Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme
When Bernie Madoff admitted that his investment firm was “just one big lie,” it was an understatement [source: Esposito]. In 2008, he confessed to having conned about $50 billion from investors who trusted him with their savings. Madoff used the formula of a Ponzi scheme to keep up the fraud for more than a decade.
This classic lie is named after the notorious Charles Ponzi, who used the ploy in the early 20th century. It works like this: A schemer promises investors great returns, but instead of investing the money, he keeps some for himself and uses the funds from new investments to pay off earlier investors.
Madoff may not have invented this lie, but he took it to new lengths. For one, he made a record amount of money from the scheme. But he was also able to keep it going much longer than most Ponzi schemers. Usually, the scam falls apart quickly because it requires the schemer to constantly find more and more investors. It was also an especially shocking lie because Madoff, as a former chairman of NASDAQ, had been an accomplished and respected expert in the financial field. Compare this to Chares Ponzi, who was a petty ex-con by the time he launched his scheme.
Anna Anderson, Alias Anastasia
With the onslaught of the Russian Revolution, the existence of a royal family was intolerable to the Bolsheviks. In 1918, they massacred the royal Romanov family — Czar Nicholas II, his wife, son and four daughters — to ensure that no legitimate heir could later resurface and rally the public for support.
Soon, rumors floated around that certain members of the royal family had escaped and survived. As one might expect, claimants came out of the woodwork. “Anna Anderson” was the most famous. In 1920, Anderson was admitted to a hospital after attempting suicide and confessed that she was Princess Anastasia, the youngest daughter of the royal family. She stood out from other claimants because she held a certain resemblance to and surprising knowledge of the Russian family and life at court.
Although a few relatives and acquaintances who’d known Anastasia believed Anderson, most didn’t. By 1927, an alleged former roommate of Anderson claimed that her name was Franziska Schanzkowska, not Anna and certainly not Anastasia [source: Aron]. This didn’t stop Anderson from indulging in celebrity and attempting to cash in on a royal inheritance. She ultimately lost her case in the legal proceedings that dragged on for decades, but she stuck to her story until her death in 1984. Years later, upon the discovery of what proved to be the remains of the royal family, DNA tests confirmed her to be a fake. In 2009, experts were able to finally confirm that all remains have been found and that no family member escaped execution in 1918 [source: CNN].
Titus Oates and the Plot to Kill Charles II
By the time he fabricated his notorious plot, Titus Oates already had a history of deception and general knavery. He’d been expelled from some of England’s finest schools as well as the navy. Oates was even convicted of perjury and escaped imprisonment. But his biggest lie was still ahead of him.
Raised Protestant by an Anabaptist preacher, Oates entered Cambridge as a young man to study for Anglican orders. After misconduct got him dismissed from his Anglican post, he started associating with Catholic circles and feigned conversion [source: Butler]. With the encouragement of fellow anti-Catholic Israel Tonge, Oates infiltrated enemy territory by entering a Catholic seminary. In fact, he entered two seminaries — both of which expelled him. But it hardly mattered. By this time, he had gathered enough inside information and names to wreak enormous havoc.
In 1678, Oates concocted and pretended to uncover a plot in which the Jesuits were planning to murder King Charles II. The idea was that they wanted to replace Charles with his Catholic brother, James. What ensued was a three-year panic that fueled anti-Catholic sentiment and resulted in the executions of about 35 people [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica].
After Charles died in 1685, James became king and had Oates tried for perjury. Oates was convicted, pilloried and imprisoned. He only spent a few years in jail, however, as the Glorious Revolution swept through England in 1688. Without James in power, Oates got off with a pardon and a pension.
After Charles Darwin published his revolutionary “On the Origin of Species” in 1859, scientists scrambled to find fossil evidence of extinct human ancestors. They sought these so-called “missing links” to fill in the gaps on the timeline of human evolution. When archaeologist Charles Dawson unearthed what he thought was a missing link in 1910, what he really found was one of the biggest hoaxes in history.
The discovery was the Piltdown man, pieces of a skull and jaw with molars located in the Piltdown quarry in Sussex, England. Dawson brought his discovery to prominent paleontologist Arthur Smith Woodward, who touted its authenticity to his dying day.
Although the discovery gained world renown, the lie behind Piltdown man slowly and steadily unraveled. In the ensuing decades, other major discoveries suggested Piltdown man didn’t fit in the story of human evolution. By the 1950s, tests revealed that the skull was only 600 years old and the jaw came from an orangutan. Some knowledgeable person apparently manipulated these pieces, including filing down and staining the teeth.
The scientific world had been duped. So who was behind the fraud? Many suspects have surfaced, including Dawson himself. Today, most signs point to Martin A. C. Hinton, a museum volunteer at the time of the discovery. A trunk bearing his initials contained bones that were stained in exactly the same way the Piltdown fossils were. Perhaps he was out to embarrass his boss, Arthur Smith Woodward, who refused to give him a weekly salary.