The Vagabond – A swindler comes to town in 1899


By Danny Crownover

Gadsden has had more than its share of colorful men who lived by their wits, to say nothing of transient swindlers who passed through town on a regular basis back in the day.

One such incident happened in 1899. Ben Thompson took in local businessmen and eventually turned out to be nothing but a country yokel who often remarked that he was from anywhere and everywhere and nowhere in particular.

Thompson claimed to have been born and reared in Ireland. He said he practiced law in Chicago, Cincinnati, New York and Philadelphia, was preparing to farm on a large scale in Etowah County. He also claimed he was a resident of Hokes Bluff.

Thompson rolled into town on the southern train one night and put up at the Leek Hotel, which was located in the second story of what became the Hagedorn Building at the corner of Court and Broad Streets. He appeared to be about 50 years old and had iron gray hair and mustache. He wore gold glasses and a shabby suit of clothes and carried a gold-headed cane.

Thompson said that he was to be married soon and wished to buy equipment for a farm so that he and his bride could settle down to a quiet and easy life. He admitted that he had no ready money but was expecting some sort of payout from a large insurance company. The money was to arrive by express, so he went around to the express office with some newfound friends to get it.

The money had not yet arrived, but a telegram was delivered saying that the money was on the way. In the meantime, Thompson met W.P. Johnson, who was a wealthy local citizen, and bought a large farm from him. The payment was to be made when Thompson’s insurance money arrived.

The deed to the farm was made ready, and Thompson promised to come around soon with the cash and pick them up. To make things look on the up-and-up, he employed N.A. Canning as his lawyer and had him pass on the deeds.

Thompson next went to the Smith & Echols Hardware Company, where he bought buggies, wagons, harness, plows and other farm equipment. His purchases amounted to $325.

He then bought a horse from J.T. Leek and crossed the street to buy two more from the Sullivan & Sullivan Livery.

Thompson then purchased $50 worth of clothing from Herzberg Brothers (pictured above). All during this time, Thompson did a bit of jollying in an effort to make the storekeepers think they had struck a bonanza.

After his buying spree, he took a train out of town and was never heard of again. None of the goods Thompson bought were delivered, and nobody was actually swindled except the Leek Hotel, since Thompson failed to pay his bill.

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