Ah! 25 March — 153rd anniversary of the day when Lord Glencairn would inherit his title and fortune. Unfortunately for his creditors, he wasn’t Lord Glencairn. Or Lord Gordon-Gordon, Lord Gordon Gordon, or The Hon. Mr. Herbert Hamilton, as he also sometimes claimed.
Yes, the man who may have really been called Hubert Campbell Smith, but we don’t know for sure, was in the midst of a short but remarkable and often successful career as an impostor and swindler, which began in 1868.
He convinced Howard Paddison, a solicitor in Lincoln’s Inn, that on 25 March 1870 he would inherit the Glencairn title which had been dormant since 1796, that he had estates in Scotland, England and Ireland, that he was related to the Marquis of Hastings and the Duke of Hamilton, and a friend of the Prince of Wales, and that he was set to come into £100,000 any time now.
Edinburgh jewellers Marshall & Sons checked the Scottish Peerage and apparently found evidence to support the Glencairn story — and duly became one of a number of firms in the English and Scottish capitals which allowed him to run up debts.
Wouldn’t you know it, though? Just before today’s equivalent of about nine million quid came his way, he mysteriously disappeared, owing his unfortunate solicitor at least £5,000. He turned up in Minnesota as Lord Gordon-Gordon.
He made pretty convincing aristocrat, what with having many thousands of dollars to stick in the National Exchange Bank of Minneapolis. The story now was still “Hello, I’m landed and wealthy” but with a side order of “also, I want to buy land over here”.
Being a benevolent sort, he wanted to resettle tenants from his apparently crowded Scottish estates. This attracted the attention of the people at the Northern Pacific Railway, who began to lavish hospitality on him.
Their largesse may have been worth anywhere from $15,000 to $45,000, because he was, after all, about to splash out to the tune of $5m. Three months later, he was in New York to collect the funds that were definitely being transferred from Scotland.
He was actually meeting legendary robber baron Jay Gould, who was trying to get control of another railroad company, to which Lord Gordon Gordon naturally responded: oh, I’ve got loads of railway stock, and my European partners have more…
For such a notoriously unscrupulous man, Gould was very trusting, and bribed Gordon-Gordon with hundreds of thousands of dollars of stock, bonds and cash to grease the wheels. Mind you, according to the Manitoba Historical Society, Gordon had said…
…that he at twenty-two years of age had been the youngest member of the House of Lords, that the Queen had the greatest confidence in him, and had him complete an important diplomatic mission because he was the only man capable of coping with Bismarck.
You know, I’m sure there must be some kind of contemporary resonance for all this making up outlandish lies off the top of one’s head and being socially and financially rewarded for it, but I just can’t quite put my finger on it.
Anyway, when he got the dosh from Gould, ‘Gordon’ claimed $40,000 was missing, which Gould duly produced, and asked for a receipt. According to William Watts Folwell’s A History of Minnesota (1921)
His lordship replied with exceeding dignity that his word of honor ought to be receipt enough
The second he got his hands on the stock, Gordon-Gordon started selling it, so Gould sued him. In court, Gordon performed very well, giving names and addresses of relatives back in the old country — so cables were sent to track these people down.
Bail was set at $37,000, and Gordon — well, of course — persuaded some friends to put this up for him. By the time the replies to the cables came in — saying, inevitably, that no such persons or even addresses existed — Gordon had fucked off to Canada.
A few months later, Gould’s people caught up with him, tied him up and started dragging him towards the border. Somehow, he convinced the Canadian authorities that he was the injured party, and was being kidnapped, and it was his creditors (or at least their operatives) who were thrown in jail. This caused some tension between Canada and America, not least because things dragged on until 1874 before the Canadian attorney-general finally heard the truth.
At last, a warrant was issued which would get Gordon back to Britain to face the wrath of the Edinburgh jeweller (among others). He decided the game was up, packed a bag, said at the last minute he needed a warm coat for the journey, nipped back to his room and shot himself.