Bidwell Lore: George and Austin Bidwell, The Bank of England and the Primrose Path

Welcome to week 83 of Bidwell Lore! This week we begin a three-part series about two notorious men on the Bidwell Family tree, George Bidwell and his younger brother Austin, who in the late 19th century managed to swindle the Bank of England out of a very large sum of money!

 I shall the effect of this good lesson keep,
As watchman to my heart. But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path [1] of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede. [2]

We begin at the end of this unbelievable story. Two Bidwell brothers; descended from John Bidwell, the older brother of Thomas Bidwell, our Reverend Adonijah Bidwell’s father; who managed to steal a very large sum from the Bank of England in 1873. We will share their fascinating story over the next couple of weeks, beginning with their lonely deaths in 1899.

The San Francisco Call, 27 March 1899

Bank of England Forger Survives His Brother but a Few Days.

BUTTE, Mont. March 26. George Bidwell and Austin Bidwell of Bank of England forgery fame, came here about a month ago. On March 7 Austin Bidwell, the younger of the two brothers, died of grip in his room in the Mantle block. The body has been in charge of an undertaker ever since, awaiting advices from relatives. A few days ago George Bidwell took to his bed with a severe cold, which developed rapidly into pneumonia. Some time during last night he died in his room in the Butte Hotel. No one was with him at the time, as he had told his attendant he needed nobody. He was found dead when his room was opened this morning.

The famous Bank of England forgeries were committed in 1873. The Bidwells, by means of forged securities, got $5,000,000 [3] from the Bank of England. Previously, they had victimized other European concerns by means of forged letters of credit. It was their intention to obtain $50,000,000 by fraud and then compromise with the bank. Austin Bidwell succeeded in disposing of $50,000 in stolen bonds on a commission in London. Success in this venture emboldened him to attempt a greater crime. The story of the affair is told in George Bidwell’s reminiscences as follows:

‘Finding myself in London in 1872 with a very clever partner and about $100,000 in our pockets, we resolved to tackle the Bank of England, believing that the lightning ought to strike where the balances are heavy. We figured the matter out to our satisfaction that the Bank was a fossil institution and specially open to attack if one had that very rare combination outside of the law of capital, determination and financial knowledge. I determined to so do the front myself. Within a few days I not only had an account opened with the bank, but a fairly good credit established, and all this under a fictitious name. Within a few months I had borrowed nearly $5,000,000 from the bank on collateral and printed my own collateral. I left England, believing the world was mine, and settled down in the West Indies. I settled my scheme in life and set out to enjoy my self . Not in an intemperate way. I had no fear of the English police, as I knew the English have an ordinate idea of the ability of their own police, and I never counted on their employing the American police after their own had failed to locate me. Unluckily for myself, I was mistaken. John Bull had his back up and determined to have me in his clutches, no matter what it cost. So after the English police failed to find me the bank employed the Pinkertons with orders to spare no expense. The Pinkertons put twenty of the best men on the case and soon let daylight into the whole matter. In the end I was arrested in my own house, taken to London and faced an English Jury In the famous old Bailey court. Of course, I was perfectly willing to pay justice her due and felt that I had no right to protest, if I should receive a sentence of even ten or fifteen years, but when the Judge, Lord Archibald, hurled a sentence of imprisonment for life at me I felt that justice was weighing me in her balance with pretty good effect. Now in England a life sentence means life with a big L but I thought that anything would be possible if I only had courage to endure. I resolved I would endure the penalties of the pitiless storm I knew was ahead of me. This I did with more or less fortitude for over twenty years. I never lost my faith that there was corn and wine in Egypt for me still

George Bidwell was caught In France and Austin Bidwell in Cuba. They were tried and given life sentences with their two confederates. After twenty years they were released. (Original article can be read HERE)

Black and white drawing of George Bidwell. He has dark hair and a large moustache. He is wearing a black coat, white shirt and black tie.

The Bidwell brothers had gone to Butte, Montana, to promote Austin’s book “From Wall Street to Newgate.” While there Austin contracted pneumonia and died in his hotel room on March 8, 1899. George died in the same place almost three weeks later, “friendless, alone and as is supposed well-nigh penniless.” He had been “literally broken-hearted” over the death of his brother and had struggled to raise funds to send Austin’s body back east. It was initially stated that he died of pneumonia, but the undertaker suggested George died of poisoning, administered by himself.

Special Dispatch to The Press:“The death of Austin was a crushing blow to George and for several days he acted so strangely that it was feared he would go insane. In fact, his mind wandered and he was affected by illusions before he was taken down by pneumonia. Last night he had so far improved that he and his physician had hopes he would be able to be out in a few days. When the doctor called this morning Bidwell was dead. George Bidwell was 67 years of age and Austin 55. The former had a family residing in Hartford, Conn. The brothers came to Butte two months ago to sell their book, ‘From Wall Street to Newgate,’ but they did not meet with success, and seemed to be in a bad state financially, and unless friends take charge of the remains of the two unfortunate men, they will be buried by the county. The body of Austin was held at the request of George, who hoped to earn enough to ship it to Chicago. [4]

At his death, George’s estate consisted of two overcoats, a steamer trunk, and 130 copies of Austin’s memoir. A copy of the book held by the Library of the University of California includes a handwritten dedication from George: If anyone thinks this is a hard world, or feels discontented and unhappy, get put behind bars for a week and be happy forever after.

How did George and Austin’s journey lead them to such a sad demise? Next week we go back to the beginning to tell their interesting story.

[1] The pursuit of pleasure, especially when it is seen to bring disastrous consequences.
[2] Hamlet: Ophelia to her brother Laertes.
[3] Most sources put the amount around 105,000 pounds, considerably under 5 million dollars.
[4] Mormon Temple Library, Salt Lake City, Utah. (George was buried in East Hartford, Conn.)