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10 CON ARTISTS AND CRIMINAL MASTERMINDS WHO LIVED AND LOVED THE CON –

 

 

During the 1840s in New York, a genteelly dressed man named William Thompson would walk up to an upper-class mark and say, “Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?” When the mark did trust him, he would disappear with the watch. His technique of appealing to the victim’s confidence led The New York Herald to dub him the “confidence man” which was later shortened to “con man.” His story also inspired Herman Melville’s 1857 novel The Confidence-Man. Despite being the one responsible for the term, Thompson wasn’t that adept at his job, unlike these people who conned their way through life.

1. In 2002, a man named Nik Russian auditioned 30 people to participate in a new British reality TV show in which they had to earn £1 million within a year. The whole show was actually a hoax, and the “contestants” had quit their jobs and left their homes in order to participate. 

Raven’s Ait and Nik Russian. Image Source: Tim TrentGreat Reality TV Swindle

The year 2002 was a time when reality shows were very popular in the UK. Russian placed ads inviting “characterful, resourceful, and energetic” people to “raise profile” and received more than a thousand applications. He enlisted the help of friends for auditioning, and the contestants were given several psychological tests as well as practical tests.

The selected candidates were informed through email and were told food, accommodation, and leisure money will be provided during the show. They were also asked to set up a new bank account giving him access, and arrive on June 10, 2002, without money or credit cards. During their first task, the participants realized that they would have to find food, shelter, and earn the prize money all on their own.

When confronted, Russian confessed that no channel actually commissioned the show. Most of the chosen participants left, though some tried to carry on sleeping in the unpaid cameraman’s flat and recording their thoughts. Russian, who left his job as well, stayed with them. The rest of the participants also left after June 14. No criminal case was pursued against him as he didn’t use any of the victims’ money. (source)

2. After implying that he would build a 480-foot skyscraper, a man labeled all the plans 480” and built a 40-foot-tall building as was mentioned in the plans. He took the money and won in court because he didn’t technically defraud anyone. 

Newby-McMahon Building. Image Source: Travis K. WittSolomon Chaim

J.D. McMahon was a petroleum landman and structural engineer with an office of his oil-rig construction firm in the small, single floor Newby Building in Wichita Falls, Texas. In 1919, he announced he would build a highrise addition to the building and collected a capital of $200,000 (equivalent to $2,900,000 in 2018) from naive investors. McMahon never verbally stated that the building’s height would be 480 feet, but labeled in the blueprints that it would be four floors and 480 inches tall.

World’s Littlest Skyscraper. Image Source: Michael Barera

McMahon used his own construction crew and built the new building beside the Newby Building without consent from the absent owner. As the construction progressed, the investors realized the building was only going to be 40 feet tall instead of 480 feet. They also found that, unfortunately, the contract was legally binding as they did approve the blueprints. By the time the new building was finished, McMahon absconded with the remaining money. (source)

3. For 30 years since the ’80s, Barry Landau posed as a presidential historian, rubbing shoulders with presidents such as Bill Clinton, all the while smuggling over 10,000 documents including inaugural addresses and letters by Napoleon, Karl Marx, and George Washington. 

Landau’s interest in the presidency began at 10 years of age when his mother took him to see the then President Eisenhower. During the ’70s and ’80s, he worked as a press agent in New York and also claimed to be a protocol officer under President Gerald R. Ford. He once traveled to Moscow with President Richard M. Nixon. During this time, Landau attended state dinners for George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. He met Oprah Winfrey upon whose insistence he wrote the book The President’s Table published in 2007 and promoted it on Martha Stewart’s show.

It wasn’t until July 9, 2011, that everything unraveled as his apprentice, 24-year-old Jason Savedoff, was seen taking a document from the Maryland Historical Society library. Police found 60 documents in his laptop back, many of which were signed off by Landau. A further search of Landau’s apartment revealed thousands more stolen from various institutions including the Library of Congress, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, and the Yale, Columbia, and Cambridge Universities, the New York Public Library, and the Smithsonian Institution. Both Landau and Savedoff plead guilty and were sentenced to prison. (12)

4. In 1872, an Englishman posing as Lord Gordon-Gordon swindled one million dollars from rail magnate Jay Gould and fled to Canada. When Gould couldn’t get him arrested, he and his friends tried to kidnap Gordon-Gordon, got caught, couldn’t get bailed out, and almost caused a full military invasion of Canada by America.

Lord Gordon-Gordon and Jay Gould. Image Source: The Manitoba Historical SocietyLibrary of Congress

Lord Gordon-Gordon claimed to be from Clan Campbells and a descendant of ancient kings of the Scottish Highlands. When he moved to New York, Jay Gould was trying to gain control of the Erie Railroad. Gordon-Gordon convinced Gould that with a bribe of $1 million in negotiable stocks he would ensure the help of several Europeans who had stock in the company. When Gould found out Gordon-Gordon put the stocks on the market, he sued the latter who was put on trial in March 1873.

While on bail, Gordon-Gordon fled to Canada where he convinced authorities that he was falsely accused and offered to buy large parts of Manitoba. When the Canadian authorities did not handover Gordon-Gordon, Gould and his associates (two future governors and three future congressmen) tried to kidnap him. They were, however, caught, and when bail was refused, Governor Horace Austin of Minnesota readied local militia and thousands of Minnesotan volunteers to invade Canada.

Following negotiations, the kidnappers were released. The word of this reached Europe and a representative identified Gordon-Gordon as the robber Lord Glencairn. The Canadian authorities sentenced him to deportation. (source)

5. In the ’20s, there was a con artist named Victor Lustig who conned everyone from respectable bankers to the notorious crime boss Al Capone himself. He even succeeded at selling the Eiffel Tower for scrap, not once, but twice. 

Victor Lustig. Image Source: numismaticsBenh LIEU SONG

Lustig was an exceptionally gifted student with a knack for bringing trouble. After leaving school, he put his talents, education, and fluency in multiple languages to use in creating a career as a con man. He amassed quite a fortune through a variety of scams and cons. One of his famous scams is the money copying machine called the “Rumanian Box” which he sold to many including a Texas sheriff.

The idea for his most well-known scam came when he saw a newspaper article discussing the Eiffel Tower’s maintenance problems and a passing comment in it about public opinion favoring the tower’s removal. He convinced an insecure scrap dealer that the government is going to sell the tower and convinced the scrap dealer to bribe him in order to secure its ownership.

During the Great Depression, Lustig managed to convince Al Capone to invest $50,000 in a crooked scam. The money was to be kept in a safe deposit box for two months. Then Lustig claimed that the scam didn’t work out and that he intended to return the money. Al Capone, believing that he met an honest man for the first time, gave him an additional $5,000 to tide him over which was exactly what Lustig planned. (source)

6. Ferdinand Waldo Demara, known as “the Great Impostor,” posed as a surgeon aboard a Canadian Navy vessel and quickly studied a textbook when he needed to perform surgery saving 16 lives. After being exposed, he was acquitted of all charges and sent back to the US. 

HMCS Cayuga and Pocket Surgical Kit. Image Source: US NavyWellcome Images

When the Great Depression made his father financially insolvent, 16-year-old Demara ran away to join Cistercian monks in Rhode Island. Several years later in 1941, he joined the US Army. The following year, he assumed his first fake name, deserted the Army, joined the Navy, and trained as a hospital corpsman. Later, he took the name “Robert Linton French” and taught at Gannon University in Pennsylvania as a religion-oriented psychologist. He then was an orderly in a Los Angeles sanitarium and an instructor at St. Martin’s University, Washington.

After a brief spell in prison following capture by the FBI, Demara took another fake identity to study law at Northeastern University. Then he joined the Brothers of Christian Instruction in Maine when he met Joseph C. Cyr, a young doctor. Demara soon assumed his identity and posed as a trauma surgeon on the Royal Canadian Navy destroyer HMCS Cayuga.

Demara’s most notable exploit was the surgery he performed on 16 injured combatants aboard the ship. After ordering personnel to transfer them to the operating room and prepare for surgery, he speed-read a textbook on general surgery. He operated on all of them, even performing a major chest surgery, with success. The news about one of the patients ended up in Canadian newspapers and was read by Cyr’s mother. When the ship’s captain found about about Demara, he at first did not believe it. But as it was an embarrassing situation, he dismissed Demara without pressing any charges. (source)

7. After claiming that he was made the leader of a fictional country called Poyais in Latin America, a Scottish soldier named Gregor MacGregor fooled over 500 wealthy British and French investors into buying land there. He was tried and acquitted several times by both countries. 

General Gregor MacGregor and PoyaisImage, Source: National Portrait GalleryTentotwo

After serving in the British Army from 1803 to 1810, MacGregor took up the Republican side in the Venezuelan War of Independence in 1812 with great successes including a month-long fight in 1816, capturing of Amelia Island in 1817, and overseeing operations in New Granada. Upon his return to Britain in 1821, he claimed to have been made the “Cacique,” leader of an indigenous group, to Poyais by Mosquito Coasts’ King George Frederic Augustus. Though he also had many failures, interestingly, none of them were well-known, which made his claims all the more believable.

MacGregor also added a bit of flourish to his story with Josefa, the “Princess of Poyais,” who gave birth to a daughter at his sister’s home. He became increasingly popular and was invited to prominent dinners and balls including one from the Lord Mayor of London. He spun tales about a convoluted system of government, banking, military, and parliament, as well as honor systems, land titles, and coat of arms. He bequeathed titles and offices on many who in turn sold impressively designed land certificates to the public and helped organize emigrants.

One dollar, Bank of Poyais, Image Source: Gregor MacGregor & W.H. Lizars

MacGregor’s deception was finally revealed when of the many hundreds who emigrated only 50 survivors returned in late 1823. Some of the survivors even supported MacGregor that it was really the fault of those he put in charge of the emigration party. Though he was tried in 1826, only one of his associates was convicted. He attempted a few minor Poyais scams during the next decade and moved to Venezuela in 1838 where he was welcomed back as a hero. (source)

8. There was a self-styled physician named C.L. Blood who operated in Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago and produced a patent medicine known as “oxygenized air.” He promoted it as a cure for catarrh, scrofula, consumption, and other respiratory tract diseases. 

New York Office and Residence of C.L. Blood, Image Source: davidrumseydavidrumsey

Born in 1835, Blood fabricated credentials and styled himself “Dr. C. L. Blood” or “C. L. Blood, M.D.” In 1865, he came to Boston where he established an office in the old Congressional Library building and advertised his medical services. During this time he became interested in the use of laughing gas. After learning how to manufacture it, he rebranded it as “oxygenized air” and claimed it as his own invention which could cure a variety of diseases.

As he began to do well, Blood moved into better quarters and also hired accomplices to lure in investors. During the winter of 1866-67, his rival, Jerome Harris, began selling nitrous oxide under the name “super-oxygenized air,” and one of his clients’ physician was Blood. The client had a respiratory problem which caused him to froth from the mouth and contort for about an hour. Blood used this opportunity to publicize his own “oxygenized air” and made sure everyone knew how his care improved the patient’s condition. Ironically, unlike Blood, Harris was a real physician.

Blood was also involved in tax evasion, fraud against several investors, and other misdemeanors. Throughout the rest of his life, he moved to several cities setting up his “medical practice.” (source)

9. In 1770, a man invented a machine nicknamed “The Turk” which could play an exceptional game of chess against a human opponent. It wasn’t until 1857 that the machine was found to be a hoax and had a chess master hiding under it. 

The Turk’s Real Mechanism. Image Source: CarafeHumboldt University Library

Wolfgang von Kempelen was an 18th-century Hungarian author and inventor who also had a successful career as a civil servant. He once attended the court of Maria Theresa of Austria at Schönbrunn Palace where he saw an illusion act by François Pelletier. He then promised to return with to the Palace with an invention that would top all illusions.

Kempelen constructed an automaton chess-player and presented it to Maria Theresa. It consisted of a life-size model of a Turkish man who appeared to play a competent game of chess against a human opponent. For nearly 84 years, the machine played during demonstrations across Europe and the Americas, defeating many challengers including Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin. The interior of the machine seemed to have an intricate clockwork that misled any observer, but in fact, it concealed a human player who would operate levers to move the puppet above. (source)

10. Between 1949 and 1981, a man named Giovanni Vigliotto wooed and married 105 women in 14 countries after which he would ask them to sell their house and join him at his home far away. He would then pack all their belongings and flee to sell them at a flea market. 

Flea Market in San Jose and a Wedding Ring. Image Source: MistoffelesRoger McLassus

Vigliotto’s antics came to a halt when his 105th wife, real estate agent Patricia Ann Gardiner, filed charges of fraud against him. Unlike his previous wives, some of whom reported the incident to investigators, Gardiner decided to find him herself. Since she met him at a flea market, she drove through all the flea markets she could find. She found him in Florida selling her furniture, and he was arrested.

Vigliotto offered to plead guilty to bigamy charges if the fraud charges were dropped. He wrote down 50 of his aliases, gave his real name as Nikolai Peruskov, and listed all the women he married with their addresses. He was tried on March 28, 1983, and was sentenced to 28 years in prison for fraud plus six years for bigamy along with a fine of $336,000. (12)

 

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