Frontier Diary: Conman benefited from Glenwood’s Christian charity
Glenwood Springs Historical Society
Trust, but verify.
— Ronald Reagan
Glenwood Springs was on the edge of winter in 1916 when M.F. Griffith rolled into town. Disembarking from a Rio Grande train, Griffith found a community greeting him with the presumption of prosperity. The banks, stores, hotels, restaurants, two railroads and wonderful hot springs spoke to the town’s stability. As he surveyed Glenwood Springs, Griffith searched for the deeper foundations of this attractive place — the churches — in the hope he could lend his special talents to those institutions.
Griffith was a young man, short in stature, and well-dressed. He professed having deeply studied the Bible, and possessed a gift for wit and story and oratory. He presented himself as a native of Wales, an Oxford graduate, and a Congregational minister. Within a very short time, the Rev. M.F. Griffith, B.A., discovered Glenwood Springs’ First Presbyterian Church needed a minister. With the Christmas season approaching, the cash-strapped church hired the young reverend to perform Sunday services.
The finances of the First Presbyterian Church reflected the economic difficulties facing Glenwood Springs. State prohibition had taken effect on Jan. 1, 1916, closing many of the saloons that economically drove the town. One of the railroads serving the town, the Colorado Midland Railway, was on the verge of bankruptcy. With war raging in Europe, the British capital that funded the Hotel Colorado and the Glenwood Hot Springs Pool dried up, forcing the splitting and sale of the properties. Apprehension about the United States entering the world war further tightened the local economy. With winter, tourism income was nearly nonexistent. Money was highly valued and spent in deserving ways.
The new minister stated he was traveling to California to spend the holiday with his wife and children, but would gladly postpone his plans to help the Presbyterian Church. The Salida Record newspaper wrote, “His sermons are said to be good and lively,” and, “His prayers shook the rafters of the building.” After each service, he was promptly paid $25. The reverend mentioned that he was waiting for the arrival of a draft at the post office, the funds from which would allow him to continue his travels westward. Until that draft arrived, he would remain in the service of the people of Glenwood Springs.
Although Griffith’s background and character was not initially questioned, his behavior soon aroused suspicion. Supposedly a married man, now with his wife either in the East or in California (his story changing), he set his sights on the young ladies of the community. To some he proposed elopement. To others his wooing pushed the boundaries of accepted moral codes. The reverend was refused by all.
With the mysterious draft still missing, and proclaiming he had not yet been paid for his services at the Presbyterian Church, Griffith took his financial plight to citizens and businesses. He received on credit a new suit, shoes, an overcoat, a ring, a stickpin and a traveling bag. He attempted to purchase Christmas gifts for his family but was refused the credit by a perceptive businessman. The merchant referred Griffith to local private banker George Edinger to secure a loan. Griffith never contacted Edinger but instead used his easy persuasive manner to procure $205 in known loans from various citizens.
The smell of swindle caught the notice of Glenwood Springs Mayor Olie Thorson. Thorson, a member of the First Presbyterian Church, possessed a pioneer’s passion for his community, having been a businessman, postmaster and real estate developer. Thorson then contacted George Bell, a fellow member of the First Presbyterian Church, banker and former county assessor. Griffith, or whomever he might be, was obviously a thief, materially stealing from the good people of Glenwood Springs, robbing the community of trust, and threatening the moral well-being of all. The two men decided to pay the conman a visit.
When confronted by Thorson and Bell on Dec. 23, 1916, Griffith stated he intended to repay the money. Thorson insisted the repayment happen immediately. The penniless minister produced “a roll of bills large enough to choke a cow,” peeled $205 from the stack, and presented the funds to Thorson and Bell. Thorson then procured the clothing and jewelry given to Griffith on credit. Having rented a room to the imposter, Thorson extracted the rent money from Griffith and then stated Griffith’s company was no longer wanted in Glenwood Springs. Griffith, knowing he had escaped arrest, thanked Thorson for “courteous treatment” and immediately left Glenwood Springs for points unknown.
“It is not often that Glenwood people are flimflammed in the name of religion, but apparently there are exceptions to all rules,” wrote the Glenwood Post newspaper. Griffith was encouraged to be thankful for Glenwood Springs’ honest Christian charity and to never return.
Willa Kane is former archivist of and a current volunteer with the Glenwood Springs Historical Society and Frontier Historical Museum. “Frontier Diary,” which appears the first Tuesday of every month, is provided to the Post Independent by the museum, 1001 Colorado Ave., Glenwood Springs. Fall, winter and spring hours are 1-4 p.m. Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. For more information, call 945-4448.
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