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Stranger Than Fiction

May 2024 

A Man of Means
by Dean Jobb

Gaston Means, hailed in the press as “one of the most amazing rogues of all time.” (Author Collection)

The big, balding man who visited Washington socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean in March of 1932 claimed he could solve a shocking, mysterious crime that was making headlines around the world. Gaston Means, a fifty-three-year-old former detective who had served time in federal prison for fraud, told McLean he knew who had snatched the infant son of aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne, from the couple’s New Jersey home. And, for a fee, he was willing to contact the kidnappers, deliver the ransom, and ensure the boy’s safe return to his distraught parents.

McLean was one of the richest women in America. Not only had she inherited her father’s mining fortune—her estranged husband, Ned McLean, was the wealthy publisher of the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Washington Post. In 1911 he bought her the walnut-sized Hope Diamond, a famous stone that had brought “death, disaster, disgrace, and poverty” to a series of illustrious owners, noted the New York Times, including Marie Antoinette. Means was about to bring its latest owner disaster and disgrace, and make her a little poorer.

McLean was a close friend of the Lindberghs and eager to do whatever she could to bring their son home. While she was aware of Means’s reputation as a swindler and inveterate liar, his story sounded plausible. A former cellmate, he said, had tried to recruit him to kidnap the boy—he had refused, of course, to take part in such an odious crime—and had gone ahead with the plan. If McLean was willing to pay the $100,000 ransom being demanded—more than $2 million today—Means was certain he could secure the child’s release. Another $4,000, which would now be about $85,000, should cover his expenses.

She withdrew the money from her bank, all of it in old $50 and $100 bills as Means requested. She also complied with his demand for secrecy and told no one, not even her close friends or her lawyers, about the arrangement. She handed over the bundle of cash to Means and waited for his instructions. The Lindbergh kidnapping, widely regarded as America’s crime of the century, had become the inspiration for one of the most audacious swindles of the century.


Means claimed to know the whereabouts of Charles Lindbergh, Jr, son of the famed aviator, after he was kidnapped in 1932. (Author Collection)

When Gaston Bullock Means passed himself off as a charming, smooth-talking Southern gentleman, it was the one role he came by honestly. Born in 1879 on his family’s plantation in Concord, North Carolina, near Charlotte, Means was the oldest son of a lawyer who served as the town’s mayor. He was still a boy when he got away with his first crime: He stole money from his mother’s purse and allowed a maid suspected of the theft to be fired. Bud, as he was known in his youth, was a college dropout who taught school for a few years before landing a job as a traveling salesman for a cotton mill. Always on the lookout for an angle, he introduced himself to customers as the mill owner’s son and asked if he could trouble them for small loans to tide him over; by the time the ruse was exposed and he was fired, he had raked in thousands of dollars.

Means reinvented himself as a private detective. He joined the William J. Burns International Detective Agency’s New York office in 1911 and his new boss considered him “one of the best investigators who ever lived.” The chameleonlike Means proved as adept at mingling with the rich and famous as he was at blending in with underworld toughs. But his lack of a moral compass may have been the clincher. Burns, whose clandestine services included burgling offices and tampering with witnesses and juries, likely recognized a kindred spirit.

He left the agency at the outbreak of the Great War to take up a lucrative offer to work for the German government. Designated agent E-13, he kept tabs on cargoes destined for Allied countries, arranged shipments of rubber and copper to Germany, and founded the pro-German American Peace Society. Payments for his spying and other services were dropped off at gravestones in the cemetery of New York’s historic Trinity Church, adding a dash of cloak and dagger to the arrangement.

Means quit when the U.S. entered the war in 1917, but not as an act of patriotism—he had found a new opportunity to enrich himself. Maude King, the young widow of a rich Chicago lumberman, hired him to help manage her finances and investments. Means helped himself, pocketing more than $100,000 before King became suspicious. Fearing his fraud would be exposed, Means invited her to visit his family’s North Carolina plantation, and while there, as the two of them walked alone in the woods, King was shot in the head. Means claimed she had been fooling around with a revolver he had brought along for target practice, but stood trial for murder. A jury of his hometown peers swallowed his implausible story. Two of the jurors had been pressured to acquit, it was later claimed, and a third had indeed been bought.

Not even this well-publicized travesty of justice was enough to stop Means. When his pal William Burns was summoned to Washington in 1921 to head the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation—the forerunner of the FBI—he brought Means along as a special investigator. His role was to do the dirty work of the administration of President Warren Harding, one of the most corrupt in American history. He acted as bagman for Attorney General Harry Daugherty, helping to launder the money rolling in from crooks seeking pardons or release on parole and bribes paid by companies accused of wartime profiteering. Means was in his element and was soon running an extortion scam of his own, claiming he was collecting kickbacks for the Republican Party. Bootleggers paid him handsomely for protection from prosecution or for access to government stockpiles of booze and were in no position to complain to the police when he failed to deliver.

Means was a big man, over six foot tall and a portly 230 pounds, and a dead ringer for the 1940s movie actor Sydney Greenstreet. A quick wit and jolly nature, however, offset his commanding presence, putting victims at ease. His deep-dimpled smile and egg-shaped face made him look more like a jovial uncle than a threat. The ability to spin a plausible tale and an actor’s sense of timing completed the package. “He has the perfect instinct for delivering a line,” theatre impresario David Belasco remarked after watching one of his courtroom performances. He lived well on his ill-gotten gains, installing his wife and children in mansions and zipping around Washington and New York in chauffeur-driven limousines.

Means was suspended from the Bureau of Investigation in 1923, after one of the bootleggers he had fleeced went public and exposed the bribery scheme. He also faced prosecution for a stock-selling fraud. With nothing to lose, he betrayed his corrupt political bosses. Senate committees were investigating Attorney General Daugherty’s perversions of justice, bribes paid for leases to Wyoming’s Teapot Dome oil reserves, and other Harding-era scandals, and Means became a star witness. “I have been accused of every crime in the catalogue,” he admitted when he testified in March 1924, “but not convicted, so far.”

“What is your business at the present time?” he was asked.

“Answering indictments,” he quipped.

His damning testimony implicated Daugherty. Means described how he had collected envelopes stuffed with cash and passed them along to Jess Smith, the attorney general’s closest friend and operative. And he described a Watergate-style campaign of break-ins, phone tapping, and background investigations of Harding administration critics, including members of Congress. Other witnesses confirmed that, for once, Means was telling the truth. “Means had a brilliant mind and could have distinguished himself if he had used it in constructive channels,” noted Burton Wheeler, the Montana senator who led the Senate investigation of Daugherty, “but you never knew when he was lying.”

Means was convicted of bribery and fraud in 1925 and served a little over three years in an Atlanta prison. In 1930 he published The Strange Death of President Harding, a tell-all bestseller that claimed the president, who had died suddenly in 1923, had been murdered and suggested his wife had poisoned him. The sensational allegations evaporated when the ghostwriter Means employed—and never paid—denounced the book as a “tissue of falsehood from beginning to end” and admitted there was no evidence to back up the allegations.

The kidnapping of twenty-month-old Charles Lindbergh, Jr. in March 1932 gave him the pretext for an even more elaborate hoax.


Washington socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean, flanked by her lawyers, gave Means $104,000 in ransom and expenses to secure the release of the Lindbergh baby. (Author Collection)

Means staged a tour to give Evalyn McLean her money’s worth, at least in terms of farce and spectacle. He assigned her a codename, No. 11, and referred to the kidnap gang’s leader as The Fox. He told her to meet him in Aiken, South Carolina, just over the state line from Augusta, Georgia, where he would be waiting with “the Book,” their code word for the baby. Means and a man McLean described as “a rough looking individual” turned up at the rendezvous, but without the child. There had been “a slip-up,” Means explained; the baby was in Mexico and would be brought to her in El Paso. McLean traveled to Texas but returned empty-handed. Means assured her that ponying up another $35,000 would do the trick. Only then did she realize she had been duped. “When it became evident that no clue of any value had been discovered,” she told the press, trying hard to make the humiliating episode sound like a worthwhile gamble, “I realized that the plan had failed.”

Bureau of Investigation agents arrested Means in May 1932, days before the child’s body was discovered in woods near the Lindbergh home. He had been murdered shortly after the abduction. J. Edgar Hoover, who succeeded Burns as the bureau’s director, had long ago dropped Means and other shady characters from the payroll and attended the trial. Means took the witness stand, claiming he had tried to find the child; when his efforts failed, he had turned over McLean’s money to three men who said they were acting for her lawyers. They had even used her codename, No. 11, which convinced him the men could be trusted to take the money to her.

After returning to his seat, he whispered a question to Hoover.

“What did you think of that?”

“Gaston, every bit of it was a pack of lies.”

“Well,” Means said, “you’ve got to admit that it made a whale of a good story.”

The jury didn’t buy it. Means was convicted of theft and sentenced to fifteen years in prison by a judge who said his zeal to cash in on the Lindbergh tragedy displayed “the weakness and wickedness of human nature.”

The press praised the verdict but recognized Means as a giant among con men. He was “one of the most amazing rogues of all time,” in the estimation of an Oregon newspaper. Headline writers took to calling him “The Amazing Mr. Means.” Alan Hynd, a true crime writer who specialized in swindlers, believed that Means’s chutzpah, along with his ability to craft lies that sounded credible, ranked him as nothing less than “the most versatile criminal of the twentieth century.” His pivotal role in Roaring Twenties corruption was confirmed when Means and some of his scams were featured in the TV series Boardwalk Empire.

Means died in prison in 1938. Fittingly, a man who displayed no shortage of gall died of complications after surgery to remove gallstones. Before his death, FBI agents pumped him for information about McLean’s missing money. Means, it was said, offered only silence and a dimpled smile.


Dean Jobb’s next book, A Gentleman and a Thief: The Daring Jewel Heists of a Jazz Age Rogue (Algonquin Books), will be released in June. It’s the incredible true story of Arthur Barry, who charmed the elite of 1920s New York while planning some of the most brazen jewel thefts in history. For more on this and his other true crime books, find him at

Copyright © 2024 Dean Jobb

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