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HUGH L. COURTNEY—CHARLATAN EXTRAORDINAIRE

THEY DON’T make charlatans like they used to. I’ve just learned about Hugh L. Courtney while reading “Cheats, Swindlers, and Ne’er-Do-Wells: A New York Family Album,” by Dan Barry in The New York Times, February 9, 2018. Amid the dishonest servants, pickpockets, shoplifters, and other low life discussed in the article, Hugh L. Courtney, aka Lord Courtney aka Lord Beresford aka Sir Harry Vane of Her Majesty’s Lights aka other monikers, stands out.

Hugh L. Courtney, English-born c. 1852, Anglo-American con man of the highest order. This and the following images from Professional Criminals of America, by Inspector Thomas F. Byrnes, New York City Police Department, 1886.

Inspector Thomas F. Byrnes of the New York City Police Department assembled an 1886 compendium titled Professional Criminals of America. I gleaned the following tidbits from this assemblage, now a free ebook from Google.

Thomas F. Byrnes, 1842–1910, Irish-born American police officer, head of the Detective Bureau, New York City Police Department, from 1880 until 1895. Portrayed fictionally in Jack Finney’s Time and Again, in Caleb Carr’s novel The Alienist, and in the TV series of the same name.

Byrnes’ policework was innovative and painstaking for the time. His description of Courtney included, “Claimed to be married when arrested, which is not a fact. Slim build. Height, 6 feet 2 inches. Weight, 175 pounds. Dark hair, heavy eyes, bronzed complexion. Has a small, light-colored mustache. Tall, gentlemanly-looking man. Looks and assumes the air of an Englishman.”

I’ve known several of the type, not all of whom were con men, to my knowledge.

“Lord Courtney, the bogus British nobleman,” Byrnes continued, “is well known in New York City since 1874, and, in fact, all over the United States and Canada. There are several people to-day in England, Utah Territory, Montreal (Canada), Richmond (Va.), Baltimore, Newport (R.I.) and, in fact, in all the principal cites of the United States, that would like to have the pleasure of meeting him again, and handing him over to the police authorities.”

Inspector Byrnes oversees his colleagues questioning an alleged malefactor. Byrnes isn’t wearing his black gloves yet, so the interrogation hasn’t gotten all that serious. This and the following image from The New York Times, February 9, 2018.

Courtney beat an 1880 forgery rap in Salt Lake City, but got arrested again on an earlier London scam involving a bogus £72 Bill of Exchange. (Not exactly a windfall for him; it was around $413 back then, perhaps $7300 in today’s dollar.)

The Rogues Gallery, NYPD headquarters, 1899.

Shipped back to England, Courtney got three months hard labor at Clerkenwell Prison, London, under the name of Marcus Beresford aka Walter Constable Maxwell. Post-stir, he was transported to, as Byrnes called it, “one of the West India Islands, but turned up again in Boston, Mass., the same fall.”

Visiting day at Clerkenwell Prison, 1862. I could find no record of Courtney/Beresford/Maxwell’s bogus wife visiting him there in the 1880s.

Later, as Charles Pelham Clinton aka C.C. Bertie (Courtney had a flair for aliases, didn’t he?), he scammed a Montreal merchant in matters of an English estate. Courtney impressed the merchant with ken of English law, left the fellow poorer, and went on the lam with a $1000 reward on his head. Figure $25,000 in today’s dollar.

Then, in 1876, “Sir Hugh Leslie Courtney of the British Royal Navy” appeared in the best of Baltimore society. “A young Baltimore belle,” Byrnes wrote, “describes him as the most fascinating personage, and says that he was the first who ever ‘fired her soul with love.’ ” This ardor was evidently shared by other Baltimore belles, who were known to cut buttons off Sir Hugh’s elegant uniform as souvenirs.

Courtney worked this scam for months, running on credit and complaining about his “stupid banker in England” not forwarding his rightful sums. Not to worry, a sweet young thing from Norfolk, Virginia, gave him $500 to tide him over.

Courtney left Baltimore just in the nick, having been recognized by a previous swindlee. This is where Byrnes’ trail went dead.

Byrnes wrote, “This party’s right name is supposed to be Clinton, and he is a clever son of a former lodge-keeper of the Earl of Devon, in Devonshire, England…. His picture is a good one, although a copy.”

Indeed, my copy is an iMac screen shot of the Google source. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018

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