One sunny morning in 1923 a wealthy American tourist from Iowa was standing in Trafalgar Square gazing with admiration at Nelsons Column. A very well dressed and polite gentleman moved beside him,
“Its a Lovely Monument isn’t it?”
“Why it sure is”.
“The person on the top is Admiral Lord Nelson, he was killed at the battle of Trafalgar, thats why this is called Trafalgar Square”
“Gee thats interesting”
“Shame it all has to go though”
“Yes I’m afraid that with the British economy in the state its in we have to sell it off, lions and all to make some money”
You can see where tho is going can’t you. Many of you may have heard of Victor Lustig, or at least you may have heard of his scam to sell the Eiffel tower to a gullible French scrap dealer. But Victor is small fry compared the Arthur Furguson.
Furguson was a retired actor from Glasgow, one day while strolling through Trafalgar square he spotted an opportunity. After the above exchange he then began to reel in his prey. He told the man the monument would go for only £6,000 as long as the buyer was the right kind of person, and of course would keep it a secret! To Furguson’s amazement the man wrote him a cheque on the spot and it was only while the hapless victim was attempting to engage some contractors to have Nelson Column removed that he discovered the scam. By this time Furguson was well away and off on a new and lucrative career path.
Soon the police in London began to get a pattern of complaints; another American complained that he had forked out £1000 for Big ben and yet another had put down a £2000 deposit on Buckingham palace. Before the ‘old bill’ could close in on him though he had high tailed it off to Paris where he sold the Eiffel tower to yet another American.
So Furguson realised that by far his ‘best customers’ had been from the other side of the Atlantic, ‘surely there are some rich pickings to be had in the land of opportunity’. So in 1925 he headed over to America and assisted the Americans to offloaded a few of their unwanted landmarks which included leasing the White House to a Texan Cattle rancher for $100,000 dollars a year (first year payable in advance)
Now there is an old cliche in crime stories like this, there is always one last job and one fatal mistake and this story of course has that much needed element: With enough wealth to cover a very nice retirement Furguson’s vanity could not resist one last job. The big one! The Statue of Liberty!
The ‘mark’ to use a technical term was an Australian tourist. Furguson’s story was that the harbour was having to be widened and the statue had to be removed. Over the following days the Australian attempted to raise the $100,000 dollars deposit. All the time Furguson was not far from his side and at one point allowed himself to be photographed with his victim in front of the statue. A moment of vanity that would be his undoing.
Alas for Furguson the deal was taking too long and his impatience began to make his victim suspicious, he took the photo to the police who immediately knew this was the face of the person they had been hunting for some time! Furguson was arrested and his life of crime was over. Amazingly he only served 5 years and after his release moved to Los Angeles where he lived out his years from the proceeds of his enterprises.
Reading these stories you can’t help wonder at how easy these cons were, they seem quite unbelievable and there’s the rub! for it seems that our Mr Furguson was indeed himself a con! This story which has become legend and is even reported as fact by the BBC was most probably an elaborate hoax thought up some time in the 1970s some say the clue is in the initials ‘AF’ which also stands for ‘April Fool’ there are no official court records of his arrest and no grave in LA. It seems our Scottish Con Man was as unsubstantial as ‘Scotch Mist’.
Mark Twain said: Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. But we can end with the story of another great Scottish con artist who was most definitely real; Gregor McGregor!
McGregor was was a Scottish soldier, adventurer, land speculator, and colonizer who fought in the South American struggle for independence. While on his travels he dreamed up an elaborate scheme. McGregor wasn’t going to sell off a few civic baubles, that was pocket money stuff – no McGregor was going to sell an entire country!
On his return to London he announced that he had been appointed cacique (Prince) of the principality of Poyais, an Independent nation situated in the bay of Honduras. 12,500 Square miles of untapped mineral resources awaited those who wanted to invest in this small nation. McGregor even claimed to be a descendent of one of the survivors of the failed Darien Scheme. McGregor began to sell off the land rights from offices he had established in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Elaborate guide books were published describing the fertile soil, gold and silver mines and very friendly locals.
One ship sailed from London on 1822 with 70 settlers. a year later another with over 200 on board left from the port of Leith. After a long voyage they arrived to find no port and indeed no trace of the first ship, the survivors of this now trying to exist in what was an uninhabitable jungle. There were no government offices, no gold mines or arable land in fact there was no Poyais!
Eventually a passing ship spotted the survivors and they were taken to British Honduras. Meanwhile back in London McGregor had already prepared another 5 ships to travel to his fictitious land and fortunately these were stopped and turned back but not before considerable loss of life on the journey. Incredibly McGregor escaped prosecution and ran the whole scam again in France, again evading capture there before returning to London.
In the dictionary under the work ‘slippery’ there must be a photo of Gregor McGregor because even after his arrest and trial in London he served only a week in prison. even as late at 1837 he was still running his Poyais schemes and getting away with it. In 1839 he moved to Venezuela where he was regarded as a war hero for his part in their independence wars.
JM Barrie once said “There are few more impressive sights in the world than a Scotsman on the make” While he was almost certainly referring to those in more honest pursuit you can’t help but be amazed by the likes of Gregor McGregor
By the way would you be interested on the Scott Monument? we have to sell it off to make way for the trams you know!