LAIRD ON THE LAM
A railway swindle by a fake Scottish nobleman sparked an international security incident on the Canada–U.S. border.
IN 1873, CANADA AND THE UNITED STATES almost went to war — all because of a man who did not exist. That March, a Scottish nobleman named Lord Gordon Gordon negotiated a deal to abet American business magnate Jay Gould in gaining control of the New York-based Erie Railway Company, for which he received one million dollars in cash and company shares. Gould, however, had fallen for a con.
The supposed aristocrat turned out to be a hustler who cashed in the stocks and eventually fled to Manitoba. When Gould pursued him, this private matter soon escalated into a diplomatic incident that seriously tested Canadian border security and national sovereignty.
The nineteenth century was the golden age of the con artist on both sides of the border between Canada and the United States. Among the rogues’ gallery of grifters, hustlers, and welchers were a number of Canadians, most infamously Cassie Chadwick (née Elizabeth Bigley), who from the late 1890s defrauded U.S. banks of millions of dollars when she pretended to be the illegitimate daughter and heiress of industrialist Andrew Carnegie.
Only Gordon Gordon, however, incited a diplomatic incident between Canada and the United States that necessitated intervention at the highest level of each country’s government. He was, in the words of journalist William Croffut, “one of the most audacious and plausible swindlers and robbers that have taken the highway since Dick Turpin.”
Tall and slightly built, Gordon Gordon certainly gave the appearance of a Scottish laird. Draped in tartan fineries, he sported elaborate side whiskers and manicured hands that suggested a man accustomed to high living rather than hard labour. Adding to the illusion was his lilting brogue and gentlemanly deportment — all very impressive for a man who was later rumoured to be the illegitimate child of a clergyman’s son and a parlour maid.
Gordon Gordon launched his audacious criminal career in Edinburgh, Scotland, during the late 1860s. Presenting himself as “Lord Glencairn,” he ingratiated his way into the homes of affluent families and used their names as references to purchase jewellery on credit from numerous businesses both in Edinburgh and in London, England. Having accumulated tens of thousands of pounds worth of goods, he promptly disappeared.
Changing his alias from Glencairn to Gordon Gordon (sometimes spelled Gordon-Gordon), the bogus aristocrat reappeared in 1871 on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, in Minneapolis. Advertising himself with a large deposit in a local bank, he announced his intention to purchase land for a settlement of Scottish noblemen. Representatives of the Northern Pacific Railroad courted him for months in the hope of persuading him to acquire some surplus land it owned. According to one newspaper account, railroad executives hired a French chef who catered to Gordon Gordon’s every whim, serving him “more potted grouse, more cranberry jelly and more champagne.” Having wined and dined out of their pockets, however, Gordon Gordon staged a second disappearing act.
He rematerialized in New York City in January 1872. Checking in to the exclusive Metropolitan Hotel, he once more cultivated friendships with wealthy and influential
figures. This included former New York Tribune editor and presidential candidate Horace Greeley, who arranged the fateful introduction to Jay Gould. Gould was one of the richest men in the United States — and also one of the most despised. He was an archetypal robber baron, one of the industrial magnates who, in their unscrupulous pursuit of wealth, sought monopolistic control over key sectors of the U.S. economy.
Ruthless speculation in the expanding railroad system allowed Gould to amass a fortune estimated at US$77 million (around $2 billion today) by the time of his death in 1892. His deviousness was evident in 1866–68 when he connived with Daniel Drew and James Fisk in a struggle against Cornelius Vanderbilt for control of the Erie Railway, which traversed New York State. Drew, Fisk, Gould, and Vanderbilt all owned shares in the Erie Railway Company. Vanderbilt sought to take control of the company by buying up more than half the stock from other shareholders. In response, Gould and his associates issued watered-down stock in the company that they offered for sale at a price higher than its actual value. Vanderbilt, determined to secure his business takeover, rashly purchased the overpriced stock at a loss of more than $7 million. This enormous financial loss, and his ultimate failure to purchase a controlling interest, forced him to cede control of the company to Fisk and his allies.
Only a year later, in September 1869, Gould precipitated a panic on Wall Street when he attempted to manipulate the gold market. Acting once more in cahoots with Fisk, Gould bought up huge amounts of gold in order to increase its value so that it could then be sold for the highest possible profit. The scheme relied on bribing federal officials to withhold the sale of government gold reserves, which would have increased market supply and lowered the escalating price.
However, when U.S. President Ulysses Grant learned of the ruse he ordered the immediate selling of $4 million in government gold. The resulting drop in the price of gold led to the events of Black Friday, a financial panic on September 24, 1869, that ruined many investors. Having sold his gold before the market collapsed, Gould emerged unscathed. The master manipulator of the market was, however, about to become the victim of a massive fraud.
Gordon Gordon persuaded Gould that he owned $30 million of stock in the Erie Railway and had control of a further $20 million in the possession of fellow Scottish aristocrats. Sensing the opportunity to further consolidate his control
of the railway, Gould offered Gordon Gordon a bribe of $1 million in cash and securities in return for him using his influence as a large investor to affect the outcome of the forthcoming election of board directors.
Having played Gould for a sucker, Gordon Gordon immediately sold a large part of the securities. Realizing he had been conned, the railroad magnate sued to recover his losses. He also persuaded New York authorities to bring a criminal fraud charge against his nemesis. Gordon Gordon was arrested but used the influence he still possessed to raise the $37,000 needed to post bail.
The legal fight between the two men that began in May 1872 was a protracted farce. Gordon Gordon counter-sued, failed at first to turn up in court, and then, while lawyers futilely chased after the fake character references he produced in his defence, promptly absconded.
The Scottish swindler resurfaced in October 1872 at Fort Garry, Manitoba. When Gould learned of Gordon Gordon’s whereabouts, he tried to persuade Canadian authorities to arrest him, but failed. However, after one of the people who had posted bail for Gordon Gordon in New York died, his family liaised with the mayor of Minneapolis, George Brackett, to go after the fraudster. Brackett’s chief of police, Michael Hoy, accepted the assignment along with Sergeant Owen Keegan. Along with two co-conspirators, they devised a plan to sneak into Canada, kidnap Gordon Gordon, and smuggle him back into the United States to recover the bail money.
As the fake lord hid out in Fort Garry and the vigilantes plotted his abduction, a private dispute over money was about to become part of the broader ongoing dispute over border relations between Canada and the United States.
The border had long been a source of instability and conflict. The Webster-Ashburton Treaty of August 1842 was intended to facilitate co-operation in cross-border law enforcement by providing for the extradition of fugitives accused of “murder, or assault with intent to commit murder, or piracy, or arson, or robbery, or forgery, or
the utterance of forged paper.” Local authorities, however, at times proved reluctant — or, in the case of fugitive slaves who fled from the United States to Canada, openly unwilling — to comply with extradition orders.
Further disputes occurred during the U.S. Civil War when Confederate soldiers, spies, and saboteurs established a covert network across several Canadian cities, including Halifax, Montreal, and Toronto. They staged a number of cross-border raids, including an October 1864 bank heist in St. Albans, Vermont. Canadian authorities arrested the marauders and returned the recovered money. However, a court ruled that the extradition of the soldiers would violate Canadian neutrality and ordered their release, arousing fury in the northern United States. “It may be said that this will lead to a war with England,” asserted the New York Times. “So it may. But if it must come, let it come.” Caution eventually prevailed, but for a time there was a threat that Canada would be the battleground for a new war between Britain and the United States.
In the years immediately following Confederation, policing the border was a problem because of its sheer size. On November 19, 1869, the Hudson’s Bay Company ceded control of Rupert’s Land, an enormous territory of almost eight million square kilometres, to the British Crown. Following the suppression of the Red River Resistance, the Crown in turn handed control to Canada on July 15, 1870. After British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871, the border between Canada and the United States stretched more than eight thousand kilometres from coast to coast. Maintaining its integrity became even more of an issue with the departure of the British garrison from Canada in 1871.
The incursions of American criminals across the border caused continued difficulties for the newly formed Dominion of Canada. Smuggling, counterfeiting, and kidnapping threatened the creation and maintenance of law and order. One episode that inflamed a furious response from Canadians occurred almost simultaneously with the attempted kidnapping of Gordon Gordon.
On June 1, 1873, drunken wolf hunters who had crossed the border from Fort Benton in Montana Territory launched an assault on an Assiniboine camp in the Cypress Hills of what is now southwestern Saskatchewan. The attackers killed at least twenty-three men, women, and children, mutilating their bodies in what local Indian agent Major A.J. Simmons described as “a most outrageous and disgusting manner.” None of the victims was responsible for the theft of the murderers’ horses — the alleged crime the wolf hunters were claiming to avenge.
Efforts by Canadian authorities to bring the murderers to justice ended in failure. The incident was instrumental in the creation of the North West Mounted Police in 1873. Newly appointed Assistant Commissioner James Macleod received authorization from both sides of the border to pursue an investigation in Montana Territory. However, his attempt to secure the detention and extradition of the hunters led to Macleod himself being charged with false arrest by local authorities. When Canadian authorities later apprehended three of the suspects who had crossed back over the border into Canada, the U.S. State Department stonewalled their trial on the grounds that Americans who gave evidence would have no immunity from being arrested and prosecuted. The Crown’s case collapsed, and the accused men walked free.
It was against the backdrop of these events that on July 2, 1873, the two American vigilantes, Hoy and Keegan, carried out their plot to kidnap Gordon Gordon. They seized him in Fort Garry, bound his hands and feet, and bundled him into a covered wagon. The phoney aristocrat, bearing wounds he
claimed his captors had inflicted, later told Fort Garry officials how he “turned round and demanded by what authority they did this, and wanted to see their papers; Hoy said he would give me papers enough if I did not shut up.”
Before the kidnappers could reach the border, however, the North West Mounted Police apprehended them. They also arrested their two accomplices, George Merriman and Loren Fletcher, the latter a prominent member of the Minnesota State Legislature. Judge Charles McKeagney of the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench granted bail to Merriman but denied it to the other conspirators. Thus, two American officers of the law and an elected state representative were set to face trial in Canada for kidnapping.
Reaction across the border was divided. In New York State the Rochester Federal Union concluded that the abductors knew they were acting outside the law because they made no attempt to apply to Canadian authorities for assistance. To those who protested the arrest and detainment of the American vigilantes, the newspaper cautioned that, had it been Canadians who crossed into the United States to kidnap a fugitive, “indignation would be heard throughout the land.”
Other newspapers were more critical of the Canadian legal system. Although the Minnesotan Chatfield Democrat had little sympathy for the “avaricious adventurers” who attempted to abduct Gordon Gordon, it also anticipated that American vigilantes might seek “a little fun” against what it described as “Manitoba greasers.”
The use of this phrase in the Democrat and other newspapers articulated the antipathy that some Americans near the border felt towards their northern neighbours. A “greaser” was more commonly a term of racial invective directed against Mexicans. Its meaning as a term of abuse for Canadians is unclear, but it could have been meant to indicate the supposed corruption of the Canadian criminal justice system. The journalist Crofutt, for instance, made the unsubstantiated claim that Manitoba Attorney General Henry Clarke had offered to release the prisoners in return for Minneapolis Mayor Brackett buying a plot of land he owned for $14,500.
Whatever the truth, some Minnesotans were evidently willing to retaliate against what they perceived as an act of provocation by Canadian authorities. On July 8, 1873, a placard appeared outside the office of St. Paul’s Minnesota Pioneer that read, “One thousand recruits wanted for immediate service in Manitoba.” At first this appeared to be little more than a bit of mischief. According to one newspaper report, the “Hoy Avengers” would each receive ninety rounds of ammunition and a canteen of brown ale. Yet, according to the Minneapolis Daily
Tribune, “many faces which in the morning wore broad grins were lengthened as the day grew shorter” as the promised ale and ammo failed to appear.
Tensions continued to escalate. Fletcher, the Minnesota state representative, became ill and feared he would die in his prison cell. A telegram sent on his behalf beseeched Minnesota authorities to take action: “Come quick. Am in a hell of a fix.” The message had its intended effect. “If Fletcher and the rest of the boys are not released by next week,” announced the
Willmar Republican, the United States “shall proceed to declare war.” Minnesota Governor Horace Austin then warned that, if Manitoba authorities refused to release the prisoners, the consequences would be “deplorable.”
Manitobans reacted with righteous anger to the threats to their provincial and national sovereignty. The Manitoba
Free Press declared that it had no more regard for Gordon Gordon than newspapers across the border but, unlike them, still believed he was entitled to the full protection of the law. By contrast, the appeals to the mob made by Minnesota newspapers gave “credence to the wildest reports we have heard of American disregard for law — international and otherwise.” The Free Press was furious that U.S. newspapers should portray the newly created province of Manitoba as a lawless frontier. It warned Americans: “Don’t poke fun at us, for in this case at least you must see that the laugh is not all on your side.”
These were not idle warnings. Manitoba Attorney General Clarke urged officials at the Department of Justice in Ottawa to demand that Washington recall U.S. Consul James Wickes Taylor “from an office he has disgraced” by inciting the vengeance of Minnesotans. Articulating national rivalries, Clarke proclaimed that in appealing “to the passions of the mob” Taylor was “doing something that may be tolerated in the United States, but which cannot be allowed here.”
Given the background of cross-border tensions, it is understandable how a small spark such as the arrest of Gordon Gordon’s kidnappers could threaten to ignite the flames of military conflict. However, diplomacy eventually prevailed over war. Governor Austin and Mayor Brackett travelled to Washington, D.C., for an audience with President Grant and Secretary of State Hamilton Fish. This led to a meeting in Ottawa with Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. The result of these negotiations was that in September 1873 the prisoners, who had been held in custody pending trial, each received a cursory one-day sentence before being released.
In response to a request from Manitoban authorities for $5,900.26 to cover the costs of the American kidnappers’ trial — which had necessitated convening an additional session of the Court of Queen’s Bench — the Canadian government deemed this “very exorbitant and far in excess of accounts rendered for similar services in other parts of the Dominion.” The Department of Justice offered the reduced sum of $3,950.26. While the kidnappers were now free, so too was Gordon Gordon. For almost a year he continued his life of leisure in Manitoba. His criminal career, however, was about to reach a dramatic end.
In 1874, a Toronto magistrate issued two warrants for Gordon Gordon’s arrest. The persistent railway baron Gould had tracked down Marshall and Sons, one of the Edinburgh jewellers defrauded years before by the con man. A representative of the firm had travelled to Toronto, where, on the basis of photographic evidence, he had identified Lord Glencairn and Gordon Gordon as the same man. The magistrate authorized warrants for his arrest on charges of obtaining goods under false pretences and bringing stolen goods into Canada.
Alexander Munro of the Toronto police tracked down Gordon Gordon to a cottage in Headingley, a small community west of Winnipeg. On August 1, 1874, Munro woke the con artist from his sleep, watched him dress, and started to lead him out of the cottage, only to see Gordon Gordon reach abruptly for a revolver. “I made a rush towards him to prevent his shooting,” Munro later testified at an inquest. “I expected it was meant for myself and as I was about getting hold of him the shot went off.” Gordon Gordon had not aimed the gun at the police officer, however, but pointed it at his own head. According to the physician who examined him, the bullet went “straight into the brain and just above the right ear.”
Munro leaned close to hear the dying man’s last words but could not catch their meaning. The life and career of one of the most audacious con artists of the nineteenth century had come to a sudden, shocking conclusion.
Gordon Gordon’s suicide did not, however, resolve the problem of policing the U.S.-Canadian border. Although the case led to greater collaboration between officials to arrest criminals who crossed from one country to the other, illegal activities including smuggling and robbery continued to cause friction. So, too, did the migration of Indigenous people who resisted the division of their ancestral homelands. In 1883, the United States proposed an agreement for the pursuit of Indigenous people across the border, but Canadian authorities declined.
As for Gordon Gordon, police examining his corpse found only thirty-seven cents in the pockets of the supposed millionaire. To this day, the real identity of the ersatz aristocrat remains unknown.
The Great War was a titanic event in Canadian history. The total war effort from 1914 to 1918 involved more than 620,000 men serving in uniform, as well as almost three thousand nurses. However, a new book by historian Dianne Graves — author of the seminal biography of John McCrae and a fine work on women in the War of 1812 — goes beyond the nurses to explore the role of women volunteers overseas (known as VADs), patriotic work by women in England, entertainers behind the front lines, peace activists, journalists, and artists.
Drawing upon a wealth of literature and archival material, In the Com
pany of Sisters lets the women’s voices guide the narrative. The war was “no paltry struggle in an out-of-the-way corner,” recounted author Lucy Maud Montgomery, “but a death grapple.” Most women sought to do their part in this fight to the finish between empires, but Graves focuses on Canadian women in the war zone.
Several chapters are devoted to the Canadian women who served as nursing sisters, offering insight into the terrible strain of treating and caring for wounded soldiers who arrived day and night at medical units. One nurse wrote of the mangled men, “I can never see anything worse and I hope I’ll never have to.” The nursing experience is explored along the Western Front and in Britain but also in far-flung theatres of war like the Eastern Mediterranean, Greece, and Russia. While the book’s interpretive framework draws on the existing rich scholarship about nursing, Graves draws out powerful stories from what one Canadian nursing sister called the “ward of horrors!”
Some of the book’s best chapters look at the contribution of other Canadian women overseas. Lady Julia Drummond, a wealthy socialite from Montreal, lost her son in the early part of the war. Like so many mothers, she was determined to aid her son’s comrades. In London, England, she organized Red Cross work to ensure that letters and goods were sent to soldiers at the front and to prisoners held in camps, and she occasionally offered comfort to desperate families in Canada who sought information about fallen or missing soldiers.
Some of Drummond’s work was reported by Mary MacLeod Moore, one of several Canadian journalists who worked in England. Moore wrote for Saturday Night magazine, and her insights into the war have been shared in this book.
There are other fascinating stories, including many related to the thirty thousand women who crossed the Atlantic to be close to their husbands who were serving as soldiers. Most of these women came from the middle or upper class in Canada, with workingclass women generally unable to afford a voyage. It was a dangerous trip, with enemy submarines prowling the Atlantic, and Canadian women were among those killed when RMS Lusitania was sunk in May 1915 by a German U-boat.
The peace activism of Julia Grace Wales provides insight into women who were seeking an end to the war, while the art of Mary Riter Hamilton, the subject of recent two biographies, rounds out Graves’ book. Hamilton suffered tremendous hardship as she painted from the ruins of the Western Front following the armistice, and she left a legacy of art.
In the Company of Sisters offers a focused study of the First World War’s impact on women as well as their contributions to the Canadian war effort. The book is illustrated with many fine images, including some that have never before been published. Sadly, author Dianne Graves died in 2021. This book, like her others, will live on as a significant contribution to our understanding of Canadian experiences during times of war.
Reviewed by Tim Cook, the author of several books, including The Secret History of Soldiers (2018) and The Fight for History (2020).
better. Joe Sacco manages to do all of that … in monochrome comics. But despite all the reasons why
Paying the Land shouldn’t work, this graphic novel is in fact a breathtaking book that all Canadians would benefit from reading. It powerfully illuminates the dignity of life on the land, that life’s near destruction by outside forces, and the possibility of resurgence. The vast majority of the text comes directly from interviews with a range of Dene politicians, activists, and ordinary people as well as a few non-Indigenous observers. Sacco includes himself as a secondary character, mostly to highlight his ignorance, to fill in detail, or to move the story to a new time or location.
The focus, though, stays firmly on the Dene, presenting their experiences in their own blunt, devastating words. The book starts with a portrait of a community intimately connected to its territory, as Paul Andrew remembers it. People fish, hunt, set up camp, celebrate — all of it done together, the children learning by watching and listening as everyone plays a role. Without romanticism, Sacco deftly conveys both the hard work that is required and the beauty of a communal culture almost completely separate from Canada.
That life and that separation cannot, of course, continue. Soon the focus shifts to the encroachment of European colonizers who are keen on the rich resources the Dene have stewarded since time immemorial. Treaties and furs, mines and the doctrine of discovery, roads and diamonds, and alcohol and pipelines slowly, sickeningly work to corrupt the circle of community.
Sacco weaves together the narrators’ stories, moving back and forth through time while capturing a look or a posture that says much more than words ever could. Marie Wilson, who was one of three commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, flatly describes five-yearolds being raped on their first day at a residential school by older children who had been cut off from family and from their culture’s ideas of collective well-being. Those children then somehow had to figure out how to live with each other back home.
Perhaps the book’s greatest strength is its insistence on avoiding easy answers. Sacco literally illustrates the differing points of view among the Dene about how to handle resource extraction and land claims, laying out the agonizing complexity for readers but pushing no particular conclusions. He includes an interview with a genuinely kind priest, one with a residential school survivor who expresses appreciation for the chance to learn English, and another with a young woman who criticizes the lack of initiative among the men of her age. Throughout, Sacco highlights each person’s humanity, keenly aware of the history of people like him coming north to take without giving.
Indeed, his scorn is provoked by what he learns on a tour of the defunct Giant Mine, whose gold-mining legacy includes more than two hundred thousand tonnes of arsenic. He is told that the lethal waste is contained for a good one hundred years or so. “What is the world view of a people who mumble no thanks or prayers,” he writes over ever-darker panels, “who take what they want from the land, and pay it back with arsenic?”
It would undermine the book’s integrity to describe the ending as happy — there is no neat resolution, and nor should there be. After having met thoughtful young Dene activists and having seen the persistence of some traditional ways, the reader can only marvel at the most important conclusion of all: that, after all they have been subjected to, the Dene are still here, still vital, still connected to their territory.
Reviewed by Nancy Payne, a contributing editor for Canada’s History magazine and the editor of Kayak: Canada’s History Magazine for Kids.