Greedy, calculating, deceptive and smart – these are some of the words used to describe the typical con man. The concept of the con artist became popular in England and America during the 19th century.
A con man will cheat, lie, and fool their target by giving them the impression that they are onto the deal of a lifetime. However, it is the con artist that will be making money by the time they are done with you. They often take advantage of human weaknesses such as insecurity, loneliness, ignorance and poor health.
Part 1: 6 Most Famous Con Artists in History
By the time Mr. Abagnale was a teenager, he had already collected over $40,000 from various banks in New York City, and he did not stop there. For 5 years in the 60’s, Abagnale made over $2.5 million, passing bad cheques in 26 countries. He was so good that the movie Catch Me If You Can is based on his story. As a kid, he spent 4 months in a juvenile correction facility after he ripped off his father. He was using his father’s Mobil card to buy car parts and later resell them to the gas station at a discount. His most famous trick was printing his own account number on fake bank deposit slips so that clients unwittingly deposited their money into his account.
This is the man who sold the Eiffel tower. Born in Bohemia, Lustig moved to Paris where he became a con man. His first attempt at con artistry was a scam, involving a device that could print $100 bills. This piqued the interest of many people and some offered to pay for it. Often he was offered more than $30,000 for the device. The catch was that the device only produced one $100 every six hours. He had set it up in such a way that it only contained two real $100 bills. By the time his clients realized this, he was long gone. His most famous con is when he sold the Eiffel tower to an unsuspecting scrap metal dealer in the pretext that Paris could not afford to maintain it. Lustig eventually died in jail.
Charles Ponzi is one of the greatest and most famous con men to have ever walked the earth. Little wonder why the “Ponzi Scheme” was named after him. Ponzi had unassuming movie star looks and a charm that could draw in the Pope, hook line and sinker. Ponzi came to America as an impoverished Italian immigrant after serving time in Canada. He set out to set up a scheme that would make him rich and one of the most famous con men. He realized that you could get coupons that were redeemable for stamps. These coupons were way cheaper in Italy than in the US. He figured that he could buy the coupons in Italy and redeem them in the US. He made over 400% profits on each without producing anything.
Eduardo de Valfierno
Eduardo was an Argentine con man who masterminded the theft of the Mona Lisa. This con was as brilliant as it was malicious. Valfiero paid several men to steal the Mona Lisa. Among them was Vincenzo Peruggia, an employee of the Louvre museum where the Mona Lisa was on display. Valfierno also commissioned an art forger, Yves Chaudron, to make 6 copies of the Mona Lisa. The forgeries were shipped to various parts of the world where Valfierno had lined up buyers. On August 12, 1911, Peruggia stole the Mona Lisa and Valfierno sold the copies. He never tried contacting Peruggia again. His main intention was not to get his hands on the real Mona Lisa but to convince the buyers that they were buying the real Mona Lisa. Peruggia was later arrested trying to sell the painting.
The Fox Sisters
Kate, Margaret and Leah Fox executed probably one of the longest running con during the 19th century. While the name might sound somewhat sexy, they were nothing close to it. In actual sense, they were leading proponents of the Spiritualist Movement. At age 10 and 12, Kate and Margaret convinced their parent that they could talk to ghosts through a system of taps and knocks. They would snap their fingers and the “ghosts” would respond. The girls went on to earn a global reputation for being ghost talkers and made lots of money in the process. Their elder sister Leah later joined them in the “business”. When they were finally exposed, it was discovered that their toes were the ghosts. They used their toes to simulate sounds.
Popularly known as Yellow Kid, Joseph Weil was a famous con man in his era. He is believed to have stolen over 8 million over the course of his colorful career. He used a plethora of tricks to steal from his victims, including fronting phony oil deals, fixing races and running a protection racket. One day he was Dr. Henri Reuel, a geologist who represented a large oil company and the next he was a chemist who had discovered a way to multiply your money.
Part 2: Top 6 Favorite Con Men in Movies
The Brothers Bloom - The Brothers Bloom (2008)
Stephen and Bloom, played by Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody, are the type of con artists who take their trade to heart. They are brothers who have been conning marks together all their life. While they both have their own eccentricities, they make a great team along with their deaf side kick Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi). The movie takes a multi layered approach to the central con, which is to say the least, intriguing. They manage to pull off one of the most difficult cons by coining the audience.
Paul - Six Degrees of Separation (1993)
Paul, played by Will Smith, is not the typical con man who pulls of elaborate heists. Instead, he manages to integrate himself to kind strangers and somehow they end up taking care of him. There is a fair share of lies involved including the mention of Sidney Poitier, but this is what you expect from a con man. In the movie, Paul is meant to be a con man, but he is somewhat likeable. You can’t help but marvel at the way he integrates himself into the Kittredge family.
Roy Waller - Matchstick Men (2003)
Roy Waller, played by Nicholas Cage, is an eccentric, obsessive compulsive and heavily medicated con man. He is detail-oriented and loves perfection, and he simply won’t operate in disorder. In the movie, Walter introduces the “daughter”, Angela, to his trade and to Frank Mercer, his partner. Mercer and Waller make the perfect team as Mercer is the flashy con while Waller is the brains.
Freddy and Lawrence - Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
This is one unique con film whereby the two lead actors are working against each other to con the same mark. Freddy Benson (played by Steve Martin) and Lawrence Jamieson (played by Michael Caine) execute an endless flurry of cons that are bound to keep you at the edge of your seat. Their interplay is both juicy and entertaining as they go toe to toe with each other.
Hooker & Gondorff - The Sting (1973)
The Sting is the quintessential con film. Henry Gondorff and Johnny Hooker come together for this intriguing story that covers all the elements of a great con movie. This includes the mismatched pairings, the long con, the short con, and the seamless manner in which they work together.
Frank Abagnale - Catch Me If You Can
Abagnale, one of the most famous con artists, appears for the second time in the list, but this time in a movie. Played by Leonardo DiCaprio, Abagnale’s life as a con is captured in this scintillating movie where the cat and mouse chase between Dicaprio and Tom Hanks is ridiculously awesome. The fact that it is directed by Steven Spielberg is definitely one of the reasons why this movie earns its spot as one of the best con man films.