• U.S.

National Affairs: Take My Money!

3 minute read

As the dapper little man with the straw hat, the walking stick and the boutonniere emerged from Boston’s State House, a cheer went up for “the greatest Italian of them all.” Charles (“Get-Rich-Quick”) Ponzi shrugged off the compliment. “No,” he admitted, “Columbus and Marconi were greater. Columbus discovered America, Marconi discovered the wireless.” Hysterical voice from the crowd: “But you discovered money!”

Boston in 1920 was money-mad, and Ponzi had created the madness. Six months before, the 5 ft. 2 “Wizard of Finance” had been a $16-a-week clerk; now he was a millionaire. Ponzi promised to make everybody rich by paying 50% interest on investments in 90 days, or “double your money” in six months. His offer was incredible; but there were satisfied customers who seemed to prove his good faith. Thousands more pushed, scratched and fought their way into Ponzi’s Securities Exchange Co., crying: “Take my money!

Take my money!” In the dingy little office at 27 School Street, greenbacks overflowed into wastebaskets and closets; the floor was carpeted with money. In eight months, 40,000 people pressed $15 million into Ponzi’s willing hands.

Net: 400%. Ponzi’s secret was absurdly simple, he explained: he bought depreciated foreign currency with U.S. dollars, converted it into International Postal Union reply coupons at par, then converted the coupons back into dollars. Net: 400%. The police commissioner assigned inspectors to investigate Ponzi; they ended up investing in his company.

Ponzi’s biggest one-day take had topped $2,000,000 when the Boston Post finally exposed him for what he was : an ex-convict and a confidence man who had borrowed from 40,000 Peters to pay early-bird Pauls. This time the mob that stormed Ponzi’s office shouted: “Kill him!”

Cash: $2.50. After 3½ years in federal prison for mail fraud, Ponzi tried to launch a “200% profit” Florida land swindle. Then Massachusetts clapped him into jail again for his original thefts. When he got out the second time, in 1934, Ponzi was deported to Italy, which he had left with “$2.50 in cash and $1,000,000 in hopes.”

In Italy, Ponzi got on the good side of Mussolini’s Fascists, was sent to Rio de Janeiro as business manager for Italy’s LATI airlines. The war ended his job; after that he eked out a meager existence as a translator. Committed to a Rio charity ward, blind in one eye and partly paralyzed, he said not long ago: “I guess the only news about me that most people want to hear is my death.” Last week, at 66, Get-Rich-Quick Ponzi made news for the last time.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com