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Lord Gordon Gordon: The nobody who swindled the world

He was a courtly man who swindled people from Scotland to Minneapolis.

He was a courtly man who swindled people from Scotland to Minneapolis. Manitoba Historical Society

In the summer of 1871, Minneapolis was a bustling city of 20,000 people, and many of them were talking about the new lord in town.

Out of the ether came Lord Gordon Gordon, a sharply dressed man in patent leathers and a silk hat who'd gained attention after depositing several thousand English pounds in the National Exchange Bank of Minneapolis.

There would be no competition for the envious position of the year’s social lion. Everyone had to meet him. As he made his rounds, answering dinner invitations and taking elaborate picnics to Minnetonka with Minnesota’s elite, he dropped little breadcrumbs indicating his gentlemanly origins.

He was the heir to the Earls of Gordon, he said, and a collateral relative of that pale heartthrob of a romantic poet, Lord Byron.

And why not? He certainly sounded like a perfect English gentleman, and he looked it, posing for photographs in Scottish tartan and leaning with an ease of a man who could buy his way out of anything. It was all so un-American. They loved it.

As Gordon Gordon rode the social cyclone, he crossed paths with Colonel John S. Loomis, who happened to be the Land Commissioner of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Their meeting was fortunate, Gordon Gordon said. He was actually in the market to buy acres and acres of land, hoping to move some of his Scottish tenants off their overpopulated country manors. Meanwhile, Loomis was hoping to push his railroad ever westward, and he needed to sell off some land to fund the enterprise. Perhaps they could make a deal.

Loomis eagerly invited Gordon Gordon on an all-expenses-paid tour of the railroad’s land. He put him up in first-class comfort, with a personal secretary and valet, and some money for extra expenses. The whole tour reportedly cost over $45,000. Loomis came along, wining and dining his potential buyer, telling state officials and officers of the railway to refer to Gordon Gordon as “My Lord.”

As Gordon Gordon toured select sites, he talked of towns and schools he planned to build. Loomis likely thanked his lucky stars that a moneyed gentleman had fallen out of Europe and into his lap.

Except Lord Gordon Gordon was not a gentleman, nor a lord at all. Before he’d come to Minnesota, he’d been in Glenisla, Scotland, calling himself Lord Glencairn and paying jewelers and solicitors in promised shares of a fortune he said he had coming to him in March 1870.

But when 1870 rolled around, Lord Glencairn disappeared, put an ocean between himself and his broken promises. He’d left behind $100,000 in unpaid debts. The jewelry he’d frequently obtained with the understanding that his forthcoming fortune would pay for it mostly ended up as lavish gifts for his friends.

By 1872, Gordon Gordon was telling his Minnesota hosts that he needed to head east to arrange his massive money transfers. He never came back. He turned up later in New York, and the Erie Railroad Company became his next mark. 

Gordon Gordon let it slip to Horace Greeley, then editor of the New York Tribune, that he owned 60,000 shares of Erie Railroad stock, and he was about to shake up the management of the company. That got the attention of railroad tycoon Jay Gould, one of the wealthiest men in American history. He beat down Gordon Gordon’s door that March, frantic that this upstart was going to threaten his own growing control over the railroad company.

He offered Gordon Gordon a deal. He could choose new directors, but why not let Gould keep control of the company?

Sure, Gordon Gordon said. For a half a million dollars in cash and shares.

With the deal well in hand, this would normally be Gordon Gordon’s cue to flee and start his routine all over again, but he didn’t. He started selling shares, which piqued Gould’s suspicions. He told brokers not to accept any more of Gordon Gordon’s trades and told him the deal was off, and that he needed to give everything back. He returned the cash, but only some of the shares. Gould quickly caught on that he’d been had.

Because he was unable to return shares he’d already sold, Gordon Gordon was arrested for swindle. But some wealthy New Yorkers he’d been associating with paid his bail. Gould was shocked, but the fact was, Gordon Gordon wasn’t just convincing. He was likeable. Everywhere he went, he made powerful friends that would put themselves on the line to vouch for him.

And he certainly looked like he knew it. He was the picture of nonchalance at his trial. He stuck his thumbs in his waistcoat pockets and crossed his legs in the courtroom, as if he were bored of the whole thing and wondering when he could get back to responding to dinner invites. He told the court about his noble ancestry and his friends and partners in the English gentry, and to a roomful of Americans the whole thing sounded plausible. 

But bearded, furrow-browed Gould wasn’t one to so easily forget a sleight. The U.S. Treasury only barely managed to stop Gould from taking total control of the U.S. gold market in 1869, and when Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall fame was arrested, it was Gould who posted the lion’s share of the $1 million bond. He was a robber baron -- a man who profited from crashes and panics and intimidation -- and he knew a grift when he saw one.

Gould cabled all the men Gordon Gordon had name-dropped, but by the time he figured out it was all hokum and they’d never heard of him, Gordon Gordon had already taken the night train to Canada.

For almost a year, Gordon Gordon evaporated. He headed to Fort Garry, posing as an English gentleman looking for sport in the Canadian wilderness. He went on shooting expeditions and carried on like a man on a permanent vacation. But in 1873, a posse of prominent Minnesotans and Minneapolis police officers cornered him on his front porch in Fort Garry, Manitoba. Once again, some well-to-do Americans were hoping to make a quick buck off of the phony English lord, but this time in the form of his bail bond.

They threw him in the back of a wagon and carted him back toward the states, only to be stopped by the Canadian police and thrown in jail themselves for kidnapping. They had to telegraph the mayor of Minneapolis to bail them out.

And that’s how a con man’s flight into Canadian safe harbor became an argument between the United States and Canada.

Minnesota papers rallied for a militia to be sent across the border to collect their countrymen. Who were the Canadian police to jail some high-class Minnesotans trying to catch a swindler? The governor, President Ulysses S. Grant, and Canadian Prime Minister Sir John McDonald eventually sorted the whole thing out, and the aspirational kidnappers were released before things could escalate.

But Gordon Gordon was still on the lam, and Gould was offering $25,000 for anyone who could bring him to justice. His lordly days in England were catching up with him, too. An Edinburgh jeweler, some poor sap who’d lost a fancy necklace or ring to one of Lord Glencairn’s fake friendships, wanted to collect on his debts. A circle that spanned continents and oceans was slowly forming a noose around Gordon Gordon’s neck.

After going through the proper legal channels, Toronto police officers tracked him down at the home of Abigail Corbett, where he was boarding, to arrest him on behalf of the jeweler. They found him asleep in his bed.

When they woke him up, he blinked, looked around, and calmly asked them if he could finish his nap. They gave him a firm no. By this time, they all knew how slippery he was. He was coming with them this instant. He agreed, but asked them if he could go into the other room and grab his hat. The Canadian air would be cold, and if he was going to get hauled off to jail, he’d rather not be miserably chilly, too. They let him duck through the doorway.

The next thing those officers heard was a sharp bang as Gordon Gordon shot himself in the head. He died instantly.

To this day, no one knows who Gordon Gordon actually was. For a while, he was used as the gold standard for con men: the measure by which every liar, swindler, and cheat was measured. But then, as he did so many times in life, he disappeared. The world forgot him.

Jenny McElroy, a librarian with the Minnesota Historical Society, stumbled on Gordon Gordon’s story while she was on a Wikipedia bender, purely by accident. She just received a $2,500 award to research his life and write a book. Her dream is to find a document from that golden hour when the world believed him – when everyone in Minnesota and New York was enamored with this mannerly gentleman and his mannerly promises.

Even she doubts she’ll be able to find out who he really was. After all this time, he still got that one over on us.