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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
Greyas he was now knownfound 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 happy10,000 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.
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.
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.