King Con by Paul Willetts

King Con

Paul Willetts

In the fall of 1917, Edgar Laplante reinvented himself as Chief White Elk: war hero, Cherokee nation leader, and a total fraud. Paul Willetts brings this previously untold story to life in all its surprising absurdity.

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The spellbinding tale of hustler Edgar Laplante—the king of Jazz Age con artists—who becomes the victim of his own dangerous game.
Edgar Laplante was a smalltime grifter, an erstwhile vaudeville performer, and an unabashed charmer. But after years of playing thankless gigs and traveling with medicine shows, he decided to undertake the most demanding and bravura performance of his life. In the fall of 1917, Laplante reinvented himself as Chief White Elk: war hero, sports star, civil rights campaigner, Cherokee nation leader—and total fraud.
Under the pretenses of raising money for struggling Native American reservations, Laplante dressed in buckskins and a feathered headdress and traveled throughout the American West, narrowly escaping exposure and arrest each time he left town. When the heat became too much, he embarked upon a lucrative continent-hopping tour that attracted even more enormous crowds, his cons growing in proportion to the adulation of his audience. As he moved through Europe, he spied his biggest mark on the Riviera: a prodigiously rich Hungarian countess, who was instantly smitten with the con man. The countess bankrolled a lavish trip through Italy that made Laplante a darling of the Mussolini regime and a worldwide celebrity, soaring to unimaginable heights on the wings of his lies. But then, at the pinnacle of his improbable success, Laplante’s overreaching threatened to destroy him…
In King Con, Paul Willetts brings this previously untold story to life in all its surprising absurdity, showing us how our tremendous capacity for belief and our longstanding obsession with celebrity can make fools of us all—and proving that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

Advance Galley Reviews

Very interesting story about Edgar Laplante, a con man who reinvented himself as a Native American war hero to con small towns out of money. Setting aside the gross misappropriation of another culture for monetary benefit, Edgar managed to stay one step ahead of police through the years, adapting his story to speak to local fears and curiosity. What could have been an interesting life story was told in such an uninteresting way. A series of facts, lined up neatly in chronological order, with reference to a few primary sources. Unfortunately, the author’s voice did not appear to give these facts life or pacing, only occasionally rising to add a jab here or there. No analysis as to why a society at the time would be so susceptible to such a con, or why people were so ready to believe the wild stories of intrigue to distract them from daily life.

Edgar LaPlante was a con artist in the early 20th century, moving from place to place on false identities. I don't know if he had specific motives or if this was related to mental illness. While this book is well written and probably a great read for the right reader, that person is not me. When I was reading the book, I found it interesting and did not want to put it down. However, when I did put it down, I found I had no interest in returning to it and ending up reading only about 20%. In the end, all the dissimulation just turned me off. Good writing and construction, frustrating topic (for me).

The story of the false Chief White Elk and his many aliases is jaw-dropping, but not unbelievable. The book covers roughly 10 years of Chief White Elk's life, the first half spend in the US during and after WWI, and the second half touring Europe. The author traces Edgar's exploits through media coverage, mostly, as Edgar moved to keep one step ahead of the newspapers and the law. Edgar changes quite a bit over these 10 years, starting as a vaudeville entertainer who leaves his hotel bills unpaid and ending a prince in Italy, showering money on adoring fans (or simply needy individuals willing to shout his assumed name) on the streets. And then eventually all of this catches up with him. It's a very entertaining read, a window on the shadowy culture just outside the law first in the US (mainly the wild wild west) and then in Europe. He was hardly the only charlatan capitalizing on the new -- and somewhat hypocritical -- sympathy for Native Americans in the early 20th century. And he actually did some of what he said he would -- he actually recruited soldiers for the first World War, he actually advocated for the rights of Native Americans. He was just also a sociopath. The voice of the author, Paul Willetts, was strangely both ever-present and under-present at the same time, and this voice bothered me a bit as I read. The author's judgement of Edgar, adding often that he probably skimmed some off the top, maybe had drugs on him, might have taken a lover, likely lied about something else, stepping beyond the evidence in a judgmental tone over and over again, became a little annoying. Yes, I know he's a terrible person. I promise I won't side with him. But let me read the story. At the same time, the author is not present at all in terms of what the evidence was, how it was found, and how reliable it was, which I have come to expect in a nonfiction book. So he was both there too much and not enough. At times the author's voice sounded a little juvenile, maybe the voice of a young person who I would pat on the head and say that he shows great promise. But he's too old for showing promise. It should be here. So the voice of the author was my biggest complaint. But overall it's a good read and a great story. A good escape to the jazz age, during which we can shake our heads and wonder how it actually happened that a con man and performer was able to be so successful. And then go back to the news and shake our heads and wonder the same thing. I got a copy to review from First to Read.

This ARC from First To Read and Penguin Random House sounded so interesting to me. Unfortunately, I was conned! Edgar was an imposter who ran cons and pretended to be Chief White Elk for years and years all over the world. The facts were so interesting but it wasn’t delivered in a way that I enjoyed reading. I really admire the author for all the research time this had to have taken. However, it fell a little flat for me.

If you're an avid reader and love true crime or biographies, this book is excellent. King Con: The Bizarre Adventures of the Jazz Age's Greatest Impostor by Paul Willetts is due to be published on August 7, 2018 but you can pre-order it now. It's the story of Edgar Laplante who was born in the late 1800's Rhode Island to white Anglo Saxon parents, who's troubled childhood eventually landed him in a reform school. Author Paul Willetts starts Edgar's story in 1916, when Edgar is in his mid-30's and living in California, but Willetts occasionally finds the opportunity to flashback to Edgar's early years to help explain how he was to become one of the greatest con men in the history of the world. And when I say world, I mean, America, Canada and Europe. After a long stint of traveling, singing and speaking across the U.S. claiming he was the famous Canadian Iroquois Indian athlete Thomas Longboat, Edgar would adopt the persona of Chief White Elk. As the Chief, he toured the U.S., Canada and eventually Europe, conning the unsuspecting out of money he claimed was going to go to American Indian causes in America, but instead were lining his pockets and paying for his extravagant lifestyle and drug & alcohol addiction. Along the way, Edgar would not only con two women into marrying him (one of which was half native American), he would dupe two European contessas out of their fortune. I couldn't put this book down. Edgar Laplante's life is so far out that you actually start to feel like the author must be making this all up and you're falling for a con story yourself by believing that any one man could pull of what Mr. Laplante did. Incredibly fascinating story that makes one wonder if someone could pull this off today with the technology and fast paced world we live in now?

I’ve never heard of this man before reading this book. Parts I can’t even believe are real even though it is a non-fiction book. It’s amazing what some people will do to get a little fame. This was very well written and I appreciate the bit of history that I never learned in school.

Edgar Laplante was more a faker than a fraud. He continually posed a leader of Native American tribes and touted his achievements in the Olympics and playing football for Carlisle. This all played to white Americans happy to meet a successful Indian. He also played up his brave service record in World War One, even though he had fled Denver to avoid the draft when President Wilson set it up. Laplante lived by his wits but never dreamed of the kind of massive fraud that might have caught the attention of the authorities. He much preferred to play to the crowd, as sports hero or an exotic Indian chief. And crowds admiring his performance seeminly stroked his ego. That’s the conclusion from reading this amazing shaggy dog story of a man who traveled the country and then took his act to Europe where his act as an Indian chief charmed wealthy women. Of course, he took quite a few people for significant amounts but the amazing question that keeps coming up with this book is, “Why did they keep giving him money?” Of course, Laplante did sell worthless products like snake oil and late in life he took a run at selling shares in fake oil companies. Still, his most visible and successful product was his theatrical performance and off-stage performance as a great Native American. He had a vaudeville act and often posed a political leader seeking better treatment from the federal government. At one point, he even went to England, ostensibly to present grievances to the King of England. This is a fun read following the sheer enormity of Laplante’s career as a faker. Eventually, of course, he exhausts himself leading the high life, which included copious amounts of liquor and cocaine. Willetts argues that his days were numbered with the advent of new identification techniques at the newly-formed FBI and the Great Depression dampened interest in his tall tales. But like the chameleon he was, he went ahead and inserted himself as a great Indian leader into the New Deal and seems only to have petered out because of overindulgence.

Fascinating story about a con man in the early 20th century. I had never heard of him before, so it was interesting to get a peek both at his story and the broader cultural history of the times. Sometimes I felt the writing was a little too deliberate, if that makes sense. Some passages seemed stilted and overwritten. Otherwise, great read. I do hope in the finished copy there will be a section of photos of the subject, etc. I wanted to see him and the people in his life, but had to use google to satisfy my curiosity.

King Con is a book about an imposter, but a very talented one! It's almost hard to believe that someone could pull off a stunt like this for YEARS! A gullible populace is a con man's best friend.

I really enjoyed this book. The author has used newspaper articles and other sources to follow the trail of a notorious con man on a wild adventure. It's truly astonishing that this white man was able to pass himself off as a Native American chief for so many years, and mingle with the rich and famous, with no evidence but his own far-fetched stories and a feather headdress or two. There's nothing admirable about Edgar Laplante, and his victims were many - but he must have been seriously charming and charismatic in person if he could con so many so effectively for so long. A fascinating and well-told tale.

King Con is well researched and well written. I like reading true crime and this happened during a time period I find very interesting. There is a lot of detail in this book. I did not find any of the detail extraneous but some of it was repetitive.

P.T. Barnum was right, there is a sucker born every minute and frequently a sociopath to take advantage of the suckers. This book was fascinating like a fire or a train wreck. I did not like the story it told but I did finish it. The main character was a horrible person and his victims seemed mesmerized by him. It was well researched but a bit overlong and full of unnecessary details such as street addresses and a lot of repetition. There also seemed to be much speculation about things the main character might have seen and done in certain cities, such as who he might have met in Jazz Age Paris and what he might have seen at Christmastime in London. It seemed like there was a lot of unneeeded filler. It was already a pretty long book without all the might have, could have and likely would have. And outside of East Texas, where I am originally from, I have never noticed so much use of the phrase “fixing to,” as in someone is fixing to do something. In the rest of the world, it means someone is about to do something.


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