A failed ‘leap to liberty’ just part of Latvian’s criminal career

Max Selling, the Lettish anarchist.
Identified in newspaper reports as Max Selling, the unknown Lettish (Latvian) anarchist is featured in a 1921 book by immigration inspector inspector Feri Felix Weiss.

The image shows a dapper man with a mustache, a cigarette in his left hand, posing in a photographer’s studio. Although the monochrome photograph does not reveal it, he was short — just 5 feet, 4 inches (about 162 cm) — with brown hair and blue eyes. His name, if we are to believe what was published in newspapers following his two daring attempts to escape American authorities, was Max Selling and he was described as a Latvian anarchist.

Whatever his political orientation, Selling (one of his many aliases) led a life of crime that stretched across three continents. Clearly a resourceful man, he also was not consistently successful as a burglar or counterfeiter, the two vocations that landed him behind bars for years at a time.

In late May 1910, Selling was one of three men who stowed away in a coal bunker aboard the S.S. Winifredian, a steamer belonging to Leyland Lines, as it prepared to sail from Liverpool, England, to Boston, Massachusetts. On the passenger list for the Winifredian, Selling was recorded as No. 12 and identified as a Belgian born in Antwerp.1

The stowaways were discovered about a week before the Winifredian arrived in Boston. As the ship sat anchored off Boston Light on June 9 awaiting clearance, Selling and fellow stowaway John Grindberg (or, depending on the source, Johan Grunberg) donned life preservers, bundled up their belongings, and jumped into the cold water in an effort to evade immigration authorities, according to newspaper reports. They were fished out of the ocean by a crew from the cargo ship S.S. Greenbrier.2

Selling was exhausted and unconscious — but alive. Grindberg, identified as a 20-year-old German, died.

Taken ashore, Selling was held in detention. It did not take long for him to try to escape. He made a rope from two towels and climbed out a window. Immigration officers quickly caught up with him.

One of them was inspector Feri Felix Weiss, who a decade later wrote a book about his career dealing with immigrants, The Sieve, or Revelations of the Man Mill: Being the Truth about American Immigration3. Weiss described Selling and his “leap to liberty”:

An immediate investigation shows that this Lettish anarchist, who had taken active part in the White Revolution in Riga, learned a trick or two in prison there, for he hid two roller-towels during the day, also broke off an iron hook from one of the bedsteads, and unscrewed the window frames clandestinely, thus preparing scientifically and with malice afore-thought the leap for liberty. It was an easy matter to slide down the improvised rope-ladder made out of the shredded and knotted roller-towels. The mistake he made was that he ran too soon; if he had quietly crawled or even walked up the wharf we would have never caught him.

But catch him they did, and then authorities tried to figure out just who he was. One suggestion placed him among the Latvian “yeggmen” who two years earlier had held up a saloon in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston and then later killed two police officers in Lawrence, Massachusetts.4 But Selling, reported to be 26 or 28 years old, was deemed too young to match the descriptions of the robbers.

In one newspaper report, Selling was described as “an intelligent fellow. He is an expert stenographer and is believed to have held a responsible position in his own country,” according to The Lowell Sun. “His efforts to escape being sent back lead many of the officials to believe that he may be wanted for some offense.”5

So far in my research, Selling — if that was his real name — remained yet another unsolved mystery of the Latvian diaspora. Was he really Latvian? Was he really an anarchist, given that authorities and the press at the time often used that label for someone with revolutionary tendencies, even if they didn’t follow the ideology of anarchism?

Without reason to hold him in the United States, authorities decided to deport Selling. He was put back on the Winifredian, this time in handcuffs and under guard. He made it back to Liverpool, according to the ship’s passenger list6, but after that no evidence of his whereabouts could be found.

On to Australia — and the rest of the story

That is until Selling went to Australia. Thanks to a tip from anarchist historian Philip Ruff, I learned that a 29-year-old Latvian by the name of Max Selling was convicted in 1913 of trying to forge a £5 banknote in Sydney. The recently published English-language version of Ruff’s research into the infamous 1910-1911 activities of Latvian anarchists in London includes expanded information on their adventures in Australia.7

After his conviction for attempted forgery, Max Selling's entered a New South Wales prison on September 4, 1913.
After his conviction for attempted forgery, Max Selling entered a New South Wales prison on September 4, 1913. (Source: Ancestry.com. New South Wales, Australia, Gaol Description and Entrance Books, 1818-1930 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012.)

In just a few hours of research, I found archival records and dozens of newspaper stories spanning two decades about Selling’s exploits in New South Wales and Queensland.

At one point Australian authorities suspected that Selling might be the enigmatic “Peter the Painter,” but confirmed with the help of British police that he was not the man who Ruff now has identified as anarchist leader Jānis Žākle. Max Selling, it turned out, was one of several aliases used by Emils Kārlis Krastiņš, who happened to have been born the same year as Žākle — 1883.

Selling, described by Australian police as “a clever bank note forger and dangerous criminal” and a “determined, cunning, intellectual man,” was sentenced to 14 years in prison.8 On appeal, the sentence was reduced to seven years, of which Selling served a little more than three.

With a new group of counterfeiting partners, Selling relocated to Melbourne, but in 1918 again was caught, convicted, and sentenced to 10 years in Her Majesty’s Prison Pentridge in Coburg, Victoria.9 Ever resourceful, Selling began to plot his escape. Assigned to work as a mechanic in the prison’s wool mill, he used scrap metal and tools to fashion two revolvers and several bombs. However, the plot was discovered. Selling and his co-conspirators were punished with additional time on their sentences and a period of solitary confinement. After serving a total of eight years, Selling was released.

In 1927, the Sydney-based newspaper Smith’s Weekly ran a feature story on Selling, who by then had been in and out of jail several times and was “anxious to go straight.”10 The story fills in the gaps of his counterfeiting career across Europe and, more importantly, confirms that the Max Selling in Australia was the same “Lettish anarchist” who had leapt into the water off Boston in 1910.

Unfortunately, Selling could not keep out of trouble. Just three years later, in February 1930, the New South Wales Police Gazette reported that he had been arrested again, this time for a string of home burglaries. First ordered to serve five years of hard labor, the sentence was reduced in July 1930 to two-and-a-half years of imprisonment. After receiving the initial sentence, Selling reportedly wept in court, pleading with the judge that he was destitute.11 In 1933, by then 49 years old, Selling again was arrested for breaking and entering. This time the sentence handed down was five years. Police said that “part of the property the prisoner had stolen could have been used in forging bank notes,” according to reports in several Australian newspapers.12

Except for a few mentions in the press in the mid-1930s, I have not found anything more about Selling’s fate. Did he stay in Australia, perhaps reinventing himself under one of his aliases? Or did he leave the country altogether? I will have to file these questions under “research in progress.”

1. “Massachusetts, Boston Passenger Lists, 1891-1943,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-GY7B-7FN?cc=1923995&wc=M6BW-168%3A219470801 : 20 May 2014), 150 – v. 263 Jun 9, 1910 – Jun 16, 1910 > image 437 of 616; citing NARA microfilm publication T843 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

2. “Two Leap Off Liner; One Dead,” Boston Post, June 10, 1910, p. 7; “Foil Escape of Stowaway,” Boston Post, June 18, 1910, p. 5.

3. Feri Felix Weiss, The Sieve, or Revelations of the Man Mill: Being the Truth about American Immigration (Boston: The Colonial Press, 1921). In the book, Weiss incorrectly reported the events as happening in May, rather than in June.

4. For more on the Jamaica Plain case, see Andris Straumanis, “‘This Sudden Spasm of Newspaper Hostility’: Stereotyping of Latvian Immigrants in Boston Newspapers, 1908,” Ethnic Forum, 14:1(1994), 88-108.

5. “Tried to Escape,” The Lowell Sun, June 18, 1910, p. 15.

6. The National Archives of the UK; Kew, Surrey, England; Board of Trade: Commercial and Statistical Department and successors: Inwards Passenger Lists; Class: BT26; Piece: 419; Item: 38.

7. Philip Ruff, A Towering Flame: The Life & Times of “Peter the Painter” (Rīga: Dienas Grāmata, 2018). See also the earlier Latvian-language version, Pa stāvu liesmu debesīs: Nenotveramā latviešu anarhista Pētera Māldera laiks un dzīve (Rīga: Dienas Gramata, 2012).

8. Details of the case are found in National Archives of Australia: Department of External Affairs; A1, 1914/497, Correspondence files, annual single number series; Max Selling, 1913-1914. See also “Max Selling. Charged With Attempted Forgery. Remarkable Allegations Againt a Young Russian,” Truth (Sydney), August 24, 1913, p. 9.

9. “Note Forgery Alleged,” Weekly Times (Melbourne), February 22, 1919, p. 32; “The Black Rock Forgers,” The Age (Melbourne), February 28, 1919, p. 5.

10. “King of Counterfeiters Wants a Job in Sydney,” Smith’s Weekly, March 19, 1927, p. 9.

11. “Apprehensions,” New South Wales Police Gazette, February 26, 1930, p. 194; “Wept in Court,” The Sun (Sydney), March 14, 1930, p. 10; “Prisoners Tried at Circuit Courts and Courts of Quarter Sessions,” New South Wales Police Gazette, July 16, 1930, p. 552.

12. See, for example, “Bad Record,” Warwick Daily News, February 7, 1933, p. 5, and “Five Years’ Gaol,” Queensland Times (Ipswich), February 7, 1933, p. 6.