PlaceholderMore than any other form of underground commerce, swindling – whether running fake auctions, adulterating foodstuffs, organizing mail order schemes, or leveraging false celebrity – required great cunning. In order to get his money, a conman worked extremely hard to gain the trust of his marks, often presenting himself as an ordinary person with whom his victims could relate, as their peer. Very few swindlers were caught or prosecuted because they were often long gone by the time people realized they had been scammed. Many never realized it at all. One person’s vulnerability was another’s opportunity.

Unlike other entrepreneurs of the underworld who operated within much larger networks of legal and illegal enterprise, swindlers typically worked independently, or with a very small group of people. Creatively deceptive, swindlers adapted over time and with their social and geographic situations. Certain operations such as running bogus auctions were better suited to the city, while others, like peddling jewelry encrusted with fake gemstones, worked more effectively in rural markets. Nineteenth-century conmen were constantly forced to change their game as the public got wise to the latest schemes by word of mouth and nationally-circulating notices. But they also ingeniously capitalized on changes in the economy and society, for instance organizing “circular swindles” that took advantage of cheap postage, and offering “prizes” of jewelry and other items to Americans seduced by the new goods of the consumer revolution.

Because they preyed on the public’s perennial desire to acquire cash and goods in exchange for doing little or no work, swindlers and their schemes continued to succeed in 19th-century America.