Swindler Played A Charming Tune


Col Ulf Boberg ( from his book )

An amiable man of science, whom legendary policeman Colonel Ulf Boberg described as the cleverest criminal he’d ever met, once charmed Beaufort Westers with his piano playing.  Not one person in the enthralled audience realised that this man was a world class crook with Interpol and the FBI on his trail.   This refined man was Dr Thornton, a doctor of science,  analytical chemist, world traveller,  swindler and international confidence trickster. In the 1930s, Colonel Boberg caught up with him in a  small Free State town. He writes in his book, The Boberg Story: “Thornton, then  just past the prime of life, was a tall, suave, well-built man with silvery hair.  Polished and refined, he dressed immaculately.  His educated speech and  impeccable  manners inspired confidence.  Names of royalty, the  rich and famous peppered his speech. Thornton also played the piano excellently, as I  learned during the preparatory hearing in Beaufort West. His cleverness lay in the fact that he was satisfied to take a little from everyone.  Few realised they had been swindled. No one complained to the police.”  The FBI picked up Thornton’s  trail when he swindled a rich American woman out of thousands of dollars. Before they could trap him he vanished, only to turn up in London involved in similar crimes.  With Scotland Yard hot on his heels, Thornton  disappeared. Then an advertisement in leading South African newspapers caught Boberg’s eye.  It offered  “£10 000 for immediate investment.”  He investigated and picked up Thornton’s trail.  Eventually he caught up with him  in the Free State.  At first pleading innocence, Thornton  later  admitted:  “Mr Boberg, you’ve got me.”  Thornton skillfully handled his own defence, but was found guilty on all counts. The Supreme Court sentenced him to 4½ years in prison for fraud. As he walked out of the courtroom he tapped Boberg on the shoulder and said: “I regret coming to South Africa and getting caught by a local detective when neither the FBI nor Scotland Yard could trace me. I congratulate you.” People called him a liar, charlatan and cheap trickster.  But Boberg disagreed.  To him Thornton  remained an enigma. “That he had a distinguished career I could not doubt. And I wondered what else was true when I found an old newspaper photograph showing him standing next to King Alfonso of Spain.”  Thornton died in prison.


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