Upon seeing the front page of the Day Book on the morning of February 23, 1914, Chicago readers could have been forgiven for rubbing their eyes and wondering if they were still dreaming.
They weren’t the only ones who might have reached for a cup of coffee to jolt themselves awake. A real-life Comedy of Errors was reported in newspapers across the country that week, complete with visceral details, sketches of the individuals at the center of the drama and even direct quotes.
The story began with two twin boys who looked as much alike as Lindsay Lohan did to, well, Lindsay Lohan in “The Parent Trap.” However, that’s where the similarities between Alfred and Louis Oliver ended:
One twin grew up prosperous, respected, honest. . . The other is alleged to have grown into the “black sheep.”
– The Day Book, February 23, 1914
There was one additional difference between the two. When they were nine years old, little Louis stepped on a tin can and subsequently had the big toe on his right foot amputated. This unfortunate accident took on outsized importance decades later.
Unlike the scores of twins Hollywood tells us are routinely separated at birth, Alfred and Louis remained together until their parents died shortly after the tin can incident. One was adopted, and Louis Oliver became Louis Harding. “The twin with the nine toes” moved away with his new family, while Alfred stayed behind in their hometown of Climax, Georgia.
The decades flew by, and the twins had no contact with each other until around 1904, thirty years later. At that point, Louis, who inexplicably had Alfred’s address, began a friendly correspondence and reported on his “three big lumber mills” and “very pretty wife” in Greenwood, Mississippi. Not to be outdone, Alfred might have written back to say he had “amassed a fortune, owned a chain of banks and was a social figure.” I’d hate to see their holiday cards.
A few years later, the picture was not so rosy for nine-toed Louis: He had been convicted of swindling several lumber dealers and sentenced to ten years in prison. But like many an evil villain, he escaped the long arm of the law and fled to Honduras.
Meanwhile, back in Climax, the fabulously wealthy Alfred had recently married a teenaged “Georgia belle” named Rosebud English. (Seriously. As much as I wanted her to be a time traveling, Woodstock-era hippie, she shows up in both the 1900 and 1910 census.)
Unfortunately, being the social figure that he was, a photograph of the couple appeared in a newspaper, where it was spotted by Louis’ unnamed wife. Apparently unaware of her husband’s complicated family situation, she assumed that after running away, Louis was brazenly hiding in plain sight by publicly marrying again. As a result, poor Alfred was soon arrested for bigamy.
At the trial, no one thought to count his toes, and despite multiple witnesses testifying to Alfred’s identity, the words of Louis’ wife won the day. His protestations about his evil twin must have sounded as ridiculous then as they do now. Alfred served four years in prison as Louis Harding. In that time, Rosebud divorced him and before you can say, “Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen,” had married another man.
After serving out his sentence for bigamy, the good twin was set to do a further ten years in Mississippi for Louis’ crimes. However, in a Hail Mary play, he went before a court to prove once and for all that he wasn’t Louis. This time, his toes were counted, and Alfred was declared a victim of mistaken identity. Finally, he was set free to try to pick up the pieces of his broken life.
The happy ending created all kinds of confusion.
Rosebud English, by now divorced from her second husband, speculated:
If he wasn’t guilty of bigamy when he married me, and that he wasn’t has been legally decided since, then our marriage was legal, the annulment illegal, and I am still his legal wife. That’s what I think, but I wish I were sure!
– The Day Book, March 2, 1914
Sure or not, by April of 1914, less than two months after Alfred’s release, she was certain of something else:
Alfred does not appear to have been available for comment. Still, for a man who had lost his fortune, his reputation, his wife and his freedom, Alfred didn’t seem bitter:
I am going to locate right here in Americus [Georgia, one hundred miles north of Climax], and I want the people to know all about me before I begin business. I am not going to try to hide my past in the least, for I am not ashamed of it. I am not guilty of the crime for which I was sentenced. It sounds funny for a man who has been messed up in the courts to say he is going into the banking business, but that’s just what I am going to do.
– The Rock Island Argus, March 2, 1914
Perhaps he was just as upstanding a fellow as the newspapers proclaimed him. Or perhaps, he didn’t lose all those things. . . because he never had them in the first place.
The truth is not always stranger than fiction. Whether it was the conveniently absent long-lost twin that tipped you off or the head-scratching evidence that appeared to convict Alfred, if you had a niggling sense that something smelled fishy, you were right.
Alfred Oliver was not the honorable, successful businessman he claimed to be, and there was no evil doppelganger running around framing him for crimes. However, his real-life exploits are as outrageous as any chronicled in “Catch Me If You Can.” Come back in two weeks to read about my efforts to untangle the messy web of lies and aliases that span several southeastern states over more than a decade.
Disclaimer: The modern era is far from the first to grapple with rampant “fake news.” As I am neither a historian nor journalist, I make no claims about the accuracy or lack thereof of the above historical articles. I assert only that they make for a good story.
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