1938 – Can’t Beat The System: Christian Zeitinger Of 40 Benton Place

Zeitiger In Lab – 1914

A 1938 obituary in the Post Dispatch noted the death of Christian J. Zeitinger, an inventor, promotor and hydraulic engineer. He was 73 years old and died of “the infirmities of age”. It also mentioned that he often appeared in bankruptcy court, having used a string of financial schemes to develop and market a gravity flour mill invention. 

Retta Reed, who lived for years at 35 Benton Place in Lafayette Square, bought and razed an abandoned house across from her. Curious about who had lived there, I began an expedition backward through the papers. 

In 1889, Zeitinger was a 24 year old co-founder of the Chicago Novelty Manufacturing Company. He learned that you can create a vacuum with flowing water, and that the strength of the vacuum is proportional to the speed of the flow. This led him to Niagara Falls, where more water flows per minute than anywhere else in the U.S. 

  The idea presented some challenges, in that he proposed to build power plant turbines in the middle of the Niagara River. He envisioned huge steel coffers, built and sunk into the river, attached to the river bed and filled with concrete. An 18 foot diameter shaft would be dug through 90 feet of limestone, and run horizontally downstream, opening at the precipice of the falls. The water running past the opening would create suction sufficient to drive turbine wheels powering 500 horsepower dynamos near the surface of the coffers. 

The idea never bore fruit for Zeitinger, but convinced him that there was a fortune to be made by exploiting physical principles for practical needs. 

A couple years later, Christian Zeitinger was employed as a postmaster in Maryland. He made a mistake by trying to correspond with a young lady whose letter he happened to read. She complained and Zeitinger was ushered from the postal service with a strong reprimand and a $100.00 fine. Stories of the “lovelorn postmaster” hit the national press. He migrated back to his native Missouri. 

40 Benton Place. Even Looks Mysterious

A real estate listing in the September 3,1905 Post Dispatch offered 40 Benton Place for sale “at a bargain”. The 11 room residence on a deep lot was “a snap for a quick buyer”. At $7500.00, the ad advised acting fast, by “transferring to the Park Avenue car and getting off at Lafayette Park”. The now 40 year old Zeitinger jumped at it.  

The house was originally built by Richard Ludlow, a wire manufacturer, around 1874. It was occupied by Ludlow’s widow for eight years, then sat empty until sold to Zeitinger, who “declined to occupy it”. Over the following four year period, policemen on the beat knew it as “the house of mystery”.

On April 3,1908 the vacant house was destroyed by a series of explosions and fire. The owner was “absent from the city”. The Post Dispatch speculated “firebugs” may have been rummaging in the only furnished room. Upon inspection, the doors and windows to the house were found to have been locked. According to neighbors, the house was unoccupied, and rarely visited by Zeitinger or his brother George. Police used a charred letterhead from a lumber firm in Zeitonia, Missouri to locate and notify Zeitinger of his loss. 

Zeitinger must have repaired the house, for out of the blue, with no connection made to earlier stories, the Post Dispatch in July of 1909 reported:

The paper trail goes dark until a long feature article appeared in the Dayton Daily News of February 22,1914. It compared Zeitinger favorably with Thomas Edison and stated “in common  with other inventors, he has denied himself all the pleasures of life because he had faith in his plan of cheap water power.” It portrayed Christian as a boy growing up on his father’s water powered grist mill, frustrated by shutdowns caused by driftwood, floods and ice floes. Christian was sent to Washington University, where he was taught by Calvin Woodward, a nationally respected engineer. Woodward took an interest in young Christian, and they often worked long hours together. After graduating, Zeitinger sold his inheritance and bought 40 Benton Place. He “plunged into the problem of conserving water power. Before his house was completed, he ordered the building work stopped so the noise would not disturb him. The windows were boarded up and the house remained unfinished.” Zeitinger was a strict vegetarian, preparing his own meals and living alone in the house, having “never had time to look around for a wife” as he put it. “He is shy and reserved…Neglected, the large yard around his house has grown up with tall weeds, through which paths are worn… The wooden steps to the house have decayed and are unnoticed by the proprietor”. 

By the use of ox-bow formations in rivers, Zeitinger proposed creating clean unlimited hydroelectric  power, and pledged to have a working prototype by 1918. The Dayton Times was dazzled by the inventor and his tireless work ethic in faraway Benton Place. 

Railway Exchange Building

Zeitinger reappears the following year in the local papers, connected with a possible suit against Hargadine McKittrick Dry Goods Company. The company was alleged to have wasted its assets over the preceding nine years in the financing, building and eventual liquidation of the Railway Exchange Building, a 22 story beauty at Sixth and Olive Streets. Long the headquarters of Famous Barr, it was the tallest building in St Louis when built in 1914.

McKittrick’s business failed, and entered a court ordered liquidation. Due a $2.5 million distribution from capital stock, 85% of the net proceeds should have gone to McKittrick investors, with Thomas McKittrick getting the remainder. In the event, investors received nothing, and Christian Zeitinger, since 1908 the owner of 100 shares of preferred stock, took the lead in court, pressing a case that investors had been swindled.   

In December 1915, suit was filed in Circuit Court, asking that a receiver be appointed.The petitioners were Christian and George Zeitinger. The suit claimed that McKittrick had raised capital stock of $4 million, and wasted it on the purchase and mismanagement of the William Barr Dry Goods Company building, subsequently torn down to enable construction of the Railway Exchange building.

“The plaintiffs allege that all of these operations were designed to draw the assets of the McKittrick Company away from their rightful owners “through diverse and sundry sluices and channels, subterranean and submarine”.

The suit claimed McKittrick said investors should just “kiss it goodbye and forget it,” and he defended himself vigorously in court. A maze of transactions, transfers and accounting records made the actual cash flow from the enterprise difficult to trace.  

On Steps Of 40 Benton Place

In court, R. McKittrick Jones, CEO of the firm, depicted the struggles of running the business through wartime, and the closing off of capital from big Eastern banks. He claimed the venture had to seek liquidation when debts reached $1.2 million, and that the debt had been mostly repaid. Financial officer Walter McKittrick also said the books were opened to Christian Zeitinger, with whom he had several meetings of three hours or more.

In February 1916, testimony by a former director of McKittrick Dry Goods provided store vs store comparisons. From 1905 to 1909, Famous Dry Goods and Union Leader gained market share at the expense of the Barr Store. Falling behind, Barr eventually merged with Famous in 1911. Zeitinger implied that McKittrick grew wealthy while undermining and pouring money into the Barr store. When questioned by counsel for the company if he knew he was charging McKittrick with a federal crime, Zeitinger admitted this charge was based upon rumor, and he had come to a “mental conclusion” for his allegation. If he had realized the McKittricks were engaged in real estate deals rather than dry goods, he would not have purchased stock in it. He added that his knowledge of any building plans was limited to newspaper articles he had read, until investigating their records during the previous May. In 1914, he had gone to the McKittrick Co. offices and asked to see the books. He was told by Thomas McKittrick “There have been 40 lawyers here; you can’t do any good. For two cents I’d choke you and throw you out into the street.” 

Displaying a newfound interest in creative finance, Zeitinger placed an item in the Post Dispatch six months later. This notified the public of a stockholder meeting of the Zeitinger Industrial Management Company. Despite the acclaim for his clean abundant water power scheme, Zeitinger’s roots lay back at his father’s grist mill. He had been working with similar lack of success to develop and commercialize a gravity flour mill. Much as McKittrick had lured investors, Christian Zeitinger now set out to do the same:

 

In June of 1919, Zeitinger petitioned a Circuit Court judge to vacate an order approving someone other than himself as trustee of the McKittrick firm. Zeitinger said it was his understanding that in return for agreeing to a compromise judgement, he would be made a trustee of McKittrick, and in that capacity, be compensated for the time and expense involved in his four years of litigation. Having been snubbed on this appointment, he complained to the court that it was he who had ferreted out the facts of the case, put the evidence in chronological order and led the court to appoint a receiver, without benefitting one cent from it. The three attorneys representing the plaintiff meanwhile, were each paid $25,000 from the McKittrick funds. The judge ruled against Zeitinger, who must have wondered about the value of his last four years in court, other than to feed the system.

Doubling down, Zeitinger filed a motion in Circuit Court alleging that attorneys for both sides had compromised to end his case against McKittrick for their own financial gain. Zeitinger sought to re-instate the original charge. Fees of over $100,000 had been paid to the receiver, referee and plaintiff’s attorneys in the matter, and were all billed to the defunct company. By this time, Zeitinger was acting as his own lawyer. Within a month, the judge in the case awarded an additional $50,000 to the attorneys representing McKittrick. Zeitinger must have seethed. 

 A Post Dispatch article from June 1920 noted that Christian Zeitinger, 55, “a hydraulic engineer living at 40 Benton Place, alighted from a streetcar at Armstrong (now MacKay Place) and Chouteau, and was struck by an automobile, breaking his right leg, and causing some internal injury”. A grocer on Chouteau Avenue told the reporter that two young men were in the car, with one urging the other to speed away, in a clear case of hit and run. 

By May of 1921, recovered and again ready to do battle with the justice system, Christian and George appeared in Circuit Court, asking the judge to invalidate the stipulation that moved McKittrick finances from receivership to liquidation. The brothers claimed that, as original plaintiffs, they never agreed to a settlement. Christian said he had signed an agreement on legal fees only in the understanding that he would be made a trustee, but that had never come to pass. 

A penmanship teacher from McKinley High School took the stand on behalf of the petitioners, examining the signatures of the Zeitinger brothers under a microscope. In his judgement, they appeared to have been traced and transferred to the paper by a rubber stamp. Countering this was a former attorney for the Zeitingers, who testified that he witnessed the brothers signing the document. The court ended up finding for McKittrick, the judgement stood, and Christian was aced out yet again. 

Christian Zeitinger faded from view and dedicated himself to the gravity flour mill scheme for the next seven years. He joined the Socialist Party of the US, and in 1924 ran for Presidential Elector from the 12th District on the LaFollette-Wheeler ticket. This slate easily lost to Coolidge and Dawes in the general election. 

When Zeitinger again appears in the news, it is on the short end of his own failing business. In a situation remarkably akin to what so infuriated him earlier, the Post Dispatch of December 19 1928 featured this headline:

Zeitinger, still at 40 Benton Place, was charged by creditors who sank an aggregate $35,000 into a “huge flour mill with which he sought to revolutionize the milling industry of the world”. He had informed them the business was a bust due to lack of funds for further development. Zeitinger’s defense was that they’d only invested $12,000, and his total assets amounted to around $33,000. A hearing began, and the primary petitioning creditor turned out to be George Zeitinger, who had spotted his brother $5500.00. The paper observed that the flour mill had been “standing in Christian Zeitinger’s old-fashioned home and business in Benton Place since 1917,” and extended from the basement to the ceiling of the third floor. 

Christian Zeitiger 1935

By this time, Zeitinger was “an elderly man of spare build, trim with neat grey hair and beard and light blue eyes”.  In 1928, his business empire included Zeitinger’s Gravity Mills Of North America, the Zeitinger Industrial Development Company, set up to finance the mill, Gravity Realty Company, that owned his Benton Place residence and two adjacent lots, and an ill-defined Capitol Trust. 

He took the stand in Circuit Court and was asked to describe his assets. He listed his Railway Exchange Building bonds, shares of three oil companies stock, four other bonds, real estate securities and his house. The judge asked why, with these assets, Zeitinger could not complete his mill, and he replied;

“lack of cash….lack of money is the only thing that hampers a man of ability in this false monetary system”. 

Zeitinger defined his Capital Trust as eight men who subscribed $150.00 each, for a total of $1200.00. The trust then had certificates of interest printed and two steel safes purchased to hold them in the Benton Place residence. The outlay for this was $1600.00. The judge was stunned. “You mean to tell me that you spent more than was subscribed, for certificates and safes?!” Zeitinger replied, “I invited four more gentlemen to come into the trust to make up that deficit”. When an attorney asked what the purpose of the trust was, he was told, “it was to finance the development company”. “How did you expect to finance anything in that way?” asked the judge. “Well, your honor,” replied Zeitinger, “this was an elastic financial system.”The judge asked Zeitinger to explain the principle of operation of the mill, and Christian proceeded to talk for half an hour, leading the Court to order him repeatedly to stop. 

Less than six months later, Christian J. Zeitinger appeared in bankruptcy court. He admitted to raising about $14,000.00 from more than 90 small investors in his scheme to revolutionize the flour milling world. Somehow he had never patented any of his ideas for a mill. Asked what developments he had made to his invention in recent years, Zeitinger replied that he’d spent the time creating programs to obtain more funding. He also claimed to have been successful speculating in the stock market, with money borrowed against company bonds. He had sued McKittrick ten years earlier and maintained that suit for years, incensed by a scheme he would later modify to his own needs. His faith in science had yielded to his hope for a miracle. 

Zeitinger listed assets of $9788.00, of which $5500.00 was the value of his home at 40 Benton Place. Three of his four enterprises were declared bankrupt, although he and Gravity Realty were still deemed solvent. Asked if he still thought he had a practical idea with the mill, he answered, “I know I have. I could develop it in six months if I had enough money”. Maybe that was true, but probably didn’t matter by then.

On May 2,1930, a warrant was issued for Christian Zeitinger by complaint of his brother George. It alleged embezzlement of $13,000.00 from Gravity Realty Company. George and another investor told the court they had purchased shares in 1922. Gravity Realty was originally formed to pursue litigation against McKittrick in order to obtain equity in the Railway Exchange Building. The funds had subsequently been used in stock market speculation, from which Zeitinger gained $19,000.00.  He then put much of it back into the company to pay creditors. Zeitinger’s whereabouts were, according to the paper, unknown.

On July 10, Christian Zeitinger was indicted for embezzlement, based on his handling of funds at Gravity Realty. The indictment replaced the outstanding warrant for Zeitinger, then living at 1909 Park Avenue.

In May 1931, Zeitinger, now 67, was tried and acquitted of the embezzlement charge. This verdict was based on testimony by Gravity Realty’s treasurer that the financial affairs of the company were few and of little note, with no transaction involving more than $2500.00 and all monies having been either accounted for, or repaid, by Zeitinger. 

On December 26, 1934, Circuit Court Judge O’Malley appointed a paymaster to finally settle claims against McKittrick Co. Preferred stockholders like Christian Zeitinger were entitled to share the proceeds of a $300,000 distribution of assets. In the years since litigation began in 1915, many shareholders had died. Lucky Zeitinger? No; the court ordered him to surrender his 472 shares of stock, as they were “owned by the Gravity Realty Company in which Zeitinger is a stockholder”. Those proceeds would go instead to Zeitinger’s creditors. The man was truly payday-proof. 

In April of 1935, the now 70 year old Christian Zeitinger was arrested and put in City Jail for contempt of court. He had refused to surrender the 472 shares of McKittrick stock O’Malley found him not to own. Zeitinger’s attorney said Christian spent his first day of confinement “in meditation”. As a writ of habeas corpus was prepared, Judge O’Malley “declared the white-haired promoter would remain in jail until either he surrendered the stock or gave a reasonable explanation of his inability to do so”. O’Malley was obviously unimpressed with Zeitinger’s explanation that he had given the shares to “friends who advanced him living expenses, but he that he could not disclose their names.” 

“When Sheriff Madden led him to jail, the promoter said he had ‘only a couple of dimes”. At this, “the sheriff gave him a couple of dollars for incidental purchases while in jail”. The man long associated with a four story flour mill at the 40 Benton Place house of mystery, gave only a P.O. box for an address. 

An April 10, 1935 Post Dispatch byline read; 

“Promoter Freed From Jail To Find Missing Stock”

 After Christian spent 27 days in jail, his attorney told O’Malley that Zeitinger believed he could find the missing shares if released to search for them. Although technically in “constructive custody” of the sheriff, Zeitinger was released for 10 days to find the missing stock. Remarkably, this was the same stock he said he had given to three friends who had advanced him living expenses earlier. Perhaps the system had cut Zeitinger a small break.

The recorded history of this dies out until the October 7,1938 obituary for Christian J. Zeitinger. It seemed charitable, calling him “an inventor and promoter for 40 years”. At 73 years of age, he died “of the infirmities of age” at his home at 1501 Hickory Street. It pointed out that he was a lifelong bachelor, survived only by his brother George. There is, again charitably, no comment from that sibling. 

In the end, this is something like life itself; rather long in the unwinding, chock-full of near misses and small disappointments. Yet, it’s a true adventure if played right, and even the less than angelic can be, at least in the eyes of history, more worthy of the remembering than the accomplished yet dull. If Christian Zeitinger accomplished nothing of note, he still serves as a character who fit his era of possibility, shenanigan, and consequence.

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