The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History

Khalid Elhassan - October 30, 2022

Dumb luck is sometimes better than skill and talent. As in way, way, better. Take Timothy Dexter, an eccentric eighteenth century American entrepreneur who sank his money into just about every mind-bogglingly dumb venture possible. Rather than lose his shirt, he made out like a bandit time after time. Below are twenty five things about that and other dumb moments from history.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
Timothy Dexter. Wikimedia

An Ambitious Colonial Blue Collar Worker, and the Snobs Who Tried to Foil Him

For centuries, Newcastle in northeast England had a legal monopoly on the region’s vast coal trade. That helped the town prosper and develop in a major metropolis. As early as the 1500s, the abundance of coal there birthed the idiom “taking coal to Newcastle“. It is used to this day to signify a pointless attempt to do what is useless and is not needed. In the eighteenth century, however, an eccentric – or more accurately, an outright plain nuts – American businessman defied that bit of conventional wisdom and took coal to Newcastle. He made out like a bandit.

Eccentric American entrepreneur Timothy Dexter (1747 – 1806) was born in a working class family of modest means in Colonial Massachusetts. At age sixteen, he became a tanner’s apprentice, and got pretty good at leather working. His life and career revolved around the contrasts between his humble origins, and his desire to join the colony’s elites. Massachusetts’ blue bloods were not receptive to the uncouth and low brow leather worker’s attempts to join their ranks, and went out of their way to try and thwart his ambitions and steer him wrong. As seen below, sheer dumb luck allowed Dexter to foil their schemes to screw him over, and succeed time after time.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
John Hancock was one of Timothy Dexter’s neighbors in Charlestown. Massachusetts Historical Society

Rubbing Shoulders With America’s Colonial Aristocracy

Timothy Dexter was born in 1747 in Malden, Massachusetts, into a family of Irish descent and modest means. So modest, that young Timothy received little education as he grew up. At age eight, his education came to an end, and he was indentured as a servant in a nearby farm. When he turned fourteen, he headed to Charlestown to become apprenticed as a leather worker. At the end of his apprenticeship, when he was twenty, he met and married a widow, nine years older than himself and with four children. She was rich. Dexter moved into her home in one of the posher parts of Charlestown, and she helped him set up shop in her basement, where he sold leather trousers, gloves, and hides.

Dexter’s new neighbors included the likes of John Hancock, then governor of Massachusetts, and Thomas Russel, one of Colonial’s America’s richest men. Such blue bloods, America’s de facto aristocracy, did not take kindly to an uneducated and barely literate man who’d married into money. They treated him as an uncouth upstart, which infuriated him. He determined to prove that he was their equal. He noticed that upper class gentlemen often held public office, and decided to secure one for himself. So he badgered nearby Malden for an office. Eventually, after dozens of petitions, they made up a BS position of “Informer of Deer” to get him off their backs. Like the title said, the job was to inform the authorities if deer were spotted in Malden – even though town records indicate that no deer had been seen in a generation.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
A twenty Continental dollars bill. Medium

A Shrewd Investment, or Dumb Luck?

For years, Timothy Dexter toiled diligently, and built up a nest egg of thousands of dollars in savings – a respectable chunk of change at the time. His first major break towards financial independence, and it is unclear whether it was a shrewd investment or just plain dumb luck, came at the end of the American Revolution. He spent his life savings to buy a lot of depreciated Continental currency, both federal and state, which was worthless at the time. Everybody thought he was an idiot and a fool.

To everybody’s surprise, Dexter the investor benefited from the dumb luck of beginners, when Congress decided to redeem its wartime notes at 1% of face value. 1% might not seem like much, but it was still a whole lot more than Dexter had paid for those notes. Better yet, Massachusetts went and redeemed its wartime notes for their full face value. Seemingly overnight, Dexter went from hubby of a rich widow to rich in his own right. Until then, he was an unremarkable businessman, but as seen below, the sudden wealth transformed him into an eccentric dingbat.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
Colonial Boston did not embrace Timothy Dexter. The Globe and Mail

Failure to Break Into Boston’s Elite Circles

Timothy Dexter thought his new status as a seriously rich man would finally earn him the respect of his posh neighbors. It did not. Try as he might to break into Boston’s upper crust, his efforts met with repeated failure. Part of it was that the crowd he tried to join were snooty snobs. A bigger part was that Dexter was, in many ways, a jerk. He had what was described as a “distasteful nature”, was given to “crude rhetoric”, and often blurted the wrong things at the most inopportune moments.

Dexter decided that his failure to make it into Boston’s upper society was not because he was a jackass – of course not. Instead, he decided it was because the city was too stodgy. So he upped stakes, told his posh neighbors where to shove it, and moved with his wife and family up the coast to Newburyport. There, a series of dumb luck breaks, each stranger than the one before, saw to it that he became even richer than he already was.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
Timothy Dexter’s house in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Library of Congress

I Am the First in the East

Once he established himself in Newburyport, Timothy Dexter decided to become an international businessman, and bought some ships. He also bought a lavish carriage with his initials embossed, and filled a stable with beautiful cream colored horses to pull it. To round it off, he built himself an eighteenth century version of a McMansion, with a great sea view. Dexter’s tastes weren’t exactly what you’d call classy, and he went for the garish and tacky to furnish and bling it out. However, it was the most expensive garish and tacky stuff that money could buy. It included what passed in those days for the height of comfort in outhouses. On the grounds of his luxury pad, Dexter set up rows of columns, fifteen feet tall or more, and commissioned dozens of wooden statues of famous people to slap on top of them.

Prominently displayed, directly in front of Dexter’s door, stood a wooden George Washington. To his right was John Adams, and to his left, stood Thomas Jefferson. Other columns throughout the grounds were topped with assorted generals, philosophers, politicians, statesmen, Indian chiefs, and the occasional goddess. A statue of Dexter was included in the mix, with an inscription in which he labeled himself “Lord Timothy Dexter“, and went on to add: “I am the first in the East, the first in the West, and the greatest philosopher in the Western world“. Not bad, for a man whose education stopped at age eight, and who had never read a philosophy book. Whatever his faults, low self-esteem was not an issue that plagued the eccentric entrepreneur.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
An elderly landlady takes a warming-pan to put in her lodger’s bed. Wellcome Images

Dumb Luck Trumps Terrible Advice

Timothy Dexter’s new neighbors in Newburyport disliked him as much as his old ones in Charlestown had. The tacky McMansion with its garish columns topped by wooden statues was bad enough. Worse, the new arrival turned his residence into a seedy pleasure dome that locals likened to a whorehouse. Prostitutes waltzed in and out at all hours, long nights of loud and drunken parties became a norm, and the fine interiors, including curtains once owned by a French queen, were soon covered in “unseemly stains, offensive to sight and smell. His wife bailed out, and moved elsewhere. When Dexter bought ships and announced his intent to get into international trade, fed up neighbors offered him terribly dumb advice, in the hope that he’d bankrupt himself and be forced to move.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
A bed warming pan. Science Museum Group

One of them recommended that he export bed-warming pans to the Caribbean – a tropical region known for its hot weather, and decided lack of a need for bed warmers. Dexter bit, bought 42,000 pans, and shipped them to the Caribbean. The traders laughed themselves to tears at the idiot who’d shipped bed warmers to the tropics. Then their laughter turned to astonishment. Of course, nobody in the Caribbean was interested in the least in bed warmers. However, Dexter’s agent redesignated them as “ladles”, and suddenly sugar and molasses plantation owners could not get enough of them. As seen below, it would not be the last time that dumb luck allowed Dexter to prosper despite terrible advice.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
If there is one thing Newcastle doesn’t need it is coal – except for that one time when Timothy Dexter sold coal there in the middle of a miners’ strike. Saturday Art Gallery

Shipping Coal to Newcastle

On another occasion, rival merchants convinced Timothy Dexter to send coal to Newcastle, England – a city so known for its abundant coal that the term “sending coal to Newcastle” became a byword for futility and stupidity. Once again, however, dumb luck came to the rescue. Dexter’s ships, laden with anthracite coal, arrived in Newcastle in the middle of a miners’ strike that had crippled local production. It was one of the few times when Newcastle did not have any coal. Dexter managed to unload his sooty cargo at a huge markup, and returned to Massachusetts with “one barrel and a half of silver“.

On another occasion, Newburyport was plagued with stray cats, and a proposal to destroy them all was put to a local vote. It failed, and somebody convinced Dexter that the cats could be sold in the Caribbean. It was a ludicrously dumb idea, but Dexter bit. He advertised in local newspapers that he would pay for stray cats, and promised to treat them well. He shipped them to the Caribbean, where a recent infestation of mice plagued plantations and warehouses. The cats were sold at a premium to eager buyers, and Dexter earned another fortune from a seemingly dumb idea that nonetheless panned out.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
A whalebone corset. Victoria and Albert Museum

The Dumb Whale Bone Monopoly That Turned Out to be Not So Dumb

On another occasion, rival merchants talked Timothy Dexter into another seemingly dumb idea in the hopes of ruining him, and got him to be an ungodly amount of whalebones. 340 tons of whalebones, to be exact. As it turned out, the dumb investment turned out to not be so dumb. In those days, whalebones were a key ingredient in corsets, and Dexter bought so many of them that he cornered the market. He got to set his own price on whalebones, and unloaded them at a handsome profit.

Another dumb investment that rivals talked Dexter into that turned out not to be so dumb and earned him a good return was bibles. Somebody convinced him that the West Indies were in desperate need of bibles. So Dexter bought thousands of them in New England for pennies on the dollar, and shipped them to the Caribbean. The demand was low at first, until Dexter began to preach that the locals would go to hell, unless they had a Holy Bible at home. It resonated, and he made a huge profit as a result.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
Timothy Dexter’s house in the early 1800s. All That is Interesting

An Awful Marriage

Despite the seemingly dumb investments, Dexter’s business career prospered. Not so his marriage. His wife, Elizabeth Dexter, came from a prominent New Hampshire family that included a governor, and they looked down on him. If his frequent womanizing was not enough to wreck his marriage – on one occasion a cuckolded lawyer beat the daylights out of Dexter on the street – his pretending that his wife was dead would have done it. Late in life, Dexter began to refer to Elizabeth as a ghost, and refused to acknowledge that she was alive.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
Timothy Dexter’s house today. Pinterest

Except for that one time when he faked his death to see how many people would show up for his funeral. The turnout was good, and about 3000 people attended the mock wake. Odds are it was not because of love and respect for the deceased, but because the funeral featured plenty of free food and booze. However, Elizabeth Dexter did not seem sufficiently sad to suit her hubby. So he fell upon her with his cane, until funeral attendees came to the rescue and saved her.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
Timothy Dexter’s book, Pickle for the Knowing Ones. Imgur

A Dumb Autobiography That Sold Like Hotcakes

Over the years, Timothy Dexter grew increasingly desperate for recognition and acceptance. To emulate his rich neighbors, he set up a well-stocked library at home, but hardly ever picked up a book. On the few times he did, he never read for more than ten minutes. When public praise was not forthcoming, he paid a poet to praise him in verse. He also wrote a bizarre book about his life, that featured atrocious spelling and no punctuation. A representative excerpt: “Ime the first Lord in the younited States of A mercary Now of Newburyport it is the voise of the peopel and I cant Help it and so Let it gone Now as I must be Lord there will foller many more Lords pretty soune for it Dont hurt A Cat Nor the mouse Nor the son Nor the water Nor the Eare then goue on all is Easey…

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
Timothy Dexter’s punctuation page, for readers to take punctuations and use them wherever they saw fit. Imgur

In the book, Dexter complained about politicians, men of the cloth, and his wife. He self-published the first edition, but incredibly, the book did well. So eight more editions – and paid ones at that – followed. In response to complaints about the lack of punctuation, Dexter added a page to the second edition, with eleven lines of punctuation marks. He instructed readers to help themselves, and insert the punctuations wherever they thought they were needed. Or as he put it, that “thay may peper and solt it as they plese”. When he died in 1806, Dexter’s obituary judged “his intellectual endowments not being of the most exalted stamp”. Still, despite all the dumb moves, he lived the American dream, went from rags to riches, and died in a mansion a very wealthy man – so just how dumb was he, really?

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
Marcus Licinius Crassus. Fine Art America

Fabulous Riches Did Not Spare This Plutocrat from a Dumb Death

Marcus Licinius Crassus (115 – 53 BC) was one of history’s wealthiest plutocrats. He was Rome’s richest man, and ancient sources estimated his wealth at 200 million sesterces. 200 million sesterces was the annual budget of the Roman Republic, at the time the world’s most powerful and wealthiest state. To put that in perspective, the world’s most powerful and wealthiest state today, the US, has an annual budget of $6.8 trillion. So if we go by that analogy, somebody as wealthy as Crassus today would be 34 times as rich as Elon Musk’s, the world’s richest man in 2022, with an estimated wealth of $200 billion. In short, the man was absurdly rich, and a giant of his era. Unfortunately for him, his riches didn’t save him from a dumb decision that ended his life in ignoble fashion.

As an ally of the dictator Sulla, Crassus started on the road to riches through the purchase of confiscated properties seized from executed enemies of the state in rigged auctions, for a fraction of their value. He even had the names of those whose property he coveted added to the lists of those slated for execution and confiscation of property. He continued to amass wealth and property after Sulla’s death, including a scheme involving a private firefighter company. Rome’s buildings were fire prone, so when one broke, Crassus would rush in and offer to buy the burning property then and there at a knockdown price – a literal fire sale. Soon as an agreement was reached, Crassus’ firefighters would spring into action to control the fire and rescue the property for its new owner.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
Colorized reproductions of the First Triumvirate, left to right, Crassus, Caesar, and Pompey. PBS

A Tireless Quest for Glory

By the 70s BC, Crassus had cemented his place as the Roman Republic’s richest man. He leveraged his wealth into political power, and sponsored politicians such as Julius Caesar, whose political rise he financed. Eventually, Crassus entered into a power sharing agreement with Caesar and Pompey the Great. Known as “The First Triumvirate”, the agreement divided the Roman Republic between the trio. However, the one thing Crassus wanted that his fellow Triumvirs had, but he did not, was military glory. Unlike Pompey’s and Caesar’s brilliant military records, Crassus’ only military accomplishment had been to crush Spartacus’ slave uprising, and that did not count for much in Roman eyes.

His quest for military glory led him to an ignominious end and a final oops moment. To get himself some such glory, Crassus led an army of 50,000 to invade Parthia, a wealthy kingdom whose territory spanned today’s Iraq and Iran. He trusted a local chieftain to guide him, but the guide was in Parthian pay. He led Crassus along an arid route, until, hot and thirsty, the Romans reached Carrhae in today’s Turkey. There, Crasus and his army encountered a Parthian force of 9000 horse archers and 1000 armored cataphract heavy cavalry.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
The Battle of Carrhae. Pinterest

A Greedy Man’s Ironic Death

The Romans outnumbered the Parthians 5:1, but they were demoralized by the rigors of the march and by Crassus’ lackluster leadership. The mounted Parthian archers shot up Crassus’ men from a distance, and retreated whenever the Romans advanced. As casualties mounted, morale plummeted. Crassus, unable to think of a plan, hoped that the Parthians would run out of arrows. The Parthians however had a supply train of thousands of camels loaded with arrows. Finally, Crassus ordered his son to take the Roman cavalry and some infantry, and drive off the horse archers. The Parthians feigned retreat, Crassus’ son rashly pursued, and was slaughtered with all his men. The Parthians rode back to Roman army, and taunted Crassus with his son’s head mounted on a spear.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
The death of Crassus. ThoughtCo

Shaken, Crassus abandoned thousands of his wounded and retreated to Carrhae. The Parthians invited him to negotiate, offering to let his army go in exchange for Roman territorial concessions. Crassus was reluctant, but his men threatened to mutiny if he did not go, so he went. Agreeing to meet the Parthians turned out to be Crassus’ ultimate oops moment. Things went bad, violence broke out at the meeting, and it ended with Crassus and his generals killed. To mock his avarice, the Parthians poured molten gold down Crassus’ throat. The surviving Romans fled, but most were hunted down and killed or captured. Of Crassus’ 50,000 men, only 10,000 made it back to Roman territory.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
Mindanao tribes men who participated in the Stone Age hoax of the 1970s in their own home, 1986.

The Fascinating Discovery of a Stone Age Tribe in the Twentieth Century

NBC Nightly News viewers on July 16th, 1971 were treated to an amazing discovery: “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“. Known as the Tasaday, the tribe’s discovery was announced by Manuel Elizalde, head of the Filipino government agency in charge of protecting cultural minorities, and a crony of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Per Elizalde, he discovered the Tasaday after he got a tip from a local hunter about encounters with primitive tribesmen deep in the jungles of Mindanao.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
A Tasaday child. Pinterest

When he tracked down the tip, Elizalde was astonished to discover that the tribe had been isolated for over a thousand years, with no contact with the outside world. As Elizalde described the Tasaday: “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. Unfortunately, as seen below, the Tasaday were simply a dumb get-rich-quick scheme concocted by Elizalde. Although perhaps not so dumb, since Elizalde did get rich from the scheme.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
The Tasaday con tricked many. National Geographic

A Dumb Scheme That Enriched a Conman

Pictures of the Tasaday appeared on magazine covers, including National Geographic, and clips of the tribe were featured on news programs around the world. Numerous documentaries were made about the stone age primitives, and a bestselling book, The Gentle Tasaday, was written about them. Celebrities flocked to visit and be photographed with them. When professional anthropologists sought to the study the Tasaday, they 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 whole thing had been a huge hoax.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
Actual Tasaday. Wikimedia

When journalists and anthropologists gained access to the Tasaday, they discovered that they were not 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. Investigations revealed that Elizalde had pressured the Tasaday to pretend to be stone age primitives. As to Elizalde? 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, and took with him millions looted from the foundation.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
John Keely. The Hive

Getting Rich Off of Dumb Pseudo-Science

John Ernst Worrell Keely (1837 – 1898) had plenty of moxie and hustle. As a young man, he worked as a painter, carpenter, member of a theatrical orchestra, a carnival barker, and a mechanic. He left his mark in history, however, when he turned to crime and fraud. In 1872, Keely declared that he had invented a new engine that would revolutionize the world, by drawing its energy from a new physical force that held limitless potential power. Back then, there was a 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.

Keely claimed to have figured out how to tap into and extract energy from this (nonexistent) ether. Keely claimed that he had unraveled the secrets of the luminiferous ether, and could now harness the power of atoms in water to furnish energy. As he explained it, atoms were in a state of constant vibration. By harnessing and channeling water’s vibrations in his revolutionary Keely engine, people could tap into limitless energy. Keely told the world that he had gotten water atoms to vibrate in unison in accordance with the principles of the luminiferous ether, and thus discovered how to use its “etheric force” to power motors. As seen below, that was pure dumb gibberish.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
Woodcut of an 1877 private demonstration of the Keely Engine. Amazon

A Perpetual Motion Machine by Another Name

The Keely Engine was a perpetual motion machine – a physics impossibility because it violates the first or second laws of thermodynamics. John Keely demonstrated a prototype to guests in his workshop. He poured water into its engine, then played a harmonica, violin, flute, or other musical instrument to activate the machine with sound vibrations. Soon, the device gurgled, rumbled, came alive, and provided pressures of up to 50,000 psi on display gauges. Harnessing that power, Keely 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.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
John Keely and an 1895 version of his machine. Gaby de Wilde

Keely made up science-y sounding terminology to describe the principles of his invention. Early on, he described his engine as a “vibratory generator”. Then he began to tell observers that they were seeing “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”. If 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”.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
John Keely powered his engine with a compressed air sphere concealed beneath his lab. Wikimedia

The Simple Trick Behind a Dumb Con

John Keely tossed around fancy words that sounded impressive to non-scientists, but were actually pseudoscientific gibberish. Although dumb, it was nonetheless effective pseudoscientific gibberish. Within a short time, Keely convinced investors to give him the equivalent of $30 million in 2022 dollars as startup capital, which he used to found the Keely Motor Company. In subsequent years, investors forked over the equivalent of 130 million dollars in today’s money for a stake in Keely’s enterprise. Over two decades, he closely guarded the secret of his invention, refusing to share its details with anybody.

Keely constantly promised that the perfection of a commercial version of his machine was right around the corner. For years, gullible investors continued to give him more and more money. That happened despite the consensus of physicists that Keely was a quack and charlatan, and that perpetual motion such as he promised was impossible. Finally, when Keely died in 1898, the secret of his engine was revealed: the whole thing boiled down to his willingness to engage in the crime of fraud. The device had not been powered by water, but by a compressed air machine hidden two floors below, and connected to Keely’s engine by cleverly concealed pipes and hoses.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
Rocks are as low maintenance as it gets. Unsplash

The Man Who Got Rich Selling Inanimate Pets

It is said that if you build a better mouse trap, the world will beat a path to your door. But what if you are indifferent to mice and mousetraps, and instead have smooth rocks on your mind? Well, if you’re a creative hustler like ad executive Gary Dahl, you create a smooth rock fad out of scratch. Then you sell millions of rocks that you picked up from a Mexican beach for next to nothing, and become a millionaire. It all began as Dahl knocked back a few drinks at a bar, as he listened to some of his friends moan and complain about the time and effort it took to care for their pets.

So he joked about an idea for a perfect pet: a rock. Rocks don’t need to be fed, walked, groomed, or bathed. They don’t act up or make a mess. They don’t get sick and need expensive trips to the vet, and they don’t die. It was a half drunk joke at a bar, and for most people, that’s where it would have ended, forgotten by the time they settled their tab and staggered back home. But Gary Dahl was not most people, and the gears continued to turn in his head about pet rocks. Why not? The more he mulled it, the more feasible it seemed. Especially in the context of the moment, 1975 America, and where he lived, the San Francisco Bay Area, where stuff that seems wacky to rest of the world is often viewed as mainstream.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
Gary Dahl. BBC

As it Turns Out, Selling Pet Rocks Was Not that Dumb of an Idea

The pet rock idea seemed dumb, but Gary Dahl believed that it was doable. So he proceeded to collect smooth rocks from Rosarito Beach in Mexico, which cost him about a penny each. Then he wrote a humorous and gag filled 32-page owner’s manual, titled “The Care and Training of Your Pet Rock“, with instructions on how to raise and care for one’s Pet Rock. That was accompanied by birth certificates and documentation that attested to the rock’s lineage and purity of breed. Dahl then stuffed everything in a straw lined box that represented his biggest expense, and sold his Pet Rocks for $3.95 each. They sold like hotcakes. As he put it later: “I was the only one sold on my idea. My wife thought I was crazy. A lot of my friends thought I was crazy. And… it worked. But I was the only one who thought it would“.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
A Pet Rock. Entrepreneur

It is hard to imagine that such an idea would have worked in any decade other than the 1970s. The craze lasted only a few months, but it made Dahl rich. He sold about one and a half million Pet Rocks in two and a half months. Before they went out of style, five million Pet Rocks had been sold, and Dahl had become a millionaire. He ploughed his proceeds into a bar, and tried his hand at other gag products, such as “Red China Dirt” – an attempt to smuggle mainland China into the US, one cubic inch at a time. With Pet Rocks, Dahl had captured lightning in a bottle – a feat few people ever get to pull even once. He would not pull it off twice, and none of his other novelty items met with anything like the success of the Pet Rocks.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
SS Guard on Parade at a Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, late 1930s. Science Photo Library

The Downside of Blind and Dumb Reverence for Authority

Germans have long been mocked – not least by fellow Germans – for a perceived national trait and cultural tendency to blindly obey the orders of authority figures. For generations, an often repeated cliché had it that otherwise intelligent and rational Germans could simply turn off the independent part of their brains in the presence of authority figures. As a consequence, they are said to turn into automatons who obey otherwise questionable commands simply because they are orders issued by higher ups.

The results can sometimes be horrific. Clearest example of that is the defense raised by many Germans prosecuted for war crimes after World War II. They sought to evade responsibility with variations of “I was only obeying orders“. Many or perhaps most genuinely believed that obedience to the commands of superiors absolved them of legal and moral responsibility. Other times, as seen below, the consequences are merely absurd. Like that time when a drifter walked into a mayor’s office, and in a hilarious bit of deceit, managed to order everybody around and loot the place simply because he was dressed in an officer’s uniform.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
Wilhelm Voigt. History Things

A Drifter’s Ingenious Plan

In 1849, Wilhelm Voigt was born in Prussia. He spent most of his life as a vagabond, drifter, and petty thief. His first recorded brush with the penal system occurred in 1863. Fourteen-year-old Voigt was arrested and prosecuted for theft, convicted, sentenced to two weeks behind bars, and kicked out of school. It was the start of a long career on the wrong side of the law. Not a particularly successful career, though. Voigt was no master criminal, and repeatedly got caught. In the 27 years from 1864 to 1891, for example, he racked up sentences of 25 years for various offenses such as burglary, forgery, and theft. Then he received his longest sentence yet, 15 years, for armed robbery.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
Wilhelm Voigt’s caper, as depicted in a 1956 film. Just Dial

He was released in February, 1906, and supported himself for a time in Berlin as a shoemaker. Then he was expelled from the German capital as an undesirable. So he reverted to his old ways. While in prison, he had mused to a fellow inmate: “with some soldiers, you could really do some business“. Now, he decided to turn such musings into action, and rob a suburban town hall by deceit that involved the use of unwitting soldiers. He scouted several municipalities, and finally settled on the small town of Kopenick, near Berlin. His plan was to simply waltz in, and order officials to hand him their town’s treasury. It sounds dumb, but as seen below, it worked.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
Wilhelm Voigt. Pinterest

A Brazen Plan Too Dumb to Work – That Did

Wilhelm Voigt bought the components of an army captain’s uniform from second hand stores, and researched the movement of small squads of soldiers in the Berlin region. Then on the afternoon of October 16th, 1906, he sprang into action. Dressed as a captain, he stopped two squads of soldiers, ten men in all, near a railway station, and ordered them to follow him. He took them to Kopenick’s town hall. There, he barked commands, claimed to act on orders of “the highest authority“, and used the soldiers to commandeer the place. Voigt arrested the mayor and other officials, and ordered the town treasurer to hand over all the cash in the town’s coffers – about 4000 marks. He then sent the “arrested” officials to a Berlin police station for interrogation in a car guarded by some of his soldiers.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
Statue of Wilhelm Voigt in front of the Kopenic City Hall. All in the Game

He ordered the other soldiers to guard the place, then left with the cash, changed into civilian clothes, and disappeared. Voigt did not enjoy his loot for long. Betrayed by the jailbird to whom he had mused about using soldiers, he was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to four years. The public was amused by the brazen deceit, and Kaiser Wilhelm II eventually pardoned Voigt in 1908. Upon his release, Voigt capitalized on his popularity and appeared in a play about his caper, wrote a book, signed photos, and made appearances in amusement parks, variety shows, and restaurants. He eventually moved to Luxembourg, where he worked as a shoemaker and waiter, and was supported by a pension from a wealthy heiress. Voigt bought a house and retired, but was financially ruined by the post-WWI economic downturn. He died and was buried in Luxembourg in 1922.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
A Sea Monkeys ad. Fine Art America

Generations of Kids Fell for These Dumb Ads

Comic book ads have long promised kids unbelievable products for unbelievably low prices. “X-ray” glasses that would let you see through people’s clothes. A submarine big enough for you and your best friend to pilot underwater. A manual that promised to transform you in just a few weeks from a skinny dweeb who gets sand kicked in his face at the beach by bullies, and into a muscle-bound Charles Atlas lookalike who kicks ass and takes names. The only guarantee when the product finally arrives is the guaranteed look of disappointment on the recipient kid’s face when he finally sees what he’d shelled a good chunk of his allowance on.

Of all the disappointing products, however, few were more disappointing than “Sea Monkeys”. A hallmark of comics for decades, these ads depicted a family of anthropomorphic sea critters. They stood on two feet, with skinny arms and slender fingers, a crown on their heads, and a kind of sexy mommy with her legs crossed suggestively, looking at the mostly prepubescent readers with a seductive smile. All that can be yours for a dollar. As seen below, reality fell short of expectations.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
Brine shrimp. Pet Place

The Disappointment of Actual Sea Monkeys

Sea Monkey ads screamed: “Enter the WONDERFUL WORLD OF AMAZING LIVE SEA MONKEYS!” For a measly buck, the reader is promised instant pets that are “SO EAGER TO PLEASE, THEY CAN EVEN BE TRAINED“. All you have to do is add water, and they will hatch as soon as they are wet. It was an irresistible lure for many kids, who eagerly cut out the coupon, placed it in an envelope along with a dollar, scrounged a stamp, and mailed it to a New York City address. After weeks, or sometimes months, of waiting on tenterhooks, the postman finally delivered an envelope that contained a packet and instructions.

As kids soon learned, their pets did not hatch in a second as advertised. Instead, they first had to add a nutrient packet to a bowl of water that transformed it into an icky sludge, wait 24 hours, then add a packet of eggs. Eventually, as the sludge settled on the bottom of the bowl, some tiny whirring motions could be seen. With the help of a magnifying glass, kids finally got to see their Sea Monkeys. Except that they looked nothing like the ad, but more like some strange kind of lice. Contra the fanciful claim in the comic book, what arrived weren’t sea monkeys – there is no such species – but brine shrimp eggs. “Sea Monkeys” was just a marketing term to sucker kids into paying for brine shrimp.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

ABC News – The Pet Rock Captured a Moment, and Made its Creator a Millionaire

Central European History Journal, Vol. 36, No. 1 (2003) – The ‘Captain of Kopenick’ and the Transformation of German Criminal Justice 1891-1914

Dexter, Timothy – A Pickle for the Knowing Ones (1805)

Encyclopedia Iranica – Carrhae

Esquire, August 3rd, 2020 – Tasaday: The Stone Age Tribe That Never Was

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe, Part II (1994)

Groovy History – Comic Book Rip-Off Ads: Sea Monkeys, X-Ray Specs, and More

Head Stuff – Crassus, the Richest Man in Rome

Historic Ipswich – Lord Timothy Dexter

History Collection – Strange and Delightful Holiday Traditions of the Victorian Era

Knapp, Samuel Lorenzo – Life of Lord Timothy Dexter, With Sketches of the Eccentric Characters that Composed His Associates, Including His Own Writings (1858)

Live Science, June 25th, 2008 – A Savage Hoax: The Cave Men Who Never Existed

Mental Floss – Hard Sell: A History of the Pet Rock

New England Historical Society – Timothy Dexter, the Ridiculous Millionaire Who Sold Coals to Newcastle

Plutarch – Parallel Lives: Life of Crassus

Priceonomics – The Strange Life of ‘Lord’ Timothy Dexter

Sweatpants & Coffee – Sea Monkeys: False Advertising of Science Can Still be Fascinating