Stock Swindles

Today’;s stock market is fraught with frenetic commodities brokers, instant billionaires, merger-mania, the uncertainty of day trading, and persistent whispers about insider tips. But it’;s still nothing like the virtually unregulated securities industry just before the stock market crash of 1929. In fact, it was that atmosphere of unfettered trading—much like what’;s going on in Internet companies as this book is being written—that seduced countless people into investing in the financial security of such legendary con artists as Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil.

Weil himself boasted about it in his 1948 memoir “Yellow Kid” Weil (with W. T. Brannon): “Until the market crash of October, 1929, nearly everybody believed there were big fortunes to be made in stock. Consequently, many folks who ordinarily would not have dabbled in stocks were easy victims of my schemes.”

Weil’;s complicated, but effective, stock swindle took place in the days when people could still believe the items they saw in print. It began when Weil saw an article in McClure’;s magazine about a mining engineer named Pope Yateman who had wrung money out of a supposedly worthless mine in Chile. Weil bought as many copies of that issue as he could find and had a friendly counterfeiter/printer reprint the article, substituting Weil’;s photograph for Yateman’;s. Weil then rebound the fake pages into the real magazine, which he thoughtfully sent to all the public libraries in the towns in which he would work his con.

reality check

What’;s In a Name?

Nicknames for grifters didn’;t start with Damon Runyon or end with the Mob. “Monikers” have been part of the vocabulary of grifters ever since Monte went into the three-card business. Guys like “Brickyard Jimmy” once laid brick in the slammer; the “Brass Kid” sold cheap jewelry; “Bow-Legged Lip” had bow legs and a harelip; the “Narrow Gage Kid” could lie across railroad tracks and just touch both rails; and “Kissing Sam” could pick a pocket while talking to his victim face-to-face. Even a woman could earn a professional name; Chicago’;s “Duck Walk” Kelly won her less-than-flattering sobriquet because that’;s the way she waddled when she had her twin pistols stuffed in her garter belts.

reality check

Peter Christian Barrie

Peter Christian Barrie worked the horse tracks from 1926 to 1934. Taking a cue from “Yellow Kid” Weil, Barrie would buy two horses: one a champion racer, the other a nag. He would paint the nag to look like the champ and enter it in races which, of course, it would lose. When the odds were sufficiently heavy against the nag, he would enter the champion and collect the outlandish winnings that would always follow. Since the authorities were only on the lookout for doped horses and fixed races, they never suspected Barrie’;s switcheroo. By the time the Pinkertons finally caught up with Barrie at Saratoga, prosecutors were stymied because the laws against race fixing were hard to enforce, so Barrie was shipped off to Scotland where he died in 1935. The next year, the racing industry went on to institute more reliable credentialing.

His next step was to snare victims who would gladly invest in a stock offering that the knowledgeable Yateman (Weil) proposed. If anyone questioned his veracity, he simply referred them to their local public library to check him out in McClure’;s.

Selling the mark the fake stock was a cinch after that. And before he skipped town, Weil would go to the local library to switch the fake McClure’;s for a real one, further confounding the victim’;s efforts to sic the authorities on him.

“In general, though,” Weil said in his autobiography, “my ‘customers’ seldom complained. They preferred to take their losses rather than let the world know that they had been so gullible.”

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  3. There’;s One Born Every Minute (America’;s Best Cons and Con Artists)
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