Stephen F. Austin State University

Big Apple con man hoodwinked the locals (April 2017)

Big Apple con man hoodwinked the locals

By Van Craddock

"He's slipperier than a Mississippi sturgeon." -Mayor Shinn, "The Music Man"

The nattily dressed stranger stepped off a westbound train in Longview in April 1879. Unsuspecting locals soon learned the fancy Dan could have been a distant cousin of Professor Harold Hill.

You remember the huckster professor from "The Music Man," don't you? He, too, had alighted from an Iowa train to sell musical instruments to the yokels in River City. He was forming a boys band, he told the native Iowans.

As the train was pulling into River City, a fellow traveling salesman asked Hill where he was headed. Hill replied, "Wherever the people are as green as the money, friend."

And that was the destination of St. George Wilson, Esquire, in 1879.

Wilson "stopped in the innocent town of Longview for a day or two to look around and soon made himself known to the merchants and people generally," reported a contemporary Texas newspaper that spring. "Suddenly, he became known as a capitalist of large means and larger credit. The people would not know this if he had not told them."

Wilson told the rustic locals he was from New York City, representing the publishing firm of G.P. Rowell and Company. That was only a sideline, though, because the New Yorker casually mentioned he was quite wealthy. Wilson "told of his wealth to every child and woman and man he came in contact with."

After all, Wilson's daughter was about to graduate from Vassar College.

Within days, the stranger was investing in property, noting he was "ready to lay down the money as soon as he could transfer it to Longview."

F.J. Harrison, who owned Longview's only bank in 1879, visited Wilson to solicit a deposit. The banker said he usually carried as much as $8,000 on deposit in his vault. Wilson expressed disappointment, bragging, "I carry that much always about my clothes."

St. George Wilson "could not walk the street without being asked to smoke, to ride, to drink, to dine." He loved fine cigars and soon was complaining of exhaustion.

A steady stream of residents made appointments to visit with Wilson, who was staying at the Morse Hotel. The visitors wanted Wilson to invest in their properties, too. He wrote checks on the spot.

Wilson promptly bought the Morse Hotel, hired some carpenters and set about enlarging the structure. The hotel's previous owners, the Hoskins, were upset when Wilson cut down the family's "fine old oaks" to accommodate the expansion. They also were concerned when the funds Wilson supposedly had wired to Longview were delayed.

After enlarging the hotel, Wilson bought a lot from J.A.W. Cheek, then another from Ben Johnson. Again, no actual money changed hands.

Not everyone was interested in selling Wilson something. Quite the ladies' man, several local women vied to share time with him. At least one woman "had her cap set for him."

Not all were impressed with the New Yorker. "Some shrewd people doubted him and said (to) beware of the stranger." But according to the newspaper, most folks said, "Now, why speak so of the man? That is just the way some of the weak-kneed do when a capitalist comes here. No wonder Longview gets the go-by from men of means."

But when there was discussion of selling the new Sabine River wagon bridge to the New Yorker, Gregg County Sheriff M.L. Durham and others started an investigation into the stranger's "credentials." It soon became clear that St. George Wilson, if that were indeed his name, wasn't the least bit rich.

His daughter didn't go to Vassar, either.

Then Wilson's checks began to bounce. Wilson was arrested, charged with swindling and escorted to the Gregg County Jail.

In "The Music Man," Professor Harold Hill found acceptance and love (Marian the Librarian) in River City. Heck, who wouldn't like Shirley Jones?

All St. George Wilson found in Longview was an indictment.