William Thompson, The First Confidence Man


“Arrest of the Confidence Man”

New-York Herald, 1849

This brief article from the “Police Intelligence” section of the New York Herald describes the arrest of William Thompson, whose brazen deceptions ushered the term “confidence man” into the American vocabulary.

Historian Karen Halttunen notes that New York City in the antebellum decades was a growing urban society marked by anonymity, confusion, and an increase in movable wealth (such as paper currency). These conditions made possible all manner of frauds, forgeries, and “confidence” schemes like that pioneered by Thompson. According to Haltunnen, police estimated that during the 1860s one out of ten professional criminals in New York was a confidence man.


Arrest of the Confidence Man.

For the last few months a man has been traveling about the city, known as the “Confidence Man,” that is, he would go up to a perfect stranger in the street, and being a man of genteel appearance, would easily command an interview. Upon this interview he would say after some little conversation, “have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow;” the stranger at this novel request, supposing him to be some old acquaintance not at that moment recollected, allows him to take the watch, thus placing “confidence” in the honesty of the stranger, who walks off laughing and the other supposing it to be a joke allows him so to do. In this way many have been duped, and the last that we recollect was a Mr. Thomas McDonald, of No. 276 Madison street, who, on the 12th of May last, was met by this “Confidence Man” in William Street, who, in the manner as above described, took from him a gold lever watch valued at $110; and yesterday, singularly enough, Mr. McDonald was passing along Liberty street, when who should he meet but the “Confidence Man” who had stolen his watch. Officer Swayse, of the Third Ward, being near at hand, took the accused into custody on the charge made by Mr. McDonald. The accused at first refused to go with the officer; but after finding the officer determined to take him, he walked along for a short distance, when he showed desperate fight, and it was not until the officer had tied his hands together that he was able to convey him to the police office. On the prisoner being taken before Justice McGrath, he was recognized as an old offender by the name of Wm. Thompson, and is said to be a graduate of the college at Sing Sing. The magistrate committed him to prison for a further hearing. It will be well for all those persons who have been defrauded by the “Confidence Man” to call at the police court Tombs and take a view of him.

More info on Confidence Man:

William Thompson was an American criminal whose deceptions caused the term “confidence man” to be coined.

Operating in New York City in the late 1840s, a gently-dressed Thompson would approach an upper-class mark, pretending they knew each other, and begin a brief conversation. After initially gaining the mark’s trust, Thompson would ask “Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?” Upon taking the watch (or, occasionally, money), Thompson would depart, never returning the watch.[1]

Thompson was arrested and brought to trial in 1849, in a case that made newspaper headlines across the country. The New York Herald, recalling his explicit appeals to the victim’s “confidence,” dubbed him the “confidence man.” Per the Oxford English Dictionary, the first known use of the term was printed in TheNew Orleans Picayune.

The Thompson case was a major inspiration and source for Herman Melville‘s 1857 novel The Confidence-Man.

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confidence trick is an attempt to defraud a person or group by gaining their confidence. A confidence artist is an individual operating alone or in concert with others who exploits characteristics of the human psyche such as dishonesty and honestyvanitycompassioncredulityirresponsibilitynaivety and greed.

Terminology

A confidence trick is also known as a con gameconscamgrifthustlebunkobuncoswindleflimflamgaffle, or bamboozle. The intended victims are known as marks. The perpetrator of a confidence trick is often referred to as a confidence man or womancon man or womancon artist or grifter. When accomplices are employed, they are known as shills.

In David Mamet‘s film House of Games, the main con artist gives a slightly different description of the “confidence game”. He explains that, in a typical swindle, the con man gives the mark his own confidence, encouraging the mark to in turn trust him. The con artist thus poses as a trustworthy person seeking another trustworthy person.

History

The first known usage of the term “confidence man” in English was in 1849. It was used by American press during the United States trial of William Thompson. Thompson chatted with strangers until he asked if they had the confidence to lend him their watches, whereupon he would walk off with the watch. He was captured when a victim recognized him on the street.

Vulnerability to confidence tricks

Confidence tricks exploit typical human characteristics such as greeddishonestyvanityhonestycompassioncredulityirresponsibilitydesperation and naïveté. As such, there is no consistent profile of a confidence trick victim, the common factor is simply that the victim relies on the good faith of the con artist. Victims of investment scams tend to show an incautious level of greed and gullibility, and many con artists target the elderly, but even alert and educated people may be taken in by other forms of confidence trick.

Shills, also known as accomplices, help manipulate the mark into accepting the con man’s plan. In a traditional confidence trick, the mark is led to believe that he will be able to win money or some other prize by doing some task. The accomplices may pretend to be strangers who have benefited from performing the task in the past.

A greedy or dishonest mark may attempt to out-cheat the con artist, only to discover that he or she has been manipulated into losing from the very beginning.