10 of History’s Greatest Con Artists
Here’s the best to have ever played the confidence game.
There’s something inherently intriguing about con artists. The ability to manipulate the people around them into volunteering their money based on little more than their faith in the person currently in the process of pulling the wool over their eyes isn’t exactly a quality we’d want to find ourselves on the wrong end of. But there’s a reason that these fraudsters are anointed with the lofty moniker of “artist”—there’s something almost admirable about the audaciousness—the confidence—it takes to tell a lie so well people can’t help but give you money for it.
Meet the fake heiress who walked so that Anna Delvey could run…out on various hotel bills. Elizabeth “Betty” Bigley a.k.a. Madame Marie Rosa a.k.a. Madame Lydia Devree a.k.a. Cassie L. Hoover a.k.a. Cassie Chadwick had developed her preternatural talent for scamming people and banks out of large sums of cash (and did a three-year stint in prison for said scams) long before she set her greatest and most famous scheme in motion. After marrying Dr. Leroy Chadwick (a wealthy and well-regarded member of Cleveland’s upper crust), she made her way to New York City where she crossed paths with her husband’s lawyer, James Dillon. She asked Dillon to accompany her on an errand and together they rode in a carriage to a mansion on 91st and 5th Avenue. Andrew Carnegie’s mansion, to be precise. Chadwick was invited inside the mansion under the guise of checking references for a maid—long enough to make it seem to Dillon, who was waiting back in the carriage, that she was there on a legitimate appointment. When she returned to the carriage, she was carrying promissory notes for millions of dollars that appeared to be signed by Carnegie. After Dillon saw the notes and vowed to keep the nature of her supposed errand a secret, Chadwick told him that she was actually Carnegie’s illegitimate daughter and that the infamous industrialist gifted her huge sums as a way to assuage his guilt.
Of course, upon returning to Cleveland, Dillon couldn’t wait to spill the beans and the city’s bankers couldn’t wait to do business with someone they believed had access to Carnegie’s fortune. The bankers were so assured of her connection (and reluctant to seek out confirmation from Carnegie himself, lest they embarrass him) that Chadwick was able to secure money from various banks for nearly a decade before a banker called to have his loan repaid. Chadwick couldn’t repay the $190,000 loan (over $5 million in today’s money) and the truth finally came out. In 1905, Chadwick was sentenced to 14 years in prison (where she brought trunks of clothing and expensive furniture) but died two years into her sentence following a “nervous collapse.”
Jim.henderson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Lord Gordon Gordon
Not much is known about Lord Gordon Gordon’s life before he arrived in the United States in 1870 (except that he definitely scammed some London jewelers while using the name Lord Glencairn) but it can be said with relative certainty that he was not a descendant of an ancient Scottish king, which is what he told people in America. But Gordon’s trail of scams soon escalated into the near-invasion of Canada when he crossed paths with Jay Gould, who was trying to gain control of the Erie Railway.
Gordon assured Gould that he represented wealthy Europeans who would be more than happy to finance Gould’s aspirations…he would just need a million dollars in Gould’s railroad stocks first, which Gordon quickly sold. While being sued by Gould, Gordon fled to Canada, counting on the fact that he wasn’t likely to be extradited. Gould was so furious that the Canadian authorities wouldn’t return Gordon to the U.S. that he attempted to stage a kidnapping…only to end up in jail himself. The governor of Minnesota was in the midst of rallying a militia to free Gould when Canadian authorities agreed to release him on bail.
Gordon was ready to rest on his laurels, safe in Canada when the jewelers he’d scammed years ago in London put it together that Lord Gordon Gordon and Lord Glencairn were one in the same and alerted the Canadian government who then decided to have him deported.
The Manitoba Historical Society, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The details of Leo Koretz’s story of his burgeoning timber-turned-oil empire seem plausible enough when compared to any other captain of industry origin story. He’d invested in land in a remote part of Panama that had turned out to be replete with oil reserves. Koretz convinced Chicago’s elite into buying stocks in his Bayano Syndicate by…not selling it to them. He refused to cut them in on the deal until their insistence reached such a fever pitch that he would appear to relent. The oil wasn’t real, but the money he’d gotten from the hoodwinked investors was. Once the scam started to run its course, he fled to Canada where he took on a new name and identity, only to be caught when he took a suit in for tailoring that had his real name sewn inside of it. After this discovery was made, he was extradited to Chicago.
Mark Pitt Images/Shutterstock
Vincenzo Peruggia…or was it Marques Eduardo de Valfierno?
How do you come to be regarded as one of history’s most famous art thieves? By absconding with the world’s most famous work of art, naturally (plus, a few celebrity cameos for good measure).
It all started in the early morning hours of August 21, 1911, when Vincenzo Peruggia entered the Louvre dressed as an employee. When the room where the Mona Lisa was on display was empty, he simply plucked it off the wall and slipped away. Its theft was, understandably, a sensational story with even Franz Kafka numbering among the people who went to the Louvre just to look at the place on the wall where DaVinci’s masterpiece had hung. Police even suspected Pablo Picasso as being a part of art thieves.
Meanwhile, Peruggia returned to his native Italy with the Mona Lisa in tow. While in the process of attempting to sell the painting, he was discovered. Peruggia then claimed to have stolen the painting out of national pride, saying it had been stolen by Napoleon (even though, in reality, the painting was sold to a French king by DaVinci’s assistant who had initially inherited it).
Or was Peruggia a patsy working on behalf of a con artist mastermind?
In 1932, a story appeared in the Saturday Evening Press wherein writer Karl Decker wrote about meeting an Argentine con man called Marques Eduardo de Valfierno who claimed to have put the heist in motion. Valfierno’s alleged plan was to pay Peruggia to steal the painting and then shop six forgeries of the Mona Lisa to potential buyers.
Or did he?
Other than Decker’s story, there’s no evidence that anyone by the name Eduardo de Valfierno existed, let alone masterminded one of the most notorious art thefts in history.
Leonardo da Vinci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In Berlin, in 1922, a young woman attempted suicide by jumping off a bridge. She was rescued and taken to a hospital but she was unable to give her name or refused to do so, and was simply given the moniker Miss Unknown. But a rumor started to emerge that she was, in fact, Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov. The rumor was so persistent that she eventually met with people who had known Anastasia. While some quickly dismissed her as an imposter there were those that had sympathy for her, including Gleb Botkin (who had known Anastasia as a child) and a German couple that set her up in a castle for a time. After her death in 1984, it was confirmed once and for all that she was indeed Franziska Schanzkowska, a Polish factory worker.
Unknown authorUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
“Count” Victor Lustig
Victor Lustig had cut his teeth conning rich passengers on ocean liners into giving him money under the guise that they were investing in a Broadway play. But Lustig was in search of a new con and, just as a painter takes inspiration from a landscape, he found inspiration in a newspaper article detailing the uncertain fate of the Eiffel Tower. The story detailed that the upkeep was too expensive and it wasn’t popular with Parisians anyway. Lustig proceeded to invite scrap metal dealers to a meeting and informed his guests that the government was looking to sell the tower for scrap. One dealer, eager to become part of Paris’ elite set, agreed to pay 70,000 francs. Once Lustig had his money, he fled the country. He waited for news of his con to surface in the papers, but when nothing came up he figured he had the all clear to return to Paris and try the con again. Unfortunately, this time the newspaper had lead him astray. After convening another meeting the authorities were aware of his scam, though Lustig would manage to flee to America before he could be apprehended.
George C. Parker
There are certain things in life you can always count on. Death, taxes, and an American remake of something that was successful in another country. In this case, it was George C. Parker rebooting Lustig’s scam for the New York City market. He’s most famous for “selling” the Brooklyn Bridge, but among his other “sales” were Grant’s Tomb, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Statue of Liberty.
Ferdinand Waldo Demara
It’s not that difficult to see why people take up conning others. At the end of the day, it’s the same common desire for money that motivates a whole range of human behavior. For Ferdinand Waldo Demara, however, he played for the love of the game. Or, in his words, “Rascality, pure rascality.” Over his life, Demara would impersonate a Trappist monk, a psychologist, a dean of a college, a professor, a surgeon, a prison warden, and a teacher. His exploits were so extensive that a movie, The Great Impostor, was made about him.
Associated Newspapers /Rex Features, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
It’s well documented that DeBeers effectively invented the diamond engagement ring while artificially controlling the supply and demand of diamonds in a calculated way that some may view as a type of scam in and of itself. So, it seems fitting that DeBeers would itself be on the receiving end of a diamond-related scam. In the early 1900s, a man by the name of Henri Lemoine invited a few higher-ups at DeBeers to a demonstration wherein he put on display a method he had to create synthetic diamonds. Dazzled by this alchemy, they agreed to finance Lemoine’s research to the tune of £64,000. It was discovered the Lemoine had faked his presentation when the jeweler that had given him the diamonds came forward. Lemoine swore that his method was real but fled France before he could be proven guilty in court.
Plenty of con artists have pulled the wool over other peoples’ eyes by convincing them that they’re the descendant of some notable figure. Oscar Hartzell, however, put a new spin on this premise by trying to convince other people that they were related to a famous figure. Hartzell would seek out people with the last name Drake and inform them that the estate of Sir Francis Drake hadn’t been properly distributed and as his heirs they were entitled to their inheritance—with interest. They would just need to kick in to finance his lawsuit against the British government in order to secure this inheritance. Tens of thousands gave Hartzell money which he used to live luxuriously in London. Eventually, he was deported by the British, but his scam didn’t end there. Even as he was standing trial for his fraud, his followers continued to send him money for his defense, even after he was sentenced to prison.
Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons