Alexander C. Branscom(e) (1841-1923?), aka Bethel C. Alexander — Swindler and forger
From Byrnes’s text:
DESCRIPTION. Forty-four years old in 1886. Born in Virginia. Medium build. Single. Claims to be a book publisher. Height, 6 feet. Weight, 178 pounds. Medium brown hair, dark gray eyes, ruddy complexion. Good education; converses well. Right arm off at the elbow.
RECORD. Col. Branscom is an expert forger and swindler. He was sentenced to three years and six months in State prison in August, 1880, in New York City, for forging Florida bonds. His expertness with the pen is a marvel, in view of his being obliged to write with his left hand, his right arm having been cut off at the elbow. His correspondence while conducting his swindling operations, large as it has been, was entirely written by himself, and does equal credit to his powers of invention and to his skillful penmanship. Not a detail calculated to convey confidence was lacking in any of his transactions.
He was arrested again in New York City on November 2, 1884. During August of that year he made several contracts with business men in New York to publish and advertise in an official guide to the New Orleans Exposition; and a highly decorated pamphlet, “The Diversified Industries of the South.” He contracted with Conroy Brothers, paper dealers, of No. 33 Beekman Street, New York City, on August 14, 1884, for $7,000 worth of white paper for his publications, and gave them a note for $7,000, purported to be endorsed by Colonel Edward Richardson, the millionaire president of the Mississippi Mills, at Wesson, Miss., and at that time president of the World’s Exposition at New Orleans. Branscom uttered about $40,000 worth of similar notes in New York, and when arrested he confessed that he had forged endorsements to $52,000 more, and had intended to issue about $110,000 worth in all. If he had succeeded, he said, he would have carried his publications through and cleared $50,000. In addition to the money collected by the notes, Branscom also got orders for $6,000 worth of advertisements in the blank space of his two books, and he planned to collect $30,000 more from the same source. His cash collected from all sources in this transaction enabled him to deposit $14,000 in the Shoe and Leather Bank of New York, but two-thirds of this amount he subsequently drew out. Branscom was convicted of the forgery of one note for $7,000, and was sentenced to ten years in State prison in the Court of General Sessions, New York, on March 14, 1885, by Recorder Smyth. Branscom’s picture is a good one, taken in November, 1884.
Chief Byrnes described Branscom as an expert forger and swindler, though in Branscom’s own mind, he was merely an honest businessman forced by the stress of being under-capitalized to take the shortcut of forging documents, with every intent to make his contractors and investors whole again once the profits were realized. However, Branscom made this error on at three least separate occasions, which implies it was more of a strategy than a result of misfortune. Chief Byrnes notes that his forging talents were all the more impressive because he only had the use of one arm, having lost his right arm in the Civil War. Branscom was likely born left-handed, so it is surprising that he was able to so capably imitate the handwriting of right-handers.
In 1883, after recently emerging from Sing Sing and full of confidence that he would never have to resort to crime again (he did), Branscom gave the New York Herald the following account of his career, which appears to be fairly accurate:
“I was born in Greenville, Grayson County, Virginia, thirty-nine years ago. My grandfather served in the War of 1812, his father served through the Revolution and my father was an officer in the Confederate army. When I was seventeen years old I also went into the Confederate service as a private in Colonel Jubal A. Early’s regiment, the Twenty-Fourth Virginia Infantry. I went to Manassas in 1861 and passed through some of the worst battles in which Pickett’s division was engaged. After the Battle of Gettysburg I was commissioned a Captain and assigned to duty with the Twenty-First Virginia Cavalry. I served under Generals John S. Williams, William E. Jones, Simon B. Buckner, and James Longstreet in the departments of Southwest Virginia and East Tennessee.
“In a fight near the village of Piedmont, June 5, 1864, my right arm was carried away by a cannon ball. I received other wounds during the war–one from a shell in the right leg that disables me very much at times. After the war I went into the grain business without capital, but I soon had ample credit. A foolish love affair led me almost to suicide. I made out powers-of-attorney for the settlement of my business, but reconsidered my purpose of self-destruction and fled to Mexico. I passed to Central and South America, making more than my expenses in various forms of commission. I transposed by name and was known as Mr. Alexander. I came back to the United States, and when the railroad to Arkansas was completed, I went into the cotton factorage business in St. Louis.
“A [financial] panic struck me some pretty hard blows and the banks would not lend money upon cotton to arrive. Up to this time I had been morally but not legally, guilty of wrongdoing. I now gave duplicate and worthless cotton warehouse receipts and soon had a bank credit. In time this was discovered, and one small bank began criminal proceedings against me. I was imprisoned five months. The banks got to fighting amongst themselves and really kept me from trial for nearly three years. When I was tried I was convicted, but business men came to my assistance, and I was pardoned before sentence was passed upon me.
“I tried to rise again on an honorable foundation, but I had none. Friends offered to assist me and I undertook to build a factory. That failed, and in utter desperation I attempted suicide in an old coal shaft beyond the suburbs of the city. I took a deadly drug, but it did not kill me. I obtained some money from a relative, made some more from commission sales, and went to Florida as an advance agent for a colony. I was chloroformed and robbed in a boarding house in Jacksonville.
“A year later I was in a promising fruit packing and shipping business. I conceived the idea of controlling the Florida orange crop and wanted money to do it. I came on to New York and borrowed money on worthless Florida securities. If these transactions were discovered before I could return the money, I expect to go to prison. they were discovered and I assumed the role of my own prosecutor. I spent twenty-six months in Sing Sing and only left there a few days ago. I went into confinement under the impression that I deserved it and that it would do me good.”
Much of what Branscom said is accurate. His war service is verified, though he left as a Captain, not with the honorary “Colonel” title that Byrnes used. Although the incident that caused him to leave Virginia has not surfaced, it is true that he appeared in St. Louis as a businessman named Bethel C. Alexander. The forgeries of receipts he made there were big headlines, and the case did drag on as long as he indicated (from 1874-1877).
While in Sing Sing between 1880 and 1883, Branscon wrote a fictionalized account of his life, and had it published as: Mystic romances of the blue and the grey: masks of war, commerce and society. Pictures of real life scenes enacted in this age, rarely surpassed in the wildest dreams of fictitious romance
His prose is over-embellished, and the hero, Nathan Cloud (i.e. Branscom), is a Byronic adventurer tossed about by fate.
A year after the publication of his novel, Branscom was back at his old tricks: he dreamed up a scheme to publish a guidebook and a picture book to the 1884 New Orleans World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition. To pay for the printing costs, he forged the name of the Exposition’s president on notes that would become due after four months–by which time Branscom hoped to have reaped the profits. Branscom decided to run this scheme in New York, where he already had one conviction for forgery.
He was caught again, and this time was sentenced to ten years in Sing Sing. Four years were taken off his term, and he was released in 1891. He returned to the fruit shipping business, and in the late 1890s was found in San Diego, California, running a lemon shipping business. He promoted a process of steaming unripe lemons to preserve them during shipping, but it appears to have had mixed results.
Family sources indicate he returned to Florida and passed away in the early 1920s, but he had disappeared from all news accounts long before that date.