"Finding the occasional straw of truth awash in a great ocean of confusion and bamboozle requires intelligence, vigilance, dedication and courage,” Carl Sagan wrote early in the Internet Age, when social media was just a gleam in Bill Gates’ eye. “If we don’t practice these tough habits of thought, we cannot hope to solve the truly serious problems that face us – and we risk becoming a nation of suckers, up for grabs for the next charlatan who comes along.”
Unfortunately, the human race’s track record for recognizing and dealing with bamboozlers doesn’t bode well for us. “One of the saddest lessons of history,” Sagan added, “is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken.”
Recent history bears Sagan’s worst fears out, with the rise of social media boosting our gullibility to new heights.
Large portions of our society have diametrically opposing views on a wide range of issues, and we can’t all be correct, so what’s going on?
There’s a glimmer in “Why Does Social Media Lead Us To Believe Things That Are Not True,” a social media posting from Clint Watts’ “Selected Wisdom” blog that famed local cartoonist Jamie Smith recently passed along.
Watts described three basic human tendencies: we interpret new evidence as confirming our existing beliefs, we assume that the most readily available information is accurate, and we’re loaded with preconceived but often subconscious attitudes and stereotypes.
He added that we tend to believe, “that which we see first, that which we see most, that which comes from a source we trust, whether the information is correct or not,” and information for which there’s not a ready rebuttal offering alternative explanations.
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, no one knows the pre-1703 origins of the word “bamboozle – to cheat, trick, swindle,”. It might have come from the Scottish “bombazet - confound, perplex,” or the French “embabounier – to make a fool (literally ‘baboon’) of,” or some other source.
Because of our close proximity to an overwhelming tsunami of chicanery, from the highest political and religious offices to the darkest recesses of Russia’s officially sanctioned cyber criminals, we easily lose sight of our country’s rich history of successful con artists.
Take, for example, Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil, whom many consider the greatest American con man, at least up until his death in 1976 at age 101. He conned victims out of an estimated $8 million through a plethora of shenanigans, including selling dry oil fields, “talking” dogs, and land he didn’t own, staging fake prize fights, running fake stock brokerages, and scamming $500,000 from an investor who fronted the money in the mistaken belief that Weil was swindling Benito Mussolini out of $2 million. As Weil put it, “A chap who wants something for nothing usually winds up with nothing for something.”
Weil got his start with “Doc” Meriwether, who ran a snake oil scam in the late 1800s during a nation-wide tapeworm scare. Doc’s wife manufactured his tonic primarily out of rainwater with traces of alcohol, Epsom salts, and cascara, a plant with laxative properties.
Another quack, “Doctor” John Brinkley, was an uneducated “mountain man” and Civil War medic for the losing side who made a fortune in the 1920s by sewing goat testicles into impotent men’s scrotums at $750 a pop, and then selling them colored water as post-operative follow-up treatment. Brinkley relied on the mass media of the day, radio, to hawk his cure, but his radio station in Kansas was shut down after his patients started dying in sufficient numbers.
So, he bought a high-powered Mexican radio station on the Texas border, made millions, and would have been elected governor of Kansas if the rules for properly writing names on write-in ballots hadn’t been changed three days before the election. If that doesn’t tell you enough about Kansas politics in the 1920s, another Kansan, Ralph Thomas, introduced his “Revigator” a ceramic jar lined with radioactive material that could be filled with water to provide “a health-enhancing drink” containing twice the maximum levels of radiation the EPA recommends today.
Even the most loathsome con artist exists on higher planes of decency than book thieves, particularly library thieves who steal the treasures of entire communities. One of the worst is Norbert Schild, known among European librarians as “the Marten,” a German who specialized in cutting out and selling maps and illustrations from some of the rarest and most valuable books in European libraries. For example, he removed nine maps worth around $46,000 from a 1745 atlas illustrated by Louis Renaud, but Schild also removed the book’s index and renumbered the upper page corners in pencil, just like an archivist, so a quick glance wouldn’t show pages missing.
Schild operated with seeming impunity for 30 years until 2019 when a determined team of librarians tracked him down after accumulating enough evidence to convict him.
Far worse than a mere book thief is a librarian book thief. “The Inside Story of the $8 Million Heist from the Carnegie Library,” a Smithsonianmag.com article by Travis McDade described in excruciating (to librarians, anyway) detail how Greg Priore, the head of the Pittsburgh Carnegie Library’s rare books collection since 1992 “stole nearly everything of significant monetary value,” from first editions of Isaac Newton’s “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy” and Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations,” 108 of the 155 hand-colored lithographs from John James Audubon’s “Quadrupeds of North America,” all 1,500 original photogravures of Native Americans by Edward Curtis, and all 276 hand-colored maps from the first great modern atlas, “Theatrum Orbis Terrarum” (“Theater of the Orb of the World”) published in 1644.
Priore (at whose name all true librarians turn their heads and spit vehemently) was in cahoots with a well-known Pittsburg rare books dealer who’d place orders from clients for Priore to fill.
Doing so was no problem for that scoundrel, because he alone designed and operated the library’s rare book room’s elaborate security system and protocols. A
fter a quarter century of plundering one of our great national libraries, the cultural molesters were caught, tried, and convicted. And why did Priore commit the most heinous crime a professional librarian can commit? To pay his kid’s private school tuition. Priore was fined and is doing time, but if the punishment was to fit the crime, turning him over to Dr. Brinkley would be a good start.
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.