Collins’ journeys lead him to the French Quarter

Published 5:00 am Tuesday, June 3, 2003

After Lt. Colonel Charles Glen Collins returned to England afterthe end of the Gallipoli fiasco in 1916, his new wife, AmeliaMorgan Collins, “Winkie,” suddenly left him. It was not untilmonths later that it came to light that she was apparentlyromantically involved with Captain Charles Kennedy-Craufurd-Stuart,whom Collins despised for his apparent cowardice and deceit atGallipoli. They were married some months later.

Collins was sent to an assignment first at Christiana, Norway,working in intelligence ostensibly as a naval attaché. He thenresigned his commission to work as a secret courier for high-levelmessages between the Allies and Russia to Peking and Yokohamaagents.

In late September 1916, he went through Stockholm and Haparandato get to Petrograd (St. Petersburg), Russia, where he made contactwith Russian intelligence agents and was given top-secret packetsto deliver to agents in Peking and in Yokohama. The Trans-SiberianRailroad got him to Peking, and from there he reached Shanghai viathe Yangtse River and then sailed to Yokohama where he completedhis mission October 30.

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While in Yokohama, he was contacted by an old businessacquaintance William H. Smith of St. Louis, who excitedly told himabout a huge oil deal he was working on. A Mr. Mitchell in Houstonhad a large oil field at Goose Creek that he was urgently wantingto sell. Smith needed some help in swinging the deal. He felt hecould sell it to a Shanghai firm, MacBain and Company, for a profitof some $300,000.

At this time, Collins was traveling with two rather wealthyladies, Olga Olsen, a widow, and her young friend, ElsieBenn-Muntz, wife of Sir Douglas Muntz and daughter of an Englishtextile manufacturer, Harrison Benn. She was separated from herhusband and had fallen in love with Collins and was anxious to geta divorce in order to wed the glamorous Scot.

Smith, Collins and Mrs. Olsen joined together as a company toswing the oil deal. Smith was to get half the profits, and Collinsand Mrs. Olsen were to split the other half.

Their negotiations with the MacBain firm were successful, andthey felt the deal was all wrapped up. Smith had just come backfrom paying Mitchell $25,000 for an option to buy the field, andthey celebrated their good fortune.

Smith headed back to Texas to close the deal, and Collins andhis two happy companions moved along to visit India. At Bombay, theexuberant Collins wanted to please his new fiancé and took her to acouple of Bombay jewelers. He dazzled her with a diamond necklaceat one shop, and at another she was enthralled by a string ofperfect pearls.

“What the heck?” thought Collins, “Easy come, easy go.” Thetotal take on the jewelry was 4,500 English pounds. He was able togive a valid cheque or draft for 1,700 pounds. After the merchantschecked out his credit favorably, they accepted his note for thebalance.

By this time, the Russian Revolution had erupted, and theTrans-Siberian Railroad was closed. Collins abandoned all plans togo back to Petrograd.

Collins and his bride-to-be, along with her “chaperone” Mrs.Olsen, headed gaily back to the States. Collins had to return toCanada at Valcartier where he was to be in charge of trainingCanadian troops. The girls were to travel about a bit, and thenjoin him later for more fun and games. Unfortunately, the sky fellon Collins when his friend W.H. Smith contacted him and gave thegloomy news that Mitchell had sold the oil field to someone else,in spite of their option. So much for the big bucks! He recalledthe losing hand in Baccaret that cost him a quarter million back in1904, but this one hurt even more. What could he do about thejewelry note? He already had a bankruptcy hanging over him back inEngland.

He quickly left for Texas to see what could be done about thedeal. Going by way of Washington, he stopped to confer with a toplaw firm Bartlett and Poe, not just about the oil deal, but whatwas he to expect from the Indian merchants.

After visiting Houston and getting the bad news confirmed on thesale of the oil field, he took the train back to New Orleans andchecked in to the Grunewald Hotel (now the Roosevelt). Aftervisiting the Boston Club for dinner, he was rudely accosted at thehotel by a local law officer who put him under arrest on charges ofcriminal fraud filed by the two Indian merchants. Taken to theHouse of Detention, he was thrown in with drunks, vagrants andcriminals awaiting trial. He was not a happy camper. It wasNovember 4, 1917, and the low point of his life.

Collins pondered his past as he tried to sleep on the filthymattress, surrounded by the snoring and bellowing and smells of thedregs of society. At age 27, he had had more advantages than most-born to a prominent wealthy family always anxious to help; and hadhad more rewarding experiences than most- participated in threesuccessful combat campaigns; had had sudden wealth thrust upon himto immediately squander several times; had won the heart of hisonly true love only to lose her and his only son from his ownfoolish actions; had stupidly turned down his family’s offer torescue him financially from an idiotic fiasco of his own making;had thrown away on one hand of cards a quarter million dollars thatcould have bailed him out of his bankruptcy – oh, so many stupidmistakes!

Collins contacted his Washington attorneys. They advised him toget a local lawyer. He hired J. Zack Spearing, who quickly got himreleased on $2,000 bail.

Then there began a long journey through the labyrinth of federalcourt proceedings. The British government was seeking to extraditehim to return to India to face trial. The charges were criminalcharges, not a suit to collect the debt, and in India at that timethe penalty could be death.

However, Collins believed, even a sentence of a few years in anIndian prison would probably mean death anyway. Consequently, hewas determined to fight extradition at all costs.

The wheels of justice ground slowly and a hearing was held onhis attorneys’ motion to dismiss the extradition petition, thenappealed, then reheard, then appealed again. The process wouldcontinue for over five years, including three trips to the U. S.Supreme Court.

Shortly after his arrest, Elsie came to comfort him and marriedhim in the prison March l2, 1918. However, as his ordeal continuedwith his being in and out of jail constantly between hearings,Elsie’s passion began to cool. When his second appeal to theSupreme Court was rejected in November l9l9 and it appeared that hewould have to remain confined indefinitely, Elsie left for New Yorkand England. However in early l920, Collins was able to get helpfrom John W. McGrath and another gentleman whom he had met in theBoston Club. They guaranteed a $25,000 bond which gained hisfreedom.

Thereafter Collins was free to come and go as he pleased. He gotan apartment in the French Quarter and became quite a man abouttown. He made many friends in New Orleans society, becoming quite afavored guest for St. Charles Avenue and garden district parties.He also was warmly received in the literary set, which includedSherwood Anderson, renown author of the day; William Spratling, apotter of note whose life was later made into a movie, and WilliamFaulkner, a young writer who had one novel to his credit.

Faulkner was rooming with Spratling on Pirate Alley beside theSt. Louis Cathedral in a small house that today is The FaulknerBook Store. Collins continued his interest in gambling and horseracing and knew a number of owners who raced at the Fairgrounds.One day he got lucky or perhaps had a tip on a sure thing and won$100,000 at the track. He immediately bought a yacht, TheJosephine, docked at Lake Pontchartrain. He gratefully shared hisgood fortune with his jailers and took them on an extended cruiseon the lake.

The most significant cruise taken however was one for all of theliterary crowd, including Faulkner. For three days, they cruisedthe lake, once running aground near the north shore. Faulkner gotrestless after hours of being stuck in the mud and enticed a younglass on the boat to go with him in the yacht’s dingy to shore. Theysought to reach Mandeville through the swamp for they had heard itwas a swinging town with great bars and music. However, the swampwas too much for them, particularly from the mosquitoes, and theyabandoned their quest and got a fisherman to take them back to theyacht.

The cruise is immortalized by Faulkner’s second novel,”Mosquitoes,” wherein Col. Collins is portrayed by the characterMajor Ayers. The Times-Picayune cited in Collins’ obituarythat:

“Colonel Collins took to the old House of Detention the mostmagnificent wardrobe the inmates ever saw. He and his jailers spentafternoons sailing on his yacht. Turnkeys were his messengers tohis bookmaker, carrying his money, making his bets on horse racesat various tracks.

Then Colonel Collins wearied of this confinement. He arrangedfor an escape. He took the key of his cell with him as a souvenir.But he was captured on the New Orleans waterfront, and taken backto the House of Detention, just as he was about to board afreighter for London.”