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
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?
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.