Review: A Century of Swindles: Ponzi Schemes, Con Men, and Fraudsters (Railey Jane Savage)

I generally love books about swindles, cons, and assorted grifters, no matter the time period – after all, Bernie Madoff is just Charles Ponzi with internet access.

Neither of those men play a part in this book. Not including Ponzi was an interesting omission, as the book covers selected people and incidents between 1850 and 1950 and Ponzi was active within that period, but perhaps that’s because so much has been written about him that having another swindler in line to step up to the spotlight was a good call.

While the book covers other con men and women and their schemes, the most fascinating one for me was the one that leads the book: Gordon Gordon, the supposed Lord of Glencairn, from Scotland, once he flees England to America, first trying to swindle people with land deals in Minnesota, and moving from there to New York This is mainly due to him interacting with many of the biggest power brokers of the gilded age. Among them were Horace Greeley (“Go west, young man!”) and shady mogul Jay Gould, whose was up to his eyeballs in his own scandal in the Erie Railroad, and who was so desperate he went along with what could only be termed a fantastical scheme cooked up by Gordon Gordon, and wound up just another mark. As Gordon Gordon’s con plays out, another figure pops up, although briefly: Diamond Jim Fisk. This was at a time when those various power brokers were trying to corner the gold market via claims in Alaska. Why did this please me? Because I have read and reviewed a book solely about that attempt called A Most Wicked Conspiracy (I gave it five stars, it’s excellent).

The others, comparatively, didn’t grab me the way the Gordon con did, but that were all readable and interesting in their own way – and likely things most people have never heard about. The last chapter, dealing with the faked Drake disk – supposedly set by Francis Drake as he circumnavigated the globe, came in second for me, and I felt rather badly for the man who was basically pranked by so-called friends. I thought that was rather nasty work.

I realize the ebook version sometimes has its issues with ARCS and their formatting, but the formatting was atrocious., with giant, bold text at random places, giving the publisher name, but also sometimes containing a piece of a sentence, and in the middle of the page. The beginning of each chapter gives the date, place, amount of the con and the things it involve (free hotels, jewels, cash, etc), and the main assorted players. These were also often formatted poorly, and I hope that is repaired prior to publication.

Overall: four out of five stars.

Thanks to Rowan & Littlefield, Lyons Press, and NetGalley for the reading copy.

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