TRICK OR TREAT

The Best Con Man You've Never Heard Of

Largely forgotten by history, George Graham Rice was known as the “Jackal of Wall Street.” He preyed on the wealthy and the poor, and racked up millions.

In 1915, Americans’ eagerness to speculate was out of whack with their investing knowledge. Smooth talkers were able to sell anything to an indiscriminate public, and a nation of unseasoned stock-pickers operated under the false confidence that they could make no wrong moves. Misguided but hopeful, people poured money into risky propositions with the unrealistic expectation that outrageous returns would always follow.

George Graham Rice capitalized on emerging technology to pair these suckers with his stock offerings. Coast-to-coast long-distance telephone calling had just become possible, and George believed the expense was worth it if salesmen could cover vast swaths of the country without ever leaving the office. The new all-stars of his operation—nicknamed “dynamiters”—were hired specifically for their confident voices and high-pressure persuasiveness.

Six days a week, several dozen well-compensated dynamiters doggedly worked Rice’s candlestick phones, often as late as 10:00 p.m. to cold-call West Coast targets. Dupes on the other end had no idea the enterprising bustle in the background came not from an office full of white-collar finance wizards, but from commission-driven hustlers crammed together in a boiler room. The urgency of a long-distance call was a powerful selling point in and of itself, because even though recipients had no idea who the swell-sounding stranger was on the other end of the line, they figured the offer must be important and legitimate. Why else would a name-brand broker like George Graham Rice waste money on phone tolls to single them out for a chance of a lifetime?

The ritual never varied. Call recipients were “papered” in advance with mailings to plant a seed of recognition for some obscure stock. A week or so later, a lower-ranking sales apprentice (an “opener”) initiated the first telephone overture to gauge a customer’s interest. They pointed out that big stocks had peaked and that little ones were the ones to watch—even the mighty Standard Oil started out small, right? George compelled his stock pushers to use egg timers. If they didn’t get a nibble within three minutes, they were instructed not to waste further time.

A satisfactory opening call might conclude with a small sale of stock, but more important was establishing a foundation of trust. If the stock recommended by the brokerage went up in price, a more experienced specialist would call back a few days later to hook the victim for bigger bucks. Life magazine later detailed the process:

The “dynamiter” or veteran “loader” takes over. With a soft but commanding manner he makes the sucker feel as keen as a college girl on the eve of sorority pledge day.“Now or never is the time to buy…The stock is bound to double within sixty days…Safe? I’ve bought it myself. Is there any better recommendation?”Up and up he raises the ante: “A man in your position should buy at least 1,000 shares.” No mercy is shown.“If they find that a man has $20,000,” a veteran [law enforcement] man observes, “they’ll go not for $18,000 but the full $20,000.”

Because phone charges frequently ran into hundreds of thousands of dollars, bucketeers tended to skip out on their bills. The phone company retaliated by reporting suspiciously large call volumes to the feds, but restrictions against wiretapping kept authorities from listening in on dishonest brokers. Plus, swindling over the telephone wasn’t even illegal. Ripping off people by long distance was more expensive, but by transacting scams outside the postal system, con artists could avoid going to prison for mail fraud…

If you owned a bucket shop, business was so booming it became necessary to prioritize clients. What brokers really needed was a Who’s Who of America’s most gullible high net-worth individuals. Rice though, had exactly such a collection of contacts—his well-maintained sucker list was fast approaching 200,000 names.

Other dealers were embracing this nascent form of direct marketing, but George’s database towered above all others in both quantity and quality. Soliciting known victims for repeat business was only one aspect of Rice’s voluminous customer profiling. An infusion of new blood was critical to any bucket shop, so G.G. hired clipping services to scour periodicals and out-of-town papers for details that matched wealth to vulnerability. Obituaries often yielded tantalizing clues. Citizens who contributed to charities liked to see their names in print, so society pages were skimmed for details about prideful donors. Poring over legal notices was a way to glean minutiae about estate settlements and alimony decrees, and life insurance companies routinely published long lists of benefactors who had been awarded policy payouts.

When clients bought stock from George, their index cards were updated with purchasing preferences and negotiating weaknesses. All these suckers—contacted over parts of four decades by different dynamiters representing various schemes backed by Rice—were oblivious that their names were being plucked from a predatory file that grew fatter with each point of contact. If Rice wanted a specialized list of fifty well-off socialites whose daughters had recently been listed as coming-out debutantes, his staff could likely have filled such a request in short order. Although probably apocryphal, it was rumored that G.G.’s records were so deviously cross-referenced that they contained categories like “Millionaire Widows” and “Elderly Philanthropists.”

Damaging personal secrets that George learned through his extensive socialization were included in his sucker list. On one occasion around this time, the government made public the contents of hundreds of blackmail-tinged index cards seized from another broker during a raid. The names were redacted, but it is not too difficult to imagine Rice’s arsenal containing similarly sordid details:

Prominent philanderer. Age 72. Gave $100,000 to college and another 3,000 acres of land. Supports former mistress, Broadway chorus girl.Hard-boiled banker. Escorts various young women (not his wife) to the opera. Very difficult to get to, but will bite on elaborate deals.Most interesting society dame. Has twice thrown out husband. Bridge expert. Drinker. Fearful tantrums. Plaza incident.Mrs._____ and sweetheart at one door. Mr. _____ and his sweetheart at another. Clever chauffeur!

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Although the upper levels of society offered the juiciest pickings, Rice was an equal-opportunity con artist. Believing in volume business, he also went after the impoverished classes, chiefly because poor people believed any fantastic story about getting rich quick. George struck up relationships with clergymen, because men of the cloth were trusted financial advisors to the downtrodden. The most productive periodicals, if swindlers could get their ads in, were religious newspapers.

Once G.G. set the standard, third-party compilers began to sell copycat sucker lists at prices ranging from pennies to a dollar per name, depending on whether prospects were graded “sold once” or “select.” When a subset of his own database was no longer productive, Rice culled the fruitless names and put them on a special list—which he then had a henchman float as “stolen” on the black market.

From MY ADVENTURES WITH YOUR MONEY: George Graham Rice and the Golden Age of the Con Artist by T.D. Thornton. Copyright © 2015 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC.