Scams, Scandals, & Skulduggery

240 pages,
ISBN: 0771079524

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Cons & Credulity
by Derek Lundy

We are all fascinated by the charming, ingenious, and non-violent rogue who bilks his hapless victims with insouciant style or a touch of class. Of course, his victims don't share our admiration, but we don't spend much time sympathizing with them. We suspect their role in the whole affair. Could the rogue have worked his devastating scam without the victims' half-willing suspension of skeptical common-sense, their own greedy visions of easy money? Even when the victims lose their shirts-and of course, they often do-we can't help admiring the clever victimizer, the brilliant outlaw.
Andreas Schroeder, a B.C. poet, fiction writer, columnist, critic, translator, and broadcaster, has parlayed his own fascination with daring frauds into a regular spot on a CBC Radio's Saturday morning program, Basic Black. In Scams, Scandals, and Skulduggery, he has collected and rewritten seventeen of his radio stories. The result-a fascinating and funny book by a skilled storyteller-is probably the first of a series. This looks like the beginning of one of those popular literary mini-industries that can keep a writer going, with pay, for a long time.
So what do we have here? There is James Addison Reavis and the great Peralta Land Grant swindle. Throughout the 1880s and '90s, Reavis forged a wagon-load of legal documents-wills, codicils, testaments, letters, affidavits, birth and death records-that convincingly established his ownership of large parts of Arizona and New Mexico including the city of Phoenix, the Southern Pacific Railroad's right-of-way, and the fabulously rich Silver King Mine. For twenty years, Reavis painstakingly constructed and defended his claim that he was the "Baron of Arizona", the legitimate inheritor of King Ferdinand of Spain's 1758 land grant to the noble Peralta family. Reavis was eventually brought down, of course, by a couple of tough-minded investigative lawyers. But by then, he had enmeshed a who's who of U.S. politicians and money-men in his fraudulent empire and had become the richest man in Arizona. Schroeder's accounts of these audacious frauds never fail to entertain and amuse: the English cab driver who set up a pig-breeding investment scheme and sold the same sow nearly 12,000 times; the fast-talking sewing machine salesman who bilked over a hundred thousand people out of a quarter of a billion dollars with the mother of all pyramid selling schemes; the amazing Hitler Diaries forgery by an obscure Stuttgart antique dealer who squeezed $24 million out of a gaggle of gullible publishers and Stern magazine; the story of D. B. Cooper, the original plane hijacker and eventual cult hero, who jumped out of a 727 with $1 million of Northwest Airlines' money and was never seen again.
Schroeder's tales are entertaining, but they are also cautionary. We shouldn't like these people. They lie, cheat, steal, clean out virtuous widows, gut reputations-all with no compunction. Yet like them we do-in part because of the sheer niftiness of their scams-but also because, through their victims, these con artists expose the credulous venality that's part of every human heart.

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