Kristina Stasiuliene

Who was the original conman?

William Thompson was an excellent conman when it came to “borrowing” watches. He used certain lines to gauge an individual’s trust in order to accomplish his goal of stealing a watch. In 1849, an article released that William Thompson was a confidence man, or con man for short. This article was published in the New York Herald.

Many individuals have continued to utilized the word confidence man since, including in many books. Many individuals have even come up with other nicknames such as con artist for this term. The description continues to hold true today to describe sneaky individuals providing false information such as William Thompson.

People with bad intentions have been performing cons on seemingly innocent people for centuries. This includes even before the time when the phrase confidence man was first written about in that article. They were simply referred to as other names, including diddlers after Jeremy Diddler in Raising the Wind.

Edgar Allan Poe, in 1840, studied the concept of so-called diddlers. This was still before the terminology for confidence man came out. He actually wrote an essay about diddling entitled Diddling, Considered as One of the Exact Sciences. Poe’s goal was to understand the personality characteristics associated with these individuals which he concluded included self-interest, perseverance, originality and even an expert at smiling.

William Thompson, the inspiration behind the term confidence man, had many of these qualities and more. He was attractive in his town, sharing in gentleman-like qualities. He was well-dressed, and individuals were naturally drawn to him as well. He was very successful in stealing watches until his arrest in 1849.

The article in the New York Herald described that Thompson would simply go up to strangers on New York City streets. As mentioned, people were willing to speak with him and trusted him because of his attractiveness. They would simply engage in small talk until Thompson asked the individual if he or she would entrust him with their watch.

The stranger would be led to believe that he or she had met Thompson before and in most cases, would willingly give Thompson their watch. William Thompson was known for walking away with a smile on his face, laughing. The stranger would simply believe that Thompson was giddy with excitement over a joke rather than performing a con.

Mr. Thomas McDonald was the last man that William Thompson conned. He had given Thompson his $110 watch, and ran into him again the next day. Mr. McDonald explained in detail what had happened to Officer Swayse of the New York police department. This officer then arrested William Thompson after Thompson’s initial refusal.

William Thompson graduated from Sing Sing College. He had a history of criminal offenses according to the judge that sentenced him, Justice McGrath. Thompson was soon after sent to prison. With Thompson’s reputation, the term confidence man was formed. The police asked other individuals who had encountered this confidence man to share in detail what had happened to them. With this, we continue to utilize shortened versions of this term today.