A Century of Swindles

Ponzi Schemes, Con Men, and Fraudsters

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Pub Date 01 Sep 2021 | Archive Date 10 Sep 2021

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From the Gilded Age through WWII, America was rife with ne’er-do-wells on a never-ending search for the next big score. Between 1850 and 1950 lawlessness melded with ingenuity, fueled by optimism and ruthlessness: America was dangerous, buzzing, and where opportunity came to take flight. The perfect conditions for swindlers.

The gall and gumption of their hustles strain credulity. Fake diamond fields? War with Canada? Sir Francis Drake’s unclaimed fortune? Apparently, all was fair in the quest for something-for-nothing.

The scammers in this volume range from the undeniably unscrupulous, to the ill and ill-advised. Fans of clever schemes and schadenfreude alike will be entertained by these tales of the rise and fall of some of America’s greatest swindlers.

Railey Jane Savage lives and works in Ithaca, NY, where her abiding love for history's forgotten moments - swindles, or otherwise - grows against the dramatic background of the Finger Lakes. With an English degree from Smith College, she splits her time between writing and editing.

From the Gilded Age through WWII, America was rife with ne’er-do-wells on a never-ending search for the next big score. Between 1850 and 1950 lawlessness melded with ingenuity, fueled by optimism and...

Advance Praise

“Chiselers, cheaters, swindlers, and their marks: This lively and witty survey of a colorful period of enterprising and audacious cons reads like a rapid-fire telegraph from another time. Railey Jane Savage’s perspective is historical, but one very real lesson from this entertaining and deeply researched book is that, as long as people want to get rich quick, there will also be enthusiastic schemers dangling dreams on a dime. The only thing that has really changed between those times and this ... are the hats.”


“Railey Jane Savage relishes language almost as much as she does her delicious characters, and her book travels swiftly through the ages in some top-notch storytelling. She struts that fine line between an enchantment with her swindlers’ deeds and a skeptical independence that pins them in place with historical contextualization—an unbeatable combination.”


“Chiselers, cheaters, swindlers, and their marks: This lively and witty survey of a colorful period of enterprising and audacious cons reads like a rapid-fire telegraph from another time. Railey Jane...

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Featured Reviews

I like reading history (especially true crime) and I thought this would be interesting. I wasn't disappointed. It had stories I hadn't come across before.

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This arresting book Nonfiction book contains stories of American swindles and cons from 1850-1950 before the advent of the internet, before word spread like wildfire. Such daring and deception is mind boggling! What people did...and what drove them to their actions...is discussed here. Some were preposterous, a few a bit more believable, but all fascinating to read many decades later. Reading these stories I couldn't help but feel a tiny bit of appreciation for what went into intricate plans. Written with wit and cleverness, the author uses interviews, quotes and documents as well as photographs and newspaper advertisements ("died yesterday" struck me in particular!) to draw information from. Victims of these swindles felt taken, foolish and angered, just as they would now. I can almost picture and hear Lord Gordon's "cworner lots" as he carefully avoided being photographed in his own way. His deeds, imprisonment and demise are all detailed. Reading about the "afters" is fascinating. The California gold rush drove people to do things they typically couldn't. The story about staking claims, bags of gems, adventure, gold and arranged "hidden" gems is gripping. We are also told about Dr. Blood and his "invention" and marketing. Princess Editha Montez really takes the cake, though. Her tooth cavity trick is almost laughable. As a spiritualist she used various...er...mediums. It actually seems as though she believed her own lies and was put out when others didn't! And then there's Betty Bigley who used her calling cards in a special and devious way. We read of the scammer with a surprising Andrew Carnegie link. Circus trials, fraud, inheritance claims, buying cars for people with others' money...wow. Interesting stuff. Nonfiction and History readers, do pick this up. I learned a lot! My sincere thank you to Rowman & Littlefield, Lyons Press and NetGalley for the privilege of reading this amusing book.

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I generally love books about swindles, cons, and assorted grifters, no matter the time period - after all, Bernie Madoff is just Charles Ponzi with internet access. Neither of those men play a part in this book. Not including Ponzi was an interesting omission, as the book covers selected people and incidents between 1850 and 1950 and Ponzi was active within that period, but perhaps that's because so much has been written about him that having another swindler in line to step up to the spotlight was a good call. While the book covers other con men and women and their schemes, the most fascinating one for me was the one that leads the book: Gordon Gordon, the supposed Lord of Glencairn, from Scotland, once he flees England to America, first trying to swindle people with land deals in Minnesota, and moving from there to New York This is mainly due to him interacting with many of the biggest power brokers of the gilded age. Among them were Horace Greeley ("Go west, young man!") and shady mogul Jay Gould, whose was up to his eyeballs in his own scandal in the Erie Railroad, and who was so desperate he went along with what could only be termed a fantastical scheme cooked up by Gordon Gordon, and wound up just another mark. As Gordon Gordon's con plays out, another figure pops up, although briefly: Diamond Jim Fisk. This was at a time when those various power brokers were trying to corner the gold market via claims in Alaska. Why did this please me? Because I have read and reviewed a book solely about that attempt called A Most Wicked Conspiracy (I gave it five stars, it's excellent). The others, comparatively, didn't grab me the way the Gordon con did, but that were all readable and interesting in their own way - and likely things most people have never heard about. The last chapter, dealing with the faked Drake disk - supposed set by Francis Drake as he circumnavigated the globe, came in second for me, and I felt rather badly for the man who was basically pranked by so-called friends. I thought that was rather nasty work. I realize the ebook version sometimes has its issues with ARCS and their formatting, but the formatting was atrocious., with giant, bold text at random places, giving the publisher name, but also sometimes containing a piece of a sentence, and in the middle of the page. The beginning of each chapter gives the date, place, amount of the con and the things it involve (free hotels, jewels, cash, etc), and the main assorted players. These were also often formatted poorly, and I hope that is repaired prior to publication. Overall: four out of five stars. Thanks to Rowan & Littlefield, Lyons Press, and NetGalley for the reading copy.

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Meticulously crafted and sharp-honed, this book focuses on old-fashioned bribery, deceit, and flat-out fraud over the course of one century through 1850 and 1950. Many of the swindles have a timeless feeling that makes your gut sink in despair and disbelief while reading how the fraud was pulled off on the weak, the gullible, and the unsuspecting. Nothing makes these crimes different from modern catfishing or financial trickery other than the internet was not used. I found this to be concise, uniform, and well-researched, as well as swiftly paced. It reads like a novel, with the dialogue and description to match. The people feel as real as they actually were in real life. I also enjoyed the brief forays into snarky humor that lightened some of the secondhand dread I felt while reading about people being financially and emotionally ruined by scam artists. This one-liner about multiple conmen gathered together with the intent of conning each other out of property and money (as well as their reputations) made me laugh out loud: “Room 110 was home to an ouroboros of scammers that day.”

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