The strongest weapon Ella McClendon had in her bag of tricks was her spotless reputation. As a storekeeper and assistant postmistress to her father, who was the postmaster in the town of Sturdivant, Missouri, no one suspected her of wrongdoing. In fact, it took years to uncover her criminal misdeeds.
It started innocently enough. The nearest bank was eleven miles away, so men employed by local businesses came to the McClendon dry goods store to cash their paychecks—Ella was happy to save them the trip. The men would sign their paychecks over to her and she’d deposit them in her account on her next trip to the bank.
She gradually developed a habit of increasing the dollar amount of the checks. The amounts were small—$5 here and $10 there—but as time went on, it added up. By the time the bank’s accountants discovered the discrepancies, Ella had stolen over $600. That was a lot of money in 1910—close to $18,000 in today’s dollars.
Ella, who was described by the press as having an “air of innocence about her,” returned the money, but the bankers weren’t happy. They took her to court. She argued she’d simply cashed the checks as they were written—someone else must have raised them. The jury sided with the honest-looking assistant postmistress, awarding her $636.
Getting away with defrauding the bank inspired Ella to aim higher. In 1913 she put in her claim to two large inheritances. The first was for $9000 (worth more than $235,000 today) from the estate of John Rohan. She stated she’d sold some minerals interests to Rohan in 1908 and he’d never paid her for them.
Her second claim was a lot more audacious. George Nicolas, a reclusive farmer, had recently died after drinking arsenic-laced coffee at his home in Virginia. He was a wealthy man but no will was located. The executors of his estate—his brothers—received a will in the mail several months after his death, leaving $125,000 of Nicholas’s $200,000 estate (now worth more than 3.25 million dollars) to Ella McClendon. The brothers, who intended to split the estate between themselves, had no idea who Ella was. They demanded to know why their brother left her so much money.
She said she’d come to his assistance years ago when he’d been injured in a streetcar accident in St. Louis. She maintained they’d become close and said at one point she thought he was going to ask her to marry him, despite the 35-year difference in their ages. The marriage plans fell through, but Nicholas was so grateful to her, Ella claimed, that he left her a huge bequest. Nicholas’s brothers insisted that he’d never been to St. Louis and the will was a forgery.
Meanwhile William McClendon, Ella’s father, died in 1914. It’s possible his death was hastened by the drama surrounding the coverage of his daughter in the press.
What finally drew Ella into the clutches of law enforcement were some checks that had supposedly been signed by the recently deceased John Rohan and made payable to “Ed Elders.” The bankers became suspicious when they were unable to locate any living person named Ed Elders. An investigation led to a trail of fraudulent bank accounts, suspicious signatures, fake names and more forged checks. It all led back to Ella.
She was charged with using the mails to defraud.
Convicted on four counts, Ella appealed her conviction. While out on bail waiting for her appeals to be heard, she got pregnant and gave birth to a son in 1916. She refused to name the baby’s father, but she changed her surname to “Grayson.”
An autopsy determined that George Nicholas had been poisoned, but the culprit was never found. His murder inspired a Staunton, Virginia woman to mail poisoned candy to two women she hated; Fortunately, neither woman ate the candy. The will that had arrived in the mail was deemed to be a fraud.
Ella lost her appeals and was sentenced to serve five years in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth. She was sent to serve her time at the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, and later to the Kansas Industrial Farm for Women, when it opened in 1917.
In 1928, the ex-postmistress was charged with sending bogus checks to mail order houses in New York and Kansas City to pay for merchandise. Her conviction landed her at the Federal Industrial Institute for Women in Talcott, West Virginia. By 1940 she had moved to Detroit, where she lived with a married sister and worked as a nurse in a private sanatorium. She died of a heart attack in 1962.