Most scammers try to keep their lies somewhat plausible. (But maybe that guy's car really did break down on the bridge, with his daughter inside, on the day of his big job interview to become a wallet inspector.) But every so often a con artist comes along telling such obvious, flamboyantly insane lies, that people just can't help but believe them. After all, wouldn't you be intrigued if someone told you...
If you believe those boring old history books, Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth was shot dead in a burning barn by a self-castrated religious fanatic. But if you believe Oscar-winner Kathy Bates' grandfather, the truth was much stranger. Barn-Booth was merely an identical imposter -- the real John Wilkes Booth fled to the Old West, where he lived in secrecy under an assumed name. Until 1893, when he suddenly disappeared after confessing everything to Finis Bates, who probably deserved an Oscar of his own for persuading people to take this story seriously. Or maybe not, since he failed in an attempt to extract a reward from the US government for tipping them off to "Booth's" survival.
But if you thought that was the end of Finis Bates trying to cash in on his secret assassin amigo, then buddy, you just don't know Finis Bates. In 1903, he barged into a funeral parlor in the Oklahoma Territory and announced that the unclaimed body of a local drunk was none other than his old buddy John Wilkes Booth. Finis demanded that the morgue mummify the body, then somehow managed to get a court to sign the corpse over to him. For the next several years, Bates toured the body in circus sideshows, charging old-timey yokels to gawp at President Lincoln's mummified assassin. And that's when he accidentally hoodwinked the nation's most powerful industrialist.
In 1919, Henry Ford sued the Chicago Tribune for calling him ignorant. Unfortunately, the Tribune's lawyers were quick to call their star witness: Henry Ford. They then spent fully eight days of the trial asking him "high school questions," which Ford was completely unable to answer, declaring that history was all bunk anyway. This was mocked in the press and the jury awarded Ford exactly six cents in damages. Ford responded to this mild humiliation with the grace and humor one expects from a megalomaniac tycoon. He swore to prove that history was bunk after all. And guess who was rolling from town-to-town with conveniently mummified proof?
Ford decided that the corpse of John Wilkes Booth would be the perfect way to prove the history books wrong. At which point dollar signs shot out of Finis's eyes so hard he could have killed another president with them. He quickly agreed to sell his mummy. At this point, Henry Ford's subordinates, recognizing that their boss should maybe not be touring the country with a rotting carnival cadaver, intervened and unearthed several holes in the story. For starters, Finis boasted that the corpse had a healed leg fracture, matching Booth's injuries from jumping on the stage after killing Lincoln. Unfortunately, it was in the wrong leg. The disappointed Ford agreed to drop the idea and just blame all his problems on the Jews instead, while Finis's widow sold the mummy, which was last seen in 1963, being traded to a Philly landlady in lieu of unpaid rent.
Baron Luigi Louis Forino of Little Staughton was a very impressive man, at least if you believed his social media profiles. He was a Knight of Malta, Templar of England, CEO of the Chinese megacorp MCC, and the 190th richest man in the world. Even we'd be impressed, if we weren't such close personal friends with the world's 189th richest man: Time-Emperor Dr. Mustachios von Karate, DDS. In reality, MCC had never heard of him, the Forbes rich list ranking was a bad photoshop, the Templars were exterminated in the 13th century, and the Barony of Little Staughton is both non-existent and currently being sold online for 15,000 pounds. Also the Internet was littered with complaints about his many shitty scams.
But Donald Trump has officially driven the world insane, so when Baron Forino claimed to be the one man who could take down Donald Trump, he actually managed to convince quite a few people. Forino and a second Italian guy named Corrado Pasetti began touting documents supposedly showing a $1.4 billion wire transfer from Exxon to Trump shortly before Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson was appointed Secretary of State. Now, both Trump and Tillerson have pulled off more sketchy deals than a coked-up art dealer, but these documents were more full of holes than an art dealer who just missed an important cocaine repayment. Most notably, the $1.4 billion dollar wire transfer was apparently a very public walk-in at a random bank branch, for which the helpful teller charged a mere $443.91 fee.
Despite this unlikely financial arrangement, the former Israeli ambassador to Italy and senior officials at Democrats Abroad Israel and Democrats Abroad France were among those hoodwinked. The investigation was ultimately passed to a guy called Yoni Ariel, who claims to be a former operative for Nelson Mandela's ANC. He quickly became convinced the documents could be real. But he knew he'd need funding to get such explosive information. Naturally he turned to the Speedway Bomber.
Brett Kimberlin was a marijuana smuggler who served years in prison for a bombing spree in Speedway, Indiana, possibly in an attempt to distract attention from his suspected involvement in an unsolved murder (he continues to deny involvement in both crimes). While in prison, he became famous for claiming to have sold weed to Vice-President Dan Quayle. After being released, Kimberlin attempted to rebrand himself as a "liberal activist," best known for lengthy lawsuits against various right-wing bloggers. Kimberlin eagerly agreed to fund Ariel's multiple trips to Rome and eventually forked over $9,000 for the documents, chosen as the smallest amount of cash you don't have to declare at customs. Ariel and Kimberlin then floated them to numerous media outlets, only to be laughed out of town.
Mustique is one of the most renowned private islands in the world, famed as a tropical paradise for the rich and famous. So Petit Mustique sounds even better. (It's like Mustique, but small!) Why, even the name conjures images of sipping rum punch on a beautiful Caribbean beach. Sadly the island itself doesn't have any of those, being an entirely uninhabited and inaccessible rock with steep cliffs leading down to the sea. If you superglued a potted plant to a rusty oil drum and threw it off New Jersey's most polluted pier, you'd just have created a nicer private island than Petit Mustique.
Back in the '90s, the island was purchased for a tiny fee by Thierry Nano, a self-declared Italian noble who ran a very sketchy offshore bank in neighboring St. Vincent. Nano was eventually forced to flee St. Vincent following a string of shady schemes, including defrauding Colonel Gaddafi out of $15 million for an undelivered shipment of night-vision goggles, and tricking some of Italy's greatest soccer stars into investing in a nonexistent Peruvian marble mine. Finding himself an internationally wanted criminal, Nano escaped to a frightening no-man's-land where even the law feared to follow: Belgium.
After presumably becoming bored of Bruges, Nano decided to resume his scamming shenanigans by selling the one asset he had left: Petit Mustique. Wealthy bidders quickly jumped at the chance, based solely on the appeal of the name. Belgium's biggest real estate company, Vizzion Europe, ultimately agreed to pay $62 million for the island in order to build a luxury hotel. Apparently nobody at Vizzion was suspicious that Nano inserted a clause in the contract forbidding Vizzion from visiting the island or carrying out any surveys before the deal was closed. You know, that standard real estate deal; "Oh it's a gorgeous house, great bones, YOU ARE FORBIDDEN FROM VIEWING IT, move-in ready..."
Vizzion actually forked over a $2 million deposit before getting suspicious and sending an independent team to look at the island. With Vizzion outraged, Nano refused to refund the deposit and simply sold the island again, this time to the son of a Kazakh oligarch, who slapped down a $500,000 down payment. This guy also didn't bother actually visiting the island, but the deal fell apart after Nano tried to sweeten it with the gift of a Monet. The buyer promptly took it to an art appraiser who informed him it was a bad fake. Nano ended up being arrested over the Peruvian mines thing before he could sell the island a third time. (He subsequently served prison terms for both that and the Petit Mustique scam.)
The House of Habsburg was once Europe's most powerful and inbred royal family, giving their name to dozens of palaces and an even larger number of genetic conditions. Most of the family currently reside in some very ornate iron lungs, but back in 2002, a self-proclaimed Habsburg prince was a fixture on the New York social scene. Not only did Josef von Habsburg-Lothringen still have most of his own bones, he was apparently a successful financier. The guy lived in an $8,000 per month SoHo loft stuffed full of chandeliers and antiques, wore only expensive suits, bragged about luxury trips back to Europe, and boasted close friendships with old-money socialites like Bobo Rockefeller.
Now, admittedly, the prince could be a little eccentric. One of his favorite hobbies was dangling a $20 bill out the window on a fishing line and laughing as pedestrians jumped for it. He was also known for parading around SoHo in lederhosen, or with a cordless hair dryer on his belt like a gun. But tormenting the poors is a classic royal hobby, while a few eccentricities are to be expected when all four of your grandparents were the same person, so nobody suspected he wasn't a genuine Habsburg. Which was unfortunate for them, because he was actually a fugitive Michigan street crook named Josef Meyer, who funded his life of luxury by selling all his swanky new friends out to the FBI.
For example, Habsburg befriended a lawyer named Albert Santoro during a series of trips to expensive restaurants and nightclubs, then persuaded him to help illegally transfer money overseas. At that point, he handed Santoro off to FBI agent Michael Grimm (currently an incredibly disgraced ex-congressman), who worked closely with the prince while undercover infiltrating Wall Street. In return, the FBI paid Habsburg thousands of dollars a month in "expenses," supporting his socialite lifestyle. This obviously encouraged Habsburg to find more and more criminals to inform on, even when they needed a lot of encouragement from the "prince" to even contemplate a crime.
Santoro's legal team managed to uncover the prince's past as a scammer and he was later sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for skipping out on child support when he fled Michigan for New York. Even the Rockefeller family sued, alleging that "Habsburg" had stolen a valuable antique commode from his dear friend Bobo, replacing it with a cheap knockoff. Hey, he got away with passing himself off as a fancy European relic, expanding to furniture probably didn't seem like a big step.
In 1974, a mysterious woman suddenly appeared in New Delhi's central train station, accompanied by liveried servants, hunting dogs in silver collars, antique furniture and silverware, and her two silent children. She announced that she was the rightful queen of Oudh, an ancient kingdom treacherously conquered by the British in 1856. Now, over a century later, she had returned to claim her ancestral palaces. When the Indian government ignored her, she declared that she would remain in the train station in protest until they returned her birthright.
For the next 10 years, the queen and her entourage lived in the busy train station, threatening to drink snake venom if they ever tried to evict her. She ultimately took over the station's VIP waiting room, turning it into something of a mini-palace (albeit with plastic train station chairs). Her behavior was famously imperious. She would only allow photographs when the moon was waning, while press questions had to be written down and placed on a silver tray, which a servant would deliver on their knees. When the government tried to bribe her, she hurled the money into the air, sending officials sprinting down a railway platform trying to snatch it back.
Her story was so stunningly unbelievable that everyone naturally believed it. International media like People magazine and the New York Times took her claims at face value. Local pilgrims began seeking her out in solidarity, meaning you could be casually waiting for a train and suddenly dozens of pilgrims would start ritually whipping themselves with razor blades on chains around the rightful queen of a lost kingdom. After over a decade of this, the Indian government gave up and actually gave her a palace just to get her out of the train station. Seriously, she won! She successfully annoyed a world government into handing over a palace! Queen or not, that's queen behavior.
Until her death, she lived in her new palace. In case the story didn't have enough of a fairy tale vibe, this was an ancient royal hunting lodge surrounded by a thick forest, which was itself smack in the middle of Delhi. After her heirs also passed away, the New York Times published a detailed profile, revealing that she wasn't royalty at all, but an ordinary rich woman with a tragic backstory who had spent time in a mental hospital after slapping the president of Pakistan in the face. She had simply been so imperious, and so insistent, that everyone just assumed she really was heir to the throne and the Indian government actually gave her an entire palace just so they didn't have to deal with her anymore.
Top image: Library of Congress, Michael Candelori/Shutterstock