A Century of Swindles: Ponzi Schemes, Con Men, and Fraudsters

Lyons: Globe Pequot. Sept. 2021. 256p. ISBN 9781493053681. pap. $19.95. CRIME
New York–based writer Savage explores swindlers, con men (and women), and fraudsters in the United States between 1850 and 1950. Each of the seven chapters begins by setting the scene with the date, place, take, and players, followed by an account of the crime. Readers likely won’t be familiar with most of the subjects, from Gordon Gordon, who swindled magnate Jay Gould, to Ann O’Delia Diss Debar, an alleged spiritualist princess with a nose for deep pockets. Tales of lies and stolen jewels are sprinkled throughout, but the chapters are unevenly written and the individuals feel lifeless. Though Savage states early on that she’ll be leaving herself out of the story, she injects intrusive asides and makes failed attempts at humor, including often poking fun at people’s weight. The book relies almost completely on newspapers as primary sources, as the author wants readers to come away with an appreciation for the truth; however, she neglects to acknowledge the American history of yellow journalism and exploitative headlines.
VERDICT Readers interested in the topic would be better served by a narrative about a single con man, such as Dean Jobb’s Empire of Deception: The Incredible Story of a Master Swindler Who Seduced a City and Captivated the Nation.
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