by Bruce Cherney (part 3 of 3)
The impostor aristocrat, who with a silky-smooth tongue and a bogus pedigree had convinced so many to part with their money, hatched another scheme to elude the law, which he sensed was once again uncomfortably reaching out to gather him within its grasp. Thus far, he had escaped answering for his swindles in New York and Toronto, finding what was believed to be a safe refuge in Winnipeg, but his luck was running out. Under the guise of a hunting trip, a pastime he had pursued so often in Manitoba that he was lulled into a false sense of confidence that few would consider it an extraordinary undertaking. The alleged Lord Gordon Gordon planned to shoot his way across the prairies toward the West Coast, but as he set out across the plains, there arose mounting evidence that the so-called peer of the realm came from a less-than-illustrious English parentage.
On September 6, 1873, the Free Press reported Gordon was at Poplar Point “on his way towards the setting sun for ‘shooting’ purposes ...”
The rumour then circulating in Winnipeg was that Gordon was using the hunting trip as a ruse and intended to eventually reach the Pacific Coast where he could catch the proverbial “slow boat to China,” and thwart any attempt to make him accountable for his crimes.
Sensing that Gordon was about to make good his escape, Manitoba Attorney-General Henry Clarke issued a warrant to arrest him “on the charge of stealing an awl worth about one shilling,” according to Alexander Begg (History of the North-West, 1894).
On August 13, 1873, Manitoba Provincial Police (MPP) Chief Richard Power set out to track and capture Gordon, an enterprise that turned into an adventure across the plains. The wanted man’s trail initially took Power to Shoal Lake and Oak Point northwest of Winnipeg, but Gordon was not found heading in that direction. Power was forced to return to Winnipeg for supplies, knowing that the hunt for Gordon would take more time than was originally expected.
Instead of again going northwest from Winnipeg, Power set out west for Portage la Prairie on August 20, where he obtained three horses and a wagon to facilitate his pursuit of Gordon. Heading from Portage on a northwest tack toward the Riding Mountains, Power learned that Gordon had been in Beaver Creek four days earlier. Days later the party was at Clear Lake and then pushed on to the Assiniboine River and Fort Ellice (near today’s St. Lazare) where Power abandoned the wagon and most of the men he had taken along.
On horseback, Power, accompanied by one MPP constable and a guide, crossed the Assiniboine River and entered Saskatchewan (then part of Canada’s Northwest Territories), where he met a Rev. Jones from Edmonton, who was a member of a Red River cart train camped for the night. The reverend told Power he had encountered Gordon on the trail the previous Sunday. Armed with this news, the party pressed on to Beaver Creek, but it would take another two days before more solid information finally set them on the right path toward the elusive fugitive.
Some 160 kilometres from Fort Ellice, they met up with John Kerr who said he had seen Harry Pentland, Gordon’s servant, a day earlier. Throughout the night, Power and his two men hurriedly rode to intercept Gordon.
After setting up camp in a clump of willows, Power took up the pursuit alone and on foot at first light on August 30. A short distance away he found his quarry “camped near a train of carts belonging to one Moise Breland, and finding all hands asleep, he quietly announced himself to the astonished gaze of Gordon and his men (Manitoban, September 20, 1873). Gordon quietly gave himself up, as soon as he recognized Mr. Powers (sic), and soon afterward the searchers and searched were on their way back to Winnipeg.”
The Gordon camp was in Saskatchewan’s Touchwood Hills, just to the south of today’s Yellowhead Highway and about 100 kilometres west of the Duck Mountains. At the wanted man’s camp, Power found that Gordon’s party had planned for a lengthy trek as they possessed six horses and five Red River carts laden with flour, pork and other provisions, all of which Power took back with him to Winnipeg. Such bounty gave further credence to the belief that Gordon was headed for British Columbia.
During the dash to capture Gordon, Power had rode on horseback over 640 kilometres to the Touchwood Hills and back to Winnipeg.
“Gordon, on his return, was placed in prison and looked like a man hounded to death.”
But unlike the five co-defendants from Minnesota, who had a month before been charged with kidnapping the bogus lord by Manitoba authorities, Gordon was considered a more sympathetic figure — many still refused to believe the growing evidence of his scandalous past — and as such was granted bail. Freed until his trial began, Gordon took up residence in a Headingly boarding house run by Abigail Corbett where he had been living on and off for two years.
From his base in Headingly, Gordon levelled a series of comic-opera counter charges against Clarke that were subsequently recanted.
Years later, a November 23, 1878, Manitoba Gazette article dispelled an accusation perpetuated by a court outburst and a letter from Gordon.
When being arraigned in court, Gordon pointed to the Manitoba attorney-general, claiming Clarke “tried to extort from me ten thousand dollars, and because he failed I am locked up here.”
A letter signed by Gordon, which was sent to Lieutenant-Governor Morris demanding that an alleged injustice be addressed, claimed that Clarke had gone to his cell and threatened the prisoner that if he didn’t hand over $10,000 he would be handed over to the American authorities. According to the Gazette article, Clarke never met Gordon in his cell, but spoke to the prisoner outside the cell door in the presence of a half dozen policemen who would verify that no money had been demanded by Clarke.
The story also contained a November 20, 1873, letter to Clarke in which Gordon expressed great regret that he had been induced to write the letter (he blamed others for pushing him to write the letter published in the Nor’Wester), alleging the offer of payment for the attorney-general’s services when prosecuting the five American kidnappers. Such a payment would have been completely illegal as the attorney-general was employed by and could only represent the people of Manitoba (Crown) in the courts.
Gordon wrote that “... I now state that you never directly or indirectly asked or received anything from me for your services in prosecuting Hoy and others for kidnapping, but you simply acted officially in your position as Attorney-General ...”
It was at Headingly that the controversial Gordon affair would eventually be ingloriously resolved. The impostor’s final fate meant he would never have to answer in a Manitoba court or in any other jurisdiction for his misdeeds.
Thomas Smith arrived in Toronto as a representative of Marshall & Sons of Edinburgh, Scotland (some accounts say at the urging of an embittered Jay Gould), the firm that had been swindled during Gordon’s earlier criminal career. Warrants for Gordon’s arrest were obtained in a Toronto police court and given to Alexander Munro, a Toronto police officer. Munro went to Winnipeg with the warrants in the company of a “Mr. Reid” and a “Mr. Hardy.” The latter two men didn’t take part in the subsequent confrontation with Gordon, according to later testimony given by the Toronto police officer at a coroner’s inquest in Headingly.
Munro said he understood Hardy to be a lawyer from New York, but he didn’t know the profession of Reid, “except he was from New York.” In some accounts, the two men are identified as New York detectives. In a February 4 and 11, 1961, two-part series on Gordon in the Free Press, James Warren Chafe wrote that the two men were private detectives, and that “there is reason to suspect that one was a member of an official American detective service.” He also mentions a Gould representative coming to Winnipeg, but such a man was never referred to during the inquest.
Hardy and Reid did help with the legal proceedings in Winnipeg where the warrants were validated by Justice of the Peace Magistrate Gilbert McMicken.
Munro said he believed Hardy was working on behalf of Marshall & Sons from Edinburgh. Whatever the two men’s role in the Gordon affair, they did not directly participate in Gordon’s arrest nor did they remain long in Winnipeg. According to Munro, Hardy said he would meet him and Gordon in Toronto.
Justice John Bain testified at the inquest that he had been in communication with a lawyer friend in Montréal who asked him to assist Reid and Hardy. The Montréal lawyer said Hardy was seeking advice on obtaining warrants for Gordon’s arrest as well as the whereabouts of the fugitive. It was Bain who advised that the warrants be obtained in Toronto.
Bain testified that he first met Hardy and Reid when they came to Winnipeg with a letter of introduction from his Montréal friend.
Munro, along with George McMicken, Justice Bain and James Fullerton, went to Headingly to arrest Gordon. According to testimony given by Munro at the coroner’s inquest, a warrant was presented to Gordon, who “just glanced at it.”
Munro said Gordon claimed he was “ready to go. Only, he wished to be allowed to put on warmer clothes.”
The arresting officers later related that Gordon seemed to be completely unconcerned about his arrest.
Munro gave Gordon a few minutes to don warmer clothing and to pack for the long journey east. The only time Gordon appeared to be anxious about his eventual fate was when he came to the conclusion that he might be returned to the U.S. Gordon asked Munro if he intended to take him through the U.S. to Toronto, obviously in fear that once across the border he would encounter the bail bondsman intent upon returning him to New York to answer for swindling Gould. Munro said that wasn’t the case, as they would be going east by way of the all-Canadian Dawson Route.
Gordon got dressed and then distracted his captors by calling out for his supposedly missing tam o’shanter. With their attention diverted, Gordon made a rush for his bedroom and seized a loaded pistol that he always kept on his bed table at night.
“The next thing I saw was him turning around with his back against the wall, with the revolver in his hand,” testified Munro at the August 3, 1874, coroner’s inquest at the school house in Headingly. “I made a rush toward him to prevent him from shooting. I expected it was meant for myself, and as I was about getting hold of him, the gun went off ... he sank down against the wall just as I got hold of him; I saw the blood coming out of his left ear ...”
Thomas Henry Pentland, Gordon’s servant and Corbett’s nephew, testified that he saw the alleged lord shoot himself in the head.
Bain testified that he heard Gordon utter at the doorway to the bedroom, “Now I am not going a step further,” and a pistol shot rang out. Bain went into the bedroom and saw Gordon in a half sitting position against the wall and between the bed and table.
Gordon was taken to another room where he was laid on the floor, after which Bain felt for a pulse. According to Bain, there was a distinct beating of Gordon’s pulse, but the man wasn’t breathing, so he concluded that Gordon was dead.
Corbett attributed Gordon’s self-inflicted shot to a vow Gordon earlier made that he would never again be taken alive. The promise was uttered by Gordon just after his kidnapping by the Americans, according to Corbett.
The inquest was overseen by A.M. Brown, the coroner for Selkirk, with Chief Justice Edmund Burke Wood and Attorney-General Clarke representing the Crown. The verdict delivered by jury foreman W.T. Lonsdale was that Gordon Gordon of Headingly in the County of Selkirk at 10 p.m. on August 1, 1874, committed suicide “by shooting himself in the head with a pistol.”
Following the jury’s verdict, Wood alleged that the evidence presented during the inquest implied that the parties sent to arrest Gordon did not intend to deliver him to Toronto, but to New York. He based his opinion on the unsubstantiated belief that since Hardy and Reid were from New York, they intended to take Gordon back to the U.S. city. In addition, Wood claimed that because Bain told Gordon that he would not be allowed to consult a local attorney or magistrate, but would be covertly whisked away, it implied the captors’ real motive was to take Gordon to New York.
Wood said that had Gordon been arrested and an attempt made to remove him from the region, it would have been his duty to have them followed and arrested. The chief justice said McMicken shouldn’t have backed the Toronto warrants, “one of which he ... (claimed) ... was simply illegal, and the other probably spurious ...” (Manitoban, August 8).
But there was no real support for the allegation that Gordon was to be taken to the U.S. Bryce said it was illogical to jump to the conclusion that a “plot within a plot” existed which “was seemingly unknown to those who were concerned in his arrest.” In fact, Munro only possessed tickets to Toronto via the Dawson Route that had been earlier purchased by Hardy and Reid.
In order for the “plot within a plot” to be true, a convoluted conspiracy would have to be formulated by Hardy and Reid. To be successful, such a conspiracy required a heavy bribe be given to the Toronto police officer so that Munro would transport Gordon across the border into the hands of American justice. It’s possible, but unlikely, that a Canadian police officer, acting on British warrants validated in both Toronto and Winnipeg on the understanding that the prisoner would be transported through Canada, would agree to and undertake such a highly risky course of action.
What is more likely is that Hardy and Reid did represent Gould in some capacity with orders to have Gordon punished for his crimes by any means possible. At the time, all that was available to Gould was the British justice system. And once in Britain, Gordon could be extradited to the U.S. to answer for specific charges under the terms of the Extradition Act passed by the British Parliament in 1870.
Bain was also heavily criticized by Wood for his role in the attempted arrest. After Gordon’s suicide, Bain testified at the inquest that when he first met Hardy and Reid in Winnipeg, he believed “Reid had purchased his ticket to go by stage (to Pembina) in the morning, before the arrest ... and Reid was to go by the Dawson Route; Hardy was the principal man; I have no reason to believe he was a New York detective ... Hardy was introduced to me as lawyer from New York; Reid was introduced to me by Hardy as merely a friend ...”
Pentland testified that Gordon had come to Manitoba with $1,600, but on his death had just 37 cents in his pocket. He had no idea what Gordon had done with the jewelry he was alleged to have obtained by ill-gotten means, but Pentland said Gordon had earlier given him a solid silver plate. In addition, Pentland said Gordon had a year earlier presented him with two horses that, along with one owned by a Mr. Brown, Gordon used to break and sow land at the Corbett farm.
“It is well known to many that ‘Lord Gordon’ came to Manitoba with a large sum of money and valuables, but nothing has ever transpired to show what became of this,” wrote Begg and Nursey in their book Ten Years in Winnipeg (1879).
“That popular sympathy was somewhat in ‘Lord Gordon’s’ favour is undoubtedly true,” wrote Bryce, “but if ever there was a man who deserved punishment for dishonesty and treachery it was he. While sorry for his tragic end, the sober sense of Manitoba was simply impressed anew with fact that ‘the way of the transgressor is hard.’”
William Chambers in Chambers Journal, published weekly in Edinburgh, investigated the late Gordon and his dishonest deeds, and published the results in a November 1876 three-part series that was summarized in the February 19, 1876, Manitoba Free Press. He concluded: “In none of the printed proceedings or elsewhere is there a scrap of intelligence concerning the real name, or relatives of this remarkable person. No one seems to know who or what he was, who were his parents, or where he was born. He altogether remains a mystery. It would be curious to know if any one lamented his lost opportunities, or mourned his deplorable fate.”
American newspapers referred to Gordon as “lord knows who.”
His real name was never definitively uncovered and only sketchy and suspect details are available for his earlier life in Britain. There are still many blank spaces yet to be filled in to create a more complete biography of the bogus Lord Gordon. His many tales about his parentage and life are so fantastically twisted that the real story behind Gordon remains clouded in many layers of obscurity.
The most complete published details of his life cover the six years between 1868 to 1874 when Gordon launched his confidence games in Britain and the U.S. and eventually killed himself in Winnipeg.
In 1879, a “highly respected resident of Manitoba received a letter from a friend in England,” which purported to shed light on the real Gordon. An article published in the February 12 Manitoba Free Press, under the headline, Gordon Gordon, a Mystery Probably Solved at Last — Who and What He Was, claimed the English correspondent reported on the arrest of a smuggler from the Isle of Jersey who “is none other than the father of our Gordon Gordon. The letter says that the name of Gordon was Laud Hamilton Gordon, and it can easily be understood how the youthful adventurer would not attempt to correct the mistake when addressed as ‘Lord’ instead of ‘Laud.’”
According to the letter writer, “a gentleman of high standing,” Laud Gordon’s father was the leader of a band of expert jewelry smugglers who operated between Britain and the European continent from their headquarters on the Isle of Jersey. His father was captured and arrested at age 70, and was described as “a thorough gentleman in appearance, and his daughter a most ladylike person.”
Furthermore, Gordon’s father and sister were “highly accomplished” and could speak “all the continental languages.”
While this is just one of the explanations about Gordon’s parentage and past, it is highly plausible. With such a shady pedigree, Gordon possessed the wherewithal to strike out on his own criminal path that eventually led to him gaining notoriety as “the greatest swindler of the age.”
The man, who dazzled so many with his fanciful tales of being a peer of the realm, and whose greatest feat was using his wiles to convince Jay Gould to part with $1 million in money, stocks and securities, may have came to an inglorious end, but the clever scoundrel was truly the “lord of the con” — a title he fully merited, rather than the bogus claim of being the aristocrat, “Lord Gordon Gordon.”