A Priceless Collection of Skulduggery

In chief librarian Larry E. Sullivan's view, the Fraud and Swindle Collection has become more valuable because of present-day scams.
Long before Bernard Madoff, there was Charles Ponzi. And to find out more about this Boston swindler from the early 1900s, you might consult an unpublished, little-known manuscript about him in the special-collection room of the Lloyd Sealy Library at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

The Fraud and Swindle Collection, bought by the college last year, includes 2,200 books and original manuscripts chronicling frauds from the 6th century B.C. to the late 20th century.

On the forgery shelf, books tell the stories of Clifford Irving's Howard Hughes autobiography hoax and the phony diaries of Adolf Hitler.

Also in the forgery category are books on the Donation of Constantine, a forged document that for centuries gave the pope temporal power. "That was probably one of the most famous forgeries in history," says Larry E. Sullivan, associate dean and chief librarian. The collection also contains transcripts of interviews that took place during the investigation of Mark Hofmann, notorious for forging Oath of a Freeman. Thought to be the first document printed in American history, it surfaced in the late 1980s when Sullivan was chief of the rare book division at the Library of Congress.

Books on P. T. Barnum and his famous sideshow hoax (among the acts: "George Washington's nurse," billed as 161 years old) also line the shelves and spill over to books on the spirit rappers - mediums who faked communication with the deceased (who supposedly replied via raps on a table). More timely books on real estate swindles also are available.

For art collectors, a section on forgeries might offer useful information about detecting fake Vermeers. And a collection on frauds would not be complete without books on gambling cheats.

This rare first edition of Ponzi's self-published autobiography is among prized library holdings.
But lately, in the post-Madoff economy, it's The Ponzi Story that draws the most attention, says Sullivan. The unpublished memoir was written by Ponzi's publicist, William H. McMasters, who caught on to the swindler's shady dealings and revealed all in a front page story in The Boston Post in 1920. The scam worked - for a time - by paying early investors big profits funded by others who bought into the deal later.

"I do not anticipate that another Charles Ponzi will ever appear in the financial world," McMasters wrote.

The library acquired the collection in March 2008 before the current financial crisis was in full flower. "The hallmark of a good collector is that you anticipate trends," said Sullivan. He bought the collection from a dealer who was brokering the sale from Illinois. The collector - retired Navy lawyer William Gall, who died last year - found The Ponzi Story in a bookstore in Vermont in 1990.

Since Ponzi's name started resurfacing in the media during the Madoff scandal, the collection has became even more valuable, according to Sullivan.

Inside a cage built to keep them safe and secure, the books have been enclosed in protective clear covers and categorized by the swindle, the con and the crime - from the most common stock market frauds to instructions on detecting Hawaiian forgery. They will be held there until everything is cataloged and a special-collections room is built for the library. Those who want to view the collection will need a reservation, but none of the material may be checked out.

Another prized holding is a rare first edition of Ponzi's self-published autobiography from 1935. "A special collection always has a core of extremely valuable items that is buttressed by a larger gathering of research materials, which hold the collection together and make it cohesive," says Sullivan. "I don't know any other collection that has the depth and breadth on fraud and swindles that this one has."

Sampler VILLAINS & VICTIMS

Here are a few of the 2,200 books and original manuscripts in John Jay College's fascinating "Fraud and Swindle Collection."

Barnum and Bunk Edwin C. Riegel attacks the business practices of Macy's, America's largest department store. Published 1928. Frauds Exposed The infamous 19th century New York anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock provides a lengthy, sensational exposé of mail frauds and swindles. Published 1880. Romancin' Through Floridy with Mandy and Me In this lively account, Philip Samuel Easley writes in colorful colloquial regional dialect about the buccaneering years of Florida's real estate fraud schemes. Published 1926. The Sucker's Manual "YOU, too can be a sucker, even if you have not yet shown any genius for it!" reads the first line of this ironic guide by Lewis Belmore on how to get swindled. Published 1930. The Devil and the Grafter "The devil" influences crime in America through clever remarks drawn onto illustrations about gambling, graft and other economic frauds in this book by Clifton R. Wooldridge. Published 1907. Caught Short! A victim of the 1929 stock market crash himself, entertainer Eddie Cantor gives a humorous account of losing everything on Wall Street. Published 1929. How to Cheat Your Friends at Poker Poker isn't just about winning. Learn all the tricks to cheating your friends out of all their money without them even knowing a thing in this book by Penn Jillette and Mickey D. Lynn. Published 2005.