Tom Longboat the Great American Con

Readers will recall a previous post about the great indigenousCanadian long distance runner, Tom Longboat. I had not heard this story, but it is rather intriguing. From the National Post.

H/T  Ray Wilkie

 

Tom Longboat was getting comfortable in San Jose. He had a room at the upscale Imperial Hotel on South First Street, and would tell those whom he met that he was in California to regain his “health” after a hellacious time with the Canadian regiment in the trenches the Great War had carved across Europe. If the person kept listening — and most people Longboat met did — the world-famous Onondaga runner from Six Nations territory near Brantford, Ont., would speak of his athletic feats: his marathon world record, his victory at the 1908 Olympics, his head-to-head battles against the great British distance man, Alfie Shrubb.

He might mention the eight foreign languages he spoke, reference his three years in Chicago studying medicine, tell some war stories and proclaim — as he did before a standing-room only audience at the San Jose’s First Baptist Church during a much-celebrated evening engagement on March 4, 1917, where it was revealed the great runner also possessed a golden singing voice — that the war from which he’d returned was a great fraud. To decide the hostilities, Longboat said that night to wild applause, the sovereigns of the nations involved should do the fighting and keep the common man out of it. And when he spoke with a newspaper reporter the next day, the famous runner unbuttoned his shirt, revealing the sizeable scar on his chest.

Tom Longboat (left) and Edgar Laplante (right) and National Archives, U.K.

“A German woman gave me that,” Longboat told The Evening News. “Yes, I was on German soil when she ran her sabre through my breast.” Doctors removed two of his ribs, his story went, and the German woman wept upon seeing that the man she had tried to kill was wearing a “red cross” on his arm and was a member of the medical corps.

“They call this a boys’ war,” Longboat reportedly said. “It may be that, but it is an awful war just the same.”

Awful, indeed — but in fact the temporary toast of San Jose had never seen action. He was not a war veteran — and wasn’t Tom Longboat — but Edgar Laplante, a 28-year-old conman from a Rhode Island mill town. Laplante had French-Canadian roots, an olive complexion, a lean, athletic build, near-bottomless charm and the liar’s audacity to pretend to be a legendary Indigenous athlete while the legend himself was serving as a Canadian army dispatch runner in France.

“With Edgar Laplante, it wasn’t about the money — he wanted attention, he wanted acclaim,” says Paul Willetts, the author of King Con, a new book about this mostly forgotten Jazz Age grifter who, for a time, latched onto Longboat’s stardom to work his scam.

In his criminal specialty Laplante was a master craftsman. After a stint in reform school as a teenager and a stretch bouncing around the fairgrounds of Coney Island, where he would dress as a Native American and dance and jabber away in imagined tongues, he headed west in January 1917 to launch his career as Tom Longboat. In Abilene, Texas, he told a gathering of well-to-do locals he intended to build the town a new gymnasium. He offered to give coaching tips to young athletes — and related the story of a blind girl who found her voice in music. He moved on to Arizona and spent several days as a guest at a U.S. army camp, at one point organizing a mile-long race against a group of recruits — and winning it.

A studio portrait of Edgar Laplante, c.1918. Washington State University Libraries

It was a good time to be a con artist in America, a land of bounty full of unwitting dupes who might be well-versed in the affairs of their own city thanks to the local newspaper and gossip on the streets, but would often be clueless as to what was happening in the next town over. This was before national newspapers, radio and televisions, and before the great highways. A simple long-distance phone call took close to 10 minutes to connect, if it could even be connected. News, when it travelled, moved slowly. Any grifter with a good sense of timing might work a scam in one place for a few days, a week, perhaps even more, before moving onto the next town when things got a little too uncomfortable.

But where Laplante elevated his unsavoury work to a form of art was in passing himself off not just as a famous athlete but as a famous Indigenous athlete. He cut his hair in the same fashion as Longboat. He could even run fast. To modern eyes, he looks like some schmuck from Pawtucket, not an Onondaga from Six Nations. Yet Laplante’s fakery fit perfectly with the context of his time. Most early 20th century Americans had never encountered a Native American in real life. What imagery existed was often Hollywood-produced, and featured costumed white actors playing Indigenous parts.

“This would have made Laplante seem much more plausible to a white audience,” Willetts says.

Tom Longboat takes the lead in a race Library Archives Canada

From San Jose, Laplante went to Los Angeles and then San Diego, where as Longboat he befriended Judge Leovy, Commodore of the local Yacht Club, a magnet for the city’s wealthiest citizens. He was entertained at the San Diego Rowing Club and promised his hosts, in time, that he would present them with a gift of three birch-bark canoes. He was an honoured guest at the U.S. Grant Hotel and gave speeches, waiving any fees. On a Sunday in March he enlisted in the U.S. naval reserve, the San Diego Union reported, passing the requisite physical despite “suffering from a severe bayonet wound in the chest.”

“My people have buried the tomahawk and hatchet and war paint, but they are ready to go to war with you boys to protect our own Star Spangled Banner if necessary,” the phoney Longboat said. His wealthy friends bought him a tuxedo. Longboat spoke of his Olympic win — in fact the real Longboat had collapsed while leading the 1908 Olympic marathon, failing to finish — while upping the number of languages he could speak from eight to 14.

All was well for the con artist until the San Jose Evening News received a telegram from the Telegram, a Toronto newspaper. “Man posing in your city is a fakir. The real Tom Longboat is now in England with a Toronto battalion.” An Ottawa man, visiting San Diego, alerted the press back home that an impostor was afoot; another individual sheepishly came forward and said he had run against Longboat in Montreal years earlier and knew the man in San Jose to be a fake, but had lost his nerve and didn’t confront him.

Laplante, meanwhile, did what any good runner would do, given his situation — he took off, but later popped up on the East Coast, again pretending to be Longboat. The real Longboat, still in France, eventually learned about the fraud after he was erroneously reported as being killed in action.

“I was over the front lines last night and I was sweating like an old gorse,” Longboat wrote in a letter to his former manager, Tom Flanagan, published widely in North American newspapers. “I was covered with mud from head to feet and I don’t know how many times I fell in the shell holes over the wires. They cut me all up. Everything was flying around, high explosives, shrapnel, whizz-bangs, coal boxes, rum jars, oil drums.

Alfie Shrubb takes the lead over his rival, Tom Longboat. Library Archives Canada

“That made me real sore on this fellow having a good time all over the country on my reputation, so I am going to take action against the man. I am going to have three charges against this man, one for making false statements, second for impersonation, third intent to defraud the public at large.”

The jig was almost up, so Laplante altered the con and invented a new persona — he became Chief White Elk, a great Cherokee ruler with an oil fortune in Oklahoma. As White Elk, he gained the trust of Utah’s governor and won the affections of Princess Ah-Tra-Ah-Saun, aka Burtha Thompson, a nurse with a Native American parent and a passion for promoting Indigenous rights. In other words, the perfect, altruistic, unsuspecting female cover for a serial fraudster. After a whirlwind courtship, the pair were married by the mayor of Salt Lake City. Chief White Elk wore buckskins, a war bonnet, moccasins and beads to the ceremony.

In addition to his fortune, the chief would often speak of his athletic prowess. While addressing a crowd in Edmonton, he said he was heading to Toronto to compete against Tom Longboat — the real Tom Longboat — in a marathon. (Chief White Elk also hopped around British Columbia and is the subject of two postcards — collector’s items — depicting Laplante in full native costume in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.)

Burtha Thompson and her husband Edgar Laplante Washington State University Libraries

Eventually, the chief went international, and sought an audience with King George V — he didn’t get one — before Paramount Pictures hired him to promote a western. The European movie tour took him to the French Riviera, where he charmed an Austrian countess, Milania Khevenhuller-Metsch. She presented him with a luxury sports car and bankrolled a tour of Italy, all on the promise that the chief would pay her back for her largesse, just as soon as he freed up the funds from his oil empire in western Canada.

“It was like Beatlemania, only it was Chief White Elk-mania hits Italy,” Willetts says. “When Laplante gets to Florence, his hotel is under siege — and there is a police cordon.”

Women rushed the stairs of the hotel, admirers passed him letters and threw flowers, while some just reached out to touch the great man’s sleeve. Alas, for Laplante, the good times didn’t last. The countess’s stepson, Georg, smelled a rat. Laplante was arrested and spent almost six years in an Italian prison before being deported to the United States. The press was waiting when he arrived in Brooklyn. They wanted to know — what next? The conman was repentant. Laplante told reporters that he had learned his lesson. He was going straight.

And yet, 15 years later, a man calling himself Dr. White Eagle succumbed to a heart attack in Phoenix. Sifting through his few possessions, local authorities found identification indicating that the man’s name was Edward La Plante. Edgar Laplante was buried in a pauper’s grave in Arizona.

 

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