Stranger Than Fiction

May 2022

The “Bogus Priest” and the Murdered President

By Dean Jobb

STF-May22-Derohan-1
President James Garfield, wounded by an assassin’s bullet, was bedridden and dying in the White House when he signed the extradition order to return swindler Gaston Derohan to the United States from Canada. (Author Collection)

They somehow managed to get their hands on the key to a door leading to the prison yard. Just before dawn on a November day in 1880, four men leaned a plank against the outer wall, used it to climb to the top, shimmied down knotted blankets to the ground on the other side, and scampered off. They were so quick and so quiet, a guard on duty only a few yards away saw and heard nothing.

One of the escapees from the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City was a convicted killer. A thief and a forger also went over the wall that morning. But the most notorious of the four inmates was a con man who posed as a monk or priest and had been pulling swindles in the United States and Canada for at least five years. He went by a slew of aliases—Rev. Van Hoagland and Father Dominque among them—but his prison record identified him as Gaston Derohan, a thirty-year-old native of Holland. He was “chief among all noted criminals the world has produced,” the Dallas Daily Herald boasted on his behalf, “the keenest, shrewdest confidence man of the present century.”

Derohan made his way east and crossed the border into Canada before he was arrested in August 1881 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a major seaport on the Atlantic coast. Missouri officials demanded his return and the prison’s warden sent his son, Ralph Willis, to Halifax for the extradition hearing. All that Willis needed was the signature of the president of the United States to complete the paperwork. Derohan—a man newspaper headlines dubbed the “Swindling Monk” and the “Bogus Priest”—was about to become a strange footnote in American presidential history.

* * * 

The real name of this clerical con man was Adrian Gorter (or Gorder, according to some press accounts), and he was born in 1850 in Holland’s northern region of Den Helder. He apparently came to Canada as a young man and claimed to have been a member of an order of Trappist monks in Montreal. He returned to Europe long enough to serve a year in a French prison for fraud. By the mid 1870s he was swindling victims across the U.S., from Georgia to California. He passed himself off as the Rev. Dr. Norbert Sweeney in Troy, New York, and convinced victims in Omaha he was Father Stanislas. In Texas, he became Father Augustus Hempstead. He returned briefly to Canada in 1878 and operated in Montreal and Quebec City under the unimaginative name Rev. Deacon.

His swindles followed a pattern. He ingratiated himself with a parish priest or a Roman Catholic Church official in a new city, sometimes presenting forged or stolen credentials to support his claims. He was well educated, could speak five languages, and his solid grasp of the Bible and Catholic ritual allayed suspicions. Spectacles and pierced ears completed his scholarly, foreign-born man-of-the-cloth look. Eager to help, he preached sermons, conducted Mass, heard confessions. “A smooth conversationalist,” noted the Chicago Tribune, “he was outwardly the most pious of men.”

After a few weeks of winning the trust of parishioners and his new clerical friends, he would ask to borrow money so he could return to his Trappist order in Canada. If no one took the bait and offered him a loan, he helped himself to Communion funds or swiped chalices or other gold and silver items used in services, then left town. “His boldness in assuming names and characters, his plausible address and pleasing manners, his noble, striking countenance,” gushed his cheerleaders at the Dallas Daily Herald, “rank him as the peer, if not the superior, of any man known to the criminal annals of the world.”

An attempt to defraud the same victim twice proved to be his undoing. Derohan befriended Father Henry Vandersander, a parish priest in the St. Louis area, borrowed $500 from him, and disappeared. Back in St. Louis a couple of years later, he spotted Vandersander—who by now had been promoted to chancellor of the local archdiocese—entering a bank. That gave Derohan an idea. He knew from his earlier visit what Vandersander’s signature looked like, so he forged it on checks totaling $400. He managed to cash one at the same bank before a teller became suspicious and alerted the police.

Derohan pleaded guilty to forgery in July 1879. Turning on his famous charm, he begged for leniency. “Although he had fallen, he had doubly atoned for all with tears and prayer,” he assured the judge, and if released he would banish himself to the backwoods of Canada “and pass the remainder of his days in penance.” He was sentenced to five years in the state prison and, ignoring his vow to atone for his crimes, escaped the following year.

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A newspaper report on the forgery conviction of the “Swindling Monk” in St. Louis in 1879, identifying him as “Gustave” Derohan. (Chicago Tribune, July 13, 1879).

He was still at large in July 1881 when an assassin attacked the twentieth president of the United States.

* * * 

Pistol shots echoed inside Washington’s Baltimore & Potomac Railroad Station. The first bullet passed through James Garfield’s right arm. “My God! What is this?” he exclaimed. As he turned to face his assailant, he was shot in the back and fell face-first onto the floor. Onlookers seized the shooter as he tried to flee. Charles Guiteau, delusional and mentally unstable, had been turned down for a diplomatic post; killing Garfield and catapulting Vice President Chester Arthur into office, he believed, would improve his chances of becoming a U.S. consul in Paris.

Garfield, a lawyer and congressman who had served as a brigadier general during the Civil War, had been in the White House just four months. The wound was serious, but he might have recovered with proper medical treatment. As author Candice Millard recounts in her book Destiny of the Republic, the doctor in charge of his care, Garfield’s friend Willard Bliss, used unsterilized probes—and even his unwashed fingers—as he tried to locate the bullet lodged in the president’s abdomen. Garfield remained bedridden for weeks as doctors tried to remove the bullet. The wound became infected. Some days he rallied, only to have his condition worsen.        

On August 10, Garfield was handed a document to sign. It was the extradition order for Derohan, who was by now behind bars in Halifax. Author Jared Cohen’s research into Garfield’s final days, for his book Accidental Presidents, reveals that Dr. Bliss read the paperwork aloud and urged him to sign it. The president was so weak he could barely hold a pen. He practiced his signature a few times on a blank piece of paper, then scrawled it on the order. The Derohan file appears to have been brought to him by chance, in an effort to show Garfield was still in charge and still able to carry out his duties. “It is understood that the president will hereafter affix his signature to all documents requiring immediate attention,” one newspaper report noted in mid August, “so that the head of the nation may be said to be practically at his post.”

It proved to be the only document Garfield signed during his struggle to stay alive. He died on September 19, 1881, two months shy of his fiftieth birthday.

* * * 

Garfield’s final official act turned out to be in vain. Derohan launched a habeas corpus application in Nova Scotia in late August, and after a two-day hearing a court ordered his release. No one, it appeared, had realized that the extradition treaty between the United States and Britain (the British government continued to handle the foreign relations of its former colony, Canada) did not specify forgery as an extraditable offence.

The Salt Lake City Tribune was outraged at Canada’s refusal to send Derohan back to Missouri. “No law which can be invoked to protect notorious criminals is a good law,” it thundered in an editorial. “The next rogue planning a forgery in the United States,” the paper added, would realize that “if the worst came to the worst he might escape to Halifax.” Canada’s reputation as a haven for white-collar criminals, as the Tribune feared, was well known; by one estimate as many as 2,000 fugitives, wanted for embezzlement and other frauds, fled north during the 1880s to escape arrest.

The ever-brazen Derohan soon returned to the U.S. on his own. In March 1882 he was in Chicago, serving as a priest at a Catholic hospital, when his identity was discovered and he was arrested. He was shipped back to the Missouri State Penitentiary to finish serving his sentence. Released in May 1885, he managed to stay out of the headlines for several years. In 1889 Chicago police arrested a con man who called himself Emil Kitzer. He dressed as a priest and claimed to be raising money for the blind or the poor. Suspicions that it was Derohan, up to his old tricks, proved unfounded.

Derohan made what appears to have been his final appearance in the press in 1898, when he was convicted of fraud and forgery in Germany. Whether it was the final act of “this man of many names, many faces, many languages, and many rascally adventures,” as the Dallas Daily Herald called him, is unknown.

 

Dean Jobb’s latest true crime book, The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer (Algonquin Books), won the inaugural CrimeCom Clue Award for Best True Crime Book of 2021. He teaches in the MFA in Creative Nonfiction program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. 

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