America's Shrewdest Con-Man: The "Christian Kid"
The way William Elmer Mead figured it, no man would be stupid enough to believe he could buy a major league baseball park.
But a few might think they could lease one.
In 1910, Mead came up with a fail-proof, scorcher of a con, using the end of the world as his bait. That year, the tail of Halley’s comet was expected to sweep over Earth. Some predicted it would be a catastrophic event; others just wanted to say they were looking at the sky for an astronomical milestone. Either way, it was all anyone was talking about.
In Cleveland, posing as a high-rolling upperclassman, Mead met up with a contractor to discuss plans for building property in the area. As the two sat down, the contractor found a wallet stuffed with invoices, money, and paperwork, all of it indicating its owner was some kind of big-deal developer for baseball stadiums.
The owner—in reality, Mead’s accomplice—soon materialized, thankful the contractor had located his wallet. He spoke about the comet, and how easy it would be to fill the stadiums he had developed with rubber-necked gawkers. It wasn’t baseball season, and the seats were just going to go unused. Why didn’t the contractor lease the parks so he could sell tickets to the doomsday event? It was the least the developer could do for the man for finding his wallet, and with all the money to be made, it would be ridiculous not to.
By the time the mark got escorted from the baseball field by security, Mead and his partner would be long gone—and $10,000 richer.
The names, places, and methods changed, but the goal was always the same: to separate people from as much of their money as possible. Over a 40-year career of increasingly outlandish schemes, Mead swindled as much as two million dollars. Most of it was squirreled away in safety-deposit boxes and real estate.
Some of it, though, had to go to the church. William Mead may have been a liar, cheat, and thief, but no one could say his parents hadn’t raised him right.
Mead was born in 1875 and an orphan by the age of two. Adopted by a farming family in Iowa, Mead was read the Bible every night until he was old enough to read it on his own. Growing up in a fundamentalist household had made him dismissive of drinking, smoking, or profanity, lending him a pious nature that mixed uneasily with his ambitions: Mead wanted out of the farming life.
At the age of 15, Mead ran away from home, drifting in and out of saloons and learning his way around a deck of cards. Civilians—those who couldn’t spot the sleight of hand in street games—were another breed. Mead accumulated tricks to make money spill from their pockets and he got a real rush using his wits to make a dishonest living. The new scams he invented became legendary.
One of Mead’s earliest hustles involved betting on foot races, which was a popular illicit activity at the turn of the century. Mead would strike up a conversation with a mark he’d already profiled as a high-roller as the two eyeballed a small group of runners. He’d tell him the favorite was a sure thing and that other bettors (Mead’s pals) were looking at losing $50,000 total. A gambler’s fever would take over, with the man believing a $10,000 wager for a payout worth five times as much was worth the risk.
When the race went off, the favorite would take a comfortable lead before stumbling, wheezing, and keeling over in convulsions right before the finish line. At that moment, lawmen would invade the premises and break up the group, leaving Mead and his dunce to run for the train station. But it was Mead who had paid off the cops to allow the race in the first place; he had also paid them to come and threaten everyone with arrest. With law enforcement on their tail, the victim would be more worried about fleeing the law and not being implicated in the scandal than getting his money back. To tie up loose ends, Mead would telegraph the mark in the next town letting him know that the runner had passed away: "All is lost. Keep on going." In most cases, the sucker did.
But in spite of his chosen profession, Mead continued to maintain a certain type of faith. Throughout his career, Mead donated to religious organizations—enough to become a lifetime member to at least one. But being that devout didn’t buy him clemency: In 1897, he was arrested for grand larceny and spent three years in San Quentin. The experience acted as a deterrent for a little while, but by 1903, he was at it again—this time making use of a new scheme: “the magic wallet.”
The wallet was a Mead trademark, brimming with evidence that the man his mark was about to meet was trustworthy. In one variation, he presented his accomplice as a contractor for viaducts or bridges in an area. Mead wasn't bold enough to try and sell a bridge to someone, but he did convince several that they could buy an interest in one and charge tolls to drivers. By the time police intervened, Mead was long gone. In another, he convinced victims he was an esteemed professor and trusted friend of the President who had been tasked with selling freshly minted money at a discount to help the government pay its debts. One widow handed over $35,000, thinking she’d gotten a crisp $100,000 in return. She did not.
In 1922, Mead pushed his luck too far. Knowing he was headed for prison over a stock market scam, he hid out for several years in England before being extradited. When he landed in a Jacksonville, Florida courthouse to answer to the charges in 1933, he jumped bond.
Even with mail fraud hanging over him, Mead had no desire to go straight. After he swindled a contractor named Martin Wunderlich out of $50,000 in 1932, he learned that Wunderlich’s friend, a banker Ed Bremer, had been kidnapped and the FBI was scrutinizing every detail. Fearing he'd be implicated in the kidnapping, Mead had a back-alley surgeon named Wilhelm Loeser mutilate his fingerprints. (The doctor had done the same for John Dillinger.)
In March 1934, the Feds let it be known that they were looking to speak to Mead about the kidnapping. Authorities believed Wunderlich had borrowed the $50,000 from Bremer to pay Mead. Though Mead didn’t appear to be directly involved with the kidnapping, there was still a matter of tax evasion: he owed over $60,000 on his ill-gotten earnings.
Mead and his butchered fingertips were captured in July 1936 while holed up in an Omaha, Nebraska hotel. After serving two years for mail fraud, he was immediately shuttled to Federal court for his tax troubles. A tired 63, Mead didn’t have the $20,000 bond to post, was put on trial, and spent the rest of his life in Leavenworth. The con man known as the “Christian Kid” who had used over 50 different aliases in his criminal career would now be known only as a number.