By Scott A. Grant
We have a deep and abiding fascination with scammers and con men. In our modern society, scams run rampant and some are even revered. It was always thus.
The first con man appeared on the streets of New York City in the 1840s. His name was William Thompson, but he went by many aliases. He was well dressed and targeted similarly well-dressed victims. Thompson would approach his mark and strike up a conversation pretending they knew each other.
At some point, Thompson would ask if his intended victim had enough “confidence” to lend him his watch. When he got the watch, Thompson would walk away, never to be seen again. For almost a decade, he got away with his crimes until he was spotted by a prior victim named McDonald. The New York Herald labeled him a “confidence man.” Most agree it was the first time the term was used and the derivation of the term “con man.”
Scams take many forms. Most rely on the gullibility of the victim. In 1925, a man named Victor Lustig sold the Eiffel Tower — twice. Both times he sold the structure to scrap metal dealers. The first time, his victim was too embarrassed to go to the police. The second attempt attracted the attention of the authorities, but Lustig managed to escape to America. A list of rules for con men is attributed to Lustig. He advised letting the victim reveal political and religious views and to then “agree with them.”
Lustig’s equivalent here in the US was a man named George C. Parker, famous for selling the Brooklyn Bridge. He would tantalize his victims with the promise of passive income. Once they owned the Bridge, they could charge everyone a fee to cross. On several occasions, the police had to stop would-be buyers from erecting toll booths on the structure. He sold the bridge numerous times for prices ranging from $75 – $50,000. His antics led to the popularity of the phrase, “If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you.” Parker also “sold” Madison Square Garden, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Grant’s Tomb, and the Statue of Liberty.
Over a 70-year period ending in 1936, 28 con men operating out of Pittsburgh ran a recurring con similar to the modern Nigerian Prince scam. They would send letters to people with the last name of Baker across the country claiming they represented the unclaimed estate of a Philadelphia millionaire named Jacob Baker. For a fee, they would help them claim their share. The gang collected more than $3 million from more than 3,000 victims. At the time it was the largest mail fraud in history.
The most famous scammer of all time was Charles Ponzi, who invented the Ponzi scheme. Ponzi promised his investors huge returns for buying postal coupons in Spain and then selling them in the US for a five-cent profit. In the early 1920s, Ponzi took in $20 million from “investors.” He was caught and sent to jail. When they let him out, he moved to Jacksonville and sold worthless swampland west of the city to northern investors. If he had just sold the land, he would have gotten away with it. But, he again took in investors and ended up being sentenced to hard labor.
Beware of get rich quick schemes. Getting wealthy is rarely quick or easy.
Scott A. Grant is a local author and pop-historian. He has written more than 150 published newspaper and magazine articles. By day, he is president of Standfast Asset Management, LLC.