Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Swindler


Oakley Crawford was born on this day in 1847; it was an event many people came to regret.

Oakley was born to Susan Reynolds and Samuel Crawford, who practiced law in Saugerties, New York. Little is known of his early years, except that he served in the Civil War when he was 17 and 18. A year or two later, it’s said he was ordained as a Methodist minister.

Crawford very soon married Josephine Moore, in New York, but within two years, she sued him for desertion and for swindling her out of her money. Crawford was convicted and spent the next three years in jail. But, it appears his punishment didn’t have much affect. After getting out in 1873, preacher Crawford kept on the move, touching down in places like Boston, Salt Lake City, Detroit and Seattle. In his wake, he left countless misfortunate women, business clients – even parishioners – all stripped of their personal wealth.

Crawford used an amazing number of aliases including Eugene Bonner, Major E. S. Bouvier Walton, E. R. Bannerton, Arthur Bentley Worthington and – when he showed up in these parts – General Arlington Buckingham Ward. With each of these lofty names came an equally imaginative title, ancestral lineage, or other high-stepping credential.

In story for the Fargo Forum last December, columnist Curtis Eriksmoen wrote, “Crawford was tall and handsome with ‘steel-blue grayish and expressive eyes.’ Because of his personal charm, he was able to gain the confidence of women and get them to entrust their money to him. If it required him to marry them, so be it.” Indeed, when Crawford showed up in Grand Forks, he was on wife number seven; she, like all his 9 or so wives except the first, wasn’t legal, because he simply abandoned each of them when she ran out of money.

Crawford – or “General Ward” – was the toast of the town when he arrived in Grand Forks in 1889. Ericksmoen writes, “...he became known in social circles as a person with breeding, connections and remarkable accomplishments. Crawford was familiar with the classics, gifted in eloquence and intelligent enough to impress the citizens. Many in Dakota were so impressed with General Ward that they began to mention his name as a candidate for U.S. senator when North Dakota would become a state in November...”

George Winship, founder and editor of the Grand Forks Herald, wasn’t so sure. One day, while getting a haircut in Bismarck, he asked the barber what he thought of Ward. “His name is not Ward,” the barber said. “I shaved that fellow in Seattle under the name of Arthur Worthington.”

Winship went back to Grand Forks and decided to quietly put the “general” to the test. Some time later, when Ward returned from a trip to St. Paul, Winship wrote the following in his paper: “Arthur B. Worthington, late of Seattle, arrived in this city this morning, after spending several days in the Twin Cities.” This tidbit was meaningless to all but one reader: Oakley Crawford. Knowing his cover was blown, he deserted his wife and skipped town that same night.

Crawford married at least two more women, fathered at least three children, took his game to the other side of the world, and also started a new religion. In Australia he wooed Madame Miranda May de la Juveny. Claiming to be a reincarnation of the god Osiris, he gave his wealthy widow a coinciding title, “Isis.” After defrauding her of her inheritance, he was caught and, in 1902, was sentenced to 7 years in prison.

Once again, his punishment had no effect. The law caught up with him again in 1917, but he died of a heart attack before going to trial.

(Source: The Forum, Fargo ND, 2004)

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm