7 Historical Conmen

We all like a trickster from time to time. That's why the Fast and Furious franchise was so successful: a bunch of characters stealing cars, driving recklessly gracefully escaping the authorities with a large sum of tax-free heist money. Watching those movies, we're always on the outlaw's side. 
But some historical characters had spent their whole life as tricksters. Some of their names will probably sound familiar to you, as they have become so legendary, they made it into children's stories. Today we will learn the stories of 7 of history's most notorious con artists. 

1. Mary Carleton

Funny how the name Carleton looks a lot like the word Charlatan! Mary Carleton (1642-1673) had lived a short life full of bigamy frauds. She would steal from her various husbands and escape upon being exposed. 

The first time she was caught, in 1660, she managed to escape by testifying that she received word of her husband's death. After years of a low-profile life, she resurfaced in another city under a false identity of a German princess. She was a gifted actress and a skilled forger, which gave her a convincing front. This time, Mary met her match - John Carleton - who was also a liar. He lied about his fortune and status. This saved her the second time at court: “You told me you were a lord, and I told you I was a princess, and I think I fitted you.”

She managed to trap several more husbands in her schemes, fleeting away with their money. Many of her victims were too embarrassed to press charges, fearing for their names. She spent a few brief periods in jail and was ultimately sentenced to penal transportation to Jamaica. She conned her way back to London but was sentenced to death for leaving Jamaica. 

2. Count Alessandro di Cagliostro

The case of Count Alessandro di Cagliostro  (1743-1795) is particularly interesting because, during his time, he was considered an honest man. He was born Giuseppe Balsamo, a poor boy in an Italian family. As a young man, he developed a growing fascination with alchemist rituals and the occult. Simultaneously, he discovered his talent for con schemes, which allowed him to earn some money. He escaped the circle of poverty and paved his way around the world under the new alias Count Alessandro di Cagliostro. He learned alchemy and mysticism and became a traveling mage, selling potions and holding seances.

He had a good reputation but was flying too close to the sun. Being close to the French aristocracy, he was involved in the scandalous Affair of the Diamond Necklace, in which a diamond necklace was supposedly stolen by King Louis XVI's wife, Queen Marie Antoinette. Later it was discovered that the queen was innocent, but her name and the name of the entire French court were tarnished forever. Among them was Count Alessandro.

Cagliostro was sentenced to prison and banishment by the French court. When visiting Rome, he fell into the hands of the Inquisition (some say his wife betrayed him), which tried him for heresy and sentenced him to torture and death. This sentence was later converted to life in prison.

3. Comte de Saint-Germain

The Count of Saint-Germain (born between 1690-1710, died in 1784) was a man of many artistic talents. He was a skilled musician and painter but presented himself as an alchemist. Supposedly, he could turn simple metals into precious ones and purify diamonds of their imperfections. He also claimed to have the ability to concoct cosmetic products that promise eternal youth.

The Count developed a charismatic facade to uphold these claims. He claimed to be 300 years old. To some, he would even say he's immortal. His mystic demeanor earned him the nickname "Wonderman," and he was described as the king of impostors and quacks. Nonetheless, he gained an impressive following thanks to his agreeable nature and artistic talents.


4. Amy Bock

Bock's story is mind-boggling even to the modern reader. The second woman on the list, Amy Maud Bock (1859-1943) was born in Tasmania but spent the majority of her life in New Zealand. In her young years, she committed several small scams and tricks. She was almost always caught, immediately admitting every detail of her scam and pleading guilty in court. This lifestyle resulted in 13 imprisonments totaling 16 years behind bars. 

But this early life led up to her greatest con: marrying a rich heiress while masquerading as a man. Bock built up a whole character under the name Percival Leonard Carol Redwood. She earned the family and the neighbors' affection with gifts she bought on credit (she had no fortune of her own). She would also forge letters sent from her made-up family when she was wooing her bride. 

In the weeks leading up to the wedding, she failed to pay debts, which triggered the bride's family's suspicion. Her background was searched by local detectives, and she was arrested and sentenced to two years of imprisonment. She continued to conduct small crimes, mostly obtaining money under false pretenses, appearing in court even as an old lady. However, there is no record of her final years. She died alone at age 84 and was buried in an unmarked grave in a public cemetery. 

Related: 7 Of History's Most Flagrant Serial Killers

5. False Dmitry

Dmitry Ivanovich of Uglich was the son of Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible. He was the tsar's youngest boy who had died at age 8. There are no official records of how he died, only theories. One says he died in an epileptic seizure, and another suggests he was assassinated. 

His young age and the mystery of his death allowed no fewer than three different men to claim they were the real Dmitry, the rightful heir to the throne. This phenomenon received the name, False Dmitry. 

The first False Dmitry gained enough followers to invade Russia in 1604 and seize the throne, but he was killed in an arranged lynching. 

The second False Dmitry was another man pretending to be the first False Dmitry. He regained his following and attempted to invade the city but was forced to flee before he could enter. Eventually, he was killed by his followers.

And finally, the third False Dmitry, who surfaced in 1611, earned a strong base of followers, which later betrayed him. He was executed in Moscow. 

6. Baron Münchhausen

Here's a name some of you may recognize. The real-life Count was such a colorful character that he became the inspiration for a literary character carrying the same name and conducting the same alleged heroic deeds.

Hieronymus Karl Friedrich, Freiherr von Münchhausen (1720-1797), was a German aristocrat who had a long career as a military man. Upon his return, he would show an extraordinary talent for storytelling, amusing his dinner guests with tales of his adventures as an army man. 

He would use witty language and a nonchalant tone and was not seen as a liar; on the contrary - traveling aristocrats would often come to hear his recounts. The real conman here is the writer and scientist Rudolf Erich Raspe, who wrote his book "The Surprising Adventures of Baron Münchhausen" based on Freiherr's story. Publishing the book itself is not a crime. It was the later accusations of theft and swindling that earned him a place on this list of historical conmen. 

7. Natwarlal

Mithilesh Kumar Srivastava (1912-death year unknown) was born in India, and truth be told, we can't tell you much more. There is a great air of mystery surrounding this master fraudster's life, beginning in the earliest years of his life. Some stories say he had an abusive childhood and was forced into nomadic life; others say he discovered a talent for signature forgery that helped him start his life with stolen money. 

Natwarlal orchestrated his scams as spectacular events, either big or small. He would adopt aliases and many different personalities, and his talent for forging signatures was his best weapon. This resulted in an impressive resume of fraud, including fooling big banks and stealing industrial shipments of tonnes of goods. 

For the biggest fraud of his career, he employed his best efforts, his education (he did have a Bachelor of Commerce degree), and his staple tool - signature forging. Natwarlal sold the Taj Mahal and the House of Parliament to foreigners several times, making large sums of money.

But as with everything in life, this story has two sides. Natwarlal's cons were never violent, and he would usually give away his earnings to the poor people of Bangara, his native village. He was seen as something of a modern Robin Hood. 

Natwarlal was arrested about 10 times and sentenced to long periods in prison, but like the professional con artist that he was, he managed to escape each and every time, usually by way of disguises, acting, and bribes. He is estimated to have spent about 20 years in prison, although the total time of his sentence reached well over 100 years. 

At age 84, in 1996, Natwarlal was caught one final time. He was being transported from prison to a hospital in a wheelchair, and during transportation, he vanished, never to be seen again. His brother says he died and was cremated that year. Natwarlal's lawyer, on the other hand, claims differently. In 2009, the lawyer requested that pending charges against him be dropped, saying he died in July of that year. 

Finding fact-checked information about this talented con artist is as difficult as finding a needle in a haystack. Searching for a picture of him is even more challenging. In the picture above, you can see the Taj Mahal. The meaning of the moniker Natwarlal, by the way, is Lord Krishna, a major deity in Hinduism. 

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