in 1906, or in 1908, or in 1909. He was not the president of the first Yetman Transmitting Type-writer Company, he was its vice-president. The president was Charles Louis Spier. And it was Charles Louis Spier who died in sensational circumstances in 1906, owing his creditors a vast amount of money. Authorities soon came to agree that Spier, under serious financial duress, had shot himself at his home on Staten Island, but that he had carefully made it out to appear as if he had been murdered by a burglar - a notion his widow continued to cling to for many years after his death. Indeed his wife, Dorothy, three months pregnant with their son at the time of her husband’s death, was to claim to police in 1910 that Charles Louis Spier Junior, then just three, had been the target of an attempted kidnapping connected to the by-then cold case. Intrigue indeed!
To untangle this long-surviving mystery, let’s start with the facts:
The New York Times, July 26, 1902Charles Elmer Yetman was born in Darlington, Beaver County, Pennsylvania, on December 9, 1863. As a teenager he lived with his widowed mother Martha in Claridon, Geauga County, Ohio, and attended school there. He became a mature-aged student at Oberlin College in Ohio, entering in 1886 and taking a five-year classical course. He graduated in 1892. Yetman met his future wife Sarah Moriah Patrick, of Madison, at Oberlin, and they married in his first year at the college.
While still studying, but with a wife to support, in 1889 Yetman entered the railroad business as a telegraph operator, and spent the next six years working in various parts of Ohio. He started at Claridon, Geauga County, working for a year on the Painesville and Youngstown railway, later part of the Baltimore and Ohio system. He then spent the next four years in Madison, Ohio, working on the New York, Chicago and St Louis railroad system, and finally one more year in the business, on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, based in Painesville, Ohio.
Utica Herald-Dispatch, April 18, 1903According to The New York Times of July 26, 1902, Yetman had conceived the idea of his transmitting typewriter during these six years on the railroads. In 1895, aged 31, Yetman left the railroad business and moved to Oak Park, Illinois, where he started work on the transmitting typewriter. He applied for his first patent for a “Combined Type-Writer and Telegraphic Transmitter” from Oak Park that year, and over the next six years applied for five more patents, including two for actual typewriters and one for the ribbon mechanism for a typewriter.
The last of these was applied for on this day in 1900, while Yetman was still living in Oak Park, but was not issued until 1908, by which time it had been assigned to the first of the Yetman typewriter-transmitter companies, the one based in New York.
Four of the earlier patents had been assigned by Yetman to an organisation he had set up called the World Flash Company, incorporated in Chicago. He also assigned a spring motor patent to the World Flash Company. But none of his typewriters were made during this time. The first Yetmans were made in Ilion, home of the Remington factory in New York, and reached the market in June 1903.
In 1901 Yetman moved to New York City and joined the Remington Typewriter Company at Ilion, with the plan to convince Remington to make his transmitting typewriter while he was employed by the company. Yetman had already experimented with his invention, using a Remington as its base.
W.K.JenneAs a Remington client-engineer, Yetman attended the lavish banquet given by Remington at the New Osgood in Ilion on December 6, 1904, to mark the retirement of William McKendree Jenne (1837-1918; Jenne had worked on the Sholes & Glidden and Remington 1 and 2) as the company works general manager. From 1901 Yetman, while living in Ilion, was also an elder in the Utica Presbyterian Church.
This advertisement, which appeared in the Railroad Telegrapher on March 1, 1903, mentions Charles Spier's involvement with Yetman's company.
By the middle of 1902, Yetman had secured the interest of a number of companies in his transmitting typewriter. According to his hometown newspaper, The Beaver Times, in mid-August 1903, the Yetman machine had already been “introduced into the telegraph service of many of the largest railroad systems in the country”. These included the Pennsylvania Railroad lines west of Pittsburgh and the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Company, as well as the American Tin Plate Company, National Transit Company and Associated Press. AP's chief operator Harry Clark had visited the Ilion factory to arrange a supply of machines for AP. In 1903-04, Yetman had branch offices in Pittsburgh and Chicago, and in 1904 he exhibited at the St Louis Exposition. He also published a book called An Analysis of the Work of a Telegraph Operator, and an Adaptation to that Work of the Eight Finger Method of Typewriting.
George W.ConklingYetman went out actively recruiting the best operators to demonstrate his typewriters. In September 1901 his demonstrator was Edward E.Cole of Otsego, who had worked for the Chicago Herald and at the White House. But Yetman's biggest catch was George Washington Conkling (1871-1917), who had risen to national prominence through his ability to send messages and endorse new companies. Yetman signed on Conkling in 1902 and Conkling gave instruction to telegraphers on Yetman's typewriter. In 1903 Yetman promoted Conkling to general manager of sales for the Yetman Transmitting Type-writer Company. At the same time, Conkling worked with the Laffan News Bureau, The New York Herald and in the financial district, and continued to compete in national contests. He won best sender of the Phillips Code at the 1903 Philadelphia Telegraph Tournament, with 1000 words of Phillips code in 15 minutes, 55 seconds. He also won "most perfect Morse sender". With Spier's death and the collapse of the first Yetman company, Conkling switched to Patrick Delany to become general manager of the new Delany Telegraphic Transmitter Company.
Michael Adler, in his Antique Typewriters: From Creed to QWERTY (1997) says the Yetman typewriter was first made in 1903 and was based on the existing Monarch Visible.
Henry H.RogersBy the first half of 1905, Yetman had a staff of 100 men employed at the Yetman Transmitting Type-Writer Company, headquartered at 220 Broadway, New York City, with a plant at Ilion. In all innocence, he had met and gained the financial “backing” of Charles Louis Spier, in order to get his typewriter into production. Yetman knew that Spier was the “confidential” (“right-hand-man”) of multi-millionaire industrialist and financier Henry Huttleston Rogers (1840-1909), of Standard Oil fame, and hence would naturally have believed that Spier was good for the money he was offering Yetman.
The bank was deeply concerned, and for very good reason. On November 20, 1905, the Yetman Transmitting Type-Writer Company had already been the subject of a petition filed for bankruptcy. Spier had managed to get a stay of execution on the grounds that he was “readjusting” the company affairs, and was hastily “reorganising” the YTTC. What he was really trying to do was find some money to cover his rapidly growing and already massive debts. And to do that, Spier was hypothecating, embezzling, misappropriating Rogers’ money, and reinvesting money he didn’t have, or had and had already lost, trying to make a quick “kill” on the market. He was a man on an annual salary of just $5000 from Rogers, yet aiming to be a millionaire by the age of 45. He was “plunging”, as they said on Wall Street. One later theory had it that the San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906, had had a hugely detrimental effect on his investments.
Pressure from the Merchant Exchange National Bank over the Yetman typewriter promissory note brought matters to a head for Spier. Coupled perhaps with the San Francisco disaster and a sense of loyalty to Rogers, it mounted in the ensuing three months, as Spier fought for financial survival. But the walls began to close in, as did the bailiffs and the police.
On the morning of May 7, 1906, Spier was found dead at the foot of the stairs at his villa at 7 Tompkins Avenue, St George, Staten Island, a bullet wound in his stomach. “H.H.Rogers’s Manager Killed in His Home” said The New York Times headline. “Charles L.Spier’s Death at St George Puzzles Police”.
Let’s take a short break from this sequence of downward spiralling action to take a closer look at Spier. He was born at West Hoboken, Hudson, New Jersey, on June 20, 1866, the grandson of Prussian immigrants and the son of a Swiss-born mother. In 1901 Spier became associated with Rogers, one of the 25 wealthiest men in American history. Spier took care of the multi-millionaire’s business affairs beyond Standard Oil, and was president of a range of companies. Many of these were centred on Staten Island, where Rogers was long known as the “transit magnate”.
The eventual finding in Spier’s death was suicide, and there seems little doubt that he did kill himself. Not alone that, but he planned it meticulously, including providing for his Kentucky-born widow, Dorothy (neé Williams). Everything he did in the days leading up to his death, including where he slept (separately from Dorothy), the deployment of his bull terrier guard dog, Buster, the spreading of silverware on the floor, all pointed to a well thought-through suicide, one which succeeded in fooling some officials for some of the time into thinking he had been murdered by an intruder.
By the end of May 1906, a jury had come to the finding that Spier had indeed suicided. His own widow’s testimony had convinced the court, although Mrs Spier herself was for many years afterwards to hold on to the belief that Spier had been killed by an intruder. Spier’s death left a colossal, entangled financial mess for others to sort out, yet Rogers, and Mrs Spier, didn’t ultimately suffer financially. Nor, it would seem, did Charles Yetman – even if the Yetman typewriter, at least in its first (Ilion-made) incarnation, was dead.
The Yetman, however, rose again, just like the Phoenix. George Gordon Battle, Spier’s counsel in the matter of the Yetman Transmitting Type-Writer Company bankruptcy petition, told The New York Times on May 10, 1906, that the Merchant Exchange National Bank had, before Spier’s death, extended its line of credit on the $50,870 promissory note to Yetman to 12 months. Perhaps using some of the money that Spier had fraudulently obtained from the bank, Charles Yetman was able to go back into business – under a slightly different name.
Immediately after Spier’s death, Yetman took himself to England, while the heat died down, and he returned to New York on August 23, 1906. In July 1907, a mere 14 months after Spier’s death, the Yetman Typewriter Transmitter Company had found fresh financial backing and was incorporated in New York with $1.5 million in capital stock.
Note the new addressThis time the factory was established in North Adams, Massachusetts. It began shipping machines in February 1908. Not too many, though. By June 7, 1909, Yetman’s company had yet again gone bust, and this time there was a fire sale of its assets. The rights to Yetman’s design went at auction to a Philadelphia newspaperman, Maryland-born John L.Schmidt for $10,000, and the real property went for $29,148 to the Weber Brothers Shoe Company. Schmidt apparently used the patent rights to make a convention typewriter called the Smith Visible (of which almost nothing is known).
Even with the second bankruptcy and North Adams auction, the Yetman company couldn't shake off controversy:
North Adams Evening TranscriptCharles Yetman himself kicked on. In 1916 he bought a 1200 acre farm and tried working off the land for a while. By 1921 he was working with the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington and remained there until the early 1930s (many typewriter histories give DC as his original base, which it wasn’t). Remarkably, at age 64, Yetman was still describing himself as a “typewriter manufacturer”. In 1938 he could afford to winter in Florida with his wife and friends. The next year he patented a sound recording and reproducing machine. By that time, Charles and his wife Sarah had moved in with their youngest daughter Helen and Helen’s husband Charles Malatesta at their home in Plainfield, Union, New Jersey. Charles Yetman died there in 1949 and is buried in Oneida County.
What Mares wrote about the Yetman:
Charles Vonley Oden, Evolution of the Typewriter, 1917
Typewriter Topics, 1923