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Who Was Ben Blanchard?

Who was Ben Blanchard?

 

This week we have a series of photos of Ben Blanchard, born in Ridge Farm, Illinois in 1857. He was a con man who founded South Hutchinson, he is also considered to be the first person to discover salt west of the Mississippi in 1887, leading to the massive salt business in the area.

  

After his father’s death in 1860, Ben’s mother made certain that he and his brother received a good education. Ben attended the Vermillion County Seminary where he was educated as a lawyer. After graduation Ben decided instead to get into real estate, moving from Illinois to Terre Haute, Indiana in 1882 with his first wife Martha. There he became known as “one of the most imaginative - as well as charming - con men in America” according to the Terre Haute Gazette. While there, he opened the “Ben Blanchard Real Estate Agency,” which he advertised profusely, even taking out a full-page ad in the city directory in 1883. In 1885 his shady business practices came to light, he had been running a Ponzi Scheme from his private train car worth $25,000 (equivalent of roughly $703,690 today). His debts were estimated at $8,464,514.34 in today’s dollars. The Terre Haute Gazette reported that he fled the city dressed as a woman, though sadly it retracted the story the next day. Ben was eventually acquitted of charges in 1886.

 

In May of that same year, Ben formed the Inter-State Investment Company with $100,000 of capital to buy 280 acres across the Arkansas River from Hutchinson. This was to become South Hutchinson, which he touted as “The fastest growing town in the west.” On June 1, 1886 the company obtained a state charter for South Hutchinson, Kansas. During the first six months of the town’s existence, the company sold over $160,000 worth of lots and it became necessary to plat several additions.

 

While in South Hutchinson, in February of 1887, Ben remarried, this time to a woman named Avis. In September of the same year Ben began searching for oil to raise the value of his land. Here there are two stories. One is that while drilling for oil he hit a salt vein, the other states much the same, but adds that (before finding salt) he purchased barrels of oil to pour into the hole to try to trick investors into thinking he had hit oil when he hadn’t. This led of the Salt Boom of 1888, Ben was only 30 at the time.

 Portrait of Ben and his second wife Avis taken in 1887. His first wife (Martha) died of tuberculosis in1884.

 

After leaving South Hutchinson, Ben worked for the American Copper Company, during which time he founded two other towns (Blanchard, Arizona and Monarch, Nevada) both of which are ghost towns now. In 1906 Ben disappeared from Monarch, allegedly taking $45,000 with him ($137,054.07 today). From 1910 to 1920 he lived in London, managing the British International Bank, and serving as a financial advisor to J.P. Morgan. While in London Ben and Avis were guests of the King and Queen in Buckingham Palace.

  Ben working at his desk in London

 Ben Blanchard’s Identity Book, also known as a Passport

Like so many others, the charismatic con man’s fortunes were lost in the 1929 stock market crash. Howard Blanchard recalls that in 1935, he and his parents visited Ben at his home near the Chesapeake Bay. There was no flooring, water, electricity, doors or windows“He had a small herd of goats with a few kids that he took care of.  When we got back home, I asked dad what all the black thread was on Granddad’s stomach.  Dad said that Granddad often had hernias that broke through the skin and he just pushed the intestines back inside and sewed up the opening with gut.” Eventually brought back to Terre Haute by his son Clyde, Ben died March 24, 1942.  He is buried with his first wife and their two children at Woodlawn Cemetery.

  Ben with his son Clyde and grandson Howard at his home near Chesapeake Bay. His health was poor at this time, leading his son to move him closer.

 

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