Fool Me Twice

Last week, we talked about get-rich-quick schemes. In some ways, the next category of fraud is much worse. Persuasion tricks use a person’s deepest desires to draw them in and fleece them of their money.

The Victorian era is infamous for persuasion tricks that involved seances or other promises to contact the dead. But frauds of this type have been known throughout history, and are as common today as they ever were.

The scheme is simple, in essence. The con artist claims psychic powers, a special ability to see those who have ‘passed over to the other side’. Someone who has suffered a bereavement is told that their dearly departed is anxious to communicate.And communication is lubricated by money.

Fortune-telling powers are a broader category of the same type.

Fortune-tellers and mediums use a technique called ‘cold reading’ to gain the trust of their victims. A practiced cold-reader uses anything they can observe about the victim’s body language, age, clothing or fashion, hairstyle, gender, sexual orientation, religion, race or ethnicity, level of education, manner of speech, place of origin, and so on to come up with some guesses that are highly likely to be true.

“He is asking me about ‘John’. Does anyone know John?” Does anyone not know someone called John?

The cold-reader quickly picks up on signals about whether the guesses are moving in the right direction, moving on from failed guesses and reinforcing those that the victims acknowledges.

Fraudsters also use hot reading (that is, they research their victim beforehand) and warm reading (which employs statements that apply to most people, called Barnum statements after the famous showman who began the Barnum circus shows.

“I sense that you are sometimes insecure, especially with people you don’t know very well.”

“You have a box of old unsorted photographs in your house.”

“You had an accident when you were a child involving water.”

“You’re having problems with a friend or relative.”

“Your father passed on due to problems in his chest or abdomen.”

“You are wearing a piece of jewellery that you associate with someone important to you who has died.” (Almost always true of a widow. Wedding ring, anyone?)

In one case in the Old Bailey records, the defrauded woman was missing her mother when she was introduced to one Mr Fletcher, who introduced himself as a magnetic doctor. In Mrs Hart-Davies’ evidence, she describes each meeting, and we see her being sucked further and further into faith in this man.

he found me with tears coming down my face, with joy at having, as I supposed, met my mother again… I paid him for his visit; I paid after his four visits… it was about five guineas.

She goes on to explain that, at many of the meetings that followed, she and the Fletchers talked about her jewellery, which she showed to them during one of their visits, and sure enough, in due course of time, the deceased mother sent a message through Mr Fletcher to explain that the jewellery interfered with ‘the magnetism’, a problem she could correct by presenting the jewels to the Fletchers.

I collected my jewels together in a bag, thinking I should be disobedient to my mother if I did not hand them over…my mother, through him, handled the jewellery in Fletcher’s hands, saying, “Oh what happy memories these bring me!”

In vain, the Fletchers pleaded that their psychic gifts were real, and they were merely carrying out the instructions of the spirit world. They were found guilty.

Romantic scams are a persuasion trick much beloved by historical romance writers. The lovely young woman or the handsome young man pursues the innocent peer’s offspring, manages to elicit an agreement to marry, and then accepts money from the guardian to go away.

This edges into blackmail, such as the case of Florence Vining and the Marquis of Worcester. Lord Worcester, some thirty-one years before the case in question, had an acknowledged fling with Miss Vining.

I made the acquaintance of the prisoner … at a place of entertainment… I visited her from time to time… In the year 1869, I agreed to pay her 250 pound if she ceased to annoy me.

But she didn’t. He last saw her in 1874, but over many years he continued to receive begging letters, until they took a turn for the nasty during Lady Worcestor’s confinement.

I will, when you least expect me, tear the gown from your wife’s back, and will curse your child. God knows you have given me much provocation… You shall bitterly repent it. I ask you for 20 pound to leave London. Send it.”

He gave her money to go to Scotland, but the letters continued to come and the marquis had had enough. He began court proceedings.

The prisoner was found guilty and sentenced to six months’ hard labour, which seems quite light for 1898. Did the court note, as I did, that she was a mere sixteen years of age at the beginning of what Worcester acknowledged to be a seven year relationship? Certainly, the proceedings acknowledged that she seemed to genuinely believe she had been hard done by.

More to come. We’ve barely touched on extortion, and we haven’t talked about gold-brick scams at all.