Episode 109

Episode #109 - Fate of Fortune Part #2 - Gaston Means

Fate of Fortune - Gaston Means Part #2

If you haven’t listened to Part 1 of Fate of Fortune, please do  before you continue with this episode! It will make so much more sense, I promise! 

Hey there! Welcome to Little Crimes on the Prairie… I don’t think I have any business to blab about today - It’s been like 2 days since Part 1 came out, so no new business today! We get to just dive right back in! So we’ll recap Part 1 a bit… 

We learned a little about James King and his self made millions. I’m not going to say he never took advantage of anyone, but there is a clear cut contrast if you look back at the 20 year old versions of them. When James was 20 he left Vermont for Illinois, both parents already deceased and $270 to build his life on. 

When Gaston was 20 he was gearing up to drop out of the University of North Carolina, and take a job his father got him. Gaston manipulated people and things, James seemed to be honestly familiar with serendipity. 

When James lost his first wife Sarah he remained single for over 10 years and seemed to enjoy himself and everything around him. He eventually met 28 year old Maude Robinson and married her. Although, not exactly chomping at the bit, he first had her sign a prenup. He died in 1905 (I’d like to see his death certificate, even though nothing suspicious about that has been raised) Later, in court to contest James’ will, Maude claimed that the marriage wasn’t consummated until he showed that he added her to his will. Which he did, she was to receive $100,000 upon his death and he’d already given her $200,000. So $300,000 for some 1900’s booty, seems a little steep.  

Northern Trust settled with Maude for a million bucks, and she heads to Europe to waste some of her hard earned money. 

Eventually, Maude’s sister Mazie hired Gaston Means to help look after Maude’s affairs and money. In just 2 years Gaston had lost her fortune in stocks, and decided what everyone needed was a trip to his hometown, for some good ol’ southern hospitality and rabbit huntin’... 

Gaston’s family played host to a grand ol time. Maude even planned a good ol fashioned BBQ wishing to invite the whole town! 

Gaston was sure to get Maude a new pistol, becuse she didn’t care for the one she was using. She’d never had an inclination to hunt anything prior and Maude’s mother Ana testified that Maude was scared of guns and had refused to ever touch one. Not that it really matters, because during some moonlight target practice Maude get’s dead in the most totally believable, not at all predictable gun accident. 

Could happen to anyone in a remote area, shooting targets in the dark, with the person who manages your entire life and has nothing to gain by you totally shooting yourself…. Accidentally, though. Behind the left ear. With a Colt .25. With a palm pressure safety…. Well, the “jury” for the inquest in Concord agreed with Gaston. Immediately following the “inquest” Means, Mazie and the undertaker hightailed it back to Chicago to get her in the ground.    

Word made the rounds to NYC and Chicago about the suspicious circumstances, and Maude was exhumed and re examined by a pathologist. Wouldn’t you know it, he determined her death to be a homicide!  

Murder charge looming in his home county, the world learned about a second will of James King! WHAT?!? Ya don’t say??

This will Gaston claimed to have found in mid August of 1915, and with Maude totally aware of this new will, Gaston set off to have it verified by experts for 2 years!! 

Apparently the Violet King had a literal last minute change of heart. Screw the old men’s home and the rest; it should all go to Maude it said.  

Conveniently, witnessed by Mazie Melvin herself, her husband and the president of Northern Trust (who held James King’s estate in trust) Byron Smith.. Of the 3 witnesses only Mazie was still living. Talk about bad luck huh??

Such luck, such Serendipity to have come across such a valuable document while sorting through some old papers Maude had so carelessly tossed aside. It’s as if she didn’t even know it was there, oh Maude what a silly woman you were… If only she hadn’t been so eager to go shooting targets in the moonlight, with the guy who had her power of attorney and accidentally shot herself in the back of the head, and died.   

The will was not presented to the court despite having found it 2 years earlier. Naturally, Means explained he needed to get the opinions of experts to verify it’s authenticity. 5 experts had verified the document, and Maude’s death couldn’t have happened at a more inopportune time…. They were set to file the newly discovered will in court the very next week!! How inconvenient for Gaston, thankfully for him he had the full support of Maude’s caring sister Maizie, a witness to the signing of the document. 

OOOHHH aannnd there’s more. Gaston also had a contract signed by Maude that assured almost $1 million to Means upon the will’s verification and successful probate. 

So with Maude pushin up daisies, her power of attorney in hand and Mazie nodding her head, Gaston had finally landed his whale. The biggest score of his life was all but in the bag, once that pesky, murdery little ordeal was finally over he would be set. 

No more schlepping around bustin his ass blackmailing and extorting people just to get by. Now he’ll have more free time to extort and blackmail people for sport. Ha! You didn’t think he was planning to retire did ya? Not even close. 

Gaston’s literal home court advantage is where we left off in Part #1. 

Gaston was eventually brought to trial in Maude’s murder, his counsel were prominent members of the NC Bar, including ET Cansler (member of the draft exclusion board for western NC) Frank Armfield and more….  plus his father “The Col.” W.G Means and brother Brandon as “advisors”

The prosecution of this crime was brought by State Solicitor Hayden Clement with the assistance of LC Caldwell, Jake Newell as well as the Cook County Illinois Assistant District Attorney John Dooling. 

The Grand Jury was basically made up of his pals, and they weren’t in any hurry to answer, but had no choice given the evidence, to eventually return an indictment. 

Means was arrested Sept 22nd 1917, and the days leading up to his arrest were full of subpoenas, motions, and a pervasive dislike for the northerners involved with the case in any way. Brandon Means even punched a northern reporter for making a picture of his sister. 

The trial was set in Cabarrus county, to begin on November, 26th 1917. 

This case was in the papers across the country, it was so scandalous and dramatic, with a cast of characters so eccentric it was impossible to ignore. Everything about the case was sensational and with WWI still raging it was a distraction. Jaws dropped when Gaston revealed his work with the Germans and the Burns Agency.

Heads would continue to spin throughout the entire trial, and for years after as you will find….

Maude’s receipts and ledgers presented to the court showed how just over $100,000 remained of her once handsome estate. Trusts dissolved, $25,000 borrowed to Means, there was also a sum borrowed to JB “Buster” Foraker (close friend of Maude’s) widow of former Governor and Senator from Ohio Joseph B Foraker. Also, $9,000 monthly for the 3 neighboring apartments on Park Avenue; one housing the Means family the other 2 Maude and Mazie including household expenses. The defense used this to illustrate Maude’s reckless spending, even though Gaston had wiped out her trusts, stocks and other securities. Means father in law was found to have large funds held in securities with 2 trust companies in Chicago.  

A trunk full of documents were seized as Afton Means was attempting to take them out of Gaston’s Park Avenue Apartment. One can only assume to deliver to the Defense team. One document of particular interest to the Prosecution was a sheet of stationary belonging to Means with Maude’s signature written several times in a row…. Firearms experts disputed each other, and an expert for the defense said bullets are crazy as cotton.. One more of the several testifying for the defense used the N word in open court to explain the thicknesses of foreheads.... 

Means testified in his trial and had an answer for everything. Many years later in 1964 the Raleigh News and Observer quoted Hayden Clement as saying “Gaston Means was the smartest witness I ever examined.” 

Means was repeatedly instructed to speak to the person addressing him, not the jury due to his habit of turning simple answers into speeches and making complex theories regarding Maude’s fate seem factual. 

This mostly went unchecked by Judge E.B Cline, occasionally he reprimanded Means. 

Numerous defense witnesses claimed they had also placed guns in the crotch of the sycamore tree at Blackwelder spring, and none had fallen. One witness for the defense even testified he had turned his ankle on a root while he had his knife in his hand. He claimed he stumbled in such a way that his knife struck him behind the left ear… He also failed to duplicate this alleged scenario in court. 

Gaston and his cohorts were quite comfortable in the courtroom, they laughed and winked at one another as if not concerned about the allegations.  

Reading about it just over 100 years later has me staring in disbelief at what was seemingly normal, re reading article after article.. I can’t possibly be reading this right, but yes it’s absofuckinloutely true and chronicled in thousands of articles in newspapers across the country. I used Newspapers.com for a majority of my research, piecing together the facts from thousands of archived articles. 

In December of 1917 Gaston is acquitted of Maude’s murder after he and his defense basically flipped the bird at the process and court of law. 

Maude may not have been held dear by my family, likely despised, but I can’t help but feel sorry for her. I’m not sure what she deserved, but I don’t think a bullet to the back of the head was it. 

In my opinion either Mazie had a seething hatred for her sister or Gaston was blackmailing her. I honestly can't see any other explanation of her blind devotion to Means. She was almost prosecuted for conspiracy, as Means’ co conspirator. The papers were kind and didn’t flat out say her name, but it was certainly implied. Those closest to Maude (who weren’t trying to rob her blind and kill her) whispered that she was about to cut all ties with Gaston, because she knew the second will was a forgery. They spoke to her character as being mostly honest and good, Gaston’s forgery of her late husband’s will had gone too far. She wouldn’t have any of it, and had already spoken to an attorney in regards to Gaston’s control. If that was true that would be one hell of an inconvenience, and a damn strong motive.  

With the freedom to move on from the murder trial, Mazie and Gaston file the alleged second will of James King in probate court. According to the 1964 article by the Raleigh News and Observer Hayden Clements recounts after Means was acquitted he walked into Clements Office and tried to hire him to represent him in the case of the second will in the Chicago courts. Clements said “You know damn well I know your will is a forgery!” Gaston just laughed and walked out. Ya really can’t make this shit up. 

Northern Trust and the probate court sent notice to all beneficiaries, including Hattie A. Bassett in Rushmore, MN. She was my great great grandmother, widow of Edward H Bassett, a civil war veteran. She was the daughter of Benjamin F King and a niece of James King. She had built a beautiful home near Rushmore, MN; her and Edward had homesteaded the land after the Civil War ended. This grand home was well deserved after years in a sod home, and eventually a small frame house where her family endured the harshest winters and most unforgiving summers. The notice she received regarding the probate of this obvious forgery brought with it a deep anxiety and fear. Understandably so, her inheritance had been placed in trusts for her heirs, and used to expand their homestead and farming operation. The uncertainty of it all being taken away was beyond comprehension. 

Fortunately, this judge wasn’t having any of it, eventually ruling the second will a forgery. Judge Horner noted Maude had never mentioned the will to anyone who wouldn’t directly benefit from it’s authenticity. Judge Horner described Maude’s silence on the second will as “a silence - deep as death. A silence that almost speaks.” Judge Horner also made it known he doubted Maude had ever seen the forged will. He also exonerated Mazie’s and Means’ lawyers from imposing on the court. 

Oh but of course they appealed that decision and it was upheld by Judge Jesse A Baldwin. 

Finally, some 15 years after James King’s death, his estate was exactly where he wanted it to be. In the hands of Northern Trust Company where it still sits today as an endowment of Presbyterian Homes. 

When I think of James C King, I think of a man who lived a genuinely serendipitous life. A man who knew hard work and hard luck, but seemed to find silver linings among the cotton clouds that dotted the endless prairie skies before Chicago grew upward and outward. James King is more than just a great uncle of mine, to me he represents the “American Dream” we all hold so dear. I feel pride when I think of his entrepreneurial spirit and hard work, and I especially feel pride when I think of his generosity. His concern for aged men who may have no one to care for them, and nowhere to go in their old age. 

82 years after his death in 1987, Barbara Brotman wrote an article for the Chicago Tribune that brings me incredible joy to read. I’ll share it with you all, so you can see what James' true legacy is. 


Barbara Brotman


''Aces are low, kings are high,'' said John Freeman, shuffling the large- print cards. ''You remember how to play this, Mr. Butler?''

Charles Butler, 86, a retired Illinois Central Railroad supervisor, fixed Freeman, a 20-year-old Northwestern University student making a weekly visit as part of his studies of the aged, with a steely blue gaze beneath his white hair.

''I have played it more than once,'' he informed him.

The whippersnapper reprimanded, the men proceeded to play cards, dealer`s choice. Piles of chips gathered and moved. Freeman dealt. It was a manly scene, even if Ralph Binney had to be assisted in his game by Jane Silverman, activity assistant.

Manly scenes are what the men here like. The James C. King Home in Evanston is a retirement home and nursing facility for men only. It was established as such in 1911 by King, its founder, a Chicago Board of Trade member who left a will creating a trust fund for a home for elderly men.

Serving a population overwhelmingly dominated by women, it is an extreme rarity. Administrator David Benni believes it is the only home for elderly men in the state and one of only a handful in the nation.

So rare are men in such facilities that life in the King Home looks strikingly different from others. At other homes, said activity director Eric Homer, ''I`ve never seen a woman a sitting with a stack of chips in front of her, smoking a cigar.''

Although some of the men said they would enjoy living here even if there were women, others prefer the male atmosphere, which they described as similar to a men`s club.

''I think women would complicate things,'' said Binney, an 85-year-old retired stockbroker. He sat in his wheelchair in the airy solarium and vocally demonstrated his freedom from fear of causing a ladylike blush.

''It`s cold as a whore`s heart in here,'' he grumbled.

-- -- --

''This wouldn`t be the same if ladies were here to live,'' said Francis Oelerich, a retired businessman. For one thing, he said, ''I wouldn`t be here.''

''You don`t have the chattering of female voices,'' said Ray Strout, 86.

''Have you ever eaten in a tearoom restaurant? Did you ever listen to the noise level? We don`t have that here. We have peace.''

''I have all the respect in the world for women,'' said John Giles, 82, a retired engineer, ''but they get to talking and reminiscing. Yak, yak, yak. I`m not used to that.''

The gentlemen here are by no means antisocial. Many are active in outside activities and senior citizens groups that include women. The home has hosted several wedding receptions for residents, who then moved out.

''I love to see women come in to visit,'' said Giles. ''I get tired of smelling men.''

But visits are all most of the men want. Some are widowers who do not care to become involved with another woman. Strout, on the other hand, has three lady friends, but believes that living with women can actually be a social disadvantage.

If a man becomes involved with a woman living in the same facility but later chooses to disengage, he said, word can spread.

''She tells all the other women you`re a skunk,'' Strout said. ''You are ruined.''

He is glad he lives apart from his lady friends. ''Never play around home,'' he advised.

-- -- --

Unlike actual men`s clubs, the James C. King Home has not been accused of discrimination. It is not permitted to admit women under rules of the trust fund established by James C. King.

The male-only restriction ''probably is a marketing deficit,'' said Benni, for there are far more elderly women who are potential residents than elderly men. Ninety percent of most coeducational retirement and nursing homes are women, he said.

Here, activities are of a masculine nature. The King Home has a pool table and a well-equipped workshop instead of stitchery or painting. Bingo is a staple of many retirement homes, but the men here play for money.

It is easier to find friends among the 72 male residents, most of them successful professional people, than among a handful of men at most coeducational homes, said Giles.

Many of the men do not believe they could converse on the same level with women of their generation, most of whom did not pursue careers, said Homer. Discussion tends toward such topics as third-generation nuclear arms and the Vatican`s banking system.

They are conservative men, with an average age of 86. They wear suits or jackets and ties at nearly all times, including exercise sessions.

They are required to wear jackets on the first floor, and last year residents voted down an attempt to lift the restriction during breakfast.

Twice a year, there are the equivalent of college mixers--social events held with the Mather Home, a nearby retirement home and nursing facility for women.

Last year, the women invited the men to a picnic on the Mather Home`s grounds. The men asked the women to a Halloween program of skits performed by an Evanston community organization.

The events are considered great successes by all. ''A lot of the women fuss over the men,'' said Erna Sperber, the Mather Home`s executive director. ''They`re treated like kings.

''There have been instances where individuals have been asked on dates to go for a walk in the evening. They ask me if they should go,'' said Sperber, who sees nothing improper in this. ''I say, `What can possibly happen at the age of 85 or 90?` ''

 What happened to Gaston though - you’re probably asking.. Well not long after the forged will was in the law books as such, Gaston could be found with his old pal William Burns, who was now in the FBI and hired Means without informing FBI Director Harry Dougherty. Dougherty suspended Means once he found out, and then reinstated Gaston and fired him shortly after. Dougherty was a member of President Harding’s “Ohio Gang” whose actions were being investigated by the Senate. 

Means claimed to have already “investigated” these men, and as he was under indictment from NY for prohibition violations and attempted blackmail, Means told tall tales of the involvement of not just Daugherty, but Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon and others, framing the suicide of Jess Smith (another Ohio Gang associate) as happening the day after Gaston told Smith he will be taking all of his information to congress, coming clean with all of it. Nobody was buying what Gaston was selling anymore, at least nobody who actually knew him. He was eventually sentenced to 4 years total and in 1928 was released from Prison in Atlanta. He never had to pay his fines because he claimed he was destitute. 

In 1930 Means conned an author into writing a book for him called “The Strange Death of President Harding”... Asserting President Harding was poisoned by Mrs. Harding due to his ongoing romance with Nan Britton and Jess Smith didn’t commit suicide at all….. This whole book was deemed to be full of the same old Means bullshit everyone had come to expect from him. When the royalties from the book's sensationalism ran out, he gleefully repudiated the entire book. By 1932 everyone was like, Gaston who?, and they’d soon be reminded of who he was. 

On March 1st 1932, the almost 2 year old son of our country’s beloved Charles Lindburgh was taken from his crib. A nation wide story and manhunt ensued. Naturally, Means had to insert himself into the situation. He convinced Evalyn McLean to put up a $100,000 guarantee he would arrange the infant's return. Of course, he’d also need some money for his expenses $4,000 should do. Mrs. McLean was an heiress whose father had struck it rich in prospecting, and with that she had also married the heir to the Washington Post and Cincinnati Enquirer publishing fortune. This owner of the Hope Diamond decided to give Gaston the $104,000 to secure the infant’s safe return. Wild stories of a bad guy called “The Fox” . Even when Lindburgh paid a $50,000 ransom to Richard Hauptmann from NYC Means told McLean the kidnappers wouldn’t return the child without new bills. Interestingly, the $50,000 had gold certificate notes included, and Hauptmann was a German immigrant with a criminal history. That’s an entirely different episode, though… Mrs. McLean’s lawyer became aware of the situation and the authorities were notified. This was his most cruel con of them all, because we know that the Lindburgh baby was found dead on May 12th of the same year. The next month Gaston Means was tried and found guilty of larceny for the $104,000. The judge displayed his disgust by saying Gaston’s greed “capitalized the sweetest most tender sentiments of the human heart.” 15 years was the sentence and then another 2  years for conspiring with the Fox Norman Whitaker in the additional $35,000 they almost got from McLean. Means died in December of 1938 in Federal Prison at Leavenworth.    

Serendipity to one, may be the result of a scheme created by another and unlike the idea of Fate, Serendipity can sort of be manipulated. I think we’re all well aware that it’s possible to use the power of observation to take advantage of a situation and people. This story is a good way to compare Fate to Fortune. Destiny or Luck. A powerful, prominent family was Fate for Gaston. His family’s  prominence and notoriety provided him privilege; he was spoiled, entitled, lazy and lacked empathy. THAT was his Fate and his Fate brought him to Fortune… Well, I mean it brought him to prison, too. The few consequences he did face can’t be blamed on Fate. His privilege allowed him every opportunity to succeed in an honorable way, his deeply flawed personality and greed put him there. Eventually. 

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