Edgar Laplante: Impostor
Feted by royalty, presidents, and the masses Edgar Laplante was a con man from Rhode Island. His scam was to impersonate Native North Americans, which he did with amazing effectiveness while possessing no trace of Indigenous blood in his body.
According to Paul Willetts’ 2018 book King Con, Laplante started out swindling folks at an early age. At 14 he ran a primitive sort of GoFundMe scheme by tapping store owners in his hometown of Central Falls for contributions to help a struggling businessman.
The local law enforcement did not take kindly to Edgar’s entrepreneurial skills and sent him off to boarding school.
He next showed up amid the carnival people of Coney Island, his natural environment. Now in his early 20s, he was working as a “Ballyhoo Man.” Dressed in Indian costume, he was posted outside midway attractions to sing, dance, and cavort about. His job was to attract attention and so the “Barker” could use a line of patter designed to encourage the crowds inside the tent: “Step Right Up and View the Extraordinary! Amazing! Once-in-a-Lifetime! Show!”
It was a wonderful grounding in how to flim-flam the audience into parting with their money on something of highly questionable value. Armed with a firm understanding of the con he headed west.
By the time Edgar Laplante reached Arizona he had changed his identity. Now, he was Tom Longboat, the famed Iroquois marathon runner from Canada. The real Tom was a dispatch runner on the Western Front of World War I, getting wounded twice and being declared dead on a couple of occasions.
Longboat had won the 1907 Boston Marathon, smashing the previous record by nearly five minutes. As a professional he dominated match-race competitions. Edgar Laplante, in his Longboat persona, held well-paid racing clinics and motivational lectures in California and Arizona.
Eventually, the real Tom Longboat found out that he had an impersonator so it was time for Laplante to re-invent himself again.
Chief White Elk
The Tom Longboat character was buried and Chief White Elk was born. He created an extravagant narrative. The chief was the sacred head of the Cherokee Nation. His accomplishments included: movie stardom, heroic war service, a thrilling tenor voice, and the ability to speak 21 languages. The costume included a flamboyant eagle-feather headdress, although the plumage of turkeys was used, and buckskins.
He travelled all over the United States and Canada promoting the issue of Indigenous rights and, not incidentally, collecting donations to further the cause. At one of his stops he met Bertha Thompson, also known as “Princess” Ah-Tra-Ah-Saun of the Klamath tribe of California.
Love blossomed and an extravagant wedding followed in Salt Lake City in March 1918. Five thousand people crowded the grounds of the Utah Capitol. A 31-piece band played Lohengrin’s Bridal Chorus as Ah-Tra-Ah-Saun, attended by 10 bridesmaids, ascended the steps of the building to be joined in holy matrimony to Chief White Elk.
But, the marriage did not last. Edgar Laplante developed a fondness for alcohol and then cocaine. “Princess” Ah-Tra-Ah-Saun bailed out and, according to one source, did not know her husband was a con man.
White Elk Wows Europe
By the early 1920s, the pile of unpaid bills was growing as was the number of people who angrily realized they had been hoodwinked. The FBI also wanted to have a chat. Edgar Laplante decided it was time to find some new sheep to be sheared.
He was an imposing figure as he disembarked from the SS Regina ocean liner in Liverpool in December 1922. A tall man, he was rigged out in his full fake regalia. His legendary status had preceded him, but without the suspicions of crookedness, so there was a large covey of press and well wishers to greet him.
The Express newspaper reports “As the smoke from the flash guns cleared, White Elk made the announcement that he was to meet with royalty as an emissary of the Cherokee people and plead for better education for his race in the British Dominion of Canada.”
His fraud could have been unmasked right there but 75 years had to pass before Google was unleashed on the world; a simple search would have revealed there aren’t any Cherokee people in Canada.
He had a plan to meet with the future King Edward VIII to plead the case of his “Canadian” Cherokee people, but news came through from America that the royals were dealing with a scallywag.
The Chief in Vaudeville
Even though Laplante’s con was revealed he was still able to make a good living performing his version of Indian dances on London’s stages. At the same time, he was also collecting generous donations to help his tribe.
Then, the bisexual Laplante had an affair with a gay man. Homosexuality was a criminal offence at the time so Chief White Elk legged it up to Northern England and away from the prying eyes of Scotland Yard.
“By casting himself in the fictitious role of Chief White Elk, he (Laplante) devised a … means of slaking his insatiable thirst for attention and acclaim.”
Paul Willetts, author of a biography of Edgar Laplante
Swindling More Royals
The money began to dry up in Britain so he went to the French Riviera. The Chief White Elk con helped him get an introduction to the Austrian Contessa, Antoinette Khevenhüller-Metsch and her mother Milania.
Antoinette was young, beautiful, wealthy, and gullible. Soon, Laplante was relieving the two women of their riches in the form of “loans” to help his people. By the time it dawned on them they were being robbed they were close to financial ruin.
The Jig Is up
Staying one step ahead of police, Laplante took his act to Italy. Then, it was on to Switzerland and the end of the road. He had run up a huge hotel bill that he didn’t see the point of paying. But, this was Switzerland where money, and hanging on to it, is a matter of great importance. He was arrested, convicted of fraud, and jailed for a year.
Upon release, he was driven to the Italian border and handed over to police who were acting on behalf of more aggrieved creditors. This time he got seven years and change.
The Italians didn’t want him around after his release in the early 1930s so he was put on a boat for New York. He scratched out a living taking Native Indian roles in movies, and on the stage and radio. His con game no longer worked because he was too well known.
Edgar Laplante’s health declined and he died a pauper in 1944 at the age of 55.
Chief White Cloud was something of a modern-day Robin Hood character. Rich people handed him lots of money (almost $60 million in today’s value) but he gave a lot of it away. He was inclined to give massive tips to hotel staff and to hand wads of cash to poor people.
Grey Owl was a famous Canadian environmentalist in the 1920s and ‘30s. He said he was the child of a Scottish father and an Apache mother. He gave lectures and made films about the need to conserve wildlife. It wasn’t until he died in 1938 at the age of 49 that it was discovered he had been born in Hastings, England of entirely British stock, and that his real name was Archibald Belaney.
Iron Eyes Cody was one of the most famous Indian actors in America. For almost half a century, he cornered the noble Indian roles in movies such as Fighting Caravans (1931) and The Great Sioux Massacre (1965). He wasn’t Indian at all; he was the son of immigrants from Sicily and his given name was Espera Oscar de Corti.
Iron Eyes Cody's Starring Role in a Famous 1970s Commercial
- “King Con: Man Successfully Impersonates Indigenous Leaders His Whole Life, Acquiring Riches and Fame.” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, September 21, 2018.
- “Tom Longboat.” Historica Canada, undated.
- “The True Story of Edgar Laplante, the King of Jazz Age Con Artists.” Paul Willetts, Signature Reads, August 6, 2018.
- “The Rise and Fall of King Con.” Anil Dawar, The Express, August 6, 2018.
- “Living History: Chief White Elk Was a Show-Stopper in Salt Lake City.” Ardis E. Parshall, The Salt Lake Tribune, November 4, 2011.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor