These 10 Historic Con Artists Prove There is a Sucker Born Every Minute

These 10 Historic Con Artists Prove There is a Sucker Born Every Minute

Larry Holzwarth - April 23, 2018

Probably the greatest con artists of all time remain unknown, for the simple reason that their crimes were never detected. But there are many known, having been caught at their schemes and brought to justice for them. Con artists are nothing new. Sir Isaac Newton himself proved a contemporary, William Chaloner, to be a con, a counterfeiter, and guilty of high treason. Chaloner operated one con in which he recovered stolen property for victims of theft, a task easy for him since he was also the thief who stole the property in the first place. His career came to an end when he was hanged for complicity in a lottery scam.

Some con artists become more or less honest men, offering advice on how to avoid the very scams which they formerly practiced. Frank Abagnale Jr, a former counterfeiter and con man, worked with the FBI, established his own financial security consulting firm, and had a motion picture made of his life as an international fraud and criminal. An Italian-American con artist and swindler developed a system for bilking people out of their money still widely employed today. His name was Charles Ponzi. Con artists remain a subject of fascination, almost of admiration by some, for the brazen nature of their schemes.

These 10 Historic Con Artists Prove There is a Sucker Born Every Minute
Charles Ponzi gave his name to a type of swindle still widely practiced by con artists today. Smithsonian

Here are ten of the greatest con artists in American history, omitting those who operated from the pulpit or the political stage.

These 10 Historic Con Artists Prove There is a Sucker Born Every Minute
Parker sold the Brooklyn Bridge many times, as well as selling Madison Square Garden, Grant’s Tomb, and the Statue of Liberty. Wikimedia

George C. Parker and the New York Landmark Sites

An expression of skepticism in America, “If you believe that I’ve got a bridge to sell you”, is based on the oft-told story of con artists selling the iconic Brooklyn Bridge to gullible but well-heeled rubes. As unbelievable as it may seem the bridge has been “sold” many times, to many suckers, by many different fraudsters. The court records of both Manhattan and Brooklyn show that there were complaints filed and cases settled where victims were separated from their money and given an official-looking but counterfeit deed to the bridge. In one instance the new owners were arrested when they attempted to install toll booths on their recently acquired property.

George C. Parker was one such purveyor of property not his to sell, and by his own admission, he sold the Brooklyn Bridge several times, once even claiming that he sold the property an average of twice a week over several months. Parker bribed several ferry operators who delivered newly arrived immigrants from Ellis Island to Manhattan. The ferry operators were tasked with discovering who among the immigrants was carrying an amount of cash worthy of Parker’s attention. The ferry operators told their targets of real estate investment opportunities and directed them to Parker.

Parker wasn’t set just on selling the Brooklyn Bridge, though it was an easy deal since the immigrants had just encountered it upon entering the harbor, and at the time was the best-known landmark in New York. He also offered Grant’s Tomb for sale, and to interested parties, he intimated that he was not only the salesmen for the property but also the grandson of the former President. He was known to have sold the Statue of Liberty on at least one occasion as well as parts of Central Park, but his most profitable property was the Bridge, which he would show to his clients, explaining where they would be able to erect barriers and toll booths, giving them an immediate return on their investment.

Parker’s price for the Brooklyn Bridge varied widely, based in part on the accuracy of the ferrymen who assessed the wealth of the customer. On one occasion he sold the bridge for $5,000 and on others, he settled for as little as $75. Basically, the price of the bridge was whatever the mark had in their pocket. All deals were cash only. On occasion Parker was simply the sales agent, on others, he posed as the owner of the bridge or whatever piece of New York he was selling at the time. Parker managed to avoid being accosted by the victim on the majority of the occasions, but he was still well-known to the police of the city, as well as the courts.

On one occasion when Parker was taken in for questioning he waited until no one was looking, donned a policemen’s hat and coat and strolled out of the building. Eventually, he was arrested and held for trial, and on three different occasions, he was charged with fraud. The third time was the charm for him and he was sentenced to life in prison at New York’s state prison at Ossining. He died there after eight years in prison in 1936. During his career as a seller of New York landmarks, besides the Bridge and the Tomb, he was known to have sold Madison Square Garden, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, at least three Broadway theaters, and Battery Park.

These 10 Historic Con Artists Prove There is a Sucker Born Every Minute
New York Police Detective Thomas F. Byrnes called Bertha “one of the smartest confidence women in America”. Wikimedia

Big Bertha Heyman and the Rabbi

Bertha Heyman was born in Prussia and first attracted the attention of the New York Police in the late 1870s. The moniker “Big Bertha” was applied to her by the newspapers of the day after some of her criminal exploits were made public. One paper described her as “…decidedly ugly and weighing 250 pounds.” By 1886 she was listed in a book by New York detective Thomas F. Byrnes called Professional Criminals of America, in which he referred to her as one of America’s smartest confident women.

Bertha used the scheme of posing as a wealthy woman temporarily having difficulty gaining access to her funds. In 1881, she was leaving court after being acquitted on a charge of theft when she was arrested by New York detectives and charged with scamming New York businessmen for just under $1,500. She was sentenced to two years in prison, while there she scammed another victim out of about $900. In 1883 she used forged securities to defraud a broker whom she had convinced she was worth over $8 million and for this offense she was sentenced to five years in prison. Upon release, she headed west.

Bertha next turned up in San Francisco in 1888, where she approached the rabbi of the Beth Israel Congregation as Bertha Stanley, and after explaining that she was a widow of some wealth, she asked for his help finding a suitable Jewish husband. She claimed her first husband, from whom she inherited her wealth, had been Christian. The rabbi introduced her to Abraham Gruhn, a successful San Francisco businessman who happened to be his brother-in-law. Gruhn was smitten and in a short time proposed marriage and the adoption of the young man accompanying Bertha, whom she had introduced as her stepson.

Bertha was quickly accepted by the Beth Israel Congregation, which led her to have credit extended to her from several businesses. She used the credit to expand her wardrobe and acquire several expensive jewels. After Bertha gave the Congregation a check for $1,000 she informed Gruhn that her stepson opposed their marriage. She suggested that Gruhn offer him a loan of $500 as a sign of friendship. Gruhn complied and Bertha and her stepson vanished with the jewels and other goods. When Bertha’s check to the congregation was returned for insufficient funds a visit to the San Francisco police led to the discovery that she was Bertha Heyman, from the description in Professional Criminals in America.

Bertha headed for Los Angeles after pawning the jewels. A warrant was soon out for her based on the San Francisco charges but she eluded police until finally being located and arrested in Texas. Returned for trial, she was acquitted, though her stepson was convicted of a minor charge. During her trial, she was contacted by an impresario who put her on the stage for a time, until she swindled him out of several thousand dollars. Big Bertha faded from the scene after her stage career faltered and where and when she died is disputed.

These 10 Historic Con Artists Prove There is a Sucker Born Every Minute
Nicky Arnstein (left) was a con artist, stock swindler, and thief, portrayed by Omar Sharif in Funny Girl. Library of Congress

Nicky Arnstein and Fanny Brice

Nicky Arnstein was born Julius Arndstein in Prussia, acquiring the nickname Nicky from the nickel-plated bicycle he used to throw races as a boy in the 1890s. As a young man, he used the transatlantic ocean liners as his base for card games and fleeced many of the wealthier passengers in games of bridge and poker. He also began to develop the reputation of a ladies’ man who wouldn’t hesitate to take money from elderly widows as well as young debutantes. After one passage to America, he became acquainted with Arnold Rothstein, one of the United States’ most dangerous and influential racketeers and stock manipulators.

By the time Arnstein met Rothstein the former was the epitome of the suave, international conman and gambler. He had been arrested several times on both sides of the Atlantic for fraud, usually involving conning money out of women or writing bad checks. These qualities no doubt endeared him to Rothstein. Arnstein was married, but through Rothstein’s connections, he met Fanny Brice, one of the largest stars of the stage in New York at the time. Arnstein was soon living with Brice, and operating various scams backed by Brice’s money.

In 1915, Arnstein was charged with using an illegal wiretap as part of a stock swindle scheme, and sent to prison. Brice visited him frequently and defended him in public, and may have used her considerable influence in New York to make his two-year stay more comfortable. Brice’s frequent visits led Arnstein’s first wife to sue her for alienation of her husband’s affection, Brice had only recently learned that Arnstein was not yet divorced. When Arnstein left Sing Sing prison in the fall of 1918 his divorce had become final and he and Brice were married.

In 1920, Arnstein and several others were involved in a stolen bonds scheme where messengers from several Wall street brokers were intercepted and securities were stolen. Whether Rothstein was part of the scheme has never been proven but Arnstein was caught with some of the securities in Washington DC. Arnstein went into hiding for several months before facing the indictment and for several years fighting the charges on legal technicalities with Brice footing the bills. Arnstein was eventually sentenced to federal prison in Fort Leavenworth in 1924. Following his release, Brice divorced him in 1927.

Depicted in the film Funny Girl as merely an unlucky gambler and an otherwise honorable man, Arstein was anything but, being a con artist and swindler until his release from Leavenworth. He used more than a half dozen aliases over the course of his career as a con artist, race fixer, swindler, and cheat, and successfully scammed numerous women, including while he was in Leavenworth and still married to Fanny Brice. After the murder of Arnold Rothstein in 1928 Arnstein sold his memoirs, only to beg the publisher to allow him to buy them back as he was under the threat of death if they were published. The publisher, a tabloid newspaper, complied.

These 10 Historic Con Artists Prove There is a Sucker Born Every Minute
Louisburg Square, Boston circa 1880, near where Sarah Howe plied her trades as a fortune teller and bank swindler. Wikimedia

Sarah Emily Howe and the Ladies Deposit Company

Sarah Howe was married at least once, probably twice, before she met Florimund Howe, whom she married in 1852 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Mr. Howe was a house painter who also offered dancing lessons, and Sarah contributed to the family coffers by working as a fortune teller and clairvoyant. In these professions, the Howes worked and lived in various communities until the American Civil War, when he joined the Union Army as a musician. After his discharge in 1864, the couple relocated to Boston, where she continued to work as a psychic and fortune teller, attracting the attention of relatives and neighbors who had her declared insane in 1867.

Sarah spent the following two years in an asylum before she was declared to be cured. Returning to Boston with her husband, in 1871 she was practicing as a physician for female complaints, as well as continuing her interrupted career as a fortune teller, to which she added the reading of tarot cards and the casting of horoscopes. In 1875 she purchased furniture on credit, after which she borrowed money against the furniture as collateral from at least six different sources. She was charged with one count of fraud and sentenced to one year in jail. She was later released upon appeal.

In the spring of 1879, Sarah announced the creation of a savings bank which would accept deposits only from unmarried women. She named her new project the Ladies’ Deposit Company. In her prospectus, she informed potential depositors that the bank was affiliated with a Quaker charity, funded with $1.5 million, and its professed mission was to assist young women of limited means. Because of the backing of the fund, the Ladies Deposit Company was able to offer interest on deposits of 2% per week, later amended to 8% per month. For several months there was a steady stream of deposits into the Ladies Deposit Company, some women later reported they even borrowed money from male friends at 6% interest in order to deposit it to earn 8%.

There was no Quaker fund, as was later reported after the Boston Daily Advertiser and other newspapers began investigating the Ladies Deposit Company. By 1880 the company held a half-million in deposits, but there was little cash at hand, as was revealed when the newspaper reports initiated a run of depositors demanding their money. In November of 1880, Sarah was convicted on four counts, including the charge of theft by deception since there was not and never had been a charity involved in the creation or support of the Ladies Deposit Company. Almost incredibly, some depositors continued to support Sarah despite their savings being gone and her deception proved.

Sarah was released in 1884 and promptly opened the Women’s Bank. This scheme operated similarly to the fraudulent Ladies Deposit Company and Sarah fled Boston in 1887 with about $50,000 in deposits to avoid prosecution. She opened several other similar banks and ran off with the money before returning to Boston, where she was again jailed pending trial over the Women’s Bank fraud. When the prosecution was unable to find witnesses willing to admit in open court they had been duped by a known fraudster the charges were dropped and Sarah was released. Sarah remained in Boston until her death in 1892, although she made no further forays into banking, returning instead to her profession as a fortune teller.

These 10 Historic Con Artists Prove There is a Sucker Born Every Minute
Victor Lustig was brazen enough to pull a con on Al Capone and live to talk about it. Wikimedia

Victor Lustig and Al Capone

Victor Lustig was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in a region which is the present day the Czech Republic. He first drew the attention of the authorities as did many other con artists of his day, by plying his trade on the transatlantic steamships which allowed for a level of confidence to be built up between con and mark, within the trappings of wealth and luxury. Lustig was well aware that greed was a trait among many of the wealthy, and to capitalize on it he relied on a scheme known as a money box. Lustig presented his mark with a box which would replicate $100 bills.

After explaining the workings of the box Lustig would print a $100 bill with it, allowing the mark to examine the bill as he lamented that the one problem he still had with the box was its slow speed. According to Lustig, the box would continue to print bills as long as it was turned on but it took about six hours per bill. Lustig would appear to be about to give up on improving the box and the mark, realizing that the box could print $400 per day if left on, would offer to buy it. Lustig frequently sold the box for five-figure sums, always on the evening before the ship was to enter port, or on that morning.

The box would go on to print one or two additional hundred dollar bills, after which the “printing” would cease because those were all the bills with which Lustig had primed the box. By then he was off the ship and lost in the crowds of the port. Lustig pulled off bigger scams in Europe, including the sale of the Eiffel Tower to a group of investors who wanted to sell it for scrap. Lustig presented himself to these investors as a corrupt government official who could ensure that they won the bid to scrap the tower in exchange for a bribe. Thus Lustig received the money for the illicit sale and a hefty bribe in the same scam.

Lustig next went to America, where he made money during the Great Depression in a variety of smaller schemes, trying to keep a low profile as the French authorities were looking for him. In Chicago, Lustig hit upon the idea of defrauding Al Capone. He concocted a scheme in which he convinced Capone to purchase $50,000 worth of stock, in a deal in which both Capone and Lustig would make a significant profit. Lustig simply held on to Capone’s money for several weeks, before approaching the gangster and informing him that the deal had collapsed. He then returned the entire $50,000 which he had held from the gangster.

When Lustig informed Capone that although the gangster hadn’t lost money he had, Capone offered the con artist $5,000 to cover his losses in time and expenses. Lustig’s feigned gratitude ensured that he had an ally in Chicago even as he walked off with Capone’s money in his pocket. A few years later Lustig was caught with counterfeit money and the plates which produced it and he was sentenced to 20 years, serving most of his time in prison in Alcatraz. At one time both he and Capone were inmates there. He died in 1947 of pneumonia, still a federal prisoner.

These 10 Historic Con Artists Prove There is a Sucker Born Every Minute
Western Union building in Manhattan. The wire con required the interception on telegraph information before it reached a local branch office. Wikimedia

Lou Blonger and the Wire

The film The Sting, which starred Robert Redford and Paul Newman, depicted a type of con called the wire, in which the results of horse races were known by the operators of an illegal Chicago horse betting parlor prior to announcing the race to its customers. As shown in the film, operating such a con was an elaborate scheme involving many players, and in the film, the idea was to con one person out of a large sum. In reality, the wire scheme was a tried and true method of bilking multiple customers out of large sums of money and was used successfully by con artists both for horse racing and the stock markets in many cities, particularly in the emerging towns of the western frontier.

Lou Blonger was a Wisconsin boy of 14 when he enlisted in the Union Army as a musician in 1864. His enlistment ended with him in a military hospital in Chicago, recovering from injuries sustained in Tennessee. After studying business for a time in Chicago Lou, his brother Sam, Sam’s wife, and several of her relatives went west along the newly completed Transcontinental Railroad. They worked in saloons and taverns, and sometimes as deputies, at various stops. For a time Lou was a marshal in New Albuquerque, where he aided the Earps and Doc Holliday as they escaped following the killings of several of the Clanton allies known as the Cowboys.

By the late 1880s, Blonger was in Denver, operating multiple saloons and gambling houses, through which he developed a daily numbers racket. In the early 1890s, the tourist trade was developing, fed by the burgeoning railroads, and Blonger used hired men to steer tourists into his businesses, where they were exposed to stock swindles using the Chicago and New York stock exchanges. Blonger developed several “long cons”. He paid law enforcement officers and politicians to look the other way as his schemes grew, and by the mid-1890s he left the saloon and gambling parlors to set up an office in a bank, intent on more lucrative schemes.

By then Blonger owned several mines in the Denver area, and had opened branch offices in Florida and Cuba, where stock in the mines was bought and sold. Betting parlors using the wire to fleece customers were in operation in Denver, Hot Springs, Miami, and Havana, all based on the activity at various race tracks. Stock brokerages, also using the wire operated in “respectable” offices in Denver and San Francisco. In the first and second decade of the twentieth century, Blonger had over 50 con artists working the streets of Denver alone, selling non-existent real estate, mines which he knew to be tapped out, and offering sure tips on horses and stocks before steering the mark to the betting parlors or brokerages.

In late summer of 1922 Blonger’s luck ran out, as raids launched by the state of Colorado rounded up more than 30 of his operatives, as well as Blonger himself. At his trial, his operations were labeled the “Million Dollar Bunco Ring” in the press. Blonger seemed at ease throughout his trial, which was explained in the jury room when one juror announced that he had forwarded his $500 bribe from Blonger to the judge, but at least three other jurors, whom he could identify, had not. The press also revealed that the con artist had for twenty years lived with his wife during the week and his mistress on weekends, neither of whom were aware of the other’s existence. Blonger died in prison in 1924.

These 10 Historic Con Artists Prove There is a Sucker Born Every Minute
Among the victims of Arnold’s jewel mine scheme was former Union General and Presidential candidate George B. McClellan. Wikimedia

Philip Arnold and the Jewel Mine

Philip Arnold was one of the forty-niners who went west to make their fortunes in the California Gold Rush. Although he did not make a fortune, he did accumulate enough money to return to his native Kentucky and establish himself on a small farm, where he pondered the events of the gold rush and what he had learned about human nature when the prospects of easy money were at hand. The Civil War intervened, and it wasn’t until 1870 that Arnold was able to return to California, by way of Arizona, where he traded with friendly Indians to obtain rough jewels such as sapphires and garnets.

He then visited a friend at the Diamond Drill Company of San Francisco, from whom he purchased industrial diamonds after obtaining a promise from the bookkeeper who handled the transaction that it would be kept secret. The diamonds were mixed with the raw jewel stones acquired previously from the Indians in Arizona, and with his cousin, John Slack, as his partner, Arnold began looking around for a businessman successful enough to be worth targeting, and gullible enough to be fooled.

He found one in the form of George Roberts, convincing him that the stones had been discovered in a new deposit. Roberts could not keep a secret and brought in several investors as partners. Using their money Arnold went to England, purchased more stones, and returned, using some of the stones to salt the deposit, and sending others to New York for assay by no less than Tiffany’s. More investors were solicited and found, among them General George McClellan and publisher Horace Greeley. Arnold and Slack used the investor’s money to “explore” the deposit while keeping its location secret.

In the summer of 1872 Arnold, who had already pocketed more than $150,000 from his scheme, led a party of investors or their delegates to Rawlins, Wyoming, traveling by train from St. Louis. Once in Rawlins, they continued on horseback for several days until they arrived at the spot where Arnold and Slack had buried the raw stones purchased in London. Arnold suggested the investors dig for themselves to determine the value of the find, in which he claimed he retained over $400,000 interest. As the investors dug stones turned up rapidly, diamonds, rubies, garnets, and sapphires. The investors purchased the rest of Arnold’s interest on the spot.

Arnold returned to Kentucky, built one of the largest houses in Elizabethtown and bought over 500 acres of prime land (which he put in his wife’s name). He eventually went into the banking business. The mine hoax was revealed in 1872 and Arnold was the target of several lawsuits by swindled investors, but they were settled out of court for undisclosed sums. He was not prosecuted. In 1878 he died of complications of a shotgun wound, the result of a dispute with another banker which had developed into a feud. The fact that nobody pointed out that the stones Arnold found form under different conditions and would not be found together is an example of gullibility exploited by the con artist.

These 10 Historic Con Artists Prove There is a Sucker Born Every Minute
Linda Taylor had as many scams as she did names, which numbered more than 80 according to law enforcement officials. NPR

Linda Taylor, the Welfare Queen

Linda Taylor used considerable guile and deceit to con the government out of welfare checks and services, earning her the title of the “welfare queen”. She also practiced insurance fraud, outright theft, and has been linked to potential sale of children. In her lifetime she used more than 80 different names, many of them backed with identity documents; Linda Taylor, the name by which she is best known, was not her real name. She represented herself as being of ages varying from her twenties to her fifties, was “married” to several different men, some simultaneously, and claimed varying numbers of children.

Her real name was Martha Miller, born in Tennessee, and despite claiming different ethnicities at different times in her career as a fraudster she was born white, according to US census records. She used fraudulently obtained social security numbers to change her identity numerous times, through which she made several claims to be heiress to the estates of deceased persons in several states. She also obtained welfare claims through multiple states simultaneously using different names and social security numbers.

Taylor made several false claims of being the victim of robberies which allowed her to file insurance claims on property she never owned. It was one such case which led to her eventual exposure as a fraudster and con artist. In 1974 she reported to the Chicago police that she had been robbed of property and cash which amounted to more than $14,000. A suspicious detective recalled a similar case some time before and investigated her, discovering a warrant for her arrest on suspicion of welfare fraud in Michigan. Arrested in Chicago she was released on bail and fled the state.

She was located in Arizona that fall and returned to Illinois, where she was retained in custody while prosecutors prepared an indictment which originally charged her with using 80 different identities to defraud the welfare system in multiple states. She was also charged with perjury when testifying before a grand jury, bigamy, and the theft through fraud of over $100,000. By the time she went to trial the bigamy charges had been dropped and the amount stolen reduced to $8,000, through the legal maneuvering of her lawyers.

Taylor went to prison in 1978, but by 1983 she was released and living with her husband when he was shot and killed in what was ruled an accident by the coroner. She collected his life insurance and began living with the man who had shot him. When that man subsequently died she claimed to be his granddaughter and next of kin, despite their having been married in Florida in 1986. Taylor died in 2002 in Illinois. The full extent of her fraudulent activities is still being revealed sixteen years later.

These 10 Historic Con Artists Prove There is a Sucker Born Every Minute
The estate of Sir Francis Drake was at the center of Hartzell’s scam, which he operated for fifteen years. Wikimedia

Oscar Hartzell and Sir Francis Drake

Oscar Hartzell was a con artist who developed a scam which was focused on people with the surname Drake. It was a scheme which he learned when another con artist attempted to lure him into it, and Hartzell, who was a part-time sheriff’s deputy in Iowa, quickly realized it for what it was. Rather than arrest the con artist, he ran him out of town, as it were, and took over the con. It was based on Sir Francis Drake and the estate which was allegedly never paid to his heirs, remaining in British banks under the control of the British government.

Hartzell began looking for people with the last name of Drake in Iowa in 1919 and informed them that as a distant relative of Francis Drake he was preparing a lawsuit to force the British government to release the estate, which had collected interest for over 300 years and was by then worth over $100 billion (about $1.5 trillion today). In addition to the money, the estate included the city and port of Plymouth, England. According to Hartzell, every investor in his scheme would see a return on their money at the rate of 500 to one.

People in Iowa fell over themselves to invest in his scheme, which he soon expanded to other states. There was no requirement to prove any relationship to the British seafarer, possession of the name was sufficient. Hartzell continued seeking Drakes until 1924, when he informed investors that he was relocating to London to seek out solicitors to initiate the lawsuit. He moved to London and set himself up in luxury, after hiring agents in the United States to continue to solicit funds from investors, claiming that more money was needed as he negotiated with representatives of the British government and banks.

The British government informed the United States through its embassy that there was no estate. Hartzell meanwhile remained in England, safe from arrest because he had not broken any British laws. In the United States, the FBI announced that Sir Francis Drake’s wife had inherited the mariner’s estate in 1597. Donations to Hartzell’s scam continued. It took action by the United States Post Office to arrest several of Hartzell’s agents in the US. When they confessed to the scam the British gained authority to arrest Hartzell and send him back to the United States in 1933.

How much Hartzell scammed from his supporters will never be known, but while he was awaiting trial yet more donations came in, meant to provide him with a defense fund. Hartzell was convicted of fraud in 1934, having run his con for fifteen years. He was sentenced to ten years in Leavenworth, and died there in 1943. During his time in prison, another $500,000 was collected from people named Drake, who refused to accept that the whole thing had been a con from beginning to end.

These 10 Historic Con Artists Prove There is a Sucker Born Every Minute
Waddell’s goldbricks looked like those being examined here in Nome, but were merely plated lead. Wikimedia

Reed Waddell and the goldbrick

Reed Waddell was a man who liked to gamble at cards and horses but wasn’t very good at it, so he supported his gambling habit by working as a con artist. Waddell used several tried and true cons, including the sale of properties not owned by him such as the Brooklyn Bridge and others, and worked with accomplices to support his schemes. He is credited, if that is the right word, with developing the gold brick scheme.

Waddell set up an accomplice as an assayer – a person who evaluated the worth of gold, silver, jewels, and other items – in an office with all of the necessary accouterments of the trade, including scales, weights, and chemicals. In New York of 1880, there were many reputable places where gold could be evaluated for worth, including Tiffany, but Waddell was undeterred, convinced that the thought of easy money would surpass reason on the part of his mark.

Waddell then approached his victim offering to sell him a gold brick. In reality, the brick was of lead, with several layers of thin gold plate covering it, finished roughly, and stamped with the markings of a bank or the United States government. The assayer’s name was also stamped on the bar. This led Waddell’s target to believe that he was being offered a brick which had been evaluated by the US government. Waddell sold the first of these bricks for $4,000.

To convince his target of his honesty, Waddell would take him to the assayer’s office where his accomplice would confirm the quality and value of the gold, and usually express his astonishment that it was being offered at the price which Waddell had named. Using this scam Waddell pocketed over a quarter of a million dollars by the end of the decade, selling gold-plated lead bricks for prices ranging from $2,500 to $7,500 per brick.

Waddell moved his operation to Paris in the 1890s and found similar success there until he got into a confrontation with another American con artist working in France, Tom O’Brien. At first, the two men were partners, but when O’Brien discovered that Waddell had also been swindling him he took umbrage and shot Waddell several times, killing him. The French sent O’Brien to Devil’s Island in 1896, and despite reports that he was alive in New Caledonia many years later, his eventual fate is a mystery.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Con Men, Grifters, and Hustlers: 5 of the Greatest Schemes of All Time”, Patrick Lynch, History Collection, April 6, 2017

“Hoaxes and Scams: A Compendium of Deceptions, Ruses, and Swindles”, by Carl Sifakis, 2005

“The Confidence Queen. Big Bertha Stanley on Trial on a Charge of Grand Larceny”, Daily Alta California, June 10, 1888

“Fanny Brice: The Original Funny Girl”, by Herbert G. Goldman, 1993

“Sympathetic Banking”, by Henry A. Clapp, The Atlantic Monthly, July 1881

“The Smoothest Con Man That Ever Lived”, by Gilbert King, Smithsonian Magazine, August 2012

“A hole in the ground with a liar at the top: fraud and deceit in the golden age of American mining”, by Dan Plazak, 2010

“The Truth Behind The Lies Of The Original Welfare Queen”, by Gene Demby, NPR, December 2013

“Drake’s Fortune: The Fabulous True Story of the World’s Greatest Confidence Artist”, by Richard Rayner, 2002

“For you, half price”, by Gabriel Cohen, The New York Times, November 27, 2005