January 21, 2022

The Big Con

Freeville native’s 2nd book looks at con artists

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Railey Jane Savage of Ludlowville with her book, “A Century of Swindles” on Nov. 17 at MoMo’s Cafe in Locke.

Railey Jane Savage of Lansing, a former Freeville resident, has written “A Century of Swindles: Ponzi Schemes, Con Men and Fraudsters,” a historical piece that looks at cons and heists that took place in the United States between 1850 and 1950.

“I do like this gilded age in this book — the Reconstruction Era, post-Civil War era, and also, the ‘30s and ‘50s are really interesting,” said Savage, who now has two books to her credit.

“I researched this and wrote this last year. I was home, as were we all,” said Savage, who does administrative work for a science institute at Cornell University. “These stories are terrific, so interesting,” she said at MoMo’s Café in Locke.

“Very early on I had a real affinity for movies,” said Savage, talking about how the book came about.

She and her grandmother, Jane Dickinson, an Ithaca College writing and film professor, watched “Paper Moon,” a favorite for the two. “She and I watched it all the time.”

Savage was struck by the father/daughter con team of the 1930s. She became fascinated with resourceful, non-violent swindlers. The movie proved to be one she would watch, and rewatch and rewatch again.

Savage lives with depression and movies have become her junk food — finding them soothing when she’s having a hard time.

“In 2019, I was coming off a really long stretch,” she said, and was looking for something to write about.

She had written “We Have a Winner!” in 2017, a roundup of cooking contests specific to America.

Lyons Press asked her for her next idea. Savage thought: swindles.

“America in 2019 was roiling with vitriolic language and ample opportunity for ‘what-aboutism’ to run wild. Things felt unstable and, therefore, offered ripe conditions for cons,” Savage said. “I couldn’t bring myself to write about contemporary issues — I’m not that smart and can’t afford the lawyers who are — so instead turned to the American past to listen for rumblings of the attitudes that had so charmed me in ‘Paper Moon.’”

Savage comes from a family of writers. Four are published authors: her mother, Rachel Dickinson of Freeville; Tim Gallagher, her mom’s husband; her aunt, Amy Dickinson of Dryden; and her cousin, Jan Bridgeford Smith of Freeville.

Savage focuses on seven cons, each having its own chapter, ranging from war with Canada, Sir Francis Drake’s unclaimed fortune to a fake diamond field and spirit communication by a Princess Editha.

Savage breaks down the basics of each swindle at the beginning of the chapter and then launches into each story.

Author event

What: “A Century of Swindles: Ponzi Schemes, Con Men and Fraudsters” book signing
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Buffalo Street Books, 215 N. Cayuga St., Ithaca
Who: Railey Jane Savage

Example of a con
Savage explored the con of a fake diamond field in the 1870s, somewhere in Southwestern United States, when two cousins, with last names Slack and Arnold, bought uncut diamond drill bits, rubies and assorted gems in England, brought them to the U.S. and spread them in the desert where investors were considering putting money into a minefield.

Several men involved in the project brought the “diamonds” and gems to an investor meeting in New York. They threw them into a pile. A Tiffany jeweler assessed the gems at $150,000. But this particular jeweler was not an expert in uncut gems, Savage said.

They work to take the Golconda Mining Co. public, but there are rumblings in the geology field. Clarence King, a geologist, had examined that area of the country.

“We never saw a diamond field in my survey!” he said.

King goes out looking for the field. They scratch the area where the diamond drill bits were spread and found some diamonds. But not a field. And suspiciously, there was a ruby sitting on a rock. A sapphire in the crook of a tree. Diamonds are shoved into an ant hill, Savage relates. King goes to the mine owner the night before the company is to go public and threatens to report the fakery to the press.

The author said so many deceptions reminded her of current times.

“These are all teachable moments that we still have the opportunity to learn from,” Savage said.

The newspapers
Ninety percent of her research came from newspapers, which Savage accessed at home at newspaperarchive.com. She also had access to Cornell University’s library.

“I had to choose my sources carefully since my characters were well-established liars. I couldn’t take them at their word so needed to find objective observations from others, which is why newspapers proved so invaluable,” Savage said.

Many newspapers were difficult to read on the Internet, with tiny print.

“I had to go back and forth and do font detection work, from like newspapers from 1888,” Savage said. “At the end of the day, I couldn’t do it without the internet.”

Tabitha Scoville, executive director of the Cortland County Historical Society, says when she’s researching an individual, she goes to her local records as a rule. But sometimes she has to access newspaper records on the internet. That can be difficult.

“They use initials of people instead of their full name,” she said, W.E. Smith instead of William Edward Smith, for instance.

While the vocabulary of newspapers of the 1800s is a lot better than today’s, articles were also more sensational, especially for a death or a crime, she said.

“Newspapers were the social media of the day,” Scoville said.

She found an obit from the early 1900s of a man who died by suicide.

“This poor man was distraught to do what he did. The obituary had it in full detail.”

The fellow slit his wrists with broken glass, tried repeatedly to kill himself and was running around outside. The writer reported every detail, Scoville said. “You don’t put in details like that today.”

Readable material
Amy Reading, author of “The Mark Inside: A Perfect Swindle, a Cunning Revenge, and a Small History of the Big Con,” says Savage’s book has “delicious characters.”

“Her book travels swiftly through the ages in some top-notch storytelling,” Readings review states. “She struts that fine line between an enchantment with her swindlers’ deeds and a skeptical independence that pins them in place with historical contextualization—an unbeatable combination.”

“I am really proud of the work I did and really proud of the writing,” Savage said. “That brings with it anxiety.”

Asked the moral of the book: “Anything that looks too good to be true, is,” she said. “I wish it were more profound than that.”

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Railey Jane Savage of Ludlowville with her book, “A Century of Swindles” on Nov. 17 at MoMo’s Café in Locke. Savage does administrative work for her day job at Cornell University. Writing is her love. Researching the book was labor intensive, but enjoyable, she said.

Legacy of Freeville writers
Railey Jane Savage isn’t the only published author in the family.

  • Her mother, Rachel Dickinson of Freeville, wrote “The Notorious Reno Gang” and “Falcone on the Edge,” among other pieces.
  • Rachel’s husband, Tim Gallagher of Freeville, wrote “Born to Fish: How an Obsessed Angler Became the World’s Greatest Striped Bass Fisherman,” “The Grail Bird: The Rediscovery of the Ivy-billed Woodpecker” among other books.
  • Her aunt, Amy Dickinson of Dryden, wrote “The Mighty Queens of Freeville” and “People Tend to Tell Me Things” and is a syndicated advice columnist.
  • Her cousin, Jan Bridgeford Smith of Freeville wrote “Begged, Borrowed & Stolen: Tales of Thievery from America’s Past” as well as magazine pieces and columns in upstate papers.