Two Crooks and a Bethlehem Babe

Imagine two of the world’s most notorious swindlers in the middle of dry country in Kansas, singing Christian hymns accompanied by their author on an organ. Indeed, this happened. Rudolf Stallmann aka Baron von Koenig and Maurice Salis-Schwabe traveled across America as part of a group of potential railroad investors. Their plan was to use the rail journey to tempt their rich companions to drink, gamble and reveal the type of secrets that could be financially leveraged.

Unfortunately, they had not counted on America’s Puritan streak. Their host, A. E. Stilwell was a teetotaler and devout Christian Scientist who enjoyed writing hymns in his spare time. Once his investors were on the train, Stilwell handed out hymnals, and soon the rhythmic click and clack of the rails was joined by the soaring notes of the pipes. The visitors were invited to turn to the appropriate page and join in singing “Bethlehem Babe,” one of Stilwell’s creations.

And so two of Europe’s most notorious swindlers stood, hymnals in hand, rocking to the rhythm of the rails, intoning this reverent chorus:

This Bethlehem Babe, of humble birth,
Became our saviour dear;
Where’er He went upon the earth
He banished pain and fear.
He stilled the waves and walked the sea,
The multitude was fed,
Obedient to His high decree
The grave gave up its dead.

Stallmann and Schwabe were not the only businessmen surprised by Stilwell’s religiosity. Author Henry Baerlein observed, “…it is delicious when those corpulent old gentlemen take from their mouths the fat cigars and warble. Sometimes one of them at the conclusion of a hymn, or even prematurely, a verse, will have financial doubts as to the railways.”

The trip was not an entire bust. Schwabe and Stallmann appeared to have pulled off some political intrigue in Mexico during their North American adventure. The whole story is told in Wilde Nights and Robber Barons. You can order from your favorite local book store. Also available in the UK at Amazon UK in the U.S. via Amazon or get an autographed copy with a special Oscar Wilde bookmark directly from the author. (When you buy directly from me, you get a signed copy and I get to keep more of the profits. Thanks for your support.)

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