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Monday, April 4, 2016

Gaston Means Partner in Crime with Norman T. Whitaker

     Gaston Bullock Means (July 11, 1879 – December 12, 1938) was an American private detective, salesman, bootlegger, forger, swindler, murder suspect, blackmailer, and con artist and partner of American Master Norman T. Whitaker, an unsavory character if ever there was one. 
     Means, along with Whitaker, also pulled off a con associated with the Lindbergh kidnapping. Politically Means was associated with members of the so-called Ohio Gang that surrounded President Warren G. Harding
     Means was born in Concord, North Carolina, the son of William Means, a reputable lawyer. He was also a great-nephew of Confederate General Rufus Barringer. He graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1903, became a schoolteacher, then a traveling salesman. His life avocation, however, was a con artist. He was not a nice man; he boasted to friends that he had been accused of every felony in the books, including murder. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover once called him "the most amazing figure in contemporary criminal history" because of his ability to weave a believable story. 
     In 1911, he talked himself into a job with a New York detective firm where he created reports that contained so many clues that they had either to be investigated further at a substantial cost or denounced and his reputation spread. 
     On the eve of World War I, he was asked to further Germany's interests in the then-neutral United States. He "uncovered" plots and counterplots rife with secret documents and skulking spies, all of which required investigation at his usual rate of $100 per day, or nearly $2,500 in today's dollars! 
     After America declared war with Germany, Means returned to being a private detective and was given a case involving the widow of a wealthy lumberman, Maude King, who had been taken by a swindler in Europe. She had been left $100,000 (nearly 2.5 million today) by her late husband, with the remainder of his estate intended for charity. She sued for more, and settled for $600,000 (over 14 million today). Means weaseled his way into her life, assisting her with business affairs. Pretending to make investments for her, Means actually deposited hundreds of thousands of dollars into his own account and invested heavily in cotton and the stock market; he also lost heavily. As a result of his losses, Means claimed to have found a new will that needed to be investigated and in the process of “investigating” managed to plunder her remaining funds. In the spring of 1917, Means had burned through Mrs. King's cash and he needed more money so he forged a new will which he then conveniently discovered and filed it. 
     In late August, Mrs. King vacationed with Means and his family in Asheville, NC. On August 29, 1917, Means and Mrs. King went rabbit hunting. They did not shoot any rabbits, but Means returned from the trip carrying Mrs. King's dead body, claiming that she had accidentally shot herself in the back of the head. The local prosecutor didn't believe him and indicted Means for murder. Lawyers from New York were hired to help prosecute Means. The defense counsel successfully played on local antipathies to outsiders and after a brief deliberation the jury acquitted Means. 
     But there was still the matter of the phony will. It turned out that on the day it was signed the witnesses were out of town and the typewriter used to type it hadn't yet been manufactured. Also, it was determined that the signatures were forgeries. 
     With things going so badly, Means concocted another story that was urgent than a forged will.  He declared he knew the location of a trunk filled with secret documents obtained from German spies. He made a deal with the US Army. In exchange for a letter to the judge attesting to his good character Means said he would hand over the trunk. An Army intelligence officer accompanied Means to locate the trunk which was sent to Washington D.C. and Means demanded his letter. But when the trunk arrived it was empty. Means promised to find the scoundrels and recover the lost papers.  However, the army investigated and discovered the weight of the trunk when sent was identical to its weight when opened. The thing was, Means had used the incident in order to escape the jurisdiction of the court and he never returned. 
     Despite his past, in 1921 Means was hired by the Bureau of Investigation, then led by William J. Burns, an ex-Secret Service man, private detective and friend of the Attorney General in the Harding administration which was rife with scandals. Means was hired because of his skill as an investigator, but he was later suspended from the Bureau because he was considered a loose cannon. 
     During the Harding administration Prohibition was in effect, but illegal alcohol was common and Means began selling his services to local Washington bootleggers claiming he could use his connections to "fix" their legal problems. 
     Curiously, President Warren G. Harding died on August 2, 1923 at age 58 in San Francisco at the same time the Western Chess Championship, forerunner of the US Open, was being played across the street from his hotel. Norman T. Whitaker tied for first and he happened to be Means partner. By the way, Means was a biographer of Harding who wrote The Strange Death of President Harding
     In a case involving the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, Means and Whitaker swindled a Washington socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean, who was owner of the Hope Diamond, and a distant relative of the Lindbergh family. She contacted Means because she knew that he was a former FBI agent who operated on both sides of the law and she believed that he was in contact with the Lindbergh kidnappers. Means didn't deny her belief. 
     After a series of phone calls, she agreed to pay ransom money which, oddly enough, was much more than the real kidnapper was demanding. Means, having assured her that he could get in contact with the kidnappers, said his friend was the person who took the Lindbergh baby. Means then sent Whitaker disguised as "The Fox" to a resort in North Carolina to pick the money. 
     When the baby was not returned Mrs. McLean demanded the return of her money. Means agreed, but of course he never did return it. When confronted about his duplicity he claimed a messenger from Mrs. McLean had met him with right code word and he had turned over the money. This time the police were notified and Means was captured and sentenced to serve 15 years in a federal penitentiary. Means died in custody in 1938. Whitaker got 18 months and after serving his time he was soon convicted of another crime and served 15 years in Alcatraz. He died in 1969 at the age of 79. The money was never recovered. 
    It's odd, but Mrs. McLean offered her assistance to help Richard Hauptmann get an appeal and overturn his death sentence in the kidnapping case because she believed that Hauptmann was not a lone killer. She offered to pay any fees so that the investigation could continue.
     In the mid-1960s while playing in a tournament in North Carolina I arrived in the tournament room before the start of the round on Sunday morning and there was a likeable old fellow on crutches who was adjudicating a game and telling stories. I did not know who he was at the time, but it was Whitaker. He was there peddling his book, written with Glen Hartleb, titled 365 Selected Chess Endings. The book was written in both German and English and consisted of fairly difficult endgame studies. Whitaker was selling autographed copies for five dollars and promised, “If you learn everything in this book, you'll become a master.” Become a master...those were the magic words, so like a lot of guys I bought a copy. I really didn't like the book and never learned everything in it so maybe that's why I never became a master. Who knows? Or was it a Whitaker mini-swindle?

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