Since the dawn of history – and probably even back when our hominid ancestors were still figuring out the whole walking upright thing – people have been tricking, cheating, and hoaxing each other. Whether for profit, revenge, or just for kicks and giggles, there has seldom been a shortage of those eager to pull a fast one on others. They come in all shapes and varieties, from the penny ante cheats to the grand masters of the con. They include the small time crook for whom the term “conman” was first coined; the fake aristocrat who rooked one of America’s greatest robber barons out of a fortune; and the breathtakingly ambitious trickster who almost convinced the United States Government that he owned most of Arizona. Following are forty things about fascinating con men, hoaxers, hucksters, and cheats throughout history.
20. The First “Confidence Man”
Conmen have probably been around since forever, but the term itself, which is short for “confidence man”, can be traced back to William Thompson, a 19th century New York City small time criminal who talked strangers into simply handing him their goods. His standard operating procedure was to dress up like a well off high class gentleman, walk up to a high class mark, and strike up a conversation with him as if the two knew each other. We have all probably been in that kind of awkward situation, running into people who know us, but for the life of us, we can’t remember where we know them from. Not wanting to give offense, we often end up acting as if we know exactly who they are.
Thompson capitalized on that instinctive desire to avoid awkwardness and avert a faux pas. After a few minutes of shooting the breeze, he would ask his mark if he had the confidence to trust him with his watch or a small amount of money until the next day. It was a simpler America back in the 19th century, and New Yorkers must have been quite different in those days: surprisingly, it worked. The mark, hesitant to give offense, often obliged. Unsurprisingly, the money or watch were never returned after Thompson walked away, leaving behind a bewildered mark wondering at what had just happened.