The ceremony was due to begin at 2:30 p.m. that day: Wednesday, March 13, 1918. Courtesy of the local press, which had been running prominent stories about it, some 5,000 people were there to witness the occasion. They’d already gathered around the front steps of Salt Lake City’s recently constructed state capitol, where the marriage would be taking place.
Lit by spring sunshine, a brief flurry of snowflakes shimmered like confetti as a petite, young Native American woman and her bridesmaids ascended the steps. These led to a pale stone colonnade with an enormous dome looming over it. Waiting at the top of the steps was the tall, muscular, and handsome 29-year-old groom, Chief White Elk, resplendent in a feathered headdress. To go with that, he had on buckskins, and light blue moccasins decorated with the Stars and Stripes in beadwork. His eye-catching attire was accessorized with ermine skins, birds’ claws, and a necklace of bison bones.
He could hardly have struck a greater contrast to the soberly besuited mayor of Salt Lake and the governor of Utah, who were standing next to him. Like Burtha Thompson, his bride-to-be—whose quasi-royal family background prompted her to style herself Princess Ah-Tra-Ah-Saun—they’d known him for less than a week. In that time, they and most of the city’s other residents had been captivated by his charm, charisma, and status as leader of the Cherokee.
1919 newspaper photo, which accompanied a story published in The Daily Oregonian. (Courtesy of the Oregon Digital Newspaper Program, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon)
“This is the first time that Salt Lake has married a real princess to a real chief at her state capitol,” trumpeted that morning’s edition of The Salt Lake Telegram. Yet Chief White Elk wasn’t a chief. In fact, he wasn’t even Native American. He was, instead, a white Rhode Islander who hailed from a blue-collar, French-Canadian family. As a teenager he’d pulled minor con-tricks, which had landed him in reform school, though the experience didn’t reform him.
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Since leaving home, he’d attracted the interest of the Bureau of Investigation, the precursor of the F.B.I. He’d spent time in jail for impersonating a government official. He’d also worked at a Coney Island amusement park, in medicine shows, and in vaudeville, where he’d established himself as a minor singing star, capable of attracting—as well as enthralling—sizable audiences. His stage shows were, however, just the warmup act for his greatest performance, namely his reinvention of himself as Chief White Elk.
It was a role destined to propel him on a uniquely strange transatlantic odyssey, which would earn him worldwide fame. In the space of little more than two years, he’d be granted an audience with King George V; rub elbows with the cream of the Parisian artistic world; con various aristocratic women out of their fortunes; become a darling of Benito Mussolini’s Italian fascist regime; throw lavish parties; and give away vast sums of money—the equivalent of as much as $58.9 million in 2018 currency. Without risk of exaggeration, Edgar Laplante could be described as a real-life hybrid of Tom Ripley and Jay Gatsby, two of American fiction’s most potent and beguiling characters.
Author Photo: Doralba Picerno