"...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, November 23, 2015

Gaston Means: Portrait of an American Snake

"I'm very well acquainted with the seven deadly sins
I keep a busy schedule trying to fit them in
I'm proud to be a glutton, and I don't have time for sloth
I'm greedy and I'm angry and I don't care who I cross
I'm Mr. Bad Example
Intruder in the dirt
I like to have a good time
And I don't care who gets hurt.
I'm Mr. Bad Example
Take a look at me
I'll live to be 100 and go down in infamy."
~"Mr. Bad Example," Warren Zevon

Anyone who pursues my particular line of blogging learns about any number of sleazeballs, criminals, and random psychopaths. However, it's hard to think of many people whose evil was more prolific and versatile than that of Gaston B. Means, con man, secret agent, and murderer. This relatively little-known figure has a fair claim to be the most well-rounded creep in early 20th century American history.  An early biographer named Francis Russell described Means as "In appearance a wastrel cherub with round face, dimpled smile, sharp chin, and beaming eyes that flickered from time to time with madness...a swindler for the joy of swindling, a liar proud of the credibility of his lies, a confidence man able to make his cheats and deceptions works of art."  If there is no record of him pulling the wings off flies and kicking puppies, that was only because he saw no money in it.

Means was born in Concord, North Carolina in 1879. His childhood, as far as we know, was an ordinary one, but he demonstrated his flair for larceny early on. As a young man, he suffered a head injury when he fell from the upper berth of a Pullman car. As he had prudently taken out several accident policies just before boarding the train, this mishap proved quite profitable for him.

If it was a mishap at all, of course. There was talk that Means had engineered his "accident" by sawing through one of the chains that had held up the berth.

In 1902, he moved to New York and became a salesman for Cannon mills. The glib, outwardly charming, and cheerfully conscience-free Means was a natural for the job. He was soon earning more than $5000 a year--a small fortune in those days.

No matter how profitable it may have been, such legitimate, respectable work was deeply dissatisfying to our hero. He saw it as a waste of his special gifts. In 1914, he quit his job (or, if you prefer to believe his employers, he was fired for dishonesty.) In any case, he went to work for noted private detective William J. Burns. Means eagerly and skillfully took on the more sordid aspects of detective work, such as burglary, bribery, and spying. Around the time of his career switch, Means made the acquaintance of Maude King, an alcoholic widow who was both extremely wealthy and not very bright. Those last two characteristics in particular marked her out in Means' eyes as a very useful person to know. Within a few weeks of their first meeting, he had sweet-talked Mrs. King into making him her business manager. She trusted him with all her financial affairs.

1914 saw Means take on yet another role. The British government secretly hired Burns' agency to investigate the activities of Germans in New York. At the same time, the Germans tried to hire Burns to investigate the British. He tactfully declined the job by passing the contract on to Means. The two detectives profited nicely from this setup, with Burns ratting to Means about the British, while Means tattled to Burns about the Germans. Both men dreamed up all sorts of colorful foreign plots, complete with forged documents and fictitious spies. Naturally, the detectives required extra money from their employers to investigate this self-invented espionage.

By 1917, Means had secretly drained dry Mrs. King's bank accounts. Unbeknownst to her, she had practically no available money. The only asset she had left was $3 million her late husband had willed to the Northern Trust Company of Chicago to endow a rest home for old men. Means wanted to get his hands on these millions, and he was naturally also very anxious to prevent Mrs. King from discovering how he had swindled her.

Something clearly had to be done.

Means' first step was to forge another will of Mr. King's, this one leaving Maude the money previously intended for the rest home. Means had little trouble persuading Mrs. King of its authenticity, and he submitted the document for probate. Then, he and his family took Mrs. King on a vacation to Asheville, North Carolina. On August 29, 1917, Means took his friend Maude out into the woods for a little rabbit hunting.

Mrs. King never came out of those woods alive. Very soon after they had set out, a sorrowful Means returned carrying her dead body. The poor woman, he sighed, had had a terrible accident. She had inadvertently shot herself.

In the back of the head.

No powder marks were found on Mrs. King's head, indicating that she had not been shot at close range. It was also known that she was terrified of guns. The local prosecutor was intelligent enough to immediately indict Means for murder. Unfortunately, he was also unwise enough to allow the Northern Trust Company to hire lawyers from New York to assist in the case against Means. The jury didn't take kindly to these outsiders, and the defense played on this prejudice to the hilt, depicting the trial as that of a local boy being persecuted by slick shysters from the wicked big city. Sadly, it worked. Means was acquitted.

He was then tried for forging the King will. Means, it was clear, was a forger of more energy than skill. The prosecution had no trouble proving that the will's "witnesses" were out of town the day the document was supposedly signed. The typewriter used had not been invented when the will was supposedly written. Handwriting experts easily established that the signatures on the will were all forged.

Realizing that any sort of legitimate defense was hopeless, Means resorted to attempting to make a bargain. He claimed he knew of a trunk filled with documents from German spies. He told the U.S. Army that if the military gave the judge in his case a letter attesting to his good character [?!] he would give them the trunk. He indeed led an intelligence officer to a trunk, which was sent to Washington. Surely, now, such service to his country deserved some reward? The forgery charges against Means were dropped--even though when the trunk was eventually opened, it was found to be empty.

In later life, Means liked to boast that he had been accused of every felony on the books, and had escaped punishment for all of them.

Means returned to New York and resumed working for Burns. Then, on March 4, 1921, an event happened that would have a great effect on Means' career: Warren G. Harding was inaugurated President of the United States.

Harding's campaign manager, Harry M. Daugherty, was appointed Attorney General. He could think of no better man than William J. Burns to head the Bureau of Investigation, thus expanding the singular tactics of the Burns detective agency to a national scale. In November, the Department of Justice hired Gaston Means. This greedy grifter was given the run of the Bureau. He used this new-found power and influence in just the ways you might expect. He made a tidy little fortune running his own personal protection racket, promising mobsters, bootleggers, and other miscreants immunity from prosecution--if they were willing to pay for it. Before long, he and his family were living like Washington royalty: a luxurious townhouse staffed with servants, and a chauffeured limousine so he could do his dirty deeds in style.

By February 1922, Means had pushed his luck too far, and he was suspended from his job. Inevitably, he was not content with stealing from crooks, and had progressed to stealing from the government, as well. It was discovered that he had stolen a huge number of blank government licenses and permits, forged the names of various government officials on them, and sold the documents on his personal black market for tens of thousands of dollars. This was a bit too much fun even for Washington, D.C. Daugherty had no choice but to appoint a special counsel to investigate the ways of Means.

At that point, all hell began to break loose for the White House. President Harding had ordered Daugherty's closest friend, a small-time political crook named Jess Smith, to go back to his Ohio home. (This directive seems to have stemmed more from Smith's dissolute personal life than his professional crimes.) On Memorial Day 1923, Smith committed suicide in the apartment he had shared with Daugherty. This private tragedy catapulted all the assorted wrongdoings of the administration into public view.

One of the first people to suffer from this new scrutiny was Harry Daugherty. He found himself the target of a Senate investigation. His protegee, Gaston Means, was indicted for larceny, conspiracy, and no less than 100 violations of the Prohibition Act.

Means decided that his best hope for escaping punishment was to turn super-grass. In March 1924, he appeared before the Senate committee and told all--or, at least, all the story he wanted his listeners to hear. Means described how millions of dollars in kickbacks on government contracts, war claims settlements, and illegal permits passed through his hands, with all of it going to Daugherty and other Cabinet officials. Although there was nothing but Means' extremely dubious word to support these stories (he claimed his files had been stolen,) all this was more than enough for the new President Coolidge (Harding had died suddenly on August 2, 1923,) to demand that Daugherty resign.

Happily, Means' back-stabbing did him little good. In June 1924, he was tried and convicted for perjury and income tax fraud. He was given four years in the Atlanta federal penitentiary. While in prison, he became friendly with a minor hack writer named May Dixon Thacker. (A sidenote: Her brother was Thomas Dixon, author of "The Klansman," the novel that was later turned into the notorious film "The Birth of a Nation.") After Means served his sentence, he and Thacker arranged that she should ghostwrite a book giving his side of his political career. He took great private amusement from Thacker's willingness to believe his increasingly outlandish and slanderous tales.

The result of this unholy collaboration was 1930's "The Strange Death of President Harding."  Means falsely claimed to have been Florence Harding's personal private investigator. He stated that Mrs. Harding, jealous of her husband's infidelities and concerned about his good name should the criminal behavior of his officials become public, poisoned the president.

Means' bombshell "revelations" turned the book into a massive best-seller. Although historians now recognize that "Strange Death" is largely so much lurid fantasy, its memory still lingers today. During her lifetime, Florence Harding was a popular and admirable First Lady. She was a highly intelligent woman who was widely praised as a loyal wife and an effective public figure with forward-looking political ideas. Thanks to Means, she is still often regarded as a sinister harridan at best, and a murderer at worst. It is one of the great libels in American political history.

Despite his financial windfall from the book (augmented when he managed to bilk Thacker of her share of the royalties,) men like Means never have enough money, and he soon began to plan new schemes. He approached some rich New Yorkers who were known to be concerned about possible Soviet subversive activities. Means told them he knew of two Russian agents intent on bringing down the country. One would think that by this point, Means' infragrant reputation would have preceded him, but he somehow talked these men into hiring him--for $100 a day--to investigate these phantom agents. He managed to drag out his "investigation" for three years, as he supposedly chased these Soviets across the country. Finally, when he sensed the patience of his latest marks was running out, he announced that--wouldn't you know?--one of the Soviets had killed the other and escaped back to Russia.

In March 1932, the infant son of Charles Lindbergh disappeared. It was soon announced that the boy had been kidnapped. This harrowing crime perpetrated against the helpless child of an American idol caused grief and shock for everyone in the country.

Well, everyone except Gaston Means, of course. He saw it as an enticing business opportunity.

During his time in Washington, he had made the acquaintance of the very wealthy and eccentric socialite Evalyn Walsh "Hope Diamond" McLean. Means was able to con her into believing that he was in contact with the Lindbergh kidnappers. He assured her that if she put up the $100,000 ransom, he could return little Charles Jr. to his parents. McLean unhesitatingly gave Means the cash.

And just as unhesitatingly, Means skipped town with the loot.

When Mrs. McLean--after giving Means still more money for the "ransom"-- finally realized she had been had, she called in the police, who managed to track Means down and arrest him in May 1932. He still maintained that he was in contact with the kidnappers, and insisted the Lindbergh child was still alive. He kept this story up even after the corpse of a small child was discovered in the woods near the Lindbergh estate, and Charles Lindbergh identified it as the remains of his son.

Means was finally given the long prison sentence he so richly deserved. The McLean scam earned him 15 years in prison for grand larceny, and he was soon forgotten by the world. He died in his cell of a massive heart attack on December 12, 1938.

If there is such a place as Hell, Gaston Bullock Means is surely keeping very busy swindling all the devils.


  1. I wonder if, at the very end, when he lie dying on the concrete floor of his cell, Means realised that no one would care the least about his passing. Probably not, but it would have provided some retribution if he had.

  2. Ouch! You are taking the names of all innocent slithery snakes (toads, spiders, etc, etc.) in vain! I call such creeps spots of oily sludge polluting our environment. I vowed to never slander another creature while describing someone who is totally live, vile evil.

  3. He was indeed a C of the highest order. Incidentally, he was a recurring character in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire played brilliantly by actor Stephen Root. You probably won't get a more realistic portrayal of Means than there, though he's not the main focus of the show and thus a lot of his escapades are omitted.


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