Dirty Tricks Were Used
The epic story of a latter-day crusader.
By Chris Davis
MARCH 6, 2000:
Lord, Thou knowest that I am growing older. Keep me from becoming talkative and possessed with the idea that I must express myself on every subject. Make me thoughtful but not nosey -- helpful but not bossy. ...Thou knowest Lord, that I want a few friends at the end. -- From a tract printed by John W. Biggert
You probably don't know John Biggert. He's not a politician or a public figure. He has been featured on the nightly news, but that was years ago. He's a nondescript man who runs a nondescript business out of his nondescript house in a nondescript Frayser neighborhood spilling over with similar little nondescript men and houses. He is a propagandist of sorts. And you probably do know his handmade signs tied to trees, nailed to sheds, perched in shop windows, and hung near interstate overpasses.
The 75-year-old commercial printer and purveyor of what he calls "patriotic literature" still counts himself among the living, but he is more than happy to rip open his shirt and show you the surgical scar running down his chest.
"People just aren't patriotic like they used to be," he grumbles, rifling through baskets of yellowed newspaper clippings, the relics of one man's rage against the machine.
"Tobacco Kills" is, relatively speaking, a recent battle for Biggert. There have been many others. He is also responsible for "Dirty Tricks Were Used," a sign campaign launched against Chancery Court Judge D.J. Allissandratos and a battery of Memphis lawyers. He has taken on a handful of politicians, scores of Communist plots, a couple of amoral homeowners, and at least one dirty dentist. He even went head-to-head with Sears, Roebuck & Co. for selling him a pair of shoes whose insides wore out before the outsides did. John W. Biggert is a nondescript little force to be reckoned with.
Before the first sign was ever inked he was a bold pamphleteer. His deep thoughts and bouncy poems have been circulated throughout the 50 states for the last four decades. One piece, a rhyming ode to the welfare state, was recently posted on the Internet by Joseph Henchman, a 19-year-old Libertarian from San Diego. Like most of the folks who encounter Biggert's literature, Henchman knows absolutely nothing of the man who created it:
The Free Society
"I started getting orders for my literature," Biggert says, plucking what appears to be a business card from the basket. He turns it over and over, examining it carefully front and back. "It was during the '60s," he continues, "when the American flag was being burned, when we had the hippies and all of that. So I came up with all these different cards and tracts."
He hands over the card announcing, "Here is one of my best sellers, the Chappaquiddick one. It's got a poem on the back. We were getting orders from all over the country for years on this one. We're not now though. People well, I guess they just aren't patriotic anymore."
The card features a picture of a young Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. It reads, "WANTED: For MURDER or PRESIDENT?"
He produces another card reading, "There are no guns in this house." The flipside explains "that this would be an open invitation, informing degenerates bent on rioting, plundering, robbery, murder, or rape that you and your family are defenseless." The last line of the card is printed in bold letters, "Register Communists -- Not Loyal Americans."
"Because of these patriotic messages I got a lot of complaints from hippies," he says. "I started getting threatening messages. In fact, we even lost an automobile -- it was burnt-up." He removes a stapled pamphlet from his basket and holds it up. "Instead of ignoring [the threats] I published them in a booklet and made money off of them," Biggert smirks, proud of his ability to turn adversity into cash.
Letters from the New Left, as Biggert's pamphlet is called, is a pretty tame collection. The mean-spirited messages are riddled with sayings like "Love," "Power to the People," "Give Peace a Chance," and other predictable bits of peacenik poppycock. One brief and presumably profane (some words have been censored) missive from DeKalb, Illinois, does proclaim, "You're f_ _ _ _ _ _ dead brother!" and there is an anti-Klan rant from the Black Panthers. Other than that there are no real threats to be found. Biggert continues to smirk, his scarred old chest swelling with pride.
"Everybody should be required to take some kind of [compatibility] test before they get married," Biggert crows, waving around a piece of paper. The document shows silhouette images of a man and woman holding hands. It contains a list of 50 questions, such as, "Should the theory of evolution be taught in school?" and "Should women be attorneys and judges?" "If people did [take a test like this] there would be a lot fewer divorces." John Biggert is still very concerned with marriage issues. It was, after all, an ugly divorce trial that began his life as an activist.
"One time my first wife, she says, 'Any time I can drag you back to court again and get more money out of you I'm going to do it,'" Biggert declares, acting out the role of his accuser, and getting steamed all over again. "Judge Greenfield Q. Polk, he looks at me and he says, 'That's right, Mr. Biggert, these things are never settled.' Can you believe that he said that?"
After appearing before Polk 25 times Biggert founded the Memphis Committee for Common Sense Divorce Laws. The committee published an informational tract inscribed with a 23rd Psalm redux titled Hymn of Divorce:
"My ex-husband is my shepherd, therefore I need not work. His alimony alloweth me a carefree life. It leadeth me to cocktail lounges ."
The fliers successfully attracted 20 or 30 people per meeting but, according to Biggert, the organization was ineffectual.
Around the same time a sign about the size of a bumper sticker began to appear in public places near the courthouse. The sign read "IMPEACH JUDGE GREENFIELD Q. POLK, Committee for Common Sense Divorce Laws."
"[Polk] had a heart attack," Biggert announces with a wry smile, "and they blamed his heart attack on my signs." He is unable to identify who "they" are.
In 1980 a young man by the name of Donald Davenport moved into the house next door to Biggert, who was by then married to his second wife, Carolyn, herself a divorcee and the mother of a "special needs" child. "He's just retarded," Biggert elaborates.
The new neighbor was a single man, and would occasionally have friends over. Sometimes these friends were women, and the fact that an unmarried man would entertain unmarried women in the privacy of his own home upset Biggert.
"There would be wild parties, making all kinds of noise, and after a while the lights would go out; you can imagine what would happen," he says of Davenport's after-hours shenanigans. But Biggert implies he used more than his imagination, adding, "There would be people laying all over the floor like animals."
The ever-resourceful printer eventually devised a clever and effective plan for breaking up Davenport's parties. After things had settled down and gotten quiet he would climb up onto his roof and blast religious songs on his trumpet. Sometimes he would play the Frank Sinatra standard "Strangers in the Night." This self-proclaimed "trumpeter-on-the-roof" easily drove the women away with his brassy melodies but the men just got angry. "I would get all kinds of cussing," he says.
In addition to his music making, Biggert began posting signs in his yard with messages like, "God's last name is not Damn" and "Have Trumpet Will Play." There were other problems too. Biggert says that Davenport drove a loud pickup truck and would rev his engine at all hours, causing the Biggerts to lose sleep. A complaint for injunction and damages filed in February 1986 recounts the following tale.
After Carolyn Biggert picked her son up from the "Retarded Children's Home," to spend the holidays with the family, John posted a sign in his yard reading, "Retarded child staying here during the holidays, please be considerate of his sleep at night."
According to the injunction, after the sign was posted Davenport began to race his truck's engine and awoke the "retarded" boy. The complaint goes on to say, "This situation continued for some time with Mr. Davenport racing his car to keep the Biggerts awake and with Mr. Biggert responding in kind by playing religious music on his trumpet."
When the supposedly debauched Davenport ultimately resigned his bachelorhood and at last married one of his girlfriends, it looked like peace had finally come to their little corner of Frayser. Donald and his new bride, Kathy Davenport, installed a privacy fence to eliminate any further problems with the Biggerts. Instead of petering out, the feud between the two neighbors escalated.
The two parties continued to goad one another in peculiar ways. Biggert attacked the Davenports with his music and with more signs: "Sin Causes Suffering," and "You are a Heartbeat Away from Hell." The Davenports continued to annoy the Biggerts by warming up their car before heading off to work in the morning, and by attempting to remove the offensive yard signs. A legal battle ensued.
Mr. and Mrs. Davenport filed a $2,390,000 lawsuit against the Biggerts for the intentional infliction of mental and emotional distress. In addition to putting up his signs, John Biggert had also begun a handbill campaign, passing out leaflets with Mrs. Davenport's picture, and a short story titled "The Booby Car Contest," a puffed-up bit of sexual innuendo implying that his neighbors' morals were less than tight.
By this point there had even been scuffling. On a few occasions guns had been drawn and cops had been called. An earlier attempt to get Biggert to remove his signs had ultimately proved unsuccessful when a federal court overturned Memphis' new ordinance prohibiting the posting of yard signs. This time the Davenports, who were experiencing turbulence in their marriage, were serious about suing the Biggerts.
Under the advisement of his attorney John M. Bailey, Biggert filed a $4 million countersuit.
The legal battle between the Biggerts and the Davenports stretched on for three years and eight months. By the time the case was dismissed the Davenports were divorced and had, for all practical purposes, disappeared.
"My clients are divorced and I don't know where they are. We send registered letters and the letters come back," their attorney, Diane Bell, was quoted as saying. The court battle cost Biggert $15,000 in legal fees, and he was furious at Chancellor D.J. Allissandratos for allowing such a "frivolous" case to go on for so long.
Biggert suspected cronyism in the legal community. He had already begun a cryptic sign campaign targeted not at the general public, but at Allissandratos alone. Biggert began placing his signs in areas of high visibility near the judge's Midtown home to "remind" him of the day he chastised Carolyn Biggert for crying in his courtroom -- for calling into question the motives of a loyal wife. The black-and-white signs depicted a single weeping eye, and their mysterious text read simply, "Crocodile Tears" with no further explanation.
Eventually a new, more direct set of signs began to appear around town calling for the replacement of "the tyrant" Chancellor D.J. Allissandratos.
Certain that he had been overcharged by his attorney, Biggert made an appearance before the Memphis Bar Association's Fee Dispute Committee (FDC). In 1991 he signed a document of binding arbitration against Bailey, but not before manually altering the legal agreement. Biggert scratched out all of that business about "binding arbitration" and wrote in his own, less stringent terms. He was told that all FDC cases were binding, but he claims that he didn't understand the process.
"It was written in lawyer language," he protests. The committee ruled in favor of Bailey, and though no unaltered agreement between Biggert and the FDC was ever produced, their arbitration was ruled to be final and binding.
"Lawyers stick together like maggots," Biggert says of the whole affair. He wanted to appeal the decision somehow, but he couldn't find a lawyer who would take his case.
Signs with the headlines "Dirty Tricks Were Used" or "Legal Shenanigans" cropped up like toadstools around town. Nearly every attorney Biggert encountered since his dispute with the Davenports was implicated. Biggert accused them all of defying the laws of God and Man.
Allissandratos politely declined to comment on Biggert's many attempts to have him deposed, and the attorneys who could be reached for comment seemed uninterested in the man and his inflammatory signs.
"I'm just glad he doesn't own a TV station," Judge Robert Lanier says of Biggert.
Alexander Wellford notes only: "He has good glue."
"Why did I start putting up the 'Tobacco Kills' signs? Well, just to warn people, I guess," Biggert says of his most recent and well-known campaign. A veteran of the 32nd Infantry, Biggert was awarded a Purple Heart for wounds he sustained fighting in WWII's Pacific Theater. It was also the U.S. Army that provided him with his first cigarettes. They were given to him for free during wartime, but over the next 25 years his addiction would cost him plenty.
"When I was a smoker," he says pulling at his collar again to reveal the tops of his scars, "if I had seen a sign like that I might have asked some questions. I had absolutely no warning."
John Biggert is still a hero and a patriot. He believes in the ideals of truth and justice. He sincerely wants to help other people get to heaven. He wants them to be healthy and to avoid making the same mistakes he has made in his lifetime, even if it requires repeated violations of Ordinance 58 of the Shelby County Code which clearly states, "It is prohibited for any person to post any bill, placard or notice or other paper upon any structure, stand or platform, in any park and/or public right-of-way of Shelby County except when authorized by law."
"If you don't want signs posted, you should put up a sign somewhere that says, "Post no bills, or no trespassing," Biggert says of all that anti-First Amendment hooey. Since he began hanging the "Tobacco Kills" signs he has only received a single letter of complaint -- from the city of Bartlett.
"Do you remember when there was all of those bumper stickers with bad words printed all over them? I was part of a grassroots movement that would take spray paint and paint over the words. So women and children wouldn't have to see it, you understand?" Biggert says. He hands me another sign reading, "Tearing these signs down is not enough to save your soul from Hell."
"You can keep that," he says. "You can keep all of this."
The World According to BiggertAs a printer of patriotic literature, John Biggert has championed many causes. The following assemblage of Biggert's red, white, and blue verbiage has been excerpted from various tracts, pamphlets, and letters written to local newspapers.
On Tinky WinkyBill Day's Feb. 23rd cartoon about Tinky Winky shows why Jerry Falwell complained about the character and suggested that children not be allowed to watch it.
Too much of our male population has started wearing earrings, beads, other female jewelry, and long hair. Pocketbooks like the one Tinky Winky carries could be next.
Will the "he-man" look be replaced with the "she-man?"
-- from a letter printed in The Commercial Appeal.
On the National Council of ChurchesThe two strongest allies that Satan has in the USA are the Communist Party and the National Council of Churches the following objectives of the NCC happen also to be goals of the reds. 1. Peaceful coexistence. 2. Disarmament. 3. Eliminate the ABM system. 4. Ban Nuclear testing. 5. Abolish loyalty oaths and security laws. 6. Abolish all committees investigating Communists. 7. Forced integration. 8. Change the social order 9. Increase foreign aid to Communist countries. 10. Recognition of Red China 13. Eliminate capital punishment 19. Promote sex education in churches, synagogues, and schools 25. [Written before the end of Apartheid] Put political and economic pressure on South Africa and Rhodesia 31. Promote interracial marriage of blacks and whites .
-- from the tract "How Subversive Is the National Council of Churches?"
On DarwinEvolution is monkey business. Once I was a tadpole in a pond, you see. Now I am a monkey that lives in a tree. Next I'll be a professor with a Ph.D.
On Jimmy CarterHe would support costly socialist schemes including a federal health plan. He favors federal intervention to desegregate private schools. ... If you are a wild-eyed super liberal who feels the answer to problems is more change rather than returning to something that works -- If you prefer living in an X-rated society over decency, this Southern-fried Kissinger is your dish.
On HippiesIf you think the above is actually a "peace symbol" designed to bring harmony to the world then you are as ignorant of the Communist conspiracy as they want you to be. And the average American is just as naive.
It is an anti-Christ emblem known as the "broken cross" among other things. It is anti-Christ, anti-religion, and anti-everything that is decent. It represents today's modern free lovers, pot smokers, degenerates, and people who live worse than animals . The "V" sign made with the first two fingers has a "Satanic" meaning for many of the hard-core Communists.
-- from the tract "Odd Symbols by Odd People."
On a Fake George WallaceLet's not waste time and energy on unqualified characters who are tying to "ride in" on Wallace's popularity . The fact that a person claims to be a Wallace supporter does not make him George Wallace . The cold facts are that MANY OF WALLACE'S SUPPORTERS DO NOT WANT [1968 congressional candidate Claude] COCKRELL'S NAME ASSOCIATED WITH THE WALLACE MOVEMENT IN ANY WAY. As a printer of Wallace material who is very active in the campaign, you can include me in this group.
-- from a tract addressed to fellow conservatives.
On Attorney John Bailey's Immortal SoulJohn, I am worried about your salvation! Are you so greedy that you are willing to gamble with your soul for worldly gains? Although you are young, life can leave one's body at any time without notice . John, if you have any decent feelings left then please go to a good Bible-believing minister and give your heart to Jesus, and be honest. Then in the next life you will be able to look me up in heaven, because I am sure that I will be there.
-- from a letter to his former attorney.
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