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Feb 20, 2003 to Feb 6, 2013

Conmen! Scoundrels! Rogues! How to Research Colorful Characters and Write Their Stories


On Wednesday, November 29 at 7 PM, Brooks Memorial Library will host a presentation about conmen who made their fortunes and furthered their careers by coming to Brattleboro and working their magic art. Rolf Parker, a free-lance writer and local historian, will tell their stories and share tips and techniques for doing your own research and story-telling. Come learn how your work can become part of the Peoples, Places and the History of Words Project! It is funded by an NEH “Creating Humanities Communities” grant. For more information, visit: http://www.brattleboro.com/words.

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On my calendar!

I definitely look forward to this. Stories of what conmen (and women), scoundrels, and rogues pulled on someone else, especially when time has gone by, can be amusing; but not so much when you, yourself were the patsy. Con artists tend to play on human flaws: Gullibility can be born of the mark's own greed. But when a con takes advantage of someone's kindness, then it is particularly malicious.

Once in NYC, a couple of guys tried one on me. One was Hispanic and appeared to be drunk; his companion was an Anglo, not drunk. I think that part of the ploy was to play on the victim's ethnic biases. The set-up was that the Hispanic fellow offered a gold coin, supposedly quite valuable but which he offered to sell for $10. The Anglo guy's role was to lend credibility to the story, telling me how stupid his companion was to sell this coin for a fraction of its value.

This was an example of tempting the victim's greed. I was young, and naively believed their account. But instead of buying the coin, with all sincerity I pleaded with the fellow who was offering the coin not to sell it cheap because he could get much more money selling it to a coin dealer.

More recently, my family somehow got involved with a fellow named Edgar: A bit of a conman but really more of a scamp. Edgar was a drifter who would be a saint when he showed up -- considerate and helpful -- and leave as a nasty drunk, having outstayed his welcome. On time he arrived at our door with flowers for my wife (which I am sure he had picked from someone's garden) and a silver pen set for me.

With all the free BS&L pens, I regarded the pen set as a showpiece, which I displayed on my desk. Gradually, Edgar went through his usual transformation until he became unbearable and we asked him to leave. He left, but returned to my front door with the police, claiming that I had stolen his belongings and demanding entry to get them. I said that I was willing to come to the police station the following day, and bring any of Edgar's possessions that were still in his room.

The only thing in his room was a bag with dirty socks and $40 which he had taken from a drawer in my desk. Also, missing from my desk was the fancy pen set, which apparently Edgar had taken as his entrance ticket to the next stop on his route.

 
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I look forward to this giving this presentation

I look forward to this giving this presentation. Digging up these stories has been highly pleasurable. I think that Bradley Newell is perhaps the most fascinating of the three. T. P. James was wildly successful and probably the one with the most enduring fame, but the mysteries that surround Newell were the most intriguing.

Con-men know how to listen to other humans, and by saying things you want to hear, artists at what they do.

It's natural to be fooled by them, and very human to want to believe what they are saying is true.

It's also great fun researching them, and writing about them. I hope to share some tips on that, and maybe even inspire others to start down that path of discovery.

 
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Digging back a few years

Hopefully the tale of the hoaxer of the early 2000's will be told. There was some guy around here who launched UFO's, as I recall.

 
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Oh, Him.

The boy in 1811 who launched a kite over Brattleboro, which dangled a lantern over the town, and exploded, due to the black powder that the boy placed at the bottom of the candle, thereby creating what was interpreted as a celestial omen, can be said to have founded the "University of Brattleboro."

Meanwhile, we made more clay donuts the other night.

I am seriously going to argue that these activities are not cons, and barely hoaxes, and merely good fun.

Mr Garza, on the other hand, appears to be part of a growing crowd of contenders for the title, Cad, Scoundrel, or Con man. Bob Audette wrote the most recent article about his exploits.

As I sit here at the Bagel Works, I am working on some changes to the presentation, which is fitting, as you may recall this was where Garza had his store and GAW, Grand Auk Wireless business.

 
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mockeries of shams!

Ah, Garza. We have stories to add to the pile in that one.... (such as the time he was using "ibrattleboro" in his meta tags for his business, us catching him, and him denying it. Then one of his staff said, "uh, yes we are...")

 
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Honest staff will get you in trouble every time

It's kind of amazing that Garza was here. I think I might be sitting in his former office space, as I write this. (It's even more fun to write in the Blueberry Haus, where T. P. James wrote articles for the Windham County Reformer.)

Honest insiders are the bane of all talented con-men. American tobacco companies keep being cursed with honest employees, who keep dumping their internal memos out for the public to read. The latest beauty was that they are referring to the newly arising middle class of Africa as their "Black Diamonds", and handing out free cigarettes to youth. Black Diamonds. Uggh. Black Lungs.

Brattleboro used to be a tobacco town, which I never knew until I bumped into it while searching for something else on Chronicling America. That is how all best discoveries are made. Reading for the sheer pleasure of it leads down wonderful roads.

 
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smoke 'em if you got 'em

Tobacco was a big crop here for a while. Brattleboro was home to a cigar maker, too... employing quite a few people.

Chronicling America is one of the best things on the Internet. If only copyright law would catch up and put much more into the public domain. We could find out what happened in the 30's and 40's!

 

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