A turn-of-the-century con-man produced treasures that are exhibited at both the Laramie Plains Museum (LPM) and the Wyoming Territorial Prison and Historic Site (WTP).
His arrest and incarceration in Laramie in 1899 gave this talented racketeer time to ply his other trade, cabinetmaking.
The “man of many aliases” (as the Boomerang described him) arrived in Laramie on October 8, 1899. City Marshal James Stirling had been warned about him by Marshal Proctor of Cheyenne. He skipped Cheyenne without paying a week’s bill at the Inter Ocean hotel; an incrimating key to that hotel was in his possession.
When arrested, he gave his name as John Hjorth, Swedish architect. He had been in Laramie six days before running afoul of the law.
An alias of John Henderson was used in Cheyenne. Check fraud was his specialty. He had one check for $25 with a probable forged signature of a wholesale merchant in Denver, and one with a signature of prominent Laramie business owner W.H. Holiday. Hjorth had done one day’s work for Holliday Co. upon arrival in Laramie. He also had suspicious pawn tickets from New York issued to a third alias, John Hood.
In his sock was found a $125 check also drawn on the W.H.Holliday Company. He had already bilked several Laramie residents out of cash by soliciting “loans” from individuals with one or the other of the three checks which he showed as collateral. A victim was described in the Daily Boomerang as a “gentleman of Front Street” (euphemism for a patron of a bar on what became First Street).
City officials had been watching Hjorth, and when they decided he’d scammed enough people, he was arrested by Marshal Sterling and Deputy Sheriff Al Cook.
At the time of his arrest, “out of respect to the other prisoners” Hjorth was put in a separate cell. The newspaper describes him as “very tall, with a sandy short beard, well-dressed and rather handsome.” Perhaps Marshal Stirling feared that this smooth operator would try his scam on other prisoners had he been housed with them.
After being found guilty, he was incarcerated at the Wyoming State Prison which was still in Laramie at the time. Most prisoners were put to work on constructive projects that could bring money into the prison system, and Hjorth was assigned in March of 1901 to build oak furniture for Prison Lessee N.K. Boswell’s company as reported by Laramie historian Elnora Frye.
His pieces were exceptionally well-done. It is likely that in the short time Hjorth was imprisoned he taught other prisoners to do at least part of the cabinetmaking. The LPM has 17 pieces of prison-made carved oak Victorian-styled furniture. The treasures for both area museums are a pair of elaborately carved tables Hjorth made. The WTP has also recently acquired a wooden bench probably made by Hjorth, donated by the First Methodist Church of Laramie.
Hjorth was imprisoned at a time when the facility was being moved to Rawlins. Because he was so close to serving out his sentence, he was not moved to Rawlins with the other prisoners. He was pardoned after serving 2 years and 8 months. He spent less than a year in a furniture business in Laramie but then left town, and in 1903 was reported as arrested in Utah.
N.K. Boswell’s estate was liquidated after his death in 1921. H. Neale Roach of Laramie acquired 17 pieces of prison-made furniture, most presumably by Hjorth. Other Laramie residents may have obtained some also. Roach willed his house and its contents to the LPM in 1967; they have been on display ever since.
By Judy Knight, Laramie Plains Museum