Bounty Jumpers Scammed Both Sides During the Civil War
Back in the day, before cameras followed our every movement and made basically any action scarily easy to track, people could get away with some wild hustles if they wanted to. Creative cons had impressively risky heist ideas that seem too dumb to possibly work. And yet, Civil War bounty jumpers were able to make off with impressive fortunes.
During the Civil War, a bounty system was in place that provided bonuses known as bounties for men who signed up for the army. Both the Union and Confederacy had plans, and an enlistee could get a few hundred dollars for enlisting, which could be good money at the time. This sort of incentive for enlisting was not new, as the United States had similar programs in previous wars. However, what was new was how essential it became for the war efforts.
Following the Enrollment Act of 1863, states in the Union had to draft men to fight if there were not enough volunteers. Naturally, the men from wealthier areas wanted no part of possibly being bayonetted in a random muddy field, but they had an alternative. They could pay for another man, a volunteer often from a poorer area, to take their place. This is where the bounties became truly profitable and where some clever criminals found their opportunity.
Most of the time, bounties were given out immediately or soon after enlistment. Meaning that if someone wanted, they could just enlist, take the money, and run. Just like that, a thief would be several hundred dollars richer, and the only part of the plot they'd have to plan out was how to escape. Those who enlisted and then took off were known as bounty jumpers, and they didn't stop at enlisting once. Career bounty jumpers would travel to different towns and states to enlist and get away with the bounties. Some would even jump between Union and Confederate towns to enlist.
This soon became a widespread problem, with some relatively famous criminals turning it into a profitable venture. John Larney spent his life crafting some absolutely bonkers cons, and it was fitting that he spent the Civil War bounty jumping. He claimed to have gotten bounties and deserted 93 times. Another jumper, Adam Worth, became a notorious robber and is believed to be the partial inspiration for the Sherlock Holmes' villain Moriarty.
Even though the bounty system was easy to exploit, it was risky. Deserting the army was punishable by death, and while many convicted bounty jumpers only received prison sentences, others faced execution. This was likely done to make an example out of the jumper to discourage others from trying it. One executed bounty jumper was named James Devlin, who would have gotten away with his crimes if it weren't for the fact that he was cheating on his wife. She turned Devlin into authorities after discovering that bounties and opposing armies weren't the only things he was jumping and boning.
As the war continued, both the Union and Confederacy realized that the bounty system wasn't working. Dealing with all the bounty jumping enlistees was not enough to make up for the system's benefits. Bounty jumpers no longer had a quick and easy scheme to work with, and now, they live on as an odd anecdote in one of the most important periods in American History.
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