Con artist, his tactics involve finding a suitable victim (referred to as a “mark” or “sucker”), gain their trust, and then defraud them out of money or property. When the job is executed well, the target doesn’t even know he is being conned and will part with his money with a smile on his face.
Cons started off small and have become bigger and more complicated. The so-called “long con” can take place over days, weeks, or even years and employ teams of swindlers, sets, and props, resembling more a theater production than criminal activity.
William Thompson was the first person described as a “confidence man,” or nowadays better known as Conman in the 19th Century. Thompson would walk up to affluent strangers and strike up a conversation, acting like an old acquaintance. After a few minutes of chitchat, Thompson politely asked his interlocutor if they had the confidence to trust him with their watch until the next day. Other times, he requested a small money loan and, bafflingly, people obliged. The Confidence Man walked away with the goods while his marks sat there unsure of what had just transpired. Thompson was arrested in July 1849 at the behest of Thomas McDonald, one of his victims.
In 1915, the mother of Oscar Hartzell invested $6,500 in a scam. Along with many other Americans from the Midwest, she believed that they stood to make a fortune by taking the British government to court over the improperly probated estate of famed 16th-century adventurer Sir Francis Drake. At first, the con targeted only people with the surname Drake, who were made to believe that they were the descendants of the wealthy explorer. But it proved so successful that it spread to anyone willing to invest. The scam continued for 15 years while Hartzell lived the good life in London. It wasn’t until 1933 that a postal inspector finally exposed the con and got Hartzell deported to the US. He made $20,000 a month at the peak of the fraud.
Hungry Joe’s notoriety came from some of his high-profile targets whom he swindled out of thousands of dollars. They included General John A. Logan, New York Judge Noah Davis, and politician Charles Francis Adams, son of John Quincy Adams. His most famous catch was Oscar Wilde. Although Lewis was well-known to the authorities, he was finally convicted in 1885 while trying to swindle a visiting British manufacturer named Joseph Ramsden. He was sentenced to four years in prison. When Hungry Joe got out, he was almost immediately convicted of another con and given another 10 years.
Lord Gordon Gordon
His real name is lost to history, as are his origins. He was a 19th-century British swindler who posed as a nobleman and successfully convinced others to part with large sums of money.
His first appearance in the record books happened in 1868 when he attempted to secure a Scottish estate by posing as Lord Glencairn. Eventually, he was found out and fled to America but not before convincing multiple banks, law firms, and a jeweler of his noble credentials.
Born in 1849 in Vermont, Lou Blonger joined the Union Army when he was just 14 years old. After the Civil War, he reunited with his elder brother, Sam. By the late 1880s, the Blonger brothers had settled in Denver. They opened several saloons and gambling halls. The brothers were successful, and had the local police and politicians in their pocket. They even started a feud with fellow Wild West con man Soapy Smith and ran him out of town.
Their gang became known as the “Million-Dollar Bunco Ring.” Blonger had offices all over town that resembled legit stock exchanges or betting parlors. His men would trick well-to-do marks into putting money on “sure things” such as stock market tips or rigged races. Of course, they lost every time.
William Elmer Mead
William Elmer Mead was an oddity among the grifter community. Due to his strict fundamentalist upbringing, he never drank, smoked, or swore. He also attended church on Sundays. This earned him the nickname “The Christian Kid,” but it didn’t stop Mead from defrauding marks of over $2 million over a 40-year career.
John St. John Long
History is full of quacks, and one of the most successful was John St. John Long. In 1826, he announced that he had developed a cure for consumption (aka tuberculosis). Besides his medical “expertise,” Long was handsome and charming and soon managed to build a thriving practice on London’s Harley Street. Then, in 1830, he went on trial for the death of one of his patients. Long was found guilty of manslaughter but only fined £250, a sum which he paid on the spot. Just a month later, another patient died. But this time, Long was acquitted.
Long died in 1834, probably due to a riding accident. But a more satisfying story said that he died of consumption after refusing his own treatment.
Charles ‘The Ponz’ Ponzi is, quite simply, one of the greatest swindlers in American history. The originator and copyright holder of the ‘piece de resistance’ of his career, the infamous “Ponzi Scheme”.
This smooth operator convinced thousands of people to invest in his totally legit business, the Securities Exchange Company, and by 1920 was making $250,000 a day.
In his teen years, Mr. Abagnale had collected over $40,000 from various banks across New York City. the man had faked his way as a university professor, lawyer, pilot and doctor. Frank Abagnale had already been caught by French police, served jail time in France and Sweden, was extradited to the United States, escaped from a moving damned airplane and nearly orchestrated a perfect getaway. After finally serving five years in prison, Abagnale was released if he cooperated with the government in detecting fraud. Not one to miss a golden opportunity, he turned his specialized knowledge into a legitimate money-making machine, opening a wildly successful fraud consultation business.