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A.A. Advani, International Conman (Part I)


By Manan Desai |
AUGUST 26, 2014

New York – Ottawa – Chicago
On September 23, 1899, the New York Times ran a short story titled “Engaged To A Brahmin: A Chicago Girl to Marry a Wealthy Indian Merchant – First Recorded Instance of the Kind.” The Brahmin in question was Anand A. Advani, a “millionaire indigo merchant,” who was the son of Ajeetsing Advani, “a millionaire banker of Bombay” and a member of an illustrious family that had reportedly lived in Hyderabad, Sindh for 600 years. His fiancée was Virginia Tyler Hudson, a writer for the Chicago Record and Louisville Dispatch, who also happened to be a direct descendant of President John Tyler. The engagement had come after a brief three days of courtship in Chicago, and the Times reported it as the “first known instance of a Brahamin (sic) seeking an American wife in this country.”1 The story was notable enough that it was picked up by a handful of papers across the country. The San Francisco Chronicle, for instance, added more details about the pair, including the way they met (Hudson had been sent by her newspaper to interview Advani, who was traveling through Canada and the U.S.), the proposal (“in accordance with the custom of his caste, he exchanged a letter of bethrotal”), and the lavish gifts he had given to her. These included £25,000, watches, a ring, and a necklace that Advani had allegedly telegraphed for so that his fiancée could, according to the Chronicle, be “decked in the lavish manner of his Oriental fancy.”2 What might have ended there -- a story about a historical “first” and the fancy ways of wealthy Indian grooms – developed into something else entirely just one day later.

On September 23, Advani was arrested on charges of fraud and held at the Harrison Street Police Station in Chicago. He had gone that Friday afternoon to Chicago’s famous C.D. Peacock’s jewelry store to order a wedding ring for his fiancée. He paid with a check drawn against the Bank of British North America of Ottawa, including with it a letter from the bank manager William Philpott that “bespoke good treatment for him.” The next day, curiously, Advani returned to the store to exchange the ring for a watch and a different ring, five times more expensive, providing the store’s credit manager with another check drawn to make up the difference. The manager’s suspicion was aroused, and the store not only refused the payment but confiscated the original ring until further hearing from the Ottawa bank. Soon, the bank replied with the following telegram:

“Your telegram received. Check no good. Have Advani arrested. Chief of Police here in communication with your Chief. Very dangerous.”3
The Chief of Police in Ottawa, William Powell, sent a telegram to the Chicago Police, confirming the bank’s accusations:

Chief of Detectives, Chicago -- A.A. Advani, representing himself to be an East Indian Indigo Merchant just arrived in Chicago; tried to draw on Bank of British North American here, through C.D. Peacock of Chicago, this morning. He is a dangerous international forger, and is wanted in Hamburg, Bremen, New York. Arrest Advani at once. Wire me.”4
Advani’s reputation as a “dangerous” confidence-man wasn't the product of a one-time incident in Chicago or Ottawa. According to newspaper sources, he had left a long trail of criminal activity across Western Europe, where he had resided before traveling to North America in late Summer, 1899. Just days after Advani arrived in New York City in August, the New York police received a letter from B. Rosche, the Chief of Police in Hamburg, Germany, warning them of the imminent arrival of a “Parsee millionaire” who was an “expert international crook." The letter, quoted in the Chicago Tribune, read as follows:

I desire to call your attention to an expert international crook. He has committed forgeries in an extensive manner. He has been punished in England. The swindler made his appearance in Hamburg in July, 1899. He has sometimes represented himself as an Indigo merchant, under the name of A.A. Advani, stopping at local boarding houses. He has, on the strength of worthless notes, raised large sums of money. He has also tried to obtain clothes, bicycles, and other articles, representing himself as the son of an Indian prince, giving names of Englishmen as references. After leaving considerable debts behind him in Hamburg on July 13 he departed for Bremen and there swindled a business man out of 1,100 marks. On July 18 he went to Cologne and from there to Paris. On the 20th day of July he took the steamer Kensington from England to New York and will likely arrive in New York on Aug. 8 to continue his swindling operations in your country.5
There are a few contradictory details about when exactly Advani arrived in New York; the Chicago-based Inter Ocean, for instance, claimed that Advani had arrived on August 1, instead of August 8.6 But at any rate, by the time the letter reached New York Chief of Detective Bureau, Captain McClusky, Advani had already made significant inroads into New York, apparently practicing his schemes on a group of unsuspecting jewelers and coffee merchants from India. In a statement, McClusky explained,

“This letter was received by me […] after the person described therein had arrived. I had in the meantime received complaints about a person who had committed acts of swindling. With the letter was received a picture of the international crook. After the letter had been received I and my men traced this man to the Broadway Central Hotel, and there lost track of him as he had left the hotel before.

“I have since learned that this man, described in the letter received from Hamburg, called on the firms of Dadahboy (sic) & Co., Indian merchants, and R. Brange, also an Indian merchant, who have offices in the Coffee Exchange, this city. To these firms he represented himself as a Prince from India.

“From Brange, the man obtained a diamond and sapphire ring valued at $165 and $65 cash. This transaction is the only one of absolute dishonesty that I have received against the man of whom he had received the complaints. I then learned that he had gone to Theodore B. Starr, the jeweler, and had purchased a gold watch and a diamond and ruby ring, valued at $500, which he ordered sent to the Broadway Central Hotel, C.O.D. When the articles arrived, however, the man was not there, and they were returned to the jeweler.
Captain McClusky presented the photograph of Advani sent from Hamburg to the Indian merchant R. Brange, who confirmed that the man in the photograph was the same person who had taken his rings.6

Evading authorities in New York, Advani worked his way across the border and into Ottawa, where he allegedly targeted jewelers, women, and bankers.
Chief of Police William Powell
He arrived in the Canadian capital on September 6, residing at the Russell House Hotel in a room that was in “close proximity” to the Chief of Police William Powell.8 During his time there, the Ottawa Journal reported that Advani had made several attempts to use his identity as a wealthy merchant and son of a prince to gain the confidence of his targets, although not always successfully. In Ottawa, Advani had attempted to purchase $500 worth of diamonds from a member of a London diamond firm traveling through Canada, but was refused when he said he would pay by sterling draft only when he returned to Europe; he invited a local bank cashier to dine with him at the Russell House Hotel, but failed to obtain any advances from his deposited drafts. Advani did, however, manage a number of small victories. He swindled $150 worth of jewelry from a local, well-known jeweler, and also gained an advance of $75 from another tenant at the Russell House.9 The report from the Chicago Tribune goes further: “Advani offered drafts and checks on foreign banks as an evidence of his financial standing. He was particularly attentive to women and was most zealous in his attempts to meet women in fashionable society, but with discouraging results. He was a great talker in the company of men and told stories of Indian life.”10 During his time in Ottawa, he had managed $10,000 in drafts. On September 11, 1899, Advani left Ottawa, stopping for a few days in Toronto, en route to Chicago.11

***

On the night of his arrest, Advani broke down in front of the Chicago detectives and, according to one source, “sobbed like a child" for fifteen minutes, repeating the words, “this is my end.”12 He vehemently denied having defrauded anyone, and claimed that any mistakes made on his part were due to his ignorance of the American banking system. When he showed copies of his certified checks from Bombay to local bank experts, they thought the checks were genuine.13 Two tenants at the boarding house at 299 Michigan Avenue, the Indian-born business man E. Nooroji and Ceylon-born John H. Grairo vouched for Advani's credentials, claiming to have known his father quite well.14 That night, he was taken back to his hotel, where he resolved to go to Ottawa the next day to settle the issue.15

Why were the charges against Advani dropped so quickly? His release seemed to be the result of a combination of factors, including miscommunication between Chicago, Ottawa, and New York police departments. Knowing that he did not have sufficient evidence for a prosecution, Captain McClusky of New York wired Chicago and deferred to Ottawa and the German Consul for any future course of action, effectively washing his hands of the entire affair.16 According to the Ottawa Journal, Advani’s release had everything to do with faulty telegraph lines between Chicago and Ottawa. Ottawa police received a telegram from the Chicago police that stated that Advani was willing to come to Ottawa with an officer, and asked whether he could be convicted in Ottawa or would he be released in Chicago. Moments later, another telegram appeared stating that Advani had been released after being held for twelve hours because they had received no answer from Ottawa.17 Another source, however, stated that Ottawa refused to pay the expenses of securing extradition papers.18

The Chicago police, on the other hand, seemed confident that “their” Advani was not the confidence-man described in the letter from Hamburg or the telegrams sent by Ottawa police. During the arrest, Advani appeared guileless and was armed with receipts for every single purchase, even down to smallest bills like cab fare.19 Lieutenant Perry of the Chicago police was particularly puzzled, “believ[ing] that Advani is what he professes to be, and that probably some one has assumed his name and flooded Canada with bogus checks.”20 The Inter Ocean reported that “[t]he majority of the detectives interested in the case believe a mistake has been made, as they say the Hindoo would have been careful not to advertise himself if he was trying to elude the police of other cities.”21 Lt. Perry went on to place the blame entirely on Ottawa, claiming that the whole debacle was “simply a case of a police official becoming too hasty,” adding that Ottawa Chief of Police, William Powell, had only recently been made a chief, and he had “wanted to make himself famous by causing the arrest of a great forger.”22

Upon his release, Advani thanked Lieutenant George Perry personally, and as a gesture of thanks to city police, invited the entire detective force over to the Palmer House, where he was staying, to have a few drinks. Several detectives and acquaintances of Advani turned up to celebrate his release. According to the Chicago Tribune, Advani's fiancée, Virginia Hudson, left the Palmer house at the same time that Advani left, but returned to spend the night there while Advani stayed in a boarding house with a "fellow-countryman," presumably Nooroji or Grairo.23

Throughout the episode, Hudson and Advani’s relationship was presented in strange terms, to say the least. The St. Louis Post characterized the marriage through tropes of Oriental masculinity, describing Advani as "rich, educated, [and] of polished manner," and a "strikingly fine specimen of physical manhood." He had "urged his suit with an impetuosity characteristic of the Oriental," and Hudson had all the qualities he desired in a wife: "a good family, well educated, musical, pretty and poor."24 In fact, Advani had told a reporter for the Chicago Record that when he had decided to marry, "one of the first things I decided upon was that I did not want a rich wife."25 As often as papers mentioned Hudson’s bonafides as a newspaper reporter and her prominent (if not wealthy) Southern pedigree,26 they also seemed to represent her as a hapless victim, unable to make sense of the complex case that was unfolding before her, and several quotes further underscored her naïveté. During Advani’s arrest, she insisted that all of this had been a mistake and that her fiancée would be home soon, where they would resume their plans to marry abroad and he would make good on his promise to send her to study music in Florence. When reporters asked where exactly Advani lived, she seemed particularly flummoxed, answering, “In London or Bombay, or some place, I don’t just know where, but he receives letters from all parts of the world, bearing the signatures of well-known public men and women. […] I can believe no wong (sic) of him.”27 For his part, Advani did an about-face, telling reporters that “Miss Hudson had no letters to indicate there was an engagement between them.” He was no longer sure that he would marry Hudson at all, and explained how friends who knew his father urged him against transgressing “the religious scruples of the East Indians” and marrying outside of the community, given that it could lead to the permanent estrangement from his family and their estate.28 This explanation seemed to directly contradict other details surrounding Advani’s life, including his mysterious marriage to a woman from England, which was purportedly the second instance of a Hindu marrying an English woman.29

The St. Louis Post, along with several other papers, reported that Advani had been first married as a child to an Indian girl, who had died when she was 21. After becoming a widower, Advani married Emmeline Louise Holmes in England, with whom he had a five-month-old daughter and who he claimed had died the April before his arrival in the U.S. Attempting to sort out the truth from the various facts presented on Advani’s life is a difficult task, given his reputation, but a search through marriage records on Ancestry.com reveal that an Anandsing Advani and an Emmeline Louise Holmes were registered for marriage in Colchester District, Essex between January and March 1896. A search on the National Archives website also turns up a case file from June 21, 1899 that reads, "Winterbothams & Gurney, Solicitors; requesting information regarding Anand Singh Advani with a view to proceedings for divorce on the part of his wife." Was Emmeline Louise Holmes alive or dead? If she was alive, were they divorced? These questions are further confused by a report from the Ottawa Journal which claims that when Advani was in Toronto between September 12-13, 1899, he was accompanied by a “a very pretty white woman," who he had referred to as his wife, the daughter of a Dr. Holmes in London.30

As for how Advani explained away the mounting evidence that he was a confidence-man of some sort, he mentioned a former servant who had worked for him for ten years, and who had recently been discharged while he was in London.31 The embittered servant, Advani explained, may have been using his name and could be the “forger” that German authorities had described. Advani went on to say he was angered by his mistreatment, and planned to prosecute the Canadian police for defamation of character.32 He never did that, and instead, headed towards the Pacific Coast, where, within a few weeks' time, he was arrested again.

Continue reading Part II...
1. "Engaged to a Brahmin." New York Times 23 Sep. 1899: 4.
2. "Romance of a Reporter." San Francisco Chronicle 23 Sep. 1899: 2.
3. "A.A. Advani Is Arrested." Chicago Daily Tribune 24 Sep. 1899: 4.
4. "Police Ruin the Romance." St. Louis Post-Dispatch 24 Sep. 1899: 1.
5. "A.A. Advani Is Arrested." Chicago Daily Tribune 24 Sep. 1899: 4.
6. "World-Famed Swindler." New York Times 24 Sep. 1899: 7.
7. "Advani In a Cell." Inter Ocean 24 Sep. 1899: 1.
8. "A.A. Advani Arrested." Ottawa Journal 11 Sep. 1900: 7.
9. "Got Jewels and Cash." Ottawa Journal 25 Sep. 1899: 7
10. "A.A. Advani Is Arrested." Chicago Daily Tribune 24 Sep. 1899: 4.
11. After leaving Ottawa on September 11, Advani stopped in Toronto for two days, residing at the Walker House Hotel on Front and York. The Ottawa Journal reported that Advani was seen in the “company with an old gentleman from Glasgow named Stevan and his daughter. The old gentleman had lots of money, the three left the hotel together, presumably to take the boat for Niagara Falls an Buffalo.” Advani was also seen "travelling (sic) with a pretty white woman," and reportedly claimed that this was his wife, the daughter of Dr. Holmes in England. I will explain the significance of this detail later. See "Got Jewels and Cash." Ottawa Journal 25 Sep. 1899: 7, and "Advani Was In Toronto." Ottawa Evening Journal 26 Sep. 1899: 7.
12. "Advani In a Cell." Inter Ocean 24 Sep. 1899: 1.
13. "A.A. Advani Is Arrested." Chicago Daily Tribune 24 Sep. 1899: 4.
14. John H. Grairo of Colombo was a traveling representative of the Ceylon Importing Company and a member of the Chicago Theosophical Society. His name appears occasionally in Midwestern newspapers between 1894 and 1912, often in association with the Worlds' Fair. See "A Distinguished Visitor." Logansport Pharos-Tribune 24 Aug. 1894: 20, and "Only One Man In Chicago Can Read It." Chicago Daily Tribune 1 Jul. 1899: 6. 15. "Police Let A.A. Advani Go." Chicago Daily Tribune 25 Sep. 1899: 5.
16. McCluskey explained his involvement, telling reporters that he had “sent the communication of the Hamburg police to the police of Ottawa when I learned that Advani had gone there. The Ottawa chief then communicated with Chicago, thinking that I wanted the man. As far as I know, Advani was guilty of no offense against the law in New York. If he swindled anyone in Ottawa, the authorities of that city should take steps to have him extradited […] unless the Ottawa authorities or the German Consul should act the man probably will go free.” McCluskey's telegraph to Chicago police on September 24 read as follows: “September 24 -- To L.P. Colleran, Chicago – Did not authorize Ottawa police to order arrest of Advani. Case here not complete. From George M’Cluskey, Captain of Detectives.” See "Released." Courier-Journal 25 Sep. 1899: 2, and "Advani Is Released." Inter Ocean 25 Sep. 1899: 7.
17. "Got Jewels and Cash." Ottawa Journal 25 Sep. 1899: 7
18. "Police Let A.A. Advani Go." Chicago Daily Tribune 25 Sep. 1899: 5.
19. "Advani Is Released." Inter Ocean 25 Sep. 1899: 7. 20. "Advani In a Cell." Inter Ocean 24 Sep. 1899: 1.
21. "Advani In a Cell." Inter Ocean 24 Sep. 1899: 1.
22. "Advani Is Released." Inter Ocean 25 Sep. 1899: 7. 23. "Police Let A.A. Advani Go." Chicago Daily Tribune 25 Sep. 1899: 5.
24. "Police Ruin the Romance." St. Louis Post-Dispatch 24 Sep. 1899: 1.
25. Quoted in "A Kentucky Girl's Romance." Bourbon News 28 Sep. 1899: 2. The quote continues with Advani mentioning the various plans they had made together: "It is my plan to stay in Canada and the United States till February. Miss Hudson will leave for Italy next month, where she will take up the study of languages and music, in which latter she is already accomplished. After our marriage in June we will live in London, which I prefer to India." 26. Hudson was reported to have been orphaned at a young age, raised by the well-known reverend D.T. Hudson of Kentucky, and educated at Millersburg Seminary for Young Ladies. Her mother belonged to the prominent Wishards family of Kentucky.
27. "Advani In a Cell." Inter Ocean 24 Sep. 1899: 1.
28. "Released." Courier-Journal 25 Sep. 1899: 2
29. "Police Ruin the Romance." St. Louis Post-Dispatch 24 Sep. 1899: 1.
30. "Police Ruin the Romance." St. Louis Post-Dispatch 24 Sep. 1899: 1; "Advani Was In Toronto." Ottawa Evening Journal 26 Sep. 1899: 7.
31. "Advani's Explanation." New York Times 26 Sep. 1899: 5; "Police Let A.A. Advani Go." Chicago Daily Tribune 25 Sep. 1899: 5.; "Advani Is Released." Inter Ocean 25 Sep. 1899: 7.
32. "Advani's Explanation." New York Times 26 Sep. 1899: 5
Manan Desai is an Assistant Professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan. He also serves on SAADA's Board of Directors.