Just less than 101 years ago, the News Tribune reported that a hefty number of local laborers were taking advantage of a slow work season to return to their native countries and bring relatives back to the United States — increased travel fares be darned.

Some had called in an intermediary like George C. Marsley. The steamship agent was, at the time, reportedly assisting an estimated 200 families between Duluth and the Iron Range to secure tickets for travel and spending-while-en-route money.

He was described as “the Imperial Wizard of an Invisible Empire of Good-Will, distributing largess from a magnificent castle in Poland.”

And then, suddenly, he was gone — along with a heckuva lot of money. The News Tribune’s dominant headline from Oct. 27, 1921: “Duluth steamship agent vanishes, $25,000 missing.”

That's more than $380,000 in 2021.

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In the early 1920s, Marsley was married with three children and worked out of the first floor of the Manhattan building on the 400 block of West Superior St. (According to zenithcity.com, it was later razed and now the Northland Buildings is in that spot.)

In the months leading up to the disappearance, he sold his home at 5723 Wyoming St. to a lawyer for less than $6,000 — modern-day equivalent of about $91,000 — and moved his family to Janesville, Wisconsin.

“He told me he wanted to sell his home to straighten out some affair and he needed the money,” the buyer said. “He did not sacrifice the home, but made a fair deal for the place.”

A former neighbor told the News Tribune: “Mr. Marsley always complained that he didn’t have money enough to meet their obligations, but he had a five-passenger automobile.”

With the family gone, Marsley moved into the Hotel McKay — about a block away from his headquarters.

A clerk from the hotel confirmed that Marsley had been gone for weeks, but that the guest had not revealed where he was going.

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Marsley had been gone about three weeks before representatives from “several ocean steamship lines” came to Duluth to investigate. Instead of him, they found a sign on his door: “Marsley Sick.”

His accounts, investigators discovered, had been destroyed.

One of his victims was Morris Garrison of the Duluth Trunk Company, who had paid Marsley more than $300 to bring his mother and sister to America from Kiev, Russia. He never received the tickets.

William Rokowski, of West End, had tried to get a $400-plus refund from Marsley. His wife and daughter had passports, but weren’t able to make the trip because of eye troubles.

“I last saw Mr. Marsley five weeks ago,” Rokowski told the News Tribune. “He told me it was no use to spend the carfare coming to the office and he would notify me as soon as he got a refund from the New York office.”

According to the News Tribune, Marsley led people to believe that he had traveled to Europe the previous year to set up operations in a beautiful castle in Warsaw, Poland. From there, he would distribute money to “the needy relatives of new Americans, sums placed in his trust by Duluth men, women and children.”

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A week after investigators first arrived, the News Tribune reported that Marsley was believed to have been short on accounts with 10 of the largest steamship agents in America and Europe. The swindled families were told that investigators would look into their cases and make refunds, if need be.

Meanwhile, in Janesville, Marsley’s wife was standing by her man. He was never missing; she had always been in contact with him — and he was expected home soon.

“He may have lost his head for a little while but he is honest or will make good (of the) losses if they leave him alone for a while,” Mrs. George C. Marsley said. “If he is in need, that is all the more reason I will do all I can for him.”

Christa Lawler is a features reporter for the News Tribune. She can be reached at clawler@duluthnews.com.