Conman of the Century

| 16 Feb 2015 | 06:24

The luxury apartment building at 1155 Park Ave. was brand new in 1915. Among its first tenants 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. King had met Means in the spring of 1914. Within a few weeks, Mrs. King placed all her affairs in Means' hands. He was 6 feet tall, weighed more than 200 pounds, and was bald, with a round face, dimpled smile, sharp chin and beaming eyes. Jolly and good-natured, with a smooth Southern style, he was surprisingly attractive 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, plausible lies.

Born in Concord, 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 year in salary and commission at a time when a seven-room apartment on Riverside Dr. rented for less than $200 a month and good theater tickets cost less than a dollar. Shortly after meeting Mrs. King, Means quit Cannon mills to work for private detective William J. Burns. He had been chief of the Secret Service before 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 United States remained neutral at the outbreak of WWI in 1914. The British government secretly retained Burns to investigate German activities in New York. The Germans, in ignorance, offered Burns a contract to investigate the British. Burns refused their offer but referred them to Means, who became a nominally independent operative merely to handle the German account. Until America entered the war in 1917, Burns and Means played a mutually profitable game, each feeding the other information about his respective client. Means apparently took the Germans for up to $100,000 a year as Secret Agent E-13.

By the spring of 1917, Means had burned through Mrs. King's ready cash. Mrs. King's husband 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 to Mrs. 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 returned carrying her mortally wounded body, claiming that she had accidentally shot herself in the back of the skull. The local prosecutor, who found this improbable, indicted Means for murder. Unhappily, he then allowed Northern Trust to hire New York lawyers to help prosecute Means. The defense counsel successfully played on local antipathies to outsiders, winning an acquittal on December 16, 1917. Thereafter, Means boasted of having been accused of every crime in the penal code, from murder down, and convicted of none. After the phony will was rejected by the courts, Means returned to New York, where, having been evicted from 1155 Park Ave., he rented a Staten Island house and worked for Burns.

On March 4, 1921, Warren Gamaliel Harding became president of the United States. Harding's administration would yield massive scandals: at least two suicides, numerous convictions, three disgraced Cabinet officers and new revelations and trials for nearly a decade after the president's sudden death in 1923. Amidst it all, Harding's mistress, Nan Britton, would publish her memoirs, memorable for the pathetic image of the lovers' frantic couplings amidst the overshoes in a closet.

Harding's campaign-manager-turned- attorney-general, Harry M. Daugherty, appointed Burns Director of the Bureau of Investigation. As Francis Russell observed in The Shadow 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-ins all in a day's work and freely employed former criminals and men of ill repute.

On November 1, 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 underworld contacts developed during his years as a detective now became a source of riches. He peddled Justice documents?reports, correspondence, miscellaneous papers?to the persons they concerned. He claimed he could provide protection for bootleggers from 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 payoffs were going to the Republican National Committee for President Harding's reelection. Eventually, he claimed to be working directly for the president.

Almost none of this was true. No claim of Gaston Means can be credited without independent evidence. Means met Daugherty once, in a Justice Department hallway. He never met the president or visited the White House. But Means had the sociopath's genius for intuiting what people wanted to hear. In particular, criminals want to hear that everyone is on the take. Moreover, Burns' thuggishness and Daugherty's moral ambiguity?the touch of sleaze that had made him a power in Ohio politics and steer Harding to the presidency?heightened Means's plausibility.

He also gained the confidence of Daugherty's closest friend, Jess Smith. One of the 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 reassuring presence just beyond his bedroom's open door. Like Means, Smith peddled Daugherty's influence to bootleggers and other petty criminals. Neither man ever intended to deliver the goods.

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

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

By early 1923, Daugherty was receiving so many private complaints about Means that Burns could no longer protect him. In May 1923, he appointed a special counsel to investigate and prosecute.

Then the president learned of Jess Smith's remarkably dissolute personal life and informed Daugherty. The attorney general told Smith that he would have to go back to Ohio. On Memorial Day morning, one of Daugherty's assistants found Smith 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 scandals began to break.

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

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

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

On June 17, 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-payment of income taxes on the graft he claimed to have handled.

While in the Atlanta federal penitentiary, Means met May Dixon Thacker, the sister of novelist Thomas Dixon, whose The Klansman had been transformed by D.W. Griffith into The Birth of a Nation. Mrs. Thacker, whose literary outlet was True Confessions, promised to help Means tell his story. After his release, 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'd invented.

The Strange Death of President Harding was among the best-selling books of 1930. Told with the accumulation of detail that lent plausibility to his cons, Means claimed to 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's machinations. Coming to believe that only death could spare her husband shame and dishonor, Means claimed that Mrs. Harding had poisoned her husband.

Means raised some 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 with him, 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.

Despite his literary success, Means still needed more money. When the infant son of Col. Charles Lindbergh was kidnapped in March 1932, Means persuaded Evalyn Walsh McLean, a wealthy heiress whom he had known back in Harding's time, that he was in contact with the kidnappers and could recover the child for $100,000 ransom. 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. This took audacity, especially after Col. Lindbergh identified his dead son. Means got 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 have killed the Lindbergh baby. On December 12, 1938, still in prison, he died of a heart attack.