The term “scam” is really a new word in the English lexicon and has come to supersede its older and more distinguished original cousin, “the confidence game” or “con game”, as it became popularly known at the time. One constant in human history is the tendency to want to shorten and simplify some of the most descriptive concepts we have, to anything that can be mumbled as a single syllable mouthful.
Throughout history, there have always been fraudsters and tricksters ready and willing to part people from their money with smooth talking and tall tales, but the first formally recorded “confidence trick” was uniquely American in its origins and set the bar for both simplicity and sheer guts, both hallmarks of the most successful frauds ever perpetrated.
In the late 1840’s the east coast of the United States was awash with the nouveau riche, and men wearing top hats to look important. Good manners and polite society were everything unless you were a slave in which case the top hat was entirely optional. It was the age of Jane Austen, white gloves, carriages and over-the-top manners. It was also the time of pocket watches, dangling from gold chains. Victorian sensibilities dictated that the bigger and shinier the watch, the bigger and shinier the man.
Enter one William Thompson, arguably the originator of the term “confidence man”, a genius operator and a personal hero to the career grifter. Little is known about where he came from, but what is certain is that he had his finger on the pulse of well-heeled suckers strolling the walkways and avenues of Manhattan in the mid-nineteenth century.
Meeting someone was a rigid, formal affair with protocol and procedures; the handshake, tip of the hat and bow were rigidly choreographed. Failure to introduce oneself properly or be introduced according to accepted custom was seen as an embarrassment to both parties – and embarrassment was worse than a bleeding head wound, to be avoided at all costs. Operating in New York in the 1840s, William was a keen observer of human behaviour. He realized that, with such pomp and ceremony surrounding every introduction, it was considered the ultimate in bad manners not to remember people that one might have been acquainted with – he calculated that when confronted with a stranger that said he was a friend, most men would likely act as though they remembered a meeting that had never happened.
William thought he might be able to leverage this, and so would often stroll along the city streets, until he spotted an upper-class sucker, at which time he would approach and pretend to know them and be a past acquaintance, someone that they had met before. Rather than be embarrassed, the mark would usually smile, nod and pretend that he knew who William was – better that than risk dishonour, or a pistol duel – which was how some matters of honour were settled at the time.
After some friendly chatting, and a little trust-gaining, Thompson would throw out his hook, asking “Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?” He wasn’t all about watches – sometimes he would ask for money. It’s good to diversify. More often than not, the mark would part with the watch or the money (or sometimes both) and William would depart, promising to meet the next day to return the property. Naturally, he didn’t keep the next day’s appointment and would often stroll away, laughing to himself.
He repeated this game dozens of times until he had the bad luck to happen across a former victim, who promptly summoned a roving policeman who gave chase. After a frantic foot pursuit through Manhattan and a dramatic struggle, William was bodily subdued and arrested. Perhaps he was slowed down by the weight of all those pocket watches; it was reported that he had several on him at the time he was caught.
His arrest and the subsequent article in the New York Herald called “Arrest of the Confidence Man” made headlines across the country; he was headed to trial in 1849. The press noted his specific appeals to victims’ “confidence” and thereafter he was known in the press as “The Confidence Man”. And so the term was born, and “confidence game” or “con” became part of our vocabulary, and spawned an endless series of quick-buck fraudster copycats that said, “me too”!
This is the story of some of the greatest.