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Pocket watch thief William Thompson was the original “con man”

A pocket watch like the ones "the original con man" William Thompson took from his victms

Frauds come in many forms.

Sometimes they're breathtakingly complicated and involve stealing millions in elaborate technical scams.

And sometimes they're far more simple and just involve tricking people into handing over their money or possessions.


What a lot of frauds have in common is they normally revolve around a charismatic individual who is able to win the trust of people through the power of their personality.

The cases of Peggy Fulford and Victor Lustig are just two examples of fraudsters who were able to convince greedy and gullible people they were something they were not.

Who was the original "con man"?

Well, criminal historians believe it was a man called William Thompson, who operated in New York in the 1840s.

His scam was incredibly simple.

He would dress smartly and approach the upper classes in the street.

He would then pretend he knew them and instigate a conversation with them.

When he thought he had gained their trust, he would ask if they had the confidence to "lend" him their watch.

Once he'd got the watch, Thompson would leave and never return it.

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He used various aliases to introduce himself to the unsuspecting wealthy folk of New York.

But he was finally caught and arrested in 1849.

The "confidence man"

The New York Herald reported the story.

The newspaper dubbed him "The Confidence Man."

This later became the catch-all term "con man" which is used to describe male fraudsters.

The report said: "For the last few months a man has been traveling about the city, known as the “Confidence Man,” that is, he would go up to a perfect stranger in the street, and being a man of genteel appearance, would easily command an interview.

"Upon this interview he would say after some little conversation, “have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?”

"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."

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