The 6 Ballsiest Con Men of All Time
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:
George Parker Would Like to Sell You the Brooklyn Bridge -- Many Times
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.
"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.
Boss Tweed Makes $13 Million Building a $250,000 Courthouse
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.
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!"
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.
His scrotum is a literal coin purse.
Nathan Rothschild Gambles on War, Rigs the Game
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.
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.
Alexander of Abonoteichus and His Pet Snake/Puppet Demigod
Alexander of Abonoteichus was a self-proclaimed prophet from the second century. Of course, back then oracles were a denarius a dozen, but Alexander took his chicanery to a whole new level. Around the year 160, he founded a new cult dedicated to worshiping a snake god called Glycon.
No, "Glycon" wasn't his name for his penis. That was "Alexrammer of Aboneteichus."
It so happened that Glycon was the God of Convenient Circumstances, so he took the earthly form of Alexander's pet snake, which only Alexander could speak to. To distinguish his godly reptile buddy from all the other non-divine serpents out there, Alexander put a fake human head made of linen on it, creating the second most disturbing Muppet in history. (Elmo's the first. Elmo is always the first. Those lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eye ...)
The cult of Glycon spread throughout the ancient world. His influence was so great that even the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius relied on Alexander's prophecies. Hey, you know what typically doesn't end well? Taking battle advice from a snake puppet.
"Stop building spears. Glycon demands more felt mice!"
Acting on Alexander's "divine" insight, Marcus Aurelius led his troops into battle against the Marcomanni, and 20,000 legionnaires died in the rout.
He still ruined fewer lives than Elmo.
The Penn Family Takes a Big Chunk of Pennsylvania From the Lenape Indians With Speed Walking
The Penn family were Quakers who settled in the Americas in the late 1600s, on land alongside that of the Lenape tribe of Native Americans. Being Quakers, they didn't really go for the whole "killing Injuns and takin' their land" thing that the other colonials were doing at the time. Oh, that doesn't mean they valued or respected the native people and their right to exist on the land they had always existed on -- there were just way easier ways to take said land besides killing. Seriously, have you ever tried killing somebody? It's way harder than it looks. Most of them completely refuse to stand still and let you choke them into oblivion. Totally unreasonable.
"You can't fight back! That's cheating!"
Here's one easier way: The Penns found (or more likely forged) a treaty stating that the Lenape would sell them a tract of land, beginning at the junction of the Delaware and Lehigh rivers, that would extend as far west as a man could walk in a day and a half. Instead of taking that as a rough estimate of distance, the Penns took it as a challenge.
While it was assumed "the distance a man could walk in a day and a half" was about 40 miles, the Penns figured they could beat it, so they hired the three fastest walkers in the colonies, outfitted them with whatever the period-correct equivalent of spandex bodysuits and those stupid pointy helmets were, and set the speed walkers off. They covered over twice the expected distance, netting the Penns more than 1.2 million acres of extra land.
Almost twice the size of Rhode Island, for what that's worth.
Up to that point, the Penns had enjoyed a gleaming reputation with the local tribes, since their ancestor William Penn was famous for his fair treatment with them. But now they had obviously lost the trust of the Lenape, who joined with the French in the Seven Years' War and led several deadly raids on the Penns a few decades later. Hey, killing people is hard, but some folks are natural go-getters.
Manuel Elizalde Invents an Entire Culture
Manuel Elizalde was a wealthy, Harvard-educated Filipino businessman with close ties to the authoritarian regime of Ferdinand Marcos. He saw himself as a defender of the country's indigenous tribes, to the point that he adopted 50 children from minority groups. In fact, he loved the native peoples so much that he went ahead and created some.
Not by impregnating native women. He was more ambitious than that.
In 1971, National Geographic ran a series of articles on the Tasaday, a tribe in the Philippines that had developed in complete isolation. They lived in caves and possessed only Stone Age technology. Then CBS ran a documentary, putting these aborigines fully in the spotlight. The world was captivated by these peaceful, primitive people who were so simple and noble that their language lacked the words "war" and "enemy." Treasuring their cultural innocence, Elizalde declared himself the Tasaday's protector. He established a foundation, PANAMIN, to support the Tasaday, gaining celebrity donors like Charles Lindbergh and John Rockefeller IV. He convinced the government to create a 46,000-acre preserve for the tribe, complete with a wall and armed guards, to protect them from outside influences. Influences such as "loggers," "poachers," and "the general concept of skepticism."
After Marcos was deposed in 1986, Elizalde could no longer keep those accursed skeptics away from his precious people. Cruel and heartless experts violated the prime directive and met with the Tasaday, only to discover that that the tribe had made some truly amazing progress in their decade of total isolation. For example, they no longer lived in caves, but rather in normal houses, and had switched from loincloths to jeans and T-shirts.
"However, we did struggle with access to only black-and-white TVs. No cable either."
Yep, you guessed it -- the whole story of these peaceful, naive, and sheltered people was concocted by Elizalde, who fled to Costa Rica with $35 million of PANAMIN's money and enough teenage girls to qualify for a harem license. "And that's why charity is bullshit," said a whole generation who'd just witnessed the spectacle. They went on to be the '80s.
John Martin is a teacher who doesn't have a Twitter account or a blog, but you can message him through the website or comment below. Check out Dave Snyder's best bad movie guide here. Special thanks to the editors and C.K. Bond for helping with this article.
Related Reading: Some con-artists are straight heroes, like the man who conned Nazis into releasing thousands of Jews. Other con artists have balls for miles, like the asshole who became the Ponzi scheme's namesake. And hey, have you heard about the fake forensic scientist who tricked British courts for years?