By J. L. Starkey
One who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.– Niccolo Machiavelli
This was bad – really bad. This time, Eugene Fisher was really in trouble.
How had things gotten to this point? A man needed to make a living, but no one would give him a chance! And now he couldn’t even depend on his family? It was so unfair. A few mistakes, a few too many fines, and suddenly you were out of the will?
So unfair, all of it.
“I just have to come up with a good story,” Eugene told himself as he awaited sentencing in 1929. “The judge will give me a break. I’ve had a hard life since the summer of ’16. Plus, it was Christmas, for crying out loud! I’m a family man, and my baby needed – “
Suddenly, Eugene had an idea. He just hoped it would work.
The Con Man Returns
It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Eugene, the son of wealthy Palouse farmer Jared Fisher. By 1916, he was a twice-divorced, disgraced former policeman, and he was facing prison time for a host of charges.
As was his pattern, though, Eugene would serve no time for his crimes, and by 1917, he would disappear again.
Around the same time, an Oregon native named Claremont Fisher was planning a wedding in nearby Vancouver, Washington. At least, that’s what he said on paper.
It was true. The con man resurfaced with a new identity, and on 12 June 1917, he married Edna M. Taylor . Though “new” Eugene was still the son of Jared and Mary Fisher, he stated that he had never been married before. (Eugene’s first two wives – Estella and Ellen – would have begged to differ with that assertion.)
By 1921, Eugene (alias Eric Fisher) was living in California and making himself known to law enforcement in that state. Late that year, he accused Edna of bigamy and filed for an annulment . The request was denied when Eugene skipped town before his court date, though Edna didn’t let that stop her from remarrying – often. By 1931, she would find herself back in court facing perjury charges, though her alleged husband would not return to add to her woes .
Eugene was too busy to bother with that. After all, he had to keep track of all of his aliases and avoid all of those police officers! At times, it seemed that only one thing was consistent in his life.
What was that one thing? It was Edna, of course.
Enda, Edna, and Edna
On 4 February 1925, Eugene remarried, perhaps hoping the fourth time was a charm. This time, his bride was English immigrant Edna Foden, the daughter of a high-ranking World War I soldier . On paper, Eugene worked as a plumber, which probably gave people the impression that he had changed his life for the better .
Looks were deceiving, however. Eugene’s fourth marriage was destined to fail, probably due in part to the scandal that preceded the nuptials. Records indicate that the couple welcomed their only child three years prior to their wedding, while Eugene was still legally married to Edna Taylor . The child, a little girl named Edna, would be raised by her mother and stepfather after her father (alias Will Fisher) once again walked away from his life.
By 1927, Eugene’s father had passed away, and Eugene had been disinherited by his mother . His siblings would get to share their parents’ wealth, but just because he’d made a few mistakes, Eugene would inherit a paltry five dollars. That was all? It was so unfair!
But he would show them. He’d show them all. He just needed a plan.
The Foolproof Plan
As the 1920s neared an end, Eugene hatched a new plan that simply could not fail. He recruited a young man desperate for work, created a few aliases, and opened a phony bank account. Sure, he was fingerprinted for the account, but no one would figure out that Clark Woods was actually Eugene Fisher. That wouldn’t happen.
He just needed a story to make the plan work. Really, if the story was good enough, the plan would be foolproof!
It didn’t take long for the foolproof plan to fall apart. In 1928, there was the arrest for the sketchy car sale. That incident escalated into a weapons violation that netted Eugene a bit of jail time .
One week before Christmas that same year, the con man’s foolproof plan was foiled. This time, there was no one to bail him out . Even worse, his own daughter (or his wife, depending on which story he told) was going to testify against him!
By January 1929 Eugene was dubbed a modern-day Fagin for his plan to “flood the Bay area with worthless checks,” and police were seeking a woman known as the “Bootleg Queen of No-Man’s Land” to corroborate the story . With a court date looming, Eugene needed an excuse, and he needed it quickly.
The Christmas Excuse
“I’ve got it!” Eugene may have said to himself. “I’ll tell him that my baby needed Christmas presents! And food, of course. I’ll say that we only had old hamburger to eat, and that we didn’t have money to buy presents, and that the baby needed presents! People love that stuff!”
On 20 March 1929, Eugene told it to the judge. He confessed his role in the crime and asked for probation. He explained that his family needed money and food, and that he wanted to “brighten the Yuletide” for them .
Unmoved by the con man’s story, Judge Homer R. Spence commented, “No man who, in addition to committing a crime himself, induces others to violate the law is deserving of leniency.” With those words, he sentenced Eugene to one to fourteen years at San Quentin Prison.
It was over this time, wasn’t it? Eugene Clairmont Fisher was no longer a free man. He would spend his next fourteen holiday seasons not as a name, but as a number . Finally, after so many years of missed opportunities, justice would be served.
Oh, if only it had happened that way…
- Washington State Archives, Olympia, Washington; Marriage Records, 1854-2013 for Eugene C. Fisher, Clarke County, Marriage Applications and Certificates 1917 May-Aug, digital image 207 of 619. Retrieved from Ancestry.com. Washington, Marriage Records, 1854-2013 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012. (See also: “Washington, County Marriages, 1855-2008,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QPM5-X9XG: 28 November 2018), Eugene C Fisher and Edna M Taylor, 12 Jun 1917, Clark, Washington, United States, Washington State Archives, Olympia; FamilySearch digital folder 100511969, digital image 172 of 563.)
- “Plaintiff Disappears,” Healdsburg Tribune, Healdsburg, California, 22 Dec 1921, p, 4, col. 5. Retrieved from UCR Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, http://www.cdnc.ucr.edu. (See also: “In The Courts,” Healdsburg Tribune, 21 Dec 1921, p, 2, col. 2. Retrieved from UCR Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research, http://www.cdnc.ucr.edu.)
- “Perjury Laid to Ex-Wife in Annuling Marriage,” Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California, 26 May 1931, p. 20, col. 4-5. Retrieved from newspaperarchive.com. (See also: “Woman Held as Perjurer,” The San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco, California, 26 Mar 1931, p. 10, col. 2. Retrieved from newspapers.com.)
- “Washington, County Marriages, 1855-2008,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-L9NS-CLFK?cc=1534448&wc=WXW4-XRY%3A1406125702%2C1406219209 : 22 October 2015), Pierce>Marriage certificates 1924-1926 vol 19A>image 189 of 446; State Archives, Olympia. (See also: “Marriage Licenses,” The Tacoma News Tribune, Tacoma, Washington, 6 Mar 1925, p. 10, col. 5. Retrieved from genealogybank.com; and Library and Archives Canada; Ottawa, Ontario, Canada; CEF Personnel Files; Reference: RG 150; Volume: Box 3164 – 37: Geo Foden, Canadian Expeditionary Force. CEF Personnel Files, 1914-1918. Accession 1992-93/166. Record Group 150. Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Retrieved from Ancestry.com. Canada, WWI CEF Personnel Files, 1914-1918 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016.)
- “United States Census, 1920,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-GRFM-ZNB?cc=1488411&wc=QZJT-3F6%3A1036474601%2C1039151001%2C1039163001%2C1589332623 : 14 September 2019), Washington>Whatcom>Bellingham Ward 4>ED 231>image 12 of 20; citing NARA microfilm publication T625 (Washington, D.C.: NARA, n.d.).
- “California Death Index, 1940-1997,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:VPXP-CLG : 26 November 2014), Edna Mary Hartz, 03 Sep 1992; Department of Public Health Services, Sacramento. (See also: U. S. Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007: Weaver, Mary Edna. Retrieved from Ancestry.com. U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.)
- “Washington Death Certificates, 1907-1960,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:N3PQ-9HK : 10 March 2018), Jared Fisher, 13 Nov 1926; citing Palouse, Whitman, Washington, reference 216, Bureau of Vital Statistics, Olympia; FHL microfilm 2,022,316. (See also: Washington. Superior Court (Whitman); Probate Place: Whitman, Washington Washington, Wills and Probate Records, 1851-1970 for Mary F Fisher [database on-line], Whitman, Wills, Vol. 8, 1930-1937, Digital Image 524 of 668, Retrieved from Ancestry.com, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.)
- “El Cerrito Pair Try to Sell Auto, Jailed,” San Francisco Chronicle, 31 Dec 1928, p. 22, col. 4. Retrieved from genealogybank.com.
- “Gun Toter Given 90-Day Jail Term,” Oakland Tribune, 3 Jan 1929, p. 34, col. 5. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “Women Arrested Twice in One Week Up Again,” The Fresno Morning Republican, Fresno, California, 25 Apr 1929, p. 7, col. 4. Retrieved from newspapers.com. (See also: “Check Case is Held for Superior Court,” Berkeley Daily Gazette, Berkeley, California, 24 Jan 1929, p. 1, col. 6. Retrieved from newspaperarchive.com; “Youth is Jailed on Check Charge,” Berkeley Daily Gazette, 19 Jan 1929, p. 13, col. 2. Retrieved from newspaperarchive.com; “Woman Hunted in Bad Check Arrests,” San Francisco Chronicle, 22 Jan 1929, p. 31, col. 4. Retrieved from genealogybank.com; “Alleged Bad Check Man Returned Here,” Berkeley Daily Gazette, 22 Jan 1929, p. 1, col. 5. Retrieved from newspaperarchive.com; and “Jailed Boy Names Girl ‘Rum Queen’,” Oakland Tribune, 19 Jan 1929, p. 1, col. 5. Retrieved from newspapers.com.)
- “Bad Check Passer Gets Prison Term,” San Francisco Chronicle, 21 Mar 1929, p. 33, col. 5. Retrieved from genealogybank.com. (See also: “Confessed Check Passer Sentenced,” Berkeley Daily Gazette, 21 Mar 1929, p. 1, col. 7. Retrieved from newspaperarchive.com; and “Passer of Spurious Checks Sentenced to San Quentin,” Oakland Tribune, 20 Mar 1929, p. 40, col. 6-7. Retrieved from newspapers.com.)
- “United States Census, 1930,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-9R4K-LZ?cc=1810731&wc=QZFS-WX8%3A648807101%2C651364501%2C651378101%2C1589282411 : 8 December 2015), California>Marin>San Quentin Prison>ED 26>image 70 of 92; citing NARA microfilm publication T626 (Washington D.C.: NARA, 2002). (See also: California State Archives; Sacramento, California; San Quentin State>Inmate Photograph and Mug Books>Book 14, 45151-47824/Inmate 46790, digital image 188 of 308. Original data: Department of Corrections. San Quentin State Prison Records, 1850–1950. ID #R135, California State Archives, Office of the Secretary of State, Sacramento, California. Retrieved from Ancestry.com. California, Prison and Correctional Records, 1851-1950 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014.)