The Current

King Con: Man successfully impersonates Indigenous leaders his whole life, acquiring riches and fame

Edgar Laplante was a world-class grifter. It won him world-class women; adulation from royalty and presidents, and it eventually landed him in prison.

Edgar Laplante impersonated Canadian Olympian Tom Longboat while the runner was fighting in WW1

Portrait of Edgar Laplante, a.k.a. Chief White Elk, taken in Bremerton, Washington State, February 1921. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)

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Edgar Laplante was born with a God-given talent. It won him adoration across two continents; adulation from royalty and presidents. And it eventually landed him in prison.

Laplante was a world-class grifter who had a knack for impersonating famous Indigenous figures and seducing world-class women under those auspices.

Edgar Laplante pictured here masking as famous Canadian athlete Tom Longboat in an article from 'The Hays Free Press,' December 1917.

"It was one of those … nonfiction stories which really invites you to use that cliche about truth being stranger than fiction," Paul Willetts told The Current's guest host David Common about the subject of his new book, King Con: The Bizarre Adventures of the Jazz Age's Greatest Impostor.

"If you [put] it in a novel, it would be ... completely unbelievable."

Edgar Laplante grew up in a blue-collar family in Rhode Island at the turn of the 20th century. His father, originally from Quebec, was a carpenter, and expected his oldest son to pursue a similarly honest living. But Edgar Laplante had other ideas.

He ran his first scam at 14: conning spare change out of shop owners in his hometown of Central Falls. But Willetts says it was clear the young, wannabe grifter was in it for the glory, not the money.

"Instead of spending it, he just handed [the money over] to his dad and said, 'This is my earnings from my part time job.'" Willetts explained. "He was always after a bigger and bigger thrill."

Con 1: Tom Longboat, revered Canadian Olympian 

Laplante quickly outgrew his hometown, and was living amidst the thriving hum of Coney Island by his early 20s. That's where he first discovered his talent for posing as indigenous. Working as a "ballyhoo man" for the Greater Dreamland amusement park, Laplante dressed up in an Indian costume to entice passersby to see the shows.

But it wasn't long before Laplante took his act on the road — trying it out on more gullible audiences. He headed west, and by the time he reached Arizona, Edgar Laplante had become Tom Longboat, revered Canadian indigenous Olympian and marathon winner.

The real Tom Longboat (right), photographed during an athletic event at Ebbets Field, Brooklyn, July 26, 1913. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)

While the real Longboat was struggling to stay alive on the battlefields of France during the First World War, Laplante's Longboat was being feted in Arizona and California, offering training tips to aspiring athletes.

The facade started to crumble after the real Longboat caught wind of his imposter, but Laplante managed to slip away unscathed, and moved on to a new, even more successful persona: Chief White Elk, movie star, oil baron and chief of the Cherokee Nation.

Con 2 : Chief White Elk, chief of the Cherokee Nation

Posing as White Elk, Laplante married a prominent indigenous activist in Utah, and was feted by the governor at the ceremony. The couple toured the U.S. and Canada, with Chief White Elk performing to packed houses. But Laplante — already a drinker — had picked up a weakness for cocaine and his mounting drug abuse destroyed the marriage. His wife never discovered his con. 

Portrait of Edgar Laplante and his wife Burtha Thompson, taken by Emma B. Freeman in Washington State, 1918. (Newberry Library)

Undeterred, the faux Chief White Elk sailed for Great Britain, married again, and pushed for an audience with King George V in England, ostensibly to discuss the plight of his Cherokee people. It almost worked, but Laplante was unmasked by some intrepid journalists.

Laplante quickly moved on to France, where he planted the seeds of his greatest con. While his new wife and stepson stayed behind in Paris, White Elk toured the French Riviera, where he met a Viennese countess named Antoinette "Atta" Khevenhuller-Metsch. Atta was quickly charmed by the handsome Chief White Elk, and soon her stepmother Milania was too.

He convinced the pair he was an oil baron as well as Cherokee royalty. They started lending him money, and White Elk kept asking for more. He told the women he could pay them back, just as soon as British government lifted the hold on his fortune. Before long, Chief White Elk was touring Italy as Cherokee royalty, arriving at the country's finest hotels to adoring crowds. Crowds he showered with money — Malina and Atta's money.

Willetts estimates that Chief White Elk burned through the equivalent of $58.9 million US in a matter of months. Milania's stepson Count Georg Khevenhuller-Metsch became increasingly concerned about Chief White Elk's spending habits — and dubious of his lineage claims. Georg's questions led to inquiries by Italian authorities.

Studio portrait of Edgar Laplante, posing as Chief White Elk, 1918. (Washington State University Libraries)

Con 3: White Eagle, Dr. Indian Male

White Elk fled to Switzerland, but the ruse was up. He was arrested and deported back to Italy, where he was convicted and spent several years in prison. Upon his release, Laplante was deported back to the U.S. where journalists were waiting for him when he arrived. He said he was a changed man, claiming he was looking forward to a quiet honest life, but Willetts says it didn't last, and it wasn't long before Edgar Laplante was out hustling again.

Edgar Laplante died a pauper on January 23, 1942, in Arizona. His passing went unreported, but the state bureaucracy registered him under a different alias he was using at the time: "White Eagle, Dr. Indian Male." 

A later search of his personal belongings prompted an addendum: also known as Edgar La Plante.   

When asked what he thought Laplante would think about being the subject of a book 100 years after the height of his escapades, Willetts said, "I'm sure he would have loved it. He really would have loved it."

Listen to the full discussion near the top of this page.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.