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WILKES-BARRE ‚?? If John J. ‚??Butch‚?Ě McDevitt were alive today, he would probably be called a ‚??performance artist.‚?Ě
On a bizarre 1912 trip to New York City, where he ostentatiously threw around the money he had acquired as a political bribe, he quipped after turning down an offer to go on stage: ‚??This stunt is the extreme of high art and must not be tainted with commercialism.‚?Ě
In his own time, the Wilkes-Barre resident was seen as a ‚??character,‚?Ě a man whose effusive personality and wildly over-the-top stunts were good entertainment. In his later years he even became a popular speaker at banquets, making new generations laugh at the exploits of his youth.
This month is the 100th anniversary of McDevitt‚??s ‚??millionaire for a day‚?Ě visit to Manhattan, a tale that has entered into the area‚??s folklore, amusing people even since McDevitt‚??s 1951 death.
John J. ‚??Butch‚?Ě McDevitt was born in Tresckow, Carbon County, in 1876 and was brought to Wilkes-Barre by his parents.
Early on he managed several traveling baseball teams. If he ever worked when he was young, he kept that fact a secret, once he became known as an eccentric.
His stunts became local legend. In 1914 he had a Plaster of Paris statue of himself made and took it to Washington, D.C., to try to get it into the national Hall of Fame. In Washington the tall red-haired man with a cigar displayed an amazing ability to get others to go along with his antics. ‚??Upon arrival in Washington with some friends and newspapermen, the party was met by 21 members of the famous U.S. Marine Band,‚?Ě said The Times Leader years later. ‚??McDevitt was allowed to address the House of Representatives and Speaker Champ Clark told McDevitt he would consider Butch‚??s request that Congress accept the statue.‚?Ě
Of course the statue never made it into any hall of fame, but if McDevitt‚??s real goal was a day in the national limelight, that was accomplished.
Two years later he traveled to Boston, saying he wanted to find a wife.
‚??Thousands turned out to greet him in that city,‚?Ě said The Times Leader account. ‚??However, after meeting scores of applicants, McDevitt returned to Wilkes-Barre minus a missus after rejecting all candidates for his hand.‚?Ě
But he did return knowing that once again he had been the center of attention, something few if any others could have pulled off.
McDevitt‚??s supreme achievement, one that he would milk for all it was worth on the local banquet circuit for decades, was his 1912 visit to New York City to spend a political bribe. His goal, he said in a mockery of the old big-time spenders like Diamond Jim Brady, was to live like ‚??a millionaire for a day.‚?Ě
Always fascinated by politics and politicians, McDevitt used chicanery, such as posing as his rival‚??s manager and angering voters to win the Democratic nomination for Luzerne County treasurer in the primary election of 1912.
The party, alarmed by his unexpected presence on the ticket, then paid him a sum variously estimated at $1,000 or more to withdraw, which he did.
Said McDevitt after the event, ‚??My sell-out was profitable, and if I receive the nomination for Congress I will repeat the transaction. It pays me to be in politics.‚?Ě
That money, though slight by today‚??s standards, was a princely sum a century ago, and it financed the high point of his performance art.
On the morning of Jan. 12, 1912, McDevitt boarded a Lehigh Valley train he had chartered -- actually an engine and three coaches. Accompanied by local newspaper reporters and a few friends, he headed to New York City to spend a day that would bring him his greatest fame.
After lunch at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, McDevitt enjoyed a box seat for a performance of the George M. Cohan show, ‚??The Little Millionaire.‚?Ě Getting Cohan to go along with his gag, he gave a speech to the audience and got Cohan to throw a few references to Wilkes-Barre into the show.
Back at the hotel, he took a bath in milk and wine, explaining that he understood this was common practice for millionaires.
Even breakfast the next day was a performance. Said McDevitt later, ‚??It cost me $13.60 to reach something I could eat. I am deficient in knowledge of Greek, Latin and French so that I could not read what was on the bill-of-fare. So I ordered everything on the list until I got something I could eat, meanwhile slipping everything under the table.‚?Ě
Using the last bit of money he had, McDevitt returned to Wilkes-Barre as a passenger on a scheduled train. Back home, the ‚??millionaire for a day‚?Ě went into a restaurant near the train station, downed a big breakfast and walked out without paying.
Apart from his grandiose stunts, McDevitt‚??s life appears to have been largely one of hanging around politicians and businessmen, attending free dinners and self-publishing his views on whatever topic struck his fancy. Living with a sister in South Wilkes-Barre, he evidently had little in the way of personal expenses, often relying on other people to pick up his dining tabs.
A power in the area‚??s Democratic Party in the 1920s and long afterward was James Law, who chaired election campaigns and served as Wilkes-Barre postmaster. When the Democrats would meet at the Hotel Redington, McDevitt would invariably be there ‚?? apparently more for food than strategizing.
‚??Somebody would buy dinner and he‚??d sit down and eat it.‚?Ě Law reflected many years later. ‚??He never paid for anything. Many a meal I bought for him there.‚?Ě
Local people seemed never to tire of McDevitt‚??s stories of his free-spending trip to Manhattan, and he found many venues for telling it over and over. He even went on tour, with arrangements made by New York vaudeville promoter B.F. Keith.
‚??He got the full treatment from Keith and packed them in at all the theatres,‚?Ě said Tom Phillips, publisher of a Sunday paper The Wilkes-Barre Telegram, reflecting on McDevitt many years later. ‚??All he did was walk out on stage with a cane and a straw skimmer and tell his story of millionaire for a day.‚?Ě
McDevitt seemed to age gracefully. In the 1930s he participated in the Federal Writers Project, a government program that paid writers to produce their work. He also kept his name in print with letters to the editors of local newspapers.
In 1946, at age 70, he displayed his old wit when he reflected on his chosen way of life. ‚??If I recall rightly, you will find that the Lord at some time or other promised us eternal rest. That sounded good to me.‚?Ě
McDevitt died on Feb. 2, 1951.
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