William Thompson’s modus operandi served him well. As a contemporary newspaper described it: “For the last few months a man has been traveling about the city, known as the “Confidence Man,” that is, he would go up to a perfect stranger in the street, and being a man of genteel appearance, would easily command an interview. Upon this interview he would say after some little conversation, “have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow;” the stranger at this novel request, supposing him to be some old acquaintance not at that moment recollected, allows him to take the watch, thus placing “confidence” in the honesty of the stranger, who walks off laughing and the other supposing it to be a joke allows him so to do. In this way many have been duped“.
Thompson was finally arrested in July of 1849 when a victim named Thomas McDonald, whom Thompson had conned months earlier out of a gold watch worth $110 – a pretty penny back then – spotted him on the street. McDonald alerted a policeman, who arrested Thompson despite his protestations and attempts to fight and flee. Newspapers, recalling his appeals to the victims’ “confidence” labeled Thompson “The Confidence Man”, and thus gave rise to the term that came to be applied to those who gain a mark’s trust as a prelude to a swindle. The term was given a further boost in 1857 when Herman Melville, inspired by William Thompson, released a novel titled The Confidence Man.
Lord Gordon-Gordon was no lord, but a successful 19th century British con artist who rooked large sums from the unwary rich. His real name and identity are unknown, but he first appears in the record in 1868, when he posed as a “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 before fleeing to the US. 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 ended up spending about $45,000 courting and securing the Scottish Lord as a client, in the belief that he would invest millions in return.
Lord Gordon-Gordon’s most famous 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. Gould, who was in a desperate fight with other tycoons to gain control of the Erie Railway, 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.
17. Lord Gordon-Gordon’s Con Almost Triggered a War Between the US and Canada
For months after jumping bail, the fake Lord Gordon-Gordon’s whereabouts were unknown. 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. The fact that His Lordship had offered to buy large tracts of Manitoba – an investment that promised to bring great prosperity to Canada – might have played a role in the Canadian authorities’ reluctance to extradite him.
An understandably incensed Gould then financed a Minnesota posse that crossed the border into Canada, and kidnapped Gordon-Gordon off his front porch in Manitoba. The plot failed however when the kidnappers 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 the London jewelers in 1868 for £25,000. As the Canadian authorities moved to deport him to Britain, Lord Gordon-Gordon, realized that the jig was finally up. Not wishing to spend the rest of his life behind bars, he hosted a farewell party in his hotel room, then shot himself on August 1st, 1874.
Few confidence tricksters have had as interesting a resume as did William Chaloner (1650 – 1699). 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, and soon gained expertise in producing fake groats – a coin worth four pence.
In the 1680s, Chaloner headed to London, where he sold dildos, and got started on a new career as psychic and a quack doctor selling fake miracle cures. He also gained a reputation as a particularly successful detective, who had a keen nose for finding and recovering stolen items. That success probably had something to do with the fact that Chaloner had stolen those items himself, before offering to “find them” in exchange for a reward. Eventually, he tired of those small-time penny ante scams, and decided to get into something far more lucrative: go back to counterfeiting, but this time, on an industrial scale.
Around 1690, William Chaloner 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, worth about 17 shillings, and fake English guineas. Chaloner established a well-oiled counterfeiting ring that produced fake coins in quantity, and passed them on to contacts in the underworld for circulation. Soon, he was a wealthy man, so he expanded operations by buying himself a nice house in the countryside, where the noise of his coining machines would not attract attention.
By 1693, Chaloner had expanded his repertoire to add anti-Jacobite agent provocateur to the list. The Jacobites – supporters of the recently dethroned King James II, chased out of England by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 – were trying to restore James. So Chaloner took to feigning sympathy for their cause, drawing them out into treasonous activity, then snitching on them to the authorities for a generous reward. In one instance, he collected 1000 pounds – a small fortune – for setting up and turning in a pair of Jacobite patsies, who ended up getting executed. It was not long before Chaloner decided that instead of wasting time in trying to find Jacobite conspirators, it was easier to just invent them out of thin air.
In 1693, William Chaloner 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“. That Dover Castle scam did not pan out, so Chaloner hit upon the idea of providing the authorities with a fake list of Jacobites, and managed to get himself employed by the government to investigate them.
In one of his scams during this period, he got an accomplice named Coppinger to write a treasonous Jacobite satire, with the idea of using it to ensnare a printer into printing it. Then Chaloner could make a beeline for the authorities and turn in the printer, now guilty of printing illegal Jacobite materials, in exchange for a generous reward. There being little honor among thieves, however, his 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. However, Chaloner managed to talk his way out of it. He even turned the tables on his erstwhile accomplice, and got Coppinger hanged for writing the Jacobite satire.
13. It Took Sir Isaac Newton to Bring Down England’s Greatest Conman
William Chaloner next targeted the newly established Bank of England, which had introduced new £100 bank notes in 1695. Chaloner got his hands on a stock of the right kind of paper, and began churning out £100 notes. He was caught, but remarkably, although counterfeiting coins had long been a capital offense, forging bank notes did not make it into the statute book as a 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, he had acquired a relentless new nemesis: Sir Isaac Newton. The famous scientist was appointed Master of the Mint – 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. Having 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 by sentencing him to hang. On March 22nd, 1699, William Chaloner met his end at the end of a noose on the gallows at Tyburn.
12. The Inadvertent Hoax That Sowed Widespread Panic
The Columbia Broadcasting System’s radio network hosted The Mercury Theatre on the Air during the 1930s. It was a live radio drama series created by director and producer Orson Welles, that presented classic literary works. On the evening of Sunday, October 30th, 1938, Welles directed and narrated an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds as a Halloween special. It ended up causing widespread panic, when many listeners mistook the radio play about a fictional alien invasion for a news broadcast describing an actual alien invasion.
H.G. Wells’ original War of the World described a Martian invasion of Victorian Britain, in which the aliens swiftly crush humans with advanced technology such as unstoppable death rays and lethal poison gasses. Orson Welles’ adaptation converted the novel into a series of news bulletins, describing an alien invasion of 1938 New Jersey. Welles’ broadcast made it clear at the beginning that it was a radio play. However, not everybody got the message: many listeners had tuned in mid-broadcast, and thus missed the notification that what they were hearing was a play, not actual news. For such listeners, what they heard was alarming, as Welles, playing the part of a news announcer, fired off a series of news bulletins describing the arrival of Martians in The Garden State.
Alarm turned into panic for many, when the Martians demonstrated their hostile intent by falling upon the good people of New Jersey with a ferocious and seemingly unstoppable attack. Soon, an actor who sounded like President Franklin Roosevelt was telling America: ” Citizens of the nation: I shall not try to conceal the gravity of the situation that confronts the country, nor the concern of your government in protecting the lives and property of its people. . . . we must continue the performance of our duties each and every one of us, so that we may confront this destructive adversary with a nation united, courageous, and consecrated to the preservation of human supremacy on this earth.” That was followed by reports that the US Army was heavily engaged in a desperate fight to resist the invaders, then by news bulletins announcing that New York City was being evacuated.
The broadcast was frequently interrupted to clarify that it was just a play, but many listeners had not lingered by their radios long enough to hear such clarifications. Soon as they heard that Earth was under attack by aliens who were slaughtering all and sundry, many panicked and ran out of their homes screaming, or packed their cars and fled into the night. Telephone operators were swamped as thousands of frightened listeners called radio stations, police, and newspapers. Some people rushed to churches to pray, others donned improvised gas masks, and others simply ran around like chickens with their heads cut off. Next day, Orson Welles woke up to discover that he was the most talked about man in America. Once it became clear that Earth was not under attack, public panic was replaced by public outrage at Welles, who was accused of having deliberately caused the widespread hysteria.
10. The Nineteenth-Century Quackery Revived by Twentieth-Century Communists
In the early nineteenth century, a French biologist named Jean-Baptiste Lamarck theorized that physiological changes that an organism acquired during its lifetime can be passed on to its offspring. For example, if somebody works out at a gym to build huge biceps, he could pass on huge biceps to his children. It became known as Lamarckian Inheritance. It turned out Lamarck was wrong, and traits are passed on through genes that are hard-coded with their own instructions, subject to the occasional mutation. The genes of a particular organism neither know nor care about what traits and characteristics the organism acquired during its lifetime. One’s genes might pass on a predisposition for huge biceps if they were already coded for such a predisposition. However, doing arm curls at a gym will have no impact on whether one’s kids will have an easy time developing monster biceps.
By the late nineteenth century, Lamarck’s theories had been debunked, and only a small circle of quacks paid them any mind. However, Lamarckian Inheritance experienced an odd revival in the twentieth century in the Soviet Union, where one such quack gave it a new lease on life. In the 1930s, a Soviet quack named Trofim Lysenko modified Lamarckism into a theory that came to be known as Lysenkoism. Lysenko falsely claimed to have discovered that, among other things, rye could be transformed into wheat, wheat could be transformed into barley, and weeds could be transformed into grain crops. There was absolutely no objective evidence to support Lysenko’s fantastic claims. However, fortunately for him, and unfortunately for Soviet science, the USSR in the 1930s was the perfect place to get away with making fantastic claims about advances and progress.
9. Lamarckian Inheritance Suddenly Morphs From Laughable to Sinister
The revival of Lamarckian Inheritance in the supposedly progressive Soviet Union was laughably ludicrous. However, in a sinister turn of events, Lysenko found a powerful supporter for his cockamamie theories: Joseph Stalin. In the bizarre political environment of the Stalinist USSR, criticism of Lamarckian theories came to be treated as criticism of Stalin. As Stalinist terror grew by leaps and bounds, it became clear that you did not criticize Stalin, or even hint that you might disagree with Stalin, if you knew what was good for you. In a nutshell, criticism of Lamarckian Inheritance was treated not as academic, but as political subversion and deviancy. The logical chain was chilling and lethal: Comrade Stalin endorses Lamarckism. You disagree with Lamarckism. Therefore you disagree with Comrade Stalin. It follows that you are a subversive, a Trotskyite, a foreign spy, fascist agent, or capitalist stooge working to sabotage the Soviet Union.
In that environment, Soviet scientists who scoffed at the quackery of Lysenko and his revived Lamarckism were playing with fire. Critics were arrested by the NKVD, brutally interrogated, tortured, sent to the gulag where many died, or executed outright. Over 3000 mainstream biologists were fired, jailed, arrested, or executed in a campaign instigated by Lysenko to eliminate his scientific opponents. Russia and the Soviet Union had once been at the forefront of genetics, but research in that field, which disproved Lamarckian Inheritance and showed up Lysenko as a quack, was wholly abandoned. It would not be revived until after Stalin’s death in 1953, by which point the Soviets had fallen decades behind.
8. Space Aliens Are Trying to Communicate With Us Through Intricate Crop Designs
Crops in a wheat field in Wiltshire, England, were mysteriously flattened in a circular pattern in 1976. Soon, mysterious circles of flattened crops, in increasingly elaborate patterns, began appearing in other fields throughout Britain. Once the phenomenon became widely known, it attracted self-declared experts, who offered mystical, magical, and pseudo-scientific explanations for the mystery. Theories ranged from secret weapons testing, to restless spirits and ghosts acting out, to Gaia, the primal Mother Earth, expressing her distress at what humanity had done to her planet. Early on, one of the explanations that gained the greatest currency was that the circles were created by space aliens, as a means of communicating with mankind in a mysterious yet-to-be-deciphered code.
That line of reasoning of aliens being behind the circles was buttressed by the fact that only a decade earlier, mysterious circles had appeared in Australian crops. Many had attributed the Australian circles to UFO landings, labeling them “[flying] saucer nests”. Wiltshire, where the first British crop circle appeared, is located near Stonehenge, and the region is rife with burial mounds and ancient marker stones. New Age types had long claimed those landmarks were linked to others throughout Britain via “leys” – mysterious energy paths. For years, the region had also been a hotbed for UFO watch parties – England’s Roswell, if you would. So it seemed apt that the first crop circles, or saucer nests, would appear in its vicinity. It was not long before theories combining Stonehenge, ancient Druids, mystic energy paths, and the recently revealed crop circles, were combined in a complex explanation for the phenomenon.
The Wiltshire crop circles became magnets for New Age mystical tourism, which cracked up Doug Bower, an English prankster, and his pal Dave Chorley. One night in 1976 the duo had been drinking, when they got to talking about UFOs, aliens, flying saucers and the mysterious Australian circles. Midway through the conversation, Bower suddenly said: “Let’s go over there and make it look like a flying saucer has landed“. As they confessed in 1991, when they finally revealed the mystery to journalists, it had been incredibly easy.
As Bower and Chorley demonstrated to print and TV journalists by creating other crop circles in just minutes, all it took was rope, a wooden plank, and a wire to help them walk in a straight line. “Cereologist “Patrick Delgado – a crop circle “expert” who had made a living for years by writing and lecturing about the phenomenon – was called in. He declared the circles authentic. Then the hammer was dropped on him when it was revealed that it had been a simple hoax and prank all along. As Bower and Chorley explained, they had created all crop circles up to 1987, when other pranksters discovered how to make their own circles and patterns, and joined the ever-growing prank.
6. The Hoax That Retarded Ancient Archaeology For Decades
Charles Dawson was an amateur English archaeologist who, in 1912, made a sensational announcement: he had discovered human-like fossils in Piltdown, East Sussex. He was digging in a Pleistocene gravel bed, and unearthed fossilized fragments of a cranium, jawbone, and other parts. Britain’s premier paleontologist pronounced the fossils evidence of a hitherto unknown proto-human species. It was viewed as the “missing link” between ape and man, thus proving the then-still controversial theory that man descended from apes. The pronouncements were accepted uncritically by many leading British scientists. Further excavations in the vicinity were made in 1913 and 1914, during which stone tools were discovered. Two miles away, teeth and additional skull fragments were unearthed. So were animal remains, and a mysterious carved bone resembling a cricket bat. The excitement mounted with each new find.
At the time, there was a growing, and as it ultimately turned out, correct, scientific belief that human evolution from ape to man had occurred in Africa. It was there that fossils of homo erectus, an early hominid, had been discovered. That however meant that the cradle of mankind was in Africa, and that all humans were of African origin. The notion that they were ultimately African was too jarring for many Europeans, including many in the British scientific community. The era’s prevalent racism and ethno-nationalism led the British scientists into confirmation bias, causing them to interpret the “evidence” in the light most favorable to their preexisting prejudices.
Humanity’s shared African origins challenged the era’s racist theories, but Piltdown Man offered a feasible alternative. Also, a “missing link” discovered in England would mean that Britain had played a prominent role in human evolution. It would also buttress the belief that Europeans – or at least the British – had evolved separately, and were not of African origins. Ergo, the assumptions that Europeans were a distinct and superior branch of the human tree could continue unchallenged. In reality, it was all a crude hoax, pulled off by a disgruntled employee getting back at his boss, Britain’s chief paleontologist, for denying him a raise. However, because of a combination of ineptness, ethno-nationalism, and racism, it was strongly embraced and defended by much of the British scientific establishment. It took four decades before Piltdown Man was finally debunked, making it one of history’s most successful scientific hoaxes.
It was also one of history’s most damaging hoaxes. During those decades, few resources were directed at studying human evolution in Africa, where the actual missing links were ultimately discovered. Despite the poor funding for African archaeological exploration, more proto-humans were discovered in Africa in the 1930s. Those finds, coupled with additional Neanderthal finds, left Piltdown Man as an odd outlier in human evolution. Nonetheless, the hoax had its powerful defenders, and it was not until 1953-1954 that the fossils were subjected to rigorous scientific reexamination. They turned out to be fragments of a modern human skull, only 600 years old, the jaw and teeth of an orangutan, and the tooth of a chimpanzee. Chemical testing showed that the bones had been stained to make them look older, and that the ape teeth had been filed down to make them look more human-like.
Throughout history, many have pictured and yearned for a more innocent age, when mankind was still pure and un-corrupted by civilization. That explains in large part why a perfect storm of international public interest erupted on July 16th, 1971, when NBC Nightly News announced 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.”
The discovery of the Tasaday tribe, as the stone age group was known, was attributed to Manuel Elizalde, head of the Philippine government agency in charge of protecting cultural minorities, and a crony of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. According to Elizalde, he had discovered the Tasaday after receiving a tip from a local hunter about encounters with primitive tribesmen deep in the jungles of Mindanao. Tracking 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 Manuel 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. Their pictures graced 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 not until 1986, after the Marcos regime was toppled, that the truth finally came out: the Tasaday stone age story was a fraud. Once journalists and anthropologists gained access to the tribe, they discovered that, far from being primitive stone agers, they lived like modern people in houses, not in caves. They did not run around naked and barefoot, but wore shirts, jeans, flip-flops and shoes. Interviews revealed that Elizalde had pressured them into pretending 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, after stealing millions from the foundation.
2. Discovering the Remains of a 10-Foot-Tall Man in New York
William C. “Stub” Newell of Cardiff, New York, had some workers digging a well behind his barn on October 16th, 1869, when they struck stone about three feet down. Clearing the soil around the obstruction revealed a huge foot. With mounting excitement, the workers continued digging, and were astonished when they finally unearthed the petrified remains of a 10-foot-tall man. As news of the find spread, thousands of the curious, and hundreds of archaeologists and scientists, flocked to Newell’s farm, where he charged visitors 50 cents for a look. Newell made no claims about the giant’s authenticity but invited visitors to draw their own conclusions. While it seemed to many of the more observant to be a crude statue, many more saw it as proof of the Bible’s assertions that giants had once walked the earth.
The Cardiff Giant was actually a statue, created by an atheist named George Hull after a heated debate at a revival meeting about Genesis 6:4, which claimed that the earth had once been inhabited by giants. Hull bought a ten-foot block of Gypsum in Iowa, and shipped it to Chicago, where he swore a stone cutter to secrecy, then commissioned him to shape the block into the likeness of a man. Chemicals were then applied to give the carving an aged look, and needles were used to puncture and pit its surface, making it look more weathered. Hull then shipped it to the farm of his cousin, William Newell, who buried it behind his barn in 1868. A year later, Newell hired workers to dig a well behind the barn, where they came across the buried hoax.
1. The Giant of Cardiff of Takes on a Life of Its Own
Archaeologists, scientists, and other scholars who saw the Cardiff Giant declared it a fraud almost as soon as they saw. However, many theologians and preachers stepped forth and passionately defended its authenticity, and crowds of the curious and faithful kept coming in ever greater numbers. Hull, who had spent the equivalent of about $60,000 in current dollars, sold his share in the Cardiff Giant to a syndicate for about half a million in today’s money. The Giant was then moved to Syracuse, where it drew ever larger crowds.
Eventually, huckster P. T. Barnum offered the equivalent of a million dollars for the find. When the owners refused to sell, Barnum commissioned his own plaster copy and exhibited it in New York City. He declared his to be the authentic Cardiff Giant, and that the one in Syracuse was a fake. That brazenness worked, giving rise to the phrase, coined in reference to those paying to see Barnum’s copy, that “there’s a sucker born every minute“. Lawsuits about authenticity followed, and in the subsequent litigation, Hull finally confessed to the hoax. The court declared both Giants fakes, and ruled that Barnum could not be sued for calling a fake giant a fake.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading