A Q&A with Dean Jobb, author of Empire of Deception

Empire of Deception: The Incredible Story of a Master Swindler Who Seduced a City and Captivated the Nation (Algonquin Books / HarperCollins Canada). By Dean Jobb. Now available as Hard cover, paperback, and e-editions.

 

I love historical true crime and creative nonfiction, so I was excited when I found out about this latest book by Dean Jobb, an author, journalist and instructor in the MFA program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, NS.  It’s still in my to-read pile by the side of my bed because of my research-heavy project on the Charles Camsell Indian Hospital, but Dean and I had the chance to chat about this book and his work-in-progress (which makes me think of Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City!). ~ DMC

EmpireDeception-pbk-high-res1. Tell us a bit about your book.

Empire of Deception is the untold story of Leo Koretz, a master of the Ponzi scheme and one of the most brazen and successful con men in history. He was the Bernie Madoff of the 1920s and ran an elaborate swindle in Chicago that raked in as much as $400 million, in today’s terms. He claimed to control vast oilfields in Panama and was so successful that some investors begged him to take their money. Not even the exposure of Charles Ponzi’s infamous scam in 1920, which gave the rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul investment fraud its name, aroused their suspicions. Koretz’s grateful investors nicknamed their financial guru “Our Ponzi,” never suspecting – until the fraud was exposed in 1923 – that the joke was on them.

It’s a story grounded in an era of wealth and glamour and a timeless tale of greed and gullibility. And Koretz’s story is inseparable from the crime and corruption of 1920s Chicago. Robert Crowe, the state’s attorney who brought Koretz to justice, was a controversial figure with underworld ties and, by coincidence, he and Koretz knew each other – they had worked together as young lawyers. Crowe’s lust for political power became a parallel story in the book, playing out as Koretz established and operated his massive fraud.

 

2. How did you come up with the idea for this work?

Leo-Koretz

Leo Koretz

When Koretz’s scheme collapsed, he fled to Nova Scotia, the Canadian province where I live. He took the name Lou Keyte, posed as a wealthy literary critic and lived like a king on his ill-gotten gains. While researching another subject in the provincial archives, I stumbled on a reference to his arrest in 1924 in Halifax, the Nova Scotia capital. I had never heard of Koretz, and soon learned that little had been written about him. I knew it was a great story and I was determined to find out everything I could about this charming, flamboyant character.

  1. How did you research your book?

My research turned up a wealth of material on Koretz and his scam in court files and archives in the United States and Canada. I also discovered the first-hand accounts of some of his associates and victims. The most valuable sources, however, were newspaper accounts of the fraud and the year-long manhunt for the fugitive swindler. Chicago boasted six daily newspapers in the 1920s, and their extensive coverage provided the detail I needed to recreate the story of Koretz’s scam and his times.

  1. What was the hardest part of writing your book?

This is the stranger-than-fiction story of a larger-than-life character, which made this book a joy to research and write. The challenge was to do justice to the material. Narrative nonfiction should bring people and events to life, transporting the reader to another time and place. The celebrated American author David McCullough, a master of narrative history, encourages writers to “marinate” their heads in a time and a culture so they can produce engaging, vivid accounts of lost worlds. He’s right. I thoroughly researched every aspect of the story and read as many books, memoirs and historical records as possible that touched on the subject and the era.

  1. What was the most exciting/surprising thing you learned?

My most amazing discovery was that Koretz acted alone. He didn’t have a company or a sales force to attract investors, like Charles Ponzi did. He operated in secret and didn’t have a high profile in the investment world, like Bernie Madoff did. Koretz created a make-believe world of phantom oil fields and fake profits, and fooled everybody he dealt with, even his closest friends and family, for the better part of 20 years. And he did it all single-handedly. It was a remarkable accomplishment.

  1. What are you working on now?

I’m researching a new true-crime book for Algonquin Books and HarperCollins Canada, the publishers of Empire of Deception, with the working title The Case of the Murderous Doctor Cream. It chronicles the crimes of Thomas Neill Cream, a Canadian doctor who was one of the world’s first serial killers. He murdered at least nine people in Ontario, the United States and Britain in a rampage that eclipsed the notorious crimes of his Victorian-era contemporary, Jack the Ripper. The press dubbed Cream “The Lambeth Poisoner,” after the London neighborhood where he poisoned four of his victims. This dark tale of murder and madness will be told in tandem with Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation of Sherlock Holmes, the iconic sleuth who transformed crime fiction. As Doyle’s creation solved crimes on the page, police forces on two continents struggled to link a string of seemingly random killings to a single, mysterious suspect.

DEAN-JOBB

Book Review: Separate Beds

Separate Beds is an excellent academic treatment of the system of Indian Hospitals set up in Canada. Dr. Lux says from the outset that she is focusing on understanding the government bureaucracy through the documentary record, but still balances this well with some oral histories from Indigenous Elders, leaders and former patients of the hospitals. In particular, I found her exploration of the Blackfoot and Blood hospitals in southern Alberta really showed the hypocrisy and paradoxes inherent in government policy at the time – as well as the medical pluralism (traditional and biomedical) that occurred in these institutions. The Hobbema (Mascwacis) and Battleford examples in particular demonstrated how Indigenous communities fought for access to health care – a treaty right – on their own terms, especially in the face of discrimination in community hospitals. Finally, Lux shows convincingly that government and medical bureaucrats were often motivated by prejudice, avarice, and their own self interest, even as they cloaked their work in humanitarianism.
Separate Beds is an essential companion book to James Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains and Ian Mosby’s work on nutritional experiments on reserves and in residential schools. It shows so many of the root causes of health disparities between Indigenous communities and the rest of Canada, and how Canadians have benefited not just from the signing of the treaties, but through the medical cost savings the government squeezed out of Indigenous peoples. While Canadians are incredibly proud of our Medicare system and count it as a defining feature of our identity, it was in large part funded by the creation of a parallel system that penalized and underserved Indigenous individuals and communities.

Houston Talk: “Writing Stories of Humiliation and Hope”

If you live in and around Houston, I invite you to come to this free talk through The Final Twist Writers Society on Saturday, January 7, 2017!

“Writing Stories of Humiliation and Hope”

January 3, 2017 is Humiliation Day and is observed worldwide on the same day each year. Humiliation Day is thought to be originated from a reaction by the Chinese immigrants to the Chinese Exclusion Act in Canada in 1923. Humiliation can be at any level — individual, a class of people, a race, a nation, etc. And its best remedy is reconciliation.

Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail, the editor of In This Together— Fifteen Stories of Truth & Reconciliation (Brindle &Glass), will talk about her professional experience. In this engaging presentation, she will discuss her interest in social justice and how things like Humiliation Day have prodded her to look deeper into Canada’s history through picture books, novels, nonfiction publications, radio, and short films.

Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail specializes in telling hidden stories. A historian by training, she is the author of For the Love of Flying (Robin Brass Studio), Polar Winds (Dundurn), and the forthcoming Alis the Aviator (Tundra Books).

She is the former Writer in Residence at Berton House in the Yukon, and the Historian Laureate of Edmonton (Canada). When Danielle is not spending quality time with her four-year-old son and traveling, she is working on a WW2-era novel, Sky Girl, and a creative nonfiction project based on her popular http://www.ghostofcamsell.ca serial blog

 

They meet at the Spring Branch Memorial Library in the room off the front entryway, to the right of the restrooms.

10:00 – 10:30 am (Networking)
10:30 – 11:00 am (Chapter Business)
11:00 am to 12:00 pm (Guest Speaker or Round Table)

Community Blooms through Love Thy Neighbor Initiative

15259498_10153861126245194_3213217001454732711_oLigi Varghese and her 3 year-old daughter clutched bunches of roses in front of the Maryam Islamic Center outside Houston, Texas before Friday prayers on December 2. They, along with a dozen or so community members of various faiths and backgrounds passed out more than 400 flowers to worshippers as they arrived at the mosque.

The attendees alternatively smiled or looked surprised as individuals of the grassroots Love Thy Neighbor initiative handed out single stems along with messages of love and support. Several people held up handwritten signs with statements such as “Houston Loves You.”

15235646_10153861233845194_1190003634274050853_oVarghese, who identifies as an Indian-American Christian, felt spurred to act after she saw a rise in Islamophobia and hate crimes in the media. She reached out to her friend Naheeda Spencer who attends the Maryam Islamic Center in Sugar Land with her family, to see if it would be possible to come out in a show of solidarity with the Fort Bend Muslim community. Imam Taquer Shah welcomed the idea.

Every Friday, hundreds of Muslims in the community – with very diverse backgrounds – come for prayers, and Varghese wanted to give a flower to each person as a symbol of unity. She was supported in this effort by private donors as well as Trader Joe’s, who supplied the long stem roses.

After being invited inside the beautiful mosque for prayers, volunteers and faithful alike listened to Varghese read a statement she had prepared. “We are all so much more similar than we are different,” she said. “We have to start getting to know each other.” This initiative was meant to do that – create awareness in the non-Muslim community, build trust, and forge relationships.

15235784_10153861233990194_3439498266227919922_oThe Maryam Islamic Center, for its part, has been doing community outreach since it was built in 2009, and even before then when it operated out of a trailer further up Sartartia Road. It offers public events such as a carnival annually, coordinates interfaith activities with area churches, and often does fundraising or volunteering for area nonprofits such as the Houston Food Bank.

Deputy John McCoy, one of several Fort Bend County Constables who direct traffic each week as well as during special events has seen this first-hand. “The mosque offers so much and these folks are really part of the community,” he said.

15288677_10153861233835194_3764588772864256438_oEven so, several attendees shared stories of how their children and teenagers have been targeted in school for being Muslim. This is something that troubles Varghese, a mother of a new baby and a preschooler, in particular. “Children aren’t born with hatred. Someone taught them to hate, and never taught them what it was to love.”

This initiative, along with increased connections between mosques and schools, Boy Scout troops, and other organizations are helping to break down these barriers and foster understanding. Varghese hopes small gestures like a flower will show a commitment from other Americans to stand by Muslims in the face of bigotry.

As volunteers cleaned up rose petals outside and carried the food the Maryam Islamic Center gave them, a man in his thirties stopped to shake hands. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” he said. “This is what America is all about.”

 

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One young reader’s thoughts on In This Together

I read In This Together, and wow. There were stories in there that I connected with emotionally, stories in there where I could relate to what the author was saying, and stories that made me question myself. All the stories made me think. Thank you for this book. I honestly believe that it needs to be read by all High School and University students.

Also, thank you for including the contact information for the contributors to the book. I’m in the process of contacting them just to thank them, and for a few, to ask questions. ~Salman Ahmed, college student in Edmonton, Alberta

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© 2011 Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail. All Rights Reserved.