5 Historical Con Artists Who Wouldn't Hack It Today

Let's make a toast to the golden age of trading B.S. for cash, from before the time when a quick internet search could tell us the difference between a legitimate businessman and a jerk.
5 Historical Con Artists Who Wouldn't Hack It Today

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.

Albert Abrams: The One-Man Miracle Cure

10 u Vu

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.

5 Historical Con Artists Who Wouldn't Hack It Today

A pleasant herd of syphilis.

Parker French Didn't Know When To Quit

5 Historical Con Artists Who Wouldn't Hack It Today

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.

5 Historical Con Artists Who Wouldn't Hack It Today
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.

5 Historical Con Artists Who Wouldn't Hack It Today

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.

5 Historical Con Artists Who Wouldn't Hack It Today

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.

Oscar Hartzell: Famed Descendant Of No One Famous


There are a bunch of websites that allow you to go back and look at your lineage. Add that to the fact that we can check out your DNA and say "There's no way you are the son of Elvis Presley and Mokey Fraggle," and you may as well not lie about your identity at all. It's too risky. But it wasn't for Oscar Hartzell. When Hartzell claimed that he was an heir of Sir Francis Drake's fortune, and that he needed lots and lots of money to get the estate back, no one balked at it. They just said, "Sure. Why wouldn't he be?"

Contacting people in Iowa who had the surname "Drake," Hartzell pulled the "Relative You've Never Met" card and started telling them that the Drake estate was now worth a ton, and that if they could spare some cash to help him sue the British government, he could make them all rich. People from Iowa and beyond, presumably just hearing the words "rich" and "sue the British," threw money at him. Hartzell used this to move to England to better take the fight to them. Funnily enough, he settled down there, but keep sending those dollars, Drakes of America! These rascally Brits are trying to swindle us, and only Oscar Hartzell (whom you can't directly communicate with because he recently moved across the Atlantic) can stop them!

5 Historical Con Artists Who Wouldn't Hack It Today


Someone brought up that there was no unclaimed estate, so Hartzell invented a fake Drake relative whom it belonged to. When the Iowa secretary of state tried to convince the government to help, the people behind Hartzell became enraged. How dare this dweeby pencil pusher tell them that they couldn't spend their money on the idea of getting more money? Hartzell would eventually try to get money from people that weren't even named "Drake," because, surprisingly, "Those who would like money and have a name" is a pretty big demographic.

5 Historical Con Artists Who Wouldn't Hack It Today

The answer to the question "Who wants money?"

When Hartzell was taken back to the U.S., he got thousands of dollars from his followers to help pay for his legal defense. Something about Hartzell and his plight had awakened the dumb inside of them, and for 15 years, they donated money to him in the hopes that maybe something would happen. Hartzell was charged with fraud and sentenced to prison for 10 years, still receiving money while incarcerated. He'd spend the last of those years in a mental institution, believing that he was a victim of some grand conspiracy against him. And he was. That conspiracy was basic logic.

Giovanni Vigliotto Loved Getting Married

5 Historical Con Artists Who Wouldn't Hack It Today

When Giovanni Vigliotto got married, he promised his beloved that he would love her and care for her until the day he died. There was just one problem: Vigliotto lived far away from his bride, so she would need to move if she wanted to be with him. She helped him sell her home, and watched him drive away with all of their stuff. He had a few things to get organized at his place, and eventually, he'd come back to whisk her away to begin their new life.

Giovanni Vigliotto didn't come back 105 times. And I can barely even stand one marriage! Am I right, fellas? Ayy! Tip your waiter. And I by that, I mean give 'em a tip about a new job that's not in this dump! Ayy! No one's touched my penis in eight years.

5 Historical Con Artists Who Wouldn't Hack It Today

Liquor?! I hardly know her! I hardly know ... myself.

If your spouse disappears, their face and description gets shared on every local news station, those stations' websites, on Facebook by all of your friends, and by some of your friends' friends, and some of their friends' friends' friends. But even if they had shared his name and description with the local paper, the women whom Giovanni wed didn't have a great chance of finding him, since he was constantly changing aliases. And I know that I'd be slightly hesitant to tell people that I was so in love with someone that when they said, "You could sit in the front passenger's seat, but the linens are already there," I was fine with waiting for the next trip.

The wife who uncovered Vigliotto's secret ended up tracking him down to a flea market three states away, where he was selling all of her stuff. How did she guess that he was at a flea market? Well, he met a solid percentage of his wives there. As someone who's perused their fair share of flea markets, I've never imagined that I'd meet the "love of my life" there, but I guess that over the used VHS tapes, antique tea pots, and vape kits, you can really light up the night.

5 Historical Con Artists Who Wouldn't Hack It Today

"Do you want to make out on top of a pile of vintage lunchboxes?"

Joseph Weil Was A National Treasure

5 Historical Con Artists Who Wouldn't Hack It Today

With the internet, if you don't like a business, or an employee of a business, or the way the chairs at a business feel on your bony ass, you can rate them for everyone to see. If your business doesn't have enough good reviews to counter a bad one, a one-star piece of feedback will let the world know that your kids don't deserve to eat. Joseph Weil lived before a time when anyone could look him up and find out that he was all four horsemen of your bank account's apocalypse. In 2016, he would make it a week before Googling his name revealed that he shouldn't be allowed within 50 feet of anyone with disposable income.

Weil quit school and almost immediately began blackmailing the employees of a loan shark business into paying him so that he wouldn't reveal that they were stealing. At 17, Weil had already gotten the employees of the biggest company in town to be afraid of him. At 17, I accidentally hit my crotch so hard against a fake bush during a rehearsal of A Midsummer Night's Dream that I broke the thing.

Principum amicitias!

"Haha, he hit his balls on the plant." -- William Shakespeare, for real

Under the watch of another conman, Weil began selling a rainwater-based miracle elixir, before heading to bigger and better things. One day, he would be passing off cleaned stray dogs as purebreds, and the next, he'd sell "talking dogs" to people who believed that "talking dogs" might be a real thing. In his autobiography, he talks like a scientist in an H.G. Wells novel. And if I started listing all of the people he ripped off who weren't Mussolini, this column would have nine sequels and a full directory of psychiatrists who could help you regain faith in humanity.

Oh, Mussolini? Yeah, it was that Mussolini, the fascist Italian prime minister. As quaint as it would be to say that Weil once ripped off little Benny Mussolini from Queens who thought he was buying a magic hat and ended up getting a shoe that a cat peed in, no, it was the most famous Mussolini. Mussolini paid Weil two million dollars for some mining land in Colorado, and if you haven't figured out from reading the first three entries in this column, the land wasn't exactly there.

5 Historical Con Artists Who Wouldn't Hack It Today

"I recently bought some land, Hit-Man. Shit's gonna be tiiight."

Wishing pain upon people on the internet is something done by soccer moms, grandparents, and middle-schoolers every day. It's not rare to see someone get screwed over and watch them post "Karma will get them in the long run!" Joseph Weil lived to be 100 years old, and didn't give a shit until the end. That's not karma doing its job. That's karma seeing that the soul it was promised is actually a pile of old grocery bags, all while Weil is escorted, with his middle fingers up, back into the nursing home.

Daniel has a blog.

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