"You know, the only trouble with capitalism is capitalists; they're too damn greedy."
- President Herbert Hoover to author Mark Sullivan
The weeks preceding the Great Crash of 1929 that occurred 80 years ago this week would be remembered for decades as one wild ride that ended in calamity.
The giddy postwar boom of the 1920s seemed like a champagne-laced party that would never end.
The 1926 Florida land boom was followed by a bull market in common stocks that had doubled in value within a year.
Hoover began to notice such speculative excesses. Not only were businessmen and stockbrokers speculating, but so were elevator operators, college students, housewives, railroad workers, clergymen, teachers, auto mechanics, waiters, office clerks and factory workers.
"Just how many people were speculating in stocks during those wild years is unknown, but probably a million or so were buying on margin - putting up only a fraction of the price of the stocks they bought - and a million or two more were paying cash in full for their purchases," historian Frederick Lewis Allen wrote in "The Big Change 1900-1950."
The market topped out at 216 by the end of September. On Wednesday, Oct. 23, the run was on as a tidal wave of liquidation swept through the stock exchange in the wake of crumbling prices, causing 6 million shares to change hands in one day.
The next day, the crisis worsened as the exchange attempted to deal with a landslide of sell orders.
By midday, losses had climbed to $9 billion, with spectators, including Winston Churchill who was visiting New York City, jamming the exchange gallery to witness the frenzied chaos that was unfolding on the trading floor below.
By the time the ticker tapped out its final quote at 7:08 p.m. and lapsed into silence - four hours, eight minutes after the exchange's normal closing hour - an almost unbelievable and painful truth had emerged.
It was a record that would only briefly stand. In a single day, some 12,894,650 shares had been traded, often $20 to $100 below record price.
Headlines in The Sun the next day proclaimed the almost incalculable depth of the calamity: MONEY KINGS HALT STOCKS' WILDEST PLUNGE IN WORST SELLING SCARE IN 15 YEARS, in what the newspaper described as the "most frantic day of stock trading in history."
Never has "Wall Street seen such a dark and trying day, and never in financial history have security markets been thrown in such tumult," observed the newspaper.
Hoover and his Treasury secretary, Pittsburgh banker Andrew W. Mellon, sought to quickly reassure a jittery nation that wasn't about to be reassured on what history would quickly record as the last weekend of the wild, spendthrift Jazz Age.
Saturday morning newspapers carried a statement from the president.
"The fundamental business of the country, that is the production and distribution of commodities, is on a sound and prosperous level," he said.
The end came on Oct. 29, a cloudy day in Baltimore with temperatures in the mid-40s. Wall Street hemorrhaged as 16,410,000 shares were bought and sold.
Julius Westheimer, a Baltimore broker and Sun financial columnist, was a 14-year-old board boy working for Westheimer & Co., a family-owned Redwood Street brokerage.
He recalled the crash in a 70th anniversary interview with The Sun.
"I'd tear pieces of tape off the ticker and post the rapidly plunging prices on a board" posted for investors gathered in the firm's boardroom, he said.
"They were watching their stocks plunge as tears streamed down their faces. It was a horror story," he said. "People were watching their life savings vanish, and it was something that was totally unexpected."
It would forever be known as "Black Tuesday," as clerks working late into the night in Wall Street offices struggled to record the one-day sell-off - a record that would endure for decades.
"An aspect of the crash, however, that is perfectly obvious to anyone who reads is that it is an inevitable reaction to a consistent post-war Republican policy of pumping artificial stimulants into the economic system," editorialized The Sun the next morning.
The editorial stated that as far back as the Coolidge administration and with the full support of the Treasury Department, the federal government had "aroused popular enthusiasm for stock speculation" and "stock-gambling fever."
In conclusion, it said: "In other words, since the war the Republican Party, deserting all its long-professed principles, has become an economic dope peddler. That fact should not be lost sight of in the confusion that attends the ending of the latest and largest stock market spree."
A grim sense of humor began creeping across the land.
"America is the only country where people drive to the poorhouse in an automobile," quipped humorist Will Rogers, while other wisecrackers suggested that complimentary revolvers be given with every share of stock sold by Goldman Sachs.