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The Suckers Are Not All Dead


Warnings about scams are common today. No sooner does one scheme become ineffective than a new one pops up. Today people are much less likely to fall for an email from a Nigerian prince offering millions of dollars, but they still might click on a bogus link to update their information with their bank, giving away all their personal information in the process. Sometimes an old con falls out of favor when it receives too much publicity, only to come back again when people have forgotten all about it.

The term “con artist” was coined in the mid-1800s, short for “confidence artist,” with the crooks seeking to gain the confidence of the victims. In fact, the 1800s could be called The Golden Age of Scams. The New York Times reports that the Brooklyn Bridge was sold more than once. With communication was not as instant as it is today, and with transportation aided by railroads, a con artist could move from town to town, repeating a con, while staying ahead of any warnings.

On this date in 1899, the Oakes Republican reported on an old scam run in the Dakota Territory that had made a resurgence. A man would come to town claiming to be collecting material for an atlas. He would approach a businessman and say biographies of prominent businessmen were to be included in the publication. Flattered, the businessman would share his information. Before leaving, the con artist asked for his victim’s autograph. Flattered even more, the businessman readily signed. In a few months, another man turned up with a cheap atlas. He also had the businessman’s signature on an order for the atlas at a cost of $15! Back then, $15 was the equivalent of more than $400 today!

The newspaper warned of new reports of a man in town collecting information from prominent local citizens. If, in a few months, someone came to town with signed orders for a book, the newspaper noted that it would be proof that “the suckers are not all dead.”

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher

Oakes Republican. “Looking Backwards.” 27 October 1899. Page 1.

NPR History Department. “How Scams Worked in the 1800s.” "" Accessed 30 September 2017.