The Twin with the Nine Toes, Part TwoOn January 23, 2019 by Elyse
Welcome back! Pull up a chair, and if you’re reading in a region as cold as the one I’m writing in, settle in by a warm fire with a piping hot drink. And I do mean settle in—it’s a long one.
When we last heard from Alfred Oliver in Part One, it was February 1914, and he had just been released from a Georgia prison after serving four years on a charge of bigamy. The key to his freedom? Irrefutable proof that he wasn’t his identical twin brother in the form of 10 toes.
But like a circle of preschoolers playing a game of telephone, almost immediately, the story started to fall apart in full view of the press. As early as April 1914, his current and/or former wife, Rosebud English, was quoted as saying Alfred wasn’t a wealthy, successful native of Climax, Georgia, as had been reported earlier that year. In fact:
Some years ago Oliver came to Climax, Ga., and held himself out as a ‘business giant’. . . He told me at that time that he was worth five million dollars and represented to me many other flattering statements of himself and his business ability. . . In about two months after we were married it developed that this man was a failure in business.
– The Rock Island Argus, April 6, 1914
We can only hope Alfred made good use of his newfound freedom because by October of that year, the law was back on his trail. Three Mississippi officers were said to be on their way to Georgia to bring Alfred back on the orders of the Mississippi governor, who “now thinks the man’s identity has been proven and that it will be easy to lodge him in the penitentiary for several years.”
Curiously absent from these later articles is any mention of Alfred’s twin, nine toed or otherwise. So much for a case of mistaken identity.
How did Alfred fool so many people, from his wife and neighbors in Climax to judges, attorneys and law enforcement officers across the southeast? The paper trail shows he had a lot of practice. In more than a decade’s worth of articles about his exploits, I counted no fewer than nine aliases involved in incidents in multiple jurisdictions. I’d hate to be the accountant doing his taxes. Fortunately, I’m not, so I’ll continue calling him Alfred.
The first of these aliases, Leroy Harding, was reported missing in 1903 after several Alabama banks he established suspended business. A banker accused of fraud? That sounds familiar.
The long arm of the law appears to have caught up to him the next year when he was briefly arrested in Florida. Alabama authorities immediately requested his extradition. However, in the face of “much indignation,” he was released in Florida “on the ground that the indictment was improperly drawn.” Yet, this was no bureaucratic oversight. The article noted, “It is declared at the capitol that a discourtesy to Alabama was intended.”
It wouldn’t be the last time he caused an interstate incident. Later in 1904, Alfred, doing business as Charles Blazer, was arrested (again?) in Florida for swindling a jewelry company in Ohio. While being extradited back to Ohio, he and his escort, Detective Dan Callahan, stopped in Atlanta for a night. There, he made a move no less audacious than claiming to have an evil twin. Despite being locked up in a police station, Alfred got a hold of several lawyers and accused the detective of kidnapping him. The next morning, the poor guy was promptly arrested.
It would take a lawyer and an historian to unravel the twists and turns in the resulting tug-of-war between the different jurisdictions for legal custody of Alfred. Since I am neither, we can skip to the punchline, which is Alfred being hidden away in a U.S. customs house and smuggled out of Atlanta in a mail car. Talk about a special delivery.
That brings us to 1910. What really happened in the tiny town of Climax? Considering our sources are an infamous conman and a series of newspapers that play fast and loose with the truth, we’ll never know for sure. Still, as always, the press had a clickbait-worthy story to share:
According to several accounts, after “Leroy Harding” escaped in 1909 from a Mississippi prison where he was serving time for fraud, he arrived in Climax in early 1910 with a new name and a new plan. There, Alfred “promptly inaugurated what is said to be one of the most gigantic swindling schemes ever operated in Georgia.”
Despite having presumably no money and no contacts, in five short months, the newly styled millionaire from New York City proceeded to establish or purchase multiple banks. Then, he used the deposits to buy saw mills, brick stores and multiple properties. He even had a catchphrase: “I’ll take it, just wrap it up.” No one said it was a good catchphrase.
Taken together, his business ventures “started Climax on a boom that looked like it would make the little town one of the most important in this section of the State.”
You couldn’t call Alfred a Scrooge. He appeared to have no qualms about buying the love and affection of those around him. Among his purchases was “a solitaire diamond ring larger than any ever before seen in Climax,” along with other jewels, horses and stables for Rosebud. He was known to give automobiles “right and left in wanton prodigality to his newly-made friends.” I’d sure like to meet a friend like that.
However, the party came to a screeching halt in June 1910 when he was arrested for swindling the residents of Climax out of anywhere from $100,000 to $250,000. For those interested, that’s $2.6 million to $6.7 million in today’s dollars. His predicament didn’t improve when a sheriff from Mississippi showed up and identified him as escaped convict Leroy Harding.
I can find no mention of an evil twin in contemporary accounts of his trial. But even without the prospect of mistaken identity, the proceedings had plenty of drama. Alfred’s fame proceeded him into the courtroom, and Mississippi Governor Edmond Noel felt compelled to write to Georgia Governor Joseph Brown to warn him that Alfred “is a hypnotist and had tried to use this power over attorneys,” calling him “one of the most accomplished criminals he ever heard of.” Alfred’s parents must have been so proud.
Any mind games Alfred may have tried during the trial didn’t spare him time in prison, where we know he was until 1914. What became of him after that?
I wish I could say Alfred learned from his mistakes and went on to put his charm and intelligence to good use. However, he doesn’t appear to have had much a chance. On February 18, 1915, his life ended as dramatically as it was lived:
According to the newspapers, Alfred was shot outside of the Farmers Bank & Loan Company of Leesburg, Georgia, of which he was president. As best I can tell, no one was ever convicted of his murder.
Still, I imagine Alfred would be pleased to know that even in death, the press couldn’t agree on who he was. Some articles maintained that he’d served time in prison for crimes committed by his twin, while others made little mention of his checkered past, focusing instead on his “meteoric career in finance [that] astonished middle Georgia, where he was known as the ‘King of Climaxes.’”
That ends the tale of the twin with the nine toes. I don’t claim to have completely or perfectly untangled this messy web of flagrant lies and half-truths. If any armchair historians are reading and have already located Gladys Mason, I entreat them to take a crack at this new mystery.
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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Welcome to Second Glance History! This blog seeks to uncover the people and the stories forgotten by history and give them another read through a modern lens. Join me every week as we examine the differences that divide and the common threads that connect the then to the now.