Episode 108

Episode #108 - Fate of Fortune - Gaston Means

Long ago, in a place named Serendippo, a King had the highest of hopes his 3 princes would have the best of everything. However, He couldn’t just simply leave his sons with power and wealth, he must also instill the virtues important to the delicate balance such a position requires. Education being the most important of these virtues. 

The 3 princes excelled academically and the royal tutors were pleased. The King tested his sons and proposed he live in the shadows and relinquish his throne.  Each prince declined, praising the King’s wisdom and ability to rule. While it pleased The King, he felt the princes’ education may have been entirely privileged and sheltered. 

Or maybe he figured they were full of shit, I mean not one wanted to take his throne?  Either way. The King pretended to be angry and cast the Princes away from Serendippo for some real life experience… 

The 3 Princes were indeed wise, but it was their skills in observation that had served them well thus far. The 3 Princes knew how important education was to their father, but they also knew of his desire for perfection. The Princes observed The King’s penchant for vanity and saw how their father could never admit failure or fault. The Prince’s knew if one had accepted the offer of the Throne from The King he would have been insulted, instead they received a free vacation. Simply by attention paid to the world around them. 

After a long voyage, The 3 Princes arrived in a foreign land and became keenly aware and familiar with their environment. Taking it all in; from the dirt beneath their feet to the air above them. They walked and watched, listened and smelled. 

The Princes saw a merchant who said he lost his camel. The Princes asked if the camel was lame, blind in one eye, missing a tooth, carrying honey, butter and a pregnant woman. The hopeful merchant asked where they saw his camel. The Princes said they had not seen the camel or the woman. Thieves! the Merchant charged and brought them before the Emperor.  The Emperor demands to know how they can give such an accurate description despite having never seen the animal. 

Each Prince explained: Grass was eaten from the side of the road that was less green, the camel must be blind in one eye and unable to see the lush grass just steps away... Bits of grass littered the road, the camel had clearly lost some of his meal through the gap from a missing tooth….  3 feet made prints, the fourth made a path; flies on one side and ants on the other could be from none other than a lame camel dripping butter for the ants and honey for the flies. Nearby was a wet patch of dirt near footprints and a handprint. It was urine where a pregnant woman must have used her hand to get back up after relieving herself. Unbelievable! 

Just then the trial was interrupted by a traveler who had found an old lame camel wandering the desert and the pregnant woman nearby. The Emperor spared the Princes and made them his advisors, lavishing them with riches. 

The Princes lived an adventurous life and enjoyed many fortuitous endeavors. Opportunistic observations? Or just damn lucky? 

Serendipity was the word Horace Walpole wrote, in search of a word to describe a fortuitous accident. A description of accidentally finding something amazingly beneficial, while looking for something else completely. Serendipitous fortune. 

Is it just Lucky in Life or Make your own Luck? Coincidence? Fate? Or could it be manifested through clever and acute observations?  

Some may say it’s intuition, and intuition can’t really be separated from general observation. At least not scientifically. 

Observation can be tuned and learned, but can Intuition? Even the best poker players rely on a little luck as well as their observations and acting. 

Reading people isn’t just for cards.  Sometimes it’s a seemingly natural skill that you can find in people with PTSD or past traumatic experiences. In that sense it’s a defense mechanism that can be attributed to hypervigilant personalities. They know the outcome of situations and identify danger quickly based on interruptions in learned behavior patterns.   

Observation is really an entire mental process in which knowledge is produced. The Godfather of Neuroscience, Wilfred Trotter said “ “Knowledge comes from noticing resemblances and recurrences in the events that happen around us,” 

For centuries con men and women have used opportunistic observation to mark their victims. Gaston Bullock Means was one of America’s most notorious confidence men. J Edgar Hoover called him”The most amazing figure in contemporary criminal history”...  I’m gonna tell you the story of how he tried to swindle my great great grandmas rich uncle out of millions and got away with murder. 

INTRO - Welcome to Little Crimes on the Prairie

This podcast is written and produced by Kristi (That’s me). I’m making some gradual changes to the show, so please bear with me as I make those adjustments. Hopefully the only change you notice is a better listening experience. I don’t have a team to produce this podcast, it’s just me and those who choose to participate. It’s a lot of work and I do it because this project is important to me. If you’d like to become a sponsor or just support this podcast, I’m currently working on the website and hopefully that will be updated with sponsorship information soon.

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So occasionally, I shake the ol’ family tree and a few nuts fall out… Gaston Means isn’t part of my family tree but he is definitely a nut! The megalomaniac was found hiding among one of the branches in my sequoia of a family tree. In the last episode I talked about Fate, and in this one I told you about Serendipity. They are related in the sense that Fate is predetermined and Serendipity is basically doing what you were already doing and discovering something great... 

They are very different because serendipity can be staged, while fate (the idea of it) is not pliable. Some people are capable of elaborate behind the scenes plotting. They con their way into the good graces of people with money, power, fame or just about anything that seems beneficial to them. 

Con man is short for confidence man, because it takes a great deal of confidence to pull off elaborate schemes. Modern day Catfish are also in the same genre as con men. It’s not fate that brings them to these opportunities as they will try to make you believe. Their skill in observation, human nature, as well as creating chaos and confusion is what gives them the advantage. However, it could be that was their fate all along, to teach people a life lesson in trust. Maybe it’s God’s will that cons lack the conscience and morals of regular society, only to wind up in jail or on the receiving end of revenge for their misdeeds. Free Will or Fate? 

We will never know for sure but we can assume that if it’s too good to be true it usually is. It used to be a lot harder to read people before they started sharing every intimate detail on social media. Today Gaston Means would be like the Wolf of Wallstreet Jordan Bellafort or Catch me if you can - Frank Abagnale… J Edgar Hoover once called Means “The most amazing figure in contemporary criminal history”... He was an associate of Jess Smith and President Harding’s Ohio Gang. He was an extortionist, and blackmailer. He was a forger and a fraud on all fronts. While he may have had some sort of mental illness such as megalomania and other narcissistic traits. I think he was just an asshole who preferred easy money, for most of his life he had never actually been held accountable for anything. 

Well before Gaston Means was born, James Clarke King left his boyhood home in Glover Vermont for the state of Illinois. Just 20 years old in 1850, James didn’t have much to his name except an industrious attitude and a knack for understanding business. He had already lost both parents and that was probably the reason he was determined to succeed in all areas of his life. 7 years after arriving in Illinois, as an unknown Abe Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated on the political stages throughout the state, and the country ran headlong toward the civil war. James married Sarah Holbrook and eventually the couple found themselves in Chicago. James became involved in the lumber industry as a merchant. It was a fortunate industry to be tethered to when the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 was finally out. 18,000 buildings had been destroyed, 100,000 people were in dire need of lumber to rebuild their homes and businesses. James was able to profit immensely from the tragedy and with his growing fortune found satisfaction in philanthropic efforts. Sarah died in 1886, at the age of 56, they had been married for almost 30 years. 

James stayed busy and continued to grow his empire. He made sound investments in railroads and infrastructure and by 1894 he was the VP of the Chicago City Railway. As he aged the midwest winters became intolerable and he preferred to spend the winter in Pasadena California, enjoying the sunshine. He often admired the beauty of the so-called buds of society. James flattered the young ladies by sending bouquets of violets, this earned him the title of the Violet King. 

In 1901 he had his will filed and provided a sum to a woman named Maude Robinson.

James had amassed an estate worth approximately $4 million dollars (which is equivalent to over $120 million today) he Eventually he had an antenuptial agreement made with Maude for $100,000 and the $200,000 he had provided to her for music training in Paris. They married later that year in Michigan despite the almost 40 year age difference. The record shows this as the first marriage for both, but each had been married before this time. It’s been said that James had devised a plan to “catch” Maude’s first husband “cheating” with a woman who was hired by James. Giving Maude every reason to file for divorce. 

Honestly, that seems like a lot of work for a guy in his late 60’s/ early 70’s. Who in 1901 had the foresight to know that an antenuptial agreement was prudent before marrying Ms. Maude Robinson. It’s just a feeling I get but who really knows for sure?   

Maude found herself in the lap of luxury and when James died on November 1st 1905 she didn’t seem too broken up about her loss. Just one week after her husband’s funeral the papers in Chicago reported that Maude will be contesting the will. The will itself was a masterpiece and clear on the beneficiaries in every aspect. He had no children and left his siblings as well as nieces and nephews a generous sum, and the remaining bulk of his estate to various charitable causes. He wished for a Home for Old Men be built and named after him, and the largest portion of his estate went to the building of and perpetual funding of this. The will even contained a clause that if any beneficiary was to contest his last will they lose the right to bequeath. Maude was not deterred by this and indeed contested the will of her late husband all the way to the Illinois supreme court. 

She eventually settled with the trust company for $600,000 and another $400,000 in a trust. With that behind her she galavanted the globe and indulged herself in whatever she pleased. In 1912 she returned to Chicago after being pursued by a string of gold digging suitors through Europe and back to the US. Maude’s sister Mazie Melvin was exhausted from trying to keep Maude and her affairs in order. In 1915 Gaston Means came along to lend his hand to sort and manage the affairs of this widow. I imagine him sounding much like foghorn leghorn as he sold himself and his brand of “managing” to an unsuspecting Maude. I’m not sure Mazie was as unsuspecting or loyal as Maude blindly believed.    

Gaston Means was born in Concord North Carolina in 1879. The Means family had been prominent in social and political circles for over 100 years. His father, an attorney, had also  been the mayor of Concord for years. Gaston’s mother was an heiress with family ties to Theodore Roosevelt. A tale recounted from Means childhood is the glee he felt after stealing money from his mother and watching the housekeeper be fired over it. A Chubby boyish face and deeply dimpled cheeks. A sneer of entitlement on his lips and eyes dancing with excitement at the thought of easy money. He wished to pursue a career in law but proved lazy and dropped out. A large man, he liked to be seen as strong, masculine and generally a man’s man. His laziness made this mostly an act, but his temper was likely the only time anyone ever saw Gaston’s true nature. Every other facet of his personality or character was manufactured to exude authenticity, honesty and transparency he did not possess.  

Gaston was privileged as a Means and was able to secure positions he did not deserve, doing work he was not qualified to do. 

Now assigned to the Chicago Office. Means was a great salesman by all accounts, even though he often marked up the cost to appear he was giving the customer a deal.

In 1913 He had just married Julie Patterson, long time acquaintance of Maude’s sister Mazie. Julie was the acquaintance that introduced Gaston to Mazie in 1915.    

Her and Gaston were invited to a dinner party and Maude was just over the moon about Gaston, his charming southern accent, lively personality and seemingly endless connections. Maude moved to NYC shortly after and continued to enjoy her freewheeling lifestyle. 

Soon after Gaston claimed he had resigned from his position at Cannon Mills. He had been disrespected and hadn’t received credit for an idea he pitched. Realistically, Cannon Mills fired him for an unwillingness to sell newer products. I’m guessing they were on to a scam he had been running behind the scenes, and dropped him before he did any real damage. Gaston saw NYC as better suited for the family, and his long game. He immediately began working for William Burns detective agency. He was an agent for the German government during WWI during his employment there. However, that was just his day job. He had a better paying gig in mind. 

Before you know it they lived in the same apartment building as Maude and Mazie. Gaston was enlisted to investigate some acquaintances and later managed Maude’s affairs including her finances.

Her power of attorney held by a greedy traitor who no doubt sounded like a cartoon Rooster. 

Seriously You guys!  “Ms. King, Isay Isay, youah affaahs will be looked aftah……”

It’s difficult to summarize Gaston’s level of double dealings and fraudulent schemes. Means was a charlatan of the highest order and in 1917 most of the world would see just how malevolent Gaston Means was. 

Means took the liberty and gambled Maude’s remaining fortune in the stock market and by 1917 Maude was broke, left with just 10% of her inheritance. Through forgery and misrepresentation Means was even able to dissolve Maude’s trusts. 

I’m sure Means had intended on doing well in the stock market, repaying Maude’s capital and keeping any profits for himself. Of course that’s not what happened and Means began to panic. He needed a permanent solution and it didn’t take long to formulate a plan.  

This seemed like the perfect time for a trip! Gaston planned a trip to his hometown for Maude and her family, as well as his wife and child. He planned activities any socialite would totally love, like rabbit hunting. Yeah rabbit hunting, because I’m sure if there’s one thing Maude King was dying to try, it was rabbit hunting.  

August 29th 1917, Gaston waited until after sundown to suggest Maude take her new pistol for a little target practice. I guess it seemed legit to Maude because she, Gaston, his brother Afton and Capn. Bingham drove to an area near a creek called Blackwelder Spring. Upon arriving Afton and Bingham supposedly broke from Gaston and Maude, the pair each claimed they were hunting some rabbits when they heard a shot and Gaston’s yell for help. 

Maude had been shot, and according to Gaston it was Maude who had accidentally shot herself. In his greatest role yet, Gaston dramatically wept as he recounted the series of events leading up to the widow shooting herself. He had placed Maude’s new gun in the crotch of a tree nearby and went to get a drink from the spring. With his back turned Maude had apparently grabbed the gun and dropped it, an unnatural force caused the fatal bullet to be fired. There was an inquiry and a jury was like - sounds like you know your stuff so accident it is. Maude’s body was transported back to Chicago the day after her death, Maude was interred quickly and quietly. 

A resident of Concord, who I haven’t been able to identify sent word to NYC and Chicago. The message was clear, there was something amiss in the death of the widow, investigate immediately the messenger instructed. 

Maude was re examined and a forensic pathologist in Chicago named Burmeister made some interesting discoveries.

Upon examination of Maude’s fatal injury the examiner found that the bullet had entered behind Maude’s left ear and without powder burns or stipling. Her ankle was also broken. It was determined Maude’s death was indeed a homicide. Word was sent to North Carolina’s Attorney General to put out a warrant for Means and indict him on murder charges. The case was passed to Hayden Clement, district solicitor and former classmate of Means, both men tar heels from the University of NC only one had graduated though. 

Concord residents had their mind made up, this witch hunt of their prodigal son by some damn yankees was absurd! It was an accident and the motive made no sense, the defense team argued… Gaston? Kill the goose who laid the golden eggs? Downright preposterous! This doubt creeped throughout the jury pool as if it weren’t already tainted. 

Gaston’s defense team was filled with prominent members of the NC Bar and the prosecution’s motion for a change of venue was nearly laughed out of court. The judge ruled that there was no issue in receiving a fair trial right there in Cabarrus County. So that’s where the trial of Gaston Means was held, in a county where his prominent family had been shaping the policies, laws, and serving in political positions for over 100 years; one of his great grandfathers even served as governor. Quite literally a home court advantage…

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Little Crimes on the Prairie
True Crime stories from the upper midwest