Friday, March 4, 2016

Impostors

James D. McCabe (1842–1883)
From Writing New York: A Literary Anthology

Stock certificate from the Electric Sugar Refining Company (1884–1888) signed by its president, William H. Cotterill, on January 4, 1887. J. A. Macdonald is the unfortunate man who spent $200 on this stock. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Two decades before George C. Parker and William McCloundy were convicted, in separate cases, of selling deeds to the Brooklyn Bridge to gullible immigrants and tourists, Henry Freund arrived in New York from Chicago. Although he almost certainly had never left the North American continent, Freund posed as a German-educated chemist and claimed to have developed a new method using electricity to refine sugar. He gave “demonstrations” of this secret technique, much of which occurred inside a closed room containing an unseen machine. Potential investors were then shown finely powdered sugar that had been allegedly refined from the raw sugarcane batches displayed only minutes before. Freund first duped a former British solicitor, William Cotterill, who became the company’s president. Then, selling shares of stock (many to English citizens), the pair raised nearly half a million dollars and converted an old flour mill in Brooklyn into a sugar refinery—which, of course, was nothing of the kind. For four years the charade was sustained, but in 1888 Freund died. His wife, Olive Freund, and other co-conspirators, all of them relatives, attempted to keep the scam going, but soon the gig was up. The family fled to two opulent Michigan mansions they had built with their ill-gotten gains. After being extradited to New York for trial, Mrs. Freund and her mother pled guilty and got off with time served; her stepfather was sentenced to ten years in Sing Sing prison.*

“There is no city in the Union in which impostors of all kinds flourish so well as in New York,” wrote James McCabe a decade before the Freunds arrived on the scene, and recent arrivals—whether migrants, immigrants, and tourists—were “easy prey to the villains” who populated the city. McCabe himself fell victim to petty scams when, hoping to pursue a literary career, he arrived from Richmond after the end of the Civil War. He had already met with some success as a writer; The Guerillas (1862), one of three plays written when he was twenty years old, was “the best known and most extensively reviewed” of the dozens of Confederate productions staged during the war—although McCabe later regarded his plays as “literary sins.” After he moved to the North, he published dozens of books under his own name and several pseudonyms; no complete bibliography of his writings exists, but among them are Civil War histories, including biographies of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and—most notably—books for travelers to New York and Philadelphia.

In 1868, as Edward Winslow Martin, he published The Secrets of the Great City: A Work Descriptive of the Virtues and the Vices, the Mysteries, Miseries, and Crimes of New York City, an encyclopedic guidebook for fellow migrants. Four years later, employing a more journalistic voice and using his own name, he revised and expanded his book into the 850-page Lights and Shadows of New York Life; or, the Sights and Sensations of a Great City, introducing Americans to “one of the most remarkable places in the world” while warning them of “the dangers to which visitors and citizens are alike exposed.” His preface counsels:
For the purpose of performing this task, the writer made visits, in company with the police officials of the city, to a number of the places described in this work, and he is satisfied that no respectable person can with safety visit them, unless provided with a similar protection. It is not safe for a stranger to undertake to explore these places for himself. No matter how clever he may consider himself, no respectable man is a match for the villains and sharpers of New York, and he voluntarily brings upon himself all the consequences that will follow his entrance into the haunts of the criminal and disreputable classes. The city is full of danger.
Among the cautionary sections in Lights and Shadows of New York Life are chapters on lotteries and faro banks, fraudulent marriage advisors and duplicitous divorce lawyers, fortune tellers and clairvoyants, “curb-stone brokers” and “quack doctors.” In the essay “Impostors,” McCabe examines the breed of con artists who, like Henry Freund, manufactured identities or fabricated credentials for financial or social gain.

* Additional details on the Electric Sugar Refining Company scandal and its aftermath can be found online at the Museum of Hoaxes and in a four-part series published by Brownstoner.

Notes: On page 263 is a reference to “the Lord loveth a cheerful giver,” from 2 Corinthians 9:7. Uriah Heep is a character in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, a clerk whose repeated insistence that he is “very ’umble” belies his treachery.

*   *   *
There is no city in the Union in which impostors of all kinds flourish so well as in New York. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

No comments: