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‘As a liar he is a phenomenon’: Alonzo J. Whiteman’s journey from Duluth businessman to career criminal

Born to a wealthy family, Whiteman would go on to earn renown as a forger and con man.

Duluth Public Library
Drawing of Alonzo J. Whiteman, ca. 1890s.
In Minnesota’s roster of heirs gone bad, Duluth’s Alonzo J. Whiteman ranks high. He followed a youth of wealth, privilege, and education with a young adulthood of dazzling attainment, then decades of crime.

During his career Whiteman achieved legendary renown as a forger and con man. He was written up in newspapers across the country (thirty articles in the New York Times alone), with errors and exaggerations creeping in such that fact and fiction remain difficult to disentangle.

He was born into wealth. Whiteman’s father, Reuben, owned a paper mill, the biggest employer in Dansville, New York, and thousands of acres of pine lands in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. Alonzo graduated from Hamilton College in 1881, then did a year of law school at Columbia. In 1882 his father sent him to Duluth to look after business there.

At first he did well. After two years at Bell & Eyler’s Bank he set up his own real estate firm and, in the booming Duluth of the time, made money. In 1883 at age twenty-three he joined Duluth’s exclusive Kitchi Gammi Club (still operating as of 2022). He ran for the legislature in 1884 and lost, but at age twenty-six he was elected to the Minnesota state senate (its youngest member.) By 1888 he was reported to be one of the heaviest speculators in Duluth’s Board of Trade.

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In 1890 Whiteman built a lakeside mansion at 2732 London Road. Also in 1890 he finished third in a three-way race for Congress, and his decline began. He gambled compulsively and lost. Lawsuits against him multiplied. He engaged in long litigation with his mother and sister over his father’s estate, which consisted of the Dansville paper mill and 13,000 acres of timber lands. At one point, he owed the estate more than $270,000.

By 1893 Whiteman had left Duluth (and his wife and son), deeply in debt, for a life of crime. The New York Times called his 1893 arrest in that city, for check forgery, “the end of a brilliant career,” but in fact it marked the beginning. Though Whiteman was a catastrophically bad gambler and businessman, he excelled at crime. As early as 1895 he had made a reputation as one of the most skillful forgers and con men in the country. He also earned a nickname—Jim the Penman— taken from a popular play by that name about a notorious forger. By one account, over the next twenty-five years he was arrested forty-seven times, tried seventeen times, and rarely spent a night behind bars.

Whiteman’s basic method was to visit a city (New York and Chicago were favorites), check into a hotel under an assumed name, open bank accounts using forged checks, draw on those checks, and then leave before the checks bounced. Whiteman was a smooth, persuasive talker, and carried himself like the rich man he pretended to be. As one Pinkerton detective wrote, “as a liar he is a phenomenon.” He had a knack for avoiding convictions in court, or getting convictions overturned. In 1902 Whiteman took a break from crime to set himself up as a Methodist preacher in and around Dansville; that career did not last long.

He is known to have pulled off swindles in New York, Chicago, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Providence, and San Francisco, and was reported to have operated also in Nashville, Boston, Saratoga, London, Detroit, and Mexico City, even Tasmania. Estimates of Whiteman’s thefts range as high as $1 million, though this may be fanciful.

After a caper in Buffalo in 1904, Whiteman was arrested in St. Louis. Then, on the way to trial, he escaped from detectives through a train car window. Caught at last at his mother’s house, he endured eight years in New York prisons, part of that time in the State Hospital for Insane Convicts. His final arrest came in a southern Ohio hamlet, in 1916, for trying to sell stolen bonds. He spent two years in federal prison in Atlanta before finally going straight. Broke again, he lived briefly at the county almshouse near Dansville, then moved to Georgia, where he reportedly worked as a journalist, and died there in 1921. His place of burial is unknown.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.