|This is my contribution to Round Thirteen of ABC Wednesday. I am focusing on people for the fourth time, some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten, although I am worried that I may have exhausted some letters of the alphabet, but I’ll see how it goes!|
This week’s figure from the past is Arthur Furguson who is either one of the foremost fraudsters and flimflammers in history or the figment of someone’s febrile fantasies.
Born in Scotland in 1883, Furguson was an actor and like many in his profession, he was natural born salesman a talent he was to put to good use later in his life.
His career as a con man began on a sunny day in 1923 when he came across an American admiring Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square. Ferguson took it upon himself to be the visitor’s guide, explaining the history of the monument and its significance to the country.
Sadly the country’s finances were in such a parlous state that the statue was to be sold to raise much needed cash Furguson told the guest and he was the very man entrusted to find a secret buyer. The American took the bait and offered a cheque for £6,000 there and then which Furguson was delighted to accept on behalf of a grateful nation.
While Furguson cashed the cheque, the American arranged for contractor’s to dismantle the column. Unsurprisingly, they were reluctant to take on the job and it was only when Scotland Yard got involved that he accepted that he had been well and truly conned.
Now it is entirely possible that Furguson’s career as a fraudster began thus as a joke, a bit of fun, but it was clear to him that here was a calling that could be far more rewarding than that of a jobbing actor. That summer was a fruitful one for Furguson as he ‘sold’ Big Ben for £1,000 and took another £2,000 as down-payment on Buckingham Palace from other credulous tourists.
With the police sniffing around, Furguson left London for Paris where he sold the Eiffel Tower for scrap to another American and since Americans were his most gullible marks, he decided to make his way to the land of opportunity.
In 1925, he leased the White House to a Texan cattle-rancher for 99 years at $100,000 a year, with the first year’s rent payable in advance, and with with money in the bank and fortune still smiling on him, Furguson felt that it was time to retire. But such was his actor’s conceit that he could not resist one final flimflam as his grand finale.
Finding himself in New York, Furguson convinced an Australian that the entrance to the harbour was to be widened and that the Statue of Liberty was in the way. The march of progress would not be halted and it was for sale to anyone who would take it off the city’s hands.
The Australian needed time to raise the sizeable deposit and Furguson stuck with him like glue over the days that followed, even having his photo taken with his ‘customer’ with the great landmark in the background.
However, the Australian grew suspicious and eventually took the photo to the police. They had been on the trail of the fraudster for months without a lead and this was just the break they needed. Furguson was arrested and was jailed for five years.
With his fortune still intact, Furguson probably felt this was a small price to pay as he was to live in luxury in Los Angeles on his ill-gotten gains until his death in 1930.
But I mentioned at the beginning that Furguson might be a fantasy, nothing more than a fictitious fallacy. In his book, The Man Who Sold Nelson’s Column, the author Dane Love casts doubt on his very existence. When he investigated he found ‘there was nothing about his arrest, his trial or his time in jail in New York. There’s not even any trace of his grave in Los Angeles, where he supposedly died in 1938’.
The folklore of the audacious fraudster appears to have begun in the 1970s so it seems that the greatest fraud is that Furguson ever existed at all.