The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

 

GROUCHO MARX (1890-1977)

Con Artists

SHUTTERSTOCK

Famous Conmen


‘Count’ Victor Lustig (1890-1947) managed to sell the Eiffel Tower in 1925. He contacted the big scrap metal dealers in Paris and convinced them that he was from the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphy, and that it had been decided that the Eiffel Tower would have to be demolished - a very sensitive issue which was to be kept strictly confidential. The dealers were invited to submit tenders for the scrap contract - but Lustig made it clear that he would decide who the contract went to and that he was open to bribes. One of the dealers, Andre Poisson, duly bribed him, though the second one he tried to con blew the whistle.
 
George Parker (1870-1936) made his living selling New York’s public landmarks to tourists. His favourite object for sale was the Brooklyn Bridge, which he claimed he could sell twice a week. His trick was to convince buyers that they could make a fortune by controlling access to the roadway.

Other public landmarks he sold included the Statue of Liberty, the original Madison Square Garden, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Grant’s Tomb (posing as the General’s grandson). To back up his claims he ran a fake real estate office and produced impressive forged documents to prove his ownership rights.
 
Arthur Furguson (1883-1938) began his career as a small-time con man in London, but after a chance meeting in 1923 with a very gullible American in Trafalgar Square he graduated to become the most audacious ‘monument salesman’ of all time.

He persuaded the American that Britain’s debts were so high that Nelson’s column and the lions were to be sold for £6,000 and he just happened to be the man entrusted by the government with the task of organising the top-secret sale. The American pleaded with Furguson to allow him to jump the queue, which he did. Furguson went off and cashed the cheque while his customer got in touch with some contractors. They were unexpectedly reluctant to turn up and remove Nelson’s Column, but it was not until the American received an official assurance from Scotland Yard that he would believe that he had been conned.

That same summer Ferguson sold Big Ben for £1,000 and accepted a £2,000 down payment on Buckingham Palace.

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN (1706-90)

Trickery and treachery are the practices of fools that have not the wits enough to be honest.

The Ghost of Cock Lane


In 1762, Richard Parsons of Cock Lane, London, tried to get rid of a creditor named William Kent by framing him for poisoning his wife Fanny, who had died of smallpox.

Scratching sounds (actually made by Parsons’ 12-year-old daughter Betty, using a piece of wood concealed under her nightdress) were said to be the ghost of Fanny, crying out for retribution.

Rumours of ‘Scratching Fanny’ spread across London and Parsons was soon doing a roaring trade charging admission to those wanting to hear the ghost, including Oliver Goldsmith and Horace Walpole among others. Fuelled by a sensationalist press, the mob was soon baying for Kent’s execution.

A local minister demanded an investigation and eventually the Lord Mayor appointed a commission that included Dr Johnson as an unlikely ghostbuster.

The commission’s investigations, which included a candlelit vigil around Fanny’s coffin, soon exposed Betty as the perpetrator. She had been put up to it by her father, who was pilloried and later imprisoned. William Kent was cleared.

Hogarth’s print Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism contains many allusions to the Cock Lane Ghost. 

Cock Lane’s other claim to fame is as the place where the Great Fire of 1666 finally burnt itself out.

Unscrupulous bird-dealers would paint the plumage of their wares to get a better price.

Franz Gall was the Viennese physician who introduced the pseudoscience of phrenology.

JOHN LITHGOW

I'm a con artist in that I'm an actor. I make people believe something is real when they know perfectly well it isn't.

Cheating fishmongers in nineteenth-century London used to paint their fish's gills red, since red gills were a sign of freshness.

Harry Houdini bought a spiritualist church and the title of Reverend in order to expose frauds.