In Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, published in 1843, Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “What philosophers say about actuality is often just as disappointing as it is when one reads on a sign in a secondhand shop: pressing done here. If a person were to bring his clothes to be pressed, he would be duped, for the sign is merely for sale.”
In January 1787 Catherine the Great embarked on a six-month survey of her empire, and Gregory Potemkin, former lover and governor general of Crimea, was among those in charge of the tour. Georg von Helbig, a critic of Potemkin, coined the term Potemkin villages to indict the governor general for falsifying his accomplishments, going so far as to claim that while Catherine sailed the Dnieper River, elaborate facades were set up, removed, and placed farther downriver so that she would see the same scenes five or six times.
Joseph Smith and other Mormon church leaders drew up articles for the Kirtland Safety Society Bank to provide capital to the burgeoning economy of Kirtland, Ohio, in 1836. Unable to obtain a bank charter, they printed banknotes as the Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Company. The notes were used as tender. The bank failed during the Panic of 1837; holders of the notes were unable to recover their face value, and Smith then fled to Missouri to avoid arrest.
The Athenian orator Lysias, a generation younger than Antiphon—who pioneered the business of writing defense speeches—once upset a litigant, according to Plutarch, for whom he had prepared a defense, because the first time the man read the speech it “seemed to him wonderfully good, but on taking it up a second and third time it appeared completely dull and ineffectual.” After hearing the man out, Lysias replied, “Well, isn’t it only once that you are going to speak it before the jurors?”
In 2014 the Federal Trade Commission charged the operator of Jerk.com with improperly obtaining personal information from Facebook to create 73 million profiles that identified people as “jerk” or “not a jerk” and then offered them the option to change their profiles for $30. According to the FTC, consumers who paid the fee often got nothing in return.
In the law courts of democratic Athens in the fifth century bc, citizens on trial were compelled to offer their own defenses, often hiring speechwriters. “If I make a mistake in speaking, pardon me and treat it as due to inexperience rather than dishonesty,” pleaded one defendant, who had hired the orator Antiphon to compose the entire speech.
Four years after the Romanovs were executed by Bolsheviks, a woman claiming to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia surfaced. She impressed skeptics with her ability to recall various details of the royal family’s life, and after Nicholas II’s cousin Grand Duke Alexander spent two days with her, he exclaimed, “I have seen Nicky’s daughter!” The woman spent decades fighting to be the legal heir to the Romanov fortune, losing her last suit in 1970. In the 1990s DNA evidence posthumously proved she was an imposter.
To promote malingering and desertion among German soldiers during World War II, the British Political Warfare Executive and Special Operations Executive produced innocuously titled German-language booklets, among them Exercise Protocol for War Marines, into which they inserted information on how to feign illness and escape service. The British then circulated such propaganda using various special-ops agents and balloon drops across Europe.
Pianist and oil heir Roger Davidson brought his computer into a service shop in Mount Kisco, New York, in 2004, complaining of a virus. The owner, Vickram Bedi, confirmed there was a virus and claimed its source was a hard drive in Honduras, which he later explained was linked to an international conspiracy involving Opus Dei that threatened Davidson’s life. Over the course of six years, Bedi charged Davidson over $6 million for data retrieval and personal protection. Bedi was sentenced to jail in 2013.
On October 30, 1938, a CBS radio announcer presented the 8 p.m. broadcast: “Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air in The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.” After the 23-year-old Welles read an ominous introduction and the “music of Ramon Raquello and his orchestra” played, bulletins followed with reports of Martians crash-landing in New Jersey. Many listeners thought that the Welles-Wells adaptation was news: some people crowded highways trying to flee from aliens; others pleaded with police for gas masks. Welles said at the broadcast’s end that it was only a “holiday offering” in anticipation of Halloween.
In January 1592, playwright Christopher Marlowe was arrested for counterfeiting in the Netherlands. For making coins of pewter, Marlowe was charged with the crime of petty treason, punishable by death. He was eventually sent back to London, where, a little more than a year later, he was stabbed to death in Deptford.
At the end of his American lecture tour in 1882, Oscar Wilde was given money by a young man who claimed to be the son of a Wall Street banker and who invited him to then play in a game of dice. Wilde ended up losing over $1,000, writing three checks to cover the expense. “I’ve just made a damned fool of myself,” Wilde later confessed to a police captain, having stopped payment of the checks. From a series of mug shots, Wilde identified the swindler: it was notorious banco scammer Hungry Joe Lewis.