A Case of Blackmail in London

Alchemy of Bones tells the story of how English confidence man Robert Davey bilked Adolph Luetgert. The following is an account of a blackmail scheme Davey had allegedly perpetrated in 1891 and 1892 in England, shortly before his first visit to Chicago.

A member of the British Parliament began receiving a series of mysterious letters and telegrams while traveling abroad in November 1891. (In its articles about the story, London Truth shielded this M.P.’s name behind a dash, calling him only "Mr. ——.")

The correspondence came from a Robert Davey, a name that was unfamiliar to the M.P.. Davey asked for an interview with the M.P. on an "urgent matter" and encouraging him to "make haste," but never fully explaining exactly what was so urgent.

The M.P. reached England on February 25, 1892, and called on Davey at his house on Portland Place in London to find out what it was all about.

Davey explained that he had saved the M.P. and two other officials from some embarrassing disclosures in the press. Davey said he had taken these steps at the request of a lord of the Treasury. He said he had already sent three persons on overseas missions to protect their reputations, dispatching them to Mexico, Australia and New Zealand. And he said he had made threats against the journalist William Stead (who had not yet made his way to Chicago), who had wanted to make the matter public.

The M.P. met with Davey a second time. To demonstrate his position in the political world, Davey showed the M.P. some letters lying on a table, which had been written to him by people in high places: the chairman of Ways and Means, an official in the Treasury, the Secretary of State, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Davey said he’d spent £2,500 to prevent the damaging disclosures about the three men from being printed. The M.P.’s share of the expenses was £833. Not wishing to be mixed up in this mysterious scandal, the M.P. gave Davey a check for £233 and an I.O.U. for £600.

In the coming days, the M.P. began to realize he had made an error. He hired a lawyer, George Lewis of the firm Lewis & Lewis. After receiving intimations that the I.O.U. would not be paid, Davey wrote the M.P. a letter, suggesting that the matter be settled in a "court of honor."

"I hope and believe you will regard this as I mean it — a perfectly friendly letter," Davey wrote. "The matter has been mentioned to none by myself, nor shall it be."

In response, Lewis & Lewis told Davey that he wouldn’t be getting the money the M.P. supposedly owed him. They accused him of fabricating the story that he had protected the M.P.’s reputation and spent money doing so.

"We are surprised that you should suggest a court of honor to decide a question which, if the facts stated to us are correct, must be decided in a criminal court," they wrote.

Now Davey brought his own lawyers into the dispute, Fox & Joy. They sent a letter to Lewis & Lewis demanding the M.P. pay his IOU and insisting that Davey had never lied.

Lewis & Lewis wrote back, demanding a list of Davey’s expenses and the people he claimed to have paid the £833.

Fox & Joy said it was impossible to produce these papers. Davey had shown the M.P. the "particulars" about the money he had spent, they said. The M.P. had destroyed these papers with his own hand, "requesting that no further reference might be made to them."

Lewis & Lewis denied that the M.P. had ever seen the "particulars," let alone destroyed them.

Fox & Joy replied, "However foolishly Mr. Davey may have acted, he is conscious of having acted with perfect honesty toward the M.P., and he is naturally indignant that the M.P. should now turn round and accuse him of fraud and dishonesty."

Davey sued the M.P., seeking the £600 due on the IOU. He also sought £5,000 in damages, claiming that the M.P. had written him a threatening letter. The M.P. had supposedly written to Davey, warning: "At the present moment you are sitting on a barrel of gunpowder, and the fuse is ignited. Do not press for that second cheque. All the persons to whom you have referred ... repudiate you." This letter was not signed, and London Truth speculated that Davey had written it himself.

Asked again to explain his expenses, Davey finally gave an accounting. He said that he had paid £ 90 to "one Fernley" and £125 to "one Smart." He had also arranged with "one Stewart, of Manchester" to send £ 500 to Paris on behalf of the M.P.. And Davey had spent some 18 pounds and change on "cablegrams and traveling expenses and sundry small charges."

Unimpressed with the vagueness of Davey’s accounting, the court demanded he shed some light on the identity and the whereabouts of these people named Fernley, Smart and Stewart. When Davey failed to get more specific, the court dismissed his lawsuit.

That same year, Davey, who described himself as a journalist and as a newspaper proprietor, had attempted to run as a candidate for Parliament representing the Forest of Dean, out near the border of England and Wales. Davey had written to a number of politicians seeking their support, but all he received were polite refusals. These were the letters he had used to prove his political prominence to the M.P., who apparently did not closely examine their contents.

British politician Henry Labouchere, the publisher of London Truth, denounced Davey in a newspaper column. "This Davey appears to be a most dangerous man," he warned. "He obtains letters from eminent personages and then uses them to aid in blackmailing. He vamps up sham telegrams from leading lawyers and from the treasury with the same object... He may continue this game here if he ever returns; or he may play a similar game with leading men in America if he elects that county as his future domicile. He ought to spend the rest of his days under lock and key... As he is free to roam the globe, a watch should be set on him to render him innocuous... Who knows on how many public men he has levied blackmail?"

As 1892 came to an end, "Mr. R.W. Davey, of London" published an advertisement that he was visiting George Vanderbilt in New York. Labouchere’s newspaper then printed a letter from Vanderbilt stating that he had never heard of Davey.

Soon afterward, Davey made his first appearance in Chicago, arriving as the city was wrapped up in preparations for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.

© 2003 by Robert Loerzel.

Read Alchemy of Bones for more on Davey's exploits in Chicago.

Picture: Chicago Inter Ocean, May 19, 1897.

London Truth, Jan. 19, 1893; as reprinted in Chicago Inter Ocean, Feb. 3, 1893.
London Truth, Jan. 26, 1893; as reprinted in Chicago Inter Ocean, Feb. 11, 1893.