A £20,000 fraud - Count Schouvaloff's sham informant - A bogus plot to destroy warships - The " confidence trick " - The " Spanish prisoner " fraud - The American "gold brick" swindle - Gambling clubs in London - Raid upon a club in St. James's - Improper literature : action of the Post Office and the Home Office.
THE offences I have been describing are of a very petty kind, and my readers may wish to hear about frauds perpetrated by criminals of a higher class. I am perhaps the only living person unconnected with the great City house to which the following story relates, who has knowledge of what I am about to narrate. It is a house whose name is in high repute in all the capitals of Europe. A genius claimed to have discovered the secret of making gold, and he offered to sell it to the firm in question. By means of a process which he had discovered, the bulk of any quantity of gold could be increased by one-half, at trifling expense. His dupes accepted his terms, subject to his giving proof of the value of his discovery ; and to test it they proposed to supply him with a hundred sovereigns and the needed plant. He "thought scorn" of working on such a petty sum as that ; it would be waste of time, for the process was a tedious one. Finally it was arranged that he should have £20,000 in sovereigns ; and a house was taken in Leman Street, Whitechapel, and there a laboratory was fitted up for his use. The gold was placed in tanks provided for the purpose ; the needed chemicals were supplied ; and the experiment proceeded, with elaborate precautions against larceny or fraud. The man was emphatic in insisting on two points : no one but himself was to enter the laboratory ; and he was to be rigorously searched every time he passed out.
After many weeks, during which his visits were frequent, he disappeared ; and when eventually the door was forced, the tanks which had contained the gold were empty, and the bottles which contained the chemicals were full. What had become of the £20,000? No one but an expert has any conception of the bulk and weight of such a sum of money. And the fullest inquiry only served to elicit proof that the man had been searched with exemplary care at every visit. The mystery might have remained for ever unsolved if the criminal had not himself supplied the solution of it. In sheer bravado and pride in his achievement, lie wrote to the firm he had swindled, telling them of his appreciation of the money, and of his confidence that they would rather lose it than incur ridicule on every Exchange in Europe by a prosecution which would disclose their folly. And then he revealed his method. Every time he left the laboratory that gold-headed cane he carried was packed with sovereigns
" International criminals" of this type are men of extraordinary cleverness and dash. Before coming to England as Ambassador, Count Schouvaloff was head of the Political Police at St. Petersburg-the " Third Section," I believe they call it. There was no man in Europe who was less likely to be victimised by a swindler, and yet he was duped by one of these rascals. When returning from the Continent one day he got into conversation with a fellow-passenger on the Channel boat-a man of good address, well-spoken, well-groomed, and of charming manners. He told the Ambassador that he had just been to Spain on a Secret Service mission of much difficulty and delicacy, and he was in high spirits at his success. And he mentioned in an off-hand way that be had got on the track of the forgers who were then flooding Russia with counterfeit rouble-notes. Forgeries of this kind have been a constant cause of grave trouble and loss to the Russian Government, and the Count took the bait, and asked the fellow to call upon him.
When he called at the Embassy he freely gave particulars about the gang, adding incidentally, and in his grandest manner, that one of the men had dropped a hint that he was ready to betray his companions, but he would need a very big bribe, To any one versed in Secret Service work there was nothing to excite suspicion in his refusal to be put in touch with one of the Ambassador's agents. It was only a pleasure, however, to give his Excellency every help possible. The Count asked whether he would undertake the mission himself. This he was very reluctant to do. The men would probably be found where he left them the week before ; but, on the other hand, he might have to follow them half across Europe, and possibly to Russia, involving such a long absence from London as would seriously prejudice his regular work. But at last he yielded, and he left the Embassy with a cheque for £1,000 in his pocket.
Having regard to the magnitude of the losses incurred by the Russian Government by roublenote forgeries, the expenditure of £1,000 in such a business was a mere trifle. But after the man left the Embassy the Ambassador's suspicions began to awaken ; and half an hour after his signing the cheque, the Bank had orders to stop payment of it. It was too late. The swindler had already drawn the money ; and neither the Russian Embassy nor Scotland Yard ever got on his track.
Now a fellow who could successfully play a game of this kind with such a man as Count Schouvaloff must possess a combination of qualities that would insure success in almost any position in life. Some years ago a genius of this type levied heavy toll upon half the Chancelleries of Europe, by warning them of plots to destroy warships by means of bombs disguised as lumps of coal. I was known and trusted by the staff of several of the Foreign Embassies, and in this way I heard privately of the man's doings in other European capitals before he turned up in London, The first day he called upon me there was no suggestion on his part of demanding, or even of needing, any pecuniary reward. His only object, he assured me, was to thwart a plot of the most hellish kind. His next visit was more prolonged than the first, and I elicited from him a promise, given with feigned reluctance, to undertake the task of running the conspirators to earth. Though he was a linguist, the interview ended by m y telling him in the plainest of Saxon words that he was a fraud and a swindler. The bomb, which was his stock-in-trade, I impounded ; and I afterwards placed it in the Museum at Scotland Yard, where I suppose it still lies.
The notorious " confidence trick " is a fraud which exemplifies in a striking way the truth of my thesis that it is due to their love of filthy lucre that people fall so easily a prey to swindlers. Frederick Williamson, who was head of the detective branch of the Metropolitan Police before. the C.I.D. was organised, used to say that the victim of that swindle always intends to defraud the seemingly guileless philanthropist who robs him. And he used also to comment on the fact that the dupe is in so many cases some Colonial or American visitor who would pride himself on being " cute." The details of the game vary according to circumstances, for these swindlers have a keen knowledge of human nature ; and it may be played out in an hour or it may last a couple of days ; but in its main outlines it is always the same.
The criminals-there must be two in the plot -select their victim, and one of them gets into conversation with him by courteously asking his way, or otherwise. Within half an hour, or it may be next day, they are visiting some public place together-the British Museum is a favourite resort-or they are fraternising at some restaurant or fashionable drinking-bar. Sooner or later the accomplice joins them. To him the first thief discloses the fact that a large sum of money has been left to him for distribution in charity, and his business here is to discharge the trust. But, being a stranger, he is at a loss to know to whom he should apply for help. The accomplice magnanimously offers to undertake the duty. Most gratifying this : but he would not feel justified in handing over the money to a single individual ; and, moreover, he very delicately hints that the accomplice is a stranger to him. " But would not your friend join in the trust? " the accomplice asks. This elicits that the friend is also a stranger to him. But if they both can satisfy him that they are men of substance he will gladly avail himself of their services, The accomplice at once produces a sheaf of flash bank notes. The victim follows suit by disclosing the contents of his pocket-book, or else he pleads that he can soon obtain the money.
It is but natural, however, that such a philanthropist should hesitate to trust two gentlemen who are strangers to him, unless they will in some way reciprocate his confidence. The accomplice eagerly responds. He hands over the contents of his pocket-book, and begs the others to leave him, declaring that he will confidently await their return. They act upon his word, and within half an hour they come back and restore his money. How then can the victim refuse to give a similar proof of confidence in the philanthropist? Accordingly he hands over all the cash provided to pay for his visit to Europe, and with this the thieves clear out ; and, like Noah's raven, they never return, This is the confidence trick. It has been worked successfully hundreds of times, and it will be worked hundreds of times in the future ; and yet one might suppose that no one fit to travel alone could be duped by it.
The "Spanish prisoner" fraud is another hardy annual of the same type. As I was enjoying my arm-chair by the fire after eleven o'clock one night, a young doctor friend of mine arrived, introducing a " pal " of his who wanted me to find him a pensioned officer of my department to assist him on a somewhat delicate mission. After I had given him the name of the man I recommended, my friend urged him to take me into his confidence and tell me his story. His brother-in-law, who was then abroad, had received a letter which, with the connivance of a priest, had been smuggled out of a Spanish prison. The prisoner was a revolutionist, and he had been dispatched to England with a large sum of money - some £30,000 - to purchase arms for the conspirators. Before he had time to fulfil his mission, news that his wife was dying compelled him to make a sudden return to Spain, and he had been arrested on a political charge. Being a stranger in England, and knowing no one to whose care he could entrust his money, he had buried it in a field belonging to the gentleman to whom he addressed his letter. He had made such a plan of the place as would enable him to recover it at any time, but this document was in a portmanteau which, in common with all his personal effects, had been seized by his creditors. Two hundred pounds would suffice to discharge all his obligations, and if this amount were granted him he would hand over the field-plan to his benefactor, who could then repay himself tenfold with the buried gold.
That, said my visitor, was the whole story ; and his brother-in-law had decided to advance the £200, and had commissioned him to arrange the matter with the priest, whose name and address the prisoner had sent him. " You have not told me the whole story," I replied ; "you have kept back everything about the prisoner's lovely daughter ; have you got her photograph in your pocket ? " My visitor blushed, but he protested that the daughter element was quite incidental, and that, as he had express directions to go to Spain and negotiate the matter, he was bound to do so. In spite of my emphatic warning that the whole affair was a swindle, he fulfilled his commission.
I afterwards learned the result. At the address given, he found not only the priest, but the prisoner himself, who, by an extraordinary chance, had just obtained his release. The money was paid over, and an appointment made for that same afternoon, when the precious plan would be handed to him. A few hours later, however, the visitor received a telegram from the man to say the Police were again upon his track, and he was bolting to France. He would be found, however, at a certain hotel in the French town he named.
I need scarcely add that the visitor never saw any more either of the prisoner or of the £200. It was a somewhat elaborate phase of a well-known fraud. The poor Spanish prisoner cares little for himself or his buried gold. His only anxiety is to find a safe and happy home for his lovely daughter, now deprived of a mother's care. If the kind English gentleman to whom he entrusts his secret will adopt her as a member of his home circle, and settle one moiety of the gold on her, he may keep the other moiety for himself. This is the bait. The daughter's photograph indicates that she is a real beauty. How can the dupe do better for his son than to make him marry the girl, and thus keep the whole £30,000 in the family?
"The gold brick" is another swindle of the same type. " In vain is the net spread in the sight of any bird." But with human birds the lust of gold is so strong that they will sometimes walk into the net in spite of the plainest warning. In one instance a widow lady of my acquaintance was very indignant because I impounded her correspondence in a gold-brick case, and thus prevented her being duped.
The fraud is a triumph of American ingenuity. A letter is received, addressed to some man whose death has recently been announced, and of course it is opened by his relatives. The writer speaks of his deep and grateful sense of Mr. Blank's kind and generous help at a time when his fortunes were at a low ebb. His long silence has been due to his unwillingness to write until he was in a position to repay the money advanced to him. He is now prepared not only to do this, but to reward his kind benefactor tenfold ; for in "prospecting " he had struck gold, and he wishes him to share his good fortune.
The letter is answered by the dead man's relatives, or by the family lawyer, saying, of course, that the deceased never mentioned the writer's name, and that his papers contain no reference to him. This brings a gushing rejoinder expressing the joy it would give the writer to be able to do a service to the relatives of his benefactor. A few hundred pounds would suffice to buy land that is worth tens of thousands, and if they will send a shrewd and trustworthy man to meet him in New York, he will put the whole matter before him and submit a sample of the ore. Such a matter obviously needs to be dealt with promptly and secretly. The agent crosses the Atlantic ; the swindler talks him over, his stock-in-trade being a cleverly manufactured bit of brick seamed with genuine gold. It is a case of losing a sprat to catch a salmon.
The money is paid, and the dupes wait in vain for news of the gold mine.
This is the simplest and crudest phase of a fraud that is often practised on a much higher and more elaborate scale. As lately as February last the American newspapers reported the conviction of an individual who was said to have amassed a fortune by fleecing the heirs of rich Englishmen in this way. The judge, who sentenced him to a long term of imprisonment, said that he had been preying on the public for forty years, while ostensibly leading a respectable life.
Although betting and gambling cannot be classed as crimes of the type I have been describing, they may not unfitly claim notice in connection with them. According to the city edition of the Bible, the want of money is the root of all evil. But the apostolic dictum is that " the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil." And gambling-a vice that springs from an illegitimate craving for money-does as much as drink to corrupt its votaries. Among the legacies left me by my predecessor as head of the C. I. D. was a charge to wage war on gaming-houses, and I accepted the charge con amore
. One result of the demoralisation of the Department, described in a preceding article, was an abnormal growth of gambling clubs in London. There were West End clubs frequented by "swells," middle-class clubs run by " snobs," and houses for folk of a lower class in the social scale. I determined to begin at the top, for though the lower-class clubs were far the most mischievous, I was not going to incur the taunt of chevying humble folk and leaving the " toffs " alone. So I held my hand until I was ready to raid the most fashionable club of the kind in London-a house in Park Place, St. James's.
The door of a gaming-house does not stand open, and of course a stranger has no chance of admittance. And yet it was essential that the Police should get in unnoticed, otherwise every outward sign of gaming would be cleared away, and evidence on which to base a charge would fail. But my Inspector in the C Division was a man of exceptional fitness for such work ; and on the appointed night he found himself in the middle of the gamblers before any one of them "spied a stranger." The necessary evidence being thus obtained, every person present had to appear before a magistrate. And if the Bar and Club gossip of that day may be trusted, during the few minutes necessarily spent in preparing for the raid, two men passed out whose arrest would have added to the gaiety of nations.
The success of this coup surpassed my expectations ; and no club of the same calibre has ever since existed in London. The indignation of the members, of course, was great. Several of them called at Scotland Yard in order to make terms with me, or at least to " draw " me. But all they could get was a declaration of my intention to enforce the law. The first ruse they attempted was to take a private house in the name of a lady of title, and to arrange a weekly meeting there for gambling. I adopted new tactics, and instead of maintaining secrecy, I announced my intention of raiding the place, and the scheme collapsed at once. We then went for the minor clubs scattered throughout London, and one after another was successfully raided by the Police.
My surprise equalled my satisfaction at discovering that my subordinates were as keen as I was myself in this work, Though men of the world, all of them, with broad views of life, such was their estimate of the debasing influence of betting and gambling that any officer who was known to be addicted to these vices was shunned. And as his colleagues refused to work with him, he was soon elbowed out of the Department. A drinking man may possibly be trustworthy when sober ; but, drunk or sober, a gambler can never be trusted.
And betting is akin to duelling, but more degrading. Indeed, there was something to be said for the duel in the rough days now past. Webster's Dictionary defines a blackguard as " a person accustomed to use scurrilous language, or to treat others with foul abuse," No gentleman would notice abuse from a fellow of low degree, but if we could imagine a man in a high official position sinking to such a level, the fear of having to face a pistol at twenty paces might restrain his scurrilous tongue. But no defence of this kind can be made for betting. And while the losers of the grand stand do not leave their families to starve, nor take to crime to replenish their purses, these are the results of losses incurred by the crowd upon the course. The time will come when taking another man's money in this way will be deemed disgraceful.
But it was not considerations of this kind that influenced me in the line I took in dealing with the clubs. The design of the State, as Spinoza has aptly expressed it, is to permit every one to live in security-to preserve inviolate his right to live without being injured himself, or doing injury to others. But while keeping this principle in view, the police need not trouble themselves about people who are able to take care of themselves, unless in injuring themselves they do harm to others. And yet to raid low-class clubs while leaving rich men's clubs in peace would be a public scandal.
In another sphere also I always acted on this principle. The police are not the guardians of public morals ; and if men whose years and circumstances are such as to indicate that it is only for their own consumption that they obtain evil literature of a certain sort, the Police may well leave them to a higher judgment than the police-court. The reason this unsavoury subject connects itself in my mind with the gambling curse is that the Post Office is the recognised agency for the dissemination of all such evil wares. In the United States of America any person who uses the " mails " for the furtherance of a fraudulent or illegitimate purpose may be summarily deprived of the use of the Post Office altogether. But in this stupid country of ours the Post Office is bound to accept and transmit anything and everything which outwardly conforms to its rules, unless by a warrant, issued ad hoc, the Secretary of State intervenes.
I was amazed and distressed at the obstinacy with which my valued friend, Sir Stevenson Blackwood, adhered to the merest technicalities in this matter. Though a righteous man, and devout withal, he was such a hopeless slave to red tape that I appealed to him in vain, first privately, and then in official correspondence, both directly and through the Home Office, to help me in my crusade against the evil to which I allude. But the advent of Sir Spencer Walpole, his successor in office, brought a happy change.
At that time I had succeeded by delicate Police attentions in driving away a notorious purveyor of literary filth. But the man moved his business to Boulogne, and at intervals he crossed the Channel with a portmanteau full of his wares in packets addressed to his clients in this country, and these he posted in Folkestone. I had thus gained nothing by my action ; for in Blackwood's time the Police were treated like the man in the street in such matters. But Walpole was a sensible man of the world ; and when the Secretary of State summoned him and me to a conference on the matter, he at once declared that whatever was needed to stop such a scandalous abuse of the Post Office should certainly be done.
As everything entrusted to the Post Office is, while in transit, the property of the Crown, the Secretary of State is empowered to give orders respecting the disposal of it. All that was necessary, therefore, in the case above mentioned was that the Folkestone postmaster should be put in touch with the Police, and have orders to send a report to St. Martin's-le-Grand, giving particulars of the packets posted by the criminal, and then to delay their transmission pending instructions. This being arranged, the Police watched for the man, tracked him to the post-office, and arrested him as soon as he had posted his filth. The Secretary of State then issued a warrant directing that the packets should be given up and used as evidence. The case was thus complete, and a conviction followed as of course.
As regards the practical question of the exercise of these powers by the Home Office, I can speak with adequate knowledge. For during the many eventful years that I had charge of Secret Service work at Whitehall, under different Administrations and five successive Secretaries of State, every warrant of this character was prepared by my own hand ; and I had always a full cognisance, and often the direction, of the action taken upon it. And I can aver that no such warrants were ever issued save to check serious crime, or to prevent a flagrant abuse of the Post Office, such as I have described. If the facts were generally known, so far from there being even a prejudice against the exercise of such powers, there would be a general outcry against the laxity of Government in this matter. The Post Office is the regular agency for the dissemination of what is fraudulent and corrupting - a state of things which, as I have already said, is not tolerated in America.