‘O what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive!’
Those immortal lines written by Sir Walter Scott seem rather fitting as an introduction to the life of Peter Grimes. He lived on Christmas Island between 1907-1910 and probably never in the history of the Island has such a colourful character graced its shores. The word “colourful” is a kind word. Conman or confidence trickster, more accurately describes an unscrupulous, intelligent man with wonderful acting skills who was an expert at spinning fictitious stories into webs of deceit. And just like flies to a web he ensnared his trusting and unsuspecting victims.
As there is an association of webs with caves, in my mind at least, I think it rather apt then that Peter Grimes even had a cave named after him on Christmas Island; Grimes Cave! Yes, he was spinning his webs on the Island too!
The story of Peter Grimes is a long and complicated one. It’s beyond the scope of this page to do his story full justice. However, I thought I would give an overview of the man and focus on just a few of his infamous stories.
Thanks go to Cathy Koning who had contacted me whilst I was preparing the draft to this story and sent me the newspaper “fight” article below that included the photo of Peter Grimes. She was very supportive and able to fill in gaps to the timeline.
Inspector representing the Italian king
King of Christmas Islands
Son of a wealthy Georgia planter
Son of Captain Dollar
Doctor and beriberi expert
Inspector-general of rubber plantations for the British government
Peter Archbald Gordon Grimes
Dr JLG Murray
Peter Gordon Grimes
James H. Rodgers
(young) Mr Dollar
Peter A. Rogers
Pierre d’ art Philippo
(there are probably more)
Peter Grimes was an American born in Scranton, Pennsylvania on the 10th June 1882; both sets of his grandparents being Irish. It would seem that Grimes’s propensity for telling untruths started in his teens. As a 16 year old in 1898, he enlisted for a three year stint in the army; his age on an enlistment paper was shown as 21 years and 6 months. Less than a year later he was discharged without honour. A little later in a 1900 census he is shown to be back with his family; his occupation being shown as a “stenographer”. This was a skill that would prove useful to him some years later whilst in jail. Ironically, as it will turn out, the census also showed that his father was a “detective”!
It is not known under what circumstances Peter Grimes came to be on Christmas Island or the position he held. What is known is that he was masquerading as a Southerner from Georgia (he was known to do accents) and voicing his racist thoughts in the newspaper article below.
How Tip Wright, a baseball and boxer writer, came to hear of, and report, Grimes’ story (including photo) may be an interesting tale in itself.
I’ve talked to many an enthusiastic fight fan and have heard of others who seemingly deserved the palm, but I have fast heard of the man who is entitled to the title of daddy of all the fight bugs in the world. This prize bug is Peter Gordon Grimes, native of Georgia, present address, Christmas Island (British) Oceanica, of which flyspeck on the world’s map Grimes is one of six white men residents.
If you want to locate Christmas Island, you take a map of Oceanica and gaze along the tenth parallel, south latitude. At the angle formed by lines running 2,800 miles east of the northern tip of York peninsular, Singapore, you will find a dot about the size of a bantam period. It doesn’t look big enough to house a mature gnat, but it boasts of a population of 15,000 natives.
Christmas island’s nearest neighbor big enough to be charted is Batavia, on the island of Java. All around, the Indian ocean mansoons whenever the mood seizes it. Having located Christmas Island, let me tell you about the man who proposes to travel the 15,000 miles dividing the island from San Francisco, just to see, as he says, “Jim Jeffries make the yellow come up in Johnson’s neck.” You’ll remember Grimes hails from Georgia.
About three years ago, after a career which began in Atlanta, and spread from New York to Pittsburgh, Peter Gordon Grimes, newspaperman, with a fondness for writing sport feature stories, forsook the fourth estate and got himself a job on a ranch In Texas. Here he held forth long enough to accumulate a bank roll, and then, the Mardi Gras season being on, he pulled his freight for New Orleans.
Grimes remained in the Louisiana metropolis while the festivities were on and then boarded a liner for Hamburg, where he found employment as secretary to the European manager of the American Car & Foundry Co.
From Hamburg he went to Manchester with his employer, thence to Port Said, Cairo, Yokohama, Hongkong and finally, Singapore. It was while in Singapore that Grimes’ employer located him with a company exploiting the gypsum mines and tea plantations on Christmas Island. With visions of riches to be had for the striving, Peter Gordon Grimes of Georgia, Yale man, jumped into the new life and made good.
Grimes prospered on Christmas Island. His salary was large. It had to be to get a white man to stick. He invested his earnings, and in his last letter says he cleaned up $50,000 last year. Here are extracts from his letter, which shows how the feels:
“About one more year in this part of the world and I think I shall have a competence sufficiently large to enable me to go into business back in the states.
“I am coming home for the Jeffries-Johnson fight. It’s a 15,000-mile trip each way, but I sure want to see Jeffries make the yellow come up in Johnson’s neck. If Jeff don’t beat Johnson to a frazzle, I’ll feel like making the big fellow hard to find.
“I’m just longing to get back to God’s country, get my feet into a pair of real patent leathers, push them under real mahogany and sit down in a room filled with white men and white women, eating white folks’ grub.
“When we first heard of the fight we understood it was to take place in Australia, and we all figured on chartering a coaster to take it in. But when we learned it was to be in the states, the Englishmen refused to go, so I am coming all by my lonesome.
“I will leave here about March 11, for Singapore, and come home via Hongkong, Yokohama, Honolulu and San Francisco, and no grass is going to sprout beneath my feet after I get started.”
Now if Grimes isn’t the prize fight bug of the century, will some one please bring forth a candidate?
The Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, Evening News, 2nd March 1910
Many years later in a newspaper article, Grimes would recall to a reporter that “a letter had reached him in the Christmas Islands from his mother in which she said that he ought to be coming home instead of mingling with the natives and attending a prize fight. His mother had read the story in The Times which was illustrated with a photograph of Grimes and some natives. She sent the article to him with her letter.”
Peter Grimes’ stay on Christmas Island is captured in photos below. He looks to be having a jolly time. I have wondered, that as he was a dishonest man of the first order travelling internationally and once described as “being better known in the capitals of the world than in his own city”, why he stayed on the remote Christmas Island for nearly 3 years. Was he lying low? Certainly, he ingratiated himself with the small European population living there.
Shortly after leaving Christmas Island in 1910 Grimes went on trial in the Singapore District Court on three charges of cheating (writing dud cheques whilst claiming he was expecting funds). Grimes laid the ground work months before and playing his Christmas Island friends like a fiddle the unsuspecting Dr MacDougall (author of the thesis “Beriberi on Christmas Island with special reference to diet”) was called upon as a supporting witness to the genuineness of Grimes’ business ventures whilst on the Island. One of these involved Captain Wright (of the Islander) investing in a Sumatran oil concession with Grimes. Grimes claimed to be financing his one third share of the concession from the sale of a rubber estate. He was “waiting” on those funds. After a drawn out trial, the judge gave Grimes the benefit of the doubt as he acquitted him of the charges. His reasoning being that Grimes had “reasonable expectations” that he would receive sufficient funds to cover his cheques and had never intended to defraud anyone. He “had been very near the border between foolishness and dishonesty but had not crossed it”. 1 During the trial Grimes claimed that his leisure time on Christmas Island was spent in securing rubber options and floating estates with American capital. It appears no one ever thought to question these alleged business dealings. All his stories were taken on face value even in a court of law.
Back in America the following year, Grimes was up to his old tricks. This time in California.
In 1909 the United States Telephone Herald Company was formed. Under that parent company existed a number of associated “telephone newspaper” companies with locations throughout the USA. They were organised to provide news and entertainment over telephone lines to subscribing homes and businesses. Peter Grimes formed one of the first of these associated companies in May 1911. It was known as the Southern California Telephone Herald Co (Los Angeles) and was doomed from the start. Grimes, being the fraudster that he was, ran off with the company funds!
As the sunny climes of California were getting a little too hot for Grimes he left and next appeared in Hawaii as “Aviator Gordon”.
“Kenneth Gordon, Aviator” Turns Out to Be Plain Peter Grimes
Swindler of First Order, Who Is Wanted Now for Old Game In Tacoma.
Remember “Aviator Kenneth Gordon,” the chap who suddenly leaped from the obscurity of a small hotel room in Honolulu into the prominence measured by one’s fame as an aviator? The chap who was to win more fame by circling over Diamond Head in Schaefer’s new biplane, and assist the army and navy manoeuvres, and make all Honolulu tingle with his exciting manoeuvres as a man-bird. That was Kenneth Gordon, aviator, as Honolulu know him and saw him pictured in his head-gear with ear flaps to keep out the wind, with puttees and the general makeup of an aviator, seated in the seat of the Gus Schaefer’s biplane as it rested on the floor of George Well’s garage. “Kenneth Gordon, aviator,” rose no higher than that seat and the biplane never left the floor, and then just as suddenly, his fame collapsed, because he passed some bogus checks on local cafes. He was arrested but turned loose when friends paid the amounts. “Kenneth Gordon,” without batting an eye, said he was a misjudged man, but he never gave his questioners much insight into his past life. It is well that he did not, for the police of several places might have cabled to Honolulu that they would like to meet Mr. Gordon again. It now appears that “Kenneth Gordon, aviator,” was never an aviator and that his full name was and is Peter Archbold Gordon Grimes, just plain Grimes – of Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he was a drug clerk. “Kenneth Gordon” sounded better than Peter Grimes. It was more picturesque, more of the matinee idol’s type of soubriquet, and certainly looked better when hitched to “aviator,” than plain Peter Grimes. So when he had issued in series of checks which amounted to about $50 and for which he had no funds deposited in the Scranton bank, Peter Grimes departed one night by the light of the moon.
The Hawaiian Gazette, July 26, 1912, page 6
Of the numerous newspaper articles written about the life and crimes of Peter Grimes, some were enamoured with the man and relished reporting his “adventurous” lifestyle. It seemed that every story he told a reporter was believed. His home town newspaper was particularly forgiving.
Pete Grimes in a real tight fix this time
… This time the hero of thrilling adventure on the Pacific coast, in the Christmas Islands, in British India and in dear old London figures in a narrative from Nagasaki Japan, more lurid and astonishing than anything the most popular writers of melodrama have given the stage.
… He may yet be returned to San Quentin to begin a term of confinement.
Well liked here
Should this come to pass it will be a great disappointment to everybody in Scranton who knew “Peter A. Gordon Grimes” as he usually described himself while mingling with capitalists and men of big business in London, Paris and other big cities across the bounding blue. Whatever may have been his shortcoming “Pete” has no enemies at home and the stories of his escapades that have drifted back to Scranton have been received with smiles and a hope that he would some day return with the fabulous wealth that some of the yarns have credited him with.
Much more could be written about the soldier of fortune. It might be added that he is tall, dark, handsome and at all time a correct dresser. A good education, an ability to accustom himself to any surroundings and a manner of likable frankness made it easy for him to wander over the globe living on the fat of the land. he was never so much at home as in evening clothes and he could talk volubly on all subjects. In the south he had a most delightful southern accent and in London he dropped his h’s with the precision of a born Londoner. In Louisville, Ky., where he paused for a short time a few years ago, he was put up at an exclusive club and was known in the best society as the son of a wealthy Georgia planter.
… It is said that … he has been in custody before. Maybe he has, but his friends of the old days in Scranton aren’t concerning themselves over it. They remember Pete as one whose love for excitement sometimes ran away with his judgment, but one who has no malice in his makeup. They feel that he’s been away on a long frolic and they hope he’ll come home safe.
The Times Tribune Friday, 19th June 1914.
Grimes was such a wonderful actor, that even while serving a prison sentence for forgery he was able to charm the then prison warder, and go on to con a benefactor who felt sorry for him. Grimes either had not heard of, or ignored the old adage “don’t bite the hand that feeds you”.
… The real Grimes served a term in San Quentin for forgery and was released only last August, He won the sympathy of Robert Dollar, [Capt. Robt Dollar, a merchant, of San Francisco] who sent him to Shanghai to serve as a clerk.
Grimes posed as Dollar’s son on the steamer, floated some bad checks among the passengers and [they] complained on reaching Shanghai. The forger was arrested and convicted and turned over to Prison Guard Kilgore to take to Nagasaki, there to board the United States transport Sheridan for San Francisco. …
The sun (New York [N.Y.]), June 19, 1914
Whilst being escorted to the transport ship Sheridan, Grimes would set into motion one of his most audacious acts; an act that confirmed the unscrupulous nature of his persona when it came to self preservation and illustrated how low he would stoop.
He drugged a hapless young Norwegian sailor in a Nagasaki bar with the help of his prison guard Kilgore. (Kilgore, who was only 24, would later be arrested and jailed for helping Grimes.) Grimes then impersonated his own prison guard and presented the drugged young sailor as himself to the receiving authority at the wharf, received his own release papers in exchange and then walked away free. It could almost be a scene from a black comedy; the title of which would have to be “Shanghied in Nagasaki”.
HE SENT A SUB
Convict Shanghaied a Sailor in Nagasaki, Japan
And Sent Him to Prison in his own stead
San Francisco. June 18.
Peter A. Grimes, convicted of forgery in Shanghai and on his way to San Quentin prison. California, shanghaied Alfred Johansen a Norwegian sailor, in Nagasaki, Japan, substituted the sailor for himself and escaped, according to information developed in a searching investigation by federal officers.
Not until Johansen, in a cell at San Quentin, told his story to a fellow Norwegian was it discovered that an innocent man was probably serving the three year term of Grimes. Johansen does not speak English.
“Ashore from my ship at Nagasaki I was in a salon and drank with three men who approached me. After two drinks with them I remember nothing until I woke up between decks on a ship. I tried to explain but no one understood me.” said Johansen through a interpreter today.
Immediately inquiry was set on foot. It was found that Grimes, under the name of James H. Rodgers, had served a term in San Quentin before and was released August 10, 1913. Prison officials looked at Johansen and then at a photograph of Grimes, alias Rodgers. There was a resemblance but it was slight. When Johansen saw the picture of the former convict he said:
“That is one of the three men I drank with in Nagasaki.” Johansen arrived here, under guard on the transport Sheridan.
The transport officials are positive he is the man delivered to them at Nagasaki as Peter A. Grimes. So far it is not known whether Grimes substituted the Norwegian for himself with the connivance of Prison Keeper Kilgore of Shanghai, or drugged both and fled.
While at San Quentin, Grimes or Rodgers was private secretary to former Warden John E. Hoyle. He was an expert stenographer, debonair and polished and made, many friends in the prison. Hoyle helped him on his release and procured work for him on a steamer bound for Shanghai.
In the Orient Grimes started again on the same course of reckless adventure and financial trickery which had been his record in California. For passing fictitious checks he was sentenced in the United States territorial court of Shanghai on March 9. 1914. His parents are said to live in Pittsburg, Pa., and to be wealthy.
The Topeka state journal (Topeka, Kan.), June 18, 1914, (HOME EDITION)
A headline titled “Grimes’ father says that story cannot be true” indicates that Peter Grimes was duping his parents as well. The bewildered Mr and Mrs Michael R. Grimes of Scranton, Pennsylvania, refused to believe that it was their son that had shanghaied the sailor. They stated that only a few weeks before, they had received a letter from him dated London. And, for the past year, they had received letters from him a few times a month from that city! His father said “I cannot understand how the boy could be in Japan and London at the same time or in any two places at the same time.”2
At about the same time, a Singaporean Straits Times newspaper headline was enticing readers to once again follow the strange trail of Peter Grimes. Grimes’ time on Christmas Island and acquaintance of the Island Manager John Davis Murray (a Canadian engineer and nephew of Sir John Murray ) would provide wonderful inspiration for his next adopted persona.
Adventures of Grimes
QUEER STORY OF ESCAPADES IN JAPAN
Man Who lived in Singapore
The following narrative of curious events surrounding the personality of one Grimes, who for a time resided here, but did not sojourn long, is taken from the China Press of Shanghai, dated June 9, and will interest those who came into contact with the person concerned:-
Fluent and Attractive.
Following is the story of his latest adventure in Yokohama, as given in the Japan Advertiser of June 4:
“An American who registered himself as Dr. J. L. G. Murray has been arrested by the Yokohama police on a charge of fraud and swindling. The case as far as Yokohama is concerned is a very simple one and one that has been played before, but the story becomes very complicated by the statements of individuals and the public as well. The so-styled Dr. Murray arrived recently at Yokohama having come from Shanghai vis Nagasaki, a fluent talker, an attractive personality and a good dresser and a man who knew everybody’s friends. He applied for rooms at the Grand Hotel, which being fully booked at the time, the management were forced to refuse him but suggested his going elsewhere for a few days. He then went to Wright’s Hotel where he registered as Dr. J. L. G. Murray of Vancouver. On the 28th ult., he took a room at the Grand Hotel where be registered under the same name, but this time from Singapore. He soon ran up a handful of chits, gave joy rides at the expense of the Main Street Garage, bought clothes galore from Tom, the tailor and generally enjoyed himself in a lavish manner. To the friends he made, and some of whom he touched for several large amounts (while awaiting funds from Shanghai !) he claimed to be the beri-beri expert on Christmas Island. Since there is a Dr. Marshall stationed there and very well known it fitted in well with his story. He gave many accounts of his numerous patients there, described the treatment, how they were cured and how they died, and seemed fully conversant with the subject.
On Monday he was arrested by the Yokohama police on a charge brought by the owner of a small Japanese restaurant. Since then a number of other charges have been brought in while a number of others “stung” prefer to keep quiet and will bring no charges. The Yokohama story is an old one, often told before in the Far East, but Dr. Murray now claims to those who have seen him at the prison and to the police that his right name is Grimes, that he was convicted of forgery by the American consular court at Shanghai and was sentenced to serve three years’ imprisonment at San Quentin, in California. That he was in the custody of a marshall of the Shanghai American consular court whom he bribed and from whom he escaped.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. 24 June 1914, Page 10. Reprinted with permission”
Moving forwards to the 1930s a newspaper from his home town had this to say about Grimes.
A soldier of fortune in every sense of the phrase, his life story would make fiction look silly. His life to date, and he is now fifty, is packed with so many thrills and even the old time melodrama of the stage would be nothing more than a Sunday school picnic in comparison with the actual experiences he could tell about.
The Times Tribune, 21st March 1932.
Less than a year later the same newspaper was reporting on Grimes again but with a different tone; this time about a sugar swindle. Grimes was now posing as a “Belgian gentleman”! (Depending on the newspapers, there are different spellings of “Philippo”.)
PETER GRIMES GIVEN LIFE SENTENCE BY CALIFORNIA JUDGE FOR SUGAR SWINDLE
Native of Scranton Led Adventurous Life in Many Corners of Globe – Visited Here Last March and Told Friends He Intended To Make Home In Paris
Peter A. Grimes, native of Scranton and man-about-town here years ago, was today sentenced by Superior Court Judge C.W. Miller, of Stockton, Cal., to imprisonment for life in the prison at Folsom. Grimes, under the alias of Pierre d’ A. Philippo, was convicted last week in the California courts on charges of grand theft and violations of the state corporate securities act in the promotion of a liquid sugar corporation. Having been twice convicted previously on forgery charges, Grimes was sentenced as an habitual criminal.
Faucet Water Used
Under his high sounding name of Pierre d’ A. Philippo, Grimes furnished a luxurious suite of offices in Stockton and staged his scheme of “proving” that ordinary faucet water “not distilled” poured through an important looking tube in a hocus-pocus manner produced sugar that would cost twenty cents per 100 pounds instead of the $1.25 price of the sugar trust. Grimes made a distinguished appearance, displayed plenty of money and soon began to catch the flies in his web. Women and women purchased stock and had their dreams of wealth. Then came an investigation and the arrest of Grimes.
The Times Tribune, Thursday, 5th January 1933.
Like a cat with nine lives, and remarkably, through self representation, Grimes won an appeal and had his life sentence reduced.
STOCKTON PONZI PLEADS CASE TO SHORTEN TERM
Pierre D’Phillipo, Sugar Swindler, Is Successful In Avoiding Life Sentence
The self-made plea of Pierre D’Phillipo, Stockton’s Ponzi, saved him from a life-term at Folsom Prison. Acting as his own attorney, D’Phillipo convinced the state supreme court that, in convicting him as an habitual criminal, the San Joaquin County Superior Court exceeded its jurisdiction, D’Phillipo was indicted in July, 1932, on a charge of grand theft involving $11,000 in connection with the promotion of a sugar enterprise. In giving him a life sentence, the lower court took into consideration a prior conviction for forgery. The supreme court, in its decision, instructs the lower court to resentence D’Phillipo on the conviction for grand theft alone.
The Sacramento Bee, Monday, 30th April 1934.
There is more to tell about Peter Grimes but for the scope of this page, I close his story here.
However, I’m sure there will be those who want to know what ultimately became of the man who duped everyone from Christmas Island to America and seemingly everywhere in between.
It may be surprising to know that Peter Grimes lived to his mid 90s and died in 1977. A simple memorial plaque at Pacific View Memorial Park, Corona del Mar, Orange County in California gives no clues as to the man behind many a notorious escapade.
From the time of his arrival on a small isolated spec of rock in the Indian Ocean, to his death, Peter Grimes’ long life spanned vastly contrasting eras on Christmas Island.
I wonder what he would have made of the Island in 1977 having lived on it for three years from 1907!!! And, I can’t help but think that with all his intelligence, wit and charm he could have done very well living an honest life.
And finally, would Peter Grimes be amused to find that he has been somewhat memorialised at Christmas Island’s Tai Jin (Buck) House museum?!
1. The Straits Times, 13th October 1910.
2. The Scranton Truth, 19th June 1914