Lord of the con — Gordon was spotted by a Minnesota lumber merchant setting the stage for a dramatic kidnapping incident

by Bruce Cherney (part 4)

Ultimately, U.S.-based multi-millionaire Jay Gould became Gordon Gordon’s most famous victim. In retaliation, the American financier wanted the bogus British lord to pay for his transgression through the court system.

As was the case in the Old World, Gordon knew the jig was up and failed to return for the next day of his trial. It was rumoured that he then fled to Montréal and Toronto. Two of Gould’s lawyers, Elihu Root and General Collis, went to Toronto with a member of the firm of Marshall & Sons of Edinburgh to arrest Gordon on a British warrant.

Toronto turned out to be a dead-end — Gordon had again fled to points unknown. 

Gordon next re-appeared in Winnipeg, registering at Munro House in October 1872. Gordon knew that he was relatively safe in Winnipeg as local newspapers hadn’t extensively reported on his crimes in Great Britain nor on his U.S. trial. It is amazing that such a sensational case escaped the attention of Winnipeg newspaper editors, who were by then connected to the world via telegraph. But it seems that the editors attributed the reports coming from south of the border as instances of “yellow journalism” rather than factual information.

Knowing that Gould and Greeley were noted newspaper proprietors in the U.S., who used their printing presses to promote personal causes, undoubtedly fueled the local skepticism.

Even when it was reported in out-of-province newspapers that Lord Gordon was a fraud and imposter, local newspapers chose to ignore the mounting evidence, and the pseudo-titled personage was still held in great esteem by Manitobans.

The July 5, 1873, Free Press reported “every person in this country knows, or has heard of ‘Lord Gordon,’ who has been rusticating in these parts for the last seven or eight months.”

The newspaper insisted that no one was able to “come down to particulars,” in order to convince local residents that Gordon was not a lord hailing from Scotland. “It is generally agreed that it was he who figured in the Gould-Fisk-Erie affair in New York, some time ago. Beyond this, nobody asserts anything confidently, although it has gone the rounds that in England he was guilty of personating and thereby obtaining heavy credits; and it has been asserted that he was a refugee from England.These reports, however, have been circulated by interested sections of the United States press, and they are therefore to go for just what they are worth.”

Not content to simply downplay the allegations, the Free Press declared Gordon to be “our hero.”

After escaping American justice, the bogus Lord Gordon Gordon settled into a peaceful life in Manitoba, taking on the trappings of a peer of the realm, including hunting pheasant at Brokenhead River, as well as game at White Mud River, Lake of the Woods and Lake Manitoba. It was reported that during one particularly successful hunting foray to Brokenhead River, he managed to bag 1,500 pheasant (Manitoba Free Press, March 29, 1873). Such a slaughter was not good news for the local bird population, but it was greeted as a feat of remarkable shooting by residents, befitting the prowess of the leisure class.

When Lord Gordon reported that two servants had robbed him of “some thousands while hunting at Brokenhead River, the two men were found and arrested in Minnesota, but “released for reasons not well known.” 

The Free Press reported an explanation from the St. Paul Press which asserted that the “two servants were spies sent by Gould to ‘dog’ Gordon, and recover property which he had in his possession belonging to Gould.”

But Gordon had more to fear from others than two servants, as a warrant for his arrest for forgery was issued against him in England. This was problematic for Gordon as an English warrant was more likely to be honoured in Canada than a U.S. warrant. It was acknowledged that a Mr. Smith of Edinburgh was hot on Gordon’s trail with warrant in hand. This inconvenience caused Gordon to originally flee to Winnipeg from Toronto. 

As it turned out, Gordon should have been more alert to the the actions of New York bail bondsmen Horace F. Clarke and A.F. Roberts, as well as Americans visiting Winnipeg. The U.S. bondsmen were on the hunt for Gordon after he skipped bail during the May 1872 trial, Gould vs. Gordon Gordon.

A June 27, 1873, letter addressed to John H. McTavish, the Hudson’s Bay Company governor at Upper Fort Garry, from Norman W. Kittson, an ex-Canadian and wealthy Minnesota businessman, explained the dilemma facing Roberts and asked the HBC governor to use his influence in Winnipeg to assist in apprehending Gordon. 

“While Gordon was in New York,” Kittson wrote, “he got into difficulty with Jay Gould on some money transaction, and the latter had him arrested and would have had him imprisoned if Mr. Roberts had not been persuaded to come forward with others in New York and become his bondsman. Very unfortunately for them, shortly before the trial was expected to come off Gordon, having fears that the suit instituted against him by Gould would go against him, left the country and has not since returned ... unless Gordon can be produced in court, the bond of my friend Mr. Roberts will be declared forfeited, and he will have to pay it, amounting to the very large sum of forty thousand dollars (a slight exaggeration as the amount was $37,000).”

By this time, Roberts’ partner Clarke had died, leaving Roberts solely responsible for the bond provided to Gordon. How a bail bond works is relatively simple. A bail bond company receives a percentage (usually 10 per cent) of the bail ordered by the court from the accused — or his or her representative — who is then released on the promise to appear in court. If the accused fails to appear, then the bond company is liable for the full amount of the bail unless the company can apprehend the accused and return the fugitive over to the government authorities before the case is presented in court.

Gordon was spotted walking down Main Street by George N. Merriman, a Minneapolis lumber merchant who was in Winnipeg on business. Merriman immediately reported his discovery to George A. Brackett, the mayor of Minneapolis who was a friend of Roberts. Upon receipt of the telegram, the bail bondsman left New York for Minneapolis with an arrest warrant for Gordon. Roberts’ plan was to seize Gordon in Manitoba and turn the fugitive over to the U.S. justice system.

Mayor Brackett arranged for Michael Hoy and Owen Keegan, two Minnesota police officers, to arrest Gordon. They arrived in Winnipeg on July 2 and met with L.R. Bentley, a former Minneapolis businessman, and Loren Fletcher, another Minnesotan, to discuss strategy. The men were concerned that the U.S. warrant wasn’t valid in Canada, as a result, they doubted they could obtain the co-operation of the Winnipeg authorities. Instead, they hatched a scheme to kidnap Gordon and forcibly transport him back to the U.S. 

According to George Bryce (The Illustrated History of Winnipeg,  1909, the abduction was organized by Fletcher and Merriam.

Gordon presented evidence at a July preliminary trial in Winnipeg that outlined the particulars of his abduction. At the time, Gordon was living at the home of James McKay, the first Speaker of the Manitoba Legislature, when Bentley arrived. Gordon said he was sitting on the verandah and talking with Mrs. McKay when Bentley approached, shook hands with him and asked if James McKay was home.

“(I) told him he was not, and was not expected for several days, and referred him to Mrs. McKay.”

Bentley then handed cigars to Gordon and a man named Batineau, who was visiting at the McKay home. Once this exchange was completed, Bentley allegedly left for Silver Heights, but was later seen on several occasions driving past the McKay home in a buggy. Gordon said Bentley was sometimes alone and sometimes in the company of another man.

Unexpectedly, Gordon was seized from behind by Hoy and Keegan, who were armed with a pistol and rifle, at about 8:30 p.m.

Robert Tait, the next door neighbour of the McKays who was formerly from Minnesota, saw the commotion and testified in court that he approached when Gordon called out his name, pleading for help. At Gordon’s urging, Tait attempted to get into the abductors’ wagon, but was warned off by Keegan who waved a pistol in his face.

Gordon claimed that Hoy declared he was being arrested in the name of the Queen, which was an outright lie. Gordon was placed in a wagon hired from John R. Benson, a livery stable keeper in Winnipeg, who became an unwilling participant in the abduction. Benson only obeyed the orders given to him because the kidnappers were armed. Benson later said he firmly believed that the abductors were willing to coerce his co-operation by using the weapons they carried. Also in the wagon were Hoy and Keegan, who bound Gordon’s hands and feet. The kidnappers then ordered Benson to drive  rapidly to Upper Fort Garry.

After they arrived at the fort and then crossed the Assiniboine by ferry, the party met Bentley who arrived on the scene in his buggy. Fletcher and Bentley then returned to Winnipeg, and Hoy ordered Benson to drive on toward Pembina.

Their escape went awry when Fletcher, who thought the kidnappers were by then safely on their way, let slip the details of the caper in Winnipeg.

Francis Evans Cornish, Winnipeg’s first mayor (1874) and Gordon’s solicitor, as well as other prominent Winnipeggers, convinced Manitoba Attorney-General Henry J. Clarke to telegram the Canadian customs house at Pembina to stop the kidnapping. Fred James Boswell, a customs officer and the telegraph operator at Pembina, later testified he received the telegram from Winnipeg at 10 o’clock in the morning on July 3. The telegram was addressed to F.T. Bradley, the deputy collector of customs and the justice of the peace for the region. A series of telegrams were then exchanged between Winnipeg and Pembina by various parties who wanted the abductors stopped and the men responsible arrested.

“Five Americans kidnapped Gordon,” read a telegram from John Schultz and W.R. Bown, “commonly called Lord Gordon, and are running him out, it is supposed by your way. Arrest all parties if they can be found. Get all assistance necessary.”

At Pembina, Gordon said customs agents Bradley and Boswell, both of whom were armed with rifles, ordered Benson to stop the wagon.

“Is your name Gordon?” asked Bradley.

“Yes,” replied Gordon.

“Are you riding with these men of your free will?”

Gordon replied, “No.”

Bradley reached into the wagon and took hold of the rifle between Keegan’s legs and then pronounced that Keegan was under arrest. Hoy protested and produced an arrest warrant, which Bradley inspected and declared to be invalid in Canada. Bradley freed Gordon and then arrested Hoy. 

Hoy and Keegan were sent back to Winnipeg aboard the SS Dakota in the custody of F. Richie, a member of the North West Mounted Police (now RCMP). Benson and Gordon returned to the city in the wagon that had carried them to Pembina.

Among the papers found in the possession of Hoy was a letter from Horace Thompson of St. Paul, Minnesota, dated June 27, 1873. The letter asked for John W. Taylor, the American consul in Winnipeg, to aid bail bondsman Roberts to apprehend Gordon. 

Mayor Brackett of Minneapolis also provided Hoy with letters of introduction to Fletcher and B. Devlin in Winnipeg, as well as other influential persons living in the city.

When Gordon arrived back in Winnipeg, he promptly laid the charge that he had been unlawfully seized, resulting in Bentley, Fletcher and Merriam also being arrested. 

Fletcher telegraphed Brackett in Minneapolis: “I’m in a fix. Come at once.”

On July 5, the mayor was on a special train en route to Winnipeg, arriving in the morning of July 8, with the last leg of his journey being by a lengthy ride aboard a stagecoach, as Winnipeg had yet to be connected to the U.S. by railroad.

The subsequent preliminary examination in the police court before  Court of Queen’s Bench Judge Louis Bétourney was described by Alexander Begg and Walter Nursey in their book, Ten Years in Winnipeg (1879), as the “most exciting ... ever held in Manitoba.”

Among the prosecutors was Attorney-General Clarke, while the prisoners were represented by a number of Manitoba’s top lawyers, as well as Eugene M. Wilson, an attorney from Minneapolis.

“The local excitement caused by the arrest and examination of the prisoners was intensified by the circulation of all kinds of rumours,” wrote Begg in his book, History of the Northwest (1894). According to Begg, some Winnipeggers accused Clarke of accepting a bribe from the prisoners to throw the case, while others accused the attorney-general of accepting a bribe from Gordon. 

After the preliminary examination, Judge Bétourney ruled on July 23 that a “true bill” was found against the accused and they were scheduled to come to trial on September 20, 1873. Until such time, the judge ordered that prisoners were to be held without bail in one of the bastions at Upper Fort Garry.

(Next week: part 5)