This month’s Smithsonian Magazine features the story of B. Virdot’s mysterious letter in the Canton, Ohio newspaper during the Great Depression.
The year was 1933 and christmas was just a week away. Deep in the trough of the Great Depression, the people of Canton, Ohio, were down on their luck and hungry. Nearly half the town was out of work. Along the railroad tracks, children in patched coats scavenged for coal spilled from passing trains. The prison and orphanage swelled with the casualties of hard times.
It was then that a mysterious “B. Virdot” took out a tiny ad in the Canton Repository, offering to help the needy before Christmas. All he asked was that they write to him and tell him of their hardships. B. Virdot, he said, was not his real name, and no one would ever know his true identity. He pledged that those who wrote to him would also remain anonymous.
Letters poured into the post office by the hundreds. From every corner of the beleaguered town they came—from the baker, the bellhop, the steeplejack, the millworker, the blacksmith, the janitor, the pipe fitter, the salesman, the fallen executive. All of them told their stories in the hope of receiving a hand. And in the days thereafter, $5 checks went out to 150 families across the town. Today, $5 doesn’t sound like much, but back then it was more like $100. For many, it was more money than they had seen in months. So stunning was the offer that it was featured in a front-page story in the newspaper, and word of it spread a hundred miles.
B. Virdot went to his grave without anyone knowing who was responsible for this act of kindness to so many in need. Then one day, in 2008, 600 miles away in Kennbunk, Maine, an 80 year old mother gave her son, Ted Gup, a suitcase of old letters and cancelled checks for small amounts of money. It seems that her mother had told her of her father’s incredible generosity during the hardest of time.
B. Virdot was actually named Sam Stone and he owned Stone’s Clothes, a men’s clothing store. 75 years later, Ted Gup began his journey of rediscovering the people who had been so grateful to receive such a small pittance of money from his immigrant Jewish grandfather.
Collectively, the letters offer a wrenching vision of the Great Depression and of the struggle within the souls of individuals, many too proud to speak of their anguish even to their loved ones. Some sought B. Virdot’s generosity not for themselves, but for their neighbors, friends or relatives. Stirred by their words, I set out to find what became of them, tracking down their descendants, wondering if the $5 gifts had made any difference. From each family, I received permission to use the letter. All of this I did against the backdrop of our own deepening recession, one more devastating than any since the Great Depression itself. I also set out to find why my grandfather made the gifts. I knew his early years had been marked by poverty—as a child he had rolled cigars, worked in a coal mine and washed soda bottles until the acidic cleansing agent ate at his fingertips. (Years later, as the owner of Stone’s Clothes, a men’s clothier, he finally achieved a measure of success.) But in the course of my research I discovered that his birth certificate was bogus. Instead of being born in Pittsburgh, as he had long claimed, he was a refugee from Romania who came to this land in his early teens and simply erased his past. Born an orthodox Jew and raised to keep kosher and speak Yiddish, he had chosen to make his gift on a gentile holiday, perhaps as a way of acknowledging his debt to a land that had accepted him
This remarkable story of generosity, immigration, Great Depression, poverty, and secrecy can be read at the Smithsonian Magazine online. This might be a good time to reflect on how fortunate we really are. We are fortunate that our country was pulled back from the brink of Depression by bold leaders who threw the mechanisms in place that prevented us from that abyss. We are fortunate that there are programs in place, safety nets, as it were, to catch people during these hard times. Americans should not go without food and shelter. We are fortunate that there were people like Sam Stone who felt the compassion to give to those in need, on a holiday not his own. So many Americans give back. Often we don’t even know who they are.