american con artists -- 11/23/15

Today's selection -- from My Adventures with Your Money by T.D. Thornton. As newspaper subscriptions rose in an increasingly literate America, so did con artistry:

"One constant of con artistry is how potential marks never think they'll get suckered themselves. ... An 1860 survey of New York police officers estimated one out of every ten city criminals was a confidence man. ...

" 'Why, it would just make you giddy to read the evidence in some cases brought to our attention,' said one nineteenth-century antifraud official. 'It almost makes a man want to quit work and get into the business of separating the gullible from their money. Get-rich-quick concerns, firms offering something for nothing, and companies guaranteeing attractive prizes at little or no risk ... insert their advertisements in the newspapers, and the 'suckers' do the rest.'

cartoon of famous 20th century con-artist George Graham Rice

"By 1880, popular publications were jammed with blind ads promising dubious solutions to everyday problems. Dupes who sent fifty cents to a sham exterminator for 'a sure way to get rid of rats' got a postcard with the obvious advice 'Catch and kill them.' The same four bits got you a 'cure for the liquor habit' ('Stop drinking'), the 'best way to raise potatoes' ('With fork, at table'), and the secret of 'how to break a kicking cow' ('Sell her to a butcher'). Newlyweds who mailed $1.25 for a 'fine set of parlor furniture' got tables, chairs, and a sofa barely big enough for a dollhouse. Housewives unable to resist the dazzling ad for a 'sewing machine for $2.00' were crestfallen to receive only an envelope containing a darning needle.*

Jacob Simon Herzig, alias Graham Rice

"Spinsters who swooned at the prospect of their own Angora kitten did indeed receive a feline, but the yowling stray in a filthy box was hardly the silky, purring beauty they expected. 'What they were Heaven only knows,' one investigator confided. 'We discovered in this particular case that the man who offered the "Angoras" did not breed the animals at all. When he got an order he roamed around the neighborhood, and the next day it was reported to the police that a household pet had disappeared during the night.'

"But blind-reply magazine frauds were pocket change compared with the highly structured wave of con artistry that was just beginning to crest in America. By the early 1890s, mechanisms for ripping people off had begun to mirror the complexities of the country's booming industrialism, and high-volume expansion of securities markets provided anonymity and liquidity for swindlers who branched into stock frauds. Discerning grifters began to differentiate between 'small cons' (street corner hustles designed to clean out whatever was in a man's pocket) and 'big cons' (elaborately staged rackets that carved huge chunks of capital out of high-net-worth individuals). Swindlers were aligning in a new hierarchy, with the con men who could orchestrate elaborate ripoffs ascending to the top of grifting's totem pole. ... American fraud was undergoing this grand metamorphosis, from hit-and-run pillaging to high-stakes coups of dizzying deception."


T.D. Thornton


My Adventures with Your Money: George Graham Rice and the Golden Age of the Con Artist


St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2015 by T.D. Thornton


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