Bridge for Sale

Deception in America

Published: March 5, 2013
Mug shot of Charles Ponzi (3/3/1882 – 1/18/1949)

Mug shot of Charles Ponzi (3/3/1882 – 1/18/1949)

How much of a scammer do you have to be for all future scams to carry your name? Charles Ponzi died in 1949, but new generations of swindlers have carried on the racket that made him infamous. On this episode, we’ll dig into the long story of confidence men and counterfeiters. We’ll discover a time when fake money jump-started the economy, and ask why some swindlers have been treated as folk heroes rather than villains.

Please help us shape this show! Have questions about a legendary swindle? Have you been the victim of an internet scam? Do you think cheaters and forgers have ever had a positive impact on American society? Share your thoughts, questions, and stories below.

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Comments (10)

{Discussion is closed
  1. Brian Parkinson

    Why was the federal government so plagued by swindles (Credit Mobilier, the Whiskey Ring, etc., etc., etc.) after the Civil War?

  2. Erik Alexander

    Look into the Great Diamond Hoax of 1872–some very famous people including Horace Greeley, George McClellan, the Rothschilds, and Charles Tiffany (of Tiffany & Co.) got taken.

  3. JIm Mica

    A wonderful topic guys!
    I see reference to Ponzi above. Did you know that he made onto “Downton Abbey” this season? The head royal twit –having lost a fortune in Canadian railroads– opines that this Ponzi fellow is doing a great job making money for HIS investors.

    And then I recall the greatest con movie of all time: The Sting –based on a book by anthropologist David Maurer. In the most simplistic terms it’s always said that you can’t con an honest man. Maurer -and The Sting– show just how to hook the dishonest..

    Which leads me to my main question: have the rules changed so much that you CAN con an honest man? I’m thinking here of Madoff’s victims. Have “we” come to expect that you can make so much money with money that we “honestly” expect rates of return that are so high they should be suspect?

    And, finally — I promise– was there a historic first person to sell the Brooklyn Bridge or is this just urban myth?

    CONgratulations on this Aprin 1st topic.

  4. Elizabeth Armstrong

    There are certainly all kinds of swindles, and I am wondering about those intra-family swindles which came to light just after the stock market crash of 1929. Legend, and perhaps true story, has it that many male family members, who seemed to have financial acumen (but were really just closet gamblers) had been entrusted with the finances of relatives; yet upon the crash they were revealed to have overextended, embezzled the money they were charged with investing (successfully) in the market. Then, of course, because they were family members, they were either forgiven or they disappeared … Do we forgive swindlers when we have a connection to them?

  5. John

    My favorite con is Victor Lustig, who twice sold the Eiffel Tower for scrap metal. The first time, he got away with it because the victim was to embarrassed to go to the police. The second time he got away before they could capture him. He later came to the United States and pulled off a number of schemes as well, including one at the expense of Al Capone.

  6. Sam Kean

    Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was founded upon a scam that took a lot of chutzpah. A man named R.F. Pettigrew – later the state’s first U.S. Senator – was trying to impress some investors from Minneapolis with the power of the mighty waterfalls nearby. Pettigrew owned the land, and stood to make a fortune if they bought the land to set up a mill. Unfortunately, there hadn’t been much rain lately, and the falls were rather paltry at the time the investors were scheduled to visit. So Pettigrew hired some locals to dam the river about a mile upstream and let water build up.

    Just before Pettigrew and the investors departed to view the falls, he sent out a signal for the locals to knock the dam down. So by the time the party arrived, there was a veritable torrent. The investors, quite impressed, offered to buy the land immediately, and Pettigrew then hustled them out of there before the flood died out again. Predictably, Pettigrew made a killing – and the mill went bust a few years later. I grew up in Pettigrew’s first house in Sioux Falls, and so know the story well. Pettigrew also got charged with treason later while a Senator…

  7. Sarah

    I’d suggest chatting with James W. Cook at U Michigan, whose excellent book The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum details many aspects of American culture in the 19th century that played with issues of reality and counterfeiture, to the delight of audiences. This includes Barnum’s Fiji Mermaid and Joice Heth (the supposed 161 year old nurse to George Washington), as well as trompe l’oeil paintings, magicians, and automata. Cook argues that the experience of viewing these kinds of entertainment required audiences to engage in a “figure it out for yourself” process that resonated with the democratic spirit of antebellum America. It’s a great book!