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Clay Coppedge
Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Temple's International Man of Mystery

by Clay Coppedge

In the days before news broke in March of 1916 that her husband had suddenly lit out for parts unknown, Mrs. A.B. Crouch of Temple, Texas donned a bonnet and sat at a certain spot on the family porch each day. People passing by the house on French Street would nod at Mrs. Crouch, and she would nod back. No one suspected the trouble this woman had seen, but they would find out soon enough.

The banner headline of the March 16, 1916 edition of the Temple Daily Telegram read: "American Troops Cross Into Mexico: Invasion Arouses Hostilities." The paper told of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa's border raids and of U.S. General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing, who would soon pursue Villa into Mexico.

Just below the lead story, in only slightly smaller type, was this long-winded headline: "Whereabouts of A.B. Crouch Is Mystery Yet Unfathomed: Detectives Hunt For Missing Temple Man, But No Known Trace Of Him Has Been Found - Heavy Losses Through Firm's Failure Do Not Include Local Banks." But Crouch wasn't the only missing person. "The whereabouts of Mrs. Mary Buchanan, private secretary of Mr. Crouch, is also unknown," the Telegram reported. "Mrs. Crouch is prostrated and her condition is said to be serious."

Crouch's disappearance preceded by a matter of days his company's abrupt collapse, which saddled banks, including City National Bank in Temple, with about $150,000 worth of losses - or about $4 million in today's money.

The paper excerpted a letter that Crouch left for his younger brother, James Carey (J.C.) Crouch, explaining how he had tried to forestall what seemed the inevitable failure of his business by speculating in grain futures: "But like everything else of late, even this went against me and instead of regaining the money, I lost heavily in these speculations, until finally I saw there was no hope of saving the business, so I decided to leave, because I couldn't bear to stay and face the consequences."

Charles Campbell, president of City National Bank in Temple, described the losses as something on the order of petty cash.

"There has been entirely too much fuss over the whole affair - a great deal more excitement than the losses involved justify," he said. "When he returns, the City National will stand ready to cooperate with his other friends in getting him re-established here. Crouch has been one of the most successful businessmen in the county, and it would be a misfortune for a temporary businesses reversal to wreck his life."

The Bell County Sheriff's Department offered a reward of $500 - $250 each for information leading to the arrest of A.B. Crouch and Margaret (Mary) Buchanan for forgery and swindling.

Family lore has it that Mrs. Crouch sat on the porch in her bonnet, nodding at passersby, until one day a friend of hers took up the same position on the porch and likewise acknowledged the local pedestrians. By the time anybody suspected the ruse, the prostrated Mrs. Couch and her four children were also gone, first to Waco and then, like A.B. Crouch, to parts unknown.
*
Arthur Buford Crouch was an unlikely felon, a local boy from a long line of local men and women, a descendant of Bell County pioneers, born and reared near the tiny farming community of Heidenheimer five miles south of Temple. His wife, Edith League Crouch, was the daughter of Mrs. Mendora Bartlett League, who traced her American ancestry back to Colonial times.

A.B. graduated from Baylor University in Waco with honors and a business degree in 1903. He returned home to start the A.B. Crouch Grain Company in 1905 and quickly established himself as one of the most prolific grain dealers in the country. He and Edith hosted dinner parties, attended social functions, and were devoted and active members of the local Presbyterian church.

Crouch expanded his company to Fort Worth, and the money rolled in as fast as the train cars loaded with Bell County grain rolled out. A July 12, 1913 article in the Houston Post reported that a trainload of oats with a value of $33,000 had just left the Crouch Grain Company in Temple, bound for New Orleans, the third such trainload to leave Temple in the previous 16 days.

But during that same year Margaret Buchanan looked over the company's books and confirmed what A.B. Crouch already knew - the company was losing money. A lot of money. Two years later the Texas Attorney General would file suit against the company for violations of anti-trust laws, alleging that Crouch, in cahoots with unnamed others, had "conspired to keep and maintain the price of feed and grain in Dallas, thereby suppressing and stifling competition." The story concluded by suggesting that other lawsuits would follow, and they did.

Crouch and Buchanan came up with a plan to salvage the business, or at least keep it on life support. Buchanan created fictitious bills of lading for imaginary shipments of grain, manipulated the original bills to enlarge the company's assets and borrowing power, and kited checks, drawing on a bank in, say, Fort Worth for an illusory shipment of grain. The marker would come due, but the company had use of that money until the bank drew on the Crouch account.

Into this mess walked Carey Crouch, A.B's younger brother and a fellow Baylor University alum. He joined the company in 1914, just as the business unraveled. Carey said later that some of the company's practices startled him at first, but A.B. assured him that Charles Campbell at City National Bank had agreed to the peculiar arrangement as a means of extending credit to the grain company without having to make direct loans. A.B. also reminded Carey that he had been running the business for a good many years and he guessed he could keep running it without little brother Carey's advice.

But by March of 1916 A.B. had changed his tune. He called Carey into his office and said he was going to make out his will with Carey as the executor. "He said the business was in such bad condition he didn't expect to be there much longer," Carey later recalled. "He said he was going to do away with himself, and Mrs. Buchanan was going to visit her mother in Arkansas"

A.B. told his brother he had taken out a life insurance policy, leaving $3,500 to J.C., $1,500 to Buchanan and $2,000 to Farmer's Bank. He excluded City National Bank because he believed the bank had already made more money from him than it would ever lose. They left behind three letters exonerating other parties, including members of the company and those working for it.

The original plan called for Carey to leave with Mrs. Buchanan, but the trio quickly realized that no letter, regardless how persuasive, could ever exonerate A.B. if he stayed behind. A.B. and Buchanan soon expanded their forgeries across the country to allow them as much time as possible to get out of the country with enough money for a clean getaway.

A little more than a year after A.B. Crouch and his family vanished, in July of 1917, Carey Crouch stood trial on four counts of swindling and two counts of forgery. Mrs. Buchanan, as all the papers called her, was back in town now, ready to testify. The trial, and the prospect of Mrs. Buchanan's testimony, once again shared equal billing in local newspapers with history-shaping international news. The Telegram noted, "The case, in that it makes public a case of profound mystery up to this time, is one of intense interest to the general public"

Margaret Buchanan testified for nearly five hours. She said she and A.B. Crouch left town separately but traveled together from Temple to California by train and then boarded various ships to Manilla, the Philippines, China, Japan, and Australia. The two fugitives parted company in Australia, Buchanan said, and she returned to the U.S. to face public charges and no small measure of innuendo. She denied that she and Carey Crouch "had ever held other than business relations" but acknowledged traveling halfway around the world with his brother.

The company's stenographer, a Mrs. Ogle, had to stand in the fire as well. She told the court that Buchanan often handed her bills of lading with instructions to make copies. Beginning in late 1915 and continuing into 1916, Buchanan began instructing Ogle to make handwritten copies and change the number of carloads of grain.

The prosecuting attorney asked Mrs. Ogle if she knew that copying and altering the bills of lading was wrong. "I was working there under orders," she replied. "I had an idea something was wrong about it."

Campbell, the bank president, disputed Buchanan's accounts of the fraudulent practices that led to the company's failure, but he couldn't explain how the bank failed to notice when three drafts, all bearing the same car number, went through his bank.

The court convicted Carey Crouch on two counts of forgery and sentenced him to two years in prison. An appeals court overturned the conviction, and life went on. But not for Margaret Buchanan. Her trial was still several months away on September 30, 1917 when she was found dead in her room at the Martin Hotel in Temple. The coroner ruled the cause of death as an overdose of a pain killer, an "accidental suicide."
*
Years later passengers of the SSS Rotorua would recall with fondness a fellow passenger named John Cameron, described as an American about six feet tall with a noticeable American drawl, who traveled with them in the summer of 1916. Cameron parted his hair in the middle and had a beard and a moustache. They recalled that he didn't smoke or drink but took a keen interest in all the deck sports. He was sociable with the adults and especially kind to the children, but he refused to pose for photographs. He didn't discuss his business, but some of his fellow travelers remembered that a woman often walked the deck with him and there was talk of wheat.

About five years later one of the passengers was sitting after dinner in the lounge of an Auckland hotel when he noticed a clean-shaven man on a chesterfield sofa talking to a woman beside him. It took a moment for him to recognize the man as John Cameron, sans beard. He approached the man and introduced himself as a fellow passenger on the Rotorua back in 1916.

No, the man said, he wasn't John Cameron, and he had never been on the Rotorua. Wrong guy.

"I know who you have mistaken me for," he said when the man persisted. "It's not the first time someone has mistaken me for a man named Cameron. It happened to me once before in another town."

The man apologized, said he must have been mistaken, but he knew he wasn't. He went to the hotel desk and learned from the clerk that the man he knew as John Cameron was an estate and land agent from Helensville named John Grey.

The clerk was mistaken, too.

The man's name was A.B. Crouch.
*
At some point from the time he and Buchanan parted ways in Australia and Crouch showed up in New Zealand as John Grey, he had managed to meet up in Canada with his wife Edith, sons League and Bartlett, daughters Edith and Joyce, and smuggle them back to New Zealand undetected.

Whatever money A.B. Crouch had with him when he left the U.S. was gone. The first order of business was to find a job. Though it had been a while since he had worked sunup to sundown on his family's Heidenheimer farm, he chose manual labor, not because it was hard work, which it was, but because no one asked a lot of questions about the man digging ditches or clearing brush.

Grey—as he was now known—found work near Greymouth with a farmer named Tim McMahon. Grey moved his family to McMahon's property and pitched a tent among the willows on the banks of a small stream and went to work.

"We lived there in the tent and were happy—10,000 miles from home and far from the prying eyes and questioners," he later recalled.

For the better part of a year, Grey and his sons cleared brush and dug a ditch across a swamp for $2.50 a day. John and the boys impressed McMahon enough for him to hire them to clear a 10-acre pasture choked with briars, brambles and trees. When they finished the job McMahon named the pasture "Grey's Paddock" in the family's honor.

But Grey had an itch to get back into business. McMahon advised him to go to the North Island of New Zealand, where land prices were cheaper. Grey took him up on his advice.

Grey was ambitious but he was on a budget. He made a deal to lease some land near Helensville for $500 a year and borrowed enough money to buy twenty-two dairy cows. Neighbors would later remember him as exceptionally diligent, often working deep into the night and greeting them the next morning chipper and cheery. He branched out and became a land agent and a landowner and, once again, a faithful member of the Presbyterian church.

Grey settled into the community as a prosperous, pious and respected businessman. There was talk of John Grey running for mayor. People in Helensville called him Honest John.

But if Honest John Grey thought Bell County had forgotten about A.B. Crouch he was wrong.
*
World War I, the impeachment of Governor Jim Ferguson and Pancho Villa's revolution soon bumped A.B. Crouch from the headlines but the search for him continued. The American Bankers Association hired the William J. Burns Detective Agency to locate the renegade grain dealer. Burns believed his detectives had a lead when the American Consulate at Newcastle, Australia reported that a man resembling Crouch was employed as a carpet worker in Brisbane. They were wrong, but the banks and detectives were drawing the circle tighter.

Campbell, still president of City National Bank in Temple, never abandoned his search for Crouch. From family members he learned that Crouch might be in Helensville, New Zealand. He wrote to Auckland private detective John Goddard that he was offering a nice reward to anyone who could ascertain for certain the whereabouts of one A.B. Crouch, who might be going by the name of Grey and living in Helensville. That simplified matters immensely. Goddard knew John Grey. So did everyone else in Helensville. Campbell sent him a photograph of A.B. Crouch, which turned out to be the spitting image of John Grey.

In September of 1929, 13 years after A.B. Crouch started on his journey to becoming John Grey, Bell County sheriff John Bigham retraced Crouch's route to bring him back to Texas. City National Bank, the biggest loser in the Crouch Grain Company crash, footed the bill - $20,000 for the 100-day, 17,000 mile round trip.

After more than three months of travel, Bigham arrived in New Zealand. Accompanied by two local detectives, he went to see John Grey at his Helensville office. Bigham and Grey, a.k.a. Crouch, had known each other most of their lives. Grey knew the instant he saw Bigham that the gig was up.

"I cannot say I was wholly surprised when sheriff Bigham came to New Zealand for me. Nor was I glad," he said later. "I had always felt that sooner or later this would happen. But I was glad of one thing - that I had the chance to reestablish myself before the blow came."

A New Zealand newspaper reported, "So far as Helensville is concerned it is safe to say that if a bomb had a bomb been dropped in their midst there could not have been greater astonishment at the recent sensational turn of events."

Grey languished in jail while New Zealand and the U.S. worked out the bureaucratic intricacies of international law. Bigham and Grey finally left New Zealand on Nov. 19 and traveled via ocean liner to Honolulu and then on to Los Angeles, where Bigham found himself the most "talked about and 'talked to' sheriff in the country."

The national press couldn't get enough of the dogged Texas sheriff who traveled two-thirds of the way around the world to "get his man." The very idea fit to a T the world's preconceived notions of a Texas lawman. "The two-gun Texas sheriff, like the red-coated patrolman of the Canadian Northwest Mounted and the business-like detectives of the famous Scotland Yard insists on 'getting his man' no matter how long it takes," began one story.

A group of cheering friends and supporters met Crouch and Bigham at the Belton depot in December of 1929. The top headline on the front page of the Telegram read: "A.B. Crouch Back Home After 13 Years." The headline didn't mention the thirteen indictments also waiting for him.

Bell County geared up for another sensational, high profile trial but it never happened. Crouch agreed to a settlement of claims, including the transfer of several piece of property and cash in exchange for the district attorney dropping all charges. His Texas attorney, DeWitt Bowmer, said Crouch's transgressions were due to "imperfect methods and not criminal motives."

"Negotiations leading to dismissal of the charges were conducted with secrecy," the Temple Daily Telegram noted without naming a dollar amount, though other outlets put the settlement at $160,000. Crouch was on his way back to New Zealand before most people in Temple realized he was gone. Again.

Just before he left the U.S., Crouch told a reporter that he went to such extreme measures because he believed at the time that his company's collapse "was a calamity that would never pass away." In some ways, it never did. Subsequent stories and obituaries about Campbell and Bigham all mentioned their connections to the A.B. Crouch scandal. They could never put it behind them.

But Carey Crouch and an older brother, E.W., did just that. Carey owned and operated his own successful grain company in Dallas for many years and served as president of the Texas Grain and Feed Dealers Association in 1937. An older brother, E.W. Crouch, served as president of the Texas Grain Dealers Association. Their names were rarely mentioned in association with their brother's.

As for the man formerly known as A.B. Crouch, he returned to New Zealand as John Grey, a virtuous and diligent businessman who stayed close to his loved ones and out of the headlines for the rest of his life.
Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" August 27, 2019 column

Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • Rocket Mail 8-1-19
  • James Brock's Honesty of Purpose 7-16-19
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  • Daniel Edwards: Hero or Hoax 6-13-19
  • Mysterious Malakoff Men 5-28-19

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    Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

  • Rocket Mail 8-1-19
  • James Brock's Honesty of Purpose 7-16-19
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  • Daniel Edwards: Hero or Hoax 6-13-19
  • Mysterious Malakoff Men 5-28-19

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