Dakota Datebook

Chaffee Swindled

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


Herbert Chaffee became president of the Amenia and Sharon Land Company bonanza farm near Amenia, North Dakota, when his father passed away in 1892. The Chaffees believed the welfare of their workers was key to the success of the bonanza farms, but this benevolence was vulnerable to abuse.


In October 1909, a California gold miner named John Armstrong arrived at the farm in need of Chaffee’s help. The old miner said he had $40,000 of gold bullion as collateral if Chaffee would consider lending him money. The gold was in Minneapolis, and Armstrong invited Chaffee to see the gold for himself.


Armstrong, Herbert Chaffee, and Chaffee’s son Eben arrived in Minneapolis on this date in 1909. Eben Chaffee took shavings from the gold bars for analysis by a gold assayer. Armstrong claimed a jeweler had given him the name of assayer W. H. Harper, who happened to be living at the nearby Rogers Hotel.


Chaffee and his son met Mr. Harper and gave him the shavings from the miner’s bullion. Harper’s tests showed the metal was pure gold.


Chaffee cashed a $25,000 check, worth over half a million in today’s dollars, and gave Armstrong the loan in crisp hundred-dollar bills. The trio then went to dinner, but as they ate, the younger Chaffee became suspicious. He excused himself and went to find Harper, the assayer.


Armstrong, realizing the jig was up, and also left the table, saying he’d be right back. Young Chaffee found that Harper had checked out immediately after the gold was tested. The Chaffees rushed back to their hotel and found Armstrong’s room empty.


The whole process had been a scam from the beginning. Chaffee took the supposed gold to another assayer’s office, and found it to be $15 worth of brass.


Two years later, a man was arrested in California for performing the same scam on a woman in Ohio. Chaffee’s son traveled west and identified the man as none other than John Armstrong.


A few days before Armstrong’s extradition to Minnesota, a drowned body found in San Pedro Bay California was identified as Armstrong. However, the police thought the scammer was much too smart to have taken his own life, and they believed Armstrong faked his death to get away with Herbert Chaffee’s twenty-five grand.


Dakota Datebook written by Derek Dahlsad


“Buys A Gold Brick,” Buffalo Center (IA) Tribune, 10/22/1909.

“Gold Brick Artist To Be Extradited”, Bismarck Tribune, 5/29/1911.

“Did Gold Brick Man End Life”, Bismarck Tribune, 6/7/1911.

“Bonanza Genius,” https://sites.google.com/site/chaffeesofnorthdakota/1-history/6-hfc-bonanza-genius . Retrieved 9/26/13.


This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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