Concord native was a mastermind of crime

Before he became a recurring character in the TV series “Boardwalk Empire,” Gaston B. Means was a real-life North Carolina native who built his reputation as a private detective, salesman, bootlegger, forger, swindler, murder suspect, blackmailer and con artist before dying in prison in 1938. In 1964, writer Heath Thomas profiled what he called “America’s Greatest Rascal.”

The highly gifted Gaston B. Means had started his career in his own community of Concord as a representative of textile king J. W. Cannon. The work, however, did not furnish the drama and excitement which he relished.

In 1914, the tall, heavy, saggily built Tar Heel applied for a job with the Burns Detective Agency. Within a year he was rated the greatest operative in the Burns organization. …

A little later Means confided to Burns that he had been offered $100,000 by Capt. Von Papen, then German military attache in Washington, to work for the Kaiser in tying up American munitions plants working for the Allies. Burns refused to cooperate, and Means left the agency to become a spy at $1,000 a week and many thousands more for special assignments.…

While wooing Oak Park debutante Julie Patterson whom he married, Means met Mrs. Mary D. Melvin, Maude King’s sister. …

Maude King was a wealthy widow who engaged Means to manage her affairs, then ended up mysteriously dead. A sensational murder trial followed, but a Cabarrus County jury acquitted Means.

Means began looking for new opportunities. His old 1914 chief, William J. Burns, had become head of the Department of Justice’s Division of Investigation. …

Means received his appointment with the Division of Investigation on Oct. 28, 1921. When Attorney General Harry M. Daughtry learned of the appointment, he ordered that Means be discharged. Burns protested the order, calling Means “the best and most efficient investigator in America.” He was reinstated in May 1922. …

While a G-man he opened government liquor warehouses to bootleg barons. His loot totaled $100,000. He worked out a bogus deal in which he took $75,000 from a Chicago bootlegger. He was indicted for conspiring to bribe four high officials of the Department of Justice.

Means went to prison for four years and, while there, continued to dream up schemes, including a book alleging that President Harding had been poisoned by his wife. Then he pretended to be hired by Mrs. Harding to investigate the truth.

Means was slipping from the limelight. Then the crime sensation of the decade occurred: the kidnapping of the Lindberghs’ infant son on March 1, 1932. The shrewd Tar Heel saw opportunity in the tragedy.

The wealthy Mrs. Evelyn Walsh McLean, owner of the “unlucky” Hope diamond, wanted to help find the child. Means called to see her and bragged that while at Atlanta he met the man who plotted the crime. Mrs. McLean remembered him as a “great detective.” He suggested that if she would put up a $100,000 guarantee, he would recover the baby alive. He was given $100,000 plus $4,000 for expenses.

As Means kept in touch with Mrs. McLean he frequently mentioned “The Fox,” whom he described as a sinister figure. He promised she would find the little boy in Chicago. Then it was El Paso and next it was Mexico. Mrs. McLean made wild goose chases to these places.

Then in April 1932, Dr. John F. Condon and Colonel Lindbergh paid the $50,000 ransom to a man later to be identified as Bruno Richard Hauptman who would be executed for the crime. But Hauptman was still in the shadows. So Means decided to spin the wheel of chance once more.

He again called on Mrs. McLean and told her the kidnappers would not return the baby unless fresh money was exchanged for the marked money delivered by Condon. This would require $35,000. Mrs. McLean did not have the cash, so she gave a diamond necklace and two diamond bracelets to Elizabeth Poe, a newspaper reporter, to pawn for $35,000. Instead, Miss Poe turned the jewelry over to Mrs. McLean’s lawyer who had not known until then that his client was being duped.

Means was arrested on a charge of stealing $104,000 from Mrs. McLean. He was convicted on June 13, 1932. Two days later, trial Judge James M. Proctor gave Means a tongue lashing for “capitalizing on the sweetest and most tender sentiments of the human heart.” Means sat down with a heavy thud when he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. …

Then Means hit the limelight again when he tried to smuggle a letter out of Leavenworth Penitentiary containing his “confession” that he originated the Lindbergh kidnapping plot. Many who knew him believed at the time that no other criminal mind in the nation could have conceived and directed the horrific crime.

The N&O, Oct. 4, 1964