Category: Frauds, Scams, Hoaxes


 

 

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was born the son of a candle and soap maker, but his own efforts and intellect he rose to become arguably the most admired man of the eighteenth century. Throughout his long and illustrious career he was many different things: a printer, a philosopher, a man of science, a man of letters, and a statesman. He was also a hoaxer. Like other eighteenth-century literary figures such as Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe, he used hoaxes for satirical ends, to expose foolishness and vice to the light of public censure. The efforts of Franklin and other Enlightenment hoaxes to address the public through hoaxes reveals the increasing importance placed upon public opinion throughout this period. Franklin was a master of the art of public relations before that concept had even been dreamed up. The very image of himself that he presented to the world, as a simple but wise American rustically dressed in a raccoon-skin hat, was actually a carefully crafted public persona that belied the reality that he was one of the most sophisticated, cosmopolitan men of his era.

Silence Dogood

In 1722 a series of letters appeared in the New-England Courant written by a middle-aged widow named Silence Dogood. The letters poked fun at various aspects of life in colonial America, such as the drunkenness of locals and the fashion of hoop petticoats. Silence was particularly fond of ridiculing Harvard, complaining that it had been ruined by corruption and elitism, and that most of its students learned nothing there except how to be conceited. The readers of the paper thought she was a charming woman. So charming, in fact, that a few of the male readers wrote in offering to marry her. She coyly hinted that she might be willing to entertain such offers. But unfortunately, Silence Dogood didn’t really exist. She was the invention of sixteen-year-old Benjamin Franklin, whose older brother, James, was a Boston printer. It is not known whether James was privy to the true identity of Silence Dogood, or whether, like the rest of Boston, he was fooled by his younger brother. This was the first of Franklin’s many hoaxes.

Benjamin Franklin: Silence Dogood, The Busy-Body, and Early Writings (Library of America)

The Death of Titan Leeds

Poor Richard’s Almanac was a yearly publication supposedly written by a henpecked, poverty-stricken scholar named Richard Saunders. It first appeared in 1733, offering a collection of wit, poetry, and prophecies. In its first year it included the prediction that the rival almanac-writer Titan Leeds would die on “October 17, 1733, 3:29 PM, at the very instant of the conjunction of the Sun and Mercury.” Titan Leeds failed to die. In fact, he lived to chastise Sanders for his falsehood and stubbornly continued to publish his almanac. Saunders responded to Leeds’s impertinent refusal to die by theorizing that Leeds actually had died, but that someone had usurped his name and was using it to falsely publish the almanac. For the next five years Saunders continued to insist that Leeds was dead until finally, in 1738, Leeds did actually die. This prompted Saunders to congratulate the men who had usurped Leeds’s name on their decision to end the pretense. Saunders was, of course, the pseudonym of Franklin. The hoax (adapted from Jonathan Swift’s similar Bickerstaff hoax of 1708) represented his method of mocking the popular art of prophecy.

Polly Baker

Eighteenth-century laws made it illegal for women to have sexual relations with men out of wedlock. In 1747 the text of a speech delivered in a court by a woman accused of this crime began to circulate around Europe. The evidence that she had committed the crime was fairly compelling: she had just given birth and was unmarried. Therefore, she didn’t contest her guilt. Instead, she contested the justice of the law itself. She pointed out that she had already been fined four times for the same crime, while her accomplices (the men who had fathered her children) had never been fined at all. In fact, she argued, she would have been willing to marry any one of these men, but all of them had abandoned her. For this reason, she maintained, she was really being punished for their crime. After hearing this speech of the judges supposedly not only declared her innocent, but one of them married her the next day. The text of Polly Baker’s speech was reprinted in many papers throughout Europe and America and caused a great sensation. Everyone accepted it as a true account of an actual event. But thirty years later Franklin confessed that he had written the speech himself and that there was no Polly Baker. His intention had been to draw attention to the unfairness of the law that punished mothers, but not fathers, for having children out of wedlock.

A Supplement to the Boston Independent Chronicle

In 1782 a shocking letter was printed in the Supplement to the Boston Independent Chronicle and soon began to circulate throughout Europe. It alleged that Indian warriors were sending hundreds of American scalps as war trophies across the Atlantic to British royalty and members of Parliament. The scalps included those of women, as well as young girls and boys. The allegation shocked European public opinion. But in fact, the British had not received scalps from any Indians. The Supplemental to the Boston Independent Chronicle was a fake newspaper that Franklin himself had printed up and distributed to his friends. Franklin saw his hoax as aiding the American war effort by turning European opinion against the British.

 

 


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Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) published six hoaxes during his brief life. He enjoyed playing games of rationality with his readers. Sometimes he cast himself as a master detective capable of discerning the truth behind any illusion or puzzle, a role that he expressed through the famous character of Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin. At other times Poe liked to display his ability to hide the truth from his readers, to force them to play detective. In fact, both detective and hoaxer were two sides of the same coin for Poe. Both roles manifested the power that he believed a rational mind could wield over reality. Poe was also fascinated by other hoaxes besides his own. He once referred approvingly to the age in which he lived as the “epoch of the hoax.”

The Great Balloon Hoax

On April 13, 1844, a broadside, or “extra page,” appeared in the midday issue of the New York Sun (the same penny paper that had perpetrated the Great Moon Hoax of 1835), announcing that the famous European balloonist Monck Mason had succeeded in flying across the Atlantic Ocean in seventy-five hours. If true, this would have been the first time the Atlantic had ever been crossed in a balloon – a remarkable achievement. The balloon, named the Victoria, had apparently taken off from England on a trip to Paris, but had been blown off course due to a propeller accident and ended up floating across the Atlantic and landing on Sullivan’s Island, near Charleston, North Carolina. The entire report was a fiction created by Poe, but Poe later proudly described the enormous crowd that gathered to learn more about the historic news: “On the morning of its announcement, the whole square surrounding the Sun building was literally besieged, blocked up – ingress and egress being alike impossible, from a period soon after sunrise until about two o’clock PM. I never witnessed more intense excitement to get possession of a newspaper.” But the excitement didn’t last long. Word soon arrived from Charleston that the story was a hoax.

The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar

The concept of mesmerism, or hypnosis, fascinated nineteenth-century readers. A quasi-scientific account written by Poe, which appeared first in the American Whig Review in December 1845, described in experiment involving a man on the verge of death, M. Valdemar, who was hypnotized just before he died. As a result his body perished, but his consciousness, still under the power of the hypnotist, survived. The patient could verbally respond to questions. This experiment allegedly continued for several months, at which point the patient began to beg for release from the hypnosis. When released, his body disintegrated as if it had been dead for some time. This story caused great excitement, especially in Europe, where it was widely reprinted. It also prompted many people to write to Poe requesting more information about the experiment. Poe warned one such correspondent. “Some few persons believe it – but I do not – and don’t you.”

Von Kempelen and His Discovery

In 1849 gold was discovered in California, prompting thousands of “forty-niners” to join the Gold Rush to California. Poe’s account of the experiments of a German chemist, Baron von Kempelen, appeared in The Flag of Our Union on April 14, 1849. It described von Kempelen’s discovery of an alchemical process to transform lead into gold. The account concluded by noting that news of the discovery had already caused a two-hundred-percent leap in the price of lead in Europe. Poe hoped that the story would cause some American readers to think twice before heading off to California in search of gold. He wrote to Evert A. Duyckinck, “My sincere opinion is that nine persons out of ten (even among the best informed) will believe the quiz (provided the design does not leak out before publication) and that thus, acting as a sudden, although of course a very temporary, check to the gold fever, it will create a stir to some purpose.” The actual reaction to the hoax was somewhat less profound than Poe anticipate. It is not recorded that anyone delayed his departure to California on account of von Kempelen’s spurious discoveries.

 


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Legendary Scams

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For Sale: The Brooklyn Bridge

Background: Not long after the Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883, a shifty 20-year-old named George C. Parker decided on a whim to see if he could “sell” it to an unsuspecting tourist. He did. In fact, it was so easy that he tried it on someone else a few days later and pulled it off again. He dropped his other cons and went into Brooklyn Bridge sales full-time.

The Scam: His usual approach was to walk up to a “mark,” introduce himself as the owner, and offer a job as toll taker in the tollbooth he was about to build. Parker would then gently guide the conversation to the point where the mark would offer to buy the bridge, set up his own tollbooth, and keep all the toll money for himself. Parker, “more a bridge builder than a toll taker,” was happy to have the bridge taken off of his hands in exchange for anywhere from $50 to $50,000, depending on how wealthy the tourist looked. And he accepted payments in installments when a sucker didn’t have enough cash to buy the bridge outright. Some of his victims paid him regularly for months before they realized they’d been had; and more than once, police had to be called to the bridge to prevent its latest “owner” from erecting a toll barrier.

What Happened: Parker specialized in selling the Brooklyn Bridge, but also sold other prominent New York landmarks on the side, including Madison Square Garden, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Grant’s Tomb, and even the Statue of Liberty. Amazingly, he remained in business from 1883 to 1928, when he was finally arrested on a swindling charge and sentenced to life in prison. He died in Sing Sing prison – where the other con men treated him like a king – in 1937.

For Rent: The information booth in New York’s Grand Central Station

Background: In 1929, a well-dressed man claiming to be “T. Remington Grenfall,” vice president of a company called the “Grand Central Holding Corporation,” walked into the Fortunato Fruit company and told the owners, Tony and Nick Fortunato, about a unique real estate opportunity. The man told them that the operators of Grand Central Station had decided to shut down the information booth and refer all inquiries to the ticket sellers. Since the information booth was no longer needed, the station had decided to rent the space out to merchants – fruit merchants.

The Scam: The Fortunatos were at the top of the list. All they had to do was come up with the first year’s rent in cash: $2,000 a week for 50 weeks, or $100,000. It seemed like a great opportunity, so the next morning the brothers showed up at the Grand Central Holding Corporation – in a building next door to the train station – and gave the “president” of the company, a man calling himself Wilson A. Blodgett, a cashier’s check for $100,000 in exchange for a contract staying they could take over the booth beginning on April 1 (April Fool’s Day). On April 1, the brothers – accompanied by several workers and a huge supply of lumber – went to Grand Central Station to take possession of the booth and begin renovations. The only problem: the information booth employees were still in the booth and refused to leave. Grand Central officials refused to honor the contract an had the Fortunato brothers kicked out of the station.

What Happened: Grenfall and Blodgett were never caught, and the Fortunato brothers never got their money back or took possession of the information booth. They did, however, become a semi-regular tourist attraction. For years afterward they returned periodically to the train station to yell at officials and intimidate the clerks in the information booths. New Yorkers began taking out-of-town guests to the station in hopes of witnessing the spectacle.

For Sale: The Eiffel Tower

Background: In 1925, a Czech con artist named Victor Lustig read in the newspaper that the Eiffel Tower needed major repairs. The article gave him an idea for a scam, and he set sail for Paris. Posing as “Deputy Director-General of the Ministry of Mail and Telegraphs,” he contacted six of the country’s largest scrap metal dealers and brought them together for a face-to-face meeting.

The Scam: At the meeting, Lustig told the dealers that the French government had decided the repairs on the Eiffel Tower were too expensive and had also decided to tear the landmark down. Fearing that the public would be furious when it learned of the decision, he told them, the government wanted the story kept a secret until the demolition actually began. After asking the dealers to submit bids for the contract, Lustig pulled one of them aside and told him that for a $100,000 bribe, he would award him the contract. The dealer went back to his office, got the money and gave it to Lustig, who caught the next train to Vienna.

What Happened: The scrap dealer never reported the scam to the police, so Lustig returned to France and conned a second scrap dealer out of $100,000. This time, the dealer went to the police. But it was too late. Lustig had already fled to the United States, where he resumed his career as a con artist.

For Sale: Big Ben

Background: In a 1920 play, Scottish actor Arthur Ferguson played a gullible American tourist who is swindled by a con man. When the play closed, Ferguson decided to find out if real American tourists were as dumb as the one he’d played.

The Scam: World War I had just ended; England’s finances were strained to the breaking point. But Ferguson “confided” to American tourists that the fiscal situation was even worse than the British government was letting on, and he had been hired by the Prime Minister to quietly sell off some of London’s most famous landmarks to raise cash. Ferguson “sold” just about every London landmark several times over, usually charging $5,000 for Big Ben, $30,000 for Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square, and $10,000 as a down payment for Buckingham Palace.

What Happened: The scam was successful for many years. Finally, so many Americans complained to the U.S. Embassy that Ferguson decided it was time to leave the country. He moved to America, where he set up shop selling U.S. Landmarks – including the White House, which he rented out for $10,000 a year – to wealthy English tourists. Ferguson was finally arrested for trying to sell the Statue of Liberty to an Australian for $100,000. He spent five years in prison for the crime.