By Bill Finley
T.D. Thornton is a racetrack guy. He’s the announcer at what’s left of Suffolk Downs, a frequent contributor to the Thoroughbred Daily News and the author of maybe the best racing book ever written, “Not By a Long Shot: A Season at a Hard Luck Horse Track.” And now we know why. He’s obviously infatuated with the characters and scoundrels that tend to be a part of the game, particularly in New England, especially when the sport was less buttoned-down and a lot more colorful than it is today.
Thornton is back with another book, “My Adventures With Your Money,” a biography of an infamous con artist who went by the name of George Graham Rice and is believed to have bilked people out of $50 million starting from the time of his first scam in 1901. “My Adventures With Your Money” actually begins as a racetrack tale as Rice’s first major coup as a con man began with the creation of a tout service known as Maxim & Gay. Maxim & Gay existed for the sole purpose of fleecing punters who were gullible enough to believe that the touts had inside information that could be used to slaughter the bookies. Of course, the only people who got slaughtered were Maxim & Gay’s customers.
Like most everything Rice was involved with, Maxim & Gay made spectacular amounts of money before crashing and burning for one reason or another, this time because Rice ran afoul of powerful people determined to bring him down. The list included W.C. Whitney and New York District Attorney William Jerome Travers, both from families that would help shape horse racing in America.
Rice never lost his own appetite for gambling, whether it was on the horses or a popular game at the time known as faro, but the racetrack drifts out of his and the book’s background when the con man figures out there are other, better ways to put his larcenous nature to good use. He begins his next adventure by drifting out West, where he discovers that Nevada is a fertile ground for his talents because of the mining boom going on at the time.
Rice was in his element, surrounded by people trying to live out their greatest get-rich-quick fantasies and so mesmerized by the thought of striking gold, silver and copper that they were quick to lose touch with financial realities. Rice, too, thought he would strike it rich, but certainly never by honest means. His game was to con the gullible into buying into worthless mines or worthless mining stocks. His dealings grew even shadier when he would either take over or start up newspapers that would write glowingly about stocks he was contriving to pump and dump or slander companies or stocks that he wanted to buy at a reduced price.
Rice would eventually return East but he remained in the con game and focused his attention on fraudulent stock dealings, making millions off the naivete of fools. He was the Bernie Madoff, the Michael Milken of his times.
But Thornton is determined to make “My Adventures With Your Money” more than the biography of one man–in fact, that had already been done by Rice himself, who wrote the original “My Adventures With Your Money,” an autobiography he penned during one of his many prison stints. And that’s why the book succeeds where a lot of biographies fail. This is as much a book about human nature as it is about George Graham Rice. How is that so many will fall for the most outlandish stock cons when it couldn’t be more obvious that the scam is a scam? Rice could not have been more brazen and his rise and fall, rise and fall, rise and fall was covered widely by the financial and mainstream press. There shouldn’t have been any doubt that he was a crook, but he was a clever and charismatic crook and every time he was released from jail or narrowly escaped another scandal, he had rubes lining up to invest in his next stock offering, his next scheme.
“It’s not that Americans were more naïve back then; they weren’t,” Thornton writes. “It’s just that the truth about the most tantalizing investment was never so tantalizing as the made-up deceptions of con men.”
People don’t want to believe the truth because the truth doesn’t promise them the chance to become overnight millionaires.
And what of Rice? He was born into a wealthy Manhattan family. His real name was Jacob Simon Herzig before he changed it to distance himself from his past as a two-bit crook and jailbird before he hit the big time as a “confidence man.” He was born into affluence, was obviously brilliant, albeit in a sordid way, and no doubt could have done quite well for himself making an honest living. But he had something in him that was quite common in people in the heyday of New England horse racing, an insatiable larcenous streak. He was, indeed, one of those people who would rather cheat you out of a dime than make an honest buck.
Thornton also delves into the fleeting nature of the celebrity, which Rice was. His exploits were splashed all over the newspapers, he became a friend and confidante of the notorious gangster Arnold Rothstein, and he once shared a jail cell with Al Capone. The stock market crash caused Americans to be a lot more careful with their money, which made the games people like Rice liked to play tougher to win. With that, his advancing age and his criminal past finally becoming an obstacle he could no longer run from, he was all but forgotten by his death in 1943. Thornton notes that not a single newspaper so much as ran his obituary. America had moved on to new crazes, new rogues, new fascinations.
Have Americans changed since the life and times of George Graham Rice? Certainly, we have, but maybe not as much as we like to think. The phone rang today. Seems I had just won a free, five-day excursion to the Bahamas. Someone’s still making those calls. Someone’s still accepting the offers. As Rice could have told you, there never has been, never will be, a shortage of suckers.
MY ADVENTURES WITH YOUR MONEY
George Graham Rice and the Golden Age of the Con Artist
by T.D. Thornton
298 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $20.33
Editor’s Note: My Adventures With Your Money will be published Nov. 3, and is available for pre-order in hardcover and Kindle format on Amazon.com