Living La Belle Vie

Living La Belle Vie

At Paris on Wednesday M. Bordeaux, the examining magistrate, committed the defaulting bank clerk Gallay, the woman Merelli, and the man Lerendu for trial before the Assize Court. Gallay will be indicted for forgery and embezzlement and the woman Merelli for complicity in the two forgeries alleged to have been committed by Gallay, which enabled him to embezzle the sum of 350,000 francs. Merelli is also accused of receiving stolen property. The man Lerendu will be indicted for having received 15,000 francs, remitted by Gallay on the promise that he would assist in committing the forgeries.

The Guardian (London, England), December 1, 1905

With her high starched collar and prim lace shawl over a plain gingham dress she looks every bit like a sweet country girl. Her apparent lack of makeup and nascent unibrow complete the wholesome picture.

[Album of Paris Crime Scenes]

He looks like a dapper professor or businessman, with his pince-nez, dark suit coat and staid plaid vest. Only his handlebar mustache hints at a wilder side to his personality.

Don’t believe your eyes because Jean Gallay, the man in the photo, was a brazen thief who stole an enormous sum of money from the bank where he worked. The woman, Valentine Merelli, was his mistress who aided him in concealing the thefts and fled with him to Brazil. Both were married to other people when they met and fell in love (at least he fell for her). The pair sailed off into the sunset aboard a luxurious yacht, guzzling champagne all the way.

Jean was a well-educated man who spoke German and English in addition to his native French. He’d worked for the Paris police prior to taking a job as a bank clerk at the Comptoir d’escompte de Paris, where he realized the record keeping system at the bank had some loopholes ripe for exploitation.

In 1904 he began to transfer small sums of money belonging to the bank’s clients to the bank’s branch offices. Next he withdrew the money using documents he’d forged. When he wasn’t caught he increased the amounts he stole.

He moved his family to the country and adopted a false persona — he became the Baron de Gravald, a wealthy, unmarried man about town. Wearing an old straw hat and tired coat to his clerk’s job during the day, he transformed himself in the evenings with a fashionable dinner coat, tailored shirt and diamond-studded platinum cuff links. A silk top hat and monocle completed the Baron’s aristocratic look.

On one evening out on the town the Baron met Valentine Merelli and fell head over heels for her.

Valentine Darbour was a convent-educated girl from the countryside. She got married young to a printer named Sohet but soon tired of her monotonous, middle-class life, so she left her husband, took some of her dowry cash and moved to Paris. She adopted the stage name “Valentine Merelli” and tried to develop a stage career but she had no talent for acting or singing. Soon her money ran out and she was forced to search for a man to support her — ideally a rich one.

Jean seemed to be the answer to Valentine’s prayers. He set her up in an apartment in the Rue Gustave Flaubert. To finance their stays in expensive hotels, meals in the best restaurants and trips to the opera he embezzled ever-larger sums of money from the bank. He knew that the thefts would be discovered eventually, so he asked a fellow employee, Lerendu, to help him cover up the losses in the books.

As the summer of 1905 unfolded, Jean knew that the day of reckoning, when the bank uncovered his fraud, was drawing near. He and his ladylove needed to get out of Paris and run as far away from Europe as it was possible to go. Knowing they would likely be caught if they went by rail they hatched a plan to travel by boat to Brazil.

With the $200,000 (over $5,500,000 in today’s dollars) that remained of the stolen loot, they traveled to Le Havre, a port city in northwestern France. There Jean chartered a British steam yacht, Catarina, for three months and hired a crew of 20 men, along with a physician and a maid, Marie Audot, for Valentine.

[Album of Paris Crime Scenes]

The couple outfitted themselves for the voyage with 28 hats, 37 evening dresses, 40 suits, 50 pairs of knickers, 40 pairs of shoes, 22 corsets and many boxes of champagne and liquors. It took 86 bags and trunks to hold it all. Valentine directed the loading of the booty onto the yacht. For three days before Catarina set sail the crew was not allowed to go on shore and an aura of mystery surrounded the plans for the voyage.

On August 3rd the couple’s luxuriously appointed dreamboat left for the coastal city of Bahia in Brazil.

Meanwhile back in Paris the bank finally looked over its books, discovered the missing funds and tied the theft to their absent employee. They notified the police and provided them with a photograph of the unassuming clerk.

The detective in charge of the case figured the couple would try to escape by boat. He tracked Jean and his mistress to Le Havre, where he showed Jean’s photo to the yacht rental companies in town. He soon discovered which yacht Jean hired, but the boat had already left port. He got the yacht’s itinerary and alerted the Bahia police to keep a watch for her at the port. To guarantee that there was no confusion he provided the police in Brazil with a photo of Jean.

When Catarina made port in Bahia, the police went aboard and arrested Jean, Valentine and Marie. They were extradited, under guard, back to France. The boat’s crew was reportedly quite unhappy because, with champagne flowing every evening and the baron handing out cigars to all and sundry, they’d never enjoyed a trip more.

Jean was convicted and served part of his seven-year sentence at Devil’s Island, an infamous French penal colony in Guiana that was, ironically, located just north of Brazil. “They are taking me away from France but the hope of returning again will sustain me,” he commented before he left. He got his wish when he was transferred to Melun Prison in France. He was released in 1912 after serving five years.

Valentine1

Since Jean had started embezzling money before he met Valentine, the jury gave her the benefit of the doubt and decided that she was unaware of how he’d obtained his wealth. They acquitted her of the charges but her husband divorced her.

After her trial ended she had a brief fling with the kind of fame she’d previously longed for when she was photographed for a series of postcards. When people realized that she was no great beauty and that she still couldn’t sing, her star plummeted and she faded from the limelight.

The maid, Marie, wasn’t charged with any crime. She sold her story to the press.

Jean and Valentine’s mugshots, along with those of the maid and Jean’s co-worker, Lerendu, were collected by the father of the modern mugshot, Alphonse Bertillon, in an album of Paris Crime Scenes compiled during the early 20th century. The album, which includes some gruesome photos of Parisian murder victims, was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 2001. “Made as part of an archive rather than as art, these postmortem portraits, recorded in the deadpan style of a police report, nonetheless retain an unsettling potency,” notes the Met’s catalog.

Featured photo: “La Merelli,” mugshot taken October 9, 1905. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Gambling with Gangsters

Gambling with Gangsters

Large amounts of money have been found cleverly concealed about the persons of J. J. Kellogg and J. MacDonald, held here for questioning. The men were arrested Wednesday as suspicious characters.

— The Daily Times (Davenport, Iowa), October 12, 1931

Nothing says “crook” quite like cash concealed in your clothing. One man had $1400* ($23,172) in hundred dollar bills sewn in the lining of his coat sleeve. His pal had $560 ($9,269) in hidden compartments in the instep and heel of his shoe.

They were spotted hanging around the downtown streets of Washington, Iowa, on the evening of October 8, 1931. Earlier in the day they’d checked into the Colenso Hotel on the town’s main drag. The coat cash man said his name was J. J. Kellogg and James McDonald was who the shoe cash man claimed to be. After the pair booked into the hotel, they’d inquired about what time the local banks opened their doors.

Naturally the cops wanted to know who they were and what they were up to.

J. J. Kellogg, who looked like he walked out of central casting for the role of a two-bit gangster in an Edward G. Robinson film, stuck out like a sore thumb in Washington where most of the townsfolk were farmers. With the fedora, cigar, lean, hungry face and suspicious eyes — he might as well have had “gangster” tattoed on his forehead.

He was taken into custody for having false license plates on his car. The police then discovered that one of the many names he used was Riley Gaffigan. They suspected that Riley and his buddy James had been part of a gambling con pulled the previous January in Springfield, Illinois.

Abe Lincoln Hotel Springfield

Hotel Abraham Lincoln

The victim of that con was Myrtle Tanner Blacklidge, the tax collector for the second wealthiest district in the United States — the northern part of Illinois, which included Chicago. Myrtle went to the Hotel Abraham Lincoln in Springfield on January 22, 1931. There she played the card game faro with three men in a hotel room. The men told Myrtle she’d won $207,000 ($3,426,258) but they claimed her win was “on paper.” They wanted Myrtle to fork over $50,000 ($827,598) cash to replace a check she’d provided to get into the game. Only then, they said, could they give her the winnings.

Though she had a well-paying job, Myrtle had expensive tastes and was desperate for cash. She’d lost both her adult son and her husband to illness within weeks of each other the previous year. She borrowed the $50,000 in $1000 bills from a friend — defeated Chicago mayoral candidate, Edward Litsinger. Of course Litsinger, like any Chicago pol worth his salt, expected something in return for the loan. Myrtle promised him $10,000 ($165,519) of her winnings.

She rejoined the card players and handed over the $50,000 cash, but she was unable to resist a little more gambling. She lost the whole $50,000 but figured she still had $157,000  ($2,598,659) coming to her. The men told her to wait in the room while they went to get the remainder of her winnings. They never reappeared. “I realized I had been duped,” she later commented.

Litsinger said Myrtle lied to him about why she needed the money, telling him it was to complete a “business deal,” not to gamble. He promised to sue her. Then it was revealed that it was actually Litsinger’s nephew, Fred Litsinger, the tax reviewer for northern Illinois, who’d handed over his uncle’s cash. Fred had done a bit of gambling himself at the time. Hoping to avoid bad publicity for his family, Edward dropped the lawsuit.

Myrtle resigned from her tax revenue job due to the scandal.

George Perry, known in Chicago as “Big George” Parker, was shot to death in his home in South Bend, Indiana, a few months later. Myrtle identified him as one of the three men who’d taken her in the faro game.

The authorities thought they’d found the remaining two men when the Iowa police arrested Riley and James. In addition to the cash hidden in their clothes and shoes the men carried a substantial number of used cashier’s checks with the details erased out. Police believed their current racket was to start poker games with local farmers, paying out their losses with the bogus checks.

Not wanting to personally confront the gangsters, Myrtle and Fred were unwilling to go to Iowa to identify the men. Myrtle looked at photos of Riley and James and said she thought they weren’t the ones. The men each paid hefty $500 ($8,275) fines for driving with illegal license plates on their car and were released. They melted into the criminal underworld and weren’t heard from again under the names they’d used in Washington, Iowa.

No one was ever arrested for the faro game con.

Myrtle and pals

Myrtle’s troubles continued when the wife of a policeman sued her for $100,000 ($1,837,537) in 1934, claiming Myrtle had stolen the affections of her husband. Torrid love letters from Myrtle to “Denny, Darling” were produced in court as evidence. The jury awarded $7,500 ($140,815) to the wife, and Myrtle, unable to pay, was sent to jail. Ironically the policeman’s wife was required to pay Myrtle’s jail boarding fees — 50 cents ($9) per day!

In her last years Myrtle lived in a Chicago nursing home, where she wrote for the monthly newspaper, “The Optimist.” She died at the home in 1958, aged 79.

*Note: U.S. dollars were converted to 2018 values using an inflation calculator and are listed in parentheses.

Featured photos: mugshots (?) identified on the reverse as “James J. Kellog, alias Billie Gafney, Laferty.” Collection of the author.

The Trouble with Harry

The Trouble with Harry

Harry Vining, alias Edward Brooks, 19 years old, of 1 Harvard ct., Brookline, was arrested last evening by Inspectors Pierce and McGarr last evening on the charge of uttering forged checks. He was held on a warrant issued by the lower court, but the police have also an indictment warrant containing two similar counts. It is said he is also wanted in Brookline.

— The Boston Daily Globe, December 26, 1905

It didn’t make for happy family holidays when Harry Lewis Vining was charged with three counts of check fraud the day after Christmas in 1905. Despite his youth, Harry had managed to pull off “numerous forgeries” of checks for almost a year, until he was finally caught in mid-December. He forged the signatures of a variety of real people on the checks and each check was made out to one of his aliases. Oddly, all the checks were for the same dollar amount — $29.

Harry was the younger of two children born to a Civil War veteran from Maine, John Q. A. Vining, and his wife, Julia Merrey Vining. John Vining worked as a carpenter and moved his family from Maine to Massachusetts by 1886, the year Harry was born. John and Julia were in their late forties when their only son entered the world. Bernice Snow, Harry’s sister, was almost 20 years older than her brother and had been a widow for seven years when her brother’s legal woes began.

Harry’s mother and sister showed up in court at his sentencing and turned on the water works — big time. Their show of emotion, along with the family’s “character and respectability” and the defendant’s boyish charm, softened the judge’s resolve. “Vining, my first intention was to send you to state prison, but I do not think you fully realize what you have done,” said Judge DeCourcy. Instead he sent Harry to the Concord Reformatory with a warning: if he got arrested again he would cool his heels in a Massachusetts state prison for a very long time. This explains why, when Harry got up to his little tricks again, he was in California — about as far from Massachusetts as someone could go in the United States.

Bimini_Hot_Springs,_Los_Angeles,_Cal._(cropped)

Bimini Bath House, circa 1920. William H. Hannon Library.

On November 29, 1907 Harry strolled into the Bimini Baths, just west of downtown Los Angeles. He claimed to be an officer of the law and wore a deputy sheriff’s star to prove it. He removed his clothing, put on a bathing suit and headed off for a pleasant soak in the warm waters of the natural hot springs that supplied the popular bathing resort.

Harry 1907 prison

Folsom Prison Inmate photographs, California State Archives.

When Harry left the baths — clean, refreshed and relaxed — he couldn’t find his clothes anywhere. That was because J. N. Gunnett, the bathhouse watchman, recognized Harry when he came in. After Harry went into the baths Gunnett collected his clothes, locked them up and called the police.

Not only was Harry’s deputy’s star fake, he’d passed a bad check at the Bimini several weeks earlier, so Gunnett was ordered to keep a sharp eye out for him.

The officers arrested him and gave him his clothes back so he could get dressed, then they took him to jail. The Los Angeles Police knew him as “William Howard” and wanted him for passing 15-20 forged checks, some of which he’d tendered as payment at local saloons.

This time when Harry showed up in court, his female relatives were not in attendance sobbing their eyes out. He received a three-year prison sentence to Folsom State Prison, northeast of Sacramento. Officials did not know Harry’s real name at this point so he was sent to prison as “William Howard.” He claimed to work as a set painter for the theater — his occupation in the prison register was “scenic artist.”

After Harry was released from Folsom, on April 19, 1910, he wisely left Los Angeles and headed north to San Francisco. In September he “kited” a bogus check there to pay for groceries and he wasn’t caught until the following February. When he pleaded guilty to that crime he falsely claimed to be the son of Edward Payson Vining, the former Freight Traffic Manager for the Union Pacific Railway Company. Vining was also from Massachusetts and he was a well-known author. Though they shared a surname, his family was no relation to Harry’s family. If Harry thought this would cause the judge to give him a lighter sentence, he was mistaken.

Harry L. Vining in stripes_marked

Harry Vining in Folsom stripes. Collection of the author.

At this point officials knew his true name and that he had a previous record. His sentence was harsh — Harry got another five years at Folsom. Four aliases were also listed in the prison register for him — William Crawford, William Howland, William Howard and William Madison. Prison officials wanted to make sure they’d know him if he were arrested again under one of his aliases. He served three years and seven months and was discharged on September 25, 1914.

After Harry was freed from Folsom he moved to Eureka, California, where he married a woman named Beulah and worked as mechanic and “car operator” according to the 1917 city directory.

The film business, which got established in California around 1919, with its glamour and “get rich quick” mentality, might have drawn Harry back to the southern end of the state, perhaps to try his hand as a scenic artist for films.

It’s likely Harry died in Los Angeles in 1933 and was buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery — it sounds like a place he’d want to be buried. However absolute proof that it’s “my” Harry in that grave eludes me.

Note: I am indebted to my vintage photography collector friends, Ron and Fawn, for connecting me with three of the mugshots of Harry L. Vining that appear in this post. The photos inspired me to find out more about Harry’s life and crimes, and they’re a bit of a mystery themselves. Fawn discovered them in a Michigan antique mall, where they were displayed together in a frame. (Strange — why frame mugshots?) It appears that they were cut from an official Folsom prisoner photo album and repasted into another photo album, then later cut out of the album and framed.

Featured photos: Harry L. Vining’s mugshots from his 1911 incarceration at Folsom State Prison. Collection of the author.

Three Little Shells

Three Little Shells

Leon Kentish alias H. Wilson and Harry Montague alias R.F. Johnson were arrested yesterday by Chief of Police Little, Sergeant Kennedy and Officer Neagle. The men were stopping at the Causer House. They are charged with suspicion of larceny, and common gamblers. They are alleged to be shell workers, and travel under the pretense of selling an article for cleaning clothing. The fellows are the same ones who were recently arrested in Binghamton, and taken to Penn Yan, where they were wanted for skipping board bills. The police found the shells upon their persons.

Star-Gazette, Elmira, New York, July 17, 1893

The shell game is a con as old as time. A pea or small ball is placed under one of three shells (walnut shells were popular) that were laid out, usually on the ground. The shell operator shuffles them around and asks the mark to guess which shell the pea is under. It looks like easy money, but unbeknownst to the mark, the operator, using sleight of hand, has removed the pea before the mark makes his — inevitably wrong — choice. Then the operator surreptitiously places the pea under another shell. He reveals the pea and voila, the mark loses the bet!

Often shills or cappers were used to help convince the mark to get involved in the game or to suggest under which shell the pea would be found. Sometimes the mark was allowed to win once or twice, with the stakes being ratcheted up with each play. Then the operator went in for the kill.

Oily-tongued, nimble-fingered shell workers were said to be “in their glory when they find a man who is out for a good time with a good-sized purse.” They were the bane of the nineteenth century cop’s existence.

“Step right up, gentlemen, and be convinced that the hand is quicker than the eye.” This is the way that the shell-worker opened his game while sitting astride one of the long timbers on the pier. One of the cappers came up and called the turn for $120, which was paid to him without a murmur. Then another one of the party won and induced his friend, a young fellow who looked like he might be a divinity student to try his luck. The shells were thrown and the capper whispered: “Bet him $25 and take the shell on this end.”

The Inter Ocean, Chicago, June 12, 1894

Needless to say, the divinity student lost his stake. The shell game workers ran off when they noticed a sketch artist sitting nearby, watching them closely and “copping off their mugs” for the newspaper.

shell game

Harry Montague_back_markedIn addition to working the shell game, Harry Montague was wanted by the Newark Police for highway robbery and burglary. When he went before a New York City judge, in June 1893, he literally talked himself into jail by using language so foul that the judge held him in contempt of court. The police planned to hand him over to the New Jersey authorities once he finished serving 29 days in Brooklyn’s Raymond Street Jail.

Instead Harry managed to elude the New Jersey authorities and make his way upstate. The shells he was carrying tipped off the Elmira police to his real profession and he and his pal, Leon Kentish, were arrested. After that Harry either earned himself a long prison stretch or he changed his alias because his name disappeared completely from police notes in the news.

Featured photo: CDV mugshot of Harry Montague, alias Johnson, July 9, 1893. Collection of the author.

The Mind Reader

The Mind Reader

Leon Daniels, who has been traveling about the city for some weeks, and who claims to be a mind-reader, will appear before Judge Davis this morning. He is accused of stealing from the Central Hotel an overcoat belonging to the proprietor.

The Record-Union, Sacramento, California, February 8, 1897

He most likely got off with a fine or short jail sentence for the theft of the Sacramento hotel proprietor’s coat. Not only was he a mind reader, he also a hypnotist, so perhaps he used that skill with the judge to avoid a conviction. At any rate, the newspapers made no mention of a prison sentence for Shasta Leon Daniels.

“Shasta Leo,” as he was often called, was born in 1866 in Iowa to Alvah Daniels, an itinerant cooper and carpenter, and his wife Sarah (Millard) Daniels. His parents were born in New York. After their marriage they moved their growing family westward, from Wisconsin to Iowa to Dakota Territory (now South Dakota), finally settling in the Napa County wine region of Northern California by 1890. Leon had four older sisters and a younger brother, all of whom lived conventional lives, while the quirkily named Shasta Leo followed his bliss.

Instead of working a regular job he traveled around the west, plying his unusual trade and stealing the occasional item when commerce was slow and his funds got low. “Daniels is an odd genius who travels over the country telling fortunes, hypnotizing people or almost anything that will bring in a few dimes. He is said to be quite an adept at slight-of hand,” was how one Oregon newspaper described him.

albany train depot

Albany Train Depot, 1895

Shasta Leo liked to drink and occasionally tippled a bit too much. On a fine April day in the year 1900, he and his friend, Charles Berry, had been drinking in Albany, Oregon, and decided to ride the rails to Eugene. Shasta Leo hopped on a lumber train car while it was moving and slipped, falling between two cars. His left leg hit one of the rails and was run over by the wheel of the train, mashing the flesh to jelly but leaving most of the bones unbroken, according to one newspaper description of the incident.

He was taken to a nearby boarding house, where his leg was amputated just below the knee. “Daniels took the matter philosophically and seemed as little disturbed as any one around,” reported the Albany Democrat the day after the accident. Hopefully his inebriated state helped with the pain, at least for a while. Initially no one was sure if he would survive. Since he had no money, the taxpayers of Linn County paid the surgeon’s bill.

Not only did he survive, he was well on the road to recovery by May. By June he was able to return to California, where he convalesced at the home of his pharmacist brother in Napa. Evidently he took to roaming again after his leg was fully healed. Shasta Leo died on January 10, 1911, in Los Angeles, far from his family in Northern California.

Featured photo: mugshot of Shasta Leon Daniels taken in 1897 in Sacramento, California. Collection of the author.

Albany Train Depot from the Salem Public Library Historic Photograph Collections, Salem Public Library, Salem, Oregon.

Crooks’ Books

Crooks’ Books

The engagement of an internationally known woman criminal to marry the internationally noted criminologist, whose inspiration she was in the preparation of a book on the famous women criminals of all time, was announced today.

 

May Vivienne Churchill, known to the police of three continents as “Chicago May” Churchill, assisted and inspired Netley Lucas, English Criminologist, in the preparation of his book, “Ladies of the Underworld.”

The Baltimore Sun, January 4, 1928

During the early 20th century it was all the rage for reformed crooks (or those who claimed to be “ex”) to publish books about their felonious exploits. The notorious “Chicago May” was supposedly the inspiration for Netley Lucas’ 1927 book “Ladies of the Underworld: The Beautiful, the Damned and Those Who Get Away with It.” May’s own memoir, written with professional help, titled “Chicago May: Her Story by the Queen of Crooks” rolled out in 1928.

It’s not surprising that Netley and Chicago May cooked up a scheme to shock polite society while simultaneously promoting their books. As champagne corks popped in celebration of the New Year, 25-year-old Netley, and May, the queen blackmailer old enough to be his mother, announced their intention to wed. They hoped a photograph showing the two of them cozying up on a loveseat would convince readers that their wedding plans were legit. In reality it was a publicity stunt.

Netley Lucas mugNetley was not, in fact, a “noted criminologist.” He was an English con man who began his life of crime at the tender age of 14 when he adopted the persona of a wounded serviceman, claiming to have fought in a World War I battle. Gaining the sympathy of London society, he was able to open credit accounts with various businesses until the deception was uncovered and he was sent to reform school. He quickly escaped and was on the make again, posing as a gentleman. Arrested for false pretenses and check fraud, back to the Borstal went young Netley. There “he had associated with every form of crook and confidence trickster imaginable.” It was perfect schooling for a boy with his predilections and talents.

In 1924, at the tender age of 21, Netley, who claimed to have turned over a new leaf, found his “true calling” as a writer. His memoir, “The Autobiography of a Crook,” was published in 1925. It became a bestseller and over the next few years he wrote biographies of members of various European royal family members and well-known public figures.

Netley’s biographies were fabricated. Even his own memoir turned out to have been ghost written. The book about the exploits of lady criminals was likely also a pack of lies.

Chicago May mugChicago May was born Mary Anne Duignan in 1871 in Ireland. She stole her family’s life savings, in 1890, and used it to immigrate to England, then America. May worked as a prostitute in New York City. Next she moved to Chicago during the World’s Fair, in 1893, where she teamed up with another prostitute to rob clients — one did the robbing while the gent was “distracted” by the other. She also became adept at the “badger game,” a con in which married men were lured into sexually compromising situations, then blackmailed.

May and CharlieMay became romantically involved with the noted criminal Eddie Guerin and they traveled to Europe. (Not one to be outshone, Eddie published his autobiography in 1928). She and Eddie planned the robbery of an American Express office in Paris, but plans went awry and they ended up in prison. The pair reunited in London (May was released, Eddie escaped) where their relationship turned ugly and May took up with another crook named Robert Considine, alias Charlie Smith. An argument between the three, involving Eddie’s threats to slash May’s face, led to Eddie being shot in the foot. May and Charlie were convicted of attempted murder and sent to English prisons in 1907.

Her criminal heyday in the past, May returned to the United States after her 1917 prison release. She landed in Detroit, where, desperate for money, she worked as a common prostitute. May hoped her memoir would help her get back on her feet financially.

Though the engagement to Netley was bogus, May did plan to get married — to her old love and fellow crook, Robert. However she was taken ill before the nuptials could occur and she died in a Philadelphia hospital on May 30, 1929. At least 15 of her 57 years on earth had been spent in a prison cell.

Netley fared even worse than May. In 1931 he was convicted of trying to sell a fake biography of Queen Alexandra and sentenced to 18 months hard labor. The notoriety brought an end to his writing career and he spiraled into alcoholism. He was found dead in 1940, aged 37, in the partly burnt out living room of a house in Surry, England. No one mourned his passing.

They say what goes around comes around, so it seems fitting that crook books are back in style. Biographies of both Netley Lucas and Chicago May have been published in recent years.

Featured photo: news photo of Netley Lucas and Chicago May, announcing their engagement to be married on January 4, 1928. Collection of the author.

Other photos: Netley’s mugshot, Police Gazette, July 18, 1924; May’s mugshot, date and location unknown; May and Robert, The Evening Journal, Wilmington, Delaware, May 30, 1929.

 

 

 

 

 

Francis Schlatter & Hankie Panky

Francis Schlatter & Hankie Panky

Televangelists and their “healing” product scams have a history stretching far back in time. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, driven by news of events described as miracles, thousands of people lost money to clever con men (and occasionally women) posing as “divine healers.” One phony man of the cloth, going by the name Reverend Francis Schlatter, claimed to be able to cure the sick using handkerchiefs that he’d blessed. Send him your hard-earned cash, along with a handkerchief, and he’d bless it and return to you a “divine handkerchief” capable of healing whatever ailed you.

His name was as bogus as his handkerchiefs — he was born in 1838 in Switzerland and his real name was reported to be either Jacob Kunze or James Dowie. The original Francis Schlatter was an Alsatian cobbler and immigrant to the United States who, in 1894, felt the call of God in Denver, Colorado. Francis traveled around the west for two years, drawing huge crowds and supposedly healing the sick by clasping his hands together. He took no money for his services. He vanished mysteriously in Mexico and was presumed dead in 1896, though his body was never found.

real Frsncis Schlatter

Francis Schlatter, the healer, c. 1895. Collection of the Library of Congress.

The absence of Francis’s body created an irresistible opportunity for con men and imposters began popping up immediately after he disappeared. Since it wasn’t illegal in most places in the United States to use a different name from the one you were given at birth, the copycat Francis Schlatters simply started using that name, claiming they were the “real” healer who hadn’t actually died.

Kunze/Dowie partnered with a younger man named August Schrader around 1908. Styling themselves as “King” Francis and “Prince” August, the pair traveled around America and Canada organizing churches — they weren’t picky about the denomination — and officiating at weddings and funerals. They also offered prayer for a fee and the blessed cure-all hankies, sent through the mail.

Schrader and Schlatter

August Shrader (left) and his partner, “Francis Schlatter” (right). The Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California, February 6, 1917, page 18.

They set up shop in Oakland, California, by 1910, but were asked to leave when people complained that their morals were “not conducive to the best interests of the neighborhoods where they carried on their practice.” Next they landed in Los Angeles (city of all things fake) and established their “Baptist Church, Inc.” — described as a cult — at a property they purchased in Hollywood. Garbed in long black robes, with flowing hair, thick beards and high silk hats, they attracted attention wherever they went.

It was the handkerchief scam that finally brought the pair down. Many of the people who sent money for handkerchiefs complained that they didn’t work. No one was cured of being blind or deaf (and certainly not of being dumb). In June 1916, postal inspectors arrested the men in New York and returned them to Los Angeles for indictment. The charge: conspiracy to use the mails to defraud.

Francis Schlatter handkechiefs

News photograph dated July 18, 1918. Collection of the author.

They signed over their Hollywood property to the lawyer who represented them at trial. August, aged 49, died of pneumonia before the trial finished and was given a pauper’s burial. “Francis” declined the offer to officiate at the funeral of his friend and business partner.

He was convicted of the mail fraud charge and sent to McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary in Washington State, arriving on March 18, 1917, where he was booked into the prison as “Francis Schlatter.” It was unusual but he was allowed to wear his silk top hat in both his mugshots. (Normally the side view would be hatless.) His booking card notes that he had lost almost all his teeth and was less than five feet tall. He was released from prison on June 1, 1918.

On October 16, 1922, a man going by the name “Francis Schlatter” was discovered dead in a cheap rooming house in St. Louis, Missouri. Many newspapers reported that this was the man who’d been imprisoned at McNeil Island for mail fraud. But was it?

Francis Schlatter obit

The Topeka Daily Capital, Topeka, Kansas, October 25, 1922, page 15.

The informant on the man’s death certificate was Luverna Schlatter, who’d been contacted because she was thought to be the ex-wife of the dead man. Luverna was divorced from a different “divine healer” going by the name Francis Schlatter. However the body of the man who died in St. Louis in 1922 was not buried in Miamisburg, Ohio, as stated on the death certificate. In a bizarre twist, the body went unburied. On May 7, 1945, it was discovered in the basement of a St. Louis funeral home.

One plausible scenario is that Luverna, who lived in Chicago, went to St. Louis and discovered that the corpse awaiting her there was not that of her ex-husband, but belonged to the man who’d been incarcerated at McNeil Island* so she left without it. The death in 1922 of the fake Francis Schlatter is as much a mystery as the death of the man he spent years impersonating.

Featured photos: Francis Schlatter, McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary. Collection of the National Archives at Seattle, Washington, record group 129.

*Update: I recently received a copy of an article from the Denver Times, dated October 19, 1922, from David Wetzel, author of The Vanishing Messiah. The article describes how the man who was imprisoned at McNeil Island was still alive at that date, when he visited the Los Angeles Times offices to tell the paper he was not the man who had recently died in St. Louis.