The green goods scam
What increases the chances of a scam getting some traction is if it appeals to the avaricious nature of its victim. What is even better is if it is a scam which encourages the mark to commit an illegal act. When they realise that they have been duped, they are hardly likely to run to the police and confess that they had been conned whilst trying to commit a crime. It is even better if the scammers have got the police in their pocket. These were all the characteristics of what came to be known as the green goods scam which was perpetrated in late nineteenth century America.
The starting point of the scam was a circular, produced by a gang member called the writer, sufficiently vague in its wording but sufficiently enticing to interest the target audiences, buyers of lottery tickets who were considered likely to succumb to appeals to their innate greed, and to ex-Confederate soldiers who were down on their luck and keen to put one over the Federal government in Washington. A typical circular would read, “I am dealing in articles, paper goods – ones, twos, fives, tens, and twenties – do you understand? I cannot be plainer until I know your heart is true to me. Then I will satisfy you that I can furnish you with a fine, safe, and profitable article that can be used in any manner and for all purposes, and no danger”.
What was being offered was counterfeit money at knock-down prices.
Some circulars were more explicit. One set could not have been any plainer, stating “I have on hand a large amount of counterfeit notes of the following denominations: $1, $2, $5, $10 and $20. I guarantee every note to be perfect”. Others, fearful that the police might intercept their missives, talked enigmatically about certain brands of cigar.
Once the victim had indicated their interest, the economics of the deal would be spelt out. A modest outlay of $100 would entitle the purchaser to notes to the value of $1,200, whilst $600 would secure $10,000. In order to get their hands on this deal of the century, the prospect would have to travel to New York City or a destination in upstate New York where they would be met by a member of the gang, called a steerer. Their job was to take the victim to a location where they would see a pile of cash which would seem to be legitimate, as it was.
The gang even threw in a suitcase free of charge which they filled with the amount of money the victim had purchased for the knock-down price. But before the victim got his hands on the suitcase, there would be some form of distraction during which a man known as the turning point would replace the original suitcase with an identical one. Unfortunately, the replacement suitcase was stuffed full of newspaper or sand.
However, the victim would not have the time to notice he had been duped. The steerer got hold of him, telling them to go with him to the station and get out of town without talking to anyone. To ensure that the victim obeyed their instructions, a policeman, in the pay of the gang, of course, would be lurking in the background. If the victim looked as though he was about to open the suitcase, the policeman would leap into action, threatening to arrest him for buying counterfeit money. The alternative was to get on the first train out of town.
It was only when the victim had got on to the train or arrived home feeling pleased with himself that he would realise he had been had. By that time, of course, it was too late.
George Appo, a notorious pickpocket, had eight years as a steerer. In his autobiography he gives some sense of the economics and scale of the scam in its heyday. The operator would make between $300 to $1,000 a time, of which 10% went to the steerer and 45% to the turning point. Often an operator would have up to writers, each of whom would hook in one or two victims a day.
The anti-Tammany Hall investigations which started in 1893 began to reveal the incestuous relationship between the green goods gangs and the police. Up to 30 policemen were indicted at the time. Then the new Republican mayor appointed Theodore Roosevelt as Police Commissioner. Roosevelt, in conjunction with postal inspectors, started treating the green goods operators as “a farmer treats weeds – root them out and prevent them from coming back”. So successful was the campaign that by the early twentieth century, this form of scamming was a thing of the past.
If you enjoyed this, try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone