Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Grifter

GORDON, Lord GORDON (alias Hon. Mr Herbert Hamilton, Lord Glencairn, George Gordon, George Herbert Gordon, John Herbert Charles Gordon), adventurer and swindler; b. 184?; d. 1 Aug. 1874, Headingley, Manitoba.

One of the many colorful characters that passed through our area was an 'adventurer and swindler', to put it mildly. Pembina played an ironic role in preventing his extradition to American soil once he was finally apprehended for his crimes. But in the end, he took his own life...

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The Grifter
By Bryan Eddington
Canadian National History Society

Elegant, terribly proud, and obviously a wealthy aristocrat, why shouldn't Lord Gordon Gordon be welcome in the homes of leading families in Fort Garry in 1872? Wasn't he a friend of dukes, owner of vast British estates, personal diplomat for Queen Victoria?

Well, no.

But a year earlier he had conned one of the sharpest, most suspicious minds in America -- Jay Gould, the Wizard of Wall Street.

Lord Gordon seems to have been really Hubert Smith. A Scotsman near Fort Garry had known him in India and they talked about their service in a Highland regiment.

Gordon's quiet life in Fort Garry lasted only until the summer of 1873.

Then, an American who had met Lord Gordon in Minneapolis two years before recognized him. Knowing Gould had posted a reward of $25,000 for the bogus lord, he told Mayor George A. Brackett of Minneapolis. And Brackett told A.F. Roberts, who had lost money through Gordon in New York.

Hurrying to Minneapolis, Roberts obtained a U.S. warrant for the arrest of Lord Gordon, and two Minneapolis policemen, Michael Hoy and Owen Keegan, sped north with it.

On July 2, with help from Americans they had met in Fort Garry, Hoy and Keegan entered the house where Gordon was staying. Ignoring his lordly protests, they bound him and stealthily headed south.

But the Manitoba attorney general, learning a kidnapping was under way, refused to recognize the American warrant and telegraphed customs at Pembina to stop the group. Everyone returned to Fort Garry, and it was the Americans who heard prison doors slam. One of them sent a message to Mayor Brackett: "I'm in a hell of a fix. Come at once." Brackett did so.

Manitoba's lieutenant governor, Alexander Morris, wired the prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. The U.S. consul in Winnipeg wired acting Secretary of State Hamilton Fish in Washington. Preliminary hearings on kidnapping charges opened. Bail was refused. After two weeks of hearings, tensions escalated and both sides went to the newspapers.

The judge publicly called the American warrant "dangerous to our national independence."

The St. Paul Pioneer trumpeted: "Our people should make ready." The newspaper called for removing all obstacles in the way of Fenians who wanted to invade Manitoba. * Plans should be "swift, silent and terrible." The Minneapolis Tribune called the refusal to grant bail offensively hostile. The Chicago Tribune denounced it as a flagrant violation of judicial decency.

The governor of Minnesota visited the British ambassador. Brackett talked with President Ulysses S. Grant. He also told Fish: "We have stood more than American citizens ought to stand." Fish demanded the prisoners be freed. The British government urged their release. Macdonald wired Fort Garry that the governor general wanted the prisoners out on bail.

But in Manitoba, the lieutenant governor and judge dug in against America, England, and Ottawa. They refused to release any prisoners.

It was early in 1871 that Lord Gordon had appeared in Minneapolis. He told Colonel John S. Loomis, land commissioner for the Northern Pacific Railway, that he could bring settlers. Loomis immediately invited him on a luxurious trip to survey the land the railway owned. One newspaper marvelled at the forty horses, twelve men to pitch tents, French cook, and waiters wearing white silk gloves. Of course, everyone called Gordon "My Lord."

Loomis was convinced the Scottish aristocrat would invest $5 million and, during the three-month trek, they selected some 50,000 acres. Of course, one town was to be called Loomis.

When Lord Gordon headed for New York to arrange for a hundred Highland immigrants, he carried a letter of introduction from Loomis to New York's wealthy elite. They, in turn, introduced him to stock manipulator Jay Gould.

Gould was fighting railway magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt for control of the profitable Erie Railroad, and losing. Lord Gordon convinced Gould that he owned 60,000 Erie shares and controlled many more. He said he would back Gould in return for consideration, but added that he needed more than the financier's word. Gould handed over, in surety, railroad stock, bonds, and cash worth a reported one million dollars. Then Gordon invented a mistake in his arithmetic and Gould paid him another $40,000.

When Gould asked for a receipt, Lord Gordon was outraged. Was the word of a British gentleman not enough? Gould left empty-handed.

Only when Gould heard Lord Gordon had sold some of the Erie Railroad stock did Gould realize he'd been conned. He took Lord Gordon to court, but Gordon's friends, including A.F. Roberts, raised $37,000 bail.

Gould's lawyer checked the aristocrat's family and found it fictitious, but when the trial resumed, Gordon was fleeing in lordly fashion across Canada to Fort Garry where, a year later, his kidnappers ended in jail.

It wasn't until September 16, 1873 -- after the Minnesotans had been detained for two months -- that the political pressure brought about a plea bargain. Hoy, Keegan, and the other Americans pleaded guilty and were sentenced to twenty-four hours in the jail they had occupied since July 2. They were then released. International hostility faded. Fenians scrapped their invasion plans.

But Gould still craved revenge, and Roberts wanted his bail money back. A Canadian warrant was issued for Gordon's arrest and extradition. When it was served in Fort Garry, Lord Gordon quietly packed his bags. He was about to leave when he asked police if he might return to his room to get a warmer coat. There he shot himself.

Some may think this a miserable end for someone whose main crime was fleecing a man whose own misdealings had made him despised across North America. But the alternative was hard labour in an American prison, and Lord Gordon Gordon probably embraced a more noble end.

* In October 1871, Fenians -- Irish Americans hoping to ransom Canadian territory gained in battle with London to secure Irish independence from Britain -- crossed the border from the U.S. and seized the Hudson's Bay Company post. They were followed by American troops and arrested.