How Con Artists Spammed in a Time Before Email

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: con artists, spam



Benjamin Breen is a PhD candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. He is executive editor of The Appendix, a journal of experimental and narrative history, and is writing a book about the history of drugs in the 17th and 18th centuries.

...The history of trolling over long distances... stretches back at least to the Victorian era.

Robert Whitaker, a historian of international crime and policing, studies fraudulent letters from the 19th and early 20th centuries that were part of an international con known as the Spanish Prisoner Scheme. “In this confidence trick,” he explains,

the criminal contacts the victim offering a large sum of money in return for a small advance of funds that the criminal—posing as a distressed yet reputable person—cannot provide because of some impediment (usually imprisonment or illness)… The successful prisoner is one that can combine a too-good-to-be-true offer with a compelling narrative that the victim can, literally, buy into.


As Whitaker notes, schemes like this strike us as modern inventions, the provenance of Nigerian email scammers and shady characters on Craigslist trying to get you to wire them money.  Yet the human desire for lucre—and the unscrupulousness methods we often employ in its pursuit—knows few limitations, geographic or historic. As Whitaker desribes, the main difference between our 21st-century cons and those of the Victorian period is one of delivery method....




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