"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Odd Case of George Kimmel/Andrew J. White

On July 30, 1898, a 31-year-old Arkansas City, Kansas, bank cashier named George Kimmel went on a business trip to St. Louis. He checked into a hotel, bought a cigar at the front desk, stepped out into the street, and disappeared. Detectives were put on his trail, but no trace of the young man could be found. Just before he vanished, he insured his life for $25,000 in favor of his sister, Mrs. Edna Bonslett. After Kimmel went missing, it was discovered that he was deeply in debt and had resorted to embezzling money from his bank. These financial entanglements led many to assume that the missing man had simply run away.

Nothing more was heard of Kimmel until 1906, when Mrs. Bonslett moved to have her brother legally ruled dead. New York Life, the insurance company that held the Kimmel policies, contested this action, and launched their own nationwide search for the missing cashier. They soon discovered a man who was in the New York state prison under the name of "Andrew J. White," who stated that he  was, in reality, George Kimmel. He told a curious story to explain his absence from the scene. He claimed that a relative--he later strongly hinted it was Kimmel's uncle Charles Johnson--was implicated in the embezzlement of $100,000 from the Pacific Express Company. He, "Kimmel" possessed certain information which would prove the relative's guilt. As a result, his kinsman and some confederates drugged him, kidnapped him, and kept him prisoner. After three weeks in captivity, he escaped, but the criminals recaptured him and gave him a beating. The next thing he knew, he was in a New York's Matteawan Asylum, with little memory of who he was or where he came from. He remained in the asylum for some time until he was ruled sane and released. Afterward, he wandered the streets of New York, homeless and penniless. In desperation, he forged a check for a few dollars. For this offense, he was sent to the state prison, where eventually he recalled his past life as George Kimmel. (Incidentally, by this point Charles Johnson had gone bankrupt and was himself in prison. If he had any comment about his "nephew's" astonishing story, it does not seem to have been recorded.)

Mrs. Bonslett was not impressed by the news of her brother's supposed return. She immediately branded White as a lunatic and an impostor.

Equally unsurprisingly, the New York Life Insurance Company took the claimant rather more seriously. They asserted that they were convinced the New York convict was indeed the long-missing man, and they flatly refused to pay up until some sort of proof could be given that George Kimmel was well and truly dead. The result of this standoff was that the National Bank of Niles, Michigan, to whom Mrs. Bonslett had previously assigned the insurance policies, brought a lawsuit against New York Life.

In those days before DNA testing, the question of "Andrew J. White's" true identity simply could not be definitively settled. As bizarre as White's story might have been, no one could actually disprove it, either. It all boiled down to a "he said/she said" quarrel, and as a result, the tug-of-war over that insurance money occupied the attention of the courts for over ten years. First, the courts in St. Louis declared Kimmel dead. Then, the United States Circuit Court of Appeals declared there was insufficient evidence in the case and reversed the judgment. In the meantime, a number of people who had known Kimmel well visited "White" and declared that he was indeed the long-lost cashier. So did Kimmel's cousin, Mrs. Harriet Fox, his niece, Mrs. Charles Montague, and his former fiancee, Mrs. Harriet Marston. Kimmel's mother Stella, on the other hand, joined her daughter in asserting the man was a brazen fraud.

The suit was retried yet again in 1910, with the jury failing to reach a consensus. Seven members of the panel, it was reported, believed White was indeed Kimmel, with the rest believing otherwise.

In August 1911, the claimant was released from prison. He immediately announced his intention to return to his hometown of Niles, Michigan, where Stella Kimmel was still living, and prove once and for all that he was indeed George Kimmel.

The results of his visit were as inconclusive as everything else in this case. The claimant arranged a meeting with Mrs. Kimmel. When the two came face-to-face, he pleadingly stretched out his arms and exclaimed, "Mother, don't you know your boy? Don't disown me any longer. You know I am your son."

Mrs. Kimmel backed away and insisted, "No. I don't see in you any positive resemblance to my son."  The claimant sighed afterwards, "I love her with all my heart and cannot understand why she should insist that I am dead. Still, I will not worry her, and if she continues to disbelieve me it shall be as she wishes. But I know I am Kimmel, for I recognize everyone."

He did, too--or, at least, he put up a very convincing show of recognizing everyone. He was escorted around Niles, where he pointed out landmarks and recalled incidents from the past that proved to be correct. He repeatedly greeted townspeople by name.  The claimant showed knowledge of things he could hardly have known unless he was George Kimmel.  On the other hand, he also showed ignorance of details Kimmel must have known.  (The claimant, of course, attributed the latter to the memory loss brought on by his sufferings.)

As for the good citizens of Niles, they were divided in their opinion about the claimant. In brief, some insisted that the man must be George Kimmel, while an equal number asserted with equal certainty that he absolutely could not be him. There was also the curious detail that the claimant's eyes were blue, while the consensus (including Kimmel's former doctor) agreed that those of Kimmel were brown. (The insurance company dealt with this inconvenient fact by bringing in a doctor who argued that the claimant's many vicissitudes had changed his eye color.)  A cousin of Kimmel's mother offered a possible explanation for the claimant's detailed knowledge of Niles: "At the time Kimmel disappeared the newspapers were full of mystery stories as to what had become of him. This man says he was in St. Louis about that time. He may have been familiar with Niles and so have taken an interest in the story. It was then he was struck on the head in St. Louis. The blows impaired his mind. My belief is that his mind was so affected that he lost his own identity and came to the conclusion that he was Kimmel and has ever since been of that belief." Plausible enough, as far as it goes. But was it true?  Who knew?

1912 saw yet another lawsuit about the man the newspapers had dubbed the "American Tichborne." The same parade of witnesses who had known Kimmel took the stand. As usual, some of them swore "White" was the missing banker, some of them swore just the opposite. Henry Ford once said that "History is bunk."  If nothing else was accomplished by this case, it proved once and for all that the same holds true for eyewitness identification.

Then John Swinney, a New Mexico ranchman, came forward with a curious tale. He claimed that in 1898 Kimmel, in the company of Swinney and several other men, had gone to search for buried treasure in Coos Bay, Oregon. After finding $4,000 of the loot, Swinney said Kimmel and one of the men had quarreled, with the result that Kimmel wound up shot dead. Swinney then killed Kimmel's murderer. There was, of course, absolutely nothing to corroborate this story. The fact that Swinney had served two prison sentences for robbery and murder did little to help his credibility. The claimant's attorney called Sweeney's testimony "so improbable and highly-colored as to be unworthy of consideration of sane men." This was almost certainly the truth, but admittedly Swinney's yarn was no less bizarre than anything else in this story.

The anti-White faction brought in two witnesses who swore that the mystery man was a transient railroad brakeman commonly known as "Turkey White." They were so positive in their identification that it looked like the puzzle was finally indisputably solved...until a man named Andrew H. White entered the courtroom declaring that he was "Turkey."

By this point, everyone involved was probably calling for cold compresses and strong drinks.

During this latest bout of litigation, the claimant announced that he was renouncing his "mother" and "sister," for refusing to acknowledge his identity. "These women are no longer my mother and sister," he declared. "I mean, of course, that they are my blood relations, but I feel no kinship for them. Our relationship was killed by their actions toward me in this litigation."

Turnabout, after all, is fair play.

In March 1912, the latest Kimmel jury delivered a typically enigmatic verdict. They ruled that the claimant was not George Kimmel, but they could not agree on whether or not Kimmel was dead or alive when the present suit was filed. This meant that the question of whether or not the Niles National Bank got their insurance money was still left hanging. The jury's decision was appealed by New York Life--a company certainly remarkable for its tenacity--with mixed success. In 1917, a Federal judge was finally able to negotiate a compromise where New York Life paid $7700 to the National Bank. Whether Kimmel was really still alive or not, as far as American courts was concerned, he was now a corpse.

So, from a legal point of view, the Kimmel Mystery was finally closed. The human drama involved was not resolved so neatly.

The claimant did not give up the fight to establish himself as George Kimmel. He underwent a brain operation in the hope, he said, that it would improve his memories of his former life. He declared afterward that his memory was "returning gradually and with it comes the horror of years of wasted life. I don't doubt that I can satisfy everyone of my identity."

This statement was overoptimistic. Although the claimant still had his supporters, he was unable to fight the stark reality of the last court verdict. He continued to insist he was George Kimmel--but Kimmel, as far as officialdom was concerned, was dead. In 1913, the claimant--certainly a sad figure, whoever he was--disappeared again. In 1928, one of his old champions received a letter from him postmarked San Francisco, but bearing no return address. This was the last time anyone is known to have heard from, or of him. Where he went, what he did, and when he died is unknown.

"White" may well have been an impostor, although it is quite possible that he genuinely came to believe he really was the long-lost banker. Of course, this assumption still leaves a good many questions unanswered. If he was a fake, how did he come to assert he was George Kimmel? Did New York Life coach him in the role? Was this ostensibly respectable insurance company so corrupt that they would deliberately lend themselves to such an outlandish fraud for the sake of one relatively small insurance policy? It seems indisputable that "White" did have a great deal of knowledge about Kimmel's early life. If he was a fraud, who fed him this information? Who really was the man who had been imprisoned under the name "Andrew J. White?"

And most importantly, of course: If the claimant was a fraud, what really did happen to George Kimmel in 1898?


  1. I feel sorry for the imposter, if that's what he was. I doubt that anyone would have remained so steadfast in his convictions if he had not believed in them. After all, if he were paid to assume an identity, how much could he have been given and would it have been worth years of pretence?

  2. Hi - I'm actually researching this case myself! I live in Ark City and came to know the case through our local paper. I've tracked down the court cases and files - there is a great deal more to this story than the newspapers reported, and I am nowhere near done with the research. I am fairly sure that the 'mystery man' was not Kimmel - but this is the first time I've ever seen the pictures of the claimant. Can I ask where you got them?

    1. I'd love to know if you ever find a solution to this mystery! I didn't note the specific newspapers where I found these photos, but if you do a search for Kimmel and White's names on http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/ you should be able to find them.

  3. According to contemporary press reports, Andrew J White also used the aliases "JW Hosmer", "JW White" and "WA Watson", which seems to suggest that he had previously tried to pass himself off as someone else.


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