Of course the first confidence man would perfect his scheme in Manhattan. New York was all about making money, a place where greed overtook common sense and hucksters found plenty of victims.
One of those swindlers was a suave, 20-something with dark hair named Samuel Thompson, who also went by the name of Samuel Willis, among other aliases.
In the booming, increasingly anonymous mid-19th century city, Thompson would approach a stranger who appeared to be well-off, pretend to know the man, and after a little conversation ask, “have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow,” explained the New-York Herald in July 1849.
“The stranger at this novel request, supposing him to be some old acquaintance not at that moment recollected, allows him to take the watch, thus placing ‘confidence’ in the honesty of the stranger, who walks off laughing and the other supposing it to be a joke allows him so to do.”
After stealing from marks all of the city, Thompson was finally arrested in 1849; he mistakenly hit up a man he already stole a watch from the year before.
The press made a big deal out of Thompson’s arrest, dubbing him the “original confidence man” and taking a certain glee in the fact that so many New York fat cats fell for the ruse. One writer even proclaimed that the new breed of Capitalist businessmen were the real con men.
“Let him rot in ‘the Tombs,’ while the ‘Confidence Man on a large scale’ fattens, in his palace, on the blood and sweat of the green ones of the land!” seethed a writer from Knickerbocker Magazine.
Thompson was convicted of grand larceny and spent a few years in Sing Sing, then apparently took off to ply his act around the country, though he ripped off another rube in New York in 1855, according to the New-York Tribune.
Naturally, all kinds of scammers began copying Thompson’s brilliant con—leading to the term con artist and continuing a long tradition of New York swindles, from bunco to the selling the Brooklyn Bridge to three-card monte.
Hat tip to Jonathan from New York Local Tours for this entertaining bit of New York trivia, via the Crime in NYC tour.
[Top image: NYPL Digital Gallery; second image: New-York Tribune 1855; third image: NYPL]