Crime fiction is often based on what happens in real life. That’s been true ever since the genre was developed in the mid-19th Century. To give you a sense of some of the real-life criminals, con men and thieves of the 19th Century, I’ve got an expert in today. It’s my great pleasure to welcome K.B. Owen, an academic and specialist in late-19th Century life. Her crime fiction novel Dangerous and Unseemly has just been released. It’s the first of her Concordia Wells series and I’m excited about it. More on that and on Kathy in just a bit. For now, let’s learn about 19th Century con men:
I’m thrilled to be guest posting on Margot’s blog. Since she’s such a fab crime gal, the following topic seemed appropriate for today:
19th century Con Men: the Best Salesmen Ever
Ponzi schemes, junk bonds, internet hoaxes…the list of scams today go on and on. But folks have been cheating each other since the first gullible biped hit the ground. As David Hannum (not P.T. Barnum, but that’s another story) once said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
This was certainly true of the nineteenth century, too, also nicknamed “the age of larceny.” Get-rich-quick schemes, fake real estate, and false identities abounded. Whatever you were looking for, the con men had it to sell. Here are a few you’ll get a kick out of:
“Soapy” Smith (1860-98)
Jefferson Randolph Smith was known as “king of the frontier con men.” He formed a crime ring that set up “short cons” – quick, simple swindles such as the shell game or three card monte. What he’s best known for is what came to be known as “the prize soap racket.” It was a scheme that he used successfully for more than 20 years.
Here’s how it worked: on a busy street corner, Smith would set up his display of bars of soap, then begin to expound on their wonderful properties. As he talked, he would take out paper money in a range of denominations, wrap them around some of the bars of soap, and then cover all the bars with the same plain white paper. He sold the bars for $1 each, and shills in the audience “discovered” that they had bought a bar that was wrapped with a big money prize. During the commotion, Smith’s sleight-of-hand ensured that only the shills received a soap bar wrapped in money, while everyone else bought a cheap bar of soap.
Reed “Kid” Waddell, the original “goldbricker” (1860-95)
Waddell ran the first “goldbrick” scheme, where he sold lead bars coated to look like gold bouillon, with official-looking U.S. stampings on the bar. A small chunk of real gold was sunk into the middle. The victim, or “mark,” would be brought to an accomplice who posed as an assayer, so that he would believe that he was buying gold from the U.S. Assayer’s office. If the mark was still skeptical, Waddell would extract the chunk of gold from the middle so that it could be tested and verified by a jeweler. He made a quarter of a million dollars during the life of this scheme.
Alas, Kid Waddell met his end in France, where he had a falling-out with Thomas “I.O.U.” O’Brien (I kid you not, you just can’t make this stuff up!), a long-time bunco man. Here’s the account in the New York Times:
Notice that the best defense the French lawyer has for O’Brien is that the exchange of gunfire is an “ordinary way of settling quarrels in America.” It’s the Wild West!
Want to rub shoulders with British nobility?
Hugh L. Courtenay
Courtenay was born in England in 1852, the son of a lodge-keeper to the Earl of Devon. Although poorly educated, his tall (6’2″) slim build and aristocratic airs enabled him to pass as a member of the British nobility. After moving to the U.S., he could use the pretense to hobnob with affluent society. The following, written in 1886, is an account of one of his long-running scams as a “society swindler” in Baltimore, MD. The account is a bit lengthy, but worth reading for its portrayal of both Courtenay and the “silly American heiresses”:
Can you imagine – a pretense so convincing that women want to cut the buttons off the man’s jacket as souvenirs?
Looking for…the Brooklyn Bridge?
For a couple of decades after its completion in 1883, there were a number of swindlers looking for suckers – foreigners, mostly, who didn’t understand the public property laws in their new country. The first known “sale” was made by Peaches O’Day, for $200. The receipt read “One bridge – in good condition.”
The swindle wasn’t limited to the Brooklyn Bridge: Grant’s Tomb, the Statue of Liberty, and other public landmarks were fair game, too. Here are some other swindlers who made the bridge their personal property to sell:
The Gondorf brothers:
Yes, I know, the photo above isn’t that of the original Gondorf brothers, Thomas and Charley. Newman and Redford, however, portrayed the con-men in The Sting (I’m willing to bet that they are better-looking than the original pair).
To run the scam, the Gondorfs waited until the beat cops were out of sight, then set up official-looking “Bridge for Sale” signs, brought their mark over and pitched the sale, usually appealing to the mark’s vanity as a prosperous, savvy man of business. Typically, they made $200-$1000. Officials caught on when the people who “bought” the bridge tried to set up barricades to collect tolls. Ellis Island officials began handing out pamphlets warning the new arrivals that public buildings and streets were not for sale.
George C. Parker
Although not quite a 19th century figure, this early-20th century con-artist was purported to have sold the Brooklyn Bridge up to twice a week for several years, along with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Statue of Liberty. He also posed as the grandson of Ulysses S. Grant and sold Grant’s Tomb.
So, what’s your favorite hoax or scam? I’d love to read your comments. Margot, thanks so much for hosting me!
An unseemly lesson…in murder.
The year is 1896, and Professor Concordia Wells has her hands full: teaching classes, acting as live-in chaperone to a cottage of lively female students, and directing the student play, Macbeth.
But mystery and murder are not confined to the stage. Malicious pranks, arson, money troubles, and the apparent suicide of a college official create turmoil at the women’s college. For Concordia, it becomes personal when a family member dies of a mysterious illness, and her best friend is attacked and left for dead.
With her friend still in danger and her beloved school facing certain ruin, Concordia knows that she must act. But uncovering secrets is a dangerous business, and there are some who do not appreciate the unseemly inquiries and bold actions of the young lady professor. Can she discover the ones responsible…before she becomes the next target?
Absorbing in its memorable characters, non-stop plot twists, and depiction of life in a late-nineteenth century women’s college, Dangerous and Unseemly is a suspenseful and engaging contribution to the cozy historical mystery genre. Fans of Harriet Vane and Maisie Dobbs will find in Concordia Wells a new heroine to fall in love with.
And here’s more information about K.B. Owen:
K.B. Owen taught college English for nearly two decades at universities in Connecticut and Washington, DC, and holds a doctorate in 19th century British literature. A mystery lover since she can remember, she drew upon her teaching experiences in creating her amateur sleuth, Professor Concordia Wells. Unlike the fictional Miss Wells, K.B. did not have to conduct lectures in a bustle and full skirts. No doubt many people are thankful about that.
She now resides in Virginia with her husband and three sons. She recently finished the second book in the series, and is busily planning Concordia’s next adventure. Check out her website for more historical mystery fun: kbowenmysteries.com.
Thanks, Kathy, for doing my work for me today.
How about a little mystery fun…and a prize! Each stop in K.B. Owen’s book launch tour has a mystery question to answer. When you have them all, unscramble the answers to which ROOM, WEAPON, and SUSPECT, and email Kathy at kbowenwriter(at)gmail(dot)com. She’ll announce the winner (chosen from the correct entries) at Karen McFarland’s blog (http://www.karenmcfarland.com), the last stop of the tour. What do you win? A free ebook copy of Dangerous and Unseemly, and a $25 gift card of your choice to either Starbucks, Amazon, or Barnes and Noble! If you run into a few stumpers – no problem! Check out her Mystery Quizzes page http://kbowenmysteries.com/mystery-quizzes/ for links to the answers. If you’ve joined us in the middle of the tour, the complete list of Book Tour hosts can be found at kbowenmysteries.com. Good luck! Want more information? Check out the Whodunit Game Page.
Email Deadline: Monday, April 1st
Here’s your question:
What percent cocaine solution did Sherlock Holmes inject when bored between cases?