A con artist is a person who tricks people into believing something that is not real after gaining their trust. The ‘confident men’ listed below are some of the most famous con artists known throughout history for their attempted, creative and sometimes successful schemes.
1. Victor Lustig
Victor Lustig was born on January 4, 1890, in Austria-Hungary and is arguably one of the notorious con artists of his era. He is known as ‘the man who sold the Eiffel Tower twice’ and for his ‘Rumanian Box’ scam. Lustig ran bogus horse races, faked seizures during business meetings, and instigated several phony real estate deals, and dealt in counterfeiting money. He was so good at it that even bank tellers couldn’t tell if the money was fake.
In 1925, after reading a newspaper article about the issues concerning the maintenance of the Eiffel Tower, he invited a group of scrap metal dealers for a confidential meeting. He claimed to be the Deputy Director General of the Ministère de Postes et Télégraphes. He told them that the French government wished to sell the Eiffel Tower for scrap as its upkeep was too much. He targeted one man, in particular, André Poisson, and convinced him he was a corrupt officer. Poisson, to rise among ranks of the business community, paid Lustig a bribe and the funds for the Eiffel Tower’s sale. Lustig ran to Austria.
Later that year, he returned to Paris to attempt the con again, but failed and was forced to flee to the U.S. There, he stole $16,000 from a businessman in Massachusetts and talked his way out of an arrest.
Another of Lustig’s scams was called the ‘Rumanian Box.’ He claimed a box to have the ability to duplicate any currency bills that were inserted into it. The catch was there was a six hours period needed to print an identical copy. Lustig would put real notes in the box before it was sold. One Texas sheriff bought the ‘money box’ for thousands of dollars. When he was caught, Lustig pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15 years in Alcatraz prison, with an additional five years for a prison escape. On 11 March 1947, he died after contracting pneumonia. His death certificate listed him as an apprentice salesman.
2. Charles Ponzi
Born Carlo Ponzi on March 3, 1882, Ponzi was an Italian swindler and con artist in the U.S and Canada. In the early 1920s, he established a firm called The Security Exchange Company that promised clients 50% profit within 45 days, or 100% profit within 90 days by buying discounted postal reply coupons in other countries and redeeming them at face value in the U.S. The average investment was estimated to be around $325. The way it worked was that he paid earlier investors by using the money given to him by later investors. This went on for over a year before collapsing, costing his investors 20 million dollars.
While not originally his idea, this scheme is called a Ponzi scheme. He spent the next years facing trials and in and out of prison and eventually lived out his life in poverty, his wife leaving him to remain in Boston after he left prison and got deported to Italy. In Italy, Benito Mussolini offered him a position with Italy’s new airline, and he served as the Rio de Janeiro branch manager from 1939-1942. He discovered that officials were smuggling currency through the airline and wanted in on the scheme. When they refused, Ponzi tipped off the authority, leading to the conspirators’ arrest. He died in a charity hospital in Rio de Janeiro on January 15, 1949. His last picture shows a big smile on his face.
3. Eduardo de Valfierno
Eduardo de Valfierno was an Argentine con man who allegedly was the mastermind behind the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911. The only source for this is a journalist named Karl Decker, who claimed Valfierno paid Vincenzo Peruggia, who worked at the museum, and several other men to steal the Mona Lisa. On August 21, 1911, Peruggia walked out of the Louvre with the Mona Lisa under his coat. Allegedly, Valfierno then made six copies of the piece of art to sell. The painting was returned to the Louvre in 1913 after Peruggia was caught trying to sell it. He denied ever knowing Valfierno other than a chance meeting at the Louvre.
4. Gregor MacGregor
General Gregor MacGregor was a Scottish soldier born on 24 December 1786 and has designed what is considered one of the most brazen confidence tricks in history. From 1821 to 1837, he and his Spanish-American wife Josefa claimed to rule as ‘Cazique,’ or Prince appointed by King George Frederick Augustus of the Mosquito Coast in the Gulf of Honduras, over a territory named ‘Poyais.’ He sold shares in his new country. By October 1822, he’d raised a loan of £200,000. He also published a 350-page guidebook to Poyais.
He drew in British and French investors who by the time made it to the supposed country, half of them had died while the other found untouched land. Hundreds of people invested their savings in land certificates and government bonds. On the journey there, they were encouraged to exchange their Scottish coin for Bank of Poyais notes, of which some 70,000 had been printed in Edinburgh.
Upon arrival, the hopeful passengers found themselves upon an uninhabited shore. Shortly after, another ship brought 150 men, women, and children. Adding more to their unfortunate, a hurricane carried the ships away, leaving the passengers shelterless and trapped. They soon fell sick with malaria and yellow fever. A survivor, Mr. Edward Lowe recorded this story. He was tried for fraud in 1826 in France, but an associate of his was the one convicted. He died in Caracas in 1845 and was buried with full military honors.
5. Robert Hendy-Freegard
Born Anas Tarhi, on 1 March 1971, Robert Hendy-Freegard was a Moroccan conman who posed as an MI5 agent. He would meet his victims on social occasions or in bars of the car dealership where he was working and convince them he was an MI5 undercover agent working against the IRA. He would fool people into going underground in fear of IRA assassination and would demand they seclude themselves from friends and family and live in poor conditions. He defrauded a series of women and a young man out of up to £1 million. He left his victims He left them humiliated and financially broken.
He promised to marry all of his female followers except for one. Sarah Smith, a student, was made to ride around in a car wearing a bucket. Another man, John Atkinson, had to wear a blindfold and take punches to the stomach. On 23 June 2005, Blackfriars Crown Court convicted him for two counts of kidnapping, 10 of theft, and 8 of deception. He was given a life sentence. He ended up appealing against his kidnapping convictions and only spent nine years for his other crimes.
6. James Hogue
James Arthur Hogue was born on October 22, 1959, and was an American imposter. He stole the identity of a deceased infant and enrolled at Palo Alto High School as Jay Mitchell Huntsman. A reporter, Jason Cole, became suspicious when he covered the Stanford Invitational Cross Country Meet and Hogue didn’t go up to the judges’ table after winning. Hogue left town after the judges became suspicious of him. In 1987, he applied to Princeton University under the alias Alexi Indris-Santana. They invited him to attend in the fall of 1988, but he told them his mother was dying to defer admission for one year. During that time, he was being sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty for possessing stolen bicycle equipment.
Hogue only spent nine months in prison and out of parole. As Alexi Indris-Santana, he went back to Princeton and became a member of the track team, and was admitted into the Ivy Club. On February 26, 1991, Hogue was arrested for forgery, theft, and falsifying records after being recognized by a classmate who knew him as Jay Mitchell Huntsman. In October 1992, he pled guilty for taking more than 22,000 dollars in scholarship money and was sentenced to nine months in jail. He only served 134 days.
7. Soapy Smith
Jefferson Randolph ‘Soapy Smith’ II was born on November 2, 1860. He earned the title of ‘Soapy’ for the prize package soap sell racket, his most famous scam, From 1879 to 1898, he was involved heavily in organized criminal operation in Denver, Creede, Colorado, and Skagway Alaska. He ran saloons, gambling halls, cigar stores and auction houses who cheated their clients. His primary goal when opening a business was to rob his customers gently. He became the ‘King of the frontier con men,’ a crime boss, and had a gang of shills and thieves work for him. He died in what is known as the Shootout of Juneau Wharf on July 8, 1898.
8. George C. Parker
George C. Parker was born on March 16, 1860, and is most famous for trying to sell the Brooklyn Bridge. His other schemes included the original Madison Square Garden, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Grant’s Tombs, and the Statue of Liberty. He sold shows and plays, to which he had no legal ownership, and forged documents to suggest he was the legal owner of whatever he was selling. In 1908, after being convicted, he escaped the courthouse by walking out wearing a sheriff’s hat and coat. He was later sentenced to a life sentence at Sing Sing Prison on December 17, 1928.
9. Frank Abagnale
Frank Abagnale’s story is told in the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can, starring Leonardo, in his book, a musical and is drawn upon in the TV show White Collar. Abagnale was born April 27, 1948. From the ages 16 to 21, he claims to have assumed eight different identities such as a pilot for Pan Am Airlines to wangle free flights, a physician, a U.S Bureau of Prisons agent, and a lawyer. He also passed the bar exam. His first con involved his father and his credit card. He moved on to banks later on. His trick was writing personal checks on his overdrawn account. When the bank demanded pay, he opened other accounts at different banks, eventually creating new identities. Abagnale once told that he’d noticed that airlines and car rental dealerships deposited their daily earnings in a zip up bag into a drop box. In a costume shop bought security guard uniform, he put a sign over the box saying “Out of service, place deposits with the security guard on duty.”
Abagnale impersonated a Pan American World Airways pilot, and He then forged a Federal Aviation Administration pilot’s license. It’s calculated that he flew more than 1,000,000 miles (1,600,000 km) on more than 250 flights and flew to 26 countries between the ages of 16 to 18. Also this way, he was able to stay at hotels for free. Another con of his was under the name of Frank Williams. He impersonated a chief resident pediatrician in a Georgia hospital. He worked as a supervisor and left interns to handle the actual medical cases. After a baby nearly died because Abagnale didn’t know what the medical term for “blue baby” meant, he left the hospital in fear of putting people’s lives at risk. He was arrested in France at age 21, and spent six months in prison there, six months in a Swedish jail and then got deported to the US.
During his several stunts in prison, he made an escape attempt while being deported to the US. He escaped from a British airliner, scaled a fence, and hailed a cab to Grand Central Terminal. In April 1971, he escaped from the Federal Detention Center in Atlanta, Georgia when he was mistaken for an undercover prison inspector. A friend of his, “Jean Sebring”, helped him by obtaining business cards to use as his own. He was later allowed to meet with her, also posing under a false name, unsupervised in a predetermined car outside the detention center. She picked him up and drove to an Atlantica bus station. Out of his 12-year sentence, he served only five and was paroled if he helped the FBI uncover cheque forgers. Now, he has worked with the FBI for almost 40 years and has his own financial fraud consultancy company, Abagnale & Associates.
10. Joseph Weil
Joseph ‘Yellow Kid’ Wei, born on July 1, 1875, was one of the most famous American con men of his time. It is alleged that he had stolen over 8 million dollars during his career. W.T. Brannon wrote Weil’s biography believed Weil had an uncanny knowledge of human nature. At the age of 17, Weil noticed his fellow workers of his town’s loan-sharking industry keeping a small part of the profits. For a portion, Weil offered his silence on the matter.
He started out in the 1890s under Chicago confidence man Doc Meriwether and worked with Frank Hogan, Billy Wall, William J. Winterbill, Bob Collins, Colonel Jim Porter, Romeo Simpson, “Fats” Levine, Jack Mason, Tim North, and George Gross. He sold at public sales Doc Meriwether’s Elixir, the chief ingredient of which was rainwater. Of his long list of successful cons, he tricked the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini out of two million dollars. He also staged faze prize fights, sold talking dogs and oil-rich land he didn’t own. His cons regularly made him $25,000-$50,000 at a time. For his life of crime, Weil spent a total of six years in jail.
Weil wrote, “The desire to get something for nothing has been very costly to many people who have dealt with me and with other con men. The average person, in my estimation, is ninety-nine percent animal and one percent human. The ninety-nine percent that is animal causes very little trouble. But the one percent that is human causes all our woes. When people learn — as I doubt they will — that they can’t get something for nothing, crime will diminish, and we shall live in greater harmony.”