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Swindler claimed wife, son and daughter had been killed in traffic accident

• Aug 4, 2017 at 1:00 PM

All too often people are being cheated by swindlers using social media to obtain money under false pretenses. Don’t think that that is something new, for it went on long before electronic devices were ever imagined.

In the evening of June 2, 1909, a man identifying himself as Bruce Emerson, a consulting engineer from New Orleans, registered at the West House hotel in Sandusky. The desk clerk handed him a telegram, which had come for him earlier. The man read it and that it informed him that his wife, son and daughter had been killed in a traffic accident in New Orleans and that his mother had been severely injured.

“With tears in his eyes and broken voice” Mr. Emerson inquired as to the local train schedules and left as soon as possible for Bellevue to catch a train to Fort Wayne, Ind., to inform his bosses of the accident and then proceed to New Orleans. He further dramatized his story by saying that the daughter was to have been graduated from high school.

It happened that Bellevue’s postmaster, Mr. Bates, was on the train from Sandusky to Bellevue and Emerson repeated his story. Mr. Bates fell for the scheme and paid for Emerson’s ticket home because he “wore a Shriner’s pin” and Bates “knows that he is all right and that the story he told is a true one.”

Two days later it was revealed that on the afternoon of the 2nd, Emerson had been in Norwalk and told the same story of family tragedy to a member of Maccabee Lodge, as well as to Sheriff William Sattig and an interurban agent. When this part of the story came to light, there arose great doubt that any of the story was true.

It took a week, but the Sandusky Star-Journal newspaper contacted the New Orleans Picayune to investigate. It was found that no such accident had occurred anywhere near New Orleans and that the same game had been tried in several different cities. A peculiar part of the story is that the man almost never asked for financial assistance, but took it if it was offered.

It also was revealed that despite his “urgency” to return to New Orleans, he actually went to Toledo from Bellevue and to Detroit. He took a boat from there to Toledo, where he received another similar spurious telegram addressed not to Bruce Emerson, but to T. A. Reynolds. Sympathetic passengers on the boat offered to take up a collection, but he exhibited a roll of currency and disappeared into a saloon near the dock. Similar telegrams were received at Ypsilanti and Kalamazoo by Emerson (or whoever he was) while he was in Michigan.

At Kalamazoo he used the alias of Joseph Jamison when registering at a hotel where (conveniently) another telegram was waiting with the same phony message. This time he became crazed with grief and once again started south by train toward New Orleans.

I didn’t find any further news of this incident in the papers of 1909, but it’s possible that this swindler went to other cities and worked his scheme. It proves, though, that our ancestors needed to be as beware of fakes as we do.

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REMEMBER: My “Just Like Old Times” books are on sale at Colonial Flower and Gift Shoppe at 7 W. Main St. in downtown Norwalk. These preserve my earlier columns in permanent book form.


Henry Timman, an authority on Firelands history, resides in rural Norwalk.


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