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The most remarkable fact about Richard Douglas, professional swindler, was that he kept a record of every one of his crimes, as well as a profit-and-loss balance-sheet, which he drew up at the end of each year. His diary was an astonishing document, and had it not been for the craft and obvious guilt of the impostor it might have been used as evidence to prove that he was not quite right in his head. Douglas, however, was too resourceful a thief to be a lunatic, and for some years he victimized all classes in London, where he posed as a baronet and committed depredations upon the trusting and unsuspicious.

The impostor was a man of venerable aspect, with kindly blue eyes and a soft, ingratiating manner. He was born with the name of Douglas, but as his father was a small tradesman in a Surrey village Richard thought he had better disown him, and when he had failed many times to earn an honest living he blazoned forth as “Sir Richard Douglas of Orpington House, Kent,” and made his two elder sons partners in his criminal enterprises.

He was an insinuating rascal, and the tradespeople whom he interviewed were easily taken in by his plausible tongue. When he went to a well-known jeweller in Bond Street to select a “present for my wife, Lady Douglas,” he had not the slightest difficulty in persuading the merchant to let him have a five hundred guinea diamond necklace on approval. Most swindlers would have been content to disappear with the necklace and realize its value, but “Sir Richard” was more ambitious and greedy, for he was back again in the shop the same afternoon, and, greatly to the gratification of the jeweller, announced that “her ladyship” had been fascinated by the necklace, and that he wished to pay for it there and then.

The impostor drew a cheque for six hundred pounds, and, remarking that his own bank would be closed before he could get to it, induced the jeweller to give him a receipt for the necklace and seventy-five pounds in cash. Of course, the cheque came back marked “No account,” and not for many a long day did he see his customer again.

While the “baronet” was busy on swindles of this nature his two sons were equally active. They lacked, of course, the suave polish of their father, but they were bright, intelligent youths, and they could pose as army officers anxious to spend the generous allowance their father, “Sir Richard Douglas,” made them. The credulous traders willingly cashed cheques for the young Douglases, and were left eventually with bits of paper as their only souvenirs of their simplicity and trustfulness.

A few months’ swindling provided Douglas with sufficient capital to rent an expensive house at Ascot, which became his headquarters, and it was to it that he would retire every week-end from the stress and strain of London. Every Monday morning, however, he would be driven in his carriage to the station to catch the train to London, and to start another week’s “work.” He dressed for each swindle, and played many characters. On one occasion after having entertained some of the leading people at Ascot to dinner he returned to town the following morning, donned the attire of a broken-down clergyman, and cajoled a large sum from the credulous by a story of ill-health and poverty and a starving wife and children. But generally he was the well-dressed man of the world, and boldly swindled tradespeople under the name of “Sir Richard Douglas.”

He had, of course, many narrow escapes. Once he absent-mindedly entered a jeweller’s shop—diamonds and gold and silver articles specially appealed to him, because they were easily convertible into hard cash—which he had defrauded only a fortnight earlier. The moment the proprietor saw him he identified him as the man who had given a worthless cheque in exchange for a diamond ring worth a hundred and fifty guineas, but he pretended not to recognize the self-styled “baronet,” and he entered into negotiations with “Sir Richard,” who was plainly on the warpath again. Now Douglas had that morning told his elder son, Philip, to hang about in the vicinity of the shop, so that when he emerged from it he might unostentatiously pass on to him the spoils, as the impostor intended to steal a few rings, as well as obtain others by false pretences. The wary jeweller, however, was so unusually alert that “Sir Richard” realized the situation.

He was in a tight corner now, for in addition to the presence of the proprietor of the shop a brawny assistant was keeping guard at the door. The “baronet,” however, exhibited no sign of fear or mental distress. He just casually glanced out of the window, and raised his handkerchief to his left cheek and brushed it lightly. It was a signal to his son on the other side of the road, and it meant that he was in difficulties.

Philip Douglas was a real chip of the old block, and in a moment he devised a plan to save his venerable parent. Walking briskly into the shop where “Sir Richard” was the only customer—of course, the impostor always selected the least busiest part of the day for his frauds—he peremptorily laid his hand on his father’s arm, and in curt tones expressed his delight at having at last captured him.

“It’s a bit of luck for you that I was passing and recognized this fellow,” he said to the astonished jeweller. “Do you know that he is one of the greatest swindlers in London? I have been looking for him for over a year. Take my advice and see if he has robbed you of anything.”

Immediately the door was locked, and the “detective” and the other two men stood round the pale-faced and trembling culprit, who at that very moment held in his hands a diamond tiara which was worth a thousand pounds. But he was so terrified now that he seemed not to know where he was and what he was doing.

The jeweller was so excited at the prospect of getting even with the man who had swindled him a fortnight before that he instantly preferred a charge against “Sir Richard,” and, furthermore, at the suggestion of the “detective” added another one, accusing him of trying to obtain the tiara by false pretences. This was just what both the rogues wanted.

“Then you will be good enough to make a parcel of that tiara,” said the “detective,” with an air of authority which was irresistible. “You will carefully seal it too. I shall have to hand it over to my superior officer to be used as evidence at the trial. Of course I will give you a receipt for it.”

The jeweller hastened to obey, and ten minutes later Philip Douglas left the shop and stepped into a four-wheeler with his father and the diamond tiara. The “detective” shouted out the address of a police station, nodded curtly to the jeweller, and drove off. That night at Ascot the family gloated over the acquisition of a prize which would bring them in six hundred pounds at least, and leave a big profit for the receiver of stolen goods.

But the biggest coup of all was achieved by the “baronet” posing as a messenger. It happened that he was chatting with the manager of a diamond merchants shop when the latter observed that Lady Chesterfield had given them an order to reset a collection of very valuable stones which she had just received under the will of a relative. They were reputed to be worth twenty thousand pounds, and that afternoon the manager was to call at her ladyship’s town house to receive the precious parcel. On hearing this “Sir Richard” brought the interview to an end, murmured that he was due back at his country seat to entertain a Cabinet Minister and his wife, and having got outside rushed to the nearest post office, obtained Lady Chesterfield’s address, and drove to it. His respectable appearance was in his favour, and he was admitted at once, but her ladyship’s secretary would not hear of handing over the diamonds until “the manager” established his identity. It was a critical moment, and had Douglas not been an accomplished swindler he would have bolted, but he held his ground, and by sheer personal magnetism won the secretary over. He had a good memory, and he was able to recall many of the statements the manager had made to him, retailing intimate details of previous transactions with Lady Chesterfield which convinced the secretary that he was what he represented himself to be.

Within a week the whole of the stones were in the possession of a well-known Continental “fence,” whose place of business was in Amsterdam, and the Douglas banking account was increased by nine thousand pounds. Every morning for weeks the happy family at Ascot enjoyed the newspaper references to the great mystery, and congratulated themselves that the secretary’s and the manager’s descriptions of the swindler resembled anybody but the bogus “baronet.”

Continual success so impressed the impostor that he came to the conclusion that he was under the special protection of Providence. He began a diary, and the entries that followed were both amusing and amazing. Some are worth reproducing, for the police subsequently captured two of these astonishing compilations, which gave a complete history of his swindles and impostures.

“Jan. 5th. Phaeton and horse seized. Fear exposure at Ascot, and chance up there. Fear we must cut.”

“Jan. 7th. All day ill. Row about stable. Forcible possession taken of it. Row all day with one person or another. Fearful how things will end. Three boys at home idle, all ordering things.”

“Jan. 18th. Went to boys’ to dinner. Champagne. Very merry. Providence not quite deserted us.”

When he raised three hundred pounds in two days by means of worthless cheques he celebrated the “triumph” by writing in his diary:

“My labours ended for the week. Over three hundred to the good. Paid off local tradesmen—genuine cheques. Gave notice to cook. Must get some one who understands serving fish. Looking forward to a quiet week-end. Must read Bible regularly.”

He was really fond of reading the Bible, and he spent his leisure at his home in studying it and keeping his diary up to date. When his sons went off to the races he would potter about in the garden, apparently the most respectable and virtuous man in the kingdom.

But every Monday morning Douglas would descend upon London, and when the diaries were bulging with records of swindles of all descriptions, and almost every tradesman in the West End was on his guard, he turned for a time to begging-letter writing, at which he proved himself an adept. He was the starving widow with eight children; the lonely widow of an Indian officer; the one-legged and one-armed hero of half a dozen campaigns; the old woman who had worked for the poor all her life, and was now in poverty herself; and a dozen other characters. These rôles produced plenty of money, not large sums, but enough to pay expenses at Ascot and pass the time until “Sir Richard Douglas” and his greater misdeeds were forgotten by the public if not by his victims.

On one occasion he resumed his clerical garb, and went round collecting subscriptions for an aged missionary and his wife. By working ten hours a day for a fortnight he collected several hundred pounds, and he even persuaded two bishops to contribute through their chaplains, although as a rule bishops are very careful to make inquiries before patronizing anything of this sort. Douglas’ sympathetic air, however, clinched the matter, and by showing the bishops’ subscriptions he was able subsequently to swindle scores of persons who would not otherwise have been taken in.

By now the police were on the look out for the bogus baronet who had ruined more than one shopkeeper by his frauds. But Douglas was a quick-change artist, and his keen eyes were ever on the watch. He walked freely about London, and he always spotted the detectives, and decamped before they recognized him. Some of the best sleuths were put on his track, but he fooled them all.

He was once tracked to a house where he was trying to persuade the occupant, a rich old lady, to buy a tract of land in Scotland which he did not own, and it seemed certain that the impostor would be captured, but, scenting danger, he ran upstairs into a room, where he found some female clothes, and shortly afterwards he walked through the kitchen—where a policeman was keeping guard—and out of the house by the side door. The policeman explained later that he thought “she was the cook going for her afternoon out.”

This escape, however, was so narrow that the “baronet” returned at once to Ascot, and lay low for a month. Meanwhile, his sons had been making the money fly. Thousands of pounds went to the bookmakers at Ascot and other racecourses, and all three of them were engaged to girls with expensive tastes, which had to be satisfied. No wonder the old hypocrite recorded in his diary:

“It is sad to think of the extravagance of youth. If we misuse the money Providence has given us we will experience poverty. I have spoken seriously to the boys, but they will not heed me. Note. Special hopes for the success of the A.T. scheme.”

The latter was, however, not successful, for it was an attempt at a religious swindle which failed owing to the activities of the police.

Another failure was his short-lived matrimonial agency, which was to be stocked with three “baronets,” who were supposed to be on the look out for wives. The “baronets” were to be impersonated by his sons. It came to an abrupt termination by the theft of the preliminary prospectus by a servant, who had to be bought off later at a cost of five hundred pounds, an item of expenditure which nearly broke the old man’s heart, according to his diary.

These and other matters contrived to make “Sir Richard” nervy. His sons were devoting more time to pleasure than to business, and the knowledge that the authorities were doubling their efforts to catch him was ever-disturbing. But he could not remain inactive, for his brain was always teeming with plans for swindles, and he entered details of several in his diary, some of which he put into execution.

Amongst his acquaintances in London was a widow of fortune. She was in the late fifties, but despite that was not averse to marrying again, especially a man with a title, and “Sir Richard’s” advances were not repulsed. Mrs. MacCormack had been left ten thousand a year by her husband, and the lady maintained a costly establishment in the neighbourhood of London. Douglas was fascinated by her money. He knew that once she was his wife he would be able to get complete control of her and her fortune. She would obey him implicitly, and he could live at his ease, make his sons handsome allowances, and thoroughly enjoy life.

He therefore proposed to Mrs. MacCormack, who accepted “Sir Richard” with an emotion akin to enthusiasm, and immediately began to prepare to go through the marriage ceremony a second time. But Douglas insisted upon the engagement being kept a secret, pointing out that it was only for her sake that he did so.

“You will be accused of marrying me for my title, dear,” he said in a sympathetic tone, “and that would hurt me terribly. Thank God, no one can accuse me of marrying for money. Your fortune may be large, but I think that it does not exceed the rent-roll of my Scottish estates.”

Mrs. MacCormack was touched by his kindly forethought, and really kept the secret, although she was anxious to impress her acquaintances with the fact that she was about to become “Lady Douglas.”

It was settled that the marriage should take place at St. George’s, Hanover Square, and “Sir Richard” told the widow that the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London had promised to assist at the ceremony if their engagements permitted. At the last moment it happened that both these prelates were detained elsewhere, at least Douglas said so, and to the rector was given the honour of officiating.

On the morning of the ceremony “Sir Richard” dressed himself with extreme care in the room he had taken at the fashionable West End hotel. It was eleven o’clock when he descended, and he was due at St. George’s at twelve. A carriage was to take him there with his best man, who was his eldest son Philip, and the young rogue was posing for the occasion as a friend and not a relative of the bridegroom-baronet.

Now, Philip Douglas, who was keenly interested in his father’s matrimonial adventure, had out of mere curiosity made a few inquiries about Mrs. MacCormack, and he learnt that it was really true that she had ten thousand pounds a year, but on the day of the ceremony he discovered by sheer accident that under the provisions of her late husband’s will she was to be deprived of every penny if she married again. So at half-past eleven Philip Douglas dashed into the hotel, seized his father by the arm, and drew him into a corner. There he confided to the old sinner the information that he was going to marry a woman, ancient and ugly, who would be penniless the moment the knot was tied. “Sir Richard” gasped, and then burst forth into imprecations against the widow for her “deceit.” With tears in his eyes he said she had not been honest with him, and when he had regained his composure he and his son drove away to catch the train back to Ascot. Mrs. MacCormack arrived in due course at St. George’s, Hanover Square, but the “baronet” never appeared, and she reached home in tears and feeling that she was the laughing-stock of London. Douglas entered all the details of the misadventure in his diary, and he severely censured the widow for not having been “honest” enough to tell him the truth.

For some reason, however, the “baronet” went to pieces after the abandonment of his wedding. Money suddenly became scarce, and creditors more persistent. A sheaf of debts contracted by his sons took him by surprise, but they had to be paid, and Douglas was left with only a few pounds in hand.

In the midst of the crisis he remembered having heard about a benevolent clergyman of the name of Hamilton, who had a large fortune, which he was in the habit of sharing with the poor. Douglas decided that he would get a slice of it, and to achieve his purpose he became a clergyman again. This time he was supposed to be an elderly priest who had fallen upon evil times, and to play the part properly he took lodgings in a slum house owned by a friend and humble confederate. From there he wrote to Mr. Hamilton asking him to call upon a sick and poverty-stricken fellow-clergyman, who had no friends and no hope left in this world.

The appeal was cunningly worded, and the setting of the stage for the comedy was perfect. Douglas knew that if only Mr. Hamilton called he would be able to work upon his feelings to the extent of two hundred pounds at least. Anxiously he waited for a reply, and his joy was great when the owner of the house informed him that a clergyman was approaching.

The sham priest instantly returned to bed, and assuming a pained look prepared to receive the visitor. He heard the knock at the front door, and braced himself for the interview. Presently footsteps sounded on the stairs, and then the door opened and a clergyman entered, whose expression seemed to indicate a generous and credulous disposition.

Douglas was murmuring a prayer when the clergyman came to his side and looked down at him. Then he opened his eyes.

“You—you are the saintly Mr. Hamilton?” he asked in a quavering voice.

“No,” was the startling answer. “I am Inspector Allen, and I hold a warrant for your arrest, Sir Richard.”

It was a neat capture. The impostor was unable to extricate himself, and at the ensuing Sessions he and his sons were sentenced to imprisonment, and after that catastrophe nothing more was heard of the venerable swindler until a newspaper recorded his death in 1858.

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in All Stories, Classic Literature, Mystery/Thriller, Non-Fiction, True Crime