RHODYLIFE

‘River Pirate,’ from sure-thing to swindle

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Waldemer Barth was arrested in Johnston on Feb. 13, 1903, after authorities were alerted he was in the area. This was good news for the wealthy Perry Belmont of Newport, who Barth had swindled out of about $1,500.

Thirty-three-year-old Barth was a native of Prussia who was the husband of Alice (McClelland) and the father of three children: Edith, age 8; Harold, age 4; and Marian, age 2. He and his family lived in Newport for the last three years while he worked as head gardener on the Belmont family’s impressive estate.

Fifty-two-year-old Perry Belmont was the son of a financier, a graduate of Harvard and a successful attorney. He and his wife Jessie (Robbins) were members of high society in both New York and Rhode Island.

Perry Belmont
Perry Belmont

In 1902, Belmont purchased a $20,000 racehorse known as “River Pirate.” He touted the horse as a sure winner and his excitement about owning the animal spilled over to every occupant of the estate, including the maids, cooks and maintenance workers.

Just before the horse’s first race as a Belmont commodity, the staff was busily collecting money from friends and family so that they could place bets. The idea of going from a life of servitude to a life of wealth was beyond anything they had ever dreamed of. And now came an opportunity which they had been assured was fail-proof.

Barth didn’t ask anyone to borrow money. Belmont had just given him a check for $246 to purchase some items for the estate. Barth decided he would use the money to place his bet, winning back the $246 and then some.

The excitement of the entire staff descended quickly when Belmont’s sure-thing came in ninth. However, there were probably none so worried over the loss than Barth. Luckily, “River Pirate” was soon racing again and Belmont gave Barth a sum of money with which he was to pay the gardeners working under him.

Barth felt he had no choice but to use the cash to bet on the horse again. The belief in the animal hadn’t been diminished in the minds of his owner or trainer and, this time, he was sure to win. However, out of the 16 horses in the race, “River Pirate” came in 14th.

It didn’t take long before Belmont realized the money he had given Barth had disappeared and the head gardener was gone. He alerted authorities and, after it was learned Barth had gone to Johnston, he was arrested on a charge of grand larceny.

Barth had a long career as a talented gardener and florist. Until this unfortunate incident, he was regarded as a trustworthy man with a great character. The hype about “River Pirate” had caused his downfall and that would be his defense when he requested clemency.

Regardless of how the court viewed the crime, Belmont was completely understanding of the temptation he had caused. He contacted Barth’s wife and offered to financially take care of her and the children until Barth was released from jail.

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.

pirate, swindle

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