Our Fascination with Con Artists

A century before there was the Tinder Swindler, Ana Delvy or Elizabeth Holmes there was Baron von Koenig, and Count Adalbert de la Ramee and Maurice Schwabe. The period in which they operated was considered to be the golden age of the con. These figures, like their modern counterparts, made use of the fact that we are easily seduced by the trappings of success.

To the right is Rudolf Stallmann. Although he hailed from a respectable, upper middle-class family he wanted a life of glamor and adventure and decided that he would claim an aristocratic title. He became Baron von Koenig. He loved the excitement of posing. He was attracted to crime and espionage “like a drug.”

People like Stallmann realized that their marks would play along with the game because they enjoyed the status that came with being associated with gentlemen who were clearly powerful, rich and well-connected. Explanations were rarely needed, but when they were, a bit of confidence and bravado went a long way.

“An atmosphere is created by innuendo and suggestion,” said trickster Montague Noel Newton. “I never say I am a man of means, I just play the part.”

This was true when it came to getting a first class cabin on a ship on credit or when it came to seducing wealthy women– a specialty of Bela Klimm aka Count Adalbert de la Ramee, or selling a dubious business ventures, something at which Maurice Schwabe excelled.

Just as Elizabeth Holmes marketed herself more than the technology her company intended to make, men like Schwabe sold their own personalities and connections. Schwabe and Holmes both relied on “the social proof heuristic,” a fancy way of saying that when you see prominent people investing in something, you assume that it is a project you want to get involved in. Schwabe sought respected military men and people with aristocratic titles (even appropriated ones) to put their names down as investors.

In the Edwardian era, businesses were increasingly impersonal, complex and national– even international– in scope. Without personal relationships, investors relied on cues like persuasive advertisements, or aristocratic names on a slate of investors to assess the trustworthiness of an enterprise. It was hard for the public to even recognize a white-collar criminal. In the cultural imagination a “criminal” came from the “dangerous classes.” A man with a walking stick and a valet was given the benefit of the doubt, even when his financial scheme lost money for its investors. It was easy enough to chalk it up to bad luck.

In the 1937 book The Criminals We Deserve, criminologist Henry Rhodes reflected on the relationship between crime and society. “The criminal and his crimes are social phenomena,” he said. He argued that the “kind of crime committed at any particular stage of social development is an index of the social phase… Show me your crimes, and I will show you the nature of your society.”

Rhodes argued that this sort of crime appears when “The capacity to appreciate and desire better conditions is instilled without there being adequate machinery to satisfy those desires.”

The age in which Schwabe and his conspirators operated was a golden age of the confidence trickster. Perhaps rising inequality has brought us to another age of the imposter. In the Victorian era only a lucky few possessed titles of nobility. Today, when the top 1% of earners own more than the entire middle class, there is a similar temptation to use lies and cunning to claim a place among the elect.

This explains their existence, but not our fascination with them. Why do false barons traveling on ocean liners, scamming heirs to fortunes, seem glamorous to us? What, besides Matt Bomer’s insane good looks, drove audiences to follow the adventures of Neal Caffrey for six seasons? The series Suits, about a college drop out who brazened his way into a job at a top law firm ran for 9. Why did Catch Me if You Can make $352.1 million at the box office?

Incidentally, a recent podcast, Pretend, provides evidence that Frank Abagnale, the man portrayed by Leonardo di Caprio in the film, made up the adventures that his autobiography and the film dramatize. Abagnale could not have posed as a lawyer, doctor and college professor because he was in jail when these events supposedly happened.

Similarly, Maurice Schwabe’s business partner Gerald Hamilton became an anti-hero in his later years. Author Christopher Isherwood based the character of Mr. Norris from his Berlin Stories on Hamilton. Hamilton crafted his own back story. Supposedly he had spent time with Rasputin in Russia and went to prison because of political intrigue with Roger Casement. Hamilton even seemed to suggest there might have been something more between him and Casement. In fact, he never met him. The records show that Hamilton invented a romantic past to cover for his great embarrassment, being sent to jail for “gross indecency” with British soldiers.

The aforementioned Montague Noel Newton also turned his criminality into a relatively lucrative career as a writer and speaker for a time. He published his “Confessions,” which were a mixture of fact and fiction. Many of the stories in it were daring crimes that people in his orbit, but not himself, had carried out.

Hamilton and Newton were not apologetic about their crimes. Modern main-stream entertainment cleanses the story of the criminals it glamorizes by one of two methods. In the biographical films on Anna Delvy and Elizabeth Holmes, the story focuses on how they were ultimately brought to justice. In Suits, White Collar and Catch Me If You Can, the frauds are reformed and using their talents for the good guys or they are using their position to do good in the world.

Dr Tim Holmes, a lecturer in criminology at Bangor University told the BBC, “There’s still the idea that they’re a Robin Hood figure, not a criminal,” he says, adding that many films, like the Ocean’s Eleven adaptations, portray the con artist as “a rogue stealing from someone who deserves it.”

There are many theories as to why we are fascinated by confidence tricksters. The Conversation posits the con “fills us with a mix of surprise at their audacity –and glee and relief that it didn’t happen to us.” I believe it is something else. Confidence tricksters’ refusal to accept normal societal limitations shines a light on how flimsy are the signifiers that separate the rich from the poor, the glamorous from the plain, the envied from the ordinary. By following the stories of those who break the rules, we have an opportunity to imagine revolting against those boundaries ourselves, inventing our own high-status identities, and through cunning, getting away with it.

In writing Wilde Nights & Robber Barons, however, whenever I found myself falling into the trap of admiring the con artists’ audacity, something would come up to remind me of the cost, people whose lives were shattered by their encounters with these criminals. Rudolf Stallmann, for example, was physically abusive to his girlfriend, whose small savings he had taken. After forcing her to support them both by selling sex, Stallmann took on the identity of a baron and abandoned the lady with the statement that it was ridiculous that someone of her lowly station would be engaged to an aristocrat like him. Successful cons have not only cleverness but a lack of conscience.

If you are fascinated by those who put on poses and commit crimes, I invite you to read about where it all began with the confidence tricksters of the last century. Available now. You can order from your favorite local book store. Also available in the UK at Amazon UK in the U.S. via Amazon or get an autographed copy with a special Oscar Wilde bookmark directly from the author.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s