While researching the army career of an ancestor of mine as part of the Imperial War Museums’ Lives of the First World War project, I soon became aware of a bigger, more unsavoury story that had taken place. Everyone has a few black sheep in their family’s past but I have discovered something that even I was taken aback by!
Stanley Major Beggs, the youngest child of George Charles and Mary Ann Beggs, was born in Liverpool on 16th July 1896. He was baptised on 30th September at St. James Church, Toxteth Park, near to the family home of 36 North Hill Street. Stanley would remain at this address throughout his early life until he became a ship’s steward for the Pacific Steam Navigation Company.
His life was to change, however, on March 8th, 1917, when Stanley enlisted with the 10th (Scottish) King’s Liverpool Regiment. Described as having ‘flat feet‘ and an ‘overlapping left little toe’, he soon found himself fighting in France. In November 1917, after suffering heavy losses at Ypres a few months earlier, the regiment moved south to Epehy where they took part in the Battle of Cambrai. Here, they suffered heavily during the German counter attacks and, on November 30th, Stanley was captured by the enemy and taken as a prisoner of war. It is not known where he was taken immediately after his capture or where he spent the next year but, on 29th November 1918, he arrived at one of the camps at Münster, remaining there for three days before being sent to Calais in order to be repatriated.
On his return to Liverpool, Stanley returned to work at the Pacific Steam Navigation Company before making a life-changing decision. On May 14th, 1923, he arrived at Ellis Island, New York onboard the Orduna having made the decision to emigrate to the United States. He made his home in New Jersey and, on the 1930 US Census, he can be found working as an oiler for the Public Service Electric & Gas Company and boarding with a family in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Some time during the next eight years, Stanley got married to a Canadian woman named Lillian Wittis, born about 1894, who had arrived in the USA in 1910. The 1938 New Jersey City Directory records them as living at 126 Rutherford Place and his wife is recorded as being a nurse. By the time of the 1940 Census, they were living at Jay Avenue in Lyndhurst, Bergen, New Jersey. Despite them both having jobs, all was not well financially with the couple as testified by a story that was about to break in the American press.
Helen Clay Frick, the third child of Pittsburgh steel magnate, Henry Clay Frick, became the richest woman in the US when, on the death of her father in 1919, she inherited $38m. In 1940, Lillian Beggs, who had ‘become tired of poverty’, sent Miss Frick three letters, the first on August 14th, demanding that unless she paid her $50,000, ‘everything she had would be bombed’.
The final letter, sent on September 19th, ended with a reference to the explosion at the Hercules Powder Company, Kenvill, New Jersey and stated that ‘the same thing’ would happen to Miss Frick if she did not pay the money. On September 24th, Lillian was arrested by FBI agents at the Fulton Street entrance to the Hudson Terminal as she collected a package she believed contained the $50,000, the arrest being announced by J. Edgar Hoover.
On November 22nd, Lillian appeared in front of Federal Judge Vincent L. Leibell and pleaded guilty of attempting to extort money from Miss Frick, saying that she wanted to buy a home and a 40-foot boat for herself and her husband! Sentencing took place four days later, the maximum penalty under the so-called Lindbergh act being 20 years’ imprisonment. Fortunately for Mrs Beggs, she received a suspended sentence and was placed on two years’ probation.
The couple spent a lot of their remaining years travelling to and from Liverpool until 1960 when, shortly after one of their voyages back to England, Stanley Major Beggs died. Lillian died thirteen years later, on December 1st, 1973. Both were buried at St. Catharine’s Cemetery, Sea Girt, Monmouth County, New Jersey.