By Logan Camporeale
Above, Maud Johnson’s mug shot from her long-awaited arrest in Oakland, CA on August 4, 1909. Photo courtesy of the Washington State Archives.
By 1913, so many convicts had escaped from the Walla Walla State Penitentiary, that the warden issued a catalog to law enforcement agencies with pictures and descriptions of those who were still at large. Tough old faces glare out from the catalog. Thomas Moran, a murderer from Clark County, was noted for his vaccination scars, location of various moles, and a “tattoo of dancing girls on right lower arm.” Another criminal, Michael O’Donell, had a “deep dimple” at the point of his chin and “numerous syphilis scars on his body.” Among all of these grizzled cons and convicted murders there is exactly one woman: Maud Johnson. At the young age of 30 she had already earned the distinction of the most infamous woman con artist of her time.
Maud was born in Salem, Oregon in 1878 to a well-off pioneer family. Her parents were Daniel H. Wagnon and Matilda Garret. Very little is known about Maud’s mother. Other than her year and place of birth, all we know about Matilda is that she died when Maud was just 7 years old. Her death left seven-year-old Maud and nine-year-old Frances on their own. According to a guardianship record held at the Oregon State Archives, their father, Daniel Wagnon, petitioned the court to shift guardianship of both Maud and Frances from himself to a Fire Insurance Agent named Leo Willis.
Many years pass before we hear from Maud again. We can only speculate about the quality of her life after her mother’s death. Her father was still alive and well, but it does not appear that she had regular contact with him. Maud effectively dodges census records, birth records, and other government documents, leaving only newspapers to reconstruct the events that led up to Maud’s appearance in the warden’s escaped prisoner catalog.
Maud began making newspaper headlines in Pendleton, Oregon in February of 1905. Maud, her husband, and an associate, Otto Hockensmith, were arrested for money fraud. The group of criminals had made a habit of passing bad checks on Pendleton merchants like Tallman & Co. While the trio were serving time in the county jail, Maud, her husband, Hockensmith, and one other prisoner sawed their way out of the jail. The Sherriff quickly recaptured the four escapees.
In 1906, Hockensmith was sentenced to a prison term, but on his first day of incarceration, he died. Due to the circumstances, Maud’s sentencing was delayed, and she was ultimately released on parole. At the time, Hockensmith appeared to be no more than a criminal accomplice to Maud. However, he was much more than that. He was Maud’s brother-in-law. Fraud was the family business.
After Maud’s release from Pendleton County Jail, she skipped town and headed for the Missouri Valley. With new people to defraud, Maud began concocting a new and very successful scheme to obtain money. Maud targeted an infant industry: the interurban electric railways. These young companies did not yet have the infrastructure to protect themselves from con artists like Maud. She fully capitalized on this oversight.
She rode the electric and steam railroads in the region and when one came to a sudden stop she would throw herself on the ground and fake serious injury. She would make a scene and would have herself admitted to a hospital. Using her manufactured injuries as leverage, she would seek monetary compensation. In many cases, the various companies were eager to pay her off to avoid a lengthy trial.
Once Maud had perfected her craft in the Missouri Valley, she decided to bring her swindling scheme back home to the Pacific Northwest. Maud bounced from city to city across the region carrying out her scam. According to her own statement, in 18 months, from January 1908 to July 1909, Maud scammed or attempted scams on railroad companies in Medford, Oregon; Pullman, Washington; Seattle, Washington; and Oakland, California. In Oakland, Maud was recognized by railroad employees and was taken into custody. The Daily East Oregonian exclaimed: “Accident Woman in the Toils, ‘Queen of Fakirs’ [sic] to be sentenced.” Police escorted her back to Seattle to stand trial. Maud was convicted of Obtaining Money by False Pretenses, or fraud, and she was sentenced to 1 to 5 years in the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.
While she was awaiting transport from Seattle to Walla Walla, Maud sent a peculiar letter to the Prison Superintendent. In the letter, Maud requested that the Superintendent allow her to bring her infant child into prison with her. The request was denied for a number of reasons, one of which was an uncertainty from authorities on whether or not the child rightfully belonged to Maud or not.
Maud’s child was sent to live with Frances Raster, Maud’s sister. Maud also writes a rather cheeky letter in which she asks if she will be allowed to bring her trunk, clothes, toiletries, and other personal effects with her into prison, as if she did not fully understand the severity of her crimes and the extent of the consequences she faced.
On June 21, 1910, Maud arrived at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. Before Maud had even arrived, Railroad officials were sending letters to the Governor of Washington, M. E. Hay, requesting that Maud serve the maximum sentence. Meanwhile, members of Maud’s family were working diligently to secure her a conditional pardon, on account of her maternity and illness. According to correspondence retrieved from the Washington State Archives, the Governor of Washington received supportive letters from notable political figures and businessmen including, “Senator Jones,” “Speaker Meigs,” Lee A. Johnson, and the Governor of Oregon, Oswald West. All of these individuals were actively pressuring the Governor of Washington to free Maud from prison. As you may have guessed, on May 21, 1912 Governor Hay extended a conditional pardon to Maud, and she was released to her first friend in Sunnyside, Washington.
She did not stay out of trouble for long. Months later, Maud had violated the terms of her conditional pardon and a reward was issued for her arrest. At this point, Maud was considered an escaped convict. For this reason, she appeared in that government publication mentioned earlier: Wanted: Escaped Prisoners from the State Penitentiary Walla Walla.
While on the run, Maud appears to have visited California before finding a new set of fraud targets in and around Index, Washington. Donald McCrae, the Snohomish County Sherriff, caught onto Maud’s scam and arrested her. On May 12, 1913, after nearly a year on the run, Maud was apprehended and returned to the penitentiary. Maud spent the next year and a half in the penitentiary until her ultimate release on January 23, 1915. She served a total of three years and six months of her maximum five-year sentence.
After her release Maud took a more low profile approach to her criminal endeavors. She does not have a run-in with the law again until 1922. “Ex-‘Queen Faker’ held for forgery, career notorious one.” Yet again, she was accused of cashing bad checks in an attempt to finance her travelling musical theatre.
According to a statement made by Maud in prison she scammed the railroads out of an estimated $7,000. However, according to a Variety article from 1922, that number was closer to $200,000. Furthermore that Variety article claimed that Maud spent $150,000 of that money “to produce female theatrical road shows and motion pictures in the northwest United States.”
Maud used a variety of aliases to conceal her true identity. This may have served her well in her criminal endeavor. It has also served to make researching Maud more difficult. The name that appears on most of Maud’s legal documents is Maud Johnson. According to Maud, she assumed this surname due to a marriage with Frank T. Johnson in Chehalis, Washington, 1906. However, there is no record of this union. The only marriage record for Maud is a Lewis County, Washington marriage between William S. Mitchell and Maud M. Johnson. Interestingly, neither of these names is the one associated with Maud’s husband in 1906, according to the Pendleton newspapers that discussed her. Maud was apparently married at least three times to men that we know very little about. It is these men that Maud and her supporters often blame for her poor behavior.
Maud disappears from the historical record just as suddenly as she appeared in the first place. After 1923, there is no further record of her. This master of aliases apparently adopted another and left her infamy behind. She does not appear to show up in any census records for her entire life, there is no birth record, or death record, an obituary, or even a burial location.
In fact, the last series of documents in Maud’s Penitentiary Commitment Register is correspondence from late 1968 between Maud’s nephew, Lynn Paul Hockensmith, and the warden of the Walla Walla State Penitentiary. Hockensmith was seeking information about his aunt on behalf of Maud’s son, Lester Johnson. Yes, the same son Maud requested to bring along with her to prison back in 1910. Lynn Hockensmith claimed that Lester Johnson was still unaware of his mother’s criminal record. Lester also was unaware of his mother’s date of birth, place of birth, and her maiden name, information he needed for a passport application. Maud was so effective at using aliases to conceal her true identity that even her own son was unaware of who she was.