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Albany’s “Queen of Fakers” belongs in swindlers’ hall of fame

Talented actress could dilate a pupil at will, dislocate joints, fake broken ribs and get her gums to bleed on demand. She was so good, railroad claims agents actually formed a national association just to share info about her scams.

Maud Myrtle (Wagnon) Johnson, “Queen of Fakirs,” as she appeared in court during her 1909 trial for swindling $1,250 out of the Northern Pacific Railroad by pretending to be injured. (Image: Oregonian)

When D.C. Davis first met Hazel Petterson, she was lying, frail and sickly, in a hotel bed in Yacolt, Washington. She’d been taken there following a horrifying mishap on the Northern Pacific Railroad on April 9, 1909.

It seemed someone had left a suitcase in the aisle, and the train’s crew hadn’t noticed. As the train had pulled into Yacolt, there had been a sudden lurch, and poor Mrs. Petterson, her baby in her arms, had been thrown forward and tripped over the suitcase. Crashing to the floor with a dramatic scream as she held her baby safely away from harm, she’d writhed there in agony, spitting teeth and blood and clutching her side.

Hastily removed to the hotel bed in which she now rested, they had learned the extent of her injuries — and they were astonishing. Her ankle appeared to be broken, with a bone out of place, although it had not yet started swelling. She appeared to have at least one broken rib. One of her pupils was dilated while the other was normal — a known sign of either eye injury or brain trauma. And she’d spat two teeth out upon the floor of the train amid a welter of blood, the apparent result of a lung hemorrhage, possibly punctured by the broken rib.

This was bad. And it seemed to be getting worse. Davis learned that Mrs. Petterson was a wealthy widow from Calgary, the sort of person who could be expected to take legal action against the railroad if she felt unfairly treated. So Davis spent nearly a week attending to her. A local doctor examined her, confirmed her injuries and set her ankle in a plaster cast.

Davis’s first priority was to forestall any litigation and attendant bad publicity. So as soon as he could, before any additional symptoms could appear, he hurriedly started negotiating a settlement with the injured woman. She finally accepted a payment of $1,250, and he wrote a bank draft out on the spot.

Then he set about getting her ready to go back to Calgary. She was loaded in a stretcher on a baggage car and sent to Vancouver; then she was placed in an automobile and gingerly driven down into Portland, in the care of two nurses hired by the railroad. They first took her to the railroad’s banking house, where Davis vouched for her identity and she cashed the draft — taking most of it in gold. This was probably the moment when the first hints of doubt started to cross Davis’s mind. Why would a wealthy widow faced with nothing more than a week-long train trip home want the trouble of lugging all that gold along with her?

Mrs. Petterson checked into a hotel. Davis went out, at her request, to find an attorney for her, make an appointment with an eye specialist, and arrange accommodations on a train back to Calgary. She then sent one of the nurses to make travel arrangements.

Immediately after the nurse departed, Mrs. Petterson hopped out of bed and made a phone call. Within minutes she’d left the hotel — having somehow made a miraculous recovery — and disappeared into the night.

When Davis returned, she was gone.

Following a quick series of inquiries to Calgary by telegraph, the dismayed Mr. Davis learned that there was no recently widowed Mrs. Petterson. He also learned that a very odd thing had been found in Mrs. Petterson’s hotel room in Yacolt: A small packet of red powder, which had been recognized immediately as fake blood.

There could now be no doubt: D.C. Davis had been taken for a ride. And, worse yet, he knew exactly who had conned him. All the railroad claims agents, all over the West, had been talking about her. She could be none other than the “Queen of Fakers,” Oregonian Maud Myrtle Johnson — a smooth and talented actress who over the previous few years had bilked railroads and streetcar companies all over the western United States to the tune of at least $200,000.

And, in what must have been a particularly bitter revelation to poor Mr. Davis, it turned out that the train she’d been riding on had been carrying Maud Johnson away from the courthouse in Seattle, where she’d just been acquitted on charges of soaking the Seattle streetcar company for $600 in precisely the same way.

 

Maud Johnson was born Maud Myrtle Wagnon, on a farm near Albany. After her mother died, her father left her in a convent in Salem and moved to Portland, where, in an ironic twist, he became a police officer.

Maud seems to have been something of a hellion. When she was 14, she sued a man for seduction under promise of marriage, and at 16 ran away from the convent to which she had been committed with another man.

She soon drifted into a life of crime — and, it seems, of Vaudeville. At the same time she was becoming well known to the police departments of Salem, Portland, and Pendleton, she was also acquiring a very unusual set of skills.

By 1906, Maud could dislocate an ankle, a knee, and a rib at will. Born with a slightly misshapen chest, she learned to pose it to maximize an illusion of brokenness. One of her eyes was noticeably different in appearance than the other — possibly the result of some old injury — and she could exacerbate that by dilating its pupil at will. And she developed a macabre ability to bite on her gums in a way that produced blood on demand.

So Maud took her show on the road. Adopting a foundling baby from an orphanage to use as a prop — she knew a settlement would be far more likely if a baby were involved — she set out with a small group of accomplices, bilking railroad and streetcar companies all over the country and living high on the hog from the proceeds. Sometimes, after a particularly horrific-looking pratfall, she would even call for a lawyer and minister and "make out a will" on the spot. (This was great for convincing railroad agents that she was rich, and therefore dangerous.)

She was good enough that she might have gotten away with this for many years, had she not been seemingly unable to stick around after being paid. In case after case, the delivery of a stack of cash transformed her from a catatonic cripple into a hale and hearty specimen leaping aboard an outbound train.

Her performances were so lucrative, and her abrupt departures so obvious and galling to the freshly fleeced, that the railroad agents actually formed the Pacific Claim Agents Association specifically to try to spread the word of her antics and share information that might lead to her capture.

Which is why, after she was arrested in San Francisco for the Yacolt caper, her subsequent trial in Vancouver turned into such an event. It was a bit like a reunion tour for all the claims agents she’d defrauded in her long and distinguished career. The prosecutor paraded them before the jury, one after the other, describing her performances — the horrible falls, the “blood” gushing from her mouth and nose, the sickening misalignments of knees and ribs, and always the poor wailing baby or toddler who was frightened but uninjured in the crash.

The outcome was never in doubt. Off to the penitentiary at Walla Walla went Maud Johnson to serve a five-year sentence. The governor pardoned her out of the joint after two years, and she dropped out of sight.

After her release, Maud Johnson appears to have more or less gone straight, immersing herself fully into show business. She appears only sporadically in the newspapers after that, including one time in 1922 when a minstrel’s troupe she’d joined disbanded suddenly and she had to raise some cash by kiting bad checks. But as far as I’ve been able to learn, she never again tried her fake-injury swindle.

Or ... maybe she did, having learned from previous mistakes. If so, we'll likely never know.

(Sources: Archives of Portland Morning Oregonian, Pendleton East Oregonian and Albany State Rights Democrat, 1896-1922; Washington State Archives; “Smooth Woman Swindler on Coast,” Electric Traction Weekly, 7/31/1909; “Fakir Queen Makes Living Falling from Trains,” The Day Book, 5/27/1914)