A Note on Sources

King Con is entirely a work of nonfiction, made possible by the surprisingly extensive paper trail that its main character left behind. It draws upon a vast array of historic newspapers, letters, and other archival material, cited in the notes at the back of the book. All quoted speech comes from these sources, which provide glimpses into people’s thoughts and feelings. The notes also include occasional background information about the story.

Chapter 1

The waiting was almost over. Within the next few minutes, Tom Longboat, an Onondagan marathon runner who had just stopped off in San José, California, would be entering the pulpit of the First Baptist Church. Now twenty-eight years old, Tom was way past the age when newspapers carried stories about him winning race after race and twice competing on Canada’s Olympic team, but he remained famous enough for his presence in town to spark excited chatter. That evening— Sunday, March 4, 1917—several hundred people filled the pews. Speaking to them from the pulpit of this balconied modern church was its resident preacher, the Reverend James W. Kramer, who had a reputation for staging services “better than a movie show.” 

Broad-shouldered and as fidgety as a marionette midperformance, Kramer had a large, bulging-browed face, its youthful smoothness extending to his prematurely bald crown. In deep, sonorous tones, he said, “I’m sorry the world has still got to be watched. There is something the matter with the world. It wants a religion that not only says, ‘This is the way,’ but walks in that way.” He was nearing the end of that evening’s sermon. “You need religion,” he assured the congregation. “And don’t forget that genuine religion works!” He went on to announce the imminent unveiling and illumination of a newly commissioned ecclesiastical painting, which he described as a masterpiece. “During the illumination, our friend Tom Longboat will sing . . .” Kramer meant to say that Tom would be performing the well-known hymn “Just as I Am, Without One Plea,” but he muddled his words and said, “Just as I Am, Without One Flea.” 

Laughter from his audience compounded Kramer’s embarrassment. Distraction was, luckily for him, on hand. The lights were shut off, ready for the painting to be unveiled and then spotlit. 

Here was the cue for the boyishly handsome Tom to take center stage. The much-talked-about wound he’d incurred while serving with the Canadian medical corps in France—heart of the war America had not thus far joined—didn’t prevent him from carrying himself with nonchalant grace, his physique still lean and muscular. Just shy of six feet, “the big Indian,” as Kramer referred to him, was tall by the standards of the period. Tom had high cheekbones, olive skin, and full lips that often flexed into a captivating smile, his intelligence and gentle authority projected by soulful brown eyes. He wore his thick, jet-black hair in a neatly parted, collar-length style. On the lapel of his dark suit, he liked to display a Red Cross pin. 

When Tom launched into the opening hymn, the Baptist Harmonic Orchestra provided the ponderous musical accompaniment. “Just as I am, without one plea / But that Thy blood was shed for me,” Tom sang in a mellow yet powerful voice, its crisp phrasing accentuating the vocal similarity between him and the hugely popular tenor Chauncey Olcott. 

Afterward Tom addressed the congregation, which included numerous latecomers, standing at the sides because all the seats were taken. He was a natural in front of an audience. “This is the first time that I have ever stepped into a first-class Baptist church with a first-class Baptist spirit,” he said, his speech no less rich and melodic than his singing. Relaxed, engaging, and genially self-assured, he spoke of breaking the record for the marathon and receiving trophies from the kings of England and Greece. It was clear why Kramer had awarded him such a fulsome endorsement on the ads promoting that evening’s service. “I never heard a greater man singer than this Indian,” the preacher had declared. “Hear his story of the war and hear him sing. Yes, he is a Christian man. He will move and thrill you.” 

Tom proudly informed the congregation that he was a graduate of Carlisle. Just that one word was sufficient to identify Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the celebrated Pennsylvania boarding school where Native American youngsters—many of them unwillingly uprooted from their families and culture—received a classical as well as vocational education. Tom served as a living advertisement for that institution and dozens of other such eastern boarding schools to which generations of Native Americans had been sent. As a mark of his assimilation, Tom said he’d completed a three-year medical course in Chicago. He also revealed that he’d traveled around the world, learning several languages in the process. And he delivered a brief but engrossing account of his work with the medical corps on the muddy battlefields of France. 

His description carried the distinctive imprint of firsthand experience. There were none of the allusions to glory and patriotism deployed by people who had never set foot in the trenches. For him, the horrors of the current war “could not be exaggerated.”
“The thing to do,” he suggested, “is to take the sovereigns of the different countries, place them in a pit, charge admission, and let the sovereigns fight.” 

Energetic applause greeted this suggestion. 

An incredulous young girl, who was impressed by Tom’s performance, dragged her mother up to the pulpit for a closer look at him. Tom suspected racial prejudice lay behind the girl’s disbelief. “Why, he looks just like a man,” her mother said. Tom would later joke about how the girl’s mother must have wondered where his war paint and feathered headdress had gone. 

Sharing the bewilderment of both mother and daughter was another member of the congregation—a local real estate agent named Charles Millar. Like so many people there, he’d been drawn to the service by the gravitational pull of Tom’s fame. Millar was doubly curious because he’d raced against Tom in Montreal close on a decade earlier. But Millar didn’t recognize the man in the pulpit, who looked nothing like the marathon runner he’d trailed behind. The Tom Longboat he knew had even darker skin. And he was a tad shorter. Millar couldn’t figure out why the man in the pulpit wanted to go around pretending to be Longboat. Whatever the reason, Millar made up his mind to expose him as an impostor at the end of the service. 

The man calling himself Tom Longboat continued to soak up the applause. It was soon replaced by the sound of the church orchestra playing several more hymns. These were followed by a singing duet, a series of baptism ceremonies, and the closing hymn. Dr. Kramer made a few announcements before the large congregation began to disperse.
Millar could now unmask the impostor in front of everyone. But, almost as if the man was being protected by an Onondagan guardian spirit, Millar suffered a last-minute loss of nerve. Instead of facing a torrent of angry questions, Edgar Laplante—the impostor exploiting Tom Longboat’s name and celebrity—was free to collect a large appearance fee. 

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