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

By Manan Desai |

Start by reading A.A. Advani, International Conman (Part I)

West Coast and Back Again
After his close brush with the law in Chicago, A.A. Advani traveled westward, and by the first week of October, he was already making headlines in Vancouver. The news, however, was benign: Advani had attended British Columbia’s annual agricultural exhibit as a provincial guest, travelling around in a “sumptuous” private car with David Mills, the Minister of Justice and Sydney Fisher, the Minister of Agriculture. Fisher and Advani’s father were reportedly college chums at Cambridge, although the Ottawa Journal added a warning: “It is felt here the statement about Mr. Fisher should be taken with a grain of salt.”1

This reprieve from scandal turned out to be short-lived. In the second week of October, Advani left Victoria, B.C. for San Francisco aboard the steamboat Umatilla, and the San Francisco Chief of Police, Isaiah W. Lees, was quickly tipped off about his arrival. By the time that Lees had set out to warn San Francisco businesses about Advani, he discovered that Advani had already struck a number of banks in the area, like the London, Paris, and American Bank, and travel agencies, including Thomas Cook & Son. Advani was discovered at the Grand Hotel, where he was promptly arrested.2 The San Francisco Call noted that Advani was so hard up for cash that, in order to settle his bill with the Grand Hotel he pawned off his gold watch, a diamond and ruby gold pin and ring for the paltry sum of $20. While the police interrogated him, they also discovered among his papers several letters written by "women in New York, Chicago, Pittsburg, and England,” evidence, the Call intimated, that Advani was truly a “heartbreaker.”3 In the end, Lees could not hold Advani in custody, nor could he make a formal charge. But the police kept Advani under such close scrutiny that he had very little reason to continue in California. Advani was released on parole, on the condition that he would report to the police every morning until he left the city.4 He decided to leave California for Oregon.

Before he left, the S.F.P.D. took a headshot of Advani, which was printed in the San Francisco Chronicle under the headline “Advani the Swindler.” The description was one of the first instances that detailed Advani’s various physical features beyond his “swarthy," "copper" complexion, his good looks and impressive stature. The Chronicle, in particular, mentioned scars on his hands and his forehead, which were presented as further evidence that Advani couldn't possibly be the upper-class Indian he claimed he was:

The accompanying picture is a reproduction of Advani, the Indian swindler who was detained and investigated by the San Francisco Police Department, as he has been by the police of other places. It was taken by Theodore Kytka for Chief Lees. This self-styled “Hindoo Prince” is presumably on his way to Portland, but wherever he may go these pictures will greet him. Against his claims of Eastern royalty Advani’s hands are scarred and look as if at some time he had done some hard work. The story of the long scar across his forehead, presumably from a saber, he will not tell.5
The Police Gazette in England had provided a description of Advani that matched other newspaper descriptions (age 30, over 6 ft tall, etc.), although it placed his facial scar elsewhere, on his right cheek bone instead of his forehead.6 His physical appearance seemed to confound at least some North Americans; in Vancouver, for instance, he was mistaken for the Filipino revolutionary Emilio Aguinaldo, and promptly taken into police custody for an hour.7 The Inter Ocean added to the speculation about Advani’s background, reporting that the Chicago police now thought that Advani was a “low-caste Hindoo,” who possessed no money but created the impression that he has abundant wealth.8 Some months later, prosecutors in New Haven floated the theory that Advani was not an Indigo merchant at all, but a subordinate from an Indigo plantation in Ceylon, who had invented the story about being a plantation owner and prince.9 How any of these parties arrived at these theories is undocumented, and if they tell us anything, it's that authorities had begun to doubt every single facet of Advani’s backstory.

For his part, Advani clung tightly to his story about his aristocratic family, embellishing it with additional details over the course of his time in North America. He had told reporters in Montana that he had come to the U.S. with his cousin K.S. Ranjitsinhji, the famous cricketer and Rajput prince, who was also touring North America in Fall of 1899.10 Elsewhere, he told reporters that his grandfather was Dewan Soorutsing Chandimuni, the Prime Minister of Ameer Hussanilly Khypoor, India. And he clarified details about his father, the "Honorable" Ajeetsing Advani of "Hydrabassend" (presumably Hyderabad, Sindh), a class of 1869 graduate of Cambridge who, as a barrister, was a member of the Legislature of Bombay, and as a businessman, was connected with the manufacturing of rugs and silks in Rawalpindi and directed the Agra Bank of India.11

From San Francisco, Advani traveled back north along the Pacific Coast, making stops in Portland, Olympia, Seattle, and British Columbia, and according to most accounts, having mixed success, now that his reputation (and photograph) preceded him.12 In Olympia, Advani had attracted little attention, until he was recognized by an employee who worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. The employee told reporters from the Morning Olympian that in Victoria, Advani had procured a first class ticket to New South Wales by using a bogus draft,13 pawned the ticket to a Seattle jeweler for jewelry, and then pawned the jewelry in the lower end of Seattle.14 If Olympia was a bust,15 then Seattle proved to be a jackpot, where he had reportedly baited prominent businessmen, and successfully drew advances from almost every bank in the city. In Seattle, Advani had also resumed his efforts to target women, allegedly promising "diamonds and costly presents" to a host of Seattle women, and becoming engaged to at least one.16 The Vancouver Daily World reported that Advani had proposed to an English woman, who worked and lived in a small room in downtown Seattle, courting her with plans to settle in India, where she would be accepted by his father, with whom he had recently reconciled. He borrowed a gold ring and $30 in cash from her, promising to repay her $100 the next day. He never returned.17

By the end of 1899, Advani had exhausted most of the Pacific Northwest. One man claimed to have spotted Advani at a hotel in Tacoma, where he was seen cashing a $100 check. Another report placed him at the Commercial in Vancouver, where a clerk asked him to pay before ordering. Advani claimed to be a little short on cash, and was promptly asked to leave the hotel.

From Vancouver, Advani began to move east again, and before the year was over, he had stopped in Montana, Salt Lake City, Kansas City, and St. Louis, where a similar chain of events unfolded. The papers would initially write about Advani with a certain amount of curiosity, amusement, and skepticism, and by a day or two, he would find himself either booted from his hotel, kicked out of a restaurant, or arrested and eventually released. The same set of details kept emerging about Advani’s life – the alleged pedigree from Hyderabad, his failed engagement in Chicago, and some story about why he was short on funds, either because of his father’s disapproval of his second marriage or engagement, or because of a theft from the previous town. Both the San Francisco Chronicle and Kansas City Star reported that Advani blamed Virginia Hudson for his troubles, presumably because her connections as a reporter made it easier for her to spread rumors about him. At various points, he denied ever having been engaged to Hudson. The Kansas City Star quoted him saying, “I gave her $2100 in jewels in three days… and then I found I did not want to marry her.”18 In Montana, the Anaconda Standard managed to fish out a few more details about Advani's various adventures and political stances. He claimed to have been a member of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and General Nelson Miles’ hunting party, and to have met and presented a “handsome present of Oriental stuffs” to the former first lady Julia Grant. When asked to comment on the position that India might take regarding the Boer War, Advani firmly stated his sympathies towards Britain, saying that “India… will be loyal. There is no longer any danger of an uprising against England. Our country has come to love England and can be depended upon to lend the mother country every assistance in the present difficulty.”19

After being removed from a hotel in Kansas City (for requesting money from the concierge),20 Advani arrived in St. Louis, where he sought help from the British consul in St. Louis, claiming to have been robbed of a coat, which contained all of his paperwork, money, and drafts.21 He asked Western Bascome, the British consul, to buy him a ticket to Washington D.C., promising to pay him back with money that had been sent by his bankers in London by cablegram, but Bascome soon discovered holes in Advani’s story. First, Advani had told Bascome that letters of identification and credit were waiting for him at the office of the British Ambassador in D.C., but when Bascome wired the British Embassy, he received a telegram that read: “Nothing here for Advani.” Second, Advani stated that he was staying at the West End Hotel, but when Bascome checked, there was no one on file under that name. Finally, Advani said that he had a cablegram from his bankers in London; when Bascome asked Advani to produce it for him, Advani went off to fetch it, never to reappear. With no help from the British Consul, Advani approached Herman Overtolz of the Hamburg-American Steamship Company for a ticket to Germany, which he paid for by draft.22 Overtolz learned that the draft was worthless, and Advani was arrested and kept in custody at the Chestnut Street Police Station, where he reportedly “wept long and loud.”23 In the presence of St. Louis Chief of Police John W. Campbell, Advani claimed that the bank had made some blunder. As was the case in Chicago and San Francisco, no charges could be brought against Advani, and he was released under the condition that he stay at the nearby Four Courts Hotel, in case new evidence emerged that would lead to another arrest.24 Naturally, he left town.

During the month of February, there appears to be a lull in Advani’s activity.25 But in the middle of March, he reappeared in newspapers in full fury. Advani had been arrested and convicted in New Haven, and as the Brooklyn Eagle put it, finally the “‘Prince’ Must Go To Jail.”26

Jailed in Connecticut, Requests Spring Chicken
Given the sheer number of times and number of places that Advani managed to escape serving any substantial jailtime, it seems surprising that he was convicted at all, and in Connecticut, of all places. In New Haven, Advani had reportedly announced his intention to hire typists to join him at the Paris Exposition, and had ingratiated himself with several New Haven women, making them “big offers to go with him.”27 When Advani attempted to pay a local hotelkeeper for lodging with a worthless check of $150 (as he done so many times before), he was promptly arrested. In court, Advani made several pleas for mercy, telling the judge that “his father would buy all New Haven if he knew that his son was being disgraced for life.”28 During the trial, prosecutors poked holes in Advani’s claims of a princely title. The Boston Post reported that during the trial, Advani was “confronted with the statement that he had no claim on royalty, but was simply a subordinate in the office of an indigo firm in Ceylon years ago.” Advani fiercely defended himself, asking the court, “What – am I, who banqueted Mrs. Grant when she was on a tour of the world with the great general in 1876, to be brought to these straits?” When a reporter again tried to provoke Advani, by suggesting that he was “a plain fraud and that [his] banker father is a myth,” Advani’s defense reached new levels of outrage:

“Why, who could say that? Everyone knows my father. Lord and Lady Curzon are his friends. Lady Curzon herself gave me a letter to her father, Mr. Leiter, in Chicago. My father’s name is Ajentsing (sic) Advani, his title is dervan, same as duke in England, and his banking house in Bombay is known in all India. Rudyard Kipling is a personal friend of mine and wrote a long article about me and my travels.

“No; I do not know anything about banking. I have an indigo plantation and go to London every year for three months to attend to the sale of the crop. The business amounts to from $200,000 to $250,000 a year. My income amounts to $6000 to $7000 annually.”29
He was sentenced in the City Court to serve a term of three months in jail, in order to pay a fine of $50,30 which he would work out at the rate of fifty cents a day.31 In New Haven, Advani’s criminal past began to resurface and make news. On March 21, two detectives from the Pinkerton Detective Agency arrived in Connecticut with Advani’s extensive criminal record, which included details of swindles from Austria to Ottawa.32

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe had reported that Advani had began to protest his conditions in prison, noting that he had written to police commissioners telling him that "he will die unless they provide him with a spring chicken every day," due to his dietary constrictions as a Brahmin. He followed that letter with another to city authorities, telling them that he was being starved to death, and that if he were to die, he requested that his body be cremated.33

Advani did not die in prison, but his protests against his imprisonment continued unabated. The April 12, 1900 edition of the Church Weekly printed a letter that Advani had written to the Judge of the City Court of New Haven:

Your humble petitioner begs you a few lines for your favourable consideration and mercy.

You are aware that I am an Indian Hindu, who has been here in your country about eight months. I came here with a great pomp and show. I am the son of the Hon. Ajentsing (sic) Advani. Therefore Mr. Choate, Ambassador, wrote to all his friends about me. Therefore I have been well treated by high officials. I travelled one month with General Miles and Colonel Cody from Washington to Frisco.

You are aware that I am the same Advani who brought valuable Indian presents for Mrs. Grant, a widow of General Grant, who was a friend of my father, and my father made these present to her.

I am the same Advani representative from India for Paris Exposition. […]

I am a stranger here, and your police completely ruined me. I am going to sail March 28th for Europe. Now I ask your mercy that your Honour help me.34
On August 25, Advani was finally released from prison, having completed his sentence in New Haven, which appears to have been for five months and not the three months that several newspapers originally reported. When he was released, Advani told jail officials that he was wrongly imprisoned and that he would return to New Haven the following week with "$25,000 in his pocket” to prove to the people of New Haven that his statements about his wealth were true. (He claimed that his grandmother had sent him the $25,000 through either a New York or Montreal banking institution, which, at the time of his release, he had not yet confirmed.)35 According to that same source, Advani had also received a letter from his brother on July 25th, while imprisoned, although this fact only appeared after he was released from prison. The letter read:

Hydrabassend, India, July 25, 1900, -- My Dear Brother: You have mortified our feelings, I have not sufficient words to express my present feelings. Mamma is dying without you. You will be responsible before God if you have made up your mind to leave her to die in this manner. She is yearning to see the very sight of you. How long will you still keep the house gloomy? Now, for God’s sake, return home as quickly as possible, so as to be able to see mama before her lease of life is up. As regards your property, you need not mind its loss. You will have plenty of money if you only return home. Kindly give us your accurate address so that we may be able to address you accurately. Hoping you are doing well, with best love and fondness to see you, I am your affectionate brother.
When he was released, Advani attempted to clear his name by providing a list of his acquaintances in North America who would vouch for his bonafides. One of these names was C.H. Philpotts, the manager of the Bank of British North America, Ottawa, who Advani claimed was his guardian. The Philadelphia Times representative wired Philpotts, and received the following reply: “Statements made by Advani all false. Advise greatest caution. Bank of British North America, Ottawa, Canada.” Another name Advani mentioned was Sydney Fisher, the Canadian Minister of Agriculture who had apparently studied at Cambridge with Advani’s father. Fisher telegraphed the Times: “Met Advani British Columbia last fall. Have no knowledge of him save from himself and newspaper reports.”36

Advani, of course, did not return to New Haven the following Tuesday with the promised $25,000 in his pocket that would have cleared his name. Instead, he appeared in the papers again, claiming to have been robbed of a letter of credit worth precisely $25,000 at Niagara Falls, as well as an additional 185 pounds of cash that he was carrying.37 Several newspapers responded to this latest news with skepticism. The Vancouver Daily World wrote, “Those in Vancouver are wondering if this is some part of a little game of deception.”38 The Philadelphia Times drew on quotes from the New Haven detective department, who called Advani’s story an old dodge to work up public sympathy. In particular, Captain Cowles of the New Haven detective force was convinced that Advani had been “a lackey for some rich Hindoo,” which gave his fictitious stories the “coloring of reality.”

Chief Powell Returns
While Advani was in Niagara Falls telling reporters that he was a victim of a robbery, little did he know that he was closely being surveilled by Canadian detectives across the border. The Ottawa Journal had reported that a little after 11 P.M., Advani had wandered across the bridge and entered Canadian territory, where he was immediately arrested.39 The charge? Obtaining goods under false pretense. More specifically, Advani was being arrested for using a bogus draft to pay for a gold watch and ring from the well-known Ottawa jeweler, James Leslie, a crime that he committed precisely a year earlier.40

The next day, the detectives in Niagara ushered Advani to Ottawa, where he was greeted by the Ottawa Chief of Police, William Powell, the same policeman who, one year before, had been called out by the Chicago police for being overzealous in his arrest of Advani. Powell, it seems, never dropped the case, and had orchestrated the sting in Niagara.

During the trial, which began shortly after his arrest, Advani pleaded not guilty.41 The defense attorney insisted that his client’s previous character had been solid, and that his crime was simply a “breach of trust,” which in legal terms, could only be considered a misdemeanor and not a felony. He also reminded the court that Advani was new to the country, a stranger without friends, and pleaded for a lighter sentence.42 Advani was found guilty, and sentenced to four months in county jail without hard labor, which the Ottawa Journal described as a light sentence given the crime. The Judge had told a tense Advani (described in the papers as twitching his hands, and clenching his teeth) to return to India after his sentence was served, and advised him to “apply the talents that he undoubtedly possessed to a better purpose than he had heretofore done.”43 And with that sentence, Advani seemed to vanish from the North American record, disappearing almost exactly a year after his name first made headlines.

1. See “Advani in British Columbia.” Chicago Tribune 5 Oct. 1899: 1, and, “Advani in Vancouver.” Ottawa Journal 6 Oct. 1899: 4.
2. “Indian Indigo Merchant Said To Be a Forger.” San Francisco Call 13 Oct. 1899: 9.
3. “Indian Indigo Merchant Said To Be A Forger.” San Francisco Call 13 Oct. 1899: 9.
4. “Advani Out on Parole.” San Francisco Call 14 Oct. 1899: 11.
5. "Advani the Swindler." San Francisco Chronicle 18 Oct. 1899: 7.
6. “Apprehensions Sought.” Police Gazette 11 Aug. 1899: 1.
7. “Advani, Not Aguinaldo.” El Paso Herald. 5 Dec. 1899: 1.
8. “Advani Again Under Arrest.” Inter Ocean 13 Oct. 1900: 1.
9. “Woes of Prince.” Boston Post 19 Mar 1900: 2.
10. "Advani is Out of Jail." Anaconda Standard. 8 Sep. 1900: 8.
11. "Prince Advani Out of Jail." Washington Times 28 Aug. 1900: 3.
12. "The 'Hindoo Prince' Goes to Portland." San Francisco Chronicle 16 Oct. 1899: 10.
13. “The Prince Is With Us.” Morning Olympian. 26 Nov. 1899: 3.
14. “Prince Advani.” Vancouver Daily World 26 Nov. 1899: 3.
15. “The Prince Has Gone.” Morning Olympian. 28 Nov. 1899: 3.
16. “The Prince Is With Us.” Morning Olympian. 26 Nov. 1899: 3.
17. “Prince Advani.” Vancouver Daily World 26 Nov. 1899: 3.
18. “A Real Live Prince In Town.” Kansas City Star. 07 Jan. 1900: 1.
19. “A Life of Adventures.” Anaconda Standard. 30 Dec. 1899: 7.
20. “A Landlord Ousts A Prince.” Kansas City Star. 08 Jan. 1900: 1.
21. "Hindoo Sahib In Hard Luck." St. Louis Post 13 Jan. 1900: 1.
22. “Hindoo Sahib in Hard Luck.” St. Louis Post 13 Jan. 1900: 1.
23. “Released On His Own Recognizance.” St. Louis Republic. 21 Jan. 1900: 12.
24. “His Draft Worthless.” St. Louis Post 21 Jan. 1900: 8.
25. None of the newspaper databases I could access turn up any headlines or references to an “Advani” during this period of time.
26. “‘Prince’ Must Go To Jail.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle 18 Mar. 1900: 42.
27. “Woes of Prince.” Boston Post 19 Mar 1900: 2.
28. “‘Prince’ Goes to Jail.” Boston Globe 18 Mar. 1900: 24.
29. “Woes of Prince.” Boston Post 19 Mar 1900: 2.
30. “Ajeetsing Advani In Jail.” New York Times 18 Mar. 1900: 6.
31. “Bogus Indian Prince.” The Courier-Journal 18 Mar. 1900: 21.
32. He had deposited a draft in Austria for $5000 on a London banking house, and received $1500 before the Austrians discovered it was a forgery. "Call Advani a Famous Forger." Boston Globe 22 Mar. 1900: 14.
33. "Call Advani a Famous Forger." Boston Globe 22 Mar. 1900: 14.
34. "The Woes of a Brahmin Prince." Church Weekly 12 Apr. 1900: 297.
35. "Prince Advani Is Released." New Haven Register 25 Aug. 1900: 1.
36. “Prince A. Advani Not What He Says.” Philadelphia Times 2 Sep. 1900: 15.
37. “Prince A. Advani Not What He Says.” Philadelphia Times 2 Sep. 1900: 15.
38. “Another Part of the Game.” Vancouver Daily World 1 Sep. 1900: 8.
39. "A.A. Advani Arrested." Ottawa Journal 11 Sep. 1900: 7.
40. "Advani Is In Jail." Ottawa Journal 14 Sep. 1900: 7.
41. “Advani Is In Jail.” Ottawa Journal 14 Sep. 1900: 7.
42. “Advani Is Guilty.” Ottawa Journal 24 Sep 1900: 3.
43. “Four Months For Advani.” Ottawa Journal 25 Sep. 1900: 7.

Manan Desai is an Assistant Professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan. He also serves on SAADA's Board of Directors.