The Adirondacks have seen all kinds of swindles, past and present. The swindler, often referred to in the 1800s as a “Sharper,” routinely tried to obtain signatures under false pretenses. As noted in last week’s piece, trickery (and sometimes carbon paper) was used. The “personal signature” scam was again adjusted in 1892 to incorporate new and devious ideas.
Slick-talking Sharpers arranged all sorts of deals, and on the spot, they devised contracts that were read and signed. The contract paper was normal, but the Sharper used a double-fountain pen. The victim’s signature was recorded with permanent ink, but the contract was written with the other end of the pen, from a reservoir of “ink that faded away in a day or two.” Once the contract ink faded, the perp was left “with nothing but a signature over which he can write a note and easily turn it into cash.”
There was no Internet back then, but scammers of long ago still knew the value of reaching out to thousands of potential victims in the hopes of finding a few patsies. A scam that is still heavily used today via e-mail was prevalent in the 1890s. To reach large numbers of people, the scammers sent official-looking notices to post offices, asking them to post the letters for the public. The letters assured that several persons in the immediate area were entitled to large sums of money. To obtain it, all they had to do was send $25 “for preliminary expenses.”
The ploy always received many responses, even though $25 in the 1890s is equal to $600 in 2010. The lure of getting something for nothing, or a lot for comparatively little, was irresistible, just as it seems to be today. In 1893, that swindle was described by the Post Office Department as “constantly increasing in numbers of victims.” Most of us have received the same offer by snail mail or e-mail many times, and for one good reason: it still works.
Two other scams that regularly made the rounds in the Adirondacks caught my attention. In 1895 in the Potsdam area, trickery was employed by a liniment salesman. His concoction was said to cure hearing loss, and he gave wonderful demonstrations to prove it.
With great fanfare, a watch was placed close to a sufferer’s ear for several seconds and then removed, after which a quantity of liniment was applied and massaged into the ear and surrounding skin.
For some time, the swindler continued rubbing the oil in while touting the wonders of his product. Finally, the watch was once again introduced to the person’s ear, and the results were amazing. The ticking was much louder and clearer. Obviously, another cure!
That usually generated many sales, and as soon as the purchasing pace slowed, another person was selected for the cure. The key to success was having two watches—one with a faint tick, and one with a strong tick—and keeping them at the ready in the same pocket.
It was a terrible way to cheat people, but less distasteful than a scam that was popularized in 1901 in northern New York. Unscrupulous crooks paid close attention to the obituaries. Shortly after an individual died, close relatives were sent overpriced books, magazine subscriptions, or other items, along with a notice that the deceased had recently subscribed or ordered them. In most cases, the bereaved family made the inflated payments or paid for phony subscriptions without question.
Many of today’s scams were common well over a century ago, and some have hardly changed at all. There is one constant — plenty of rotten apples. It’s sad, disturbing, and amazing how hard some people will work to steal the results of other folks’ hard work.
Photo: 1882 advertisement touting the latest deafness cure.
Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004 and have recently begun to expand their services and publishing work. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.