“Fake news” is bad stuff, but at least it’s usually exposed as phony and no longer taken seriously. Fake history, however, can stagger on for decades – and often does.
Researcher and fellow history spelunker Ray Owen has a saying: “Once a mistake gets into print, it takes on a life of its own.” He’s absolutely right; a favorite example of his concerns a fellow who was supposedly an Indian fighter and so adept at dodging arrows that a tribe agreed to sign a treaty with him. True? Not a word; the story apparently first popped up in a 1920s magazine and since then it has been repeated as gospel in books, articles and on Wikipedia.
In this item I’m not writing much about Santa Rosa or Sonoma county, so if that’s your only interest take a look at some of the other 600+ items in the archives. You’ll find many examples of local fake history debunked or the record clarified, including an unwrapping of the layers of myth surrounding the deaths of Bear Flaggers Cowie and Fowler, how the most prominent African-American ever to live in Sonoma county, Mammy Pleasant, had her legacy smeared by a madwoman and a racist author, and especially how popular beliefs about the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake greatly exaggerate the damage and loss of life.
But if you like a good mystery, I think you’ll find this story jaw-dropping, with a Believe-it-or-not! twist at the end. I have never encountered anything quite like it; just as a cheap sweater can unravel with a tiny tug on a thread, this tale fell to pieces once I went back and read the original sources. Yet bits of the flubbed version firmly have taken hold and can be found in books written in several languages, magazine articles going back 90 years and items scattered all over the internet.
I caught wind of this story a few weeks ago, while researching the previous item on the dismal vaudeville acts which appeared in Santa Rosa during the years around 1914. One performer, “Musette the Dancing Violinist,” particularly drew my attention because the local newspapers had a news item about her. It seemed a stage door-Johnny tried to hook up with her after the show, only to find himself arrested by two cops she had summoned (he claimed to have mistaken her for someone else, apologized, and charges were dropped). “Musette” – real name, Theresa Flower – was also of interest because she had a professional career, unlike the other wanna-be and has-been entertainers who drifted through Santa Rosa on their road to nowhere. She had studied with one of the most renowned teachers of her era and did several European tours in a career that continued at least until 1923. Then five years later, this item appeared on the Hearst newswire:
SEEK INVENTOR SUSPECTED AS ‘TORCH SLAYER’
New York, March 3-The ‘torch murder’ Saturday became a scientific crime puzzle of the sort usually assumed to be born only in the mind of a master of fiction.
The long arm of circumstance Saturday had drawn into the range of police curiosity a man of three names.
With smashing suddenness, then, one of these mystery personalities was revealed as the inventor of a “self-igniting fluid.”
The plot, so delineated, takes on the consistency of something fresh from the pen of Sax Rohmer.
“Dr. Louis Clements” is the inventor the police seek for questioning.
Miss Margaret Brown, 40 year-old spinster and Park avenue governess, was found along a lonely stretch of New Jersey road, a human torch, and died without speaking.
Clements’ solution, if poured over a substance, will ignite it by contact with the air…
…Theresa Flower Van Norden, known on the vaudeville stage as “Musette,” admitted Saturday that she married Doctor Clements a year ago. They separated after a brief interlude of wedded life.
“When I married him,” said Mrs. Van Norden, “he represented himself as Louis Clement Van Norden. If he really did commit such a horrible crime, I want to see him get his just deserts…”
That was the first time Theresa’s name appeared in the story, although Hearst’s news service had been churning out articles about the “torch murder” for a couple of days prior. To the sensationalist press of 1928, it was the crime of their dreams: A mysterious mad scientist was suspected of burning to death a well-heeled Park avenue woman with his own devious “liquid fire” invention. And that was before it was revealed the man was actually a notorious international spy.
“…[He] is in reality Armgaard Karl Graves, former self-styled German spy, whose checkered career has taken him thru varied adventures in many lands,” revealed another Hearst story. “…just before this country went to war, he was arrested in Washington charged with blackmailing the wife of Count Von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to the United States…According to the man’s own story he acted for a time as an informer for Kaiser Wilhelm. In this connection, Levine said Clement told him that he had once piloted a Zeppelin on a cruise which the former kaiser made incognito.”
(RIGHT: The undated photo distributed by the Hearst syndicate in 1928 of the man wanted for questioning. Although it was supposed to be a portrait of Louis Clement, it is possibly Armgaard Karl Graves, who was at least ten years older)
The “Levine” in that item was Charles A. Levine, who at that time was the most famous aviator in the world after Charles Lindbergh. Levine said a man he identified as Clement/Clements had approached him about creating a $4 million airline between the U.S. and South America, signing a contract with the name Armgaard Karl Graves. “The last that Levine heard from the man was on Sunday, February 19, the day before the flaming, gasoline-soaked body of Miss Brown was found,” Hearst reported ominously.
The story probably made the front page of a daily newspaper in every town across America during the first week of March, 1928 because the Hearst syndicate kept dishing up new details: Ten years prior, Clement had been indicted for grand larceny over his claim of having invented a water-based substitute for gasoline. Police received an anonymous letter where someone confessed to killing the woman after robbing her of $2,500 in securities – which were enclosed in the letter.
After days of whipping up a national frenzy with a “where is the madman Clement/Graves” manhunt, Clement quietly appeared at the police HQ for questioning. He provided a solid alibi for that night and the friend of Margaret Brown who said she once saw Brown’s fiancée named “Dr. Clement” or “Clemens” couldn’t identify him. After a few hours of questioning he was dropped as a suspect. (The case was never solved, but there were two similar “torch murders” on New Jersey highways over the following year.)
The Hearst story absolving him of suspicion ran six paragraphs and did not receive anywhere near the heavy coverage of the sensationalist earlier items. Hearst never cleared up there was no connection between Clement and Graves – or that several days earlier, the rival Associated Press had revealed police no longer assumed they were the same guy, or that Levine admitted he contacted police because he thought a newspaper photo of Clement sorta resembled the stranger with the big talk about starting an airline. All portly, balding, middle-aged men look alike, apparently.
But like a bug caught in ambergris, the stories of Clement and Graves are still suspended together in those moments of Hearst hysteria. Easily found today are confused claims that Graves was “often seen with vaudeville starlets” such as Musette and “Dr. Clement” was his Jekyll and Hyde alter ego who liked to screw around with chemistry when he wasn’t being Mr. Secret Agent Man. Once you separate them, however, their individual stories emerge – and as Ray Owen also says, “the truth is always more interesting.”
Doctor Armgaard Karl Graves was a major celebrity a century ago – a real-life James Bond super spy who was supposedly a high-ranking officer in the pre-WWI German secret service spying on the British, then switched sides to be a double agent for England.
Graves’ best-selling (ghostwritten) memoir about espionage was released just as the war began, followed in 1915 with another book supposedly revealing secrets of the German government. His memoir was serialized by newspapers (“Revelations of the Kaiser’s Personal Spy”) and there was a book series of adventurous yarns aimed at kids (“Dr. Armgaard Karl Graves, Secret Service Agent”). He wrote many articles predicting what was about to happen in the war based on his supposed insider knowledge: Germany and Czarist Russia were going to jointly invade England, London was about to be destroyed in three weeks after it was attacked by an armada of hi-tech zeppelins and a fleet of thousands of submarines, plus Germany had a “vapor ray” which instantly blinded anyone who saw it. A modern book, “Spies of the Kaiser,” seems to do a good job of sorting his biographical fact from (mostly) fantasy, so read that section on Graves if you really are curious about that part of his life (the last paragraph, however, describes him being “accused of burning a woman alive”).
His stardom began to fizzle after he was arrested for the blackmail attempt in 1916 (see the book cited above). Later that year the New York Times published details from an exposé by the Frankfort Gazette, where it was revealed he was actually a dental school dropout name Max Meincke. When confronted about his claims to having been adopted in Australia by a “Major Graves” and earning an M.D. at the University of Adelaide, he “admitted that he had been exaggerating.”
Having escaped prosecution for blackmail, “Graves” was arrested in 1917 for being in an area off-limits to alien nationals (he tried to talk his way out by telling police he was secretly working for the State Department). He was shipped off to Leavenworth prison, then later Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia for the duration of the war.
Most of the rest of Graves’ sordid story did not make national news, but was great fun to dig up via regional newspapers. In 1921 he was arrested for scamming another former Fort Oglethorpe detainee out of $430, but that was amateur league stuff – afterwards it would be the Great Buried Treasure con game.
Using the alias Dr. Paul W. Graumann, he was busted in Panama in 1924 for telling suckers he had smuggled a million dollars worth of gold, $700,000 and the Saxony crown jewels out of Germany after the armistice, hiding the loot in a Haitian swamp then later reburying it on a Panamanian beach. In 1929 he was arrested in Los Angeles under the alias Paul Gunther using the same basic story to con a man out of $3,500 to fund an expedition to dig it up. In between those years he supposedly received a large sum of money from German royalist sympathizers seeking to restore the monarchy.
His undoing came in 1934 when he tried the treasure scam on Clarence Saunders, founder of the Piggly Wiggly supermarket chain. Now Graves was saying he needed $1,500 backing to recover $3 million buried in Haiti – that he had been in the German Secret Service during WWI and ordered to hide the trove in advance of American troops arriving. When Graves disappeared with his money, Saunders hired an investigator and discovered still more victims of the Haiti con game; Graves was tracked down and brought back to face prosecution. (For more, read, “Clarence Saunders and the German Spy,” although the first part of the article badly scrambles the Graves and Clement stories together.)
Graves was sentenced to 2-5 years. When he came up for parole in 1937 the government wanted to deport him back to Germany immediately upon his release from prison. The federal agents booked him under the name Paul Peter Gunther Von Kanitz, but Graves said that was not his real name. “Only three people know it,” he said.
Although he insisted he would be shot by a firing squad within 24 hours of arriving in Germany. He was briefly detained on Ellis Island and finally deported on May 5, 1937.
He was not heard from again.
As it turns out the real mystery man of our story is not Armgaard Karl Graves – it’s Louis Clement.
Clement shows up in the press for the first time in the summer of 1917 shortly before Graves went to Leavenworth, which proves conclusively they weren’t the same guy. These early articles mention he was a Danish chemist and a graduate of the Copenhagen Institute. The same year he filled out his WWI draft registration card which declared he was a Danish subject born in Copenhagen. A later census states he came to the U.S. in 1915, so we have a pretty clear picture of his bonafides.
He was in the news for claiming to have invented a gasoline substitute he called “Nuoline.” There were different descriptions of what was in it (mostly the result of bad reporting) but it was variously said to be somewhere between 10-50 percent plain water, with other ingredients being kerosene, wood alcohol, naphta, benzine plus a bunch of secret juju. Whatever the formula, the promise was that it would cost a small fraction of the price of gasoline.
Money began rolling in at an average of about $10,000 per month (almost $200k today) – not bad for a maverick inventor working out of his bedroom. But after a few months went by with nothing to show except for a few demos where observers were kept at least twenty feet away from the Nuoline-powered auto, some investors began suspecting the secret sauce in the formula was really flim-flam. One of them had a chat with the New York City District Attorney’s office and police were dispatched to pick up Clement.
They returned with Louis and a package. According to the New York Herald, it was “securely wrapped and sealed; twelve large blotches of red wax decorated it.” On it was written, “This book contains a secret formula for turning water into gasoline. Whoever tampers with this book will meet with instant DEATH.”
“When the wrapping was removed, carefully removed, there was on the prosecutor’s desk a book. Its title was: “Elements of Urinalysis.”
The assistant D.A. examined this standard college textbook with care to see if it contained a hidden slip of paper with the formula. One can only imagine the extraordinary care he must have given the search, given the warning the book did contain, you know, death.
Finding nothing more than that package with the sort of stupid threat a 10 year-old might post on his bedroom door, Clement was indicted for grand larceny. The following month, March 1918, the grand jury and six chemists selected by the District Attorney assembled to see a Nuoline demonstration. Over three hours Clement mixed a batch from scratch (the secret ingredients included talcum powder, cedar oil and saccharine!) which was pumped into the tank of a two-ton truck. The engine would not start. Next was tried a Ford, which puttered around the block without problem, as did another auto. Louis Clement said he was vindicated, but the prosecutor was not so sure; instead of costing a tenth as much as gasoline, the chemists determined his concoction would cost about ten times more.
Since the formula worked – albeit at a much higher than advertised price – it was unclear whether Clement could be prosecuted for fraud. He continued to promote Nuoline for at least another year and was sued by other investors. Towards the end of WWI he gave a demo to the Army’s Quartermasters Department which came to the same conclusion: It did work, but was too expensive.
About ten years passed and nothing was heard from Louis D. Clement. Then Margaret Brown was murdered and we suddenly heard a very great deal.
Besides the mistaken ID by aviator Levine and Margaret’s friend saying she was dating someone with a similar name, the third clue used to stir up suspicions about Clement was that he had a company called, “Good Oxide Laboratories.” Nothing can be currently found about what he was doing, but the papers at the time reported he had invented an insecticide specifically for Japanese beetles which could be self-igniting. (Many chemicals can spontaneously burst into flame, as might oily rags, piles of hay, etc.) The Hearst papers, of course, sensationalized the angle: “This substance, poured over a person’s clothing, would ignite by contact with the air after several minutes of evaporation. Any one using it for incendiary purposes could begin his escape long before the blaze was discovered, according to chemists.”
When Clement surrendered, his perfect alibi revealed a perfectly dismal life. The night of murder he was the dishwasher at a cafeteria, living in a 35¢ night flophouse in Brooklyn. A man who knew Clement from the Nuoline days told the Philadelphia Inquirer he had bumped into the chemist recently and he was living on the edge, sleeping in a railroad station and parks.
But Clement’s problems were far from over; when police were finished questioning him, he was held on grand larceny for the theft of Musette’s $600 diamond pendant, confessing he had pawned it for a hundred bucks. Theresa met him at the police station with her attorney, where he was served with papers for annulment of their marriage. She dropped the theft charge after a few days (continuing with the annulment) and visited him in jail, dropping off a check for $15, a heavy overcoat, a hat and dozen neckties. He was immediately rearrested on forgery charges from his former Good Oxide partners for cashing $2,230 in company checks.
And then there was the business of the aliases. Besides marrying “Musette” as Louis Clement Van Norden, he was booked as Louis Clement Schwartz, followed by the arraignment under the name Louis Clement Schmidt. During the search of his room ten years earlier when police turned up the “death” package they found a passport with the name Clemente. There is no reason to believe any of these were his true name. On the business card he used at the time he called himself, “Dr. L. Clements, M.C., D. Sc. Ph. D., F. R. D. G. S.” On the back of the card was, oddly, a purple illustration of a snapping turtle. No reporter who saw it knew what the hell it meant, but were compelled to mention it and its odd purpleness.
At this point, Gentle Reader probably thinks our story of Mr. Louis Clement Van Norden Schwartz Schmidt is over. He was caught committing grand theft and fraud – and did I forget to mention Theresa had already repaid Good Oxide $1,000 because he was cooking the books? He was living in the gutter during one of the great economic booms in our history with little hope his miserable life could even marginally improve, given that the Great Depression was right around the corner.
Yet a handful of years later, as everyone else’s fan had been thoroughly hit by crap, he was the cornerstone of building an enormously successful business. There were probably other companies born during the darkest days of the Depression that went on to greater heights, but I don’t know about them. (See, I promised you this was a Believe-it-or-not! story.)
The business was Sanitized, Inc. which still exists as a Swiss-based company – their Sanitized® trademark dates back to 1934, the year after the corporation was formed. In earlier decades the company promoted Clement’s role in its origins, telling the story of how he created the first products while working with the Army Quartermaster Corps during WWI, where he noticed an experimental gas not only sterilized soil but kept it resistant to bacteria for a long time.
The Quartermaster connection aligns with his 1918 Nuoline demo – note it wasn’t claimed he was necessarily working for the Army at the time; he could have picked up the tip during his visit. And anything powerful enough to sterilize soil would probably wipe out Japanese beetles in their grub stage when they are just beneath the surface eating the roots of your lovely lawn.
If Louis Clement made Sanitized, Inc., then Sanitized, Inc. surely remade Louis Clement. Never again would his fake gasoline be mentioned; the 1928 murder suspect debacle, thievery, and days on Skid Row were forgotten. Although he was never a naturalized citizen he was mentioned in the papers for his good works around the start of WWII as chairman of the “Chinese Women’s Relief Association” and a sponsor of the “Free Denmark Committee.” He married a much younger woman from Tennessee and they lived in cozy little house in New Jersey (currently for sale!) which happened to be just about five minutes from the Margret Brown murder site, but let’s not muse about that.
And here’s the final twist: There’s no proof “Louis D. Clement” really existed. Not a single related patent between 1917 and 1936 can be found granted under Clement, any of the variant spellings, or any of his known aliases. There is no matching Clement-like person found on ship passenger lists arriving in the U.S. around 1915. There is no newspaper obituary or the tiniest social item that can be found for him or his wife under Clement, all during an era when newspapers believed the way to sell newspapers was to mention every local person’s name as often as possible.
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that everything he had to do lawfully which involved presenting an ID – enter the country, apply for a patent, die – were done under his true and legal name. Which was not Clement.
We can probably assume the twenty-something immigrant had a secret he wanted to hide when he came to this country (that is, if he even was an immigrant) but that’s about all. He was a man of science with a streak of dishonesty; witness the Good Oxide fraud and that he kept pushing Nuoline on investors even after it was proven to be impractical, which makes him appear to be a con man just like Armgaard Karl Graves – except Clement was more successful at getting money out of suckers.
The fascinating aspect of the Louis Clement story is that it can be told two different ways. There’s the inspirational version where the plucky scientist who makes some mistakes, then turns his life around and becomes a founder of a great company. A motivational speaker such as Norman Vincent Peale would have loved telling that.
Then there’s Clement’s cascading nightmare which was March 1928. Penniless and wanted by the police for jewelry theft and forgery, he wakes up one morning to find an old photo of himself on the front page along with news he is a suspect in a shocking murder. And if that isn’t bad enough, the man with many secrets is next confused with a notorious former spy who’s simultaneously trying to pull a scam on a celebrity aviator. Know who would have loved that version? Alfred Hitchcock.
|LEFT: Louis Clement, 1928 RIGHT: Armgaard Karl Graves, 1929|