Stranger Than Fiction

April 2021

Con Games

By Dean Jobb

The term “confidence man” was first used in 1849, when a devious New Yorker named William Thompson walked up to strangers on the street with a proposition: did they have the “confidence” in him, he asked, to entrust him with their watches overnight? Many did, and those who complied lost their timepieces as well as some of their faith in the honesty of their fellow man.

In his 1982 book The Confidence Man in American Literature, scholar Gary Lindberg argued there is something quintessentially American about the con artist, who reinvents himself or herself in the same way the country’s early European settlers reinvented themselves in their new surroundings. Besides, America was built on dreams and promises—and dreams and promises are precisely what a swindler sells. From the Alaskan gold rush to a nineteenth-century island kingdom in Lake Michigan and onward to Oxford’s prestigious colleges, four recent books explore the art of the con and introduce a rogues’ gallery of tricksters who sold illusions and were after bigger prizes than watches.

 

STF-King-of-ConfidenceJames Jesse Strang hit his stride in the 1840s, when the term confidence man was coined. A lawyer by training, he was a born swindler. Caught selling fictious tracts of farmland in 1843, he fled Upstate New York and headed west (one newspaper already considered him “the greatest scoundrel in all the land”). As Miles Harvey writes in The King of Confidence: A Tale of Utopian Dreamers, Frontier Schemers, True Believers, False Prophets, and the Murder of an American Monarch (Little, Brown), Strang “had a gift for telling stories, for convincing other people of even the most outlandish assertions.”

And his most outlandish claim was that God had chosen him to lead the Mormon Church. After an anti-Mormon mob attacked and murdered Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in 1844, Strang claimed an angel tracked him down at his new home in Wisconsin with the news. To convince the sceptics he produced a letter supposedly written by Smith, but undoubtedly bogus, that declared him the divine choice to save the church.

While most Mormons followed church elder Brigham Young to Utah to start over, Strang convinced hundreds to join him and establish a settlement on Beaver Island, at the top of Lake Michigan. There, in 1850, he crowned himself the “King of Heaven and Earth.” At this point, a weird story gets weirder. There’s a showdown with federal authorities, who accuse Strang and his followers of trespass and other crimes, a courtroom acquittal and the self-proclaimed prophet’s election to the Michigan House of Representatives. And then . . . let’s just say it does not end well for Strang.

Harvey, author of the bestseller The Island of Lost Maps, constructs his narrative on the literary and cultural bedrock of its times, “an age when the showman P.T. Barnum was perhaps the most famous person in the country,” he notes, and as one contemporary put it, “swindling was raised to the dignity of the fine arts.” A deep reading of Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe as well as the newspapers of the day give him an impressive command of the zeitgeist that produced Strang—and insights into the social upheaval and religious fervor of a divided nation hurtling toward civil war. The King of Confidence is a fantastic (make that fantastical) story and Harvey is as adept at spinning yarns as his shameless and devious subject.

 

STF-Professor-and-the-ParsonRobert Parkin Peters was an Anglican minister and an Oxford-trained historian. At least he said he was when he was hired as an administrator or lecturer at colleges and universities around the world. Truth was, he was an adept liar, a serial bigamist (married seven times, three of them while already married), and a skilled forger, who used a plausible manner and faked credentials in a career of academic and ecclesiastical deception that began in the 1940s and spanned six decades. And, of course, his real name wasn’t Robert Parkin Peters.

Adam Sisman meticulously reconstructs the exploits of this brazen and incredibly successful shapeshifter in The Professor and the Parson: A Story of Desire, Deceit, and Defrocking (Counterpoint Press). The British author is the award-winning biographer of, among others, the acclaimed historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, the “professor” of the title, who encountered Peters at Oxford in 1958 and kept track of him for years. Trevor-Roper was adept as a snoop—he had served with MI6 during the Second World War—and his findings, compiled in a thick dossier that Sisman discovered among his papers, forms the backbone of this absorbing saga of a swindler running amok inside a sheltered world of hallowed halls and ivory towers.

Peters, like so many other con artists, thrived in an era when information moved at the glacial pace of letters and telegrams. None of the academics and clergymen he duped could google his name or fire off an email to check whether letters of reference praising his “considerable ability” and “fine mind” were genuine (they weren’t). And by the time his duplicity was exposed and police were notified, he was gone. Even exposés in the newspapers failed to stop him—at a time when one day’s news swiftly became the next day’s wrapping paper, clippings were filed away and, too often, forgotten.

“Everywhere he went,” writes Sisman, he “left a trail of forged documents, deserted women and unpaid bills.” And he went everywhere. He taught or preached in Britain, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Australia, and Canada. The FBI caught up with him at an Ohio college in 1953 and he was deported back to Britain. Imprisoned briefly for forging a check, he secured short-term teachings jobs in Canada, the U.S., and Britain before his past caught up with him. He even managed to publish a scholarly book in 1963, earn a Ph.D. in 1981, appear on the BBC Television quiz show Mastermind, and work for two months as a copy editor at Oxford University Press.

“Studying Peters is like tracking a particle in a cloud chamber,” Sisman confesses. “Usually one cannot see the man himself, but only the path he left behind.” His elusive subject’s thoughts and motives—what compelled him to go to such great lengths to lie and forge documents, when he could have directed these energies to earning the degrees and credentials he craved—will never be known. Perhaps he preferred to bluff his way through life simply because he discovered, early on, that he had the skills and chutzpah to do it.

Alaska’s first swindle was pulled off in 1867 by U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward, who haggled with the Russians and paid a paltry two cents an acre for a territory twice the size of Texas. Critics balked at what was then a $7.2-million price tag—the future state was dismissed as “Seward’s Icebox” and “Seward’s Folly”—but the deal paid off in 1898, when gold was discovered near Nome, on a jut of land fittingly named the Seward Peninsula.

 

STF-A-Most-Wicked-ConspiracyThe story of the gold rush that followed—and how it culminated in Alaska’s next great fraud—is told in A Most Wicked Conspiracy: The Last Great Swindle of the Gilded Age (PublicAffairs). Hardy souls from around the world braved perilous journeys and Arctic cold to stake claims. But there was another, far easier way to strike it rich. “Why bother to pan for gold, why bother to sink a shaft into semifrozen ground . . . why brave the wilds at all,” notes author Paul Starobin, “when someone else’s claim, already yielding the prize in mouthwatering quantities, might be there for the ‘legal’ taking?”

Enter North Dakota’s Alexander “Big Alex” McKenzie, a perfect villain for a story drawn from the villainous Gilded Age of greedy robber barons, shadowy political operatives, and easily corrupted politicians. “His tactics,” noted a friend, were “win, no matter what the cost.” Canadian-born, he rose from frontier sheriff to successful businessman and political powerbroker dubbed the “Alexander the Great, of the North.” Eager to cash in on the Alaskan bonanza, he took advantage of his Washington contacts, the territory’s chaotic mining claims system, and lax stock market regulations to claim the lion’s share of Nome’s goldfields.

Starobin, author of a previous book on Charleston on the eve of the Civil War, deftly unpacks the financial machinations, legal manoeuvres, political arm-twisting, and outright corruption that allowed McKenzie and his cronies to make a killing. When President William McKinley obligingly nominated McKenzie’s lackies to serve as the federal judge and district attorney for the Nome region, the fix was in. With the justice system under his thumb, Big Alex launched his brazen takeover; it was claim jumping on an industrial scale.

A Most Wicked Conspiracy is also the story of the determined miners, journalists and judges who fought back and exposed a scandal Starobin declares “unprecedented . . . in the annals of corruption in America.” Did McKenzie and his gang get away with it? And how would their “wicked conspiracy” change American politics? The answers lie in this engrossing, richly detailed account of a fraud for the ages.

 

STF-Delusions-of-CrowdsHow did Peters and Strang pull off their grandiose deceptions? Why do people continue to fall, over and over again, for time-worn swindles and con games? The rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul investment scam is so notorious that it has a name, yet billions of dollars are lost every year in a dizzying array of Ponzi schemes promoted by financial messiahs who spout familiar get-rich-quick promises. Turns out, we’re hard-wired to be suckers for the con artist’s pitch. “The more compelling the story,” William J. Bernstein notes in The Delusions of Crowds: Why People Go Mad in Groups (Atlantic Monthly Press), “the more it erodes our critical-thinking skills.” And there’s no more compelling story than one that transports the listener to Easy Street.

Bernstein is an investment manager who wears a unique combination of hats—the book jacket’s biographical note describes him as “a neurologist, financial theorist, and historian”—that make him the perfect guide to why so many seemingly rational people open up their wallets to swindlers. He’s a skilled teller of compelling stories himself, and the book pays homage to Charles Mackay’s classic nineteenth-century work on the subject of mass hysteria, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, updated with modern examples and research into psychology, neurology, and evolutionary science that helps to explain crowds-gone-wild.

The Delusions of Crowds has plenty to unpack, from cults and religious fanaticism to the rise of ISIS and the persistent belief that the apocalypse is nigh. The polarization of American politics and society, the wild-fire proliferation of conspiracy theories, and the stubborn support for a certain ex-president make this a timely and important analysis of how we got here. Bernstein’s insights into financial bubbles over the centuries—from banking pioneer John Law’s ill-fated Mississippi Company, which almost ruined France in 1720, to the railway-building frenzy of 1840s Britain and onward to the dot-com mania of the late 1990s—shed light on the herd mentality of investors and swindle victims alike.

Fear of missing out on a sure thing prompts many to set aside common sense and sink their savings into hot-selling stocks or schemes that promise sky-high returns. Bernstein quotes economic historian Charles Kindleberger’s observation that “there is nothing so disturbing to one’s well-being and judgment as to see a friend get rich.” If someone we know or believe in has the secret to making money, we want in. Most ill-fated speculations and investment bubbles Bernstein notes, feature innovations guaranteed to change the world or “exciting new technologies that foretell prosperity for all.” Investors scramble for a piece of the action. Warnings that the promised returns are too good to be true are dismissed “with scorn and ridicule” until the bubble bursts. From Charles Ponzi’s 1920s claims of a postal-coupon bonanza to Bernie Madoff’s phantom, multi-billion-dollar investments, swindles take a similar trajectory from irresistible sales pitch to ruinous exposure.

“Man is the ape that imitates, tells stories, seeks status . . . and yearns for the good old days,” is Bernstein’s sobering conclusion, “all of which guarantee a human future studded with religious and financial mass manias.” And, it seems, no end to the parade of old swindles dressed up in new clothing.

-----------

Dean Jobb’s next book recreates the crimes of Victorian Era serial killer Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, who preyed on women in Chicago, Canada and England and became known as London’s feared Lambeth Poisoner (coming in July 2021 from Algonquin Books). He teaches nonfiction writing at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb