O.B. Clark showed up in Rutland, Vermont early in 1863. He had cattle on his mind.
A stranger, Clark obtained use of a horse, rented rooms, and spread money around on meals and gifts for his wife. Generous with a drink or a meal, by March people in town would have developed a fine impression of the tall, well-built stranger with the thick, dark, wavy hair. Though a bit flashy, people generally thought Clark a handsome, friendly man. He called himself a ‘cattle broker,’ in the state looking for livestock.
Then, almost overnight and without warning, Clark moved on. Over the next few weeks, a disturbing story would play out over and over. A bank would receive notice from a customer who discovered a shortage in his bank account. Upon examination, the bank would realize that the missing money had been paid to O.B. Clark.
Banks from Rutland, Bellows Falls, Brandon, Middlebury, Orwell and Vergennes, as well as New York, all found that they had overpaid O.B. Clark to the tune of $24,700 – adjusted for inflation and that’s more than $750,000 in today’s dollars. O.B. Clark had collected the money all in one 24-hour period and disappeared.
What’s more, when they began looking for O.B. Clark, the banks discovered he never really existed. But in a trunk he abandoned, O.B. Clark did leave one clue behind: a photograph of himself. It would lead to his downfall.
Who is O.B. Clark?
The middle and late 1800s was a period of rapid growth in the American banking industry. Banks expanded, and they eagerly worked to persuade people to trust checks over cash or other forms of payment for their day-to-day business. Criminals took notice as check usage increased.
The result was a race between forgers and banks to secure checks against fraud. Forgery gangs were the celebrity gangsters of their age. A forgery gang typically had four layers:
- A leader who paid the operating expenses,
- A forger – or ‘Jim the Penman’ as they came to be known – who handled the technical alteration or duplication of checks,
- A middleman who stood to protect the leaders if the group got caught passing bad checks, and
- The putters or layers down who cashed the bad checks but didn’t know the leaders.
Facing off against these sophisticated criminal organizations, the banks began investing in new technologies to thwart forgers: special inks, paper that resisted erasing, perforated or specialty papers with built-in anti-forging technologies. But the more technical innovations the banks employed, the more sophisticated the forgers got.
And this gave rise to a new type of swindler, the ‘check raiser.’ What these clever crooks did was obtain legitimate checks and minimally alter them to convert them to higher dollar values. So an $80 check could become an $800 check.
O.B. Clark was one of the best check raisers there was. And what’s more, he mostly worked alone. He would adopt a new identity, move to an area, ingratiate himself with local businesses and collect small checks from them.
Then, in his rented rooms, employing acids and dyes, special pens, inks and papers, he would alter those checks – turning the $16 check into the $160 check or $1,600 check – until he accumulated as many as he felt he could comfortably cash in. Then he’d make his move, converting the checks to cash and moving on leaving people puzzled about what happened to the fine young man they had grown to trust.
Career of a Master Check Raiser
Details of Clark’s early years are few, but we do know a bit about his criminal career, including his name. O.B. Clark was actually Edward S. Piper, though he went by many names – Berdwell, Rowe, Francher, Gorgant to name a few.
Piper had a lengthy career by the time he showed up in Vermont as O.B. Clark. In Louisiana he’d spent time as a “cotton broker.” He carried out similar scams in Iowa, Illinois and Indiana. He travelled the world – boasting that he’d made the ocean crossing to Europe 20 times – carrying out similar swindles there. Police caught up with him in England, where he stayed for seven months in the Tower of London for his sins. His criminal pals helped bail him out and bring him home.
Tower of London aside, Piper had a remarkable track record of skating past trouble with the law – for a man who stole more than $1 million in his career. He adroitly manipulated the levers of power when he found himself in a jam. Police could be bribed, judges convinced to ship him out of jurisdiction to a friendlier one where he could slip away. And if all else failed, he could agree to pay back the banks and his victims some of what he had stolen if they dropped charges. Fifty cents on the dollar was better than nothing, after all.
But his Vermont entanglements would prove more difficult to escape.
In the summer of 1867, with his Vermont escapades well behind him, Piper/Clark had arrived in Madison, Wisconsin – under the name E.B Farley, ostensibly from Savannah, Georgia. He had brought a woman he claimed was his wife and he began the familiar process of ingratiating himself with the merchants of the town, buying presents for his wife. Farley bought a horse for transport, and he attended the races and bet liberally. All the while the people of Madison grew charmed by this new E.B. Farley.
However, the photograph that he had left behind in Vermont was catching up to him. In Wisconsin, a Deputy Sheriff named MacDougal had a penchant for reading the bulletins that came in the mail, offering rewards for wanted criminals. He was fascinated by the report of a swindler who went by many names – Clark, Piper, etc. – that many states wanted caught. The photograph that accompanied the bulletin looked suspiciously like newcomer to town: E.B Farley.
Making the Arrest
MacDougal gathered enough information to confirm his suspicions and arrested Farley. Townspeople were supportive of Farley, especially when he said that he had already dealt with the charges, paying back those he owed. He claimed the whole matter was a misunderstanding. Since his crimes generally targeted banks and wealthy businesses, many viewed Piper/Clark/Farley as sort of a Robin Hood figure.
A judge released Piper, but MacDougal pressed on with his investigation. He contacted the bankers in Vermont and received a rapid reply. They had not accepted payment from the swindler, the bankers said, that’s not how Vermonters do business. They would be grateful, they cabled, if the sheriff would return their man to Vermont for trial.
Piper had the opportunity to flee Wisconsin while MacDougal rounded up the evidence he needed. But the con man moved too slowly, perhaps a bit too sure of his own skills. He decided to try to sell his horse to recover some funds before he ran, and the delay cost him his freedom.
Piper fought extradition to Vermont, but the governor ruled that he would be sent east to face trial. No sooner had the sheriff placed him on a train to Vermont than a last-minute request arrived from another county, asking that Piper be transferred there – perhaps an attempt to find a location that would be more amenable to accepting a bribe to let him slide away. But it was too late. The train carrying Piper to Vermont had already left.
Back in Vermont
Edward Piper probably never planned on a return trip to Vermont. His visit would turn into a long one.
Piper behaved well in prison while awaiting trial, but he did figure in a bizarre set of events surrounding a fire at the Rutland County Jail where he was held.
Arsonists had plagued Rutland for about two years, setting buildings ablaze. The town hired George Whipple, a New York detective, to investigate and stop the fires in 1868. He quickly fixed on 19-year-old Peter Neary as a suspect. Neary worked at the jail and delivered wood to Piper’s room. He was friendly – star-struck even – with the inmate.
George Whipple, the detective, told Neary that if they could spring Piper from jail, he knew Piper would reward them. Whipple suggested a series of fires, two for distraction and one at the jail, would give Piper a chance to escape in the chaos.
A Curious Fire
On December 12, 1868, fire broke out in downtown Rutland. A fire had also occurred at the jail in November the year prior. Neary denied having anything to do with the fires, but another man said that Neary had agreed to pay $500 to two men to help him start the fires.
“Peter Neary said a man was to give him $3,000 for the job; I was to get $500; he never told me where the money was to come from,” Martin Duffy testified. “I supposed he wanted to get O.B. Clark out of jail, and I supposed Clark was to furnish the money.”
Neary, meanwhile, said he had nothing to do with the fires and the only person to raise the idea of breaking Piper out of jail was detective Whipple.
For his part, Whipple said the plot to spring the prisoner never existed; he just cooked it up to trap Neary. A jury convicted Neary and three accomplices (including Martin Duffy) of setting the fire.
Piper, meanwhile, stayed locked in jail. His best efforts to fight the case against him – all the way to the Supreme Court – failed. The courts sentenced him to eight years in prison in 1869.
The Forger Goes Free
In 1876, his prison sentence up, Edward Piper returned to his Davenport, Iowa farm. He kept his nose clean around his home and gave the impression of a reformed man. But a year later, a man calling himself E.S. Porter checked into a Joliet, Illinois guest house. A familiar pattern played out. Porter introduced people to his wife and young son. He set about spreading money around and gathering friends. Edward Piper was attempting another con.
Piper had already had one run-in with the law in Indiana since leaving prison, but he had gotten out of jail on bail – which his new wife posted. She hawked her jewelry for the purpose.
In Joliet, he described himself as a businessman and a speculator. He talked about buying the rooming house where he stayed. In truth, stomach cancer was eating away at him. In September of 1877, he died in Joliet.
As death drew near, Piper expressed his hope that God would forgive him, but no one recalled him ever expressing remorse. It’s not recorded anywhere that he ever expressed regret for any of the people he swindled. He loved to boast that he “went it rough” on every bank in the state of Vermont.
Piper turned down several offers to go straight, as well. The American Bank Note Company offered to hire him to help them improve the security of their checks. Allen Pinkerton of the Pinkerton Detective Agency tried to hire him to write detailed descriptions of his crimes to help train the company’s operatives. He refused both offers, apparently preferring the thrills of a life of crime.
After he died, one final Edward Piper swindle still remained to come out. Days after his death, Piper’s son, who was editor of a newspaper in Sheldon, Iowa, arrived in Joliet. He had to deliver the shocking news to Piper’s widow – that the con-man’s other wife, along with their three children, was alive and well. Further, he reported he had mortgaged his home to send money to his father. The money was gone and the mortgage foreclosed; he had no money to pay for a funeral.
A collection, taken up by Edward Piper’s friends, paid for his grave.
Inventor vs. Forger-Early Check Forging and the Transition from Plain Forgery to Raising, By Edward H. Smith (Scientific American)
Rutland Historical Society Quarterly Vol.30, No.1, 2000
Rutland Herald archives.
Images: Lithograph of Rutland from 1885 by L. R. Burleigh with list of landmarks
Rutland Jail, Souvenir Post Card Company, New York