- A Swindler's Guide to the British Empire
During a chilly Scottish October in 1824 Dumfries innkeeper Ambrose Clarke and his wife Amelia played host to a young man calling himself John Colquhoun. Although the son of a local baronet, Colquhoun was down on his luck. He found a ready audience at the Dumfries and Galloway Hotel. He was fond of telling the story of his troubles "even to persons who had no interest in the matter."1 Freely admitting the follies of his youth, he explained how he "behaved ill & was wild & dissipated and had much offended his father" who had cast him off.2 Soon, however, he would come of age and enter into his inheritance. Then he would be able to pay his mounting bill at the inn, his debt to a local tailor (the sympathetic Clarkes had urged him to replace his threadbare garments), and more besides. Influential friends would help him, he assured the Clarkes, and their letters were ostentatiously flashed around the assembled company. He was careful, however, only to reveal the addresses, and never the actual contents.
Ten years later Francis Prendergast was entertaining a somewhat more illustrious guest in the colony of New South Wales. Prendergast had arrived in Sydney as a convict, but having earned his freedom, he and his family now farmed in a modest way in the interior. His mysterious visitor claimed to have come into the country for his health, and he proceeded to make himself very much at home. As Prendergast remembered it:
he remained at my house fifteen days, during which time he destroyed twelve of my best turkeys, innumerable geese, ducks, fowls, &c.; he always dined by himself in the parlour, and after he had taken what he thought proper, he sent the remains out to me and my wife and servants into the kitchen.3
Three days into his stay the visitor admitted that his true identity was Edward, Viscount Lascelles, the eldest son of the Earl of Harewood. The Prendergasts treated their aristocratic guest with suitable deference, notwithstanding his startling depredations upon their poultry yard. They even arranged for him to purchase horses from a neighbor, one James Roberts, who was paid with a promissory note.
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Roberts, the Prendergasts, and the Clarkes, of course, all came to grief in their ambition to serve a social superior. Colquhoun and Lascelles were two of the identities assumed by a 19th-century serial impostor. Possibly the son of a Scottish coal miner, he was convicted under the name of John Dow (an identity he would never admit to) for the crime of obtaining goods by means of "falsehood, fraud, and wilful imposition."4 The sentence was seven years transportation to the penal settlement of Van Diemen's Land, and the judge hoped that "by repentance and improvement of his time, he might still recover his character, and return to his country a better man than he left it."5 In fact, this sentence only opened up wider horizons for Dow. On the [End Page 2] boat out he was already claiming the identity of Edward, Viscount Lascelles. When his seven-year sentence was served, he was free to pursue that role in the colony, leaving a trail of disgruntled creditors in his wake. Charges over the dishonored promissory note given to James Roberts brought his career as a viscount to an ignominious end with a sensational trial for fraud in Sydney.
It is hard to avoid being amused by Dow's outrageous swindles. The man clearly had charisma, though the marginal position of most of his victims leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Certainly Dow's victims were the butt of scorn in their own time. The Clarkes's credulity inspired a hearty laugh from the judge in Dumfries, while the tales of James Roberts and Francis Prendergast were punctuated by titters from the crowded Sydney courthouse. Here is how the Sydney Herald reported James Roberts's testimony in Dow's 1835 trial:
I don't think...