Skip to main content


Monkey (wrench) Business

March 2023
1min read

Nineteen hundred and eleven was a bleak year for the working people of Spring Valley, Illinois. Industry was drying up, and jobs were scarce. So, naturally, residents were delighted to see the billboard below—with its carefully painted bricks and its canny perspective—rise like a promise on a hill above the Rock Island tracks. Nor were they disappointed by the man who put it there—a smooth drummer named William L. Bessolo. From a platform at the depot, he told his hungry listeners that once the factory was producing his patented wrenches, prosperity would return to Spring Valley. All he needed was a little working capital.

Speaking in Italian to the largely immigrant population, Bessolo offered shares of stock. His wife sat beside him in silence, but helped his pitch by being, as residents recall, “a good-looking woman. ” The picture of her and Bessolo bears this out; the child was probably theirs.

When an official of a local land company began to accuse Bessolo of fraud, the inventor responded at a mass meeting: couldn’t people see that work had already begun on the factory? The townspeople backed Bessolo, and eventually gave him ten thousand dollars of their money. Then, one morning, he was gone.

Frank Martinelli, a retired plumber, remembers entering the Bessolos’ apartment after they had skipped. “All we found was a case of champagne. They were living high off the hog. I helped drink it. I wanted to get something for my two hundred dollars.”

That was all the satisfaction Spring Valley citizens ever got. They did press for extradition when word came through that Bessolo had been arrested for fraud in California, but the county supervisors couldn’t afford to spend any money on the proceedings, and the inventor went to jail on the Coast.

Our thanks to Herb Hames, editor of the La Salle, Illinois, Daily News-Tribune for sending us this cautionary tale, and to Mrs. Cyril Sweeney of Spring Valley, the owner of the photograph.

We continue to ask our readers to send unusual and previously unpublished old photographs to Carla Davidson at American Heritage Publishing Co., 10 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10020. Please send a copy of any irreplaceable material, and do not mail glass negatives. AMERICAN HERITAGE will pay $50.00 for each one that is run.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Stories published from "February/March 1980"

Authored by: Barbara Klaw


Authored by: Ben Yagoda

The curious career of the Hays Office

Authored by: The Editors

A splendid gathering of American folk art—half a century before its time

Authored by: The Editors

A Connecticut photographer’s record of life in a shipbuilding town

Authored by: The Editors

A major new exhibition celebrates the bright, idiosyncratic paintings of America’s folk artists

Authored by: Garry Wills

In an age of ersatz heroes, a fresh look at the real thing

Authored by: The Editors

Unpublished letters from Dean Acheson to Ex-President Harry Truman

Authored by: Elton Mack

A Marine Remembers the Battle for Belleau Wood

Authored by: Joseph Conlin

It saved the early Colonists from starvation, it has caused men to murder each other, it used to be our most democratic food—in short, an extraordinary bivalve

Authored by: Larry Meyer

The last homesteading community, a Depression-era experiment—and a selection of the rare color photographs that recorded it

Featured Articles

Often thought to have been a weak president, Carter was strong-willed in doing what he thought was right, regardless of expediency or the political fallout.

Rarely has the full story been told how a famed botanist, a pioneering female journalist, and First Lady Helen Taft battled reluctant bureaucrats to bring Japanese cherry trees to Washington. 

Why have thousands of U.S. banks failed over the years? The answers are in our history and politics.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.

Native American peoples and the lands they possessed loomed large for Washington, from his first trips westward as a surveyor to his years as President.

A hundred years ago, America was rocked by riots, repression, and racial violence.

During Pres. Washington’s first term, an epidemic killed one tenth of all the inhabitants of Philadelphia, then the capital of the young United States.

Now a popular state park, the unassuming geological feature along the Illinois River has served as the site of centuries of human habitation and discovery.  

The recent discovery of the hull of the battleship Nevada recalls her dramatic action at Pearl Harbor and ultimate revenge on D-Day as the first ship to fire on the Nazis.

Our research reveals that 19 artworks in the U.S. Capitol honor men who were Confederate officers or officials. What many of them said, and did, is truly despicable.

Here is probably the most wide-ranging look at Presidential misbehavior ever published in a magazine.

When Germany unleashed its blitzkreig in 1939, the U.S. Army was only the 17th largest in the world. FDR and Marshall had to build a fighting force able to take on the Nazis, against the wishes of many in Congress.