A Gainesville jury tried to decide on June 30, 1967, whether Ernest and Margaret Medders were a couple of folksy con artists or bumbling bumpkins caught up in an incredible charade.
The strange saga began in 1961 in Memphis, Tennessee, where the impoverished parents struggled to support 10 children. Ernest was a fourth-grade dropout, who worked days as a mechanic’s helper and peddled vegetables out of his station wagon on the weekends. Margaret, a practical nurse, pulled 16-hour shifts at a local hospital.
Then one day an attorney informed Ernest that he and his many kinfolks were among the 3,000 plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit challenging a petroleum company for the rights to a Texas oilfield. At stake was an estimated $500 million in royalties.
In their ignorance and desperation, the wishful thinkers jumped to a preposterous conclusion. They convinced themselves the suit would succeed and that every last cent would go to Ernest.
The jubilant nurse naturally shared the wonderful news with co-workers. In no time flat, the Medderses’ good fortune was the talk of the hospital, which happened to be run by a religious order called the Poor Sisters of St. Francis Seraph of the Perpetual Adoration.
The Sisters were, in fact, far from poor and always on the lookout for well-heeled benefactors. Viewing the Medderses as potential contributors, the order lent them money to cover household expenses and legal fees.
When the generous loans started to exceed $60,000 a month, Ernest and Margaret moved to North Texas. They purchased a 185-acre farm near the small community of Muenster and built a 15-room residence. The total tab for the new homestead was a whopping $307,000.
Margaret enrolled her daughters in Hockaday, an exclusive girls’ school in Dallas. To spare the little darlings the indignity of dormitory life and to improve their social standing, she presented them with a $40,000 home away from home.
By 1965, Margaret was eager to rub elbows with the elite of Big D society. She threw a party for a thousand people in their rodeo-size barn dubbed “the coliseum.”
A slick public relations specialist hired for the occasion smooth-talked the Dallas media into covering what he billed as the social event of the year. For once, his hype proved to be no exaggeration.
Guests within a hundred-mile radius came in buses, while others flew chartered airplanes to Gainesville and completed the trip by helicopter. Guy Lombardo and his band provided the musical entertainment for the truly memorable night.
The spectacular shindig opened a lot of doors for the ecstatic hosts, most notably the one leading to the pinnacle of power. Following visits by Congressman Graham Purcell, Gov. John Connally and Attorney General Waggoner Carr plus substantial donations to the Democratic Party, the Medderses attended a presidential ball in Houston on April 28, 1966.
At the personal invitation of President Lyndon Johnson, the couple went to Washington six days later for a reception at the White House. Since LBJ was returning to Texas the next morning, he asked the dazzled duo to accompany him on Air Force One.
Soon after the Potomac adventure, the Poor Sisters finally turned off the tap. However, the publicity shy nuns hesitated to press criminal charges even though Ernest and Margaret had taken them for a $2 million ride.
The Medderses might still have made it had they come to their senses. The long-shot lawsuit had been thrown out of court the previous year, but they could have lived comfortably on the income from their cattle business.
Stubbornly refusing to give up their millionaire masquerade, Ernest and Margaret borrowed $730,000 from obliging banks in Muenster, Wichita Falls and Memphis. They shot the whole wad on lavish parties, including one for psychic Jeane Dixon, and in a matter of months wound up flat broke.
Meanwhile, Ernest’s relatives suspected he had taken off with the entire pot at the end of the rainbow. Upset over his apparent refusal to share the proceeds from the lawsuit, they sued to force him to reveal the source of his income.
Ernest candidly confessed in open court that his ship had never come in and the $500-million bonanza had been lost at sea. For five fantastic years, his clan had lived high on the hog off other people’s money, namely the Poor Sisters and a bunch of gullible bankers.
Ernest and Margaret Medders eventually lost everything except their freedom. No jury had the stomach for putting them behind bars, and bankruptcy enabled them to give creditors the brush-off.
The Medderses resurfaced in Memphis in 1973. In the last chapter of their bizarre rags-to-riches-to-rags story, they were surviving on Social Security.