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America's Shrewdest Con-Man: The "Christian Kid"

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The way William Elmer Mead figured it, no man would be stupid enough to believe he could buy a major league baseball park.

But a few might think they could lease one.

In 1910, Mead came up with a fail-proof, scorcher of a con, using the end of the world as his bait. That year, the tail of Halley’s comet was expected to sweep over Earth. Some predicted it would be a catastrophic event; others just wanted to say they were looking at the sky for an astronomical milestone. Either way, it was all anyone was talking about.

In Cleveland, posing as a high-rolling upperclassman, Mead met up with a contractor to discuss plans for building property in the area. As the two sat down, the contractor found a wallet stuffed with invoices, money, and paperwork, all of it indicating its owner was some kind of big-deal developer for baseball stadiums.

The owner—in reality, Mead’s accomplice—soon materialized, thankful the contractor had located his wallet. He spoke about the comet, and how easy it would be to fill the stadiums he had developed with rubber-necked gawkers. It wasn’t baseball season, and the seats were just going to go unused. Why didn’t the contractor lease the parks so he could sell tickets to the doomsday event? It was the least the developer could do for the man for finding his wallet, and with all the money to be made, it would be ridiculous not to.

By the time the mark got escorted from the baseball field by security, Mead and his partner would be long gone—and $10,000 richer.

The names, places, and methods changed, but the goal was always the same: to separate people from as much of their money as possible. Over a 40-year career of increasingly outlandish schemes, Mead swindled as much as two million dollars. Most of it was squirreled away in safety-deposit boxes and real estate.

Some of it, though, had to go to the church. William Mead may have been a liar, cheat, and thief, but no one could say his parents hadn’t raised him right.

Mead was born in 1875 and an orphan by the age of two. Adopted by a farming family in Iowa, Mead was read the Bible every night until he was old enough to read it on his own. Growing up in a fundamentalist household had made him dismissive of drinking, smoking, or profanity, lending him a pious nature that mixed uneasily with his ambitions: Mead wanted out of the farming life.  

At the age of 15, Mead ran away from home, drifting in and out of saloons and learning his way around a deck of cards. Civilians—those who couldn’t spot the sleight of hand in street games—were another breed. Mead accumulated tricks to make money spill from their pockets and he got a real rush using his wits to make a dishonest living. The new scams he invented became legendary. 

One of Mead’s earliest hustles involved betting on foot races, which was a popular illicit activity at the turn of the century. Mead would strike up a conversation with a mark he’d already profiled as a high-roller as the two eyeballed a small group of runners. He’d tell him the favorite was a sure thing and that other bettors (Mead’s pals) were looking at losing $50,000 total. A gambler’s fever would take over, with the man believing a $10,000 wager for a payout worth five times as much was worth the risk.

When the race went off, the favorite would take a comfortable lead before stumbling, wheezing, and keeling over in convulsions right before the finish line. At that moment, lawmen would invade the premises and break up the group, leaving Mead and his dunce to run for the train station. But it was Mead who had paid off the cops to allow the race in the first place; he had also paid them to come and threaten everyone with arrest. With law enforcement on their tail, the victim would be more worried about fleeing the law and not being implicated in the scandal than getting his money back. To tie up loose ends, Mead would telegraph the mark in the next town letting him know that the runner had passed away: "All is lost. Keep on going." In most cases, the sucker did. 

But in spite of his chosen profession, Mead continued to maintain a certain type of faith. Throughout his career, Mead donated to religious organizations—enough to become a lifetime member to at least one. But being that devout didn’t buy him clemency: In 1897, he was arrested for grand larceny and spent three years in San Quentin. The experience acted as a deterrent for a little while, but by 1903, he was at it again—this time making use of a new scheme: “the magic wallet.”

The wallet was a Mead trademark, brimming with evidence that the man his mark was about to meet was trustworthy. In one variation, he presented his accomplice as a contractor for viaducts or bridges in an area. Mead wasn't bold enough to try and sell a bridge to someone, but he did convince several that they could buy an interest in one and charge tolls to drivers. By the time police intervened, Mead was long gone. In another, he convinced victims he was an esteemed professor and trusted friend of the President who had been tasked with selling freshly minted money at a discount to help the government pay its debts. One widow handed over $35,000, thinking she’d gotten a crisp $100,000 in return. She did not.

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In 1922, Mead pushed his luck too far. Knowing he was headed for prison over a stock market scam, he hid out for several years in England before being extradited. When he landed in a Jacksonville, Florida courthouse to answer to the charges in 1933, he jumped bond.

Even with mail fraud hanging over him, Mead had no desire to go straight. After he swindled a contractor named Martin Wunderlich out of $50,000 in 1932, he learned that Wunderlich’s friend, a banker Ed Bremer, had been kidnapped and the FBI was scrutinizing every detail. Fearing he'd be implicated in the kidnapping, Mead had a back-alley surgeon named Wilhelm Loeser mutilate his fingerprints. (The doctor had done the same for John Dillinger.)

In March 1934, the Feds let it be known that they were looking to speak to Mead about the kidnapping. Authorities believed Wunderlich had borrowed the $50,000 from Bremer to pay Mead. Though Mead didn’t appear to be directly involved with the kidnapping, there was still a matter of tax evasion: he owed over $60,000 on his ill-gotten earnings.

Mead and his butchered fingertips were captured in July 1936 while holed up in an Omaha, Nebraska hotel. After serving two years for mail fraud, he was immediately shuttled to Federal court for his tax troubles. A tired 63, Mead didn’t have the $20,000 bond to post, was put on trial, and spent the rest of his life in Leavenworth. The con man known as the “Christian Kid” who had used over 50 different aliases in his criminal career would now be known only as a number.

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The Terrible Crime at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin 
Frank Lloyd Wright
Frank Lloyd Wright
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Some of the most horrific murders in Wisconsin history involved none other than famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright was in the middle of building a home, which he named Taliesin, for himself and his mistress in Spring Green, Wisconsin. He had recently left his wife and six children for Martha "Mamah" Borthwick, whose husband Edwin Cheney had commissioned Wright to build a house in Oak Park, Illinois. Cheney may have a gained a Frank Lloyd Wright house, but he lost his wife—Mamah and Wright became close, even traveling to Europe together, sans spouses, in 1909. The Cheneys divorced in 1911; Wright’s divorce would take more than another decade to be finalized.

On August 15, 1914, Wright was away attending to the construction of Midway Gardens in Chicago when he got a terrible message. “Taliesin destroyed by fire,” it read, and that was all. For the time being, at least, Wright was spared the details: Their servant, Julian Carlton, had attacked Mamah, her children, and Taliesin workmen, pouring gasoline under the door and setting the home ablaze. When some of the victims broke windows and tried to escape, Carlton hacked at them from outside of the house with a hatchet.

The Ogden Standard, September 5, 1914
A news account of the tragedy, September 5, 1914
Library of Congress // Public Domain

While precise accounts of the crime vary, according to biographer William Drennan, Carlton first killed Mamah and her two children, 8-year-old Martha and 12-year-old John, while they were eating lunch on a porch, bludgeoning them with a hatchet. Once Carlton had taken care of them, he went to a dining room where the workmen were eating, locked them in, and set fire to the place.

In the end, eight people died—seven victims and the murderer himself. The victims included Mamah and her children, draftsman Emil Brodelle, gardener David Lindblom, handyman Tom Brunker, and Ernest Weston, the son of carpenter William Weston.

The murderer didn’t die right away, though. He swallowed hydrochloric acid soon after the attack, and died of starvation about seven weeks later. Despite being questioned, Carlton never did give a motive for his killing spree. There’s some evidence to suggest a series of disputes with the workers, however, and that Carlton had recently been told he was being terminated.

Taliesin
Taliesin as it looks today
edward stojakovic, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

As for the absolutely devastated Frank Lloyd Wright, he rebuilt Taliesin in Mamah’s honor. The land may have been cursed, however, because this second reincarnation of the house was also destroyed by fire. In 1925, a lightning storm apparently ignited the wiring, sparking a conflagration that eventually burned the house down. Not one to be deterred, Wright built Taliesin III on the same spot. Today, the home is open for tours and events.

A version of this story originally ran in 2011.

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Animals
8 Animals That Have Been Imprisoned or Arrested
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It might seem like a case of animals just being animals, but when eight donkeys in northern India recently ate nearly $1000 worth of greenery in their small town, they did four days in the big house. (Perhaps part of the problem? They ate expensive saplings that were planted right near the jail. Rookie mistake.) But whether they harmed property or people, were in cahoots with human outlaws, or were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, these eight other critters are proof that "crime" can sometimes be cuddly.

1. THE PIGEON THAT WAS ARRESTED ON SUSPICION OF ESPIONAGE.

In 2015, officials in India arrested a pigeon they suspected was a spy. The bird’s body was stamped with a message written partly in Urdu—Pakistan’s official language—and what appeared to be a Pakistani phone number. It had landed in a village close to the country’s shared border with Pakistan, near the Kashmir region that’s claimed by both countries and has been the subject of multiple wars between India and Pakistan beginning in 1947. Though there was a ceasefire in 1972 (the current situation is that India controls 45 percent of Kashmir, Pakistan 35 percent, and China 20 percent), because both countries believe they have rights to the area, it's frequently the site of military clashes and infiltration.

So when a 14-year-old boy found the suspicious-looking pigeon so close to Kashmir, he turned it over to authorities. The officials took it to a veterinary hospital for x-rays, and though they couldn’t find any concrete evidence of foreign fowl play, they kept the bird in custody, recording it as a “suspected spy” in their police diary.

That said, not everyone took the news as seriously as the Indian police did: In the days following the bird’s arrest, Pakistani social media was flooded with memes depicting the feathered detainee as a slick 007 type, and amused internet users coined hashtags like #PigeonVsIndia and #IfIWereAPigeon.

2. THE BEAVER THAT WAS APPREHENDED FOR A DESTRUCTIVE CHRISTMAS SHOPPING SESSION.

In December 2016, a wild beaver must have decided that forest trees weren’t festive enough, because it wandered into a dollar store in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, to browse Christmas trees and decorations. Workers noticed the animal knocking items onto the floor, and called the St. Mary's County Sheriff's Office.

Captain Yingling of the sheriff's office arrived on scene to prevent the "shopping" beaver from ruining the store. “The suspect attempted to flee the area but was apprehended by Animal Control,” the sheriff's department joked on their Facebook page.

Instead of allowing the beaver to finish up its holiday shopping, the St. Mary's County Sheriff handed the critter over to a wildlife rehab center. As for the police, they said the quirky incident just marked another day on the job: “As a law enforcement officer, you just never know what your next call may be...” they mused on Facebook.

3. THE FOUL-MOUTHED PARROT IN INDIA THAT WAS ARRESTED FOR REPEATEDLY INSULTING HIS OWNER'S STEPMOTHER.

In 2015, police in the Indian state of Maharashtra taught a foul-mouthed parrot named Hariyal a lesson in politeness after they “arrested” it for swearing at an elderly woman named Janabai. According to locals, the pet bird had picked up the rude habit from Janabi’s stepson, Suresh Sakharkar. The two were embroiled in an ugly property dispute, and the latter had reportedly spent the prior two years training Hariyal to spout epithets whenever the estranged relation walked past his house.

The situation escalated, and Janabi, Suresh, and his bird were eventually called to the police station. “Police should investigate and seize the parrot,” the embittered stepmother told Indian news channel Zee News. That said, Hariyal must have known he was in hot water, because he kept his beak shut. “We watched the parrot carefully but it did not utter a word at the police station after being confronted by the complainant,” a police inspector told reporters.

Instead of locking Hariyal up, officials gave the parrot over to Maharashtra’s forestry department, where he can presumably fly—and curse—freely for the remainder of his life.

4. THE SQUIRREL THAT WAS ARRESTED FOR "STALKING" A GERMAN WOMAN.

While walking down the street in the West German city of Bottrop in 2015, a woman realized that she had attracted a furry stalker: a tiny red squirrel. The animal was chasing her and acting aggressively. Frightened and unable to flee the rodent, the woman called the police for help. Authorities captured the squirrel, “arrested” it, and brought it back to the station. There, they discovered that the critter was suffering from exhaustion.

Police helped nurse the squirrel back to health by feeding it honey, and a spokesman said the squirrel would be sent to a rescue center instead of languishing away in a cell for its stalkerish habits.

5. THE BAD MONKEYS IN INDIA THAT WERE IMPRISONED IN "MONKEY JAIL."

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In 2004, a rogue monkey became infamous for terrorizing residents of the city of Patiala, in India’s northern Punjab region. The monkey was guilty of multiple crimes: It stole food from homes, ripped the buttons off people's shirts, threatened kids with bricks, and once even swiped someone’s math textbooks and calculator. To keep the marauding jungle creature off the streets, officials sentenced it to “monkey jail”—a now-defunct detainment center in Patiala that was reserved for ill-behaving primates.

The “monkey jail"—which appears to have operated from 1996 until the mid-2000s—was located in the corner of a local zoo. The 15-foot-wide barred cell was secured with chain-link fencing and wire mesh, and had a sign that read: "These monkeys have been caught from various cities of Punjab. They are notorious. Going near them is dangerous."

Punjab is filled with countless wild Rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) monkeys. Some of the animals have moved into cities and towns in search of food, as humans continue to destroy their natural jungle habitat. Others were once used as animal guards, or trained as performing monkeys, and were set loose by their owners once they turned violent. Particularly ill-treated or mischievous primates have been known to destroy property and pester—or even attack—humans. But since Hindus revere Hanuman, the monkey god, killing the creatures is verboten.

Wildlife officers in Punjab took matters into their own hands by opening the monkey jail. They responded to public complaints by capturing the creatures with trapping cages and tranquilizer guns. Once the monkeys were locked up, there was little to no chance of "parole."

As of 2004, there were 13 jailed monkeys, all imprisoned for harassing people or committing petty crimes. Patiala’s primate penitentiary was eventually closed, and authorities announced it was going to be replaced by “reform school" that's intended to train the monkeys to be less aggressive.

6. THE CAT WHO WAS DETAINED FOR HELPING OUT WITH A PRISON BREAK.

On New Year’s Day 2013, a cat took the heat for scheming Brazilian inmates who were likely either planning a jailbreak or attempting to communicate with outlaws on the outside. The white feline was slinking around the main gates of a medium-security prison in Arapiraca—a city in northeast Brazil—when guards noticed that its body was wrapped in tape. They apprehended the kitty, and discovered that it was carrying items including several saws and drills, an earphone, a memory card, batteries, and a phone charger.

Prison officer Luiz de Oliveira Souza told reporters that the cat had been seen entering and exiting the jail before. It had been raised by inmates, and was often in the custody of one of their families. However, officials couldn’t figure out which of the jail’s 263 prisoners had tried to use the feline for their own nefarious purposes: “It’s tough to find out who’s responsible for the action as the cat doesn’t speak,” a prison spokesperson told local newspaper Estado de S.Paulo.

Following the cat’s “arrest” and brief imprisonment, it was taken to a local animal shelter to receive medical treatment.

7. THE TOUGH PRISON PET THAT WAS ACTUALLY A VERY GOOD BOY.

Courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary

Unlike some animals on this list, Pep the dog was a very good boy. But in 1924, Pennsylvania governor Gifford Pinchot allegedly sentenced the dark-haired Labrador to a life sentence without parole. Pep was taken to Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, where officials jokingly gave him his own inmate number and mug shot. Reporters nicknamed the canine "Pep The Cat-Murdering Dog," as he was said to have killed the governor’s wife’s cat.

Thanks to all the media hype, Pep had quite the tough reputation. But a few years after the canine’s imprisonment, the governor’s wife, Cornelia Pinchot, set the story straight in an interview with The New York Times. Turns out, Pep had never murdered her pet feline; her family simply bred Labradors, and owned too many dogs. Pep, she said, was a gift to the prisoners to lift their spirits.

Today, researchers say that partisan journalists twisted the facts around, and that Pep was actually a beloved prison pet that freely wandered the hallways and was adored by all. As for the "life sentence without parole" part, the Lab was eventually moved to a newer prison; when he died, he was buried on its grounds.

8. THE FEISTY DONKEY IN MEXICO THAT WAS LOCKED UP TO SETTLE A SCORE.

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In 2008, police in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas arrested a feisty donkey named Blacky after it bit a man in the chest, and kicked a second man trying to rescue him. Police apprehended the burro and locked it in the jail’s drunk tank. “Around here, if someone commits a crime they are jailed, no matter who they are,” said Officer Sinar Gomez.

Police said that the donkey would remain behind bars until its owner, Mauro Gutierrez, paid the injured parties’ medical bills and salary for the days they missed work. The boisterous burro served three days in jail, and Gutierrez settled the score by paying Blacky's victims.

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