It was probably the first high-tech stock swindle to hit Santa Rosa: the man who had mesmerized the town In 1908 about the futuristic wonders of the "wireless" was actually a con man. Not since a vaudeville magician who called himself "The Great McEwen" convinced many in 1904 that he was a bonafide mind reader had Santa Rosans been suckered wholesale.
Over four nights, audiences packed the downtown Pavilion to see H. C. Robinson, who claimed to be a representative of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company, perform "practical demonstrations of sending and receiving messages without wires, including several feats of ringing fire bells, lighting electric lights and operating danger signals through the mysterious agency of Hertzian waves," as the Press Democrat reported at the time. What the PD neglected to mention was that Mr. Robinson's real objective was to sell Marconi stock for $20 per share, and several local businessmen jumped on the opportunity.
About a month later, one of these Santa Rosa investors swore a warrant for Robinson's arrest. His Marconi stock certificates had not been delivered. Worse, he discovered the stock was only worth half that price, the company had never paid a dividend, and wasn't planning to build a transmission tower that could send messages as far as Honolulu, as Robinson had promised. Arrested at the tony St. Francis hotel in San Francisco, Robinson was brought back here, where he returned the $400 he had received from the investor. Case dismissed.
If the story ended there, it could be explained away as mix-up. Perhaps the investor misunderstood, perhaps Robinson exaggerated and lied, in a salesman-ish way, to close the deal. Perhaps a little of both; it certainly wasn't clear that there was criminal intent. But thanks to the breadth of newspaper archives now available on the Internet, we discover that Mr. Robinson was a swindler sought by police all over the world.
First, his name wasn't "H. C." as reported here; it was Horace Greeley Robinson - "Harry G," as the chummy NY Evening World nicknamed him - and just days before he appeared in the Santa Rosa court, authorities in New York shut down his offices at 80 Wall Street, charging that the firm of Robinson & Robinson existed only to sell bogus Marconi stock. Scotland Yard was chasing him, as was an investigator from the Marconi company. By the time the coppers finally caught up with Harry in May, 1909, it was estimated that he had cheated investors worldwide out of $1,500,000 - worth up to half a billion dollars today, it was a sum that would make even our modern Wall St. bandits sit up and mew.
Given the international scope of his crimes, it may seem surprising that he spent almost a week in Santa Rosa, but he apparently did a crook's tour of the entire Bay Area; another suit against him was for $800 cheated out of someone in San Jose (UPDATE HERE). Likely the smaller places appealed because news of his scam might not travel very far or draw the attention of sophisticated investors. Police in New York even had a complaint from a victim in Box Hill, New South Wales, a village outpost of Sydney that currently has a population of under a thousand.
He was finally caught by a stroke of luck - a New York City police detective was tipped off that Harry had recently appeared in night court for a drunken brawl with a hotel detective. According to the newspapers, he told officers that he was a banker who had just returned from a trip abroad on government business.
For a man who sold fake stock in cutting-edge communication technology, there was irony in that he evaded arrest for years thanks to poor communication by police nationally and internationally. He never varied his shtick, which should have made him easy to find. As the New York Times reported in a front page story on May 1, 1909:
Robinson's method was to travel from place to place, lecturing on wireless telegraphy and asserting that it was desired to prove more valuable stock than Bell Telephone or Standard Oil.
"After each lecture, says the detective, Robinson received subscriptions for stock in the Marconi Company, giving in return receipts for the money and the assurance that the proper certicicates of stock would be sent forthwith..."
BUYS "WIRELESS" AND REGRETS IT
J. S. Rhodes of This City has H. C. Robinson Arrested on a Charge of Obtaining Money Falsely
As a result of a warrant sworn out in Justice Atchinson's court here by J. S. Rhodes, a well-known local merchant, H. C. Robinson, who spent some time here in June exploiting wireless telegraph stock, was arrested in San Francisco Wednesday, charged with feloniously obtaining money under false pretense, and will be brought back today to face trial.
According to the complaint of Rhodes, Robinson represented to him that the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co., Limited (of England) which he represented, had fixed the market value of its stock at $20 per share and that in 1907 the company paid 12 per cent dividends on its stock. It was further represented that the company was engaged in erecting a station in San Francisco, and would be ready by November of this year to transmit messages between San Francisco and Honolulu.
Rhodes asserts that he purchased 20 shares, or $400 worth of stock on these representations, but no learns and alleges that the company only holds its stock at $10 per share, has never paid a dividend, and is not engaged in erecting a station in San Francisco, and has no expectation of doing so at present. As a result of these facts Rhodes believes he gave up his coin on false pretenses, and seeks to have Robinson tell the wherefore in court.
Constable Sam Gillam goes to San Francisco this morning to bring the man back to Santa Rosa. The arrest was made in the St. Francis hotel by an officer who had been informed of the issuance of the warrant after Rhodes had pointed his man out.
It is stated that Rhodes is not the only one who bought stock here, and in many different places in the state on the same representations as those made to Rhodes.
- Press Democrat, July 30, 1908
RHODES GETS BACK "WIRELESS" COIN
H. C. Robinson Returns $400 to Santa Rosa Man and Case is Dismissed Here on Thursday Afternoon
H. C. Robinson, the broker and seller of Marconi Wireless Telegraph stock, who was arrested in San Francisco at the St. Francis Hotel last week on a complaint sworn out by J. S. Rhodes of the city, charging him with obtaining $400 under false pretenses on account of his failure to deliver stock and in non-fulfillment of alleged representations regarding the same, paid Rhodes back his money in Justice Atchinson's court Thursday afternoon and Justice Latimer of Windsor, sitting for Justice Atchinson made an order dismissing the case.
Rhodes had a number of witnesses subpoenaed from this city and San Francisco, but when Attorney W. M. Sims announced the intention of Robinson to pay back the money, as he had originally promised to do if Rhodes became dissatisfied, they were not wanted. In fact the proceedings were a very informal nature in the Justice Court. Rhodes having stated that all he wanted was a return of his money and if he got it further proceedings would not be taken, there's nothing left for it but for a dismissal of the case.
When Justice Latimer called the case, Wm. M. Sims, attorney for defendant, addressing the court, said:
"I will state, may it please your honor, that this transaction between the defendant and complaining witness was made in good faith and that the defendant had no intent whatsoever to make a statement that was not correct..."
Robinson was naturally much pleased with the outcome of the case and in company with his attorney left for San Francisco on the afternoon train. Before he left he stated that he had done exactly what he promised he would do and declared that he had acted in good faith all the time.
- Press Democrat, August 7, 1908