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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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Amateur Sleuths Claim to Have Uncovered D.B. Cooper's Real Identity
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FBI

For decades, both the FBI and amateur investigators have been preoccupied with the identity of “Dan Cooper,” a mysterious passenger mistakenly reported by journalists as "D.B. Cooper" who boarded a flight from Portland to Seattle on November 24, 1971. Without appearing frantic or violent, Cooper informed the crew he had a bomb and demanded $200,000 in ransom. After making the pilots stop for fuel and then lift off again, the skyjacker collected his money and parachuted out of the plane, never to be seen or heard from again.

According to one Cooper devotee, that might not be exactly true. Tom Colbert has led a team of amateur investigators looking into the case and made headlines last year after acquiring some of the closed portions of the FBI’s file via a freedom of information lawsuit. According to Colbert, a letter purportedly written by Cooper and sent to the Oregonian shortly after the crime reveals a “confession” hidden in code. The man’s identity, Colbert claims, is that of Robert Rackstraw, a Vietnam veteran who is now 74 years old and living in San Diego.

“I want out of the system and saw a way through good ole Unk,” the letter read. “Now it is Uncle’s turn to weep and pay one of it’s [sic] own some cash for a change. (And please tell the lackey cops D.B. Cooper is not my real name).”

Colbert showed the letter to Rick Sherwood, a former codebreaker for the now-defunct Army Security Agency. Sherwood maintains the repetitive phrasing of Unk and other words corresponds with a simple letter-to-number code that, when broken, reveals the sentence “I am 1st LT Robert Rackstraw.”

Another letter uncovered in the FBI’s files earlier this year contains a numerical sequence that Colbert's team says they have matched to codes used by Rackstraw’s Army unit in Vietnam. That letter’s writer—who Colbert believes to be Rackstraw—claimed he used a toupee and a putty nose to disguise his appearance on the plane.

Rackstraw was at one time considered a suspect by the FBI but was later cleared in 1979. After initially teasing that he might be the culprit, Rackstraw backed off those claims and insisted the accusation was without merit. The bureau officially closed the case in 2016, citing a lack of strong leads. In February 2018, Colbert claimed the FBI wasn’t acknowledging his work out of embarrassment.

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Lies, Blackmail, and Murder: The Mysterious Life—and Death—of ‘Madame X’
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock

Three screams pierced the night air—loud enough to be heard over the waves crashing on the rocky beach below—and Olive Dimick froze.

It was February 4, 1929, and she had just said goodnight to her next-door-neighbor Kate Jackson, after spending a night out at the movies with her. The two women lived in a cluster of cliffside bungalows overlooking Limeslade Bay in Wales, on a headland known as Mumbles. The area is said to derive its name from two shapely rock formations just offshore; according to town lore, they once looked to French sailors like les mamelles, or a pair of breasts rising from the water.

It took just a few seconds for Olive to realize the screams sounded like her neighbor, and that they were coming from the direction of her backyard. She rushed over, where she found her friend crouched on her hands and knees, bleeding from her head and moaning. Kate's husband, a fishmonger named Thomas, stood over her, half-dressed.

The pair carried Kate into the kitchen, where Olive attended to her. At about 11:45, Thomas called a doctor, who arrived around midnight and said that Kate should be taken to the hospital. Once there—Thomas, Kate, and Olive travelled in a taxi, the doctor in his own car—Thomas made a very curious remark. When the doctor asked through the taxicab window how Kate was doing, Thomas replied that she was sleeping peacefully, and then added: "I have been married to her for ten years, and I still don't know who she really is. She has never been open with me."

This was not just a simple issue of marital miscommunication. Kate Jackson's identity—her background, her source of income, even her name—was ever-shifting. To her husband, she was an aristocrat born in a foreign land. To neighbors, she was a best-selling novelist and journalist. But to the local police, and soon a jury, she would become a murder case that has yet to be solved.

STRANGER THAN FICTION

The woman who would become Kate Jackson was born Kate Atkinson in the late 1880s to John Atkinson, a laborer in Lancaster, and his wife, Agnes. Sometime in her teens, she left Lancaster with a dream of becoming an actress on the London stage. She lived for a while with an artist named Leopold Le Grys, who later described her as uneducated, but "clever, and a good talker."

Never one to pass up an opportunity for the dramatic, she caught the attention of union official George Harrison in 1914 by fainting after witnessing a minor car accident on Charing Cross Road. She told him she hadn't eaten in three days, and so he took her to lunch. They became involved, and the next year she asked him for £40 for an abortion. Then she said there were complications from the procedure, so she needed more. For one reason or another—perhaps there were more procedures, perhaps she threatened to expose the affair, perhaps he was paying for her sexual services—Harrison sent her as much as £30 (over $4000 in 2018 dollars) a week over the course of a decade. All of it was embezzled through his position as the secretary of a cooper's union.

Harrison was far from the only man in Kate's life. When she met the man who would become her husband in 1919, Kate told him she was Madame Molly Le Grys, the Indian-born youngest daughter of the Duke of Abercorn. That wasn't all: She also said she was a writer under contract with publisher Alfred Harmsworth, an early-day Rupert Murdoch-type who pioneered tabloid-style journalism. It was a mutual deception, as he gave her a fake name of his own: Captain Harry-Gordon Ingram. Really, he was Thomas Jackson, a World War I veteran surviving on a pension.

The pair married later that year, and Thomas moved into Kate's palatial farmhouse in Surrey. Kate always seemed to have money—even after Harrison was put on trial in 1927 for embezzling £19,000 (over a million British pounds in today's dollars) from his union, £8000 of which reportedly went to Kate. She was called to give evidence at the trial, but was not identified; the police called her "Madame X," in hopes that she would return at least some of the money Harrison had stolen and given to her. (It's not clear what her husband thought about all this.)

Kate indeed signed over her beautiful house as restitution and moved with Thomas to a humble bungalow named Kenilworth. They adopted a daughter, Betty, whose origin was another of Kate's mysteries: She told Thomas that Betty was the illegitimate daughter of a lord, and he apparently asked no follow-up questions.

Though her setting was less rarefied, Kate was still behaving like a belle in a Gothic melodrama. She dressed in silk, her homes were luxuriously decorated, she tipped generously, and she spent more than her husband made in a week on her fresh flowers. The source of her income at this point is unclear: Harrison was serving a five-year prison stint, so he likely wasn't sending her cash any longer. But she was still receiving regular bundles of banknotes every Wednesday—money she may have earned through sex work, or possibly blackmail of other lovers/clients. Thomas later said that they mostly lived happily, except one time when she threw a flower pot at his head and threatened him with a knife for getting too friendly with Olive Dimick.

To Olive and her other neighbors, Kate explained the money by saying that she was a writer and the daughter of nobility. She let drop that she was secretly Ethel M. Dell, a well-known but critically reviled romance writer mocked by the likes of Orwell and Wodehouse. The real Dell was famously secretive; she was never interviewed and rarely photographed. So how were her neighbors supposed to fact-check their new friend? Besides, Dell's stories were quite racy, filled with passion and throbbing and exoticized visions of India, befitting Kate's made-up aristocratic origins.

"A PLEASANT SURPRISE"

Back at the hospital, Thomas Jackson left quickly, saying he had to return to his daughter. Kate spent six days there without ever fully regaining consciousness. When questioned about the identity of her attacker, she repeated the word Gorse, although it's not clear what—or who—she meant. She died on February 10, 1929, at the age of 43.

Police who arrived early in the morning after the attack found a tire iron under a cushion in the house, which Thomas later suggested Kate had hidden as a "pleasant surprise" (it's not clear if he was being ironic, or if he considered it a potential gift for his tool box). They also found a number of threatening letters. One read:

"Lest you forget. This is to tell you that we are watching you and we will get you. You husband-stealer. You robber of miner's money that would have fed starving children; you and that man of yours, I suppose he is somebody's husband, too. When we get you we will tar-and-feather you, and for every quid you have taken from us you will get another lump of tar and one more feather. We will show people you are as black outside as you are in. We don't mind doing quod [prison time] for you, you Picadilly Lily. We will get you yet."

It went on like that. Though he had been cooperative and there was no indication the letters were written by him, police arrested Thomas promptly. The next month he was charged with murder.

When the trial commenced in June 1929, the prosecution's theory was that Jackson, tired of his wife now that she was bringing in less money, had argued with and then attacked her as she was removing her coat. The prosecution pointed out that his story was weird—who hides a tire iron in a couch as a surprise?—and his behavior after her attack, including not summoning police immediately and not staying long at the hospital, was sketchy. They pointed to triangular cuts in her coat that looked like they could have been made with the tire iron. It was also alleged that all of the mystery in her life was entirely his creation, and that Kate never claimed to be anyone other than she was. The letters were ignored.

In his defense, Jackson produced expert witnesses who said it might not have been the tire iron that killed his wife. He spoke of her fear of attack after the threatening letters, saying that she was nervous to be left alone at night. Another neighbor, Rose Gammon, testified that Kate had been jumpy; Gammon recalled seeing Kate jump out of a bath, put on a robe, grab her gun, and walk out onto her dark veranda to investigate a noise (it's not clear if Gammon was spying on her neighbor, or how else she might have witnessed a bath).

The judge was firmly against Jackson, but during the trial, the fishmonger became a folk hero of sorts. He was charming and witty, playing up the grieving-single-father angle by emphasizing his concern for poor Betty. After just half an hour, the jury returned a verdict of "not guilty." The crowd went wild. As he left the courtroom after his verdict, a crush of women pressed upon Thomas, trying for a kiss.

The police never pursued any other leads, convinced that they had missed their shot at the true villain. And maybe they were right. Perhaps Kate's husband was her killer. Or perhaps it was a man who suffered from her blackmailing—"Gorse," or someone else. Perhaps it was a member of the union who felt she hadn't paid enough restitution. Kate Jackson had made a lot of enemies in her four decades, which helped make her death as mysterious and complicated and sad as her enigmatic life as Molly, and/or Kate, and/or Madame X; she was truly the stuff of the novels she never actually wrote.

Additional Sources: The Times of London: February 12, 1929; February 25-26, 1929; March 13-14, 1929; March 20-22, 1929, July 2-8, 1929; Still Unsolved: Great True Murder Cases; A-Z of Swansea: Places-People-History

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