Whether as politicians, spiritual leaders, financial gurus, impostors or just plain hustlers, the following men and women distinguish themselves as con artists for the ages.
How charismatic, brazen and lucky was this American con man? In the 1960s, Abagnale successfully passed $2.5 million in forged checks, he assumed more than half a dozen different identities (including a doctor, an airline pilot and a lawyer), and he twice escaped from police custody. Abagnale did all this between the ages of 16 and 21. When he was brought to justice, he served fewer than five years in prison after which he became a consultant to banks and the FBI. His job: to identify check frauds and con men. Today, Abagnale is a legit millionaire, and his life story served as the inspiration for “Catch Me If You Can.” Leonardo DiCaprio played him in the movie. In short, Abagnale proves that crime can pay.
Anna Anderson (b. December 16,1896 – d. February 12, 1984)
Many people might act like they're royalty, but few go so far as to make an official claim to a sovereign crown. Following her release from an asylum in 1921, Anna Anderson insisted that she was the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia. Were her assertions unfounded? Yes, but a crown princess of Prussia, a baron and a host of other displaced royal servants and nostalgic aristocrats believed Anderson, who profited handsomely off the fiction. For decades, one affluent patron after another bankrolled Anderson. She even married a man who was convinced of her imperial lineage. Talk about a long con. Until her death, Anderson stuck to her story: she was the youngest daughter of the last Tsar and Tsarina of Russia.
Rod Blagojevich (b. December 10, 1956)
Somewhere around the time Rod Blagojevich appeared as a contestant on The Celebrity Apprentice, he became a punchline. He seemed too cartoonish and nakedly corrupt to fool anyone into buying what he was selling. Yet, in 2002 and 2006, he convinced Illinois voters to elect and reelect him as governor. In fact, for more than two decades, Blagojevich managed to con constituents into believing he was a dedicated public servant. Maybe he became a victim of his own success, succumbing to the fallacy that he needn’t bother with subtlety or slight of hand when abusing the public trust. Ultimately, his lack of finesse cost him. When Blagojevich had the authority to fill the senate seat vacated by President Obama, he was caught on wiretaps expressing his desire for a kickback in exchange for his pick. In January of 2009, Blagojevich was impeached from the governorship. In 2011, he was found guilty of 17 out 20 corruption-related charges and sentenced to 14 years in federal prison.
Victor Lustig (b. January 4, 1890 – d. March 11, 1947)
Victor Lustig had nerves of steel. Among his legendary scams, he literally sold the Eiffel Tower -- twice. Here was his line: War World I had been so costly to France that the country could no longer pay to maintain the Eiffel Tower and was secretly planning to sell the monument for scrap metal. Lustig, posing as the government official in charge of arranging the tower’s removal, accepted bids from various scrap metal dealers jockeying to land the project. Lustig accepted the highest offer. In turn, the sucker he swindled was too embarrassed to report the crime to the police. This gave Lustig the opportunity to sell the Eiffel Tower again -- which he did. However, his second mark did run to the police, and Lustig fled the country. Eventually, Lustig came to the United States, where he continued his work as a con man. He evaded the law until 1935, when he was betrayed by his mistress, who turned him in for counterfeiting. Lustig was sent to Alcatraz and died in federal custody.
Andrew Cunanan (b. August 31, 1969 – d. July 23, 1997)
Andrew Cunanan could be quite a seductive con man. His marks gave him cars, clothes, shelter and money. Eventually, he'd leave them either high and dry -- or dead. Cunanan, who targeted wealthy, older, gay men, was adept at changing his appearance and mannerisms. He'd lie to erase what he hated about himself. Then he'd lie some more to make himself attractive to his targets. What Cunanan couldn't always mask was his violent temper. When rejected or simply desperate, his playboy demeanor turned into homicidal rage. He ultimately killed five men, including famed fashion designer Gianni Versace. Cunanan ended his crime spree by shooting himself as police closed in on him.
George Parker (b. 1870 – d. 1936)
Had he been legit, George Parker's business activities would have made him one of the most powerful real estate owners in New York City. In his prime, Parker sold the Statue of Liberty, Grant's Tomb, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Madison Square Garden and the Brooklyn Bridge. He, of course, owned none of these properties. Countless marks were convinced otherwise due to Parker's skills as a forger of deeds and other documents. Of all the places he sold, the Brooklyn Bridge seemed to be his favorite. For years, he sold it a couple times a week to people who would then, as “owners” of the bridge, try to set up toll booths. Parker was convicted of fraud on three occasions. Ultimately, he was sent to Sing Sing, where he was popular among his fellow inmates, as well as the guards. Parker died in prison.
David Hampton (b. April 4, 1964 – d. July 18, 2003)
Few con artists have inspired the arts the way David Hampton did. His streak through the upper-class of Manhattan in the 1980s served as inspiration for the play “Six Degrees of Separation,” which was turned into a movie starring Will Smith in the lead role. Hampton infiltration of high society made him legendary, but his initial ambitions were much more humble. He just wanted to get inside an exclusive night club. So, in 1983, he claimed to be Sidney Poitier's son in order to get past the velvet rope outside Studio 54. The con worked like a charm, and Hampton started running the scheme uptown. As David Poitier, he convinced a string of notables into letting him stay in their homes or into giving him money. Among his marks, Calvin Klein, Melanie Griffith and Gary Sinise. Hampton's ruse was eventually found out, and he was sent to jail -- a pattern that came to dominate his life until he died of AIDS-related complications in 2003.
Steven Jay Russel (b. September 14, 1957)
Many con artists are motivated by money; others by power; a few by psychosis. While an argument could be made that all three motivators played a part in Steven Jay Russel's streaks, he claims that he committed most of his crimes for love. Specifically for the love of Phillip Morris, a short, soft-spoken man that Russel met while they were both serving time in prison. Their romance, and the extensive fraud and embezzlement that Russel perpetrated to make the couple's extravagant lifestyle possible is at the heart of the jaw-dropping comedy, “I Love You Phillip Morris,” starring Jim Carrey as Russel and Ewan McGregor as Morris. Russel received a relatively light sentence for his initial crimes, but was so driven to be with Morris that he escaped from prison. He was caught again, then escaped again. Caught, escaped. Caught, escaped. Russel is currently serving a 144-year sentence. Guards now keep him in solitary confinement for 23 hours out of the day.
Aimee Semple McPherson (b. October 9, 1890 – d. September 27, 1944)
A precursor to today’s theatrical TV evangelists, Aimee Semple McPherson delivered sermons over the radio to reach her large flock in the 1920s. Yet, the biggest headlines of her career had little to do with religious matters. On May 18, 1926, McPherson reportedly went for a swim in the Pacific Ocean, then vanished. She was presumed dead. Thousands of mourners wept for her, until McPherson emerged in Mexico on June 23. She claimed that she had been kidnapped for ransom. Five witnesses stepped forward asserting that during her alleged captivity, they saw McPherson at a secluded seaside cottage with Kenneth Ormiston, a married man with whom she is rumored to have had an affair. The subsequent scandal led to McPherson being brought up on charges before a grand jury. The charges were dismissed, but McPherson’s pious reputation never recovered.
The broad strokes of the story behind Bernie Madoff’s financial fraud are generally well-known. For nearly 50 years, Madoff presented himself as a brilliant stockbroker, investment advisor and financier. His investment firm consistently produced profits for its clients, or so it seemed. In 2008, Madoff informed his sons that he was operating a Ponzi scheme on the verge of collapse. His sons turned him over to the authorities. What remains captivating about Madoff’s con is the shear size of it: $65 billion in losses, including fabricated gains; and thousands of lives ruined by personal loss or through the decimation of a host of charitable organizations. For his crimes, Madoff is currently serving a 150-year prison sentence -- the maximum allowed by law.