HL90 FQ: Con Artist Nation: Scams, Schemes, and American Dreams

Don’t be fooled–there are lots more HL90s to check out! Angela Allan teaches “Con Artist Nation: Scams, Schemes, and American Dreams” Tuesdays, 9:45-11:45.

Tell us about your class!

There have been so many recent scam stories in both the news and in fiction, but I wanted to provide a bigger historical picture for how Americans have culturally thought about fraudulence, whether that’s how individuals represent themselves or how they market different things. The course is nominally about con artists, but the emphasis on “scams and schemes” is really a lens to think about a lot of different things like capitalism, politics, identity, and—of course—the “American dream.” I didn’t want the class to be case studies of infamous scammers (Charles Ponzi and Bernie Madoff didn’t make it onto the syllabus, but could certainly generate some great final papers!), or a psychological examination of why people commit fraud. Instead, we’ll be investigating why scam stories are practically part of the national mythology; Charles Dickens even said that one of the defining features of the American mind is “Universal Distrust.” So the class is largely going to work through the American fascination with scammers. Do we dislike them for violating the social contract, or do we admire them for pulling one over on someone else? It’s complicated!

Are there any particular texts you’re excited to share with students?

I love teaching film so I’m excited about the movies we’ll be watching in the latter portion of class, but I’m really looking forward to sharing some medicine pamphlets from the nineteenth century. There were a ton of different patent medicines being produced and advertised as miracle cures that could basically solve any and all ailments. While a many of these concoctions were mostly useless (or sometimes quite harmful!) products peddled by various quacks and con artists, the pamphlets advertise them as Indigenous remedies passed on to their white proprietors as a way to claim medical legitimacy. But while they’re touting the superiority of these cures, these pamphlets have incredibly racist depictions of Indigenous people as “uncivilized.” I think they have a lot of things to tell us about how many people in the nineteenth century thought about race, science, and advertising.

Another thing that’s interesting about them is that they are designed to both “educate” and entertain so you might be reading about how the liver works on one page and then a short story or poem on the next—all in the name of buying a certain medicine. They’re very weird documents, and I’m looking forward to all of the conversations we can have about them!

What’s something surprising students might not know about this topic?

Printers in the nineteenth century were totally obsessed with cramming as many different fonts onto one page as possible.

On a more serious note, the banking system in the early United States is super fascinating when it comes to talking about fraud! Prior to the Civil War, there wasn’t a stable paper currency so different banks could issue their own and there were thousands of different bank notes in circulation. This naturally led to a lot of counterfeiting, which comes up in different readings we’ll do in the first few weeks of the semester. So a it created a culture of skepticism—banks would produce counterfeiting detectors, some of which you can see online at the Baker Business Library, but of course that could also work to the benefit of counterfeiters. In this kind of system, you get lots of conversations about legitimacy and arbitrary value which mirror the debates about cryptocurrencies today.

Do you have any interesting assignments or activities lined up?

I’m so excited about the final week of readings which will be up to the class to decide! I thought about a bunch of different texts that we might use to wrap the semester up, but given just how frequently scam stories arise, I wanted to give the class the opportunity to collectively choose a topic from the twenty-first century. So we’ll take a moment midway through the semester to reflect on what we’ve learned together so far and think about what might be a fascinating thread to follow to our present moment.

Have you ever been scammed yourself?

Hmm, I don’t think so? I hope not! But if anyone wants to claim the Mega Millions grand prize of 18 million dollars along with “the most awesome bonus prize ever” that I apparently won, I’m told that all you have to do is call the prize patrol office and make an immediate payment…

How can students learn more?

You can check out the syllabus on Canvas and email me at allan@fas.harvard.edu anytime. I’m always happy to meet with students during office hours and I’ll be at the HL90 preview event on August 26th.

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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