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10 People Who Conned their Way Through Life

During the 1840s in New York, a genteelly dressed man named William Thompson would walk up to an upper-class mark and say, “Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?” When the mark did trust him, he would disappear with the watch. His technique of appealing to the victim’s confidence led The New York Herald to dub him the “confidence man” which was later shortened to “con man.” His story also inspired Herman Melville’s 1857 novel The Confidence-Man. Despite being the one responsible for the term, Thompson wasn’t that adept at his job, unlike these people who conned their way through life.

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1. In 2002, a man named Nik Russian auditioned 30 people to participate in a new British reality TV show in which they had to earn £1 million within a year. The whole show was actually a hoax, and the “contestants” had quit their jobs and left their homes in order to participate. 

Raven's Ait and Nik Russian
Raven’s Ait and Nik Russian. Image Source: Tim Trent, Great Reality TV Swindle

The year 2002 was a time when reality shows were very popular in the UK. Russian placed ads inviting “characterful, resourceful, and energetic” people to “raise profile” and received more than a thousand applications. He enlisted the help of friends for auditioning, and the contestants were given several psychological tests as well as practical tests.

The selected candidates were informed through email and were told food, accommodation, and leisure money will be provided during the show. They were also asked to set up a new bank account giving him access, and arrive on June 10, 2002, without money or credit cards. During their first task, the participants realized that they would have to find food, shelter, and earn the prize money all on their own.

When confronted, Russian confessed that no channel actually commissioned the show. Most of the chosen participants left, though some tried to carry on sleeping in the unpaid cameraman’s flat and recording their thoughts. Russian, who left his job as well, stayed with them. The rest of the participants also left after June 14. No criminal case was pursued against him as he didn’t use any of the victims’ money. (source)

2. After implying that he would build a 480-foot skyscraper, a man labeled all the plans 480” and built a 40-foot-tall building as was mentioned in the plans. He took the money and won in court because he didn’t technically defraud anyone. 

Newby-McMahon Building
Newby-McMahon Building. Image Source: Travis K. Witt, Solomon Chaim

J.D. McMahon was a petroleum landman and structural engineer with an office of his oil-rig construction firm in the small, single floor Newby Building in Wichita Falls, Texas. In 1919, he announced he would build a highrise addition to the building and collected a capital of $200,000 (equivalent to $2,900,000 in 2018) from naive investors. McMahon never verbally stated that the building’s height would be 480 feet, but labeled in the blueprints that it would be four floors and 480 inches tall.

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World's Littlest Skyscraper
World’s Littlest Skyscraper. Image Source: Michael Barera

McMahon used his own construction crew and built the new building beside the Newby Building without consent from the absent owner. As the construction progressed, the investors realized the building was only going to be 40 feet tall instead of 480 feet. They also found that, unfortunately, the contract was legally binding as they did approve the blueprints. By the time the new building was finished, McMahon absconded with the remaining money. (source)

3. For 30 years since the ’80s, Barry Landau posed as a presidential historian, rubbing shoulders with presidents such as Bill Clinton, all the while smuggling over 10,000 documents including inaugural addresses and letters by Napoleon, Karl Marx, and George Washington. 

Landau’s interest in the presidency began at 10 years of age when his mother took him to see the then President Eisenhower. During the ’70s and ’80s, he worked as a press agent in New York and also claimed to be a protocol officer under President Gerald R. Ford. He once traveled to Moscow with President Richard M. Nixon. During this time, Landau attended state dinners for George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. He met Oprah Winfrey upon whose insistence he wrote the book The President’s Table published in 2007 and promoted it on Martha Stewart’s show.

It wasn’t until July 9, 2011, that everything unraveled as his apprentice, 24-year-old Jason Savedoff, was seen taking a document from the Maryland Historical Society library. Police found 60 documents in his laptop back, many of which were signed off by Landau. A further search of Landau’s apartment revealed thousands more stolen from various institutions including the Library of Congress, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, and the Yale, Columbia, and Cambridge Universities, the New York Public Library, and the Smithsonian Institution. Both Landau and Savedoff plead guilty and were sentenced to prison. (1, 2)

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4. In 1872, an Englishman posing as Lord Gordon-Gordon swindled one million dollars from rail magnate Jay Gould and fled to Canada. When Gould couldn’t get him arrested, he and his friends tried to kidnap Gordon-Gordon, got caught, couldn’t get bailed out, and almost caused a full military invasion of Canada by America.

Lord Gordon-Gordon and Jay Gould
Lord Gordon-Gordon and Jay Gould. Image Source: The Manitoba Historical Society, Library of Congress

Lord Gordon-Gordon claimed to be from Clan Campbells and a descendant of ancient kings of the Scottish Highlands. When he moved to New York, Jay Gould was trying to gain control of the Erie Railroad. Gordon-Gordon convinced Gould that with a bribe of $1 million in negotiable stocks he would ensure the help of several Europeans who had stock in the company. When Gould found out Gordon-Gordon put the stocks on the market, he sued the latter who was put on trial in March 1873.

While on bail, Gordon-Gordon fled to Canada where he convinced authorities that he was falsely accused and offered to buy large parts of Manitoba. When the Canadian authorities did not handover Gordon-Gordon, Gould and his associates (two future governors and three future congressmen) tried to kidnap him. They were, however, caught, and when bail was refused, Governor Horace Austin of Minnesota readied local militia and thousands of Minnesotan volunteers to invade Canada.

Following negotiations, the kidnappers were released. The word of this reached Europe and a representative identified Gordon-Gordon as the robber Lord Glencairn. The Canadian authorities sentenced him to deportation. (source)

5. In the ’20s, there was a con artist named Victor Lustig who conned everyone from respectable bankers to the notorious crime boss Al Capone himself. He even succeeded at selling the Eiffel Tower for scrap, not once, but twice. 

Victor Lustig
Victor Lustig. Image Source: numismatics, Benh LIEU SONG

Lustig was an exceptionally gifted student with a knack for bringing trouble. After leaving school, he put his talents, education, and fluency in multiple languages to use in creating a career as a con man. He amassed quite a fortune through a variety of scams and cons. One of his famous scams is the money copying machine called the “Rumanian Box” which he sold to many including a Texas sheriff.

The idea for his most well-known scam came when he saw a newspaper article discussing the Eiffel Tower’s maintenance problems and a passing comment in it about public opinion favoring the tower’s removal. He convinced an insecure scrap dealer that the government is going to sell the tower and convinced the scrap dealer to bribe him in order to secure its ownership.

During the Great Depression, Lustig managed to convince Al Capone to invest $50,000 in a crooked scam. The money was to be kept in a safe deposit box for two months. Then Lustig claimed that the scam didn’t work out and that he intended to return the money. Al Capone, believing that he met an honest man for the first time, gave him an additional $5,000 to tide him over which was exactly what Lustig planned. (source)

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