The pre-WWII era was riddled with clever con men swindling innocent people out of their hard-earned money and benefits. Postal Inspector Herbert Graham gained the name “Old Poison” in the criminal world throughout the ’30s and ’40s, as he was responsible for keeping the nation’s most notorious con men in prison.
The Beginning of Herbert Graham
Born in 1883 in Brooklyn, New York, Herbert Graham had no formal police or investigative training prior to joining the Postal Inspection Service. He took a job as a mapmaker after being forced to drop out of high school. This skill helped him land a position in the Post Office in 1903. He was later promoted to an inspector of rural free delivery, and his career quickly took off as a brilliant investigator.
Herbert Graham undertook his first swindle case shortly after WWI. By 1922, he was America’s outstanding authority in “Big Con” cases. Some of his notable cases included rounding up notorious criminals like Leo Weisman, Joe (Yellow Kid) Weil, the Graham-McKay mob, and Floyd (Kingpin) Woodward. In 1928, Graham noticed that some of the biggest con scores were occurring in Reno, Nevada, under a massive horse racing scheme.
The “Big Store” Case
After spending a couple weeks learning the lay of the land in Reno, Inspector Graham walked alone and unarmed into the semiprivate Bank Club, where the scheme was operating. He asked to speak to either James McKay or William J. Graham, the leaders of the Graham-McKay mob operating in Nevada. Repeatedly, Graham was dismissed, until one day he caught both McKay and Graham in the back room and simply asked for a sample of their handwriting. Laughing at “Old Poison,” they both obliged.
However, little did the mobsters know that Inspector Graham was a mastermind at handwriting analysis. Keeping extensive records of each criminal’s handwriting he encountered, he ended up using it successfully against them. After two weeks of closely examining the handwriting samples with bank ledgers and old accounts, Graham noticed over $2.5 million in questionable checks from the Graham-McKay mob.
The “Big Store” Cont.
Bank cashier Roy J. Frisch admitted to Graham that he had long been suspicious of the checks coming from the operation, but his superiors cleared them each time. Both James McKay and William J. Graham were eventually arrested and put on trial. Days before the first trial, Frisch mysteriously disappeared from his home in Reno, Nevada, destroying the government’s case.
Graham continued to build the case for years and, with the help of retired Supreme Court Justice Van Deventer, was able to get the Graham-McKay mob convicted in 1938. Inspector Graham also built a two-decade-long case against Floyd Woodward, a notorious swindler in Chicago, before he finally caught him in 1947.
Graham retired from the Inspection Service in 1949, due to declining health. He died on January 17, 1950, as a historically vital inspector who fought against big cons across the country.
HISTORY SPOTLIGHT HOMEPAGE
Explore the history of the United States Postal Inspection Service.LEARN MORE