Byron H. Robb’s Pertinacious Gall Got Him Evicted From Cincinnati And Honored In Texas

The many schemes of a prolific Cincinnati con artist.
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When the best legal minds in Cincinnati counseled Byron Robb that he was legally doomed, he immediately fired them and demonstrated that he always had another trick up his sleeve.

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

In the long and sordid roster of Queen City scalawags, Byron H. Robb holds a prominent place. He was delightfully incorrigible, congenitally incapable of telling the truth and absolutely unrepentant when exposed.

Robb fabricated so consistently that it is often difficult to separate any facts from the overwhelming flood of mendacity in his wake. It appears that he was born around 1836 in or near Parkman, Ohio, a tiny hamlet east of Cleveland and northwest of Youngstown. His parents named him Harvey, but he found that name uninspiring and relegated it to a middle initial. He began calling himself Byron, after the British poet.

At the age of 19, Robb launched a lifelong career as a bamboozler, selling a concoction guaranteed to produce luscious curls when applied to the scalp. At least one unfortunate customer went totally bald when she saturated her hair with the stuff. He got into the oil business by purchasing a dry well, then pouring oil stolen from nearby tanks into it. He then fobbed the now “productive” rig onto some credulous farmer. During the Civil War, Robb raised a cavalry company he dubbed the “Geauga Rangers” and offered it for service, claiming the rank of lieutenant on the basis of his own fabricated experience as a Texas Ranger. The United States Army wasn’t that desperate.

Among Robb’s myriad victims was Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Mrs. Stowe ordered some “mammoth gourd seeds” from Robb to plant at her winter home in Florida. Robb claimed these seeds yielded gigantic gourds that could be used as washtubs. When her first shipment failed to sprout, Mrs. Stowe ordered another, and sent a letter inquiring what she had done wrong!

At various times, Robb popped up in St. Louis, New Orleans and a number of other locales, usually one step ahead of the law. When the constabulary sniffed too close to his fraudulent enterprises, Robb would “rent” another man’s name and resume business under that appellation until the coast was clear. During the 1860s, Robb paid a gardener named William Chappell $25 annually so he could advertise yet another hair tonic under the “Chappell’s Hyperion” brand.

It was reported that Robb dumped his first wife by encouraging her interest in another man. Robb sent her to Indiana to secure a divorce while he romanced an employee who would become the second Mrs. Robb.

Around 1875, Robb rented a house in Bellevue, Kentucky, establishing his business offices in Cincinnati. Entries in the city directories for the next half-dozen years indicate the constant churn of his schemes. At first, he listed himself as a “general agent,” which covered a multitude of sins. Next, he became the proprietor of the Monitor Manufacturing Company, then manager of the Monitor Lamp & Glass Works, and then President of the American and European Secret Service Company, then manager of the Electro Magnetic Hair and Flesh Brush Company.

Interestingly, at least two of these companies had some basis in actual inventions patented by Robb. In 1877, Robb was awarded a patent for a device that extinguished a kerosene lamp if it was knocked over. In 1879 and 1880, he earned patents for “galvanic” hairbrushes. Unfortunately, Robb preferred fraud to manufacturing. People who ordered his lamps often got nothing at all, while customers of his galvanic brushes received nothing but a cheap comb with a bit of copper wire wrapped around it.

Robb really did earn a patent for a galvanic brush, but customers who ordered from his company usually received only a cheap comb with some copper wire wrapped around it.

United States Patent & Trademark Office

It was his “Secret Service” company that achieved the pinnacle of Robb’s infamy. The American and European Secret Service Company placed hundreds of advertisements throughout the United States, offering to enlist any correspondent as a bona-fide detective, complete with a frameable certificate and a shiny new badge for the low, low price of only $3.60. After paying this fee, applicants were advised to keep their day jobs in order to remain undercover until an assignment came up. Young men throughout the country signed up in abundance – many of them career criminals who believed that an appointment as a detective offered a credible alibi. There are reports of bushels of mail arriving every day at Robb’s Fifth Street office, half containing money orders for $3.60 and half containing dunning letters from newspapers that were never paid for running Robb’s advertisements.

Eventually the postal inspectors caught up with Robb and he was subpoenaed to court. Robb procured the cream of the Cincinnati bar for his defense, including Stanley Matthews, later appointed to the United States Supreme Court, and George Hoadly, later elected governor of Ohio. His lawyers reviewed the evidence collected by the Post Office and informed Robb that he was undoubtedly going to lose the case. His best option was to plead guilty and throw himself on the mercy of the court.

Robb responded by firing his crack legal team. He then sent telegrams to a dozen or so of his “detectives,” directing them to take the next train westward, to proceed to some remote location and to apprehend a red-headed, one-eyed man missing one finger and walking with a limp. The young operatives, delighted to finally be on assignment, followed orders and reported back that no such man could be found. Robb thanked them for their diligence, paid their salary and expenses and told his proteges to await their next assignment.

In court, Robb produced several of these young men as witnesses. They testified under oath that they had applied to the Secret Service Company, paid the initiation fee, received their badge and certificate, and had received an assignment from Robb and had been paid for it. The Post Office case crumbled. No matter they could prove nothing in court, the United States Postmaster announced in 1880 that nine Cincinnati companies controlled by Robb were prohibited from using the postal service in any manner.

Byron H. Robb responded to this temporary setback with his usual flair. First, he went to court and had his name legally changed to Byron H. Van Raub, claiming it was the ancestral version of the family surname. Then he relocated to Texas and acquired some property he claimed was the famous Don Carlos Ranch, which it was not, and then got into the Shetland Pony business, and then the cowboy school business, and then the bloodhound dog business, and then the Buff Leghorn egg business and then the milch goat business. And he had the nearest Bexar County railroad whistle stop renamed Van Raub, after himself.

Every time Robb, or Van Raub, embarked on some new scam, newspapers around the country published scathing exposés of his extensive rap sheet. Newspaper owners were delighted to attack him because the one constant in Robb’s career was his reluctance to pay for advertising. Still, there was always someone willing to believe his folderol. One newspaper, reporting that Van Raub was seeking young men willing to become cowboys (and willing to send him $5.00 for particulars – sound familiar?) claimed he was a retired Prussian cavalry officer who insisted on stern discipline. When Robb died in 1913, the obituaries included some highly unlikely embellishments such as selling Shetland ponies to European nobility.

Amazingly, Robb’s bullshit endures to this very day. Out where Van Raub, Texas, once existed – by the 1920s, his namesake was nothing more than a ghost town – there is an official historic marker that reads in part:

“This community, named after Byron Van Raub, an English gentlemen rancher, was established along the route of the Kerrville Branch. It is said that this successful gentleman rancher developed the first dude ranch in Texas as a means to train fellow Englishman in the rigors of creating successful Texas ranching operations.”

The shifty little shyster from rural Ohio got himself memorialized as an English gentleman, capping a positively breathtaking life of unrelenting chutzpah.

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