Episode #7: King Con
At the turn of the 20th century, white Americans and Europeans saw the Native American Indian as both a mysterious and exotic figure. Their perceptions were almost entirely informed by horribly inaccurate pop culture, and Edgar Laplante found it all too easy to exploit their ignorance. The "King of Con Men" came from a working class family in Pawtucket, Rhode Island and seemed to have a pathological need to lie and consume an endless tide of praise and attention. His unbelievable adventures would take him from swindling country churches by impersonating a celebrated athlete to an international celebrity doling out handfuls of cash to fawning crowds across Europe.
This week's guest on the Can't Make This Up History Podcast is author Paul Willetts. Paul is the author of several books, most of which center on larger-than-life personalities in the true crime genre. In his most recent book, King Con: The Bizarre Adventures of the Jazz Age's Greatest Impostor, Willetts describes the incredible exploits of Edgar Laplante in wonderful detail using a fun, novelistic style. Paul joined me from the U.K. to share some of Edgar's most successful (and outlandish) cons and dive into the psychology that drove him.
Key Points in Today's Podcast
Some of the major topics I discuss with Paul in this episode are:
Edgar's earliest cons as a young man in Vaudeville and the patent medicine circuit
How Edgar successfully stole the identity of the athlete and soldier Tom Longboat
What drove Edgar to ultimately push for bigger and bigger cons
Edgar's adventures across Europe where he turned one of his aliases into an international celebrity
Whether those of us living in 2018 have wised up against the wiles of con artists like Edgar.
I think the story of King Con is as much psychological as it is historical. After talking with Paul about his experience in researching Edgar's legacy through newspaper reports and criminal records, I gained a greater appreciation for the power of psychology on display in Edgar's life. We may be tempted to look at Edgar and see him as having some type of addictive or compulsive disorder. While it is certainly true that Edgar's irrational behavior is an example in extremis, we shouldn't try to marginalize him too far apart from ourselves. Many people spend well beyond their means because they believe the stuff they acquire will validate their worth. Some pursue one unhealthy relationship after another as they look for a person who can meet all of their needs. And then some avoid conflict at all costs, to the point they regularly get taken advantage of, as they desperately seek the approval of others. Edgar is not that different. As Paul points out, Edgar's cons were never about the money, but rather the futile attempt to fulfill a mental and emotional need.
And what of all of Edgar's marks? All the people he lied to, swindled, and took their money? They wanted something from Edgar, or at least from the people Edgar claimed to be. The people Edgar duped wanted to feel like they were part of something special whether that was the chance to hear a real Cherokee chief give a lecture at a town fair or just catch a glimpse of a supposed movie star as he toured Italy. If you don't already believe this is true, observe how the crowd that forms around the exit of a concert or sporting event thrashes against one another to grab autographs or just to snap a photo they can publish on their Instagram.
I think the story of the "King of Cons" is a very human story, and not one that should be written off as the relic of a bygone era.
For the Ever Curious
If you are interested in learning more about this topic, consider checking out these resources:
Books by Paul Willetts
www.paulwilletts.com - Paul's website offers biographical information, excellent descriptions of all his books, a list of his upcoming talks, and bonus content for King Con.
The Look of Love Movie Trailer - Paul's biography on Paul Raymond, Members Only, was turned into a feature film in 2013, directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Steve Coogan of the Night at the Museum and Despicable Me series.
Library of Congress Photograph of "Chief White Elk" - This historic photograph of Edgar Laplante is still listed as "Indians of North America--Clothing & dress--Northwest, Pacific--1920-1930."
"Chief White Elk" Documentary by Beppe Leonetti - Still in development by Incandenza Films, "Chief White Elk" will focus of Edgar Laplante's unbelievable con of the Italian aristocracy in the 1920s.