On the night of November 4, 1917, when former British serviceman Captain Charles Glen Collins left Boston Club in New Orleans for Grunewald Hotel, he had no idea that his exciting and eventful life would take a turn for the worse. As he entered the hotel lobby, a policeman came up to him and delivered the unsettling news. He was under arrest in connection with cases filed in Bombay, India.
The arrest was the beginning of a five-year-long saga that captured the riveted attention of the American media. For the press, there were all the elements of a good story. A charming man with a sharp nose, Collins, then 37, had a reputation for chasing money and women. He had been involved in several scandals, and his list of friends included some of the intellectual and financial elites of the country. Even the great William Faulkner was fascinated with him and is widely believed to have based the character Major Ayers in his novel Mosquitoes, set in New Orleans, on Collins.
Collins’s life had been a series of adventures from an early age. According to the website of the Noonans Mayfair auction house, which put two of his medals on sale in 2022, he was commissioned into the Cameron Highlanders at age 18. He fought in the Second Boer War as well as other campaigns and served in the King’s Guard during Edward VII’s reign. After that he resigned from service and became known for gambling and seducing wealthy women and heiresses in Europe and the US. A marriage in New York to a high society beauty named Nathalie Schenck did not last long, but while he was in the city, he ended up befriending the wealthy.
By the time the First World War broke out, Collins was involved in his fair share of financial scandals. A report in the Washington Times on January 5, 1919 said that Collins was “under indictment in New York for the larceny” of $222 (around $6,200 in today’s money) from Amelia Lauterbach, a school teacher in New Jersey. “She charged that he had taken the money on the pretence that he would buy her steamship tickets and kept it,” the paper said. “As usual, he had pursued his object by making love to his victim.”
When the court denied his request to be allowed to go and defend Britain in the Great War, Collins jumped bail and went anyway. Once home, he enlisted for the war effort and, as the Commanding Officer of the Howe Battalion, took part in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. Although his valour on the battlefield was praised, he did not stop causing scandal even during the war: while recuperating from injuries, he managed to meet and seduce the wife of a wealthy officer from his battalion.
“Collins resigned his command and commission on May 17, 1916 after the return of the Howe Battalion to England,” the Noonans Mayfair website says. “It is not clear whether this was due to his undischarged bankruptcy or because he had embarked on an affair with Elsie Muntz, the wife of a brother officer in the Royal Naval Division. He appeared in two divorce cases, the Muntz’s and his own, in 1917 and 1918.”
A few months after leaving military service for the second and last time, Collins travelled to Bombay with Elise Muntz and her friend Olga Olsen, the wife of a steamship company owner.
Keen to impress Muntz, he went shopping for the finest gems and jewellery on sale in the western Indian city. At a store named Pohoomul Brothers Silk Merchants and Jewellers in Apollo Bunder, the impressed owners were only too happy to sell him a pearl necklace that cost £5,000. In return, Collins gave them a bearer cheque of $8,000 signed by one G Curtice who lived in London. It turned out later that Curtice ran a lodge in London and had no financial dealings with Collins.
The ex-serviceman continued shopping in Bombay over the next few months, paying with cheques that could not be honoured. “It appears, according to officials, that Collins completely hypnotised the dusky pearl-dealing fraternity of Bombay,” the Washington Times said. “He gave out that he was a British colonel on leave of absence; that he was a member of the well-known firm of William Collins and Son of Glasgow, and that he intended to stock up with pearls and dispose of them after the war.”
In all, Collins managed to procure jewellery worth $50,000 in Bombay before leaving India. It was only later that the merchants who, according to Washington Times, had fallen over themselves to “place their choicest jewels at the feet of the honourable sahib”, realised that they had been cheated. With the trickster far out of their reach, the merchants appealed to the British for help.
Collecting all the complaints from jewellers in Bombay, the British government tasked its consul general in New York, C Clive Bay, to approach the courts for extraditing Collins to India. In November 1917, Collins was arrested for the first time in New Orleans and released on bail. A second arrest followed in May 1918 in New York, but this time he was released “on his own recognizances”. “When the day came for examination before United States Commissioner Hitchcock in September, Dr Oswald S. Lowsley and Dr Frederick Peterson, two New York ‘nerve specialists’ submitted affidavits that Colonel Collins was in such a state of nervous breakdown that it was impossible for him to leave his room in the New York hospital,” the Washington Times reported.
A month later, US Marshals went to the hospital to escort Collins to court, only to find that he had run away. He remained on the lam for weeks but finally surrendered in New Orleans.
Three affidavits were filed in the New Orleans court in support of the extradition request. Collins’s lawyers, however, managed to drag the case out for five years, making it the longest extradition proceedings in US history. During this period, although Collins did spend time behind bars, it did not stop him from enjoying himself, whether in or out of jail. A report in the Daily Leader suggested that he won $100,000 on a horse-racing bet and used this money to take his jailors on a cruise. Faulkner too went on a cruise with Collins once and immortalised the episode in his novel Mosquitoes.
In the court, Collins’s lawyers argued against extradition on the ground that their client could be sentenced to death if he faced a criminal trial for financial fraud in India. The court, however, rejected the argument and ruled in favour of the British government. Collins’s lawyers appealed twice (unsuccessfully) to the Supreme Court. He was finally extradited to India in 1923.
“For two of the five years, a British police officer waited in New Orleans to escort him back to London and on to Bombay,” according to the Noonans Mayfair website. “On one occasion Collins escaped from the House of Detention taking the key to his cell as a souvenir. U.S. Marshals captured him trying to board a steamer to London.”
Trials in Bombay
The court proceedings in Bombay began in December 1923. At the time, India used to have jury trials, a system that worked to the advantage of Collins.
BJ Desai, or Bhulabhai Desai, after whom Mumbai’s Warden Road was renamed, represented Collins in the Bombay High Court. “Mr. Desai’s application that the prisoner be tried as a European British subject was granted by the Court,” the Bombay Chronicle reported on December 5, 1923. “This entitled the accused to be tried by a jury, the majority of which were Europeans.”
The jury, which comprised seven Europeans, acquitted Collins. A second case ended the same way, leaving Collins a free man. “He returned to New Orleans in 1924 on a slow boat home, receiving a rapturous welcome from friends and another band,” according to the Noonans Mayfair website.
For the next 15 years, Collins lived a quiet life in New Orleans. The Bombay jewellers, like many other alleged victims of Collins’s deception, did not get any legal remedy from the courts and were forced to swallow their losses. Shrewdness, privilege and luck helped Collins escape the kind of punishment that was regularly handed out to non-White and working class subjects in the British Empire.
Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.