Why you should care
Just because they were bad people doesn’t mean we can’t admire their brilliance.
Everybody likes a great villain. That’s why few historical figures generate more fascination than con artists. Yes, they lied, cheated and robbed, but we can’t help but be captivated — and even a little starstruck — by the ways of these shameless anti-heroes.
Being a successful con artist takes smarts but, above all, guts. Take Gregor MacGregor, a Scottish soldier who fought in South America and, on his return to Britain in the early 1800s, claimed to be governor of the fictional Republic of Poyais.
He not only had the audacity to invent the country but wrote its constitution, designed a currency and managed to attract the investments of hundreds of wanna-be colonizers who were more than disappointed on their arrival to an empty shore in Honduras, where most of them died.
Few con artists, however, have a more mysterious allure than the ever-so-elusive art forgers whose talent sometimes rivals that of those they copy. The king of the trade was arguably the Hungarian Elmyr de Hory, whose “Modiglianis” in the 1960s ended up being sold for more money than the originals and who is believed to still have hundreds of his pieces hanging in prestigious museums around the world. He lived his last days like a real jet-setter in Ibiza.
Some con artists chose not to shy away from their accomplishments and became popular heroes.
Most con men, however, don’t go to the trouble of creating something new with their own hands but instead make money by selling other people’s work. The ultimate example of this could be Victor Lustig, a dangerously talented salesman who, among other scams, managed to sell the Eiffel Tower to a French industrial group in 1925 by pretending to be a government official in desperate need of cash.
The victim, ashamed, chose not to denounce him to the police, so Lustig went on to do it again shortly after. In 1934, he was arrested for counterfeiting and sentenced to 20 years in prison, where he died.
But the true master of real estate fraud could be Arthur Furguson, who is credited with having “sold” the White House to a Texas millionaire before attempting to sell the Statue of Liberty to an Australian visitor. And that’s only after having sold Big Ben and Buckingham Palace in the U.K. Furguson’s own existence, however, could have been a fraud since little has been found in terms of official documents to corroborate the myth.
Some con artists chose not to shy away from their accomplishments and became popular heroes, like Dionisio Rodríguez Martín, aka “El Dioni,” in Spain. In 1989, this poor security guard ran away with more than $2 million inside the van that he was meant to protect. He instantly became a popular hero. After escaping to Brazil and spending a couple of years in prison, he opened several restaurants, became a TV commentator and, more recently, announced his intention to become a porn actor.
Most con men … make money by selling other people’s work.
When it comes to public admiration, however, no con artist knows it better than Frank Abagnale, the man whose story inspired the Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio blockbuster Catch Me if You Can.
In the ’60s, Abagnale went on a binge, passing bad checks worth more than $2.5 million in 26 countries and successfully pretending to be a Pan Am pilot, a doctor, a lawyer and a university professor.
He was finally arrested and sentenced to 12 years in prison — from which he briefly escaped by pretending to be an undercover FBI agent. Five years in, the government offered Abagnale his freedom in return for helping them fight fraud and other scam artists. Now he’s a millionaire running Abagnale & Associates, a financial fraud consultancy, which has allowed him to use his now-honestly earned money to repay those he stole from over the years.
Of course, not all stories have such a happy ending. Rosie Ruiz appeared to be over the moon when she won the female category of the 84th Boston marathon in 1980, with an all-time record for the course. But she was soon after stripped of the title after several people, including a photojournalist, reported having seen her happily riding the subway when she should have been running.
Not all con tales are so inconsequential or funny either. Sante Kimes, one of America’s most notorious con artists, ran hundreds of scams across the country with her son, including burning down several of her homes to get the insurance money and even impersonating Elizabeth Taylor to access some Hollywood functions. But things soon took a much darker turn. In 1985, she was jailed for forcibly enslaving her household staff, and she went on to murder two people, including her landlady.
Violent crimes aside, con artists will probably always exert a special fascination on our collective psyche, whether it’s because they represent modern badass versions of Robin Hood or because, at some point, we’ve all wondered what would happen if we the had courage to do the wrong thing.