Oliver Wallace’s Marine Car Was Unbelievable! (But It Was Not His Only Scam)

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Oliver M. Wallace may not have actually invented a revolutionary aquatic vehicle, but he certainly pioneered the promotion of vaporware.

When “Colonel” Oliver M. Wallace announced his amazing new marine car, he made national news. The Louisville Courier-Journal [24 June 1898] was not alone in its enthusiasm:

“The invention is a marine car that carries passengers on or near the surface of the water; is practically unsinkable, as it is a life preserver in itself, and can not be run aground on shoals or bars, as it is provided with a device that rolls it easily over any such obstruction without injury or stoppage.”

Col. O.M. Wallace announced his newly invented “marine car” with this illustration. It appeared in newspapers as far away as Idaho, but the vehicle itself never materialized.

From Cincinnati Post 20 June 1898 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Exactly how the marine car was propelled through the water remained proprietary information:

“The causes for the rotation of the wheel or the connection of the engine with the motive power causing the great speed of the car are a part of the inventor’s secret.”

The car, according to the newspapers, easily navigated rivers, lakes or canals and could be powered by steam, electricity or gasoline. According to the newspaper reports, crowds gathered every day at the docks in Cincinnati to watch prototypes of the craft being tested. Col. Wallace, described as anywhere from 55 to 68 years old, said he developed the mechanics of his creation over a lifetime of study and travel.

Interestingly, only out-of-town newspapers reported these crowds at the Ohio river. None of the Cincinnati papers described any actual public appearances, but they did print artistic conceptions of Wallace’s craft. The Cincinnati newspapers claimed he had tested his marine car at Washington, D.C. in front of “marine engineers” who “pronounced it perfect.” Wallace was in Cincinnati, he said, looking for investors to finance a factory to manufacture these marine cars on East Eighth Street.

Does any of that strike you as a little bit odd?

It may not surprise you, then, to learn that, just a couple of months later, Col. O.M. Wallace was asked to leave Louisville immediately, if not sooner. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal [18 October 1898]:

“It was charged that Col. Wallace was endeavoring to borrow a large sum of money through Attorney Augustus J. Bizot, on the property belonging to Thomas W. Moran, whom Col. Wallace is alleged to have impersonated.”

In exile from Louisville, the Colonel found himself in Indianapolis, where his arrest on charges of forgery and perjury was announced by the Indianapolis News on 11 January 1899.

“Wallace went to the office of F.D. Miner, an abstractor, and made application for a loan of $3,000, offering as security a mortgage on lots at the corner of Twenty-Ninth and Illinois streets, owned by Dr. E.A. Wehrman.”

As Col. Wallace sat in an Indianapolis jail awaiting trial on his latest escapade, a detective from Cleveland arrived to transport him to Ohio where he would face charges on exactly the same sort of scam. It appears that, in December 1897, Wallace had fooled a Cleveland bank into giving him $5,000 by representing himself as a respectable citizen named Daniel Jones.

At his trial in February, Wallace, aka Jones, claimed he had been led astray by a real estate agent. The agent, in turn, claimed that he truly believed Wallace was, in fact, Daniel Jones, owner of the mortgaged property.

The prosecutor hammered away at Wallace’s claims of innocence, citing similar charges in Chicago in addition to arrests in Louisville and Indianapolis. Eventually, Wallace’s legal counsel advised him to fold, and he pled guilty. Apparently, the attorneys thought Wallace’s age would spare him from a prison sentence. But no, he was sentenced to 10 years in the Ohio penitentiary. A year after sentencing, Ohio’s governor signed extradition papers so Wallace could face trial in Indianapolis.

By the time O.M. Wallace ended up in a Cleveland court room, where he was sketched by an artist from the Plain Dealer, he had charges against him in Chicago, Indianapolis and Louisville as well.

From Cleveland Plain Dealer 25 January 1899 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

But wait! There’s more! Wallace actually escaped from prison in 1901 and made his way back to Cincinnati. He was arrested in Cumminsville and returned to the pen.

It is curious that Wallace’s life of crime seems to coincide with his marriage. In July 1897, at Nicholasville, Kentucky, Wallace married one Jennie Long. The Enquirer [31 July 1897] reported that Wallace married after a 10-year courtship, having known Jennie Long for some years before her husband died. The Cincinnati Post [9 September 1901], on the other hand, claimed the marriage resulted from a one-week courtship. In either event, it appears that Wallace squandered his bride’s inheritance and that profligacy may have inspired his life of crime.

The marine car? After the publicity faded throughout the autumn of 1898, there was not another mention of the machine itself or the alleged factory on East Eighth Street. It appears Mrs. Jennie Long Wallace remarried, but the Colonel himself disappeared into the mists of history.

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities.

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