Joseph Weil, best known by his alias “Yellow Kid”, was perhaps the world’s greatest con artist. Weil’s knack for duping wealthy businessmen earned him a reputation that many have longed to live up to. His scams were often emulated and even today, new spins are being taken on schemes he created over a century ago.
Weil got his start working for a collections agency. In those days money would pass through several hands before making it to the man in charge, this left plenty of opportunity for lower-level employees to skim a little off the top for themselves. Rather than ratting out those he suspected of taking money he demanded a small fee in order to keep his mouth shut. This continued until he met the acquaintance of a man going by the name of Doc Meriwhether.
Meriwhether was what is known as a snake oil salesmen. He traveled from town to town capitalizing on the tapeworm fad of the time by selling a magic serum he claimed would rid people of the tapeworms that were responsible for myriad medical problems. In actuality the serum was nothing more than a concoction of rainwater and alcohol mixed up by Meriwhether’s wife. Weil’s role in the scheme would be to either draw in a crowd in order to sell Doc Meriwhether’s miracle elixir or to act as a plant within the crowd, claiming that the formula cured him of various underlining medical conditions.
Other times Weil would assist in Meriwhether’s “special treatments”, where a patient would come into his office and be cured of their stubborn tapeworms. Meriwhether’s “treatments” consisted of rubbing the patient down the epson salts. Weil’s job would be to go into another room and prepare a bowl of water with the “tapeworm”, constructed from a spiral cut potato, in order to show the patient that the treatment had been effective.
Parting ways with Meriwhether, Weil became a traveling magazine salesman. It was though this vocation that he began perfecting his craft. He and his partner would knock on doors throughout the Midwest and convince farmers to purchase magazine subscriptions, then before they closed the door he would present a cheap, but expensive looking item – such as a pair of glasses or a pocket watch. He’d claim that he had found the item and wondered if the customer knew who the item belonged to, emphasizing how expensive the item looked and that surely there would be a reward for their return. Often times the customer, believing they were getting something for cheap, would give Weil’s $5 or more for the item. The actual cost of the item in the city was only a few pennies, so Weil was able to make a considerable profit off of this scam, in addition to his sales commission. It was during this time that Weil had a revelation.
“I have found that this is the way it works. The average person, in my estimation, is ninety-nine per cent animal and one per cent human. The ninety-nine per cent that is animal causes very little trouble. But the one per cent that is human causes all our woes. When people learn — as I doubt they will — that they can’t get something for nothing, crime will diminish and we shall all live in greater harmony. “
As long as men were motivated by greed and the endless pursuit of “something for nothing”, men like Weil could flourish. Weil would use methods similar to the magazine scam to con men of great wealth and power for many years. His method usually involved baiting people in with a seemingly legitimate transaction, and then completely distracting them with an underhanded scheme they would be involved in.
This is exactly how Weil pulled off his horse racing scams for so long. His targets were men that had a great deal of wealth and very little knowledge of horse racing. Most of the time he would approach a victim under some legitimate pretenses, such as wanting to help them set up a business proposal or to ask of a small loan. Instead of the business deal or loan he had initially suggested he would distract them into a deal where he could sell them “hot tips” or claim that he had some sort of insider information on a fixed race which would get their money back and more. Knowing that these men were not unintelligent, he often had to go to great lengths in order to make his word seem authentic.
Using actors, renting pool halls, sometimes employing fake equipment – like a wiretapping machine he used in one con, Weil made sure that all bases were covered when it came to convincing his victims of his claims. Owning several race horses himself, Weil would sometimes convince investors to give him money to workout his horse, assuring them that his horse would be a “sure win”. When the investor came to collect their loan back he would show them the small print on the contract they signed designating that they were unable to collect until the horse won a race, which was next to impossible since his horses were old and out of shape. Other times his schemes were as simple as telling an unwitting victim that he had a hot tip and take their money to place a bet, never to return.
Though many had attempted to take Weil to court over his shenanigans, the laws were so relaxed in those days that his cases were often dismissed. Others were so embarrassed for being taken by such an obvious scam that they didn’t dare attempt to prosecute Weil. Although it was possible to alert the gaming commission about Weil’s dealings at the racetracks, the track actually allowed him to continue operating. The racetrack expressed little sympathy for suckers looking to obtain ill-gotten funds and felt that it was actually good PR for themselves when it was revealed that the races weren’t fixed. Weil’s good standing within the Turf Association, as well as the head of the gaming commission, also allowed him leniency when it came to his questionable affairs. It wouldn’t be until Weil crossed a prominent Chicago madam that he would be banned from the premises.
Forced to find a new racket, Weil goes into business with a man nicknamed “The Colonel”. With The Colonel’s help, the two purchased a large amount of submarginal swamp land in Michigan for roughly $1 per acre. The Colonel’s cousin happened to be the county clerk. Rather than unloading the junk land on unsuspecting buyers the pair gave away the land. The Colonel’s cousin would then charge $30 to write up the abstract, way more than the typical rate at the time. Weil and The Colonel would then split $15, while the other $15 went to The Colonel’s cousin.
Once the land deals were finished, Weil set up a “get rich quick” business, taking a nationwide spin on his old hot horse racing tip scam. Taking out an ad in several publications, Weil urged customers to send $100, which would be used to bet on horses. Some bets were actually placed, while other times he and his partner just sat on the cash. Weil would print up fake reports, sending the customers checks for $125 claiming that they had won but unfortunately, due to popular demand, the company simply couldn’t handle such small accounts. The customer would then send in more money in order to secure their accounts. Money from new accounts would be used to on old accounts and keep the scam going. This same technique was mimicked years later and made popular by Charles Ponzi.
The nationwide horse bet scam was perhaps one of Weil’s most profitable schemes, however it began to unravel when he learned that his partner had been taking all of the checks before Weil came into the office in order to spoil his various mistresses. Weil abandoned the company and was once again forced to find a new approach.
Weil formed a new partnership, this time with a stock broker. Together they purchased a large amount of penny stocks. With the help of the stock broker, Weil would cold call various prominent people such as doctors and other businessmen. Weil would get them interested in placing their money on blue chip stocks such as standard oil and other wise investments. Once the check was received, Weil would then tell them that the deal was bad, but there was good word that their own junk stock had good prospects and by investing in them the victim stood to make a large sum of money. Weil also backed these claims with a magazine he and his partner wrote. The pair would send these magazines out to all of their clients. There they would pepper gleaming reports about their own junk stocks amongst real stock and trading advice. Since there was no laws on selling stocks above market value and other regulations present today, the pair were legally able to scam uninformed investors out of thousands of dollars.
Discovering he was under investigation for a boxing match scam he was involved with, Weil was forced to disguise his appearance by growing out his beard and went into hiding in Paris. While in Paris he learned a great deal about letters of credit, which were notarized letters from the bank allowing travelers to use the funds designated in the letter in lieu of cash. Once finding out the case against him was dropped, Weil returned to Chicago.
Although his pending case had been dismissed, Weil was still being watched by area law enforcement. He decided to attempt to go straight and start up his own vending machine company. Making deals with almost every gum manufacturer, Weil intended to sell the machines to independent vendors and he would get a portion of the profit from the machines. Giving people incentive to buy the gum from his machines, he offered coupons which could be redeemed for merchandise. This may have been the first instance of any company offering a premium for purchasing their products. Unfortunately with his bad reputation, he was forced to shut down operations before they began, as it was assumed it was another one of his scams.
His second attempt to go straight was after he struck up a deal with the owner of a coffee plantation. He offered to process and package the coffee beans, then sell the product at a premium price. The incentive for purchasing the coffee was that the customer could collect coupons and trade them for a piano. Setting up a deal with a cheap piano company, once again his reputation caught up with him. Weil was accosted by the coffee plantation owner and again business was halted before it even started.
An associate of Weil approached him in a saloon and wanted to sell junk bonds through a bank they would purchase. Weil wanted no part in a junk bond scheme, but convinced his associate to allow him to go into business with him because he knew how he could make him a lot of money without the risk of selling fake bonds. The bank operated under legitimate circumstances however Weil, using his knowledge of letters of credit, wrote out six fraudulent letters for $100,000 each. With the help of himself and five additional men along their female companions, they departed for Europe and went on shopping sprees. Hitting up posh boutiques, the men would spoil the women with furs and jewelry. The letters would be written out for more than the cost of the items, the change would then be handed over in cash. Once the funds had been exhausted over the course of several weeks, the merchandise was sold off and the money was split accordingly. The letters would then be sent back to the bank, where Weil’s partner and bank president would dispute the charges, claiming the clerk was responsible. The clerk that notarized the letters was sent to live in Mexico while Weil and his partner paid his living expenses. Weil later left with his initial $37,000 investment after his partner insisted on pulling off his junk bond plan.
Living to the ripe old age of 99, Weil carried on a number of profitable schemes after his letters of credit con, but squandered much of his money away attempting to go straight and run legitimate businesses. Due to loopholes in the laws Weil was never convicted of any crimes.