The saga of the Swindling Geologist


For the better part of a decade—1884 to 1891—this man criss-crossed the United States, using a string of aliases and forged credentials to gain access to scientists and steal their valuable books and specimens.

To this day, no one knows who he actually was. Here's what we do know: He was missing a hand, had a penchant for pretending to be deaf and mute, and knew enough about geology and paleontology that the very people he attempted to swindle were certain that the con artist was, himself, a trained scientist.

The Skull in the Stars blog has the full story, culled primarily from letters written to the editors of Science and other journals. It's amusing to watch as, over the years, the mystery man goes from scourge of the American scientific community, to someone scientists seem to genuinely pity. In fact, in the last mention of the "Swindling Geologist", the scientist targeted by the Swindler actually ended up having a heart-to-heart with him.

A few days ago a man came to this place, came to the University and asked the janitor to show him specimens. Next morning he came to me as a "deaf and dumb" man, said he wanted some work to do. Could name fossils, American or European.

I let him work all day, paid him, then told him he ought to talk, that he was not dumb. Also told him that I knew who he was, and that I thought that a man gifted as he was ought to be every way correct. I wished him well, etc., but had not told him of article and portrait, but Prof. P— of university, happening in just then, insisted on showing it to him. Of course he denied being a thief, produced a recommendation from Prof. Ed. Orton, also one from of Vasssar. He trembled though and hurried off.

Don't know where he went, but he certainly is very gifted and smart, and is well posted in paleontology, and would make the best I have ever known provided he stuck to it and honesty.

Skull in the Stars: The Saga of the Scientific Swindler