Extraordinary Delusions and The Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay (Part 2)

Money Mania

Every age, every decade (heck, every year) some new financial scandal unfolds that first captures the wallet of the unwitting and then the ire and rage of the public once informed of the nature of the swindle. Mackay begins his book with three great scams that persist (as all great scams will) into this very enlightened day.

The Mississippi Scheme

This was a very complicated series of schemes that all tied back to the idea of getting on the game behind the scene. This method is generally known today as “The Spanish Prisoner” whereby a sum of money needs to be procured from the mark in order to secure a supposed larger sum from some other source (often a bank or an inheritance). During the course of the con, the mark is led to believe that they are special and that this deal is only being offered to them. In reality, there are usually several marks being led down the same path and at the end is not a pot of gold but the realization that the scammers are gone and there was never any treasure to be had. The modern variant is spread by email and known as the “Nigerian Scam”.

O’Henry, the great short story author who wrote Gift of the Magi, was also fond of writing about con men. He actually did a few stretches himself and so he wrote about this lot with authority. The Mississippi Scheme was a favorite, but I don’t assume he wrote about it because he liked it. He wrote about it because it sold.

Other crime writers do the same thing, but why does this particular one capture the popular imagination? I suppose it must have something to do with the tension of multiple scams running at the same time. The marks possibly coming into contact with one another and figuring it out. These deals usually have something illegal about them too and so the marks are also qualified as willing to take a risk. They’ve cross the line and that makes them dangerous. It’s that kind of heightened tension that is sure to people glued to the story wondering if the graft will be successful or if caught what will happen.

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