The longshoreman grabbed for the hawser as it flew through the air. A few muted toots of a passing ship sliced through the foggy and damp din of the morning as the rust splotched tramp steamer’s stack offered a last puff of black smoke as it finalized docking at the bustling pier. The longshoreman made fast the hawser to the massive cleat and then joined his brethren as they continued about their monotonous duties along the waterfront. The tramp steamer’s lines were secured and the gangway was lowered. The dock official, a stack of crumpled papers stuffed under his arm, hurried up the slippery steps to see the steamer’s skipper. The captain, grabbing the manifest papers indicating the full cargo of Italian meats, wines and cheeses, handed it over to the official. The manifest was checked and confirmed. As quickly as he had arrived, and after some normal banter between the two men, he returned down the gangway and across the pier. As the dock official returned to his office, he looked over the tramp steamer’s manifest. He sat down in his chair and looked over the listing of cargo and more importantly, its gross weight. A toothy grin flashed as he smiled. With his free hand he reached forward and grabbed his desk lighter. He pushed back in his chair and with his foot, pulled out his waste paper basket. He held the manifest up into the air and clicked the lighter. The bluish flame flickered, the smell of fluid wafted to his nostrils. The lighter’s curling flame leapt upwards and licked at the edge of the document. The corner of the manifest began to crinkle and turn to ash as the fire crept upward. He dropped the burning pages into the wastebasket. Convinced that the papers had been reduced to ash, he reached out and grabbed his mug of cold coffee. He tossed the burning remnants of the chocolate brew into the basket and a small puff of smoke wafted into the air. He pushed the still smoking waste paper basket under his desk and opened his desk drawer. He rifled through various papers and pulled out a fresh manifest emblazoned with the date and name of the newly arrived tramp steamer. The dock official thought of his fattened wallet. Having Philip Musica as a business associate had its privileges.
Philip Musica was born in 1877 in Naples, Italy. In 1883, the six year old boy immigrated to the United States with his parents Antonio and Maria. Settling in Little Italy in New York City, Philip conjured up a business plan. Convincing his father, who had established a barbershop, that their fellow immigrants from the home country would enjoy a taste and sip of their country, the A. Musica & Son import company was established. While a business model based on honesty was part of the capitalism, defrauding the government from its share of duty fees marked the true “American dream” of financial success. Musica, offering bribes to dock officials, could ensure that the weight of the shipments of cheeses, meats, and wines, was significantly less than the true measure. By paying less in importation fees, Musica and his father could reap a higher profit margin. When the items were picked up and loaded from the warehouse, the fake invoices were provided and Musica offered the reduced payment. Shipment after shipment was unloaded, false invoices based duties paid to the federal government, and the A. Musica & Son import business grew substantially along with the ruse.
Building his import empire on false documents, Philip Musica and his family reaped the benefits of their nefarious business practices. The company was outselling their competitors in New York City and were grossing nearly half a million dollars per year by 1903. The Musica family moved into a “mansion in Brooklyn…rode in ornate carriages, owned their own stable of horses, and socialized with the most prominent families in the area.” Philip, living the high life based on a pile of fake invoices, rubbed elbows with celebrities of the era including Enrico Caruso at swank dining establishments including Rector’s and Delmonico’s. Philip Musica and his family were on top of the world with massive profits rocketing them further skyward. Six years later, in 1909, the upward trajectory of the family’s import business was about to take a dramatic shift in direction.
Customs officials became wise to the scheme and the Musica business was thrust into the limelight. Philip assumed all responsibility for the fraudulent activities and sacrificed himself at the mercy of the court. He was fined five thousand dollars and sentenced to a year at the Elmira Reformatory facility. He was the only Musica to be punished for his actions. Less than six months into his year-long sentence, he was provided a full pardon by the twenty-seventh President of the United States, William Howard Taft who felt that Philip had taken a “noble stance of assuming the full guilt for the swindle.” Philip Musica was a free man. His short stint in reform did little to sway his manner. There was a hair out of place and Philip Musica was due for a new hairdo…of sorts.
High society, Musica knew, was in love with long locks of human hair. Falling back upon the tresses of his previous shady shenanigans, he decided to sell lengthy manes of hair to customers based on false invoices and shipping orders. The hair enterprise left several banks bald of nearly half a million dollars with only Musica needing a trim from his financial bangs. The tragic toupee of human hair extensions got cut short when the banks began asking questions. Upon investigation, an alleged bounty of locks worth nearly three hundred and seventy thousand dollars was valued at less than two hundred and fifty dollars. When investigators knocked on the Musica family door, there was no answer. Upon entry, the house in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn was bare. The Musica family was on the lam.
Investigators scoured for information and found a messenger boy who had taken luggage from the home to the train station bound for New Orleans. The detectives raced south to try and intercept the fleeing family. After a round of the city’s hotels, they learned that they had just missed them. The hotel clerks indicated that they had set out earlier in the day for the United Fruit Line pier. The detectives raced to the waterfront and boarded the S.S. Heridia. After a briefing with the ship’s captain and officers, the detectives were led to the stateroom of the “Martins and Weekses of Chicago.” Philip Musica attempted to barricade himself in the stateroom. The detectives were not as easily persuaded as the bevy of banks who had provided Musica and his hair-brained scheme nearly a million dollars. The detectives broke down the door. A female, later identified as Louise Musica fled from the stateroom and out onto the main deck. A detective watched as she ran up to the railing, reached into her blouse and corset and pulled out a thick bundle. The detective instinctively grabbed for his pistol and then realized, as she flung the package overboard, that it was not a weapon. While Ms. Musica was taken below decks for questioning, several mates from the ship fished the package from the water. As it was opened, eighteen thousand dollars in damp bills were discovered. In total, the Musica family was found with approximately eighty thousand dollars in cash and a large quantity of jewelry. As Philip and his family members were being carted off to the nearby police station, his father lunged at Philip and pulled a pistol from his son’s overcoat. “I am disgraced,” the elder Musica shouted. Detectives wrestled the loaded pistol from his hands and secured the pistol. The Musica’s were placed into holding cells and soon transported to New York to face trial. Philip, as he had done a few years earlier, took full responsibility for the grand larceny charges. He was found guilty but was not sent to jail. Musica, to avoid another stint behind bars, had turned professional stool pigeon and served three years of “imprisonment” in the District Attorney’s office. Musica was involved in a few sensational investigations that led to various arrests and in 1916 he was permitted to go free. In the late nineteen-teens, Musica realized that he had to make a new mark if he wanted to be successful. Musica disappeared and emerged from the shadows when the country attempted to legislate the morals of society.
While Prohibition may have been the catalyst, hair was always on Musica’s mind. He established a new company that would sell a break-through new hair tonic named Dandrofuge. A main ingredient in the new product was alcohol which was illegal. Musica was not about to allow that minor detail derail his deranged and daring diagram of dandruff fighting tonic. Musica, along with his business partner Joseph Brandino applied for the appropriate permits and they were granted by the Alcohol Tax Unit of the United States Treasury Department. Several bottles of Dandrofuge were placed in Musica’s office. The rest “only existed in the mind of its inventor.” The raw alcohol – a main ingredient in the product – was being converted in back-alley warehouses into bootleg booze. The swindle combed in a boodle of profits but the partnership with Brandino was short-lived. Turning his back on his partner, Musica informed Treasury agents of Brandino’s illegal actions. Dandrofuge was no more the product of Musica and Brandino. It was soon to be under new management with new investors with Musica alone calling the shots.
Utilizing his entire family as characters in his newest “financial” charade, Musica assumed the identity of F. Donald Coster. Mr. Coster informed investors that he was simply managing a business established by the late Mr. Girard for his widow, Mrs. Girard. With the familial impersonation complete by his own mother Maria, the Girard & Company flourished with investors clamoring to cash in on the success of Dandrofuge. His mother Maria was not the only “former” Musica that shifted “family” names to join the charade. His sister Grace along with Arthur, George and Robert assumed new names and furthered the ruse. Arthur Musica, now known as George Vernard became agent for a non-existent firm named W.W. Smith and Company. The plan was ingeniously simple and kept the U.S. Treasury Department completely in the dark.
To continue producing his Dandrofuge, Coster needed large amounts of raw alcohol. When agents would become suspicious of the orders, Coster provided invoices from the W.W. Smith and Company. Clearly, Coster argued, he needed the raw alcohol to meet the demands of his business associates. The scheme worked well and the raw alcohol was not turned into Dandrofuge but rather a poor imitation of Scotch. At bootlegger’s prices, the swindle netted nearly eight million dollars in profits.
Coster, aka Musica though was not willing to risk his freedom. Working alongside his brother who had assumed the name Vernard – serving as the chief operating officer of the non-existent W.W. Smith and Company – the brothers showed their “cooked” books to the auditors of Price, Waterhouse & Company. With every “t” crossed and “i” dotted correctly, the firm, based on forged reports by Dun & Company, indicated that W.W. Smith and Company was worth nearly seven million dollars with sales of over a million dollars and net profits of a quarter of a million dollars per year. Money continued to accrue into the Coster and family coffers. Still Coster was careful to cover his crooked path with conniving cunning. He purchased McKesson & Robbins, a respected and established drug manufacturing firm, to further curtail suspicion.
By the late nine-teen twenties, Coster was once again reveling in the high-life of the American dream. He owned a twenty-eight room mansion, a stable of race horses and a garage full of expensive and rare automobiles. The president of the world’s third largest drug business could afford such luxuries. Hubris and arrogance however were about to rear their head when the stock market crashed in 1929. Coster had speculated “wildly on the bull market, and to cover his losses, he swindled the crude-drugs division” that had made him his millions. Coster was down but certainly not out. Providing reams of bogus invoices to W.W. Smith and Company, his company appeared to be able to weather the storm of financial ruin while other companies fell to the sword of the stock market crash. When board members of the McKesson & Robbins firm decided for Coster to convert two million dollars into cash, he rebuked and replied candidly that the firm should negotiate a loan to assist with much needed improvements.
Julien Thompson, the controller of McKesson & Robbins realized that something was not right. “Why should a firm that appeared immensely successful be compelled to go outside its own coffers” to financially support “improvements?” he questioned. Thompson poured through the company books and realized that the Dun & Company report had been nothing more than a fake. Digging deeper, he unearthed a web of deceit that permeated the entire foundation of the multi-million dollar empire. When confronted with the information Coster scoffed at the allegations. Thompson knew what he had found and the evidence was as clear as the ringing of a bell. If Coster was going to scoff at the evidence, Thompson was resolved take it to a higher authority for review and action.
The New York Stock Exchange officials were very interested in what Thompson had unearthed. The faux house of cards constructed by Coster was falling apart around him. Coster knew that there would be no escaping the inevitable. Coster retired to his mansion and took no visitors. Investigators had learned of his past through cunning detective work. There was no escaping justice this time. As a new dawn crept into the windows of his bedroom on December 16, 1938, he awoke. The house was utterly quiet with the only sound the flop of freshly printed newspapers emblazoned with the scandal being dropped upon the mansion’s doorstep. Coster took no action and after a light breakfast, he retired to his upstairs bathroom. He ordered a highball from his butler and closed the door. At few minutes after noon, he heard an inevitable sound at his home’s front door. A series of knocks from the heavy hands of justice rapped repeatedly. The United States Marshalls had come to arrest him for countless indictments of fraud. Coster, avoiding the call to justice, remained in his luxurious bathroom. In his hand he clutched a .30 caliber pistol. He had ensured that his last writing was left for his wife in an easy to find location. He thought about the words he had written as he stared at himself in the mirror. Millions were unaccounted for. He was not going to prison. He had other plans.
Coster had been a schemer all of his life. As he had aged and rose in power, he had done everything possible to avoid detection and to avoid his previous life from being exposed. A wealthy and respected businessman, he had become a beloved member of his community and a leader in the pharmaceutical industry. Despite his wealth and influence, the shadow of his past always loomed in the darkness of the unknown. There was no shaking his shadow. He had been meticulous but his past and his fraudulent ways had finally come to light. He positioned himself carefully in his bathroom. As the banging on the front door continued, he moved onto on the expensive imported carpet and maneuvered to ensure that his actions would not ruin the fine woven fabric beneath his feet. He placed the cold tip of the pistol against his temple and closed his eyes. Seconds later, F. Donald Coster, born Philip Musica, slumped into the bathtub. His butler and the detectives raced to the second floor bathroom and broke down the door. Coster lay in the bathtub surrounded by blood splattered tiles. He was pronounced dead by the medical examiner shortly after. In his pocket, detectives found an old wallet. It contained three one dollar bills.
McKesson & Robbins weathered the storm and remains under its new name McKesson as a vibrant pharmaceutical company. On the company website it touts its financial success in the late nine-teen twenties and remits its one time director, F. Donald Coster or Philip Musica as he was christened, and leaves his legacy in the dark shadows of antiquity. Over one hundred and twenty years ago, the young man had a dream of attaining wealth and power. Over the course of his life, he achieved all of that and was even successful, for a time, to reinvent his entire existence. Despite his arduous efforts, his criminal past was always lurking. In an editorial published the day after his suicide, the author penned “the observer marvels and gives up as he contemplates the mystery of this extraordinarily gifted man. After his fashion, Coster-Musica was a genius. Placidly, confident in his own histrionic ability, he faced, year in and year out, witnesses who one would have thought must have long ago have recognized him. Seemingly they did not. He had a spell that was as good, while it lasted, as an invisible cloak. Did he have his own laugh at the folly of mankind as every day he shaved and dressed Philip Musica and then sent Frank Donald Coster to sit behind the ornate desk? We shall never know the answers to many questions he has left behind him. Perhaps there was but one answer – the self-directed bullet in the fertile, tortured brain.” Philip Musica truly left many questions unanswered in the wake of his life of fraud and subterfuge that started with bribing customs officials for his first criminal enterprise of reaping the windfalls of nearly weightless cargos of imported items that arrived at the piers in our waters.