19. Seventeenth-Century England’s Most Notorious Conman and Master of Deceit
William Chaloner (1650 – 1699) was a conman, but one with a resume that few other practitioners of deceit could match. The son of a Warwickshire weaver, he was a willful child who showed no interest in his father’s trade. So he was sent to apprentice to a nail maker in Birmingham. Chaloner had no interest in that line of work, either, but he did get drawn to another type of metalwork that Birmingham was famous for at the time: counterfeiting coins. He took to it like a duck to water.
Before long, Chaloner had gained expertise in the production of fake groats – a coin worth four pence. In the 1680s, he headed to London. There, he sold dildos and got started on a new career as a psychic and a quack doctor who sold fake miracle cures. He also gained a reputation as a particularly successful detective, whose ability to find and recover stolen items garnered widespread praise. What people did not know was that Chaloner’s success owed much to the fact that he had stolen those items himself, before he offered to “find them” in exchange for a reward.
18. A Talent for Deceit Took This Conman From Penny Ante Scams to Major Counterfeiter to Agent Provocateur
William Chaloner eventually grew tired of small-time scams, and decided to get into something far more lucrative: resume his career as a counterfeiter. This time, however, he would do so on an industrial scale. Around 1690, he got back into counterfeiting, but his days of cloning four penny groats were over. Now, he focused on higher-value coins such as French Pistoles, each worth about seventeen shillings, and fake English guineas. He established a well-oiled counterfeiting ring that produced coins in quantity.
Chaloner also set up a distribution network to pass on his counterfeit coins to contacts in the underworld for circulation. Soon, he had become a wealthy man, so he expanded operations and bought himself a nice house in the countryside. There, the noise of his machines were less likely to attract attention. By 1693, Chaloner had expanded his repertoire to take advantage of his talent for deceit and added anti-Jacobite agent provocateur to his resume. His prey were the Jacobites – supporters of the recently dethroned King James II, chased out of England by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 – who were trying to restore James.
17. This Practitioner of Deceit Was Handsomely Rewarded for Setting Up Opponents of the Government
Being well-practiced in deceit, the side hustle of agent provocateur came easily to William Chaloner. It was easy for him to feign sympathy for the Jacobite cause, and thus draw supporters of the deposed James II into treasonous activity. He would then make a beeline for the authorities, and snitch in exchange for generous rewards. In one instance, he collected 1000 pounds – a small fortune – after he set up and then turned in a pair of Jacobite patsies, who were eventually executed.
It was not long before Chaloner decided that instead of wasting time trying to find Jacobite conspirators, it was easier to simply invent them out of thin air. In 1693, he informed the authorities that he had discovered a Jacobite plot to seize Dover Castle, and offered to infiltrate the network. As he told an accomplice, if he followed Chaloner’s lead: “they would bubble the government, who were the easiest to be cheated of any men in the world“.
William Chaloner’s Dover Castle scam did not pan out. So he hit upon another lucrative deceit: he would provide the authorities with a fake list of Jacobites, and then manage to get himself employed by the government to investigate them. In one of his scams in this period, he got an accomplice named Coppinger to write a treasonous Jacobite satire. The idea was to use the satire to ensnare a printer and get him to print it, and thus commit a highly illegal and treasonous act.
Chaloner would then make a beeline for the authorities, and turn in the printer in exchange for a generous reward. There is little honor among thieves, however, and the accomplice tried to hog the entire reward for himself by getting Chaloner out of the way. Coppinger denounced Chaloner for counterfeiting and had him sent to Newgate Prison. Somehow, Chaloner managed to talk his way out of it. He even turned the tables on his erstwhile accomplice, and paid Coppinger back for his deceit by getting him hanged for writing the Jacobite satire.
15. It Took the Genius of Sir Isaac Newton to Bring Down this Master of Deceit
William Chaloner next targeted the newly-established Bank of England, which had introduced new £100 bank notes in 1695. He secured a stock of the right kind of paper, and churned out £100 notes. He was caught, but got away on a technicality. Remarkably, although counterfeiting coins had long been a capital offense, forging bank notes was not made a punishable crime until 1697. Chaloner immediately turned King’s Evidence (state’s witness), and turned in his accomplices to curry favor. He did such a good job snitching that he received formal thanks from the Bank of England, a £200 reward, and also got to keep all the profits he had made from his earlier £100 bank note forgeries. Chaloner’s criminal career was going great, but unbeknownst to him, the master of deceit had acquired a relentless new nemesis: Sir Isaac Newton.
The famous scientist had been appointed Master of the Mint. It was a position intended as a sinecure, but Newton took the job seriously. He zeroed in on Chaloner, and devoted himself to building an airtight case against him. To have one of mankind’s greatest geniuses devote himself to bringing you down is probably bad news for anybody, and so it was for Chaloner. Newton used a network of spies, informants, and investigators, who raked through Chaloner’s past to dig up dirt, and found plenty. Sir Isaac then had Chaloner tried before a hanging judge, who lived up to his reputation after the conman was found guilty and sentenced him to hang. On March 22nd, 1699, William Chaloner met his end at the end of a noose on the gallows at Tyburn.
Arminius, also known as Hermann (circa 18 BC – 19 AD), was a German leader of the Cherusci tribe. A Romanized German, Arminius began his military career in Roman service, and eventually rose to command an auxiliary cohort. He then committed one of history’s greatest double-crosses. It was a momentous deceit that transformed him into a loathed Roman villain and a celebrated German national hero. His gigantic statue and memorial, the Hermannsdenkmal, stands today near Detmold in Westphalia, close to where he pulled off his grand betrayal.
Arminius had won the admiration and confidence of the Romans, who granted him their citizenship and high social status, and enrolled him in the equestrian, or knightly, class. He was posted to the Rhine, where he served under Publius Quinctilius Varus, a Roman general related by marriage to Augustus. Rome’s first emperor tasked Varus with the completion of the conquest of Germania up to the Elbe River. Varus’ approach was heavy-handed, however, worsened by the imposition of onerous taxes on the German tribes. So the Germans rose up in revolt.
13. An Ancient Deceit That Shaped Europe for Centuries
When the Germanic tribes rebelled against Rome, the Romanized Arminius realized that he was more loyal to his fellow Germans than to his Roman employers. In 9 AD, as Varus led three legions from his summer camp at the Weser River to their winter camp at the Rhine, his guide Arminius used deceit to lead him to his doom. Arminius fabricated reports of a local rebellion, and Varus decided to nip it in the bud. He swung his legions along a path recommended by Arminius, only to end up lured alongside his army into a massive ambush. In what came to be known as the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, the three legions were annihilated, and Varus was forced to commit suicide to escape the ignominy of capture.
The catastrophe shocked Rome to its core. In the aftermath, Augustus roamed his palace, and banged his head against the wall as he wailed: “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!” Aside from ruining the tranquility of Rome’s greatest emperor in his twilight years, the disaster halted Roman plans for expansion into Germania and Central Europe. The region remained outside the Roman Empire, and eventually became a springboard and highway for the waves of barbarians who eventually destroyed the empire. Germania was never Latinized in the way Gaul was. The resultant cultural and political differences were reflected in the centuries of antagonistic relations between the French and Germans, which played a significant role in shaping Europe for centuries.
12. The Fake Lord Who Used Deceit to Bilk a Gilded Age Tycoon Out of a Fortune
Lord Gordon-Gordon was not a lord. Instead, he was a successful nineteenth-century British con artist who used deceit to bilk the unwary wealthy out of large sums of money. His real name and identity are unknown, but he first appears in the record in 1868, when he posed as “Lord Glencairn” in an attempt to secure an estate in Scotland. He did not get the estate, but he did get £25,000 from some London jewelers, then fled to America. He ended up in Minnesota, where he posed as Lord Gordon-Gordon, and convinced the Northern Pacific Railway that he wanted to buy a huge tract of land to settle tenants from his over-populated Scottish estates. The Northern Pacific’s land commissioner spent about $45,000 to court and secure the Scottish Lord as a client, in the belief that he would invest millions in return.
The Northern Pacific Railway scam was just an appetizer. Lord Gordon-Gordon’s next victim was Gilded Age railroad tycoon and robber baron Jay Gould. In 1872, His Lordship convinced Gould that he controlled over 600,000 shares in the Erie Railway. At the time, Gould was in a desperate fight with other tycoons to gain control of the Erie Railway. So he bribed Lord Gordon-Gordon with $200,000 in cash and $1 million in stock to assign him those shares. By the time Gould realized that he had been conned, Gordon-Gordon had sold the stock. The fake lord was put on trial in 1873, but the court granted him bail. He promptly fled to Canada.
11. A DIY Bid to Extradite This Master of Deceit Threatened to Trigger a War
After he jumped bail, the fake Lord Gordon-Gordon’s whereabouts were unknown for months. Jay Gould offered a $25,000 reward for the arrest of His Lordship, and eventually, word arrived that the conman was living in Manitoba, Canada. Gould tried to get him extradited to the US, but Gordon-Gordon convinced the Canadian authorities that the charges against him were false. A little bit of deceit helped. His Lordship offered to buy large tracts of Manitoba – an investment that promised to bring great prosperity to Canada. That explains the Canadian authorities’ reluctance to extradite him. An understandably incensed Gould financed a Minnesota posse to cross the border into Canada, and kidnap Gordon-Gordon.
The kidnappers seized their target from his front porch in Manitoba. However, they were undone when they were stopped at the border, arrested, and thrown into a Canadian jail. An international incident then ensued, and American newspapers urged an invasion of Canada to free the Minnesota kidnappers. Eventually, things simmered down, and the Americans were released through diplomacy. Lord Gordon-Gordon settled down to enjoy his loot, but then in 1874, he was finally identified as the “Lord Glencairn” who had fleeced London jewelers in 1868 out of £25,000. As the Canadian authorities moved to deport him to Britain, the fake lord realized that the jig was finally up. He did not want to spend the rest of his life behind bars, so he hosted a farewell party in his hotel room, then shot himself dead on August 1st, 1874.
10. One of the More Remarkable Instances of Deceit in Modern Warfare
One of the more remarkable instances of deceit to achieve strategic surprise in modern warfare occurred in the run-up to the Yom Kippur War. A surprise attack against Israeli positions in the Sinai Peninsula, it kicked off a war between Israel and a coalition of Egypt and Syria, supported by expeditionary forces from other Arab states. To achieve surprise, the Egyptians resorted to deceptive measures that successfully fooled the Israelis about the timing of the attack, and caught them off guard when the blow fell in the Sinai.
Israel had seized and occupied Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula after its victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. In subsequent years, Egyptian and Israeli forces glared at each other across the narrow Suez Canal, which separated the rivals. Across that waterway, low-intensity warfare simmered for years, comprised in the main of sporadic artillery exchanges, commando raids, and bombing attacks. In the meantime, Egypt sought to regain its lost territory and to wipe out the humiliation of the catastrophic 1967 defeat. It rebuilt, reorganized, and retrained its military for a rematch that all knew would come, sooner or later.
9. A Long Term Plan to Lull an Enemy Into Complacency
Long in advance of the planned attack on Israeli forces in the Sinai Peninsula, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat began to run massive military maneuvers and exercises in the vicinity of the Suez Canal. The aim was to accustom the Israelis to large-scale Egyptian troop movements nearby. That way when the time came for the actual attack, they would be lulled and dismiss its preparations as just another Egyptian military drill. However, unbeknownst to the Egyptians, the Israelis, through a highly placed Mossad agent, were aware by mid-1973 of the general Egyptian plan of attack. What the Israelis did not know, however, was just when the attack would occur.
To know the when was vital for the Israelis, whose small population precluded a large full-time military. Israel could not afford to permanently park hundreds of thousands of soldiers in fortifications opposite the Egyptian positions, just so they would be in place if and when the Egyptians finally attacked. Instead, the Israeli system relied upon fleshing out a small standing military with rapid and massive mobilization of civilian reservists. However, such mobilizations were highly disruptive, as well as quite expensive. The mass of civilians taken from their daily occupations and put into the military could not be kept in uniform indefinitely. The Egyptian strategic deceit plan played upon that vulnerability.
Months before the actual planned attack, the Egyptians tricked the Israelis into believing that an attack was imminent. In response, Israel declared a disruptive and expensive emergency mobilization, but no war came. Burned once by that false alarm, the Israelis were reluctant to call another mobilization a few months later, when the Egyptians began preparations for the real attack. A week before they commenced hostilities, the Egyptians conducted massive military maneuvers in the vicinity of the Suez Canal. The Egyptians called up reservists, but Israeli intelligence, aware of massive troop movements towards the canal, dismissed them as just another military drill. To further their strategic deceit and lull their enemy, two days before the actual attack, the Egyptians announced the demobilization of the reservists called up for the “military exercise“.
Some dissenters within Israeli intelligence suspected that these were real preparations for actual war, but they were ignored. Thus, when the Egyptians launched their attack across the Suez Canal on October 6th, 1973, Israel was caught completely off guard and wrong-footed. The IDF suffered high casualties as its forward fortifications were swiftly overrun, and the Egyptians secured a beachhead on the eastern side of the canal. The Israelis eventually clawed their way back from defeat, encircled an entire Egyptian army weeks later, and prevailed in the war. However, their early setbacks and unaffordable high casualties early in the war were a direct result of the successful Egyptian military deceit operation.
7. A Hard Worker Who Eventually Figured Out He Could Make More Money by Deceit Than by Hard Work
John Ernst Worrell Keely (1837 – 1898) tried his hand at a variety of jobs as a young man. A hard worker, he was employed at times as a painter, a carpenter, a member of a theatrical orchestra, a carnival barker, and a mechanic. Eventually, he came to the realization that he could make more money by deceit than by hard work. In 1872, he declared that he had invented a new engine that would revolutionize the world because it drew its energy from a new physical force that held limitless potential power. The claim fell on receptive ears. Back in the nineteenth century, there was a widespread and mistaken belief that all space was filled with something called a “luminiferous ether“. It was a hypothetical substance thought necessary for the movement of light or electric waves, and without which those things would be impossible.
Keely claimed to have figured out how to tap into and extract energy from this (nonexistent) ether. Having unraveled the secrets of the luminiferous ether, Keely claimed that he could now tap the power of atoms in water to furnish energy. As he explained it to listeners, atoms were in a state of constant vibration, and by harnessing and channeling water’s vibrations in his revolutionary Keely engine, people could tap into limitless energy. By getting the water’s atoms to vibrate in unison in accordance with the principles of the luminiferous ether, you could use its “etheric force” to power motors. Put another way, the Keely Engine was a perpetual motion machine – an impossibility under the basic laws of physics, because it would violate the first or second laws of thermodynamics.
6. An Inventor Who Got Rich Throwing Science-y Sounding Words Around
John Keely demonstrated a prototype of his machine to guests in his workshop. He would pour water into its engine, then play a harmonica, violin, flute, or other musical instruments to activate the machine with sound vibrations. Soon, the device would gurgle, rumble, then come alive, with pressures of up to 50,000 psi on display gauges. Keely harnessed that power and arranged demonstrations in which thick ropes were ripped apart, iron bars were bent, twisted, and snapped in two, and bullets were driven through twelve-inch wooden planks.
He made up science-y sounding terminology to describe the principles of his invention. He described his engine as a “vibratory generator”. Then he began to tell observers that they were witnessing “quadruple negative harmonics”. At other times, he told gullible investors that he was going to make them filthy rich with his “hydro-pneumatic pulsating vacu-engine”. Whenever a listener sounded a note of skepticism, Keely drowned it with yet more science-y sounding phrases such as “vibratory negatives”, “atomic triplets”, “etheric disintegration”, and “atomic ether vibrations”. As seen below, he made a lot of money with such deceit.
5. This Fraudster Kept Up an Elaborate and Lucrative Deceit for a Long Time
John Keely tossed around a jumbled science word salad that sounded impressive to nonscientists. In actuality, what he said was pure pseudoscientific gibberish. It was effective pseudoscientific gibberish, however: within a short time, he managed to convince investors to give him the equivalent of $25 million in 2022 dollars as startup capital, which he used to found the Keely Motor Company. In subsequent years, investors handed him the equivalent of $110 million in today’s money for a stake in Keely’s enterprise.
Over two decades, Keely closely guarded the secret of his invention, and refused to share its details with anybody. But he continued to promise investors that the perfection of a commercial version of his machine was right around the corner. Throughout that time, the gullible continued to give him more and more money, despite the consensus of physicists that Keely was a quack and charlatan, and that perpetual motion such as he promised was physically impossible. Finally, when Keely died in 1898, the secret of his engine was revealed to the world. It had not been powered by water, but by a compressed air machine hidden two floors below. It was connected to the Keely engine by cleverly concealed pipes and hoses.
4. An Ancient Standoff Between a Greek and Indian Army
In May of 326 BC, the Battle of the Hydaspes was fought in what is now the Punjab between Alexander the Great of Macedon and the Indian King Porus. The Macedonian monarch successfully carried out a brilliant piece of military deceit that wrong-footed his opponent and caught him off guard, and set the stage for a complete Macedonian victory. When Alexander marched into the Punjab, King Porus set out to intercept the invaders. He beat them to the Hydaspes River, which Alexander would have to cross if he wanted to penetrate into Porus’ territory.
The Indian monarch then waited on the river’s far bank with his army to prevent Alexander from crossing. When the Macedonians arrived, Porus set his camp across the river from Alexander. He then shadowed Alexander’s movements from the opposite side, as the invader marched up and down the far bank in search of a safe crossing. So long as Porus shadowed the Macedonians from the opposite bank, a crossing of the deep and fast-moving river could prove catastrophic if made against opposition.
3. A Brilliant Piece of Deceit to Lull an Enemy Into Complacency
Alexander found himself in a standoff at the Hydaspes River, with an Indian army camped across the water from his own. If the Macedonians tried to cross, the Indians would be able to strike them at their most vulnerable mid-river. They could also fall upon and overwhelm a portion of Alexander’s on the Indian side of the river before the crossing was completed. So Alexander turned to a bit of brilliant deception to lull King Porus. The Macedonian marched his troops up and down his side of the river each day. The Indians vigilantly shadowed those movements at first. Over time, however, they became accustomed to them and grew complacent.
Alexander then quietly drew off the bulk of his army, and left behind a contingent to make noisy demonstrations in order to keep the Indians fixated on them. In the meantime, Alexander hurried to a crossing upriver, and safely got his force across the river, unopposed. Once on Porus’ side of the Hydaspes, Alexander advanced to attack him, and caught the Indians in a pincer. Porus’ army found itself between the main force under Alexander’s command, and the smaller contingent he left behind on the opposite side of the river to keep their enemy occupied. That contingent crossed the Hydaspes and fell upon the Indians’ rear and flank when they turned to face Alexander and the battle commenced. It was hard-fought, but the outcome was a total Macedonian victory, thanks to the successful deceit.
The world of anthropology was roiled by an elaborate bit of deceit that began on July 16th, 1971. That evening, an amazing discovery was announced on NBC’s Nightly News: “The outside world, after maybe a thousand years, has discovered a small tribe of people living in a remote jungle in the Philippines. Until now, the outside world didn’t know they existed… and they didn’t know the outside world existed. Their way of living is approximately that of the Stone Age.” The discovery of the Tasaday was announced by Manuel Elizalde, head of the Philippine government agency in charge of protecting cultural minorities, and crony of dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
As Elizalde described it, he discovered the Tasaday after he received a tip from a local hunter about encounters with primitive tribesmen deep in the jungles of Mindanao. Elizalde tracked down the tip, and was astonished to find that the tribe had been isolated for over a thousand years, with no contact with the outside world. As the discoverer of the Tasaday put it: “They didn’t realize there was a country. They didn’t realize there was a sea beyond Mindanao. … they did not even know what rice was.” They were also complete pacifists: “They have no words for weapons, hostility, or war“.
Overnight, the Tasaday went from unknown to globally famous. Their pictures appeared on the covers of magazines, including National Geographic. Clips of the tribe were featured on news programs, numerous documentaries were made about the stone age denizens of the jungle, and a bestselling book, The Gentle Tasaday, was written about them. Celebrities flocked to visit and be photographed with them. However, when professional anthropologists sought to study them, the Tasaday and their region were abruptly declared off limits by Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos. It was only after his overthrow in 1986 that the truth came out, and it was revealed that the story of the stone age Tasaday was a fraud.
Once journalists and anthropologists gained access to the Tasaday, they discovered that, far from being primitive stone agers, they lived like modern people, not in caves, but in houses. They did not run around naked and barefoot, but wore shirts, jeans, flip flops and shoes. Interviews revealed that Elizalde had pressured them to pretend to be stone-age primitives. Elizalde profited greatly from that deceit. He had set up a charitable foundation which raised millions of dollars to protect the Tasaday, their “way of life”, and their jungle habitat from encroachment by the outside world. In 1983, he fled the Philippines, after he stole millions from the foundation.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading