Magoffin woman researches historical mail fraud case

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Last year the Independent ran a story about a 100-year-old mail fraud case, but a local woman is looking for more information about the people involved in the scheme in hopes of writing a book about the historical case.

Stacey Blanton, who works in the technology department for Magoffin County Schools, started looking into the case due to a family tie. 

“My father-in-law always said his dad and his friend started a bank in a smokehouse and they were caught and went to the pen,” Blanton said. “My goal was that I just wanted to find a photo of him.”

In 2012 she caught a news article about the Library of Congress putting newspapers online, which is where she started her search.

“It turns out it wasn’t him and a buddy, it was him and 47 of his buddies,” Blanton laughed.

In total, 48 were caught for mail fraud, and 20 more for land fraud, in two elaborate schemes that would put Magoffin on the map – in 1917.

The land scheme involved many higher-up people in the community, including a former county attorney, judge and post master, just to name a few, where they would take people from out of town to an untouched forest in Breathitt County and “sell” it to them, with no legal patents actually changing hands. In total, they were able to collect $150,000 from the scheme.

Blanton’s father-in-law’s scheme only brought in $100,000, in what came to be known as the Brownlow Bank Scandal. Brownlow was the post office on Flat Fork where the investigation of the case began, but it ended up involving roughly 20 different post offices.

Blanton, who has traveled to the National Archives in Atlanta, Georgia, twice to collect records on the case, explained to the Independent that the group created a bank in the smokehouse, as well as over 100 fake businesses, ordering merchandise with fraudulent checks and picking up the goods at the Riceville Depot. 

If the businesses questioned the order, they would send business confirmation letters with fancy letterhead to confirm the legitimacy of the business, and Blanton’s father-in-law was the calligrapher.

The group was caught when the reputation of Magoffin got so bad that honest people in the county requested an investigation and a postal inspector came to check it out.

The case went to trial in August 1917, but when the first defendant saw the evidence presented, he pleaded guilty, and the rest of the defendants followed suit. 

The youngest defendant, Bruce Tackett, was only 18. Through genealogy searches, Blanton believes Tackett was an alias, but he took the name to the grave only two years later.

From what she can gather, he was raised by his grandfather, Eli Tackett, but she found records that his mother had married a Jefferson Howard and there was a Bruce Howard on a census, but she never found where his parents ever lived together.

She found letters that he wrote in prison, talking about what he wanted do when he got out, but he died at the age of 20 of tuberculosis.

“I just fell in love with his story,” Blanton said. “He was just a child.”

Blanton has accumulated two large binders with information from the case, including 500 pages from the court records, as well as the federal penitentiary records, complete with mugshots – including the one of her father-in-law. 

“I found his mugshot, fingerprints, medical records, even where he got early parole,” Blanton said.

But she’s not done researching the case. 

“I can’t find who precisely did what,” Blanton said. 

She has found the list of defendants in the case, and many of the records for each one, but she has yet to find why some got three years in prison, while others got much less. She plans to write a book once she feels she has the full story.

She said she’s talked to several decedents of the defendants, getting a mixed bag of reactions, from excited to embarrassed, but she said she thinks the story is too big to ignore.

“Everything I’ve read talked about how intelligent these people were to be from such a small town in the mountains and scammed some of the biggest, most educated people in the country,” Blanton said. “I think this just shows the ingenuity and tenacity of these people, to be in the middle of nowhere with no modern technology, and they were able to do so much, albeit illegal, raising $100,000. People in this area have always been able to make do with what they had. I’m just amazed by them.”

The full story that ran in the Independent about the case can be found on our website at http://salyersvilleindependent.com/article/100-years-ago-mail-fraud-case-shook-region-magoffin-countians-use-fake-banks-fictitious