FRIEND CHARLES – AN 1887 SWINDLE ATTEMPT (December 19/97)

The first exercises by the Black Watch at Camp Gagetown, New Brunswick, were held in the mid-50s. During the exercises a number of old, abandoned farms were discovered inside the Camp boundaries. Eventually the farms were demolished but not before soldiers used them for bivouacs.

On an attic floor in one of the old farms a soldier from Kentville found piles of letters with 19th century postmarks. Out of curiosity, and to pass time, he began to read the letters. One was most interesting and the soldier put it in his knapsack. When he returned to Kentville he gave the letter to me and I’ve held on to it for over 40 years; the contents of the letter is the topic of this week’s column.

Written by a man who signed his name J. J. Maguire, the letter was mailed from Boston to St. John, New Brunswick, in September of 1887. The recipient was a man identified only as “Friend Charles,” and its contents tell us Maguire had swindled his employer (a Mr. Dodge) and was asking for help in covering up his misdoing. While telling Charles of his plight, Maguire also gives us a glimpse of life in that period and the price of such things as strawberries and freight costs.

“I have seen Mr. Dodge and he says that he wants a statement from you for what berries that you shipped to him this season,” Maguire writes. Then he gets to the purpose of his letter. “Now Charles, you can send in with your statement a small lot (of berries) on some back date. You might put a lot say on one day previous to the first lot you shipped.” Maguire added that his employer was “all bothered upon his books and won’t know the difference.”

The reason for falsifying records? Maguire had been on a binge in St. John and had spent some of his employer’s money while carousing with a friend. And he wanted Maguire to cover the money he had spent with a fake invoice which he supposedly had paid while in St. John. “The last Saturday I went down there I went through a lot of money. I got full that night and it went from me one way or another. Now you can help me by billing in 14 crates from Hoyts on the date previous to the first lot you shipped from there.”

In his letter Maguire spells out to the penny exactly how Charles can help him. Invoice the 14 crates of strawberries at four cents a box or $1.28 a crate, he requests. This will total $17.92 he goes on and when you add 36 cents a crate for freight charges between Boston and St. John ($5.04) and 32 cents a crate for packing and hauling ($4.48) the total of the false invoice will read $27.44. Which gives us a fair idea of what a night on the town costs 110 years ago.

Over the years I’ve occasionally taken Maguire’s letter (now tattered and flimsy) from my files, read it, and speculated on what might happened as a result of his carousal over a century ago. Did Charles foolishly help his wastrel friend, who, by the way, reveals in his letter that he owes money to several people in St. John and promises to cover it.

I treasure my intriguing old letter – because of Maguire’s pitiful plight, because I will never know the outcome of Maguire’s attempt to swindle his employer, and for the brief glimpse of life in the 19th century that it provides.

In a way I empathize with Maguire who closes his letter with a final appeal for help: “Charlie, do the best you can (and) everything will be all right.”

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