The Swindling Geologist (1863)

It must have been glorious to have been a geologist in Dubuque, Iowa, in September 1863. When Professor James Dale Owen of the Smithsonian Institute arrived at the State Fair, he was given a season pass, appointed to a prominent committee, and feted by many. He had dinner with the state’s governor. People throughout Iowa invited him to their homes, offering to pay his travel expenses. He was written up in the newspaper. Unfortunately for Owen, and for several other people who met him, the story’s main focus was that Owen was a fraud who had scammed and stolen hundreds of dollars from unsuspecting victims.

For six months from April to October 1863, a person pretending to be James Dale Owen victimized people from West Virginia to Iowa. He claimed to be the son of David Dale Owen, the state geologist of Indiana, and was out west “to visit the several State Fairs and make a note of what was new and curious.” If any items interested him, he would purchase them for the Smithsonian. He also traveled on behalf of the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC), an agency set up to raise money for the Union during the Civil War. In this capacity, Owen sold sets of books by prominent geologists, such as Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin, with the money earmarked for the USSC. Eight to ten people from Davenport ponied up the seven dollars, and, of course, never received the books.

They made out better than others. When Owen told others that he worked for the New York Tribune, and could get them mentioned in the paper, some people gave him money to cover his expenses to come and them. Apparently a ladies’ man, he asked several young women to marry him. At least three accepted. But his greatest success was as a pickpocket, pilfering $80 from one person and $50 from another. Total take in Davenport was estimated at $1,500.

Where Owen fared less well was as a geologist. After Davenport, he headed to Illinois and made the acquintance of amateur geologist O.N. Adams. Adams attempted to solicit Owen’s thoughts on various geology topics, and found his answers often incorrect. When pressed Owen responded that he had been ill in Iowa and had been given “dreadful opiates, which make me dull and stupid.” Despite the opiates, Owen still hoodwinked Adams out of a valuable fossil collection, sold him a set of geology books, and even promised Adams’ daughter two guinea pigs. “He little heart is well nigh broken,” reported the Chicago Tribune.

Finally, in early October 1863, Owen was arrested in Tamaroa, Illinois, a small town in the southern part of the state. Owen argued that “it was a mere matter of time.” If he had been arrested in Chicago, with its high quality telegraph services, he could have contacted the Smithsonian or his publishers in Philadelphia and they would have cleared up the situation immediately.

Of course, no such communication took place, so Owen took it upon himself to remedy the situation. He first attempted to bribe the person who made the arrest. When this failed, he apparently colluded with a pettifogger, who convinced the officer holding Owen that he would suffer if Owen was not let go. Before any could stop him Owen caught the first train, never to be seen or heard from again.

 

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