In July of 1918, Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra, and their five children were executed by the Bolsheviks in a basement in Ekaterinburg. However, rumors soon started to spread that Anastasia, the youngest Romanov daughter had managed to escape. These rumors were exploited by several imposters, but one of them went down in history as one of the greatest con artists ever - Anna Anderson.
In 1920, a nameless woman was pulled out of the Landwehr Canal in Berlin after a failed suicide attempt. She had no identifying documents and refused to talk, so the authorities sent her to a mental institution, where she stayed for 2 years. It was there that people started pointing out her physical resemblance to Grand Dutchess Anastasia, as well as her aloof demeanor and strange scars. When she finally started speaking again, it turned out that she also had a barely noticeable Russian accent.
Many former aides and relatives of the Russian Royal Family came to visit Anderson to see if there was any truth to these claims. When she was shown old photographs of the family, her face reportedly turned red and she became increasingly upset while refusing to speak. Only later that night she told one of the nurses: "The gentleman has a photo of my grandmother." She appeared to know many small details of the royal family's personal life. Though there were numerous inconsistencies in her stories and many doubted her legitimacy, word started to spread that Anderson was, in fact, Anastasia.
Upon her release from the asylum, Anderson’s circle of supporters grew, and they even began a long battle to win her legal recognition as Anastasia. By 1927, an alleged former roommate of Anderson claimed that her name was actually Franziska Schanzkowska, not Anna and certainly not Anastasia. This didn’t stop Anderson from indulging in her celebrity life and trying to get hold of the royal inheritance.
She ultimately lost her case in the legal proceedings that dragged on for decades, but she stuck to her story until her death in 1984. Years later, the bodies of the Royal Family were recovered and a posthumous DNA test finally proved that Anderson was indeed a fraud. If anything, she was likely Franziska Schanzkowska, a Polish factory worker who had gone missing in 1920.
Charles Ponzi in 1920, working as a businessman in his office in Boston, Image Source: Wikipedia
Charles Ponzi, an Italian immigrant, made an incredible fortune on one of history's greatest deceptions. In fact, his method was so effective, that the government named this type of fraud after him - the Ponzi scheme. In 1920, Ponzi tricked thousands of New England residents into investing in a postage stamps speculation scheme. He managed to attract investors to put funds into international postal reply coupons, slips of paper that post offices would exchange for stamps.
Currency exchange rates were in flux after the Great War, and Ponzi claimed that enormous profits could be made by purchasing coupons with undervalued liras or francs and redeeming them in the United States. Each time a new investor gave him money, he'd use those funds to pay off earlier investors, creating the illusion they were profiting from a legitimate business. At the peak of his scam, Ponzi raked in $250,000 a day, an amount equivalent to about $3 million today.
This house of cards collapsed in August of 1920 when Ponzi was exposed as a convicted forger by the Boston Post, and the US Postal Service confirmed that no one was exchanging postal reply coupons in the massive volumes needed to generate such profits. Ponzi was charged with 86 counts of mail fraud. Surprisingly, he was only sentenced to 5 years in federal prison.
White Sox player Charles "Swede" Risberg, who participated in the Black Sox scandal, Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
In 1919, the Chicago White Sox shocked fans and the whole nation when they essentially threw the 1919 World Series in exchange for money. The first suspicions regarding the scandal arose in the first game, after an uncharacteristically bad performance of the heavily favored White Sox athletes. As it turned out, eight members of the team accepted a bribe - as much as $100,000 (about $1.4 million today) - to deliberately lose in favor of the Cincinnati Reds.
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After a grand jury investigated the scandalous allegations, the crooked players, dubbed the ‘Black Sox’ for their shady actions, were indicted for nine counts of conspiracy. “I don’t know why I did it,” pitcher Eddie Cicotte told the grand jury. “I needed the money. I had a wife and kids.” He and the rest of the Black Sox were banned from playing major league baseball for life.
By the time he fabricated this notorious plot, Titus Oates already had a rich history of deception. Oates entered Cambridge as a young man to study for the Anglican order. After being dismissed for misconduct, Oates, who originally had strong anti-Catholic sentiments, suddenly started associating with Catholic circles and eventually feigned conversion.
Oates managed to infiltrate two different Catholic seminars. Both institutions eventually expelled him, but it hardly mattered. By this time, he gathered enough inside information to wreak havoc. In 1678, Oates concocted and pretended to uncover a plot, which came to be known as the ‘Popish Plot’ - a Catholic plan to murder Charles II and put his Catholic brother James on the throne. What ensued was a three-year panic that fueled great tensions and anti-Catholic sentiments in England. 35 people were executed as a result.
It was only in 1685 that Oates was arrested and found guilty of perjury. He only spent a few years in prison, however. He was pardoned when William III came into power and even received a pension.
The skull of the 'Piltdown Man' Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
In 1912, fossil enthusiast Charles Dawson and his collaborator Arthur Smith Woodward, a geologist at the British Natural History Museum, announced that they have unearthed a humanlike skull and an apelike jawbone in the gravel pit near Piltdown, England. The finding was initially proclaimed to be a great discovery, but it was later exposed as one of the biggest hoaxes in paleontology.
When the ‘Piltdown Man’ was discovered, he was believed to be the missing link connecting apes to humans. However, in the decades to follow, all subsequent discoveries suggested that the Piltdown man didn't fit the story of human evolution at all. By the 1950s, DNA tests revealed that the skull was only 600 years old and the jaw actually came from an orangutan.
But who elaborated the lie? Most signs point to Martin A. C. Hinton, a museum volunteer. A trunk bearing his initials contained bones that were stained in exactly the same way the Piltdown fossils were. It isn’t clear why he did it. One theory claims he was out to embarrass his boss, Arthur Smith Woodward, who refused to pay him his weekly salary.
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