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Chapter XLII


from Memoirs of a great detective:
incidents in the life of John Wilson Murray

compiled by Victor Speer

BEN HAGAMAN was his mother's pet. She coddled him as a child, and pampered him as a youth. His father was a rich merchant of Ridgetown, Ontario, and his brother-in-law was a prosperous, successful business man. His uncle was Benjamin Hagaman, the Chicago millionaire, who was a bachelor, and after whom young Ben had been named.

   "Young Ben stood to inherit old Ben's fortune," says Murray. "He was a sunny-tempered, merry, good-looking, likeable young fellow, and his shrewd, rich old uncle was very fond of him. All Ben needed to do was to learn the ways of business under his uncle's supervision, and in due time he would inherit millions. Young Ben knew this. His uncle took him when he was of age and taught him something of business, and in the course of giving him practical experience old Ben sent young Ben out to Fargo, North Dakota, and made him paying teller in his bank there. Young Ben seemed to do well, but one day he unexpectedly returned to Canada and settled down again at the old home. No word came from old Ben, and no explanation was given by young Ben. In due time young Ben had married, and had two children.

   "Sir William P. Howland, of Toronto, ex-Lieutenant-Governor of the Province, met young Ben. Sir William was the head of Howland, Jones & Co., and had large flour mills at Thorold. He needed a book-keeper there, and when young Ben, son of the rich Ridgetown merchant and nephew of the Chicago multi-millionaire, applied to him, he employed Ben in the capacity not only of book-keeper, but confidential clerk at the Thorold mills. Sir William instructed young Ben to keep an eye on Sir William's partner, who was as honest a man as the sun ever shone upon. Young Ben nodded wisely, aware instantly that Sir William might distrust his partner despite their close relations.

   "Young Ben quickly familiarised himself with his duties. He learned that grain was bought by the carload, and was paid for by cheques drawn by the book-keeper and signed by Mr. Jones, Sir William's partner. Young Ben was deft with a pen. After the arrival of a consignment of grain valued at $470, young Ben wrote out a cheque with a little interval after the 'four' in the 'four hundred and seventy.' He took the cheque to Mr. Jones, who signed it as usual. Young Ben then took the signed cheque and added 'teen' to the 'four,' making it read 'fourteen hundred and seventy,' and put a '1' after the '$' before the '470,' making it $1,470, and thereby raising the cheque $1,000. He arranged the indorsement also, and sent it through the bank. Between September and December, 1886, young Ben did this sixteen times, getting $1,000 each time, or $16,000, apart from the amount actually due for grain. On December 20th he went away, saying he would be back on the 22nd. He did not return, and the firm's balance at the bank showed $16,000 missing. Before disappearing Ben made a farewell visit to Toronto, where he bought some elegant jewellery from W.P. Ellis, including some costly diamonds. Part of the jewellery he succeeded in obtaining on credit.

   "Sir William was dumfounded. He could not bring himself to believe that young Ben had robbed him. Yet there were the cheques, each for $1,000 more than the proper amount. Mr. Jones was sure they had been raised after he had signed them. Finally the matter came to my attention, and on January 24th, 1887, I took it up. I first learned that old Ben, the Chicago millionaire, had washed his hands of his precious namesake after young Ben had made away with some $4,000 or $5,000 not belonging to him in the Fargo bank. Old Ben had said that ended it between him and his nephew, and he had packed young Ben back home. If young Ben had straightened out and worked steadily, old Ben would have taken him again, for the uncle was fond of the nephew, and was greatly pleased when young Ben went to work for Sir William P. Howland.

   "I traced young Ben to Michigan, then to Chicago, and then to Denver. He had money, and spent it freely. He started out as B. Hatfield, then he became W.T. Schufeldt, then he called himself Frank Bruce, and next he was masquerading as J. Peter Sonntag. I telegraphed his description all over the country, and heard from him under these names as having been in these places. His description was such that it was easy to identify him; and so long as he had money he would be in public places, for he was a lavish spender, a high liver, and a gay sport. The love of high living was one of the roots of his evil. I conferred with the Pinkerton people, who also were looking for young Ben, and finally I prepared extradition papers and started for the States, and Ben was arrested in San Francisco as he was taking steamer to leave the country. Instead of J. Peter Sonntag, or any of his other aliases, Ben at this time gave the name of plain P. Sontag.

   "Benny Peter Sontag Hagaman had been living a merry life in San Francisco. He was a thoroughbred in the Pacific Coast city. He frequented Patsy Hogan's, and was in with the swiftest boys in the town. He had hired a box in a safety vault in a trust company, and had deposited in it thousands of dollars in cash, and a lot of diamonds and jewellery. I arrived in San Francisco on February 1st. Sir William P. Howland had telegraphed to some friend of his to engage counsel. His friend had engaged Davis Louderback, and he did not prove very satisfactory. I appeared on February 2nd before United States Commissioner Sawyer. Ben was arraigned, and remanded for eight days. He prepared to fight extradition, and W.W. Bishop defended him. Bishop, Ben's lawyer, and Louderback, my lawyer, hired by Sir William's friend, visited the prisoner several times in gaol. Everything uttered before the Commissioner was ordered to be taken down, until there were volumes of evidence. Ben was remanded for extradition, and I was informed the papers had gone to Washington for the warrant of surrender. I waited and heard nothing, and promptly telelgraphed to the British legation at Washington that the forms of the treaty had been complied with and copies of the proceedings had been sent to the State Department, and I asked that the warrant of surrender be sent to me as soon as possible. Sir Sackville West replied that inquiry at the State Department showed no papers had arrived there in the case, and the Department knew nothing of it. I called on Louderback, and got very little satisfaction out of him.

   "I then called on Commissioner Sawyer. He was a nephew of Judge Sawyer. He said the papers had not been sent to Washington, and had to be paid for before they would be transmitted. He said the charge was $150. I told him I would pay if he would give me an itemised bill. He refused, but finally gave me a receipt for $150. The papers were so bulky that the postage on them was $11. The postmaster was quite unlike some of the other people I met in San Francisco, and he treated me most courteously, and franked the papers for me, which the Commissioner had refused to do.

   "While I was waiting for the warrant of surrender to arrive from Washington, I began to puzzle over what further steps might be taken to get young Ben out. I knew that the money he had would be of great value to him in this emergency, and I finally concluded that it was quite possible for young Ben to be brought in on a writ of habeas corpus and discharged without my knowledge, in the event of a failure of counsel to notify me. So I went over the heads of all the lawyers and lesser officials, and called on Judges Sawyer and Hofman and stated the whole case to them, explaining how I considered I was handicapped. They told me there would be no discharge of young Ben on a writ of habeas corpus, and I breathed easier. The warrant of surrender had arrived, and on March 26th I left San Francisco with young Ben. Before leaving I began a civil suit to return the money and diamonds which the police meanwhile had taken into their keeping. I had Sir William P. Howland employ other counsel, and they recovered over $5,000.

   "When young Ben arrived home he was released on $8,000 bail, pending his trial. He came to Toronto while he was out on bail, and called on me for advice. He asked me what he had better do under the circumstances. He wanted my honest opinion, so I gave him a gentle hint.

   "'Ben,' said I, 'you have spent $11,000 of another man's money, and you have put him to great trouble. Your father is rich, your brother-in-law is rich, your uncle is a millionaire. The other man wants his money. If you want to go to the penitentiary, don't pay him; but if you want to keep out of the penitentiary ——'

   "'What! Pay old Howland $11,000?' said young Ben, and he laughed uproariously. 'Not on your life. I'll beat Sir Bill, and I'll not go to the penitentiary either.'

   "Foolish young man! I told him so at the time. But he was at the age when all who are younger have it to learn, and all who are older have forgotten what they once knew. He went his way, pig-headed, obstinate, self-willed, and a fool — a pleasant, bright, intelligent, likeable fool. His trial came on at the Spring Assizes in 1888. Colin McDougal, an able lawyer, defended him; but he was prosecuted by one of the most brilliant criminal lawyers Canada has produced, the late B.B. Osler. Young Ben was convicted, and was sent to the Kingston penitentiary for seven years.

   "I saw him once or twice in the penitentiary. One of the old-time Sunday School texts was 'The way of the transgressor is hard.' Young Ben had it on the wall of his cell. It certainly was true of him. He came of a refined, rich family, in which he was the mother's darling and a spoiled child. He was to inherit millions, and he sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. He stole $4,000 and then $16,000, and thereby sold more than $1,000,000 for $20,000, of which he had to repay over $5,000. So he forfeited a fortune for $15,000. There was no need for him to steal. He had all of life's good things essential to the joy of living — a happy home, a fine family, a lucrative position, and good health. After he fled his two little children died, and after he went to the penitentiary his wife got a divorce, and remarried; and when he came out into the world and his uncle died, leaving no will, instead of finding himself a millionaire he left Canada a branded man. It was an awful lesson. It began simply in a love for gay company, and it ended in solitude in a stone-walled cell."

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