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America's Shrewdest Con-Man: The "Christian Kid"

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The way William Elmer Mead figured it, no man would be stupid enough to believe he could buy a major league baseball park.

But a few might think they could lease one.

In 1910, Mead came up with a fail-proof, scorcher of a con, using the end of the world as his bait. That year, the tail of Halley’s comet was expected to sweep over Earth. Some predicted it would be a catastrophic event; others just wanted to say they were looking at the sky for an astronomical milestone. Either way, it was all anyone was talking about.

In Cleveland, posing as a high-rolling upperclassman, Mead met up with a contractor to discuss plans for building property in the area. As the two sat down, the contractor found a wallet stuffed with invoices, money, and paperwork, all of it indicating its owner was some kind of big-deal developer for baseball stadiums.

The owner—in reality, Mead’s accomplice—soon materialized, thankful the contractor had located his wallet. He spoke about the comet, and how easy it would be to fill the stadiums he had developed with rubber-necked gawkers. It wasn’t baseball season, and the seats were just going to go unused. Why didn’t the contractor lease the parks so he could sell tickets to the doomsday event? It was the least the developer could do for the man for finding his wallet, and with all the money to be made, it would be ridiculous not to.

By the time the mark got escorted from the baseball field by security, Mead and his partner would be long gone—and $10,000 richer.

The names, places, and methods changed, but the goal was always the same: to separate people from as much of their money as possible. Over a 40-year career of increasingly outlandish schemes, Mead swindled as much as two million dollars. Most of it was squirreled away in safety-deposit boxes and real estate.

Some of it, though, had to go to the church. William Mead may have been a liar, cheat, and thief, but no one could say his parents hadn’t raised him right.

Mead was born in 1875 and an orphan by the age of two. Adopted by a farming family in Iowa, Mead was read the Bible every night until he was old enough to read it on his own. Growing up in a fundamentalist household had made him dismissive of drinking, smoking, or profanity, lending him a pious nature that mixed uneasily with his ambitions: Mead wanted out of the farming life.  

At the age of 15, Mead ran away from home, drifting in and out of saloons and learning his way around a deck of cards. Civilians—those who couldn’t spot the sleight of hand in street games—were another breed. Mead accumulated tricks to make money spill from their pockets and he got a real rush using his wits to make a dishonest living. The new scams he invented became legendary. 

One of Mead’s earliest hustles involved betting on foot races, which was a popular illicit activity at the turn of the century. Mead would strike up a conversation with a mark he’d already profiled as a high-roller as the two eyeballed a small group of runners. He’d tell him the favorite was a sure thing and that other bettors (Mead’s pals) were looking at losing $50,000 total. A gambler’s fever would take over, with the man believing a $10,000 wager for a payout worth five times as much was worth the risk.

When the race went off, the favorite would take a comfortable lead before stumbling, wheezing, and keeling over in convulsions right before the finish line. At that moment, lawmen would invade the premises and break up the group, leaving Mead and his dunce to run for the train station. But it was Mead who had paid off the cops to allow the race in the first place; he had also paid them to come and threaten everyone with arrest. With law enforcement on their tail, the victim would be more worried about fleeing the law and not being implicated in the scandal than getting his money back. To tie up loose ends, Mead would telegraph the mark in the next town letting him know that the runner had passed away: "All is lost. Keep on going." In most cases, the sucker did. 

But in spite of his chosen profession, Mead continued to maintain a certain type of faith. Throughout his career, Mead donated to religious organizations—enough to become a lifetime member to at least one. But being that devout didn’t buy him clemency: In 1897, he was arrested for grand larceny and spent three years in San Quentin. The experience acted as a deterrent for a little while, but by 1903, he was at it again—this time making use of a new scheme: “the magic wallet.”

The wallet was a Mead trademark, brimming with evidence that the man his mark was about to meet was trustworthy. In one variation, he presented his accomplice as a contractor for viaducts or bridges in an area. Mead wasn't bold enough to try and sell a bridge to someone, but he did convince several that they could buy an interest in one and charge tolls to drivers. By the time police intervened, Mead was long gone. In another, he convinced victims he was an esteemed professor and trusted friend of the President who had been tasked with selling freshly minted money at a discount to help the government pay its debts. One widow handed over $35,000, thinking she’d gotten a crisp $100,000 in return. She did not.

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In 1922, Mead pushed his luck too far. Knowing he was headed for prison over a stock market scam, he hid out for several years in England before being extradited. When he landed in a Jacksonville, Florida courthouse to answer to the charges in 1933, he jumped bond.

Even with mail fraud hanging over him, Mead had no desire to go straight. After he swindled a contractor named Martin Wunderlich out of $50,000 in 1932, he learned that Wunderlich’s friend, a banker Ed Bremer, had been kidnapped and the FBI was scrutinizing every detail. Fearing he'd be implicated in the kidnapping, Mead had a back-alley surgeon named Wilhelm Loeser mutilate his fingerprints. (The doctor had done the same for John Dillinger.)

In March 1934, the Feds let it be known that they were looking to speak to Mead about the kidnapping. Authorities believed Wunderlich had borrowed the $50,000 from Bremer to pay Mead. Though Mead didn’t appear to be directly involved with the kidnapping, there was still a matter of tax evasion: he owed over $60,000 on his ill-gotten earnings.

Mead and his butchered fingertips were captured in July 1936 while holed up in an Omaha, Nebraska hotel. After serving two years for mail fraud, he was immediately shuttled to Federal court for his tax troubles. A tired 63, Mead didn’t have the $20,000 bond to post, was put on trial, and spent the rest of his life in Leavenworth. The con man known as the “Christian Kid” who had used over 50 different aliases in his criminal career would now be known only as a number.

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Mata Hari: Famous Spy or Creative Storyteller?
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Nearly everyone has heard of Mata Hari, one of the most cunning and seductive spies of all time. Except that statement isn't entirely true. Cunning and seductive, yes. Spy? Probably not. 

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest daughter of a hat store owner who was quite wealthy thanks to some savvy oil investments.  When her mother died, her father remarried and shuffled his children off to various relatives. To escape, an 18-year-old Margaretha answered an ad in the paper that might have read something like this: "Dutch Colonial Army Captain Seeks Wife. Compatibility not important. Must not mind blatant infidelity or occasional beatings."

She had two children with Captain Rudolf MacLeod, but they did nothing to improve the marriage. He brazenly kept a mistress and a concubine; she moved in with another officer. Again, probably looking to escape her miserable existence, Margaretha spent her time in Java (where the family had relocated for Captain MacLeod's job) becoming part of the culture, learning all about the dance and even earning a dance name bestowed upon her by the locals—"Mata Hari," which meant "eye of the day" or "sun."

Her son died after being poisoned by an angry servant (so the MacLeods believed).

Margaretha divorced her husband, lost custody of her daughter and moved to Paris to start a new life for herself in 1903. Calling upon the dance skills she had learned in Java, the newly restyled Mata Hari became a performer, starting with the circus and eventually working her way up to exotic dancer. 

To make herself seem more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari told people her mother was a Javanese princess who taught her everything she knew about the sacred religious dances she performed. The dances were almost entirely in the nude.

Thanks to her mostly-nude dancing and tantalizing background story, she was a hot commodity all over Europe. During WWI, this caught the attention of British Intelligence, who brought her in and demanded to know why she was constantly traipsing across the continent. Under interrogation, she apparently told them she was a spy for France—that she used her job as an exotic dancer to coerce German officers to give her information, which she then supplied back to French spymaster Georges Ladoux. No one could verify these claims and Mata Hari was released.

Not too long afterward, French intelligence intercepted messages that mentioned H-21, a spy who was performing remarkably well. Something in the messages reminded the French officers of Mata Hari's tale and they arrested her at her hotel in Paris on February 13, 1917, under suspicion of being a double agent.

Mata Hari repeatedly denied all involvement in any spying for either side. Her captors didn't believe her story, and perhaps wanting to make an example of her, sentenced her to death by firing squad. She was shot to death 100 years ago today, on October 15, 1917.

In 1985, one of her biographers convinced the French government to open their files on Mata Hari. He says the files contained not one shred of evidence that she was spying for anyone, let alone the enemy. Whether the story she originally told British intelligence was made up by them or by her to further her sophisticated and exotic background is anyone's guess. 

Or maybe she really was the ultimate spy and simply left no evidence in her wake.

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German Police Tried to Fine Someone $1000 for Farting at Them
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In Berlin, passing gas can cost you. Quite a lot, actually, in the case of a man accused of disrespecting police officers by releasing a pair of noxious farts while being detained by the police. As CityLab reports, Berlin’s police force has recently been rocked by a scandal hinging on the two farts of one man who was asked to show his ID to police officers while partying on an evening in February 2016.

The man in question was accused of disrespecting the officers involved by aiming his flatulence at a policewoman, and was eventually slapped with a fine of 900 euros ($1066) in what local media called the "Irrer-Pups Prozess," or "Crazy Toot Trial." The errant farter was compelled to show up for court in September after refusing to pay the fine. A judge dismissed the case in less than 10 minutes.

But the smelly situation sparked a political scandal over the police resources wasted over the non-crime. It involved 18 months, 23 public officials, and 17 hours of official time—on the taxpayers’ dime. Officials estimate that those two minor toots cost taxpayers more than $100, which is chump change in terms of city budgets, but could have been used to deal with more pressing criminal issues.

[h/t CityLab]

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