Tricking people out of their money is a global institution. There is love, happiness, and joy, but above all that, there is the need to get people to buy into garbage that just doesn't work. Advances in technology and science have made it way harder to con people recently, though, and those who would've had booming careers as snake oil salesmen in the 1800s are now forced to try to get you to buy herbal shakes.
So let's make a toast to the golden age of trading bullshit for cash, and remember the heyday of con men like these five guys, from before the time when a quick internet search could tell us the difference between a legitimate businessman and a stupid asshole.
5Albert Abrams: The One-Man Miracle Cure
Albert Abrams invented numerous pieces of medical equipment. This dude pumped out life-saving machines like Stephen King pumps out short stories about sad fathers. The reason his name doesn't come up whenever we remember the great people in medical history is that none of his machines worked. And before he even began to shill his useless gadgets, he wrote a whole book about how worthless his fellow physicians were. Because there's no better way to start a career than by alienating literally everyone who could help you.
Abrams' most notable hunk of crap was the Dynomizer, which he said could diagnose any disease from a single drop of blood. Considering what we know about the early 1900s, this holds about as much weight as parking on the White House lawn and proclaiming, "Make me King of America, Obama, for I am the one true Gandalf." You didn't even have to come to Abrams' offices for this to work. No, you could mail your blood sample to him, and the Dynomizer would tell you whether you had cancer, diabetes, malaria, regular boring syphilis, or even bovine syphilis. How did you get bovine syphilis? Vaccinations, obviously. How do you cure it? More trips to Abrams' magical lab, which was like Willy Wonka's factory, except minus the chocolate and adding fucking bovine syphilis.
Scattered Leaves from a Physician's Diary
"Sadly, the machine says that you're almost 100 percent diseases at this point."
Modern medical research is pretty available to the public, but back in 1918, Abrams really counted on no one knowing absolutely anything about anything. He'd go on to invent stuff like the Oscilloclast and the Radioclast -- Transformers-fanfiction-sounding objects that were 10 percent fake knobs and 90 percent block of unremarkable wood. It was with the first device that he actually managed to completely cure a man's stomach cancer.
Then that guy died a month later, so not really, I guess.
Abrams' new "field" was called ERA (Electronic Reactions of Abrams), and to test out his little vanity project, an American Medical Association member sent Abrams the blood of a rooster. I feel sorry for that poor, ailing bird, because as it turns out, it had malaria, diabetes, cancer, and -- you guessed it -- syphilis. Abrams died before he could be put on trial for fraud, but would prison have really done anything? I'm no expert in mental health, but if I send a guy whom I've never met an envelope with random blood in it, and I hear back that I have half a dozen major illnesses and a cow STD, I think it's safe to say that guy's gonna ride his train until the tracks run out.
A pleasant herd of syphilis.
4Parker French Didn't Know When To Quit
The other guys on this list had fairly specific ways of swindling people, and I know there's something to be said for those who devote their lives to one thing and become great at it. But what about people who devote their lives to awfulness in general and just splatter themselves across history? What about the Parker Frenches of the world? Men who can't be bothered to improve their trade, but instead engage in all of the bad ideas that come their way? Thanks to stricter laws, it's difficult to indulge in the worst possible option each time it becomes available, so I'm a bit nostalgic for Parker French's era, when you could ruin everything in every place you went for as long as you lived.
Library of Congress
His eyes say "conquest," but his beard says "party."
Parker French: Origins
French began in 1849 by promising to build a ship that would transport gold, not finishing it, and then selling it anyway. His thirst for shitheadedness would lead him to New York, where, after forging all of the required orders and notes necessary, he organized a grand expedition to the West. For only $250, you could take French's train to California, where you'd become gold-rich as hell with hundreds of like-minded men, and definitely not scammed and stranded in Texas. When someone finally arranged to have French arrested for not delivering on any of the things he promised, he fled into Mexico. It was like Red Dead Redemption, if the game was about convincing people that you don't have the money right now, but will in a few days.
Dawn Of The Planet Of The Parker French
In Mexico, French attempted to raid one of the groups from the original expedition that had followed him. This ended with French getting shot and having his arm amputated, which is the closest anyone got to retribution against him in the entirety of his existence. You'd think that, after losing half his supply of arms, French would take it easy for a second and reconsider his next move. But despite these setbacks, French remained an inspirational tale. Normal men would see a ruined plan and a missing appendage as signs of failure. Parker French saw them as a sign that he should double down and go twice as crazy next time.
There is only one law, and that's Parker French's law, which means there are no laws.
Before he outright robbed a bunch of people, he attempted to convince a governor that he should be able to build an American colony on the Gila River. In some horror movies, a character will shoot their gun into the night, hoping to hit a villain that they can hear but can't see. I'd like to imagine that that was the point French had hit. He couldn't see any rational place where he fit in, so he fired crime bullets wildly into the air. It's only rock bottom if you don't start chewing through the rocks.
The Parker French Rises
French made his way to California, where he was shot again and he, with his remaining arm, decked an ex-governor. This was given about a millimeter of newspaper space in 1855, but the video "One-Armed Dude Punches Ex-Governor" would get eight million hits today, and would feature at least one drunk white guy sheepishly shouting "World Star!" in the background.
Parker French's resume.
After taking part in a Nicaraguan filibuster, buying and selling newspapers, and lying about what he planned to do with land (among many, many other things), Parker French's last big effort was attempting to buy property that he couldn't pay for. What happened after that is muddled, but we can probably assume that he's still out there, telling someone that he forgot his wallet in his car.