The Greek Rogue of the American West - Part One - by Steve Frangos


Part One

By Steve Frangos

Published in The National Herald, December 13, 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. 


In the stories Greek Americans tell themselves rogues, criminals, and disasters (natural and otherwise) are often heard of in considerable detail. Growing up I heard many a recollection told of early misadventures in Ameriki. Traveling priests who performed funerals, marriages, or baptisms and who later turned out not to be ordained clergy. Losing one’s entire savings as a young naive ‘greenhorn’ was another often told tale. Mournful accounts of dear relatives or friends from the village killed in the mines, smelters, and during railroad accidents are still bitter memories even when told, today, by the descendants of the original tale-tellers. To their credit Greeks also recall long involved stories of the hilarious mistakes and embarrassing situations resulting from an early lack of the English language.

Among these tales told Greekto-Greek are those of Greek gamblers, confidence men and all manner of sharp-eyed rogues. Far from exaggerated folk tales such stories were and remain the best memories of real-life individuals and actual witnessed events. This being the case it should not prove too surprising that more than one Greek grafter – and his unfortunate prey – can be discovered in the historical record.

The convoluted story of Dr. P. G. P. Attias offers us an almost casebook study of a sly, and oh so polished, confidence man.

The earliest newspaper account, I have managed to locate, on Dr. Peter George P. Attias, finds him during the summer of 1899. Attias and his entourage are at the St. Cloud Hotel in Syracuse, New York. Dr. Attias received a reporter from the Evening Herald into his suite of rooms. Attias is decked out in his “knickerbockers suit, with heavy soled shoes…and a white duck coat and cap.” In this first glimpse we learn that “Attias is a man of 26 years, born of Greek parents in Alexandria, Egypt, possessing a more or less intimate acquaintance with ten languages and equipped with a stock of stories of a busy life which make him an entertaining conversationalist.”

Syracuse was but the latest stop in Attias’ walk around the world. A planned three year journey Attias relates, he on January 1, 1898 in Cadiz, Spain. “He has walked eighteen months, just half the time allowed and has covered 25,000 miles.” Attias even brought his own press clippings from the towns and cities he had already visited for the Syracuse reporter to read over.

 All published reports on Attias offer the same core story: “He was given every advantage in his youth that money could supply. He was educated in the best schools of Europe and is a graduate of the French Institute of Medicine and Surgery at Paris. He also studied at Berlin and Leipzig, Germany, at Vienna and Rome, Italy and Madrid, Spain. He writes and speaks fluently fourteen languages (Salt Lake Herald July 29, 1904).” Which, if one knows anything about the Greek Diaspora, all sounds plausible.

In speaking with the Evening Herald reporter, Attias made what initially seems an extremely odd statement, “You have others traveling about begging and they ‘claim’ to have walked so far. I do not claim, I prove. I have been several times around the world so I know how to do [it] now I walk. And I travel in aristocratic manner. I have three men to arrange details and I have two dogs. I have spent $17,000 already, I earn money. I do not beg. I travel in the interest of science. I am a member of the geographical societies and scientists are interested in my trip. What I write for the papers they pay for well.”

Leaving aside for the moment what the good Doctor means by “others traveling about begging” what could possibly have led to this world-wide walk-about? 

Not long after, now in Des Moines, in another interview we learn that: “Attias is making his third trip around the world on foot on a wager of the London Sporting club, that they will pay him the sum of $25,000 if he makes the journey of 40,000 miles within three years from the time of starting (Daily Iowa August 14, 1899).” 

If Peter G. Attias; medical doctor, explorer, writer and frequent circumnavigator of the world accomplished all that can be readily found in the American and GreekAmerican press of the 1899 to 1909 era, then, the man should be reckoned as one of the most foremost Greek adventurers of the Modern Age! 

Today, with the instant communication possible with telephones and the world-wide-web it is difficult to understand the international sensation caused by Jules Verne’s 1873 novel, “Around the World in Eighty Days.” This now classic adventure relates the adventures of “Phileas Fogg of London and his….valet Passepartout [as they] attempt to circumnavigate the world in 80 days on a Θ20,000 wager set by his friends at the Reform Club (”

Whatever else Peter Attias may or may not have been he certainly was a member of a unique tribe of confidence men. This brand of con man followed the Verne novel fairly closely. First, the ‘world traveler/explorer’ arrives in town claiming to be involved in a roundthe-world trip. Sometimes the trip was just around the United States or the entire Western Hemisphere but then every state or country was said to be included. The journey is fixed in its time frame, e.g. 80 days, one year, whatever. 

At the end of the journey should the traveler have completed the round-the-world trip in the allotted time then he wins a sizable bet or as it is most often phrased ‘gentleman’s wager.’ The traveler has already journeyed thousands of miles and has tales to tell at a lecture hall or has or plans to write a book/pamphlet/newspaper to sell detailing his experiences. Many of these travelers also carried their press clippings with them as ‘proof’ of their exploits. Very often the traveler would claim to be involved in scientific studies of one kind or another. Peter Attias would make all these claims and more. 

To cite just one published account of this overall phenomenon we can have only to turn to the pages of the Portsmouth Times. On July 18, 1903, we find the headline, “The Old Gag: Another Vagabond Tramp around the World.” I will not offer the full account just the core: 

“Another member of the vagabond gentry, claiming to be traveling on foot around the world on a $5,000 wager to be paid when he completes his tramp, is due to strike Portsmouth, Thursday. The latest citizen with a fairy tale calculated to separate the dear, credulous American citizen from his coin, calls himself “Sailor Jean.” Advanced literature sent to The Times says that Jean left Augusta, Maine, on April 1 for a trip on foot to every state capital in the United States, and will cover a distance of 22,000 miles, which he will make in three and one-half years, thus making one of the most remarkable pedestrian tours of any person in the world…To help defray his expenses Sailor Jean sells souvenir pictures of himself…at the conclusion of his trip he will write a book, entitled, “The Adventures of Sailor Jean and his Trolleyette. 

The threatened invasion of ‘Sailor Jean’ recalls the visit of the last of these gentry to Portsmouth. They were a couple of ignorant Roumanians who claimed to be professors in a New York college, traveling for the New York World, and making collections of plants about the country…Really this around the world wager business is being overworked. Give us something new.”

I won’t even try and explain what a ‘trolleyette’ was other than it was a contraption meant to dazzle the locals. Portsmouth is in Ohio and I will let you find out where it is located and what its population must have been in 1903. The point of choosing an account from Portsmouth, Ohio is that – as this news report clearly conveys – even a community of this location and size was frequently subjected to this specific type of confidence game. 

While Peter Attias was to prove to be one of the most polished of the around-the-world con artists he caused great damage within the Greek colonies he preyed upon. Beginning in, 1899 Peter Attias can be tracked across fifty American newspaper articles (to say nothing of Greek American news accounts) moving about the country over a ten year period from Des Moines, Iowa to Steubenville Ohio, nearby Newark Ohio then out to Salt Lake City and Ogden Utah for at least two full years after which he moved on to Reno Nevada, San Francisco and Los Angeles California, then, on to Anaconda Montana, Detroit Michigan, and once again back to Syracuse. 

Given the published accounts that have come down to us it seems that only Attias’ ability to speak English (and various other languages) was all that was really ‘true’ about this man. Using his linguistic abilities Attias was able to pose as one of the few educated Greek professionals scattered about the American west. As we shall see disastrous consequences followed in the wake of Peter Attias’ presence in every Greek colony he ever visited.