Brow Beat

Meet Gustaf Broman, the 19th Century Con Man Who Attempted to Cross the Atlantic in a Log Boat

An old newspaper engraving of a crowd looking at a sailboat.
Weeks after Broman had vanished, the Boston Post ran the month-old credulous wire story about his original plans under this picture of a boat, ostensibly the Gustaf Adolph II.
Boston Post

We think of milkshake ducks—people who are enthusiastically embraced by the public and media only to have their horrible past revealed—as a relatively new phenomenon, fueled by a fast news cycle and social media. It’s not. In 1895, a man named Gustaf Broman made national news for announcing a brave and foolhardy scheme: he would sail across the Atlantic in a 13-foot-long sailboat crafted from a cedar log, which he christened the Gustaf Adolph II in honor of the king of Sweden. Paradoxically, he planned to begin this transatlantic journey in Coos Bay, Oregon (then called Marshfield), from which he would sail down the coast to San Francisco, then take the boat by rail to New York City before heading east. His plan for transcontinental travel was even less practical than his boat:

If arrangement can be made with the overland railroads upon his arrival in San Francisco he will place machinery in his boat, or put her on wheels, and by the use of naptha or electricity run her direct to New York by rail, and then prepare for a transatlantic voyage.  

It never came to that, and it quickly became clear it was never supposed to. Broman got the press coverage he sought for his boat’s launch in Oregon, as 4,000 people reportedly came to watch his first attempt to sail down the coast. It wasn’t much of a show: He was immediately blown into a sand bar, far enough from shore that “nobody could get near enough to the Captain to learn his intentions,” and the crowd just watched the boat sit there for a while. He left with the tides the next day. On March 14, he arrived in San Francisco aboard the steamer Arcata, with his log boat in tow. The Los Angeles Times reported that the captain had taken Broman aboard “to prevent him drowning” as his boat was repeatedly capsized. The San Francisco Call was not impressed with the boat’s seaworthiness:

The craft is fitted with contrivances never before seen on land or sea, and having more depth than beam, is about as safe for passenger service as a bale of hay. Not content with the natural crankiness consequent upon its unshiplike construction the architect has riveted brass chain, plates, and other articles to the rail and deck, which further raises her center of gravity, making her an elegant and graceful capsizer. … It is safe to say that the bold navigator will navigate his uncanny and uninteresting craft into some fake museum, and it will be proven that she was designed not for ocean travel, but for the Midway nickel trade.

The Call was right to suspect a scheme, but wrong about its nature. It turned out that Broman was well known to police all over California, and when his boat made the news, they contacted reporters to give them a full rundown on his life story. It’s an amazing account of 19th century chicanery, from seducing elderly widows to fratricide and insurance fraud. Here’s the AP wire story, which the Los Angeles Times published on March 14, 1895:

A RUSSIAN FINN

HE IS A FUNNY KIND OF FINNY CUSS

But There is a Method in His Cussedness, for with All His Evil Doings He Always Comes Out on Top

SAN FRANCISCO, March 13.—Gustaf Broman, the Russian Finn who proposes to make a trip to Marshfield, Or., to San Francisco in a twelve-foot boat, is well known to the police authorities in many California cities.

Detective Anthony of this city says that about four years ago Broman made his appearance in San Pedro, Los Angeles county. He had a hotel keeper there arrested for robbing him of $100, but at the trial it was proved that it was nothing but a blackmailing scheme on Broman’s part to extort money from the hotel keeper, and the case was dismissed. He associated with several women in the place and the citizens uprose in their anger, tarred and feathered him and drove him out of town.

He was next heard of at Santa Cruz, where he and an imbecile brother lived in a shanty. Broman obtained two insurances on his brother’s life, one for $5000 and the other for $3000. Thirty days later the shanty was burned to the ground and the brother was cremated. The insurance companies resisted payment and Broman was arrested and charged with murder and arson.

At the first trial a woman testified strongly against him, but when he had a new trial her testimony was the other way and Broman was discharged. He got the insurance money, and it was afterward learned that he had promised to give the woman a large sum of money if she would not testify against him on the second trial.

Broman then came to San Francisco and proposed marriage to Mrs. Leroy, a wealthy Vallejo street widow, to whom he gave a valuable diamond ring.

The police here had meantime been notified of his doings in San Pedro and he was quietly, but firmly, advised to leave the State. He also had heard that the Santa Cruz woman was here threatening to kill him because he had not paid her the promised bribe not to testify, so he took the advice and went to Mexico.

Broman remained in Mexico for a year and returned to the State. He was next heard of in Sacramento. He had been stopping in the house of a woman named Brown and went to the chief of police with a story that he had been robbed of $8000 in the house. He obtained a search warrant and an officer accompanied him to the dwelling. In one of the rooms he told the officers to search under the carpet, and three $20 gold pieces, which were marked, were found. Broman explained that he had been robbed once before and since then always took the precaution of marking his coin. He then told the officer to look behind a mirror and a diamond ring was found.

It was suspected that Broman was playing another blackmail scheme and an officer came from Sacramento to obtain his record. Mrs. Leroy, the widow on Vallejo street, was subpoenaed as a witness and when Broman learned that he came here before the trial of the Sacramento case and had the widow arrested for stealing the diamond ring he gave her. She was acquitted. The judge advised to have Broman arrested for perjury, and she swore out a warrant, but it was not served upon him.

The case in Sacramento was dismissed and the judge scored Broman for his attempt to blackmail the woman Brown. He left Sacramento and now he comes to the front in Marshfield, Or. with his foolhardy scheme to make a long voyage in a twelve-foot boat.

“My opinion is,” said Detective Anthony, “that Broman has a well-laid scheme in making this trip, and if he should start on it the boat will be found bottom up on some beach. Broman will probably have his life insured for a big sum and after the boat is found a confederate will apply for the insurance money and he and Broman will share it. That is my belief from my knowledge of the man.”

Detective Anthony was right. It was soon discovered that Broman had $15,000 in recently-acquired life insurance from the United States Accident Insurance Association, which promptly cancelled his policy. Broman was finally arrested for perjury for framing the Vallejo widow (whose name may have been Mrs. Roy, not Mrs. Leroy) but was released on a $1,000 bond. About an hour after a judge accepted his bond and released him—Broman arranged to present it to a judge who was not familiar with his case or history—it was discovered that the paperwork was totally worthless: filled out on the wrong form and not signed by one of the bondsmen. A warrant was issued for Broman’s arrest, but he had vanished. Wherever Gustaf Broman sailed from there, he was smart enough to stay out of the papers.