Just who was the man whose name has become synonymous with the classic "rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul" scam in which money from new investors is used to reward earlier ones In December 1919, he was an unknown thirty-eight-year-old, self-educated Italian immigrant with a borrowed two-hundred dollars in his pocket. Six months later, he was Boston's famed "wizard of finance," lionized by the public and politicians alike. Based on exclusive interviews with people who knew Charles Ponzi, lent him their money, and exposed him, Donald Dunn's Ponzi recreates both one of America's most notorious and colorful financial con artists and the mad money-hungry era in which he thrived.
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March 22, 2004
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Excerpt from Ponzi by Donald Dunn
Almost as soon as August, 1919, gave way to September, a brisk and swirling wind hurried into Boston. It tore the leaves, which had only just begun to turn color, from the maple and sycamore trees in the quiet suburbs. Then it raced through the narrow streets of the business district with force enough to lift the heavy ankle-length skirts of secretaries and shopgirls an inch or two, exposing a glimpse of black stocking to the appraising gaze of nearby males, and all too frequently compounding the mischief by wrapping the unshrouded limb in a sheet of dirty, discarded newspaper blown from the gutter.
If there was one thing that the wind had declared war on, however, it was that popular element of male attire, the straw skimmer. All over town, from North Reading to Randolph, from Cohasset to Lincoln, closet doors were opened and the beloved--but lightweight--hats were tucked carefully away on upper shelves to hibernate until the following May.
The instantaneous and mass disappearance of the skimmer made the one worn by Charles Ponzi that windy September day all the more noticeable. It sat atop his head like a crown, and he wore it with an assurance that no wind would dare disturb it. As he strode purposefully along the street, Ponzi even tilted the disc of straw back to a more rakish angle, revealing a flash of sandy hair above his high, lightly furrowed forehead, and adding that much more height to his stature. Today, he wanted every fraction he could obtain. Only five-foot-four, he knew well that he lacked an imposing physical appearance--a helpful quality to possess when a man is out to get money.
Charles Ponzi was out to get money. A lot of it. And in the sixteen years that he had been trying to get rich in America, he had learned that any number of things could compensate for limited stature and physical strength. A confident tone of voice, for example; a tone that indicated its owner knew precisely what he was doing at all times. A dapper appearance, too; an appearance that said--from the well-shined shoes, the pristine celluloid collar above the tightly knotted tie with its small diamond stickpin perfectly centered, the casual breast-pocket handkerchief, and the rakish straw hat--that here is a man who, if he is not already successful, will latch onto success at any moment. And then, of course, there was the smile. Always, the smile; for a smiling man is obviously not worried--and who would give money to a worried man?