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George Boynton: the greatest explorer that never was

  • Written by  Charles Roberts
  • Published in Explorers
George Melville Boynton and the recruitment poster map for Boynton's ‘Discover Darkest America Expedition’ George Melville Boynton and the recruitment poster map for Boynton's ‘Discover Darkest America Expedition’
27 Dec
2018
Charles Roberts reccounts the story of George Melville Boynton, perhaps the world's worst explorer

At the peak of his fame, George Melville Boynton was celebrated alongside the likes of Ernest Shackleton, Sven Hedin, and Frederick Cook. Over the course of his life he represented himself as a revolutionary, a long-distance walker, a mining engineer and an adventurer. Newspaper articles about his exploits circulated from New York to New Zealand. But behind this carefully crafted façade he was far more complicated – an unscrupulous mercenary willing to fight for the highest bidder, a fraudulent businessman who swindled many of his friends, and an utterly hopeless explorer

In so many ways, George Melville Boynton personified both the virtues and vices of late 19th and early 20th century America. On the outside he was bold, charismatic, and relentlessly optimistic, constantly seeking his fortune in new and inventive ways. Underneath the charming exterior, however, he was a braggart and a swindler whose larger-thanlife public persona was developed through relentless self-promotion and whose money-making schemes straddled the line between hopelessly naïve and outright fraud.

Born in New Hampshire in 1869, George received a thorough education in Boston a er which he lived (and likely worked) with his father in New York until the age of 20. In 1889, a violent quarrel drove them apart. Afraid to return home and with only $10 in his pocket, Boynton brashly boarded a fruit ship heading for Rio de Janeiro in search of adventure, becoming a soldier of fortune and (in a newspaper interview three decades later) claiming to have fought with the Marshal da Fonseca in Brazil in 1889, in the revolution against Balmaceda in Chile in 1891, and alongside Nicola Pierola, ‘the Fox of Peru’, from 1893 to 1895. He also claimed to have been a military advisor to Maximo Gomez during the Cuban War of Independence, and later to have fought in Colombia, Mexico and Manchuria.

By 1897 Boynton had returned to the United States and was living in San Francisco. This brief period of normalcy, however, was not to last. On 18 August he embarked on the most famous of his great adventures, walking around the world to win a $50,000 wager. Boynton had bet several wealthy friends in San Francisco (some sources claim that it was the mayor of San Francisco himself) that he could walk around the world without spending any money, relying entirely on the kindness of strangers. His proposed route was to take him from San Francisco to New York, then by ship to London, through all the major capitals of Europe, across Siberia to Vladivostok, through Japan, and back across the Pacific. He would finish by crossing the United States a second time before arriving triumphantly in Washington, DC. He was required to complete the walk within a period of five years and was not allowed to spend any money along the way.

In a rather extreme interpretation of the wording of the bet, Boynton chose to begin his walk with absolutely nothing, including clothing, hastily fashioning a suit of clothes out of brown paper. Fortunately, before he had even le the city, a local tailor took pity on the young man and gi ed him a complete outfit of clothes, including a knapsack and some vital gear. Though he only spent a few hours in his paper suit, he brought it up o en in newspaper interviews, and was more than happy to recreate the outfit during a visit to a London photography studio. The resulting photograph of George Melville Boynton striking a thoughtful pose in his paper suit was featured in prominent journals, including Sketch and Th e Illustrated London News.

After six months and more than 4,000 miles of walking, Boynton arrived in New York City on 13 February 1898 where he gave interviews to several newspapers, telling tales of narrow escapes from hostile Native Americans, extreme thirst in the deserts of Nevada, and from an oncoming train in a tunnel near Pittsburgh. Boynton’s father, delighting the reporter who managed to track him down, called him a ‘crank’ and le it at that.

newspaperBoynton poses in his paper suit for an article in Sketch, a British newspaper

 

CROSSING IBERIA

On 30 July 1898, Boynton embarked on the next stage of the adventure, leaving London on a ship bound for Lisbon. On his arrival in Lisbon, he applied to the US Legation for a passport to allow him to cross the border into Spain, a bizarre choice as Spain and the United States had been at war since April. The passport application was approved on 2 August 1898 and Boynton began the 150-mile walk from Lisbon to the Portuguese border with Spain, stubbornly in denial about the dangers of travelling through a country at war with his native land. By sheer coincidence, the Spanish-American War came to an end on 21 August, the day before Boynton arrived at the border. Even so, Boynton was refused permission to enter Spain, possibly because news about the treaty had not yet reached them, but more likely because Boynton’s appearance, demeanour and purpose would have seemed extremely suspicious at such a time of heightened tension.

Typical to his nature, Boynton refused to accept defeat and made the brash decision to sneak across the border instead. Just a er midnight he began to crawl across on his stomach. He made it about halfway before a Spanish sentry spotted him and opened fire. Boynton made a mad dash for a nearby row of trees, narrowly avoiding the hail of bullets. The reckless decision to sneak across the border was one of many close escapes for Boynton as he crossed Spain. Several times he was shot at by Spaniards who recognised him as an American. He was attacked by angry mobs, threatened by Spanish army offi cers and arrested several times as a spy. At no point did Boynton ever try to simplify his journey by disguising his nationality; in fact, he made his own task significantly more difficult by choosing to wear an American flag sash given to him by Miss Lilian Chaffee, a fellow American traveller, at the Alhambra in Granada. Whether out of a sense of obligation or braggadocio, Boynton wore the sash for the final 1,300 miles of his trek across Spain. On his journey he passed through Granada, Cartagena, Madrid, Valencia and Barcelona, before attempting to cross the Pyrenees near Pamplona in December. Freezing conditions made the going extremely treacherous, and though he did eventually make it into France at Arneguy on New Years’ Day, 1899, along the way he capitulated and purchased some food to avoid certain starvation. This violated the central condition of the original wager and marked an ignoble end to his walk around the world.

 

TO THE POLE!

Having failed to complete his walk around the world, Boynton was temporarily unoccupied, but he would not remain so for long. In a letter sent to the American Geographical Society (AGS) in April 1900, Boynton stated that he had ‘decided to try and reach the Earth’s northern axis by means of an air-ship’. He also wrote that his method of reaching the Pole would be ‘very much similar to that of poor Andrée’, a reference to the Swedish balloonist Salomon Andrée’s doomed attempt to fly over the North Pole in 1897. Andrée, a far more experienced balloonist and explorer than Boynton, failed to get nearer than 300 miles to the target before his balloon crashed, killing Andrée and his two fellow explorers, Knut Fraenkel and Nils Strindberg.

Andrée’s expedition was fortunate enough to receive funding from Oskar II, the king of Sweden, and from Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite and the creator of the Nobel prizes. Boynton was not so well-connected and needed to rely on a far more inventive fundraising method, a second walk across the States. At high noon on 26 June 1899, Boynton set off from the offi ces of the Brooklyn Citizen in New York, headed for San Francisco. His goal was to find ‘5,000 patriotic Americans who will volunteer to give $10 each to send himself and a party of five others on an exploring expedition to the North Pole’. In order to draw more attention he set himself the restriction of never sleeping indoors for the duration of the trip. By August he had reached Chicago. Three weeks later he arrived in Kansas City. In the following day’s edition The Kansas City Journal, rightfully sceptical of this new arrival, described him perfectly:

‘The captain [he styled himself Captain Boynton] may be destined to be a great man. He thinks he is. He might be a lunatic, and he may be a harmless vagabond; at any rate he tells an interesting story about himself.’

By October, Boynton had reached Colorado Springs where he sustained an injury to his knee, suspending his fundraising walk. While recovering, Boynton became friends with an old prospector named Fleming who told him about the enormous mineral wealth of the surrounding area, particularly along the Hayden Creek. Boynton immediately staked his claim to the land, giving it the name ‘the Montezuma’ a er the goldrich Aztec emperor.

certificateA share certificate for the Montezuma Gold Mining and Milling Corporation, later revealed to be a fraud 

 

THE GOLD OF MONTEZUMA

After examining the land, Boynton sent a letter to Noah E Barnes, an English financier, whose acquaintance he made while previously in London. Boynton sent samples of the region’s gold ore to Barnes which were found to be of the highest quality. A er several visits to the region, Barnes founded The Colorado Prospecting, Developing and Mining Development Company. Boynton was made vice president and general manager. His letter to the AGS in April 1900 suggested that he still held out hope that his polar expedition might proceed, potentially using money from his mining endeavours.

A year later, Boynton and Barnes formed the Montezuma Gold Mining and Milling Corporation, founding the town of Barnes City on the banks of Hayden Creek, which by 1904 was a flourishing community of 300 well-built structures. The company had an initial capital stock of $300,000 divided into 60,000 shares at $5 each. The Montezuma claims were expected to produce over $1,000,000 worth of gold and silver in 1903 alone, so not surprisingly the shares sold extremely well. In an interview with the Salida Record newspaper in September 1902, Barnes predicted that ‘three-quarters of a million dollars annually will go to England as dividends to shareholders’.

It was later discovered that several of the mines had been artificially sprinkled with high-grade ore from other mines to make them appear more productive, a process known as salting. Barnes was accused of loading his shotgun with wads of highgrade ore and blasting each of the mining claims whenever the assayers were due to visit. In the end, no dividends were ever sent out and the company declared bankruptcy. Barnes spent several years in a Colorado prison for this fraud, and would later be incarcerated at Sing-Sing prison in New York for defrauding members of the German aristocracy, including Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia using similarly fraudulent mining claims. It isn’t clear to what degree Boynton was aware of the fraud, though he does not appear to have served any prison time. 

The Montezuma Mining Corporation was the first in a string of largely fraudulent business endeavours carried out by Boynton, many of which used partnerships with prominent members of society to mask the fraud. In January 1902, Boynton established the San Juan Petroleum Corporation in Arizona. The company’s capitalisation was $15,000,000, an enormous figure at the time. His partners included James H Peabody, the governor of Colorado, and Murdoch Maclaine, 23rd Chief of Clan Maclaine of Lochbuie.

In September he founded The Mineral Exploration and Development Corporation of the American Continent in Phoenix, Arizona, and in the same year dissolved the United States Mineral Syndicate, a company he had founded just the year before. His partner in the former endeavour, Charles Allanson-Winn, fourth Baron Headley, was a member of the English peerage who had already declared bankruptcy once for unsound investments. He was the ideal target for a con-artist such as Boynton. Finally, in 1907, he established the American Copper and Silver Company with the intention of scouting Central and South America for valuable mining opportunities. In the end, all of these businesses failed without producing any dividends to their shareholders.

 

DARKEST AMERICA AWAITS

In the latter months of 1907, an article appeared in the NewYork Tribune heralding a new expedition to explore the interior regions of the South American continent. The newspaper received the information in a telegram from the Hotel Bellevue in Boston, courtesy of the expedition’s organiser, Captain George M Boynton. The news spread quickly and soon the expedition was being reported in newspapers as far afield as Sydney and Auckland. The South American interior was beginning to garner a great deal of attention in the early years of the 20th century with fabled explorers such as Hiram Bingham and Percy Fawcett planning their own expeditions. The Discovery Darkest America Expedition was named a er the Discovery, the sloop Boynton had purchased to carry his explorers up the Amazon River, and was expected to take place over five years. A recruitment poster was likely printed in Boston in the early months of 1908 while Boynton was residing at the Hotel Bellevue. The Bellevue was one of the grandest hotels in the city and was given the honour of becoming the official headquarters of the expedition. A Boston newspaper reported at the time that Boynton would patrol the lobby of the hotel every morning and evening dressed in a khaki uniform, his chest covered in unrecognisable medals. Much to the annoyance of the hotel’s management and many of the guests, he would insist upon speaking at length to any likely recruits about the merits of the expedition.

Like all of Boynton’s earlier schemes, the Darkest America Expedition ended before it even began. Boynton le the Hotel Bellevue shortly a er publishing the poster and in typical style he le a trail of unpaid bills behind him.

His next destination was New York City where he hoped to find more willing recruits. Instead, he found himself locked in a jail cell for failing to pay another hotel bill, this time at the Hermitage Hotel. Boynton had accrued a bill of $80 for meals and lodging. The manager caught him trying to sneak out and he was arrested on 20 April and appeared in court the following day. To add insult to injury, it was revealed during the trial that he had also failed to pay his $48 bill for the khaki uniform and the medals he had worn in the lobby of the Hotel Bellevue.

He was swiftly sentenced to three months of labour in a New York penitentiary, crushing any realistic hopes that the Darkest America expedition would proceed. The final mention of the expedition appeared in a small central Florida newspaper on 1 December 1908. The Ocala Evening Star reported that George Melville Boynton had arrived in St Petersburg on the west coast of Florida to establish a training camp for his Darkest America expedition. The camp, which was to be ‘a model of its kind’, would be open to the public and donations would be gratefully accepted. Unsurprisingly, the camp was never built and the expedition was abandoned for good.

Following service in the First World War as part of the 25th Royal Fusiliers, a battalion more commonly known as the Frontiersmen, consisting largely of men who were too old to fight elsewhere but who had extraordinary experience as soldiers or adventurers, Boynton lived in San Francisco for the remaining years of his life. He continued to list his occupation on California voter rolls as ‘military advisor’ until he was in his late sixties and died sometime in the mid-1940s, alone and largely forgotten.

If any of his planned expeditions had succeeded he might have ranked among the greatest explorers of the age. Instead he le behind a legacy of failure, broken promises and defrauded investors. We should, however, remember that he was not without accomplishments. He successfully walked across the United States at least twice, he fought bravely on two fronts in the First World War, and he developed a loyal network of friends who were willing to petition the president of the United States for a pardon on his behalf. One of the greatest ironies is that if he had stayed in New York as a young man and ignored his desire for adventure, he would have inherited his father’s successful tailoring business and become a millionaire by legitimate means. Instead he chose to live an extraordinary, albeit flawed life.

Charles Roberts is a map specialist at The Map House (+44 207 589 4325). A fuller account of Boynton’s extraordinary life can be found at geog.gr/maphouse

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