There have been people seeking to cheat others since the start of human history. As a result, it should come as no surprise to learn that there have been a lot of con artists, including a fair number who have managed to establish themselves in the popular imagination through their sheer gall. Here are 20 of the most notorious con artists over the whole course of human history listed in no particular order:
William Chaloner was an English counterfeiter in a time when counterfeiting was a crime that could result in capital punishment. This is because counterfeiting could reduce public confidence in currencies, which could have catastrophic economic consequences on a sufficient scale in a time with much weaker institutions than the present. However, it is interesting to note that he was involved with a number of other less than reputable activities as well, with examples ranging from acting as an agent provocateur to selling fake cures for various medical problems. In the end, Chaloner became such a huge problem that he was brought down by Issac Newton of scientific fame, who conducted a thorough investigation using spies, contacts, and informants before bringing Chaloner to trail before what was called a “hanging judge.” As a result, it should come as no surprise to learn that Chaloner was executed in 1699, having failed to escape the hangman’s noose by pretending to be mad while he was in prison.
Most con artists tend to be rather brazen. However, Gregor MacGregor’s brazeness stood out even by their standards. This is because he ran a number of scams based on his claim that he was the ruler of a place called Poyais in Central America, which was true in the sense that he had been granted a stretch of inhospitable wilderness by a local ruler who exercised minimal control over the region. As a result, a significant number of people were fooled into becoming settlers, having been fooled by claims of hospitable surroundings, welcoming natives, and a land so rich in resources that people could feed their families for a week by working for a single day. Instead, they were deposited in a stretch of wilderness, where a significant percentage of them died from malaria and other diseases until the local ruler turned up to rescind the grant to MacGregor for exceeding his rights. While the botched settlement was the single most brazen scam on MacGregor’s part, he ran a number of others based on the same premise, which went on to inspire other con artists to run scams involving Poyais of their own. All of this was made possible because MacGregor had been a soldier of some note who had fought for the republicans in Venezuela’s War of Independence, which is why he wound up in Venezuela in time, where he managed to convince those who had fought in the same struggle to restore him to the Venezuelan Army when his scams had become unprofitable.
Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Remy
Generally speaking, most con artists can’t claim to have affected the fate of entire nations through their scams, but there are occasional exceptions, as shown by Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Remy. First and foremost, the Valois in her name is real, seeing as how she was indeed descended from the bastard son of a French king of the House of Valois. However, she came from such impoverished circumstances that she and her siblings had to be rescued, with the result that she and her sister were sent to a school that would see them become nuns in time by funds set aside for helping the children of impoverished nobles. With that said, Jeanne left the school before that could happen, with the result that she got married to another adventurer named Nicholas de la Motte. In time, Jeanne and her husband concocted the plan that resulted in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, which had a horrendous effect on the reputation of the French queen Marie Antoinette in spite of the fact that said individual had been one of its chief victims. In short, what happened was that a jeweler had created a necklace for a mistress of the previous French king that was so expensive that he had to sell it unless he wanted to become bankrupt. However, the necklace was so expensive that few people could have afforded it, which is why the jeweler sought to sell it to Marie Antoinette, who refused it on not one but two separate occasions. Meanwhile, Jeanne had become the mistress of the Cardinal de Rohan, who wanted to make up with Marie Antoinette for the purpose of securing a position as one of the French king’s ministers. As a result, Jeanne fooled the Cardinal de Rohan into believing that she had entered into the good graces of Marie Antoinette, which was a blatant lie because her actual efforts to do so had been foiled by Marie Antoinette refusing to meet her. Nonetheless, Jeanne used a series of forged letters as well as a night-time meeting with a prostitute pretending to be Marie Antoinette to convince the Cardinal de Rohan to lend the French queen the money to buy the necklace, which she didn’t want to do in public because of popular concern over royal spending. When the incident was revealed, the French king and queen insisted on a public trial to show that they were wholly innocent of the whole mess. However, their choice backfired on them because the public came to believe that Marie Antoinette had used Jeanne and her husband to exact revenge on the Cardinal de Rohan, which tends to be regarded as nonsense by people who had studied the case, who tend to conclude that both the Cardinal de Rohan and Marie Antoinette who had been victims of Jeanne. Unfortunately, Marie Antoinette was never able to clean the stain on her reputation that resulted from the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, which was one of the contributing factors to the French Revolution.
The field of medicine attracts con artists like the scent of blood attracts sharks. After all, there are a lot of people out there who need medical help, so much so that their need can render them more gullible than most. As a result, it is unsurprising that con artists would seek out said individuals for the sake of predating upon them. Regardless, an excellent example of such con artists can be found in the person of C.L. Blood, an American con artist who ran a booming business as a self-described doctor selling what he claimed to be his patented product of “oxygenized air.” However, while Blood cheated a lot of people out of their money by selling what he promised to be a cure for a wide range of diseases related to either the throat or the lungs, he was also involved in a number of other crimes as well. For example, there was not one but rather two cases of blackmail, which were in addition to tax evasion as well as the murder of a Boston fruitseller, though for whatever reason, the police never questioned Blood about said incident. As a result, while Blood served some time in prison, he died of natural causes in his 70s, though his surviving family members refused to add his name to the memorial meant to honor the members of the Blood family because of the infamy that he had brought upon them.
Cassie Chadwick was the name of a Canadian woman who pulled off her most infamous con in the United States. There, she came up with a scheme to fool other people into believing that she was the bastard daugher of Andrew Carnegie, who resulted in a number of banks and other financial institutions offering her huge loans at high interest rates under the belief that they would be repaid when she inherited a portion of Carnegie’s fortune. Unfortunately for them, Chadwick was right in predicting that they wouldn’t confirm her identity with Carnegie for fear of embarrassing him, which is how she managed to secure $5 million in debt from the banks in Cleveland before she was found out.
Nowadays, people call others gullible by offering to sell them the Brooklyn Bridge. However, it is important to remember that this was actually a scam that was carried out by a number of con artists back in the day. One excellent example is William McCloundy, who was one of at least two men who succeeded in carrying out said scam on tourists. Something that resulted in him being sent to prison when he was caught.
Better remembered as Canada Bill, William Jones was one of the numerous con artists who operated on the riverboats on the Mississippi. In particular, he was famous for three-card monte, which is a card-based version of the classic shell game. With that said, Jones was a rather interesting character in his own right. For example, he was known to be generous, as shown by repeated incidences of him handing bills to Sisters of Charity who he passed on the streets. Furthermore, he was known to have lost as much money to the professional players as he won from his marks, which might explain why he died at the age of 40 as a pauper. Amusingly, one of his friends challenged the other mourners to bet that Jones wasn’t actually in the coffin at Jones’s funeral, which no one would take him up on because as one of them said, they’d seen him “squeeze through tighter holes than that.”
Victor Lustig was born in Hungary, but he went on to become a man fluent in multiple languages, thus enabling him to scam people in a wide range of countries. For example, he was known to have sold “money-printing machines” that he claimed to be capable of producing one $100 bill per six hours, which would produce a total of three $100 bills before it ran out. Furthermore, he managed to sell the Eiffel Tower for scrap to a gullible businessman, which was on top of him collecting a bribe for letting the deal go through by pretending to be a corrupt government official. Finally, Lustig even managed to con Al Capone out of $5,000, which he achieved by impressing the crime boss with his honesty by returning the $50,000 with which he had been entrusted beforehand.
George C. Parker
George C. Parker was another example of the con artists who sold the Brooklyn Bridge to gullible individuals, who would then attempt to monetize their purchases by setting up toll booths. However, Parker didn’t limit his scams to selling the Brooklyn Bridge, as shown by his scams to sell other NYC landmarks such as Madison Square Garden and the Statue of Liberty. In fact, he even managed to sell a number of shows that were happening in NYC at the time, which explains why he is still remembered as one of the most successful con artists in U.S. history.
Given his name, it should come as no surprise to learn that Charles Ponzi was the man referenced by the term “ponzi scheme.” He wasn’t the one who came up with the idea of cheating people by claiming to be able to guarantee huge returns on their investments before paying the earlier investors using the investments of the later investors. However, he became so well-known that such schemes became named for him. For proof of his charisma, look no further than the fact that some of Ponzi’s investors continued to ask him to invest their money when he had been imprisoned for his crimes, which was rather remarkable to say the least.
A confidence man is a somewhat outdated term for con artist, which was most associated with the confidence trick. Essentially, a confidence trick was when a con artist would cheat another person once they had gained said individual’s confidence, thus explaining the name. In Thompson’s case, he would win rich people’s confidence by pretending to know them, ask if they would entrust something valuable to him for a short period of time, and then walk away with his ill-gotten gains.
Ferdinand Waldo Demara
Ferdinand Waldo Demara is remembered as the Great Imposter because he impersonated such a wide range of professions. Some examples include a doctor, a lawyer, a monk, and a civil engineer. Curiously, Demara was never that interested in monetary gain. Instead, he was in it for the sake of reputation, which was a real shame because supposedly, a lot of his employers were actually quite satisfied with him as an employee. Something that might have been attributable to his photographic memory, which combined with a remarkable intelligence to enable him to pick up vast amounts of information needed for the roles that he pretended to be in an efficient and effective manner.
In the 1980s, David Hampton managed to convince a number of rich New Yorkers to give him money as well as other benefits by claiming to be the son of Sidney Poitier. He seems to have stumbled upon the idea when he and an acquaintance were attempting to get into Studio 54, which resulted in the two pretending to be the children of celebrities. As a result, Hampton began using the fake identity to start getting more and more benefits out of more and more people, which eventually made him so infamous that a playwright actually made a play called Six Degrees of Separation that was based on him. However, it should be noted that Hampton went on to continue scamming other people after he had been caught for pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier’s while using a number of other fake identities.
Jerry Tarbot was a man who claimed to have suffered from amnesia as a result of his experiences as a veteran in the First World War. However, when a bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to compensate him for his suffering, it was revealed that he was nothing of the sort. Instead, it turned out that Jerry Tarbot was actually a draft dodger named Alexander Dubois, Jr., who was a con man, a car thief, and a bigamist. Afterwards, Tarbot faded out of public attention, with the result that not much else is known about him.
Natwarlal was a very well-known con artist who operated in India. Curiously, he started out as a lawyer, but eventually, he seems to have decided that being a con artist was much better-suited to him. Some of his exploits were commonplace, with examples ranging from forging checks to stealing money by pretending to be a person in need. Other exploits were much more memorable, as shown by the time when he sold the Parliament House of India along with its sitting members. On top of this, Natwarlal was able to escape on nine out of the nine times that he was arrested, with the last time being when he managed to escape even though he was a wheelchair-bound 84 year-old at the time. As a result, it is no wonder that Natwarlal is something of a legend in India, as shown by him continuing to inspire Indian con artists.
There have been a number of well-known ponzi schemes in U.S. history ever since Charles Ponzi was busted. However, there are few that can match that of Reed Slatkin, who raised about 593 million from about 800 investors who were willing to put their trust in him. In total, Slatkin managed to keep his ponzi scheme running for 15 years until the SEC was able to catch him. During which time, he had paid millions to his acquaintances, millions to the Church of Scientology, and had otherwise made a mockery of the trust that had been placed in him.
Frank Abagnale was the subject of the movie Catch Me If You Can, which is perhaps unsurprising, considering that his life sounds more like the subject of fiction than anything that can be found in real life. In short, Abagnale started out as a notorious con artist, with one particularly infamous incident being the time he fooled people into handing him the money collected by businesses at an airport by putting a sign on the drop box that said it was out of service. Later, Abagnale was caught, which resulted in him serving a portion of his sentence before he was freed on the condition of helping the federal government to catch other con artists. As a result, he has since become a rather successful security consultant.
Ali Dia was a professional footballer from Senagal who managed to convince Southhampton to hire him. This happened when Dia convinced one of his friends from university to pretend to be Ballon d’Or winner George Weah on the phone, with the result that said individual convinced the then manager of Southhampton that Dia was Weah’s cousin as well as someone who played on the national level. In total, Dia played a single game for Southhampton before being let go because of his poor performance in that single game.
Calisto Tanzi was an Italian businessman who had founded Parmalat, which was a huge food corporation with a multinational presence. However, it turned out that Tanzi had embezzled something along the lines of eight hundred million euros from his corporation, which resulted in the biggest bankruptcy in Europe. Tanzi was sentenced to prison, fined for his crimes, and lost a number of awards and accolades that he had won.
For Americans, Bernie Madoff is probably one of the best-known con artists out there, which makes sense because he ran the single biggest ponzi scheme in the whole of history. In total, he is believed to have conducted fraud to the value of $64.8 billion. Madoff wasn’t caught until 2008, which is terrible because there were people suspicious of his supposed returns as far back as 1999. Something that was actually supported by mathematical evidence that Madoff was lying about his investments.