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Swindlers of the Old West

Updated on August 26, 2015

Life in the Old West was hard for pioneers. Most worked from sunup to sundown to eke out a living. And if one managed to save a little money, there were swindlers and con men eagerly ready to separate them from it.

Unlike today, a good con could be used numerous times before people learned of it since news traveled so slowly.

There were many varied ploys used by confidence men. In those days many families were heading west in wagon trains. They were ripe for fleecing since they were in strange surroundings and often didn’t understand how quickly weather, Indians or flood could wipe out everything they owned.

Fears of the unknown were what these opportunists played upon. A man posing as an expert scout or former wagon master could easily deceive a group of travelers to take a different a route by saying it could cut 100s of miles off their journey. In actuality the new trail often led to the middle of nowhere where they would be robbed and their supplies plundered.

Or the trail went through rougher terrain and eventually wagons would become broken down and their live stock exhausted…at which time someone would conveniently happen by and offer to buy what they couldn’t carry at a ridiculous price.

Even the Indians learned the art early on. In one classic account a brave traded $40 in gold coin for a white man’s rifle. The “gold coins” were actually nothing more than trading tokens from a nearby trading post. Another common ruse was when settlers lost cattle they would offer a reward to local Indians who could find and return them. Of course, the Indians were the ones who stole them in the first place.

Philip Arnold and John Slack

It seemed there was no end to schemes unscrupulous men could think of to dupe their unsuspecting prey. One such scheme became known as the “farm machinery swindle.” It was brilliant in its simplicity requiring only a farmer with a barn.

A salesman would visit a farm hauling several pieces of farm machinery, supposedly the last he had in stock. After chatting amicably for a while the pitch was made. The salesman would ask if he could temporarily store the machines in the farmer’s barn and if he happened to find a buyer he was entitled to half of the commission.

The farmer usually agreed and would sign a document written with a lot of legal mumbo jumbo no simple farmer would likely understand. Later a “company representative” would stop by and demand payment for the machinery in his barn. The contract he had signed was actually a bill of sale.

Of course, there were many other similar deceptions. But, no history of swindles in the Wild West would be complete without mentioning The Great Diamond Hoax, one of the most famous mining swindles ever pulled off. Following the California Gold Rush of 1849, swindlers fooled many amateur prospectors by "salting" worthless mines with gold dust or small nuggets.

However, few succeeded as well as a pair of cousins from Kentucky. Philip Arnold and John Slack convinced wealthy San Francisco investors to buy into a worthless diamond mine in the northwestern corner of Colorado in 1872.

Arnold and Slack arrived in San Francisco dressed as poor, uneducated miners and tried to deposit a bag of uncut diamonds at a local bank. The two acted suspiciously, avoiding any questions by bank officials. When their business had been concluded they mysteriously disappeared as quickly as they had arrived. Sensing an opportunity to make some big money, Bank Director William Ralston located the pair assuming he could take advantage of the rubes.

Ralston convinced the two cousins to take a blindfolded mining expert to the site where they claimed to have found their diamonds. Some say the “expert” was in on the scam. In any case, he submitted a report verifying the mine was rich with diamonds and rubies.

A number of other San Francisco financiers quickly jumped on board with Ralston and formed the New York Mining and Commercial Company investing over $10 million. Arnold and Slack were bought out for $600,000, a pittance of the supposed value of the diamond mine. Unnoticed, the cousins slipped out of the picture.

Shortly afterwards, noted geologist and mining engineer Clarence King, personally investigated the site and exposed the mine as a hoax. He found the swindlers had salted the mine. Some of the gems he found even showed jeweler cut marks. Ralston was forced to return $80,000 to each of his investors.

What happened to the two cousins? Arnold lived a life of luxury in Kentucky before dying of pneumonia in 1878. Slack apparently squandered his take in the swindle. He was last known to be a coffin maker in New Mexico.


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    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York

      Fascinating as always. I think I'd be suspicious of a mine with BOTH diamonds and rubies. I don't think they're often found in the same mine, but I couldn't swear to that. It just seems like too much of a good thing.

      I feel really sory for the people misled and robbed on the trail. They were so brave to begin with; it seems a shame someone would be so cruel.