originally published June 24, 2014
How does one judge the success of a swindle? To my hopelessly naïve and tragically honest mind, I believe one must be able to enjoy the bounty of one’s evil in order to truly rate it as a win. Others might disagree, claiming the mere act of absconding with a victim’s money is sufficient grounds for a toast of victory champagne. No matter how the cards tumble, a good scam makes for great human theatre.
When a British man adopted the curious name of Lord Gordon-Gordon and set out to pilfer a fortune from American railway interests, he was likely after the money and not the thrill of the swindle. To Jay Gould, the man who found himself a million dollars lighter courtesy of Lord Gordon-Gordon’s smooth and smarmy charm, it didn’t matter. He’d been taken. Humiliated. Kicked squarely in the fiscal nads. And he’d get his revenge, dammit.
The revenge itself is as weird a tale as whatever backstory Lord Gordon-Gordon might have used to explain his bizarre moniker. This is the story of how one schmoozy Brit almost singlehandedly instigated a war between the United States and Canada, all for the sake of a few bucks.
Almost nothing is known about this man’s history. There’s a rumor that he may have been the illegitimate child of a North Country priest and his maid, but we don’t even know his real name so tracing his origin story is little more than an effort in fiction. He first appeared in London in 1868 under the name of ‘Glencairn’, insisting he was soon to become the heir to the title of Lord Glencairn, along with the immodest fortune that came with it.
This was the tale he had told to some Edinburgh jewellers in order to lease a shooting estate in Scotland. Following that, he scooted down to London and somehow manipulated jewelers Marshall & Son out of £25,000, which in 1868 money probably could have bought half of Wales. In March of 1870, before anyone had deduced that Lord Glencairn was nothing more than a ruse, the guy left the British Isles for America: land of the free and home of the dupable.
To tell the story of railroad baron and all-around scumbag Jay Gould would inevitably lead us to the scuzz-peddlers and maestros of evil in New York’s Tammany Hall and of course the capo of the corrupt, William “Boss” Tweed. If Ebenezer Scrooge and Charles Foster Kane had combined their sperm and used it to impregnate the Wicked Witch of the West, Jay Gould might have been the resulting spawn. My point is, don’t waste too much sympathy on the fact that Gould was the lucky tycoon who became the first mark for the newly-christened Lord Gordon-Gordon.
Lord Gordon-Gordon claimed he was descended from the noble Clan Campbell, a descendant of Lochinvar and of the great ancient kings of the Scottish highlands. He showed up in Minneapolis and announced that his aim was buy up several large tracts of land so that he could bring over a number of his tenants from his overpopulated estates back home. Back in New York, Gould was presently fighting for control of the Erie Railroad. Lord Gordon-Gordon, being the ever-generous soul he was, offered to help out.
Lord Gordon-Gordon knew a number of Europeans who held stock in the company, and while he was awaiting the transfer of funds to come over from Scotland so that he could buy his land, he decided he’d hook Gould up with the means to control the company. He only asked for “a pooling of interests” – which is fancy 19th-century-talk for a “bribe” – in the form of $1 million in negotiable stock. Taking on a partner (whom he could later screw over) in order to gain control of the railroad sounded like a great deal to Gould. He handed over the stocks, at which point Lord Gordon-Gordon turned around and sold them, pocketing the money.
Jay Gould launched a lawsuit, and in March of 1873 Lord Gordon-Gordon stood trial for his swindle. As any British nobleman would do, he offered up the names of the European personages who could back him up and attest to the genuineness of his title and fortune. The snaky Lord was released on bail while these names were checked (it was an era in which information oozed like molasses), and Lord Gordon-Gordon promptly split for Canada.
He arrived in Winnipeg, claiming the charges against him in the US were ludicrous, and oh by the way, he’d love to bring some prosperity to this glorious nation of the Commonwealth by buying up large tracts of land in Manitoba. What a giving guy.
Gould and his crew were furious. Embezzlement and grand larceny weren’t enough to get this schmuck extradited through legal channels, which meant that as long as Lord Gordon-Gordon stayed north of the border – or even if he returned to the UK – he’d get away with his crimes. Jay Gould was used to getting away with his crimes; he wasn’t about to make it easy for someone else. Along with his closest associates, a group which included two future Minnesota governors and three future Congressmen, he arranged for Gordon-Gordon to be kidnapped.
On July 2, 1873, Lord Gordon-Gordon was abducted by bounty hunters, with the intent of dragging him south to answer for his actions. The RCMP intervened the next day at Pembina, only a hundred yards away from the border. Now Lord Gordon-Gordon was free and Jay Gould’s kidnapping squad was on trial. When Minnesota Governor Horace Austin learned the kidnappers were being held without bail, he ordered the local militia to be put on a state of full readiness. Thousands of citizens volunteered to be part of the army that would invade Canada. It was an oddly tense time in relations between the two nations, and Lord Gordon-Gordon had a front-row seat to the madness. The madness for which he was responsible.
Eventually the kidnappers were released on bail, and Governor Austin ordered his militia to stand down. Justice would still have to be served, but not for Lord Gordon-Gordon, who was still spared any danger of extradition. That is, until a representative from Marshall & Son of London showed up and positively identified Gordon-Gordon as the same person who had called himself “Lord” Glencairn. Canada’s political link to Great Britain was far more gnarled and interwoven than their link to the US at that time, and the charges were considered serious enough that Lord Gordon-Gordon was sentenced to deportation to answer for his crimes.
The vile Lord protested, claiming the whole thing was no more than a smear campaign by Jay Gould and his nefarious band of dishonest Americans. Nevertheless, his time in Canada was running out. He threw a lavish party in his Winnipeg hotel room on August 1, 1874, handing out expensive gifts to each of his guests. When the party had wound down, Lord Gordon-Gordon delivered a single bullet into his own brain, hauling his origins and a grab-bag of juicy secrets with him to the grave.
Human beings possess a tremendous capacity for deception and a ravenous hunger for tales of true con-artistry. For his rousing success and the eternal mystery that surrounds his origins, Lord Gordon-Gordon should find a spot in the scammery hall o’ fame, should such a thing ever exist. It’s almost a shame he never got to enjoy the spoils of his evils.