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As Old As The Pyramid Scheme

June 2024
5min read

It went to Russia along with capitalism, but its greatest players worked over here

Several million Russians learned about the downside of capitalism this summer when they were caught in a classic swindle. An outfit calling itself MMM and operating as an investment company offered fantastic returns on investments, upward of 3,000 percent a year. Although Russia now has a Securities and Exchange Commission, it moved too slowly to protect naive Russian investors. Once the Russian SEC issued a warning that the dividends seemed to have come from later investments, not profits, the market value of the shares dropped from the equivalent of sixty-two dollars to about fifty cents.

Swindles like MMM date back at least to the South Sea and Mississippi bubbles that racked London and Paris in the early eighteenth century. But they acquired a name only in the early twentieth, when an American named Charles Ponzi came up with a beauty of a crooked idea in 1919.

Ponzi had already served a term for forgery when he saw great possibilities in arbitraging international postal coupons. These allow someone to buy postage in one country and send it to a person in another country, who redeems it in the postage of that country.

Ponzi noted that postage rates varied greatly from country to country. He argued that one could buy international postal coupons in a country where rates were low, redeem them in a country where the rates were high, and sell the stamps to a third party for cash, pocketing the difference.

In fact, regulations made such an operation impossible. But Ponzi didn’t care about that. He had no intention of carrying it out anyway. He needed the idea only to get people to invest, and he offered 100 percent dividends for a ninety-day investment.

In the first month Ponzi persuaded fifteen people to invest sums totaling a mere $870. But the next month seventeen people, attracted by the dividends the first investors had received, put in another $5,290. By the fourth month he had 110 investors, and they had entrusted $28,724 to his care. Just two months later Ponzi had no fewer than 20,000 customers investing the fantastic sum of $10,000,000.

Unfortunately for Ponzi, greed is a two-edged sword. Knowing when to take the money and run is critical in operating a con game, and he waited a little too long. Ten million dollars, naturally, attracted a lot of attention, including that of the authorities. Ponzi ended up with five years in a federal prison and the dubious honor of adding his name to the English language.

All con games fall into one of two broad types. Some, like Ponzi’s, seek to separate relatively small sums from a very large number of investors. The rest try to extract large sums from one or a small number of rich, and presumably sophisticated, investors. Even with human nature being what it is, it is astonishing how often the rich are taken in by smooth talkers.

Jay Gould, for instance, one of the most rational, intelligent, and gimlet-eyed individuals ever to walk down Wall Street, was fleeced in 1872 by a Scot passing himself off as Lord Gordon-Gordon. (His real name is unknown, and I hasten to disown any connection.) To be fair to Gould, he became embroiled with Lord Gordon-Gordon not because of greed but rather because of desperation.

With the fall of Boss Tweed in 1871 and the subsequent, if temporary, outbreak of honesty in New York City and State governments, Gould’s control of the Erie Railroad began to slip away. The judges who had previously done his bidding were now trying to save their own skins, not Gould’s.

The majority of shares in the Erie Railroad had come to be held by British investors, and events were moving inexorably to a showdown as they linked up with American reformers to drive Gould from the presidency of the Erie. Presenting himself as a major shareholder of the Erie, Lord Gordon-Gordon seemed like the answer to a robber baron’s prayer.

There can be no doubt that this ersatz peer was a consummate actor. He made his first appearance in history in 1868, when he walked into Marshall and Son, Edinburgh’s leading jewelers, and passed himself off as Lord Glencairn. He bought some jewelry and paid by check. When the check proved good, the jewelry was delivered, and he became a frequent customer and was soon granted credit. By the next spring his account had risen to the then vast sum of £25,000 and Lord Glencairn vanished.

He reappeared in 1871, in of all places Minneapolis. He conspicuously deposited $40,000 in a local bank, set himself up in the best hotel, and took Minneapolis society by storm. Now calling himself Lord Gordon-Gordon, he claimed to be the heir of the Earl of Gordon, a claim he could never have gotten away with in Scotland. (There has never been an Earl of Gordon.)

At a banquet in his honor he expressed interest in acquiring lands owned by the Northern Pacific on which to settle the surplus of his Scottish tenantry. The railroad promptly arranged a tour for him that one journalist, his grasp of classical literature apparently as shaky as his knowledge of the British nobility, described as “the equal of that Apollodorus planned for Cleopatra.” The Northern Pacific put a private railroad car at his disposal, and he spent weeks having a grand time at the railroad’s expense. He certainly played his self-assigned role to the hilt, selecting sites, naming the future cities, and marking out where the church and the school of each were to be placed.

Finally, with winter coming on, he announced his departure for New York to arrange to have the funds needed to buy the land transferred from Britain. After withdrawing the $40,000, which had remained largely untouched, he left Minneapolis armed with a letter of introduction from the Northern Pacific’s land commissioner to Horace Greeley, soon to be nominated for President.

Greeley, who was both highly intelligent and a notoriously poor judge of character, took to Gordon-Gordon at once. They began lunching together frequently, discussing the affairs of the day, including the looming battle for control of the Erie Railroad. Gordon-Gordon let Greeley know that he was a major stockholder and in fact held enough to control the next election of the board of directors.

Greeley was anxious for reformers to take over the Erie. But perhaps led on by Gordon-Gordon, he decided that Gould need not be ousted as president, as long as there was a strong board to keep him in check. He arranged for Gordon-Gordon to meet with Gould.

Gould was probably operating on the principle of any port in a storm. He agreed to Gordon-Gordon’s demands for reform and, as a vouchsafement of his behavior, gave him numerous securities, $200,000 in cash, and his resignation as railroad president to be held in escrow.

To be fair to Jay Gould, he became embroiled with Lord Gordon-Gordon not through greed but through desperation.

Gordon-Gordon now had a fortune in his grasp, and he moved to turn it into negotiable form. He went to Philadelphia and began selling the securities, including five thousand shares of the Oil Creek and Allegheny Railroad. The sale of so large a block of stock of so small a railroad depressed the price, and Gould immediately made inquiries to find out where the stock had come from. He soon learned that no one with that much stock had sold any and realized that only Gordon-Gordon could have done it.

Gould understood immediately that he had been had. He warned brokers and then asked Greeley to instruct Gordon-Gordon to return the cash and securities or face arrest. The latter reluctantly returned the securities, doubtless knowing he would now have great trouble selling them anyway, but kept $150,000 of the cash. Gould had him arrested.

Gordon-Gordon tried to bluff it out, hoping apparently that his peer-of-the-realm act would dazzle the judge sufficiently to earn him an acquittal. But Gould had two of the best lawyers in the country, David Dudley Field, who had written much of the New York Codes of Civil and Criminal Procedure, and the young Elihu Root.

Gould’s lawyers pressed Gordon-Gordon about his relatives and associates, and he gave them dozens of distinguished names, all with an air of injured innocence so convincing that the judge at one point ordered Field to stop badgering the witness. Gould immediately cabled the people in Scotland that Gordon-Gordon had named and quickly received replies that they had never heard of him. But Gordon-Gordon, again displaying the sense of timing that is the hallmark of a great con man, had guessed that Gould would do exactly that. He took the night train to Montreal.

The rest of Gordon-Gordon’s short career was all downhill, however. The following year he turned up in what is now Winnipeg and again dazzled the locals. But the people he had duped in Minnesota got wind of his presence there and decided to kidnap him. They nearly succeeded, before being caught by Royal Canadian Mounted Police. All this naturally caused considerable publicity and diplomatic activity.

Publicity is fatal to people like Gordon-Gordon. The jewelers he had defrauded in Edinburgh heard about him, put two and two together, and dispatched an agent to Winnipeg to see if Lord Gordon-Gordon was Lord Glencairn. Gordon-Gordon agreed to return to Britain and face the charges but that night put a bullet through his head instead.

Gould’s and the jeweler’s money was never found.

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