They lie, they cheat, and they get you to agree to what they are about to steal. But one thing that we can agree upon is that con artists are firmly embedded as some of popular culture and history’s most colorful characters. In this list, we explore some of the most fascinating or improbable excerpts from the history of scam artistry, and truly astounding incidents defining the lives of the undeniably dubious characters who fill our rogues gallery. From Ponzi’s shocking good deed, to a man who “sold” the Taj Mahal, to the eerie golden chest ruse, keep your mind open to discovery but remember not to trust!
10. Charles Ponzi
Sometimes there is more than meets the eye, and a taker is also a great giver. Charles Ponzi was an Italian born swindler famous for inventing the namesake Ponzi scheme, assisting Italian illegal immigrants and concocting a multitude of methods by which he persuaded people to part with their money. Yet, despite his reputation that includes a history of jail time, Ponzi not only engaged in scams and associated ventures. He actually went far further than giving the shirt off his back and in fact donated sections of his skin to a female nurse who had been seriously burned in an accident on a mining site.
While he was a swindler, he was clearly no skinflint when it came to his own skin in this curious turn of redeeming action. Mining company hospital nurse Pearl Gossett lost extensive skin to a stove explosion as she was preparing a meal for a patient. Everyone in the camp was a “skinflint” and unwilling to help, as Ponzi discovered after asking a doctor about her condition. A total of 72 square inches of skin was taken from the clearly generous and in this case noble scam artist’s thighs, while yet another 50 square inches had to be taken from the man’s back to cover the rest of the repairs to the nurse’s skin. Both recovered.
9. Ferdinand Waldo Demara
For any government force in charge of defense, national security and military matters, being conned is just not good PR. After all, we trust armed forces to defend us, not to be preyed upon themselves by scammers. But one impostor by whom to measure other impostors, a gentleman named Ferdinand Waldo Demara, engaged in scams that were not only audacious, but created massive endangerment situations and even jeopardized military operations. His trickery included pretending to be competent in a variety of occupations, and proceeding to “wing it” as he collected revenues for duties he was not qualified to perform.
Incredibly, the American born Demara scammed the Royal Canadian Navy during the Korean War by pretending to be a surgeon named Joseph Cyr, coming aboard under the chosen identity and also the pay of a surgeon. Worse yet, he actually performed operations in his assumed role on a vessel prior to being caught. Due to the shame the Navy felt for failing to conduct a proper background check, a decision was made not to prosecute Demara. Were he to be prosecuted, the mistake of being scammed would move further into the public eye. A movie was made that was based on Demara’s exploits called The Great Impostor, albeit featuring a much more handsome actor (Tony Curtis) than the real Demara.
8. John Brinkley
One might say that a con artist can benefit from having a certain… ahem… physical trait, but in the bizarre case of John Brinkley, a scam artist operating in the 1920s and 1930s, that matter was the very pretext of his subsequent absurd and medically intrusive actions. In those pre-Viagra days, the sometimes desperate desire for effective performance enhancement led to some outlandish measures. And with desire came an opportunity for scammers to cash in. One scam to top them all was a gonad scam. And what a scam it was.
For the, shall we say, “creative” John Brinkley, the idea came after discussion with one “patient” to develop a supposed “cure” for impotence that involved nothing less than the awful and of course useless method of opening the testicles of a human male patient seeking a “boost” in performance with an incision, and then proceeding to simply implant goat gonads into the testicles before sewing them up. While he was pursued with disdain and eventually forced to stop his procedures that followed the first case by the American Medical Association, his testicular tomfoolery under the guise of medicine actually made him something of a hero by those duped. As a result of Brinkley’s acquired popularity, he even came close to being elected as the Governor of New Mexico.
7. The Man who Swindled Mussolini and a Detective
German-American con artist Joseph Weil was a scammer who understood people well – a little too well, perhaps. Stating that people were 99 percent animal and 1 percent human, he pulled off scams so daring that they might seem preposterous. Some were small, including touting medicinal tonics that were in fact no more than packaged rainwater, probably polluted at that. For example, while Benito Mussolini is notorious as the fascist dictator who’s speeches pulled Italy into the WWII Axis, Weil tricked Mussolini out of money and established himself as a hustler so adept that he could trick a dictator. And how much did Weil swindle from Mussolini? The cool sum of $2,000,000, which was certainly a loss to the fascist dictator despite his ability to amass funds for war.
Perhaps more shocking, the man even swindled a detective for the not-so-small sum of $30,000… while he was escorting the scammer to prison! Weil excelled in what one might term “social skills” yet his ability to read people was so well developed that he could tailor his statements to match exactly what people wished to hear. As a result of success in manipulative masterminding and scam development, Weil is suspected of having duped victims out of more than $8,000,000 over the course of his “career.”
6. The Space Suit Scenario
Tinfoil hat wearing may be a staple of ludicrous conspiracy theory portrayals, and seem to be a more than tired cliché. While known as a subject of amusement and humor, primarily in North America and Europe, a real life tinfoil scenario, albeit a full body version for a different reason, transpired in India. In early May 2018, two scam artists, Virender Mohan Brar and son Nitin Mohan Brar who constituted a father and son team in India, took things two steps further by dressing head to toe in foil replica “space suits” that looked quite convincing.
Pretending to work for NASA, the duo duped people based on their dramatic appearance and the electrifying buzz of the story that accompanied their ridiculous but impossibly “techy” appearance. Like space age cosplay enthusiasts gone rogue, their dress served to represent a role that was a fantasy far from reality. Dressed to dupe, the two Brars claimed that they had come into the possession of a copper plate that could draw electricity from “thunderbolts” and magically (well, actually through some bogus physics) proceed to draw rice. They managed to convince a businessman to spend more than $280,000 on the plate before being arrested.
5. Juan Guzman-Betancourt
Able to speak several languages, well organized and giving the impression of the highest levels of wealth, Juan Guzman-Betancourt was a scammer and a thief. While his ways of gaining real, albeit stolen wealth for himself were wrong, he did not directly scam his victims in his most notorious modus operandi prior to capture. Instead, he dropped the ruse on those his victims trusted most: hotel staff, getting access to their riches once let in. And how did he achieve his wealth siphoning mind game ‘success stories’? He simply looked and acted the part, then explained that he had accidentally parted with his room key, so would the hotel guests kindly oblige in parting with a replacement just for this special guest?
Once let in, the brilliantly disguised man would proceed to pack up the valuables he wanted and vacate. As a result of his highly successful escapades, he ended up wanted in multiple countries once he had struck and run. Changing his story, appearance and nation or region of operation multiple times allowed him to stay one step ahead of victims, unwitting helpers and authorities once the crimes were discovered. Arrested in London, he was able to trick a guard into giving him an escape opportunity before setting off again, then being recaptured in Vermont. US authorities were suspicious of him, and perhaps on account of the gentleman’s history of being deported three times from the US, there was reason.
4. The Golden Boos
In a case of theft, one usually assumes that a valuable object will be in fact directly taken out of someone’s possession. But what about a scam so twisted that a valuable object is given to someone, which results in an external “inside job” that combines theft with clever scammer mastery? Over 230 years ago in the minute land of Liechtenstein, a woman known as “The Golden Boos,” nicknamed so for her blonde hair, was a confidence woman named Barbara Erni who developed a trick based upon the concept of making the issue about whether the victim is trustworthy and skipping past the issue of whether the scammer is not to be trusted.
Erni would ask targets to take care of a valuable golden chest for her, implying that she trusted them. Upon agreeing to care of the valuable treasure chest for her, the victim would then have their house robbed in an “inside job” that entailed a small assistant to Erni emerging from the container, robbing the house, and leaving. No less than 17 homes were burgled in this way. In 1785, Erni was executed for her crimes, and was the last person to be put to death in the tiny nation.
3. The Eiffel Tower Thief (And Salesman)
It is not generally possible to steal a building directly, for the key element in most thefts is a getaway with the contraband. And how could you steal a building and skip town short of loading a mobile home onto a truck? Well, if you are a pioneering scammer, you could stop short of stealing a building and instead create a situation where you convince your dupe that they are the lucky opportunist legally buying a coveted building, from yours truly! One Victor Lustig was an American hustler extraordinaire of Austro-Hungarian origin who was sentenced to 20 years in prison, to be served on Alcatraz Island’s notorious prison.
Before coming to the United States, where he even worked on a bid to scam the notorious Al Capone, Lustig actually succeeded in persuading gullible dupes to part with their money not on one occasion, but in two separate incidents, in exchange for a piece of construction that was no less than the iconic Eiffel Tower itself. His “sales” of the Eiffel Tower prompted the no-gooder to flee to the United States, where he scammed the country with counterfeit money distribution schemes. Most creatively, he brilliantly scammed would-be scammers with a wooden box device that was demonstrated with the help of a clever ruse as a machine that could copy money, ready for use.
2. The Fake Nation Project of Gregor MacGregor
We may know all about debates on what constitutes or should not constitute illegal immigration, but what is one’s immigration status when the country to which you intend to arrive is itself nothing more than a fraud? Creating a fake country with all the bogus but seemingly bonafide trappings of nation has got to rank highly as far as ambitious dastardly deeds may go. One such Republic of Poyais was the brainchild of flagrant and interestingly named scam artist Gregor MacGregor, a British Army man who visited Honduras and Belize before returning to London and falsely claiming to have received a land grant from a leader of indigenous origin.
The fraud proceeded to cost over 200 lives as MacGregor printed flags, distributed bogus currency and even convinced numerous investors and settlers to put up money and actually immigrate to the new land. The result? Newcomers found little more than shacks, with more than 200 settlers dying from disease, poor sanitation and unsatisfactory living conditions. MacGregor escaped to France, attempted to conduct the scam upon the French, was arrested, and then returned to London before leaving for Venezuala. The opportunistic MacGregor proceeded to assist the country in gaining independence, receiving local recognition for his participation in the struggle.
1. Natwarlal, Salesman of the Taj Mahal
While one Austro-Hungarian who came to the United States is notorious for “selling” the Eiffel Tower to unsuspecting dupes, across the seas, India was not immune to the same racket. And what the Eiffel Tower is to France, the glorious Taj Mahal is (and then some) to India. And it is the Taj Mahal that one huckster extraordinaire from India decided to “sell.” With an ear-catching name, a shyster born in India by the name of Natwarlal was a scam artist who perpetuated a hoax that played out on a scale no less than colossal in its grand audacity.
While Victor Lustig is known for endeavoring to “sell” the Eiffel Tower, Natwarlal “sold” the Taj Mahal, the architectural pride of India on three different occasions, making arrangements to collect money from those deceived by his wheeling and dealing antics while the priceless real estate simply sat their obviously unavailable for purchase or any other change of ownership. Natwarlal was not only devious, he was also quite determined. Not to be stopped, Natwarlal’s sale of assets that were far from his to sell went to even more bizarre extremes. In a truly egregious case, he embarked on negotiations to make a deal to transfer title of the Parliament of India and ownership of its constituents. Sometimes, the grandest scam slips by the most quietly.