Edgar R. Laplante,
Internationally known Con Artist
Buried in Cementerio Lindo, exact location unknown
(Archival photo by Turner Studios, 1918,
courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Edgar Laplante, a.k.a. Chief White Elk, a.k.a. Dr. White Eagle, a.k.a. Ray Tewanna, was a charming, internationally-known con artist who routinely assumed a Native American persona.
He was born around 1888 in Central Falls, Rhode Island, to a Canadian immigrant couple. In 1917, he was working as a barker for a silent movie theater on Coney Island. Perhaps the attention that his Native American regalia and somber mien attracted led him to reinvent himself as "Chief White Elk."
By 1918, Chief White Elk was the toast of Salt Lake City, Utah, giving patriotic speeches to raise funds for World War I Liberty bonds. On March 13, 1918, he married Bertha Thompson, a half-Klamath model and aspiring actress from Eureka, California. The federal census of 1920 recorded the couple living in Portland, Oregon. Shortly thereafter, however, Laplante appears to have deserted Bertha to go on a whistle-stop tour of Canada.
Laplante’s next port of call was London, where he passed himself off as a Cherokee chieftain (from Canada!) and expressed a desire to meet personally with King George V. Finding himself short of cash, Laplante began calling himself Prince Ray Tewanna and married an English widow, Ethel Elizabeth Holmes, ignoring the fact that he was still married to Bertha.
Laplante soon left his new wife to visit France and Italy. Taking up lodgings in Paris, he walked the arts districts wearing his Native American costume. Although his French was of the French-Canadian variety, Laplante had no trouble charming the Parisians.
Next, Laplante moved on to Italy, where he made the acquaintance of Countess Melania Khevenhüller-Metsch. The countess seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of Italian lira, and Laplante was happy to help her spend it. His sympathy for the poor made him the darling of Italy’s Fascist Party, and he was photographed several times with Mussolini’s Black Shirts.
However, in 1925, Laplante was unmasked and sentenced to a prison term in Italy for defrauding the countess. By the time he was free to return to the United States, he was so broke that he had to accept work as a waiter in order to pay for his steamship passage.
Back in the U.S., Laplante didn’t change his shtick; he simply took to touring rural areas, trusting that he would be unknown there. A 1931 newspaper article from Tuscaloosa proved that he had resumed his "Chief White Elk" persona. Found walking along a California highway in 1939, he claimed to be a spokesman for an Aleutian tribe on his way to Washington, D.C.
By the time of his death in 1944, Laplante was living at Schmidt’s Haven of Rest in Phoenix, Arizona. His death certificate lists him as "Edward La Plante (Dr. White Eagle)," a Native American born near Gila Bend, Arizona. An indigent, he was buried at public expense in the Maricopa County Cemetery. Edgar Laplante's cenotaph is in Cementerio Lindo.
©2022 by Donna L. Carr. Last revised 29 March 2022.
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