The Somerville Times Historical Fact of the Week – October 15

On October 15, 2014, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

eagle_webEagle Feathers #63 – The Scheme

By Bob (Monty) Doherty

If it sounds “too good to be true,” then it probably is. So, abide by that well-worn advice and steer clear. This sounds pretty simple, but how many people accept it? Not nearly enough.

A large stucco-covered house on Powder House Boulevard stands across from Dilboy Field. Its square features and color gives it the likeness of a giant golden nugget, which seems appropriate, because at one time a multi-millionaire rented there. The time was 1919-1920 when a million dollars was worth ten times today’s value.

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Somerville was forty years old to the day on March 3, 1882 when this man was born. He came here from Italy to make his fortune and, although not admirably, he did just that. His name was Charles Ponzi, and he had an idea, a scheme. He told people he could guarantee to make every $1.00 they gave him into $1.50 after forty-five days, or into $2.00 after sixty days. Word of this claim became infectious. From all walks of life, bridging the educated rich to the vulnerable poor, thousands of people flooded their money to him. Before a year had passed, they had lost it all.

The game started to unravel when authorities found out it was a “rob Peter to pay Paul” design. They had been alerted by a Pulitzer-prize winning newspaper article, which appeared in the Boston Post. For the last year, high stakes were paid hoping for the quick strike of gold, and for the vast majority, it didn’t pan out. Meanwhile, Ponzi, in his Davis Square office on Highland Avenue, just smiled. He was the country’s most famous con artist. The sound of his name and his illegal contrivance swindled millions of dollars from thousands of gullible people. It should have been a red-flag warning for get-rich, quick proposals from then on, but it wasn’t.

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Ninety years later, in 2008, the beat went on when the biggest Ponzi-type scheme of all time came to a head with Bernard “Bernie” Madoff’s incredible hoax. He defrauded from investors 50 billion dollars, which is equivalent to three times the cost of the Big Dig.

 

It doesn’t happen often enough, but justice prevailed. Charles Ponzi, but not his scheme, is long gone; and Bernie Madoff is in prison for 125 years. People who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.

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