The time a con man brought Minnesota to the brink of war with Canada

Jennifer Baldwin Peden and Mark Benninghofen play competing con artists.
Jennifer Baldwin Peden and Mark Benninghofen play competing con artists in the History Theatre's production of "Lord Gordon Gordon."
Scott Pakudaitis | The History Theatre

Composer Chan Poling says his new musical, "Lord Gordon Gordon," came about by chance.

"Reading the New York Times or something and there was some reference to Minnesota's greatest con man. And I clicked on the link and here we go," Poling recalled.

What caught Poling's eye was the true tale of a post-Civil War flim-flam man. He called himself Lord Gordon Gordon and promised wealth to the people he fleeced. He almost started a war with Canada.

Poling's creative collaborator, playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, picked up the story: "The gist of it is, a lord, named Lord Gordon Gordon, shows up in Minneapolis in 1871. He is interested to bring a village full of Scots to the Prairie."

Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, left, and musician and composer Chan Poling
Celebrated playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, left, and musician and composer Chan Poling have now collaborated on several musicals together, including the successful "Glensheen" show for the History Theatre.
Scott Pakudaitis | The History Theatre

Gordon says he owns an overpopulated Highland estate in Scotland. He claims the influx will boost the area economy and jump-start a much-needed railroad. All Lord Gordon Gordon needs is a little seed money. The locals give him a lot — and he takes off.

He's next heard of in New York, Hatcher said, where Lord Gordon convinces the railroad baron Jay Gould he can help him win control of the Erie Railroad — if Gould ponies up some cash.

"And he does," said Hatcher. "He gets almost a million. And then it mysteriously falls apart."

Perhaps because of one Sarah Beldan.

"My character, Sarah Beldan, doesn't really exist," said Jennifer Baldwin Peden. But her character helps explain a twist in Lord Gordon Gordon's history. He falls for Sarah, who also has less than pure motives.

Jennifer Baldwin Peden plays a woman who steals a con man’s heart.
In the History Theatre musical, "Lord Gordon Gordon," Jennifer Baldwin Peden plays a mysterious woman who steals the con man's heart.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

"There was a Beldan. There were ladies around, we know that to be true. Probably 50 percent or so," she said with a laugh. "And so they have spun out this character from this great mystery of why did he stay in New York to get caught?"

Gould sued and the police arrested Gordon. But he jumped bail, escaping to Canada. There he convinced Manitobans he would buy huge amounts of land. The Minnesotans got word he was just north of the border, and they sent a raiding party to bring him back to justice.

"And there was actually this big war party that was sent to the border and it had to be worked out in terms of negotiations with Ulysses Grant and the prime minister of Canada," Hatcher said. "But Lord Gordon Gordon almost brings us to the brink of war."

And that was the image that really inspired Poling, the composer. He and Hatcher also worked together on "Glensheen," another dark musical that was a success for St. Paul's History Theatre, where "Gordon" will open this weekend.

"I thought 'musical' right away," he said. "When I saw they are going to invade Canada, all of a sudden I saw the Monty Python aspects of it."

Mark Benninghofen plays con man Lord Gordon Gordon.
Mark Benninghofen plays con man Lord Gordon Gordon in the History Theatre musical of the same name.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Poling said that in writing the music he drew on influences as diverse as "Annie Get Your Gun," tango and the Marx Brothers.

Mark Benninghofen plays Lord Gordon Gordon, or at least the man who called himself that name. No one knows his real name for sure.

"This is the first time I've played a character whose name I actually just had to create in my own mind. No one else cares about it. But yeah, he's a specter," Benninghofen said.

Which has allowed Hatcher and Poling to let their imaginations run riot. History Theatre Artistic Director Ron Peluso, who is directing the show, said he was dubious when they pitched the idea, but now he's a convert.

"I think you fall in love with these people who are con artists, who have liberal use of the truth, and I think people will recognize that today," he said.

Almost everyone in the show brings up comparisons with modern-day life, although Hatcher stresses that, in Lord Gordon Gordon's time, people dressed better.

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