Fake news: The bold-as-brass conman who pretended to be a Cherokee chief
- Credit: Archant
American swindler posing as Chief White Elk acted like Robin Hood and gave away millions of dollars that weren't his
Writer Paul Willetts was browsing the National Archives database when he struck gold. 'Raymond or Raj Tawanna alias Edgar Laplante alias 'Chief White Elk,' American international swindler,' read the title of a police file. The author had been hoping to find inspiration for his next book, and he had. He travelled down to Kew to read the physical documents – and realised it was one of those rich stories you couldn't make up if you tried. It was, for colour and quirkiness, 24-carat gold.
'It felt like love at first sight,' Paul confesses.
Here was the tale of a teenage trickster who grew into a conman prepared to dupe thousands on both sides of the Atlantic… by pretending to be Chief White Elk, leader of the Canadian Cherokee.
For years he enjoyed an existence that was a cross between The Great Gatsby – full of excess – and Robin Hood. For in Italy, after beguiling a countess into bankrolling him, he gave away millions of dollars to poorer folk – handing over wads of high-denomination notes to the crowds that followed him. Newspapers from around the world hung on his word.
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It was all lies and fantasy, and eventually Edgar Laplante had to face the music. Not that it entirely stopped and shamed him… At one point he posed as a famous athlete on his way to the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, raising money en route. Wonder where that went.
No wonder Paul's telling of this fantastic story has found an audience in America, and earned a review in the Washington Post. 'What he gets involved in as an imposter is not really about money; it's about attention,' he reckons.
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Edgar is a white, working class, guy born in Rhode Island. At 14 he's conning shops out of small change, which he gives to his dad… before a spell in reform school.
At Coney Island, home of Brooklyn amusement parks, he works as a 'ballyhoo man' in his 20s – standing on a platform, dressed as a Native American, and probably using his great singing voice to coax passers-by who might then buy tickets for a circus.
'There's a fascination with Native Americans – through vaudeville, through wild west shows, through novels, through early cinema – which primes the audience for the con Edgar Laplante will later pull. He gets obsessed with Native Americans,' says Paul.
There are some years of grind on the vaudeville and medicine show circuits – and then, in the autumn of 1917, 'the bravura performance that would earn him worldwide fame'. For Edgar Laplante reinvents himself as Chief White Elk, a civil rights campaigner and war hero from Canada complete with feathered headdress. Leader of the Cherokee nation, people are told. It's all hooey.
'He's got so much charm and charisma, and he's a good-looking guy, that within a week of rolling up in Salt Lake City in the spring of 1918 he's met a genuine Native American, they've decided to marry, and the governor of Utah and the mayor of Salt Lake City have become pally with him and have thrown open the state capitol for the wedding,' says Paul, who's lived in Norwich since 1982.
'They get married in front of 5,000 people with full military honours. And he carries on like this. It's a story of escalation.'
On through the US drift the couple, ostensibly raising money for struggling Native American reservations. If anyone has suspicions, the era's communications make it hard to share doubts and track his route. 'If people start to smell a rat, he can just move on and pull his shtick elsewhere.'
Late in 1922 things are getting a bit hot. He separates from the self-styled Princess White Elk, travels to England to present the case for the Cherokee and almost secures an audience with King George V. The Daily Mail's keen nose knows something's dodgy, but doesn't get it quite right – suggesting he's a fake Canadian, rather than a fraudulent chieftain. Still, it's enough to block access to the monarch.
Edgar acquires a new – bigamous – bride: a single mother from Manchester with a son on whom he dotes.
Via a stop in the decadent nightclubs of Paris and on to the French Riviera, where he charms a vastly-wealthy Austrian countess into funding a 'royal' tour of Italy – on the back of some nonsense about revenues to come from oil-rich lands he owns.
In Italy, police set up cordons as crowds mill outside his hotels.
'He starts giving out money to the crowd. He just thinks 'Oh, poverty-stricken Italians…' In the course of a few months, he could have got through – it's tricky to work out comparative values in currency – as much as $58.9million in 2018 figures.'
Chief White Elk is losing the plot. Fast. 'He's been a hard drinker – probably alcoholic and a cocaine and morphine addict by now, seeding his delusions of grandeur.'
All the adulation and largesse – 'It's proto-rock and roll: almost Elk-mania!' – makes him a friend of Benito Mussolini's fascist regime, too, which showers him with awards.
When there's no sign of the oil money, the countess's family grows increasingly suspicious and her stepdaughter travels to England to establish he's a fraud. The conman is eventually arrested in Switzerland.
He stands trial in 1925 and serves time there. He's passed to Italy and given a longer sentence. Released in 1929, he's deported to America… and has to work his passage as a ship's steward.
Edgar tells the press waiting in New York that he's a reformed character, aims to live an ordinary life and get a job in a factory.
'That's not going to happen. He gets back to his old ways. At one point he reinvents himself as an Inuit.' And there's the 'famous athlete' lie. More bizarrely, there are even other imposters purporting to be Chief White Elk! Gradually, though, the conman who adored attention is forgotten.
The fantasist who'd spun a web of deceit died in almost total obscurity in 1944, 'ravaged by drugs and booze'. His legend 'disappeared into the shadows, really'.
Paul can't help having a degree of admiration for the fake Cherokee with an off-centre personality.
'He clearly didn't do remorse, and was just unstoppable. There's something appealing about the Robin Hood element, in that he wasn't doing it, like a classic conman, for selfish purposes.'
King Con: The Bizarre Adventures of the Jazz Age's Greatest Impostor is published by Crown/Archetype at £18.99.
On screen with Steve Coogan
Paul's book Members Only was adapted for a film starring Steve Coogan – and Paul had a part.
'I was wittily cast in the unflattering cameo role of Lord Longford, the anti-pornography campaigner,' he explains.
'The role was originally a speaking part, but the dialogue between myself and Steve Coogan ended up being dropped during the final round of cutting.
'I remain visible, however, in the finished film, resplendent in a horrible 1970s polyester suit, a frizzy wig and some round-framed glasses that contribute towards making me appear even shiftier than the film's anti-hero.'
Sex and Subbuteo
London-born Paul is the son of two visual artists. After a false start with an English literature degree at King's College London – too much Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse for his liking – he transferred to a film studies and English literature course at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. The legendary author Malcolm Bradbury was one of his teachers.
Paul also studied painting at Norwich School of Art and Design.
He admits he floundered for a few years after leaving full-time education – earning a crust as a picture-framer, door-to-door canvasser, and then a box office cashier and front-of-hour manager at Cinema City.
This led to work in publicity and marketing, and organising many cinema events featuring people such as writers Rose Tremain and Stephen Fry.
Paul's written four other full-length non-fiction books, beginning in 2003 with Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia. This was about the bizarre and eventful life of 'bohemian dandy' and writer Julian Maclaren-Ross.
North Soho 999, out in 2007, was about one of the biggest murder-hunts of the 20th Century. It followed an armed raid on a shop in Soho in 1947, when London was beset by gun crime, and inspired the crime film The Blue Lamp.
Members Only, in 2010, told the story of the infamous Paul Raymond: strip-club operator, theatre impresario, property owner and porn baron.
In 2015 came Rendezvous at the Russian Tea Rooms. This was about Spying: specifically the movements of a womanising American working as a code clerk in the US embassy in Moscow and later London.
There have been other books, including a photo-based tribute to the football game Subbuteo. Teenage Flicks featured the memories of one-time enthusiasts such as David Baddiel and Alastair Campbell.