Chief charlatan: the greatest imposter of the jazz age

The 1920s was a decade of swindles – and one con artist out-tricked them all.

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It was an age of swindles and flimflam; “the jazz age” did not acquire its name simply from the music. In the 1920s, “jazzed” meant, among other things, sped up, hyped up, intoxicated, erratic – it could also mean to be swept away or taken in by the force of another’s personality, to be “jazzed off your feet”. There were many Americans during the Roaring Twenties trying to jazz people out of house and home; the most famous was an Italian immigrant “money wizard” living in Boston, who promised his victims 50 per cent profit in 45 days. Get-rich-quick had acquired a new form, the Ponzi scheme. Charles Ponzi was jailed in 1920 for one of the biggest swindles in American history, and eventually deported back to Italy. Commentators at the time noted that America had always offered speculation on an immense scale. It was a way of life.

Another favourite scam in the 1920s was impersonation, and a particularly outrageous instance of the old razzle dazzle is the subject of Paul Willetts’s King Con. Edgar Laplante was a small-time grifter from Rhode Island who used a combination of luck, chutzpah, and charm to pull off an audacious confidence trick, posing as “Chief White Elk” of the Cherokee tribe (or Iroquois; he wasn’t particular) and “fund-raising” for Native American reservations and orphans.

Public interest in Native Americans intensified in the 1920s, in part because of the growth of the tourism industry; states in the south-west ran advertising campaigns encouraging Americans to visit reservations, while artist colonies at Santa Fe and Taos produced work extolling the beauty of native culture. In 1924 Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, making all native peoples born within the territorial US full citizens under the law.

Far from being Native American, Laplante was the son of French-Canadian émigrés, and had grown up in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, before making his way to Coney Island, where he learned the craft of the carnival huckster, moving on to medicine shows, where he sold snake oil (figuratively, if not literally). By 1917, Laplante was travelling around the western United States impersonating a marathon runner and war hero named Tom Longboat, a member of the Onondaga tribe from Ontario who had served with distinction in the First World War. Laplante would show off a scar on his chest claiming it was a war wound; giving lectures, sharing fictitious heroic exploits, he then pocketed large appearance fees.

Impersonating celebrities was far easier in an age, as Willetts notes, before federalised law enforcement or mass media simplified confirming a person’s true identity; a passing resemblance to a well-known person could more than suffice, especially in remote locations. When the real Longboat heard that he was being impersonated, he published denunciations that made life difficult for Laplante.

He ran away, and changed his name again, gradually settling into the role he would use to travel the world, Chief White Elk, a “pastiche Cherokee” who ranged across the American West, conning local luminaries before skipping town, one step ahead of the (often bumbling) law enforcement. He convinced a Native American “half-breed” woman named Burtha to marry him; her presence added to his credibility. Always a heavy drinker, Laplante soon became addicted to narcotics, making his behaviour even more unpredictable, his lies ever more grandiose. Burtha can’t have believed them all – but her faith was sufficient to unwittingly aid in her husband’s chicanery.

Laplante used a fictitious claim that he had appeared as “himself” in Before the White Man Came to join the feature film on a road show, during which he and Burtha – now “Princess White Elk” – performed songs and war dances. But Laplante’s behaviour continued to deteriorate, to the point that Burtha was forced to place an advertisement in a Seattle paper repudiating her husband’s debts. In 1921, she left him.

As Chief White Elk, Laplante talked his way into touring in Europe to promote the 1923 silent film The Covered Wagon, the first Western epic. Dressed in feather headdress and beaded apron and trousers, Laplante told reporters in Britain that he was head of the Indian tribes of British Columbia and that he’d acted with Rudolph Valentino in the global smash hit The Sheik.

He said he was en route to present “his people’s grievances to King George V” and claimed he’d toured Canada with the Prince of Wales, who had presented him with a diamond tie-pin. Many journalists reported his claims with scepticism, even sarcasm, but he continued to stay one precarious step ahead of outraged victims and angry police (his position with the law in the 1920s was not helped by his bisexuality; he travelled to Europe with a male lover posing as his secretary).

Laplante travelled from Britain, to France, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland. As “Prince Tewanna Ray, Chief White Elk” he arrived in Nice, on the French Riviera, in April 1924 – only a few weeks before F Scott Fitzgerald would take up residence a few miles away in order to write his great novel about the American impostor who would come to emblematise the jazz age.

On the Riviera, Laplante hit pay dirt when he met Austro-Hungarian countesses Antoinette Khevenhüller-Metsch and her niece, Milania. Their gullibility is frankly eye-watering. Convinced he was a distant cousin of theirs, they introduced him into Italian society as a prince, and lent him the money he needed to maintain his charade, as he offered glib excuses about why he couldn’t, at any particular moment, lay his hands on his own vast fortune.

He was given the papal blessing for the Iroquois tribe, and Mussolini added his greetings as well. Laplante received the silver key of Trieste, met the Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio, was showered with jewels and money and entertained in royal suites, styling himself as His Royal Highness. In the end, he conned the Khevenhüller-Metsches out of the equivalent of some $60m in today’s terms, which he spent in 12 months. Eventually the stepson of Countess Antoinette had Laplante arrested for swindling. He couldn’t stop lying; when he returned to the US after serving time in an Italian prison, he told reporters that on the day he was sentenced, “Countess Antonia became insane and was sent to an asylum”.

Willetts has meticulously researched this book, and is rigorous about not making claims without evidence. Laplante’s desire for publicity meant that he left a long paper trail in regional newspapers, as his exploits made headlines. From these reports Willetts has reconstructed Laplante’s escapades, supplemented by chronicles from those who knew him, including Burtha.

While Willetts’s refusal to speculate is admirable, it also constrains his narration, which is littered with qualifiers: “probably”, “may have” and “surely have realised” are tenuous foundations on which to psychologise a pathological liar. Too often, the story takes refuge in auxiliary trivia: details such as the test drive Laplante gave an Austin Seven, or the fact that one mid-town hotel he moved into was “set in a rectilinear street pattern” do not substitute for bringing Laplante to life. His great charm is asserted but never comes off the page, leaving the reader trapped for the most part with a sociopathic small-time grifter who seems to survive by sheer dumb luck. In the end, Willetts’s dilemma is transferred to the reader: this is a story about unscrupulous deception told with a scrupulosity that is admirable, but leaves the reader wishing that it were just a bit, well, jazzier. 

“Behold, America: a History of America First and the American Dream” by Sarah Churchwell is published by Bloomsbury

King Con: the Bizarre Adventures of the Jazz Age’s Greatest Impostor
Paul Willetts
Crown, £18.99, 352pp

This article appears in the 27 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special