The spellbinding tale of hustler Edgar Laplante—the king of Jazz Age con artists—who becomes the victim of his own dangerous game.
Edgar Laplante was a smalltime grifter, an erstwhile vaudeville performer, and an unabashed charmer. But after years of playing thankless gigs and traveling with medicine shows, he decided to undertake the most demanding and bravura performance of his life. In the fall of 1917, Laplante reinvented himself as Chief White Elk: war hero, sports star, civil rights campaigner, Cherokee nation leader—and total fraud.
Under the pretenses of raising money for struggling Native American reservations, Laplante dressed in buckskins and a feathered headdress and traveled throughout the American West, narrowly escaping exposure and arrest each time he left town. When the heat became too much, he embarked upon a lucrative continent-hopping tour that attracted even more enormous crowds, his cons growing in proportion to the adulation of his audience. As he moved through Europe, he spied his biggest mark on the Riviera: a prodigiously rich Hungarian countess, who was instantly smitten with the con man. The countess bankrolled a lavish trip through Italy that made Laplante a darling of the Mussolini regime and a worldwide celebrity, soaring to unimaginable heights on the wings of his lies. But then, at the pinnacle of his improbable success, Laplante’s overreaching threatened to destroy him…
In King Con, Paul Willetts brings this previously untold story to life in all its surprising absurdity, showing us how our tremendous capacity for belief and our longstanding obsession with celebrity can make fools of us all—and proving that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
|Product dimensions:||6.30(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.50(d)|
About the Author
U.K.-based Paul Willetts, whose previous books have received huge acclaim in his home country, has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, and The Times Literary Supplement. King Con is Paul’s American debut.
Read an Excerpt
The waiting was almost over. Within the next few minutes, Tom Longboat, an Onondagan marathon runner who had just stopped off in San Jose, California, would be entering the pulpit of the First Baptist Church. Now twenty-eight years old, Tom was way past the age when newspapers carried stories about him winning race after race and twice competing on Canada’s Olympic team, but he remained famous enough for his presence in town to spark excited chatter. That evening--Sunday, March 4, 1917--several hundred people filled the pews. Speaking to them from the pulpit of this balconied modern church was its resident preacher, the Reverend James W. Kramer, who had a reputation for staging services “better than a movie show.”
Broad-shouldered and as fidgety as a marionette midperformance, Kramer had a large, bulging-browed face, its youthful smoothness extending to his prematurely bald crown. In deep, sonorous tones, he said, “I’m sorry the world has still got to be watched. There is something the matter with the world. It wants a religion that not only says, ‘This is the way,’ but walks in that way.” He was nearing the end of that evening’s sermon. “You need religion,” he assured the congregation. “And don’t forget that genuine religion works!” He went on to announce the imminent unveiling and illumination of a newly commissioned ecclesiastical painting, which he described as a masterpiece. “During the illumination, our friend Tom Longboat will sing . . .” Kramer meant to say that Tom would be performing the well-known hymn “Just as I Am, Without One Plea,” only he muddled his words and said, “Just as I Am, Without One Flea.”
Laughter from his audience compounded Kramer’s embarrassment. Distraction was, luckily for him, on hand. The lights were shut off, ready for the painting to be unveiled and then spotlit.
Here was the cue for the boyishly handsome Tom to take center stage. The much-talked-about wound he’d incurred while serving with the Canadian medical corps in France--heart of the war America had not thus far joined--didn’t prevent him from carrying himself with nonchalant grace, his physique still lean and muscular. Just shy of six feet, “the big Indian,” as Kramer referred to him, was tall by the standards of the period. Tom had high cheekbones, olive skin, and full lips that often flexed into a captivating smile, his intelligence and gentle authority projected by soulful brown eyes. He wore his thick, jet-black hair in a neatly parted, collar-length style. From the lapel of his dark suit, he liked to display a Red Cross pin.
When Tom launched into the opening hymn, the Baptist Harmonic Orchestra provided the ponderous musical accompaniment. “Just as I am, without one plea / But that Thy blood was shed for me,” Tom sang in a mellow yet powerful voice, its crisp phrasing accentuating the vocal similarity between him and the hugely popular tenor Chauncey Olcott.
Afterward Tom addressed the congregation, which included numerous latecomers, standing at the sides because all the seats were taken. He was a natural in front of an audience. “This is the first time that I have ever stepped into a first-class Baptist church with a first-class Baptist spirit,” he said, his speech no less rich and melodic than his singing. Relaxed, engaging, and genially self-assured, he spoke of breaking the record for the marathon and receiving trophies from the kings of England and Greece. It was clear why Kramer had awarded him such a fulsome endorsement on the ads promoting that evening’s service. “I never heard a greater man singer than this Indian,” the preacher had declared. “Hear his story of the war and hear him sing. Yes, he is a Christian man. He will move and thrill you.”
Tom proudly informed the congregation that he was a graduate of Carlisle. Just that one word was sufficient to identify Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the celebrated Pennsylvania boarding school where Native American youngsters--many of them unwillingly uprooted from their families and culture--received a classical as well as vocational education. Tom served as a living advertisement for that institution and dozens of other such eastern boarding schools to which generations of Native Americans had been sent. As a mark of his assimilation, Tom said he’d completed a three-year medical course in Chicago. He also revealed that he’d traveled around the world, learning several languages in the process. And he delivered a brief but engrossing account of his work with the medical corps on the muddy battlefields of France.
His description carried the distinctive imprint of firsthand experience. There were none of the allusions to glory and patriotism deployed by people who had never set foot in the trenches. For him, the horrors of the current war “could not be exaggerated.”
“The thing to do,” he suggested, “is to take the sovereigns of the different countries, place them in a pit, charge admission, and let the sovereigns fight.”
Energetic applause greeted this suggestion.
An incredulous young girl, who was impressed by Tom’s performance, dragged her mother up to the pulpit for a closer look at him. Tom suspected racial prejudice lay behind the girl’s disbelief. “Why, he looks just like a man,” her mother said. Tom would later joke about how the girl’s mother must have wondered where his war paint and feathered headdress had gone.
Sharing the bewilderment of both mother and daughter was another member of the congregation--a local real estate agent named Charles Millar. Like so many people there, he’d been drawn to the service by the gravitational pull of Tom’s fame. Millar was doubly curious because he’d raced against Tom in Montreal close on a decade earlier. But Millar didn’t recognize the man in the pulpit, who looked nothing like the marathon runner he’d trailed behind. The Tom Longboat he knew had even darker skin. And he was a tad shorter. Millar couldn’t figure out why the man in the pulpit wanted to go around pretending to be Longboat. Whatever the reason, Millar made up his mind to expose him as an impostor at the end of the service.
The man calling himself Tom Longboat continued to soak up the applause. It was soon replaced by the sound of the church orchestra playing several more hymns. These were followed by a singing duet, a series of baptism ceremonies, and the closing hymn. Dr. Kramer made a few announcements before the large congregation began to disperse.
Millar could now unmask the impostor in front of everyone. But, almost as if the man was being protected by an Onondagan guardian spirit, Millar suffered a last-minute loss of nerve. Instead of facing a torrent of angry questions, Edgar Laplante--the impostor exploiting Tom Longboat’s name and celebrity--was free to collect a large appearance fee.
While puttering around San José, where the two- and three-story downtown buildings were framed by mountains and where horse-drawn buggies and electric streetcars shared broad avenues with open-topped automobiles appropriate to the mild, cloudless weather next day, Edgar would have to be careful. If he was going to sustain his image as a paragon of wholesome American manhood, he couldn’t afford to be caught doing many of the things he normally did--smoking cigarettes and seducing young women, to name but two. Kramer detested these practices. Still more abhorrent to Kramer’s way of thinking was Edgar’s penchant for seducing young men. By gratifying that particular appetite, Edgar wouldn’t just be endangering his relationship with the preacher. He’d also be risking trouble with the police, as sex between men was punishable in California by up to fifteen years of jail time.
His taste for hard liquor--scotch, if he could lay his lips on it--was something else Edgar had to conceal from Kramer. Among the leading temperance campaigners, Kramer had already helped to instigate legislation against the manufacture, sale, and delivery of alcohol in both Idaho and Washington State. He would have been horrified by Edgar’s recent behavior. Not two months prior, Edgar had gotten so drunk he’d been slung out of a Sunday morning service in the town of Bisbee, Arizona. Were Kramer to detect as much as the faint tang of alcohol on Edgar’s breath, the invitation to perform a solo concert at the First Baptist Church was sure to be withdrawn. Even the glowing testimonials from Edgar’s regimental commander and several well-known Baptist ministers wouldn’t save the concert, scheduled for that evening.
To publicize his show, Edgar gave an interview to a reporter from the San José Evening News. He said he was in town to recover from the year and a half he’d spent on the front line in France. What really caught the reporter’s interest was Edgar’s condemnation of the English war effort. Any military successes chalked up by the Allies had been achieved by soldiers from Canada and other English dominions, he contended. “England has done nothing save send over some officers--but I won’t say what sort of officers. Oh, yes, I will say that England has put up a lot of money. She has been a good meal ticket, but a poor fighter.”
“When do you figure the war will be over?” the reporter asked.
“Don’t know. And I wouldn’t venture a guess. I know one thing: The Germans are far from being whipped. The Germans are sending boys into the trenches now but--let me tell you--these boys can fight better than their daddies. They call this a boys’ war. It may be that, but it’s an awful war just the same. People over here have no idea of the horrors that are being enacted.” He spoke about how young children were being targeted. “When little, defenseless children are used for gun fodder it is going some . . .”
Edgar then unbuttoned his shirtfront and, in a graphic illustration of the brutality of war, showed the reporter a prominent scar on his chest. It was the size of a dollar coin. “A German woman gave me that,” he explained. “Yes, I was on German soil when she ran her saber through my breast. She thought I was there to destroy her home, and she came out to defend it. We were about fifty yards on German territory when we came upon this house, and that was as far as we got. When the poor woman discovered the red cross on my arm and found out that I was in the medical corps, she felt so dreadful about it that she broke out in tears. She gave me a sound thrust all right. The doctors had to remove two of my ribs in order to fix me up.”
At his solo show later that day, Edgar continued to reminisce about his battlefield ordeal. He also fielded questions from the big crowd, talked about his athletic career, and performed a selection of popular songs, which led one member of the audience to declare his singing had “seldom been equaled in this city.”
So many people wanted to speak with him and shake his hand after the show that he needed to take refuge in a side room to avoid being crushed. He only ventured back into the main body of the church once the brouhaha let up.
For the better part of an hour he mingled with his fans. He was partial to speaking about himself, but he was happy to listen to other people, to let them feel their opinions mattered, to satisfy their desire to warm themselves in the fireside glow of celebrity.
His success in convincing the residents of San José that he was Tom Longboat tempted him to feed them another barefaced lie. Now he started talking about how he’d played football alongside the great Jim Thorpe on Carlisle’s equally celebrated team. He took pride in his ability to make people buy cockamamie stories like that. Outside his fecund imagination, the closest he’d been to gridiron stardom appears to have come through his stepmother’s job as an inspector of footballs at a sporting goods plant. Merely to be an ex-teammate of Jim Thorpe was not sufficient for him, though. As if he wanted to map the limits of people’s credulity, he embellished his story by claiming to have been on the team that had defeated Harvard.
To sports fans of that era, Carlisle’s win over Harvard rated as one of football’s greatest upsets. Professing involvement in such a game was a rash move. Some football fanatic might be in a position to check the Carlisle team’s lineup and find no mention of Tom Longboat. Or someone familiar with the story might recall that Carlisle had triumphed only through exploiting a loophole in the rules of football. By associating himself with such underhand tactics, Edgar might encourage people to question his integrity, to scrutinize all the other things he’d told them, all the lies about competing as an athlete and training as a doctor. People might even wonder about his racial identity: In truth, he was no more Onondagan than he was an Olympic athlete or an army veteran.
Any minute there might be a knock on the door of Edgar’s hotel room. He might then find himself being quizzed by an officer from the San José Police Department. Once the police got ahold of him, Edgar’s life could veer in several directions, none of them good. Even allowing for the absence of a countrywide criminal database, there was always the fear that the authorities might discover he was a career con man with outstanding warrants against him in the states of Arizona and New York.
Before any of these scenarios could play out, Edgar quit town and headed south. He had with him only a single valise.
The Southern Pacific railroad’s Coast Line furnished the most convenient means for him to make the 416-mile journey to San Diego. Bordering the track were orchards, vineyards, and prosperous rural towns that would have made attractive subjects for his paintings and drawings. Just past Santa Barbara the bucolic scene gave way to a herd of seesawing oil derricks that strayed some distance into the ocean.
For travelers such as Edgar, whose mouth was seldom without a cigarette, the passing views were seen through the misty filter of the smoking car. The landscape had little in common with Central Falls, the close-packed blue-collar Rhode Island city where he’d been reared amid cotton mills, well-maintained tenements, and brick-paved streets, alive with the clip-clop of horse-drawn wagons, the rattle of trains on the elevated railway, and the clucking of the chickens kept in the barn to the rear of where he lived. He and his three younger siblings had grown up on Lincoln Avenue with their parents, both from Quebec. The Laplantes were surrounded by a sizable colony of other French-Canadian emigres, many of them carpenters like Edgar’s father. Despite retaining their own Roman Catholic festivals and holidays, their own church and school, their own correct if homespun brand of French, their own cuisine, and even their own newspapers, their community’s potent sense of cultural identity had somehow never defined Edgar, whose failure to acknowledge his French origins must have been one of the many sources of conflict with his now-estranged Francophile father.
Excerpted from "King Con"
Copyright © 2018 Paul Willetts.
Excerpted by permission of Crown/Archetype.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Truly excellent, in my opinion. 'Con' grabbed me from the start, with its engaging premise and simple, streamlined format. Likewise, I enjoyed the author's grounded, coherent tone, which allowed some wit and personality at the right times, all lending toward an easy and enjoyable read. Also, the book is impressively researched, drawing from an extensive array of archaic sources from the time period. Another strength: an appropriate length, which compressed the subject's complicated life without sacrificing detail and data. And, finally, the book just worked for me, delivering on its premise as a biography of the conman extraordinaire Mr. Edgar Laplante (and in an admirably polished product, no less). 'Con' is more than just a true-crime book, however, and it is this extra depth that set it apart for me and warranted a five-star rating. Foremost, the book is rich in history, with a general snapshot of early-20th-century American life (threaded with a respectively substantial examination of both World Wars). And, most importantly in my opinion, 'Con' presents a profound study of the psychology of deception, as much on the victims' part as that of the perpetrator, all of which speaks volumes about the mind and its mechanisms, and the nature of such predatory behavior. As a result, the reader is provided with something of a guidebook in these matters, to arm themselves against the psychological attacks which form the foundation of most con-artistry, thus granting a practical dimension to the read (and, a highly valuable one at that). Indeed, there's a lot to learn from this one, on many levels. My sincere thanks goes out to this book's author, subjects, and publisher. I am grateful for, and have benefited from, your work.
For me, Paul Willetts is non-fiction in reverse. Typically, on the rare occasions that find me dipping into works of non-fiction, it’s strictly because of an abiding interest in the subject matter. Books about Robert Mitchum, books about Japanese Snow Monkeys, books about whatever obsessions could stand a bit more obsessing over. With the works of Paul Willetts, though, it’s the other way round -- a complete and total unfamiliarity with the subject matter on my part, but a deep love of his writing, coupled with his considerable merits as a researcher and his overly-keen eye for fascinating subjects. In that sense, he completes a Holy Triad of contemporary UK non-fiction authors sharing space on my shelves alongside Max Décharné and Keiron Pim. With King Con, Willetts introduces the reader to Chief White Elk -- Indian chief, fund raiser, political campaigner, a towering hero of both college football and of The Great War, first class Olympic runner, owner of oil fields, a renowned doctor, and a film star who shared the screen alongside Valentino, Chaplin, and a young John Wayne. Except for the fact that he was none of these things. In reality, he was Edgar Laplante -- a drifter, a grifter, a masterfully manipulative white man, a consummate and pathological liar, a swindler, a sweet-talker, a fraud and a huckster extraordinaire, and undoubtedly one of the greatest con men to ever run a racket. King Con traces our Edgar’s route throughout North America, to England, and from there to France, Brussels and Italy, where he was feted and heralded by the ruling fascist party in a staggering rise to embezzled riches totaling nearly $60 million USD in today’s currency, all the while overindulging in every dark excess offered throughout the Jazz Age. Naiveté and stupidity are not, as some would have it, newer additions to basic human evolution, just as identity theft is not a byproduct of the Digital Age. Paul Willetts’ greatest gift as a writer has always been his ability to transcend the form, and to write non-fiction that reads and engages like novels of the highest order, and always with his own voice shining throughout. Exhaustively researched and painted with all the creativity and light and shading of a master artist, all of his works reward the reader, and King Con is no exception.