Lord of the con — Gordon grabbed a loaded pistol from his bedside table and fatally shot himself

by Bruce Cherney (part 7 of 7)

Toronto detective Alexander Munro testified at the coroner’s inquest in Headingley that Gordon 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 unlit 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 Headingley. “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 ...”

The Manitoba Free Press reported that Gordon “sank down where he had been standing and without a word the soul of this somewhat remarkable and decidedly notorious man was before his Maker.”

Thomas Henry Pentland, Gordon’s servant and Abigail Corbett’s nephew, testified that he saw the alleged lord shoot himself in the head.

Manitoba lawyer John 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 Henry Clarke representing the Crown. The verdict delivered by jury foreman W.T. Lonsdale was that Gordon Gordon of Headingley in the County of Selkirk at 10 p.m. on August 1, 1874, committed suicide “by shooting himself in the head with a pistol.”

The Free Press reported that those who knew Gordon were not surprised by the suicide, as he had “for years been troubled by heart disease which was so severe as at times to render him temporarily insane, and when in this state he had frequently given expression to a determination not to be taken alive. He warned his friends not to be surprised if at any time they should find him dead ...”

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 George 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. Historian George Bryce, who was in Winnipeg when Gordon resided in Manitoba, 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 U.S financier Jay 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, the victim of a $1-million swindle by Gordon, was the Canadian and British justice systems. 

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 a 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 Alexander Begg and Walter 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 the fact that ‘the way of the transgressor is hard.’”

William Chambers in the 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 about 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. 

In Cheating and Deception, by John Bowyer Bell and Barton Whaley, his name is given as John Crowningsfield — just one of many names attributed to the conman — and the authors claimed he was the illigitimate son of a merchant seaman and a London barmaid. Dale Brawn, the author of the book, The Court of Queen’s Bench of Manitoba, 1870-1950: A Biographical History, asserted Gordon’s real name was Hubert Campbell Smith. Still others say he was Tom Smith, a private in the British Army.

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 may be 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.”

Local folklore associated yet another mystery about Gordon, although this time around it involved his earthly remains and the alleged presence of ghouls intent upon desecrating his grave. 

William Stevenson, who at age 16 witnessed the funeral of Gordon, told Winnipeg Tribune writer G.C. Porter that the bogus lord was buried just south of consecrated land in Headingley,  since he was a “suicide,” and took Porter to the gravesite. In the July 28, 1934, article containing comments about the burial by Stevenson, Porter wrote that not even a depression in the ground marked the spot and the cross over the grave had long since disappeared.

“It was said,” Stevenson told Porter, “that those New York men offered $10,000 reward to have the body moved across the line. The night after the burial all the dogs in the neighbourhood were howling in an unearthly manner and many believed that the grave was opened then by some one who wanted the reward.”

Whether the above story is true or not — there are no actual eyewitnesses to the alleged grave robbing — the cemetary at Headingley has long since been expanded, so if Gordon’s remains are still there, they are  now within consecrated ground. Manitoba authors Charles and Dale Brawn claim that the remains of Gordon are in an unmarked grave in the northeast portion of the Headingley Cemetary.

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.”