Arch swindler, forger, detective, and author, Gaston Bullock Means was many things to many people. To FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover he was the “greatest faker of all time.”
A conniving detective, he always seemed to be embroiled in trouble or at the centre of a controversy. Means was an inveterate liar whose fabrications were never less than fantastic, but he presented his case so convincingly that he was believed by his gullible victims, who financially backed him again and again.
Means was the fourth of seven children born to William Gaston and Corrallie Bullock, wealthy landowners from Blackwelder’s Spring, North Carolina. Raised in the nearby village of Concord, Gaston left the University of North Carolina in 1898, a year shy of receiving his degree.
In 1904, he landed a job with the Cannon Mills Company of Concord, a leading textile firm. Means spent the next decade as a traveling salesman for the firm, canvassing the lucrative New York and Chicago markets.
His extensive knowledge of the industry convinced the editors of the New York Journal of Commerce to hire him as a “stringer” to report on the latest goings-on in the textile markets.
In 1910, Means quit the business to pursue the far more glamorous career of private detective for the William J. Burns agency.
In the course of proving his worth to Burns, who later called him “the greatest natural detective ever known,” Means made the acquaintance of Captain Karl Boy-Ed, the naval attaché to the German embassy, and when the European war began in August 1914 Means made a deal with Boy-Ed to supply the embassy with sensitive data about allied shipping.
For this he was paid a weekly salary estimated to be between $700 and $1,000.
Means also volunteered his services to transport top-secret documents for the allies. The money he earned from these ventures enabled Means to furnish an elaborate apartment, where he entertained society friends.
It was about this time that Means accepted his most lucrative assignment: safeguarding the interests of Maude King, widow of millionaire lumber baron James C. King, who had left the bulk of his fortune to his young and vivacious wife.
King thumbed her nose at the social mores of the age. She led a riotous life in the capitals of Europe, squandering her deceased husband’s fortune.
Deciding that he should become the beneficiary of her extravagance, Means wormed his way into King’s good graces by faking a holdup in which he saved the lady’s honour and purse through an act of gallantry. After that she made him her closest confidant and financial manager.
By July 1917, Means had bilked more than $150,000 from King by managing her estate. That August, King became concerned about the manner in which her finances were being handled.
Means reassured her that everything was in order and suggested that perhaps what King really needed was a short vacation to put her mind at ease. He invited her to Concord for a hunting trip in the woods.
Maude King was certainly not the outdoors type. She and Means nevertheless went hunting together, but Means returned from dense woods alone and in a state of agonized grief.
He claimed that King, while playing with his gun, shot herself in the head. “Mrs. King, poor soul, was very lightheaded,” he said. There were no other witnesses to the tragedy.
King relatives and authorities became so suspicious of this “accident” that Means was indicted for murder, but his trial was held in Concord, where the sympathy of the town and his father’s name and reputation weighed in his favour.
Means was acquitted despite the testimony of ballistics experts, who explained that the shot could not have been fired by Maude King’s own hand.
In 1918, with his wartime adventures over, and King’s ashes scattered to the wind, Means re-joined the Burns Detective Agency. He busied himself with hunting down anarchists and political malcontents during the 1919-1920 “Red Menace” scare, but produced little or no results.
It appeared that he would fade into the obscurity of Washington’s bureaucratic backwash, but all that changed with the coming of a new political administration, one that proved to be the most venal in American history, controlled by outlandish freebooters in the exact mold of Gaston Bullock Means.
Warren G. Harding of Ohio became the nation’s twenty-ninth president in 1921. His administration established new lows in bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption, as he filled sensitive federal offices with some of the greediest politicians the U.S. had ever seen. Means became one of Harding’s key players.
It took several months of behind-the-scenes “negotiations,” but Means secured an appointment to head up the Bureau of Investigation, forerunner of the modern FBI, for his employer, Burns.
Burns had ordered Means to come up with letters of recommendation from key congressmen, who might be persuaded to intervene with the president on his behalf, but Means took a more circuitous route. He found the skeletons in the legislators’ closet and used them as a bargaining tool.
Burns was appointed to head the agency in October 1921. He rewarded Means for his stellar work by naming him special investigator, much to the chagrin of J. Edgar Hoover, then a low-ranking department functionary.
In the few months that Means occupied this office, he spent much of his time conniving with Ohio political boss Jess Smith, who occupied offices at the Department of Justice. Hoover complained to Burns about Means’ unethical operations, but not much was done until the press became interested.
Means had recently been implicated in the forgery of a will and had brought a fraudulent claim against the South-eastern Express Company less than a year earlier. The unfavourable publicity this caused the administration led to a public clamour that resulted in Attorney General Harry M. Dougherty suspending Means on February 8, 1922.
Means, however, remained on the payroll as an informant.
On May 30, 1923, Jess Smith committed suicide amid rumours about wholesale corruption and graft within the “Ohio Gang,” a group of Harding cronies who had been illegally selling off oil-rich government lands near Teapot, Wyoming to oil tycoons like Harry Sinclair.
The “Teapot Dome” scandal rocked and all but destroyed the Harding administration.
Although he had been a contact man for in the oil scandal, Means emerged unscathed. He involved himself in a variety of shady deals in the next few years and was indicted in October 1923 for the illegal withdrawal of government liquor from federal warehouses, while using Andrew Mellon’s signature on a forged document.
Then, in March 1924, he was charged with extorting $65,000 from some stock promoters after promising them he would rid them of pending indictments on charges of mail fraud. Before the trial began, he revealed to a Senate investigating committee that key government officials were receiving graft payments.
Means produced two large bundles of supposed “hour by hour” accounts of his investigative work, but then this evidence mysteriously disappeared. Means claimed that the records were now in the hands of Senator Smith W. Brookhart and produced a signed note from the senator, but the document was later proven to be a forgery.
Means was indicted on a charge of forgery, but the case never went to trial. However, he was convicted on two earlier charges in April 1925 and was sentenced to spend two years at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta.
While occupying a cell at that institution, Means concocted his biggest scam to date. He persuaded Mrs. May Dixon Thacker, a minister’s wife involved in prison reform, to help him write a sensational expose about Warren Harding.
In it he accused the president’s wife of poisoning her husband during their fateful West Coast trip in 1923. Mrs. Harding had done this, Means alleged, because of his affair with Nan Britton, an ingenue who supposedly gave birth to the president’s child out of wedlock.
The Strange Death of President Harding appeared in 1930 and was a runaway best seller, with some eighty thousand copies snatched up by the American public, but Thacker expressed her misgivings about the book, when Means failed to produce documentary evidence to support his wild allegations.
Writing in the November 7, 1931 issue of Liberty, Thacker completely repudiated the work, calling it pure fiction.
In March 1932, Gaston Means stepped into the criminal limelight for the final time with his most insidious swindle. He agreed to locate the kidnaped Lindbergh baby for Mrs. Evalyn Walsh McLean, a Washington, socialite. McLean agreed to supply Means with $104,000 in ransom money.
Working with an accomplice, one Norman T. Whitaker, Means staged two imaginary rendezvous with the so-called kidnappers at Aiken, South Carolina, and El Paso, Texas. He sent news back to Mrs. McLean that an additional $35,000 was required.
At this point the woman notified the police, who promptly ordered Means arrested. He was convicted of grand larceny and sentenced to fifteen years at the Leavenworth Penitentiary. The $104,000 was never recovered, and Means refused to reveal where it was hidden.
His remaining years were spent trying to regain his freedom. Means approached the FBI with an offer to help them solve a backlog of unsolved cases in exchange for his freedom, but Hoover was not interested. Gaston Means died at the Medical Center for federal prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, on December 12, 1938.