Confidence artistry requires both a tricky scheme and a victim to fall for it. In observance of the grand history of clever lies and chicanery, here are eight crafty con men who pulled off some bizarre yet impressive deceits.
1. The Original Confidence Man
In 1849, William Thompson pulled the ruse that gave birth to the term "Confidence Man." It was so simple and ridiculous, only a man with Thompson's charisma would have been able to pull it off.
After some friendly conversation with a stranger, Thompson asked them if they had enough confidence in him to “lend” him their watches for the day. He was a smooth talker indeed, because many handed over their precious timepieces only after a short chit-chat.
The watches were obviously never returned, and the press in New York caught wind of Thompson’s audacious crimes. Due to his calm demeanor that hid even the subtlest signs of lying, Thompson became notorious as the “confidence man” in newspapers around town. It was the exploits of Thompson and other famous con artists of his time that became the inspiration for Herman Melville’s last novel, The Confidence Man—His Masquerade.
2. The Man Who Sold The Brooklyn Bridge...Twice A Week
George C. Parker's predatory tricks helped coin the phrase, "If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you." Parker drafted expertly forged documents in order to persuade tourists to buy city landmarks, including the Statue of Liberty, Grant's Tomb, and the Brooklyn Bridge.
At the height of his exploits he "sold" the bridge twice a week, convincing buyers that ownership would allow them to control the roadway leading into and out of Manhattan.
He was eventually caught and was sentenced to life in prison. Parker died in Sing Sing, only eight years after that 1928 conviction.
3. The Frenchman Who Pawned The Eiffel Tower For Scrap
Famous monuments in the 20th century were clearly valuable investment ventures — if only they'd actually been for sale. In 1925, Victor Lustig decided he could make a profit by pawning off the Eiffel Tower. He appointed himself Deputy Director of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs and took bids from French scrap metal dealers after telling them the tower was to be dismantled. Andre Poisson won the bid, but when the tower was never dismantled, he was too humiliated to report the scam to authorities.
Later in his life, Lustig traveled to the U.S. where he tried his hand at counterfeiting by selling a currency-duplicating "money box" to greedy but unsuspecting dupes. He was eventually arrested, but soon escaped from his cell. When he was caught again, he was sentenced to serve time in Alcatraz. He never made it there as he contracted pneumonia and died shortly after his conviction. On his death certificate, Lustig's occupation was listed as "Salesman."
4. The Scot Who Shipped Boatloads Of Investors to a Country That Didn’t Exist
What grander way to commit fraud than to invent an entire country? Designating himself the prince of “Poyais,” a large island nation near Honduras, Gregor MacGregor convinced English and Scottish investors to develop on this fabled land. He told them grand tales of rich harvests, friendly natives, and even gold floating down crystal clear streams. MacGregor might have been a little off himself — some maintain that he believed in the mythical Poyais as much as anyone.
By the end of his first elaborate publicity campaign, MacGregor managed to fill seven ships of Scots for the voyage. The first two ships made it to Honduras, where the investors had to settle the unforgiving land themselves, and many wound up dying there. The British Navy eventually caught wind of MacGregor’s scheme and he was eventually uncovered, yet many of the investors refused to implicate him (perhaps they still held out hope for Poyais).
MacGregor moved to France and tried the Poyais plan again, but he was found out and imprisoned for 13 months. After his release, he fled to Venezuela to avoid paying back his old debts.
5. The "Princess of Javasu"
In 1817, a hungry and fatigued young woman wandered the streets of Almondsbury, near Bristol, England. She wore a black turban and plain black dress and spoke in an incomprehensible language. A well-heeled woman and her husband, Elizabeth and Samuel Worrall, took her in, and after bringing in various foreigners to try to decipher the mysterious stranger's language, a Portuguese sailor claimed to understand her. He claimed she was royalty from the island of Javasu and that her name was “Princess Caraboo.”
The Princess received huge notoriety as a jewel from unknown lands who had been abducted by pirates, abandoned ship, and miraculously made her way to Bristol. After being discovered on the street, Caraboo lived with the Worralls and was treated like a treasured celebrity. Word spread quickly, and "Caraboo" was found out when a nearby lodging house owner recognized the girl's picture in a newspaper. She had stayed in her house recently and entertained the woman's daughters with her made-up language.
The "princess" was really Mary Willcocks, a cobbler’s daughter from the not-so-exotic land of Devon, England. She had been trying to scrape money together to travel to Philadelphia when her con took a turn for the fantastically strange.
6. The Undistinguished Poet Who Invented A Gaelic Homer
James Macpherson's first book of poems, The Highlander, was a flop. He made up for his losses by claiming to have discovered Gaelic manuscripts by Ossian, a "long-lost" epic poet from the third century. The world was mystified by this re-discovery of a long-forgotten bard, and Ossian's works were translated into multiple languages.
Despite skepticism among some scholars of the manuscripts’ authenticity, none of Macpherson's critics were able to definitively disprove him. He went on to produce successful works and other translations under his own name, and his career was owed to that original "discovery" of Ossian.
It wasn't until after Macpherson’s death that the works of Ossian were confirmed as forgeries and of his own creation. Still, some regard the series as significant in its own right.
7. The World-Famous Pianist's Dubious Records
Joyce Hatto, the “piano genius who never was,” was a professional pianist whose moderately successful career was cut short by illness. She apparently devoted the last years of her life to recording an impressive collection of very challenging classical pieces, despite the agonizing pain of late-stage ovarian cancer. When her husband and agent William Barrington-Coupe released those performances, she earned posthumous acclaim as being “among the greatest pianists Britain has ever produced.”
It turns out that this was too good to be true. In 2007, it was revealed that Barrington-Coupe had spliced together over 100 recordings of both Hatto and unacknowledged other pianists and released them solely under Hatto’s name. The widower had made an invented album that his late wife had never actually produced.
The record companies and artists who could have sued Barrington-Coupe dropped the issue, however, due to his age and the difficulty of proving whose work was inserted where, and the elderly man never faced charges.
8. India's Ultimate Con Man
Plenty of gullible tourists have been goaded into buying fake wares from dishonest merchants, but how many would fall for purchasing India’s most famous monument?
Mithilesh Kumar Srivastava—also known as Natwarlal—"sold" foreign tourists the Taj Majal three times, as well as the Red Fort and even the Rashtrapati Bhavan, which is the presidential palace.
India’s most famous con man was also wanted in more than 100 criminal cases spanning five decades, and he had a cumulative sentence of 113 years by various Indian courts. He never served much time, however, as he repeatedly escaped. One time, while faking illness, he even convinced the officer taking him to the hospital to stop at a five-star hotel on the way to pick up some cash he had stashed there, which he'd promised to share with the cop. (Naturally, Natwaral escaped.)
He was known to show up at poor villages and hand out food and money, earning him the reputation as a modern-day Robin Hood. He has a more lasting legacy, however: Any con man who tries to pull off an impressive fraud in India is now called "Natwarlal."