The Greek Rogue of the American West - Part Two - by Steve Frangos
THE GREEK ROGUE OF THE AMERICAN WEST
By Steve Frangos
Published in The National Herald, December 20, 2008
I am excited that The National Herald has given Hellenic Genealogy Geek the right to reprint articles that may be of interest to our group.
From 1899 to 1909, the career of Peter George P. Attias can be documented in over fifty American newspaper accounts from towns and cities all across the United States. Posing as a world traveler, Attias claimed to be a medical doctor involved in a wager with unnamed individuals from the London Sports Club. The alleged wager involved Attias in, a round-the world trip to be completed within a fixed period of time. The terms of this wager required that Attias take no money with him but that he earned monies along the way.
This Attias accomplished according to interviews he offered to an array of reporters from 1899 to 1909 by writing a newspaper he periodically sold to subscribers he acquired along the way, by his lectures, by corresponding for an array of European and American newspapers, by providing select subscribers the just invented picture post cards for each of the cities he visited on his tour and for subscriptions to his always-just-to-be published riches-to-rags-to-riches again life story, “The Ups and Downs of Life.”
Yet, as the vast majority of the available news account document, Attias was an unabashed confidence man, bigamist, and his numerous claims to being a medical doctor never established. Even a close reading of the available newspaper accounts where Attias offers his own version of events are filled with so many contradictions, especially in terms of traveling dates, it can only be concluded the man was a habitual liar.
Further incriminating information is found in even small town newspapers that report on the frequent appearance of self-proclaimed traveling aristocrats on round-the-world treks based on a wager visiting them. These rogues drew their con game straight from the fictionalized doings found within the pages of Jules Verne’s novel, “Around the World in 80 Days.”
With all this being the case, the obvious question remains, how could Attias have gotten away with his tissue of lies for so long and in so many cities? Unfortunately, Peter Attias was the right man with the right skills in the right place at the right time.
The great initial success of the motion picture industry was that it brought to people all around the world the very first images of places, people and events the viewing audience would ever see in their lifetimes. For just five cents people living in the most remote hamlets, villages and towns all across the planet could finally see the great cities of the world, the mightiest mountains and rivers, the clash of armies whose outcome would determine the fate of millions and all that might be seen--- beyond the tree edged ridge-line that surrounded their still, mostly isolated community.
It is important to remember that moving pictures, projected onto a wall, was not technologically possible until the cusp of the late 1890s and the very early days of 1900. The success of confidence men such as Peter George P. Attias, during the late 1890s and through the first part of the 1900s must be seen against the real provincial nature, not simple of the American countryside but the planet in general.
The massive waves of immigration to North America from Europe and elsewhere beginning roughly after the Civil War in 1865 and ending in 1924 remains one of the greatest movements of working people in modern times. This very same era also marks one of the greatest transformations in industrial manufacturing. The unintended consequence proved to be that with the very invention and mass production of a dazzling array of goods and services came a massive surge of individuals as ready consumers for these new amenities.
All these technological innovations take place just as these new immigrant workers arrived on American Shores. Not infrequently the new workers are in the factories producing these new goods. These foreign workers met another wave of displaced humanity those rural Americans who were being forced off the farms and out of rural areas. The establishment of the culture of consumption then met a new collective class of workers whose new level of income allowed for participation in this hitherto unimaginable consumable of goods and services.
As these two populations met in the cities the massive industrial growth and movement of populations engendered a wild boom and bust cycle in the general economy. During this time of innovations and uncertainty it was the waves of foreign laborers (rather than the company bosses who hired them) who were blamed for the economic difficulties of the native-born American day worker and small time merchant.
From the 1870s onward, immigrant workers labored on expanding the American network of railroads ultimately unifying the nation as never before. It also meant that, as newspaper stories of the era document, the increasing appearance of literally hundreds of non-English speaking foreigners (seemingly out of nowhere) brought by the trains to work in the new industries.
So not only was the average American, in the big cities or the small towns, able to see the whole world for the first time they were also in the unexpected position of meeting any number of foreigners on a daily basis. But these encounters were anything but scripted Hollywood musicals!
Given the times and numbers of foreign workers from literally dozens of countries, whoever spoke English as a second language became a community leader. The multi-lingual Attias arrived just in time to profit from this time of industrial innovations, social and cultural tensions and fundamental linguistic needs.
Especially interestingly given his subsequent frauds is how often Attias appears listed on the social pages of the American West.
Dr. Attias frequently gave lectures of his world wide adventures to both Greeks and to native-born Americans, he was noted for speaking at the funerals of Greek laborers and as a general spokesperson for the Greek communities in Utah and California and Montana (c.f. Salt Lake City Herald August 15, 1904; Deseret Evening News October 15, 1904; Daily Nevada State Journal March 17, 1905). In 1905, at the time of Greek Premier Delyannis’ assassination, we find note only this con man described as “Dr. P. G. P. Attias, a leader in the Greek community of San Francisco,” but his several paragraphs of his remarks in the pages of the San Francisco Call (see June 15, 1905 issue).
News accounts of Attias borrowing money (that he never paid back), gathering investors (for companies or projects that never materialized), or taking money from his fellow Greeks in his role as a labor agent (for jobs that did not exist) fill the pages of newspapers in Utah, California, Nevada and Montana (see again, Salt Lake Herald March 4, 1905; Deseret Evening News November 22, 1906; and the Syracuse Herald August 27, 1907).
Peter Attias’ activities in Salt Lake City are especially worthy of note since it not only records his typical behavior but sets the stage for his long and bitter conflict with Leonidas Skliris. On the dodge from unstated offenses in Denver we learn:
“Doctor’ Attias left by freight, and was subsequently compelled to walk part of the way, and by the time he arrived at Cisco, Utah, he was in a pitiable condition. Some sheepherders and railroad men in that section found him and took him to Cisco. He told them he was a doctor, and a specialist in women’s diseases, and that he did not have money to go any further.
The people at Cisco took pity on him and passed around the hat. The result was that when he had in a measure got over the effects of crossing the Green River desert in June he came on to Salt Lake as a passenger, his baggage having previously been expressed to Salt Lake C.O.D. prior to leaving Denver. Upon his arrival here he hunted up Skliris, who is the recognized leader of the Greeks, and begged him to get his baggage out of the express office, so that he could have decent clothes to wear.
This was done, and Attias engaged a room at the Wilson, where the same evening his baggage was attached by the Luke collection agency for an alleged claim which a man by the name of Hintchey claimed he had against him for a hotel bill in Colorado.
Then it was, so claims Skliris, that he went to Skliris and presented a paper to him, stating that it was a bond for his appearance at the justice’s court in Murray, and asked Skliris to sign it, which that young man claims he did, without examining the paper.
Subsequent developments proved this paper to be a note for the amount due on the grips. At the trial of the case Attias lost, and the bank demanded the money due from Skliris (Deseret Evening News October 15, 1904).”
As these events were unfolding, the mercury-quick Attias realized Leonidas Skliris was earning a king’s ransom as an interpreter, labor agent, and general advisor to the Greeks. Without loosing a step Attias made his play to usurp Skliris’ position of power---not for the benefit of the struggling Greek laborers, like those who had ‘passed the hat around’ in Cisco – but for his own personal reward.