Herbert Asbury, in The Gangs of New York, credits Reed C. Waddell (Abt. 1861-1895) with the invention of a notorious confidence-artist scam, the Gold Brick game[Chapter IX, Section 3]. There were many variations to this con, but the two major versions followed a routine script: 1) Travelers strike up a conversation, and one of them discovers he urgently needs cash, but has only a gold bullion brick on his person. He asks his new friend for a modest loan–a fraction of the value of a gold brick–and lets the new friend hold the brick as collateral while he takes the loan of cash to settle his dispute. He disappears and the gold brick holder discovers the brick is plated-lead. 2) The con-man latches onto a stranger and relates a story in which he, though no fault of his own, came into possession of a stolen gold brick. Because it is stolen, he is willing to sell it as a fraction of its value [why couldn’t it be melted down?]. To test its authenticity, they take the brick to [an impostor assayer, a confederate of the con-man; or a real assayer, and present him with a select plug from the brick, which is the one spot on the brick planted with genuine gold.] Thus assured, the dupe buys the brick–and once he realizes it is fake, is too embarrassed to report it to authorities.
Counterfeit precious metals, of course, date to antiquity, so employing them to dupe others was hardly new to late-nineteenth-century America. The notable features that distinguish the Gold Brick game involve traveling to a new location, spotting a well-heeled mark, engaging them with a backstory and gaining their conspiratorial trust, and disappearing as soon as the sting has been made. The scam was made possible by the railroads and steamers of the expanding nation.
Reed Waddell may have been in the first generation of confidence-men to employ the Gold Brick game, but he worked off and on with four other older, more experienced men who also worked the same scam: William Emery “Bill” Train (1849-1890), John “Red” Leary (1840-1888), Van Buren Triplett (1840-1901), and Tom O’Brien (1853-1904). Any one of them was variously hailed as the originator of the Gold Brick game, but Waddell–as a well-known, high-roller gambler–received the lion’s share of media attention. Though mutual friends, Bill Train killed Red Leary during an argument in a bar; and Reed Waddell was killed in France by his old friend, Tom O’Brien, who wanted a loan. For that crime, O’Brien was sent to the penal colony on Devil’s Island and died there.
Robert Pinkerton, son of Allen Pinkerton, was reluctant to credit any of the con-men mentioned above with the invention of the Gold Brick game. In the May 28, 1901 edition of the Los Angeles Herald, he was quoted:
The gold brick business is an American institution, but its earliest promoters were Spaniards and Italians. About forty years ago the game was played with gold dust or gold filings. Among the pioneers were Emil Rodriguez and Adolph Superbella. Their game was to find some man who had a few thousand dollars, and then tell him about their having a bag full of gold filings or gold dust which had been stolen. They must get rid of the property, and would be willing to sell it at a great sacrifice. After getting him Interested they would take the intended victim to an assay office, which was a bogus concern, and then they would receive the assurance that the yellow metal was all that was claimed for it, and the man who gave this Information would usually make the owner a liberal offer for his plunder.
The bag, securely sealed, was then sold to the victim, who received strict instructions to say nothing about his purchase for a little while, until the loss of the gold was less fresh in the minds of the people. In order to be perfectly secure some of the victims packed up and went abroad, and only when they were ready to enjoy their new wealth they discovered that the treasure bag contained base metal and not gold. I arrested these men in Cincinnati more than thirty-five year ago, and they were tried in Chicago and convicted.
The gold brick from the mining districts followed the gold dust scheme, and gold bricks have found ready purchasers ever since, up to the present time. I think that $1,000,000 is realized every year by the gold brick merchants. They don’ t write to a man and don’t try to induce him to come to them—not they. They ‘go on the road’ to sell the stuff, like any other man who has something to sell, and their victims are usually the men who are known to be close and stingy, and from whom it is difficult to get a cent at any time. Only a short time ago a man with all the outward characteristics of a western miner, introduced himself to a farmer to whom he pretended to have been sent by a mutual friend, and confided to him that he could put him in the way of making a fortune. The westerner wanted a partner in his mining business. He was on his way to New York to secure one, but if he could find a man nearer home so much the better. By the way, he had at his hotel a sample of the gold taken from the mine. The farmer saw it and expressed a desire to possess it. The miner needed it to show in New York, but a piece of it would do just as well, and his new friend might have the rest at one-half its real value. The clerk of the hotel was asked if there was a metal expert in town, and to the joy of the farmer it was learned that a man who was on his way to one of the largest mines in the country, where he was employed as an expert on gold, had registered there a few days ago. The man was found, and for a consideration was induced to test the big chunk of bullion and declared it gold of the finest quality. Well, the sale was made, and you know the rest. The sham assayer and the confidence man left the town and worked the same game on some other easy farmer.
“Emil Rodriguez” and “Adolph Superbella” may exist somewhere in the Pinkerton archives, but they can not be found in any published documents. Still, Robert Pinkerton is correct in that the newspapers of the late 1860s and early 1870s abound with stories of bogus gold dust being used to deceive. In 1866, two swindlers giving the names of H. Welton and Richard Bishop were caught trying to sell fake gold bullion to banks and brokers in Ohio. A year later, a gang of Mexican criminals came to the United States with a story that they brought with them gold taken by the recently exiled government of Mexico, which they wanted converted to cash in order to fund the fight to retake the country. It turned out to be a fake alloy. However, these examples, although involving bogus gold, fall short of the classic con of the Gold Brick game that targeted specific individuals.
The first published mention of what can be identified as the classic Gold Brick game dates to 1879, where it was conducted in Chicago and Kansas City by men known only as “Walker” and “Thomas A. Lewis.” It is likely that these were aliases of one or two of the men mentioned above. Articles that credit Waddell with inventing the scam say that he brought it to New York in 1880. He would have been 19 years old at that point, which argues in favor of one of the older men mentioned above (Train, Leary, Triplett, or O’Brien) as the real originator of the con.