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McDevitt took a victory lap in Washington D.C.

Published March 03. 2012 09:01AM

A century ago, Jay McDevitt, the humorist-philosopher-positive thinker from Wilkes-Barre, certainly knew how to play to a crowd as well as court the media. Like today's promoters and publicity agents, he was savvy enough to realize that the window of opportunity does not remain open long for shooting stars. Nashville and Hollywood are littered with examples of one-hit wonders.

In the early months of 1912, McDevitt realized that this was his time to cash in on some new-found fame he enjoyed after his self-promoted "Millionaire for a Day" trip to New York City. That experience led to a book as well as a speaking tour.

For most farming and mining families struggling to pay their bills, a trip to New York was a luxury in the early 20th century. McDevitt was a product of the coal regions himself he even boarded in Tamaqua for a time so he understood the culture and was well qualified to talk about his experiences in the big city.

Just a few weeks after his ballyhooed trip to the Big Apple, the New York Times reported that McDevitt made "a triumphal entry into Washington D.C."

The way McDevitt seized the moment to play up his fame would have made any professional wrestling promoter proud.

First, he brought along his own film crew.

Second, he brought a visual prop a "heroic-size statue" of himself made in plaster of paris.

Third, he worked his audience by throwing money to the crowd. For Batman movie fans, it was reminiscent of The Joker (Jack Nicholson) parading through the streets of Gotham City and tossing out money.

One New York Times reporter chronicled McDevitt's fame train.

"The crowds that gather on any occasion were early at the Union Station to welcome the valiant hero of vainglory," he wrote. "They followed him and his band through the streets, crowding about his automobile and jeering at the statue, and clamoring for the occasional piece of money he threw to those in his wake.

"McDevitt neglected nothing to attract the attention of the rabble," he said. "Hundreds of carnations were delivered to him at the station. These and pictures of the statue were distributed along the line of parade from the station to the Sterling Hotel."

Whenever he was about to throw a dollar bill to the crowd, McDevitt made sure the moment was captured on film.

"He raised the bill high in the air so that the camera could catch it as well as the cheering, happy-go-lucky mob," the writer noted.

After an hour of parading through the streets of Washington, McDevitt and his entourage reached the hotel where he delivered a short speech.

"The only difference between Napoleon and myself is that Napoleon led an army and I did not," he boasted. "I have not done anything great but you can never tell what I can do."

In playing to the crowd, he made a puzzling observation which may have been a hint to the audience that they were about to be scammed.

"The only difference between economy and insanity is $100,000 and I am nearly broke," he laughed.

Displaying a fistful of money, he then bought a pile of afternoon newspapers from some newsboys who were hawking them nearby.

"When the demands of the newsboys for a piece of money became insistent, McDevitt quickly concluded his talk and rushed into the hotel," the writer stated.

Several members of his entourage carried his statue inside and placed it in the corridor, where a number of people stopped to gawk at it.

Another focus of McDevitt during the trip was to promote his book before the congress. Even though he was refused entry to the chamber to formally address the members, McDevitt garnered enough free advertising by just making the attempt. Making a speech on the steps of the Capitol, accompanied by his statue, hyped the event even more.

After returning to Wilkes-Barre, McDevitt played off his current fame by making another appeal, this one to the Carnegie Fund Bureau. He noted in a letter how his specialized brand of good will and positive thinking were a benefit to society.

"I have long ago concluded that God intended me for something more than an aimless existence, and if you with your unlimited cash would deviate slightly from what you have in mind and consider my philosophy I am thoroughly satisfied that you would list me as one of your pensioners and believe me, you would not go wrong at that," he told Carnegie in his letter of March 12, 1912. "Many things are necessary to make life pleasant and agreeable other than food and drink.

"A little sunshine now and then will not hurt, hence I would like to go through life dropping sparks of optimism as I wander about and endeavor to break up the monotonous clouds that overshadow so many poor souls on this map. I will aim to make life pleasant for the unfortunates I meet from day to day, and if in my going about I can bring a smile and a feeling of good cheer into some poor person's life, I will not have labored in vain."

McDevitt ended with a rather modest appeal to have at least the basic necessities supplied during his travels.

"All I ask is enough to keep me in three meals a day and a few cigars," he said.

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