The Royal Baccarat Scandal – Was Scots Guard, Sir Gordon-Cumming Framed?

Lieutenant-Colonel Sir William Alexander Gordon Gordon-Cumming, 4th Baronet (20 July 1848 – 20 May 1930) was a Scottish landowner.  Sir Gordon-Cumming was filthy rich and a leader of men. 

He could have led a risk-free life and just become one of the idle rich.  However, he enjoyed risk and joined the army.  He served in the Sudan, Egypt and South Africa.  He also enjoyed hunting in India and the United States.

He was accused of cheating at baccarat in the Royal Baccarat Scandal of 1890.  The scandal is also known as the Tranby Croft Affair and involved the then, Prince of Wales, who was the son of Queen Victoria and was to eventually become King Edward VII. 

In this article, I will explain why I believe that this iconic Scotsman may have been framed.

 

THE TRANBY CROFT GUESTS

Arthur Wilson invited a group to his home at Tranby Croft in Yorkshire.  The guests included aristocrats, MPs (and future MPs), wealthy businessmen, Prince Edward and Sir Gordon-Cumming.

The Prince liked to go to the Doncaster Race Meeting every year.  Therefore, the invitations to Tranby Croft were for the purposes of going to the races, playing baccarat and doing whatever else High Society people do.

Not all of the guests played baccarat.  In addition, Arthur Wilson, himself, did not play baccarat. 

So, who were the players?

 

THE PLAYERS

The players included 2 main groups of people.  There was the family of Arthur Wilson and, Prince Edward’s associates.  There was also a player called Reuben Sassoon who doesn’t appear to be associated with either group.

 

Group 1:  Arthur Wilson’s Group

Mary Wilson:  Age Unknown.  Wife of Arthur Wilson

Stanley Wilson: Age 22.  Son of Arthur and Mary Wilson.

Ethel Lycett Green Age: Unknown.  Daughter of Arthur and Mary Wilson.

Lieutenant Edward Lycett Green:  Age 30.  Son-in-law of Arthur and Mary Wilson.

Lieutenant Berkeley Levett: Age 26.  Friend of the Wilson family and served with Sir Gordon-Cumming.

 

Group 2:  Prince Edward’s Group

Prince Edward:  Age 49.

Sir Gordon-Cumming: Age 42.

Lord Coventry: Advisor to Prince Edward

Lady Coventry

Lieutenant General Owen Williams

Lord Edward Somerset 

Captain Arthur Somerset

 

THE BACCARAT GAME:  8th – 11th SEPTEMBER 1890

BEFORE THE GAME

Gordon-Cumming told Stanley Wilson that the colouring of the baize on the table made it hard to see the chips. 

As such, Sir Gordon-Cumming placed a piece of white paper in front of him.  This made his stake highly visible.

 

The Coup de Trois Baccarat System

Sir Gordon-Cumming played the coup de trois system.  The system involves allowing your winnings to run and adding your initial stake to the winnings for the next hand. 

For example, his bet size was £5 – £25.  Let’s say, he won a hand with a stake of £5.  He would add another £5 for the next hand and he would also stake the winnings from the hand that he has just won. 

 

THE DEVELOPMENT OF ACCUSATIONS

Day 1: 8th September – The First Session: 30 minutes

#1  It all started with 22 year old Stanley Wilson telling 26 year old Lieutenant Berkeley Levett that he thought Sir Gordon-Cumming was cheating.

He thought that he saw Sir Gordon-Cumming add two red £5 counters on completion of the hand prior to being paid out.  This is a well-known cheating strategy at baccarat called “ La Pousette”. 

#2  Lieutenant Berkeley Levett  observes the game and agrees that Sir Gordon-Cumming was cheating. 

 

Dinner Break

Prince Edward asked Mary Wilson for improvements to the table. Stanley Wilson arranged for a longer, three-foot wide table in and cover it with green baize.

#3  Stanley Wilson and Lieutenant Berkeley Levett  tell  Lieutenant Edward Lycett Green that they think Sir Gordon-Cumming is cheating. 

 

Day 2: 9th September – Doncaster Races followed by Dinner and Baccarat

After dinner, Prince Edward requests that a chalk line is drawn on the baize, six inches from the edge, behind which players were to keep their counters when not placing their stake.

#4  Lieutenant Edward Lycett Green agrees that Sir Gordon-Cumming is cheating.  He leaves the table and sends a note to Mary Wilson (his mother-in-law) saying that he thinks Sir Gordon-Cumming is cheating.

#5  Mary Wilson and Ethel Lycett Green observe and agree that Sir Gordon-Cumming is cheating.

 

Day 3:  10th September – Doncaster Races followed by Discussion whether to inform Prince Edward followed by the Accusation 

There were various discussions which ended up involving almost all of the players.   At this point, no-one else had noticed any cheating.   Prince Edward had not been informed of the alleged cheating.  However, Lord Coventry, who was adviser to the prince, was involved in the discussions.  The main discussion was whether or not this should be reported to Prince Edward. 

#6  Captain Arthur Somerset feels that the matter could and should be dealt with by those present and not reported to Prince Edward.

At this point, at least, 8 people knew of the incident: Stanley Wilson, Lieutenant Berkeley Levett, Lieutenant Edward Lycett Green, Lord Coventry, Lord Edward Somerset, Captain Arthur Somerset and Lieutenant General Owen Williams. 

I would suspect that Lord Coventry talks to his wife.  If that is the case, that would make 9 people.   

# 7  Lieutenant Edward Lycett Green gets confrontational and threatens to accuse Sir Gordon-Cumming at the races the next day.  He said, “”I will not be a party to letting Gordon-Cumming prey on society in future”.

#8  Prince Edward is informed and decides that Sir Gordon-Cumming should be accused.  Lord Coventry is chosen to accuse him.

#9  Sir Gordon-Cumming denies the accusation.   

There were various discussions and Sir Gordon-Cumming always denied the accusations. 

 #10  Sir Gordon-Cumming signs a document containing the following statement: 

“In consideration of the promise made by the gentlemen whose names are subscribed to preserve my silence with reference to an accusation which has been made in regard to my conduct at baccarat on the nights of Monday and Tuesday the 8th and 9th at Tranby Croft, I will on my part solemnly undertake never to play cards again as long as I live.”

— (Signed) W. Gordon-Cumming

Sir Gordon-Cumming was later to say in court,” If I had not lost my head, I would not have signed that document”.

#11  The paper is signed by Prince Edward, Coventry, Williams, Wilson and his son, both Somersets, Lycett Green, Levett and Sassoon.

#12  Prince Edward instructs those present to keep the incident quiet.   Captain Arthur Somerset said,”Nothing in the world known to ten people was ever kept secret”.

 

THE TRIAL

INCIDENT GETS OUT TO LONDON SOCIETY

Eventually, the incident got out to London Society.  Sir Gordon-Cumming blamed the Wilson family for spreading gossip about the incident.  His solicitor requested a retraction from them.  They refused and Sir Gordon-Cumming took them to court for slander.

 

THE COURT CASE (1st – 9th JUNE 1891)

Prince Edward, Lieutenant General Owen Williams and Lord Coventry said they saw no evidence of cheating. 

To my knowledge, Lady Coventry, Reuben Sassoon, Lord Edward Somerset and Captain Arthur Somerset were not called as witnesses.  None of them had said that they had witnessed any cheating anyway.

So, that just left the Wilson family and Berkeley Levett.  They all said that they saw Sir Gordon-Cumming push money over the chalk line after the hand had been completed.

However, there were different stories concerning the series of events during the baccarat game.

Mary Wilson was the worst witness.  She had apparently forgotten that her husband didn’t play baccarat on the days in question.  When she was asked if she saw anyone place a bet of £15, Mary Wilson said only her husband had placed a bet of this amount.

 

AFTERMATH

Sir George-Cumming was kicked out of the army the day after the trial and was never accepted back into high society.

 

WHY I BELIEVE SIR GORDON-CUMMING MAY HAVE BEEN FRAMED

1.  THE ACCUSERS WERE ALL CONNECTED

There were 5 witnesses against Sir Gordon-Cumming.  Of the 5 accusers, 4 were from the Wilson family.  In terms of a possible frame up, this should be suspicious. 

Just the fact that all of the accusers know each other well, means that they could have planned this together. 

The fifth accuser, Lieutenant Berkeley Levett, was also a friend of the Wilson family.  He also worked in some capacity with Sir Gordon-Cumming.  As a lower ranked officer, he may have been looking for a promotion.  If he could get Sir Gordon-Cumming out of the way, it might help him with his career.  In any case, we don’t always like people we work with.  People often have work-related grudges.

 

2.  THE ACCUSERS WERE THE HOSTS

It is easier to set a trap when you are the host and you also decide who the guests will be.  The only other way that they could have sprung a trap (if this was a frame-up), would have been to wait for a random invitation from someone who invited their whole family and Sir Gordon-Cumming.  This may have been unlikely. 

 

3.  THE ACCUSERS WERE THE LEAST EXPERIENCED PLAYERS

The witnesses were generally among the least experienced baccarat players in the group. If Sir Gordon-Cumming was cheating, it is surprising that this was not picked up by more experienced players or the croupier. 

Even after Prince Edward was told, it’s surprising that the more experienced players didn’t suggest continuing play and checking themselves to see if Sir Gordon-Cumming was cheating.  I can make sense of this in the frame-up context.

 

IT IS CONVENIENT THAT THE ACCUSERS WERE THE LEAST EXPERIENCED PLAYERS

When there is sensitive information, you usually report the information to someone in authority.  The person in authority will usually tell you to keep this quiet from people equal and lower in status.  In other words, sensitive information goes up in the hierarchy, while people lower in the hierarchy are usually not given this information.

If the alleged cheating had been first noticed by someone higher in the social hierarchy, it would have been difficult to obtain so many accusers.  In addition, it would have been difficult to get so many people involved in the case.

If Sir Gordon-Cumming was framed, this would explain why the least experienced players noticed this first.  That way, everyone involved gets to know about it.  In addition, when the information “accidentally” gets out to the public, it becomes more difficult to know who let the cat out of the bag.

 

IT IS ALSO CONVENIENT THAT PRINCE EDWARD WAS THE LAST TO KNOW

Let’s assume that Prince Edward was involved in the frame-up.  The best way to look as if you are not involved in the frame-up is to not be an accuser and appear as if you are trying to prevent the story going public.  Therefore, when Prince Edward receives the information, he can deal with the situation and tell everyone present to keep the incident quiet.

Consequently, if he was involved in a frame-up, it  would better for him if more people knew about the incident before he received the information. 

If he doesn’t want to be an accuser, it would explain why the higher-ups (including Prince Edward) did not suggest continuing play and checking whether they could see for themselves whether Sir Gordon-Cumming was cheating.   

 

4.  INCONSISTENCIES AT THE TRIAL

Although all the witnesses agreed that Sir Gordon-Cumming added money to his stake, there were inconsistencies in their stories at the trial. In addition, Mary Wilson told a lie about her husband playing baccarat at Tranby Croft.

 

5.  CAPTAIN ARTHUR SOMERSET’S INCONSISTENT OPINIONS

Captain Arthur Somerset’s opinions were inconsistent during the discussions at Tranby Croft.

When the players were discussing whether to inform Prince Edward of the alleged cheating, Captain Arthur Somerset felt that the matter could and should be dealt with by those present and that the alleged cheating should not be reported to Prince Edward.

At this point, at least 8 (probably 9) people were aware of the alleged cheating. 

After Prince Edward had been informed and Sir Gordon-Cumming had signed the document, the Prince advised the incident to be kept within the group. 

Captain Arthur Somerset said,”Nothing in the world known to ten people was ever kept secret”.

So, he believes that an incident can be kept quiet if 8 or 9 people know about it but not if 10 people know about it. 

This doesn’t make sense.

In addition, most of the people in the group were from military and political backgrounds.  They must sign official secrets acts and share knowledge that 10 or more people have.

 

HOW TO MAKE SENSE OF THE MISMATCH IN CAPTAIN ARTHUR SOMERSET’S OPINIONS

If this was a frame-up, the alleged conspirators do want the incident out in the open

When they were discussing whether to tell Prince Edward, what they allegedly saw, I suspect that there was some kind of planned role-playing going on.

Their aim, at this point, is to convince those who didn’t observe any cheating that they should report the incident to Prince Edward.  

The accusers were the youngsters in the group (apart from Mary Wilson).  Therefore, they are not likely to have the last say on the decision whether to report the incident to Prince Edward. 

They have to convince the higher ranking military officer and Lords to inform the Prince. 

In addition, they would also want to put pressure on the higher ranking individuals to report the matter while they are all together.  They don’t want Lord Coventry (who was adviser to Prince Edward) saying that he will report the incident when they get back to London.   

If is it dealt with back in London, it would be more difficult to get the note signed by all parties.  Most importantly, they don’t want Sir Gordon-Cummings to have time to consider whether to sign the letter or to get legal advice.

So, you have Captain Arthur Somerset’s saying that they shouldn’t inform the Prince.  The idea of this is to get a heated debate going, which ends up with Lieutenant Edward Lycett Green becoming confrontational and threatening to accuse Sir Gordon-Cumming at the races the next day.

An accusation at the races wouldn’t just bring the incident to the Prince’s attention.  It would be likely that there would be others listening as well.  In other words, Lieutenant Edward Lycett Green is really threatening to make the incident public.  In addition, this way of making the incident public would be embarrassing for all involved.

Therefore, Lieutenant Edward Lycett Green is giving an ultimatum – tell the prince or he makes the incident public in an embarrassing manner. 

As adviser to Prince Edward, Lord Coventry doesn’t have a choice but to inform the prince.  If he allows Lieutenant Edward Lycett Green to make the incident public at the races, it will come out that Lord Coventry already knew about this.  As adviser to Prince Edward, he would be in trouble for not informing him that an embarrassing situation is likely to occur.

Therefore, I think Captain Arthur Somerset’s behaviour was an act to help trigger a heated debate which would provide an opportunity for Lieutenant Edward Lycett Green to give the ultimatum.

 

MOTIVES

As far as motive is concerned, this is a bit like a “Who shot JR?” story.   You can’t always pin a specific motive down to a single person. 

However, as I will explain, Sir Gordon-Cumming led his life in a manner that is likely to have upset people and possibly, made some people revengeful.

Gordon-Cumming’s has been described by his biographer, Jason Tomes, as “the most arrogant man in London”.

The Sporting Life described him as “possibly the most handsome man in London, and certainly the rudest”.

Sir Gordon-Cumming was a serious womaniser with his liaisons including Lillie Langtry, Sarah Bernhardt and Lady Randolph Churchill.

So, he offended a lot of people and women fancied him.

 

PRINCE EDWARD’S MOTIVE

The story is that 3 days before the meeting at Tranby Croft, Prince Edward caught his mistress, Daisy Brooke and Sir Gordon-Cumming together.  Therefore, it is possible that Prince Edward had a motive to take revenge.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that the prince was involved in the frame-up.  An opportunity may have just presented itself to him.

However, the prince had been friends with Sir Gordon Cumming for 20 years and did little to save him.  As I have said earlier, he could have checked for himself whether he could see Sir Gordon-Cumming cheating, but he didn’t.  In addition, Sir Gordon-Cumming attempted to have discussions with the prince before the trial.  However, the prince would not meet with him. 

 

ANGRY HUSBANDS’ MOTIVE

Sir Gordon-Cumming also had a particular liking for married women.  Although high society tends to have different practices when it comes to marriage and relationships, you can’t assume that all men in high society are ok with their wives and girlfriends sleeping with other men.

Because Sir Gordon-Cumming was at it with married women, he may have made more than just one enemy within the group. 

 

CONCLUSIONS

Was Sir Gordon-Cumming was framed or did he cheat?  There isn’t 100% proof either way.  However, there were inconsistencies in the Wilson family’s accounts throughout the trial.  This suggests that the Wilson family didn’t practice their story sufficiently for the purposes of the trial or they all have bad memories.  

Furthermore, the facts concerning the scandal, that may seem odd at first sight, seem to fit nicely into a conspiracy theory.

There is a chance that Sir Gordon-Cumming did cheat at baccarat.   You often see high society people, who have got away with stuff for so long, that they believe they are immune to getting caught or challenged on their behaviour.  

However, the same could be said about his getting away with his liaisons with married women.  He was 42 and had probably got away with his behaviour for a long time.  As such, he might not have even thought that anyone might be looking for some kind of revenge.

Some might say, losing his position in society serves him right, whether it’s because he cheated at cards or because he got other men’s wives to cheat.

 

Sources

Wikipedia – Royal Baccarat Scandal

Wikipedia – Sir Gordon Cumming

 

Attribution

Featured Image:  David Wright / Tranby Croft Under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.


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