Not so many years ago, fifteen or sixteen, or seventeen, perhaps, we were all following the Druce Case with immense interest. Stated baldly, as I remember it, the general thesis was that a Mr. Druce, keeper of a big furniture shop in Baker Street, who in due season died, and was buried in Highgate Cemetery, was not Mr. Druce at all, but the Duke of Portland; the famous Duke who caused to be constructed the underground mansion at Welbeck, and was thought to be more than a little eccentric. Now, I have forgotten the detail, I regret to say, but if this Mr. Druce could be proved to have been, in fact, the Duke, then somebody would come in for a great deal of money. The original claimant went mad and died, and then another claimant appeared, and turned himself or herself into a company, and found some hundreds of people ready to subscribe quite large sums so that the legal proceedings should be taken and the recovered treasure distributed amongst them. This monstrous bubble of a story was finally burst by leave being given to open the Druce vault at Highgate; whereupon the body of poor Mr. Druce was disclosed and found to be undoubtedly the body of Mr. Druce, and not a lump of lead, as (I think) was alleged by the Claimant. But in the course of litigation one extraordinary witness was called in support of the Claimant’s case. She was a very old lady, over eighty, to the best of my recollection, and she had been brought all the way from New Zealand to tell the most outrageous cock-and-bull story that was ever heard in an English law court. She knew all about the secret of the Duke of Portland, who had the odd humour, according to the fable, of pretending at intervals to be an upholsterer in Baker Street; she knew, because in her youth she had been “outside correspondent” to him, Charles Dickens, and Lord Lytton. She did not explain what an “outside correspondent” was; she placidly babbled her imbecilities in the witness-box, and was finally prosecuted for perjury, convicted and let off very lightly.
But it is her phrase that interests me. I am convinced that it was a great attraction to the people who were persuaded to back this crazy imposture, just because it was idiotic, which, after all, is not surprising, since the persons concerned who parted with their money in such a cause were undoubtedly idiots, and so it was, I think, with the amazing case of Benson and the Turf Frauds, an old tale of the ‘seventies.
Benson was a man of Jewish race. He was only twenty-six, but he had been in grave trouble before. He was perfectly well-mannered, well-educated, well-dressed, and had contrived, one gathers, by gig-keeping on a magnificent scale, to associate with the very best people in the Isle of Wight. He drove a splendidly equipped carriage and pair; therefore, he was a good man. He had collected about him a remarkable gang of assistants; and in the year 1876 Benson and his friends laid a remarkable trap, and baited it in the oddest manner. This bait was taken, and taken eagerly, by one Madame de Goncourt, a wealthy French widow. Benson, no doubt, had marked her down; it is the business of men who follow his difficult and dangerous craft to know everything — everything that may at all concern them. At all events, Madame de Goncourt received an odd number of an English paper called Sport. Of course, there was no such paper. But Madame. de Goncourt, reading this journal which had fallen on her from the clouds, learned from it that it was the property of an immensely wealthy Englishman, a Mr. Montgomery. This Mr. Montgomery had mysterious and masterly access to turf and stable secrets that had enabled him to win, not thousands, but millions of pounds on the race-course. Not unnaturally, the bookmakers were enraged at the disastrous science of Mr. Montgomery. They refused to take his bets. Sport was enraged. It pointed out a way. Though Mr. Montgomery could not make bets in his own name, he could pay a slight commission to foreign agents, who would back horses for him in their own names. All this impressed Madame de Goncourt immensely, and she was impressed still more by the receipt of a letter from the great Mr. Montgomery. This gentleman — alias Benson — wrote as follows:
“Your name has been favourably mentioned to me by the Franco–English Society of Publicity, and I consequently repose in you the most esteemed confidence. What I require of you is very simple indeed. I will send you for each race the amount which I desire to put on the horse which must, in my opinion, win. You will have to forward the money in your name, but on my account, to the bookmaker, and thus will be able to get the real odds, which, on account of my success and great knowledge, are denied me. The bookmaker will, on settling day, send you the amount, added to the stake originally forwarded to him. This you will please remit to me, and, on its receipt, I will forthwith forward to you a commission of five per cent.”
Madame de Goncourt had more money than she knew what to do with; naturally, therefore, she wanted to make more. She became Mr. Montgomery’s agent, and received cheques of “The Royal Bank of London, Charing Cross.” There was no such bank, to be sure; but, then, there was no Franco–English Society of Publicity. Sham cheques came raining on Madame de Goncourt, and she forwarded them to various agents of Benson, who were supposed to be English bookmakers. Then Mr. Montgomery sent her a Bank of London cheque for £1000, which was to be put on a certain horse and sent to a bookmaker named Francis, who, said Mr. Montgomery, was a “sworn-bookmaker.” And he advised the lady, very strongly, to invest a like sum on her own account. She did so, and in a few days she had sent £10,000 to various sworn-bookmakers.
Then, of course, the inevitable mistake. The gang did not know when to leave the board. They put it to Madame de Goncourt that a vast fortune was to be made if she could venture £30,000 with a sworn-bookmaker named Ellerton; and Mr. Montgomery said that if the lady could not command the whole sum he would gladly advance the difference himself. She was only too ready to find the whole sum required; but before this could be done she had to have a talk with her banker — and then all was spoilt. Madame de Goncour came over to England, and characteristically enough, applied to the Lord Mayor, telling him, no doubt, that she had suffered wrong. Her confidence in the French Legend of the Lord Mayor of London was justified; Benson and his rascals were caught, and the lady recovered almost the whole of her money. I do not think I am in the least glad to record this fact. On the whole, I think Benson and his pirates deserved the money quite as well as Madame de Goncourt, if not better. Poor men, men of large families and small means, may be readily excused if they are over-ready to accept idle tales of immense gains: but the rich should not be covetous. But this is not a moral tale. Its point lies in the highly successful use of absurd jargon, of the “outside correspondent” order. Mark the “Franco–English Society of Publicity,” non-existent, of course but interesting as containing an early example of the ugly word, “publicity.” Note “The Royal Bank of London”; note, above all, the “sworn-bookmaker,” a great creation. There is no surer bait than pompous and unmeaning gibberish of this sort. You remember “The Anglo–Bengalee Disinterested Loan and Life Assurance Company.” In England we require the moral touch implied in “Disinterested.” Benson was baiting his hook for Continental victims, and so did not appeal to the ethical issue. It is well known that they are not really moral on the Continent. I shall call my swindle “The All–British Orphans’ Benevolent Protection and Reconstruction Company, Ltd.” Reconstruction is one of the most blessed of these blessed words; and what good man could resist the temptation of benevolently protecting and reconstructing an All–British Orphan — especially if he were promised interest on his money at the rate of twenty-five per cent?
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