You probably picture con men as shady dudes in Cadillacs wearing polyester jackets, hustling rubes in small towns across 1950s America. Sure, they've evolved (or devolved) over time into other forms, but the pattern is generally the same: They fleece a little bit of money from folks who only have a little bit of money in the first place, then skip town to do it again. You probably don't picture con men as executing elaborate schemes on entire cities, states, or even countries before skipping town to ... another planet, maybe? We're not sure where you run when you rob a whole nation. But such shysters exist, and here are a few of them:
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You've probably heard someone say, "If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you!" But it's unlikely you ever met someone who was serious when he said it. Unless you've met George Parker. In which case, you probably bought the bridge, too.
Also, you own a time machine. Or you used to, until George Parker swindled you out of it.
Construction on the Brooklyn Bridge began in 1870, the same year Parker was born. When the bridge was completed in 1883, it was immediately heralded as a symbol of progress and optimism. Shortly thereafter, Parker started selling the bridge. Yes, the whole bridge.
It seems ludicrous now, but back in the day, people apparently went about swapping infrastructure willy-nilly, because the scam totally worked. A lot. Parker would find a mark -- often a recent immigrant -- and convince said mark that A) they could make a ton of money by charging tolls to anyone crossing the bridge, B) George Parker owned the bridge, C) Parker was willing to sell the bridge for a very reasonable price, and D) he wasn't laughing at them -- he'd just thought of something funny that was totally unrelated to buying a whole bridge from a dude on the street.
Daniel Berry Austin
"Welcome to America! Where anything is possible!"
Parker was a master salesman who went the extra mile, producing authentic-looking paperwork to verify his claims. He was also persistent -- he allegedly sold the Brooklyn Bridge an average of twice a week for years. Over and over, New York police had to forcibly stop Parker's swindle victims from constructing toll booths, traffic barriers, and Road Warrior-style flamethrower outposts on the bridge that they believed they owned.
Parker didn't limit his swindling to the Brooklyn Bridge, either. Over the course of his career, he also sold pretty much every other notable New York landmark, including Madison Square Garden, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Grant's Tomb, and even the Statue of Liberty. He'd happily sell you the Grand Canyon if it wasn't a bit of a drive. Eventually, Parker was caught, and he lived the final eight years of his life in Sing Sing prison. Which he presumably sold to the other inmates.
In the 1860s and '70s, William "Boss" Tweed basically ran New York. He was the head of the Democratic political machine known as Tammany Hall, which rigged everything from elections to taxes, from building contracts to mustache permits. We're only sort of joking about Tweed dictating facial hair. He ran voting scams wherein he would essentially abduct and drug bearded homeless men, order them to vote, have them shave down to a mustache and vote again that same day, then finally order them to go facially bareback and vote for a third time.
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If women could vote, he'd have sent them a fourth time, in drag.
Tweed had a stake in every crooked game in town, and no money went through New York without passing through his (we're assuming perpetually greasy) hands first. So, when the city decided to build a new courthouse in 1861, he quickly stepped in to run construction.
The bid he offered was a reasonable $250,000, but Tweed made his money in kickbacks by selling the contracts to the highest bidder. For every $1 a contractor was paid for a job, they had to pay $2 to Tweed. In order to maximize profits for the both of them, they charged ridiculous sums of money for the tasks -- yes, even by government standards.
A carpenter was paid $360,751 ($4.9 million today) for working one month on a building chiefly made of stone. $179,729 ($2.5 million) was paid to a furniture maker for three tables and 40 chairs. For two days' work that should have cost $20,000, plasterer Andrew J. Garvey was paid half a million dollars, then an additional million to repair his shoddy work later on. At one point, Tweed grew so jaded with how easy scamming had become that he started taunting fate; he actually billed $41,190.95 ($1 million) for "Brooms, etc."
"Hey, we need something to sweep up all this bullshit."
When fate still didn't step in to give him a wedgie, Tweed started viciously taunting irony. A committee was formed to investigate delays and accusations of corruption in the building process. They spent $7,718 ($105,000) to print a report. Yep, Tweed owned the printing company.
Oddly enough, it was cartoons that did in this cartoonish villain. Thomas Nast started running a series of political cartoons directed at the Tammany Machine, which infuriated Tweed. Tweed didn't care what newspapers wrote, but the cartoons scared him because, in his words: "I don't care a straw for your newspaper articles; my constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures!"
via University of Virginia
Never mind the caption. The resemblance was unmistakable.
In 1871, Tweed was arrested and charged with stealing over $200 million during his career, or a little over $4 billion today. In retrospect, we really should have seen this coming from a guy with a moneybag for a head.
via University of Virginia
His scrotum is a literal coin purse.
Nathan Rothschild was a young German Jew who immigrated to England in 1798, possibly because he could see the less-than-shiny future of Jews in Germany. He kind of had a reputation for "prognostication" -- and you'll want to make special note of those sarcastic quotation marks. Grab a marker and highlight them on your screen. We'll wait.
Like all businessmen, he was "honest," and he used the stock market for its "intended purpose."
Rothschild was a merchant and financial mastermind, and was heavily involved in the Napoleonic wars, during which he used his well-developed network of agents, shippers, riders, messengers, and financial institutions to distribute money to the Duke of Wellington, as well as other allies across the continent. Thanks to this network, Rothschild was one of the very first people in England to hear about Napoleon's defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. This left him with a 24-hour period in which to stock up on champagne and flags for the impending victory celebration.
But Rothschild wasn't much for a bitchin' postwar afterparty, so he opted to use that window to steal a fortune instead. Accounts differ as to how exactly he pulled it off, but most believe that Rothschild manipulated the stock market by selling off his stock, leading other investors to assume England had lost. They panicked and, following Rothschild's lead, sold off their own shares. That's when Rothschild's agents went on a buying frenzy, picking up all of this discarded stock at the low, low price of some light treason.
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Thank goodness we have reliable reporting now, and the stock market never panics like that.
Rothschild likely earned between 65,000 and 200,000 pounds in the process -- between $1.5 million and $4.5 million in today's dollars. Not only did he get away with it, but in 1822, he and his brothers were granted baronets by the government. Today, the Rothschilds are still considered among the richest people who have ever lived, with a combined net worth eventually reaching $350 billion.
So the next time somebody tells you "cheaters never prosper," you give them a good old-fashioned Rothschild. That's where you tell somebody they have terminal cancer with less than a day to live, then punch them in the dick and steal their wallet.