One of the great scoundrels in American history was a man named Gaston B. Means, whom J. Edgar Hoover once called, “the most amazing figure in contemporary criminal history.” Historian Frank Russell once described him thus: “In appearance a wastrel cherub with round face, dimpled smile, sharp chin, and beaming eyes that flickered from time to time with madness, [he} was a swindler for the joy of swindling, a liar proud of the credibility of his lies, a confidence man able to make his cheats and deceptions a work of art.”
His resume, one that he was devilishly proud of, listed such benign professional attainments as school teacher, private detective and traveling salesman. But those were just cover stories for his true employment. His actual skills were more in the realm of swindler, bootlegger, blackmailer, forger and murderer. At various times in his storied life, he had the confidence of some of the highest ranking and highly esteemed people in the country. They included such disparate persons as the William J. Burns, the director of the Bureau of Investigation and the German Government who hired him as Secret Agent “E-13.”
He cultivated his impish ways as a young boy of ten when he would gather information about prospective jurors for his father, a lawyer who interestingly, had an untarnished reputation.
Those who knew him as a young man remarked that he was always a bit conniving, adding that it wasn’t until he had an injury as a result of an accident on a Pullman Rail Car, in which he fell from the top berth and hit his head, that he began to demonstrate his villainous ways. The cause of the accident, it was learned, was that someone had partially sawed through one of the chains holding up the berth. As “luck” would have it, Means had taken out several accident insurance policies before his trip and though he walked away with a swollen head, he paid it no mind. His wallet soon bulged as well.
After the Pullman Car episode, the embolden scoundrel embarked on an audacious sojourn through the criminal code. He once bragged that he had been accused of every crime known in America. And yet, he prided himself on being a fair dealer. Without distinction, he swindled both innocents and criminals alike.
Means befriended the wealthy widow Mrs. Maude King, and having known her for just a few weeks convinced Mrs. King to hire him as her business manger. Meanwhile, the Northern Trust Company as trustees of the $3 Million estate left by Mr. King were in the midst of carrying out the dead man’s wishes. Most of the estate was designated for an old men’s home. In short order, Means produced a forged will which maintained that it was Mr. King’s wish that his wife be the only beneficiary. The Trust Company was not as persuaded but Mrs. King was.
After bilking the widow out of her still considerable fortune (unbeknownst to her he had lost it all in the stock market) he asked her to join him on a rabbit hunt. She hated guns, deplored the idea of killing rabbits and tried to beg off, but Means managed to persuade her none-the-less. Mrs. King did not have to worry about killing little critters because Mr. Means wasn’t there to shoot rabbits. He was there to shoot her.
According to Mr. Means, Mrs. King accidentally shot herself when he bent down to a spring for a drink of water. He described the event this way: “As we came near the spring, she handed me [her] gun. I said I wanted a drink of water from the spring. I placed her gun in the crotch of a tree and told her not to touch it…Just as I was stooping down for a drink of water, out of the corner of my eye I noted her reaching for the gun, and I called to her not to touch it, as it was loaded. Then I took a drink and the next thing I knew I heard a shot.”
A North Carolina coroner’s jury ruled the death accidental even though it was clear she was shot in the back of the head. The trusting and gullible widow was laid to rest in Illinois. Suspicions of the events surrounding Mrs. Kings death abounded, however, and finally the Chicago coroner agreed to have her body exhumed for examination.
Completing his probe, the coroner determined that it was impossible that she had killed herself and Means was quickly indicted for murder. The Northern Trust Company sent a team of lawyers from New York to assist the Cabarrus County, North Carolina prosecutor in the murder trial. After the prosecutor presented over-whelming evidence that Means was indeed the killer, the jury promptly ignored it. After deliberating just fifteen minutes, the smooth-talking larcenist was found not guilty by the jury in his own hometown who resented the yankee lawyers. Means in concert with his defense attorney had succeeded in painting the New York attorneys as outsiders. One author made sense of it this way, “He may of been a scoundrel, but he was their scoundrel.”
Emboldened after escaping the murder rap, Means set his sights even higher – the halls of the American government.
The President Harding had appointed his friend and campaign advisor, Harry M. Daugherty, to the post of Attorney General who in turn appointed his friend, William J. Burns to head the Bureau of Investigation. Burns had been called the “Sherlock Holmes of America” by no less a figure than the creator of Holmes himself, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is true he was a brilliant detective but he sometimes went outside the bounds of the law to get his man. Holding such a high profile office, Burns needed someone other than himself to get his hands dirty. Gaston B. Means was his man.
With the protection of William Burns and federal badge in hand, Means began a campaign of extortion that would make the the most energetic mobster envious. In fact, mobsters were his principle targets, specifically, bootleggers. Means proceeded to “fix” the legal problems of some of the most notorious “rum runners” in the Washington area. He sold forged Prohibition-Era liquor permits among scores of other scams. Not surprisingly, Means’ activities were discovered and he “confessed” to facilitating bribes for senior officials in the administration, including Attorney General Daugherty. He claimed before a Senate Investigation Committee that he had in his possession the documents to prove that senior administration were complicit in the bribery scandal and agreed to produce them immediately for the world to see. At the appointed time, Means calmly returned to the committee ready to review them but feigned outrage when he “discovered” that the committee didn’t receive them. He unveiled before them an elaborate story of how “two sergeants-at-arms” had appeared at his house with an order signed by the committee chairman to take the documents into their possession. He produced for the committee chairman the order give to him by the sergeants, who immediately declared his signature a forgery. Means jump out of his chair and shouted “Forgery!” I’ve been tricked by my enemies. I’ll run them down if it’s the last thing I do!
The committee wasn’t fooled and indicted means for perjury. Undaunted, Means made up characters with amazingly detailed back stories which seemed to many entirely plausible. All his fanciful stories were vetted, and not finding them ultimately credible, the jury returned with a guilty verdict.
Convicted of perjury, Means was sent to the Atlanta Penitentiary and during his stint there the Chaplain introduced him to Mrs. May Dixon Thacker, wife of a well-known Southern evangelist. She was in Atlanta conducting research on prison conditions in the South. He proceeded to regale her with the figments of his imagination, which she took to be true and eagerly told him to call on her if he ever wish to have his exploits published.
After being released from prison, the newly freed con artist contacted the unsuspecting author. Mrs. Thacker recounted Means’ stories in a book titled The Strange Death of President Harding in which his tales of intrigue convinced millions of Americans that The First Lady had poisoned her husband with the aide of his personal physician, Dr. Charles E. Sawyer.
He posited to the the gullible Thacker that the First lady had hired him to look into the various dalliances of the President and report back to her. He unfortunately brought back the bad news that all the rumors were true. Means then confidently told Mrs. Thacker that the First Ladies motive for killing her husband was to “protect him” from the damaging scandals which would soon come to light.
The Strange Death of President Harding was a huge best seller and Means collected substantial royalties from the sales. But a counter-expose publish by Liberty Magazine effectively refuted the spurious claims laid out in the book, exposing it as the fraud that it was. True to his nature, Means, having already received his royalties (and conned Mrs. Thacker out of hers) deftly, and with merriment, repudiated his own book.
Having sullied the reputation of the late First Lady, Means upped the ante when Evalyn Walsh McLean, (owner of the famed Hope Diamond), asked for his help in recovering the kidnapped infant child of Charles and Anne Lindbergh. Agreeing to act as negotiator, he heartlessly convinced the Lindberg’s and Mrs. McLean that he knew where their infant child was. He created his most elaborate story yet and bilked Mrs. McLean out of over $100,000. Mr. Means, failing to deliver the baby at the appointed time and place, had finally exhausted his maddening charm. Infuriated, Mrs. McLean, called the police who captured the heartless con man and delivered him to trial. He was found guilty of larceny and sentence to 15 years in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. He never again saw the light of day and died of a heart attack, a fitting end for someone who had cause so much heartache.
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