Conman of the Century

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The luxuryapartment building at 1155 Park Ave. was brand new in 1915. Among its firsttenants was Maude King, a boozy, scatterbrained wealthy widow from Chicago.She rented three neighboring apartments on the 10th floor for $9000 a year.Mrs. King lived in one, her sister lived in another, and in the third were Mrs.King's business manager, Gaston B. Means, and his family.

Mrs. Kinghad met Means in the spring of 1914. Within a few weeks, Mrs. King placed allher affairs in Means' hands. He was 6 feet tall, weighed more than 200pounds, and was bald, with a round face, dimpled smile, sharp chin and beamingeyes. Jolly and good-natured, with a smooth Southern style, he was surprisinglyattractive to women. Behind his genial facade was an artist?a scam artist,a swindler for the joy of the perfect swindle, proud of his imaginative, plausiblelies.

Born inConcord, NC in 1879, he went to New York in 1902 as a salesman for Cannon mills.He lived in a rooming house on W. 58th St. and then an apartment at 105th St.and Columbus Ave. A natural salesman, Means soon earned more than $5000 a yearin salary and commission at a time when a seven-room apartment on RiversideDr. rented for less than $200 a month and good theater tickets cost less thana dollar. Shortly after meeting Mrs. King, Means quit Cannon mills to work forprivate detective William J. Burns. He had been chief of the Secret Servicebefore retiring in 1909 to start his agency. Tough, skillful and relentless,Burns had no ethics and soon realized Means was just the man for rifling a desk,bribing an informant or tapping a telephone.

The UnitedStates remained neutral at the outbreak of WWI in 1914. The British governmentsecretly retained Burns to investigate German activities in New York. The Germans,in ignorance, offered Burns a contract to investigate the British. Burns refusedtheir offer but referred them to Means, who became a nominally independent operativemerely to handle the German account. Until America entered the war in 1917,Burns and Means played a mutually profitable game, each feeding the other informationabout his respective client. Means apparently took the Germans for up to $100,000a year as Secret Agent E-13.

By the springof 1917, Means had burned through Mrs. King's ready cash. Mrs. King'shusband had left $10 million in trust to the Northern Trust Company of Chicago,IL to support an old men's home. Means forged a new will leaving all toMrs. King and, easily persuading her of its authenticity, submitted it for probate.In late August, Mrs. King vacationed with Means and his family in Asheville,NC. On August 29, 1917, Means and Mrs. King went rabbit hunting. He returnedcarrying her mortally wounded body, claiming that she had accidentally shotherself in the back of the skull. The local prosecutor, who found this improbable,indicted Means for murder. Unhappily, he then allowed Northern Trust to hireNew York lawyers to help prosecute Means. The defense counsel successfully playedon local antipathies to outsiders, winning an acquittal on December 16, 1917.Thereafter, Means boasted of having been accused of every crime in the penalcode, from murder down, and convicted of none. After the phony will was rejectedby the courts, Means returned to New York, where, having been evicted from 1155Park Ave., he rented a Staten Island house and worked for Burns.

On March4, 1921, Warren Gamaliel Harding became president of the United States. Harding'sadministration would yield massive scandals: at least two suicides, numerousconvictions, three disgraced Cabinet officers and new revelations and trialsfor nearly a decade after the president's sudden death in 1923. Amidstit all, Harding's mistress, Nan Britton, would publish her memoirs, memorablefor the pathetic image of the lovers' frantic couplings amidst the overshoesin a closet.

Harding'scampaign-manager-turned- attorney-general, Harry M. Daugherty, appointed BurnsDirector of the Bureau of Investigation. As Francis Russell observed in TheShadow of Blooming Grove, Burns ran the Bureau as he had run his agency.He didn't care about search and seizure, considered wire-tapping and break-insall in a day's work and freely employed former criminals and men of illrepute.

On November1, 1921, the Department of Justice hired Gaston B. Means. Now he had a badge,telephone, official stationery, an office and access to Bureau files. The underworldcontacts developed during his years as a detective now became a source of riches.He peddled Justice documents?reports, correspondence, miscellaneous papers?tothe persons they concerned. He claimed he could provide protection for bootleggersfrom enforcement of the Prohibition Act and fix prosecutions and destroy evidence.He said he was the bag man for Burns and Daugherty; sometimes, he said the payoffswere going to the Republican National Committee for President Harding'sreelection. Eventually, he claimed to be working directly for the president.

Almost noneof this was true. No claim of Gaston Means can be credited without independentevidence. Means met Daugherty once, in a Justice Department hallway. He nevermet the president or visited the White House. But Means had the sociopath'sgenius for intuiting what people wanted to hear. In particular, criminals wantto hear that everyone is on the take. Moreover, Burns' thuggishness andDaugherty's moral ambiguity?the touch of sleaze that had made him a power in Ohio politics and steer Harding to the presidency?heightenedMeans's plausibility.

He alsogained the confidence of Daugherty's closest friend, Jess Smith. One ofthe Ohio Gang, the coterie of small-time, crooked pols around Daugherty, Smith was a successful retailer, a kindly, slightly absurd, probably homosexual crook.Smith and Daugherty became so intimate that, as most historians of the Harding administration note, Daugherty could not sleep without Smith's reassuringpresence just beyond his bedroom's open door. Like Means, Smith peddled Daugherty's influence to bootleggers and other petty criminals. Neitherman ever intended to deliver the goods.

For themoment, the cash flow was amazing. Means' federal salary was seven dollarsa day. He and his family lived in a Washington townhouse with three servantsand a chauffeured limousine.

Means wassuspended in February 1922. He had stolen a huge supply of essential governmentlicenses and permits, many bearing the forged signatures of high-ranking governmentofficials. He sold them even as he continued selling non-existent protection,picking up $50,000 here, $11,500 there, $13,800 somewhere else.

By early1923, Daugherty was receiving so many private complaints about Means that Burnscould no longer protect him. In May 1923, he appointed a special counsel toinvestigate and prosecute.

Then thepresident learned of Jess Smith's remarkably dissolute personal life andinformed Daugherty. The attorney general told Smith that he would have to go back to Ohio. On Memorial Day morning, one of Daugherty's assistants foundSmith lying on the floor of the apartment that Smith shared with the attorney general, a revolver in his hand and his brains in a trash can. Now the scandalsbegan to break.

Means wasindicted for larceny, conspiracy and some 100 violations of the ProhibitionAct, even as the Senate began investigating Daugherty. One member of the investigatingcommittee, Sen. Burton Wheeler of Montana, spent weeks with Means reviewinghis testimony. On March 14, 1924, Means appeared in the committee room withtwo large accordion cases that, he said, contained his diaries of his governmentservice (these had been concocted during the winter of 1923-24 to document hisinnocence). He testified that he had collected millions in kickbacks on governmentcontracts for aircraft, war claims settlements and illegal liquor permits aswell as protection money. It all went to Jess Smith for distribution to Daughertyand other Cabinet officers. He was completely at ease, marshalling his storieswith utter self-confidence, even fishing papers from the bags and reading themto the committee. It was a masterful performance.

And he tookDaugherty down. After all, Means had been the Bureau director's right-handman. On March 28, 1924, after Daugherty refused to open Justice files to theSenate committee, President Coolidge demanded his resignation.

The committeewas concerned that Means' testimony was verified only by his documents,which they had never seen. Means stalled handing them over. He claimed thathis files had been taken by men claiming to be assistant sergeants at arms ofthe Senate. No one believed this. The Senate then learned the Bureau had stakedout Means' house on the night in question. The agents saw no one enteringor leaving except Means and a newspaper reporter, who had each been empty-handed.

On June17, 1924, Means went on trial. He was convicted and sentenced to two years;subsequent trials added two years; even the IRS came after him for non-paymentof income taxes on the graft he claimed to have handled.

While inthe Atlanta federal penitentiary, Means met May Dixon Thacker, the sister ofnovelist Thomas Dixon, whose The Klansman had been transformed by D.W.Griffith into The Birth of a Nation. Mrs. Thacker, whose literary outletwas True Confessions, promised to help Means tell his story. After hisrelease, Means spent day after day dictating to her. Every night, after Mrs.Thacker went home, Means and his wife roared with laughter over the lies he'dinvented.

The StrangeDeath of President Harding was among the best-selling books of 1930. Toldwith the accumulation of detail that lent plausibility to his cons, Means claimedto have served as Mrs. Harding's private investigator, breaking into Nan Britton's apartment to steal her diaries and Harding's love letters. Mrs. Harding was madly jealous of Britton; moreover, she knew of the Ohio Gang'smachinations. Coming to believe that only death could spare her husband shameand dishonor, Means claimed that Mrs. Harding had poisoned her husband.

Means raisedsome interesting points. The president died during a nationwide speaking tour.Supposedly, his illness stemmed from ptomaine poisoning after eating crabmeat.No one else in the presidential party, including the aide who ate the crab withhim, became ill. The only person with the president when he died was Mrs. Harding.Finally, the physicians' verdict of apoplexy was no more than an opinion,as the president was not autopsied.

Despitehis literary success, Means still needed more money. When the infant son ofCol. Charles Lindbergh was kidnapped in March 1932, Means persuaded Evalyn WalshMcLean, a wealthy heiress whom he had known back in Harding's time, thathe was in contact with the kidnappers and could recover the child for $100,000ransom. She gave him the money. He never delivered. Means was arrested in Washington,DC, on May 5, 1932. He claimed that the Lindbergh baby was still alive. Thistook audacity, especially after Col. Lindbergh identified his dead son. Meansgot 15 years, serving most of his sentence at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth,KS. Increasingly desperate for attention, by the end he was claiming to havekilled the Lindbergh baby. On December 12, 1938, still in prison, he died ofa heart attack.

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