The Letters of Jerusalem
Occasionally, just very occasionally, I get an unsolicited e-mail pop into my in-box, usually from an African unknown to me, telling me that they have access to untold wealth. If I would only send them a small sum of money and my bank account details, then they will transfer the money to me, I can take my slice and everything in the garden will be rosy. Smelling a rat, I have never been tempted but the sheer frequency of these e-mails suggests that some must take the bait, lured by the prospect of getting rich quick.
It seems that these emails, which are known as advance fee fraud, follow a long if ignoble traditions, dating back to at least the late 18th century and revolutionary France if an account published in his memoirs by Eugene Francois Vidocq is to believed. Vidocq was an interesting character, having been an accomplished thief who then became a policeman. When he retired from the force in 1827, he had amassed a fortune of 0.5 million francs. He was also the model for Jacques Collin in Balzac’s Pere Goriot, but that is by the by.
The scam was conducted by prisoners and guards at the Bicetre prison which was in a southern suburb of Paris. The starting point was to compile a list of the rich living in the targeted area, particularly those with anti-revolutionary sentiments. The scammers would then compose what they termed a letter of Jerusalem. Vidocq gave an extensive version of the type of letter, containing many of the characteristics of the modern scamming e-mail, which I will abridge for convenience.
It would start off, “you will doubtlessly be astonished at receiving a letter from a person unknown to you who is about to ask a favour from you; but from the sad condition in which I am placed, I am lost if some honourable person will not lend me succour”. The correspondent then went on to spin a tale in which he and his master were emigrating from revolutionary France on foot, to avoid suspicion, with a casket containing “sixteen hundred francs in gold and the diamonds of the late marchioness”. They were beset by assailants and the valet, acting on his master’s orders, threw the casket into a ditch.
Once the party had reached their foreign destination, funds began to run low and so the valet was sent back to France to recover the casket. The valet was about to recover the casket from the ditch when further troubles befell him. “I prepared to fulfil my mission, when the landlord .. a bitter Jacobin, remarking my embarrassment when he proposed to drink the health of the republic” – a phrase designed to further win the support of the recipients –“had me apprehended as a suspected person”. He was now languishing in jail and if the recipient could only find it in his heart to send some money, then the casket would be recovered and the profits split.
Vidocq claimed that 20% of the letters elicited a response, with correspondents offering to recover the casket from its hiding place. Often a batch of letters would raise the not inconsiderable sum of between 12 and 15,000 francs. Some even visited the area in the hope of finding the casket without the aid of their correspondent but needless to say, their searches turned up nothing. One cloth seller from the Rue de Prouvaires was caught undermining one of the arches of the Pont Neuf in an attempt to find the diamonds of the Duchess de Bouillon which is where his correspondent claimed to have hidden them.
It just goes to show, there is nothing new under the sun.