Louis Victor Eytinge: Arizona Territory’s Greatest Con Man
Louis Victor Eytinge
Photo credit: True West Magazine
Louis Eytinge was a forger, swindler, liar and playboy, probably the most talented and cold-blooded con man early Arizona ever knew. His criminal resume included a murder that landed him in the chronic yard of the Yuma Territorial Prison in 1907. He suffered from tuberculosis, weighed 119 pounds, and doctors gave him two months to live.
If his life had followed the expected course, he would’ve died alone and unknown to history, another bankrupt soul in a rugged land struggling to emerge from its frontier past.
But Eytinge’s destiny did not include anonymity.
By the time he won parole in 1922, he was celebrated around the country as an author and public speaker, a sought-after genius in direct mail advertising, and an expert on prison reform.
Few remember Eytinge today. But in his time, he might’ve been Yuma’s most famous inmate, besting such luminaries as Tombstone shootist Buckskin Frank Leslie, and the flamboyant female stagecoach robber, Pearl Hart.
Eytinge arrived in Phoenix on March 6, 1907. He was 28, intelligent, personable and a big talker. He told anyone who’d listen he was a writer for the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio, covering criminal courts and the state prison.
He did have a connection to the prison, but not the one he claimed. He’d just been released from the Ohio State Penitentiary after serving five years for forgery. He emerged from that hitch knowing plenty about drugs, from his job at the prison dispensary.
On March 17, Eytinge rented a buggy and headed into the desert for a picnic with his new friend and boarding house roommate, John Leicht, a barber from Sheboygan, Wisconsin. The two had met on the train to Arizona, where Leicht sought relief from his asthma.
Whispers of foul play arose later that day when Eytinge returned alone. He explained that Leicht had gotten sick and he’d left him to recuperate at a friend’s home. Eytinge then wrote a couple of bad checks and left town.
Hundreds of searchers combed the desert for a week before locating Leicht’s decomposing body in some brush near the Arizona Canal. Evidence found at the scene included a bottle of chloral hydrate, a can of chloroform, and a hanky embroidered with the letter E.
Authorities theorized that Eytinge had laced Leicht’s whiskey with chloral hydrate, commonly called knockout drops. With his victim groggy, Eytinge shoved him out of the buggy, jumped down and held a chloroform-soaked hanky over his face.
The Arizona Republican reported that the quantity of chloroform “would have sent a dozen men to eternal sleep.” Eytinge then rifled Leciht’s pockets and left him there.
Phoenix roared in outrage. The fever grew when the Republican published a letter that Eytinge had sent to its editor while on the run in California.
He denied committing the murder, saying Leicht was suicidal and had likely killed himself. He explained that he possessed the victim’s money and jewelry after winning them in a gambling game.
“I do not claim to be more than I am – a swindler and forger,” Eytinge wrote, “but as I was already doomed to die from tuberculosis, is it likely that I would hasten my end by the hangman?”
He concluded his bizarre letter this way: “I am now on my way to Mexico, via Cananea, and in the hills there I propose to remain until I recover my health. If Maricopa County officials will guarantee immunity on charges of forgery, false pretenses or swindling, I will return to clear myself of the graver affair.”
On April 8, detectives corralled Eytinge in San Francisco, where he’d been “spending money in the tenderloin like a Nevada mining millionaire,” reported the San Francisco Call.
A master of melodrama, Eytinge pulled a revolver and threatened to kill himself. “You shall not take me alive!” he declared. The detectives seized the gun and his resistance ended there, but his talking didn’t.
“You got me too soon,” Eytinge said. “If you had given me until next Saturday, I would have floated about $2000 of phony paychecks and cleaned up for a trip to Honolulu.”
Maricopa County Sheriff Carl Hayden traveled to California to fetch the fugitive. Fearing a lynching, he had to disguise his movements and slip quietly back into Phoenix. Hayden would go on to become a respected congressman and senator from Arizona, one of several famous participants in the case.
The defense lawyers were Albert Baker, former Chief Justice of the Territorial Supreme Court and Alfred Franklin, son of a former governor. The judge was Ivy League educated Edward Kent, a pal of Teddy Roosevelt’s.
The murder and subsequent trial mesmerized the Territory. Eytinge fed the sensation with provocative statements, including calling the prosecutor a “human vampire.”
The Tucson Citizen for May 21, 1907, described the accused as probably the most peculiar man that ever faced a jury. “There is no question,” the paper said, “but that he is afflicted with moral insanity and does not realize his own depravity.”
The jury didn’t buy Eytinge’s claim of insanity. On June 4, 1907, he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life.
Louis Victor Eytinge was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1878. His father, Harry Eytinge, an actor and heavy gambler, was 56 when he married his drama student, Ida Seebohm, then in her early 20s. Although they divorced when Louis was three, the boy lived in relative prosperity, in a family known for its performers. His aunt, Rose Eytinge, was a nationally known stage actress.
Given such advantages, some have tried to understand Louis’s outlaw ways. The historian James Kearney, who wrote about Eytinge in the Journal of Arizona History and elsewhere, believed he chose crime after watching his father portray a British forger in a play.
He saw in the lead character everything he wanted – a life with plenty of money, adventure, excitement, and women. “So long as one could avoid the nastier, rougher sides of outlawry,” wrote Kearney, “crime looked to him to be a great game, a gleeful challenge of wits.”
But that might be too forgiving for the man who coldly and for so little gain killed John Leicht. Truth was, the erratic, impulsive boy began stealing as a teenager, so upsetting his mother that she hired a detective to follow him around and pay his debts.
Reform school did nothing to change him. He briefly attended college at Notre Dame, and later joined the Navy, but those efforts at respectability ended with Eytinge being thrown out for stealing.
His next stop seemed a good fit, the Dayton Hospital for the Insane. After a short stay, he won release by convincing his keepers he was just fine, and promptly returned to crime.
At the Ohio pen, he was judged “treacherous, unreliable and not amenable to discipline,” according to a retrospective in Ohio’s Hamilton Daily News, published in 1923.
“He consorted with criminals and the women who follow in their train,” said the paper. “He drank heavily and became addicted to drugs. Then consumption grabbed him.”
But in the notorious Yuma lockup, where, Ohio papers assured us, “weaklings died and the strong men went mad,” prisoner no. 2608 made a remarkable comeback.
Not only did Eytinge regain his health, but he used the skills of Mexican and Indian inmates in the chronic ward to start a business selling horsehair curios to retailers around the Southwest.
As if to show the complexity of his character, and prove that at least one remote corner of his heart beat pure, he gave away some of his money to prisoners needing milk, to pay for the burials of poor inmates, and to buy various items to better their lives while locked up.
In almost 16 years of confinement in Arizona – first in Yuma and then Florence, where the prison moved in 1909 – Eytinge carried on a thriving advertising business, earning some $5000 a year. He won awards for his direct mail sales letters, one of which, according to the Republican, “is reputed to have broken all world records as to replies and results.”
From his prison office, which consisted of adjoining cells and multiple secretaries, he edited a direct-mail magazine, helped the government with a Liberty Bond drive during World War I, and wrote articles for such respected publications as Outlook magazine.
In 1922, Universal Pictures released a movie, Man Under Cover, based on a story Eytinge wrote. A company executive said he loved its “penetrating realism.” It was about a safe blower.
But as always with Eytinge, trouble lurked. He reportedly had access to drugs in prison, and used them, and in 1910, he was confined to the dark cell for six days for sodomy.
Much of Eytinge’s work behind bars focused on prison reform. “After seeing all I have seen and observing the needs of the prisons of the country,” he declared, “I would be a coward not to do all I can for the interests of those unfortunates in our penal institutions, and I am no coward.”
Along with other influential progressives around the country, Arizona Governor George W. P. Hunt fell hard for Eytinge. He solicited the inmate’s advice about legislation on crime and rehabilitation, and the two became friends. They even traded smarmy Christmas greetings, as if the murder of John Leicht had never happened.
That was Eytinge’s gift, bringing people to his side, especially women. With equal ease, the handsome con man with “splendid dark eyes” and a dagger tattoo on his left forearm could talk a rooster out of crowing and a woman out of her assets, and much else.
Many newspapers bought his line, calling his comeback historic. Ohio’s Lima News described him as “one of the most romantic figures the underworld has ever produced.”
After Gov. Thomas Campbell signed his parole in December 1922, a band played at the Florence prison as inmates gathered to see him off, calling out, “Goodbye, Papa Eytinge!” The 45-year-old had tears in his eyes.
The New York Times covered his release on its front page, and of course, there was a woman involved.
Pauline Diver, who worked for a Manhattan publisher, had met Eytinge through a correspondence course he taught from the prison. She helped him, as one newspaper said, “come up from perversion.”
Within days of his freedom, they got married and moved into a fancy hotel in New York, where, reports say, he took a $10,000 job with a large advertising firm.
How it all worked out was entirely predictable.
By 1927, the marriage was over. He’d cleaned out Diver’s bank account and split for the Midwest, where he committed multiple forgeries using romance novel aliases like Rex Davenport and Gaston Deveraux.
In Detroit, he won the affections of one Edna Smith DeRan, to whom he proposed marriage without revealing that he’d never divorced Diver. As usual, Eytinge stole Edna blind and departed, this time with a twist.
He sent her a letter that provides a window into his twisted mind. Written in the third person as St. Elmo, a reformed murderer from a novel, he admitted his thievery and promised to pay her back. He also asked her to keep quiet about his crime.
“You can hardly afford either publicity or scandal because you are too bravely gentle to merit either,” Eytinge wrote. “He [St. Elmo] cannot hope to come back to you even should he make good every loss, every bit of pain, for he has come to respect you too much to settle his frailties upon you.”
He told Edna he wanted to start again, asking her to be gentle in judgment: “To add words of bitter remorse here would sound hypocritical, yet he feels them all, all that can be uttered against him, and his soul shrinks.”
Eytinge’s last known con came in 1933, when prosecutors in Los Angeles County convicted him of grand theft, his victim this time a nurse. He served his time at San Quentin and Folsom Prisons, and was released in 1938.
His trail went as cold as his kiss until news out of Pennsylvania said the 60-year-old had died there, on December 17, 1938, likely from heart failure. This wicked and brilliant criminal, Yuma’s most celebrated, is reportedly buried in an unmarked grave.