The Big Con: Great Hoaxes, Frauds, Grifts, and Swindles in American History by Nate Hendley

Toronto-based author Nate Hendley has written over a dozen books, primarily in the true-crime genre. He has written books about the American Mafia, Ontario’s infamous Black Donnellys and the wrongful conviction of Ontario teenager Steven Truscott. His latest book is The Big Con: Great Hoaxes, Frauds, Grifts, and Swindles in American History (2016).

“This book is dedicated to whistleblowers and skeptics everywhere.”

Dedication page
When I think of con (or confidence) jobs, I immediately think of the movie “The Sting” with Robert Redford and Paul Newman. It was a big operation they staged, but most cons are on a smaller scale, such as the Nigerian email scam that I’m sure anyone with an email address has received and continues to receive (see below).

The Big Con is a big book, almost 400 pages, and as such, it is very authoritative, making it a great reference book to have for those who enjoy reading true crime, crime fiction, or who are born skeptics and get a certain “kick” out reading how easily people can be fooled.
Mr Hendley has expertly organised The Big Con into Eleven sections such as Classic Cons (small and big), Business Fraud, Despicable Scams, Great Pretenders, Hoaxes, Urban Legends, and Popular Delusions, Dubious remedies, Online Scams, Para-Abnormal Fraud, Pop Culture Cons, A Gallery of Rogues (and One Hero), and finally, Section Eleven: Interviews.

The following is an excerpt from the “Classic Cons” section, and is reproduced in full with the author’s kind permission:


The Spanish Prisoner con is the forerunner of the modern-day “419” or “Nigerian e-mail” scam. A person receives a letter from a foreign city, supposedly written by a Spanish prisoner or on his behalf. The letter explains that the prisoner is a wealthy man who is being held captive on totally unjust charges. Because the man is in jail, he can’t access his fortune. The letter asks the dupe to send some money to another address in Spain (or elsewhere). Supposedly, this money will be used to bribe the guards to release the prisoner from his Spanish hell-hole. The mark is promised a huge fortune for being so helpful. Money is sent, but the “wealthy prisoner” never makes good on his promise of a huge payout. The address the dupe sent his money to, of course, is controlled by the con artist who penned the letter in the first place.

This scam has deep roots. An article published in the March 20, 1898, New York Times is headlined, “An Old Swindle Revived—The ‘Spanish Prisoner’ and Buried Treasure Bait Again Being Offered to Unwary Americans.” “One of the oldest and most attractive and probably most successful swindles known to the police authorities has again come to the surface, having been brought to the attention of Anthony Comstock, president of the Society for the Prevention of Crime … it is known as the ‘Spanish Prisoner’ and has been in operation more than 30 years,” explained the Times.

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The Times detailed several other attributes of the Spanish Prisoner scam, which are worth noting, given the durability of this con. The letter in question is usually neatly written, though with a few grammar mistakes or foreign idioms to indicate the writer doesn’t speak English as a first language. The letter writer has been imprisoned on either trumped-up or political charges. Often, the supposed prisoner has a poor, helpless daughter. The writer hopes to recover his fortune to help his daughter. The “helpless daughter” gambit is designed to tug on the dupe’s heart strings and make him more likely to put money in the mail. The prisoner says he sent the letter to the dupe after a mutual friend (who goes unnamed) vouched for his integrity and dependability.

Like many classic cons, the Spanish Prisoner letter mutated into a new scam that continues to be carried on today. The scam in question comes in the form of a frantic e-mail message sent by a foreign dignitary or tycoon (often from Nigeria) who is desperate to recover his lost fortune. The e-mail recipient is promised a share of the wealth if only he can help the poor man regain his wealth.

Authoritative and Readable

Other popular cons and hoaxes contained in The Big Con are bad credit scams (“no-hassle loans”), ATM skimming, Ponzi schemes (“It remains unclear if [Charles] Ponzi was a cold-blooded conman or was simply deluded”), Pyramid schemes,  opportunists who use natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, or faking cancer to get people to donate money. The Bermuda Triangle. Then there is the real story of Frank Abagnale, the subject of the film “Catch Me If You Can” starring Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio.

There’s just so many cases of scams contained in The Big Con, that space does not permit mentioning them all. Mr Hendley always quotes his sources at the end of each article, so you can be sure of what you read is up-to-date.

Very readable The Big Con is one of those books that you can pick up and start reading anywhere. There is an extensive bibliography at the back for further reading suggestions. Mr Hendley has done sceptics a genuine courtesy by assembling the history of frauds, cons, scams and hoaxes into one beautiful volume. The only thing lacking are photographs to complement the text. Aside from that, this book is perfect reading for the casual reader, true crime/fiction aficionado and sceptic.

You may get the book from the publisher here, or ask your local library to stock it.

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