The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History

Khalid Elhassan - October 30, 2022

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