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Cheerful Yesterdays

Chapter XIX — My Friend Parkinson

page 270

Chapter XIX
My Friend Parkinson

A Harris tweed suit, a Panama hat, and a good cigar: these were his simple accessories; but he regarded them as indispensable.

The tweed must be real homespun, the hat a genuine Panama, and the cigar a true Havana. This also he regarded as indispensable. "A shoddy suit," he used to say, "a Jappy hat, or a' two-for' cigar never took in anybody worth taking in."

With this equipment, a nimble wit, and a profound knowledge of human nature, he attained the distinction of being the most accomplished "confidence man" known to the police of the Australian Colonies. Indeed, it may be doubted if London or even New York ever produced a criminal who was a finer artist in this particular department of crime.

I call him an artist advisedly. He loved his work—the cleverness of it, the spice of adventure in it—above all, the humour that was never absent in a single one of his "operations." It was neither the want of money nor the love of it that drove him to crime. During the greater part of his career he was comfortably off, and he had no extravagant habits. A combination of diseases, of which the most distressing was chronic asthma, compelled him to lead a simple and abstemious life; he never page 271indulged in those orgies of intemperance and debauchery in which so many professional criminals dissipate their gains.

The first of his many crimes (he preferred to call them "operations")—at any rate, the first that brought him into conflict with the police authorities, was a "deal" in merino ewes at the famous Home-bush sales in Australia. The sale was advertised to commence at eleven a.m. A little after ten Parkinson strolled up to a pen of ewes, which an opulent-looking squatter was examining with evident appreciation. The two got into conversation, and Parkinson offered to sell the lot privately, and so cut out the auctioneer's commission. They completed the deal, crossed the road to the little branch bank, where a sale note was signed, and the price paid over—£160. Parkinson cashed the cheque, shook hands with his buyer and returned to the saleyards. That was daring—for the sheep were not his. But before eleven o'clock he had sold the same pen of merinos a second time to a second unsuspecting squatter—this time for £120—cashed the second cheque and got away with the proceeds of both sales. It was nearly a year before he was caught, and then he only received a sentence of two years, being able to pose as a first offender.

This crime, though its impudence filled the police with admiration, was crude work compared with subsequent operations, which showed much greater finesse and elaboration of details.

It was many years later that I was first briefed to defend him. He was then past middle age— close on fifty.

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His record at this time comprised nearly twenty convictions, and he had spent seventeen years— more than half of his adult life—in prisons and penitentiaries.

For nearly two years before committing the offence for which I defended him he had been employed as head shepherd on Four Rivers, a backblocks sheep-run in the South Island of New Zealand. The run changed owners, and Parkinson came to town, "fed up," as he expressed it, with the monotony of life out back, and still more with the monotony of being honest. "Two years on the straight," he said," was beginning to make me feel a prig." Arrived in town, he laid out part of his Four Rivers cheque in a new suit, a new Panama, and a box of cigars. He called on a firm of land and stock agents in town; he had just taken up a run, he told them, down Four Rivers way, and was looking for a "line" of sheep. The stock agents had a "client," of course, who, equally of course, had the very thing required. Parkinson was to take the morning train for Springvale, some fifty miles away; there the client, Mr. McAllister, duly advised, would meet him and drive him to his station to inspect the sheep. After lunch at the homestead Parkinson was taken to see the sheep, which had been drafted for his inspection; and after the usual chaffering—he could talk sheep with the most experienced flock-owner—he agreed to buy the whole line at 15s. a head—£180 in all: delivery on trucks at Springvale the following Wednesday, payment in the meantime at the stock agents' in town.

On the railway platform at Springvale he bor- page 273rowed a sovereign from Mr. McAllister—he was short of money, he said, and might want a few shillings on the train; he would pay it with the rest to the agents in town. He shrewdly guessed that McAllister, a careful Scot, in his letter to his agents reporting the sale would certainly not omit to mention the loan.

Two days later Parkinson called on the agents, and informed them of what they had already learned by letter from McAllister, that he had bought the sheep for £180. He was in the act of filling in a cheque when—"That reminds me," he said, "I borrowed a sovereign from Mr. McAllister; I'll add a pound to the cheque—that will save me the trouble of a separate letter." Sure enough, McAllister's letter of advice had contained, as Parkinson intended it should, a postscript "I lent Mr. Parkinson £1; please collect it if he forgets."

As he was about to sign the cheque he appeared suddenly to catch sight of the office clock. "Damn it," he exclaimed, "it's after three and I've missed the bank. Most annoying too, as I have to catch a steamer south to-night, and shall want some money." The agents, of course, were delighted to oblige, and at once offered accommodation. Parkinson re-wrote his cheque for £201 and received £20 change. That was the last the agent saw of Parkinson till some nine months later when he faced him in the dock.

"What did the trick," said Parkinson, "was that loan of £1, the postscript in McAllister's letter and my prompt'repayment.' Attention to detail is everything. Spare no pains to establish confidence; once it's established there is nothing page 274you can't do—even with the smartest of stock agents."

At the time he performed this operation, ostensibly for the sake of £21, he had a considerable sum to his credit at a savings bank—the balance of his hard-earned Four Rivers cheque. When awaiting trial he paid me some £30 over and above my fee, with a request to apply it in payment of some tradesmen's bills. He always made a point, he told me, of leaving no debts unpaid, if he could possibly help it, when he expected to go to gaol. At this period of his career he owned a reversionary interest worth some five thousand pounds in property in Tasmania, expectant upon the death of his old mother, and he had, of course, no difficulty in obtaining advances against it if he required money. But need of money never seems to have entered into the motives for his crimes; on the other hand, he boasted, as far as I know with truth, that he had never taken down a man who could not well afford it.

A conviction was inevitable, but what Parkinson feared was being declared an habitual criminal. Under the law in this Dominion the Court has power, on proof of a certain number of convictions for specified crimes, to declare the prisoner an habitual criminal and sentence him to detention in a reformatory prison until the Prisons Board, on proof of his reformation, elects to release him. It is the indeterminate duration of this sentence that criminals so dread. "Do all you can to save me from a 'Kath,'" were Parkinson's earnestly whispered instructions when the jury returned to the box. I had never till then heard this name for page 275the indeterminate sentence, which is now well established in prison slang. "Kath," videlicet "Kathleen Mavourneen," because:

It may be for years, and it may be for ever.

But while most of his operations were concerned with sheep, in which his early training had made him an expert, he was by no means a pedantic "specialist." The operation in which he took the greatest pride was in fact entirely unconnected with sheep. He was "resting," as actors say, in one of the larger towns of New Zealand when his eye was caught by an advertisement.

"The Headmaster of the?Boys' Grammar School will be in attendance on Monday at twelve noon to interview parents of new boys."

This suggested to Parkinson a novel stunt. He knew something of the Head from a waiter at the Club—the Warrigal—of which the Head was a member. The waiter had on one occasion shared lodgings with Parkinson when both chanced to be "doing time"; Parkinson, to whom no information ever came amiss, occasionally listened to the waiter's gossip about the Club and its members. Incidentally he learnt that membership and attendance were falling off of late. He provided himself with a calling card, on which he wrote "John Shand, Mount Palm Station, Otaio," and waited upon the Headmaster at the advertised hour. He had two sons, he said; the elder he destined for medicine, the younger had a fancy for engineering. He looked through a school prospectus, gravely discussed fees, etc., with the Head, and went into page 276 detail as to the number of shirts, socks, and shoes with which his boys were to be provided. He thoroughly approved of compulsory drill; football —yes, for the elder, but Jim—he thought not— there had been a hint of heart trouble. "Mr. Shand" obviously made a good impression on the Head, who invited him to dine with him that same evening, since he was returning to Otaio and his broad acres on the following day. "At dinner," he told me, "I steered clear of scholastic topics; after seventeen years of gaol I couldn't trust my Latin quantities, besides, though I'd been to a good school as a youngster, I was expelled before I reached the lower fifth." He entertained his host, instead, with stories of confidence men and the tricks they had played on squatters of his acquaintance in Australia, and, incidentally, on himself. Most of the tricks were his own "operations"—all he did was to change parts, victimiser with victim. Towards ten o'clock he drew the conversation round to the Warrigal, and the falling-off in popularity and attendance of members. "Now to-day," he said, "I was there to breakfast and lunch, and yet I didn't see a single man I know—particularly awkward too, because I forgot to go to the bank this afternoon, and had run out of money: in fact, I had to borrow five shillings from Tom" (that was the waiter's name) "to pay my cab down here to-night." The Head at once offered to let him have some money; but Parkinson would not hear of troubling him—"Sure to be someone in the bridge-room when I get back." His host thought not; Monday was not a regular bridge night. "Better let me lend you some money." To this page 277courteous pressure "Mr. Shand" reluctantly yielded; wrote a cheque of his own and "lifted" the Head for £10. "Enough," as he generously said, "to get me home to Otaio to-morrow."

"Now that," said Parkinson, "is a job I'm proud of. Not because I lifted my host for a tenner; he was a simple old chap and any amateur could have mugged him; but I'd spent nearly half of my life in gaol and roughed it with the worst, yet I dined with a gentleman, passed an evening in decent society, and was never spotted."

The confidence man usually works with one or more confederates. Parkinson thought this clumsy and inartistic, besides doubling the risk. In one operation, however, he departed from his rule and employed a confederate, though only in a minor part. That particular operation I have always regarded as the most finished of his many jobs.

Land and stock agents were his bêtes noires. "They are so jolly cocksure, these fellows," he used to say; "besides, they really are rather smart as a class, so there is some sport in taking them down."

He happened to be in D?ville at the time, and again it was an advertisement in a morning paper that set him thinking:

"We Are Hustlers!"
"We Sell the Earth!"

So began the flaming screed in which Young-husband & Co. announced a long list of "desirable farm properties for sale on account of various clients." Also, of course, they held periodical stock sales.

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Parkinson decided to hustle the hustlers; so he provided himself with a good leather wallet or pocket-book, with his nom de guerre printed in gold lettering on the cover, "Duncan Cameron, Boolawong Station, Darling Downs." With a little careful rubbing and soiling he gave the wallet a convincing appearance of use. He had a couple of Bank of Queensland notes; with some brown paper and these as an outer covering he made what looked like a good fat wad of bank-notes. His confederate of the moment was attired as a navvy, his moleskin trousers carefully hitched up under the knees with straps after the manner of a road-mender or quarry-worker. An old shovel, purchased at a second-hand shop, completed the equipment of this "honest toiler." He attached particular importance to the straps below the knees; trifles, no doubt, but important nevertheless—just the kind of detail that "adds verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative." "Mr. Cameron" called in due course upon the hustlers. His Harris tweed and Panama, not to mention the aroma of the inevitable Havana, procured him, as usual, special consideration. He was at once shown to the private sanctum of "one of our principals, sir, Mr. Younghusband."

"Well, sir!" began "Mr. Cameron," "I've been reading your advert, and I like your style. Hustlers for mine, every time."

Mr. Younghusband was duly impressed—a new client obviously of some importance. "Mr. Cameron," it appeared, had a large mob of cattle travelling on their way from out back to the coast for market—several hundreds of them, all prime page 279beasts. A wire from the drovers that morning reported the cattle at Gundagai; they should reach D?ville in good time for next week's stock sale.

"Mr. Cameron" furnished particulars of numbers and brands, and the eager sales clerk entered these in the firm's books. "Mr. Cameron" even insisted upon drafting the advertisements—there must be no stint in advertising, that was bad business. They were to be sold "under instructions from 'Mr. Duncan Cameron' as part of the famous Boolawong herds." "A little skite," observed the sagacious "Cameron," "never does any harm."

"I like your style," he repeated, as he rose to go, "and I'll be glad to push your firm all I know up the Boolawong." Thereupon Mr. Younghusband gave him half a dozen of the firm's business cards, with a request that his client would be so obliging as to distribute them. What more natural than that at this stage "Mr. Cameron" should produce his wallet, open it, and slip the cards inside the flap and so, quite by accident, expose to view the "fat" wad of bank-notes.

"By Jove," said Younghusband, "that's a prosperous looking wad of notes you've got there."

"Mr. Cameron" explained that they belonged to his missus, got them at the lawyer's that morning— a little mortgage had been paid off.

"Better pay it into our account; we'll be pleased to remit to your bank at Boolawong without exchange. I know what you cattlemen from the out back are when you come into town and get on the wine."

"Mr. Cameron" quietly declined the offer; he guessed he knew his way about; he was no tender page 280foot; the townies were not going to lamb him down. Anyhow, he was going back by the morning train, and reckoned he could take care of himself as well as the best.

Next day, during the forenoon, a horny-handed son of toil, carrying his shovel, seemingly a road-cleaner or something of the sort, called at the office of Messrs. Younghusband & Co.

"Mayhap you know a 'Mr. Duncan Cameron.' of Boolawong?" he inquired.

"A client of ours," was the prompt response of the clerk.

"Well, here's a pocket-book of his with his name in; I found it this morning in the gutter up in — Street," mentioning a street of sinister repute. "Nothing in it except some of your cards, so I thought I'd just bring it along."

The price of two drinks rewarded the honest toiler.

Later in the day in came "Mr. Duncan Cameron," still in Harris tweeds, still in the Panama, but a sadly soiled and bespattered Panama, while the tweeds looked as if they had been slept in, and that too in a gutter. "Mr. Duncan Cameron," blear-eyed and unshaven, looked a woebegone figure. "Fair tore up," as he himself expressed it.

Mr. Younghusband made sympathetic inquiries.

"My oath! But I wish I had taken your advice yesterday. I don't seem to know quite what happened somehow, but I had six or nine at the Metropole, and then I picked up with some rum coves, and we drifted round; had a few more at the Golden Fleece, and then—well, I somehow lost count, but we finished up at a house in —— page 281Street. When I woke up I was in the street, cleaned out; they'd got my watch, they'd got my pencil-case, and my pocket-book——"

"We've got your pocket-book," interjected Mr. Younghusband, and explained.

"Well, that's something anyhow, seeing it was a birthday present from the missus. But I had a hundred and fifty pounds in it, and all her money, too."

Of course there was nothing else for it; so valuable a client must be accommodated. The suggestion came entirely from the obliging Mr. Younghusband. The cattle next week, on any view of the market, would certainly realise something in four figures.

"An advance on the cattle? Why, certainly."

And so "Mr. Duncan Cameron," of Boolawong Station, Darling Downs, left the office of those obliging hustlers with £200 in his pocket. And hustle as they might, and for the next few days they did indeed hustle, they never saw "Mr. Duncan Cameron" nor their £200—still less those prime beasts from the famous Boolawong herd, travelling coastwards from the "Never-never Land," out back from Gundagai!

My "friend" Parkinson? Well, why not? It is true he had a long criminal record; but it is also true that in that long list there is no hint of violence to either person or property, of offences against women, or of petty acts of dishonesty. Me at least he did not take down; I found him always frank. I knew him to be often generous. He had a kind heart, a droll sense of humour, and his crimes all had their origin in a perverse spirit of adventure. page 282He deserved all he got in the way of punishment; but he never "groused," whatever came to him.

After serving three years of his "Kath" he was liberated on condition that he left the Colony, and he came to bid me good-bye,

"I am out at last, and this time it's for good. I'm never going back."

"What, never!" I began.

"You may smile," he said, "but it's true, No, I'm not reformed, and I haven't been converted. It's not religion, it's asthma. I simply couldn't face another winter in the cells."

"How will you find scope for—well, for your genius, for bluff—your—er—special talents?"

"I am going into a line where I can employ every one of my special talents, and that without being sent to gaol for it."

"As how?"

"I intend"—and he paused for a moment to grin at me—"I intend to turn land and stock agent."

And he kept his word.