Scams from the 1800s

They feel quaint today:

But in the spring of 1859, folks were concerned about another kind of hustle: A man who went by the name of A.V. Lamartine drifted from town to town in the Midwest ­ pretending to attempt suicide.

He would walk into a hotel ­ according to newspaper accounts from Salem, Ore., to Richmond, Va., and other places ­ and appear depressed as he requested a room. Once settled in, he would ring a bell for assistance, and when someone arrived, Lamartine would point to an empty bottle on the table labeled "2 ounces of laudanum" and call for a clergyman.

People rushing to his bedside to help him would find a suicide note. The Good Samaritans would summon a doctor, administer emetics and nurse him as he recovered.

Somehow Lamartine knew his situation would engender medical and financial assistance from kind strangers in the 19th century. The scenarios ended this way, as one Brooklyn reporter explained: "He is restored with difficulty and sympathetic people raise a purse for him and he departs.

Posted on April 11, 2016 at 6:49 AM • 41 Comments

Comments

Mark S.April 11, 2016 8:35 AM

Scams in the American west may seem quaint today, but of course financial scams in the great commercial centers in Europe, London, Paris, Amsterdam, etc. in the 19th century could be highly complex and sophisticated.

Even if you go back to Elizabethan times, there were complex and very carefully designed financial scams.

And as for complex spying operations, with double and triple agents, and highly intricate plots and counter-plots, the Elizabethans could could teach modern spies a thing or two. An eye-opening book for me was The Reckoning by Charles Nicholl, which won several awards for non-fiction scholarship. Nicholl examines the suspicious death of Christopher Marlowe and the evidence that he was deeply involved in a web of spying operations.

The NYT review of The Reckoning said:

"Mr. Nicholl's glittering reconstruction of Marlowe's murder is only one of the many fascinating aspects of this book. Indeed, The Reckoning is equally compelling for its masterly evocation of a vanished world, a world of Elizabethan scholars, poets, con men, alchemists and spies, a world of Machiavellian malice, intrigue and dissent."

Sally ShearsApril 11, 2016 9:26 AM

For more on 18th century scams and thievery, I recommend The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton.

TL;DR: There are so many types of thieves and scams that each has a name.

paulApril 11, 2016 10:29 AM

How long has it been since the last news article about someone collecting money by pretending to be dying of some terrible disease? Global communication makes some of these scams easier and more lucrative to pull off once, but messes with the disappearing part.

DanielApril 11, 2016 10:55 AM

Yet that scam is going on today...

http://www.wlky.com/news/Disability-lawyer-Eric-Conn-arrested-on-federal-charges/38871822

Replace clergyman with psychologist and replace hotel with lawyer's office and the federal government with the kind hearted townspeople and it's the exact same scam of playing upon people's sympathy.

The odd thing is that I don't blame the fraudsters. I blame the people who need to feel sympathetic as a way to make sense of the world.

Anyhow, for those who have an interest in the emotional aspects of this type of fraud I highly recommend the following journal article.

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=590930

She goes back and forth on the sympathy and non-sympathy debate and argues that American law requires people to be sympathetic. It's a fascinating look at how emotions intertwine with legal structures.

Clive RobinsonApril 11, 2016 11:06 AM

It's just as wel Mr A.V. Lamartine did not try this in London.

Back in the 1800's women --who were usually out of breath due to corsets-- had a habit of fainting alot and putting raw ammonia in a bottle --smelling salts--under their noses was belived to resuscitate them.

But if that failed there was another more drastic remedy that was fervently believed in. For various reasons quite a few young women threw themselves into the River Thames in the wealthier west side of London. They were sometimes draged out of the river still with some life in them and due to the fervrent belief in the method, equipment to perform it was placed along the river banks from Teddington through to Puttney, much as there are "life rings" today and in one or two places auto-defibrillators.

The method would seem very strange to us today, and involved a special pipe so that tobacco smoke could be blown into the rectal cavity... (yes you did read that correctly)

Mad as this might sound the rectal cavity is rather more efficient at absorbing drugs etc than the rest of the gastrointestinal system so the stimulating effects of nicotine would have been rapidly felt...

So next time you hear someone say "Blow smoke up yer 455" you will know where the idea came from...

ChrisApril 11, 2016 11:10 AM

Another very good book for anyone interested in scams around the turn of the 20th century is "The Big Con"

hermanApril 11, 2016 11:55 AM

"If sympathy's the answer, I'll have temporary cancer."

Cancer scams are rather common nowadays.

Vesselin BontchevApril 11, 2016 12:13 PM

The typical "Nigerian scam" (or advanced-fee fraud, as it is officially called) has origins at least as early as the 16th century, when it was known under the name "The Spanish Prisoner Scam".

albertApril 11, 2016 12:38 PM

"..."...a world of ... scholars, poets, con men, alchemists and spies, a world of Machiavellian malice, intrigue and dissent."..."

How is this any different from today?

The international banking system is pulling off the biggest scam in history and everyone's on board with it.

@Popup,
Fascinating. There are many identity thieves in prison, called John Doe or Jane Doe, because their real identities cannot be determined.

. .. . .. --- ....

Richard MasonerApril 11, 2016 3:05 PM

I ride the same bus to and from work everyday, and see the same people on the bus.

One of the occasional riders approached me with a ridiculous story that she just flew in from out-of-state and needs bus fare to visit her dying mother. I laughed in her face and reminded her that I've sat next to her a number of times over the past decade, asked her if she's flown in for each and every one of those trips.

It's too bad these scoundrels ruin it for the people who really do need a hand up.

K15April 11, 2016 3:33 PM

Is this an eternal round of rock-paper-scissors or is there a solution?
And if you have a sense that someone is messing with your identity, but no hard proof, is there a human you can go to?

Slime Mold with MustardApril 11, 2016 3:56 PM

@ Clive

It may be merely my suspicious nature, but I can imagine another motive for young women to throw themselves into the Thames in wealthier west London and subsequently find themselves at least partially disrobed. We are discussing scams here, aren't we?

BogbrushApril 11, 2016 4:15 PM

The contemporary equivalent is to say something inflammatory on the internet, wait for the inevitable backlash and then wail "woe is me for I am being harassed did I mention I have a patreon and an Amazon wishlist?"

Clive RobinsonApril 11, 2016 5:28 PM

@ Slime Mould...,

I can imagine another motive for young women to throw themselves into the Thames in wealthier west London

Many were suicides, who had become "fallen women", "ill used" etc and been cast out by their family or employers, some had even been sold by their families. Many were teens at best, Victorian morals were rather peculiar when viewed through modern eyes, and not at all like that which used to be taught in school.

Women were not realy alowed to be single mothers, even if it was through no fault of their own (ie husband died due to work accident etc) often they would find that they were thrown out of their homes as they did not inherit them, or anything else even if they originaly owned them prior to marriage such were the property laws. So they had to rely on the generosity of other family members etc, or give up children as "foundlings" and find work in other peoples homes. Or go into a work house where their children would be taken away from them.

It all makes rather dismal reading and it was the likes of Charles Dickens that not just brought the squaller and poverty of Dickensian Victorian London to the public notice through his books and the press but set out as a Social Reformer to correct it.

His own life story tells of the difference between the rich and the poor and how easily one could fall from one to the other, and the early loss of status may well have contributed to his early demise aged fifty eight.

The current UK government seem very keen on going back two hundred years to the same sort of conditions, where to lose one's employment would destroy a family in a work house or similar. Where the so called "trickle down effect" is the tupence a girl could earn by "going gay" with a Gentalman, that would pay for some corner in a room in a basement someplace rife with disease. You can get a feeling for part of this from the histories relating to the likes of Jack the Ripper etc.

tyrApril 11, 2016 5:33 PM


My favourite scam story is from when stationed at
school on Treasure Island. We were wandering around
San Francisco on the weekend. An elderly man asked
us for change to buy busfare. One of the young
dummies who received the princely sum of 88 dollars
a month give the guy a bunch of quarters. We told
him he was going to buy beer with it. For some odd
reason we went around the block. As we came down the
same sidewalk again here was the poor panhandler
feeding the parking meter on his brand new Cadillac.

Slime Mold with MustardApril 11, 2016 5:55 PM

Thank you for the clarification, depressing though it was.

But most especially thank you for the link you put on the Squid blog on Friday. We had our adult children over for the weekend and you provided both a hearty laugh and potent reminder of why their father taught them to take rather arduous measures online.

Dirk PraetApril 11, 2016 6:02 PM

A somewhat similar con is quite commonplace in the neighbourhood over here. Some totally bewildered guy in tears, generally of Eastern European or North African origin, starts talking to you in the street, claiming he has been robbed and desperately needs to talk to his family or requires money to take a train or a bus. When you give him your phone, he runs off with it. When you give him money, he'll ask you to accompany him to the nearest bus stop or train station because he's too scared to go alone. When you do, you get mugged by him and his friends around the next corner.

A while ago, a slightly intoxicated friend of mine fell for this stupid trick. Unfortunately, the con artists didn't know he was an ardent Krav Maga practitioner and in a moment of furious anger he beat both wannabe robbers senseless when they tried to take his wallet. He nearly ended up getting arrested.

@ Clive

Mad as this might sound the rectal cavity is rather more efficient at absorbing drugs etc than the rest of the gastrointestinal system so the stimulating effects of nicotine would have been rapidly felt...

Folks with teenage daughters may be familiar with the "slimming" phenomenon.

Slime Mold with MustardApril 11, 2016 6:04 PM

@Clive Robinson

Maybe I should actually address my comments instead of letting them hang out in space like the mutterings of the psychotic homeless wandering the streets. Or do I seem like that anyway?

LieschenApril 11, 2016 9:04 PM

The problem with crazes is that they don't always have to be rational. Expectations and moods are key in getting drunk and thus people will experiment with semi-plausible methods like alcoholic enemas or will pour champagne in each others belly buttons - the main effect comes from then drinking it, but believing in a diffusion effect helps. Of course, such behaviors are much less common then media would have one believe, but they certainly do exist. I remember sniffing caffeine powder (from a tablet, not pure) once -- it was a hell of a three-nighter.

DroneApril 11, 2016 9:11 PM

No doubt that if A.V. Lamartine where around today, he would find Kickstarter as a much more convenient means of plying his trade.

rApril 11, 2016 9:53 PM

@slime mould,

Some of the psychotic homeless wandering the streets are the alumni of places I guarantee you've patroned.

A brilliant mind can be a fragile thing facing the cold hard reality of globalization, downsizing and over-qualification.

Nicholas MApril 12, 2016 2:12 AM

@ Slime, Maybe I should actually address my comments instead of letting them hang out in space like the mutterings of the psychotic homeless wandering the streets. Or do I seem like that anyway?

Welp, no, you seem like someone with a strong conviction and a great sense of humor. ;-)

Nicholas MApril 12, 2016 2:21 AM

@ Dirk Praet, When you give him your phone, he runs off with it. When you give him money, he'll ask you to accompany him to the nearest bus stop or train station because he's too scared to go alone. When you do, you get mugged by him and his friends around the next corner.

Those are bad examples. Sometimes the gentle kindness of a complete stranger goes a long way, as I have experienced several times in the past. Inherently, not everyone is bad, and it has nothing to do with circumstances, in my opinion.

Mic StandApril 12, 2016 4:36 AM

@Richard Masoner — too bad you missed the opportunity of finding out why one of your fellow passengers was suddenly and uncharacteristically desperate for something so little as a bus fare, and yet was unwilling to attempt a larger scam which would have been more profitable but also more risky, and would also have been an attack on fellow passengers some of whom she vaguely recognised. Maybe the bus driver let a regular passenger board without her forgotten purse as long as she raised the cash before alighting. Bully for you that you were able to laugh in her face.

@tyr — good job seeing through the elderly man on Treasure Island with the pocket full of quarters feeding the meter on the Cadillac. Did you all congratulate each other for catching out the fraud and telling / warning your community of friends? Did you watch him for a bit longer as he went to the next street by the restaurant where he also fed the meter on the Porsche and the Bugatti and the Mustang? Did he own all four? Or did he make a tiny living feeding meters for rich car owners visiting Treasure Island? Too bad you'll never know.

Dirk PraetApril 12, 2016 6:00 AM

@ Nicholas M

Those are bad examples. Sometimes the gentle kindness of a complete stranger goes a long way...

Reality unfortunately tends to bite you in the *ss hard in my neighbourhood. Being kind to strangers, especially after a couple of beers, is a potentially dangerous disposition over here.

Clive RobinsonApril 12, 2016 8:37 AM

@ Slime Mold with Mustard,

Maybe I should actually address my comments instead of letting them hang out in space

It can make finding things faster in the future with search engines etc.

However like a few others around here I read the newcomments page, so generally I do catch when people quoye what I type, or reply within the topic.

Impossibly StupidApril 12, 2016 11:27 AM

@Daniel
"The odd thing is that I don't blame the fraudsters. I blame the people who need to feel sympathetic as a way to make sense of the world."

Well, I still do blame the fraudsters, but the root issue really is the fact that most people would rather act in a heroic way one time rather than put in place and support societal efforts that help people before they have to resort to doing bad things to get by. To me, the most telling bit is the last line from Bruce's excerpt:

"raise a purse for him and he departs."

Those people kicking the can down the road is what made that person into a scammer. They should have just offered him a decent job and allowed him to be productive in the local community. Instead, they just sent him along to victimize another town in the same way.

James MacApril 12, 2016 2:55 PM

I recall from conversations with security trainers years ago that the modern-day internet dating scam had its steam-age equivalent amongst people who operated wireless telegraphs in the 1870s...

tyrApril 12, 2016 5:58 PM


@Hiccup

I recommend anyone who wants to inject alcohol
pour some on a bleeding scratch first then decide
if it is a good idea.

@Mic Stand

Different era by far, Treasure island was all military
then. Maybe Chester Nimitz was considered a civilian,
he lived up on Yerba Buena (the real island). Treasure
Island is an artificial structure built for a Worlds
Fair and repurposed many times since.

@Dirk Praet

A bunch of japanese youth tried to mug Uyeshiba once.
He made a large pile of them for the police. He was
in his 80s, looked like an easy mark, also originated
Aikido one of the more fearsome martial arts around.


Dirk PraetApril 12, 2016 7:31 PM

@ Hiccup, @ tyr

But how about injecting the booze with syringe?

In the long and sad history of bad ideas, mainlining booze is a particularly bad one because you can easily overdose, leading to cardiac arrest or respiratory failure. In low doses, you will ruin your veins but get drunk much faster. The prime drawback is a horribly burning pain in the place where you shoot up, comparable to pouring a sip of whiskey on your glans. In general, the only people stupid enough to do this are withdrawing heroin addicts with a needle fetish.

Safer, but equally unhealthy ways to get sh*tfaced in no time include tequila slammer shots (preferably with champagne) or inhaling alcohol fumes, for which Drambuie liqueur is an excellent pick because it lights easily.

Nicholas MApril 13, 2016 10:57 PM

@ Dirk Praet, Reality unfortunately tends to bite you in the *ss hard in my neighbourhood. Being kind to strangers, especially after a couple of beers, is a potentially dangerous disposition over here.

I was on the majority of occassions being a benefaactor of stranger's kindess, which I appreciate. Though deities of various origins had taught us to treat thy neighbor well, it is a trait most frequently forgone, and I'm not about to put your neighborhood to the test.

Ole JuulApril 17, 2016 1:43 AM

The similarity of old scams to the new makes me think that we haven't yet reached our stride in computer use for scamming. The new crypto scams seem to be a new take that's not much like the old ones. Perhaps in the next few years actual human interaction, like phishing, may just drop by the wayside.

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